Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Jumper

Most familial memories are patchwork: snatches of remembered images sewn together with anecdotes told and retold by adults over holiday dinners. Sometimes the why is remembered; sometimes only the what, but the patchwork of memories is more precious for the many hands that stitched it together.

Every summer the St. Mary's River shimmered with jellyfish. Some days, more; other days, fewer; on rare occasions, none. These were the days we'd go swimming in boundless enthusiasm, jumping off the end of the dock—well, off to the one side, since the end was a bit scary. However, most mid-summer days, the surface of the water seemed to shift, nearly sparkle with rounded, gelatinous mounds of these stinging creatures with their long shreds of tentacles that were difficult to know where they started or ended. Avoiding them became a game, although in my child's imagination I wondered what it might feel like to walk across the river to the other side, tiptoeing from one mound to the next. Their solidity was an allusion; thankfully, I knew that.

My snatched memory was from one of those insufferably humid and windless days, where there were more jellyfish than water on the surface of the river. Seeking relief from the heat and the stinging sun by swimming was not an option. Why my father chose to climb into the Hampton with his older brother and sail was incomprehensible. There was no wind; you couldn't even dip your hand in the water without getting stung. But I suspect there was a race, maybe even the Fourth of July. It was certainly hot enough, and visiting family speaks of holiday.

For whatever reason, then, they had gone sailing, and we were waiting on the dock when they returned. And on such a windless day, the race must have been excruciatingly and blisteringly long. They tied the Hampton to the painter, clambered into the dinghy to come back to the dock so we could all head home.

But then my father, laughing and with a comment over his shoulder to his brother, jumped into the river! Maybe it was all of 15 yards from the painter to the shore, but he had to have swum partly, then waded the rest. Jellyfish hung from his bare shoulders, from his arms, even from his eyebrows! All I could do was stare and think, jeepers, that must hurt!

Funny enough, two thoughts emerged from staring at his reddened skin—the sunburn and jellyfish stung red indistinguishable from each other. My first, fleeting, and I suspect quickly forgotten thought: If the skin is going to sting, is it better to sting from sunburn? or from jellyfish? is the relief from the heat worth the price of the sting? I wasn't going to find out. The second thought? That my father could be unpredictable. Hasty.

I found new respect for him that day. Odd things from odd places make us what we are as a family, no?

Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Jeep

Why does a child remember something? What in the child's mind creates a connection so strong that decades later, recall is instantaneous? Obviously the memory is significant to the child, but why? and how is it that we remember something so excruciatingly clearly but others in the house—even the primary player in our memory's happening—do not?

For example, why does the smell of freshly cut, damp grass remind me of a holding wire slanted from the antenna on the house to a stake in the yard? Why does the humidity and stillness of an oncoming thunderstorm remind me of fireflies and field stubble under my bare feet?

And why is the most memorable ride I have taken—and I've had many—the one in a Jeep with my father?

My Dad did this mysterious thing called work. He would go to work in the morning, while I played, napped, drew pictures with crayons, fingerpainted, and roller skated. He would come home a bit after my afternoon nap, sometimes tired, but never in my memory upset or angry. Work, however mysterious, was what he did. Children accept facts as inescapable, because they have nothing to compare them against. Things. Just. Are.

When I was six years old, Dad's work intruded on me as an evil thing as I was uprooted from the only home I knew in Levittown, New York to a home in a place called southern Maryland. A neighborhood of tract homes with playmates next door and down the street with older boys playing football in the evening street was suddenly replaced with fields of tobacco and long lanes of dirt overgrown with broad-limbed, deciduous trees. The emptiness was disturbing.

Six years later, it was not only home, but the forests, fields, and lanes were the best friends I had. I told them stories, even making them the heroes of my stories. They were alive.

All of this is background, because the winter of 1966 was memorable. Snow storm after snow storm piled up, until the world was adrift in four feet of snow. No doubt there is historical data somewhere that indicates how much snow fell, but all I needed was the measure of foot to waist. How I loved snow—no school; old, familiar places suddenly surprised me; nothing is the same, and the eye is delighted with new ways to see. I still love snow (so sue me).

This snow socked us in, being so far out in the country, and Dad didn't go to work. Odd thing, that. We lit sterno to cook; we climbed into bed fully clothed to keep warm; the plastic stapled to the door frames whistled and billowed to the wind. But I bundled up and went out. And out. And out. I walked lanes with trees so laden with wet snow their branches bent over the lane. I could stand in the middle of the uphill stretch of lane at the end of the forest, look left and taste the snow off the branch from a tree on the left, and without moving, look right and taste the snow off a branch from a tree on the right. They were honoring me. A bower of friends.

But the world goes on, even when the country lane is still buried deep and frozen. My father had to get back to work; I had to go back to school. Enter "The Jeep." No matter how faulty this might be, my memory was that this Jeep was open to the air (I suspect it was one of those with the vinyl windows), and it was in this thoroughly delightful contraption my father took me to school. Near the busstop for one of my nemeses, we pulled up behind my bus—No. 64—and there against the back window of the bus were pressed the faces of my friends. I waved and sat smug. My DAD was driving me to school in this neat thing called a Jeep. Without knowing he had done so, my father made me queen for a day.

Of course, the snow melted, I boarded No. 64 each schoolday, I had sums to do, baseballs to hit, bases to run. But from time to time, I'd get the crack across the knuckles with the ruler for daydreaming, and even the sting wouldn't stop me from smiling inside: a day in a Jeep with my Dad beats a reprimand any day.

Sometimes it's what we do with our families that creates just that one memory a child will never forget. It is no less important for being forgotten by everyone else. I remembered, and in the end, did illogical, crazy, off-the-cuff things with my kids. I wonder what they remember.

Friday, August 17, 2007

The Funnies

While many memories are visual, often as vivid as the day they were engrained upon our experience, some memories return to us from the most subtle stimuli, such as the smell of newly cut grass or the taste of cranberry sauce or the feel of a straw mat on bare feet or the sound of an orbital sander. Other memories return based on a sense of time. For me, Sundays were that time.

Ever since I can remember, Sundays were a time set apart from the rest of the week. Even after our church had burned down and we no longer attended services, Sundays were a time to absorb the quiet space around us, to reflect and regenerate. The Saturday tasks (and Hampton races) were done, the new week not yet started. Sundays were peaceful, and during the summers, perfect for long walks in the cool, deciduous forests of southern Maryland.

But Sundays also had a hierarchy, a rhythm to depend upon, a structure that allowed the creative and nightmare-laden mind of a young child an anchor. Once we no longer had to dress in our Sunday best and endure the endless and pointless sermons while failing to repress our fidgets, Sundays achieved a blessing of its own.

Part of that hierarchy was the Sunday comics, or funnies as we called them. This huge, nearly bursting Sunday paper would come into the house—funny, I have no memory of how it arrived; it just did—and my father had first dibs on the paper. Mom had the second dibs, and being the youngest, I often failed to snabble the funnies before my older brother. So by the time I inherited the funnies, they had been bent, folded backwards, and in the process of being snapped into obedient upright pages, often torn in places.

I did not have the patience to sit empty-handed while the family read the funnies, so I would often retreat to the living room and play piano softly, sneaking a glance into the family room from time to time to gauge the progress of the funnies.

For whatever reason, there came the day I stayed in the family room, quietly doing something—I forget what. The Sunday paper had come in, and I was sitting on the straw mat carpet, my back against the hassock upon which my father rested his feet. I could hear the rustle of his picking up the tome of pages, flipping through the sections. I know I sighed, at least silently. It was going to be a loooooooonnnng time before I would get to read the comics.

There was a bit more noise, the creak of my Dad's chair, a faint movement of the hassock, more rustle of paper, and then to my wondering and absolutely stunned eyes, the funnies came into my view, placed into my hands by my father. I gingerly took the funnies, but twisted and looked over my shoulder at my father, only to realize he had given them to me even before he had read them! He smiled, then settled back to his own reading.

What a special thing! First rights, not only before my brother and mother, but even before him. I read every word of the comics that day, even those strips I didn't care for.

I don't think I had done anything special to earn this privilege, but there was no mistaking it: privilege it was. I don't remember ever having that privilege again, though it might well have been that the funnies didn't retain that focus in my life as I grew older. However, I did learn that special things were special, not because they were demanded, harangued over, pouted over, screamed for, or expected "just because I'm alive."

Privileges were to be found in that gray area between our expectations and our hopes.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

El Paso Natural Gas

While childhood memories hold a vivid place in our minds—often an innocent place because experience has not yet revealed the shades of grey in our human condition—memories created as adults hold a depth of shared experiences, of background of culture and history.

My father is a meticulous man. The ultimate B-Type personality. Each task under his fingers occupies his entire presence; a true concentration and investment in each moment. An excellent way to live, actually.

Anyway, this meticulous nature is best seen in his record keeping. Decades passed; we aged—the child I was became the adult I am, and my relationship with my parents became more a loving friendship than the "keepers of wisdom." Then a few years ago, my father decided it was time to reveal the mysteries of his record keeping to me. Now I can be logical; I am misfortunately too often derailed by detail, but when all is said and done, I'm a writer. My brain makes connections and weaves patterns at will. Maybe one of these days, I'll write a story about "a willful brain," but at that moment, seated beside my father, I needed to read and absorb the logic of his record keeping.

As we read through the entries, my father patiently explained and answered my questions. Dozens of ledger pages later with dozens of ledger pages yet unturned—columns, figures, cross references—I had absorbed about as much as I could, when he turned over the page and he read aloud the name on the page.

"El Paso Natural Gas."

I cracked up. I began laughing—the type of laughter where you have no means of stopping until the lack of air has collapsed your lungs. I inhaled shakily, then saw my father's confused face. I keeled over sideways, laughing until my ribs rattled and my nose ran and my eyes teared. I laughed until my throat hurt. He was beginning to laugh, but only because of the infection of my laughter. I could see he still didn't understand what had set me off.

"Dad! EL PASO (ahem) 'natural gas' (ahem)?"

Now there is something precious in watching someone's face comprehend a joke, but there is something infinitely more precious in seeing a father realize that his "baby girl" had perceived a scatological joke in the name of a company in which he held stock. There is the father's shock, and yet the adult's amusement. He began to laugh, and of course, my mother had perceived the joke long before, and she was soaking up the byplay as well.

Now—years later—El Paso Natural Gas has changed its name, and of course, my meticulous father updated the records, but the old name remains firmly in mind whenever we turn over the pages of the ledger.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

30 SEC-ondsssssss

A child's memory can be reinforced by an insignificant act or phrase that acts as a milemarker of something that has just happened or something that usually follows. Family traditions grow through these acts and phrases, becoming significant as they provide a hingepin for the child's life.

For me, the significant phrase is "30 Seconds!"

Summer always lazed away: a forever time, and yet never quite long enough. The heat and humidity of southern Maryland imposed its own pace upon our movements. Even now, I swear the sun was so intense at times that I could hear the sheets on the clothesline crinkle and stiffen as the water evaporated from their surfaces.

Despite this heat, we would frequently have barbecued chicken for dinner—and no, not the slathered-in-sauce barbecue, but the chicken-done-over-a-charcoal-grill barbecue. And being the '60s, I'm speaking of the heavy, black-enameled, rotund Webber with real charcoal.

The smell of charcoal heating would sift through the screened porch and enter the kitchen, where it would mix with the rich aroma of cooking vegetables and the sound of lettuce being broken and radishes being chunked. I'd set the table, which for the summers was a card table set on the screened porch, and in my journey from kitchen to table back to kitchen and back to table, I'd wander between the various smells.

Mom and Dad had to coordinate their parts of the dinner, of course. And to this day, I do not know when or how this elegantly simple routine came into existence, but when the chicken was close to done, my Dad would raise his voice from the back patio and sing out "Thir-ty SEC-ondsssssssss." It was as if that call were the hinge upon which the evening meal revolved. All that came before was a way of preparing for that call; all that came after — the bustle of getting everything from the kitchen to the table (including us) — was the result of that call. Dad would come in with the plate bearing the chicken, and we would sit down to eat as a family.

Sometimes, this thirty seconds was literally NOT thirty seconds. Maybe he decided to vary the routine, or even more than likely, he had forgotten to yell his 30-second warning, but sometimes AS he brought the plate in the screened door of the porch, he'd yell "30 seconds." Of course, it was a bit late, no? Other times, he'd sing out "three SECondssssssssss," but it would be more like two or three minutes. But hey, that's southern Maryland summer time. The seconds weren't important; nor the minutes.

It was the elegant and simple routine that a young child could count on.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

The Queen of Spades

A child's memories can be an image of an instant—vivid, disconnected from what came before or even after. The question "Why?" is often unanswered in these images, though years and decades later a close inspection by that child-now-adult can reveal much.

A child's memories can also be cumulative, a tesselate of instances formed over many occurrences of the same action. For me, such is the Queen of Spades.

Card games were omnipresent in our family, beginning with the simple games of matching, such as Uno or Go Fish! They were fun, quick, and without the our awareness of it, these games begin the process of building memory skills. Once mastered, we moved on to games that entailed not only memory, but sorting and matching, such as gin rummy.

The big step in playing card games came when we graduated to adult card games. Oh, to play an adult card game with adults! That was to aspire to! A more heartless game than Hearts there is not, at least in cards. In addition to the memory and sorting and matching skills, we now began the process of learning strategy, of computing the odds that the person across from us held such-and-such a card.

Of course, we played "open hand," at first, laying down all cards, and learning the rules and seeing how each hand obeyed and gauged the odds. The first few games with our hands concealed were probably nerve-racking, but nothing disastrous happened. For some unknown reason (ahem!), I usually ended in the middle of the pack: neither outright winner nor dejected bottom of the heap.

Then came the day I shot the moon—where I took all the hearts and the queen of spades so I not only won, but made the quintessential win. In looking back, I doubt it was because I was allowed to win. I had simply been dealt the right cards, made the right assessments of who was holding which cards, played the cards in the right order, and ended in victory. Elation was the least of my emotions.

Then hard on the heels of that win came a hand where I not only lost, but watched as my father deliberately and with a look I could not fathom, placed the Queen of Spades (13 points against me) on my trick. How could he do that? How could he be so deliberate?

I was hurt. Devastated. Tears formed and stung.

I'd prefer to say I had an epiphany, maybe while eating cereal or munching on raisins after school, but gradually I realized a valuable lesson lay in that memory.

If you have what it takes to win, you must also have what it takes to lose.