Reflections in Memory

We took a walk on the beach one day, in the summer. It must have been late summer because I remember the slanting sunshine: the warmth of it. We walked along the beach in Salisbury Cove: the part of the cove that would later be left behind for the quieter end, off Old Bar Harbor Road. My father and I, probably five or six years old, walked the beach.

The beach in that part of the world is gray with shale and rusty with ironstone. The stone forms in thin layers and is cracked into a thousand million pieces with the roots of trees. While they crack the stone, the root hairs also hold its myriad pieces in space, braving winter’s storms and the shrinking-expanding process of freeze and thaw. The beach itself is made of tiny to large pieces of stone, too many to count. There is no sand here; the closet thing is tiny pieces of basalt that have been tumbled and thrashed for eons. Here and there are pieces of kelp, ends of rope, bottles, a jellyfish or two, sea urchin skeletons and so many mussel shells. Mussel shells are demure on top: brown, black and white, but reveal indigo or lavender pearl inside. I have always loved them and they were my brother’s favorites when he was a little boy. I have many memories of Carew carrying mussel shells by the dozen back to our cottage.

On the day of the walk, my father and I sat on the top of what seemed like a very tall rock, out on the edge of the beach. I don’t know how long we sat there, only that it was warm. Over time, the tide came in and separated us from the beach. In reality, the water was probably 2 or 3 feet deep, but I couldn’t cross, and my dad hoisted me onto his shoulders and carried me to the beach, to safety.

My father has many stories. When I was studying for the GRE, which I never used for graduate school, I learned a word, legerdemain. Meaning slight of hand, I always thought it applied very well to my father. He is a gifted storyteller who holds his own cards tight to the chest. He plays no personal hand: very little is divulged. He is like the Wizard of Oz, hidden behind a curtain.

During the process that I related to readers here, I realized that I had held guilt as my definitive characteristic for twenty years. It took hard and heavy realizations to see that I had to let that go in order to be happy and be in my present reality. It took risk and resulted in reward, but the path was frightening and new. I think that guilt such as this is ultimately useless, and a barrier between ourselves and those who would really love us. Nothing anyone has done, save very few barbarous actions, could result in someone not being worthy of love from those who choose to do so.

When I think of my father and his life, I can see a life of a world traveler, an instructor, a bridge jumper, an oil man, a golf player, a Mercedes lover, an eldest son, a highly sensitive person, a Vietnam veteran, an alcoholic, a rage-oholic, and a depressive. But despite all of that, my father is worthy of love. However, it would seem that he believed he was not, and so acted out so intensely as if to prove that fact. My mother, my brother, myself, his friends and his family are here to prove that otherwise, despite his faults.

I gave myself and was given forgiveness by those who love me. Forgiveness, like commitment, is freeing and highly emotional. It is the letting go, of staring off into a space of love and friendship, and stepping out into the mystery. As my father sits in the television room of my parents house, on the quiet side of Salisbury Cove, staring down at a coastline that we once walked, I hope to say to him: “I love you. We all love you. You have done nothing to disappoint anyone. There are no mistakes. This is the time to think about all the stories, all the adventure, all the things you have to be thankful for. Let it go. You are loved.”

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“I can only note that the past is beautiful because one never realises an emotion at the time. It expands later, and thus we don’t have complete emotions about the present, only about the past.”

– Virginia Woolf

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I recognize them by their trucks: the men of the town. Very few women drive trucks, but almost all the men do. Silver F-150s, blue striped GMCs, black and bright green Chevy’s, red construction and demolition Peterbilts. In fact, I live behind a demolition company and walk past their fleet of oversized red trucks every day.

Yesterday, I walked down to the harbor to have lunch and conversation in a truck. It was the blue striped GMC. Its interior was dusty and reflected the country life of its owner: green shotgun shell on the dash, Old Crow Medicine Show music playing from the tape deck, a pack of Marlboros shoved into a cubby hole, an iPhone, a can of Monster, old coats, older boots. The interior was that heavy carpeting of 1980s American cars: the stuff that binds upon itself over time and becomes softer but tangled, stands up from the floors and walls of the truck. As I sat there, I was struck by the memory of my mom’s Oldsmobile station wagon: our childhood car that had the same carpeting all over its interior, and velveteen and vinyl seats.

When we were kids, my brother and I would sit in the trunk of the car because there was a rear-facing seat in there and we could stare out the back window of the wagon and pretend we were driving backwards. I don’t think they make those seats anymore; I have a strong attachment to that memory. Houston, Texas, blue Oldsmobile station wagon, my brother giggling, my mother managing us, moving us across that landscape that was so alien to her. Streets of white asphalt that crunched under wheels and feet, dust, pine trees, humidity, intense heat. Pine needles turned golden as they fell off in the summer and fall, pine cone wars with neighbor kids, swimming, popsicles, Jello eggs.

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In high school, I spent much time in a town called Porter, Texas, which was about 45 minutes away from where I lived. Porter was home to my boyfriend’s grandmother, which is also where he lived most of the time. She lived on a few acres surrounded by a hurricane fence in an old, stationary trailer with an ornament of an eagle that hung off the pitched front window. In that kitchen I was served mashed potatoes and fried chicken and Kool-Aid and all kinds of other delicious things over about three years. There was a barn, too, and many, many rose bushes everywhere. She loved roses. There was also a large tree with a swing, a dirt road leading to the trailer, and whole lot of nothing else.

Porter, a town outside of Conroe and near Cut-n-Shoot, was in the piney woods of East Texas, on your way to Huntsville. The trees were tall and skinny, and shady. Despite the heat that seems to pervade all those memories, there was a calm in that shade, and I remember them moving in the wind. When it was very rainy, during the monsoons, sometimes, they would pop: literally explode from over-watering. They seemed to pop at different intervals, as if there were places in the trees naturally designed to expand into a large bubble of water and wood pulp. The smell of East Texas was strong, too: pine, and soil, and heat, and sweat. The sounds of trucks driving along the roads, lawnmowers, tractors, dogs barking, chainsaws. Raccoons lived there, in the woods, as well as copperheads and water moccasins in the rivers and streams. The sun streamed everywhere: I have so many patchworked memories of sitting in a patch of sun, on the dirt, on the ground, stirring it into designs with a stick, watching ants, playing with earthworms, drawing spirals and other shapes in the earth. I still do that, today.

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I am experiencing a feeling of returning and it is very disorienting to me, as if I have been spinning on a carousel for a long, long time, and it is finally stopping; as if the blur of pictures that you see whilst riding a hobby horse on a carousel are slowing down and coming into focus. This place, the country of coastal Maine, not my town exactly, but the places around it, remind me so much of those country towns of East Texas. The people are similar, they drive the same trucks, they do the same things with their time. There are fir trees here, not pine, but the smells and sights are so similar. Of course, in East Texas there are no beautiful granite formations or islands or the ocean, but the feel is there. It’s as if I have returned after a very, very long time. And I suppose, in some ways, I have. Thirteen years away from your family makes returning scary and challenging: starting anew, again, for the third time in a few years, living in small towns in a place with such a long, long winter. Exploring options, trying to forge a path.

I was speaking with a friend about his new bathtub the other day, and how, when he took his inaugural soak, he was transported back to the bathtub in his parents’ house, a series of memories about forty years old. He said he remembered how it felt to be in the bath, how the walls in the bathroom looked, and the sensation of holding your breath under the water as long as possible. We all did that, didn’t we?

And yesterday’s lunch in the blue GMC, with its carpeting and velveteen-vinyl seats, transported me back to a childhood outside of Houston that, at many moments, I plain forget. I thought I had forgotten so many sights and smells and sounds and memories of growing up in the almost-country of east Texas, and yesterday all these things flooded back: the train track behind my high school where a friend of mine got drunk and passed out on the tracks and was run over, my best friend’s almost El Camino and racing boys in cars in it while smoking cigarettes and jamming to the Rolling Stones, my boyfriend’s 280ZX and sitting on his driveway in the afternoons after school. Driving to Huntsville to sit in the sunken rose gardens at Sam Houston State University, time spent at a strange lake house in Cold Spring when I was weeks away from graduation from high school. Camping in the woods in Nacogdoches, making forts in the woods with neighborhood kids, reading books on a blanket in the front yard and waving to the elderly lady who drove past me in her Cadillac each day.

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My parents left Houston about six months after I graduated, and so I never returned there as an adult to have these memories cemented into my mind. Funny how things come flooding back, as you sit talking about nothing in particular, on a cold spring April day, looking at the water move against the dock, in a 1980s beat up pickup truck.

digging in the dirt 2Houston, 1987

Time Capsules

cowboy boots

I have been many things in my short life. I have been a camp counselor for young students at the Museum of Natural History in Houston, as well as a genetics lab research assistant (I mostly did what I was told and spent a lot of time inside a giant freezer cataloguing little vials). I have been a bead- and oddities-seller in Austin, as well as a middle school science teacher. I have been a gallery girl in central Mexico, as well as a governess who conducted class on the brick patio of a beautiful hotel. I have been a gardener in New York City, as well as the personal assistant and later business manager of an art dealer. I have been a cross-country-traveling event planner. I have been a middle school teacher in Philadelphia. I have been a gallery girl in Maine, and now a jeweler, seamstress, drawing model, dog- and house-sitter, tutor, teacher, and writer.

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The ice is melting: winter is slowly coming to an end. Water is seeping and sometimes rushing out into the landscape. Little Long Pond, scene of so many early morning ice skates, is now covered with sheets of ice and water all around the edges. Gone is the deep cold, replaced by mud and water, by slush and a landscape that seems to spit up onto your clothes, your car, your everything. There were no deafening cracks or booms as the ice cracked and melted, as I had hoped, just a slow process of light returning, the path of sunlight expanding onto our landscape as if the beam of light was being pulled back, further away, its path widening as each day passed. The sunlight breathed life back into the wilderness, as if finally, after many months, the land began to exhale and inhale again, no longer holding its breath, steeling itself against winter.

grandpa

I received quite a gift today.

In my bedroom for as long as I can remember, I have hung a picture embroidered by my great Grandmother. It depicts two owls, one smiling sweetly at the other, in the tops of grapefruit trees. The colours are green and yellow and brown, and it is something that makes my bedroom feel complete: without it, something is missing. When I moved to Maine last June, the glass in the picture broke due to the overwhelming amount of stuff I had packed into my VW station wagon. My mom took it to the frame shop a few weeks ago to replace the glass, and hidden inside the frame was a note written to me by my Grandpa, for my 1st birthday:

“Canvas done by Mrs McDowell (Grandmother’s mother) between 1940 1942 during the air raids on Liverpool. For P.M. Blythe With Love 1st Birthday” (Also inscribed is 1981 and his name, to the right)

Neither I nor my mother knew this note was hidden inside the frame, and had the glass never broken, we would have never known. Discovering time capsules, like this one, is a bittersweet gift that comes around not often. My Grandpa died in 1994, when I was in 7th grade, the year my parents lost all their money and our family life significantly changed. I remember being a latch-key kid for the first time that year; our front door had a terrible stained glass design of a duck flying through cattails on it. The entryway was linoleum, beige in colour, and the rest of the house was carpeted in drab brown. I remember, when Grandpa died, when we all couldn’t go to England because we couldn’t afford it, and I think were probably limping along quite a bit in those days, being so sad because he was one of my favorite people in the world, if not the favorite. I hadn’t seen him, at that time, in four or five years, and had missed the ending of his life. Those days were hard days for many reasons, and I remember sitting on the linoleum floor by the front door, after school, alone in the house as my brother was outside playing, crying desperately with the knowledge that I would never see him again.

salisbury cove

Once, when my grandparents visited, we went to Galveston as a family and walked around The Strand. I think that my Grandpa really liked the States; he always found humour in our culture here no matter where we took him. After he died, my mom and brother and I went to Galveston one day, and I was walking around my favorite store there: a junk and antique shop full of curiousities. I looked up and saw an old man with bright white hair, a button down shirt and glasses, with a camera around his neck. It was him! I turned to tell my mom, couldn’t find her, turned back around, and of course, he was gone.

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Later, I had a dream that we were all together at the church yard where he is buried, where also my grandparents were married. It is a tiny church, built of old mossy stone, with a yard of graves around three sides. In my dream, our whole family was together: grandma, aunt, cousins, parents, children. We were walking through a churchyard and Grandpa appeared to us, only he was very young: as he was in photos of him during the war. He was smiling and happy, with his strong jaw and bright eyes. We spent time together: the time you can only spend in dreams, when you are not exactly sure how much time has passed, whether it is mere moments, or days, or months. We were all so happy just to be together: my Grandma especially (he died months before their 50th wedding anniversary). Then, suddenly, an array of white stones, set out in the pattern of an English cross, the St George’s cross with its even arms, began to hop up and down, tapping onto the flagstones but keeping their arrangement. He turned to us all and told us he loved us, but that he had to go. We all said goodbye. I haven’t seen him since, haven’t heard from him either.

That is, until yesterday. Love survives: I shall never doubt that again.

breakfast with grandpaBreakfast with Grandpa in 1987 in Formby, Liverpool, England…I would sneak downstairs to have breakfast with him before anyone else was awake.