Dust to Digital

The ancestors live on ...
The ancestors live on …

About a month ago, our middle son returned after a year of work/travel abroad. He’s an easygoing sort, as comfortable nestled in a sleeping bag in the highlands of New Zealand as he is on a ratty basement couch. A good thing this. While he was off with the Kiwis, I was feathering his old nest in vintage Attic style. Out with the bunk beds and Pink Floyd posters, in with the Colonial end table, the Empire rocking chair, the spool-turned, “three quarters” bed. Matt, who stands at just under six foot two, must stretch out diagonally to comfortably sleep. Moreover, he wakes each morning to see his great grandfather’s Dental License hanging on one wall and opposite, a series of ancient family crests, all of which I’ve been meaning to re-frame but well, haven’t. A squirt of Windex and a firm swipe and they’re (almost) mildew-free.

Matt (full name Mattingly Payne … see how that noble crest makes the room his own?) is a good sport about his Attic-inspired digs. (Does he have a choice as he deliberates his future while working three part-time jobs?) He’s such a good sport that he’s agreed to help out with The Attic Project, Phase Two (part-time job number four!). At long last I’ve begun to sort through the mangy boxes and bins I dragged last spring from my mother’s house to mine, and somehow I’m now a little less enamored with, for example, the non-functional travel iron, the stained taffeta trousseau dress, the broken down high chair and my old Easy Bake Oven.

My school lunch box, circa 1968. No reason to save this, right? Then again ...
My school lunch box, circa 1968. No reason to save this, right? Then again …
“Will not Heat.” Good to know, Mom!

What in the heck do I do with all this stuff? The temptation to heft it straight up to my own attic is strong. This has become my husband’s greatest wish. Never has he been so eager … I can carry those boxes on up for you. There’s plenty of room up there! I refuse him. I know myself too well. As long as these treasures remain close at hand, stacked and gathering dust in plain view, I will eventually make myself organize and properly store them. Once it’s all out of sight? No dice.

We begin with the letters. Hundreds of letters. Include the sundry Christmas/Valentine’s/Anniversary cards, and it’s a clean thousand. Cross my heart. Matt reminds me he’s a bit of an expert at archiving, having worked just out of college for a company called “Dust to Digital,” where he scanned and preserved papers and albums left behind by forgotten folk artists. Parfait! So I’ll take the old fashioned tasks and he’ll digitize. Armed with new acid-free, archivally-safe sleeves, I open out yellowed missive number one, June 1938, penned by my mother, still single, a 19 year-old Agnes Scott student, to my father, a recent Georgia Tech grad who’d taken a sales job with National Theatre Supply Company in Albany, NY. I slide the pages and their matching envelope into the sleeve, tag it by date, and move on. Only I don’t move on. I stop to read the letter. And the next one, and one more, and soon I realize Matt is scanning and documenting at a rate of about five to my one.

A small sampling of the notes, cards, letters saved.
A small sampling of the notes, cards, letters saved.

Ah, to be young and efficient again. But look here … after a summer and autumn of bi- or tri-monthly letters sometimes mundane but often flirtatious, my mother one January day pauses, mid-letter, to announce: “Ed, I feel that I must tell you something right now …” Uh-oh. “… Above all, a person must always be true to himself …” Mother! “What I’m trying to say is this–I am in love with someone in Florida. You told me last fall that I must tell you whenever I fell. Well, on New Years’ Eve I suddenly realized that it had happened to me. As you’ve probably guessed, it’s the dentist.”

The dentist?!? A love interest kind of dentist? I’m so intrigued I read the letter aloud, even the part where Sara begs Ed to remain her friend (!). “It would hurt me terribly if I thought you didn’t understand … You are one of the finest people I know. Don’t ever change your big ideals!” And she signs off not “Love,” as previously, but “Always, Sara.”

By now, my youngest has joined us in the kitchen … “That’s so weird Mom,” he says. “I know!” I say. “A Dear John letter!” “No …” he says. “I mean, the way they wrote back then. So weee-ird.” Well, yes. They used pen and paper. And full sentences! Punctuation even!! But I know what he means. There’s a strange and somehow innocent formality to my parents’ correspondence. It’s still there later, after my father–who wasn’t about to give up the fight–invites my mother to come up and visit the 1939 Worlds’ Fair. After much fretting that my grandfather couldn’t afford the train fare, she tagged along on a friend’s road trip. By this time, sweet Sara was sending Ed her love again and flirting right along. Two weeks after the Worlds’ Fair weekend, she writes, “This afternoon I was putting a few things in my scrapbook and what memories they brought back. Ed, it all seems like a dream now! Will you ever forget the Waldorf Astoria? The other night I listened to Guy Lombardo’s orchestra and pretended we were dancing together again …”

Letter my mother wrote the evening my father returned to Albany after their outing to the 1939 Worlds' Fair.
Letter my mother wrote the evening my father returned to Albany after their outing to the 1939 Worlds’ Fair.

A year and a half later, they were married (see Stardust Memories, Parts I and II, there in the sidebar, just a click away!). Today, November 8th, would have been their 74th anniversary. I look around at my house strewn with papers and odd souvenirs (and archival sleeves!) and decide, yeah, it’s worth it. Thanks to Matt, my brothers and sister, my nieces and nephews, my children and (yikes) grandchildren, will be able to enjoy this little slice of family history. Maybe they’ll think, “Hmmm. Weird.” But they might smile while they’re at it, the way I can’t stop doing myself.

Happy Anniversary, Mom and Dad, no thanks to the Florida dentist!Fancy Joe and Pop

PS! You might notice I’ve tinkered with my blog’s layout. I may totally rework it soon … comments and suggestions welcome!

Color Me Burnt Sienna

October gold
October gold

Yesterday, October 19th, marked the one year anniversary of my mother’s death. I’m a day late and a dollar short, as my father, who was never late for anything, was fond of  saying. We lost him in October, too, twelve years ago on the 25th, just about a year to the day after my closest aunt left us in 2002. Then there was my maternal grandfather. Let’s see, he went in October, 1979, on the kind of warm bright autumn day in his north Florida town that makes surviving the area’s blistering summers worthwhile.

Is it in the blood? All these beloved folks died of natural causes, three of the four “of old age,” to put it rather unscientifically. It does make you wonder–is there something about the month itself that draws my kin to their final rest? Something anesthetizing about the cool rains, the majestic leaf fall, the smell of woodsmoke? Or is it the irresistible allure of all those zombies and skeletons knocking on doors on the 31st? Maybe thoughts of the great saints preparing for their feast day November 1st? I can’t say, but here’s another funny thing. My father, and that paternal grandfather, were BORN in October, too. I’m ashamed to admit I don’t recall the day my grandfather was born but I know it was in October. He used to wear a pin in his tie, a thin strip of gold topped with an opal. I remember the opal’s glossy shine, its smooth oval surface, one he let me rub whenever I drew near. His birthstone, my mother told me the first time I asked about it. The notion that a man would wear a birthstone pin both surprised me and filled me with awe.

The Payne children, when they were children, begging candy at my mother's house.
The Payne children, when they were children, begging candy on my mother’s back stoop.

And hold on a sec, that grandfather’s wife, the only grandmother I ever knew, she was born in October, too. As were many of my dear friends (thanks to those handy Facebook reminders, far more than I realized). What can it all mean? Probably nothing more than that for me, October is as fickle a month emotionally as she is meteorologically (the mercury here dipped into the 30s last night, while weekend highs are predicted near 80). If nothing else, this might explain why when a good friend exclaimed in an email the other day that October was her favorite month, my heart sank.

Color change in Lake Toxaway, North Carolina
Color change in Lake Toxaway, North Carolina

I prefer April. She and October are sort of sister months aren’t they, cosmic mirror images, the earth tilted to the same degree in relation to the sun? (Can you tell most of my astronomical smarts come from lessons learned while building styrofoam solar systems?) But April. Ah April. For me, far from the cruelest month, she’s the month when moisture returns to my skin, the sun grows warmer each day, doors and windows open and the sneezy mold and dust of winter rise up and out. The trees burst into showy flower and perhaps best of all, baseball season gears up!

An October victory over the rival. My second son, #78, dumps the Gatorade in celebration.
An October victory over the rival. My second son, #78, dumps the Gatorade in celebration.
Traditional carving night!
My daughter, designer and assistant carver. Tradition!

October? It heralds the end of things I most enjoy–more hours of sunlight than not, long walks in shirtsleeves, the comfort of 160 Atlanta Braves’ games to come. And yet … October has football, and pumpkin-carving, and the holidays aren’t far off and of course winters here in Atlanta are blessedly short. My mother preferred fall and disliked summer. She hated to sweat, had spring allergies, loved nothing more than wearing a crisp blouse under a wool suit. Maybe that’s it. Maybe, during her last weeks, difficult weeks during which I realize now I was doing everything I could to keep her alive when she was ready to go, she finally decided enough was enough. It might well be that October felt like home to her. Perhaps she felt those spirits who went before her–her father and my father and her sister–beckoning so strongly she could no longer resist. I can’t say. We can never say.

The tree that shades my parents' resting place.
The tree that shades my parents’ resting place.

I imagine October with all its golds and greens and browns will always be a month when melancholy will have its way with me. I’ll remember my parents’ passing, and my grandparents, and those of friends I’ve begun to lose along the way, some of them in autumn, too. October is a soft month after all, a sleepy one, restful. And you know what? I guess there’s nothing else to do but let the sadness wash in and through, to look the painful memories square in the eye. Then, when I look back I can better see the beauty of October. Its short golden days, the chilly football nights, the amber sunsets on an emptying beach–wistful, yes, but lovely. I can never say you’re my favorite October, but you get my attention, and my respect. You hold in your cool velvet hands the souls of so many I’ve loved.

Warmest October, Seagrove Beach
Warm October: my youngest with his cousin, Seagrove Beach, late 2000’s
Day is done.
Day is done.

Bookish

Scarecrows and Tin Men and Bears!
Scarecrows and Tin Men and Bears!

The Classics
Raggedy Ann, Tom Thumb, Snow White, and Bambi and boom, by the time I was four I’d met with little people, creepy dolls-come-to-life, a mother’s death and a princess.

Babes, Prayers and Kittens
Babes, Prayers and Kittens
My mother wasn’t what you’d call hands-on. When I was a kid, we didn’t spend afternoons together making macaroni necklaces or finger painting. Messy crafts in particular weren’t Mom’s thing (though I do remember a Zoom Loom). Later, I don’t think she ever pulled up a chair to help with homework. And SAT prep? Um, no. As for shooting hoops or kicking a soccer ball around the yard? We-e-lll, let’s just say she didn’t have the proper shoes, her thin-soled white Keds notwithstanding.

Emily Post, recipes from Old Dixie, a Party Encyclopedia ... the keys to homemaking success.
Emily Post, recipes from Old Dixie, a Party Encyclopedia … the keys to my mother’s homemaking success.
This is not to say she didn’t care. My mother cared a LOT. In fact, as the last of her six children, I was expected to fulfill her fading parental dreams. She wanted me to be the best damn finger painting-macaroni-necklace-making-zoom-looming basketball star in the state of Georgia, as long as she didn’t have to dribble a ball or risk soiling her blouse. There were exceptions. In matters of fashion, Mom led by example, taking me along to mall, boutique, discount house and fabric store alike. More importantly, she was into books, way into books. Before I could read on my own, she read to me (though not that often by today’s standards). The Little Engine that Could and Grimms do come to mind.

Books old and older.
Books old and older.

Attic reading
Attic reading

More, more, more!
More, more, more!
But mom was a reader herself, a devourer of print, and I became one, too. A case of successful parenting-by-trickle-down, I suppose. Books were omnipresent as I grew up, and my parents’ house remained stuffed full of them right up until the day Mom died. During last spring’s house purge, I saved cleaning them out for last. I didn’t really plan it that way, but I think as long as Mom’s books remained, I could feel her there with me too, her spirit tucked between the pages of everything from James Joyce to John LeCarré. We found books upstairs, downstairs, stacked on shelves, filling up secretaries, piled in tattered boxes under attic eaves, hidden under chairs and tables. There were hardcover and paperback; literary fiction and biographies, mysteries, and spy novels; first editions and worthless mass markets; cookbooks, travel guides, books on architecture and politics, Bibles (one dated 1827, from my Dad’s side of the family), and of course, Catholic How-to Manuals (wouldn’t Pope Francis be proud?). Among these were Birth Control for Catholics (rather brief, that one) and the Catholic’s Guide to Expectant Motherhood. There were so many books that finally, I ran out of time to decide if this one would go to the public library, or that one to Goodwill. Needless to say, lots came home with me. I suppose one day my sons and daughter will be forced to go through them all again, but maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

A little bit of everything
A little bit of everything

A crumpled stack tied in gold, Spenser's Faerie Queene among them. Mom's note reads, "Books my mother read in school. Salem, VA, 1910-1915."
A crumpled stack tied in gold, Spenser’s Faerie Queene among them. Mom’s note reads, “Books my mother read in school. Salem, VA, 1910-1915.”
I thought of Mom and her books the other day when a post popped up on my Facebook feed noting a drop in ebook sales as compared with print. Too, it seems studies keep showing that folks (even millenials!) like the feel and smell of a physical book. Well, after sorting through thousands of pages, some of them mildew-stained or harboring crumbled insect remains, I have to say I can see why.

And hold on a minute, here comes a memory … I did have finger paints! That smell! Sure, there was a box of them in the back of my closet, right under the Tiddly Winks. Alas, I believe that by the time my friend Diana and I finally dug out the jars and donned our own smocks, the paint had evaporated, leaving behind a crusty, pocked rainbow. But hey, we had books to spare. For a while, we even got into copying them, word for word, into spiral notebooks, though we kept that strange little game to ourselves. Today, Diana and I are both writers. And my sister is a journalist, one brother is an ad man/copy writer, another writes PR and speeches for Coca Cola. Hmm. 

Thanks, Mom. Really.

Mom's books now displayed in our downstairs hallway.
Some of Mom’s books now displayed in our downstairs hallway.

And more in the family room ...
And more in the family room …

Boys to Men

Fun at the Lake, the Mattingly Brothers, late 1950s
Fun at the Lake, the Mattingly Brothers, late 1950s. George, Ed, John, and Tom.

Growing up, my sister and I were bookends to a guy bookshelf, the girly bread on a sandwich four-boys thick. It made for a rowdy childhood, a household full of mischief, especially for my sister as the oldest. At right, my brothers are boys again, enjoying a warm summer day in the north Georgia mountains. Originally a slide, (one of thousands my oldest nephew has tirelessly digitized), this photo is straight out of Mom’s attic. Of all the grainy, dog-eared images I’ve sifted through lately, this is one of a few that nag at me, keep me clicking back, again and again.

Westminster Men's A Capella, 2015-16, at Tate Mountain, Georgia.
Westminster Men’s A Capella Retreat, 2015-16, at Tate Mountain, Georgia.

When a week or so ago the photo at left popped up on my Facebook feed, I pulled the old brothers’ pic up yet again. The dock and dive tower, the distance to the far shore, the reckless joy of a summer’s day on the water struck a familiar cord. I’m pretty sure the setting is the same. Now and then, our family tagged along when my uncle visited a friend’s summer home at Tate Mountain, Georgia. The dive tower has been rebuilt (though whether with safety or increased risk in mind is hard to say) without sacrificing the earthy primitive feel of this remote mountaintop retreat (It’s private, by the way, so don’t get any ideas).

This coincidence of place, though it got me thinking, isn’t really the point. It’s the fresh faces, the body language, the endlessly varied expressions of these young men–even the ones I hardly know–that grip me. In part, it’s something shared, some deep boyishness in their bearing that plucks my heartstrings. I think of my own sons, young men now but still boys to me. I think of my father, who loved lake and ocean and waterfall alike, and most of all, I think of my brothers, those four guys I idolized as I grew up (even when they were needling me, calling me disparaging names, and later, ordering me to the kitchen for beer and snacks to enrich their football afternoons).

I didn’t know them when they were as young as the first photo depicts, but I swear I get a glimpse of the men my brothers were to become. In Ed, the oldest, there’s a certain vulnerability, an eagerness to please. I see the hesitant but dutiful Marine he would one day become. Next, George the renegade, slouching, planning his next move as he sizes up the photographer with a skeptic’s eye. Then John, his hands crossed so sweetly, a little aloof, always thinking. Finally, Tom with his wily grin, the youngest but always his own man, witty and confident.

ROTC Ed with brothers, Marist School, Atlanta.
The brothers a little older. ROTC Ed at left. All students at the Marist School, Atlanta, the others would follow his lead.

Why do we cling so tightly to images, both recent and long past? Maybe because a moment caught in time can be just this full of possibility, studded with character clues, even hidden meaning, long after the subjects pictured have moved on or passed away. Maybe this lies behind our current compulsion to click and edit, post and share, zoom and enlarge. We have this need to document, leave something behind, even if we aren’t sure what will prove meaningful, even epic, and what will be trash. (Consider the tattered photos my one-eyed father snapped on his old Kodak. Mom kept those too. Family members are split down the middle or cut off at the neck; grand cathedrals bleed off the page while front and center is a nameless fire plug, an unidentified stretch of highway, or as shown below, a blank wall and tasteless curtain. Très post-modernist my father, and he never knew it.)

White Wall, with Son and Daughter, circa 1969.
White Wall, with Son and Daughter, circa 1969. Note Tom’s steely grip and the terror in my eyes.

Maybe I’m full of baloney! Maybe we just like to see ourselves, capture our requisite fifteen minutes (isn’t it more these days?) of limited fame so we can broadcast it to the cyber world. But I will say this. I’ve know some of the guys in the more recent Tate Mountain photo for years now, a few of them since they were kindergartners, and I get the same dizzying sense of deja vu when I see them here. There’s the kid who always made the moms laugh on the playground, just as playful now. And another, still gentle and wise and shy of his movie-star good looks, a third always cool, a little wary of what’s being asked of him. As for my youngest son–far left, second tier, blue trunks–I can’t quite put my finger on it, but something about his stance, that hand at rest on the railing, the muted smile, has been part of him since the day he was born.

I’ll close with a PS snapshot of my brothers with my sister and me. They don’t look that different, do they? I mean their expressions, their essence, shine through. And what a comfort it is to see that Ed, whom we lost eight years ago, kept that boyish smile, the warm heart it heralded, right down through the years.

Mattingly Siblings, 2005, Smithgall Woods.
Mattingly Siblings, 2005, Smithgall Woods.

Family Guy

My dad as clown, with my mother and my niece, Laura Lee, circa 1980.
My father as photo-bomber, with my mother and my niece “Labba Lee,” circa 1980.

Of the thousands of photographs and slides to survive the years of heat and dust in My Mother’s Attic, my favorites are those that feature my father as a young man. I wish there were more. I’ve never seen a likeness of Dad as a baby or a young child—inconceivable in this age of photo op overload. The shots I do have reveal a confidence and affability those who knew my father later might expect, but they also hint at a deep silliness that Ed Mattingly, successful man of business, reserved mostly for his family.

Consider his favorite means of waking me on high school mornings: As I lay curled in the last luscious moments of teenaged dreamland, he would poke me between the ribs and say the word, “asamunigots!” which really is not a word at all. Having rustled many a teenager out of bed in the years since, I do not recommend this method. It’s a wonder I didn’t haul off and slug him.

But “asamunigots”? What does that even mean? We never knew. I don’t think it occurred to my siblings and me that it meant anything at all. It was just one of those things Dad said, and did. The word never came without the poke, and the poke never without a funny flick of his wrist. We saw the flick and the long fingers and knew what was next, but there was no squirming out of his reach. My father was quick as greased lightning.

Dad, with paddle board, long before he became a dad. Circa 1935?
Dad on a bad swimsuit day, long before he became a dad. Circa 1935?
Cadet Mattingly, 4th row, left of center.
Cadet Mattingly, 4th row up, left of center.

Come to think of it, our young lives were peppered with Dad’s whimsical  wordplay. We vacationed each summer in the Smoky Mountains and sometimes, as we  walked together down a rutted back road, he’d stop short, a devilish grin on his face, and cry out, “Dahn-ge-ru Skip-awah!” I’d laugh and look up and there it would be–written in red across a chain link fence: “Dangerous. Keep Away.” Dad’s favorite summer drink had three syllables: “Ice-ed Tea,” Our fiftieth state was  “Ha-wa-yah,” a good seafood dinner “Shrimp-us,” and the topping he preferred on every dessert? “Whupp-ed cream.” My father favored nicknames, too. Whether you had one or not made no difference. He was glad to oblige. My nieces and nephews, my children, took on fresh personas for him–Laura Lee became Labba Lee, Liz, inexplicably, was Hootie, Sam, Sambo. Matthew was Mattu and the six-foot, four-inch tall grandson remained always Little Ed. Dad didn’t stop at family either. Fellow insurance agents became Buzz and Podner, and perhaps my personal favorite, he dubbed his old pal George, The Egghead Flash from Newnan, Flash for short.

As a young man, Dad had his nicknames, too--Matty, E.H., sometimes just plain
As a young man, Dad (at right) had his nicknames, too–Matty, E.H., sometimes just plain “H,” for his middle name, Hagan.

It’s funny, the things we remember about our childhoods, and the things we don’t. My father never said much about his upbringing. We knew only that unlike ours, his was motherless and unstable, filled with challenges, even tragedy. What details we did glean came mostly from cousins or aunts and uncles who stood helplessly by as Dad and his brother and sister were shuffled away from their troubled father and in and out of orphanages until they landed in the capable arms of my Great Aunt Louise. I’ve only just begun to read through some of the letters The Attic has coughed up from this period in my father’s life, but already I sense this much–The Twenties failed to roar for his family, and though its clear that loving people had an eye on him, there was little levity in his life.

Father of five, 1956
Father of five, 1956
My father lets his grandson Ben take the wheel, circa 1988.
Grandson Ben takes the wheel, circa 1988.

And yet, he ended up with this playful sense of humor, a knack for putting others at ease. My father had his faults. He liked things done a certain way–his way–and my brothers remember a quick disciplinary hand, but he was not a bitter man. His humor never became biting or sarcastic, and though he could be Mister Gloom when it came to foul weather or the failings of his sports’ teams, he believed deeply in humankind’s basic goodness and strength of will. We, meaning the inhabitants of God’s Green Earth, he believed, would persevere.

It mystifies me, why some folks emerge from dark backgrounds angry and resentful while others come out determined to leave the darkness behind. My father simply refused to look back. He loved his Swing music and his Broadway musicals and had no patience for stories with sad endings. Denial? Maybe, but as the patriarch of a sprawling and spirited family, it worked. Dad made us smile. He bucked us up. One of his most constant refrains, especially as he aged and had trouble coming up with the right turn of phrase, much less a clever one, was “Prouda you!”

Like any family, we have our issues, our rivalries and jealousies, our failures and broken places, but in the end, we offspring of Ed tend not to take ourselves too seriously. And this has had everything to do with keeping us close, even through the grief and cleaning out and divvying up of the past few months, stuff that can strain the bonds of even the most tight-knit families. I guess what I’m trying to say is, thanks for keeping it light, Dad, and Happy Father’s Day, with love, from your youngest, “Mart-wah!”

Father of the Bride!
Father of the Bride
Dad and his brood, June, 1993. Two grandchildren, my daughter and youngest son, were yet to come!
Dad’s brood, ’roundabout Fathers’ Day, 1993. Two grandchildren–my daughter and youngest son–and fourteen great-grandchildren (so far) were yet to come.

Mamma Mia

Mom avec my brother Tom et moi, Fernandina Beach, circa 1964
Mom avec my brother Tom et moi, Fernandina Beach, circa 1964.
Big splashy holidays like today sometimes still my fingers on the keyboard. Hard to come up with a single original thought at a time when the entire planet is striving to do the same. Besides, to adapt a bit of Lucy Van Pelt, we all know Mother’s Day is just another commercial racket, run by a big Eastern syndicate … In this happy vein, I happened upon a Facebook post yesterday that called for a moratorium on all things Mother’s Day. Think of the millions, it asserted, for whom this day brings heartache–those who have lost mothers, and grandmothers, those who have toxic mother-child relationships, those mothers who have lost children and those women who want to be mothers and were never given the chance, for whatever reason.

The post gave me pause. Who am I to share photos and tell stories that might bring pain to so many? Then I thought, hang on a minute, I’m one of them! I’m motherless on this day for the first time, I’ve been grandmother-less for thirty years, and ironically, today is the last day our family calls the house my parents designed and built, the house where I grew up–my mother-home, so to speak–our own. Yes, My Mother’s Attic has disgorged her last mournful scraps. She’s been emptied out and swept clean. Tomorrow, a new family will sign on the dotted line and before long, some other mother, a box of dusty souvenirs in her arms, will bash her shin as she climbs the old girl’s steep wooden stairs. I can hear her cursing under her breath now.

Mother's Day morning, 9 AM delivery from my girl.
Mother’s Day morning, 9 AM delivery from my girl.
I admit I’ve felt pretty wistful the past few days, though really, I can’t complain. I have four healthy children who like me well enough (most days) and all of them called. The youngest even joined us for lunch and my daughter ordered up a vase of roses and lilies from her room at the sorority house. It was delivered at nine am by, who else? A mother! We wished each other well and she didn’t seem the least bit upset to be doing a good turn for another mother lucky enough to be lounging in her pajamas while she made her rounds.

I saw a lot of women my age out today, their living mothers bedecked with corsages and leaning on their arms for support. Funny thing is, they made me feel better. Sure,  when I scroll through the hundreds of tributes posted from sons to mothers and mothers to daughters, every dog, cat and fish to its surrogate mom, I get a little twinge, but I keep at it. Mostly, I smile. Turns out we’re a social species, one that thrives on emotion. Being alive often hurts but maybe in the long run, we do well to open ourselves up to the whole messy shebang–the happy thoughts, the teary memories, the moments of deep gratitude and the ones we can’t help but resent, whether that resentment involves those who have what we don’t, or our very mothers themselves. Maybe it boils down to the obvious: If you’re on this Earth, whether old or young, you have or had a mother, and God knows it doesn’t take long to develop some mixed feelings towards that woman who made you eat Brussels sprouts and called you Sweetie in the school hallway. But even if she did it poorly sometimes, she did what no one else could. She gave you your one particular life.

My grandmother, a cheerful and briskly efficient woman, pictured with my grandfather and my mother at about a year old.
My grandmother Bernice Agnew Lee, a cheerful and briskly efficient woman whom I adored, pictured with my grandfather and my mother at about a year old, circa 1920.

Hope you enjoy these photos of my mother and my two grandmothers, all wearing their Mamma hats (or in Mom’s case, scarf and curlers, like any good mother would, on the beach, in the ’60s.) Happy Mother’s Day everyone, and cheers to you, Mom. I owe you the world.

Generational pic, with handbag :) More importantly, with a true smile from Mom. May 2010.
Generational pic, with handbag 🙂 More importantly, with a true smile from Mom. May 2010.

Wooly Bully

Skeins from Mom's knitting phase, which apparently was short-lived. (See below for half-finished product). But you gotta love that wool! Receipt dated Feb. 2, 1957.
Skeins from Mom’s knitting phase, which apparently was short-lived. (See right for half-finished product). But you gotta love that wool! Receipt dated Feb. 2, 1957.
The sweater that wasn't
The sweater that wasn’t

I have a natural aversion to wool. It’s itchy, it smells when wet (or old—boy does it), and worst of all, you wear it in winter. Ah winter … long cold nights, mold and dust, dry coughs, cracked skin … (Is my Seasonal Affective Disorder showing?) It’s not all bad, you’re thinking, and sure, I love a good crackling fire, a little hot cocoa, silver bells and the occasional boule de niege, but with sincere apologies to all the knitters, Pendleton execs, and fat furry Merinos out there, wool gives me the willies.

My mother, on the other hand, was a great fan of Cotswold and English Leicester alike, a lover of gabardine, houndstooth, tweed in all its many manifestations, a veritable wool-monger, she was. I clued in early on, during a jaunt through the British Isles when I was all of ten, to my mother’s respect for—nay love affair with—wool. In every village north of Liverpool, she scoped out the corner shop with the fisherman’s sweater in the window and the rafters draped with tartan plaids. “Turn in here!” she would cry, and my father, every joule of energy dedicated to keeping the rental car left of the centerline, would pull over with a sigh. Inside, I found I stood just about bolt-height, which is to say, no air. I breathed in wool, left and right. My eyes watered and the hairs on my neck stood on end. I scratched and wiped my nose while my mother the seamstress swooned over a length of wool crepe, imagining it as a pleated skirt, or coveted a bit of McKenzie green, dreaming the smart blazer she might wear to a ladies’ lunch back home.

Wool dreams
Wool dreams
Making do with remnants
Making do with remnants

She simply couldn’t resist. She bought meter after yard, reams of the stuff, not only from the Scottish and Irish shopkeepers she quickly befriended but back home, from Atlanta stores like Hancock’s, Davison’s fabric department, later Sew Magnifique, and a place called Penney’s (or was it Penny’s?) that once sat deep in the heart of Buckhead. I liked our Saturday morning visits to Penny’s. It was open and well-lit and I was able to hide happily among the silks, to breathe in the cleaner scent of the cottons while Mom sorted through her jersey knits and herringbones.

Sweater in Kelly Green, proudly purchased in Scotland, and don't you forget it, my mother seemed to say when she pinned on the errant tag for posterity.
Sweater in Kelly Green, proudly purchased in Scotland, and don’t you forget it, my mother seemed to say when she pinned on the errant tag for posterity.

When my parents added on a family room in the mid-seventies, I guess it was only natural for my mother to have a cedar closet built into the attic space above it. Now, after having spent the last week sorting through the closet’s contents, I wonder if the family room wasn’t an excuse for that cedar closet, which is a shrine really, a temple consecrated to mom’s wooly obsession. (And I’m here to tell you the cedar is a miracle tree. Fifty plus years of fabric and moth-holes only in the single-digits.)

The closet
The closet

Sample Contents: (values approximate; wool, unless otherwise indicated) 79 skirts, mostly tea-length, some to-the-knee or maxi, 2/3 home-sewn. 37 suits (skirt and jacket, the occasional wool shell), a few Jaeger, some Chanel, more St. John’s Knits, and again, the better part home-sewn. 29 overcoats, a couple men’s styles included. 16 pair of slacks (though a closet-ahem-feminist, Mom fought the ’60s fashion overhaul to the end). 41 silk blouses (mais oui, moths eat silk for dessert), and countless–seriously, to count them would exhaust even Ebenezer Scrooge–wool remnants zipped or tied into plastic bags. These include strips and squares leftover from finished outfits, swatches brought home to be mulled over, and stacks of uncut wool, some of them color coordinated, others with notes attached that indicate Mom’s master plan. Good black flannel, she might write. Pants for Marth?–that sort of thing.

Slacks? She made them, but hardly wore them.
Slacks? She made them, but hardly wore them.
The blue collection.
The blue collection.
Some of Mom's finery …
Some of Mom’s finery …

As we sorted through all this (Save for Family Distribution? Give to Goodwill? Toss in Trash?), we made sure to check pockets for forgotten treasures. Hoping for jewelry or hundred dollar bills, we found instead (see below) dozens of balled up tissues, emery boards, chalk (?), a toothbrush (??), and several notes-to-self. But we also discovered a startling number of unfinished projects, skirts and suits Mom began and stored away, thinking she’d get back to them. She was also a fan of the Re-Do. The closet thus coughed up many store-bought items with rent seams or dismantled collars, designer outfits my mother with her tailor’s eye just knew she could improve upon, if only she had world enough and time.

Pocket treasures?
Pocket treasures?

These unfinished pieces sadden me. I think of Mom’s last years, years filled with the stasis of the very elderly. She sat mostly, in her favorite chair in that added-on family room she came to love. She read, until her eyes went. She watched television, until her short term memory went, and along with it, her ability to logically follow a storyline, while just above her head in their cedar shrine these half-baked dresses, these cut-outs with their filmy patterns attached, awaited her expert hand. Too, I can’t help but think of my file cabinets, their drawers stuffed with poems I began then abandoned, stories, even a novel, compulsively revised but never published. I guess I’m not so different from my mother after all. And maybe it’s the process that sustains us, the joy of creating. Though we can never finish all that we start, we can sure go down trying.

Unfinished business.
Unfinished business.
And another.
And another.

My youngest son, 16, is lucky enough to be part of his high school theatre department and this year, I’ve served (sometimes kicking and screaming) as the Props Mom. As such, I work alongside the Costume Mom, whose job is gargantuan. It hit me mid-week that I should start her a stack from the Cedar Closet, and I’m happy to report she accepted every skirt and overcoat and dress I brought in. In fact, one of the leading ladies in the next production (set in the 1930s) has decided to wear one of Mom’s old ball gowns in the final scene. It’s a china blue taffeta with a tastefully plunging neck line, and a perfect fit. I think Mom would love the way she wears it.

Odds and Ends Revisited, en papier

My papers and memorabilia from Live Oak cedar chest, wrote my mother. Here, the Adventures of Little Jack (o'lantern, presumably)
“My papers and memorabilia from Live Oak cedar chest,” wrote my mother. Here, the Adventures of Little Jack (o’lantern, presumably)
I like Florida oranges … Sept. 28, 1926
I like Florida oranges … Sept. 28, 1926

Today, a hodgepodge from the Attic because for one thing, I like the way the word rolls off the tongue. Hodge-Podge. It’s perfectly acceptable to hyphenate it by the way, and even its synonyms bring a viva voce sort of pleasure: mishmash, muddle, pastiche. Pastiche! A phonological wonder, that one, and wow, phonological! How’s that for a phun stream of sound? (A thousand thanks to my Word thesaurus on this phine Sunday.)

My mother loved words, as the contents of her attic fully reveal. (And I’m not talking about books. Yet.) Here under the eaves, boxes of travelogues and perhaps every brochure she ever picked up in a museum, cathedral, or botanical garden. There on a sagging plywood shelf, a tupperware bin exploding with preschool drawings and early elementary worksheets (some of them my mother herself completed, in the mid-1920s). Beneath a basket of crumbling dried flowers, a muddle within a mishmash–pages and pages of newspaper and magazine clippings stuffed into grocery bags, zip locks, manila envelopes, and in bits and pieces scattered about, all manner of perfectly useless print: stacks of old bank statements, acceptance cards from wedding guests–my sister’s and mine–and calendars dating back to the ’70s, some with reminders scribbled in the boxes (slightly interesting!), but far too many blank (decidedly not interesting). And of course letters–decades, almost a century’s worth of letters.

Keeping track of time
Keeping track of time
Saved from the AJC's book section
Saved from the AJC’s book section
And another …
And another …

One day, I’ll organize it, right? Catalogue it all, create a paper trail that will lead us back to Mom whenever we miss her most. Perhaps, I will. I hope I will, though at the moment, my sisters-in-law and I can only chuckle and curse under our breaths as we debate whether the city recycling folks will take the calendars with those little metal spirals attached, and the bank statements with those pesky plastic view windows. (Hey, we can’t save everything.)

So what’s it all about? Why was it my mother couldn’t bear to throw any of it away? Had it been up to my father (alias Mr. Clean) we’d have nothing but the signed photo of Georgia Tech’s Coach Bobby Dodd and the ticket stub from a Glen Miller Dance concert. It’s hard to say why. In part, surely the Depression’s to blame. They lost so much, those Depression kids, not only during the economic doldrums but just after, during World War II. Maybe my mother could never shake the feeling that if you had something you liked, for whatever wacky reason, you’d better hang on to it lest you lose that, too. Did she live too much in the past? Probably. I mean what forward-thinking soul would save a Christmas card her milkman in 1962 tucked into her tin milk box one frosty December morn?

Greetings from your Milkman, circa 1962
Greetings from your Milkman, circa 1962

Still, I believe my mother’s tendency to hoard, to cling to these papery keepsakes that may seem meaningless to us, is more a sign of hope than anything else. I’ve alluded to this before, and maybe I repeat it because I’m more than a little like Mom this way. Sometimes, to toss small treasures away–maybe that program from my daughter’s last gymnastics’ meet, or this boarding pass from the trip we took to see a few shows on Broadway with our youngest son–takes every ounce of willpower I can muster. It is about hope, about embracing the past, yes, but also looking to the future, anticipating the day I’ll pull out that boarding pass and think, that was a good trip, a good time, let’s plan another right away. For tomorrow will be good, too.

The note my mother wrote to inform my grandfather that she was pregnant yet again, for the fifth time in eight years.
The note my mother wrote to inform my grandfather that she was pregnant yet again, for the fifth time in eight years.
IMG_2842
And the sweet conclusion …

And if I’m not here to revisit the pleasure this slip of paper or that postcard brought, maybe one of my sons will be, or my daughter. Yes, maybe my daughter will pick up something that was mine and feel the warm rush of shared emotion I get when I read the letter, pictured here, that my mother penned to my grandfather (how did it make its way back to her? Via my Grandmother’s Attic, of course).

“We are having our fifth baby in October,” Mom wrote, just after she discovered she was pregnant with her youngest son, my brother Tom. “Bum (her sister, also pregnant) told me this was her year, but I had to have one, too … Love, Sary.”

There’s always tomorrow, these words, and the whole darn pastiche of them, seem to say, and I like to think it’s true.

Air It Out

hm-g4b

Greetings Attic Fans! Pardon the pun but hey, who remembers the Attic Fan? There’s one in My Mother’s Attic, a big clanking contraption whose business end was sheet-rocked over years ago. In better days, on the odd spring or autumn Saturday morning, my father liked to crank it up and let ‘er rip. To clarify—this was no portable window mount, not a fan meant to cool the attic itself but rather a six by six leviathan that lay prone (see diagram) on the attic floor, ready to suck the heat and dust up and out of the rooms below. It’s still around, this sort of fan, though it goes by a different name—the Whole House Fan, billed as a green homeowner option.

Well, ours was just the attic fan. When it fired up with its Blitzkrieg racket, my mother would flash me a wry smile. My father’s airing-out ritual was a tradition she didn’t see much sense in. Having grown up in Florida pre-air conditioning, she had her fill of oscillated air and dust cyclones long before she met Dad. But she went along. I can see her now, hair tucked beneath a scarf as she marched around opening windows in cotton blouse and khaki slacks and tiny white Keds (an outfit never-to-be worn outside the home). My father did the heavy work, which included reaching through cobwebs to right screens that had bent or slipped from their hinges during the long shut-in season.

The window screen was an essential in our house, a barrier both literal and figurative between the out of doors and the more orderly—and in my father’s mind, superior—indoor sanctuary. Much angst arose if on Attic Fan Day a screen was found to be broken beyond repair—think of the pests that might enter! Bringing the outdoors in was an alien concept for my parents. Their goal, a common one for their generation, was to celebrate all the many ways humankind had managed to conquer the natural world. Plus, outside was menace, or the gritty memory of it—a nation ravaged by the Depression, bled by war, threatened anew by the growth of frightening movements like Marxism, Feminism, Free Love, philosophies that baffled my parents–hadn’t they just fought a gruesome war to prove the virtues of democracy and the American Way?

Attic window-on-the-world
Attic window-on-the-world

Thus did they join the flight to the suburbs, where inside the home, all was fresh and safe. And we stayed there. We had no front porch, nor back for that matter. No deck, certainly no outdoor kitchen, not even a grill, unless you count the rusted-out Weber on wheels my father rolled out of the garage once a year under pressure from my brothers to barbeque steaks. Don’t get me wrong, we had land, rather a lot for a property within Atlanta’s city limits—big shady hardwoods, tall pines, azaleas and dogwoods and even a gurgling creek, and my father maintained it all himself. Yardwork was his hobby, his exercise. It was all well and good to enjoy the outdoors, but when it was time to eat, or socialize, indoors was the thing, and we wouldn’t want a fly in our soup.

Still, we had our Attic Fan. Once the window screens were secured, Dad moved on to other Saturday projects—weed whacking, mowing the lawn, cleaning gutters. Meanwhile, mom and I floated about the breezy house, shouting above the din, pockets of air buoying us up the stairs and down the hall. The fan brought the house to life, curtains aflutter, sheets rippling as I made the bed, somewhere the tinkle of a wind chime. I remember feeling I could breathe more deeply, my lungs expanding, filling with the promise of the fresh new season ahead. When later my father came in to throw the off-switch, a sort of melancholy set in. I used to stand in the hall and gaze up as the big blades of the fan creaked to a halt. Then the blinds that hid it would snap shut and I had to wonder why. Why couldn’t we have this happy commotion always, this rush of air from somewhere beyond, somewhere exotic and pulsing with energy?

It’s funny, I planned to write today about travel, my mother’s way of seeking the exotic. I meant to apologize for having been away so long, and away I have been, to Thailand to visit an adventurous son. This, I thought, would make a nice segue to sifting through the boxes full of travel memorabilia my mother saved over the years. But somehow, the Attic Fan swept me into a different kind of journey, a journey inward. Thanks for joining me.

This Saturday, March 21st, would have been Mom’s 96th birthday. So I’ll leave you with a snapshot of her as a baby, the pride and joy of her dapper parents, another from her 95th birthday party. We worried such a celebration would be too much for her, but it was a great success. We fancied Mom up a little … pinned on a flower, dabbed on the rouge and lipstick she once wouldn’t leave the house without, and somebody came up with a birthday girl sash. Mom liked it, all of it, and she stuck around—indoors, mind you—much longer than we expected.

Happy Birthday, Mom. We sure miss you.

My mother, with her parents, at about a year old.
My mother, with my grandparents, circa 1920.
Birthday Girl
Birthday Girl, feted by grandchildren and great grands alike.

Whistling Warden

Rosie the Riveter ain't got nothing on this chick.
Rosie the Riveter got nothing on this chick.

For days I’ve been stuck in my parents’ post-Pearl Harbor correspondence, adrift in an age shrouded in confusion and fear. Maybe this is what it means to be a time traveler—not whisking back and forth in a souped-up DeLorian (though that would be more fun, and cleaner), but suspended outside of time, one foot in this world and the other elsewhere. It’s a little like visiting a live Nativity, or a battle reenactment, only more heart-stopping. Just when you begin to lose yourself, to be swept into the dream, someone steps onto the stage cloaked in a persona you half-recognize, and Mon Dieu, it’s the person who raised you.

image
My father’s WWII ID card, December, 1944. He’d jumped from Private to 2nd Lieutenant by then. Pretty sure mom was a career Air Warden, and glad of it.

Here, a photo of a young man who looks familiar (if you dressed him in tee shirt and ball cap, he could be one of my sons), and wow, it’s my father. There, a crumpled ID card. I examine the signature and discover that within half a year of her breezy, flower-strewn nuptials, my mother traded out her veil of ivory tulle for an Air Raid Warden’s helmet.

An Air Raid Warden? This is nigh on impossible. My mother, the belle of the ball, outfitted in khaki, with a whistle around her neck and a gas mask cinched to her belt? Glory be! I’ll have to ask her about this, I think, forgetting for a moment that she’s no longer in a position to answer. This happens often here in the attic. We find something that piques our interest (the egg carton stored in plastic, the vodka in a mayonnaise jar, my father’s silk “honeymoon pajamas”?!?), and my heart tilts down the stairs to the den, where Mom ought to be perched in her favorite chair, enjoying her meatloaf and Chardonnay.

Vodka and Harvey's Scotch, labelled so by my father, who did not drink.
Vodka, and Harvey’s Scotch, labelled so by my father, who did not drink.
"Ed's White Honeymoon PJ's," presumably never to be worn again
“Ed’s White Honeymoon PJ’s,” presumably never to be worn again

If only we’d started this cleaning out business while she was still with us, you might say. If only, but alas, my mother wouldn’t have it. The very suggestion could bring her to tears. It was all my sister could do to toss the soured milk from the fridge during visits home.

You must know the people in your Sector well … reads the Handbook for Air Raid Wardens. To them, you are the embodiment of all Civilian Defense. You must seek to gain their confidence so that in any time of stress you may more easily reassure them and avert panic 

Uh, oh. Mom was a worry-wart, and somewhat prone to panic.

On patrol, your first duty is to clear the streets. People should be told to go to their homes. You must see that drivers park their automobiles at curbs and in such a manner as to leave a passage for fire engines and ambulances. Horses should be taken out of the shafts and tied to a lamp post 

Horses in shafts? In the streets of Atlanta, in 1942?

When the warning sounds after dark, the blackout will be enforced. You will warn householders of any light showing and if it is not at once turned out or covered, report the fact to the nearest policeman. 

This is so not my mother! She was well-liked, yes, charmer of bus driver and boss man alike, but she could order a dog to steal a bone and it would run the other way. And at five foot two and 104 pounds, could she be expected to direct traffic, and corral large animals? In disbelief, I dig around some more and there, in a stack of envelopes held together with a limp rubber band, is a pertinent letter penned by my father in Atlanta, who had yet to receive his orders, to my mother, in Florida at a friend’s wedding.

Dear Sweetie, I’ve just come from my warden’s meeting. My work as a warden is just beginning to interest me. Possibly it’s because I’m at last seeing the light–up until now I’ve had a very poor understanding of this war and our role in it. Perhaps in a few weeks I’ll begin to know what I’m supposed to do, but for now I’m sure of one thing–I’ve got to have an alternate warden, and there is only one person in this world I want as that alternate! 

Dad went on to point out my mother’s sweetness, reliability and strength of character. He was a persuasive guy, and sly like a fox, to coin one of his favorite clichés. I’ve found no evidence of my mother’s response, but the ID card is authentic, and dated June 1942, the same month as Dad’s letter. In fact, it’s dated before the postmark on the letter. I believe my father presumed, as he was wont to do. I imagine Mom didn’t much like that. I feel for her. The ink on their marriage license was hardly dry, their first apartment still lacking curtains–who knew what would be asked of them next? Many of her friends’ husbands had been shipped off. My uncle was about to be deployed to France.

I’m sure Mom bucked up. I bet she kept those khakis starched stiff, and her whistle polished to a sheen.

ARP2