Mindfulness. The Sanskrit word for it is sm'Rti, which could be translated as "that which is remembered" or variously as "reminiscence", "remembrance" or "calling to mind". Of course it refers to the practice of meditation, but can also just mean calling to mind one's inner dialogue without judgement.
In my memory cathedral, things coalesce in small images first. The kitten with marmalade fur named Butterball that we had when I was 3. The flooded basement complete with flotsam. My mother making "snow ice cream"; the long hill outside the front door of our house; the blackberry and raspberry bushes in the woods behind us. Getting my straw hat caught in said bushes while diving for the juicy berries on the lower branches and screaming hysterically for help in freeing myself (My grown-up self says...silly...just take off your hat!) Falling off the wooden (!) swing at the playground and having it whap me in the mouth...my older, heroic brother carrying me home, bloodying his t-shirt... I earned a trophy from that one...a tiny greyish nerve-dead tooth, which I thought was great because it made me look like my dad...who, in the years prior to rampant cosmetic dentistry and before he lost all his teeth and got dentures...had a similar tooth in the same place.
What is it that decides what we will remember, and what we cannot call to mind?
Last night I found myself thinking of libraries. The favorite haunts of my youth, and still my companions of choice in pursuit of entertainment, wisdom, and constant human company. Books are friendly when friends are scarce or thoughts are too burdensome to share with others.
It is the first thing I have always done when moving to a community...get a library card. I have a collection, and could give you a tour of each venue they admitted me to.
The library in my home town was just being remodeled when we moved there. I was 5. The old, pillared edifice had given way to a sleek 1968 vision of elegance. Low lying. unobtrusive. symmetrical. One side of the civic center was the cop shop, the other the public library. A long slanted black tarmac-like ramp led up to the door. A concession to the new social awareness that ease must be made for disability. My little legs loved a ramp, so much more easy than steps for tiny pins.
Entering a large vestibule, the doors at left led to library offices, but on the right was a lovely little museum with artifacts from the town's past. A large carriage; period clothing and housewares; kids toys; tools and farm stuff. I liked the little place. It said that people cared to remember in that place, and I know it gave me a curiosity and lasting yearning to know more about things past.
Going on, full face glass doors opened into the adult library. To the right, a very tall counter with the circulations librarians seated at wonderful 1960's office desks. They'd get up and take the lined cards out of the book pocket, ask for your card and insert it into one slot of a puzzling contraption, sliding the book cards into another until a loud ka-chink-a was heard, and there...magically punched onto your little book card was the due date of the book. I loved that sound. I can still summon it into my brain today. It was just short of joy.
Moving to the left, and then a right turn, into the children's library. Nirvana. The smell of books is sheer ecstasy even today. Directly ahead a short flight of 3 cushily carpeted steps and the non-fiction section. Here I could be transported to Jupiter or read biographies; investigate Ancient Egypt or learn the succession of Tudor royalty. I loved the biography section. I read about Helen Keller, Clara Barton, Juliet Lowe (founder of the Girl Scouts) and Sacagawea and the benighted wives of Henry VIII...edited for young minds of course! My curiosity led me quickly enough to the adult side of the library, and by the age of 7 or 8, I was browsing there regularly, and checking grown-up books out with my mother's indulgent permission. I love her for that. She never so much as raised an eyelid about my choices, and sometimes conversed with me about them. Even when I checked out the "growing up" books at the age of 7, when an equally precocious fellow 2nd grader managed to make me feel dumb when she said that the birds on display in our school hallway display case "had their breeding colors" on. Learning is grand, isn't it?
Ah...but off to the left in the children's library...I discovered sorcery of a higher order. Novels of every warp and weft. Funny ones, like Amelia Quackenbush about a 12 year old, bumbling and shy newcomer who gets roped into shoplifting; or Mrs Piggle Wiggle, about a widow who was left with a magic chest full of cures by her deceased pirate husband. The cures are for childhood micreants who are prone to gossip, laziness, impudence and other mischief. She is a gentle, funny, magic woman.
Even more glorious were the wonders of imaginative writing that came out of the pens of such authors as Madeleine L'Engle and Zilpha Keatley Snyder, both multiple Newberry winning authors. L'Engle, of course, wrote the extremely original and brilliant Chronos/Time Quartet, beginning with A Wrinkle in Time. Snyder is perhaps not as well known, but equally entrancing and imaginative. Her books have often been banned from school and public libraries because of themes including witchcraft and sorcery. Her book The Changeling is one of the more haunting pieces of children's fiction around. It is about the friendship between a solid, shy, middle-class girl, Martha, and her "exotic" friend, Ivy, who lives in a run-down house on the wrong side of town and belongs to a family of ne'er do wells blamed for every calamity in town. Ivy, however, insists that she is a changeling...a faerie child left in place of the human Ivy.
This book affected me so utterly. You see, I WAS a changeling. I always felt that I had so little in common with my siblings. This story appealed to the alienated bookworm, yearning to be a dancer like Ivy. Lost in a seeming sea of siblings, my mother's attention could be scarce. Parenting in those days seems so different from the self-conscious, studied endeavor it is today. In a family of 6 kids, all of our basic needs were met, but my meat-packer father and overworked mother had little time and energy left for what today is called "nurturing". The soft tenderness of mothering was not my mother's forte. All sharp angles and tall drawl, my hillbilly mother was out of her element in Colorado. She took a chance on a Latin man, when those in her hillbilly hamlet were using the "N" word in every day speech and my dad was just a lighter shade of Black. She was whip smart and caffeine driven and always on overdrive in the wit department. In short...she was wasted on motherhood.
She gave me books and literary leanings and a sharp curiosity and an eager pen. She gave me vision and impatience and hard-angled intuition and the ability to see a liar before he's seen himself. She gave me libraries and freedom to devour their contents and a desire to die wise. She found a way, and convinced my dad, to buy a set of Britannica Encyclopedias for our house. I adored them and pored over them at every turn. She gave me the sound of Arkansas hills in her voice and her laugh. Every time I hear an Arkansasawyer it makes my heart swell.
Do you remember the episode on the Twilight Zone, with Burgess Meredith as the presbyopic bibliophile who never had time enough to read? A banker, he hid in the vault and survived that most Cold War of demons the H-bomb blast...rejoicing that finally...he has Time Enough At Last? I knew his pain. I never wanted to leave my books...not even for food, since I was a very picky eater. I didn't eat: peanut butter; pizza or pickles...three things that almost every kid loves. I didn't like vegetables, and it didn't help that my mom was not a really inspired cook. Her fried chicken...now that was a work of art...but vegetables in my house usually came out of a can, and were just short of disintegrating they were so overcooked.
She knew HOW to cook 'em fresh...and sometimes I liked to help her shell peas even if I didn't want to eat them...but usually the reality of 6 kids and a husband meant quickly prepared catch-all dishes using hamburger and gloppy greens...even mixing them together for goulash. For a time, the striking Unions were the author of our bean and potato feasts, since my dad wasn't making moolah for some months. Frijoles y papas fritas, y'all! Boy, did we eat some refried beans and potatoes! They, of course were cooked with tasty lard...one of the major food groups of both Norteño Mexican and Southern cooking. I like to say that the three major food groups for most of my youth had nothing to do with the USDA food pyramid...they were bean, potatoes and lard. My dad said I lived on jelly sandwiches and Quik chocolate milk...an assessment not far off the truth!
I was a gagger...I just could NOT stomach such things as greens. We had pitched battles over my nemesis...green beans. I just gagged and gagged. I got spanked a bit for my pickiness...but usually she would sigh and give in to me...feeding me a steady diet of plain ground beef (NO ONIONS PLEASE) and corn; chocolate milk and jelly sandwiches. Or a grilled cheese sandwich, thank you. It's a wonder I lived. She'd be so shocked that I discovered "stir-fry" and came to love vegetables. Even the dreaded green beans! The French style ones particularly...haricots vert. Gorgeous and tasting of summer. I had an epiphany in Dresden over a plate of snow peas in a restaurant called Gansedieb..."The Goose Thief". Saxon peas must be another word for manna. My Mama would not believe that the finest food I found in Germany were peas.
She was tall..for a woman in our family...5'7"...and had spectacular legs. She wore glasses, like me...the ones in her photos are fashionably cat-eyed. It's one of the things I love about Mad Men. The memories of girdles, pointed bras and slips and skirts bring back my mother's attire. She was whip thin, thanks in part to her constant Tareyton habit (charcoal filters anyone?) and partly due to the coffee and fast pace she indulged in. She was not beautiful, but she was lively. She had a big roundish nose and uneven skin due to childhood acne. Her eyes were a clear, beautiful blue...and three of my siblings got those eyes. Mine are neither hers nor my Dad's (whose were grey)...but a startling hazel. But my nose is hers and the cheekbones a Chicasaw grandma gave us are there too. I have her myopia as well..the only 4-eyes among her children...my brothers and sisters tormented me over that, sometimes hiding my glasses, or more cleverly and deviously, smearing them with anything from chocolate to raw hamburger just to annoy me.
It seizes my soul and demands my attention, the loss of her...like yesterday, this room in the memory cathedral is visited often and always searched deeply and experienced in the round.
The heat of summer at altitude is as bracing as winter. We spent our Julys in the local pool. Strange to think that she'd actually leave us there as soon as it opened, and return some 4-5 hours later to pick us up, while she volunteered at a summer job. She was an educational activist, and had begun, that year to work as a "Parent-Teacher" coordinator in the school district. Her job was mostly to communicate to the many poor and migrant families around our town, the importance of Head Start, the federal program for pre-schoolers...where kids got education, medical and dental attention and meals. That summer, she was a chaperone for groups of kids bussed in from the outlying migrant communities to the large public pool on the south end of our town, where they were taugh to swim. She had just learned herself in the past few years...along with us. I remember watching her "grown-up" class learning how to dive off the "high dive" as we kids were being taught in the shallow end.
Apparently, she was swimming laps. She swam across the pool, emerged, and dropped to the ground. Her co-worker, Mike and the lifeguard, probably a teenager, were there in a heartbeat, with CPR and 911 called. But she didn't respond. She was rushed to the hospital and they tried reviving her there. For quite a long time, I hear. But she didn't respond. I wonder what story the migrant niños went home with that day. I was splashing in the pool near our northside home, oblivious.
My aunt picked us up at the pool, telling us our dad had gone to the hospital, where my mother was taken after an "accident". He came home, within minutes of our arrival, and gathered us, still in our swimsuits, in the living room. I sat on the floor, leaning on a big, nubby brownish upholstered chair. He sat, and rubbed the sides of the chair anxiously...searching for words. He was 31. He said, "I need to tell you all something. You kids don't have a Mama no more. She died today in the hospital." I went numb at his words, a stone in my gullet, vertigo presiding. I hear that over and over in the memory cathedral..."You kids don't have a Mama no more"...
She was 37 years old. A week shy of her 38th birthday. I've outlived her now by a piece, and not a day goes by that I don't think of her. Her death was the single most shocking incident of my life. And all the days that followed are like ripples from that stone. I was 10 years old. For the rest of that summer I lived in the library, that cool dwelling place of constant friends and immortality.
And they re-named my elementary school after my mother the next year.
Nobody sings heartache like Gillian Welch. My Mama would approve as her "primitive sound" hearkens to the high lonesome, even if she's originally from Manhattan!