Archive for the ‘Memoir’ Category

Surfing channels the other night we got stuck on a home improvement show and before leaving TV behind for sleep we witnessed the woes of a family whose kitchen layout was so awful, their stove was crammed into an alcove by the back door. Lying in the dark coming out of dreams the next morning I was picturing my grandmother’s kitchen, trying to remember: where was the stove? I got it in place against the wall shared with the living room; next to it, the fridge. Then the doorway through to the front of the house; and I went around the room like that, filling it in, nailing it down. Like staking out a tent before you go inside.

As I worked my way around the walls things came back to me. I couldn’t actually see the stove, or its color—probably white, definitely electric—but I remembered that Grandma used to store crackers in the oven. Club crackers, my grandparents liked. I guess they stayed fresher behind the oven door and its seal.

Atop the fridge were two ceramic roosters—well, actually a rooster and a hen I think, one being large, the other small. I have them now; they have red-painted combs, gray and white feathers, ochre-colored feet standing in matching clumps of green. You should always have a rooster for your kitchen, I think I remember my grandmother explaining. Certainly no farm would be without one, and she did start life on a farm.

Passing the fridge and the doorway in my mind I turned to the north wall; up against it, the kitchen table. Very 1950s, it was chrome and cornflower blue formica and suddenly I was seeing the blue light in the kitchen, on a winter morning. From my highchair pulled up to the end of the table I could see out, see the snow drifted and heaped everywhere, piled on the sills of the screen porch beyond the back door. The light is sudden and fierce, almost scathing, bouncing off the snow and into the room.

Behind me in the corner there is some kind of electric roaster, a behemoth that sat on its own cabinet, the kind of kitchen fossil that I imagine a lot of women of my grandmother’s age had standing around. Above it, the black telephone, mounted on the wall. I remember my grandmother talking on the phone. My grandfather almost never did—his hearing was bad, and he was telephone-averse. But I can hear my grandmother’s voice, clear, echoing just slightly in the open room with all its hard surfaces, and I remember the lilt in her voice in just the single word, hello. When she answered the phone she did not ask a question: “Hello?” Who are you? Instead she sang, gently: “Hello!” I am here.

She was there, they were both there, as was I. As I work my way around the kitchen I take on this feeling of my grandparents and their lives, a slowness and a kind of solitude but also presence, intention. Without the distraction of electronics, email, smartphones, cable, so unlike my life today. I remember how my grandparents turned on the television to watch a particular “program,” as my grandmother called them, Lawrence Welk or the evening news. Grandma liked to watch a John Wayne western if one was on.

My circuit around the room takes me along the eastern wall, passing the door to the porch with that winter light streaming in like an ice-bright river and next to the door the sink, framed on both sides by cupboards, above and below. I can’t picture the curtains in the window over the faucet, but suddenly I see a pale green, the cupboard doors or the walls must have been painted that hue. Then I’m seeing wallpaper, a pattern comes almost into focus: neutral tones, flourishes and a spice grinder. I think it was on the wall over the table.

On the fourth and last wall, more cupboards and then the washing machine. This is a small house, my grandparents’ place, even though the kitchen feels large and open in my childhood memories. But there is no basement or utility room, so the washer is here and the dryer is in the attached garage, beyond the dining room. When it’s really cold outside Grandma will open the small closet next to the washer (I can see the door, it’s louvered), take out a Pendleton shirt hanging on a hook there, and put it on before she carries the clothes out to the dryer.

I feel how big the day was, opening up before us on a bright winter morning. I see my grandfather take up his coffee cup (and it was a cup, sitting on a saucer), I hear the sound of my grandmother’s chair scraping softly on the floor as she gets up to take dishes to the sink. They did not rush, or hurry. I realize that they were retired; but I believe their calm ways and measured pace had as much to do with who they were and the world they came up in as with circumstance.

Breakfast in the kitchen. I turn the memory over and over in my mind and study it like a small but endlessly faceted diamond, and in that expanse of time there is something vivid and real that I have trouble finding in my life today: that slow, deliberate act of living even in the smallest things, especially in the smallest things.


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Christmas Eve.

Snow is on the ground. Icicles big as baseball bats hang from the porches of the little houses on Leroy St., and if you come late and the church lot is full and you have to park on the street, you will carefully make your way up the end of someone’s driveway—lit by Christmas lights—and move along the sidewalk as if through a tunnel, flanked by walls of snow.

Inside, there’s a huge tree at the front of the sanctuary, hung with ornaments all in white and gold, all Christian symbols. I don’t think even the grownups know what half of them mean. Ok, we all know the dove is about peace, and the fish has something to do with early Christians, but lots of others just seem vaguely familiar, or not at all. A woman in the congregation painstakingly crafted every one of them, out of Styrofoam and braid and beads. (The tree in the social hall, in the basement, is far less majestic. It’s artificial, white, and has a color wheel turned on it so that it slowly changes: blue, to red, to emerald, to a funky gold. It always has a hypnotic effect on me—I could watch it for hours.)

But back to the sanctuary. The advent wreath’s up front, on a stand. I never remember what the colors mean, I just know the white candle in the center does not get lit ‘til Christmas. I like the purple candles best, and how fat they are: big, round columns that look like they could burn for days. The altar is banked with poinsettias, scores of them. Sometimes our family has paid for a few and takes them home later, but at home they always look spindly and kind of lame to me compared to how they look amassed here—an army, a forest of fiery red flowers.

There are a lot of people packed into the sanctuary, some of whom we see only once a year. But my young brain doesn’t think about this much, or judge it. It’s exciting, the crush of people, all dressed in their holiday best. Men in waistcoats, and holiday ties; women in jewel colors, ruffles, hairspray, clip earrings. One year our mom sews long skirts for my sister and me. (Mine is deep green velvet. I think Linda’s was port.)

The sanctuary feels warm with the press of all these people, and the darkness at the windows along the sides makes the effect even more cozy. Crammed into the pews, a handful of kids always drop their votive glasses, and they clink as they roll around on the floor. “Good God, it sounds like a bar in here,” my dad always says, and we all laugh.

Every year the service begins with our best musicians, the T. family, playing “Gesu Bambino,” “Bring a Torch, Jeannette Isabella” on alternate years. Tom’s sweet violin cuts through the sanctuary, supported by his mother’s steady cello and intertwined with his sister’s warm-sounding flute. Already everyone knows that he will play in a professional orchestra one day. I can picture the chairs they sit on, small wooden chairs that usually stay in the storage space behind the choir loft and have “ihs” carved in the back.

The choir assembles in the “narthex,” the space just outside the doorway to the sanctuary. I always think it’s funny that people seem to enjoy using the technical terms for parts of the church—and yet, it fascinates me, too. The T. family has finished playing, picked up their chairs, retreated from in front of the steps to the altar. The organ begins something we all know—because it’s Christmas Eve, and we’ll know all the hymns tonight. There is a sound—how do you describe it? The sound of everyone around me getting to their feet. And as the choir comes down the center aisle in their pale gold robes, we’re all singing. “O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant…” Even in the robes, I can tell who’s who—and I enjoy this, recognizing that the short woman with the carefully coiffed hair and the gorgeous voice is Mrs. A., and the tall, thin man who bounces a little is Mr. W. They’re familiar, and yet, transformed. Or maybe it’s just that I recognize the fellowship in singing in a choir, symbolized by their robes. I know about singing in a choir, I’ve been doing it here since I was four years old.

And sing is what we will do, for the next hour. Sure, there will be readings from the Gospels, and the minister will address us briefly. He knows he has to keep it short on Christmas Eve—besides, with the votive glasses rolling around, and the occasional baby bursting into voice, how long can he expect to hold the floor?

And we have a lot of carols to sing—so many, that “The First Noel” will only get three of its umpteen verses, and someone’s favorite will get left out—better luck next year. And then the moment comes we’ve all been waiting for, even those who don’t know it.

The ushers come up the aisles and light the candle of the person sitting at the end of every pew, and that person lights the next person’s candle, and that person, the next, until everyone in that crowd of people is holding a burning candle in a glass. The lights are dimmed and the organ, softly now, strikes up “Silent Night,” and we begin to sing the last hymn.

Somewhere around verse three the organ drops out and it’s just us, the multitude, singing in the candlelight, the dark of a winter’s night pressing in at the windows as we sway with the music, not really thinking any more of gifts we’ll open tomorrow, what Santa will leave under the tree, what we’ll have for Christmas dinner, or even the relatives we’ll see. All drops away—as I suppose it must have in churches all over the city, with their own colors of candles, ways to decorate an altar, hymns to the eternal.

How strong a pull has Christmas Eve. When I look back on it, I think I understand better than I ever have that for me, the pull is in the power of uniting, of belonging, of opening our hearts. And of course, singing.

Always, singing.

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Jenny was always such a good girl – maybe that had something to do with it. The rest of us found it easy to come together in a kind of sisterhood of mean. What happened was especially ugly on my part – she was my friend. How many times had she waded into a ruckus on the playground when I, smallest in the class, was getting pummeled? She was big, for elementary school, tall and sturdy. Blond. I think her eyes were hazel; I don’t exactly remember. I found her on Facebook once, a few years ago. I didn’t friend her. I guess I could go look again – see what color her eyes are.

Maybe we did it, that day at Girl Scout camp, because most of her stuff came from K-mart. I remember that about her family, that her parents loved shopping there, thought it was great that they could get everything from shoes to shampoo, casseroles to carpet, for cheap. I noticed, because my family often shopped at the more upscale department store, where my school shoes were fitted by a professional and went out the door in a nice box with a plastic shoe horn tossed in.

I’m not sure it was all about socioeconomic status, though, because there were two sisters in our tent, the Pritchards – Kathy?  and Susie – who were living with their divorced mom and seemed to be on a shoestring. But the clothes they brought with them to camp were cool, and worn with confidence. They seemed to know who they were, and they were happening. I attributed this to their mom. I pictured toenail-painting parties, hairdo experiments, all of them having fun together.

Jenny’s mom wasn’t like that. Neither was mine. Before one of these Girl Scout outings, my mom pulled my long hair back and worked it into a single braid, then was distressed when I came home with it hanging loose around my shoulders, one of my friends having insisted that it needed to come down. It was the 60s, after all. Long, flowing hair was so in. The Pritchard sisters never would have showed up at Girl Scout camp in a braid like that.

I think it was the younger of them, Susie, who started it. I can see her blond bangs, drifting just slightly into her eyes, her grin, her thin, clever fingers, but mostly I can hear her. Chattering, teasing. Always commenting on something.

The tents at Girl Scout camp were on platforms, canvas-enclosed rooms big enough for cots ranged along the sides. When we walked up the handful of steps and through the door into ours, we discovered it was built on a hillside. The back looked out on open space where the hill fell away, into a ravine. Not too deep, but too far to jump down. A nice breeze came through, with the doors front and back open to the air.

Jenny took a cot in one of the back corners, and like the rest of us, began unpacking, laying out her stuff on her bed: hairbrush, toothbrush, bug spray. A Trixie Belden book (practically the only reading material her mother allowed).

Susie went over, that sly grin playing around her lips. “What’s this?” Picked up something from Jenny’s cot – a rain poncho, folded into a little pouch, or her flashlight – and began a game of keep-away, taunting. Susie was quick, but Jenny’s long arms would soon wrap her up. Maybe that’s why Susie pitched it, the flashlight – right out the back of the tent. It flew in a beautiful arc, we all saw it.

“Awwwwwww.” Jenny protested, annoyed.

Susie laughed. And picked up something else from Jenny’s pile of equipment – her hairbrush? And tossed that, too. And suddenly we were all throwing Jenny’s stuff out the back of the tent – shoes, mess kit, the ointment she’d brought for her eczema. I’m sure we all laughed as we did it. I think Barb, a tall girl with a wild mane of auburn hair, did a tap dance in between pitches.

Jenny was silent, almost sullen, as she went out the front of the tent and around to the back to collect her stuff. Not one of us lifted a finger to help her. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if a packet of ponytail holders or another shoe came flying out the back while she was out there, like the last dribble from a faucet just turned off.

She didn’t speak to us for hours. We acted like we didn’t care. I breathed easier when the entire troop reconvened, assembling around the campfire for dinner. We could all blend in then, Jenny included, act natural, and not as though we’d just brutalized her, behaved like a vicious flock of chickens, mercilessly pecking.

Deep inside, though, I knew. As two older girls, Cadette scouts, acted out a Civil War song (“This Cruel War Is Raging”) while we sat in a circle around the fire, I had a hollow feeling, a hole inside me filled with the cold knowledge of who I was, and Susie – still joking, poking whoever was sitting next to her, getting shushed by Mrs. C., our leader. Who we all were.

Except Jenny. She turned a cold shoulder on us, her goodness intact.


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