How Did We Find Each Other?

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I’m still motoring through Agatha Christie’s back catalog, and the novel Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? has me impressed with how quickly its various characters are able to communicate by post or phone. It has me thinking that I too once lived in a world free of email or cell phones, and I don’t recall having much trouble making plans with friends or family if I wanted to emerge from my hermitage.

I can’t seem to remember how we arranged times or places with accuracy. I really can’t remember how we made things happen, how for instance we’d know to show up in front of the bookstore on a particular day and time. I don’t remember anyone failing to show up for such rendezvous. Late at times, yes, but absent, no.

This failure of memory seems absurd to me. It’s not like the first generation of car drivers forgot how to ride horses or how to read a train schedule. The part of my brain responsible for remembering how I made plans before I had a cell phone must be the same region that eventually forgets the particulars of a brand logo once a new one is adopted. This brand-forgetfulness has been a lifelong minor plague. When I was seven years old, my family passed through a small town that still had an older version of the K-Mart logo. The relief I felt at seeing the older logo was akin to dreaming of a friend I hadn’t seen in years (and said friend looking the same as when I last saw him or her). It’s the relief of knowing that your memory is longer and deeper than you suspect, even if your mental search engine doesn’t deliver an answer when you want it.

Now I feel like a cell phone is a shopping necessity. I could miss a call or text from home asking me to add something to my cart. Or, heaven forbid, I could “lose” my daughter or husband in the store. This is a part of life before cell phones that I do remember. My mom had a knack for disappearing in department stores. The larger the store, the greater the probability she’d slip away while I was thumbing through 45 rpm music singles or combing through a shirt display to find one in my size (which I could get only if it was on sale). I’d look up and Mom would be nowhere in sight. I’d spend the next half hour wandering the store and finding her only at the moment I’d given her up as lost for good. I’d spot her right before she slipped into some alternate retail reality where the pictures of mothers and not children are to be seen on milk cartons.

I’d have appreciated some way of knowing exactly where she was, but a cell phone would have diluted her mystique I suppose. Unless she went missing in a store, I had persistent knowledge of her whereabouts. I didn’t have to wonder if she was in the bathroom or the backyard or the planet Venus. I just knew. Perhaps such transparency was exhausting at times.

How did we let others know where we’d be and when we’d get there?

Old Family Photos

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A photo booth picture of my great grandfather Howard Augustus Cook

Last year I had the great privilege of borrowing my late great grandfather Cook’s photo collection, which I scanned. I’ve seen few pictures of my other three great grandfathers. When I opened the boxes of Great Grandpa Cook’s pictures, I was stunned at the volume of photos, and to a lesser extent, the fashion sense of some of my ancestors. He had many pictures of his siblings, too. I get the feeling that he and his five siblings cemented their bond over the years by sending portraits to each other, in addition to the usual family snapshots.

Some of these portraits reveal a great depth of feeling. My second great aunt Mabel looks to have been a master of relating the ongoing story of her life just by a look on her face. This one is a photo booth picture, which was the selfie machine of its time I suppose:

Mabel Cook

Great Grandpa Cook worked as a pastry baker at a local hotel for 20+ years, where he was known as the “Pie Foreman” in local newspaper ads:

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He developed baker’s lung mid-career and switched to an occupation with more retirement security, school custodian. There were lots of school pictures of his custodian days in the box of photos, such as these two, which I find deeply amusing:

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Yesterday I assembled my favorites and made a slideshow video of them. I highly recommend making this kind of video to anyone who has lots of photos of their ancestors. I used Windows Movie Maker, a super basic video editor. All I had to do was drag and drop the pictures into the program and choose a transition preset. I uploaded my video to Facebook and YouTube and was delighted to see these pictures play on my living room TV.

Light on Water

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The light bouncing from the reservoir was so bright it laid bare the floaters in my eyes. This capture reminds me of getting a Bontempi organ for Christmas when I was child with a failed Dorothy Hamill haircut. On that organ, I picked out the melody to the alien signal from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It was rare escape from my usual tone deafness.

Sniff

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Close-up of my late cat Fian. He’s been gone for five years now, and I still mention him at least once every day. It’d be my luck that the first cat I had accepted me only begrudgingly until he became an old man. He’d be more likely to greet me with a hiss than a meow, but I loved him, anyway.

I’m fixing a hole where the rain comes in and stops my mind from wandering where it will go . . .

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At any place and time on the x,y,z coordinates of my life, I have made disorganized piles of mail, books, receipts, and the like. Five years ago, there was a week when I had winnowed down my indoor junk pile to nothing, yet I was not bereft of one entirely since there was a box in my car trunk in which had been placed wholesale a stack from my previous residence. I didn’t have the heart to open the box and see this portrait of who I’d been when I filled the box in my trunk, so I rode around with it rattling about in my trunk for a few years until I got married and threw it out, unopened.

My junk piles embarrassed me until I started excusing them with a quote from “Fixing a Hole” by the Beatles (as I did in the title to this post). Whatever is in the pile, it patches that hole in my mind which prevents persistent daydreaming. Stated otherwise, seeing the junk reminds me of reality and keeps me from descending into a permanent Secret-Life-of-Walter-Mitty state.

Today has been one of those days that remind me that for all of the lofty goals we are persuaded to pursue while growing up, adult life is mostly filled with banal tasks, like work that can done on autopilot due to repetition or shopping for things that will ultimately be consumed and discarded in one way or another:

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After I loaded the latest round of consumables into my car, I turned on the radio and heard “Ya Mo Be There” by Michael McDonald. I then imagined my mother hearing that same milquetoast song as she drove away from the same store thirty years ago, her trunk loaded down with the same stuff just with older logos affixed to them. She wouldn’t have the let song play more than 45 seconds, her index finger expertly pushing the button to another radio station while holding a lit Salem cigarette. She’d be doing this simultaneous to shouting “35!” to whoever was driving below the speed limit in front of her.

I have this memory from about 27 years ago in which my mom and my older sister were have a fiery argument over something that none of us can remember now. Maybe it was over a forgettable suitor or an empty 40 ounce bottle of malt liquor that emerged despite all efforts to hide it. In my memory, my sister throws open the front door, bounds down the steps, and then I hear tires squeal as she speeds away. I next go to my bedroom, not ready to hear my mother aghast at my sister’s sudden departure. Instead of complaints, I hear the quick snap of mom slinging her purse over her shoulder, the click of her cigarette lighter, that same door slamming open, and lastly the sound of a different set of tires squealing as my mother speeds away.

When I’ve asked them about this fiasco in later years, I do not hear details about how this chase figured into their battle or its resolution. The air grows heavy and silent, and I remind them once more of something that happened a year before that chase, when my sister ran into the house breathless to tell me that she and mom had witnessed a roll-over accident whose tempo perfectly matched “She’s Only Seventeen” by Warrant (which was playing on the radio as they saw the accident). This happened the very first time Mom let my sister do the driving to the grocery store.

While there is an excess of banality as the years stretch onward, there is also conflict and union with those we love to season those times as well. As my mother before me, I’ve had my fair share of mother-daughter sagas, too. Since neither I nor my daughter is inclined to move faster than is necessary, I doubt there is a road race in our future, but there was an incident that happened when she was 11 years old that was tense in its own right.

When my daughter was born, I thought that my passage into motherhood would be the grand demarcation between a scandalous, well-spiced past and a practical future, sort of a half-baked version of “Tell Me a Riddle” by Tillie Olsen. Like the ex-dissident smoothed into domesticity in that tale, I awaited the moments when I’d sardonically consider,”command performance; we command you to be the audience.”

As smugness leads to error as often as pride goes before a fall, I learned that I was wrong about how motherhood would change me, and this was never so clear as during the incident that happened when my daughter was 11. I noticed she’d become sneaky about using the laptop she’d gotten a couple months before, so I considered that I was overdue in exercising my parental discretion over her online activities. Once I’d opened her laptop, I didn’t take long to discover that she’d been chatting with a Chilean man!

These chat transcripts were full of venting about me. She cast me an off-label-prescribed Anne Boleyn too eager to please my then-boyfriend (who, by the way, is now her stepfather). While her writing showed love for me, it also revealed that she likely has fewer illusions about me than I do about myself. Before she even started her teenage years, she saw me as I was.

I confronted her gently about what I’d read, telling her that it made me realize that she was both precocious and a bit too young to have free reign of a computer (the last part mainly because she had been talking to a man whose intentions were likely dubious at best). I took away the laptop and packed it back in its shipping box.

Almost five years later, it sits at the bottom of a junk pile in my bedroom closet. From time to time, my husband asks me if want to get it rid of it, and I tell him that I’m not ready yet because it helps me fix that hole where the rain gets in and stops my mind from wandering where it will go.