I teach this senior elective on the autobiography and memoir. Right now we are reading a group of writers who always make me think: Lucy Grealy, David Sedaris, Anne Lamott, and Harvey Pekar. A wonderful assignment from last week was to write (after reading Sedaris’s “Twelve Moments in the Life of and Artist” from Me Talk Pretty One Day) Five “Moments in the Life of a …” Wonderful pieces came out of that assignment as well as the Proustian petite madeleine homage (after Paul C at quoteflections got me thinking about tangerines).
But last week I was struck by a moment so strong as to require me to write and remember. As we waited for the final performance of my daughter’s high school play, my sister handed me an envelope. It was an early birthday gift from my nonagenarian friend Mary. Mary has been returning gifts from decades of receiving, gifts that my grandmother or my mother or I gave to her that she wanted to be sure that we got back or things of significance from our experience together. Mary was my cello teacher from grade 4-12, and she was married to Jim. He died last February and his passing has left a hole in the universe that is hard to fill.
Another Gift Economy moment
What Mary sent me was in two envelopes. One held photographs from my wedding, a peak party for Mary as she has talked about it frequently over the last 16 years. The photos were of Jim and Mary clearly having fun, laughing with friends; they didn’t have daughters, and I have always felt that Jim saw my sister and me as the daughters he chose. The second envelope held a silver necklace. If I misted over looking at the photos, the necklace caused full blown tears. It was a Jim original, a pendant he made, solid silver, using a lost wax method. Heavy and intricate, it is either a star-burst of feathers or ferns, or it is a poinsettia. It doesn’t matter.
The weight of the pendant is significant. The love in it palpable.
My sister’s birthday gift was also a Jim Pendant, though hers looks a bit like Yertle the Turtle with one red eye – I know the eye is a ruby, but the incongruity of the red eye and the cartoon shape makes her turtle pendant charming, idiosyncratic, oddly hilarious. But still, the love of his craft and of the eventual wearer of the piece (he never sold his works, only gave them to the people he loved) is evident. How can we not find a way to wear them?
Jim was a storyteller, and as he aged his stories became familiar through frequent repetition. And as much as we sighed inwardly when a familiar story began, I know now that they were just another way Jim had of telling us how much we were loved and how important those stories were to him. Like the photos and the silver pendant, the stories open up memories.
At the wake the night before his funeral (-47ºF real temperature), Mary cut her leg and had to be taken to the emergency room. We were concerned because Mary is a diabetic and wounds are slow to heal in the best of circumstances. My sister grabbed a washcloth and strapped it to Mary’s ankle with an Ace bandage and bustled her out to the car. While sitting in the ER, Mary admired Liz’s handiwork and began a story, “Speaking of compression bandages…”
Stories too scary to repeat
This was a Jim story we had never heard. It was a story of Jim and Mary, along with my brother Matt (who must have been an 8th grader at the time) coming upon a terrible car accident along a remote stretch of South Dakota Highway (circa 1974). One passenger dead, two seriously injured. Jim was a medic in WWII and an oral surgeon, so without wasted time, Mary was tearing up sheets and Jim and Matt were making compression bandages to help the survivors. “Jim always admired Matt’s compression bandages,” Mary told Liz.
Matt verified all details. Yes this had happened in exactly this way. Why had we never heard this story? Why did we only ever hear the “it snowed so hard deer hunting I tied myself to a tree to avoid sliding down the mountain” story? I think now that stories like this have to be unlocked. Once unlocked, we can claim them as our own. Matt now owns this story, just like Liz and I own the peppermint schnapps story (but that’s a Jim post for another day).
And all of this because of a stack of photos and a pendant. (I’ll post a photo of the pendant at the top of this post later today.)
Photo of Minnesota, February 2008 by Flickr contributor ScaleOvenStove. This was taken about 150 miles northwest of where I grew up – looks just like this in winter.
Photo of US41 in South Dakota by Flickr contributor slavenpatrick.