Memory

My Mom suffered from dementia during her last years. A good friend’s mother did too. So we occasionally share tips for keeping our minds sharp; things like brushing teeth or buttoning a shirt with one’s opposite hand, and counting backward from 100 by 7’s. We don’t know whether they help, but it makes us feel better to make the effort, I guess. No one wants to lose precious memories.

Memory is incongruous. It can be selective, like people my age who complain about kids or Millennials, forgetting their own behavior “back in the day”. Memory can also be the feeling of a touch you had forgotten that somehow comes back to you in the shape of a blackberry pie. It is the scent of walking past a stranger’s home when dinner is cooking, and those familiar smells suddenly fill you with an inescapable yearning. Sometimes you can almost feel as if you have fallen into a vortex and are rushing back in time.

Memory is a temperamental and occasionally sadistic beast. You forget where you left your car keys and yet you remember the first gift you gave to your boyfriend for Christmas in 1966. You momentarily forget the password for your FB account, which you obviously know because you use it daily, but you instantly recall the phone number of the house where you grew up. Sometimes you remember, out of nowhere seemingly, the lyrics to a long-forgotten song, and yet you can’t seem to remember what you fixed for dinner two nights ago. Cherish is a word I use to describe… all the feelings….

Why do we easily remember some things, and why does the powerful, magical entity that is our brain hold out on other things? How does some of the most vital stuff slip away? Is it possible that the memories we have are not always true, but simply what we have dreamed them to be, as in the case of my fellow boomers and their selective memories?

Maybe it helps to know that life doesn’t always demand memory. A chameleon licking a leaf dripping with dew doesn’t ask where the water came from. It just drinks.

(Don’t Give Me) That Old-Time Religion

There were three churches in the small town where I grew up. My family attended the Church of Christ, but there were also Methodist and Nazarene churches. Most of my friends attended either my church or the Methodist. We always felt sorry for the kids who attended the Nazarene Church. That church was strict about girls and women not wearing makeup, and that was something we looked forward to. The Nazarene Church also frowned on dancing, and my friends and I couldn’t wait to be old enough to attend the Junior High, which held periodic dances. We also felt sorry for the Nazarene kids because their church was housed in a metal building, not “nice” ones like ours. The core beliefs might not have been that far apart, but one of the major disagreements revolved around baptism. My church firmly, righteously, insisted on verbally dedicating one’s life to Christ by the early teens at the latest, followed by immersion. The other two churches baptized by “sprinkling”, and each insisted its way was the only way. I guess all those “Judge not that ye be not judged” speeches fell on deaf ears.

When I was in 4th grade, we got a new pastor. He and his wife had three young boys. Initially, they were welcomed warmly by our congregation. The pastor was young, enthusiastic, and his joyful spirit spread quickly through our congregation. When I was in Junior High, it was our pastor’s idea to take the Junior High youth group to the city of Akron to see the movie It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. I remember how plush the seats were, so much nicer than in our little hometown Duncan Theater. How I laughed at that movie, and afterward we went out to eat, which I think was a pretty rare thing for any of us then. It sounds silly, but I had so much faith then, faith in my church, faith in the world, even faith in my faith.

My youthful attendance at the Church of Christ in my little town was awash in salvation testimonials that consistently backfired for me. Meant to inspire with tales of redemption, more often than not these stories, books, and films clued me in to the horrors of the world. For instance, there were the knife fights I learned about in The Cross and the Switchblade. My Sunday school teachers all kept warning us that something would forever be missing from our lives if we didn’t completely immerse ourselves in the religious dogma they insisted on drumming into our heads. But for me, all the lectures began to turn me against what I started to think might be fake Christianity.

The faith that I still had was shaken later that year when our Sunday School teacher chastised a teen visiting from another town, telling her that she must convert to “our” particular church or she would go to hell. That church didn’t baptize by immersion as ours did, and “everyone knew”, the teacher said, that immersion was the only way to be saved. A couple of others and I questioned the teacher. We were told that good Christians never questioned. But I did, and I felt terrible for that girl, who fought back tears that day, and never visited our church again. A few years later, a group of people from our church chased our pastor, that fine man, out of the ministry because he once rode a sled downhill with the woman who taught our High School Sunday School class.

For a long time after that, even after I grew up, and still completely believed, I had the pervading feeling that something could be missing from my life, different things at different times. But why? Why was something missing? If not success, then love, if not love, then friendship, if not friendship, then something else, even something as simple as an ingredient. Is there a cook alive who has not had the experience of baking cookies; creaming the butter and sugar, mixing in the eggs, then adding the flour, baking soda, salt, and vanilla, and only then realizing that someone has found and eaten the entire bag of chocolate chips she thought she had hidden so well? Occasionally, I even used to wake up and wonder: what will be missing today?

Eventually, I fell away from religion. Today, I see religion as completely wrapped up with Republican policies. I know that doesn’t explain why I fell away to begin with. Many people who are religiously unaffiliated still believe in God. But the scandals in the church of my youth sparked a crisis of faith for me. I began to view religion’s rules as antiquated, restrictive, and irrelevant to my life. Today I am at the point that I can barely stand Christian conservatives and their social agenda.

I identified as a Christian, at least intellectually, for many years, even though I no longer attended church. But, more and more, I began to believe that Christianity might be a crock of shit. I kept up appearances, mostly so that I didn’t get the “I’ll pray for you!” If I told people what I actually felt, I knew I’d get the ‘talk’. “Do you really want to burn in Hell?” I thought Jesus was okay. He seemed like a decent guy. But if I mentioned that I wasn’t convinced he ever lived, and moreover, if he did, he was not white, given the area of the world in which he lived, I was met with either condescension or disgust. “Judge not that ye be not judged” seemed to apply to deaf ears of all ages.

If I asked random Christians to explain the Gospel, could the majority of them explain it? I doubt it. If you can’t explain your faith, do you really know it? I think if you asked most professed Christians why they are Christian, they would immediately tell you that they were born into a Christian household. It’s like hearing someone proclaim that they are Republican or Democrat because that is the environment their parents raised them in.

Many of the “Christians” who are my FB friends seem to ascribe to the moral view of God as some sort of cosmic genie who will give you candy if you are a “good” Christian, like the butterscotch candy my Grandma used to give me as long as she thought I was being nice. If we are nice to each other, we’ll end up at the pearly gates. Of course, for the majority of the “good” Christians that I know, being nice only seems to apply to being nice to other white folks. The mark of Christians I see today is outrage and condescension, particularly when it comes to politics. If someone says something they disagree with, they show no signs of respecting that person, let alone loving them.

My Mom and I disagreed about lots of things. By the time I was a full-fledged adult, I did not share her religion. I got on her nerves sometimes, and she surely got on mine. But we always loved each other. Our differences of opinion didn’t really matter, and made us appreciate each other more. She would prefer that I not burn in Hell because I never took my children to church. But she loved me.

Now, it annoys me to no end when someone implies that one has to embrace a certain religion to hold to any standards of behavior. I respect everyone’s right to believe as they wish. For me, in spite of the fact that I am part of the rapidly growing group of the un-churched, my life is full.

Dad

Thirty years ago, on Saturday, July 21, 1989, the kids and I drove to Killbuck for the afternoon to visit Mom and Dad. I took Dad the apple pie I had baked for him that morning. He liked all the pies I baked, except for lemon meringue, which he always said tasted like soap. His favorite by far was apple, and that was the kind he usually requested when I asked him if he wanted me to bake a pie. And he always made sure to remind me, when we discussed the pie question, to make sure I made that pie thick, really thick, with way more apples than were called for in the recipe. He liked his apple pies mile-high.

I remember it was a warm and sunny fall day and we had a nice visit, but by late afternoon the kids were anxious to head home. Drue was a freshman in high school and Erin was a sixth grader, and they had things to do. Two days later, on the evening of October 23, my brother called to tell me that Dad had died of a massive heart attack.

I adored my Dad. If he had walked on water in front of me, I would not have been a bit surprised. And I always felt loved and adored by him. I’m happy, to this day, that I told Dad and Mom that I loved them frequently.

My Dad had two mottoes. One was: Peace at any price. The other was: Turn the other cheek. I know that I mentioned in an earlier blog that those particular mottoes were kind of double-edged swords for me. But he tried very hard to live those mottoes.

My Dad’s childhood was far from comfortable. He was a master story-teller and he told me a story every night of my childhood… at least until I decided that I was no longer a child and the stories should end. Many of them made me laugh, some of his war stories did that, too, but more of them made me cringe. If I wondered aloud about the veracity of his war stories, he had the WWII photos he took on Guam to prove his story’s validity.

I could never get the sad stories of his childhood out of my head. I did not doubt these stories were true. His twin brother, my Uncle Fred, and his younger brother, my Uncle Bob, told them the same way, whenever you could get them to, which wasn’t often. They wanted to forget their youth.

My Dad and his brothers lost their Mom to tuberculosis two weeks before he and Fred turned 7 and their brother Bob was 3. Within a year, their Dad, Carl, remarried their mother’s best friend, Mildred. Five years later, ten days before Frank and Fred turned twelve, and Bob was eight, their father died of tuberculosis. This was in late January, 1925. A month earlier, Mildred and Carl had lost their two-year-old daughter to tuberculosis. Mildred was five months pregnant with their second daughter. She had lost her first child and her husband within a month.

So she did what most would consider unthinkable. She told the three boys to pack a few things and get out, and told them she did not care where they went, but they were never to return home, for it was no longer their home, but hers. So with the clothes on their back, each carrying a small box with a few pitiful items in each, they left the home where they had been born. They walked a few miles to their grandmother Louise’s house. Their grandfather, Fred, their father’s father, had died the summer before. Louise had quit farming after her husband passed. But when those three boys showed up on her doorstep, she resumed farming and raised them with love and very little money.

As a result of his childhood, my Dad acquired those mottoes I referred to earlier. He never wanted to fight with anyone. He couldn’t stand to hear voices raised in anger.

Dad always said that I was going to college. He had never had the opportunity, and he was determined that I would. He dearly wanted me to become a teacher, which was probably the main reason I majored in English and entered the field of education. I wanted to please my Dad.

I was reminiscing over the weekend, and I baked a pie for Drue and his family on Sunday. Today, I baked one for Erin and her crew. They were apple pies, of course.

It’s been thirty years, but Dad, I still miss you, and always will.

My Dad, in the back, on the left

As Todd just said of my Dad, “He grew up hard, but he always had boundless optimism. He always had that smile on his face.”
Yes, he did.

But…your hair?

Me diligently working on the WHHS ’69 yearbook. Note the smooth, dark hair.

Fifty years is a long time. That’s how I began the FB post I wrote after Todd and I attended my West Holmes’ Class of 1969 reunion. In the post I reflected on an evening spent renewing connections with fellow classmates. The planning committee had thoughtfully made name tags bearing our Senior yearbook photo and name. These proved to be extremely helpful, for though we took turns proclaiming that one person or another “hadn’t changed a bit”, we all knew that was not exactly true. Certain people’s laughs and smiles were instantly recognizable, but we all realized that fifty years had wrought many changes. We talked and laughed and remembered.

You probably noticed the title of this post. That’s because seven different people mentioned my hair during the course of conversations. Lest you think that I was offended by these comments, let me assure you that I was not. I was amused, not the oh-my-goodness-that’s-hilarious kind of amused, more like curiously amused and a bit puzzled.

My Mom’s beautician, who always cut my hair when I was a kid, proclaimed my hair the perfect shade of chestnut brown. It was dark and thick, with reddish highlights. Whenever the beautician cut it, she also ‘thinned’ it at Mom’s request. She always argued against the use of the thinning shears, saying that continued use would cause my hair eventually to lose its thickness, though there is no scientific basis whatsoever to support that statement. Mom always thought my hair too thick and unmanageable, so she made me keep it short and ‘thinned.’ My hair was also naturally wavy.

By the time I was a teenager I wanted straight hair, like 95 percent of the other girls I knew. My Mom would have preferred that I have kept my hair super short, but in high school I convinced her to allow me to let it grow at least into a kind of a pageboy, with just the hint of a curvy curl just above chin level. Pageboy styles are usually straight.

To remedy my non-straight hair I slept on curlers the size of 12-ounce orange juice cans every night for YEARS. I have never liked hair spray, so I refused to use it, like many other girls did. Their hair was frozen into compliance by their use of clouds and clouds of spray. Most nights the orange juice-sized curlers did a half-way decent job. But when humid days arrived, particularly in early September, or on the occasion of a special date, stricter measures were called for.

That is when I broke out the iron. Ironing one’s hair was a delicate matter. If you got the iron too hot, you risked frying your tresses. Then you would be forced to face the decision of cutting off the offending burnt remains, conditioning the heck out of it with olive oil or mayonnaise, or simply living with the ensuing ugliness. The other risk you faced ironing your hair involved accidentally burning your scalp, or heaven forbid, your face. Fortunately, I never burned myself. My own technique required laying the end of a towel down on the ironing board. Once the iron was heated, pretty warm but not TOO hot, I put my head down on the ironing board, put the other half of the towel on top of my hair, and ironed the towel, and hence, my hair. I actually got pretty skilled with the technique.

After high school, living away from my mother, who detested long hair, I let my hair grow until it was about halfway down my back. I took a tiny ironing board to college to keep my hair as straight as could be. I also helped many girls on my dorm floor with similar hair problems. I don’t think I ever used that ironing board for what it was designed. My favorite photo of myself in college was one taken during my sophomore year. My roommate, our two friends across the hall, and I posed for a snapshot. I was wearing a heather turtleneck sweater. My hair was dark, shiny, and very long. It looked the way I always wanted it to look. That was in the fall of 1970.

By the time I turned thirty, pregnancies, changing hormones, and aging had begun to have an effect on my hair. It was not as thick as it once was. Even my Mom agreed that I had no need to thin my hair anymore. Soon after, my lovely chestnut brown tresses started to fade. My hair began to gray, but mostly it just faded. In the years since I’ve worn my hair short, long, longer yet, short again, and on and on, and I haven’t ironed it for years.

I learned to accept my thinning, fading, wavy hair. In fact, I even came to embrace my wavy hair. I actually kind of like it wavy today. In my late forties, my color faded even more, and the once beautiful chestnut highlights turned into more of a light brownish-red. In my early fifties I experimented sporadically with coloring my own hair, but the results were uneven at best. So about ten years ago, I jumped with enthusiasm onto the color wheel. My hairdresser tries to keep my shade where it was when she started. But when the roots start to show now, and they show way too soon, the color is fading now to the point of very light brown and gray at the roots on top of my head and closer to white at my neckline.

Fifteen years ago, at the only other reunion I’ve attended, one person asked me about my hair. “What happened to your hair?” she asked. “It was always so dark.”At the time, I just shrugged and said that it had faded, and that it had been years since it had been dark brown, and we went on to converse about other things.

This time seven people broached the topic. “What happened to your hair?” one after another asked. “It used to be so dark and straight.” I gave the same explanation to each person: my hair faded years ago, I long ago quit sleeping on curlers, the current color is close to what I think it may be, and I am comfortable with my look today. Two people actually reached out and touched my hair. Then I started wondering: doesn’t my hair look real, or is it really that ugly?

Interestingly enough, three of the women who asked were completely gray, which I found baffling. Obviously their hair had changed. Why not mine? One of my former classmates said that she keeps hers colored the exact same shade it was when we were in high school. Except of course, we are fifty years out of high school.

I’ve been wondering why people asked about my hair. We talked about other things, once we got the hair question out of the way. We discussed children, grandchildren, the jobs we had held. We complimented one another. One classmate was surprised that I hadn’t majored in Math in college, since I always did so well in the subject.

A couple of fellows told me that I had always been kind to them. One even asked to have his picture taken with me because he told me that I was the only pretty girl who was ever nice to him. It was nice to be called pretty because I never thought of myself like that, and it certainly made me glad that I was nice to him, but how sad that his perception was that most pretty girls gave him no mind.

I am glad I went to the reunion. But, I must admit, the hair thing still intrigues me. A person’s face bears the stamp of time’s passage, but one’s hair can theoretically remain unaltered for decades with little effect since you can cover up the gray, though you sure cannot make it thicker. I guess maintaining one’s tresses helps us control how we appear to age. In conversation, people’s eyes are directed toward others’ heads. The hair on that head, or the lack of it, or the color of it, becomes one of that head’s most prominent features. Because hair is so visible, it becomes part of a person’s identity. Possibly my dark, straightened, always-under-control hair during my high school years became part of my persona as a smart person, and maybe a staid and reliable one too?

I like to think that today, in the 21st century, so-called normal aging patterns no longer exist, and we can age the way we want to, not the way we’ve been told to. But, as a true question lady, I keep wondering, why was my hair the first thing those seven people asked me about after fifty years? Why did they expect me to be the same? And, since they were inquiring, I wondered why they didn’t also ask about Todd’s hair. He wore his thick, graying, long hair in the usual way, his ponytail dangling down his back.

Me at my recent 50th reunion, with name tag featuring my Senior yearbook photo

C’est La Vie

September is a lovely time to get married. September can be a fickle month, often alternating between hot and humid and cool and autumnal. This past Saturday the morning dawned cool and a bit foggy. By late morning the fog had burned off, the sun appeared, and the temperature hovered in the mid-seventies. Saturday, September 7, 2019, my granddaughter, Mckinsey, got married. Somewhat shockingly to both of us, Todd and I are now officially old enough to have a married grandchild. Mckinsey was our first grandchild, and we always say that she taught us to be grandparents. I witnessed the exact moment she came into this world because I got to be in the delivery room with my daughter and Mckinsey’s father on that August day in 1997. Ah, life!

The relationship back then between Mckinsey’s Mom and Dad was rocky at best, possibly because they were nineteen when they became parents. When our sweet granddaughter was thirteen months old, Erin separated from Mckinsey’s Dad, and Erin and Mckinsey moved in. For the next three plus years they lived with us. For a time Kinsey’s father wasn’t terribly interested in fatherhood, and Erin’s job as manager of the county Humane Society required her to work from noon until 9:00 or so, and many weekends. So our new little household evolved into kind of a shared parenting of Mckinsey. It was not without disagreements, for sure, but we managed to work it out. Erin got to spend mornings with her, and Todd and I watched her most evenings. Consequently, when Kinsey learned to talk, she referred to both Erin and I as Mom. Todd was Dad. We didn’t teach her to call us that. She just did. Some time after the divorce, Mckinsey’s biological father decided to re-establish a relationship with her. I don’t think he could stand the thought of Kinsey calling anyone else Dad.

Nearly every day during those years, either Todd or I would pick her up at the sitter’s after school. The sitter’s house was next door to the New Haven Elementary School, where Todd taught, so once every few weeks, often on a Friday afternoon, the sitter would bring her to Todd about 15 minutes before school was out. Then, with the full and enthusiastic cooperation of Todd’s class, Mckinsey pretended to be the teacher. By the time she was three, she had mastered pretending to use the overhead, “teaching” math, and “reading” aloud to fifth graders. The students all loved it as much as she did.

When Erin and Wendell traveled to the Smokies to get married in March of 2002, it marked the official end of Erin and Mckinsey’s time with us. During those years Todd and I had the privilege of taking care of a young child again on a daily basis. We read stories, took walks, played dolls, had tea parties, cuddled, put her to bed, and so on. It was often crazy, but it was a hoot. She loved to ‘help’ me, rinsing the dishes, chattering the whole time. She has always loved to talk. But her favorite thing to help with was cooking. It was a special time, a time most grandparents never get to have. We were always busy, and often harried, but it was so sweet. I wouldn’t change the experience for anything. Though, sadly, to us, she doesn’t really remember her time here. Such is life…. Today, she and Erin seem more like sisters than they do Mom and daughter. They have a great relationship, seeing and talking to each other daily. They also only live a block apart.

The photo below is the cookbook she asked me to create for her. She wanted family recipes. So I created it online, with credit given to the parents, aunts, cousins, grandparents, and great-grandparents who cooked and baked them for their families for many years: Great-Grandpa Ike’s cornbread, my lemon meringue pie, Great-Grandma Evelyn’s chicken vegetable soup, Aunt Loomis’s dinner rolls, Great-Grandpa Peggy’s Chop Suey, and many more. The cookbook was part of the couple’s wedding gift.

And such is life! That little girl got married Saturday. Both her Dad and her Step-Dad walked her down the aisle. She married a great guy who treats her like the wonderful woman she has become. It wasn’t a teenage wedding. She is twenty-two and he is twenty-three, but we old folks sure do wish them well. Good luck, Kinsey and Anthony. Love you!! C’est La Vie!

What do you live for?

Toward the end of the novel I just finished, Clock Dance, by Anne Tyler, the character, Ben, poses this question to the main character, Willa. Though Willa doesn’t answer directly or immediately, I thought it was an excellent question, for everyone, not just that character.

Therefore, I pose this question to my readers: What do you live for? I expect no answers, but I thought it a pertinent question to ponder on this lovely August afternoon.

Regrets??

Frank Sinatra used to croon a song titled My Way. One of the memorable lines in the song is: ‘Regrets, I have a few, but then again, too few too mention.’ And I always think, yeah, that’s about right. Most people I know who are lucky enough to be part and parcel of the American middle class are pretty comfortable. We might change a thing or two about our lives, but I think for most of us there are only a few things we might do a different way, should we be given that chance.

But every once in a while I hear someone say I have absolutely no regrets. I find that astonishing. I also call bullshit. No regrets whatsoever? If you have a conscience at all, you have regrets, don’t you? If you’re honest about all your mistakes, both small and large, then you have some regrets, right? Or even if you face the facts about how things in your life didn’t turn out quite the way you imagined they would. I regret telling a fib the other day, which I justified to myself because I didn’t want to hurt a friend’s feelings. I should have just told the truth. But I was a coward.

The other day, I celebrated my birthday, number 68 for me. I have trouble with birthdays. For some reason I usually feel restless around my birthdays, and I have a tendency to reflect on my regrets. They may have been few, but when the time came to begin another trip around the sun, sometimes I got stuck on the regrets.

Oh, don’t get me wrong. I feel very fortunate and grateful to have lived 68 years with my body and psyche still in fairly serviceable shape. And I’m at peace with most of the choices I’ve made in my life; those choices the cobblestones, hard, sometimes uneven, and occasionally broken, that have paved my destiny.

Gratitude and peace, the gratitude and peace I feel sitting out back watching the birds flitter and my garden grow, even if it’s a little weedier than I’d prefer, while Yogi lies at my feet, on his best behavior for one tiny bite of whatever I’m eating. I know that gratitude and peace are slippery things. Daily life and the resulting chaos and noise barge in to our little zones of comfort. The little earthquakes of life when I had a young family have now been replaced by other little earthquakes, the bugs and critters eating the garden produce before I can pick them, (those goddamn raccoons got my sweet corn AGAIN!), the clogged-up drains, broken washing machines, pesky pond weeds, a barn in need of attention, all remind me that any feeling, maybe particularly happiness, peace, and gratitude are never allowed to just be for too long.

I think the restlessness around my birthdays has something to do with the fact the older I get, the more I realize how fleeting time and happiness really are. It feels harder and harder to hold onto both. Plus, sometimes, for whatever reason, I don’t always feel like I’ve earned my life. I just reread that sentence, and I realize it probably doesn’t make much sense to anyone but me. But it is what it is.

Those silly regrets often nagged me on birthdays, but not this year. This year I decreed my birthday as a day for peace and pardon and absolution. I refused to be aggravated, even though there were a couple of reasons to do so (the complete and utter disaster of the new birthday cake recipe I tried, for one), and found comfort in the beauty of the day, the gentleness and love surrounding me. So today, three days past my birthday, after I gave up and surrendered to the raccoons and used a machete to hack down the remains of the devastated sweet corn, I baked myself another birthday cake, my old tried-and-true recipe from 1951, the “Starlight Double Delight Chocolate-Peppermint Cake.” Happy birthday to me….