Tag Archives: vintage American culture

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.

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

Magical Bowls

A while ago I warned you that I felt inspired by Dawn Raffel’s memoir and might write about the “secret life” of objects I hold dear (or in fear). Here’s the first one that I wanted to explore.

I only now have realized that the four snack bowls, speckled like the linoleum floor in my childhood kitchen, are melamine, not plastic. Maybe that’s why they are at least fifty years old and still have their little handles intact, although cracked.

When my parents moved out of their winter condo south of Tucson a few years ago, they decided to get rid of the majority of their furnishings, rather than cart them back to Kalamazoo. They urged us to take what we could of the wall art, furniture, and Dad’s craft pieces. My mom was amused when I grabbed the stack of dull brown bowls. “What do you want those for?” I wasn’t sure, but I knew I wanted them.

As long as I could remember, we had eaten Be-Mo potato chips, as well as vanilla ice cream and Hershey’s syrup whipped into milkshake consistency, from those bowls. When Mom kept out our hollowed tree branch bowl of nuts long after Christmas, we filled the snack bowls with smooth pecans and bumpy walnuts that gave way to cracked shell fragments.

The bowls were out at parties, but not for individual snacking. Mom filled them with her homemade Chex Mix and placed them around the living room. Her makeup and bouffant hair were already complete, a frilly half-apron tied around her waist, as she spread out party food, paper plates, and napkins. I placed the spoons and forks in angled lines. Lamplight and low music from the hi-fi set the stage.

As he beamed and told me silly jokes, Dad set up a temporary bar with highball and Old Fashioned glasses, cherries, olives, and a bucket of steaming ice. The anticipation of the party made a team of my parents and me, a protective shield against arguing and my father’s sudden mood changes.

At twelve, I was always hungry; my mother said I had a bottomless pit. When we counted up our daily calories in 7th-grade science class, I averaged 10,000/day. My parents were thin people and not big eaters, so meals were just what we needed for nutrition, no more. To fill up my cranky stomach, I would munch cooking walnuts and chocolate chips from a bowl I’d hidden under my bed.

I wonder today what my mother thought was happening to her baking supplies. And the sugar cubes she kept on hand to serve to company that stayed for coffee. Maybe there were other shortfalls in my life that my mother didn’t notice. In my imagination, as is the way of magical objects, the bowls are always brimming with delicious munchies.

Anybody want to play along and write about the secret life of an object? If so, please post the link in the comments here!

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On another note, you all (that’s the same thing as y’all without me co-opting southern talk, or “you guys” as we used to say in Michigan) know I love family history. You probably know I have a blog called thefamilykalamazoo.com about my family history. Now I have a new–a second–blog about family history. It’s called enteringthepale.com and is about the gardener’s family history from eastern Europe.

I think this new blog, which follows our search for his ancestors, is important work on a very small scale. I am talking about finding and recording the history of Jewish family branches that were either lost or decimated during the Holocaust. In the case of the gardener’s family, we just don’t know yet what happened to anybody or who or where his family was 100, 150, 200 years ago. That’s what I will be writing about on this new blog. I’d love for you to follow. Right now we have about one follower unless you count my twitter followers.

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

Gotta Read Those Old Headlines Carefully!

My friend and professor Clare Goldfarb published a beautiful piece in Lilith that involves two of my favorite topics: memory and family history. If you recall, I reviewed her novel She Blinked here. You can read “Material Culture: The Samovar” here. I love how it focuses on an object to talk about family and history. Just gorgeous.

That would make a good writing prompt: write about a family heirloom.

I’m working on the Flash Essay course I’m taking right now, but in my research for essay #2, I found this interesting newspaper article from July 9, 1920. Look below the lake commerce article for that tiny article that begins “Seven Babies.”

When I first read this report, I took it at its word: that there were seven babies that had been killed or kidnaped.  They even clarified in the headline, although they tried to disguise it. I can just hear the argument.

“You can’t leave it so readers think these were real babies.”

“But it makes for better newspaper sales!”

“Put Kewpies in the headline!”

Grumble grumble. I’ll put it in, but in a way that fast readers won’t pay attention and will still think it’s 7 dead babies.

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Haha. Is that all this woman can write about: dolls, cats, and birds?!

Speaking as a doll collector, I can tell you that Kewpies are very popular collector items, and I think this stash of 1920 dolls would be a hit today with the right person.  You can click through the following photo to the blogger who posted about her aunt’s kewpie collection a few years ago. It’s full of cute Kewpie photos, and, yes, you can find a real baby in the mix (though not in this exact photo)!

Today is my BIG birthday. I turn 60 today. I still feel like a smidgling (my made-up word for a wee one), but there it is: 60. That’s a whole lotta numbers!

 

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Filed under #AmWriting, Dolls, Essay, Inspiration, Memoir, Research and prep for writing, Vintage American culture, Writing, Writing prompt