What the Very Best Memories Are Built On

§  Pleasant childhood memories come from the most unexpected sources.  §

While talking with a friend not long ago, something I said triggered a pleasant childhood memory for her.  Reminiscing, she told me that her father had been a salesman, on the road sometimes for a week or longer.   Each time he returned from a sales trip, he brought small, inexpensive gifts to her and her brother—things that cost him little or nothing, but simply delighted his small children.  My friend particularly remembered the little paper parasols from fancy drinks (what little girl doesn’t just love those silly things?)

But time passed and she and her brother grew older.  Cheap little mementos no longer sufficed to entertain them, and Dad probably didn’t want to spend his hard-won cash on more expensive keepsakes.  Finally, her Dad warned the two of them, “Don’t ask me what I brought you, or you won’t get anything!”  Of course, my then-young friend didn’t ask…but the parade of little souvenir gifts stopped, anyway.  Such is life as we grow up. But even though there were no more small presents to be had, my friend never forgot the pleasure and excitement of the special things her Dad had brought home from his travels to his young  daughter.

My friend’s memories triggered recollections of my own, things I hadn’t thought about in years.  When my brothers and I were small, I remembered, Dad would often come home on Friday nights bearing a handful of comic books for us.  Probably he had stopped to fuel up the car, and in that era, an attendant would have run out to pump the gas, clean the windshield, check the oil…  In any case, my Dad had time to run inside and grab a pack of his cigarettes, and then a handful of comic books for his children.  But he always chose the good comic books—not just Superman and Wonder Woman, Adam Strange, or The Legion of Superheroes, but many issues of the Illustrated Classics series; even comics that described fascinating times and events in history, such as the rise of the Viking culture.  I loved these beautifully illustrated “serious” comic books, and read them over and over.  Years later, I would be astonished to meet in actual book form the  stories that I’d enjoyed so much in my comic books, when I finally discovered H.G. Wells and Mary Shelley, Jules Verne and Harriet Beecher Stowe.

I remember, too, that when we had moved to the then-unpopulated far south suburbs of Indianapolis, there were nearly no restaurants in our little corner of the universe—or so it seemed to my disappointed 10-year-old-self.  There were certainly no movie theaters, and even the local grocery store was a far slog from the house. But there was a Dog ‘n Suds drive-in a couple of miles from our new home.  The Friday night comic book fest changed to the thrilling adventure of sitting in the car, devouring a delicious meal of hot dogs and fries and root beer after Dad got home from work.  (More than half a century later, I still love hot dogs and root beer, and be damned to how unhealthy a meal it is!)

Vacations, too, held memories for me that had little or nothing to do with the actual trips.  Of a childhood vacation to meet all of Mom’s relatives in Kentucky, I recall nothing at all about the people to whom I was introduced  except for one memorable incident with my distant cousins, when they and my older brother and I were chased madly down a country lane by an enraged sow after we’d gotten too close to her piglets.

And the long three-week trek my parents took us on one summer covering most of the American southwest, seeing supposedly-memorable scenery and monuments, still does not bear a candle in my memory to the year that we spent our summer vacation trekking from one State park to another, hiking the trails and feeding the wildlife, riding in surreys and marching cautiously across swaying suspension bridges, picnicking and stopping at country restaurants to eat huge platters of fried chicken served family-style, topped off by rainbow sherbet for dessert.

The most precious memories that children carry away from their childhood may well have nothing at all to do with what we, their parents, hope to have created for them.  The simplest of events and seemingly-inconsequential occurrences, totally forgotten by the adults in their lives, stand out limned in a brilliant halo of shining light in the mind of each once-child.  It is those incidents which become the bricks and mortar from which children build their most precious memories. As the adults in their lives, all we  can do is to provide them scraps of building material, and watch in wonder what they create from that offering.

Happy Almost-Birthday to you, Morrigan Lynn!
I hope the memories that we, your family, are helping you build will be glorious.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like “The Dance At My Daughter’s Wedding”, which can be found in the Archives from May 11, 2018.

A Memory Walk

§  I hope that others will share the idea and take up the custom of a Memory Walk for the friends and family members they have lost.  §

Last Thursday afternoon my daughter, Amanda, and I, taking little Morrigan Lynn with us, went on a Memory Walk for our late and deeply loved relative, Mary Ellen Chifos, once my mother-in-law, Amanda’s grandmother, and the great-grandmother that Morrigan will never know.

We had been planning to do this since Mary’s passing in January, 2015, but, as I have been heard to say, life sometimes gets in the way of actually living. When the weather was fine enough for this outdoor activity, tasks and necessities intervened, as did major events such as buying and moving into a new home, cancer, surgeries, kidney stones, job changes, pregnancy, birth, new motherhood…. It didn’t matter. We knew that the Memory Walk would happen eventually, precisely when it was supposed to do so. At any rate, we knew that Mary, comfortable in the next realm, understood our delay.

And now, having completed this journey, I think it was all for the best that so much time elapsed between Mary’s passing from Alzheimer’s and the day of our Memory Walk, for in the intervening years, we’d released so much grief. We were finally able to recall with pleasure the lovely and gracious, spiritual, intelligent, and broad-minded woman who was in this lifetime Mary Ellen Chifos. Mary and Sadie_20190903_0001

We went to Brown County (Nashville, Indiana) for this event. Mary, you see, passionately loved this area. She felt that the State park and its surrounding environs were a little slice of heaven, divvied out by a gracious Divinity to enhance Indiana. Decades previously, she had actually moved to the location for a brief time during a personal crisis. Gathering up her little dachshund , she’d gone to live in a small apartment there. Only the dearth of available jobs induced her to leave Nashville and move back to Indianapolis. But she would, during the next decades, return to both the small city and the park over and over again, finding there the peace her soul sought.

So it was Brown County that her granddaughter and I chose to visit while recalling our lost one. We ventured out to the shops that she loved, ate at her favorite restaurant, The Hob Nob, and searched for but failed to locate the small art gallery that recalls so much of Nashville’s bohemian past as the Brown County Art Colony, the avant-garde collective formed in the 1920s. And as we rambled, we talked about Mary and remembered her as she once was, long before Alzheimer’s robbed her of her vivacious personality. We laughed and smiled, remembering, and occasionally felt the bright sparkle of a tear.

IMG_20190905_075648497I carried with me roses in varying colors, one for each decade of Mary’s life, and handed them out to random strangers along our way. Each rose was tied with a simple strip of paper explaining that these flowers were being given to the memory of our lost loved one. Mary adored flowers and grew them by the basketful; she would have approved the gesture, seeing the smiles put on the faces of complete strangers at being the recipients of an unexpected floral gift. The 84-year-old parking attendant, receiving the first rose, related to us that, at her age, there are few contemporaries left to mourn when someone passes.  A young clerk at one of the boutiques said she would save her rose to give that night to her mother, suffering from cancer.  The lady who helped us try moccasins on Morrigan’s chubby little feet, receiving her rose, was taken with the concept of the Memory Walk and said she couldn’t wait to share the idea.

Now that we have finally completed our Memory Walk for Mary, experiencing the way in which it revives special memories, I find myself wishing that others might take up the custom, proceeding on a Memory Walk for friends and family members they have lost. Perhaps they will find some small gift,  something special and pertinent to their loved ones, to bequeath to random strangers along their way, putting a smile on faces, lifting hearts, and substituting joy in the place of sorrow, for that is a true celebration of life.

And if it should happen that someone walks for me one day, I hope they will find a park, green and growing, but also filled with playgrounds for children—someplace simply  teeming with life and joy. I hope they will carry with them my favorite pink roses, one for each decade of my life, each one tied not just with a note stating my name, but with a luscious, deep, dark chocolate, the food with which I hope the streets of Heaven are paved.

But, above all, it’s my dearest hope that they will talk: walk and talk, remembering me; remembering me with laughter. Not with tears; never tears. With laughter.

 

 

The Name of My Year

I know what year it is: 2019. But I don’t yet know what year it will be.

Many, perhaps most people do this, I’ve noticed. The majority of years are thought of just as the number stated at the top of the calendar. But throughout our lifetime, that number often pales into insignificance as we give the year a verbal title recalling events pertinent to us: The Year Joe Died. The Year Haley Was Born. The Year of the Flood, the Wildfire, the Hurricane. The Year We Bought the House. The Year I Graduated.

These titles lend such richness and flavor to our memories that we often speak of them in just that way before stopping a beat—closing our eyes and searching our memories for a moment to recall the actual date of the occurrence: “The year the kids were married—oh, yeah, that was 2017. Yes, October, October 7, 2017.”

I have a flock of years like that in my recollection: arrows of memories winging their way through the skies of reminisce, named for events both traumatic or blessed, as I scroll through the chapters of my life—for that is how I think of them: chapter titles. Beneath each is a viable script, paragraphs of meaning and explanation, tracing details and events quite unrelated, one would think, to that chapter title. Together, they comprise the book of my lifetime, beginning with Chapter One: The Year I Was Born. (Perhaps the book may be titled: I Was Born: It Could Happen to Anybody!)

Since retiring, though, I’ve noticed more of a tendency to think of all of my years as verbal titles, rather than those numbers displayed so prominently at the top of the calendar page. And so I currently look back upon The Year I Retired, followed by The Year of the Cookbooks. (That second odd title requires a touch of explanation, no doubt: That was the year when I told my cousin, proprietor of our late Grandmother Marie’s huge box of recipe cards, “Look here, Susie, you’re busy! You work, you have a teenage daughter. You’re never going to get around to copying those recipes for all of us. I’m retired; time hangs from my hands like loops of yarn. Lend me the cards, and I’ll transcribe them into a cookbook for everyone in the family.”)

And transcribe I did, through the course of one entire spring and summer, occasionally losing a bit of my mind in the process as I stumbled through difficult handwriting, missing information, and antique recipe nomenclature that required hours of research to resolve. (What the HECK was a “29¢ bag of chocolate chips”? 29 CENTS? Or a “Number 2 Can” of pumpkin? For the love of God and little green apples, Grandma, what do you mean, “Bake until done”? Uh, is there a temperature connected with this, much less a time?)

My sanity, such as it is, was severely challenged by the Year of the Cookbooks, yet when it was done, I had a PDF document ready to e-mail to every family member who wanted it, complete with Grandma’s high school graduation photo on the cover, and other pictures and memorable food-related, riotous stories scattered throughout.

Marie Gregory

So delighted was I with the results of my efforts that (definitely, sanity-challenged!) I turned right around and transcribed all my own recipes into a cookbook, also.

The Year of the Cookbook was followed by The Year of the Wedding,Dancing with my daughter at her wedding as I leapt into the preparations (finally—were any two people ever engaged for SO LONG?!) for the wedding of my only daughter. A frustrating, amazing, exhausting, meticulous, wonder-filled and magnificent year, in which everything that could go wrong, did, and yet in which I somehow managed to help produce the most marvelous and glorious wedding possible for my beloved children.

Then came the most recent year, 2018: My Dickens Year. It was, genuinely, the best of times, the worst of times. I might have titled it “The Year of Cancer and of Morrigan’s Birth”, but it’s simpler just to recall it as My Dickens Year. Diagnosed with cancer in January, cured by surgery and prayer and natural treatments in March, and finally overwhelmed by indescribable, heart-breaking, breathtaking, wondrous joy by the birth of my first grandchild in August, it was, beyond any measure, a year of the worst of times, a year of the best of times.002

And so, this morning, as I traced my fingers over the number at the top of the paper calendar that I persist in using and enjoying despite a digital world, I realized: I know what year it is. I do. It is 2019.

But, for the moment, I don’t yet know what year it will be.

An Excellent Memory Is a…Defect?

According to an article I read recently, my excellent memory is not, as one might surmise, the result of careful training and good genes but is, in fact, due to a physical defect. Apparently I am lacking in a specific biochemical which is responsible for sorting and storing memories, relegating recent events to the dusty file cabinets at the back of the brain.  My file drawers hang half-open, it seems, the labeled manila folders within sticking up, where I can “see” many more of them than I should be able to do.

I’ve decided that the information from that article is probably true, for I’ve always had a strange and quirky memory. I can, for instance, recall most of the lines of a ridiculous song which we first graders were taught for a goodbye party, when the Roman Catholic school I attended was saying farewell to one of the parish priests.  “Me and my teddy bear/had no worries had no care/until we discovered Father Sciarria was going away…”  (These aren’t the only lines that I recall, either, but I will not inflict the other trite words on you, the hapless reader.)  I even recall that my mother put a fresh ribbon around the neck of my brother’s carefully refurbished teddy bear for me to carry on this momentous occasion.  Yet a friend who participated with me on that day has no memory of the occurrence, and certainly none of the song.

I also remember squatting with my older brother on the subfloor of the partially-built home my parents were viewing one weekend. My brother and I pushed a knothole out of the wood planks and then dropped nails through the hole to listen for the crash  as they dropped to the concrete of the basement floor below. As to why, in the name of heaven, I recall this, I have no explanation.  I could not have been much above two years old at the time, and it was hardly a stunning or memorable event.  But, there you have it: I remember it, and my brother, three years older than I,  once confirmed the silly recollection.

My fine memory has served me well on many occasions. The ability to recall minute details of specific events and conversations has saved me from many a misunderstanding, made my job easier, or made it possible for me to solve difficult problems.  And I have learned that to recall a joyful incident can be, for just an instant, to live once more in that moment of elation. But, in the converse, being able to recall, in tortuous detail, painful past events is in no way a blessing.  If recalling joy is to rediscover it, then a thorough memory of agonizing occurrences is to fully relive the anguish.

I’ve read, too, that each time we remember an event, we are actually remembering that we remember it.  The memory is, in essence, a watery, beaten carbon copy, growing more mangled and less precise with each repetition.  This causes me to wonder if the details that I recall—such as that fresh ribbon on the neck of the teddy bear—did, in fact, happen. It’s the sort of conundrum which makes eye witness accounts (as so many police departments and courts have learned to their dismay) totally unreliable.  What a witness remembers, may, in fact, not be borne out by the simple expedient of today’s everywhere-present videos.  People remember things oddly, or incorrectly, or that never even happened.

But the simple truth remains: if I remember the occurrence or event—if I recall it, and experience all the emotions surrounding it—then it is real to me. Whether or not I have added or lost specific details—whether or not I recall things precisely as they happened—they exist for me in the reality of my mind.

So I would not, not for any reason, and certainly not to be spared pain, give up one iota of my crazy, quirky, detailed memory. Not one sunset, not one touch of my daughter’s hand, not one friend’s face, nor one moment of awe or surprise or elation or even just simple, everyday life from my earliest childhood to this present moment.

It would seem that I’m not defective in that I have too little of whatever brain biochemical should relegate my sharp memories to the dusty file bins at the back of my brain. Indeed, it seems to me that those who have the “normal” amount of that compound must have far too much of it—and lose so much thereby.

 

 

Remembering Advice

As mentioned in an earlier post, I used to read the newspaper advice columns religiously. As regularly as I attended daily mass at my Roman Catholic grade school, and with a great deal more religious fervor, I read Ann Landers in the morning paper and Dear Abbey in the evening news.  And because I have a quirky, persnickety memory, some of those columns have remained in my head forever.

I particularly recall one that related to a young couple who had requested that no very small infants be brought to their wedding. This was a hot topic at the time: Do babies so young that they will likely cry and disrupt the wedding service actually belong at a wedding, or not?  This young woman and her fiancé had chosen “not”, and she and her husband had been paying for it ever since.

The husband’s sister, it seemed, had borne a child  just shortly before the wedding, and was resentful of the young couple’s decision. She’d contrived a very specific revenge.  Since the sister’s home and yard were the largest, all family gatherings and holidays were held there.  Her brother and his wife had been excluded from every get-together since their wedding.  The angry sister refused to have them in her home.  Being continually excluded from his own family gatherings broke the young man’s heart, and his wife was wracked with guilt, blaming herself for their ostracism.

I don’t recall now what the advice columnist’s response was, but I certainly knew what my own reply would have been, and to this day I wish I’d sent in my retort to the newspaper regarding the vengeful sister’s behavior. It might have gone something like this:

Dear A,

In response to the young woman and her husband who were excluded from all family gatherings after requesting that no small babies be brought to their wedding ceremony, my question is: Does no one in this family have a spine?!

Here’s the salient point: Babies are a surefire draw for attention, and Little Sister just couldn’t STAND the thought of not stealing her brother’s thunder on his wedding day. I would be willing to bet my next paycheck that Little Sis has been the spoiled darling of the family her whole life.  She just couldn’t abide not being the center of attention, even at her own brother’s wedding.

But to make him and his new wife pay for her petty narcissism by ostracizing them from every family gathering from thence onward is taking spitefulness to an entirely new level! How long does the average wedding and reception last?  Four or five hours?  And how many times has the young couple been excluded from family events, times the number of hours?  Every July 4th, every Memorial and Labor Day celebration, every Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner?  Four or five hours each,  multiplied by the years that this nastiness has gone on, equals what?  The spoiled little princess has gotten her payback with a vengeance, along with thousands in interest.

Someone in this family of spineless wonders needs to stand up to this narcissistic little shrew and say, “Enough already! You’ve gotten your revenge.  Now act like the adult you supposedly are and make up with your brother and his wife.  Otherwise, the next family gathering will be held at MY home, and the only one not invited will be YOU. And don’t give me that ‘you have the biggest home and yard’ crap.  There isn’t any home or yard large enough if love is absent.  Or have you never heard that proverb which begins,  ‘Better a dinner of herbs where love is’?”

All these decades after reading that advice column, I still do wonder if someone in that family group ever got up the gumption to smack the spoiled princess upside her nasty, narcissistic, vengeful little head. Knowing families as I do, though, probably not.  They were probably united in their resentment of the outsider who had upset their precious darling, and never forgave her brother for wanting his wedding day to be focused on him and his bride, rather than his spoiled sister.

But I do wish I’d written that letter.