Write It: Your Story is Everything

There is something about cold autumn days and gray skies that can transport me to my ‘life at home’ years ago in the 1970s. Not in a sad sappy way, but a gentle remembrance of running home from school through the woods behind our house, the trees naked with mystery, geese in formation honking their way south, and that crisp cold air that filled the lungs with energy and opened the nose to a plethora of aromas like wood smoke and damp decaying leaves, the leather of boots, the smell of books, and even the oily-metal smell of the inside my flute case.

In just a flash, I can see my father, mustached and still so young getting out of the station wagon with a hint of burnt tobacco still swirling around him. I can hear someone playing the piano, the house bustling with the sound of teenagers talking about basketball practice or musical play try-outs, with the warmth of home-cooking simmering on the stove, dishes clinking as the table is set, and a chocolate cake waiting on the counter; life was full and alive with busyness and sensory delights.

It is in stark contrast to what I come home to now, my nest empty, no dinner cooking or music coming from rooms upstairs, no voices full of possibilities…and so far from the landscapes of my own youth. Interesting, that’s all, just interesting how life evolves into worlds that we land in through circumstances. I’m not sure that I ‘miss’ that time in my life, but am quite sure it is only a brief turn of the page, like all things, and one needs to snap a picture of it in their mind before it is gone. Those everyday moments are a part of the intricate fabric of who we are.

More and more, especially as the seasons circle around so quickly now, I feel the need to share my stories with my children. Fortunately, they are good listeners, though like so many aging people who want to relate the now to then, I often get the preverbal, “We know, we know, mom, you don’t have to tell that story again,’ response when I am particularly reminiscent.

That’s where the benefit of writing down our memories, the times of our lives, comes in.

I was a sensitive child, and gratefully so, able to see and feel things even amid all the noise of life. That early, keen awareness gave me much to write about, even if no one reads it. That is what I get from writing; a travelogue of memories….a review, a sorting out of things, a sense of continuity and order, a reminder of who I am and where I came from, even as a new chapter begins to reveal itself, even if no one else remembers it the way I do.

Second to youngest, with my sisters on the lawn in Roseville, MI, later 1950s.

Second to youngest, with my sisters on the lawn in Roseville, MI, late 1950s.

Maybe there is some truth in the idea that everyone wants to be remembered, and somewhere down the line some curious child will open a book about their great grandmother and be….interested… in her ancient school days running home through the autumn woods. That would be enough for me, knowing that I might inspired that child to be aware…to be present…to even write her own story. Better yet, that she may see a bit of herself in me and come to understand some of her own mysteries.

But what if that never happens? What if my typed pages burn up in a fire or my CD of memoirs melts, floats away, or gets thrown in a trash heap of what is deemed ‘junk’ by some less sensitive person? So what? The act of writing has become a form of therapy for me; it’s cathartic and transporting, as well as a spring board that propels me forward. I’ve often wondered why people are so afraid, or timid, about writing their memories early enough in life that they might still have clear recall of the voices of people that mattered, of places they could still smell and clearly walk through in their minds. If I am anything, I am an advocate for the memoir of everyday people written BEFORE they are too old to remember.

Sure all the movie stars and celebs have already started to write their tell-all books, but that is not what I am advocating. When talking to older people, or even co-workers and people my own age, I’m amazed at the varied lives they have led, tours of duty, Peace Corp adventures, childhoods with dirt floors on Indian reservations, a year spent on the road with only a backpack, or a full career in some market that failed and brought someone to a new station in life. Their painful losses and proudest moments and how they moved through the changes that crippled some and inspired others, is worth the telling. Surely we can learn from each other, feel supported (and not so crazy), as well as empowered by theirs and our own stories.

Whether it was the damp autumn woods of Michigan, rows of cotton fields in Texas, or corn fields in Iowa that each of our young selves have run home through, our stories link us as human beings and are like an out-reached hand to help us along. We are not so alone. In sharing we become united in our commonalities and uniqueness. In writing we define and learn to embrace who we are, why we laugh the way we do, why we fear what we fear…or love with a cold, bitter bite, a sincere kindness, or warm lusciousness.

There was a time when I was intimidated by others proclaiming that they were ‘writers.’ I’d throw up my guard and rattle off my academic and work credentials like a badge in a battle of words. But, I have since met and read the works of countless everyday ‘writers’ whose words read from idealistic to sarcastic, from trite to profound, from simple to highly philosophical, and each not only have the right to call themselves writers (because, after all, that is what they are DOING), but I welcome the words of wisdom and whatever I can gleaned from their thoughts. They are a voice that needs to be heard, and I’m a willing listener…a warrior on the same side.

My father wrote his memoirs in the last year of his dying life. I was left with a pile of fragmented thoughts smeared with tears, some pages poorly ripped from notebooks leaving only half the story, some, I’m sure, were lost to no time left to tell. But, oh how I fell in love with the boy who became my father just through reading his stories. I learned things about him that he never spoke of, as if the pen was a secret key that finally opened up the book of his life. My mother, on the other hand, had twenty more years and despite my prompting, left me only a handful of little notes. She was a talker, so I learned to absorb everything our conversations could yield. I knew someday I would feel the need to write her stories for her.

My father was well-educated, scholarly, and well-versed in literature and history. My mother was, well, my mother. Her stories were sentimental and simple, even jokingly crude, yet just as important as my fathers. Even ‘the way’ we tell our stories reveal so much about who we are.  In both cases, I got an in depth picture of who they were and how they became the parents I knew and loved.  Though we are all bound to vanish from this earth, there is some comfort and satisfaction in knowing our stories may continue long after even our children are gone.

Maybe that’s not important to you. But if it is, than ask yourself, “What is it that makes me remember who I am?” Ponder that for a while and then start scratching out your thoughts. Pay attention to everything, but mostly to your senses and what memories they trigger. When you’re at football game, does the energy of the kids, the cheers, the announcer, the band, or the lights take you back to your days in high school? When you’re in church, does the light streaming through the stain glass, the smell of incense, and the hymns find you once again an eight year-old fidgeting in your seat or veiled on your first communion day? A cup of fresh brewed coffee, a walk along a river, the smell of a new car, the oil and grease smell of a gas station, catching fish off a dock with your grandchild, the sunrays streaming through the windows on a winter’s morning, or the sound of a screen door closing; at every turn there is something that triggers your memories, and you know this! Why not share where it takes you? Make a mental note, if no one is around to listen or too busy to care. Stop…and write down what you recall.

Don’t try to sound like a ‘writer,’ just use your own words and descriptions the best way you can. Remember the details; take yourself back into the scene. If it is sentimental, than let yourself weep. If it is painful, then bleed and heal. Pound out the demons, strike up the band, and be in the arms of your first love once again. Writing can do that all in a safe, almost magical way.

If it’s not for money or fame (hard to come-by in the writing world), than write just for yourself, and who knows, maybe someday…somewhere down the line…some great grandchild will open up your journal, your cookbook, your old work briefcase, or your hardcover published book….and read your story. Maybe they’ll find themselves in those same woods and see you there where your spirit still lingers…under a golden canopy of leaves on the same foot bridge where you had your first kiss.

The story is everything. Think about it. Without stories there would be no books, no movies, no poetry, no news, no song lyrics, nothing to listen to, nothing to tell, no conversations, no inspiration, and no reason to remember anything. Life IS just one story after another. Why not include yours?

Singer/composer Joni Mitchell wrote in her song, Hejira, “I know no one’s going to show me everything.
We all come and go unknown. Each so deep and superficial, between the forceps and the stone.”  Surely, none of us can be completely known and remembered for all the complexities that we are. But in writing your story, you have nothing to lose, except the memory of you.

Your old aunt’s string of pearls are nice to touch. Your grandfather’s pocket watch a treasure in the glass dome on your shelf, but what of your aunt or grandfather? Who were they? Who were you? Believe me; someday someone will want to know. Summer field or autumn woods, antique treasures or a stack of old love letters; it’s all in the story. And it’s in the story, your story, that someone might find themselves. Write. Find yourself and leave your story. It’s a powerful legacy to pass along.

Written by Cynthia L. Currie, November 2015

“Crawford Road, Mt. Pleasant, Michigan,” Photography courtesy of Craig Goodrich

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Just An Ordinary Day, Sweetie-pie…

Some days, I just want to talk to my mother.

Not for any particular reason, but like before she was gone when we would just chat about everything and everyone and the real meaning, irony, truth, and humor that was under the surface of small talk, would just work its way out like the soreness out of a tired, overused muscle. Missing her is normal, I know. I’m not sad or angry, feeling needy or anything out of the ordinary. I guess that’s the point. My ordinary self, misses the ordinary conversations with my ordinary mom, in an extraordinary way, particularly today.

We develop all kinds of bonds in the course of a life time, some dramatic enough for a page-turning novel, some secret enough to speak of only in whispers and dreams, some drab enough to almost go unnoticed, and some angry enough to never utter a final goodbye or word of forgiveness. But the bond I had with my mother is irreplaceable, and I can only rely on memories of what she used to say, how she used to leave me questioning, inspired, and laughing. She always left me with just enough gumption to move me passed the moment and more able to carry on. I think that’s it. The same woman that could make me cry like a baby, piss and moan like a rolling-eyed teenager, and fire me up like a warrior against injustice, could also make me laugh ‘till I peed my pants. We had more and more of the latter in the last years of her life, both the peeing and laughter.

There is no remedy for the loss of a mother. It’s sort of like the loss of elasticity in the skin. You can replenish the collagen, well sort of, with a multitude of expensive creams and wonder-products, or go all the way to the point of surgically stretching those sags and wrinkles into a plastic duck face, but nothing really replaces the skin of youth. It’s gone.

When mother is gone, so is the one person that knew everything about you, things you didn’t even remember about yourself. That may not be the case with everyone, but that is the truth of my relationship with my mother. She held my secrets, hopes, desires, sadness and failures, joys and moments of triumph in her unconditional mother’s love and understanding; my complete, complicated history went with her to the grave. Where does a daughter go from there?

My husband has been up since early this morning doing his (well-trained since his 1960s youth) Saturday morning cleaning. Humming, banging things, running the vacuum cleaner, scrubbing sinks like a perky bride in her newly won home. Christ! I just want to smack him upside the head! After a long week of averaging twelve hours of work a day, I can hardly get my tired legs to carry me up the stairs, and he wants to play Ozzie and Harriet! His energy level is draining the last drop of life out of my fading spirit.

My mother would say to give him a piece of my mind; that he should be quiet and let me sleep, but of course she’d say that in a much more sarcastic and sharp-edged tongue. She was ‘a clever wife,’ something she told me I lacked. If I say anything, in my ‘could-you-please-consider-my-feelings-right-now-dear, kind of way,’ I’d have an angry man on my hands, who’d throw in the towel (so to speak), and pout and grumble obscenities and curses at me in the yard as he stares at the back fence wondering what he did wrong to deserve such a wife! She’d say; he doesn’t deserve me, but again in words that would cut his throat. He seemed to like that about her. In fact, they seemed to be made of the same cloth, and I realized years ago that I married my mother. Not sure I really wanted to do that because, well, he’s not my mother, nor is my daughter, my son, or my best friend. No one other than one’s ‘mother’ can make-up that unique, intimate relationship that started at the taking of one’s first breath, and lasted through the gentle years, agonized through the rough years, hoped through the leaving years, and rekindled in the final years. It’s a long stretch of life that only one’s mother understands and can endure with a constant, unwavering love.

Just talking to my mom this morning would have let my steam out, got me laughing, stirred up my energy and maybe even given me a bit of old-fashion ‘Saturday morning cleaning’ zest! She certainly had her share of that and would have reminded me of it.

But the mother void is deep and hollow; there is no healing waters left for dipping. ‘Sometimes I feel like a motherless child….” In fact, I am.

I just don’t like it. Of which she would reply, “Well, that’s just too damn bad, kiddo. Go do a load of laundry. The smell of the fresh clean clothes will make you feel better. And give your ‘little old bride’ a long grocery list and send him to the store. Then grab a nap.” Simple, ordinary advice on an ordinary topic, something I might even say to my own daughter.

But, I’d like to hear it from my mother in her own ordinary voice, with the added, “I love you, sweetie-pie. Everything will be okay.”

cupcakes croppedThe last time my mother visited my home we were readying for my son’s graduation party. She was getting on my last nerve, asking for a dust cloth to dust my shelves, “Why do you keep so many books?” …looking for the broom, begging at every turn for something to do to help. I finally gave her something to do which, I admit with regret, at the time I really didn’t care about. I just wanted to keep her busy and out of my way. I asked her to put some candies, a mini-Reese’s peanut butter cup and a small square of a Hershey’s bar, together to make a graduation cap that was to be perched on top of the cupcakes. It was something I had decided not to do in the last minutes, but since she wouldn’t leave me alone to attend to my all-important, party flair work, I sat her down with that task.

I can still see her now, her frail bend body with a mess of gray hair gone wildly past the days of her prim, put-together style, intensely, carefully putting those little caps together, like it was the most important part of my party statement. Many times she asked for confirmation, “Am I doing this right? Do they look okay?” I’d swing by with a pat and a casual, “Yes, mother, they’re fine. You’re doing great!” And she did do a great job, making something that initially meant so little into something precious and permanently etched in my now ‘mother-less’ mind.

Oh, mama, I’m so sorry.

I would do anything to have her back in my kitchen again, nagging or fussy, talking or laughing or anything; it wouldn’t matter what. But, I would stop and BE with her, recognizing that she was just trying to be a part of my life no matter what I was doing, and be wise enough to know that those would be fleeting moments not to be recaptured and relived.

Such things we take for granted when we have them and suffer without a cure when they are gone. But, wemom at tay graduation move forward in the busyness of life …with maybe a little less gumption and a messier house, and as the years pass by only a faint hint of a mother’s voice reminding us that we are ‘sweetie-pies’ and that “everything will be okay.”

And, of course, it will be…on this and every ordinary day, because of my extraordinary mother who left me with just enough of her spunky-self to carry on without her. Maybe by the time I’m sat down to make little useless candy decorations, I’ll finally be ‘the clever wife’ she hoped I would eventually become.

Meanwhile, Harriet is back from the grocery store, “So much for that nap, mom. I’ll call you later, Love you, bye… forever.”

We Had Nothing and Everything

It seems like we really had nothing, especially by today’s standards. Summers in an old drafty cabin, hand-me-down clothes, simple cereal breakfasts and PB&J lunches, bamboo poles & earth worms for fishing on an old dock, an uncle’s thick 78 LPs for dancing around the cabin kitchen, 49 cent coloring books and crayons and dime store novels for quiet time, yeah we didn’t have much, but we had each other. More importantly, we had parents who spent time with us, sang with us, held conversations with us, told us stories about their lives, taught us how to do things, including listening and watching with patience, and knew when to give us our freedom to roam and discover and ‘just be kids.’ Based on what I’ve seen and heard over the years, we actually had a gold mine!

Summers at the cabin, nothing more than a broken down old log and cinderblock shack on a river, with a natural outdoor classroom where we were free to dig, climb, get scrapped and bitten, lost and found, and have ‘parent free’ hours of discovery, were only a small, but treasured, part of our formative years in the 1960s.

I think what made our lives ‘rich and golden,’ compared to so many of today’s families who have much more material wealth but more lost and troublesome kids, is that we had an element of freedom that kids don’t have today, wrapped safely in family devotion, routines and responsibilities, high behavioral expectations, and in ‘time together,’ not staring into our phones or video games, or focused on ‘things.’

My parents were not perfect. They smoked, enjoyed a beer or two, argued and swore sometimes in front of us, yet they also included us in conversations about philosophy, religion, history, film and politics. There was a clear ‘this is adult and this is for children’ line, though, and society as a whole supported that standard. There was little room for vanity or personal pageantry, in our family, no money for private lessons; what one had the other’s had, for the most part. They taught us how to hook our own worms, thread our own needles, wash, iron, and fold clothes, write letters, read maps, make cakes, cookies, casseroles and soups. They gardened, planted trees, and watched birds; so did we. They gave us boxes of their ‘old’ clothes to play with, started challenging group puzzles on the card table, taught us how to play card games and count money, and encouraged us to ‘mindfully’ sing, in harmony of course, and dance so we understood what we were doing.

We had ‘SHARED’ everything: marbles, blocks, dolls, bikes, big farms sets (one Christmas gift for all of us) on the ping-pong table that everyone played with, shared clothes, books, paint sets, and even shared rooms, dressers and beds; later we had shared cars. We had a garage full of old field hockey equipment, balls and rackets of every kind, and dad taught us how to throw them, bounce them, shoot them, hit them, and how to form teams and understand the game, and then he left us alone to play.

And all of this was done in our own house and backyard. No organized sports, no private clubs, no special camps; just stuff we did without much of a plan.

Family dinner 1962

Family dinner 1962

There were routines, of course. There had to be, or a house of 10 would be pure chaos. We helped each other; the older ones helped the younger ones. Some helped mom take care of the babies, others helped dad with the lawn. We were taught self discipline through example, but without a harsh militant edge and certainly with an element of humor. We did major cleaning on Saturday mornings, and sometimes all week if a holiday or Holy day was coming up. When my mom would go grocery shopping, we all helped carry the groceries in and put them away. The babies were just passed around to free arms. We got up and dressed (on our own) in our best for church every Sunday, learned not to eat before Mass, and learned when we ate that we would only get so much so there was enough for everyone. What was on the table is what we ate. There was no question as to whether we would do our homework; it was a given. No one preached it, but we understood that education was everything. Authority was to be respected, mostly because if it wasn’t it would be an embarrassment to our family. Television, listening to records, and playing or pleasure reading was reserved for certain times when everything else was done. This was true even of the little ones.

We didn’t have any special anything and few material advantages, yet all eight of us kids worked our way through college earning at least one degree, in some cases more, and became accomplished professionals in a variety of fields. Would we have liked a childhood that was easier, richer in things, with prettier clothes (certainly better haircuts) and more exciting opportunities? Sure. But, looking back at how much we accomplished with so little, I’m starting to think there was more wisdom and learning in an environment with very few ‘things’ and a whole lot of family togetherness.

I know there were flaws in our world, in our family dynamics, some even quite painful leaving scars, but somehow we retained a sense of family loyalty and honor, regardless of our personal struggles. And when those struggles surfaced, there was always someone, a sister or brother, mom or dad, or all of us to support each other. There were boundaries and moral guidelines, and our parents were the role models through all of this even during radically changing times in our society. When THEY were lost and uncertain, our parents trusted their growing children, whom they had carefully raised, to lead the way in new ways of thinking or operating in the world.

I know that times are different today. The pressure to perform, to dazzle, and to compete is higher and more demanding than in the 1960s and 70s. But, frankly, I think parents can do more for their children with fewer things and ‘out there, expensive’ experiences. We rarely went to amusement parks. We learned to amuse ourselves. It’s a life skill that seems to be going ‘a drift’ these days. We had a broken down old upright piano, yet we all learned how to sing (well) and play instruments. All we had in the way of a library were my dad’s old Shakespeare volumes and encyclopedias, yet we all learned to love reading. We had one television with six channels, and one radio that sat on the top of the refrigerator where our parent’s stations ruled the day. We learned to listen to and appreciate a variety of music and opinions. In the car, we looked out the windows, talked and sang. At worst, we fought over the Rand McNally Road Atlas. I still love reading maps to this day. We were always interacting and learning from each other, something, again, that’s been lost to distractive technology which numbs children from responding to the world around them.

One family luxury was the pool. My parents always provided us with an above ground pool to play and

1969 day in the pool with family and friends. Nothing big, but it did the trick.

1969 day in the pool with family and friends. Nothing big, but it did the trick.

swim in. If we were going to dally our summer days away, it would be there….together.

Though much has been gained with technology, so much has been lost, mostly in the development of children’s ability to think and create. I know. I have watched the decline of comprehension and problem solving skills, vocabulary development, and creativity more and more every year in the elementary school classroom as more and smarter technology has come into our children’s hands. It is well-researched and documented that children learn through play, conversation, and natural exploration, not video games and another app. Yet, even the poor have their technology.

I think it’s time for parents to put away the gadgets and ‘get back to the garden,’ to use an old lyric. It’s not what they have or what flashy, extravagant places parents take their kids that teach them to connect and grow in this world. It’s the ‘meaningful’ experiences, conversations, and moments of personal discovery that mold the child into a viable, interesting adult, able to ‘work well with others.’ Most importantly, it’s ‘time,’ in a safe environment with parents who actively ‘engage’ with their children, which makes the difference.

cousins playing a board game around the table. No phones, of course. Just conversation.

Cousins playing a board game around the table. No phones, of course. Just conversation.

Even with very few ‘things’ and space, very little individual attention and special treatment, when we went to bed each night, usually two to a bed, we felt safe, exhausted from a day well-lived, and we felt loved by both parents. We knew we would have to walk to school in rain or shine the next day, and that we’d have a bologna sandwich on white bread, with carrot sticks, and a dime wrapped in wax-paper for our milk at lunch. We knew we’d have tea and crackers as an after school treat, and maybe get to watch a TV show when we finished our homework and were done practicing our ‘rented’ instruments. We knew dad would come home, that we would eat around the table together, and we knew we’d watch ‘family appropriate’ TV shows until bedtime, washed, brushed, ready for prayers, and together. We never went to bed or left the house without kisses and hugs. Even as adult children, that was the norm. Our family time was protected, celebrated, and cherished. ‘Relating,’ eye-to-eye, word-to-word, expression-to-expression was intentional. I whole-heartedly believe that is sorely missing in today’s families. Parents need to take steps necessary to keep sacred and intentional their ‘interactions’ with their children and the family as a whole.

My sister Clara and I doing homework with no laptops or phones. Imagine? It's even hard for me to imagine that, and we lived it.

My sister Clara and I doing homework with no laptops or phones. Imagine? It’s even hard for me to imagine that, and we lived it.

I don’t think this is a mystery or novel idea. History teaches us everything, and parents just need to settle down, take stock, re-evaluate their priorities, UNPLUG and pay attention to those short, but make-or-break childrearing years. It’s trite but true; less is more, particularly when it comes to raising children. Just make sure the ‘less’ is meaningful.

I’m not all about gloom and doom, preaching moral values, or ‘the good old days’ ideals. I appreciate technological advances, use technology as much as the next person, even teach it. In fact, I’ve seen some very healthy, conscientious parents out there trying to refocus more on family life and less on impressing others with big, expensive birthday parties and more video games.  Like them, I think it’s the little things that can turn the tide of thinking away from excessive social media sharing and one-upping, or distracting their kids (and themselves) with electronic entertainment, to nurturing the private, engaging family life experience.

Take them fishing….on a dock with bamboo poles….without your Iphone, or sit and color with your kids,

My little brother Tim, drawing with no distractions.

My little brother Tim in 1977, drawing with no distractions.

without Instagraming the final product. Just be together, and whether you have money or not, lots of electronic gadgets or just the air you breathe, the moments of ‘relating’ will make your child’s early years as ‘golden’ as their grandparent’s were….when everyone wasn’t so distracted by entertainment devices and people weren’t as ‘rich’ with things, but definitely life was more engaging and enriching.

We really didn’t have much, and we knew it. But we didn’t blame society, our parents, or each other, we just learned to make our lives better, and the fertile garden of a simpler life seemed to help us grow into well-rounded students and adults, to adapt and innovate in a changing world, to effectively communicate and engage in life, in order to prosper. Isn’t that what every parent wants for their child? The childrearing years fly-by; the window for opportunity brief. Engage them, talk to them, and don’t worry so much about updating your status and texting your friends. Your kids are only little for so long, then they leave. Make sure they are ready for the world.

Something to think about…

Stories That Gate Could Sweetly Tell

Our exit to freedom and welcomed return,

broken-hearted, the champions, the loved, and the burned.

Over its pickets long kisses, deep trances,

prayers and curses and sweet romances.

 

We’d run out the gate in boots or high heels,

through snow drifts, the deep woods, across football fields.

The path led home to whence we came,

in pride or in shame, the same pebbled lane.

 

Mom in her garden with roses and saints.

Dad with his ladder and buckets of paint.

We’d lie in the sun, sister-talk sharing all;

star-spangled barbeques, colored leaves in the fall.

 

The apple blossom tree pink and frilly,

winter haven for rabbits, where the lights glowed so pretty.

Bird houses, lilacs, wind chimes tinkling in the breeze,

gave solace and hope to the gardener on her knees.

 

I’d float in the pool all alone in the dark,

watching the stars in that shadowy park.

Warm light from the windows of the place I called home,

Never knowing back then how far I would roam.

 

Sneaking in late, a drunken stumble;

secret laughter, backward glances, his engine rumble.

Three brides left veiled in white-laced frocks,

stepped over its threshold to the church beyond its lock.

 

Covered in snow it would creak and whine;

a portal positioned beneath arching pines.

In blinding sun and weathering rain,

It still swings open and calls my name.

 

Once in a dream I saw you there,

looking at me with your blue-eyed stare.

It was in a time when we were young,

before the lessons and lies, the sever and run.

 

In thunderous storm, standing wet in the grass,

You whispered and pleaded, said our love would last.

We left through that passage-way and promise no harm,

Then you let go of my hand, ripped me from your arms.

 

Child after child reached for its latch,

Until time and usage worn a dark smooth patch;

Not far from the place that once was my sill,

where I sang and wrote letters; I can see it all still.

 

With the chime of the church bells we’d run with guitars,

To lead and sing praise just steps from our yard.

Watching from windows out on that scene,

white birches, fiery maple, and seasons of green.

 

The band uniforms, gauze dresses, and football gear,

The singing, the gatherings and games played there.

The gate let us in, let us out; a revolving door,

until no one was left, it’s not ours anymore.

 

On that worn trodden path draped in gray and black,

empty and mournful in the last look back;

There’s my brother, my mother, my youthful love,

perched on the fence a chickadee, a cardinal, a cooing dove.

 

The stories that gate could sweetly tell,

of wishes and kisses and wedding bells;

Of a hundred goodbyes waved through smiling tears,

from the gate in our backyard over forty years.

~Stories That Gate Could Sweetly Tell, by Cynthia Currie

A Penny for Your Thoughts

cropped from scanIn the late 1940s, when my dad traveled with his college football team to games around the country, he would send a one or two sentence message to my mom for one cent and a longer letter for just a few cents more. His letters were not gushing with heavy sentiment or blatant lust, but in their innocent simplicity, were still full of affection and longing, which I found enduring. Words like “swell’ marked the times they lived in, and nicknames like “Slim” and ‘Buddy,” are a sweet reminder that they were once young and hopeful, full of possibilities and dreams, before the days of diapers and bills that we all lived

My mother and father on their honeymoon out west, in the San Luis Valley, Colorado 1950

My mother and father on their honeymoon out west, in the San Luis Valley, Colorado 1950

through together.

The digital age has it’s perks, and I am certainly grateful for the opportunity to not only sort through my parent’s boxes of letters, trinkets, flowers smashed between pages from long forgotten bouquets, and personal relics, but to also be able to scan them digitally in an effort to preserve them long after even my generation is gone, is just remarkable. It’s interesting, though, how before text messaging and email, people took the time (because that was their only means) to write postcards and letters from weekend get-a-ways or excursions just to ‘drop a line’ or write a ‘goodnight’ or ‘miss you’ passage on hotel stationary and local postcards and post it quickly…without much effort. The effort, it seems, was in the ‘stopping’ to contemplate words that silently said, “I took the time…was focused on only you”…and literally sent a ‘penny’s’ worth of thoughts.

During my life with my parents, my father often mentioned a wish to see certain far-away places and reflected on the few travels he was able to experience with fond remembrance. But, the normal burdens of raising a large family on a teacher’s salary required he often work during his summers, and as the years ticked by, dreams of traveling were always prefaced with ‘someday.’

He got to Florida and California to see family and took a few jaunts to neighboring states, but my father never got very far into those ‘somedays’ before his life ended. We had our summer weeks at the ‘cabin’ in mid-Michigan, where dad, I’m sure, relived his boyhood memories, and perhaps on some level those rugged, lazy days satisfied some of my father’s desires to ‘get away’ or ‘go places.’ But, there were greater places that he dreamed of seeing, including ‘the Alamo,’ which is now just thirty minutes away from my home. Well-versed in American History and a lifetime of western movies, when my dad learned that I was moving to San Antonio, he was so excited about the prospects of seeing the Alamo and experiencing the vast mystique of Texas, that he immediately started planning a trip. Time and fate had another journey in store for him, so that trip was never to be.Letters sent to Mary Ann from Miles on the road_0001

Letters sent to Mary Ann from Miles on the road_0002I sometimes wonder if that is where I got my wanderlust, all those reflective talks of Colorado, St. Louis, and Oklahoma…places he had only gotten the chance to ‘stop’ at

Dad at far left standing. The tallest guy, always.

Dad at far left standing. The tallest guy, always.

during his team traveling: places he wanted to share with his family.  Perhaps my father’s unfulfilled dreams are what fuel my desire to drive…anywhere…just to see a new landscape, to immerse myself in history, and learn how other people live.

It is certainly easier to travel now, even by car. With GPS systems that talk to you, cell phones that can save you in a desperate situation, or to just ‘check-in’ with those that are worried, have made the scary and dusty road of travelers a safer place, to some degree. No need for the hotel stationary or picture postcards either, when just a click of one’s phone can get you and a monument pictured all over the worldwide web and a quick ‘I am here’ message can cover more territory that a one cent stamp ever could. One can send an “I love you” or “Goodnight” without the effort to find a decent pen, and calm the hearts of mothers and lovers with ease and some level of immediate satisfaction, as well.

But with all things new, there is something lost and something gained. The gains of the digital age go without saying, but the losses…the anticipation of a letter from far off places, the unique scroll of a personal signature from the hand you love, even the ‘art’ of the stamp…are certainly ‘lost’ to our comfort with immediacy. Someday, not too far in the future, there will be no more boxes of letters, postcards tied-up in once-worn hair ribbons, or those precious markings of personal handwriting left to future generations to sort through, run their fingers across, and read.  Who will ever know of the deep abiding love between two people, secret letters, and children’s words to Santa or from summer camp, or see specially selected cards with hearts and kisses penned inside, if all of our communications are just floating in a cloud? It may make no difference at all to the people who exchanged such words, but to those left behind; those before us will become more of a mystery than they already were.

Since the beginning of time, man has written on ‘something’ to leave his mark on the world or on the hearts of others. Letters and postcards are artifacts of another time and people.  Their thoughts and affections are the ties that lovingly bind us to family and friends like the ribbons they are tied in. They are sacred, real, and evidence of who we are and where we come from. They are words on a real ‘wall’ to tell our stories that will last.

Once this digital age of people disappear, what will people know of us? Surely, just as dreams of traveling roads to new and interesting places will be lost to obligation and duty, now our very thoughts and reaching words will be lost, as well. Stationary, stamps, pens, even worse… eloquent and descriptive words… will be lost to time eventually. “I ‘heart’ U” will replace a poetic tongue, a deeper meaning, and the message of “I took the time…” will lose its value. Perhaps it already has.

From a small pile of letters that my mother saved, I have gotten a glimpse of a young man and his youngLetters sent to Mary Ann from Miles on the road_0004 love for my mother, and it’s painted a lovely portrait of a 1940s couple, just as their hats, gloves, and shoes do in photographs. It documents a time in history, a union that still cultivates family roots and belonging, and reminds us how to talk to each other…even as one is just running off to meet a train or a plane…or drifting off to sleep. A penny sent a lot more than just a quick message, and is was worth so much more than we will ever know and understand again.

Certainly our grandchildren won’t know, and if we are able to save what is left of the written word in diaries, personal letters, and photographic images, they will surely see these ancient artifacts as a marvel of meaningful intention from a more enchanting time when every stroke of the cursive hand and now unfamiliar words, meant people had ‘time’ to consider others, to find the right words of love and affection, and to send them across the miles through some magic world called ‘theLetters sent to Mary Ann from Miles on the road_0005 mail’ where others ‘waited’ patiently to receive them. They may shake their heads in wonderment, but what a gift of history they will be able to experience hands-on and a personal connection to people who once were theirs.

Maybe a spark of romanticism will inspire them to do the same, and ‘writing letters’ on paper with a pen, in one’s own hand using original thought, will become a new trend again. Handwriting will return to the school curriculum where ‘writing specialists’ will be hired and revered on campuses across the land. Stationary will appear on store shelves again, and countless people will become employed by the US Postal Service.  Best of all, the writing of beautiful ‘words’ through the art of communication…may become valuable again, and people may stop and ‘take the time’ to send a line or two just for the love of it, leaving evidence that they once loved, were ours, and were here.Post cards sent from Miles to Mary Ann 1948-49_0014Post cards sent from Miles to Mary Ann 1948-49_0013

Post cards sent from Miles to Mary Ann 1948-49_0003Post cards sent from Miles to Mary Ann 1948-49_0004

It’s Just Another New Year’s Eve….Another Auld Lang Syne

Christmas 1969 at Grandma Cowans houseEvery year, like so many of you I am sure, I get caught up in the reflective aspect of the turning of the old year to the new. I’m not busy getting ready to go anywhere.  I think I can count the number of times that I’ve actually gone to a New Years Eve party, on one hand. Either isolated in some edge-of-the-world frozen northern town, or choosing to stay close to my children on such a sentimental night; we just rarely mustered up the energy to ‘go out’ and celebrate.

Neither did my parents.

My memory of New Year’s Eve is one of youthful anticipation, the thrill of staying up late, our ritual of banging pots and pans as the clock struck midnight, and the time honored swig of Champagne from my Grandma’s heirloom long-stem glasses that my parents allowed only on that night….even when we were quite young. I always thought I had the coolest parents.

After the pile-up of seven kids armed with sauce pans and wooden spoons, the coveted two pot-lids that mimicked the cymbals, and the predictable chaos and yelling to ‘get off the front door so daddy can open it,” what was left for seven, eight, and ten year old children in the 1960s? The warmth of being tucked safely under the sheets and covers of our shared beds, the reassuring hum of the furnace kicking in, and that moment of reflection in the blue glow of the moonlight reflected off the snow-covered roof tops, which softly streamed through the window and moved our thoughts into the New Year.  It was a personal and quiet time of looking forward, of dreams, resolutions and prayers, and the thrill of possibilities as the sound of fireworks and people singing and laughing lingered on the porches in our snowy neighborhood and eventually faded into the night. All was well with my little world on Lincoln Drive. My life was new and not yet burdened by regrets, responsibilities, losses and ‘impossible’ dreams.

Emily and I at Floore's Dance Hall

Emily and I at Floore’s Dance Hall

A New Year's Eve kiss...Emily and Shane at Floore's Dance Hall

A New Year’s Eve kiss…Emily and Shane at Floore’s Dance Hall

I recall a few big, wild New Year’s Eve events, but not many. One time we went to a comedy club in rural Minnesota in which I thought I would never stop laughing. The long, frozen drive across the snow-covered prairie sobered me up.  My husband and I went to a fancy club in Minneapolis once when my first baby was nine months old. I spent most of the night wanting to dance, but not.  It was agony leaving my baby. It was the first time she was left with a sitter. I couldn’t wait to get home. And in recent years, with both of my children at that fun ‘young adult’ age, we’ve taken to going to the local Texas dance hall, together as a family, for their annual New Year’s Eve party and traditional bowl of black-eye peas for good luck in the New Year. Those nights were memorable, but all too soon our children are off doing their own thing….married, working, spending time with friends, and building their own memories.

But mostly, New Year’s Eve was a family thing as it was when I was little. We gave our children the same privileges we were allotted in youth, of champagne and treats, noise makers and party hats, and the unleashing of spirited yelps on the front lawn as we watched the sky light up with fireworks and smoke. Perhaps because south Texas temperatures are more inviting to linger in; fireworks on New Year’s Eve are out-of-this-world here and always a good show even from one’s own porch steps.

My daughter had the upstairs bedroom that I would have wanted as a child, where the windows reach the floor and one can see over the roof-tops of the neighborhood, chimney smoke swirling, and the owls in the top branches of the Live Oaks trees at night.  She and I used to retreat there on the floor in front of the windows, when all the blasting, blowing, calling “Happy New Year” into the night, and champagne bubbles had simmered down, and we’d reflect there together. Those were precious times for me; close, intimate, and perhaps more my cherished memory than hers. For many years that was our New Year’s Eve ritual, until, at last, she was too old and cool for those kind of moments and would rather hang with her friends or go off to bed alone.

My light-hearted son was always fun, willingly wearing silly hats and doing the cha-cha with us around the living room and kitchen as we rang in the New Year. I have no regrets about spending the last twenty- some December thirty-firsts with our delightful children, all the sweet-lipped, good night kisses and shared wishes; it was a gift.

Taylor a couple of New Year's ago...

Taylor a couple of New Year’s ago…

Taylor on New Year's Eve 2000

Taylor on New Year’s Eve 2000

But now, with gray in our hair, an empty house, and no real tradition of donning a sparkly little black dress or bow-tie and tuxedo, we have settled into the proverbial ‘quiet’ New Year’s Eve, pouring ourselves a glass of champagne, watching the Time Square ‘ball drop,’ as we all used to say when that was the only celebration to watch on TV, tooting our horns in our now sleepy neighborhood, and then shutting off the porch light and heading off to bed while the rest of the world parties.

But still ‘the reflections” of Auld Lang Syne come, just as they did for the ‘little girl’ me with my sisters and brothers, and later my children, in what seems like so many years ago. I’ve always thought the line “Should old acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind,” odd, indeed cruel, at such a time when it is quite normal to remember the people that have come and gone from our lives even more than usual.

I miss the call from my mother, who even in old age kept up the ‘reaching out’ to her children from her own lonely living room. I could see her there in the light of the TV screen and the small ceramic Christmas tree that was all she could do, tearfully smiling, sending wishes, and remembering all the New Year’s Eves of her life when her house was overflowing with youthful energy and excitement. My siblings in the East are settled into their beds (or own rituals) by the time Texas hits midnight, and my brother in California is hours away from the celebrating; so the calls and now text messages come in sporadically, if at all.

Just as the instinctive need to reform one’s thoughts and actions, to make resolutions for good change, and to step into the new year ‘anew’ will continue (I hope for many years), so too  ‘forgetting old acquaintances’ will NEVER happen.

Those ‘old acquaintances’ are with me tonight more than ever. My little siblings and I laughingly ready to emerge from the house with our pots and pans to the celebratory front porch, my beautiful young parents handing out the champagne smiling and hopeful, my little boy in his big Mexican Sombrero dancing around the house tooting a silver horn, and my little girl and I curled up close to each other in her upstairs bedroom window, the fireworks reflected in her innocent eyes, talking quietly into the New Year and holding on to the moment until we were both too tired and the cozy warmth of sleep called to us, are brought to mind on such a night like this.

I don’t care who you are. Whether you’re braving the cold at some festive outdoor event, standing on the lawn with your kids, in the throes of passion with your lover, or closing the light early after a kiss from your dog; one can’t help but be reflective on such a night. One can’t help but remember our ‘old acquaintances’ and hold them close to our hearts. We’ve made it through another year, sometimes through Hell and high water! We’ve lost loved ones, more hair, opportunities to ‘go places,’ and gained simple moments of joy and accomplishment that filled our days with pride and family love. All of these things come to mind…and are worth the tearful or even drunken reflection.

So, it may be just another New Year’s Eve, another Auld Lang Syne, and even my old man and I…two pups and two cats… some Rudy’s BBQ and a glass of champagne to toast at midnight, have our own personal reflections and will awaken to the a New Year hopeful of only good things and good health…and, come what may, we’ll be just fine.

From the bottom of my sentimental heart, I’m sending an earnest Happy New Year and a wish for good health and much love…to you all!

Me and my sparkly, happy girl!

Me and my sparkly, happy girl!

It’s All Going to Be Okay

Birthdays come and birthdays go.

This has been a quiet birthday for me, except for the opening of my eyes in gratefulness at meeting a new day. Some of my family had forgotten that it was my birthday, which isn’t odd given that we usually celebrate mine the following day along with my son’s birthday. My day, I’ve found, is more of a day of reflection. I have had a few memorable birthdays, though, that always come to mind on this reflective anniversary and are remarkably similar, though separated by 24 years or so.
One July when I was about six-years-old, we were at our family cabin nestled in the woods of mid-Michigan along the banks of the Tittabawassee River, and my Grandma Cowan was with us. That was unusual, as I recall. I think my mother must have needed her help that summer, for she normally didn’t take trips ‘up north’ with us.

My mother’s mother had been a ‘flapper’ during the roaring 20s, a totally modern girl living in Detroit in its heyday! She was the

My mom and her brother with my grandparents Ralph and Clara Cowan in the late 1940s

My mom and her brother with my grandparents Ralph and Clara Cowan in the late 1940s

first female insurance agent for The Royal Neighbors Insurance Company, and all her life had a keen business mind and was involved in helping the community. She married ‘old’ for those times, at thirty, to my grandfather, a tall strappin’ man who escaped the isolated simplicity of his Tennessee farm life to venture to the ‘Mecca of Prosperity,’ Detroit. After some work in the factories, my grandfather became a Detroit City police officer, affording his family security and a respectable middle-class life. My grandparents had two children, my mother and my Uncle Harvey, and lived that kind of ‘1940s ideal life’ one sees in those Spencer Tracey or Myrna Loy movies of the times, complete with stylish clothes, a strong work ethic, religious devotion, order and tradition, and even had their Polish Busha and Jaja living in the house with them. Family warmth and love were a given.

In the 1950s, when my parents married and brought forth eight children into the world, my grandmother was called upon to aid in the transportation of us kids and to give my mother all the support she could. She was a good grandma, always kind yet orderly, in control but generous. She would have us over to her stately but comfortable home in Detroit two-by-two, where we would enjoy outings to the Polish meat market and German bakery and get the kind of attention we didn’t get at home in house full of kids. On Sundays we’d trail behind my grandma and her elderly sister Maxine in their pearls and prim dresses as we walked to their church, Our Lady of Good Counsel, lit candles and learn to sit still. Back in her small but cozy kitchen ripe with the fresh tomato and green pepper smells of a summer garden, we’d enjoy fresh ham and cheese sandwiches on Jewish rye, Lorna Doone cookies, and then out to play in the then safe neighborhood and flower-lined alleys ways. She kept a bag of blocks and other toys in her front closet for us, and saved all her used cartons, dish soap bottles, and cereal boxes for us to play ‘store’ in the back yard. At bit of a gambler, she let us use her Po-Ke-No chips, which in this case were small multicolor tissue paper discs, as money or just for whatever we imagined. She kept round pink and white mints, sugared orange slices and mint leaves, and sometimes Circus Peanut candies in her china cabinet, and would give us a treat of them when she felt it was time. I can still see the cabinet filled with pink and green Depression glass, the spotless glass door slowly opened by my grandma, and us standing there patiently waiting for our reward for being good little guests.

My Grandma Cowan as I remember her in the 1960s.

My Grandma Cowan as I remember her in the 1960s.

Because my mother didn’t drive in those years when she most certainly needed to, my grandma would come to her rescue in her well-kept pink AMC Rambler, hat in place on her pin-curled hair, earrings on, boxy purse in hand, and she would get us around in her sturdy shoes and ironed shirtwaist dresses, far from the flapper flair of her 20s, but still classy. She was always willing to go the extra mile to help her only daughter, even to a musty old cabin. Something I completely understand as I now follow her example of devotion to my only daughter.

But it was during that summer in the early 1960s that my grandmother, Clara was her name, was staying with us at that musty old cabin where I was presented with a birthday gift that totally caught me off guard. It was a big box, for starters, and all lavishly wrapped in pink with a big pink bow! God, I was overcome with joy even before I opened it. In those days of dime-store gifts like a lace hanky, or a comb and brush set, maybe a paint-by-number kit and a multitude of handmade gifts from my other young siblings like a dog’s head carved out of an Ivory soap bar or a potholder made from a child’s weaving kit, that big pink box was a big deal!

When I opened it, I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was a beautiful baby doll swaddled in a soft pink blanket. I thought I was in heaven, for I loved dolls and rarely got one of my own. I remember holding that doll continuously after that point; for many years she was my dear child. I was so grateful to my sophisticated grandmother and happy as I watched the proud look on my mother’s face as well. She was apparently just as excited about my receiving such a special gift as I was.

It wasn’t until I was 38-years-old that I would receive another baby as a birthday gift. In labor all night on my birthday, my son was born just into the next day, saving him from the awkwardness of having to share his day with his mother for the rest of his life. Oh, and what a gift he was. Unexpected after the premature death of my father, an easy-going, mild-mannered child, who has grown into an honorable young man; he has always been my personal expression of celebration. As it is, I willingly gave up all the fanfare on my day for the next 19 years and will continue to do so, in order to celebrate my birthday baby!

Those two memories stand out above all others…including overtures of love from fumbling, good intentioned young boys, sun-burnt birthday picnics, drunken parties with girlfriends, and the traditional birthday cake and ice cream with loved ones. Perhaps, it’s because they all involve mothers, my mother, her mother, me as a mother, and our dear little babes in arms….real or, in the case of my six-year old summer gift, perceived real. Certainly, they are involved ‘real’ love.

I spent this birthday by myself, for the most part, with the memory of my mother. It was easy and natural. After all, she was the only loved one truly with me as I was ushered into this world through her labor, and she has been with me all along through the pain and struggles of my rebirths, as well. It would seem unnatural for that feeling to stop, simply because she is no longer physically present on earth.

Just a few months ago, I was struggling with despair. I had too many thoughts in my head and nowhere to take them, too much planning, work, and daily demands on my plate, and had reached a point of sleeplessness and exhaustion. I was trying to nap one afternoon, and somewhere between sleep and being awake, I heard my mother walk in the room calling out my childhood name, “Cindy,” as if she were trying to wake me up in a gentle fashion. It was so real. She was so real. I could smell her perfume as she slowly came around the end of my bed and sat down beside me. She was dressed in one of her nightgowns with an old-fashion ‘housecoat’ covering it much like the one I had admired for its sensibility during my last visit the summer before she died. She had gotten it from Sears or The Vermont Country Store, someplace where one could still get those sensible kinds of garments that allowed modest women to make breakfast, do a few chores, and even venture outside before actually getting dressed for the day. In soft feminine pink, it had little floral edged pockets and snaps as buttons. My always sassy mother giggled and told me it was kind of sexy in that way. I had to agree. When I was leaving that last summer day, I found the housecoat washed and lovingly folded on the top of my things in my luggage. She told me it was a going-away gift, as she proudly peeked around the corner to see my reaction, so much like her face when I receive the gift from my grandmother years ago.

That sleepless afternoon, I sat there looking at my mother’s pleasant face as she sat next to me, not young, not old and sad, just angelic-looking. I seemingly was awake, yet not in shock at seeing her or overly emotional, just completely given over to her presence. She said to me several times, quite simply in her familiar voice as she patted my leg, “Everything will be okay, Cindy. It’s all going to be okay.” When she walked away she gave me her signature girlish smile, reassuring yet joyful at what would come next, and when I came to the place where I thought I was indeed awake, I felt at peace, solid, reassured by my mother’s visit. Who else could do that? She was there at my first breath, and like today, she walked with me silently whispering that simple truth as a puttered around the house, during my exercising and getting ready for the day, and while I received lovely messages from friends. That was enough of a gift, and just as memorable as my baby doll and beautiful boy.

Birthdays are mostly lovely, but sometimes hard, especially as we get much older. There comes a point in life that you don’t need

Me and my mother in the 1980s.

Me and my mother in the 1980s.

a big pink box to feel special, you just need to feel loved. Today’s gift was a simple reminder, that “It’s all going to be okay.” Everyday gives us a chance for celebration; we just have to be willing to receive those small gifts as they come. There will be more babies to hold, boxes to wrap and open, grateful sunrises, memories to share and wisdom to pass along.

Like my mother and her mother, my task is to pass those gifts and love along to my children, washed and folded neatly or sugar-frosted as candy, and that proud reassuring peek around the corner for the courage to carry on through all the birthdays of their lives.