WRITING SHORT: 12/50

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[Come summer heat, much of my blogging momentum melts away. Hence an experiment until Labor Day: fifty minimalist posts about whatever.]

I recently came across a box in the basement holding the white leather baby shoes in which I learned to walk in 1932. It was then the fashion to bronze outgrown baby shoes and keep them in the living room. However, these had been carefully cleaned with white shoe polish, stuffed with tissue paper and put away as if being saved for another day. I look now at these very small white shoes with stiffening laces and try to imagine the baby who wore them, the baby who was me. I can’t. I can’t even remember how it felt to take first steps among kindly giants in a world where everything was high above.

The reason I was in the basement was to find a large red-rope folder containing all my older son’s school reports and college applications. They’re his property really, to do with what he wants; it’s time they left my safekeeping. In the folder was a notebook labeled “My Diary” in which, as homework, he was supposed to write something every day for his first-grade teacher. I leaf through the careful block-printed entries on its wide-lined pages: “Ap.(ril) 8 Today we took Mommy to a doctor. We know him. We took mommy to t(he) doctor because she had some wax in her ear. It was keeping water in her ear.” That little boy I do remember. He had just turned seven. He and his younger brother were the center of my universe.

My older son is now a forty-eight year old man with some gray in his hair. Where is my mother’s baby? Where is my little boy? Day by day we change and disappear. The dead aren’t the only ones who are gone from us.

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WHAT’S PAST

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When we think about the past — especially a past that precedes our own personal past — we tend to think of it the way it looks in jerky old newsreels. Or in black and white photos now fading to gray, or in brownish sepia prints from the pre-World War II rotogravure.

The costumes in the photos and newsreels are funny-looking, too. Who in his or her right mind could possibly put on all that, day after day? And the artifacts of life — the high manual typewriters with round noisy keys, the brown wood living-room radios around which people gathered in the evenings, black telephones with white dials attached to a phone jack, Western Union telegrams for sending urgent messages out of town, bathtubs on legs, cotton sheets that had to be ironed, rumble seats on the back of coupes — they all look like props for a movie. Oh, and the voices and music on the old records, even where digitally restored as well as possible — they’re so dim and scratchy.  Were those real people making those sounds, real like you and me?

The very young even assume those of us who are considerably older can’t possibly understand anything about their high-speed world, the one that’s on the screen right now, because our slower world is gone and we’re not so quick on the uptake with the new iPhone6.  (From their point of view, we’re hanging around almost by sufferance; we have to be good, and quiet, and stay out of their multitasking way.) How can we possibly know anything about anything? There were no television sets, no cell phones, no email, no texting in our world.  No air-conditioning in the hot damp city summers.  No Salk vaccine to hold off polio. Letters  took two or three days to reach their destination, Food was seasonal. Refrigerators were small with virtually nonexistent freezer compartments. Contraception was iffy, abortions illegal, without anesthesia and sometimes on kitchen tables. (I’m writing off the top of my head here.This is not a reasoned or philosophical disquisition.) There were also so many other things that were different — great big life-extinguishing things, too many and profound to list completely —  like no unemployment insurance, no health insurance, no social security, no economic or racial or religious or ethnic equality.

So how can we — let alone the young — believe a fading memory of an uncomfortable, often painful, world that’s gone still has relevance today? How can we believe the sky was as blue then as it is now (when it is), or the touch of another’s hand as exciting, or calming, or comforting?

It’s even easier to think patronizing thoughts about this past when you consider how little it once cost to live.  It’s like looking backwards through reverse binoculars and seeing everything shrunk to doll size.  As you may know, I’ve lately been trying to write a longish piece about the year between my sixteenth and seventeenth birthdays.  That was in 1947-48. I thought I remembered a lot. I don’t.  I still know a stamp used to cost three cents, and a subway ride a nickel.  But memory has failed on so much we all take for granted (and therefore make no effort to remember) that I’ve had to fall back on the internet.

I therefore just learned again what I probably once knew:  that in 1947 America, a car cost $1,500, gasoline was 23 cents a gallon,  cigarettes were 20 cents a pack, you could buy a house for $13,000, a loaf of bread for 12 cents, and a gallon of milk for 80 cents.  In 1947, the federal minimum wage was 40 cents an hour and the average annual salary $3,500. Those weren’t doll-size numbers then. My own father earned $100 a week when he worked, but he was able to find work only for half the weeks of the year, so he saved $50 every week he was paid, and the three of us lived on the other $50.  This worked out to less than the statistically average American annual salary. Yet I always had decent clothes and good shoes, and new books and records for Christmas and my birthday, and even piano lessons, for which I practiced on a brand new $1,000 Steinway baby grand my father paid off in installments until it was ours. I didn’t feel deprived at all, until I began to dream of expensive colleges beyond our reach.

[There’s probably a good think piece to be written by someone else on what these numbers tell us about inflation. Raise the wage floor and you have to raise wages throughout the organization so that people earning more than the minimum wage go on earning proportionately more. But that eats into profit, so the employer raises prices, the minimum wage eventually becomes inadequate again, and there we go, up up up and away ….. But that’s not a piece I can write, because I have no idea what to do about it.]

This piece though — the one I ‘m posting today — started out as a sort of progress report on where I am with writing “The Practice Boyfriend.” It seems to have become something else. Not about inflation, but not about how far along I am with the longish piece, either. That’s because lying in bed in the morning thinking about this now long-ago part of my life has not only generated lists of things to research when I’m fully awake, but also brought up out of my own subterranean depths thoughts and feelings so much still alive (blue sky, comforting touch and all) that I categorically reject the notion the past is valueless because it has a quaint set design. Much of what reposes deep inside the aging heart remains so meaningful to what life is all about that it seems a shame to send it off to dead storage.  Time enough for that when those of us who still remember no longer can.  Until then, let’s write about it — so it can go on living a little longer through our words.

PANDORA’S BOX

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Remember the classical Greek myth about Pandora, the little girl who couldn’t contain her curiosity?  She was granted every wish by her loving parents, except her wish to look inside a box in their room they had warned her never to open.  But she just had to know what was in it. So one day when they weren’t home, she peeked in the box.  As soon as she lifted the lid, all the troubles in the world flew out.  And life was never the same again.

I recently came across a small box covered in faded flowered paper that had fallen behind some books in my office bookcase.   It had been my mother’s.  At one time, she used to cover little boxes that came her way with prettily patterned paper, to make them more decorative before she put something in them.

I hadn’t opened this box in ages. Unlike Pandora, I did more or less suspect what was inside.  I thought my mother might have kept in it small photographs I had sent her when we were living on separate coasts, mainly duplicates of photos I already had. But perhaps it held something else.  In any event, from the feel of it, the box was definitely not empty.  I was curious to look inside.

With one exception, it was filled with pictures taken between 1962 and 1965.  (What my mother may have thought of as my glory years.)  That one exception dates from January or February 1932.  I am the toothless little person in the angora hat on the left:

First winter

First Winter, 1932

I don’t know that baby.  And I barely remember the woman — young proud mother — who is holding her. Nothing at all comes back when I look at the picture. So it’s a safe zone.

But the other pictures?  Like Pandora, I should have left them in the box. Or in my memory of when they were taken.  Remembering the past may be pleasurable.  Actually seeing the changes that time has wrought is not.

Here, for instance, I am in 1962, age thirty-one, visiting my parents in southern California.  My father took these two photos.  How young I look to myself now!  How sophisticated I thought I was then —  a divorcee with life experience, in her clinging New York black dress, clean white cotton gloves, and heavily teased and sprayed hair.  (Life experience?  I hadn’t seen nothing yet.)

Summer 1962

Summer 1962

Summer 1962

Summer 1962

Moving on, here I am on the beach at East Hampton the following summer, which was fifty and a half years ago, searching — successfully — for a father for my future children.  My future second husband, who I met there and with whom I was entirely candid about my goals, said that would be okay.  He’d just see me until I found the right man.  So I wouldn’t be lonely while looking.   Oh the games we mortals play!

Summer 1963

East Hampton, Labor Day 1963

Yes, we bronzed ourselves with impunity in those days, oiling and baking in the sun for hours on summer weekends so as to look glamorous in pastel linen at the office during the week!  Nary a thought for future brown spots, melanomas, crinkled skin.  Tomorrow never comes, right?

[Which teaches us that there are occasional exceptions to “Now is now” as a principle to live by.]

There are no photos in the little flowered box after September 1965.  As far as my mother was concerned, my wedding and honeymoon in that month concluded the story.  A happy ending for her miscreant divorced daughter at last.

Here are just a couple of the honeymoon snaps. We do look happy, the new bride and groom on honeymoon in Bermuda:

Bermuda, September 1965

Bermuda, September 1965

Bermuda, September 1965

Bermuda, September 1965

Two years later, my mother began saving photos of my children, not me.  And not in the same box. Since she really did believe getting married ended a woman’s story, it’s just as well she closed her flowered box with Bermuda.

Because after the wedding and the honeymoon preserved by photo inside her box, all the real troubles in my world began.  And life was never the same again.