Personal tragedies kind of put it all into perspective.
Ever notice that?
Last summer, my mother died. She had a “good run” as they say—nearly 94 years—and she left the sorting out of the flotsam and jetsam of her long life to me.
What a walk down memory lane it has been.
When I was growing up, living rooms were the one room in the house that people did the least living in. People rarely spent time in them except when there was company, and, even then, no one was allowed to bring food or beverages in there, except at Christmas.
You had to sit and eat at the table in the dining room, which was simply the other end of the living room. Even so, we never ate in the dining room, unless we had company. We generally ate in the kitchen.
In the living/dining room, people used coasters under glassware, and, during the holidays, sat uncomfortably perched, making small talk and pretending to laugh.
Some of my friends’ families even had plastic on their furniture to keep it from getting soiled by people sitting on it, as if someone would come in covered in mud, plop down and put their feet up, shoes and all.
There were towels in the bathroom that no one ever used, as well as tiny decorative soaps, which over the years grew a fine layer of dust and had to be replaced. They were for “company,” who were always too scared to use them too, apparently.
The towels, toilet seat and tank cover, as well as the bathroom rugs, were a matching set, and were changed during the holidays. The holiday set was festooned with holly leaves and berries, including a toilet cover featuring a smiling Santa, who graciously covered his eyes when you lifted the lid.
We all had certain clothes and shoes that we “saved” and only wore “for good.” “Good” generally meant special occasions, like Easter, Christmas, Weddings or not-so-special occasions, like funerals and school pictures.
The clothes-saving ritual really bummed me out because my Mama—an extremely talented seamstress—sewed all of my clothes, except for the ones I bought myself when I started working, at age 11. I grew really fast between third and fifth grade and at age 11, I reached the height I am now: 5’5.
Between my growth spurt and “saving it for good,” some of the cool things Mama made for me (like the real suede vest she made from one of my father’s old suitcoats and the red patent leather Maxi coat) I barely wore.
I actually outgrew the Maxi coat before she even finished it. When I tried it on for the last fitting, the sleeves were three inches too short and it was halfway to my knees, instead of ankle length. While I was consumed by grief, I’m sure it was secretly passed down to one of my smaller cousins, who hopefully had the sense to wear it to shreds.
In the backseat window ledge of our car was a box of Kleenex, which was never opened in all of the years we owned it. It was there for emergencies and despite all colds, crying, bloody noses, spills and other mishaps which occured in our car over the years, we were still never allowed to disturb the sanctity of the sacred kleenex box.
Perhaps my mother thought the Pope or even Jesus would be hitching a ride with us someday; in any case, she didn’t want us sullying the snazzy decorator design (simulated gold tin foil) of the cardboard carton with our “grubby mitts.”
By the time we traded in the car, it been bleached completely white by the sun and remained the pristine, virgin tissue dispenser that it had always been.
Car trips were always a sentence in hell for me, the youngest of two children riding in the backseat of our Dodge Dart.
For one thing, my parents put a lot of work into perfecting their smoking skills while traveling in the car and for someone who was (and still is) prone to motion sickness, this meant constant nausea for me, until we discovered the wonders of Dramamine. From then on, car rides were (and still are, when I am not behind the wheel) much like a magic carpet ride.
Despite my older brother’s punching, poking and stealing my pillow and the ever present cloud of Marlboro red/Carlton 100s smoke boiling over the seat into our faces, I slept better than most dead people.
I generally missed most of the scenery and excitement such as spotting “a deer!” because by the time my father had jammed the brake to the floor and I had pulled myself upright after rolling off the backseat onto the floor, (seatbelts? what are those?) whatever had been spotted was long gone.
I do remember one occasion where there was a female moose in the road and someone was stopping traffic so they could sneak up as close as possible to her to snap photos as the moose sauntered slowly across the highway. My father rolled down the window and asked the instamaniac in a low, calm voice if he had a death wish and explained that moose can be dangerous if they feel threatened, and are not particularly fond of being photographed at close range—particularly with a flash.
Even the radio stations in our family cars were rationed; the only ones ever used were whatever station played a baseball game (any baseball game would do, but the Minnesota Twins, announced by Herb Carneal was preferred) or any station that played my father’s beloved Polka music.
As I understand it, The Six Fat Dutchmen must have been in the same ranks in my fathers youth as the Beatles were in mine, because I grew up to the sound of “The Beer Barrel Polka” played at the same volume as I played “Revolution” years later in my own car.
Consequently, I have a love/hate relationship with Polka. I can’t stand the sound of it, but it makes me think of my dad, who I adored.
One thing we could always count on during road trips (besides the cloud of smoke in front seat and ongoing war in the back) was a stop at Dairy Queen. We rarely got DQ at any other time, even though there was one right in our town, roughly three miles from our front door.
Ritualists that we were, my father always had a banana split with pineapple, my mother had a hot fudge sundae, and my brother and I had Dilly bars or dip cones with sprinkles if we ate outside and malts if we ate in the car.
For the time it took us to devour our treats, my parents weren’t smoking, my brother and I weren’t fighting and all was right with the world.
When we stopped to eat meals while traveling, I always ordered the same thing: a grilled cheese and either a chocolate malt or a rootbeer float. If I was not voraciously hungry, I would have a coke, or, oddly, whole milk with ice.
Believe it or not, I did have a few really crappy grilled cheese in my travels with my family. It’s not something you would think one could ruin beyond burning it, but stale bread, inferior cheese or rancid butter rendered less than pleasant sandwiches in quite a few states in my childhood.
To this day, a grilled cheese is one of my favorite foods and I pride myself on making magazine-worthy specimens.
As for malts, I learned early on: if I spotted a mint green mixer machine behind the counter, I would have not only a glassful of deliciousness, but also whatever was left in the stainless steel mixing cup, too. (Really? All this for me? Whoa!) I remember the first time I got the malt but not the extra: I could see it still sitting behind the counter by the mixer and I asked the waitress for it. She looked at me like she wanted to jam a fork into my eyeball, but she brought it over.
One family ritual that stands out in my memory was saying goodnight.
I always hugged and kissed my parents goodnight before I went to bed, until I moved out of their house and into my own. My father died shortly after, but our ritual continued all of the years Mama was alive, whenever I would visit her. I found excuses to call her, to ask her questions, just to hear her voice. Even a brief phone call to ask about a recipe ended with “I love you.”
These days, I try to make everything count.
I try to find excuses to wear everything in my closet (a considerable feat!) and I don’t have things in my home that cannot be used until “good.”As far as I know, “good” never happens more than it is happening right now.
So, say “I love you” and don’t save kisses and hugs for goodnight. Wear the ballgown or the prom dress with high topped tennis shoes and a top hat and go have a hot fudge Sundae. Take a bath and use the funky little soaps and light the dusty candles!
If you can’t bring yourself to do it, then box it all up and send it to someone who has lost everything they have in a fire or a hurricane.
Diane Marie a multi-media artist who lives in the woods on an island with her “loveband” of nine years and their 21 year old death-defying cat. Although Diane has no idea where it came from, art is all she’s good at. Diane started drawing about the time she could walk by herself, and began painting the things she saw around her shortly after, though no one in her family was artistic in those ways. Painting is “the love of my life” but she has had affairs with sculpture, mosaic, multimedia/assemblage art and jewelry making, all using salvaged, found or recycled materials, as well as writing, poetry, songwriting, standup comedy. She can seldom nail herself down to a “series.” She has the spirit of a black lab—always off to investigate some new smell in the air—and everything she does reflects that.~Editor: Alisha Kay Bull