Tag Archives: Kalamazoo

SUMMER SPOTLIGHT: LUANNE CASTLE — Jill Weatherholt

Jill Weatherholt has been so kind to interview me for her blog! Please join us over there!

What is special about the place you grew up? The places of my childhood are always with me although I live almost 2000 miles away. I grew up in Kalamazoo County, which is in southwest Michigan. There are 101 inland lakes in the county alone, and we were not far from Lake Michigan. My mother’s […]

via SUMMER SPOTLIGHT: LUANNE CASTLE — Jill Weatherholt

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Filed under Blogging, Book promotion, Family history, Flash Nonfiction, Interview, Kin Types, Memoir, Poetry, Poetry book, Poetry Collection, Writing

Who Came Calling?

I’m not writing an autobiography or my “life story,” but the memoir story I am telling about our family does criss-cross my entire life.

It’s a different mindset to write about more recent times than it is to write about my childhood. For childhood scenes it helps to get myself back in that time by looking at artifacts from the period.

Occasionally, I brainstorm about objects and odd unimportant memories just for this purpose.

Recently I’ve been thinking about the men and women who came to our houses with the purpose of delivering or selling.

When I was in junior high my grandmother was still getting deliveries from Lockshore Dairy. The milk man would drive up very early in the morning and put the milk and cottage cheese and butter in a silver box on Grandma’s porch. Eventually, the company stopped making deliveries as home delivery and home sales were beginning to become old-fashioned.

In the way that sometimes old becomes new again, when my kids were little and we were living in California, I was able to order dairy delivery from Alta Dena!

When I was younger than nine, we were visited regularly by the Fuller Brush Man. If you click on the photo, you will find an article that describes how the company, after being in business for over 100 years, went Chapter 11 last summer. We bought cleaning supplies, as well as brushes from him. He didn’t look handsome and spiffy like the man in the poster; he was more sad and harried looking. Maybe if he had been younger he would have been more eager, but I can’t say he didn’t try to be enthusiastic about the products in the gigantic suitcase he hauled around with him.

Fuller Brush Man

Our Rexair vacuum was purchased from a man who came selling them. He spread his products out in our small living room and showed my mother how to vacuum up dirt without a bag in the vacuum. The dirt went into a pot of water at the base of the vacuum. Although we barely had any furniture and we didn’t have wall-to-wall carpet, she bought it! 

The Avon Lady still visited when I was in high school, but soon after that, Avon began to be sold through other methods than door to door sales.

There were various other people who came to the door, such as men offering to sharpen our knives and scissors.

Now when somebody rings my doorbell unannounced, I try to peek and see who it is or I just ignore them. What if they are coming to tell me my house is on fire? Or that there has been a disaster and we must evacuate? It might be nice to be able to open the door to a stranger and invite him in so I can look at his wares. Or am I just being nostalgic?

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On another note, I’ve written before about the angst I have over reading my poetry aloud. A new issue of TAB: A Journal of Poetry and Poetics is out. You can read my poem “Vagrant.” Or listen to me read it ;).  Click the link if you’re willing.

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Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Nonfiction, Research and prep for writing, Vintage American culture, Writing

Dutch-American Elms

Last week I discovered that some of my earlier posts that had cost me effort and time have never received very many views.  I posted a poll about whether I should re-post or re-blog these posts to free up some time this month to work on my book. The re-posts won, so here is a story I first posted on November 29, 2012. It’s about the elm trees in Kalamazoo when I was a kid.

At the end I’ve added a couple of new points.

Circa 1960

On a Sunday afternoon, my parents and I visited my grandparents who lived in the same house where my mother grew up. We ate our dinner at 2PM and then, predictably, all the women and my dad wanted to go for a walk.  Grandpa was determined to watch the game on TV, so I’m fairly sure that Dad felt a responsibility to stay with Grandpa and missed the exercise.

We walked all the way uptown, as my grandmother called it, through neighborhood after neighborhood of modest two-story homes built in the late 1800s and early 1900s. A parade of old trees shadowed the sidewalks, which were blanketed by their colored, speckled, and spotted leaves.The garlands of branches overhead, the twinkling of sunlight in patches through those branches, and the crunchy path under our feet promised to launch me into a magical world.

Then I noticed that some of the trees, the ones with the symmetrical leaves, not the knobby turkeys of the oaks and maples, wilted drastically.  The leaves were pale, odd-looking, not merely turning their customary autumn yellow.

I asked why the trees were so thirsty.  Grandma looked sad.  I’d never seen her sad before.  Her Mrs. Claus face always beamed at me.  Mom and Aunt Alice mirrored her unhappy expression.  Grandma said that the trees had gotten the new plague, Dutch Elm Disease.

In the weeks to follow, I heard a lot of talk about the devastation of the elm trees in Kalamazoo from this disease.  I thought the disease local to our city because the city’s main ethnic population was Dutch–like much of my family.  Reasoning that the trees were Dutch, too, I figured that’s why they were susceptible to this illness.

Devastation of Dutch Elm Disease

I believe that the afternoon of that family walk I came down with pink eye.  I remember my eyes were sore and tired. As soon as we got back to Grandma’s, I fell asleep and Dad carried me to the car. The next morning my eyes wouldn’t open and I couldn’t go to my first grade class.  Instead, my mother had to bathe my eyes with a solution several times a day for a week.

Over the years, we took walks after many dinners, and considering the strange ways of memory, I can’t be certain that my pink eye occurred on the same day I saw the trees dying, but it feels that way to me.

Did my eyes really suffer after seeing so many trees in distress?  Or did I only associate the two events later?

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12-16-13

Apparently, Dutch Elm disease is an international tree disease, which began in Europe in or before 1910. It had spread to Detroit by 1950 and to Chicago by 1960. Kalamazoo is halfway between Detroit and Chicago, so it makes sense that around 1960 or 1961, Kalamazoo’s trees were already looking ravaged.

In the past year I have been thinking more and more about the ways of memory. When I wrote this, I thought it probable that I got pink eye the same day I first noticed the diseased trees. But now I am leaning toward the view that I only associated these events in my mind. Do you have any memories you suspect might be two separate memories which have become “glued” together?

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Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Essay, Memoir, Memoir writing theory, Nonfiction, Writing

One Day in May

Not too many months before it happened, my husband and I had opened a small accessory and brief case store on South Street in downtown Kalamazoo.  He worked a job selling dictation equipment while I ran the store.  The store was long and narrow, with scarves and jewelry at the front, near the plate-glass window and glass door, the goods “hardening” to brief cases and attaché cases at the back of the store.  This rental space included a full, remodeled basement where I kept my desk.

On May 13, 1980, I was at the store with another woman who I will call Helen, for privacy’s sake.  When I heard on the radio that a tornado was traveling toward us along the old highway my first thought was for my husband who was driving back along that road from a call to customers located in South Haven.

Then the siren sounded.  I had lived through numerous tornado watches and warnings in my life.  Making the trip to the basement several times a year in the spring and summer was common enough.  Nevertheless, since I was right downtown, the siren from the National Armory sounded much closer, more threatening, than at home.  The winds outside had picked up to a roar.

Helen and I ran downstairs; as we took the steps two at a time, I heard the glass door banging alarmingly and because I didn’t want it to shatter and ruin my window display, I darted back up to lock the front door, while Helen screamed at me to get back downstairs.

Our store was just down the block from Bronson Park.  The park was built in the old-fashioned town square style.  Every outdoor event of consequence was held there.  I had attended art fairs, concerts, peace rallies, lectures, and art classes under its oak trees.  As we walked through the park on Christmas eves, the lights reflected off the icy outlines of the trees, forming a magical canopy.

I heard the sound of the tornado slamming the park as I ran back downstairs.

The wind and noise abated quickly.  Helen and I gingerly climbed the stairs and looked around.  Other than a crack in the glass, and a broken sign, we had no damage.   I think I was in shock because I remember being drawn to walk to the park, more than considering much else.  I still didn’t know that my husband was all right.

I walked alone to the park and stood at the corner of South and Rose staring across the street at the park.  Centuries old oak trees were leaning every which way like so many pickup sticks.  A few of them looked like macabre divining rods.

Photo by Amy Jastrzembski

Photo by Amy Jastrzembski

I can’t say the destruction of those trees truly entered the back recesses of my brain until weeks later, when most of the downtown cleanup had been accomplished and I saw the park denuded of its beauty.  Twenty-six oak trees had been downed or crippled.  One of those trees had sheltered Abraham Lincoln during an anti-slavery speech in 1856.

Kalamazoo Gazette photo

Kalamazoo Gazette photo

The tornado effectively bombed Kalamazoo that day.  As you can see from the photo above, the entire back wall of Gilmore’s department store ripped off, leaving an effect like a five story doll house, as if you could put your hand in back and set up the shoppers and merchandise in miniature.   But the trees, as I see them in my memory, are the most lasting image for me.

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Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Essay, Memoir, Nonfiction, Photographs, Writing

Sleeping Over the Bomb Shelter

When I was little, my father built a nuclear fallout shelter in the basement room which had been his workshop.  My house was the only one I knew of with a Bomb Shelter, which marked us as somehow . . . um, special.

On Monday I posted about my research on birthday parties.  We held them in our yard, our living room, and our basement.  Once we had a Bomb Shelter downstairs, that was the end of our basement parties.  For one thing, my parents didn’t want everybody knowing there was a shelter down there.  How well would that work if the Bomb hit and we ran down there and were stampeded by the entire neighborhood seeking shelter?

After the bomb shelter entered my house, a dark creepy feeling settled downstairs, under our feet.  When I had to go down there for something, I tried to avoid even glancing at the ominous looking door.

United_States_Fallout_Shelter_Sign.svg

However, once I started researching these shelters, I discovered that it was a more common occurrence than I could have imagined.  Elaine Tyler May’s Homeward Bound details “Grandma’s Pantry,” the home bomb shelter.  Jean Wood Fuller, of the Federal Civil Defense Administration, enlisted “the help of the National Grocer’s Association, several pharmaceutical houses, and the American National Dietetic Association, [and] Fuller drew up guidelines for withstanding a nuclear holocaust.”  May makes the case that the marketing efforts were directed toward homemakers, who were considered to be exclusively women.

While May’s theory is an interesting intellectual exercise and probably has a lot of merit to it, I will say that in my house, it was my father whose idea it was to build the shelter.  Let’s face it:  construction was considered to be a manly task.

The photo on the cover of May’s book depicts a serious-looking family inside their own home bomb shelter.  I don’t remember ours looking so bright (well-lit) or so well-stocked.51L5tDApNNL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_

Lucky for me, I have the actual list of supplies which my mother wrote and the specifications my father used for building it.  These details will be incorporated into my book.

Here is a photo of an ideal home bomb shelter.  Ours was a double walled cement block room without any “built-ins.”300px-Fallout_shelter_photo

My parents planned everything very carefully.  There is very little evidence that they were any more paranoid than anybody else during the Cold War.  But Dad was certainly proactive.

Today my father says he remembers building it to keep his family safe, but he can’t believe how naïve he was to think it would actually work to protect us or that we would have enough safe air and provisions to last for any length of time.

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Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Research and prep for writing

Deviation and Beauty

The red maple up past the McKinley Elementary School playground on Emerson Street, in Kalamazoo, Michigan, is etched on the backdrop of my mind like a permanent screen saver.  A symmetrical outline, the tree turned crimson every October for exactly one month.

As a kindergartener looking up the street from my Grandma’s side yard, the tree represented perfection to me.  The first time I noticed it was probably when I was pushed in my stroller up the street and someone, my mother or grandmother, gave me a red leaf from the ground.

Later, Grandma ironed one under wax paper for me to keep.

When my mother worked at Checker Motors and I entered McKinley school in the morning kindergarten, I stayed with my grandparents during the days.  I used to gather leaves from under the tree by myself.  Each leaf, shaped like a small hand, matched my own as I picked it up and placed it in my palm.

When I looked up into the leaves, the light sparkled, dappling my view of the world around me.

Red trees stir me with their deviation from the norm, their place in the firmament of “all things counter, original, spare, strange” (Pied BeautyGerard Manley Hopkins)  Like the passion of tender new peony shoots against a backdrop of green bushes, the red tree blazes against greenery, blue sky, or dreary human-drawn landscape.

***

On a related note, I am wondering if I am obsessed with trees.  I’ve written about the palo verde, the elm, the plum, and more.  If I didn’t have this paper trail of evidence leading me to the source of my obsession, I couldn’t have told you that this is one of my writing topics.  I recognize my obsession with writing about family and my childhood, but I didn’t see the trees until I looked back.

In her seminal book Writing Down the BonesNatalie Goldberg suggests:

Writers end up writing about their obsessions.  Things that haunt them; things they can’t forget; stories they carry in their bodies waiting to be leased.

She insists that obsessions have power.  “Harness that power,” she urges.

What are your writing obsessions?  If you look back at what you have written, can you identify an obsession you didn’t realize you had?

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Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Memoir writing theory

Dutch-American Elms

On a Sunday afternoon, my parents and I visited my grandparents who lived in the same house where my mother grew up. We ate our dinner at 2PM and then, predictably, all the women and my dad wanted to go for a walk.  Grandpa was determined to watch the game on TV, so I’m fairly sure that Dad felt a responsibility to stay with Grandpa and missed the exercise.

We walked all the way uptown, as my grandmother called it, through neighborhood after neighborhood of modest two-story homes built in the late 1800s and early 1900s. A parade of old trees shadowed the sidewalks, which were blanketed by their colored, speckled, and spotted leaves.The garlands of branches overhead, the twinkling of sunlight in patches through those branches, and the crunchy path under our feet promised to launch me into a magical world.

Then I noticed that some of the trees, the ones with the symmetrical leaves, not the knobby turkeys of the oaks and maples, wilted drastically.  The leaves were pale, odd-looking, not merely turning their customary autumn yellow.

I asked why the trees were so thirsty.  Grandma looked sad.  I’d never seen her sad before.  Her Mrs. Claus face always beamed at me.  Mom and Aunt Alice mirrored her unhappy expression.  Grandma said that the trees had gotten the new plague, Dutch Elm Disease.

In the weeks to follow, I remember hearing a lot of talk about the devastation of the elm trees in Kalamazoo from this disease.  I thought the disease local to our city because the city’s main ethnic population was Dutch–like much of my family.  Reasoning that the trees were Dutch, too, I figured that’s why they were susceptible to this illness.

Devastation of Dutch Elm Disease

I believe that the afternoon of that family walk I came down with pink eye.  I remember my eyes were sore and tired. As soon as we got back to Grandma’s, I fell asleep and Dad carried me to the car. The next morning my eyes wouldn’t open and I couldn’t go to my first grade class.  Instead, my mother had to bathe my eyes with a solution several times a day for a week.

Over the years, we took walks after many dinners, and considering the strange ways of memory, I can’t be certain that my pink eye occurred on the same day I saw the trees dying, but it feels that way to me.

Did my eyes really suffer after seeing so many trees in distress?  Or did I only associate the two events later?

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Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Memoir