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Archive for the ‘memory’ Category

winter cheer


The winter holiday has come and nearly gone. Kids home for Christmas, gifts coming out of every closet and nook, snow piled deep. Now that we’re all back at work and school, the tree and decorations will slowly be put away. This year I don’t want to let them go too quickly. Those little tree lights and decorations and candles keep the cheer going into cold, gray January.

I believe it was 1988 when Salt Lake City saw a snowstorm on Christmas Eve that piled it high and made driving an adventure. Our little house on Musser Court, which we rented and then bought on a contract from the owners, was a sad little thing but the scene of our early family joys. Christmas day was on Sunday, and Dorothy and I packed up baby Kate (well, 2-year-old Kate) in the 1972 Dodge Dart and slid through a foot of snow up 900 South to 1300 East and then over and down to the Garden Park Ward on Harvard Avenue for sacrament meeting.
Annie and John Brewer lived in the ward, as did Richard and Barbara Fox, old family friends, and Linda and Jack Newell, the Dialogue editors I worked for. We enjoyed a cozy, mostly musical service with a small string orchestra. And we somehow made it back home through those unplowed piles of snow. We then drove to Orem for the Black family Christmas brunch and more gift exchanges. Later in the day we’d end up at Dad and Judy’s place for a casual buffet or just time together around a fireplace. I still wonder how we managed to get around in those conditions with such primitive old cars and never snow tires.

The little traditions and reminders are here every year. We’re now starting to give away some of the decorations and lights to the married daughters. What I like about our tree every year is that each ornament carries a story with it, from little baby toys our first Christmas and folded origami birds and stars (the year we were too poor to buy ornaments) to the fanciful Dame Poulet (chicken lady) we bought in Bruges, Belgium and this year’s addition, a wooden Frank Lloyd Wright design from the Fallingwater gift shop in Pennsylvania.

In late November this year  we decided to try cutting trees ourselves for the first time, and after a miserable cold day somewhere north of Tabiona, Utah, we trudged through knee-deep snow, watched Jase fix his chain saw, crossed a frozen river in the Ashley National Forest, and cut three trees. Total cost, about $150, but the memory was worth it. We’ll just have to be smarter next time, and better prepared for serious winter survival.

For now, I’m ready for January hibernation with warm Pero/cocoa next to the fireplace. I shall sit here with my memories and wait for spring.

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revisioning your life

An astounding web experience. Get yourself a good internet connection and go play:

http://thewildernessdowntown.com/

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11 charming minutes

An amazing short animated film. Don’t know much about it except that it’s completely captivating, has a French title, and appears to be produced in Japan.

la maison en petits cubes

Update: my complete ignorance of world cinema is showing. This is a Japanese production from 2008 that won the best animated short Academy Award in 2009. And it absolutely deserved the award. I love this little film. Original title: Tusmiki no ie .

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There’s no telling why a scene from my life sticks with me, but occasionally I see or overhear something that sets its hooks in my memory: visual, emotional, and mental associations all bond together instantly.

When did iPods come out—late 2001? So it must have been January 2003 or 2004. iPods were hot, and expensive, and no longer a novelty. I well remember my daughter’s absolute joy in getting one for Christmas, because she could take it to school and casually show it off. Still a status symbol, not yet the functional part of life that it has become.

I’m standing in the eternal check-out line at the warehouse club I shop at. Waiting, and not really noticing anything. Then I see a young teenage girl and her mother in front of me, and the scene becomes riveting. Even though nothing is happening.

The mother has a plastic display package for an iPod. She’s patiently waiting her turn to hand it to the checkout clerk, who will call over another employee to get an iPod out of the secure storage where they’re safely kept. She looks at her daughter with a combination of “Be patient” motherliness and “Relax, OK?” annoyance. They don’t look very well off, and I imagine that this is a major purchase, not an everyday thing for them. I think they even paid in cash.

The daughter has an amazing tension in her body language: she is simultaneously happy/excited, nervous, self-conscious, and deeply embarrassed that she is dependent on her mother for this moment. But her mother holds the membership card that lets them make the purchase. So she has no choice. The girl is already anticipating a future with an iPod of her own. A real iPod, not one of those cheap knockoff MP3 players. She does that thing that 13-year-olds do, where without looking around she is keenly aware of the potential that someone is looking at her.

We’re a couple weeks past Christmas, so I wonder if she has been saving money, or got some gift money, or what. The timing is a little off—maybe her parents couldn’t afford one for a Christmas gift—but the intent is clear: this girl is getting her ticket to feeling just a little more self-assured at school. She can now slip that iPod into her pocket at the right times, and talk about what songs she has on it. And she can walk down the street with those white earphones just showing in her ears.

Of course I’m reading all this into the scene, but the unforgettable part was the girl’s tension and anticipation: she wasn’t just buying an iPod, she was becoming a new person. Something about her expressions and attempts to hide emotion made it clear that this moment was pivotal. She no longer had to hide the shame of not owning this vital electronic accessory. It was more than just the pleasure of getting a new gift you’ve wanted for months: it was an event.

Oh, the pain we go through in junior high.

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The other day I was looking for new games to put on my iPod touch, and I ran across a version of the classic sliding tiles puzzle.
number puzzle
Long before electronic games, there were toys like this plastic puzzle. After doing a little internet research, I found that this kind of puzzle was introduced in 1880. In the 1960s, it was available in a small plastic version that could keep small hands busy for as long as one’s attention span could handle it.

I haven’t seen one for decades, since my Grammee Maryon kept a couple in her kitchen drawer. Moving the little tiles engaged me, I loved listening to the gentle clicking of the tiles and trying to figure out how to line them up from 1 to 15.

plastic number tilesThis reminded me of the things we’d always do when we visited Grammee’s house.  My grandparents had built a  brick house in the 1940s on the corner of 9th South and 8th East in Salt Lake. They lived there for the rest of their lives. The house was a dark coffee brown brick bungalow in a mid-century style you see everywhere in central Salt Lake City. Placed on a small city lot, it was surrounded by a manicured lawn, flower beds, a vegetable garden, and Grampa’s workroom/garage.

Grampa often painted homes as a second job, and he kept his house immaculately painted and wallpapered. The inside was painted in the palest pink and blue, almost white with just a hint of color. I remember well the pink kitchen with a little breakfast nook, and its drawers and tip-out bins for flour and sugar. Grammee didn’t allow much play in there, but she let us run in and open the drawer that held her chewing gum, mints, rubber bands, pens and paper, and if we were lucky, a bag of circus peanuts.

circus peanutsThere was always a glass bowl in the drawer with peppermint Chiclets, and as long as we were well-behaved we could usually coax Grammee into letting us have one.

chiclets adAnd there were, of course, the number tile games and a couple of decks of playing cards. These were the insignificant little objects that I associated with this little house. My memories are tied in a Proustian way to simple objects, sounds, and smells.

We visited the grandparents fairly often, especially in the summer, and most years for the Fourth of July we’d drop by for a picnic lunch with cousins. Along with sandwiches and a potato or macaroni salad, Grammee always served cubes of Swiss cheese, black olives, baby sweet pickles, tiny cherry tomatoes and baby carrots from her garden, and punch or lemonade served in jewel-colored aluminum cups that went instantly cold when filled. The cups would break into a sweat in the warmth of the summer days. Funny how that particular feel of cold aluminum remains so immediate in my memory.

cherry tomatoesAnd to this day, when I touch tomato plants in a garden and smell that distinctive tart/bitter scent of their leaves, I’m back at Grammee’s garden, rooting around for ripe cherry tomatoes.

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I wonder if, when I get older or when my mind starts to go, or when I start to feel the imminence of death—or any combination of the above—I’ll start to obsess about my early life. Will my childhood become more immediately important to me than what’s going on around me?

My grandmother Virginia was 95 when she passed on to the next life, and she was a strong woman. She drove herself across the country for decades, keeping her driver’s license until she was about 90. Her health was really quite good, considering her age, until her last year or so. In hindsight, there was one sign that she was starting to let go of her mortal attachments in her last couple of years. She started to talk at length about her childhood. Not just tell stories, which she’d always done, but revisit old hurts and issues and family stuff, almost as if she was reliving those days.

She’d tell us about the rivalry between herself and her older sister. Virginia was a second child and had the typical animosity toward the favored first child. As she told it, Virginia was reduced to a life of servitude while her sister was treated like a princess. She would talk to us about farm life, working long hours, learning to cook, bottle food for storage, bake bread, do laundry, plant and harvest a garden, and so much more. When I was younger Grandma would talk about these things, but always in a positive way. There was a sense of pride in her upbringing and more than a hint of criticism about how lazy we modern children were.

In her last few years, a bitterness crept into her voice. Anger at her mother for the perceived preferential treatment of the first daughter, something she would never have spoken aloud throughout her life, came to the surface. It was as if she needed to process some troubling emotions, work through things that had never been resolved in her childhood. And so she would talk about her sister, her family hardships, and about being an outsider in a small-town high school—when an outsider was anyone whose ancestors had not settled the town in the late 1800s. Virginia seems not to have been a particularly generous or outgoing girl—she was serious from Day 1, very aware of how important it was to work hard and live her religion—and so as she grew older she retreated into self-righteous judgment of all those wild teenage kids in Sanpete County, Utah who were out having a whole lot more fun than Mormons oughtta have.

As I listened to her, I gradually saw in these stories a link to the elderly woman. They explained something about Grandma’s personality as an adult, how she tended to keep to herself in a protective way.  She was careful about who she counted as a friend, and held tightly to religious teachings as a guide for her life, much more than the influence of people around her. Ironically, for a woman who was deeply loyal to her church, she was often critical of neighbors and ward members and felt like an outsider.

Over time it came to me that in Grandma’s stories, I was seeing the shape of her life being sketched out. She’d talk about events 80 or 90 years earlier, and just by the way she described things I could see both an elderly woman who had a particular way of interacting with people and the young girl whose personality was not so different. We think we change during our lives, but in looking back we also have to acknowledge that there are core personality traits that define us. It’s like our emotional DNA or something, a simple sketch that fills in over the years but the shape of which never substantially changes.

When I ran across this family photo, I felt that I was looking at such a sketch. From the age of 2 to 6, I lived in a little frame house in Emigration Canyon, east of Salt Lake City. My dad was always taking photos, and this was a candid shot of 6 kids sitting around the kitchen table, taken from the front porch.

kitchen-windowI’m closest to the window, back to the camera. Don’t know where my younger brother is—maybe hidden by the window frame in the center. There’s a brown bottle of Winder Dairy milk, and our plastic cups, plates, and bowls, and that round Formica table (or was it painted wood?). It’s a perfect window into my early childhood. This is the kitchen where I grew up from being a toddler to an almost-second-grader. I love it. And as I look at the picture, it brings back the essence of our family, of my siblings, of that formative time when my  personality started to define itself.

I want to hold on to the positive memories so that when I’m losing my grasp on life, I won’t ramble about how mean my brother was or how I never got to be first at anything in my family or how Dad never had time to play with us. If I do start down that path, I really hope that people will be forgiving when I go on and on about all that I endured. Especially because those were really good years, after all. In many ways my childhood was a protected, safe little world. The things that seemed so unfair or dramatic at the time are no longer important. At some point, you learn to let go of the old stuff you’ve hung on to and decide what you want to keep. I don’t know that you can really change who you are in the process, but you can learn to change how you tell the story.

When mortality starts to feel more up front and center, we all have a chance to tie together the loose ends and make sense of our life. I’ve noticed that, since my cancer diagnosis, different family members are starting to carefully touch some old wounds and see if they still need attention. Maybe none of us want to be left with too much unfinished business in the end. And maybe it takes being shaken up by reminders of how fragile life is, to get us to start letting go of the junk that used to bother us.

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Ain’t the internet great? It’s like this vast collective memory, the large majority of which is completely useless and foolish. Still, it has its charms.

I’ve been a bit more reflective than usual in the last couple of years. In between moments of panic about my health and life expectancy, I tend to think back on my life. I won’t go into the value judgments I’ve made, but there are a lot of memories that have surfaced at random times, some of which mean a lot to me. Others are just curiosities.

This takes me to the days when I’d cuddle in a blanket and look out the window at the snow, or even more typically, I’d be on my bed trying to settle down for a nap. I was the fourth child in five years in my family, and by the time I came along I think my mother was fairly desperate for any kind of rest during the day. I really didn’t mind nap time, in part because we had a record player and a small collection of children’s story records and music. Disney stuff, mostly, but topping the list was a little story about a girl hero: Tina the Ballerina.

You have to understand that my next-oldest sibling was my sister, and she called the shots for a lot of things. Which probably explains why Tina the Ballerina, and Thumbelina, the other side of the record, are lodged deep in my brain. Did we even have a Davy Crockett record? I think we had Peter Pan. I don’t remember much aimed at little boys. But I do remember Tina. So at the oddest times, like in the medicated haze of recovering from surgery a couple years ago, the key chorus from that story would play in my mind: “Ti-na, the ball-er-i-na, she was the belle of gay Par-ee …” And a little less clearly, an annoying chorus of “Thumbelina, Thumbelina, Thumbelina dance! Thumbelina sing!” That one is always a bit garbled, but I’d recognize the music if I heard it again.

The other day, I got stuck on that Tina the Ballerina thing again. And I thought, maybe it’s out on the internet somewhere. And I was right. Not only the version I knew—a record with Thumbelina on one side and Tina on the other—but a couple other versions. I found a picture of one of the Tina records, but it’s not how I remember it. Our record had Tina in her pink tutu on a white background, perfect toe-pointed form and a pink rose. In this version she’s on a more garish background.

tina

In fact, she’s dancing on a red LP in this version. Huh? We all know Tina danced on that stage in Paris. She saved the day when the lead ballerina was unable to perform.

With a little more digging, I found a poor-quality recording from a late-50s vinyl record (sorry, you can hardly hear it for the crackles and hiss). And I was pleased to find that, after well more than 40 years, my musical memory is completely intact. That final chorus hasn’t changed a bit.

So there’s another little nugget from my childhood, dug out from the vast stores of trivial memories on the ‘net. Amazingly, there are other people who have tried to track down Tina, and Thumbelina, and other childhood memories. That’s how I found this stuff. I guess at some point, we all want to hang on to a piece of what we remember, or maybe we just want to know that our memories aren’t all that confused after all.

UPDATE:

There must have been dozens of versions of this little story. See the newest comments for a great YouTube video of someone playing a 78 rpm version on an old stereo. And here (from an Amazon listing, not currently “in stock”) may be the actual album cover I remember. The other stories listed here don’t sound familiar, and there’s no Thumbelina. But those little flowery asterisk designs look like something from my past.

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