I find a picture of myself in an old family album. I am but three years old on Easter Sunday morning, 1953. I’m standing on the sidewalk in front of our cracker-box house in a frilly little dress hemmed just above my virginal, dimpled knees. I’m wearing white anklets and patent leather shoes. Across my arm is draped a little purse and I sport a heavy head of curly blond hair that resembles a lion’s mane in the wild.
Smile, I hear my mother say before the big flash bulb burns my image into a miniature memory. But I do not smile. My mouth is all screwed up and I am bawling my eyes out. Flash!
Mine was a highly cloistered youth. We abided by a keep-the-rules-and-the-rules-will-keep-you mentality in which I was bred, fed and watered in the center window of any given room where East from South was the same view. Conformity, that which keeps us walking upright, was the elixir of the survivors of The Great Depression and WWII. I left my highly cloistered youth with its old monastic ideologies and headed straight into a shadowy forest where behind every tree gremlins grew.
I married a man whose ornery grin captivated me and who was, in turn, captivated by my shapely legs. What can I say? We were young, and infatuated and ill prepared for life. Marriage was as much about growing up as about growing together. Our forty-five year existence as a couple has been a novel disenchantment of a Grimm’s fairy tale. We have secrets we won’t permit to be told and self-evident truths we are not yet sure of. We already resemble each other and tend to finish each other’s sentences, though not always correctly.
We plucked all the wrong fruits, traveled never-before-explored territory and suffered every failure and indignation, every angry disillusionment, both in our bodies and in our minds. Our former selves were soon shattered by a myth that died long before we were born.
If I’m lucky, I still have twenty good years left in which to figure out my life. It’s no longer a question of what to do with the time I have left but what I have left to accomplish. For me, it is considerable. It’s the tick of the tock that strengthens my resolve. What to do with the last twenty years, what to take with me and what to leave behind is my current condition.
I need change. Even if it is superficial. I cannot keep on keeping on. I will not replenish the soccer mom years with travel, the career fulfillments with good books, or a million other related human activities that merely fill an hourglass with multi-colored jelly beans dripping through a dark funnel. I’m already in chest deep and there are too many licorice and green apple flavors on the floor of my existence. It’s not about savoring memories. It’s not about the kids or the job. It isn’t even about us. It’s about Me. It’s about Him. It’s about unraveling passions and convictions, propositions, prophecies and preponderances. That we choose to live together during this Me-and-You period of life is entirely related to the courage and steadfastness that love and devotion hold in common.
The art of history is contained in a flash of light and its image is insufficient. Its last verse should escape all but the poetic language of the gods that we have created – he and I, I and he, separate and together as we translate into ether.
That I reached my sixties was no great accomplishment. I’m covered in a thick coat of honey that attracted a thick covering of dirt and feathers and leaves. First things first, a bath with lye soap and a strong brush. Rid myself of un-necessaries. How many pictures of myself do I need, after all?
Here is one of my wedding day, the dress and my cake and gifts. That big package over there is my wedding china, still wrapped. It remained wrapped for thirteen years till we finally lived in a house that wasn’t sitting on wheels. This is a picture of my first Thanksgiving dinner. That’s not a real turkey, of course, but an overcooked ham loaf. That over there is cranberry sauce straight from a can and that’s not white wine in those crystal goblets. That’s my mother sitting next to me.
This is me in an extravagant wedding dress. It, too, became one of those unnecessary pieces of baggage on the day we moved from Pennsylvania. So many towns, so many states, so much we collected unnecessarily. But how were we to know? I left it on the curb with the rest of our trash the day we left town. So many things got left behind in Pennsylvania. Must have been the year I first became interested in puzzles.
One day – recently – I upended our overstuffed chair to uncover the reason for a new squeak. I found it wedged between the dusty springs. It was a green foam rubber disk, the kind that shoots from a toy gun. Part of our children’s packing-to-return-home-from-the-annual-Christmas-visit ritual included a family Easter Egg hunt, only there weren’t any Easter Eggs. We hunted for that elusive matching sock, or someone’s favorite tee shirt with the permanent mustard stains or a matching boot to Barbie’s new outfit. We search for missing cameras, Lego Blocks gone awry, and the baby’s foo-foo. No one bothered to count foam-rubber disks and hunted for the one that got away. But there it was, stuck between history’s dusty springs, years after the fact, long after the grandchildren outgrew toy guns. It might still be there, under the chair had it not spoken to me, “Get up. Get moving.” I examined it closely with my memory – grandchildren chasing grandparents, hiding beneath furniture, dodging deadly rounds. “Bang, bang, I got you!” Fond memories recovered from a lazy squeak. It became, for me, a piece of a jigsaw puzzle I didn’t even know was missing, the passing of time. How many more pieces, I wonder, are hiding or misplaced?
What to take and what to leave behind on the tour of the last twenty years of life. What to sell, what to give away, what to save for the kids, what to hide from them. The final leg of our journey is not about them anymore, either; it’s about two unique individuals addicted to the completion of a primal intention.
This is a picture of my new Christmas puppy all dressed up in a baby stroller. I begged for that puppy for months knowing how much my father hated the idea of owning a pet of any kind. Santa’s ledger of naughty and nice is one thing. It’s quite another when parents do the judging.
FLASH! Here we are at our son’s wedding, and again at our daughter’s graduation. Here is a first communion and there a confirmation, a granddaughter’s birth, a grandson’s funeral. This is the big fish we caught on our first camping trip together without kids. This is a picture of a Christmas past in a cheesy pair of matching pajamas. That is our back yard turned frozen in the winter – the blizzard of ‘78’ This is a different back yard, prairie blossomed in the fall. And this is the surprise litter of kittens that showered us with fleas.
That is us with my infant son. You don’t see the fear on our faces, but it’s there. At twenty we didn’t know a thing about taking care of babies and such, but we figured it all out, eventually, with the help of three more.
Someday our children will sort through my few remaining things and open my billfold to find that I carried one coveted picture of myself from the past. I think I’ll keep the picture of the sad little girl in the frilly little dress with the dimpled knees – she’s a survivor. Perhaps the little purse will open someday and a little key will spill out that unlocks the great mystery only children possess. Perhaps, after my unnecessaries have all but faded, the mystery will reveal itself to my understanding, and I to it, as one who remembers.
Linda McHenry is a wife, mother, grandmother and outdoor enthusiast. Her work has appeared in “Glimmer Train;” “Read This,” the “Montana State University’s Literature and Arts Publication”, “Raphael Village,” “Forge Journal” and “Halfway Down the Stairs.”
© 2014, Linda McHenry