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Posts Tagged ‘memories’

We’re close to the Christmas season, particularly since Thanksgiving is so late. Despite my policy of taking one holiday at a time, I’m starting to think about Christmas-y stuff right about now. Of course, the decorations won’t come out for another week yet, but I’ve already started shopping in an attempt to get everything bought and wrapped by the day before Christmas Eve. The number of times this has happened in the past? Zero, but I do try every year.

All of this has stirred up some of my best memories. My grandparents, both sets, always made Christmas fun and special.

At Grandma and Grandpa Ballantyne’s house, we always celebrated on Christmas Eve with all of the aunts, uncles, and cousins. It was crowded and loud and I sometimes retreated to the back bedroom or the bathroom for a few minutes of quiet, but after I recharged, I couldn’t wait to join the fun again. Grandma made dinner and then all of us kids had to wait for what seemed like hours for the adults to stop talking while we eyed the mounds of presents. They always threatened to make us wait until after dessert, which, of course, was pure torture. Grandma’s tree always had mounds of tinsel spread throughout and I thought it looked lovely, like in a fairy tale, gifts heaped in piles spreading out from the trunk. Grandma loved giving; there were gifts for everyone. She always over-shopped, so we got tons of gifts, which my mother would grumble about for days afterward. I still have the non-Barbie doll with brown hair (like me!) that I got when I was three years old from “Santa” there. After presents, there was the chocolate eclair dessert that my great-grandma made, which was fabulous. We kids would play with our gifts and as the sugar crash began to happen, we were carted home to await Christmas morning.

At Grandma Ruth and Grandpa Nick’s house, it was a slightly calmer affair with fewer people, my brothers and I were the only kids for a long time, but wonderful, nonetheless. For several years, Grandpa would be waiting at the door for us with the old video camera rolling with actual film and no sound. There was dinner on Christmas Day and sometimes we had presents before dinner rather than after. I don’t remember a pattern. Before we opened presents, though, we had to put Baby Jesus in the manger because it was his birthday. (Side note: I know it’s not his real birthday. Just wanted to clear that up.) Christmas seemed holy and beautiful at their house, the emphasis placed on the religious meaning of Christmas and it felt special. I loved the smell of Grandma Ruth’s kitchen, she was an amazing cook. We always had ham with pineapple on top. I called ham “bugs” for the longest time. I have no idea why, so don’t ask. I was an odd child. There were always Christmas cookies with the sprinkles and cinnamon dots in the shapes of bells, Santas, Christmas trees, and reindeer. I have those cookie cutters now and I use them every year. Later, we sometimes played Uno or Go Fish with my aunt and uncle or I curled up in the old green rocking chair and read all the stories in Grandma’s Liguarian magazines until it was time to sleepily go home, where our other presents were waiting. I loved Christmas there.

Were we privileged at Christmas? Yes, we definitely were. Our gifts weren’t expensive, but the grandparents put a lot of thought into them and I always felt loved. The memories of being at their houses for Christmas are some of the best I have and as an adult, I can appreciate how much effort they put into making it wonderful for us. I hope my boys look back on Christmas with the same amount of mushy nostalgia as I do.

What is your favorite Christmas or other holiday memory? Share it in the comments, I’d love to hear from you.

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As I write this, it’s a grey, rainy day. It’s cold, too, which doesn’t help much. I’ve been sequestered inside for most of the time, finishing online homework and (gasp!) reading a book, building a fire, making dinner. Bacon and potatoes. It was lovely.

I also took a quick walk around Greenfield Village. If you’re not from my neck of the woods, Google Greenfield Village, or The Henry Ford, as it’s known today collectively with the other attractions it’s partnered with. Yes, it was rainy and crappy out, but that’s one of my favorite times to go. For one thing, I get the whole place to myself. No people to dodge, no trying to ignore inattentive parents letting their kids do things that aren’t allowed, like feeding the geese or climbing trees. I don’t have to talk to anyone, I can just soak up the whole place, the ambiance, be myself and let the memories of working there for so long come flooding back.

They’re good ones, the memories, especially those from days like this at the farm. We’d hardly get any visitors, only a few brave ones dared to squelch their way down the dirt path of the farm lane to us. When they did come, we would welcome them warmly into the toasty kitchen and because there wasn’t a line out the door, we could spend some extra time talking with them. It was nice, like having company over.

Many times, though, on days like this, we’d barely see a soul and those were days when we became family. Of course, all of the chores would still have to be done. This isn’t Disneyland, it’s a real working farm from 1885. Animals have to be fed, stalls mucked, fields plowed, the stove and fireplace cleaned out and lit, water pumped, cows milked, dinner cooked, dishes washed, all of the things that made, and still do make, it real. On days like this when I had to work outside, it would be miserable. My boots would be soaked through with wet from the barnyard, full of poo and mud all mushed up together, the hem of my dress in deplorable condition. The Period Clothing department that made all of our clothes would look at us in dismay when we’d bring things to be repaired, but hems and pant cuffs got the worst of the abuse from the manure/mud combo we’d put them through. (Pigs would also bite our clothes, or cow horns would rip something. We were not Period Clothing’s favorite people.)

At the time when I worked there, the draining system hadn’t been improved yet, so we had to wade through a small lake to get from the house to the barn and back. Even the chickens were smart enough to stay in their coop or the barn where it was warm and dry. None of the animals wanted to be outside, but we still had our work to do.

Milking the cow, or cows, was a job we’d fight over on these raw days so that our hands would be warm, although I was felt badly for the cow in question. We’d get our bodies warmed up with the physical work, but our fingers and toes would be frozen and soggy. When it was time to come in for a quick break, we’d be so grateful for the warm wash water put out for us by the ladies in the house. We’d scrub up the best we could and come into the sitting room to dry out by the fire for a while, boots off, sometimes stockings and bonnets, too, hung over the fire screen and placed close to the flames, steam streaming up from the wet things.

We’d drink coffee, eat some cheese toast or cookies, and just talk while our things dried and we watched the rain come down. If it was dinner time when we came in, dinner could last a long while, especially if there was nothing pressing that needed to be done in the barn or the manure wagon didn’t need to be emptied out in the back forty or in the fields, as it often did. It was during one of these rainy days where I slipped on a wet wagon wheel while climbing back into the manure wagon and would have bashed my forehead open if it hadn’t been for my friend and supervisor quickly grabbing me by the wrist and yanking me to safety. Usually, though, unless absolutely necessary, those things would be put off a day or so until it was a bit drier. Hopefully, there would be a bit of dessert left over from a baking day and we’d boil another pot of coffee. I can still smell the combination of coffee, fire, food, and wet wool drying by the fire.

There were other buildings in the village where it was lovely to be on a rainy day, such as in the Gristmill. One could spend an entire day in there without seeing anyone except for when you went to have dinner at the farm with everyone. I used to get a lot of reading done on those days, or crochet, or cross stitch. I would sing entire musicals to myself with no one to hear me but the ghosts. I wouldn’t have wanted all the days to be like that, but sometimes, when it had been crazy busy with school children and other visitors for days on end, a quiet, rainy day was delightful.

The temperature will be going up this week and the sun will eventually come out. Greenfield Village will be full of visitors again, as it should be. Geese will be teased, trees will be (illegally) climbed, but most importantly, more people will fall in love with the place, as I and so many others have over the years.

Maybe they’ll learn what I already know: it’s a wonderful place to spend a cold, rainy, day.

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But since it falls unto my lot
That I should rise and you should not
I’ll gently rise and softly call
Good night and joy be with you all.

~The Parting Glass

My grandma is dying. There’s no way to write that sentence differently that will make it any better or easier. My grandma is dying. It’s time to say goodbye, but dear God, I don’t want to.

I wasn’t yet blogging when my other grandma, Grandma Ruth, died, almost seven years ago now, or when my grandfathers passed away, but I wish I had been.  It’s difficult to let someone go mentally and emotionally, especially when that person was so much a part of one’s life since it began. Writing helps me to alleviate a bit of that pain. I think grandparents hold a very special place in one’s life, something different than parents. If they’ve been loving grandparents, as I was fortunate enough to have, the loss is felt keenly. I don’t think it ever really goes away.

I’d written about this grandma, Grandma Ballantyne, the last grandparent I have left, a few years ago when she seemed to be taking a turn for the worse. Her memory, among other things, was rapidly declining, although she would try to fake you out if she couldn’t remember something.

“Of course”, she’d say when you asked her a question or tried to remind her of a person, or, “Well, that sounds about right.” It was clear that she knew she was supposed to understand who or what you were talking about, but she didn’t, and she didn’t want you to know that she was lost. It was heartbreaking. The last few months, though, she hasn’t spoken much, except to say, “I love you”. When I saw her last, on Saturday, she wasn’t speaking at all.

We’ve known for a while that Grandma has been declining, but even when she would forget where she was or she didn’t understand what was happening, there were still glimpses of her feisty self in there. Up until a year or so ago, I could still get her to smile when I would tease her about smuggling in some whiskey to the nursing home. We shared a liking for it and red wine, although I admit that these days, I enjoy sipping a nice Merlot a little more than a Jameson. Up until a couple of years ago, I would relay some irreverent message to her from Mr. Marty Man and she would still smile. They had always gotten along famously and she enjoyed his naughty sense of humor. He made her laugh. I love that she loved him so much.

Saturday afternoon, I was privileged to have some alone time with her, to tell her things that I absolutely had to say before she leaves us. Most of them are private, things that I will hold in my heart forever, but I will share one thing with you. I told her that she was my hero, that she always had been. When I said that, her eyes focused sharply on me and she squeezed my hand tightly. Say what you will, but maybe just for that moment, she knew me and heard what I said. That’s what I’m going to choose to believe, anyway.

Grandma was an amazing person to grow up with. She watched me frequently when I was little and when she didn’t have to watch me any more, she would have me over to spend the night, just because. She allowed me to pillage her closets and drawers, including her make-up drawer, and dress up in the most amazing outfits that a six-year-old could muster up. She had a long blonde wig that I was sure had to be the most perfect thing in the world and I festooned myself with it, tons of floaty scarves, and gobs of costume jewelry, convinced that I looked beautiful because she always told me so. She eventually gave me her tiara and black satin gloves that I adored. What little girl doesn’t love a sparkly crown? I still have them and will keep them forever.

I was a pretty solitary kid, for the most part, and she left me to my long hours of playing dress-up and pretend, letting me run a “bar” out of her kitchen and a beauty shop in her dining room. Lord knows that there was almost no limit to her patience as she taught me to cook French toast, pancakes, and smoky links. I still love smoky links, not so much for their taste, but just to remind me of those carefree days. Sometimes, we’d got to McDonalds for breakfast, a rare treat, and get pancakes and sausage in the old Styrofoam containers. She always made me drink orange juice, even though I hated it (I hate pulp) but I did it because it was Grandma, even though I gagged on it.

When the cousins came over and we all spent the night, Grandma would let us build huge blanket forts in the living room and we’d all sleep on the floor. If it was just my cousin, Erin, and me, as it sometimes was, we would sleep on the pullout couch in the back room, always with a cat or two, telling stories for as long as we could stay awake. She didn’t care how long we talked, knowing that we’d eventually drop off. It was a short walk from her bungalow in Allen Park to the corner store, Frances Market, to buy milk for dinner where the clerk always knew that we were “Jackie’s grand-kids” and would give us a long stick pretzel for the walk back. We were usually allowed to buy a candy bar, too. Hershey bars were a favorite, but so were the bubble gum cigarettes, loaded with powdered sugar that puffed like smoke. This was the eighties, remember. smoking was bad, but not too bad, yet.

She had a VCR before anyone else I knew and a camera to go along with it. Every band event, school play, and holiday was lovingly videotaped and labeled. My cousins and I wish that some of those videos would disappear, and maybe they have, but she was determined to record everything. She and Grandma Ruth were always in the audience of everything I ever did. Back then, it was expected. Now, it’s treasured. Just recently, I had the opportunity to appear on television. It happened to be the same day that I was going to drive down and visit her, so she was on my mind. Fifteen years ago, she would have been grilling me about when and what channel it would be so that she could set the VCR to record.

Grandma never told me that I couldn’t do something, or that I was silly for dreaming my dreams. She never worried about logistics. I wanted to go to college at Oxford? Why not? She thought I was brilliant. Veterinarian school, perhaps? Sure thing. I wanted to be a Rockette, just like in the movie Annie? Well, I needed to learn to dance, starting with the box step, so she taught me. I never felt stupid or ridiculous in her presence. No dream was too big, no movie star was unattainable for Grandma’s girl. (All four of us granddaughters were Grandma’s girls.) As I grew up, she treated me as if I were older than I was and talked to me about world affairs and life in general. When I started smoking real cigarettes, she knew about it before any other adult in my life (because I trusted her) and simply sat in the smoking section with me with no rebuke. With Grandma, I knew that my choices, even the bad ones, were my own and that she would respect them and me. She offered advice, but always in a way that made me think about things, to see both sides. I never once felt disrespected or tolerated by her. My thoughts and feelings mattered to her. I felt that; it’s one of the purest, truest feelings of my life.

When my kids were going to be born, she told everyone from the moment she found out. She was so proud to be a great-grandma, and a youngish one at that. I’m so glad that my boys had the chance to know her when they were small, before she began having strokes. She read them stories and played with them in the lake, just like she did with us when we were small. She has four children, nine grandchildren (including my two brothers who are not her biological grandchildren, but that didn’t matter one bit to her ), and twelve great-grandchildren. She loved us all, more than anything.

My grandma is dying. I hate this. I want her back. I want her putting me in the front basket of her bike, riding just down the street, just far enough to make me laugh with joy. I want to ride the bicycle built for two with her again. I want to ask her to read me Cinderella again and again and again, just like she used to until her voice was hoarse. I want her to rub my back until I fall asleep, safe and loved. I want to talk to her again, about boys and sex and love while I’m pretending to be sophisticated and grown-up. I still don’t feel grown-up sometimes. I didn’t visit as often as I should, life gets in the way, but I will regret not being there to visit as much.

I want her to rest. I want her to be at peace. I don’t want her to hurt or to be confused anymore.

My grandma is dying. She is loved.

I need to let her go.

 

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Memory is a powerful tool. Our memory has the ability to transport us back in time with something so small as a wisp of a scent, a few notes of music, a glance at a faded picture, or a well-loved toy. The memories produced can be good, taking us to nostalgic times, or bad, bringing to the surface things that we’d hoped were buried forever.

Ever since I watched the movie, Still Alice, a wonderful film about a successful woman who has early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, I’ve been thinking about memories a lot lately. It would be excruciating to have to go through that, knowing that little by little, memories would fade, everything from the names of your children to where the bathroom is in the house. It’s a terrifying prospect and I do everything I can in hopes that I don’t ever get to that point. (Did you know that there are studies that show red wine can help prevent dementia? I’m on it.)

A few nights ago, a dream made me recall one of my favorite childhood memories. To explain it, I have to back up a little. A few years before I was born, my paternal grandparents bought a rustic little cottage on Devil’s Lake in southeast Michigan. By the time I came along, there had been a proper bathroom added with a stand-up shower and hot water, but when we grandchildren were very small, we took our baths in the kitchen sink, splashing to our hearts’ content while our mothers read books or chatted at the kitchen table. The water on the floor would be cleaned up when we were through and counted as a decent mopping. We, of course, remember none of this, but the stories have been passed down to us over the years.

As babies, we had our cribs up on the second floor, a wide open space with only two, small, closed-off bedrooms, one for Grandma and Grandpa, the other for whatever couple might be staying there that night. When all of us grandkids were sleeping over at the same time, the grownups would simply push two mattresses together on the floor and we would all camp out, ending up like a bunch of puppies in the morning. The nights were stifling hot at first and we would all try to get the best spot in front of the fan, but sometime in the middle of the night, we would get cold and pull on all the covers that we had kicked off earlier. In one of the corners of the big, open, room was a single bed, off-limits when we were all there at the same time, in the spirit of fairness, but when I was there by myself with just Grandma, that little bed was mine, and, oh, how I loved it! (I’m sure my cousins thought it was theirs, too, when they were there alone, but for all intents and purposes in this story, I shall refer to it as MINE!)

The bed was right next to one of the windows in the front of the cottage (front means facing the water) and I would always sleep with the window open. The smells and sounds there were so different from my house in the suburbs. There were no drag racers going up and down the street on mini-bikes, just the gentle lapping of the water along the shore and an occasional boat taking a nighttime cruise. During the summer weekends, the lake was very busy, as it is now, and there were many more boats and people out at night, but when I went up with Grandma during the week, all was peaceful and quiet. The smell of the water, very pleasant, clung to everything and even today, no matter where I am, when I smell water, it puts me right back there.

I always slept like a rock and woke up very early at the lake. Fresh air and water have a way of doing that to a child. I would wriggle out of my blanket cocoon and squint out at the sun rising over the water. It always started out as smooth as glass, but when the little waves started to pick up with the wind or boat traffic, the sun made it look like there were millions of diamonds sparkling under the water. I treasured my time there and I didn’t want to waste one minute of it. My home life was scary and unpleasant, but I was always safe at the lake. I could sleep with no worries or fears. Grandma made each moment special. She didn’t think it was dumb to want to sit and read all day, or eat tons of Oreos, or anything at all.

When I would go up with Grandma, we’d usually be up for one or two nights by ourselves, then on Friday evenings, everybody else would come up. Grandpa, my mom, brothers, uncles, aunts, cousins, sometimes more, sometimes less. We’d catch up, beg to stay out and play in the water for as long as we could, then run around in the dark until our mothers forced us to come in and go to bed. Nowadays, there is cable TV, a DVD/VCR, and all sorts of electronic gadgets to keep our kids busy, but we only had a small black and white TV that didn’t get hardly any channels in, so it wasn’t worth watching anyway. The bathing suits were hung outside to dry for the next day and we were shooed upstairs to our mattresses so that the grownups could talk without our curious ears. Upstairs, we would whisper amongst ourselves, careful to watch for anyone coming to check on us, whereupon we would always pretend to be asleep. Eventually we would drop off for real, but would wake early the next morning to start all over again.

It was a magical place, then, a place where I belonged. Over the years, like everything in life, it has changed. The cottage has grown to accommodate all of us and all of our children. There was more space added and there are real bedrooms upstairs, but it’s still the same cottage I grew up in. It’s a beautiful place, and there is still a hint of magic in it for me when I visit, but I’m not there nearly as often as when I was that child. I still love to see the diamonds sparkling on the water, but I haven’t seen the sun rise there in many years. Life gets in the way, sometimes. We take paths which lead us to other things that take priority on the weekends: children, band, theatre, catching up on work, work itself, and it gets harder to connect with our past. It happens to nearly everyone in some way, shape, or form, and yet, we have the precious, beautiful memories of those places, people, and times when we felt whole. The lake is a memory that I hope I will always carry with me through the end of my days.

I invite you to share a favorite memory with me here. Recalling memories is one way we can hold onto them, or a gentle reminder to call that person we haven’t thought of in a long time. What will you remember today?

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Dear Child (Any particular one),

There are things that I’m thinking about when I look at you and you say, “What?”. Here’s some insight as to what may be running through my mind. You see, memories from when you were very new stay with me, and I love to go back and revisit the flashes of you that I still see today.

Things like:

– Taking a pregnancy test to prove your father wrong, happily finding out that it was me who was wrong.

– Going to the doctor because I thought I broke a rib riding horseback, only to find out I would be a mama.

– Taking a pregnancy test because The Wizard of Oz made me sob.

– The secret, flutterby, kicks that made me smile.

-The never-ending waiting for you to be born. Christmas doesn’t hold a candle to a due date.

– Tiny. So, so, very tiny.

– Baby sighs and phantom smiles in your sleep.

– Those baby giggles when I pretended to sneeze.

– The absolute contentment when you would fall asleep on my chest, warm and cozy.

– Baby feet.

– The smell of your baby skin. Intoxicating.

– The way you wanted only me, reaching your chubby little arms out, saying, “Mama!”

– The protective instinct. I could quite easily kill anyone who hurt you, even now.

– Picking you up from preschool. You were so happy to see me, unashamed to hug me as tight as you could and tell me all about your day.

– The first time another kid rejected you. I never wanted to hit a 7-year-old before. (Just to clarify, I would never hit a 7-year-old.)

– The joy of your joy, whether it was a bug friend, a song you sang to me, or a baby lamb, the sight of you deliriously happy was my whole world.

-You sleeping in a fuzzy blanket, dark lashes on pale cheeks.

-The three of you on the couch arms and legs entwined like a pile of puppies while watching tv.

– The ache of watching you become more independent, knowing that every accomplishment takes you a small step away from me, but knowing that it is meant to be.

So when you catch me staring at you, with a funny look on my face, chances are something like these thoughts are racing through my brain. It’s because I love you. I love who you are, I love who you were, and I love who you are becoming.

Mama

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