Thursday, July 23, 2015

ONCE UPON A TIME . . .

I am 9 1/2 years old. I’ve spent the summer with my dad while my mother went with her new boyfriend to Las Vegas to get married. When she and my new stepfather come home, my dad delivers me to a house in a town I’ve never lived in before; it is the home of my new step-grandmother, a woman I immediately adore. We three, the new little family, live upstairs in the big attic room of Grandma Randolph’s house while our house, one block east, is being wallpapered and painted. In a few weeks we move again, into what I come to know as our house.
Our house, which is rented, has big rooms, with high ceilings. My bedroom is in the front of the house, with French doors leading into it from the living room. It is bright and sunny and with the high ceilings has an open and airy feel to it. I love it from the moment I see it.

Thinking back on that house, it was only four big rooms: two bedrooms, living room, and kitchen, with a bathroom featured by a claw-foot tub; and a side small room I never discovered the reason for, but probably another little bedroom that we used as storage. There was a long back porch off the kitchen. Possibly a basement, but I don’t recall going down into a basement in that house. So, scratch the basement.
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I am 22 years old, the mother of three children. We—my husband and the three children—have just moved to a city I’ve never lived in before, though I did visit once for a couple of days. The house is rented, furnished, and it has two astounding, wonderful things about it: an automatic dishwasher and a spinet piano. We can afford beds and pots and pans and clothes; I have never believed I’d have a dishwasher and piano so soon.

That house has a basement and an upstairs, and an attached garage. My son learns to walk in that house and we put up gates to keep him from exploring stairways. The gates do little good.
In that house I watch TV while I iron, and on November 22, 1963, I see our president being assassinated. At that moment I become two people—one watching, and disbelieving, the horror of seeing someone as important as the president of our country being shot while on a campaign trip; the other person observing the children who play on the floor under my feet, keeping the cord of the iron away from interested fingers, answering the telephone when I get a call about the TV story.

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I am 36 years old. The organist at my little country church tells me a law office in the county seat has a vacancy for a legal secretary and I should apply. I go to the interview, sort of as a lark, to see what kinds of things people ask when they interview you. It is unlikely, I think, that I’ll get the job—my background is in English and French, I will soon sit the Master’s written exam for an M.A. in English Language and Literature, and I’ve been around the block enough times to recognize the value of a degree in English: You can either do anything or nothing. (Garrison Keillor is right on the money with his jokes about English majors. My mind is considering whether I’ll be better off working at McDonald’s.)

So I go to the interview, trot out my credentials, which look pretty anemic lying there on the polished desk of the new junior lawyer. Experience? (Rearing children, reading, cooking, doing laundry, driving like a madwoman to get to class on time 30 miles from my home . . . .) Can I type? (Wow, something I can do!)

What really got me the job was the fact that I could spell. They didn’t know that for certain, but they assumed I could if I was practically a Master of English. (It’s true, I could, and can, spell well.)
It was the first “real” job I’d ever held. And I managed it for another 30 years.

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I often hear people say, “In another life”—meaning, not reincarnation, but who the person was at, say, age 9 or 22 or 36. Do we really remember being that person? Or do we remember things we did? People we knew? Events that happened (perhaps)? (Or did they?)
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So much advice is written today about how to keep our memory sharp; how to increase memory (as if we were a computer and could add another 64 Mb in a little chip). How to keep from losing memory (put it in a little bag and tie it to our belt? Put it in our safe deposit box at the bank? Stick it in a box and put on a good tight label telling what it is, and add the date and our initials?).

I’m all for memories. But sometimes, it seems to me, too much emphasis is put on what we remember. Why should I remember every street address and telephone number where I lived during the years from, say, birth to age 20? (An impossible task—I moved 20 times in 17 years.) Or how to make white bread without a recipe? Or who wrote that book I used to read every single year? Or what cupboard holds the cereal bowls?

Maybe it’s about what is personal to me . . . to you.
I remember Grandma Randolph, who treated me like the little 9-year-old girl she never had, always had time to talk to me, even though she worked away from home, and who helped my mother alter the new dresses that didn’t fit my summer-plump body.

I remember people who were kind to me when my mother died—Aunt Dessie, Mom’s oldest sister, took me, her 15-year-old niece, to her favorite dress shop and bought me a tweed suit and silky blouse to wear to the funeral. I wore those lovely clothes for years and years. The suit was a color I now know as mauve, with little flecks of blue and grey. I think Aunt Dessie also bought me a pair of white gloves. (All my clothes had been destroyed in our house fire six months before.)

I remember going into surgery in Indianapolis, nearly three hours from my home, not knowing anyone in that vast hospital except the eight people—family and friends and clergy—who had come to be with me and pray for my wellbeing.

I remember losing a large measure of my innocence when someone shot and killed our young president.
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Today we celebrate our memories: personal ones, collective family memories; shared and unshared. Good memories, that we're happy to take out and stroke because they make us remember good times. Bad memories, yes, I celebrate those; they tell us something about who we are, how we coped (or didn't), what we might have learned about ourselves, about life, and living.

We need our memories: They are the stories we tell—to ourselves and to each other—and thereby connect us together.



4 comments:

  1. I loved this post. I was in study hall when JFK was shot, asleep when Bobby was (that was the day that changed me forever). I'm glad you had Grandma Randolph and Aunt Dessie.

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  2. Yes, they were real gifts in my young life. Thanks for your kind thoughts, Liz. You're one of my current gifts.

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  3. Hope I can oblige, Dori. Thanks for asking!

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