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 A Day In the Life

A Morning From A Child’s Page

It is 1957. My grandmother, Julia, sits at the kitchen table. She has filled the pot-belly with a bucket of coal and let me make a “house” on a quilt and pillows that I’ve set up in front of the stove, pulling the warmth into myself. I don’t know if today is the day that my mother will come back from wherever it is she goes. She always tells me that it’s work. I don’t believe her, and I still miss her in the aching place that owns my heart.

The morning is black and the days are slow to gather light. Winter hovers over us with piercing silence and the language of snow. A chipped ceramic statue of Mary lives on the dining room table and watches me play. I pray to her, asking her to bring my mother back.

The sound of a chair scrapping against the worn linoleum, and the creak of the floor against Julia’s shoes break the spell. I can smell biscuits and coffee and I get up from my warm place by the stove and sit down at the table, where I’m given a biscuit that steams when it is pulled apart. Julia’s shaking hands adds butter to the smooth open surface, along with a tablespoon of preserves made from summer berries. She pours me a cup of coffee, half of it milk. For a moment, I don’t think about being dropped off here again, content with the tastes of her winter kitchen.

Years later, when I remember her, her love still speaks to me in the small gestures of melting butter and coffee that is half milk, and in fires that are kept going so we won’t be cold. She was never someone who cuddled me or talked to me, but she smiled when she carefully stepped over the house I’d made in front of the pot-bellied stove and softly said “yes, yes, yes,” as if I’d somehow delighted her.

I dig and rut through these memory places sometimes, embracing the sorrow and its meaning; savoring the sweetness of love in her yes’s and my grief. I used to fear these recollections, but now I count them as blessings. All that changed was an understanding of what it took for cold hands to roll out dough on a floured sink board in the early, dark of day. Life has always been this good.

The shadow that invited me back here loosens its grip on the ghost of confusing emotions:  a small child left in farmhouse that sits in the vastness of prairie and sky. I taste again the feeling tone of the time, so grateful to have remembered. Rip it right from the heart of the matter, and keep it close by. This, I tell myself, is the light and darkness, which define you.

When the plates and cups sat empty upon her table, I saw through the window, light creeping into the day. Snow fell gently on fence posts and dried grasses and I jumped when I heard the sound of a car crunching gravel under its tires as it slowly made its way up to the farmhouse.

Posted in Comedy, Tragedy and What the F...?

Is Age Just A Number?

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The impervious feeling of youth is a delicious drunk of newness and firsts: first apartment, first true love, first heartbreak; the delight of garage sales and thrift shops, that furnish the backdrop upon which one begins to build a life, blissfully unaware of the baggage of childhood that follows them into independence and self-sufficiency. In my twenties, I surfed in the mornings with Bernie, napped in the afternoons and then waited cocktails at night to pay for a life style that was both joyous and fraught with uncertainty as well as longing and idealism. All that created its own kind of pain and regret. No one escapes the wrong turns, but instead we seem to spend our lifetime burrowing into the core of what ails us before we find the gifts within the inevitable ruin.

At twenty something, I swung my long, gangly legs over the precipice of the 1970’s, watching Viet Nam unwind. The grainy television images of so much human destruction were soon to be replaced by Nixon and the exposure of con and corruption that would define the word “sensational” for decades to come. And as twenty marched ahead into thirty, I realized one day how difficult it was to pay the rent, and repair the car and I had new empathy and understanding for my mother, who worked at a time when the cartoon character of a wolf chasing a nubile secretary around the desk wasn’t that far off the mark.

While the twenties, for many of us underscored a time of adventure and ideals, the thirties was of time of finding a comfortable position within the grip of unrelenting responsibility. Overtime at my work place became a way of life, a badge of proof that I was committed and in the game for the long haul. I bought my first “new” couch and read T.S. Eliot, Yeats and May Sarton for leisure. I wrote in dozens of spiral bound notebooks– an attempt to discover who I was and who I was becoming, and whether or not I had just put on the costume of adulthood without really checking out what I was wearing. Thirty gnawed the bones of idealism and free-spiritedness, replacing the hunger for those things with “want.” Want is a thorn in the foot of human condition, a lusting and longing for those things or people just out of our reach; a strange coming to grips with a shadow of greed, that if we are honest, dogs us until we wrestle it to the ground and learn to balance it with a generous heart.

When I turned 40, I had a realization that life was just a series of stories and somehow we were all connected by those stories. By then I was married, with a choice to remain childless, but with a passion for creating business and a raw and reckless spirit, still wild from my surfing days that allowed me to take the risks necessary to be an entrepreneur. And having a partner with which to play that out remains one of the great satisfactions of my journey. The time of work and creation was marked by this decade and the joke of “over the hill” was really more about the pinnacle of the hill and the overview provided from the vantage point of focus and determination.

Fifty saw the departure of my mother and though I felt beyond independent and accomplished when she left, her absence was piercing in a way I could not have anticipated. She lingers still, her hands seeming like they are mine, veined with age. I catch glimpses of her in the mirror, a face layered over my own as I brush my hair. Life is shorter than you think.

So in my sixties now, the question of age as a number and whether that means anything or not? It means everything. Age is a marker, the signs that dot the highway that tell you how far you have come. Age is a container for the experiences that push us forward and challenge us to unfold. Age is a reminder that physical strength lessens with the years and beauty fades. Whether or not we like it or want it, age is what pulls us to our knees while it knights us with the sword of humility and hard-won wisdom. What lies beyond? In my twenties, I could not sit still in the morning hours, knowing that the surf was up. Forty years later finds me on my deck, holding a cup of tea and easing into the day as I marvel at how the apples on the tree in my yard have gone from green to red and are becoming larger in the summer sun. The cycle of beginnings and endings are everywhere around me in nature. In my heart I let go of memories that are stitched with pain and discomfort. They drop like apples from the tree. I like to recall instead the touchstones of surfing and careers and a life education that was beyond divine. I revel in the partnership of a marriage, now tender and softened with grey.

I embrace the years, each decade a lamp unto the soul, lighting the way into becoming human. The striving for some sense of self-honesty and awareness, for a sensuous breeze in which to throw back my head and close my eyes as life takes me; this has made the journey purposeful. To paraphrase Mr. Yeats: “I am an old woman with a dry mouth, waiting for the rain.”