The Discipline of Remembering

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I can clearly remember lying in my bed upstairs and wishing I was able to stay up and be part of whatever was happening. I also remember sitting at the table, a boiled egg or perhaps worse, a piece of liver before me—things I had no desire whatsoever to put in my mouth. If I wanted to leave the table I had to finish whatever I was given. One way I managed was to cut the liver into small pieces and swallow it whole. I can’t remember how I dealt with the egg.

My life as a child had lots of discipline in it. Authority figures held sway over my life. Often it was a parent: “Time to go to bed,” or a teacher: “Be sure to do your homework in a timely manner.” It never occurred to me that these disciplinarians were stand-ins for what comes when we are adults. In my innocence I thought discipline had to come from someone telling me what I had to do, not that one day I would need to tell myself.

Unfortunately for my childhood dreams, I need to enforce my own discipline in order to function in the world in an orderly manner. There is really no one that can do it for me. As a child I dreamed of the day I would be my own boss, as I thought of it then. I yearned for the day there would be no one to tell me I had to go to bed if I didn’t wish to, or make me eat something I didn’t wish to eat. Of course that is how a child thinks and the reality does not occur to us because as children we simply cannot conceive of it.

I remember thinking how grand it would be to be a grownup with no one to tell me what to do and when to do it. I could, I believed do whatever I wished, whenever I wished to do it. Children are so innocent. Little did I know then what I had to remember to do for myself when there were no more grownups to tell me and I was the grownup. As an adult I find discipline needs to be addressed often. For instance, there is the discipline of deadlines. If I wish I can ignore them though I do so to my peril. There is also the simple discipline of my body, which needs to sleep eat and go to the bathroom, occasionally at inconvenient times.

As I have grown older it seems to me there are more and more things I need to do each day in order to maintain my health and sanity. These require me to remember them as well as to do them. Lists help, yet were I to write everything I need to do daily down, it would be a lengthy list indeed. Practicing the discipline of remembering is perhaps the most important one of all, and in addition to doing my exercises and taking my vitamins, I practice this each and every day.

Walking Through My Mother’s Life

Mom profile by Nina005The medium sized cardboard carton was waiting for me to open and sort through the contents. My mother lived to the age of ninety eight, and it looked as though she never threw anything out that she received in the mail. I had brought it back with me from the storage unit in South Carolina. It contained paper of all sorts, including old photographs, that she had seen fit to keep for many years. Until I opened it I had no idea just how long those years had been.

Now for weeks and then months it had waited for me to go through it. In an effort to motivate myself I kept moving it around. I knew it would take the better part of several days to do, and I was reluctant to set aside other tasks to address one that had no deadline. Finally I put it where I could not ignore it: right under my desk. I had to look at it every time I sat down to do anything. Finally I got tired of looking at it and set to my task.

Some of what I found was reminiscent of my mother’s life in the 40’s and 50’s: bills and sales slips from department stores, electric bills and bills for milk delivery, drycleaning, and so on. The prices of things from those days were interesting. It was both surprising and sad to see what a dollar used to buy.

The names of the stores brought back memories of being with my mother when I was small, taken along on shopping trips. To my young eyes, the department store was a wondrous place holding all sorts of interesting things to look at. She also kept paid bills for expenses related to her art and the galleries she had under her own name. I set these aside for my daughter who is planning a future retrospective exhibit of her grandmother’s art.

The quantities of letters on thin airmail paper were impossible to read. Plus many of them were in German or Spanish. The dates on some envelopes went back to before my mother married my father. It seems she had quite a collection of boyfriends and there were many letters, some I could decipher a little addressed to her in endearing terms. It amazed me that she had managed to keep and haul around that collection for so long. The earliest went back more than 70 years. I had a wonderful walk through her life and times, and I found myself happy to have been able to touch into my own memories of those days..

It seems to me that things were far more innocent then. There were rules to be followed. These had been handed down from generation to generation and applied as long as life was stable and people’s roles mostly well defined. There was more safety in living that way. There are people who wish it were still like that today, however their numbers are dwindling. Once change begins it cannot be stopped or the results will be like a cancer that devours its host. Growth often comes about with pain. However, the freedom of being out from under the rigidity of the life my mother lived with is precious. I am grateful for it.

 

Memories of a Very Special Neighbor

Laura Dodge's Dancing Dolls        I grew up in the country, and the only neighbor I really knew was my Great Aunt Alice, because we lived in a smaller home on part of her property. There were no children for me to play with except some siblings across the street. My parents did not know theirs and I was not permitted to invite them in or to go to their house. To be fair, they were not a very kind bunch. There were two sisters and their brother, who was rather rough. They went to a different school than I did and I had very little in common with them. It is lovely to have neighbors, and once I had one who was special indeed.

I was recently able to get back in touch with this neighbor of many years ago. Her children and mine were of an age and we lived in a small town on the North Shore of Boston. In our suburban neighborhood our houses were only a few yards apart. Some days when I was upstairs, even without the windows being open I could hear her playing her recorder. A musician and an artist by avocation, she had a dachshund that she had taught to accompany her when she played happy birthday on the piano.

We were able to share only a couple of phone calls in the few months I had rediscovered her. Now has come the news that she has passed on. Memories of our years as neighbors flood back to me. One favorite is the time I was grilling a boned leg of lamb on my charcoal grill in the back yard. To my dismay I looked out and saw her German shepherd running off with it in his mouth. She bravely rescued it from him, cooked it for her family and gave me another leg of lamb that was even then roasting in her oven. Many times after that over cups of tea we laughed together, remembering.

Our children played together in our yards and she shared produce from her garden with me. Generous with her time and energy, she taught me a lot about sewing, and helped me whenever I was stuck trying to do something too advanced for my sewing machine skills. She helped me out when my younger children were born, brought food and kept me company. I was sad when she sold her house and moved away. Later after he was grown and on his own she took in my late son and as he helped her with hers, taught him a lot about gardening. I was very grateful to her for her kindness to him.

No matter how long someone you may cherish lives–and she was 92 when she passed on, it is never long enough to do and say all the things you wish you had done and said. I have to be content with what remains of my memories and of the conversations we had before she went to her final rest. She was a very special friend as well as a wonderful neighbor and I am sure many besides me have fond memories of her. A giving, sharing person, she set a good example for everyone who knew her. She lived a kind and caring life and will I am sure continue her loving ways now that she has her angel wings.

A Memorial Day Remembrance

DSCF0171-1My father’s father died in World War One when my dad was six years old. I can still see the picture of them both that stood on top of our piano in my childhood home. It was in an old fashioned, gold toned frame partnered by one of my Great Grandmother on the other side. Tinted brown, it showed a handsome man in an army officer’s uniform wearing riding boots—he was in the Calvary, standing opposite a small boy in a sailor suit, saluting his father. It may have been the last picture ever taken of him. My grandmother never remarried but raised my father and his brother alone.

My father was a colorful character who dressed as he chose and did things the way he wanted. Although he didn’t care too much what others thought, he was in many ways a traditional person. Every Sunday he attended the Episcopal Church in the neighboring town where he had grown up, and where my grandmother had endowed a stained glass window dedicated to her late husband. On the rare occasions I attended it with him as a child, I would gaze up entranced at the light shining through the image of a knight in armor with a face that seemed to me to resemble the man I’d never met, surrounded with emblems symbolic of his life.

A square in the center of that town was dedicated to my grandfather. He was a decorated hero and had been awarded a medal posthumously. Each Memorial Day the parade of marchers would stop there and a member from the American Legion would place a wreath of Laurel leaves on the hook on the pole beneath the sign that bore his name. My grandmother and later my father would add a big bunch of red carnations. I can remember one year my father lifted me up so I could do it. Each year we went as a family for the ceremony.

My father also decorated the graves of two elderly friends who had come from England to live in our town. Their pink marble gravestones still stand out among the somber gray granite of the rest of the local cemetery. He had been fond of them and I remember his taking me to visit them when I was very small.

My father’s grave is in a family cemetery on Cape Cod where some of his ancestors lived and worked. It is too far for me to travel to easily. His headstone, a simple boulder with a brass plaque, was his unique choice for his grave. It stands out boldly among the more traditional gravestones of his ancestors and the other members of his family. He was an individualist to the end.

On this Memorial Day as always I honor my late father in my heart. When I donate to a charity I know he would have given to, when I pray in my own fashion for the good of others, as well as when I emulate his kind nature and unique sense of fashion, I am honoring his memory. I cannot place flowers on his grave nor can I tend it as I would if I lived nearby; I can honor his memory in my own way by how I live my life and carry on in the way he taught me to do.

Tasha Halpert

 

Full of Thanks and Grateful to Be So

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A Family Gathering several Years Ago

Thanksgiving is a nonsectarian holiday that most of us can celebrate. I remember in school it centered on the Pilgrims. In first grade we made pilgrim hats and talked about how they lived. Today as a result of our treatment of the indigenous peoples since the first US Thanksgiving, the stories I grew up with have changed somewhat. However since time began harvest festivals similar to our Thanksgiving have been universally celebrated. Throughout the history the expression of gratitude for whatever constitutes our abundance endures.

I wasn’t always aware how important it was to be grateful. To be sure, I was brought up to say thank you when given a gift and often to write a letter of acknowledgment to the giver. However, having an actual attitude of gratitude, as the saying goes, was foreign to my thinking. I can remember my mother saying things like: “Finish your liver, there are children starving in China who would be happy to have it.” Of course, the thought that goes with that is, well send it to them then, however that would have been considered a rude remark and would have merited disciplinary action.

As a child, like most I took my safety, my freedom from hunger and cold, and my warm surroundings for granted. I was sheltered from the knowledge of others’ circumstances; then, the only source of outside information besides the newspapers was the radio. I knew much less about the world than children with access to TV and the Internet do today. Whether that makes one more or less apt to be grateful is moot. It might make an interesting study. However most probably even today gratitude is something we become aware of only as adults. It is very easy for children to take their blessings for granted.

My change of heart began with a simple prayer given me by someone I met only briefly yet who had a profound effect on my life. I was complaining about my circumstances when she corrected me. “Rather than bemoan what you don’t have, rejoice over what you do.” She suggested I repeat three times a day, “Beloved Lord I do greatly thank Thee for the abundance that is mine.” The phrasing can be changed to suit those who have a different belief system to honor whatever higher power they may acknowledge–Divine Providence, the Goddess, Mother Earth and so on.

Oddly once I began to do that, my abundance began to grow and has continued to do so. On another occasion I briefly met a wise woman who among other things, told me to take nothing for granted. I took her advice to heart. As I have continued to be grateful even for simple gifts and to acknowledge my little blessings, they have continued to expand. Eventually I even learned to be grateful for difficulties and disappointments because of the opportunities to learn and grow they provided. At this Thanksgiving as always I will sit down at the table with a heart full of gratitude, and for this I am exceedingly grateful.

Tasha Halpert

Summer Through the Years

Diana's Pond ReflectionsAs a child I so looked forward to school vacation and the freedom it brought from discipline, homework and schedules. Whenever weather permitted, my time was spent out doors wandering around the rather large property where my parents and I lived. It belonged to my Great Aunt Alice, whose father had built the grand house she lived in now, as well as the cottage originally intended for the gardener. That was where I, and later on my brothers and sister lived. There was a broad, open field to roam in, trees to climb, and a small marsh bounded by a dyke that kept out most of the distant seawater.

Wildflowers grew in abundance, insects buzzed and birds called. There were trees to climb, and I also spent time high in their branches, reading. I called it my tree house and brought pillows to the platform I had wedged into my favorite tree, a big beech. Summer was a time to play. The property held plenty of room for my imagination to conjure up all kinds of adventures like the ones in the stories I read: Tarzan, Robert Louis Stevenson’s tales, and the legends of Greek heroes.

Time passed and I was a young mother. Summer meant days at a nearby beach watching my children play in the sand and splash in the waves. Fortunate to be able to stay home with my children, I hung the laundry in the sun, worked on my tan, and took the them to the local church fairs, the annual carnival, and whatever other amusement the season offered. We had picnics and explored the highways and byways of surrounding towns. Later there were softball and then baseball games they played in to attend. The work of motherhood became a kind of play in summer.

Fast-forward to a different kind of summer life, with a swimming pool to clean and care for and a large garden that took me almost as much time to look after as the children did. Still it was a delight to share the pool as well as the garden with visitors. I didn’t mind the weeding too much, or pruning the shrubs. It was an adventure to tackle the wild rose vine I planted for its delicious scent, without realizing the consequences of its rampant growth. I never knew how many would be sitting down to any meal, because people came and went as I practiced my hospitality. Summer held a different kind of play.

My summers have changed again. With age comes less tolerance for extreme conditions. My bones enjoy my home’s warmth in the cold but not its heat in the muggy weather. I appreciate air conditioning far more than I used to, and I spend much more time indoors than I did in the past. While the long summer hours of light are enjoyable, the effect of the heat on my mind is not. Labor Day signals summer’s closing. Once I welcomed its beginning with open arms, now each year I am more appreciative of summer’s end.

Pennies from Heaven

Grammy and Emilia 04My grandmother grew up in a time when a penny, not mention a dollar was worth considerably more than it is today. She also grew up in an era when there were few occupations of any status open to women besides marriage. If you were single and not a member of the “working class,” not much was open to you in he way of employment. You could be a school teacher or a companion to a wealthy older woman otherwise, you most likely lived with your parents and or a sibling, or helped care for those in your family.

I used to enjoy the stories she told me about her growing up years in the big house she shared with one sister and one brother. I remember having tea with my great grandmother in that house when I was very young. Like her, even many years later my grandmother had tea every day at four o’clock. When I was with her I was given ginger ale in a very thin glasses etched with a delicate design. I remember how it tickled my nose as I drank it.

While I was growing up, my grandmother and I were very close. She loved me dearly, and one way she showed it was to save all her pennies for me. When she came to visit, she would hold them clasped in her large wrinkled hands. I would place my small hands together just under hers. Then she would glide her closed hands over mine and say aloud, “Hold fast all I give you, hold fast all I give you, hold fast all I give you.” On the third repetition she would open her hands to let the pennies fall out, and I would open mine. The pennies would pour in, filling my small hands to overflowing.

Even today I love it when I find pennies lying about on the ground or even on the floor in stores. To me this is a sign of good luck. The other day I brought some items to a consignment store. One was a purse and I put a penny inside. I have always put a penny into every purse I have ever given away. When I told the person at the counter what I had done, she smiled and told me that when she found pennies it felt to her as though they were a sign from her late husband that he was still with her. “He loved finding them,” she told me, “though they had to be face up. On our wedding anniversary, and on his birthday both I found a lot of pennies all face up the way he liked them.” Pennies are special to her also.

Though they have lost much of their value monetarily today, a penny is more than just a penny to me. However, back a long way in time, a penny was a significant amount of money. There were even coins in common use smaller than a penny. But then life was cheap and for most people times were hard. Now periodically there are movements to get rid of them entirely because it is said they cost more to manufacture than they are worth and they slow down the process of making change. A number of countries have discontinued them, substituting five and ten cents as their lowest denomination.

For me a shiny penny is more than a coin. It is a symbol of my childhood and a way to access memories from that time. Seeing my grandmother in my mind’s eye, hearing her voice as she chanted the magical words, “Hold fast all I give you,” brings up even more memories of my days with her, of the stories she would tell me about her girlhood and what it was like for her growing up. I am older now than she was then, yet the memories have not faded. Like shiny pennies lying on the ground for me to find, they bring me a happy feeling in my heart.

Tasha Halpert