Artifacts

I’m at an odd intersection. The familiar objects from my childhood look like history to the rest of the world.

In the Before times when I casually shopped, I’d spot artifacts from my childhood at antique stores. Huh?!? Toys like Barbies and transistor radios, kitchen items like Pyrex bowl sets and milk glass spice jars, decorations like ashtrays and the glass swan currently on my buffet are . . . old enough to be collectible. Antiques. 

More startling was the realization that the purpose of those childhood objects will soon be obscure. Who fills decorative jars with spices anymore? When I was growing up, most homes had several ashtrays. Now they’re rare. 

I value antiques from my grandmothers like Depression glass decanters, silver trays, cut glass salt cellars, aprons, and dresser scarves (what I prefer to think of as ‘true’ antiques). Their quaintness and the memories they call up appeal to me, but I rarely use them because they are so high maintenance. If I want younger family members to appreciate those antiques, I’d have to explain their purpose and tell stories about people they’ve never met. 

Bringing the objects and the people who used them to life is hard, but here goes.

Last week I made a pecan pie from scratch using my grandmother’s old wooden rolling pin. Although I never made pie with her, she was the one who liked to bake, so I feel that connection when I use it. I floured an old embroidered linen towel and rolled out the crust on it, which brought to mind one of my grandmother Mimmie’s housekeeping tips.

She was from an era when women were expected to embroider towels, pillowcases, and dresser scarves (pretty cloths that covered up a lot of a dresser top to protect the wood—a lot of energy went into protecting furniture in her day). She or one of her sisters embroidered the towel which also had to be starched and ironed so it would look nice while hanging in the kitchen. 

As a girl, I wondered how I was supposed to use such a fancy towel. Mimmie showed me her secret: dry your hands on the part that doesn’t show—the part that hangs closest to the wall on the towel rack. That way the pretty ironed front would stay nice for a few days. No surprise that I use terrycloth towels in my kitchen!

Beyond the ‘antiques’ in my life is the realization that my lived experiences are also the stuff of history, but that’s a story for a different day! 

What’s the oldest thing in your house? Does anyone besides you know what to do with it or why it matters?

Keeping Track

I come from people who keep track of everything: groceries to get, bills to pay, upcoming events, the day’s experiences, and past events.

As a young woman, my mom kept a diary that noted what mattered in her days: starting a novena and that a guy she was dating was kind of full of himself (they were happily married for 67 years anyhow). WE’RE AT WAR! she wrote in December 1941. Later in life, she recorded the weather daily on small pads of paper she kept next to the sofa. At her funeral, my cousins told me my uncle (her brother) had also kept meticulous notes—some about his garden, others about the weather. We marveled at the shared habit.

When my mother-in-law recently moved, at least 20 years’ worth of journals turned up. I was aware of her habit because she often asked how to spell something we’d served for dinner. Cioppino or ratatouille. She enjoyed keeping notes about what we ate and did during visits.

I’ve gotten an extra measure of documenting genes. Off and on since high school, I’ve kept personal journals in which I work out confusing feelings. I also make entries in a gratitude journal to remind myself of what’s good and right in my world despite the pandemic and trying political times. I document garden plans—what’s planted where and ideas for next year’s garden. I have lists of books I want to read along with books I’ve already read and what I thought of them. When dieting, I keep track of my exercise and meals.

I’m not alone in those habits, but for me, it doesn’t stop there. I have a ridiculous number of notes in my phone app. Supposedly 194 of them, but that can’t be right! Poems I like, blog ideas, writing tips, ideas for pottery projects, a list of lawn chemicals that won’t harm birds and pollinators, the steps for starting the snow blower. The notes go on and on!

My reasons can be practical. I want to remember something or find it quickly, and my phone is always with me. I tell myself I’m being efficient and orderly . . . but maybe ‘obsessive’ would be more accurate! Other times, keeping track is an emotional impulse. My personal and gratitude journals help me maintain equilibrium.

The habit of keeping track intrigues me. I think there’s something universal, something beyond the practicality of grocery lists, receipts, and calendars. The same impulse that leads people to document their lives on Instagram or Facebook, keeps me writing extensive notes and ongoing journals. It’s what caused my relatives to make daily diary entries.

As far as I know, my mom didn’t consult her weather notes after the fact. My uncle might have looked up which kind of tomatoes did well. I don’t know if my mother-in-law refers to her notes to remind herself of a previous year’s Christmas dinner. I suspect she doesn’t.

I believe the impulse to keep track is a way of saying, “I was here. My life matters. To me.”

What do you keep track of?

The Family Tree

The Bayside Tavern in Fish Creek, Wisconsin has two buck burgers on Mondays during the off season. There’s a choice in seating– high tops, low tables, tiny booths for two, or stools at the bar. Narrow windows keep the inside dim. It is the place to go before the community Christmas tree is lit across the street, before the high school musical, to watch the Packers or Badgers or Brewers play. Maybe the Bears or Cubs for those brave enough to wear such jerseys. If you are a local, or a seasonal local, they probably know your name.

My Dad preferred a booth and ordered fried onions on his burger. He had haunts in Door County including the best places for good food. He knew the parents of people important in the community—the Catholic priest, the sheriff, a few bar owners.

So it was at the Bayside that my cousin Jeff Frisque and I met for lunch, the first time we had ever talked to one another except at family funerals. We connected through Facebook where many of the cousins have friended each other. Taking a risk, Jeff and I moved from responding to postings to trying a direct message.  Jeff’s father and one aunt are the last living siblings.

In my book, The High Cost of Flowers, the eldest sibling comes to the realization that to have the kind of extended family you want can require effort. And as the elders age, the responsibility passes to the children to do something, or to walk away. My husband and I are the elders of our families. That sounds easier to me than embracing the concept of adult orphans. We value the small circles of those connected to us by birth or marriage. Along with those we love, we have developed new traditions to stay close.

The Bayside Tavern might become a comfortable setting for weaving together the grandchildren of Michael Frisque. In his prime he spent many hours in bars, but I don’t know if he ever sat at this one. I didn’t know my grandfather well enough to say how he felt about his children and grandchildren. None of that was important in sharing lunch with my cousin Jeff.

Jeff is known locally for building and restoring exquisite log homes. We share love for Door County. We both showed up with spouses, a sign of how we value our families and would go to great extremes to protect them. We are not members of the same political parties although we may share a few beliefs. I think we are both tender-hearted about the right stuff. We both love or admire each other’s fathers. We walked away with each other’s email addresses and telephone numbers.

We also both like burgers at the Bayside. Mark that on the family tree.

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Shake the Marbles

As a kid I coveted my brother’s denim bag filled with marbles. The cool surfaces of the aggies, cat eyes, tigers and shooters. The odd tactile sensation of a steely or clay. I wasn’t supposed to touch the bag, but when he was at baseball I poured those tiny balls on the carpet and sorted the wealth into groups.

Like my brother the bag of wonders is gone. Toys were divided by gender in those days so I doubt if anyone thought a girl might cart pounds of glass, metal and clay into her future. The remnants of his childhood that I still carry are a Boy Scout canteen, a varsity track hooded sweatshirt, and books.

My husband recently had a nasty biking accident. Comments about shaking his marbles loose or losing his marbles brought back memories of that blue denim bag with its grimy string. As each specialist completed their exam and shared results the bag refilled, the bits of information building a report that suggested he would need time to heal, but would be okay.

When this crisis is closed I’m going to sew myself a bag, leave it outside to fade and get dirty while I search antique stores for marbles to commemorate all that has been good in our lives. Some day when we’re downsizing, and our kids think I’m being weird, I’m going to carry that bag to a new place. Now and then I’ll look at each marble chosen in honor of the memories of the family of my birth and the family my husband and I made. dqxAg4RVSx64bVUg0%6uLg

Lessons Learned on a Sick Day

She was up barfing at four. When I arrived hours later, she had pink cheeks, a kitty ears headband, and was play-ready. She assured me it wasn’t really being sick to barf, but pre-school wanted her to stay home. She was sad Mom wasn’t staying home, sad to miss her friends, but game for whatever Grandma brought to the day.

Lemon-lime soda was no longer needed. Water was fine. Munching many plain saltines and a cup of dry cereal made up for a missed breakfast. Within minutes we were on the sofa deep in a Brain Quest card deck working through sequencing challenges, adding, matching letters and words, talking about calendars and telling time on old-fashioned round clocks.

Those clocks sparked the first pronouncement of preschool wisdom. She thought I must have had a clock with numbers in a circle because I am old. I corrected that statement to older. She didn’t buy the change. A teenager had given me the same look when I asked if the general store in a small town carried watches.

With interest in Brain Quest waning, I suggested we start an art project. She turned down the idea because she said she loved to learn things. There wasn’t anything better she could have said if she hadn’t finished with a sympathetic sigh before sharing that it was sad that old people couldn’t learn stuff. That’s not true I replied and told her about a friend who learned another language to work with immigrants, another friend attending university classes, my own tap-dancing studies. She frowned and said maybe I had special friends. That I do.

Even at her age I couldn’t do backward summersaults, so she had me at that, but I didn’t expect to frighten her when I got down on the floor to do a plank next to her. Old people could get hurt doing planks she said. I replied anybody could get hurt doing planks, but we were both strong because we could hold a plank for almost a minute. Then I sat back to watch her attempt head stands and intricate twirls.

We rounded out the day with dressing the cat, coloring paper dolls, and baking a chocolate cake. She looked tired, but happy. Her mother looked tired after an important work day. And grandma drove home, happily tired out after an unexpected play day.

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