Tag Archives: nostalgia

Pet cemetery. No horror.

 

Gypsy entered our lives in the early 1970s, showing up in the backyard with a waddle in her walk and a defiant look in her yellow eyes. We voted on what to name her, with my father scrawling Owl on the paper I passed out to him, and it wasn’t inappropriate, given that steady, appraising gaze, but Gypsy prevailed – fitting for the tortoiseshell cat who roamed into the yard carrying nothing but her prenatal baggage, clearly the reason someone had dumped her on the road next to our house.

The kittens came a few weeks later, five of them, two orange, two black, and one multi-colored like her mother. Andi and I named them: OJ and Pumpkin, for obvious reasons, JT and Panda for the tuxedo-clad urchins and Crackers for the tortoiseshell. They would be only the first in a feline clan that would multiply exponentially over the next few years.

She wasn’t our first cat. We’d had many over the years, including Smoky, who can be seen in my first birthday photos, swishing a tail away from my clumsy baby fists. His name had something to do with the floor furnace in our first house and a singed tail. Then came Jimmy Durante, a rather ugly looking white cat whose appearance degenerated when he contracted a mouth tumor. We were in the Shannock house by then, and my father called Ray Richards, the police chief, who pulled out his service revolver and smoked a hole in Jimmy Durante’s peach-pit-sized head.

I don’t know who named him after the Cyrano de Bergerac of vaudeville, but Blackjack got his name from Andi, a reference to Jackie Kennedy Onassis’s father, John V. “Black Jack” Bouvier, a socialite and rake so called because of his perpetual tan. Andi was fascinated with celebrities and kept a scrapbook of Marilyn Monroe, Jackie O, and Natalie Wood, who she claimed I resembled. In the era before Wikipedia, she had a deep knowledge of the most arcane cultural references, gathered from reading Photoplay magazine and movie-star biographies.

In a similar way she came up with an outrageous name for the deformed little kitten who showed up at my grandmother’s house in Tug Hollow one day. This little girl also had been dumped and had spent some time in the wild. One eye was crusted over and infected, and she walked with a hitch in her gait, as though she’d never recovered from a kick. We took her in, of course, and as she bumped into table legs and walls we realized she was at least partially blind.

In a moment of perversity, Andi named her Nadia Comaneci, after the graceful athletic powerhouse from Romania dominating the Olympics that summer of 1976. “Nadia” stuck, but the kitten lived only a year or two before succumbing to her various handicaps.

When it came to pet naming, I had neither the imagination nor the sly humor of my sister. When my sister Mary Jane produced a white rabbit for me one Easter, I promptly named her Mary. I had also named my favorite teddy bear after my glamorous older sister.

Grown up, I would have many felines of my own – Swifty, named by someone else; Perry, a name put to a later and much more important use; Gloria, for the 1985 hurricane; and, perhaps the finest of all, Dauber, who came with that awkward name from the animal shelter, where he stuck his head out of a cage and demanded to be rescued.

My mother, after years of Andi’s wicked humor, rebelled after we left home by naming every cat she ever had Kitty. Going to the vet and having to explain that Kitty was the particular, not the general, name grew tiresome, but my mother would not budge. When she passed away we took in the last Kitty and renamed her Misty, but it never stuck; my mother was right, she was Kitty, and now at the vet I would have to rack my brain for the name I’d told them was hers but never used.

Our late cats reside now in eternal rest in the northwest corner of the Shannock property, in a cemetery my father created under the pines, without the frightening connotations of a Stephen King novel. Each one grew into its name and left behind an indelible impression, and if I close my eyes I can remember their particular faces, their warm fur, and their stubborn determination to survive.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Your party is on the line

 

In the old farmhouse where I grew up, our most sophisticated form of communication was a black rotary telephone. For a while, it was on a party line, meaning that one ring (say, three short notes) meant the call was for us, and another (two long) denoted one for our neighbors across the street. This could not have been the most efficient arrangement, given that the phone was vital to my father’s sawmill business and at any one time teenage girls lived in the house.

My mother served as my father’s bookkeeper and secretary, which meant that she fielded most of the calls. If an incoming call was deemed of low import, she would take a message, but if it were vital, she would put the phone down (no ability to put someone on hold, so the receiver would pick up the various sounds of the kitchen – the washing machine rumbling, the iron hissing), walk to the back door, and bellow, “YOO-HOO! Armstrong’s on the phone!”

The sound would travel across the septic tank, over her garden, into the maelstrom of activity at the mill, where it had to compete with the whining saw, the flap-flap of the shingle mill, the roar of the motor, the thud of logs rolling off a truck. From there it would reach into my father’s broad but not especially keen ears. He would raise his hand to signal a halt to activity, then begin his long stride back to the house.

“Yoo-hoo” never failed. Though not an especially loud person, my mother had taught first grade, and she knew how to get attention when she needed to. “Yoo-hoo” also was employed on the rare occasions when my father didn’t arrive for supper at the appointed time of 5 o’clock sharp. Usually this was because a visitor out at the mill was chewing his ear, as he would say. Then she would walk to the back door and yell, “YOO-HOO! Your supper’s getting cold!”

If, on the other hand, some urgent piece of business required an outgoing call, my father would lope into the kitchen, sawdust and diesel fumes trailing in his wake, and say to my mother, “Get Baker on the phone.” (He referred to most of his friends by their last names.) My mother would immediately drop whatever she’d been doing, sit down at the hulking metal desk in the kitchen corner, and pop open the metal address book looking for Dick Baker’s number. She would dial the appointed digits and, when Baker or whoever it was answered, say in an apologetic rush, “Oh, oh, hold a minute, here’s Warren,” and my father would pick up the receiver.

He never said hello, but always started with “Yeah,” as though returning to an interrupted conversation. “Yeah,” he would say, “I got those oak planks you wanted.” (When I was a grown, married woman, he would occasionally call me up himself and start with, “Yeah, this is the old man.”)

All of these phone calls, whether incoming or outgoing, he took standing up, receiver to his left ear, his voice projecting toward the window, as though the listener hovered there on the porch. Although he, too, was not an especially loud person, on the phone his voice boomed, until the conversation wound down and he mumbled a sign-off like “All right, see you later.” Then he would leave the house, through the sinkroom and backroom, putting his hat back on his head.

For now, the phone line was dead, until one of our friends called to “tie it up,” as my mother would say (turning on the kitchen timer), or until it my father returned with another urgent request for his wife.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Days that persist in invisible ink

 

These are the ghost days.

You know them, if you don’t call them that. They are the days that are so layered with the past it’s hard to see that you’re living in the present. But they aren’t national holidays or official anniversaries.

They are personal. We call them ghosts because the people they honor are gone.

My parents’ anniversary was last week, for example. They were married on July 12, 1947. In a black and white snapshot, there’s my father, in his fedora hat and suit, and my mother in a blue suit and a hat with a floppy flower. Seventy-one years ago – of course, they are both dead, so there’s no one to send an anniversary card to.

July is full of these dates. My father’s birthday was July 16 – he would be 95. My sister Mary Jane, and my father-in-law, were both born on July 2. Their birthdays pass with a Facebook post of remembrance, maybe. But there are no gifts to purchase, no candles to blow out, no song to sing.

It’s nice that we can mark these days on social media, but Facebook also makes no distinction between the trivial and the elemental. Its algorithms ask me to celebrate friendships with casual acquaintances, while making no note of other, deeper days to remember.

I imagine ghost dates written on a calendar in fading pencil, so only those who know their significance can read them. And when the last person who remembers is gone, the ink will fade away forever.

The one place we can visualize this impermancy is the beach. No sooner do we make footprints in the sand than a wave comes along – first, to soften the impression, then to erase it altogether.

Yet as we walk along the shore, we still look back reflexively, as though to make sure our footprints are still there. Some even make grand castles in the sand, a universal human metaphor for the folly of big dreams.

These dates are like that: long-ago footprints on the palimpsest of sand. From the Latin palimpsestos, “rubbed again,” palimpsest means a medium on which original text has been erased to make way for new.

I like that “rubbed again” (some dictionaries have it as  “scraped”), because it evokes not only the vigorous action of an eraser turning marks into dust, but the irritation it causes to the paper. Think of a child erasing a test answer until a hole appears on the page. Now imagine such a vigorous erasure on our skin, and the pain each time a date has to be scrubbed off forever.

The “again” also implies the repetitive nature of change and grief. How many times do occasions vanish from our lives, and how long does it take our mind to forget them? The answer, of course, is that dates may be erased but the mind imagines them still there. So we rub, and rub again, trying to retrain the heart, to stop squinting at our emotional calendars, to cease looking back at our own footprints.

Ultimately, ghost dates may make us sad, but they are also testimony to the human spirit. Each June 30 I remember my grandmother. Born in 1903, died in 1994, she was a woman of another century, gone 24 years now. Yet in my heart her boundless affection lives on. Written in permanent marker, my memories of her attest to the power of love, to the persistence of the intangible.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

All the springs that came before

 

I bought four peonies last weekend. I had forgotten how they smelled: rich, aromatic, but not as cloying as a rose.

When my mother was in her 90s, I brought her outside one day. We were headed to the doctor’s. Before she would get in the car she thrust her head into the lilac bush and breathed deeply.

She couldn’t really see those lavender blooms, but she could smell them, and they must have carried for her the rich association of all the springs she had lived before.  

Peonies, of course, remind me of her, because she grew them – pink and white – in the perennial garden outside the kitchen windows. Peonies bloomed first, then the phlox. I loved all of her flowers, the day lilies next to the clothesline, the borders of jonquils and tulips, the garden full of dahlias, gladiolus, and zinnias.

There were few weeks in the spring and summer when we didn’t have flowers for cutting.

The forsythia came first, clipped and brought inside to force into bloom. Then the daffodils bobbing their happy faces. May was lilac time, which always carried with it a twinge of melancholy, because they always flowered the weekend we visited the graves for Memorial Day.

By June, the stone wall was covered in rambling red roses, ready for one of my mother’s milk glass vases. She had a container for every bouquet: Small brown baked-bean jars for the short stems of marigolds; a tall glass covered in a wheat design for taller stalks like pussywillows or the leggy glads; narrow bud vases for a single rose.

Not all of her flowers were for picking. ‘Heavenly blue’ morning glories climbed the trellis on the side porch. Petunias, bought as seedlings, filled out the corner by the propane gas tank. The ubiquitous yucca – that native Western flower that dug into our sandy soil and refused to let go – sent up white spikes that would prick you if you weren’t careful.

By late summer her cutting garden would be a riot of oranges, reds, and yellows. I loved the zinnias best, and kept a vase of them on the desk in my bedroom. On the years when she grew dahlias, we enjoyed them through September, their floppy stems tied to stakes by strips of old pantyhose.

Each season is stamped with the memories of the years that came before. Not matter how old you are, there is really only one spring, one summer, one winter, and one fall. Each time a season returns, we experience our memories of what it means. This is what T.S. Eliot meant when he called April the “cruelest month.”

When my mother inhaled the lilac’s scent, what associations did it evoke for her? Did she remember growing up on the Crandall Homestead, where lilacs abundant with blooms can be seen in old snapshots? Or did she inhale the same melancholy memories as I did?

Few of my mother’s flowers have survived. The yard of the Shannock house is overgrown with Japanese knotweed, briars, and wildflowers. Only the stubborn yucca continues to send up its white spikes, impervious to the construction around it.

But the landscape survives in my memory. I know where the peonies once bloomed, the roses rambled, the morning glories climbed. I can still see the shapes of my mother’s gardens – the circle of phlox, the hill where the lilies lived, the rectangular plot that held annuals and vegetables.

When I take in all those scents again, it will be memory I’m breathing in, memory of the seasons that came before.

 

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

My father, the douser, the diviner

 

My father was a douser. He could cut a V-shaped stick of willow or cherry, grasp each end in his hands, and walk the land until he found water.

He had a calling. “Electricity in the veins,” as he said. To prove it, he would stand over the septic tank and that stick would point straight down, while the muscles in his arms popped from the strain of holding it steady.

People knew this and sought him out. Old Ben James, who was more Swamp Yankee than my father, had him walk his potato farm in Wood River Junction. Others asked him to work his magic before they called the well driller.

Our own well went dry off and on after we bought the house in Shannock in 1965. That year, and the year after, one of the worst droughts in the state’s history choked off the springs that kept our dug well full. In the winter we melted snow to wash hair. In the summer we collected water in a rain barrel.

Finally, in 1971, the task could no longer be postponed. My father called the well driller. He must have walked the yard first, but I don’t recall it. I was 11 years old that fall and reading the “Little House” books of Laura Ingalls Wilder, which didn’t seem all that far from how we were living.

All of this has been on my mind because last week they tore down the corn crib. It was about ready to fall down, anyway, and we had salvaged what tools we could – the potato digger, the post-hole digger, spades and rakes and hoes, a cross-cut saw.

With the contractor’s attention turned elsewhere, the roof lay flattened atop the floorboards. I picked up a rusty metal rake and began poring over the contents. Most of what littered the floor was empty walnut shells left by squirrels, but a few artifacts remained: A brake light. A commercial license plate. A Nehi soda bottle.

Then I saw it. Stretching, I was able to hook the metal tines around one end and pull it forward.

My father’s dousing stick.

How easy it would have been to mistake this for a piece of brush. I held it to my chest, amazed I’d spotted it, grateful I could save it.

He had hung it on a hook in the old shed. Its end looked freshly sharpened.

I grabbed each end, thumbs up, the way he’d taught me. The wood trembled at my touch. I aimed its pointy end outward and began to walk.

I crossed the driveway, passed over a patch of lawn, and paused at the septic tank. But after that first vibration, nothing happened. My father had long ago given up on passing his magic to me. I didn’t have the electricity in my veins, he said.

But he was wrong about that.

I might not be able to find water. The ancient Yankee art of dousing might have died with him. But I have a different sort of power in my veins. Like his, those veins rise under my skin, blue highways on a relief map.

My father told me about other wells, other springs. Boiling springs: “There used to be one at Mame Thomas’s. She had a house over on the Mooresfield Road … up behind the barn was this boiling spring. … they used it. Fine water.” The well at Tug Hollow, where he grew up: “One year we had a drought. I’ll tell you, people from all around were coming to us for water. Used to put a trout in it [to kill bugs].”

I jotted his stories in notebooks large and small, in diaries and journals. They still give rise to sketches, and stories, and novels.

As sure as a dousing stick, I wield my pen. I pace these pages every day, looking for water, remembering my father. Like his blood in my veins, his electric voice runs from my head to my hand to the ink on the page.

No coincidence that divining is a synonym for dousing (sometimes spelled dowsing). For what are we doing when we search for water but telling the future, portending, showing the unseen? Surely a man who can reveal what lies underground has some powers of prophecy.

And what do we do when we write, but discover, guess, explore the unknown? Consider this meaning of to divine, from my old Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary: “to perceive through sympathy, or intuition; to detect; to conjecture.”

Walk the land, my father told me. Cut the branch of a willow or a cherry. Hold that stick fast and pace. And you will find the water that runs beneath, the subterranean vein, the well of creativity.

 

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Out of the past: A 14-year-old’s look at 1965

The scrapbook is standard issue – antique white cover, broad pages, tied binding. Before scrapbooking became a hobby, with special pens and supplies and adhesives, before Pinterest and Instagram, this is where a teenage girl kept her mementos. I had one myself.

But this one has been hidden away for more than 50 years. When I pull it out of the upstairs closet, I realize – and it seems impossible, given the number of times I’ve combed through this house – I’ve never seen it before.

The year is 1965. My sister Andi is 14. This is a record of one year of her life, and of one year of cultural change.

The Beatles are on the first page.

Although she had a few of their albums, Andi was not a big Beatles fan. At least, I didn’t think she was. But at age 14, the end of Grade 7, she had yet to move on to Motown. And here are the Fab Four, George Paul John and Ringo, each holding a bouquet of flowers.

Sharing that first page are advertisements for two movies – “Dr. Zhivago” and “A Patch of Blue” – and the folk duo Peter & Gordon, appearing at the Albee Theater, wherever that was.

The scrapbook is full of movie ads. I don’t know whether she got to see any of these movies – I vaguely remember my parents taking us to the drive-in: once – but Andi was fascinated by movie stars and moviemaking. “Cat Ballou.” “Ship of Fools.”

And famous people. The queen of England smiles in a garishly retouched photo. “Jackie is 36 Today,” reads the headline on an AP story about Jackie Kennedy – a widow, but not yet Mrs. Onassis – celebrating her birthday at Hyannis Port for the first time since the assassination.

Jackie and Queen Elizabeth share space with dead relatives. “Aunt Martha Dead at 102,” reads the obituary of Martha Crandall, who really was some sort of relation to us, and who, according to the story, had been “formally recognized as Charlestown’s oldest resident about ten years ago when town officials called at her farmhouse and presented her with the Boston Post goldtop cane emblematic of the honor.”

I wonder what Aunt Martha would think to know that my Aunt Ruth, also a Crandall, is very much alive at 106.

There’s my cousin Frank, with a flat-top crew cut, who “was presented the Outstanding Achievement Award at a special assembly in Euless Junior High School recently.” Frank, who lived in Texas briefly while his father worked for Cottrell, recently released his fourth book, on global warming, at the Haversham in Westerly. The press, alas, did not cover this most recent achievement – more of a comment on the state of newspapers than on my impressive cousin.

She took care to clip out an end-of-year story, “Charlestown is Center of Newsy Events During 1965,” by the Westerly Sun’s Leo Dotolo. Among the highlights were an attempt to stop trailers from parking at the beach (“Members of the Rhode Island Beach Buggy Association were up in arms over the regulation,” Dotolo reports), angst about the future of the Naval Auxiliary Landing Field, and a drought that brought “conditions … as bad as they have been in 70 years.”

Her interest in true crime narratives is already evident here, with a picture of Lee Harvey Oswald and another AP story about two missing brothers, ages 17 and 3, on Mt. Katahdin. Their mother feared they had been kidnapped.

There are pages devoted to personal milestones. The year we lived at Watchapay, a farm on Old Mill Road, complete with snapshots. My sister Mary Jane’s wedding, with two souvenir napkins and Andi’s handwritten inscription: “Dearly Beloved … The marriage of my sister, Mary Jane, to Joseph Tennis Charland, Jr. Nov. 20, 1965.”

Andi saved Christmas cards, magazine covers, and clippings from catalogs. There’s an icy glass of Coca-Cola, women with mod bangs, pictures of horses.

As the pages mount, the news becomes more serious. The world is changing and so is my sister.

She has headed one page “THE VIETNAM CRISIS,” with clippings about bombers and missiles and mortar attacks. Photo after photo appears of men enlisting in the military or being sent to war. And these were only the ones she knew.

And there is the eerily prophetic clipping, “Youth, 18, Charged After 2-Car Crash,” about an

young man from Exeter charged with driving to endanger after striking another car and seriously injuring its occupants. The clip and the subsequent court appearance are presented without comment.

There’s a lot of real estate between that first page, of the Beatles in their mod haircuts, until those later pages filled with scared soldiers and bombing campaigns and reckless youths. The context of the time cannot be removed from the personal story chronicled here. Vietnam leached its way into everything. Andi and Mary Jane’s classmates were headed off to war, trying to avoid the draft, and feeling the pressure to live while they could. Mary Jane’s estranged husband had served a stint in the Air Force. The driver who killed her, two years later, was a Marine veteran of the war; the man who was in love with her had already served two tours of duty. When he learned of her death, he volunteered for a third mission, not caring whether he lived or died.

Is it any wonder these young women were quitting school to get married? And these young men were driving down the back roads of Chariho as though chased by the devil himself?

Andi started out the year clipping pictures of a hunky man with a pack of Pall-Malls, girls in knee-high skirts, the Four Seasons. Before the year was out, she could no longer look away from the headlines. And that’s probably why she kept this scrapbook tucked away in the eaves of an upstairs closet, between the folds of her bridesmaid’s dress and the wedding gown train of the sister who would not make it out of the decade.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The lost shoes

 

Of course, these aren’t the original steps. The wood has rotted and been replaced a few times since 1965. But the space they occupy, the purpose they serve, and the sounds they make are all the same.

There must have been a first time I walked up those steep wood steps to the side porch and entered the house. I don’t remember it.

I do recall sitting on them one day in the hot summer of ’66, holding a new Barbie doll, a gift from my Aunt Dot. My mother thought six was a little young to own a Barbie, but she would have to pry the statuesque 9-1/2-inch figure from my hands if she thought I would give her up.

She was bubble-head Barbie, blonde, and she came with a red one-piece bathing suit and high heels. After many years of taking her head on and off, I split open her chin, so my sister christened her Cleft-Chin Barbie, which we shortened to Cleftie. It stuck.

But her facial deformity was far in the future. What immediately concerned me were those high heels.

They were white plastic, open-toed, spike-heeled slides, standard issue for Barbie at the time. And somehow I managed to drop them between the steps and porch floor.

Short of taking an ax to the steps, the shoes were beyond retrieval. So before she ever lost her smooth chin, before her hard rubber legs grew grungy, Barbie became barefoot – perpetually on tip-toe. No wonder, in my play, she would evolve into the beleaguered mother of a passel of castoff Barbies, Kens, Midges, Skippers and Scooters.

I’m sure other treasures disappeared behind the porch steps over the years. I would sit on those steps and eat my mother’s Big Boy tomatoes on a Popsicle stick like they were candy, or whole cucumbers doused in salt. We spit watermelon seeds from the top step.

On the day of my grandfather’s funeral, I stood there and announced importantly that I didn’t know why Howard – my grandmother’s longtime companion – had showed up, repeating something I’d overheard from the adults. “Uh, how’s school?” my normally quiet uncle asked.

When it rained, my father stood on the porch looking out toward the dirt driveway we shared with a  neighbor, beyond to a row of brush and the Smiths’ hay field. “Send her down, David,” he would say.

Years later, when he was in his 80s and still manning that lookout on the porch every rainy day, I asked him what he meant. I had an idea it had something to do with David and Goliath.

“I don’t know,” he confessed. “It’s just something my father used to say.”

For a while, we had an old Cleopatra couch on the side porch where I would lounge on muggy summer days, reading books that my mother said were “too old” for a sixth-grader – novels like “Marcy Grows Up” and “Fifteen,” about girls attending proms and waiting for their first kiss.

The steps took us in and out of the house. Clomp, clomp, clomp, down the porch steps; clomp, clomp, clomp, back up.

Returning home, my mother would grab the railing with one hand and, in the other, carry the pillow she sat on when she drove. Her hair would be freshly styled from a visit to a beauty parlor owned by Lois or Maxine or Brenda.

My grandmother, with her perpetual dowager’s hump, would struggle up the steep steps, balancing a sheet cake for someone’s birthday.

Those steps took us to places we shouldn’t have been going. My sister Mary Jane slipped down the porch steps one December night, and she never came back. A horn honked and my sister Andi slammed out of the house, across the porch and down the steps, to the older man waiting for her in the driveway. She came back, but with something missing from her eyes.

The stairs took me out in my Dr. Scholl’s sandals – clomp, clomp, clomp – and my platform shoes – clonk, clonk, clonk – and my Jox sneakers (without a sound). Coming home after curfew, I would slip back up them as quietly as I could, but once one child has been lost her parents will never sleep soundly again.

And all the while, those white Barbie sandals lay underneath the steps. They were there when I came home from college, and when I brought my husband-to-be home to meet my parents, and when my own boys, daredevils as they were, took turns jumping off the top step into the dirt.

So far as I know, they are still there, tiny artifacts of a childhood long gone. When the contractor rips out the steps, I wonder what he’ll say when I ask for an hour to sift in the dirt for a lost pair of Barbie doll shoes.

 

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized