Back in February, the church I attend offered a really lovely "celebration of the arts" weekend-- with artwork created by other members of the church being displayed and with several creative workshops. One of those workshops was a writing workshop called "The Old Sewing Box: Stuff and Inspiration" led by Greta Holt. (She recently had a piece published in the journal Center for Mennonite Writing called "Surviving". It is about a woman in a beauty shop in Botswana who has learned that a friend in South Africa has died. HERE is the link if you would like to read some of her work.)
In that workshop she had us do several timed writing prompts, and then at the end, challenged us to write a 500+ word piece out of that writing over the next several months. This "essay" is the piece that I ended up writing over the past few months. The poem scrap at the start is from my response to the painting Modernity in a prompt at the workshop. The rest came as I reflected on the meaning and importance of family memories in the wake of my Grandmother's decline in health and then passing.
Swirls of Memory: Abstract Collections of the Past
like the wood shavings and metal filings of the past
piled up and decorated
what was once
the leftover, the pushed aside
now remade, repurposed
the ordinary elevated
Behind each of us stand a long line of relatives, forefathers and foremothers, whose lives beget our life. When you are young, deaths of loved ones seem far off. Present in the stories of our aunts and uncles and grandmothers and grandfathers. Something that happened to those faded people in the black and white snapshots of the 1920s who are brought back alive to us in the stories told about them. Those stories are precious cargo, though they didn't seem so at the time. If we are lucky, if we pay attention, we have those old photographs as well as the new photographs, new recordings of our family and loved ones, to carry with us.
Because one day... an ordinary day… we will find ourselves the remaining keepers of those memories. Those shadowy stories that dimly haunt the corners of our minds like slides kept in a box until we remember one evening to have out the old, now nearly obsolete, projector. All that may be left for us to remember of these amazing people that are the lines of our past.
This week contained such an ordinary day for me when, as Moses described it in his long ago books in a desert land far from our own, my grandmother was gathered to her fathers. The last, at 96, of my living grandparents. My images of her are more than the others in some ways, her living longer into the pathway of my own life.
I have the child memories of her as I do of my other grandparents. Of sweeping her dining room carpet with a manual sweeper while hopping from one bare foot to the other in my blue dress. Of eating her home canned Bing cherries for dessert, the precious glass jar of glowing dark red cherries having been brought up from its place among the rows of other jars in the basement and poured out in a glass serving dish for us to feast upon in winter. Of sitting quietly in a rocker reading a book next to all her displays of vibrant, healthy house plants (I did not inherit her indoor green thumb). Of taking long walks after dinner - down past the old farm where she grew up and then later raised a family, or down around the dam where my aunt Irene once skipped school to go ice skating.
But I also have the more grown up memories. Seeing her strength at surviving the loss of her husband in her early eighties and then in learning to live alone. She had married at 20, and never lived alone before that. Of watching her go through the process of letting go of home and possessions, moving forward at every step with decisions before they were forced. Of phone conversations once she'd moved to Fairmount, and then
, about music or what other
family members were up to or what it was like cooking apple butter in the
copper kettle over an outdoor fire. Of birthday cards coming every year without
fail. Last year I was lucky enough to receive two handmade birthday cards as
she wanted to make sure she had sent me one.
Of listening to my mother and her siblings discuss what the best
decisions for her were when she was no longer fully able to make those
decisions herself. Of the way she'd light up if she held a harmonica or
accordion in her hands and got to play for a few minutes. Of her smile, always
ready to welcome you. Lincoln
For all the memories though, they are only snapshots. Bits of life captured to carry forward and for which to be grateful, but which are still only a small part of the whole. Something, she reminded all of us of when we discovered decades of her journals stacked up neatly in her closet. Something few of us had known she kept.
Here is an entry of a memory told in her own words from
My first day at the Home. I didn't have to cook meals or wash dishes. Just sat at the table and ate and enjoyed the meal with people. I knew some of them. But nobody talked. Perhaps a Quaker's meeting.
Swirls of memory left from ordinary days.