Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Sprinkle of Memories shot with Gold

When my daughter phoned the other night I was at the computer putting down some thoughts regarding her grandpa.

We were ten days away from the second anniversary of his passing. In the last few days I had been made aware of something. Memory, as if it had its own eye on the calendar, was retrieving recollections of dad for me.

Perhaps the recollections were surfacing because of the discovery of the salt and pepper shaker set.

A year and a half into our new home and there remain a few boxes not fully emptied. Last week I was looking for a set of plates that hung on a wall in our former home.

They didn’t fit with the new place when we began filling the space. Treasured objects can look oddly out of character in a new environment.

At the time I wasn’t sure what to do with the plates. They were reboxed and then forgotten. When a spot opened for them to be displayed they suddenly were valuable again. I went in search of them.

Thankfully the plates were in the first box pulled out of storage. When we packed for our move we strived for efficiency. Boxes were marked with their contents. Along the way, however, as items got jumbled in, not everything got marked down.

You close your eyes to the confusion you’re almost surely creating for yourself. If one end of the move is to be easier than the other, you settle the matter by saying, it might as well be the portion of the move you’re currently involved in.

The box located and plates lifted out, my curiosity was piqued by the other items inside. All were swaddled in newspaper. I began unwrapping the pieces one by one wondering what each would be.

The salt and pepper shaker set, with Hawaii stamped on the pedestal, stayed cradled in my hand. Dad’s presence felt very close.

Dad brought the shakers back from Hawaii years ago. We were in our first home then, which helps me estimate the date.

My mom didn’t go on this vacation with him. It strikes me that one of the grandchildren may have been about to be born. Grandmas don’t have a desire to go junketing when there’s an imminent grandchild to welcome into the world.

Whatever the reason, dad went by himself. It had to be winter. I can see him with a twinkle in his eye at the audacity of his plan come to fruitful achievement.

The Minnesota cold was traded for the Hawaiian paradise. Dad visited the USS Arizona Memorial and must have done other things, none of which I remember he went into much telling about.

All I know is he came home tan and happy with a desire to visit Hawaii again. Perhaps as soon as the next year – at Easter I recall – he and mom went to Hawaii together. They had a great time.

They never went back to Hawaii, or anywhere as far, again. But this one really big vacation of their marriage stands out as exceedingly satisfying. The family was happy for them. We actually were rather amazed at the jet set patina our parents now possessed.

I reflected on all this as the salt and pepper set rested in my hand. Dad brought it for me on their next visit. I was touched. He had given thought to the rest of us while he was having the time of his life far away from family or responsibility or any binding ties.

“Here’s something for you from my trip,” he said. It’s the only gift I recall my dad buying for me. There might have been something else – but nothing comes to mind.

When Al and I and the kids visited home dad liked to take us out for coffee or to McDonalds or Burger King or for a noon meal out. He liked to treat. He was a generous host at a restaurant.

But he wasn’t one, ever, to whip out his wallet and pass over a crisp bill and say “Here, go shopping.” He wasn’t the shopper at Christmas or any other time, which in those days may have been considered quite normal. Many family things were for the women to take care of.

Gift giving isn’t how he operated. I don’t think he ever quite perceived the value in gifts. This pertained to the receiving end as well as in the giving.

So the salt and pepper shaker set was huge. That he shopped, selected and carried back on the plane a souvenir from Hawaii as a gift for a daughter meant a lot.

Gently I finished unwrapping the other pieces in the set and brought them all upstairs. Suddenly, along with the plates, I knew where the salt and pepper shakers would go.

In the way one idea feeds another, a second memory of dad came to me. This occurred after Saturday’s snowfall, which laid down nearly a foot of snow.

The weather turned damp and dreary. I looked for some bright color to put myself into. Color is my answer every time gray skies go on.

I tend to wear a fair amount of black. More black than I need to wear Al will say. But I like the versatility of black. Black can make you feel pulled together and professional which is therefore a marvelous color to have in your closet.

Many of us like to dress casually but still hope for some sort of fashion impact which wearing black can help give.

While there’s contention that my wardrobe is heavy on black my take is that my hangers teem with color. Sporting an array of hues my tees and sweaters aren’t exactly the neutrals which stylists recommend.

I must have been in my thirties when I realized dad had an appreciation for color worn on a person. He commented on the color of a top I had on, singling out the shade as cheerful.

It was uncharacteristic of dad to compliment us on what we wore. He disapproved when something looked sloppy and would tell the boys so as they were growing up.

He didn’t like us going barefoot in the house. He thought winter’s cold floors weren’t good for bare feet but, as importantly, bare feet were uncouth. I can’t remember now if that was his term or just the effect his disapproval gave it.

But there was little commentary for the way my sister and I dressed. He either gave it no thought or marked it as mom’s province.

Dad’s compliment on the bright-colored top sank in. Dad, like me, was lifted by color. I probably knew that in a broader sense. We all knew, for example, that he was partial to yellow (as I am).

But a daughter has other thoughts to pursue. It’s not till much later that you see a parent for what they continue to show of themselves, that you didn’t notice so long ago.

Dad commented about some of my gold jewelry too. When I say gold jewelry these are the moderate priced lines found at Kohls or Target. Both stores had opened nearby and suddenly we had amazing shopping right at home.

It was so much fun looking at and being able to afford pieces that spiffed up outfits. I was in a jewelry stage for a long while.

At a Fargo department store, in those same years, I bought a black knit cardigan. I thought it looked very classy with embossed gold buttons.

Eventually I tired of the gold buttons. The sweater probably looked dated after the gold button trend went out.

I decided it was either replace the buttons or get rid of the sweater. I was discussing this with mom on one of our visits home.

She had a button jar with every kind, color and shape of button. I was just able enough to sew on buttons. If mom had the buttons (or even if they had to be bought) I could handle the job.

“I like the sweater,” dad said from his place at the dining room table. “Why would you want to take the buttons off? They make it look nice.” That he was listening in on the conversation surprised me.

Dad had a penchant for things military. I think he saw the gold buttons as making the sweater look sharp and precise which was part of his fascination, I believe, with things military.

In respect to his opinion I left the sweater as it was. It became my knock-around sweater. It’s a stay-in cardigan, worn so much it’s not quite suitable for any place but home.

It comes along on cool evenings to the lake or is grabbed for a wrap when going out into the yard.

The warmth of the cardigan settles on me like a smile. It’s my go-anywhere black sweater even if that going-anywhere is limited by its appearance.

Even dressed down as the sweater gets to be, the gold buttons dress it up. Dad would have approved.

Ro Giencke - 2010

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Outside the Box

It’s Veteran’s Day. It’s a beautiful day. It’s all blue and gold as November isn’t generally reckoned to be around here.

I remember a lot of gray, chilly, wet November 11 dates. That’s why our mellow scene feels like an import from elsewhere.

We’ll take today with hands outstretched, as we’ve been gladly extending our hands to the windfall which has been this standout fall.

I’ve given my thoughts today to those who have served. This includes family members drafted out of family life or nascent careers or enlisting at a time of war.

One cannot sufficiently thank them for their service, which is the ultimate giving when you may be put in harm’s way that others may be safe.

Freedom is not to be taken lightly. Never should it be. Those who defend and protect rights that ensure freedom can never be fully repaid by one day of honor. A day like today focuses awareness and that’s always a good place to start.

As a result of it being a Federal holiday there is no mail delivery. Only once or twice in the past have we put out mail forgetting it’s a holiday. Take it from me. You feel sheepish when you have to go out and retrieve your piece of mail when everybody else has it figured out.

Today only one flag was up on the mailboxes. It says most of us are paying attention. Every year on the 11th of the eleventh month we honor our military men and women.

The mail put out in that one mailbox, with the red flag jauntily expecting someone to stop, will probably be trotted inside this evening. It’s someone else’s turn to realize there’ll be no pickup today.

Fortunately arriving yesterday, a day with regular mail delivery, was a card from a friend. She and Al were school classmates. They’re also cousins. Marrying him I acquired her as a friend. By now we go back a long way.

Cleaning out an old desk destined for her niece she came across many interesting items she noted.

Two enclosures inside her card were testimony to the fact. Unfolding the sheets of paper revealed them as letters I wrote to her years ago.

The letters were dated fifteen years apart and were among the findings in her desk drawer. “I thought you might get a smile out of taking a step back in time,” wrote our friend.

The youthful tone of that ancient correspondence allowed me to feel again the grasp of pen in hand as I put order to thoughts tumbling and cartwheeling around me. How exciting life is at twenty-six.

The first letter had news of Al’s promotion, a change of location and purchase of our first home. We were all of 3½ years married.

The second letter, spanning the births of the children and two subsequent career moves, is more general in content.

This time I summarize the busy present. You get an impression of an active family, kids each heading to a different school, Al picking up golf after some downtime and me as central coordinator keeping everything straight. Reading the letters was like hitting Replay on the memory reel.

The letters, in dark blue ink that still shows clearly, make me think. They could be held up as examples of a form of correspondence that has fallen by the wayside.

Letters were a customary means of staying in touch before the advent of internet and cell phones and all the technology that followed. It sounds quaint doesn’t it.

Opening my friend’s letter yesterday contrasts with the quiet at the mailboxes today. It’s not hard to imagine a time when mailboxes disappear from the curbs. Mail delivery won’t be absent for a day but abandoned altogether in lieu of something altogether new.

A quick email let my friend hear of the fun of the envelope and the enclosures. Speedy alternatives to letters (and I’m not even getting to tweet, twitter and texting) would make it appear there’s little need for snail mail, as U.S. mail is referred to by some, either affectionately or in dismay.

It’s my hope that stamped mail, expedited through the nation’s postal system, will continue to define how we stay in touch. I say this against the odds.

I want to believe handwritten correspondence can help guarantee survival of the chivalry of words, threatened by the misspellings and jumbled syntax which have begotten a new language.

Letter writing – the systematic transfer of thoughts to a sheet of paper folded, inserted into an envelope and mailed – is art like any other practiced, perfected undertaking.

Most of us who launch letters into the stream of 21st century living carry out this art form at some lower but nevertheless perfectly adequate level of execution.

Our letters don’t require fancy phrases or the quick apt bon mot. We don’t have to be clever or funny. We only have to be ourselves.

We write about what we see, feel and know. We compose from the reality of the moment. We opine our concerns. We expose our dreams. We shape experience into sharing.

Stamping, addressing and walking the envelope to post it adds the final fillip of delivering a part of ourselves along with the message.

Receiving back my letters struck me as amazingly coincidental. I had just been at the sending end of the same process.

Helping mom houseclean recently I found a bag tagged “Saved Letters.” My name was on it. I could tell it was mom’s handwriting.

I assumed the bag contained some of my weekly letters to the folks. When I opened the bag the handwriting on the envelopes was all different. It wasn’t mine.

The preserved correspondence represented a batch of letters written over a 15-year period. They were from a friend of mine.

An avid biker and traveler, this friend happens also to be a very good writer and one who likes both to send and receive mail.

Each letter was a travelog. It was full of places visited and folks met along the way. You were made to feel you met these people too.

I asked at the time if the letters could be passed on to mom. They were too interesting not to have further readership. Mom would similarly enjoy the bike jaunts, road trip commentary and postcards mailed from Mississippi River and Caribbean cruises.

Coming upon these letters now was sheer joy. I read through them again. I sorted the letters by year and gifted the collection back to my friend.

With grandkids arriving since that time, to now save the letters for, and other family members who would see the history inherent in a parent’s journey, these letters are part of a life story intact. They give my friend the opportunity to delight and inform others well after the bike time is over.

Our friend, signing her name on yesterday’s received note, ruefully ponders the foreign object clasped in her hand. We chuckled, knowing the feeling.

It’s true. None of us are familiar with a pen anymore. It’s unwieldy as we bend fingers around it. Unclenching our fists we set it down.

If the pen is unwieldy the writing paper is nearly impossible. For one thing it’s hard to find. I’ve shopped far and wide looking for simple writing paper.

“To think!” I say. At one time pen and a lined tablet or expensive stationery went together like salt and pepper. They were as mutually paired, and as on hand in the home, as the salt and pepper shakers beside the stove in the kitchen.

My theory is that we should still keep our pen nearby. Regularly write to someone. Always start the letter with the date at the top. Write our signature boldly at the bottom.

These rare and random mailings will prove that something put to paper eventually becomes more significant than something unrecorded.

Our letters and postcards, sent from Texas or Buenos Aires or the small town in the far corner of the state, don’t always go out in the next day’s trash. Some will find their way into someone’s desk or dresser drawer.

There they’ll lie, in either remembered or forgotten state, for perhaps years.Then one day they’ll be discovered. And perhaps be returned.

If they are, be assured. They come with a smile in store for you.

Ro Giencke - 2010