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Posts Tagged ‘excavating memories’

Soo Line - 5/365

Soo Line -5/365, Archive 365, Downtown, Minneapolis, Minnesota, August 2007, photo © 2007-2012 by skywire7. All rights reserved.


Minneapolis has history hidden in the details. Many of the historical buildings are gone but small pieces remain. The camera lens lets you see into a world that might go otherwise unnoticed. This clock caught my eye as we were driving around in the rain taking photos. What a neat find. Plus digging through the old photos makes me want to go exploring for more unique pieces of our past.

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ARCHIVE 365 is a photo collaboration between skywire7 and QuoinMonkey featuring images from our archives. We will alternate posting once a day in our Flickr sets from July 1st 2012 through June 30th 2013. You can view our photographs at skywire7 Archive 365 set on Flickr and QuoinMonkey Archive 365 set on Flickr.

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By Marylin Schultz




Marylin on Tricycle, Billy, Francine & Terry in Wagon, Johnny in Rear, No. Hollywood, California, 1944, vintage family photo, scan © 2012 by Marylin Schultz. All rights reserved.


When nations form alliances on every continent, it means the lines are drawn and the winds of war sweep across the world, affecting all people, even small children. Two little girls in two very different families find they have been placed in opposite alliances, and this is their story.

The year is 1941. Marylin Biggs was born in New Mexico. She is Caucasian and lives with her parents and older brother. Her mother is expecting a baby in January. On December 7th, America is drawn into the war which is now affecting the entire world. Her father, not wanting to leave his wife with such a young family, is given the choice to work for Lockheed, building war planes, which he accepts. In 1942, the Biggs family moves to California.


In California’s central valley the Nakata family lives on a farm composed of beautiful orchards and vineyards. The children are 3rd generation Japanese Americans.

Little Haruko enters Kindergarten in 1942. One day, out on the school playground, Haruko finds herself surrounded by 6th Grade girls.

“Hold out your hand,” one of them commands. The small child meekly obeys, not knowing what to expect. The girl who spoke, grabs one of Haruko’s hands and begins to twist and twist a tiny finger until it breaks. Although the pain is excruciating, she is afraid to tell any adult at school and runs home. She never returns to that school.

As it turns out, the Nakata family is also about to make a major move. The huge difference is that Haruko’s family does not have a choice. They are ordered off of their land and become internees in a Relocation Camp, far away.


Marylin Biggs with her Cousin, Wiley Oliver, Glendale, California, 1942, vintage family photo, scan © 2012 by Marylin Schultz. All rights reserved.

Marylin and her family settle down in North Hollywood, and her father drives to Burbank, the adjoining suburb of Los Angeles where he works at a Lockheed Aircraft Plant. The whole complex, including the large parking lot, is covered with a huge netting of camouflage. Russell Biggs rivets together the small, fast P-38 Fighter planes, which are designed to keep enemy planes from attacking the large, slower B-17’s, with their heavy cargo of bombs.

His younger brother, Ralph, was a tail gunner on these Bombers. On his last mission, Ralph’s plane was shot down, but he was able to escape, parachuting safely into neutral Switzerland, where he spent the remainder of the war. That country’s policy was to treat all military personnel humanely, but not to release them until the war’s end. Wiley Oliver, a cousin of Marylin’s, made the Army his career, retiring with the rank of Colonel, many years later.


Marylin also entered Kindergarten in 1942. She walked to school with her brother, Earl, who was in the 4th Grade. The children in the upper grades were given decks of cards that had the images of all the military airplanes on them. They were asked to become familiar with the appearances of the planes and to report any enemy planes that they might see. One day, on their way home from school, a small plane flew overhead and Earl shouted, “It’s a Messerschmitt; hit the dirt!” His little sister instantly obeyed, only to realize, at the sound of his laughter, that she had fallen for another of his practical jokes, and no danger was imminent!

Life in wartime held anxious moments for a small child. The wail of air raid sirens meant grownups hurrying to cover windows. There were billboards that asked drivers, “Is this trip necessary?” This due to the shortage of gasoline and tires. Some foods were rationed, meat, sugar and butter. Marylin “helped” by putting the small packet of orange liquid in the bowl of white margarine, which made it look a little more like the butter it replaced. The family had a large “Victory” vegetable garden.

But changes in the life of the Biggs family were insignificant compared to those for the Nakatas.

Haruko and Marylin met while both were students at U.C. Berkeley. They lived in a large old home that had been sanctioned as a “dormitory.” It housed 30 girls.

Marylin had never learned of the Relocation Camps before the two girls became friends. By 1942, Haruko’s family had lived in California for three generations. Their large farm was one of carefully tended orchards and vineyards that produced an abundance of fruit.

The Nakata family, along with thousands of other Japanese Americans, were notified of their impending relocation. Each family’s baggage could not exceed 100 pounds. First, the “internees” were held in a gathering place, like cattle in a stockyard. Santa Anita Racetrack in southern California was one of these. The wait, at least a month long, was followed by a train trip into the interior of the country.


Japanese American Internees at Heart Mountain Relocation Center, Wyoming, 1943, photo scan © 2012 by Marylin Schultz. All rights reserved.


The Relocation Center, as it was officially named, consisted of rows of barracks, usually divided in half for two families. The whole camp was hastily built in only three months. Coming from a culture that embraces beauty, order, modesty and dignity, it was a shock to be given only one room for the entire family. Sheets were hung within each space for privacy. There was a coal burning stove for heat, but no furniture. The men gathered scraps of wood left by the carpenters, to make crude tables and chairs. Cooking was not allowed. The meals were prepared for them and eaten in barracks, or “mess halls.” They were unprepared for the bitterly cold winters. With quiet dignity they suffered the shame of living behind barbed wire with armed soldiers on watch.

With about 10,000 internees, the Heart Mountain Relocation Center, or “Jap Camp,” as it was called by local residents, instantly became the third largest city in Wyoming. It was located between the towns of Cody and Powell. A school was established for the children, as well as a medical facility. Supervised shopping trips were allowed, and some of the men were hired by local farmers as field workers. There was a shortage of local men, most of whom had been drafted into military service.

Incredibly, the younger Japanese men were asked to serve in the military, and many of them did. Some, though, were incensed by the irony of being imprisoned by their own nation and then asked to enlist. Those who chose to fight for their country did so, wishing to prove their loyalty. Most were in the same outfit, and it was the most highly decorated unit in World War II. Some of those who refused to enlist were actually sent to prison.

Most of the local residents were not prejudiced against these citizens. Boy and Girl Scout troops joined in activities. In fact, former Senators Alan Simpson and Daniel Inouye first met and became friends as young men involved in Boy Scouts, before Inouye enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1943.

When the war was over, the Nakata family returned to California, to learn that someone else “owned” their farm. There was no explanation or compensation given. They simply had to begin again, which they did. It was not easy, but the family prospered once again, and the children all graduated from college and led productive, successful lives.




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About Marylin: Marylin (aka oliverowl) is a freelance writer living in Wyoming. She has written essays for a weekly column in the Ventura Star Tribune and collaborated with her grandson on two picture books for children. She currently writes with the Cody Writers. Her previous pieces for red Ravine include the travel essay Rollin’ Easy, a Writing Practice, Kindness, and a memoir piece, Images From The Past.

In 2010, Marylin was published in the book, From the Heart — Writing in the Shadow of the Mountain, a collection of work from members of Write On Wyoming (WOW), a group of authors and aspiring writers living in northeastern Wyoming. Her contributions to From the Heart include two works of fiction, To Love Bertie Lou and The Appointment Book, and a collection of haiku, Seasons in Wyoming.


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2012-06-16 21.16.42 (1) father 3 auto 2

Father Love Joy, taken the day before Father’s Day, Casket Arts Studio 318, Minneapolis, Minnesota, June 16th, 2012, photos © 2012 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.


Many Father’s Days pass with a card, a note, a phone call. It’s easy to forget that Father’s Day can be somber for those who have lost fathers to war, illness, death or divorce. I don’t know what it is this year, but Father’s Day sticks to my heart. Maybe it’s the letter I wrote to my biological father last year after 50 years of no contact. Or the way my step-dad from South Carolina drove over 600 miles to see me when I was in Pennsylvania visiting my brother after his liver transplant. Or maybe it’s the way I can feel connected to my step-dad from Pennsylvania by checking in on Facebook when he winters in Puerto Rico.

I’m looking back; I’m looking forward. Back to the things my dads have taught me. Forward to the gratitude I feel that they are a part of my life. Over the years, I related most to the matriarchal side of our family. But the bond between fathers and daughters is inescapable. I ran from it in my twenties; I was trying to stand alone, be my own person. I humbly step back into the circle. It is unbroken. Fathers are the other half of the sky.

Some feel that divorce leaves children alienated and confused. That kids are too young to understand the nature of adult relationships until they have lived through a few of their own. How complicated and emotional and painful they can be. But children are resilient. And the truth is that adults go through many relationships over the course of their lives. Hopefully, insight follows pain. Understanding is born from love and loss. Wisdom comes from forgiveness and learning to love again.

I have a biological father I have not seen since I was six. I have a Southern dad who lives in South Carolina and was a big part of my life from the ages of two through eleven. I have a Northern dad who lives in Pennsylvania part of the year, the other part in Puerto Rico. He was a father figure from the ages of twelve through eighteen. I carry little pieces of each of these men into late adulthood; they are all part of me.

My First Bicycle - Morristown, Tennessee


I am a better person for what I learned from my three dads.

I learned to ride a bike in Tennessee. It was my dad who unbolted the training wheels, held the back of the seat until I was steady, then let go the moment I felt balanced. I learned to slip together model train tracks, drop liquid smoke into the stack to make steam (oh, that smell!), let the transformer cool off after a few hours. On Christmas morning, my dad would get right down on the floor with us and assemble model cars, toy blocks, and Easy-Bake ovens. He gardened, cooked and cleaned when Mom needed the help, tore apart car engines and taught her how to put them back together, and worked two jobs to keep us afloat. From my dad, I learned the meaning of generosity of spirit, of honesty and doing the right thing, of standing up for your beliefs and challenging those who take advantage of others.

In Pennsylvania, I grew old enough to drive. It was my mother who sat next to me in the Buick while I learned the ropes. But my dad who taught me how to slip the clutch on the red Austin-Healey Sprite we towed from my grandparent’s garage. The vintage racer belonged to my uncle and had seen a lot of wear. He said he’d give it to us if we could figure out how to tow it home. That Sprite became my first car. Mom added the shag carpet; my dad fixed up the engine and got the little spitfire running after hours of labor—a great gift to me.

From my dad, I learned to build a scale model guillotine for an 8th grade English project on A Tale of Two Cities. The blade was sharp; Mrs. Juarez was impressed. My dad taught me the first chords on the guitar I received for Christmas that first year of college. He always had a couple of guitars and an amp around the house when we were growing up. I also learned a little about politics and community from his dedication to workers rights through union organizing. I learned that change is possible if you are willing to fight for it.

From my biological father, I learned what a child learns from absence. There is a wondering that goes with a parent who is no longer present, a do I matter to them? I wonder if they ever think about me feeling that stays with you into adulthood. His family was lost to me; his parents, my paternal grandmother and grandfather, were strangers. But I did reconnect with my aunts after 50 years. They welcomed me into their families. From that experience, I have learned forgiveness and unconditional love.

There have been painful moments, too, times of disappointment, times when I felt invisible. But on this day, Father’s Day 2012, I focus on the richness I have gained. To my three dads — thanks for all you have taught me. Most people only have one father. I am blessed with the gift of three.


-posted on red Ravine, Father’s Day, Sunday, June 17th, 2012

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Lincoln’s Birthday, Indie bookstore window photographed with Canon Powershot & edited with PhotoShop Elements, Wayzata, Minnesota, February 16th, 2009, photo © 2009-2012 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.


A few years ago, Liz and I went to see Ronald C. White, Jr. at the Bookcase of Wayzata, an independent bookstore on Lake Minnetonka. He was there to discuss his new book, A. Lincoln: A Biography. I had heard him interviewed earlier in the morning on MPR; Liz and I decided to be spontaneous and go hear him speak. The little Indie bookstore was packed.

White talked about how Lincoln loved words. And because of that, his words were like poetry. White wrote his book for those who might be reading a Lincoln biography for the first time, or to introduce Lincoln to a younger generation. He also spoke about how Obama started to shine a light on Lincoln, and how he (White) was booked for speaking engagements in Mississippi and Alabama, and also in Europe where many think Abe Lincoln personifies the American Dream.

More than 16,000 books have been written about Abraham Lincoln. Yet not all of his story has been told. At the end of the Civil War, between March and April 1865, Lincoln went to Northern Virginia to meet with his generals. He shook hands with thousands of Union soldiers and visited the former Confederate capital in Richmond, Virginia. But little is known about the last week of his life before his assassination on April 14, 1865.

Historian Noah Andre Trudeau thinks that in their rush to get to Ford’s Theater, historians have overlooked this important part of Lincoln’s life. After the Civil War, the President of the United States met Generals Grant and Sherman in Virginia to talk about the surrender of the South and its impact on our country. Lincoln visited Richmond, then considered enemy territory, as an observer. He was looking for ways a torn nation could begin to heal.

Having spent my childhood in the South, and most of my adult years in the North, I am compelled to follow literature about the Civil War. One of my ancestors was a courier for Robert E. Lee. When we moved to the North, one of the first places we visited was the Gettysburg battlefield. I am fascinated by the work of photographer Timothy H. O’Sullivan who took this photo, one half of a stereo view of Alfred R. Waud, artist of Harper’s Weekly, while he sketched on the battlefield near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania in July of 1863. (See links below for the rest of the Atlantic series on photographs of the Civil War.)

Last year marked the 150th anniversary of the start of the American Civil War. Trudeau is known for uncovering its secrets. His previous books, Bloody Roads South and Gettysburg, have unveiled information about General William Tecumseh Sherman’s march to the sea in 1864, and the legacy of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Now, in preparation for the book about a largely unexamined period of President Abraham Lincoln’s life, Trudeau is in search of witnesses.

He is seeking diary entries, letters or stories of people who encountered Lincoln at the time. During the NPR story, I was surprised to hear several people call in with leads to family scrapbooks and letters relating to Lincoln. (To share information, contact him at lincoln65@earthlink.net.) About his quest for truth, Trudeau states: “My one nightmare is that I’m going to do a very good job of discrediting all the good stories.” I think it’s quite the contrary. The more stories revealed, the closer we are to weaving together the textured layers of the past, and unraveling the sometimes painful chapters in American history.


Resources:

Historian Seeks Artifacts From Lincoln’s Last Days : NPR Talk Of The Nation (LINK)

A. Lincoln: A Biography by Ronald C. White, Jr. at his Official Website (LINK)

Abraham Lincoln and Slavery | Minnesota Public Radio News (LINK) – historian Eric Foner examines Abraham Lincoln’s complex ideas about slavery and African Americans, casting fresh light on an American icon.

The Civil War, Part 1: The Places, the Atlantic – February 8th, 2012 (LINK) – First installment of amazing b&w photographs of important places in the Civil War. (Some images in the three Series are graphic.)

The Civil War, Part 2: The People, the Atlantic – February 9th, 2012 (LINK) – Second installment of b&w photographs of the Civil War. Includes a photo portrait of Abraham Lincoln taken by photographer Alexander Gardner on February 5, 1865.

Traditionally called “last photograph of Lincoln from life”, this final photo in Lincoln’s last photo session was long thought to have been made on April 10, 1865, but more recent research has indicated the earlier date in February. The crack comes from the original negative, which was broken and discarded back in 1865. The entirety of the American Civil War took place while Lincoln was in office, starting a month after he was elected, and ending just days before his assassination in April of 1865.

The Civil War, Part 3: The Stereographs, the Atlantic – February 10th, 2012 (LINK) – Third installment of the Stereographs of the Civil War with the work of photographer Timothy H. O’Sullivan


-posted on red Ravine, Sunday, February 12th, 2012, birthday of Abraham Lincoln. Related to posts: Abraham Lincoln & Nikki Giovanni (On Poets & Presidents), Presidential Poetics — Elizabeth Alexander, President Barack Obama, Book Talk — Do You Let Yourself Read?

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WI Covers auto

Sunrise Undercover, Droid Shots, original photograph edited with Paper Camera, sunrise at a writing retreat in a small town outside Milwaukee, Wisconsin, February 2012, photo © 2012 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.







The Fallow Field


The master gardener
tithes and tills,
never forgetting to bury her dead—
broken bones rise from the fallow field
odorous compost, grist for the mill.








-posted on red Ravine, Sunday, February 6th, 2012, at a self-propelled silent writing retreat outside of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. With gratitude to my writing friends. For more on composting and how we structure these small silent retreats see:  Sit, Walk, Write On Lake Michigan, I Write Because…, and Make Positive Effort For The Good.

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By Bob Chrisman

When I was eight, I received a new robin’s egg blue, girl’s bike for my birthday in May. I had selected that particular bike at the shop in the South End where we lived. I wanted a girl’s bicycle so I wouldn’t hurt myself every time I slid off the seat when I stopped. That always happened on boy’s bicycles and kept me from enjoying riding.

My father looked at the price tag and shook his head. “I don’t think we can afford this much. Let me talk with your mother.”

At eight years old, I had already heard that one phrase, “I don’t think we can afford this much” so often that I knew I would never own the bike I wanted. That’s the way things worked in my family: you didn’t get what you couldn’t afford and we couldn’t afford much at all.

On the morning of my birthday I ate my breakfast and opened my birthday cards. When I asked if I had any presents, my mother rolled the bicycle I’d picked out into the kitchen. “Your daddy and I decided that you were old enough to have this, even though it cost more than we would usually spend for a present. You’ve got to take good care of it. Okay?”

I leapt out of my chair and grabbed the bike before it vanished. Only when I held the handlebars in my own hands was it real. I had the bike I wanted.

Later that morning I opened the screen door and made sure to pull the bike out before the door slammed. I took it down all the stairs to the sidewalk and rolled it down the hill until I reached Ozark Street which was flat and graveled. Only then did I climb on my new bike and pedal along the street with the wind in my face. I felt so happy and so proud.

My friends congregated up the street and I rode my new bike up there to visit with them and show them my birthday present.

When I arrived, one of the boys said, “Hey, Bobby, why you got a girl’s bike? You a sissy?”

“No, I wanted a girl’s bike because it’s easier to get on and off. That’s why.”

“No, you’re a sissy. He’s a sissy, isn’t he?”

Everyone laughed.

Then the kid said, “I want to ride your sissy bike.”

“No, you can’t. It’s brand new. I just got it and I want to ride it for awhile before anyone else does.” I held on tight to the handlebars.

“Hey, sissy, that’s not very nice. But, I don’t want to ride a blue girl’s bike anyway.”

I turned around to ride home. The kids screamed names at me as I rode away. I’d reached the end of the block when a clunk sounded on my rear fender. A cheer went up from the kids. I crossed the intersection and started pushing the bicycle up the hill. When I was out of sight of my friends, I looked at the rear fender. Someone had thrown a big rock and dented and scraped a place on my new bike. I lost it. I couldn’t stop shaking and crying, but I pushed the bike up the hill, up the stairs and parked it on the porch.

My mother came running out of the house. “What’s wrong? Did you fall?”

I couldn’t speak so I pointed at the rear fender. My mother looked at the damage. “So that’s what you’re crying about? For heaven’s sake, it’s only a bicycle.”

No, it was so much more than that.


NOTE: WRITING TOPIC — MY FIRST BICYCLE is the latest Writing Topic on red Ravine. Frequent guest writer Bob Chrisman joined QuoinMonkey in doing a Writing Practice on the topic.

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By Judith Ford


My grandmother, who was Dutch, did an incredible job of spring cleaning, every March, every year she was alive. No object and no surface was spared a scrubbing. Rugs were taken out and beaten within an inch of their threaded lives; walls were washed with a hard brown scrub brush. Curtains taken down and washed. Every closet emptied, every sheet and towel bleached and washed. Everything dried outdoors on a clothesline. In March, Wisconsin is still cold so things froze out there, pillowcases transformed into wrinkled boards. Socks turned into twisted sculptures. She washed every dish and pot and spoon. Then when it was all done and everything set back in its proper place, she’d cover the sofa and chairs and lampshades in the living room with plastic covers. She’d lay a plastic path from doorway to living room couch and into the dining room. When I was around 11, I asked her, finally, who she was keeping everything so clean for and when would she remove the ugly plastic. (I didn’t say the word, ugly, I’m sure). “The plastic keeps everything ready for company,” she replied. “But, “I protested, “Aren’t I company?” I had never once seen her living room without plastic. “You,” she explained, “are family. Not company.” She didn’t need to add that I, being a rather messy child, was one of the reasons she protected her furniture.


My mother didn’t do spring cleaning. She did like to open up all the windows on the first day the temperature rose over 50–to air everything out. I always loved that, coming home from school for lunch and finding the windows all wide open, the house looking like a toothless, eyeless caricature of itself, the air sweet and chilly. My mother hated being a housewife and did not cotton to cooking or cleaning. She did the minimums and stuck to the 50’s schedule that most of her friends observed: Monday clean and do laundry; Tuesday iron; Wednesday, volunteer work; Thursday, groceries; Friday, light cleaning (a lick and a promise, is what she called it); Saturday was the night my dad cooked burgers and Sundays we went to my grandparent’s house for dinner. My mother did what she felt she must but mostly without joy and often with many sighs. She did seem to enjoy ironing (which I so don’t get) and would sing while she ironed, in a voice like Ella Fitzgerald. Singing over the ironing and walking in the mountains – those are the times I remember my mother at her happiest. Not cleaning. Never spring cleaning.


Well, it’s sort of spring now and I am sort of spring cleaning. I’ve been putting hours in every week to clean my attic. It has to be done. We’re selling the house and moving to the country.

I’ve lived in this house for 28 years, married husband #2 after living alone here with my daughter for 5 years, moved that husband and his daughter in, had another baby, raised these kids until each one grew their feathers and flew off. Also raised a cockatiel, a parrot, four dogs and numerous gerbils and hamsters in this house. Can you imagine the debris? My attic had become a combination museum, closet (huge closet), and file cabinet. Treasures and cast-offs that have trickled down to me from three generations and two family lines. The leftover objects include outgrown clothes, games, books, and life directions. My very first poem, written at age 10. A couple of Jessie’s baby teeth, nestled inside the newborn bracelet she wore in the nursery: “Baby girl, Marks-Szedziewski, 2-19-78.” An envelope containing a curling wisp of very blond baby hair, Nic’s first haircut, 1988, a battered and faded pink pair of tiny toe shoes (mine, from 1955, I think; although they might be my aunt Jeanne’s). A hair curling iron (great-grandmother Nettie’s, late 1800’s). Aunt Jeanne’s bracelets from the 30’s. So glad I didn’t throw those away. Hundreds of notes from Jessie and from Nic: I Love You, Mommy. Mommy don’t tell anyone but I love you best. Thank you for being my mommy, You are the best Mommy, Next time you go on a trip, take me too. Mommy, I hate camp. Come and get me out of here, please!please!please! Nic’s version of Jingle Bells, written at age 4 with a few backwards letters, words scrawled across the page, Jingle Bells Jingle Bells Jingle all the way, Oh What Fun on Al’s True Ride, On the One on Holken Slay. Jessie’s school trophies, soccer and swimming, her camp and sports t-shirts, Nic’s academic medals for top scores in the state on the ACT and SAT at age 9 and 10, his IQ testing done at Northwestern U when he was 5.

The way I wept when the tester called me and told me the test results.

I wish I had known more back then how to feed his ravenous brain, his wonderful mind. So much I wish I could do over for him.


I will be 63 in a month. The past is truly the past. There are no do-overs and no time left for holding on. Time, instead, for letting go. For boxing up, and throwing away, for going to UPS to send Jessie her soccer and swim team t-shirts, to send Nic his Pokemon card collection. Handing the keepsakes over to my grown-up kids, handing over to them the job of remembering.

In the process of this sorting and cleaning, I’ve had to remind myself again and again to let go not only of the objects but the feelings. I’ve laughed, I’ve cried, I’ve longed to have my children back in my arms, on my lap, longed for one more night of reading in bed with Jessie at age 7, one more night of long conversation at bedtime with Nic when he was 10. One more chance to see each of them for one hour during each year of their growing-up – one more chance to drink in the sight of them, their wispy hair, freckled faces, braces and missing teeth, to listen to their piping little voices more intently, memorize each one of them even more completely.

I had expected that cleaning out all this old stuff would help me clear the decks for this next chapter of my life, and yes, I guess that’s happening. I had anticipated reminiscing. I hadn’t anticipated the wave upon wave of memories to be so visceral, so wrenching, so expanding and swooping and full of love. I am not only clearing the decks; I am also rejuvenating both myself and the attic. Am going through some kind of death and resurrection here. Turning myself inside out and right side out again. Right side out and I must admit, a little trembly.

Spring cleaning is a piece of cake compared to this.




About Judith: Judith Ford is a psychotherapist and writer who lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She was red Ravine’s very first guest writer, with the piece 25 Reasons I Write. Judith’s other pieces on red Ravine include lang•widge, Mystery E.R., I Write Because, and PRACTICE – Door – 20min. Spring Cleaning is based on a 15 minute Writing Practice on WRITING TOPIC — SPRING CLEANING.

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Centipede Dreams, scar from a benign tumor taken out when I was 12 (37 years ago), September 2010, photo © 2010 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.





Most people no longer ask about the large blemish I have in the center of my throat, down where my larynx meets my chest. It’s a tracheotomy scar that must be getting lighter the longer I have it. When I was a kid, it wasn’t uncommon for perfect strangers to approach me in public places and ask, “What happened there?”

I had the tracheotomy at age 18 months after a croup turned to pneumonia. It was an emergency operation, part of my childhood mythology, the small Mexican doctor with wild hair who stabbed open a hole in my trachea so I could breathe. She had a frantic look in her eye, her hair loose and Bride-of-Frankenstein-like, and she held the sharp instrument up in the air before bringing it down to pierce my throat.

That’s the image I hold of her anyway, an image formed out of the seemingly hundreds of times I heard my parents tell the story. It was the kind of improbable drama — the dying child whose life is saved by a small doctor who is both Mexican and a woman — with a happy ending that held friends and relatives rapt year after year. I loved the attention, standing near my parents, Mom nudging me to lift my chin so everyone could see the scar. A few gentle strokes of her fingers on the chamois-soft skin, rubbing as if to say, “See, it’s permanent.”

In each telling I embellished the imagery. When my parents described the moment they decided to rush me to the hospital, how my lips had turned blue and I’d stopped breathing, my mind’s eye pictured the veins and blood from my body shimmering purple through translucent skin. Or when Mom and Dad said that my hair went from straight to curly “just like that” as I lay in the oxygen tent in ICU, I saw it happening as if in time lapse photography. Like the stockinged feet of the Wicked Witch of the West curling after Dorothy removes the ruby slippers, so went my hair, forming into tiny ringlets all over my head.

It must be natural, I think, for a young kid to turn her childhood stories into morbid scenes, but what strikes me is how much staying power those scenes have. I don’t replace them with more reasonable pictures — a modest Mexican woman with hair pulled back in a bun, a ride on the gurney into a stark emergency room at the hospital. No, my scenes involve my parents bursting through a set of double doors, my limp blue body draped across Dad’s arms, them watching in horror as the doctor plunges a knife — or better, a pair of sharp scissors — into my throat. Or my parents watching in awe as my hair springs up in a bouquet of curl all around my head, like an angel’s.

I don’t have such vivid imagery when it comes to the scar on my knee, although being that I got it at the impressionable age of 12, I did manage to fabricate a mythology around that one, too. I developed a crush on the orthopedic surgeon who did the procedure — my parents said he looked like a hippie, which made him all the more intriguing. In my mind, his golden hair flows out from under a light blue surgeon’s cap and he dons a small silver hoop in his ear. I clearly recall him coming to visit me after the operation, carrying the kind of Bell jar used for canning fruit. Inside is my white globular tumor floating in a yellowish brine. I’m surprised it isn’t perfectly round, like a golf ball.

The scar from that procedure resembles a centipede on the inside of my right knee, and once after a real centipede crawled across my leg while I played hide-and-seek in the coat closet, I decided to tell any kid who asked me how I got the scar that it was left there by a centipede that seared itself into my skin. “That’s how centipedes bite,” I told them, “they burn themselves right into you.”

Kids looked at me with respect after that, but my story fell apart once they began asking all the questions that come with the idea of centipede-as-branding-iron. “What happened to the centipede?” “Well, it dried up and fell off,” I said one time, and then another time, “It dissolved right into the skin, see?, you can still see parts of it here.” Soon I became tired of the technicality of it all, I couldn’t keep the story straight and over time I left behind the centipede saga and kept only the image of my long-haired doctor.

My latest epic scar involves two puncture wounds on the outer bridge of my nose, close to my eyes, that our rooster Lindo gave me when he tried blinding me with his spurs. Lindo and I shared a mutual animosity, he was a beautiful cocky bird who had such an intense hatred that the moment he spied me coming out the door he would strut my way with the intent to fight. I took to carrying a bundle of dried bamboo stalks, which I used to whack him as I made my way to whatever part of the yard I needed to go. He’d come after me again and again until my stalks splintered into pieces, at which point I took off at a full out run.

Ultimately he got the better of me, one evening when I let down my guard. I had gone armed only with a bowl of compost into the bird pen. I bent down to throw a piece of lettuce to the bunny who lived there with the roosters, turkeys, and ducks, and Lindo saw his opening. He flew up at my face, spurs aimed at my eyes. He almost got them, too, and I’m not embellishing when I say that I traumatized my youngest daughter when I stood up screaming, blood streaming like tears down my cheeks.

The strange thing is that no one notices the scars unless I point them out. One time, at a luncheon in China, I sat next to a German man who had the exact same two puncture wound scars near his eyes. All through lunch, I wanted to ask if he, too, had been attacked by a rooster. But I barely knew the man. I tried to imagine every other possible reason he might have carried scars identical to mine. Maybe he’d suffered terrible acne that resulted in two pimples near his eyes. Or perhaps as a teen he wore black leather and sported a purple Mohawk and a piece of bone pierced through the bridge of his nose.

In the end, I couldn’t think of a way to broach the subject without embarrassing us both or drawing attention from the six other European men at the table. However, in my mind, I am certain that the very thing that happened to me also happened to him. Anything is possible.


________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Postscript: This essay is based on a 15-minute Writing Practice in response to WRITING TOPIC – SCARS. The details that emerged from my Writing Practice were similar to other times when I’ve done timed writing that led to stories about my tracheotomy (specifically here and here) so I figured it was time to polish the narrative. Plus, since it contains important elements of my life story, especially my earliest years, I wanted to go with the energy, hoping it might turn into something I can weave later into memoir.

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I have not wanted to write on the Topic of Scars. Why? All the more reason to dig in. I see the tiny nicks on my hands and wrists every day. They remind me of what I was doing when I got them. Pulling the stainless steel blade across a grinding wheel when the dental tool shot into the air, gravity intervened, it landed on top of my hand. Lathering dark brown bees wax across handmade paper and birch bark, drips of scalding wax on my wrists.

The next thing I think about is the stage of life I was in when those things happened. My twenties in Montana. I went from moving cross country and having no job, to working at a gas station for a while, then went to the job center, took a dexterity test, and landed at a dental tool sharpening company on Reserve Street. Looking back, it was a crazy time in my life. The second scar, art school, late nights, living on fumes. I felt alive, on the edge of something.

Last night on the news, there was a woman being interviewed about her daughter. She is a few days away from giving birth and in a burn unit. She was sitting around the fire ring with some teenage friends when a couple of the boys threw bottles filled with gas into the flames. She got up to leave, turned to look back, and that’s when the bottle exploded. She still has not looked at the scars on her face. Scarred for life. Holding on to a past that is not there anymore. Maybe that is what a scar indicates — change. A past event, no longer the present, still impacting our bodies and minds in some unexplainable way.

Scars represent choices we made along the way. More so if they were obtained as adults, while we were undertaking a task that might have been unfamiliar to us. Or maybe we were tired and running a chainsaw, or working around chemicals, machinery, fire. There are deeper scars, emotional, that grip like the vise, unless we work to let go of them. Feelings of abandonment, abuse, uncertainty. Maybe a close loved one died when we were young. Our parents were divorced or in an accident. We moved from California to North Dakota, Georgia to Pennsylvania, where cultures are polar opposites. I learned to run from scars when I was a young adult. Dug in my heels. At some point, I just dug in, and did the work. The work of transforming those experiences into fuel for the future.

That’s the part I like to see in the novels I read. I like to notice where the person took the wisdom of age and transmuted some horrific event in their lives into a spark of passion, into something better. Maybe they became a doctor or nurse and gave back to others. Maybe they raised their children to have a different life than the one they led. I am noticing when I listen to The Plague of Doves by Louise Erdrich, noticing how she wraps the characters’ lives around them at the end of the book, like a woven sheep blanket, one with an uneven stitch, a place of imperfection where Spirit can enter. I want to study the structure of the book, look for places in her life that might have contributed to the details she writes about.

I do that with fiction. I scour the novel for tidbits of truth, something that relates to the writer’s own life, the scars they may have endured. If I know the writer well, have read their life story, or they have written a memoir, I can get under the surface, read between the lines. Of course, it’s only my take on things. Every reader has her own version of the same story. That’s the deliciousness of writing. And reading. And of living. None of my five siblings ever remember my stories, the narrative of our growing up, the way I remember them. And neither do my parents.

When I went to see The Scottsboro Boys at the Guthrie a few weeks ago, that is what I noticed. That we bring to a piece of art or writing, our own age, history, and experience. And our baggage. We attended the after-play discussion and listened to members of the audience talk about race, prejudice in the North and the South, about the minstrel shows and what they represented, about scars our country has left behind. Scars that slowly heal. And become transformed.

It is slow. And each time we take a giant step, everything splashes back in our faces, knocking the breath out of us. There is a backlash that becomes tempered with time. America is a country of extremes. We elect a black President yet have a hard time looking at the legacy leading up to the moment in time when we elected him. History is behind us, yes. But not really. If you had seen The Scottsboro Boys, you would know what I mean. I was pushed to laughter and tears from the scars. Yet, it opened me. That is what good art does. It opens us. If you can’t look back, you can’t really go forward. At least, that is what I believe. Scars are teachers. What have I learned?



-Related to Topic post: WRITING TOPIC – SCARS, and Guest practice, PRACTICE – SCARS – 15min by Louis Robertson

NOTE: Scars is a Writing Topic on red Ravine. Guest writer Louis Robertson was inspired to join QuoinMonkey and ybonesy in doing a Writing Practice on the topic.

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By Bob Chrisman


My mother met me in the lobby of the nursing home quite accidentally. She had taken her afternoon stroll pushing her walker up one hall and down another, visiting other residents she knew from the dining room. She arrived at the front desk as I walked in the front door.

She looked up and smiled. “Never thought I would see you again. It’s been awhile.”

“Mom, I was here last week. Remember? I took you to out to have that roast beef sandwich you wanted.” I waited for her to acknowledge that she had forgotten.

She ignored the question, instead she looked away and down at her walker. “Well, it’s good to see you anyway. Has a week passed already?” She started down the hall in the direction of her room. I knew I was to follow.

I asked, “How are things going here? Did you go to church services this morning?”

“No, the minister is nice enough, but he’s a little too serious for my taste. Too much death and sin to interest me at my age.” She nodded to the women who sat in wheelchairs in the wide hall. Some stared into space unaware of the greeting. Other responded with a soft “Hello.”

“A new woman moved in just two doors down. She’s married to Herbie. You remember Mildred’s husband? You always liked Mimi. Well, the poor thing is two doors down from me. Herbie came to visit a few days ago and stopped by to see me. Shame about his second wife and her poor health. I think she’s mental because all she does is beg people to find her some underwear.”

We passed by a room and she jerked her head toward the open door. “That’s where she stays.”

As we walked into her room I noticed her telephone is on the floor at the foot of her bed. “Mom, what happened to the phone? Is it broken?”

“You might as well get rid of that darn thing. No one calls, except people who want to sell me something. It rings at all times of the day and night and I’m afraid it will disturb my roommate.”

“I thought you wanted a phone. Don’t you call people from church?”

“No, take it out. Might as well not waste your money to pay the bill when I don’t use it. Besides, no one is ever home when I call.”

She sat in her chair. I took my place on the bed.



She had told me not to put a phone in her room at the nursing home. She hadn’t wanted to learn a new number. I insisted that she keep it. I even worked with the phone company to transfer her old number to the new phone. I held onto the idea that she wouldn’t die if she kept in contact with her friends.

She had kept the same phone number for fifty years. When she left her house for the senior citizens center, she left behind the heavy black phone with the battered receiver from countless drops on the floor, and the tattered cloth cable that connected it to the outlet. She kept the old phone number.

I bought her a new phone. She hated it. She wanted her old phone, her old house, her old life but she couldn’t have them anymore.



She shook her head. “I’ve tried calling Vera and Anna Lee for the last few days and no one answers their phones. What could my sisters be doing at all hours of the day and night? It’s beyond me. They even turned off those dang machines that take messages. I hate those things, but I would leave a message if I could. I wonder what they’ve been up to.”

I didn’t know what to say so I opted for the truth. “Mom, it’s a good thing your sisters didn’t answer the phone because they’ve been dead for years. I would be very concerned if you talked to them.” I watched her face to see what effect my words had on her.

She looked at the backs of her hands, covered with age spots and bruises, as though too preoccupied to reply right away. “Guess it is a good thing they didn’t answer. I thought they had died, but I wasn’t sure. Sometimes things aren’t so clear in my head anymore. Funny, how I can remember their phone numbers, but forget that they died.” She leaned back in the chair and closed her eyes. “Just take the phone out of my room. I don’t have anyone to talk to anymore.”


When I left that day, I took the phone and made a mental note to terminate her service. The phone number I had learned as a preschooler some fifty years ago would cease to belong to the Chrisman family, yet another sign that my mother was dying.




About Bob: Bob Chrisman is a Kansas City, Missouri writer who frequently writes memoir about his family. For Memorial Day 2010, we published Desecration Day, Bob’s humorous yet moving piece about a grave decoration day that got a bit out of hand, followed in June by Uncle Howard At The Cemetery.

You can see these other pieces of Bob’s in which he writes with humor and compassion about his family members: Aunt Annie’s Scalloped Oysters and The Law Of Threes. He also published these pieces about the life and death of his mother: Hands and In Memoriam. And he produced a trilogy about his father: My Father’s Witness, Bearing Witness, and My Life With Dad.

Bob’s other red Ravine posts include Growing Older, Goat Ranch, Stephenie Bit Me, Too, and PRACTICE — TREES  — 15min, a Writing Practice on the Topic of Trees.

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By Louis Robertson


Scars tell a story, some easily remembered, some long forgotten. My oldest “memory scar” looks like the letter C on the webbing between my left thumb and index finger. I remember getting this scar like it was yesterday, although I think I was three at the time, when I accidentally closed a cap gun on it. It was one of those old western style guns that opened on a pivot to load more caps. The experience seemed so surreal with the cap gun hanging off of my hand as I tried to shake it off.

The second scar I remember well is on my left arm about 4 inches below my elbow. I got this one at Grandpa’s house while cutting the grass with the riding mower. Using the riding mower was something I didn’t do often and something Mother reluctantly allowed me to do.

Uncle R had a Great Dane who was allowed outside on a run (a cable run from the barn to a tree with a chain which hooked to his collar). Over time, he would create a sag in the wire and the constant running wore the edge of the cable to a razor sharp edge. I would use a wooden pole to hold up the wire and mow near the pole as I mowed the lawn. On this day I got a little too close to the pole and knocked it over causing the wire to be dragged along my arm.

I remember stopping the mower, walking inside (trying to keep the bloody arm out of mom’s sight) so I could make it to the bathroom to patch it up and keep mowing. Unfortunately, as blood dripped off my arm, Mom’s “mother sense” kicked in and she made me stop so she could see what was going on. By this time, blood was coursing downing my arm and I knew I was done mowing for the day.

My most impressive scar(s) would have to be from my two liver transplants. The first transplant was in 1993, and the second in 2003. The scar starts in the center of my chest and goes down toward my belly for about 4 inches where it meets a scar that is shaped like a lopsided chevron. The left side is about 6 inches and the right continues to my right side. The transplant team calls this my Mercedes but if pressed they will confirm that it is really called a modified chevron incision.

There have been several things I’ve wanted to do with this scar, including getting tattoos that incorporate it into them. Since tattoos do not work well on scar tissue, I was thinking about getting a dashed line near the scars with the instructions “Cut here.” Another thought was to make it look like a zipper that is opened at the top. I am not sure where I will go with these, but I have over a year to decide.

Other scars I have found make me say, “Where did that come from?” But that is another story.


Frankenbelly 2

Frankenbelly 2, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, August 2003, photo © 2003-2010 by Louis Robertson. All rights reserved.



-Related to Topic post: WRITING TOPIC – SCARS

NOTE: Scars is a Writing Topic on red Ravine. Guest writer Louis Robertson was inspired to join QuoinMonkey and ybonesy in doing a Writing Practice on the topic.

Louis has experienced medical challenges since he was a teenager. After his first liver transplant in 1993, his perspective on life became more focused and his appreciation for the little treasures life grants increased. When he learned he needed a second liver transplant, his focus moved to preparing his family and children for a future without him. He now is a candidate for a third liver transplant and lives his life watching for life lessons he can pass on to his children. He shared some of those lessons in his piece on red Ravine: Things I Wanted You To Learn.

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Scar Geography, Burn Scar From An Art Project, BlackBerry Shots, Minneapolis, Minnesota, August 2010, photo © 2010 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

 
 

Scars may be an odd topic, I know. But scars, random warrior marks across body (and mind), remind us that we’ve lived a full life. A nick, a cut, a slice. I remember when I was a young girl, my mother sliced her finger open while peeling potatoes; the wound took several stitches and weeks to heal. And when I was about six, my young brother fell off his tricycle while standing on the seat, reaching for a pickle jar resting on the brick window ledge of our carport. There was blood everywhere; it scared me to death.

Scars have a long memory. They follow some kind of trauma in a life. Here is a little scar geography from the years that I have lived:

 

#1 — Index finger in the crease above the knuckle. I was sharpening dental tools in the late 70’s, when a blade caught on a grinding wheel and popped up into the air. I watched in slow motion; gravity took its course and the steel tip landed in my finger. (Occupational hazard of the dental tool sharpener.)  — Montana

#2 — Middle finger, second crease above the knuckle. While performing the perfect high dive at a pool party (showing off for my high school friends) I didn’t realize how shallow the deep end was. Bam! scraped my knuckles on the bottom and came up bleeding. Not cool. — Pennsylvania

#3 — Inside wrist, right side, a burn scar shaped like a lop-sided heart. I was helping an art school friend paint scalding hot bees wax on her senior project, a huge sculpture made of all natural materials. She’d heat up the dark brown bees wax in an old electric skillet her grandmother gave her and slather it across branches of wood. Memories of art school. — Minnesota

#4 — Inside of left calf – a light burn scar shaped like the edge of the tailpipe I brushed against when stepping off the saddle of my uncle’s Honda. I was about 13 and asked if he’d take me on a ride across Pennsylvania back roads around East Berlin. He forgot to tell me the first rule of the road about motorcycles – always step off the side without the 500-degree tailpipe. (Ironically, it’s the same day I fell in love with motorcycle riding.) — Pennsylvania



Do you have scars on your body, the kind of unexpected life happenings that leave a little mark? Or maybe you’ve had surgery under the knife (before the laser) and have a long zipper down your abdomen or across your right knee. My brother has had two liver transplants and I am awestruck by what he has endured, evidenced by the long scars down his chest. He recently became a candidate for a third transplant, and the last time I was home, he joked that he was going to tattoo a dotted line down his chest – – – – Cut Here.

Scars can also be psychological and emotional. Childhood trauma, abuse, post traumatic stress, or scars associated with cultural rites of passage. Stressful life events become markers, cairns on the journey. Scars provide a rich vein of material to be excavated. In your next Writing Practice, follow the scars across your body. They contain deep memories and feelings, a topographical map through the past.

Scars — 10 minutes, Go!

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I’ve always noticed the trees where we’ve lived. Growing up on Neat Lane, we had out front a big sycamore that Dad kept trimmed into a tidy globe of leaves. In my memory, there is a sidewalk under the tree where the itch bombs fall and gather. We pick them up and for fun explode them, throw them with all our might onto the sidewalk.

Except, I’ve been back to Neat Lane several times as an adult, and there is no sidewalk. I think there’s a curb, but beyond the curb it is up to each family to landscape their yard. Some people — like Dad — kept their yards worthy of the street’s name. Others (and again, in my faulty memory I see a washing machine and old love seat on the front porch of the neighbors across the street) did not.

It is the trees that attracted me to the house where we live now. Someone, and I imagine it to be a her, lovingly picked out the many trees and placed them all around the house, knowing that one day they would grow huge and tall and would shade the place, keeping it cool from the summer heat.

There are Ponderosas and an ornamental plum that blazes a deep red you can see from the road. There are poplars, one is now diseased on one side, that grow high without becoming wide. The leaves look like the cottonwood except silvery on one side, and in hindsight I realize the poplar reminds me more of an aspen than a cottonwood, although I believe all three are from the same family.

In our old house there was a locust tree that drew me in, outside the kitchen window. How many times did I sit on the cozy warm tiles in that house and write, pausing to stare out at the small deep green leaves of the locust?

Some trees are invasive, I’m thinking now of the elms that Jim got permission from our neighbors to cut down. The elms were on the fence line, Chinese elms, of the variety a former mayor long ago imported to Albuquerque thinking they would grow well in the arid landscape. When Jim felled those elms (and I like using the word “felled” although it seems unnatural to my language) I mourned them. I looked at them as living things, yes invasive, but they provided shade and privacy. Jim saw them as water mongers, non-native species, and I suppose he imagined a different kind of tree, one better for the water table, in their place.

Dad always disliked certain trees. For a long time he and Mom complained about the large Russian olive out front next door. It dropped tiny leaves and spongy fake olives, causing Dad much consternation. A tree is a tree, I would think. Why in the world, how in the world could they dislike a tree?

Russian olives are in fact bad for the valley and come up like little weeds everywhere. Jim has gotten rid of quite a few, but I look at them and think of the old olive trees I saw once in Jerusalem, in Gethsemane’s Garden, and I see how the trees get gnarly and thick, and each layer must have seen a different scene. If you cut back the bark, you’d find a layer that saw Jesus himself.

That’s what I think of when I think of the Russian olive. Or I think of a family photo I remember that hung in the hallway of Jim’s parents’ house. I would stare at that photo when I first went there to visit with Jim. The trunk grew sideways instead of up, and it eventually did grow up, but the sideways portion made a natural bench on which the family sat or leaned. It was a photo of them long ago, when everyone was young and Jim’s parents were at their most vibrant. Something about that photo appealed to me, like I could see marrying into a family that sits around a tree.

I think of trees like people, and I think about how we want to be like trees. Grounded and firm, with strong roots going deep into the land. Sometimes when I water a tree, I think about how the root system underneath is probably as long and wide as the portion of the tree that grows above the ground. Like a mirror image.

If people are like trees, that means that beneath us we have our mirror images, supporting us as we walk, reflecting back to us whatever it is in the core of our earth.

I couldn’t imagine living in a place without trees, and yet what I love about New Mexico is that the tree is sacred. It is not abundant, and when we see it we seek it out for shade. If I had a patron tree, like a patron saint, it would be the cottonwood. Dark, rough bark that protects the soft wood inside. And deep roots. A sign always when you see it that water is nearby.



-Related to Topic post WRITING TOPIC — TREES

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By Bob Chrisman



Allen Cemetery on the outskirts of Gower, Missouri serves as the final resting place for my mother’s parents and some of her aunts, uncles, and cousins. Names like Patton, Divelbiss, Pogue, and Williams mark the plots of family members. Every Memorial Day we decorated those graves. As time passed and more relatives took up residence among the tombstones, we didn’t attend to as many of the graves. After my father’s stroke in 1969, which left him bedridden, and my sister’s departure to teach a distance away, we decorated fewer graves because my mother didn’t like to leave my father alone for long.

After my father died in 1984, Aunt Vera, my mother’s younger sister, and her husband, Uncle Howard, joined us for the annual, grave-decorating trip. Neither one of them drove anymore so they gladly came along for the outing and the lunch that followed. I would swing by their house, just up the street a few blocks from where my mother lived, and pick them up.

Uncle Howard had a great sense of humor despite the hardships of his life. He managed to find something funny about most everything. Going to the cemetery provided him with an opportunity and a captive audience. Much to my mother and aunt’s chagrin, my uncle always told me the same story on the way there.

“Bob, did I ever tell you about buying those cemetery plots?”

Although I had heard the story many times in the past, I would say, “No, Uncle Howard. What happened?” With that question he launched into the story.

“Your mom and dad and Vera and I made an appointment with Eldon Lee. You know Eldon Lee, don’t you? He was the funeral director and caretaker of the cemetery. We drove out to Gower one evening. We picked four spaces right in a row. The girls decided that we would be buried boy-girl-boy-girl.

“Eldon Lee put your father’s name down first, then your mom’s, and then he started to write my name. I said, ‘Eldon Lee, hold on. I’m not happy with this arrangement.’ They all looked at me like I’d lost a marble or two, but Eldon Lee put down his pen to hear me out.

“I said, ‘When you die, you lay down for your eternal rest to get some peace, don’t you?’ Eldon Lee nodded his head. ‘Well, how much rest and peace do you think I’d get planted between Lucile and Vera? Not much. I can tell you that right now. You better put the girls together between Len and I so all that chatter between the girls won’t disturb us in our graves.’

“That’s why your mom and Vera have places next to each other.”

He laughed in that mischievous way of his. My mother and Aunt Vera sighed. Aunt Vera said, “Oh, Howard.” No matter how many times I heard the story, I laughed. I could imagine my mother and her sister gossiping in the grave while my father snored on one side and Uncle Howard tossed and turned on the other end.

Uncle Howard had another routine that he started when we pulled up the gravel road into the cemetery. He never failed me in doing this one, which irritated my mother and aunt beyond words. That made it all the funnier because they should have known it was coming, but it always appeared to take them by surprise.

My mother and her sister decided which set of graves we would visit and in what order. My Uncle Howard pointed at new graves we passed.

“Look, Bob, see that one? Hey, you girls, would you pipe down? All your talking drives the ground squirrels away. I’m trying to see how fat they are. Looks like we’ve added lots of new dishes to the graveyard buffet lately.” He laughed.

That stopped the women’s conversation. Aunt Vera usually said, “Howard, that’s no way to talk about the dead.”

“I guess you’re right.” He paused for effect. “But, they’re dead and they don’t care about my little joke.”

Mom said, “Howard, someday you’ll be lying here in the ground and you won’t want someone talking about you like that?”

“You’re right, Lucile, but I’ll be dead and I won’t care. I’m so little and skinny the ground squirrels will be very disappointed when they lift the lid on my coffin. They’ll probably look at one another and say, ‘Ain’t much meat here. Let’s move on.’” Then he’d laugh and I’d join him.


Uncle Howard and Aunt Vera's headstone, photo © 2010 by Bob Chrisman. All rights reserved.




Uncle Howard hit the buffet line in April, 1990. Aunt Vera followed in December, 1993. In February 2008, my mother joined them. My family won’t add any more people because we have scattered all over the country.

On January 1, 2009, I drove up to the cemetery to pay my respects and to remember the stories of my childhood. When I entered the cemetery I found myself looking for the new graves and the ground squirrels. I stood at the graves of my parents and my aunt and uncle. I listened as the cold wind blew through the place. I didn’t hear Mom and Aunt Vera talking. Maybe Uncle Howard’s plan worked. I hope he enjoys his eternal rest in peace.



About Bob: Bob Chrisman is a Kansas City, Missouri writer who frequently writes memoir about his family. For Memorial Day 2010, we published Desecration Day, Bob’s humorous yet moving piece about a grave decoration day that got a bit out of hand.

You can see these other pieces of Bob’s in which he writes with humor and compassion about his family members: Aunt Annie’s Scalloped Oysters and The Law Of Threes. He also published these pieces about the life and death of his mother: Hands and In Memoriam. And he produced a trilogy about his father: My Father’s Witness, Bearing Witness, and My Life With Dad.

Bob’s other red Ravine posts include Growing Older, Goat Ranch, and Stephenie Bit Me, Too.

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By Erin Robertson


I wish I could say I was closer to my grandfather, but as the years went on and his Alzheimer’s progressed, it began to get harder just to see him. We watched him suffer so his death was something of a relief. In a time of mourning, I wrote this piece:


Fourteen dozen roses,
cut clipped, and arranged,
spread throughout the pews.
paid precision and prayer
fake sympathy and stares
bore through to the soul
it’s the friends and family
that keep you sane
so dry your tears
try to smile
the coffin is closed
the sermon was said
in the line we file
morbid flags that warn our purpose
march along the silence grows,
sobs muffled out of shame.
gather under the green tent
sit upon velvet thrones of mourning
as a group,
we bow our heads
blessing for the one departed
amens in sync
good wills, remembrance, praise
i whisper goodbye
drop his favorite flower
to decorate my grandfather’s tomb.


_________________________


This next poem was written roughly about the same time. Death, and its morbidity, was frequently on my mind. I wrestled with the idea of an afterlife or the concept that something so pure can be torn into sinful shreds.


death,
it comes on tar-dipped wings
dragging down the weightless soul
perfect when?
no longer flawless
as it flies
with heavy wings
down to hell,
to meet
judgement day has long since passed
fail or pass
the side you wish

death it comes on tar-dipped wings
dragging down the weightless soul
perfect then,
no longer flawless
anguish may have plagued you then,
but now,
you can be free.
whispers of unspoken trial
jury, angels, demons
judge of neutral boundaries
find you guilty,
innocent child
whichever way
you tend to walk,
you will be happy now
life, you may have suffered
dying, you might have been in pain,
but death, Sweet, death
it always comes,
exactly when it’s supposed to come.


_________________________


At a time of peak adolescent anguish, my friend –and thereby, I got tangled up with people who were not as they seemed to be. Often, my poems are free verse; however, I tried my hand at some resemblance of “Traditional Poetry.”


Enemy in someone you like:
Everyone wants to know
what’s behind the face you show
we all see your pride
you modestly try to hide

the smile that plays across your face
has seemed to find its place
but your moods change like a clock
the swings impossible to mock

a bipolar symptom waits to strike
find an enemy in someone you like
more outbreaks, in succession,
betray the mild marks of depression

your friendship is a weight to bear
it seems that no one wants to care…
your ‘quirks,’ they draw the curious
they come to mimic the delirious

they make a mockery of your ills
stunned by the bouquet of pills
a bipolar symptom waits to strike
find an enemy in someone you like.


_________________________


I don’t remember why I wrote it, but the first couple lines were running through my head for quite a few days, and I decided to elaborate on it in my 9th grade English class. My friend and I had been discussing the change in society and how people are satisfied being mediocre and achieving nothing. I guess I had big dreams back then, too.


my modern art wonder
of the twenty-first century
is torn straight from the pages
of a young man’s book
the whispers spoken
of wild ventures
swallowed by some
corporate gain
the mind-blowing drugs
destroy the naive
open portals onto new levels
swimming hallucinations of
teenage ideals
and the real world
collide with a splay of
colors only the
high can see
disappointments inspire
push onward or settle for less
business world stays on
the fast track for life
stuck in a job with no career
working up to work out
it’s got no end
it’s the truth that will slap
a truth we all know
the world as the jungle it is



Leaf Of A Ginkgo – Erin’s Tattoo, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, May 2010, photo © 2010 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.


I have yet to visit my grandfather’s grave site, years after his burial. I wanted to commemorate his passing in my own way. As a horticulturist, he loved all plants, but most specifically the ginkgo for its unchanged history. Rather than ink myself with a cliché R.I.P/tombstone tattoo, I came up with the idea of a falling ginkgo leaf. Its importance would be known to very few, preserving my grandfather’s memory.




About Erin: My name is Erin Robertson and I am a graduating senior from Susquehanna Township High School. Later this year I will be attending Temple’s Honors College to pursue a Doctorate in Psychology (because I am rather ambitious). My life has been full of adventure and I have met many unusual people and experienced quite a lot for someone my age. My life, the environments I find myself in, and the people I know, have all served as inspirations for the creative outlets in my life. I focus on poetry as a big way for me to express myself and my emotions.

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By Bob Chrisman



After my father died in 1984, my mother made semi-annual trips to Southern California to stay with her step-sister-in-law, Aunt Gladys. Uncle Roy had died a couple of years before my dad did. I would fly out to spend some time with them and then accompany my mother home.

During my first visit, Mom and Aunt Gladys announced their desire to decorate Uncle Roy’s grave at the VA cemetery in Westminster, California, near the Pacific Coast. At 90 my aunt had stopped going. “I’m not as quick on the highway anymore. I’ll leave that to you.”

We loaded the car with grass trimmers, scissors, throw rugs, plastic buckets, dishwashing liquid, sponges, old rags, and rolls of paper towels. My aunt directed my driving.

“Take that exit. Now be careful, Bob. A lot of these people aren’t paying attention. Lucile, look. Honey, did you see those mums in front of that grocery store? Weren’t they beautiful? Roy loved mums.”

I moved into the right lane to head back to the store. Aunt Gladys wanted mums. And my mother would want to make Aunt Gladys happy. One right turn, three left turns, and 15 minutes later we pulled up to the store. They climbed out while I parked.

When I caught up with them in the store, they had removed all the pots of deep red mums from the rack and lined them up for inspection. My mother and my aunt handed me the mums they eliminated as possible choices.

“Here, put this back where it belongs.” While I redecorated the mum display, they narrowed the choice down to three.

“Bob, you pick the one you think is the best one.”

I chose, but my choice wasn’t the best one so they bought the one they had already agreed on.

That done, we headed toward the cemetery.


A sign greeted us at the entrance:

The level of the cemetery has been raised by several inches. If you have trouble finding the gravesite of a veteran, please contact the manager located on the property.


We drove to the spot closest to Uncle Roy’s grave. My aunt and my mother tottered across the grass. I, the beast of burden, unloaded the trunk and followed.

“Now, he’s here somewhere. Lucile, you don’t think they’ve moved him, do you? That sign said something…”

“No, Gladys, they only put more dirt on top of him.”

I found the spot. “Here it is.” I dropped all of the grave decorating equipment and took the bucket to get water.

As they spread out the throw rugs, Aunt Gladys said, “Lucile, I don’t remember the grave being this far from the road.”

“Gladys, it’s always been here.” Mom yelled at me. “Don’t fill the bucket too full. We don’t need that much water.”

They had donned their gardening gloves and hats and set to work. They trimmed the grass around the stone. They scrubbed the marker with old rags and dried it with the paper towels.

“Roy and I bought an in-ground vase. I can’t remember exactly where it is, but I’ll find it.”

She pulled out a knife with a long slender blade and stabbed the ground like Anthony Perkins slashed at Janet Leigh in “Psycho.” Stab, stab, stab.

“Aunt Gladys, please stop.” Mom didn’t say a word. Stab, stab, stab.

“I need to find that vase. It’s buried here. They better not have removed it. We paid good money for it.” Stab, stab, stab.

“Wait. Put the knife down. I’ll go to the office and find out where the vase is.” Stab, stab, stab.

My aunt worked up quite a sweat. “Okay. I’m tired. Why don’t you go to the office. We’ll keep ourselves busy while you’re gone.”

I ran to the car. I knew they wouldn’t wait long to do whatever they wanted to.

I drove to the office. As I entered the building, the air-conditioning hit me in the face like a block of ice. The hot and humid outside air vanished in a room where you could have hung meat without it spoiling.

A cheery young woman asked, “Hello. May I help you find your loved one?”

I smiled. “My aunt is stabbing her husband’s grave with a knife to find the in-ground vase. To avoid injury to her, can you tell me where the buried vase is located?”

The woman’s mouth dropped open.

“Let me speak to the manager.”

She disappeared only to return with a rotund man dressed in a robin’s-egg blue polyester, double-knit suit. The exertion of walking from his office to the desk had turned his face beet red and he mopped his brow with a white handkerchief.

“I’ll show you where it is.”

I asked, “Do you want me to drive?” I wasn’t sure he would fit in the rental car.

“No, I’ll take my car. Suits me better.”

He climbed in a huge car, exactly the same color as his suit and rolled down his window.

“Lead the way.”


When we arrived at the gravesite, I pointed to my aunt and mother busily working.

“That’s them.”

He nodded and waddled off, wiping his head and neck as he went.

When I arrived at the throw rugs, grass trimmings and dirt covered both women. The manager stared at the ground, his jaw agape.

Aunt Gladys said. “Honey, we don’t need him. When we couldn’t find the vase I paid for…” she looked up at the manager. “…we simply dug a little hole and planted the mums on top of Roy.” She looked very happy. They both did, but the manager didn’t.

“You…you can’t do that.”

“Can’t do what, young man?”

“Can’t go around digging holes in the cemetery. It’s…well, it’s grave desecration.” His color had grown much redder. Sweat poured off his face. His handkerchief looked sopping wet. “It’s against the law to dig holes here.”

“If we had been able to find the vase, which, I will remind you again, we paid for, my sister-in-law and I wouldn’t have dug this hole.”

He took out a pocket knife. My aunt grabbed her knife, prepared to fight.

He stepped next to the stone. He jabbed in the ground and dug out some grass.

“Here. Right here.” He stood up with a smug smile on his face.

My aunt ignored him. “Lucile, look. It was right there all the time…under a foot of grass and dirt.”

“Next time, ladies, please don’t dig a hole.” He snapped his knife shut and waddled back to his car.

“I think I’ll report him. Grave desecration? What a bad attitude these young people have.” She extended her hand to me. “Help me up.”

With both of them on their feet, I brushed off their clothes. I gathered everything, wrapped the knife in an old rag and dropped it in the bucket. I packed the stuff in the trunk.

When I went back to help them to the car, I heard my aunt ask, “I think we did a lovely job, don’t you? Roy would be pleased.” My mother agreed.



About Bob: Bob Chrisman is a Kansas City, Missouri writer who frequently writes memoir about his mother, her three sisters, and their influence on his life. Desecration Day is about his Aunt Gladys and his mother. Other pieces about his aunts include Aunt Annie’s Scalloped Oysters and The Law Of Threes. He published two pieces about the life and death of his mother — Hands and In Memoriam.

He also wrote a trilogy about his father: My Father’s Witness, Bearing Witness, and My Life With Dad. Bob’s other red Ravine posts include Growing Older, Goat Ranch, and Stephenie Bit Me, Too.

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It’s so quiet. Mr. Stripeypants is down by the reflective heater, listening to me type. When I think of my birth, I think of a young girl, my mother Amelia, only 16 years old. I think of Augusta, Georgia in the 1950’s, Broad Street, one of the widest streets in the world, window shopping, my grandfather hanging out at the White Elephant bar. My mother tells me I had a thick head of black hair and the photographs bear that out. One in particular has me sitting in my grandfather’s lap. He is smiling, I am smiling, in a frilly dress and patent leather shoes.

I once thought I was born out of wedlock but that was another erroneous belief. It wasn’t until a few years ago when Mom and I were talking about her relationship with my father (whom I haven’t seen since I was about 6 years old) that she told me she married my father first — it wasn’t until later that I was conceived and born. I had thought until that time that she married him because she was pregnant. Nope. That’s how I began to learn how important it is to ask all the questions you have for your parents while they are still alive. Their memories may be fading, but at least you will have their version of what happened right from the horse’s mouth.

I was born not long after my Uncle Jack drowned in Clarks Hill Lake. He was only 18. Another assumption I made was that people were sad when I was born, still mourning the death of my uncle. Mom was quick to correct me, told me how joy-filled everyone was when I came into the world. What was it like for a 16-year-old in the 1950’s to birth a child? My father wasn’t a good provider. So my mother left him when I was two and went to work to put food on the table for us. Once she started showing, they made her quit high school, something that would be unthinkable today. They also made her quit her job in the Boy Scout admin office because they thought it would not be a good example for the boys to see a married woman that was pregnant.

It does make me realize how far we have come as women since the 1950’s. I recently heard a woman speak who was a stewardess on Northwest Orient in the 1950’s. She’s written a book and they were interviewing her on MPR. She said they had strict height and weight restrictions on stewardesses and you had to periodically “weigh in.” She also said you had to wear your hair a certain way, could not have dentures or partials, or wear glasses or contacts. Can you imagine the uproar today if those kinds of restrictions were put on American women?

But back to my birth. My earliest memories are not until I am about 6 years old. But once I went under hypnosis and remembered my birth father throwing me up in his arms and catching me, a loving gesture. I was an infant, all smiles. When I think of my birth, I think of my grandmother, too. And wish I could ask her what it was like for her when I was born. My mother tells me that nursing was painful. It makes me want to ask other women if nursing is painful for them. I never hear anyone talk about it. Much like I never hear people talk about miscarriages.

There are so many opportunities for women to be shamed. Are they good mothers, do they nurse, have they miscarried — many things which are out of their control. Did they have a natural birth or was labor induced. All of this falls on women, women who become mothers. A few years ago, my mother and I tried to find her step-sister’s grave. She died shortly after birth and my grandmother had scraped together the money for a marker. It was a rainy Georgia afternoon when Mom and I wandered through the Babyland area of the cemetery and finally stumbled upon her overgrown marker. There was an angel engraved into the stone.

Mom pushed the grass away with her foot, umbrella in her other hand, and I snapped a photograph. It was one of my first ventures back to Georgia to dig up the family history, interview my mother and other family members. The journey has led to many emotional ups and downs, most good. I felt happy that we had found the baby’s grave. And wondered about the circumstances of her birth. My grandmother is no longer here to tell me. She was unlucky in love in her early life. But the last man she married, Raymond, was a sweetheart. I felt so happy she finally found a man who would be sweet to her, someone she deserved.

You know what’s odd? I more remember the circumstances of each of my sibling’s births than I do my own. I was 4 years old when my brother came home from the hospital in Tennessee. I was 14 when my youngest sibling was born. We remember more than we think we do. If the right question is asked, a jumble of strange seemingly unlinked thoughts and emotions pour through the mind and heart. And that only leaves you to wonder more — what will be the circumstances of my death?




-Related to topic post WRITING TOPIC – 3 QUESTIONS. [NOTE: This is the third of three questions mentioned by actor and writer Anna Deavere Smith in an interview with Bill Moyers (see link). She talked about the questions in the context of interviewing people and listening to them. The three questions came from a linguist Smith met at a cocktail party in 1979; the questions were, according to the linguist, guaranteed to break the patterns and change the way people are expressing themselves. QuoinMonkey, ybonesy, and frequent guest writer Bob Chrisman take on the three questions by doing a Writing Practice on each.]

-Also related to posts: PRACTICE: Have You Ever Come Close To Death? — 15min (by ybonesy), PRACTICE: Have You Ever Come Close To Death? — 15min (by Bob Chrisman), PRACTICE — Have You Ever Come Close To Death? — 15min (by QuoinMonkey), PRACTICE: Have You Ever Been Accused Of Doing Something You Didn’t Do? — 15min (by Bob Chrisman); PRACTICE: Have You Ever Been Accused Of Doing Something You Didn’t Do? — 15min (by ybonesy), and PRACTICE — Have You Ever Been Accused Of Doing Something You Didn’t Do? — 15min (by QuoinMonkey), PRACTICE: Do You Know The Circumstances Of Your Birth? — 15min (by Bob Chrisman), PRACTICE: Do You Know The Circumstances Of Your Birth? — 15min (by ybonesy), and two Guest practices False Accusation, Almost Dying.

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