Tag Archives: #amwriting

Memoir and the Construct of Race

My maternal grandfather loved to tell stories to whoever would listen. His stories were all based in fact and never ventured into the realm of fantasy. He never tried to catch our attention with a bold and unsubstantiated claim. He just told about the past, as he knew it or had heard about it.

So when he told me that we had African ancestry, I believed him. I grew up thinking that my white family was, in fact, “part black. I found this information fascinating. Maybe it was one of the seeds that led to me studying history and race in literature.

Imagine my disappointment when I got my DNA results and found zero African ancestry among my genes. Could Grandpa have been wrong? Could he have lied to me? I think he told the truth as he understood it. My theory: one of his cousins was married to an African-American man for a brief time, and that meant that her ex was now part of our family. Grandpa telling me that we were a “biracial” family of sorts was the greatest gift he ever gave me–even better than his stories and the family’s antique photograph collection. Growing up as a white kid in the sixties, yet thinking you have African ancestry, is a helpful antidote to the effects of racism floating around you in society.

Now think of growing up as a white girl in mid-century America, with a father given to racist expressions, and only learning as an adult that your mother was (legally) a black woman passing as white and keeping the secret from everyone! That is the case for Gail Lukasik who wrote a memoir, White Like Her, about her search for the truth about her mother’s roots.

The woman on the cover of the book is Gail’s mother.

Gail’s story was first showcased on Genealogy Roadshow, and afterwards Gail, a mystery writer, began to write this memoir. The book details the genealogical research she and others did to find Gail’s family’s quintessentially American story. I was fascinated in the story because I am so interested in family history, American history, genealogy, and mysteries. What a great text to introduce to those who do not know the one-drop rule and other stupid laws in the history of Jim Crow.

I did wonder a few times if some people might be put off by the who begat whom, but it’s presented in a very cohesive and interesting way. I’m not sure how the book is structured, although her appearance on the show is the glue for a large portion of the book–and then the final section is about meeting her “new” family members and building a relationship with them. What one comes away from the book with, more than anything, is that race is a construct, not a real thing.

This book reminded me of another book I read over ten years ago. Carol Channing’s memoir Just Lucky I Guess might seem to be as far from the story of introverted Gail Lukasik as possible. But it’s not because very early on in the memoir, Carol lets her readers know that she has biracial heritage. The way she found out was kind of shitty. When she was leaving for college (at the impossibly young age of sixteen) her mother told her that she was “part Negro” because her father was black, born in Georgia. Her mothers says she is telling her now “‘because the Darwinian law shows that you could easily have a black baby.'” Then she made some statements about the large size of Carol’s eyes and her dance ability that were racist, at least by today’s standards. This happened in 1937.

Although a few readers rob Carol Channing of a star or two in their reviews of her book because the book is uniquely structured, I think the structure follows Carol’s personality. I found it an enormously fascinating and satisfying read. You can’t help but adore Channing after listening to her voice for any length of time. What a warm, witty, sweet, generous person. I had no idea until I read her memoir that her ancestry was biracial. After all, she made her living as a blonde! I wonder how many others don’t know this part of the Carol Channing story. If you want to be charmed, read Just Lucky I Guess.

I’ve been doing little bits of writing almost every day. I had two travel days, and I couldn’t write, but made up for those omissions on the other days. Woot! #amstillwriting A little poetry, a couple of short creative nonfiction pieces.

53 Comments

Filed under #AmWriting, Book Review, Family history, Memoir, Nonfiction, Writing

Screws and Recipes

Last week wasn’t great. There were several reasons, but the problem with my car can summarize the whole week. Presumably somebody  spilled a huge case of big screws out of their truck at a major intersection that I drove through at noon–when it was super busy. By the time I got my car to Discount Tire, it was the 31st one that day with tires studded with the same screws (just at that one store so imagine how many cars were truly damaged!). Yup, all four of my tires had to be replaced. Luckily, we had bought them in 2008 from Discount Tire, and they provide a lifetime warranty. So the cost was well under my deductible.

Speaking of deductibles, I discovered that my insurance doesn’t cover “road hazards.” What the heck is that about? If a car stalls right in front me, and I can’t possibly stop in time, is that a road hazard? What if a big chunk of concrete comes down from the overpass onto my car, is that a road hazard? I don’t like sneaky loopholes, and that is what it sounds like to me.

I plan to call the police department to see if they have a camera and can see who littered the road and caused all this damage to so many cars. My reasoning is that somebody who doesn’t fasten down a case of screws doesn’t fasten that ladder either–you know, the one that falls off on the freeway, causing a fatal accident.

On a more positive note, I went through my recipe box. I don’t use it anymore. Instead, I keep my recipes in two binders. So the recipes in the box date back a bit. I’m on a path of very very gradually cleaning up some of the old stuff that litters my life. I want to get rid of junk recipes that I’ll never use again–and that serve no historical purpose. I won’t get rid of my grandmother’s recipes although they are mainly breads and cakes that I can’t make for the gardener because of his celiac disease.

I found several recipes that are impossible to make because a key ingredient is no longer sold. But I found three I wanted to make. One is a corned beef cream cheese ball, but when I got to the grocery store, I discovered that they don’t sell those packages of flaked corned beef any more, and if I get some from the deli it’s probably too expensive and the wrong consistency anyway. I don’t remember noticing when they stopped selling processed corned beef in those little packages. If we think about it, we could probably make a really long list of foods that are no longer available that we used to count on.

That left two recipes, and I did make them. One was an ice cream pumpkin pie. This recipe dates back to junior high, which brings back a lot of memories. I had typed the recipe after I got it from two girls in my class. It was a favorite since I always loved both pumpkin pie and vanilla ice cream.

I had to make a couple of changes, though. The gardener can’t eat ice cream anymore because of the lactose, so I used vanilla almond frozen dessert for the “crust.” And I substituted Cool Whip for the Dream Whip (which I haven’t used in decades). I thought it was pretty good, but not as I remembered it. The gardener loves it (and he’s not even a pumpkin person), but since he can’t eat many desserts, he isn’t much of a judge of sweets.

The other recipe was for Coney Island sauce. When we were young, both the gardener and I loved to get Coney Dogs at the Coney Island restaurant in Kalamazoo. While we were in college, we worked at different retail stores downtown, and it was fun to meet at restaurants like this one and share our break. It looks like Coney Island is still in business. If you click the link, you can see the photos of the inside of the place, looking as it did when my grandfather and my mother and I were all kids!

I no longer eat beef (for the sauce) or regular hot dogs,  but thought the gardener would enjoy this blast from the past. The first thing I noticed is that the ground beef I buy is shredded into long tubes, rather than being the ground beef that crumbles in the frying pan. That meant I literally needed to chop the ground beef. Geesh. Then I tried to make it in my slow cooker because it requires 3-4 hours of simmering, and I can’t leave the flame on with cats all over the kitchen. I still simmered it on the stove near the end, but then the gardener told me I should have left some of the juice in. I don’t remember juice in the Coney dogs we ate as kids. He loved the flavor. The bun isn’t as good since it’s a dry gluten free bun and not one of those squishy cheap buns that are part of the fun.

Does it work to go back and try to relive the past by making old recipes? Sort of, but not completely, as you can see.

Even with all the screw damage and other stuff falling apart and causing trouble last week, I completed my writing resolution for the first week of 2018. I wrote every single day, at least 30 minutes. I will never be somebody who writes 4-8 hours per day, and I’m ok with that. But if I can write a minimum of 3.5 hours per week (excluding blog posts), I find that acceptable.

What about you? Did you have any resolutions or goals for the year? Have you made a good start on them?

 

 

65 Comments

Filed under #AmWriting, #writerlife, #writerslife, Food & Drink, History, Memoir, Vintage American culture, Writing

My Only Resolution

Ten months ago, we trapped Perry in our backyard. Since that time, I have written about him in 25 blog posts! It’s almost embarrassing that I’ve written about him so much.

But, in for a penny in for a pound, I guess. Here’s another post about Perry :).

He is still kittenish, although large–larger than the other five cats–and loves to play wrestle and energetically engage with these senior kitties that just want to lie around and sleep. He also still needs his daily cuddles with mom. I am constantly getting him away from the other cats. He wants to lie in Kana’s bed with her, but then he gets restless and starts to annoy.

His main targets to annoy are Kana and Felix, the other “big cats.” The three little ones–Pear, Tiger, and Sloopy Anne–are bitchy enough to him that he doesn’t mess with them much.

 

Tiger and Sloopy Anne waiting to hiss at Perry when he passes by

Perry and Kana are true frenemies.

Although the vet had told me she thought it possible that he was part Siamese, I (who have never had a fancy breed cat) didn’t pay much attention to that. But suddenly one day, as if the president of the Cat Fanciers’ Association had snuck up and slapped me upside the head, I realized that Perry has got to be part Maine Coon. After I looked it up and confirmed my brainstorm, I read an article that said that there are lots of Maine Coon mixes in the general cat population. If you wonder what I’m talking about google “blue and white Maine coon cat” and go to images. There you will see a stunning array of Perry’s possible daddies ;).

This explains why Perry looks different from the other cats. His outline is different, and his face is different. My son calls him “cartoon cat,” and my daughter agrees with him. The gardener calls him Curly (from The Three Stooges). I call him rat face and funny face. For all that, he’s gorgeous. The son of the man who installed our new water RO tank said he was a king of cats. His dad called Perry King Tut.

Perry has taken up all my writing time in 2017. I need to get back on track. Maybe he can go with me into my office and we can shut the door so he can’t bother the other cats. Maybe he will settle down into the cat tree and take a snooze while I work on . . . something. This month I need to get cracking because mom will be with us next month. I’ve been trying to imagine her staying with us with our six cats and all the unrest with Perry.

My only New Year’s resolution: write, no matter what and no matter what it is.

82 Comments

Filed under #AmWriting, #writerlife, #writerslife, Cats and Other Animals, Nonfiction, Photographs, Writing, Writing Talk

The Day After Christmas

I usually post on Mondays, but this week’s Monday being Christmas and today being my father’s birthday, I wanted to post today. My father didn’t like having a birthday the day after Christmas. He felt he was shortchanged and overlooked. Maybe being a twin accentuated that feeling since he had to share a birthday not only (almost) with baby Jesus, but with a brother he shared his life with.

My father grew up quite poor with his twin, his older sister, and his single mother. I doubt there was too much hoorah for his birthday, although I’m sure Grandma would have tried to give them a good Christmas on Christmas Eve, in the German tradition. I imagine she made clothes for Christmas for all three children.

When I was a kid, my mother liked to make Dad feel better by celebrating his half-birthday on June 26.  We would go to Sears or Robert Hall and buy him a shirt and tie or something equally unimaginative and wrap it up in birthday paper. Mom usually made a cake, too, from a Duncan Hines box mix. (By the way, I just looked up Duncan Hines for the heck of it, and did you know he was a real man? Very interesting story on Wikipedia).

My father’s birthday always seemed a touch sad and anti-climactic, whether it was on December 26 or on June 26. An emptiness inside him wasn’t filled by whatever we did, and my mother was not one to prepare an exciting celebration. There were many wonderful birthday parties in their lives, but they were always planned by my extroverted father for my introverted mother.

I do think his favorite birthday gift was the year I made him a videotape of his life for his 80th birthday. The quality was appalling as I didn’t have the proper software or equipment. So much easier today to make a video! To make it, I had to watch hours and hours and hours of old videotapes (those hardcover book-sized videos) and digitize what I needed. It was painstaking work that took so many hours I wouldn’t want to try to count them up. This was pre-blogging days, needless to say.

The only thing that I didn’t get on the video that he would have liked was his bungee jump at age sixty as I couldn’t find a photo at the time. I always planned to add it in and edit the video when easier software became available, but I never got around to it before he died. Now it seems pointless.

Of course, when I went to look for the photo to post it here, it’s lost again. I guess it wasn’t meant to be.

Here’s an idea of how crummy the video was: this is the first 20 seconds. The reason that I chose this music is because my father used to put on a fake opera voice–much deeper than his speaking voice–to sing. He would sing “If I Were a Rich Man” and “Proud Mary.” This version of “Happy Birthday” reminded me of my father’s singing ;). Also, every year on my birthday (that we lived in different states), he would sing me happy birthday over the phone.

Very important: notice the post-it note next to the cake pan in the second photograph. That is my mother’s handwriting.

My father was always the one behind the camera, so it wasn’t easy finding him on video (which is why I had to use a lot of photos as in the sample above. When I watched him seeing the video for the first and second times, I noticed that he seemed happy and quizzical. The latter emotion was shared after the second viewing when he said, “I didn’t know I was so LOUD!”

Yes, he was. Dad was loud. And he loved a party. I’m just glad I made that video so that for once he had a really good birthday.

 

My father in his best role, Grandpa

At his favorite place, the lake (where he had to be quiet)

 

 

 

31 Comments

Filed under #writerlife, #writerslife, Creative Nonfiction, Family history, Flash Nonfiction, Memoir, Nonfiction, Writing

Poetry Ancestry

Last week I went to see three grande dames of literature at Arizona State University: Joy Harjo, Rita Dove, and Sandra Cisneros, hosted by Natalie Diaz. These are writers whose works I taught to college students for years, but this was the first opportunity I had to hear them talk in person. They were seated on stage in a conversation area–a couch and armchairs. What I hadn’t realized was that they are all graduates of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, which has long been considered to be the top place to earn an MFA in writing. These women all know each other–and Harjo and Cisneros were friends in grad school. I felt I was eavesdropping on their conversation with each other.

Since these women are all poets, but have published prose as well, I was fascinated to hear what they had to say. Their voices come from disenfranchised groups–Harjo is Native (Muskogee Creek), Cisneros Chicana, and Dove African American–so it’s important to listen carefully and sympathetically in order to hear things from a variety of perspectives. They were also talking about timing, and how timing was very helpful to them in achieving the level of success they have had. You can look them up if you want the deets. In fact, Dove mentioned that when she was a grad student she didn’t know the work of a lot of poets who were mentioned in her classes. She would surreptitiously write down the names so she could find them in the library and read their work. In that way, she was partially self-taught.

I’m leading up to something here.

Of all the wonderful ancedotes and tips I heard that Saturday afternoon, the one that stood out the most to me is one from Harjo. She said she teaches a course about poetry ancestry. It’s studying the genealogy of your poetry writing. You look at the poets who most influenced your own writing. Then you see who influenced them. And go back as far as you can, studying the work that turns up in your research!

I wanted to see where I could go with this, but it will take time. I’ll just start by mentioning some of my poetic influences. Keep in mind this is NOT an exhaustive list by any means.

  • Sylvia Plath: there is no doubt that I found her big mouth and aggressive imagery very liberating
  • Emily Dickinson: her spare and sometimes wry writing appeals to me, but the downside is she keeps herself out of most of her poems, and that is too convenient for me
  • A. R. Ammons: I so admire his oneness with nature and spirit and his very smart use of language
  • Gerard Manley Hopkins: his spirituality and fresh imagery speak to my heart
  • Linda Hogan: like Ammons, her oneness with nature and spirit inspires me
  • Adrienne Rich: she broke the ice at the top of the ocean she dove into in Diving into the Wreck
  • Edna St. Vincent Millay: maybe the first poem not written for children that captivated me was Millay’s “Renascence.” When I was a kid, I took an LP record out of the library and listened to her read it over and over and over and over and over again.
  • classic children’s poetry of the 20th century, as well as nursery rhymes: these are what first instilled a love for poetry

Do you notice anything about my little list? Lots of women, not too much diversity (except Hogan who is Native and Rich, a Jewish lesbian). But what else? The poems I read that first inspired my writing were written mainly before 1980 all the way back to Dickinson who was writing before and during the Civil War! Of course, I’ve read a lot of contemporary poetry over the years, but poets who first influenced me were not my contemporaries or even those just a little ahead of me. They were considered masters when I read them, except for maybe Hogan.

I’m thinking I need another list of poets whose works next influenced me–people writing after the poets listed above. That might then offer more of a platform for the “family research.”

Do you know who your first influences were for your own writing? Have the type of influences changed over time? For instance, if blogging is your main writing format, who were your first influences?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

49 Comments

Filed under #writerlife, #writerslife, History, Inspiration, Poetry, Reading, Writing, Writing Talk

An Interview about Poetry and Genealogy

Jorie at Jorie Loves a Story interviewed me on the topics of genealogy, poetry, and Kin Types. Her questions were so thought-provoking, and I really enjoyed where they took me!

Check it out if you can.


Also, Amazon has 19 reviews up for Kin Types if you’re still on the fence about reading it.

16 Comments

Filed under #AmWriting, #writerlife, #writerslife, Book Review, Family history, Flash Nonfiction, History, Interview, Kin Types, Memoir, Nonfiction, Poetry, Poetry book, Poetry Collection, Writing

Checking Out A Silver Lining

Before my father passed away, he and my mother wanted to get rid of their vacation club membership, but they couldn’t figure out how to do it and started to get all stressed out about it. They asked if we would take it, so the gardener said, “Sure.” Later, I told him I wasn’t very happy about that :). I didn’t like the idea of planning a vacation based on where I could stay for free that I had been paying for monthly all along, if that makes any sense.

It didn’t to me.

But it made them happy and, as it turned out, sometimes it’s very useful because the units always come with a kitchen, which is important for dealing with the celiac disease issue. That is what we did in New Orleans last year, and it worked out perfectly. You should see us moving into a regular hotel room with two coolers and four bags of gluten free foods. Not to mention, the air purifier and humidifier the gardener uses to deal with symptoms of his auto-immune troubles. No fear that I might be able to travel light, which is my dream.

We wanted to go on a vacation this year because we visited mom for her surgery this summer instead of taking a vacation, so we decided to use our “points” and visit somewhere on the vacation club map. We settled on Reno and Lake Tahoe in The Silver State (Nevada). The Reno portion was mainly to acclimate to altitude before reaching Tahoe because before the gardener was diagnosed and still eating gluten, he would get very sick at altitudes like Salt Lake City, which is only 4,226 ft!

We spent a few days in Reno, traveling to see Carson City (the capitol of Nevada) and Virginia City. We also had dinner with my cousin (who lives in Carson City and works for the State of Nevada) and his wife at a Persian restaurant. I’ve mentioned before that Persian is usually safe for celiacs, if they avoid the bread and the desserts. This restaurant turned out to be a bit “nouveau” in its cuisine, and while I thought the food was particularly delicious, the gardener was sick overnight. There was probably cross-contamination.

Carson City has a darling Capitol Building. They allow visitors to walk through, looking into the offices of the Governor and other dignitaries. I won’t share the photos I took past the entryway because it seems unsafe to me. But, gosh, it was so nice to be able to take a look at all that beautiful history on our own.

Sorry if one or two of those are a little crooked (@#%^&). The statue when you enter the building is of Sarah Winnemucca who wrote the first autobiography by a Native American woman (Northern Paiute), so I found that pretty meaningful.

I was shocked that Reno is such a casino-driven city. Maybe you knew that, but I didn’t. I don’t like casinos or cities with lots of casinos, but it was interesting to watch the motel outside our window. It was directly across the street and had a reputation for stabbings, shootings, drugs, and prostitution. The new managers were supposedly trying to clean up the property, but it was still a sad and fascinating site for me to observe.

The gardener dragged me to the casino three times, but MEH. I don’t like the cigarette (and cigar!) smoke, the glazed looks on the faces of people who might be ruining their own lives and the lives of their families, or the unnatural outfits those poor servers have to squeeze into.

Judgmental, moi? OK, I am judgmental about gambling, but not about the gamblers. I’ve seen the harm it causes, and I don’t like it. At least the gardener didn’t lose much because he didn’t fall into the trap.

What I did enjoy was the Zombie Crawl one night we were in Reno. The parade of costumes in the streets and inside the casinos was a lot of fun. And Reno has the best gluten free bakery I’ve ever experienced. Wherever we go, we look for gluten free bakeries; many cities have them now. But this one had baked goods and other foods that were the most like what I grew up with. Their frosted sugar cookies were like those of the bakeries of my childhood. All gluten free though! If you’re in Reno, stop by Haven on Earth at 10855 Double R Blvd., Suite A. Here’s their website: www.havenonearthbakery.com. They even have lasagna and chicken pot pies in a freezer case.

To make up for the casinos, I dragged the gardener to a lovely performance of the national tour of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical. We saw it at this cool-looking theater.

Nearby is the Riverwalk.

And a gorgeous old building. I looked it up and now I can’t remember the name of it.

We were happy to move on to Tahoe when we did. What we found there was gorgeous. And October was a wonderful time for visiting because there weren’t the crowds they see in the summer months and during ski season.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

Lake Tahoe is the purest body of water in the world, and it looks it. Just stunning. I could have walked on the beach in my sweatshirt every morning for the rest of my life. The gardener, on the other hand, thought it a bit chilly. He’s more the Caribbean type. While I prefer more deciduous trees in my dreamscape, I couldn’t get over the beauty of this national treasure.

And they had a great burger place that doesn’t get a celiac sick! They have a “dedicated fryer,” which means only gluten free foods go into that fryer. That is important if you want fries with your gluten free burger. I loved their veggie burger, too. CALIFORNIA BURGER COMPANY. Remember that if you go to Tahoe.  They feature live music and art on the walls. And gourmet casual food. Yum!

###

BETA READER SHARING? On another note, I have been tinkering with the ole memoir a bit. It’s gone through a lot of versions already and may still have a lot of versions to go through. But it would be helpful to have 2 beta readers look at the dang thing as it stands now as I have too many versions in my head and can’t really “see” what is here any longer.

Do you feel that you have the time, inclination, and a bit or a lot of experience with a full-length manuscript (I think a novel would be fine, as well as memoir)? I’ll warn you that it’s approximately 280 pages.  I am happy to trade manuscripts with you and give yours the same careful reading with comments.  I am only interested in reading complete manuscripts in draft, though. No manuscript where you are sure you are done and just want confirmation. No manuscript that doesn’t have an ending yet. If you are interested, please email me at luanne.castle[at]gmail.com. If I get more than two offers, I’ll choose the two that seem the best fit, but will save names for the next version haha. If I get no takers, I’ll try to find readers through some other channels. Thanks for listening!

43 Comments

Filed under #AmWriting, #writerlife, #writerslife, Flora, Garden, and Landscape, Food & Drink, History, Inspiration, Nonfiction, Sightseeing & Travel, Writing

A New Review Brings Up a Topic for Discussion

Today, a new review of Kin Types was published here at Jorie Loves a Story. 

This review is very cool in how she interprets so many of the poems. She shows a wonderful sense of what each piece is about.

Then at the end, Jorie inserts what is essentially a caveat, what she calls “Fly in the Ointment: Content Note.” She takes exception to my inclusion of a case of animal cruelty and murder in the poem “Once and Now.”

As you might guess, I really “get” her complaint and her sensitivity to harm to animals. Animals mean the world to me (in a literal sense, as well as figurative).

The poet in me, though, felt a need to not turn away from where the poem simply had to go. It’s a poem about war, in this case WWI. And it’s about zenophobia, a fear of foreigners, which showed itself as cruelty to immigrant Germans. That a dog suffers is typical of how war can work. What happens to the animals, both wild and in homes and zoos, when battles are fought?

But it’s not a poem about the dog. The dog is a very real dog who suffered, and the people are real people who suffered, and the dog is also a metaphor. Ok, that’s my “defense.” But I can truly see her point. It’s kind of like Facebook, who wants to go there and see petition requests with photos and comments about animals being harmed? (guilty)

What is YOUR opinion? Should I have left out the dog?

36 Comments

Filed under #AmWriting, #writerlife, #writerslife, Book Review, Family history, Flash Nonfiction, History, Kin Types, Memoir, Nonfiction, Poetry, Poetry book, Poetry Collection, Writing

Review: Kin Types by Luanne Castle

A new review up todayfor Kin Types.

Diary of an Eccentric

Source: Review copy from author

Kin Types is the newest poetry collection by Luanne Castle in which she recreates the stories of her ancestors. (Read the collection’s opening poem, “Advice from My Forebears” and the inspiration for it here.) She draws you in right away with lines similar to what many of us have heard from our elders, like “Quit scowling or your face will freeze that way” (“Advice from My Forebears,” page 2). I soon found myself immersed in the poems about Dutch immigrants who made their way to Michigan and forged a life, often difficult, judging from many of the poems, but hopeful as well in that these lines are written by their descendant.

From a mother who rushes into a house fire (“An Account of a Poor Oil Stove Bought off Dutch Pete”) to the fast-forwarding and rewinding that recounts the ups and downs of a…

View original post 283 more words

11 Comments

Filed under #AmWriting, #writerlife, #writerslife, Book Review, Family history, Flash Nonfiction, History, Kin Types, Memoir, Nonfiction, Poetry, Poetry book, Poetry Collection, Writing

A Sign to Remember

This is my second response to feeling inspired by Dawn Raffel’s memoir about the “secret life” of objects.

This object is not something I’ve owned for long, carrying from house to house. In fact, I only spotted it in July when we brought my mother home from the hospital.

My mother’s basement has shelves, boxes, and tables overflowing with photo albums and photo boxes. She has little interest in them. They were my father’s treasures. He was the family photographer and tried to hold every memory close to his heart and mind. With him now gone, my mother feels burdened by belongings that she never cherished to begin with. Every time I visit, she encourages me to take as much as I want of our family memories.

Before we flew back to Arizona, I decided to give the photo albums another go-around, taking home as many of the most important photographs as I could pack. I plan to scan them and then email them to other family members. While downstairs, I noticed a metal sign resting on the floor, shoved between two boxes.

This mailbox marker is from the 1960s. My father had it made for his mother’s mailbox when she moved near us from Chicago.

This is how it was attached to the mailbox and what Grandma’s mailbox looked like. If you click on this image, you will discover that there is a company (perhaps) still making these using a machine from the forties. The writer of the article says the company is so old school they don’t even have a website.

Grandma was born in Germany in 1893 and immigrated with her family to Illinois when she was two or three years old. When she was in her early 70s, she decided to leave Chicago for the small town atmosphere of Portage, Michigan, a suburb of Kalamazoo. Dad bought a duplex around the corner from our house, rented out one side, and moved Grandma into the other side. I was ten and could now ride my bike to Grandma’s house.

Not that I liked to visit her. I’m not proud of that fact, but it’s true. When Mom or Dad made me pedal down her street the houses all seemed to be watching me.  The nameplate on the mailbox signaled that soon I would be walking in Grandma’s door. I always had either terrified starlings or lake stones in my stomach.

But why? I am not sure, but am trying to figure it out. Grandma was a bit stern, a bit strict, at least more so than my Kalamazoo grandmother who was warm and fun. (Kalamazoo Grandma was 19 years younger than Chicago Grandma). Was it a cultural reflection of Grandma’s semi-German upbringing? I think her father was stern and difficult to know. He might have been domineering and given to punishments. But this is a guess based on my dad’s and uncle’s stories. In old photos, Grandma’s mother looks like a sweetheart–sort of like my maternal grandmother. Was it that I was afraid of my grandmother’s strictness?

If so, that’s odd because my father could be unrelentingly strict. She was an amateur compared with Dad in that way.

I remember Grandma, a talented seamstress and tailor, poking a straight pin in my stomach and warning me that I was getting fat. I wasn’t overweight, although for a period of time my belly protruded a bit. I deeply resented her saying this to me, but she didn’t do it all the time. Would I have held it against her? Maybe, but I think she did it after I already had developed anxiety at visiting her.

Within a year or two, a doctor confirmed that I had “water weight” in my abdomen. Years later I would be diagnosed with lymphedema. Where did I get it? From Grandma who never did get a proper diagnosis. Doctors told her it was caused by congestive heart failure, a disease she developed with age, but the swelling in her legs was visible before she was forty–I can see it in photographs. (I hope you’re seeing the thread here about photographs: they can be important).

Grandma always had a glass bowl of Dum Dum suckers for me to choose from. I didn’t care for those dull little things. Tootsie Pops–or better yet, Slo Pokes–were my lollipops of choice. Did I resent not being offered what I wanted instead of what she wanted to give me? It’s possible that she couldn’t afford Tootsie Pops. The candy was only for us because she couldn’t eat it; she was diabetic. Was I a brat? She seemed to try to make me happy, but her ways were limited and without imagination.

Some of my memories make me wonder if I pitied Grandma. Her age? Her solitary life? Some unexpressed sadness deep within her?

I remember Grandma’s home being so quiet that the clock ticking spooked me like a sudden noise in a horror movie. And still. Every object in the dusty rose living room seemed preternaturally still, the sort of stillness that comes before unexpected movement, as if the contents were waiting for me to leave.

When I left and pedaled as fast as I could down the street, I deeply drew in the outdoor air, thrilled to be headed toward my own street.

Then, all these years later, I saw the heavy metal sign in Mom’s basement and brought it home in my suitcase. The gardener didn’t say anything until I pulled out hammer and picture hangers to hang it on the wall of my study. “You don’t want that there, do you?”  Hahaha, yes, I did, and there it is.

Every day I scan a few of the photos I brought home. The other day I found this one of me kissing Grandma, thanking her for the crocheted afghan she made me for my high school graduation (you can see a bit of the pattern in the photo). Proof that Grandma and I loved each other, even if she made me nervous.

77 Comments

Filed under #AmWriting, #writerlife, #writerslife, Creative Nonfiction, Essay, Family history, Flash Nonfiction, Memoir, Nonfiction, Vintage American culture, Writing, Writing prompt