ancestors

Threads

Grandma used to pick up threads. And hairpins.  And safety pins.  She fastened the safety pins down the front of her cardigan near the button holes.  There were buttons on her sweater, Aunt Jule would make sure of that. I think she picked up bits of thread and pins because she was raised to be thrifty, to save, to never waste.  Grandma seemed so very old to me.  The big blue veins that sat on the back of her hands were covered by thin loose skin, her wedding rings held on more by her bony knuckle than by any plumpness of her fingers.  There was thread wrapped around the rings to keep them safe below her knuckle.  In their steel grey hair these sisters used hairpins, not bobby pins.  In old family pictures  I saw they once had thick plentiful hair, like I had.  Now there scalps were visible and those wide wire hairpins had so little to hold on to that they fell, into the carpet, on to the linoleum, and stayed behind when they arose from a chair. And so they had to be picked up. When I was with them, I could feel my youth--- strong, vibrant, smooth skin, fresh faced youth. 'Bursting with life' would not have been an exaggeration from these days.   I could move freely, run and jump and play all day, ride my bike with no hands, just steering with my will and the strength of my body.  I'd get up to such a speed and then glide, the air rushing through my thick hair, the breeze on my smooth skin, the muscles in my legs strong after the exertion. Sometimes Grandma would sit next to me and take my hand in hers, my hand covered in smooth pink skin, and she would just rub the back of it.  She would hold my young hand and look at our two hands together and sigh, sometimes a tear in her eye as she patted my arm.  "So nice and round you are."

Not so many years ago, I was brushing my own mother's hair, this grandmother's daughter.  My mother had more than abundant hair--- so thick and dark all my growing up years, now silver with a lovely sheen.  She kept more hair than her own mother did, but when I brushed it, I saw the patches, her scalp exposed just in places.  She grew into a similar old age to her mother, forgetful, confused, softer.  Not as formidable as the mother of my youth, but still herself.  And, as with my grandmother, I think this condition, this senility, Alzheimer's, opened a door on her life that might have stayed closed otherwise.  As with her mother, she spoke of the past, her childhood, her youth, the events of yesterday much fresher than what she just had for lunch or the names of her family who sat at the table with her.  This doorway, the defenses crumbled, brought its own gifts along with the heartache.  She would speak of things from years before, looking to find people long dead, but not to her.  They were just there, waiting for her.  And so she had to find them.

Now I am a grandmother.  My daughter has a child, a little boy.  To hold his plump little hand, his round toes, rub his soft soft cheek against my own is more than a delight.  It is a renewal of life, and yes, of course, a reminder.  Now I am the grandmother.  The one with the stories of long ago, that seem not so long ago for me--- no, long ago was for my grandmother, but of course that is ancient history to my grandson.  My youth will be the 'good old days', my daughter's youth just parts of stories we will tell.  And we will show him pictures and tell him about his Mommy when she was a little girl and his uncles will give him piggy back rides and tell him things I didnt know about his mother, things only brothers would know.  His grandfather and I will tell him stories of growing up in New York-  in that far away place he will  see on TV in any number of cop  and lawyer shows.

I have spent my life collecting stories, listening for the history and characters of grandparents and aunts and uncles I never would meet otherwise.  I have collected these treasures by asking questions, studying photographs, listening at Christmas and Thanksgiving when the older people would join us.  I suppose I am something like my Grandmother, picking up threads so as not to waste the legacy of all those we come from.

Going Green

Writers are pretty good at the whole re-cycling thing.  Memories of people, places, things, of smells and touch, impressions and observations made over the years are used again and again in the stories we create and the characters we "invent". Nothing is wasted.  Our whole lives feed our work. Our way of being in this world, I think, is different than people who don't write.  Of course, that's just my theory, a theory that has been tested on anecdotes and observations I have accumulated these many years. Kind of a self proving theory, but never the less, there it is. I'm pretty darn sure musicians and visual artists approach and absorb life in similar ways, molding and shaping bits and pieces of history and flashes of cinema that run through our heads, whether awake or asleep.  I have my own laboratory for developing this theory.  Each one of my children is an artist of some kind;  they draw, paint, write and perform music, craft inert material into something beautiful and make movies.  I have learned so much from them over the years on how to "do" this writing thing.  They are wonderful converters of the energy that has been expended on life experiences.  They recall, re-use, recycle.

When I was young--- about 8 or 9 years old--- I loved spending a few days in the summer with my Grandmother and Aunt Jule.  Everything in their house was old.  Everything was neat and orderly.  And delicate.  Or so it seemed.  Most of the furniture dated to the late teens to the early thirties (that is from World War I through the Depression).  Each chair, table, china cabinet, all the silverware, the chipped kitchen plates and the lovely china in the glass cabinet in the dining room, seemed to me to be full of stories.  These two elderly sisters lived with no clutter, no waste.  They carefully put away linens and mended all the ancient items they owned.  They had little use for the new while the old still had use and life.  Aunt Jule would make the little girls of the family summer dresses, or 'shifts', on the black enamel Singer sewing machine that she used for making clothes for my mother when she was a girl.

Because the houses were so close together-- two attached houses with an alley between the next set-- the house always was in shadow. This added to the allure of stories to be uncovered and listened for in my young imagination.  I would play on the little stairs of the side door of the alley just outside the alcove that once upon a time housed the "icebox".  The ice man would come around on a regular basis in his truck, park at the curb and heave a block of ice through the alley doors to the alcoves of the identical houses.  For some reason this bit of domestic life of the 1920's seemed so romantic, so other.

I would listen as my Grandmother and Aunt spoke to each other.  I was hungry for names and events of times past, of people who died before I was born, but who were part of who I am.  I was hungry for history.  Hungry for story.  When my grandmother's Alzheimer's progressed she would often ask for people from her childhood.  I would not correct her and try to focus her in on the here  --- her here and now was better spent in reminiscence.  She would speak of the house where she was raised, speak of my great-grandparents and assorted aunt and uncles whose faces I would look at in old sepia photos, looking for some traits, some characterictics that maybe I inherited or that I recognized in one of my brothers or sisters.  These stories made me part of that history, giving me roots in a world of the immediate. I still gather the threads of all that came before me--- all that is within the grasp of  my imagination that is--- to re-tell old tales or take those threads and weave something new.  My own recycling program.  Now if I could just remember to put the plastic bottles in the blue bin.......