Monday, July 4, 2011

The Rustling Leaves of Memory

Just stopping by and clearing away some of the cobwebs that have filled this space in my prolonged absence. With other projects at the forefront of my daily work, I've been a very poor landlord and correspondent. But I've got a virtual broom and bucket, so here we go.

While I was spending time in my hometown in Minnesota I had a fair amount of time to think about the importance memory. Picture it as my bouncing a tennis ball against the old garage door...pondering, considering with each toss. And not just memory, but the ways, large and small, that we keep people and places (and the memories associated with them) close to us. 

Photos, letters, cards, recipes, traditions...each item can be a touchstone for keeping a memory or a person near to the heart. I think of the little mementos that I hold dear--small pieces of what most would consider to be "just stuff"--and how each small item launches an anecdote or memory that is integral to how I think of person. The recipe for my Grandma K's "no fail pie crust" (that I have yet to master) or seeing my Grandma A's singular handwriting on an old birthday card, or the tradition of lifting a glass to the memory of absent loved ones when a bottle of Champagne is uncorked. Each little piece of the memory puzzle is important and necessary...each seemingly minor key opens a part of the vault for us. 

I was privileged to spend a good number of days up at Mayowood--my second home in many ways--while I was in Minnesota. Between writing and leading the behind the scenes "Nooks and Crannies" tour and painting a few outdoor chairs, I had a fair amount of time to myself to just be in the house. As we worked on the tour script and added Mayo family tales and trivia (there are 732 pipes in the main Aeolian pipe organ, 183 in the echo chamber...), I was reminded how much it always meant to the tour guides--and to the visitors--to keep the Mayo family stories alive. When I used to give tours, way back in the day, I always enjoyed the personal stories about pieces of art or furniture and the reactions they elicited from guests. Each day the names of 4 or 5 generations of the Mayo family are mentioned on the tour. Though many are long gone, their accomplishments (as well as their quirks and idiosyncrasies) are kept present in that way. 

Similarly, I have many, many fond memories from a very young age about my Grandma A (some of which I've shared here in earlier posts) but I knew very little about she and my grandfather as a couple. She was often my babysitter when I was a child, and she was a riot. Often she'd regale me with her tales of her unbridled youth, she was utterly blessed with the Irish gift of gab. A bloomer wearing girl basketball player in the 1920s, she met my slick looking grandfather while at a girls versus boys basketball game. He was watching, SHE was playing. Because my grandparents divorced and my paternal grandfather was gone well before my arrival on the planet, I never really knew much about their early years, especially in comparison to how much I knew of my mom's parents. So I decided to interrogate my dad, get some of the details from him. The stories were great, as were the photos he shared with me. I'd never seen photographs of his parents when they were young people and in love. Seeing them as they were brought unexpected perspective and a feeling like I knew my grandfather a little, finally. There's a unique kind of comfort, knowing more about them, about their lives. 

My *gangsta* looking, dapper grandfather, Glenn, in Chicago. 
The Old Heidelberg Bar ladies bowling team, ca 1943-44.
My grandmother, Norma, (with the wild hair) is 2nd from the left in the top row.
There's something important about sharing the stories, too, about keeping the torch lit. Whether it is a beloved pet or a person, the stories matter. I know for a fact that when my dad would sit on the patio outside chatting with our second Golden Retriever, Remi-Roo, that he was telling Remi all the stories of our first Golden, Beaujolais. I have no doubt that Remi was well-versed in all the Beau stories. I'll say it again, the stories matter. 

And the sharing matters not just for us, but for others, as well. I had an incredible day of interviewing local senior citizens about an inn that is now long gone from my area here in Connecticut. I went into the day with modest expectations of what I'd learn, but I left feeling like I'd been able to share a little in return by taking them back 50 or 60 years with old photos, postcards, and menus that I'd collected. The expressions on the faces of the women who'd been waitresses or the woman who'd been married there were wonderful, as were the great stories they shared. The little bits of information--where the serving station was or the stories about Dewey the Bartender--were beyond what I could have hoped for and they brought the place to life for me in a whole new way. Share your stories. One of the great privileges of writing can be that you receive some incredible stories, stories for which you become responsible. Stories you are fortunate to be able to share. 

Wilde wrote that memory is the diary we all carry about with us, I like that thought. I like thinking that the people whose stories I know--the ones I love and miss--are maybe a little less gone because I'm lucky enough to carry a bit of their memory around with me.