Treasures & Trash: Or Why I Hate to Clean and Why I Hate to Throw Things Out

I could have titled this post “Tidying Up, Part 2.” But I decided on “Treasures and Trash” because that is what I found.

It started as a simple project. I have a chest in which I have stored items for many years. It’s a small chest, the height of a short dresser, and it has cupboard doors. Over the years, when I had photographs printed, I would throw the envelopes of snapshots (together with negatives or CDs) into the chest. Old family portraits I didn’t want to display anymore went into the chest, along with the frames they were in, unless I had another portrait to put in the frame. I stored many other keepsakes in the chest as well. After each item went in, I shut the doors and rarely thought of it again.

Occasionally, I rummaged through the chest looking for pictures for this blog, or searched through my kids’ baby books to find a date or a certificate. But for the most part, out of sight, out of mind.

It was getting hard to keep the doors on the chest shut. So I finally decided I had to clean it out. Really, I thought, if I just put the loose envelopes of photos into boxes, I could keep the chest neat enough to close the doors. So one Saturday afternoon, I found some boxes and started in.

Well.

Before: The Messy Stage

There is always a stage in a cleaning project when it is messier than when one begins. This immediately became true of this project. No way could I simply cram photo envelopes into boxes and stash everything back in the chest. There was too much stuff in there.

I’d been afraid something like this would happen, which is why I chose an afternoon when my husband was away. Messes—at least my messes—make him nervous.

But I’d started. I had to do something, to get it back to a stage when my husband wouldn’t see a mess.

So once everything was out of the chest, I started sorting. I found many things that were trash, and many that were treasures. In the trash category were about two years of old financial statements from the mid-1990s. And many terrible snapshots of family members (though I didn’t bother to sort these out). And also a costume I’d worn for Halloween at work in about the year 2000—Catbert, Evil HR Director.

But there were even more treasures. Things I’d been looking for. Things I’d forgotten I had. Things I don’t think I ever knew I had. The photograph of my brother and me with Santa Claus from 1960 or 1961—I’ve been searching for that since my father died two years ago (though I think this copy was my grandmother’s, not my parents’). A 1950 picture of the adults in my husband’s family at a civic event (one of the things I didn’t know I had). A postcard from my husband to his great-aunt announcing that he’d taken a girl (me) home to his mother (another thing I didn’t know I had). Many pictures of momentous occasions in my children’s lives I’d forgotten about—my daughter’s preschool graduation, my son’s Eagle Scout ceremony (now if I could just find a copy of the speech I gave), and many visits and vacations. And so much more.

These treasures are why I hate to throw things out. I didn’t have time to look through all the photos. I’m sure there are more treasures in some of the rolls of film from years ago. If I simply toss them, I might lose something precious, a memory that would make me smile.

In months to come, you’ll hear more about the treasures I found. And maybe about some additional treasures, if I can steel myself to get back into those boxes. If I can bear to attack the chest again.

After: Much neater, and less stuff

I spent a miserable afternoon at the chore, but the treasures were all back in the chest before my husband got home. The trash? It’s been thrown out, the financial records shredded.

When have you found family treasures you didn’t know you had?

My Grandmother’s Jell-O

As a child, I spent a lot of time with my maternal grandmother, my Nanny Winnie. My mother, brother, and I even lived with my grandparents for a few months when I was small. So I know Nanny Winnie cooked for me a lot. But I don’t remember any signature dishes she made. I remember she sometimes prepared something different for my grandfather than for us children, because he was definitely a meat-and-potatoes man, and we were more mac-and-cheese. And I know she didn’t make me eat cooked carrots before I got dessert—she was too nice.

I don’t think Nanny Winnie particularly liked to cook, though like all wives and mothers of her day, she did it. I remember going to the grocery store with her. The store was around the corner from her house in Klamath Falls, Oregon. She didn’t drive, so we walked to the store. When she had selected what she wanted, the grocery later delivered it. I guess that was common practice in the late 1950s—the store certainly never made a big deal about it.

Many years later, in early 1973, after my grandmother’s second husband died, she moved to Richland, Washington, to be close to her daughter (my mother) and her grandchildren. She usually came over to our house for Sunday dinner, and sometimes on other occasions as well. Her apartment became where we celebrated a lot of second-tier holidays. My parents handled Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, but Nanny Winnie often did Easter, and she hosted many birthday and graduation dinners as well.

Nanny Winnie was very outgoing and social. She developed her own circle of friends in Richland, mostly other widows, but she also went to many women’s functions with my mother and my mother’s friends. My mother’s circle were women raising families and active in their churches.

Sometimes my mother’s friends were shocked at Nanny Winnie’s more relaxed approach to life—after all, by this time, she was in her late sixties. She lived alone and didn’t have to cook for a crowd except for our occasional family celebrations.

When she went to a potluck, Nanny Winnie took Jell-O (or else baked goods she bought at a store). She often served Jell-O at our family gatherings also. I didn’t mind—I liked Jell-O. In particular, I liked her peach Jell-O with canned sliced peaches in it.

My high-school graduation dinner at Nanny Winnie’s apartment. If you look closely, you can see the dishes of peach Jell-O. Or maybe it was orange.

One time Nanny was invited to go somewhere with a few of my mother’s friends. “I can’t,” she told them. “I have to go home and make my Jell-O.”

My mother’s friends were not impressed with her excuse. “How long does it take to make Jell-O?” they asked. Nanny Winnie’s need for an entire afternoon to make Jell-O became a standing joke in this group, as well as in our family.

Granted, making Jell-O is not difficult. It takes advance planning, because it must be allowed to gel. But otherwise, it is simple. Even with canned fruit thrown in.

Still, now that I am almost of the age when Nanny Winnie shifted into her Jell-O days, I can understand. Any cooking that takes advance planning is an incursion on my life and unlikely to have any long-term impact on anyone. I am much more sympathetic to her excuse than I was forty-five years ago.

Nanny Winnie was born 109 years ago today. I think she’d approve of my limited focus on cooking these days. (Actually, I’ve always had a limited focus on cooking.)

How do you feel about Jell-O? And cooking?

The Paper Chase and Other Chases

This Saturday, March 4, 2017, marks the 40th anniversary of the first date my husband and I ever went on. We’d planned another date in early January 1977. That date had been to see The Paper Chase, a movie about first-year students at Harvard Law School. We were first-year students at Stanford Law School—the same scholastic environment, but with better weather.

Unfortunately, Stanford Law School at the time was not so enlightened as to have finals before the Christmas holiday. We faced them shortly after our return, which meant our entire vacation period was spent in preparation. Moreover, the student film society decided that The Paper Chase was the perfect entertainment for the Sunday evening that everyone returned from break. The next day reading week began, and first-semester finals followed a few days later.

My husband-to-be (though we didn’t know that was what he was then) was late returning to the dorm that Sunday because of flight delays after his Christmas in Missouri. I waited until fifteen minutes before the movie was to start (it was playing at the law school a block away), then headed to the theater with other classmates from our dorm. Later, I saw hubby-to-be come into the theater, and shortly thereafter, I saw him depart. He later told me he was so worried about finals he couldn’t watch the film about law school students stressing out. (I watched and enjoyed it, though I can’t say I enjoyed finals.)

Fast forward a couple of months. First-semester finals were over, and we were deep into the spring semester. It was March 4, 1977, a Friday evening, and another movie was playing on campus. I can’t remember what it was. I think it was something awful, like Straw Dogs. He’d asked me to go with him, and I’d accepted.

Before we went, I called my mother, because March 4 was her birthday. I told her I was going to the movie later with a friend.

“A male friend?”

“Yes.”

“A date?” Her tone was a cross between parental inquisitor and conspiratorial girlfriend.

“I suppose it is,” I said, and didn’t release any additional information.

After the movie, we went out with some other classmates for late-night pizza. He made me eat anchovies. Why I ever married him after that, I don’t know. The movie might not be memorable, but the after-effects of the anchovies were. That’s the one and only time in my life I’ve eaten anchovies. Despite my gastric distress, our relationship progressed rather rapidly after March 4, and we were married in late November.

Since this year is the 40th anniversary of our courtship, you will probably be hearing more about it in the months ahead. Happy 40th, hubby, all year long!

What do you remember about your first date with your spouse?

Yo, Mom: An Introduction to the Teenage Years

I’ve written before about our family’s trips to the Absaroka Ranch in Wyoming, where we spent a summer week riding horses, except for occasional breaks to hike or go river-rafting. On our last trip in 1994, my son was twelve. It was his third time to the ranch (or the fourth?), and he was an old hand. He relished the freedom from parents that the ranch permitted—most days, the kids had separate activities from the adults.

Son on horseback the day of the “Yo, Mom” incident. He’s holding on in this picture.

One afternoon, the ranch staff had all the kids who were there that week practicing various gaits as they rode across a large open field. I was leaning on a fence nearby, watching the kids show off.

From the middle of the field, my son shouted, “Yo, Mom!” as he trotted by, waving his hands in the air, not touching horse or reins, a big grin on his face. Like Superman, only on horseback. His cocky assurance that he wouldn’t fall off was evident.

I was a little taken aback at his casual greeting. “Yo, Mom?” It wasn’t part of my vocabulary. I didn’t know it was part of his.

But he was so clearly enjoying himself that I let it pass. He probably didn’t mean to be disrespectful. He was just moving into the teenage years. A few months early.

In fact, I was amused by the greeting. “Yo” became our calling sign for the next several years. His bedroom was in the basement, and when I wanted him to do something, I’d shout down, “Yo, James,” to get his attention. (I didn’t use it when I was angry, only in good humor.)

“Yo, Mom,” he would call back to signify that he had heard me.

His true teenage years began the week he turned thirteen. That was the week his cocky “Yo, Mom” morphed into talking back at me. I don’t remember what the topic was that week of his thirteenth birthday, but I gave him some instruction, and he sassed me in response.

Talking back and the hang-dog, put-upon sighs of a teenager responding to parents continued for several years. His high-school years were sometimes difficult and tense. He grew more distant when he went to college, and, of course, I couldn’t call down the stairs when he was hundreds of miles away in a dorm.

But he and I both came through his teenage years mostly unscathed. He has become a fine, independent adult. I admire the man he now is. I don’t always agree with him, but I respect that his opinions are thoughtful and well-founded.

Today, that cocky twelve-year-old turns thirty-five. He lives far away, and we only talk occasionally on the phone. I would love to be able to yell “Yo, James,” to get his attention, to have him close by, and to see him more regularly.

But it’s a good thing for both of us that he doesn’t live in the basement anymore.

Happy Birthday, Son!

Avoca Blankets: Evoking the Generations

avoca-img_20170202_085016In the summer of 2001, a few months before September 11, my daughter and I took a trip to Ireland. The trip was sponsored by her all-girls Catholic school. About ten mother/daughter pairs went, along with two teachers. The school had arranged several such trips over the years, but due to shenanigans on a previous girls-only trip, mothers were required to participate with their daughters the summer we went.

Some mothers participated for the mother/daughter bonding time, some to learn about history, some to see the scenery, some no doubt because of the Guinness. I went for most of these reasons, though not for the Guinness, which has never really appealed to me.

Most of the mothers and daughters probably had some trepidation about enforced togetherness for ten days. Each mother/daughter pair was required to share the hotel rooms in the various stops we made as we motored about Ireland. I was no exception on the trepidation issue—my sixteen-year-old daughter could be testy on occasion, and often took it out (mildly, but pointedly) on her mother.

It turned out to be a wonderful trip. There was some drama, some fatigue, some hurt feelings at various occasions for one and all. But overall, I had a delightful time, and I think my daughter did, too. Ireland is the only place outside the United States that I have visited where I felt I could really live happily. (Well, Canada is fine, but it’s too cold. And the little bit of England outside of London that I’ve seen would probably be all right. And Copenhagen came close.)

One of the places we stopped for a midday break was a touristy gift shop that sold Avoca wool products. I had never heard of Avoca before our trip, but their website now proclaims that Avoca is “an Irish family-run business that spans one of the world’s oldest surviving manufacturing companies and Ireland’s most exciting stores.”

My daughter and I didn’t buy anything in that gift shop, but a few days later when we were shopping in Dublin, we came across more Avoca products in another store. They had the most beautiful woven wool plaid throws. We each decided we needed one as a memento of the trip. I bought a blue plaid with a stripe of pale pink for myself, and my daughter selected a green plaid with a goldish stripe for herself. We squished them in our luggage for the return flight home.

I don’t like wool next to my skin—too scratchy—but that autumn I discovered my new throw was the perfect weight for snuggling under while I read or watched TV. Or a light extra layer on the bed when another blanket would be too heavy. For years now, during the winter months, it sits at the end of our bed, and I throw it over the comforter on chilly nights. I’ve had it dry-cleaned several times, but it still looks lovely, with the fringe only just starting to unravel.

m-at-xcountry-meet-w-avoca-blanket

Daughter at cross-country meet wrapped in Avoca blanket

My daughter took hers to cross-country meets during her high-school years. In college, it went with her to rowing regattas and on picnics and hikes. When she got her first apartment, it went on the back of her couch for reading and snoozing. She is now grown and owns her own home, and the Avoca throw is still on her couch. It has had a fair amount of heavy use over the years, so it’s shabbier than mine, but still looks pretty nice.

I was so taken with my Avoca throw in 2001 that when Christmas came around that year, I decided to see if I could buy more of them for Christmas gifts. I searched the web and found an Avoca source in the U.S. I think I ended up buying three more, but the only recipient I can remember for certain is that one of them was for my mother. I got her the same blue plaid design I had bought for myself.

My mother kept hers on the back of a couch to use as a cozy cover for reading also. When she went into assisted living in January 2013, the Avoca throw went with her. Unfortunately, the caregivers at the facility put the woolen throw in the laundry along with her other clothes. It felted and shrunk to half its size. When I saw it, I almost cried. After my mother died, my father gave her Avoca throw away with the rest of the things she’d had with her in assisted living—it wasn’t worth keeping.

So when I see my blue plaid Avoca throw at the end of my bed now, I remember a lovely trip with my daughter. I smile at my daughter’s growth from high-school student, through college and law school, and into independent adulthood—and of her green throw that has accompanied her at every step. I mourn my mother’s decline from cozy reader to Alzheimer’s patient and then her death, and the destruction of the Avoca throw that reflected her deterioration.

All these memories speak of continuity from one generation to the next, and they speak of the inevitable changes that occur through our lives. All these memories fill my heart because my daughter and I were taken with these pretty woolen blankets.

What do you own that symbolizes change for you?

Infrastructure, circa 1962

Troutdale - Dodson 1957 Columbia River HwyThere’s been a lot in the news in recent years about infrastructure. Which projects are “shovel ready”? Which will create more jobs? How do we bring our aging roads and bridges into the twenty-first century?

When I hear about infrastructure, I think of the development of the interstate highway system in the late 1950s and early 1960s. I was a child living in the Pacific Northwest in those years, and my family traveled regularly between our home in Eastern Washington and the larger cities of Seattle and Portland. The old highway to Seattle meandered through the Cascade Mountains, and the Portland route took us through the Columbia River Gorge. Both routes were under construction for my entire childhood, it seemed, as I-80 to Seattle and I-84 to Portland replaced the older roads.

My earliest memories of these trips are of the two-lane highways that crept through one small town after another. We only stopped in those towns if the car needed gas. My father’s philosophy was that our bladders needed to be as big as the gas tank. We left home before dawn and arrived at our destination by early afternoon—no need to pay for a meal on the road.

The routes to both Seattle and Portland were scenic, though those pre-interstate roads included some hazards. The mountain highway twisted and turned as it climbed to the passes, with huge drop-offs next to flimsy guardrails. Every so often, a guardrail would be missing, and I would wonder what had happened. Rushing mountain streams ran at the bottom of those drop-offs. We might see patchy snow any month of the year, but in the winter when the roads were covered with snow and ice, we had to stop at a turn-off near the pass so my father could put chains on the tires.

The river route couldn’t deviate far from the Columbia because of high bluffs rising near the banks, but this road offered views of dams and tunnels and waterfalls. My brother and I used to count the waterfalls—in spring there were well over thirty cataracts spewing over the high cliffs down toward the road. Some were mere trickles, but some were real gushers. We agreed not to count the spots where the cliffs were simply wet and no water flowed.

ellensburg_cleelum-postcard-1940s

Between Ellensburg and Cle Elum in Washington. Postcard from the 1940s, but not much changed by  1960.

When the interstate construction began, the length of our trips doubled. Every few miles, we stopped in interminably long lines of cars. Our family sedan was not air-conditioned, and in the summer we baked in the heat, with dust from the jackhammers wafting into the vehicle through open windows. My brother and I sat in the back, bored and cranky. I tried not to fight with him, but what was I supposed to do when he encroached on my half of the bench seat? I couldn’t read in the car without getting nauseated, but during those tedious waits, I pulled out my book. Then we would start up again, and I’d have to put it away.

When we finally reached the head of the line and passed the construction worker with the flag, my father gave a jaunty salute, and the man in the hard hat nodded.

Only as I neared my teens was the interstate completed, and the trip became easier. The scenery was still lovely—we still counted waterfalls and held our breath through tunnels. And we still had to put on chains in the winter. But no more long lines of cars.

Now, fifty years later, so many of our roads need repairs. I live in Missouri now, and the state of I-70 is a frequent topic of conversation. I agree we need another infrastructure push, but I don’t look forward to the jackhammers and delays.

What do you remember about childhood road trips?

Lavender Lotion and “Temps Perdu”

img_20170125_090600-lavender-lotionI don’t use much scented lotion. I’m allergic to many floral scents, particularly roses and lilies. They make me sneeze. So I buy hypoallergenic brands. Gifts of scented hand lotions tend to sit on my counter for a long time, to be used only on special occasions when I want to feel pampered and don’t mind a little tickle in my nose.

I just used up one bottle I wish I could have kept longer. My parents gave me a bottle of lavender lotion in the summer of 2006, when I first visited them on the Olympic Peninsula. They were glad to have me visit, and they were so excited to show me their new home and community and some of the beautiful sights of that corner of the state where I’d been born (a corner where I’d spent little time as a child).

Waiting for me in the guest bedroom when I arrived was this bottle of lavender goat’s milk lotion—a reverse housewarming gift of sorts. My mother raved about the excursion to Swiss Lavender Farm near Sequim, Washington, where my parents had bought the lotion made from locally grown lavender and goat’s milk. She talked about the fields of purple flowers, the cute little goats, and the Swiss chalet that was part of the farm.

lavender-1595490_1280“We’ll have to take you there,” she said. “If not this trip, then another time.” But we never made it to the lavender farm.

Even without the visit to the farm, I enjoyed the lotion. It had a lovely creamy texture, a good consistency to spread. The lavender scent was not too strong and didn’t cause me too much of an allergic reaction.

So much has happened over the last decade since I received that bottle of lavender lotion. My parents had a few wonderful years on the Olympic Peninsula, broken up by international travel and trips to visit friends and relatives and month-long winter stays in Carmel, California.

Then my mother started having health problems—leg pain that couldn’t be diagnosed, blood chemistry imbalances, and in 2010 she was also diagnosed with dementia. From there it was downhill, and in January 2013 she moved into assisted living and later into dementia care. As readers of this blog know, she died in July 2014, and my father died suddenly just six months later.

And through it all, with each of my sparing uses of the lavender lotion, I thought of them. And remembered good times and bad. The Olympic Peninsula days and earlier times.

Finally, a few months ago, the pump dispenser on the bottle quit working—not enough lotion left to pump. I clung to the bottle as a memory of my parents, so I researched the lavender farm that produced it, hoping to buy more lotion for myself. Unfortunately, Swiss Lavender Farm has gone out of business and I could not buy more.

So I turned the bottle upside down and scooped out as much as I could with my finger. This last week, however, I had to concede I’d used it all. I took a picture of the bottle for this post, then threw it away.

Smells have a powerful effect on memory, as Proust wrote of his madeleines in À la Recherche du Temps Perdu.

Proust’s title was originally translated into English as Remembrance of Things Past. More recent translators have used In Search of Lost Time. The latter translation is much closer to the French, but still doesn’t quite capture the meaning of the French for me. “Recherche” means not only “search” or “searching,” but can also mean “research” or “study.” And “perdu” means not only “lost,” but also “wasted,” as well as “missing” and “disappeared.” So Proust intends his novel to be about a deliberate, questing search for a past that is gone—perhaps just disappeared, but perhaps a past that has been wasted.

There seems to be a finality in “temps perdu” that is sadder than the English “lost time.” I find myself often on a quest for my own “temps perdu.” That’s why I write this blog. That’s why I focus so much on memories in my posts. My mother’s past was lost to dementia and then to death. I try to keep mine alive in words that remain after me.

And all this I thought of when I smelled the last of my lavender lotion.

What odors bring memories to mind for you?