Little Boy Found:

My father at 4 years old

I love the hidden stories implicit in a found object– an “objet trouvé,” as the French would say. (And everything sounds better in French.) The beauty of found objects lies partially in them being so full of possibility, but also in what they teach us of empathy when we try to place ourselves in their story. In Bruges, I once found a small photo of a young man; it was precariously sat on a windowsill I passed by. I didn’t dare move it– perhaps it was left for the occupant on the other side of the window? Or perhaps the object of his affection had tossed it aside as she walked down the street, and it landed on this perch. Perhaps it had accidentally been dropped and another passerby had picked it up from the street, moving it where it might be found again, thinking somewhere, someone in town was looking frantically to find it. I left the photo, imagining that the story was still in play.

Or there’s the Grateful Dead songbook I stumbled on at a used book store, only to have a personal note fall out at my feet: “Jan. 1987. To Grace, with love, Krissy. When you’re older and wiser and living in Paris, I hope you’ll never forget our great times and the Grateful Dead. Welcome home!” I found this youthful time capsule for sale for a few dollars in the suburbs of DC in 2018. I hope that Grace is living in Paris and loving life. I hope this memento was only discarded because she travels light and keeps on truckin’, not because she’s lost touch with those great times and her friend Krissy. But who knows?

Another time, I found a tiny Bible in the £1 box at a British antique fair. I opened it up to find an amazing soldier’s story inside. But that lovely story should wait for its own post someday. Today, I have something else to talk about. The found object is my father. At four years old. Living in a small mill house in NC in the aftermath of the Great Depression.

I knew my father very well and loved him even better. I thought, foolishly, that I knew the book of his life. That I could pick it up off the bookshelf without having notes fall out and catch me by surprise. Moments of youthful joy, or family struggle, or any of the thousands of days and hundreds of thousands of hours that were his story and not mine, despite the tight weave of family that we share. To love someone well is to know them in a way that you feel their presence deep in your bones. But that doesn’t mean you know all the frames of their story, and it is an exquisite and poignant experience when these notes fall out of their book and land at your feet. It’s a gift that reawakens wonder and empathy. But I ramble on.

My dad and his younger brother, Larry. I’m not sure his age here, but I’d guess 6-7.

Pardon me. I’ll slow down and tell you about this found object.

A few weeks ago, I was walking a very particular path: the one year anniversary of my father’s death. A path by turns beautiful and rough; a week about enduring memory and love, as well as the sting of loss.

A very mundane thing happened that week. Ancestry.com emailed me that my DNA/origins information had been updated. It happens with some regularity. (And to my dismay, it always draws my regional circle tighter and never suddenly tells me: “Girl, we just found a Russian Tsaress/Egyptian pharaoh/Amazonian princess in your background!” Nope, I’m entirely Western European and mostly English, Scottish, Irish. In fact, I’m so Scottish that it’s baffling my hair isn’t flame-red. On the other hand, I’m no longer perplexed that my mother eats oats for breakfast every morning. Every. Single. Morning. She can’t help it– it’s in her DNA, apparently.) But I digress– which is easy to do in the mundane moments of your story.

I opened this ancestry update to find that I am still the most White Anglo-Saxon Protestant woman on the planet. I suppose the marketing team at Ancestry.com realized that this was not terribly exciting news, and they couldn’t automatically count on me rushing to purchase their services to learn more. They would have to pitch something specific of interest: my grandfather’s WWII draft registration card and a page from the 1940 census. For a small fee.

I already know my family history. I have pages and pages of names, dates, locations. I know who did the begetting and who was begat. But this meaningful coincidence– a small platter of tasty family morsels as I walked a week hungry with loss and heavy with my father’s spirit– this, I could not ignore.

Besides which, I’m a savvy researcher and was pretty sure I could find these documents online without paying the asking price. (Damn, there’s my Scottish frugality peeking through!)

So now we return to the beginning of this post- the place of found objects and enchanted spaces. The place where I find my father at 4 years old.

The 1940 census.

I opened the document and it was like opening the wardrobe door into Narnia. I absolutely couldn’t believe my eyes. There was this family that I know, but don’t know. My grandfather at 30. (He would be dead 9 years later.) My grandmother as a young mother to three boys, ranging from 4 down to less than a year. And those three boys– that happy few, that band of brothers, who joked and jostled and supported each other throughout their lives. Three tiny boys who dug tiny trenches in the backyard during WWII, believing that any minute Japanese Zeroes would swarm the sky over their small NC town and they’d have to take cover. Who dearly loved a little boy dog they misguidedly named Daisy. And who could never agree on which of them set off the cherry bombs inside the house. (Although they were all quite sure that the culprit had tried to throw them out the window, but missed.) That naughty and noble band of brothers is, today, reduced to a band of one.

But in the 1940 census, they are alive and well, in the first years of their journey and living in a rented house along with their parents and a lodger–their father’s Aunt Mattie.

I haven’t encountered Mattie before. Who is this Aunt Mattie, I wonder? And where is this house, exactly? I turn back to the internet to find it. To see where these people I love, but somehow don’t know at all, are living.

Google Earth street view- the home where
my father lived in 1940

I find the house. It’s still standing today, unchanged on the outside. It’s a small mill house built in 1915. Two bedrooms for these three adults and three children.

The 1930’s were lean and mean years, and The Great Depression had not spared this community. Farmers scraped by. The mills spluttered and many closed their doors, selling off the mill houses. Dinner tables didn’t groan under the weight of hearty helpings. And people worked hard to simply stay afloat. I’d always believed that my parents grew up after this wave of hardship broke. That they were touched by those years, but not burdened. But peering into this small house, I wondered.

And so I turned back to the faded lines of the 1940 census and found information about my grandparents’ employment.

In 1940, my grandfather was working 70 hours a week as a cafe operator. My grandmother, who was college educated and was a teacher before having children (and again after my grandfather’s death), was working 40 hours a week as a seamstress in a cloth mill. This surprised me. In 1940, most women gave up work after getting married and having children — that was the expectation until the war effort really cranked up. If my grandmother was back at work with three tiny tots at home, and working in a job none of us ever heard her talk about later . . .this felt like hard times. And Aunt Mattie, whom I had guessed was there to help with the young children? Now I see that she was also working 40 hours a week, inspecting cloth in the mill. It seems that they were working mighty hard just to get by.

I know what they don’t know yet- that 1940 is the cusp where lean times begin the turn to boom times. But the price is another world war. I know that these three boys will grow up to be fine men, but I know also that personal tragedy and plenty of struggle will color their decade ahead. In this moment, I want so badly to actually reach out and touch them. To sit and talk. To just watch them and learn who they are, and how they are– these people I know but don’t know.

What a gift, this of all weeks, to stand in the doorway of this humble house, seeing the band of brothers, admiring my young grandmother, and trying to conjure the grandfather and great-great aunt that I never knew. I feel a strange mix of pride and sorrow. Proud of the determination and hard work of a family that will go on to raise three amazing men. Sorrow for the hardships and heartbreak I know will continue to touch this family in the years ahead.

I also feel wonder, and a little pain, that there is so much more I could learn about my father, so much more his life can teach me . . . but so much I am sure to never know.

It feels like a gift, this 1940 census. Like a magic portal. Like a little nudge from the universe, a whispered secret. A found object here, an old document there. A window into the lives we know intimately and not at all.

My father at 4 years old.

Battle of Britain Day, 2019

Today, September 15, is Battle of Britain Day, marking the date in 1940 when the German Luftwaffe launched an enormous attack on London and South East England, but the Royal Air Force pushed back victorious and turned the tides in the larger “Battle of Britain”- a nearly 4 month long campaign.

I know this, not because I am a WWII fanatic.  I know this because it streamed across my computer this morning.  The universe handed me this nugget not so much as a random byte of information, it seems to me, but as a beautiful gesture of syncronicity, an acknowledgment of battles we face.

My parents grew up during WWII.  They took form, in character and outlook, from the struggles and victories of that era.  If their lives have a soundtrack, it is generously sprinkled with Big Band music,  Ella Fitzgerald, and the tappity-tap-tap of my mother tap dancing her way through a recording of “The Boogie Woogie Buggle Boy from Company B.”  It may not be my generation’s music, but I do find that my heart swells when I hear it because it so pulses through the veins of my parents in their youthful moments.

It will come as no surprise that my dad has always been a student of WWII era aircraft.  He indulged that love of Spitfires and Corsairs, poured over books about them and history magazines that featured WWII battles, and built model airplanes with my brother when we were young.

I observed this and, although I never shared the obsession or built the model airplanes, I loved his love of the history and of the forms of flight and defenders of freedom that these metal birds represented.  Because I love my dad.

There was one way in which my dad and I shared his love of WWII history and aircraft, and I suspect he doesn’t know this.  In fact, I never thought about it until this week– it’s one of those memories of childhood that doesn’t get fully processed until some time later in life. It’s like a shiny pebble you pick up and put in your treasure box as a child, just because it delights you.  Years later, you open the box to have a nostalgic look at those simple prizes of childhood, only to realize that you have pocketed a gold nugget.

This is one of those nuggets:

The church system was older than this, but this gives you an idea of what it looked like.

In the 1970’s, my dad would often man the P.A. (public address) system at our church on Sunday mornings.  The control board was a large metal tower of dials and toggle switches that had to be monitored for volume and switched at the right moment, to turn on and off microphones that were placed around the sanctuary. Was someone reading a lesson from the lecturn? Was the minister stepping up to the pulpit to deliver a long and learned sermon?  Wherever the action was, there the microphone should be turned on.  Wherever the action wasn’t, it should be shut off to avoid buzz and background noise.

The fellow in the pulpit may have the figurative spotlight for a speech, but if the PA system wasn’t properly aligned, the whole morning fizzled.

Manning the PA system was important, but it wasn’t exciting.  You sat in a small room behind the sanctuary, armed with a church bulletin and notes on where each “act” of the service would take place.  You stared at a large metal tower set into a recess of the wall, and you navigated the service while you listened in on the giant aviator-style headphones that were provided. 

Yes indeed, you navigated the service in your aviator headphones.  So it seemed to me.  You see, my dad would occasionally let me join him when he manned the PA system.  From his perspective, it was probably just a chance to spend a little more time with his children.  Or maybe he knew my fascination with aviator headphones.  Either way, on the rare occassion, I was his co-pilot in this cockpit.

When I was lucky enough to join my dad, it was a big deal to me. I liked the headphones, and I marveled at the dials and switches, while sitting on a metal chair with my feet dangling above the ground.  If I fidgeted and squirmed, it was only between moments of staring, enrapt, at the towering cockpit and keeping an eye on my dad’s deft piloting of the apparatus.

I wasn’t old enough to see it then– I loved the experience, but wasn’t self-aware enough to know why.  Today, it is crystal clear to me.  In these moments, I was flying a Spitfire over the skies of London.  I was piloting a Corsair over the English Channel.  I was a green co-pilot to my dad’s flying ace, and I loved every moment.  Sure, we got off easy: when Dr. Joe Mullin stepped to the pulpit for a long sermon, we’d flip on his mic, then leave our post and scramble down to the kitchen for donuts.  But we’d always be back in place before Joe finished, and we’d fly that service back into a safe and smooth landing before shutting down the cockpit and hanging up our headphones for the day.

We were a great aviatorial team, my dad and me.  The best.

So today we honor those brave souls who fought The Battle of Britain, and my dad is still the best pilot any co-pilot could have.  He’s fighting his own battle with cancer now.  It’s very difficult and grueling.  Some days, it’s just a wing and a prayer.  But no matter that– today is a day to lift up the brave, and, although my dad was just a school boy at the time, he’s my favorite WWII hero.

I love you, Dad!

 

 

There Is A Small Medium at Large

Whoopi Goldberg as Oda Mae, the psychic, in the movie Ghost.
Whoopi Goldberg as Oda Mae, the psychic medium, in the movie Ghost.

Well, my traveling friends, it’s true: there is a small medium at large.  You know how, when you travel, you are met with  new and unexpected experiences?  That’s the draw of it, right?  This is also true when you move to a new region–there are sure to be interesting developments, to be moments of “Oh, wow,  that’s never happened to me before.”

Any number of moments, really.   But here is one for your consideration.

The red stone house in Germany
The red stone house in Germany

As you know, we’ve just moved back to the States from Germany.  And if you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you know that I was sorely disappointed that the very old stone house we lived in there wasn’t haunted, even though we had enough ghost stories under our belts already.  Anyhoo, as we packed up to bid Germany goodbye and we planned our new life in Florida, we gave up any hope of supernatural tales.  In fact, in our last weeks, we were told that the old German house used to be called Villa Sunshine by the locals.  Not much spooky there.

So off to sunny Florida, where sangria and surf are the norm and atmospheric tales stay at bay.

Then again . . . we hadn’t even gotten to Florida before a Floridian friend was in contact and, on hearing where we would be renting our house, said “Hey, that’s the neighborhood with the psychic, isn’t it?”  zoltarfull02

Was it?  We didn’t know.  Honestly, we didn’t care.   But weeks later, as we moved into the new digs, we found ourselves on the lookout.  Any odd-birds in the neighborhood?  Anyone walking around in a turban, looking like Zoltar the fortune teller?

Our curiosity was peaked, but we had no idea what we might be looking for.  There were no “Sister Rosa, Palm Reader” signs in front yards–the Home Owner’s Association would have frowned on that.  There were no Gypsy caravans parked in driveways.  So we were on the lookout for any eccentrics that we might pin the role on, but we were coming up with nothing.  Which just made us more curious.

I don’t have any experience with psychic mediums.  My only reference points are examples like the Zoltar fortune teller machine and Whoopi Goldberg’s character in the movie Ghost.  (A character whose narrative arc is pretty interesting:  she starts out as a charlatan and ends up being more sage than she ever knew she could be.)  If you don’t remember her, here’s a small clip for you:

 

Yeah, generally speaking, I guess the idea of a psychic makes me giggle.  At worst, this person would be a con man–  ready to prey on folks who are looking for reassurance or struggling through grief.  But then again, there are some people who are intuitive, you know?   And so many of us have stories that defy logical explanations, so maybe . . . just maybe. . .

Bottom line:  I’m a skeptic, but not foolish enough to say it isn’t possible.

So my husband and I continued our neighborhood watch– it was our project to figure out where this eccentric might live.  We embraced the challenge a little too happily:  we watched the neighborhood and the neighbors, we commented on odd decor and strange choices of head-gear, we sat in judgment of peculiarities or individual flights of fancy.

Little did we know. . .

Honestly, here’s exactly where I should have seen the plot twist coming– I’m an English and Religious Studies major, after all, and this is the age old tale.  When you’re looking for the trouble out there–the fault in your neighbor– well, you’re looking in the wrong place.  More often than not, the fault is your own.

So guess where this psychic lived?  Yep.  Oh, yep.

Turns out, we’d moved into the house.

*  * *

I’ll give up no information on this person– who by all accounts from neighbors, and our own dealings, is fantastic.  In fact, this makes me want to be more open to the idea of a . . . psychic?  I don’t even really know what that is.  I have this hodgepodge of terms in my head– psychic, clairvoyant, medium, spiritualist, etc.– and I don’t really know what they mean, or how they’d be distinguished one from the other.   Really, all this situation has taught me is that I know nothing and should probably keep my mouth shut.   We’ll see how well that lesson takes . . .

But in the meantime, I’m left with this:  as much as I’m a skeptic in my head, my heart seems to be a total buy in– and it’s causing me some real trouble.

A couple of weeks ago, our landlord dropped by the house with an extra set of  keys that we needed.   I answered the door, was welcoming and polite, as usual, and then suddenly froze  as I was shaking this person’s hand.  I had the thought, “What if _____ can sense my thoughts?  What if they know I know?  That I think being a psychic is strange?”  Of course, these thoughts were followed by a barrage of “Stop thinking.  Seriously.  Right now–stop.  Oh, I can’t control my thoughts!!!”    And, intuitive or not, anyone would have gotten some strange vibes from me then.  I’m pretty sure my entire facial expression went to the deer caught in the headlights pose for a minute or more, and I was pretty much a jabbering idiot.  So again, lesson to the arrogant:  judge not lest ye be judged.   Which is not fun.

And this week the same problem arose.  This time, our air conditioning started limping (freon leak), and we had to call the landlord.  My husband tried to hand me the phone to make the call– I’d noticed the problem and would generally have made the call myself.  But I was not feeling it.  It had been a stressful day –unpacking boxes, sifting through breakage, and muttering obscenities all day– and I just wasn’t ready to call up a mind reading spiritualist.   I had to, shame-faced, take my husband out of earshot of the kids and say, “You really have to make this call, because I think that maybe I DO believe in psychics, and I think that a psychic would pick up on a whole lot of bad juju and general craziness in me right now, and I’m not feeling like being evicted from my house today just because I happen to suffer from this-is-what-it’s-like-inside-my-wierd-head-syndrome.”

God bless my husband.  He asked no further questions and just made the phone call.

I did, however, have to speak to our small medium at large a couple of days later to confirm that the air conditioning repair man had been by.  I think that conversation went well.  Granted, I was manically chipper sounding.  Possibly one toe over the crazy-line of chipper. (I had to talk fast before the “can’t-  control- my- thoughts–you’re a pyschic!” stuff crept in.)  But it is what it is.

Any psychic worth their salt would understand the issue and forgive me.

I think it could be a real burden being a psychic and dealing with all us crazy humans.  Hopefully the voices from the other side are much more sensible.

 

The Things We Leave Behind: Childhood and Chitty Chitty

HPIM0620

There was a blog-space challenge making its rounds this week, for posts and photos of “The Things We Leave Behind.”  There have been great photos of, and posts about, crumbling architecture, changing cityscapes, found objects, etc.  The challenge catches me in a nostalgic mood, having just moved back Stateside, so my mind has lighted on personal memories– earlier travels when my children were little.  I’ll share just a few of those photos here.

HPIM0622The first photos come from an early summer day in Yorkshire, England, when Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (the actual car from the movie) made an appearance at a local manor house one Saturday.   The owner of the car, who had actually driven the car in at least one scene in the movie, was proudly displaying his picture-perfect auto and answering a frenzy of questions from fans of all ages.  HPIM0624

 

One lucky person, whose name was drawn out of a hat, got to go for a ride in the car.  We didn’t make that cut, but we enjoyed ogling the iconic car anyway.  It was a magical day.

I look at the photos now, and it does feel like an era left behind:  our lives in England, our children’s wide-eyed elementary and preschool years, and a certain fabled-space that those two things created in their synergy.

It’s funny, but when I looked at a number of old photos that I might post of “Things We Leave Behind,” I found that my present nostalgic filter made me HPIM0543see each of them differently.   For example, this photo from Fountains Abbey, in Yorkshire.   I went looking for a picture of the impressive ruins of the Catholic abbey that Henry the VIII closed down (but which partially stands proud to this day), but what I saw immediately in the photo was my son’s love of the Davy Crockett coonskin cap  HPIM0543 - Copy which he wouldn’t take off of his head, even in the summer heat.  It was a funny phase. . . but eventually left behind.

 

DSC_0251

When I looked at this photo of graffiti on the walls of Kings College Chapel, in Cambridge, England (some of it dating back to the 1600’s), I immediately remembered a lazy afternoon stroll along the Cam River and “the Backs” of the university with my daughter. And I also thought of the graffiti on the walls in the Tower of London, some of it from prisoners kept there hundreds of years ago, and I remembered my children’s amazement at it, and their love of British history when it was so solidly placed in front of them, and so brilliantly re-animated by the British book, TV, and stage series “Horrible Histories.”  Living elbow to elbow with history is something that Europeans do very well, but Americans a little less so.

Maybe that’s just a matter of circumstance.  Europeans simply have so much more history to steep in than Americans, and it’s in your face on every street corner.  Still, it offers a certain long view of the world that is so very valuable–a sense that we don’t really “leave behind” things, so much as we build on and around them.

Like childhood and Chitty Chitty, there are certain things that we should never totally leave behind–and couldn’t, even if we wanted too.

 

Boxing Up My Life– Round Two

DSC_0011 - Copy

In May of 2014, I posted “Boxing Up My Life,” as we packed and prepared to ship our household goods to Germany.  And then I blinked and it was June of 2016, and I find myself, once again, knee deep in the boxing up process.  I am amazed, and a little dumbfounded, by the inertia of my life.  A body in motion tends to stay in motion– but that doesn’t make the move process any easier.

Nobody likes goodbyes– it’s hard to wrench yourself away from people and places that you love.  And for some of us, even the simple motion of boxing up our domestic goods brings on certain pangs.  It’s a hassle, to be sure, but it’s also a poignant process– the handling, organizing, and thoughtful packing of the things you accumulate.  It’s a time to separate the wheat from the chaff, and to remember why you’ve collected certain items in the first place.  Some objects are curiosities, others are fond memories, and still others are nearly totemic in their connection to the arc of your life.

The handling and packing of these things is gratifying in lots of ways– it’s like watching a retrospective study on your life– but it’s also maddening to ship these things out, in hopes that they will come back to you intact in a few months.

Here is my perspective from two years ago:

My material things don’t equate my life–let me just say that up front.

And yet.

I’m a magpie.   I collect threads and scraps as I move along, and they pad my nest.  No, that’s not exactly it.  They become the fabric of my nest.   The baubles I collect as I keep wandering represent my life. And it’s hard to watch them all be packed up, some to load onto a slow boat to Germany and some to sit in storage for a couple of years.  So many of my things feel like old friends, like artifacts of adventurous times, not like run of the mill stuff at all.

And, yes, in the interest of full disclosure, I have too much “stuff” too.  I’m not proud that among the boxes being packed up in my house there are “As Seen on TV” products, old DVD’s and VHS tapes of bad sitcoms, some dog figurines…well, it just gets ugly.  But let’s focus on the beauty here:

There’s the portrait of Teak, the first dog my husband and I owned–so beautiful and so smart.  He was the beginning of a small menagerie of children, dogs, and goldfish who share our life.

There’s the old dollhouse from England, bought at auction.  It’s a Tudor, half-timber design, handmade, and sporting a “Toy Town Antiques” sign over the door  and a little antique shop in the front room, visible through the window.

There’s the 300 year old walnut chest that may or may not house a ghost.  (We call her Emily.)

The church pew from the Ripon Cathedral in our old hometown of Ripon,  England  (legitimately bought, not carried out of the cathedral–thanks for asking).  It is quite beautiful, but impossible to look at without imagining the people who were there before you.  Brides and widows.  Carolers and clerics.  Young, old, rich, poor, inspired, and downtrodden.  A microcosm of life on one short bench.

There’s the  old pocket Bible from WWII that bears King George’s stamp and message to soldiers in the front cover, and is partially  hollowed out in the middle so the owner could hold cigarettes or pass notes.  It came from the estate of a former British soldier; he was a POW in the Pacific theater.

The Turkish carpet we bought from a man affectionately (?) known as “the one-armed bandit” in Kizkalesi, Turkiye.  He lived in a coastal town not too far from where we lived and knew our car the minute we drove into town for the weekend.  He’d flag us down, bring us into his home, close the curtains, and then pull out his stash of carpets, jewelry, and antiquities for sale.   All a little shady, but in a seductively  high intrigue way.  We felt like James Bond in Istanbul, wheeling and dealing.    And, yes, he  had just one arm. (No doubt, there’s an interesting back story there.)

The list goes on.  And on.  And on.

Each item is its own story–some love stories, some comedies, some tragedies, some mysteries.  Inanimate objects?  No way.

Some of it is just stuff.  But so much of it runs deeper than that.  The artifacts of a life lived and loved.  Who could possibly fit that into a box? 

DSC_0259