Tag Archives: remembering

The Verdict

We left the dinner table and turned the television on to public broadcasting—the stolid, unflashy journalism of non-commercial news. PBS allowed us to take a pass on the stacked rows of talking heads, the frenetic split screens, and the emergency-of-the-day theme music of the major media outlets.

We watched, heartsick, as the Ferguson prosecutor unrolled his strange presentation. My husband’s face growing harder, the kids trying to figure out—as we all were—what he was actually saying in his weird, meandering speech.

Eventually, we turned the television off. The family wandered off to their routine pursuits, I slowly worked in the kitchen, listening to radio coverage and pausing now and again to check the rage burning its way through Twitter.

My nephew, a journalism student at a university in Missouri, tweeted that he couldn’t pull away from the Ferguson coverage focus on his homework. In  his classes, he’s learning what journalism is meant to be; why it matters; how to be a good journalist. On this night he was applying those lessons to what he saw before him as Ferguson erupted in pain and disappointment on the television screen.

We tweeted back and forth a bit. He wrote about seeing history in the making, about his hopes that the turmoil would lead to change.

Our brief exchange reminded me of so many things.

I remembered the excitement of seeing history unfolding before me when I was his age, my eyes increasingly opened to the world outside my own small environment.

The Challenger Explosion — The Solidarity Movement — The Fall of the Berlin Wall — The Breakup of the Soviet Union  —  The AIDS crisis— Tiananmen Square — Mandela’s Release — The Invasion of Kuwait — The Dismantling of Apartheid — The Dayton Accords  — so many others.

I remembered the names of people. The change-makers becoming icons before our eyes  because they acted on their convictions or because they unintentionally became the face of a movement that changed things for the better.

Christa McAuliffe — Lech Walesa — Nelson Mandela — Ryan White — Randy Shilts  — Václav Havel —Desmond Tutu — the anonymous protestor who stood alone in front of the tanks in Tiananmen Square — so many others.

I remembered beginning to understand that behind those familiar faces, those big names, stood many unacknowledged and unnamed people who worked alongside them to make change happen.

I remembered how their hard-fought optimism seemed to sweep the cobwebs away from the world.

On the night the Ferguson verdict was announced and I stood in the kitchen tweeting with my nephew I knew—just as I knew yesterday when the Garner verdict was announced—that my college self, that naïve, optimistic college girl, would never have believed this.

That optimistic college girl would never have believed  that in 2014 she’d find herself standing in the kitchen listening to the despair and rage of the protestors in Ferguson, Missouri, who have had enough of blatant racism and brutality by police. Or that a few days later another, similar verdict would set off more protests, centering this time in New York.

She would never have believed that she’d witness an important historical moment revealing not how far we’ve come, but how long we’ve stood still, looking over our shoulders at a past we haven’t come close to leaving behind.

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Foundation

When I was in college my parents sold the weekend property—“the farm”— they had bought when I was a child. The cabin and the forty acres it stood on were a giant playground on which I spent a great deal of my childhood. It was the perfect place for a kid with a large imagination, a peaceful place where every day irritants like sibling warfare and family squabbles never seemed to matter. Everyone loosened up a bit when we pulled into the long, overgrown driveway.

There was a place of mystery at the farm. A short distance from the cabin was a mound. It was a rather small, horseshoe-shaped mound, but to me as a child it was huge. I liked to think it was an ancient Indian mound even after my father explained that it was the foundation of the house that had once stood on the property. All evidence pointed that way, though I didn’t want it to. The mound was located next to the old iron hand pump where we still got our water, worn stone steps led from the pump into the mound—the root cellar—and we found several broken stoneware plates embedded into the soil.

The ruined foundation was beautiful to me. Grass grew over the two sides of the horseshoe, long and unmown. Trees shaded the curve where it bent in on itself. They were young trees, some walnut, mostly maple. Grapes grew at the base of the right side. On the left side was the green-painted pump and, at the end, a dead tree.

The dead tree was one of my favorite perches. Both the mound and its dead tree were on top of a hill, and I could stand on a broken-off branch at the base of the tree and lean against its decaying trunk and look out across the valley. I could see our land as it sloped down and out of sight into the creek bed and then rose up again on the other side as someone else’s property— it looked the same in reverse, the upward slope mirroring ours. The tiny white farmhouse at the top of that property was just visible from my tree.

I wondered if the farmer across the valley had known the people who had lived in the house on the mound. I wished to know their history. I made up stories about them.

The steps that led down to the center of the mound were well set. Only a few had cracks running across them. They were rough, hand hewn from the rock that covered the hills. Each stone was rectangular, wide, and thick. Even after such long exposure to the elements, the steps were even and steady. Other than the steps, the pump, the mound, and the occasional bits and pieces of crockery, there was not a trace left of the house that had once stood there.

As my brother, sister, and I grew older, the inevitable happened. The farm had lost its novelty. We became preoccupied with basketball games, dances, and our friends. Much to my father’s disappointment, the three of us joined our parents for trips to the farm with less and less often and, finally, not at all. The lives of each of us moved in new directions. My parents and I moved to a new city and my brother and sister went to college. The farm remained where it was, further distanced from us by geography. Reluctantly, my father sold it.

When I think back on that horseshoe-shaped mound—even at a remove of over 25 years—it is easy to imagine what happened to the people who once lived there. The children probably grew up and away from the farm. They followed paths they thought were better, destinations that held new mysteries, new experiences. They left the mossy steps, the broken dishes, the footprint of their house behind them, just as we left the farm behind us, too.

I miss the farm. I regret that I let the last few years of driving down the long gravel driveway go by without savoring them. It was a place that played an important part of who I was—of who I am even now—and I feel a bond with the unknown family who once inhabited the same patch of earth that we did.

I hope that their memories of the place were as fond as mine are, and I hope that any regrets they may have had were only those of leaving a place that was much loved.

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A note on the text: This essay is an odd collaboration between me and myself. In the spring of 1990, when I was a senior at Ohio University, I took a nature writing course with the poet John Haines, who was spending the year in Athens as a visiting professor. Springtime in SE Ohio, in the foothills of the Appalacian Mountains, is glorious, and it was the perfect time to take such a course. I wrote a version of this essay–then called “The Mound”–for that class. 

For the past couple of weeks I’ve been working on an idea that has its origins at the farm. I’d completely forgotten “The Mound.”  For whatever reason, I found myself rummaging through old boxes this week and there it was. A sheaf of papers from my nature writing class, typed out on my portable electric typewriter. This new version has been revised and edited by yours truly.

Funny how that happens.

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The Lamb

March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb, the saying goes.  This one started off no differently than in most years–a month in transition, weeks that feel as if the earth is holding its breath until spring decides if it will remain or go back into hiding. The weather is another matter, almost schizophrenic in its indecision. The first couple of weeks of March this year the Pacific Northwest got more than 18 inches of rain. We normally average seven.

In one window of time, a window that is still wide open, tragedy has struck all around. A vast mudslide buried a whole community, swallowing up houses, cars, people, everything in its path. A helicopter fell from a helipad onto traffic below. A father died, skiing an easy run on a blue bird day.

Yesterday, I got in the elevator at the medical center behind a woman in a wheelchair, her leg bandaged from a recent amputation, her head shaved, likely because of an aggressive treatment. She made light conversation with the security guard who had wheeled her in. They chatted about flowers, warm air, the welcome sun. Part of her story is plain to see. Her tone of voice, her brightness keeps the rest hidden.

On two separate occasions recently I have seen women I know from a distance. Too far to greet them, but close enough to see that they, too, have shorn heads. Both beautiful; both stylish; both could easily carry the look. Hopeful, I asked a friend if the woman we saw at the same moment had shaved her head by choice. If anyone has the guts to do it, I thought, she does. “No,” said my friend. “It was not a choice.”

March wasn’t always a complicated month. I mostly considered it forgettable—one of those parts of the year that seem to slip by almost without notice. No real holidays, no big national events. Just a spell of time between the dark days of winter and the glory of the “real” spring months of warmth and life.

Then, years ago, a nephew was born. It became his birthday month. Eventually, after another stretch of years, my daughter was born. It was her month, too. Only two years passed before a family tragedy struck–sudden, inexplicable.

March became something different after that. A lopsided month that has a significance it doesn’t deserve; this previously nothing month. The joy of the two birthdays is now always weighed down by poignancy, even though we work hard to lighten the load.

Today, a long-awaited breakfast with friends I don’t see often enough. We greeted one another with laughter and hugs. And then we somberly recounted our connections among the newly dead, the recently hurt and ill. We live in a large city, but two of us know the family of the skier who died. One of us knows a man who lost three family members in the mudslide. Another knows relatives of the man seriously injured when the helicopter fell. All of us know one of the two women with shorn hair.

We stayed there a while, in the place where collective sadness helps rather than hurts, but then we started in on our brimming plates of warm food. We shifted the weight of our hearts and our conversation so we could talk of kids and school; of spring, blooms, and sunlight; of life eventually coming back and drying out the saturated earth. Because that’s what it does. Regardless of circumstances, regardless of the times it weighs us down, life just keeps on coming back.

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Flat Rate Archives*

The boxes are sitting on my Seattle steps, bright white against the dark, mildew-stained stairs. I heft them up; they’re surprisingly heavy.  I elbow my way inside the front door and drop them on the table with a thump.  The red and blue lettering reveals nothing about what’s inside, though I have my suspicions. I find scissors and slide one blade through the clear packing tape.

Flat rate boxes are a marvel:  we can fit anything we want into them, no matter how heavy, and ship them across the country for one low price.  My dusty storage boxes in Ohio, so long forgotten, are being downsized.  My mother is emboldened by the low cost. She is shipping the detritus of my youth to me one medium-sized, flat-rate box at a time.

But what to do with them?

This is my dilemma.  My drawers are already filled with scraps, bits, pieces.  Newspaper articles, half-finished poems, notes for haikus, drawings from the kids, kudos given long ago for acts unremembered.  Post cards, lists, film negatives.  My mind drifts backwards, always has.

These thin, nondescript cardboard boxes contain the elusive, fragmentary stuff of memory.  Their arrival has hurled me headlong into a hurricane rush of imagery, words, and emotion.  Long ago memories are again fresh as the rain that soaked the cardboard edges of the boxes as they sat on the front steps waiting for me.

I pull out stacks of letters, their envelopes still crisp after so many years in the dark. There are dozens of them, all mixed together. The letters smell of paper dust and old libraries. I think back to my days working in the rare books collection of the library during college. Long afternoons spent in the climate-controlled vault, shelving rare editions, books that only researchers with special permissions had access to. Hours spent reading and organizing the personal correspondence of journalism magnate E.W. Scripps—the thin onionskin paper, letters typed in duplicate by an anonymous, probably overworked, secretary. I was trained to treat envelopes, postage, paper with the utmost respect and care. Most of them are digitized now, but the hardcopies are still hoarded in the archives as treasures of a bygone age.

This flat-rate archive spans my own bygone age.  It is evidence of a particularly transition-ridden time: moving to a new town, the change from high school to college, the shift from undergraduate to graduate school. I see the handwriting and, even before I focus enough to read the names, I know which of my long ago friends sent each one.

The letters inside these envelopes echo back to me the shared experience we all had of leaving home for the first time and making our way in the world. But even if I didn’t have the letters themselves, the envelopes are artifacts enough for anyone to follow our journey into adulthood. The dates stamped on the outside show a flurry of letter writing at the start of these years, a tapering off in the middle, and then, eventually, the letters come to an end as we gain confidence in where we’re headed. The addresses show our moves from one place to another, from cheap apartment to cheap apartment, with brief layovers at our parents’ houses.  The later letters are typed out on computers, their dot-matrix ink now fading.

When I rifle through these boxes, trying to decide how to handle this rush of memory, I see the handwriting of my two grandmothers. I catch a glimpse of the precisely written addresses, the classically formed letters–themselves icons of a lost era. These letters bring my grandmothers vividly to mind in a way photographs of them do not. Photos show their images, but from a formal distance. Photographs show my grandparents on “occasions,” but the letters are based everyday life.

I hear their voices, again, through words on the page. The “God bless you!” at the end of each letter from Grandma Lynch.  Grandma Flynn’s funny expressions, “We have green grass again—and we also have scads of something else—Box Elder bugs. They are driving me up the wall.”

On visits to Wisconsin when I was a child, I lingered in their kitchens, listening while they worked and talked “grown up” talk with my mother. I didn’t know who they were talking about and didn’t really care. I just wanted to be in their domains, to listen to their voices, to absorb their presence. The letters they later wrote to me were my admission as an equal into that grown up world. My grandmothers summarized for me in their letters what they always told my mother in the kitchen: who was at the dinner party, which relatives were coming to town, what was happening at church, the description of a new recipe, a little bit of gossip.

These pieces of paper are an inheritance from my grandmothers. Their letters are a physical manifestation of love.  Each of my grandmothers selected the stationery, took time from her day to write and tell me what had happened in her life, carefully folded and creased the paper, sealed it, and sent it out from Wisconsin to wherever I happened to be.

Each of the letters from friends, scrawled in the wee hours of the morning, is a gift, too. A gift of time and friendship that cannot be replicated with a text message or social media update. Each moment described, each question pondered, each “I just wanted to say hi” required a conscious effort. A handwritten letter is a time-oriented task, a true investment in friendship and connection.

It’s been years since I received—or sent–a wonderfully thick, handwritten letter full of news and observations. With the rush of technology changing every aspect of how we communicate, I often hear and, to be honest, worry a little about the death of this or that: the death of the book, the death of traditional newspapers, the death of handwriting. I comfort myself knowing that technological advances often signal a sort of evolution rather than annihilation, but I know this is not true of the letter. I knew long before the advent of the laptop and the internet that the art of letter writing was on its deathbed, and that is one of the reasons I kept this jumbled archive in the corner of my parents’ dark basement.

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This essay first appeared in the October 2011 issue of Hippocampus Magazine. Because of a kind comment he made on my first published essay, I met a very talented blogger, Mr. London Street, whose entertaining and thoughtful observations of life inspired me to start this blog. He introduced me to most of the other bloggers on my Favorites List. Sadly, Mr. London Street is retiring from the blogging business, but his blog is still available, so I do hope you’ll check it out.

 

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