Oddments

In search of story


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December 11.22: Coping, but barely

Those of you who have kindly read along for a few years know that for Christmas I put together scrapbooks for my sons about some aspect of family history. That these scrapbooks hand down to them a history according to me is totally obvious — and satisfying.

This brilliant idea of mine has its flaws, however: it makes an infernal mess.

And it forces a reckoning. One cannot dig through boxes of family flotsam without some creeping sense of clairvoyance in one’s forebears.

Case in point: my mother carefully noted in my baby book that on 30 May 1943 I first stuck my foot in my mouth. How did she know?

 


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October 29.22: Coping, but barely

I have googled my grandma’s house from time to time just to see it again. I’d often wondered, if it ever were on the market and there were photos of the inside, would I look? It was, there were, and I did. I know the truth of “you can’t go back,” but I had to try.

I stared in disbelief at the photo of her kitchen, now a jigsawed greasy soulless room with a Dogpatch ambience. But the dark woodwork around the door to the dining room was unchanged. There was the portal. I saw the grate in the floor, a forgotten everyday that I once considered so exotic a part of her home. I held to that and imagined. There was an ache in me that told me I was there.

It was on that very spot that a little-girl me asked Grandma “Don’t you want to live to be a hundred?” She stunned me with “Oh, no! That’s TOO old!” I can today feel that thud inside me: my grandma couldn’t die ever. Only the grate and I remember what Grandma taught me that day.

How many little things in our daily lives do we see to the point of invisibility? What an injustice we do them. The everyday has power.

 

*****

Thanks to my grandson, who nabbed this screenshot for me. If my grandma weren’t already dead, this dirt would kill her.


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October 26.22: Coping, but barely

There was a time

when I would climb,

jump and hang and crawl,

confetti’d leaves

in shoes and sleeves,

telltales of autumn brawl.

With summer old

but not quite cold,

the air a heady brew

of acorn dust

and toadstool must,

the world was strangely new.

The leafless trees,

my youthful knees

together rocked the day;

in nature’s gym

my scuffed-shoe vim

had eternity to play.

I’d like to now,

but, holy cow,

I just can’t make me do it;

if I should try

I fear that I

would very shortly rue it.

 

With more thanks to photographer S.W. Berg

 and Fort Harrison State Park.

I think I can say without fear of (much) contradiction that I am not the only one in this blogging room who would love to kick leaves all the way up to that big old dead branch, climb on it, jump up and down, hang from it, walk it like a tightrope. Nor am I the only one who would decline the temptation. There isn’t enough liniment in the world.

 

 


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July 25.22: Coping, but barely

A garden in a kettle,

what enticement to know more;

no ordinary flowerpot

hints so of family lore.

Kettles are like aprons,

remnants, scraps and shreds

of kitchens gone to dust

except inside our heads.

Replaced by kitchen jewelry

gleaming, digitized,

its plump and stolid air

is yet unbowdlerized.

Something in its roundness

brings noodle dough to mind,

vegetable soup with barley,

doughnuts cinnamon-brined,

children up on tip-toe

to watch and sniff, content,

the world in proper order

as it was surely meant.

Today its storied depths

give rise to happy greenery,

rooted, like our memories,

in distant kitchen scenery.

 

 

More thanks to photographer S.W. Berg,

and to gardener and family preservationist D.J. Berg.

 


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June 19.22: Coping, but barely

Back when television was young, as was I, a commercial played this ditty:

“You’ll wonder where the yellow went

when you brush your teeth with Pepsodent,”

which my dad sang as

“You’ll wonder where the yellow went

when you brush your teeth with fresh cement.”

Along in those same years, I asked my dad why we don’t have an A in our last name. We spell it O’Hern but a whole lot of folks spell it O’Hearn and are ever sticking the A in our name as though it belongs there. So what happened to it?

“Our ancestors, “said Dad, “were horse thieves. In an effort to evade the police, they dropped the A from their last name.” The moral of the story being, I assumed, that our ancestors were horse thieves and halfwits.

Apparently slow of wit myself, I asked Dad one day how he felt the first time he held me. “Wet,” he said. So sweetly sentimental.

To dads everywhere, I wish all good things. It isn’t easy to be a dad. But know this: when you see your offspring rolling their eyes and shaking their heads at your stories and jokes, you know you have achieved immortality. Dad jokes never die. Happy Fathers’ Day!

 

The dad in the photo is my son,

whose offspring have indeed been known to roll their eyes.

Good work, Dad!


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May 31.22: Coping, but barely

Grit,

ground coal,

ash and lung gravel

paid the bills.

Grandpa wore it home

to match the grit

on windowsills.

His worker’s cap

marked him:

social scrap,

laborer,

tall, thin,

Cassius on the trolley,

morning, evening,

foundry-dusted

with other scraps

hollow, rusted.

Sometimes,

when there was meat,

he would get it

because he wore the cap,

carried the big black lunchbox

with the rounded top

and thick strap.

When we rode past

the fiery black mill,

we said,

Grandpa works there!

with pride.

Not knowing.

He was, I think,

smart.

I wonder what he wondered

in this brown, gritty life.

 

 

Writing is strange business. I had no intention of trying for another entry in Dan Antion’s Thursday Doors Writing Challenge, but this photo, also Dan’s, wouldn’t leave me alone. It is so reminiscent of where I grew up. Beautiful it wasn’t. Looking at this brought to mind my grandpa and his life there.

 

Thanks, Dan, for inspiring and challenging us, and for this photo.

 


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May 30.22 Memorial Day: Coping, but barely

You’d have to be as old as I am, dear reader, to remember the days of packing red geraniums into the trunk of a car and heading out to cemeteries. Every year at the end of May. It was boring. I hated it.

We’d clean winter’s debris off the graves and then plant the flowers. Guess who was sent for water. There were faucets in the cemetery spaced with the express purpose of making kids walk miles with sloshing, heavy watering cans.

There was always a moment of prayer. What videos play in our heads at such moments! I can only imagine the videos that played in my grandparents’ and my parents’ heads: wars, polio and flu epidemics, floods, heart attacks, cancer.

The video in my head had to do with my bike, waiting for me to start summer vacation.

My complaints, registered every five minutes or so, were roundly ignored; it was Decoration Day, after all, and this tedious, bleak trek to the cemetery was non-negotiable, as were many family dicta. Against my young will, I learned that it wasn’t about the geraniums; it was about lives lived. Real lives. It was about remembering.

Decoration Day became Memorial Day and a three-day weekend, honoring real lives lost in service to this country’s ideals. Remembering.

This Memorial Day comes in a bloodbath. Locally and globally we are awash in the blood of real lives. I hope those who lost their lives in service to this country, in service to ideals, aren’t sorry they made the sacrifice. And I wish all kids were thinking only about their bikes.

 

My family served, but none died in service.

I do not pretend to the grief this day renews for many.

But I do think of the graves and the real lives lost.

It becomes harder to remember peace.

 

 


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May 22.22: Coping, but barely

A machine that makes ice cream cones?

How could it be?

I thought they materialized

from some alchemy.

They simply appeared

from a summery haze

by a wave of the scoop

on tropical days.

In colorful turbans

turned quickly to goo,

they left us goatee’d

with sugary glue

while teaching hard fact

under brilliant hot sun

that time and fudge ripple

wait for no one.

Speed was the essence

of masterful lick;

neat slowed us down:

it had to be quick.

Racing the drips,

maneuvering the cold,

to push it all down

into cone’s hold

was no easy victory,

the skills were hard won,

but practice made perfect

and we’d hardly begun.

Like all childhood magic,

a part of it lingers

as we lick chocolate chip

from between grown-up fingers.

 

For me, dear reader, the only cone worth the drips was the “sugar cone,” which was the ultimate in crunch. It did not, like those flat-bottomed would-be’s, turn to flab in my hand and chew like rubber. No. The sugar-cone had character. It also had the tiniest hole at the bottom so that only the most skilled could come away with clean clothes. But the crunch held. What else mattered?

 

More thanks to photographer S.W. Berg,

and to Doumar’s Cones and Barbecue, Norfolk, VA.

 


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May 7.22: Coping, but barely

This was me

and this was you,

our wings be-fuzzed,

mysterious, new.

Tipping, toppling,

learning where

we stopped and started,

unaware

of cliffs and quicksand,

Pandora’s box,

we braved the world

of thorns and rocks.

Or so we thought. The really brave

were those close by

who hovered and watched

with wary eye,

letting us learn

from life’s tough classes

even if we fell

on our little

ummm

grasses.

 

Tomorrow is Mothers’ Day here; I am not a fan. I think it’s become a national day of panic. But that does not mean I don’t value mothering. I absolutely do. There are many who mother even if they’ve never given birth, and I salute every one.

Please pardon the quality of the photo, dear reader. You probably, and rightly, guessed that I was hunched down behind Venetian blinds muttering to that baby to HOLD STILL. He didn’t. Mother Goose (so to speak) did not cast a benign eye on me.

 

 


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December 24.21: Coping

My world is little

as is my tree,

yet there’s a world

inside of me.

The thing to do,

I cannot doubt,

is turn my person

inside-out,

and hang that world

with due aplomb

upon this little

tannenbaum,

and then to watch

the tree grow tall

— not so little

after all.

The world within

is mighty crowd,

kaleidoscopic,

teeming, loud,

overlapping place

and year,

mix of music,

laugh and tear.

Mishmash? Yes.

But life is that:

it isn’t neat

and folded flat.

The world inside,

the story of me,

sparkles on

my Christmas tree.

 

Whatever your traditions, your rituals, dear reader,

may they bring comfort this year,

and may they keep the story of you.