The Image Stuck In My Mind

 

My great-grandfather, John C., passed away when I was eight years old. Throughout my life, I’ve seen pictures of him as a child, as a schoolboy, as a young husband and father, as a middle-aged professional. But, when I think of him, the only image seared in my memory is that of a frail, ninety-year-old man in his nursing home bed. This freezing of someone in time in one’s head is common. Friends that I’ve reconnected with after over thirty years have the benefit of The Picture of Dorian Gray phenomenon – they’re forever adolescent in my mind. A person stuck in time this way is “foto stecken,” derived from the German meaning “stuck picture.” (Okay, I just made that up, but I’m copyrighting it.)

After my mother died, I found a collection of family history records that she’d been gathering to pass along to my brothers and me, and I spent the next two years completing the genealogical project she’d begun. She’d scanned photographs, put together birth/marriage/death certificates, land deeds, and military enlistment records. Included in it were her own stories and childhood recollections as well as several written by John C. in 1961. The memories about his young uncles particularly captivated me because those rapscallions were wild and raised hell at every chance. Had we been contemporaries, I imagine we’d have been friends.

John’s first solid memory of his uncles was when they set him on fire at his grandfather’s farm. They didn’t mean to set him on fire. They were just engaging in a little tomfoolery. They wanted to scare their five-year-old nephew while he was seated in the yard, so sneaked up behind him and lit a string of firecrackers. The child screamed and leaped to his feet but, Webster, fourteen, and George, thirteen, were paralyzed as they watched his shorts smolder and flame. They argued – while John continued screaming – about whether to dip him head- or bottom-first into the rain barrel. Grabbing him, they were about to hoist him in when their older sister Charlotte raced from the house and patted out the fire. No permanent scarring resulted, John recounted in his memoir, except for his lifelong revulsion of July 4 celebrations.

That little firecracker mishap might have scared straight those of lesser fortitude, but Webster and George thrived on a symbiotic competitive relationship. As with many teenagers, the fascination with explosives drove them to devise bigger, better, and more exciting ways to blow things up. They needed a cannon. Somewhere, they found an old piece of a gun barrel and managed to attach it to a wood block and plug up one end. Next, they put a hole in the barrel for a fuse. They had a powder horn full of gunpowder. They were set. Each took turns ramming shrapnel into their weapon to see who could create a bigger eruption. Wadded paper produced nothing more than a sizzle. Pulverized brick and small stones were more satisfying but still too tame. Webster was delighted to remember where he’d seen some ball cartridges and soon lead balls were flying out into the fields. George wanted a target to see how good their marksmanship was, so they chose the newly installed outhouse. This was no ordinary outhouse. At that time, the Chick Sales House was the Cadillac of outdoor toilets, decorated with fancy stars and half-moons. And, it was a two-seater! My great-grandfather recalled that for as long as they owned that farm, one could take a jackknife and pick out lead balls from the side of the outhouse.

In late 1800s New England, Sundays were devoted to church: preparations for service, attendance, then a large family meal or community picnic would follow. A full day of solemnity was too much to expect of the young scallywags. When they weren’t pestering the younger children seated in the pew in front of them, Webster and George would surreptitiously disrupt the worship by making noises or using a piece of glass to reflect the sun into the pastor’s eyes. It seemed God had a little light-hearted retribution the Sunday afternoon the boys went swimming in the grove behind the church picnic area. While all the congregants, including some comely young ladies, were lunching, George hobbled yelling from the water with a crab attached to a toe.

Another favorite pastime of Webster and George was damming up the nearby streams. What began with leaves and sticks morphed into boulders and fallen trees. The goal was to create ponds to play with the marine life trapped there. This sport created an additional perk for the boys. Early one fall morning, after several days of heavy rain, the banks of the streams overflowed. Their father went to the cellar – accessible solely by an outdoor ramp – to fetch an armload of firewood only to find himself waist-high in water. When word got out, Webster and George were jubilant. They grabbed a skiff and launched it down the ramp into the pool where they paddled happily collecting floating wood and any other trinkets they could reach.

My favorite story about Webster and George took place the day their older sister, John C.’s mother, was getting married for the second time. Her first marriage, to John’s father, ended in an acrimonious divorce and the family was thrilled when she found happiness the second time around with Matthew. Described as a bit of a dandy, Matthew was particular about his wedding outfit as he prepared for the ceremony at the local Unitarian church. His frustration mounted when he couldn’t find his newly purchased bowler hat and ascot. Finally, he had to settle for an old hat and necktie as he set out to meet his bride. A wedding luncheon for fourteen was spread for the newlyweds and their family. Upon returning home from the service, the groom was greeted by the family dog, nattily dressed for the occasion with a black bowler hat affixed to his head with a striped ascot. Conspicuously missing from the welcome party were the bride’s young brothers, Webster and George.

 

Even though I’ve read the humorous tales of my great-grandfather’s childhood and am aware of his celebrated career as a city planner, in my mind, I picture a bedridden elderly man. Sort of like when I show up at high school reunions, and I can’t reconcile the reality of my middle-aged peers with the teenage classmates of my memories. Webster and George lived to be men in their late sixties/early seventies. My own family tree search has traced them through decades of censuses and, while Webster never had children, many of George’s descendants still live in the New England area. Even with that knowledge, Webster and George will forever be foto stecken as impish young teenagers who relished leading their young nephew astray.

…Does My Twenty-Five-Year-Old Son Make Me Look Old?

Avery 25th

Our son, Avery, just turned twenty-five. Twenty-five! Two and a half decades! I still have vivid memories of that towheaded, blue-eyed toddler, with the ever-present grin, who was running as soon as he could walk. He called me “Mama” and displayed clever wit from the start. At eighteen months, his favorite toy was a Playmobil firetruck complete with a bucket ladder that could go up and down. There were firefighters and a Dalmatian that fit into the bucket. One day, I put the dog into the ladder in the down position, and said, “Look, honey, a Dalmatian. Dal-ma-tian. Can you say that?”

Avery didn’t miss a beat. He put the ladder, complete with dog, in the up position and said, “Upmatian.” He grinned, waiting to see if I got the joke. When I did, I spent the next several weeks – or couple of decades – bragging about my son’s sense of humor.

Twenty-five years. All those milestones and goalposts that he’s hit. The physical growth – he’s six feet tall; the personal growth – he no longer regards himself as the expert on a given topic as he knows there’s always more to learn; the academic achievements and strides in his career; the ease and confidence that come with maturity.

So, while Avery has spent the past twenty-five years growing into this fine young man, let’s focus on the important question: does my twenty-five-year-old make me look old? Because, let’s face it, in my little world, isn’t it always about me?

Do I miss the infant I used to cradle in the sleepy hours of the morning or the pudgy little hand in mine as we crossed busy streets? Of course. His sports teams that became part of my life. His church classes that meant I became an instructor. His school field trips that I attended as a chaperone. I was his chauffeur, his organizer, his chef, his doctor, his teacher, his cheerleader, his comforter. I was his everything. So, what happens to me now that he’s all grown up?

First, I had to get past the notion that he was “mine.” He is my son. He has never been “mine.” Instead, I focused on the burgeoning adult and consciously shifted my approach to interacting with him. I gave him space to develop a sense of autonomy. I listened with respect to his thoughts and plans before offering advice. Did he always take it? No. But, he learned to appreciate me as someone equipped with experience, unconditional love, and genuine interest in his well-being.

Second, I rediscovered what I like to do for myself. I heard all the suggestions. I read all the articles. So, I started to focus on my writing, giving it the attention that had been back-burnered while the kids were little. Also, I joined a gym and began having regular facials because, let’s be honest. While I’m proud of my twenty-five-year-old son, I don’t want to look like I can have a child that old.

Our son, who was born with a need to always be on the go, returned last year from a graduate program that allowed him to study in Africa and Abu Dhabi. During that year, he indulged his wanderlust and visited several countries, including Thailand, Australia, India, Portugal, and Spain. Upon his return from Seville, Spain, he informed us that his new life plan included moving there. He’s had some random and far-fetched schemes over the years, but this one seems to be sticking. So, when he said to me, “Hey, I’m going to Spain for a couple of weeks. Wanna go?”, of course, I said yes. Truthfully, I felt a little honored that he invited me. I’m sure he had ulterior motives, like convincing me that his latest plan has merit (and that I’d foot the bill for food and entertainment, at the very least). But, still.

I’ve traveled with Avery throughout our lives together, but this trip was different. I was not in charge. He made all the plans, from the airplane and accommodations to leading me on sightseeing tours through both Barcelona and Seville. He’s visited those cities before, while it was my first time. He’s fluent in Spanish, while my anxiety causes me to spit out bad high school French in a pinch. He eagerly showed me ancient relics and regaled me with detailed Spanish history, while I learned from him with mixed fascination and pride. He strode with relaxed, cosmopolitan confidence, while I fretted over figuring out which subway line to catch.

In Barcelona, we watched the World Cup Finale of football (a.k.a. soccer) on tv in a restaurant. We walked the usual tourist spots, from the magnificent Arc de Triomf to the endless stalls of La Boqueria Food Market, to the quirky tiled intricacies of Antoni Gaudi’s Park Güell. We dined on paella and strolled the Rambla, down to the marina. I scurried to keep up with my long-legged companion, reminding him with frequency that, “I’m not doing too badly for an old lady, right?” as we crammed a week’s worth of sightseeing into two days.

We hopped a 90-minute Vueling flight to Seville, during which time Avery squirmed in anticipation at returning to the city he’d come to love. I forced a smile on my face every time I cracked my knee on the seat back in front of me while crossing my legs. I maintained a serene expression while furiously elbow wrestling with the man-spreader on my other side. By the time we arrived in Seville, I was suppressing fatigue from my tribulations and irrational annoyance with the country at large.

One look at the city of Seville acted as a balm on my angst. It was every bit as beautiful as Avery had described. Within three days, I was in love with it, too. Less international than Barcelona, Seville gives a more authentic sense of Spanish culture. I became very adept at day drinking sherry, beer, and wine with my tapas, accepting the more relaxed rhythm of the Sevillian life. Still, we saw much of the Old Town, from its modern structures, such as the wooden mushrooms, as Avery coined the Metropol Parasol, to the ancient ruins, Antiquarian, dating back to ancient Roman times. I feared Avery would be impatient, dragging his old bag of a mother behind him, as I begged for occasional breaks in a park or tapas bar to rest in the 100° weather. But, he wasn’t. He seemed to enjoy sharing the city with me.

We managed to squeeze in a walking tour, combining history with the culture of tapas. We hit roughly ten tapas bars while we were there, loving the lighter, more frequent meals. We saw the Spanish royal palace and gawked at the magnificence of the Seville Cathedral. We spent hours roaming the Plaza de España in Maria Luisa Park, expressly designed and built for the 1929 Ibero-American Exposition. Everywhere we walked, in every direction we looked, we found ancient buildings with rich history. All the while, Avery chatted happily, explaining the influence in the city from the Romans to the Moors and through the Christians.

We spent five days together in Spain, just Avery and me. I kept waiting for hints of him wishing I could attend a free midnight flamenco dance show instead of paying for the 7:30 PM version. I expected that he’d laugh at my goofy hat designed to keep the scorching sun off my face. Instead, he offered me sunscreen for my nose. I apologized for my (comparatively) early bedtime of 11 PM, but he insisted that he needed to catch up on his sleep, too.

Then, it struck me. Avery hadn’t simply grown up. He was an adult. We’d moved through all those wonderful moments of childhood where his every decision relied on me. We’d survived the turbulent teenage years when sarcasm reigned supreme. And, we came out the other side as two people who genuinely enjoy each other’s company.

Our son is twenty-five-years-old. A quarter of a century. He remarked to me that the milestone was a startling realization of his advancing years. My knee-jerk thought was, “Well if you think that makes you old, imagine how I feel!” Instead, after I bought myself a new advanced skincare line, I basked in the recognition that, while our dynamic has changed, I am still every bit as relevant in Avery’s life as when he was a child. He may no longer need me to hold his hand while crossing the street, but he values that I’m still eager to cross that street with him. He’s no longer pulling away from me, as he did his first day of preschool, racing to explore the world. Now, he’s inviting me along for the ride. One thing hasn’t changed, though. At my insistence, my twenty-five-year-old still calls me “Mama.”

…Timber! A Christmas Tale.

christmas blog

When I was a teenager, I was a member of Grace St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. As with all churches, the highlight of the year was the Christmas celebration. For us, this included the annual decorating of the tree.

The congregation planned for months. The format was always the same. Our priest read the Christmas story – from Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem, to arriving at the stable filled with animals, to the birth of Jesus, to the arrival of the Three Wise Men. As the story progressed, we listened for our cues and, when it was our turn, we proceeded to the massive tree by the altar to hang homemade ornaments. Once the story was over and the tree was bedecked in all its glory, we sang hymns and rejoiced in our shared fellowship.

In 1976, the year Lori attended this beloved service with my mother and me, we were asked to make two angels and the crown jewel, the baby Jesus. My mother took this honor seriously. To the craft store we went, up and down the aisles, hunting and searching. Mom was on a mission, and she’d be damned if anything would stop her from displaying her strong religious faith and her artistic talents. We arrived home; our arms were laden with heavy cardstock, colored pencils, markers of varying thickness, new scissors, feathers, glitter, and a sheet of gold leaf.

Mom looked through old books and children’s Christmas stories, hunting for models for her designs. No, she wouldn’t copy or trace or rip off anyone else’s creations. She was too much of a purist for that. This was the woman who handmade every Halloween costume I’d ever worn. This was the woman who had baked and decorated every one of my birthday cakes. She doodled while on the telephone; she crafted stained glass treasures for gifts; and, she created magnificent bouquets of flowers, each petal made of twisted wire dipped in liquid plastic, dried, then assembled into lilies, roses, and orchids. My baton twirling outfits were of crushed velvet and bedazzled with rhinestones and pearls. Hell, no. This year’s Christmas ornaments were going to be showstoppers, she determined.

The patterns were drawn, nearly a foot high, and laid carefully to the cardstock. The new, razor-sharp scissors precisely hugged every turn and sharply snipped each corner. With a pencil, Mom sketched in the details of the angels’ faces, with wide eyes and rosebud lips, then colored brilliantly with markers. The plump, baby Jesus was in a manger, a crown angled impossibly on his head.

The finished products were magnificent. Scraps of shimmery white gossamer, leftover from an old project, had become angelic robes. Feathers crafted wings. Long, acrylic hair, cut from discarded dolls – one blond, one dark – had been attached to their cardboard heads, parted in the middle in front and flowing nearly to their feet in back.

And, little Jesus – what a triumph! Real hay had been glued inside the manger and, on his head, the crown shimmered with gold leaf. He was pink-cheeked and cherubic, a nod to the Gerber baby. Crafted in loving detail, you could almost hear him gurgle with joy as the angels sang.

Lori and I could barely contain ourselves as we waited for the big day. We filed into church, proudly holding Mom’s masterpieces, but we couldn’t help noticing what the others had made. Skimpy hand-drawn images on paper – colored only on one side, some curling at the bottom – were so pathetic that we found it difficult to hide our ridicule. But, we were in church, after all, so we smiled graciously to the others, reveling in their naked envy.

Entering the nave, we gasped when we saw this year’s tree. It rose higher and higher, reaching toward Heaven in the rafters of the cathedral ceiling. We took our seats, jittery with anticipation for the service to begin. As the priest read the Christmas story, families and friends rose to walk down the center aisle toward the towering tree to hang their ornaments. We followed along in the program, waiting for our turn. At last, it came.

Mom, Lori, and I rose as one, paused as we entered the aisle to allow everyone the chance to see our extraordinary ornaments. A sprinkle of glitter from my dark-haired angel fell like fairy dust as I held her high for those in the back to admire. Lori, with the blond angel, did a similar sweep. But, Mom took the lead as she was carrying the most precious of all. Like a bride approaching her awaiting groom, Mom proceeded reverently toward the front of the church. There were whispers and smiles of appreciation for the gold-crowned baby she held delicately in her hands. Lori and I followed at a respectful distance, our angels reaping equal admiration.

When we reached the front of the church, we turned to face the congregation and, once more, raised our ornaments high for all to see. Then, Lori went to one side of the tree to hang hers while I went to the other. Mom, holding the heart of the entire event, moved to place hers front and center. I struggled to secure my angel to the branch I’d chosen and began searching for a new one. As I reached to loop my angel’s hanger over the pine needles, it moved away from me and, simultaneously, I heard someone from the back of the room yell, “Timber!”

I watched in mixed horror and fascination as that colossal tree tipped, almost in slow motion, toward the congregation. Suddenly, Lori was staring at me, wide-eyed and mouth gaping, over the branches of the fallen tree. I think my face must have mirrored her shock, but then she began laughing. Lori has an infectious laugh that makes it impossible not to join in. Plus, we were fourteen. We found everything funny at that age. We were nearly doubled-over in hysterics.

The priest rushed forward to help Mom out from underneath. She crawled from where she’d been trapped, pine needles sticking at all angles from her hair, a sprinkling of glitter across her fiery red face. Lori and I looked at each in momentary panic as Mom was helped to her feet. But, when she yelled, “Goddammit, Lori! You pushed the tree over!” we pressed our hands to our mouths to hold the laughter back.

The entire church was silent except for the echo of Mom’s words. As we slunk back toward our pew, I glanced left and right from beneath my lowered lashes to see that no one was admiring us now. In fact, they deliberately avoided looking in our direction. As some helpful people at the front of the church worked furiously to right the tree, we kept right on going past our seat and headed out the back door. That was the last time we participated in the yearly Christmas story tradition at our church.