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My grandmother was a generous woman. With only a 6th grade education, she managed to pull herself out of the poverty of rural Georgia to study for her hairdresser’s license and run her own business. Later she would work at Gracewood State School and Hospital helping those she saw as less fortunate than herself. Elise was a pretty woman and always sought to live a better life. She was a lucky Sun sign, the 9th, Sagittarius — surprisingly unlucky when it came to men.

Her last husband was a good man though. She met him when she lived with us in rural Pennsylvania for a few years in the 1960’s. I was in junior high; we shared a room. At that time, we had 9 people in a small rambler with 3 bedrooms. It’s something we didn’t think much about then, how small the house was, how little privacy we had. We were a close family; I was a brooding teenager. I found solace in riding my brother’s mini-bike down the hill behind the house, shooting hoops on the uneven backyard slope, a net my step-father put up for me, and hiding under my headphones, lost in the music of Led Zeppelin, Neil Young, and Chicago.

Elise didn’t like the cold. Neither does my mother for that matter. But after 43 years of living in the North, Amelia has learned to tolerate it. My mother and grandmother did not always see eye-to-eye. Even though they loved each other deeply, they often disagreed on style, clothes, and how to raise the kids. It wasn’t for my grandmother to say; she was living in my mother’s home. But that didn’t keep her from voicing her opinions. I held a soft spot in Grandmama’s heart. I think it’s because she took care of me around age 2 while my mother worked to support us. Mom is a hard worker. I think it’s something she passed down to us kids.

I was sad when Grandmama moved back to Georgia. She met her last husband Raymond in the same state where her father was born, not all that far from Coatesville, Pennsylvania. Raymond agreed to move to Georgia with her and that’s exactly what they did. North and South have always comingled in the family tree. I don’t remember seeing her often after that (but I remember all the names of the streets she lived on). I grew up, moved out of the house, 4 hours away to college, then 2000 miles to live in the Pacific Northwest. I alienated myself from family and old high school and college friends. I was angry and wanted desperately to figure out who I was without the ties of the past. It took over 10 years.

During that time, I wasn’t in as much communication with my grandmother in Georgia. I was looking for steady work, rode my bicycle through the winter streets of Missoula to drop off job applications, hiked the Bitterroot Mountains, helped friends build their cabins. Grandmama would call to check on me. Elise was a worrier. I tried to tell her I would be alright and not to worry. Eventually, she stopped calling as much. I was 30 years old when she died. I remember getting the call from Mom that Elise had had a heart attack. She survived and came home from the hospital; I called and talked to her one last time.

A day later, she went into the hospital again and did not come home. I remember the sinking feeling of knowing I’d never get to see her again, to ask her all the questions I wanted to ask. If only I knew then what I know now. If only it had been the wiser 50-something person and not the selfish 30-year-old that made that last phone call.

What I have learned is that being close to someone doesn’t require that you see them all the time, or spend time together. Sometimes blood is thicker than water. I knew she would be there if I ever needed her, the same way Aunt Cassie was there for her. My biggest regret is that I didn’t go to my grandmother’s funeral. I have always carried a nagging guilt about that. Why did I make that choice? Money, time, shame, scared to face the relatives I knew would be there after so much time away. Why did I isolate myself so from the family?

I had to grow up. It’s that simple. I had to forgive, learn gratitude, do emotional work, mature. I had to let go, in order to pull close again. Sometimes it’s just too late to go back.

My grandmother was a strong woman. As is my mother. I like to think I carry some of that inside me. And every time someone says I’ve got strength or courage, I think of them. The smell of Elise’s perfect red lipstick, the lavender talcum powder she fluffed after her bath, the Phillips Milk of Magnesia on the edge of the bathroom counter, the jagged scar from her hysterectomy, a long, long time before laser surgery, the sweet perfumes she wore near the end of her life, the way her curls smelled like hairspray. All this and so much more.



-posted on red Ravine, Tuesday, March 31st, 2009

related to Topic post:  WRITING TOPIC — GRANDMOTHERS

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Her name was Romey. Not her real name. Romey was her nickname, the name on her checks. Where she was from you could use your nickname in your checkbook.

She carried a leather purse, hard leather tooled with elaborate scenes. A man on a horse or flowers set among borders. I think she had more than one, they came from Mexico, and when she died I purposely arrived a day late to the divvying out of her belongings. Nothing she had left could make up for what I lost, but when I saw the purse unclaimed I asked for it.

I’m named after her. People ask me all the time where I got my name. Mom just yesterday told someone that Grandma had wanted Mom to name one of her children after Grandma. Mom waited until she ran out of kids, and knowing I was the last chance to fulfill Grandma’s request, Mom gave me the name.

We all thought it was an ugly name when I was young, a name similar to other old lady names—Velma, Erma, Mona, Ramona—except worse because no one had heard of it. Now we know it’s a beautiful name.

I got her curly hair, too. Mom always says I must have got my hair from Grandma. And her sometimes bad temper. And her love of gossip.

She loved reading National Enquirer. The intrigue of alien babies born to earthling mothers. She insisted that the funny little redhead who showed up in deviled ham commercials and talked with a lisp was actually an old lady midget. She’d read it in the National Enquirer.

She taught us to make butter and play Black Jack, and it dawns on me that she was a pioneer woman, living an isolated life on a ranch with her kids and chores and when she got old, her soap operas and plants and apricot poodle named Dukie.

She taught us to all turn the faces of Abraham Lincoln on our penny bets to face the dealer, so that Lincoln would send the evil eye and prevent any possible stroke of luck the dealer might have. It worked; Grandma always won at Black Jack.

She had the bluest eyes, they got lighter the older she got. People ask me how I birthed a daughter with green-blue eyes when my own and Jim’s are brown. I carry Grandma’s blue eyes in a recessive gene, I tell them. Her curly brown hair, her smooth olive skin, her fiery temper, her name, and the hidden jewel of her light blue eyes.

She cooked, she knitted, she sewed quilts from old dresses. I have a blanket that covers the fashion trends of her day: paisley prints and flowers and Day-glo orange, pink, and yellow.

I still regret the time Tina and I bugged her for days asking if she’d leave us this thing or that thing when she died. We were young, 13 and 14, or 12 and 13, and we got on a kick, loving all of Grandma’s ranch house knick-knacks. She was annoyed with us, and still we persisted, pointing to a painting of a horse or an ashtray or a wooden bowl. Can I have that one, Grandma? How ’bout that one? And that one?

Later Grandma gave me a wool blanket that Grandpa had brought her from Mexico. I was in my 20s. I wonder if she remembered the time we wanted to take her with us in bits and pieces thinking we could hold on to her forever.




-related to Topic post:  WRITING TOPIC — GRANDMOTHERS

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By Bob Chrisman
 

Aunt Annie Saluting, photo 2009 by Bob Chrisman, all rights reserved

Here’s to you, Aunt Annie!, image © 2009 by Bob Chrisman. All rights reserved.




A cup of tea with sugar brings back memories of my first cup, the day my mother said, “You’re old enough to drink tea.” Sacks of pale orange “circus peanuts” remind me of the stale ones in Grandma Hecker’s candy dish. Homemade caramel-covered apples take me to Mrs. Wallace’s kitchen where I taste tested them the night before Halloween. Ritz crackers transport me to Mrs. Thompson’s house where we played Ring-Around-The-Rosie.

Certain recipes hold special memories. I bake scalloped potatoes topped with pork chops the same way my mother did and in the same glass loaf dish. When I make Hamburger Splatter, I remember the adults who my mother babysat when they were children stopping by for the recipe. My favorite holiday dish recipe is scalloped oysters. Aunt Annie, Mom’s youngest sister, made them every Thanksgiving and Christmas.

I asked my cousins why their mom fixed such an exotic dish for such meat-and-potatoes people. Neither of them knew but thought a neighbor might have given the recipe to Aunt Annie. Oysters don’t grow in northwest Missouri. My mother and her sisters didn’t have unusual tastes in food. Yet every holiday dinner, sitting next to the freshly roasted turkey, the real mashed potatoes, the green bean casserole, and the fresh raspberry pies made from home-canned raspberries, we’d find the scalloped oysters.

I asked my aunt for the recipe. I didn’t want her to pass away without someone having it. “I don’t really have a recipe anymore. I just know how to make it,” she said. She wrote down the ingredients and instructions on a piece of notebook paper, which I lost the first time I used it. My recipe, which I carried in my head until now, captures the taste and consistency of the original.

Scalloped oysters remind me of family gatherings when my mother, her sisters and their husbands were in their prime. I remember long prayers while we held hands followed by huge meals, hours of card games, and the feeling of being loved.

Most of all I remember my Aunt Annie and Uncle Pete. They loved one another very much. They had an ease with one another and they treated each other with respect. She wasn’t always easy to live with (none of the sisters were), but Uncle Pete never fell out of love with her. I always thought, of all the sisters, Aunt Annie had the happiest marriage.



Uncle Vernon (Pete) O. Simmon in uniform, image © 2009 by Bob Chrisman, all rights reserved

Uncle Vernon (Pete) O. Simmon in uniform, image
© 2009 by Bob Chrisman. All rights reserved.





Photographs from the 1940’s capture a dashing young man in a military uniform and a dark-haired beauty. They made a striking couple all of their lives.

After he returned from the war, they bought a little house on Garden Street where they raised their three children and hosted many holiday dinners. I always envied my cousins for the parents they had.

I grew closer to them as I aged. Many times I would leave my mother’s house and stop by theirs before I drove home. Aunt Annie told me stories about her sisters and the family, things my mother never mentioned. Uncle Pete would interrupt, when he could, to offer his two cents on the subject. I loved them both and came to treasure those times with just the two of them.

Uncle Pete died of pancreatic cancer in October 1996. His death broke Aunt Annie’s heart. They had been married for over 50 years. She went through the motions of living for about a year before she took sick and died in December, 1997. I think that he was waiting for her when she passed. If he had anything to say about it, I know he was.

Here’s the recipe for her famous scalloped oysters. I hope the recipe generates some good memories for you and your families.




Aunt Annie and Uncle Pete, image © 2009 by Bob Chrisman, all rights reserved

Aunt Annie and Uncle Pete, image © 2009
by Bob Chrisman. All rights reserved.





Aunt Annie’s Scalloped Oysters



1      1-pound loaf of Velveeta Cheese (sliced)
32    Saltine cracker squares (approximately one package out of a box of four)
4-5   8-ounce cans of oysters (pieces-and-bits or whole or a combination)*
2      12-ounce cans of evaporated milk**


Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees.

Slice Velveeta Cheese into slices about an eighth of an inch thick. Open four cans of oysters and drain off most of the liquid. (Note: Keep some to pour into the casserole to add more oyster flavor, if desired.)

Use a casserole dish that has a lid (even though the lid isn’t used except for storage of leftovers). Grease it with your choice of oil; I prefer butter.

Then begin the layering process:

Crush enough Saltine crackers to make a layer on the bottom of the dish. Next place a layer of oysters with some liquid from the can. Cover with a layer of slices of Velveeta Cheese. Pour enough evaporated milk to wet the layers. Repeat.

The amount of the ingredients given above makes about three layers. Top the dish with another layer of Velveeta Cheese. Bake until the cheese on top is melted and a warm brown, about 90 minutes (longer if you want it crustier).

This dish will serve at least 8-10 people and maybe 10-14 if plenty of other food is available. You can make smaller portions by using a loaf pan and only making two layers. I do that when I have no one else to join me. The leftovers make a tasty, if unusual, breakfast treat.


*The number of cans of oysters you buy will determine on how “oyster-y” you want the dish to be. I found that four cans make generous layers. I usually buy two cans of pieces-and-bits and two cans of whole oysters.

**You will have approximately 1/2 can of evaporated milk left when you finish. My youngest cousin says that she uses regular milk.

Hopefully you have a strong heart and clean arteries. Bon appetit.




Bob Chrisman is a Kansas City, Missouri writer who frequently writes memoir about his mother, her three sisters, and their influence on his life. His other red Ravine posts include Hands, Growing Older, Goat Ranch, Stephenie Bit Me, Too, The Law Of Threes, and In Memoriam.

We’d like to thank Bob for providing this recipe and the story of the aunt who inspired it. And thank you, Aunt Annie! We’ve been dreaming about scalloped oysters since last Thanksgiving, when Bob made mention of the dish in a conversation in the post Reflections On The Other National Bird.

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Grandmama Elise On Washington Road, Augusta, Georgia, August 23rd, 1958, photo © 2008-2009 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

Grandmama Elise On Washington Road, Augusta, Georgia, August 23rd, 1958, photo © 2008-2009 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.



What do you remember most about your grandmother? Was she tall, thin, short, heavy? Or maybe she changed shape over the course of your lifetime. Do you remember what she smelled like, or the color of her hair? Is your grandmother living? Or has she passed on after a life well-lived. Out of all the relatives that come to mind, grandmothers wield tremendous power and are often respected by the entire family.

Grandmothers are the Elders, the Wise Ones, the Matriarchs, the glue that holds a family’s odd misshapen tree together. Many writers and artists are influenced by their grandmothers. Frank Gehry’s grandmother was the inspiration for his personal symbol, the fish. He includes fish in his architectural drawings, makes fish lamps, and has even designed buildings shaped like fish.

One of his most famous fish sculptures is the Standing Glass Fish commissioned by the Walker Art Center. Its first home was the lobby concourse between the Walker and the old Guthrie, where it was built scale by scale and exhibited as part of The Architecture of Frank Gehry Exhibition, September 21-November 30, 1986.

After two years in the Walker concourse, the 22-foot sculpture (constructed of glass and silicone and supported by a wooden armature with steel rods) was taken apart in five sections and reassembled at its second and permanent home in the central gallery of the Cowles Conservatory in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. Gehry made a number of plexiglass models to study the flip of the fish’s tail, the characteristics of its eyes, and the shape of the scales.

The brass plaque on the edge of the pond nearby, calls to mind Gehry’s fond remembrance of his grandmother’s fish:


In Toronto, when I was very young, my grandmother and I used to go to Kensington, a Jewish market, on Thursday morning. She would buy a carp for gefilte fish. She’d put it in the bathtub, fill the bathtub with water, and this big black carp–two or three feet long–would swim around in the bathtub and I would play with it. I would stand up there and watch it turn and twist . . . and then she’d kill it and make gefilte fish and that was always sad and awful and ugly.

        —Frank Gehry



Glass Fish Scales, Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, Minneapolis, Minnesota, January 2008, photo © 2008-2009 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.Standing Glass Fish, Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, Minneapolis, Minnesota, January 2008, photo © 2008-2009 by Liz. All rights reserved.Flying Fish, Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, Minneapolis, Minnesota, January 2008, photo © 2008-2009 by Liz. All rights reserved.

Glass Fish Scales, Standing Glass Fish, Flying Fish, Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, Minneapolis, Minnesota, January 2008, photos © 2008-2009 by Liz & QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.


In dire circumstances, when money is tight or family tensions rise, grandmothers often step up and help raise their children’s children. Nikki Giovanni was born in Knoxville, Tennessee in 1943 and, though she moved to Cincinnati as a child, she returned in 1958 to spend her summers in Knoxville with her grandparents, John and Louvenia Watson. With explosive tensions between her parents difficult for Giovanni to handle, she chose to live in Knoxville for a time and attended Austin High School where her grandfather taught Latin.

It’s at this time that her grandmother’s influence profoundly shapes her life. According to her biography:


Her grandmother, who is involved in numerous charitable and political endeavors, becomes an increasingly important influence on her (Giovanni), teaching her the importance of helping others and of fighting injustice. When a demonstration is planned to protest segregated dining facilities at downtown Rich’s department store, her grandmother Louvenia cheerfully volunteers her granddaughter Nikki. In high school, Giovanni has two influential teachers: her French teacher, Mrs. Emma Stokes, and her English teacher, Miss Alfredda Delaney.


Her grandparents’ home stood at 400 Mulvaney Street in a neighborhood that’s long since been demolished, a casualty of urban renewal. In 1964, Giovanni’s grandmother Louvenia must move from her home at 400 Mulvaney Street; Nikki’s biography recalls the impact: Although her new house on Linden Avenue is nice, it lacks the accumulated memories of the home on Mulvaney, which Giovanni has also come to regard as her own home.

Nikki Giovanni often mentioned her grandmother when we saw her at the Fitzgerald Theater in January. She had returned to Knoxville on April 29th, 2008 when Mayor Haslam unveiled of a historical marker honoring Giovanni and the old neighborhood where her grandmother lived. It is now Hall of Fame Drive across the street from the Cal Johnson Recreation Center. It was on that childhood ground that Nikki Giovanni stood and recited her poem, “Tennessee By Birth.”


  Elise & Her Children, Augusta, Georgia, circa mid-1940s, photo © 2008-2009 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.  Elise & Her Children, Augusta, Georgia, circa mid-1940s, photo © 2008-2009 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

Elise & Her Children, Augusta, Georgia, circa mid-1940’s, photo © 2008-2009 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.


My maternal grandmother (lead photograph) is standing on the dirt of what used to be Washington Road in Augusta, Georgia. Her neighborhood, too, has been long gone, sacrificed to the growth of suburbs and cities. She was a hairdresser in her 30’s when I was born. My father was “allergic” to work and could not (or would not) support our family. My mother left him at 18, a few years after their marriage, and went to work. During that time, I stayed at my grandmother’s home. When I was a child, we were always close.

I remember the smell of her talcum powder, the imprint mark she would leave when she dabbed her lips after putting on her lipstick, the sound of her laughter in the evenings, her snoring at night.


*     *     *     *     *

When you say the words “my grandmother,” who comes to mind? (Most of us have at least two.) Who was your grandmother? Was she the matriarch, a dowager, estranged from the family? What was her name? Did you call her Grandmother, Granny, Grandma, or Grandmama. Did she spoil you, was she strict, how often did you see her, what kind of house did she live in? Does she ever sneak into your dreams?

Get out a fast writing pen and write the words “My Grandmother.” If you have any family photographs of your grandmother, it’s fun to pull them from the archives. Then set your timer for a 15 minute Writing Practice and Go!


Della Elise, Augusta, Georgia, circa mid-1950s, photo © 2008-2009 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.Della Elise, Augusta, Georgia, circa mid-1950s, photo © 2008-2009 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.Della Elise, Augusta, Georgia, circa mid-1950s, photo © 2008-2009 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.Della Elise, Augusta, Georgia, circa mid-1950s, photo © 2008-2009 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

For Della Elise, I Miss You, Augusta, Georgia, circa mid-1950’s, photo © 2008-2009 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.



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-posted on red Ravine, Thursday, March 19th, 2009

-related to posts: Art & Architecture – 2 Reasons, WRITING TOPIC — MEMORIES OF CARS, The Dying Art Of Letter Writing (Postcards From The Edge), You Can’t Go Back, Nikki Giovanni – Hope at V-Tech

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What I know about Velveeta cheese is the color. More pale orange than most cheeses. The texture. A gelatinous blob, jiggles when you shake it. The taste, well, not so much uncooked as cooked.

One would be hard-pressed to get a slice of Velveeta, taken off the block, to melt in the mouth. It’d take a glass of milk, I bet, to wash it down, adhered as it would be to the roof of the mouth, like those tart molds I remember the dentist once made of my teeth. Or the body of Christ, embodied in a white round host, wedged at the top, the choking, almost suffocating from manipulating the tongue to dislodge it while the priest walked through the slow process of drinking the last of the blood of Christ and then wiping out the chalice with a green cloth that seemed too nice to treat as a washrag.

And I suppose it’s fitting that Velveeta would lead me to memories of teeth molds and Communion hosts. They were all wrapped up together in my mind, the days of Hogan’s Heroes and grilled cheese sandwiches with Shasta cola after school. Friday nights at the bowling alley with Mom and Dad, me tucked under a pinball machine watching tan cordury bell bottoms of teenage boys. Sundays spent sitting with bony knees in a pew wishing I didn’t have to eat a round wafer that tasted like paper but softer.

Things that melt in the mouth, or don’t, and why is it that Velveeta melts so well in a pan over heat? The mouth, isn’t it a constant 90+ degree oven?, but I guess the temperature just isn’t high enough to activate the wheys and milkfats to dance that swirling dance from solid to liquid. And what about biting into Velveeta? Already I can feel the film on my teeth, like washing globs of Elmer’s glue from one’s fingers.

I don’t have qualms about eating Velveeta in sauces, dips, or casseroles. It was one of the foods of my youth, as familiar to me as potato chips or mayonnaise. Although I grew up with a natural bent for natural everything. Made my own granola out of raw oats and sesame seeds, honey and California sun-kissed raisins, when I was still a teen. Gravitated to halibut when given a choice for any selection on the long main-entree counter at Furr’s Cafeteria. Hated red meats for the veins and shunned eggs and chicken because Mom had enough of slaughtered birds and fertilized eggs when she was young, and when she was older she passed on her food aversions to us.

But I still ate processed food, still ate whatever I could find in the fridge after school, even when it was a box of aging Velveeta, the open end hardened and discolored, cracked and in need of amputation. Grilled cheese sandwiches were one of the few things I could make by myself, and I picked up Janet’s preference for cutting them diagonally and then dipping the end in a puddle of ketchup before biting off a piece.

I still love grilled cheese sandwiches dipped in ketchup, although I’m not a regular consumer of Velveeta nowadays. I like a sharp cheddar cheese and just this afternoon I made a green chile relleno casserole that I suppose could have been done with Velveeta, although I mixed yellow and white sharp cheddar. The cheeses melted a sort of deep amber, and being as how I’ve burned Velveeta in the crock pot, I know that even cheese that melts well over heat can turn brown if you let it get too hot.




-related to Topic post: WRITING TOPIC — VELVEETA CHEESE

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Fresh flannel sheets on the bed last night, I closed the top to my computer and crawled in with ice cube feet and the sheets were like warm layers of cotton. Sometimes when my feet are cold I’ll take them and rub them on Jim’s legs, try to insert little feet between shins or thighs the way I used to with Mom whenever I had leg aches.

Leg aches plagued me more than other ailments as a child, maybe lack of great nutrition—I liked candy necklaces and sugar straws—although I think it was hereditary. Mom’s parents took her to the healing waters of Ojo Caliente and soaked her legs in the pools to drive away the demons.

We sleep with a set of flannel sheets, a blue herringbone blanket made for a double bed not queen (Jim always pulls it too far over, or I do), a quilt Jim’s mom made him in 1981, has a simple rising sun design and a sewn inscripton, Happy Birthday Jim, Love Mom. He loves that quilt. Then a bed cover I got at Linens-n-Things, which Patty C. calls “Sheets-n-Shit.” They’re going out of business.

I like down comforters, Jim dies of heatstroke in them. His mom gave us one for Christmas long ago with a white eyelet cover, pretty and delicate, and when it finally died and the feathers aggregated in thick clumps in the corners, we let it go with one of our annual spring cleaning purges.

I remember most the bedding at Grandma’s house, layers of homemade quilted blankets and bright afghans. There was never rhyme nor reason to her colors. I have an old blanket of hers now with angled edges that Mom sewed where it had ripped and gave to me. Pink checkerboard, lime green, bright orange and red. I see two patches of patterned cloth I recognize from the simple dresses Grandma wore in the mornings while frying bacon, potatoes, and eggs. Each section held with thread in the center, the ends popping up like errant hairs on a chin. I love that blanket, I lie on the couch and cover myself with it whenever we watch movies. Em always gravitates to me during those times and I spoon her the way Mom spooned me, tiny legs tucked into big.

But the thing I remember most about Grandma’s bedding is how it held me down, the weight of it all, pressing me into my dreams. How later on whenever I got X-rays at Dr. Thurman’s office and they placed that iron-like blanket over my small body it would remind me of reams of color, patches of Grandma’s dresses and crocheted yarn, weighing down on me, not like a burden but a release, allowing sleep, finally, to come.




-related to Topic post: WRITING TOPIC – FLANNEL SHEETS

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Abandoned is a place, and for a moment I hear these words in my head (as if from a Country-Western song): Abandoned is a place where I come from.

I remember taking a trip to Costilla with Dad, the first time I saw where he came from. We were with Uncle Nemey, Suzanne, and Kathy. I see us piling out of the VW van and walking in a line through a narrow doorway. The house is two rooms and a closet, more a shack than a house. I can tell you what I was wearing — blue shorts made of soft cotton and a striped t-shirt — yet I can’t tell you what we saw in the house. There’s a photo I took recently of an empty room with boards and building materials (an abandoned renovation job) and that’s the image I see when I think of the house Dad grew up in. Dark, small windows, empty potato chip bag on the floor. 

There is a whole vocabulary having to do with abandoned places. Shattered, tattered, forlorn. Trashed and infested. Scarred, and here I think of the thing abandoned as a scar on the landscape. Vacant and alone, and is a vacant stare an abandoned one? Has curiosity left the building?

Abandoned is the dog that fell out of the closet when Dad opened the door in his childhood home. Short-haired, reddish orange, I do recall that dog and how we all jumped back. It had been upright, as if on hind legs, and when I think of it falling I imagine it crumpling in a soft slump. It hadn’t been abandoned all that long before we arrived, its body yet to decay (and there’s another one of those words). We didn’t move the dog from where it lay in a heap, heap of trash. I wonder now how it felt to see so much abandonment in a place that once meant something more. If I had been older I might have thought to put my arm on Dad’s shoulder, and all I can say is I’m glad he was younger then. I don’t think he could stand seeing that dog now.

Even boards have souls, photo taken August 5, 2007 by ybonesy, all rights reservedWhen I started this practice I had a notion in my head. It went something like, Abandoned is not so much sad as it is intriguing. And that’s the part of me that wonders what happened in a place that’s been left behind. Did a man younger than I am now come home from loading sacks of potatoes onto trucks all day, sit in a chair and lament that he was working his heart to death? Did a boy watch his mother die of cancer?

I’m thinking about Dad’s old house again. All of us standing in that house and it seeming like the ceilings and walls were closing in. Dad said, This is where my mother died, and he pointed to a spot on the dirt floor. We stood in circle peering into nothing but dirt. No stained mattress or rusty boxsprings. I sat down on my haunches, the way I always did as a girl, and I imagined Dad’s mother becoming smaller and smaller, disappearing like a whirlpool in a bathtub or a funnel the sand lion makes for the ants to fall into. When Dad’s mom died, he and his brothers and sisters were left alone.

Abandon has a permanence to it, yet don’t abandoned buildings go back to the earth? Weeds grow through the cracks and walls crumble. Someone eventually bought Dad’s childhood home. They must have cleaned up the dog and the debris (another word). Dad got married, had a family.

Abandoned is impermanent. Abandoned is never alone. Abandoned is my toes, is my hair, is me at this moment shipwrecked on my chair, my empty, empty mind.

-Based on a ten-minute practice on Topic post, Abandoned

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Your mother turned 69 yesterday, my father 83 on November 5. I’d like to believe he, Elias, will live to be 100. That I can mine the DNA from his frail bones for years to come.

But each time I see him, I see him slip away, slow and almost imperceptible. His cataract eyes have that watery, faraway look, a silver film over intense black. On his birthday I meant to peer into those crystal ball eyes. How are you today? Are your legs strong? Will they carry you further?

But it was a festive party, enchiladas with red or green, flour tortillas Mom made, a big pot of pinto beans. Between forkfuls, I admire Mom’s choker, a spiky thing made with narrow triangles of oyster shell, bones from the sea. She takes it off, tells me it’s mine.

“I wore it so I could give it to one of you,” she tells my sisters when they chime to me, “Hey, wasn’t that Mom’s necklace??” I shrug. I didn’t mean to covet it before anyone else had a chance to.

Mom is generous. What is Dad?

I still remember, and now bones on my mind, sitting in Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish, staring down at my knobby knees while Dad listens to Father Cassidy’s homily. (And now, my mind catches the word “homily,” jumps to “hominy,” which in my family we make into “posole,” white kernals like big teeth. Everything goes back to food. Plain, hearty food. Not much meat in my lineage, is that why my bones are fine and my teeth achy when I drink anything cold?)

But back to the church. Dad and I go alone. Mom gave up faith after I was born and a priest slammed the confessional window in her face for telling him she was going on birth control. Dad picks a middle pew. Not too eager to please. Not a laggard, either. That’s Dad. Middle way. He sits rapt. He’s a pious man, comes from penitente stock. I stick my feet out in front of me, notice my shins have downy, light brown hair. I’m eleven. I still wear hand-me-down dresses. Brunswick patterns sewn by Mom. Old-fashioned dresses with big white bibs front and back, rickrack along the bottom. I like how my kneecaps move to and fro when I lift my legs up and down.

Then I see it. My right knee is bigger than my left. Something round is in there, like a marble or a golf ball under my brown skin. For the rest of Father Cassidy’s meandering sermon I am engrossed in this discovery, a moveable part in my leg. I’m like the Barbies I sneak out of my sister’s Barbie Doll case. Discrete joints, elbows-knees-and-shoulders. I can move me this way and that, pose me how I wish.

Up to now Dad is in his dreamy place above my small world. He can see over parishioners’ heads to Christ hanging on his crucifix, to the chalices and gold and white cloth. Now Dad looks down to where I am. He notices me popping my knee. I place his big, warm hand over the lump, show him how it rolls around under my skin. Suddenly he, too, gets engrossed in my bones. “What’s is it?” he asks in an urgent whisper, and I am alarmed by fear I hear in his voice.

Bones. It turns out to be a benign tumor. The kind of bone tumor common in horses’ knees, according to the orthopedic surgeon who eventually removes it. Bones. Who we are deep inside? Strong yet permeable. Small and obtrusive. Innocent, tainted, scared.

What was Dad thinking that day in the church? If I ask him today, will he remember? I am a writer, frantically seeking to capture memories from my 45 years. Who will help me see his gentle strength when Dad is gone?

It’s good to get cracking. There are deposits to unearth.

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