Mom, Archivist, Devotee

For years now, I’ve been documenting Caroline’s life so she can read about her childhood when she gets older. It started with a baby book, which went up to age six. I was pretty faithful about filling in the many blanks, but somewhere in the house, there’s a plastic baggie full of baby teeth that still need to be taped inside. Baby teeth are the height of creepiness and sentimental value, am I right?  

When she entered school, I started storing her ephemera in file folder boxes – artwork, Christmas concert programs, report cards, photos. This year, however, was different. She finished sixth grade, partly remote, partly in person, fully indifferent, and all she got was this lousy t-shirt. But seriously, there were only two keepsake items: a dance recital program and a certificate marking her confirmation at church. Soon, I’ll drop her vaccination card in the folder and call it a year.

Not long ago, there were times when I felt overwhelmed by the sheer volume of “artwork” coming home from school and church. I tried not to feel guilty as I buried papers in the recycle bin, hoping their absence would go unremarked. But today, with zero artwork and not a poem about poop (or any other topic) in sight, I feel a bit let down.

I keep these records with an eye to the future, imagining looking through the file boxes together someday, laughing at the letters she wrote us begging for a cat, cooing at the sweet little handprint turkeys.

FYI, handprint art is a genre unto itself. Preschool teachers have handprint craft ideas up their sleeves for every occasion, Juneteenth and Tax Day included.

Alas, we are way beyond the era of handprint art, but grimy fingerprints on phone and iPad screens remain. While I’m trying to wean myself from writing too much about Caroline these days – she deserves the chance to tell her own stories – I will continue to document her days, as my mom documented mine.

A couple years ago, my parents cleaned out their attic and brought me a wicker trunk and large plastic tote filled with my life – yearbooks, artwork, beloved toys, and more. I don’t know what to do with it, but I see it as a symbol of Mom’s pride in me. It represents what she thought I’d want to remember – the poems I wrote, the pom-pons I shook, the proof that once upon a time I was a Sparta High School mathlete.

Because of this special kind of mother-love, I was struck by a passage in Michelle Zauner’s book Crying in H Mart when she comes across the ephemera of her childhood her mother had kept: “She was my champion, she was my archive. She had taken the utmost care to preserve the evidence of my existence and growth, capturing me in images, saving all my documents and possessions. She had all knowledge of my being memorized. The time I was born, my unborn cravings, the first book I read” (223).

The author’s mother had died, sadly, but this collection of childhood memorabilia would serve as a sort of identity guide in her adulthood: “Now it was up to me to make sense of myself, aided by the signs she left behind.”    

Here’s the zinger sentence: “She observed me with unparalleled interest, inexhaustible devotion” (223). Yes, I know something of that devotion, and I acknowledge how very blessed I am.

Next school year, I hope for band concerts and photos with full facial nudity (that is, no masks), but whatever the future brings, I’ll be standing by with my file boxes ready to archive her one wild and precious life.

-Em : )

Creatures and Other Comforts

This past year has shown me that I need creatures. While Charlie Parker, feline, doesn’t require as much attention as our dog did, he requires a lot of presence (and belly rubs). Wherever we gather, he is in the midst. When Phil and I are in the living room and Caroline is in her bedroom, he sits equidistant from us. Maybe it’s a magnetic force. Maybe it’s love.

Creatures, wild and tame, have meant a lot to me during the pandemic. Last fall, after a long stretch of staying close to home, we ventured to Arizona. The desert landscape was magical, and even the freezing hotel pool was a high point. However, the most amazing part of that weekend for me was meeting a hawk.

The hawk’s job was to deter pesky birds from bothering people who were dining on the patio. I was in awe of this majestic bird, so after we ate, I went over to talk to his handler. The bird towered over me with piercing yellow-green eyes and a beak that could take my finger off. The curved talons gripping his handler’s glove unnerved me. Then the handler asked, “Would you like to pet him?” Honestly, the thought of petting an apex predator hadn’t crossed my mind.

But okay.

I reached out slowly and smoothed his chest feathers with the back of my hand thinking only please don’t hurt me. I was awed and relieved that he ignored me.

Throughout the winter, we took note of the creatures outside. Birds and squirrels, rabbits and stray cats, all made their way through our yard in the course of their quest for survival. Early in the year, I started leaving birdseed for the squirrels and cardinals right outside the window, prime space for wildlife viewing. Charlie da Cat and I loved watching the squirrels grow fatter day after day. On the bitterest days of February, we watched a rabbit crouch under our deck, the wind shivering its fur.

When it gradually warmed into spring, I let the birdseed bowl run dry. The squirrels found other ways to survive, and the shivering rabbit gave birth to a brood that quickly learned to mooch from Phil’s garden full of Chinese cabbage and radishes.

Finally, this spring we headed to Florida for a couple days of warm sunshine. On our last morning at the beach, we came upon the most alluring creature. A glassy blue blob shaped sort of like a Chinese dumpling. Phil saw it first as it hung out on the wet sand, just out of the tides’ reach. “Should we help it back into the water?” he said. As the creature’s pointy end seemed to probe blindly at the sand, I nudged it with the toe of my sandal into the next wave.  

Later I learned that my right foot had been thisclose to a world of hurt. A quick internet search revealed the blue blob was likely a Portuguese Man o’ War, an animal with a painfully venomous sting.

This creature, I see now, signifies the polar opposite of comforting. Still, I’ve studied its picture on my phone many times since returning from Florida, awed by its pearly-blue surface and mysterious blue blobs lurking underneath.

In times like these, perhaps amazement passes for comfort — the comfort of knowing there’s still a big world out there and we’ll get back to exploring it soon. As I hang a hummingbird feeder outside the window, I give thanks for the comfort of creatures.  

-Em : )

Ghosts of Christmas Past (Part 5 of 5)

If you missed it, start at Part 1.

Over the years since that night, I’ve tried to conjure the pinball feeling of anticipation that runs through the body like the best warm shiver. It can’t be summoned at will, and entire years can pass without that silver ricochet of wonder that Christmas lights once brought. But some experiences have come close.

Riding in a taxi along Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive with my future husband, glittering lights of the big-shouldered city on one side and the vast nighttime shimmer of Lake Michigan on the other. Catching a glimpse of Cinderella’s castle through my daughter’s eyes, its lavender spires rising in glory from the navel of Disney’s Magic Kingdom. Reading a poem, or even a finely-wrought sentence, that sparks a memory that travels through my eyes, down my throat, and oddly kindles my heart.

And, to a milder degree, the lights of our own family tree stationed in the front window of our house will do the trick now and then.

Driving my daughter home from dance class one evening, I take the long way around and stop right in front of the window from which our Christmas tree peeks out. “Wow,” I say to the girl in the back seat, “I wonder who lives in this little house—and who put that tree in the front window? Must be a small family, maybe just two or three people?” I feel a bit like Gramps, awkwardly narrating levity into life. She plays along with Mom’s silly game and agrees, “Hmmmm. Must be.” She humors me less every day, this almost-teenager.

I wonder what she will remember about these Christmas days in the decades to come. Truthfully, I’ve made no great effort to manufacture memories with spying elves or baking traditions. Magic will emerge naturally, I trust. She won’t remember the thrill of a brown bag full of nuts and citrus or a cold walk home from Grandma’s house. God forbid she hear the ringtone of bad news early on Christmas morning. I cannot know which ghosts will travel into her future.

Of course, the ghosts of Christmas past aren’t really of the past. They are always present. These ghosts, after all, aren’t really ghosts. If they haunt us at all, it’s a quiet lurking, bittersweet like sugared coffee, like a yellow glow from a window, like cold relatives coming through a warm front door.

For the truth is that memories are indistinguishable from matter in that they can neither be created (despite the claims of vacation brochures) nor destroyed.

From Synthesizing Gravity by Kay Ryan

-Merry Christmas to all! ~Em

Ghosts of Christmas Past (Part 4 of 5)

Then the unimaginable happened. My grandma died of lung cancer on Christmas morning, just a couple weeks before I turned nine. She’s the one who told me I was almost nine one day when we visited the hospital. A nurse had asked my sister and me how old we were, and I said, “eight.” Grandma weakly interjected that I was almost nine, and it was a sort of revelation. I’d been going along all this time as an eight-year-old, and then suddenly I was almost nine. January birthdays are often eclipsed by the excitement of Christmas. Really, can a child imagine anything beyond Christmas?

I looked out the hospital window onto the dreary, gray parking lot and tried to imagine being nine. After Mom had explained that Grandma might not make it through this illness, I tried to imagine her not being in the world. It was too much to fathom.

On Christmas Eve, we visited her at home. That Christmas morning, the phone rang early, way before dawn.

The next few years seem blurry and irretrievable—nine, ten, eleven. I must have gone to school, church, McDonald’s, the skating rink, the neighbor’s house, but I remember so little.

I do remember riding around town looking at Christmas lights when I was eleven, or, as Grandma might have said, almost twelve. Grandpa, never quite at home in this world but even more estranged as a widower, sat in the back seat with me and Sis. Dad drove through all the usual subdivisions, while Grandpa commented now and then, “Will you look at those blue lights?” His saying something lighthearted was always a small surprise; you could feel the discomfort just beneath it. Gramps was the best of grumps.

Rounding a cul-de-sac and staring at a manger scene projected on a garage door, I remember the thought that bubbled up, unbidden: they’re just lights. No more shiver of anticipation, that ping-pong of hope that ran from head to belly and back again. It was not a winter wonderland, this cul-de-sac, and those were mere bulbs strung on a wire.

I recall this moment and wonder at the reasons behind it. Was it the chemicals of puberty washing away childhood astonishment? Or was it the censure of religion, the attitude that this world is a mere façade? Maybe it was the daily erosion of living without Grandma close at hand and never voicing what a raw deal we’d been dealt that Christmas of 1984.

The voice in my head insisted, “They’re just lights.” And I didn’t argue.

To be continued. Jump to Part 5.

Ghosts of Christmas Past (Part 3 of 5)

When we lived on College Street and my grandparents and great aunts and uncles were still around – those were the days. Around Christmas, I couldn’t wait for the relatives to come over. Mom would put a record on the turntable, maybe the Oak Ridge Boys Christmas. The dining table would be carefully set with plates, food, napkins, and candles. A set of ceramic carolers in Victorian garb graced the top of the stereo cabinet, their mouths permanently formed in the O of “Noel.”

Aunt Ernie was there, always, wearing her pale bluish-gray coat with the silver Christmas tree brooch that I now wear on my blue coat. Aunt Ernie’s birthday was in early December, and something about her pastel sweetness just went well with the month – the pale blue of her coat and the tiny rhinestones of her brooch echoing the month’s blue birthstone. Her demeanor never veered from genuine warmth and humility and love and all the non-material aspects of Christmas. She gave Sis and me Matchbox cars for Christmas. I chalked it up to her having only grandsons, no granddaughters.

Yes, Aunt Ernie was there, along with Uncle Bob. Probably, Uncle Bill was there, Grandma and Grandpa, Evelyn and George, and I don’t know who else. But I do remember the smell that filled the house when Mom got out the Mr. Coffee machine. My parents weren’t coffee drinkers, so they used the Mr. Coffee only when we had guests. In my mind, coffee was a holiday drink. Small as I was, no one stopped me from having a cup or two, with generous doses of milk and sugar. To this day, these are a few of my favorite things: old people, Christmas music, rich foods, memories of Aunt Ernie, and the aroma of coffee.

Another holiday tradition we had was driving around Sparta to gawk at the Christmas lights. We were not a family that lit up the outside of our house. Our Christmas tree stood in the front window most years, and that was the extent of it. I remember thinking of those decorative people who lit up their eaves as exotic, rich, festive — a wholly different kind. Those other people hung lights on their roofs, from tree branches, and around the pillars holding up expansive porches—colored lights, white lights, even big old-fashioned Charlie Brown-style bulbs.

From the warm back seat of our car, I imagined the people who lived on the gently curving byways of “subdivisions” held some secret knowledge of the world that I could not grasp as I lived on the simple grid of our small town. I didn’t know these people, but I did appreciate their festive yardwork. A home’s display of multi-color bulbs could send a shiver of delight from my face to my belly and back again.

To be continued. Jump to Part 4.

Ghosts of Christmas Past (Part 2 of 5)

My mom’s parents lived just down the street from us. I remember one December night after having dinner at their house walking the short trek back home. The inky darkness made it seem scandalously late, like we were getting away with something. It was maybe 8 p.m. The air was cold enough to see our breath, and the sidewalk shone like crystal in the yellow glow of the single light of the funeral home parking lot.

As we walked past the Burns’ house, I spotted the lights of our Christmas tree through the front window, multicolored off-red, off-yellow, off-green, off-white. Back then I loved, though couldn’t have articulated, how the lights of Christmas imitated primary colors, slightly yellowed. They were magical, those lights, far from energy efficient and difficult to replicate after 1991 or so.

My dad’s parents lived a half hour from us, and we saw them much less than our down-the-street grandparents. One evening, they stopped by our house on the way to a Christmas dance at some nearby KC Hall or Elks’ Lodge. They had brought inflatable reindeer for Amanda and me, which stood about three feet high — larger than life to a little kid. I was impressed with them standing guard in front of the Christmas tree, bigger than our dogs and reeking of plastic. My grandparents left as quickly as they came, a blast of cold air from the front door lingering in the living room.

My other grandpa would have examined the reindeer for an origin sticker and grumbled, “Made in China. Damn.” I remember him looking at other things and cursing their provenance. He also hated when McDonald’s employees would ask if you wanted fries with that. I suppose he picked his battles with care.

As I went upstairs to bed that night, I glanced down at the smiling reindeer pair with something I can only describe as sheer wonder. Did one of them just wink at me? Possibly.

The next morning, I discovered the deer deflated into a puddle of malodorous synthetics. Mom said that this happens sometimes – maybe your Dad will blow them up again. Only now can I see the subtext of her shrug: “Manage your expectations.”

Christmastime, I would one day learn, sometimes brings a confounding mix of high hopes and bruising reality – strings of lights bright white and off-blue.

To be continued. Jump to Part 3.

Painted in Waterlogue