Oddments

In search of story


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January 30.21: Coping

Grandma’s kitchen clock

ticked crisply like a snare drum,

by day blended in the rhythm of work,

by night echoed

through the bedded house

while the rite of springs squeaked under me,

percussive, brassy,

objecting, it seemed,

to my child’s weight.

A bare light bulb

dangling on thick black cord

hovered

over the bed,

beyond my reach

even when I stood

jiggle-kneed

on the jello mattress.

Grandma reached up

and turned it off herself,

then slipper-padded out.

Her bedroom a whole dining room

and kitchen away,

sly-eyed shadows deepened

around me

in borrowed bed

where once my aunts were little girls.

In the sleep breath of her house,

Ivory soap.

Now, as COVID blurs days into nights,

and nights into days,

my clock ticks crisply like a snare drum.

 

 


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January 26.21: Coping

As you know, dear reader, I am an introvert. I love quiet. Forever the firstborn, I play by myself contentedly.

However, I do not crave a hut in the desert or a cave hidden by vines. Which is what this COVID thing is beginning to feel like.  After a while, even an introvert feels the tedium of her own company. Then a terrible thing happens: she eats. Why is it that eating is the antidote to tedium? While I ponder the answer to that, I eat some more.

Yesterday I caught myself headed to the kitchen again and gave myself a stern talking-to, made a right turn and headed upstairs, where I plunged into no one’s favorite project: culling the past.

I come from a scrapbooking family, and I followed that tradition, starting in grade school. I am not talking about those tidy, starched, color-coordinated Martha-Stewart types of scrapbooks, but the old-fashioned kind, with real scraps, bits of life as it was lived. Messy, haphazard, in a rag-tag glued chronology. Just like life.

I attacked the scrapbook that held the years from college graduation to marriage, 1966 to 1971. There were strangers in there, but the strangest one of all was me. Have you met your young self recently, dear reader? Did you recognize each other?

If you are now your young self, just file the matter for future reference, when your seasoned self happens upon you. And may you meet in a kinder time.

 

 


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December 31.20: Coping

A wink, perhaps,

lightly nefarious:

above the noble

“Stradivarius”

the truth is stamped,

hidden slyly —

“Copy” — by luthier

deft and wily.

 

I think it was no coincidence that 2020 was the year I attended to my father’s violin, which I had allowed to fall into disreputable condition. I’d needed some sense of grounding, of continuity, in a year of such cataclysmic instability. I had it repaired and renewed for my grandson this Christmas, and there was indeed grounding. This was the instrument my father played in his grade school orchestra, circa 1925.

 

The one he played in our family Christmas concerts (a merry barnyard kind of sound) and introduced to his grandson circa 1977.

 

The one I rescued from my own shameful neglect and presented — in its well-worn KantKrack case, beribboned and (it seemed to me) proud — to his great-grandson this Christmas.

A violin doesn’t have to be a Stradivarius to be priceless. And 2020 has made us acutely more mindful of the priceless things that ground us.

Thank you, dear reader, for all your encouragement and insights this year. May the new year bring us all the repair, renewal, and tuning we need, may we be grounded in the priceless things of life, may we be mindful of those who grieve and who care for our sick, and may there one day again be real hugs!

 

 


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June 9.20: Coping

Yesterday I had a moment in a paint store that sent me into laughter which almost suffocated me because I was wearing a mask. Afterward I thought about it.

A man was buffing the floor, likely enjoying the sauna behind his mask as much as I was enjoying mine while I maneuvered with my usual grace amid shelves and social distance markers. The COVID pas-de-deux.  As it happened, I ended up apparently in his path: my assertion that I was trying to not be in the way was met with his “Well, then, MOVE!” This hit my funny bone hard. Thus my suffocation.

We all have our gifts. Mine is to be in the way. My dad had variations on “you’re in the way,” the best of which was “go tell your mother she wants you.” The man with the machine yesterday would have fit into my family perfectly.

As I chuckled my way home, I reflected on the mask as a new wrinkle in such a moment (pun intended). He was wearing a baseball cap so all I could see was a bit of grey hair and his eyes. Maybe MOVE! was grumped at me. I don’t think it was, but how would I know? We did not see each other’s faces — this should be remarkable. It isn’t! What a weird world we have landed in.

 


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March 24.20: Coping

Coping is as coping does.  Me, I’m attacking my Fibber McGee family history closet.

It is arguable that this is the worst project I could undertake since I am isolated and already filled with dread and anger.  With every envelope and box I open, ghosts waft out. Loss is freshened and grief revisited. I miss these places and these people long gone — who were they and why did they make the choices they made?

You’d think, given the load of paper they left me, I’d find the answers. Not a chance.

There are photos and negatives (remember negatives?), deeds, receipts, bank books, letters, post cards, diplomas, telegrams, cocktail napkins, newspaper clippings, scrapbooks…the Smithsonian of, yes, oddments. What a tell-all lurks! If only I could figure out the “all” to tell!

For now, I sift and sort. One bit of history at a time.

Take, for instance, this historical scrap, which, in other circumstances, would be timely: my dad’s tax return for 1941, the year he and Mom were married, shows the princely income of $2674.68. But, even better, his whole return was completed on a one-page — one page! — 8.5 x 11 tax form. If you live in the USA, you are grabbing for the smelling salts.

Or this: the bedroom furniture you see in this photo — bed, chest, dresser — was purchased in 1946 for $79. I think they got their money’s worth.

The flip side of this way of coping is that I can write about it. Blogging is coping, yes? Maybe in the writing I’ll get to some of the answers I seek. Or maybe I’ll learn to ask different questions.


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December 19.19

Language isn’t always words —

it’s far more complicated;

not everything in life

can be articulated.

That’s why the things of Christmas

assemble every year,

preserving time and place

we won’t let disappear.

Each family has a history,

hero, legend, fiend;

words fall short, but things

keep them evergreened.

 

There is nothing in this photo, dear reader, that doesn’t tell a story, including the chunk of mid-century furniture that belonged to my parents. Not everyone celebrates Christmas: I get that. But most people understand how things tell a story, and we probably all have at least one thing tucked away somewhere that says more than words alone can say.

For me to put into words everything said here would require an epic. There are things from my Grandma O’Hern’s house. From my sons’ childhoods. From my bachelor days. From friends, from family. Then to now.

Sometimes meaning is better told without words.


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December 12.19

Many the Christmas

has faded away,

but here are a couple

preserved for today.

The curly-haired toddler,

a bit knobby of knee,

recalls the first Christmas

for cute little me.

The other, my parents,

with some of their caucus,

a nefarious bunch,

unruly and raucous.

A time to be serious

about four-in-hand,

and to mutter at tinsel

hung strand by strand.

Life wasn’t perfect then,

but still I hold dear

the Christmases seen

in life’s rearview mirror.

 

That’s my dad in the middle, and my mom is the one looking down at him; I can’t tell if she’s thinking what a great guy he is or his collar needs more starch. You will notice, dear reader, the Christmas tree in the far right of the photo. If you can remember the insanity of hanging tinsel strand by maddening strand, then you also remember the days when ties were what you could always get your dad for Christmas.

 

 


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November 26.19

The road to here

from distant there

is mapped as

greasy thoroughfare.

‘Mid stain and splotch,

old gizzard drip,

evolution in

encrypted scrip.

Notes to self

in mishmashed order

chase themselves

around the border,

not merely scrap,

timepiece instead,

the years piled up

like cubes of bread.

From my neatnik Mom

through freeform me

the family stuffing

legacy,

preserved in splat

of butter, sage,

for, I hope,

another age.

 

There was nothing like it: the smell on Thanksgiving morning. No, not coffee and bacon. Onion and celery and butter! Smells to float on. Dad would go to Mass and some years I went with him, but usually I stayed home to help. OK, so it should be “help.” I was very good at putting things away just before they were needed, and I was very good at reminding my mother how I disliked pumpkin pie. What a model child I was!

I hope your Thanksgiving memories are good ones, dear reader, and that, amid the bleakness of our times, we can give thanks for the things and people we know to be true and good.

I thank all of you who have stopped by my blog and left an encouraging word or like. Writing is ever on the edge of not-writing, and your kindnesses have kept me going many times.

A very happy Thanksgiving to you, dear reader!

If there is travel, may you and yours come and go in safety.

 


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May 21.19

I grew up in northwest Indiana, just outside Chicago. “Da Region.” Steel mills and oil refineries, cinders and soot. And earthquaking freight trains. Charging, bellowing behemoths, lifeline of thriving industry, they snarled traffic with sadistic impunity.

Mindful that then our phones were back home, attached to a wall, you will understand that life stopped when those behemoths blocked our ways. So there was nothing like the excitement of spotting the caboose. Life could resume! What cheer to the soul! What revving of engines! Until it stopped in the middle of the crossing, taunting us with half a road.

The caboose had the power to make people happy or homicidal.

If you were a kid and lucky, you got to wave at the man in the caboose, and he would wave back. To be noticed by the genie in the caboose was high living tinged with envy: who wouldn’t want to live in a caboose?

Every once in a while, a caboose would show up in some incongruous place, like someone’s yard. Here was mystery. How did it get there? Is the genie still in it?

It was my early introduction to garden art. A caboose in a yard was never mundane. Nor was the occasional non-red caboose, like the jarring countercultural yellow.

As symbol of time and place, the caboose is nonpareil. And when the train is gone and the caboose stands alone in the quiet of clover and vine, what does the caboose tell of the old time and place? Since I am the caboose, I must ask and answer that question.

 

Many thanks to photographer D.J. Berg.

Part Three