Posted in A Day In the Life, memories

Suitable for Re-framing

My mom: Cleopha Marie Tylenda

There aren’t a lot of photos of my mother as a little girl. Personal photography was not a common thing when she was growing up. Rather, it was the work of a hired professional. For an ordinary family, it was a big deal to memorialize a moment of life in a photograph. Yet a handful of images from my mother’s young life exist.

A framed photograph on my living room bookshelf shows mom when she was about two years old. Holding onto her small toddler frame is her father, my grandpa, Paul. They’re sitting on the floor of the back porch, his arms around her, holding up a holster that he’s wrapped around her simple cotton dress. While her face is serious, my grandpa’s face reflects a mischievous grin.

The year would have been 1921.  My grandparents were farmers with a few cows. They lived in Elbert, Colorado and were raising three daughters. So, who took the picture, the casual pose, with mom, grandpa and holster?  My grandparents wouldn’t have owned a camera. Did they have a friend that was a photographer?

It’s an imaginative musing to see my grandparents as young people.  To think that they may have sat in their living room when the kids had gone to bed and talked with a friend who had a camera — that the friend would have offered to take some pictures of them. 

Later in life when I knew them, mom had a Brownie Camera. She took pictures of my brother, sister and I standing in front of the giant lilac bushes in our grandmother’s yard; and pictures of my grandparents standing in the dirt driveway of their home, a grandchild balanced on my grandma’s hip as she smiles for the camera, the look of pride on her face.

Recently, my nephew Dan found a picture of my mom in a moving box as he was getting settled into his new home in Oregon. He emailed it to me.  Eventually I will print it, frame it and place it next to the other photo on the bookshelf. 

It’s not the framing of the photo that feels important; it’s the reframing of what those photos mean to me:  a way to see my mother as an innocent; an appreciation of my grandpa’s quirky sense of humor divorced in memory from the man who drank too much.  It’s the act of reframing that helps me to see that we all do the very best we can do to love each other and ourselves and yet fall terribly short.  To put it in perspective, these photographs of my mom are from 100 years ago.  They represent the passage of time, mortality, innocence, ancestry and the most basic of human longings, that of love. 

In the photo sent by my nephew, mom is seven years. She’s wearing a white dress meant as a First Communion dress. It had probably been worn by her sister Anne and would be worn again by her younger sister, Mary.  The photograph is staged.  In one hand she holds a missal and a rosary. In the other she holds a candle. Again I wonder who the photographer is.  Did each child at my mother’s Catholic School get a picture like this at the occasion of their First Communion? 

I imagine the picture being taken at the church her family attended. I saw that church once.  My brother and I visited it when she died, but it had been turned into an antique store.  The day that we were there, it was closed and I was sorry about that. I had wanted to go inside, to walk around in a place where she had walked, where my grandmother and my great grandmother had gone to worship.

It’s easy to forget that my parents and my grandparents lived long, full lives before I was born. That they were filled with dreams and ideals like all young people, dreams that took a beating when life intervened. It’s the story that we all live out.

When I look at my mother’s little face in the picture of her First Communion, I don’t see the woman I fought with as a teenager. I see a child that I didn’t know, but eked out in our relationship nonetheless with stories that she made up and shared with me at bedtime about the little town of Elbert Colorado, her horse Duke, and a Catholic family with three girls living in a cabin on the hill

Paul Simon sang in the song, Old Friends: Long ago, it must be, I have a photograph. Preserve your memories; they’re all that’s left you. Now living closer to the edge of my life, I’m grateful for the memory, for the image of a little girl whose life I can only imagine, but imagine in sweetness and love’s longing, nonetheless.

Posted in memories

The Size of a Parakeet’s Heart

Budgerigar in the its cage. Budgie

Breakfast happened in a sunny corner of the kitchen on a plastic tablecloth whose flowered print had faded in spots from the sun and the plates that scraped across its surface. The table was pushed against the windows, and looked over a struggling garden in which I had once planted the watermelon seeds saved from a late summer afternoon. When the green shoots found their way up into the light, turning into vines, I imagined opening a watermelon stand and selling pieces of fresh watermelon to all of my neighbors. My enterprise was cut short, however, when something ate the vines, shredding their leaves into skinny, little pieces.

My mother kept a row of potted geraniums on the table. Red flowers bloomed almost year round in a world that was mostly bright colors and sunshine. Part of that brightness was Penny. She was my first true love, my first true friend, a parakeet dressed in exotic green, accented by dark veins of blue feathers. Each morning my mother would open the door to Penny’s cage, and the little bird would fly a couple of times around the room, lighting onto the table in front of my breakfast plate, chirping while she waited for me to feed her bits of unbuttered toast. Sometimes she would hop onto my shoulder as I ate.

Every day when I got home from school, I checked to make sure that she had birdseed and clean water. I wasn’t allowed to let her out unless my mom was there, but I gave her what felt like a lot of my six-year-old attention, crooning, whistling and singing to her. During the times that she was free to fly around, she would always make her way to me, resting upon my hand and hopping up and down the length of my arm. We had our own special way of telling each other: I love you.

One day my mom and I came home to the smell of paint. I knew that the landlord was having all of the kitchens in our row of duplexes painted. We had shopped the week before for new dishtowels and potholders to go with the freshly painted kitchen. I hadn’t realized that the paint would smell so bad though, and I held my nose as I went to check on Penny. But something was wrong. Penny didn’t move. She sat motionless on her perch with her head resting inside of a bell that hung off of the mirror in her cage. “Penny?” I shook the cage and she fell. “NO!”

I heard my mother’s sad voice as she rushed to see what was wrong: “Oh, Penny,” she said. “I’m so sorry.”

“What happened to her?” I asked.

“I think the paint fumes were too much for her,” she said. “The painters didn’t think to put her cage outside and she died.”

No one in my life had ever died before. I knew other children who’d told me that their grandma or grandpa died, or that their dog died, but I didn’t understand what it meant. Something pierced my heart, a feeling of absence so fierce that my whole body hurt.

“I didn’t get to say goodbye.” I said.

I wasn’t sure where Penny had gone, only that she wasn’t in her bird body anymore. My mother helped me to give Penny a funeral, wrapping her in a scarf and burying her in the garden outside the kitchen window. I marked her little grave with rocks that I placed in a careful circle around the newly turned earth.

For days, I tried to cry the ache away, and then one day the loss no longer consumed me. Eventually we put up the new dishtowels and potholders. We moved to another duplex, another apartment, another town. The years between Penny and I grew wide with the passing of time.  Now, as my hands and feet begin to wizen, I recall this story and write it down. I  still have tears left for Penny and the life lesson that she imparted:  Love, even the size of a parakeet’s heart is eternal.