Wednesday, May 8, 2013

In Memory to My Grandmother

This is a piece I had written, in part, about my grandmother who recently passed away.

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

paint curls
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 Lincoln Center, 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.

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 Feb 11 2005,

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.

WNP: The Silent Room: Part 4

Prompt- "He positioned the ladder directly below the window and started to climb."
Another round in what is turning out to be my "the silent room" prompt series...

(Number 11)

He found himself sitting in the middle of a grassy lawn in front of a rather unique two story building. It had no windows, a front porch with a railing but no roof, and two doors set one above the other in the center.  In looking to the right and the left, he found that in every other direction were flat plowed fields as far as the eye could see. No people working. No faint blush of new growth on the ground.  Only tilled rows of turned brown earth running east to west. 

At first he was a bit disconcerted to find himself in such a strange location. He didn't remember having ever been here before. He'd never been out of the city a day of his life, he was sure.  Inside the green circle closed in by fields, there were no cars, no bikes, and no other people visible. Not even a good farm road led up to the place as far as he could tell. Without actually standing up, that is. Only this rather odd two story building in front of him.  Then it dawned on him that he didn't even know his own name, so the chance that he would not recognize what something was, or remember why he was here, was probably par for the course.

Why is it, he thought, that I don't know my own name? 

Glancing down at his clothes, he found a series of numbers stitched into the heavy fabric of his gray work coveralls.  11- X72H109. Hmm. Perhaps his name was all those things?  Or maybe he was just the first part? And the last part was his surname? Were names usually made up of numbers? Somehow he didn't think so.  Shaking his head, he decided it didn't matter for the moment. He’d call himself Number 11 for the time being, and he set himself to start studying the house and field around him more closely by first getting himself to his feet. Maybe that would help this strange empty vacuum of memory. 

Standing turned out to take a great deal more energy and coordination than he would have presumed. First he had to try to get his arms to hold his weight so he could shift his legs underneath him. When he finally had mastered that, his legs became the uncooperative bits. First his left leg went out, then his right leg. At long last he got his feet solidly planted and his legs under him so that he could stand in a straight, if rather swaying, position. He braced his elbows and hands as tightly against his waist and legs as he could to steady himself, and closed his eyes to hide the great leaping swoops of house and sky that were now shimmering before him. That helped, sort of. When the world finally stopped tipping, he opened his eyes slowly one at a time.

The first realization that struck him was that the first floor door, which had been partially blocked from view by the broad front porch and its railings when he had been sitting, had multiple two by fours nailed across its bottom half. He huffed softly and then looked up at the door on the second floor. Well, door frame, he amended, as the door on the second floor was completely missing, and stood out against the pale yellow paint of the building like the black gap in the mouth of a seven year old when he'd lost a tooth. Vaguely, Number 11 wondered if he knew any seven year olds with gaps in their teeth. He didn't think so, but if he didn't, why would he think such a thing?

After pondering the likelihood of a seven year old appearing shortly to help him out of his predicament (none appeared), he decided to get on with matters.  Why was he needing to decide something anyway, he wondered? Why couldn't he just do something? Too many imponderables, again.

He managed to lift his right leg forward in a semblance of a step. Then he repeated with his left.  That took all the energy he had for awhile, and he stood swaying and staring at the door.  For a minute he thought about sitting down to take his rest, but then the thought of standing back up.... He stayed standing.  After a awhile, he made another attempt at walking. This time he managed about six lifts of his legs before he had to pause and rest. 

When eventually he got to the steps, he decided not to climb them. They were too steep for his current leg lifting abilities. Instead, he continued on around the house to the right. The fields on that side of the house ran a different direction to those in front of the house, he noted, and ran north to south. Or south to north, depending which direction he was walking. Besides that, there was nothing but the neat patch of grass around the building (dared he call it a house?) except for a few straggly weeds along the foundation.

By the time he got back around to the front, his legs had begun to work in what he considered a more normal "step-step" rhythm.  This time he climbed the steps without much problem and made it at last to the blocked off front door. 

Up close, he could now see it was a metal door with an inset lock and no door knob.  That looked even less promising. He gave it a push. Nothing. He heaved at it with his left shoulder. Again nothing.   He took a few steps back to the edge of the porch and gave it a full out running leap of a shove, letting the entire left side of his body slam into the door. All he got for his troubles was a bruised hip (where he had jumped too low and caught the top two by four with it) and a goose egg (where he'd cracked his head against the door in whiplash from the jar to his hip).  On landing, he slid rather gracelessly to the porch floor like a sack of potatoes tumbling down  in one long thump, thump, thud. Slumped on the floor, he stayed where he landed for a long time, only taking a moment after awhile to shift over slightly more onto his back, and stared up at the blue sky and its drifting white clouds. Thinking nothing. No one came. Eventually, he noticed that the shadows of the place had begun to change and the light to dim. He sat up abruptly.

Sitting outside for the night, or alternately, finding a way into the house after dark and being stuck inside without knowing what was in there in the daylight, neither sounded too nice. Climbing down off the porch, he took two more turns around the house, looking for... anything. On the second round, he found it. A ladder buried in among the weeds at the foundation on the left side of the house. He wondered how he'd missed it earlier. With  hard pull to get it free of the grass, he hauled it out and brushed it off.  The thing was wooden with a rather old and peeling coat of white paint. 

Carrying it back to the front of the house and up onto the porch, he set it up against the wall below the open door frame. It stopped about three inches below the open door. Doable, if it a bit dangerous.  He rocked the ladder back and forth to see how stable it was on the porch floor (and to get his courage up; heights were not his favorite thing, he was sure) and was shocked to feel it slide into the porch. Looking down, he discovered there were two neat grooves carved into the porch floor that he had failed to take note of earlier. Excellent.

Nothing for it now then, he thought, and putting his right foot up upon the first ladder rung, he began to climb.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

May Day: Trillium Hunting

Today was a brilliantly beautiful  start to the month of May- bright sunshine, warm balmy air, a feeling of spring having really truly sprung.  It made me think of trillium hunting with my mom when I was growing up.  Every year on May Day she would pile us into the car and take us out to this special spot in the woods, out away on back roads across the fields from home. I remember we had to pass under the stones of an abandoned train underpass covered in a rainbow of graffiti to get there. At least, that is how I remember it.  Usually it would be after school. Sometimes, if we were lucky, it would fall on a Saturday and we could spend a longer time there.

In the back of the car she would have a picnic packed- sandwiches and carrot sticks and chocolate chip cookies- and we would eat our picnic before we wandered out among trees to search for what we might find.   A quantity of may apples like their own mini forest on the ground;   Jack-in-the-Pulpits in their fresh green jackets; And if we were very lucky (and nearly every year we were!)  a few delicate white trilliums, sometimes painted with pale pink stripes, to mark the start of May.