Monday, December 23, 2013

Meaningful Things

Childhood memories are often not true representations of the lives we lived. Instead, we remember things the way others remind us of them, through their stories and the repetition of hearing over and over about that time, when that thing happened (you remember, right?). The best times are when someone will remind you of something you had completely forgotten about, a good or meaningful memory that had been trapped in a bubble back in the recesses of your brain, and then that little reminder sets it free into your life again.

This time of year, I can’t help but remember the things that made Christmas special when I was a kid. From the big, gothic cathedral at Faith Lutheran Church that would host our family on Christmas Eve for services to our routine of asking Dad every 10 minutes if it was time to open our presents. Our family’s home was the gathering place—it was big, we had the most people, and there was a working bar in the den right off the giant, formal dining room (the dining room which housed a pool table that we covered with plywood and a tablecloth for holiday buffets). The old-fashioned ornaments with their 70s-flair that decorated our tree that I still find myself trying to Google just to catch a glimpse of them again.
My dad worked at a company that made plastic bags, and at Christmastime, they would make these awesome stained-glass looking window decorations. We had several of them that would be placed in the windows around the house--I most clearly remember a big Santa, cheerfully waving from his place on the translucent plastic sheeting, sharing holiday wishes. Those plastic window coverings long ago went into the trash (before we had recycle bins), when they were torn and beyond repair. I would so love to have one of those again!
But my most vibrant memories of childhood are very simple: the sound of sneakers running on gravel, the other-worldly quiet of our street when it was covered in snow, and how when I was outside playing in it, building a fort (or trying to—a well-made fort was the holy grail of snow play) the stillness always made me feel a sense of foreboding, as though a giant monster or machine was going to shatter the stillness and come rumbling down the street (must have been all those Gamera monster movies I loved). And then coming in the house, where the heat registers would be covered with mountains of soggy boots and gloves and hats, waiting to dry and get worn again when it was time to go out and rebuild.
I remember going to the library, the Forest Home branch in south Milwaukee that was a little over a mile from my house. I’d go there with friends, maybe once or twice on my own when I was in grade school, walking through the streets and alleyways of the south side, passing that triangle block defined by 17th St, Arrow and Pearl, the one with the single house planted on it, and thinking that it must be the coolest thing in the world to have an entire block all to yourself.
I remember choosing as many books as I could reasonably carry—sometimes more—and reading through all of the Trixie Belden books, Judy Blume and Encyclopedia Brown. I would read about vampires—REAL vampires, not sparkly ones—like Vlad the Impaler and the Guinness Book of World Records and Ripley’s Believe it or Not! were always popular. Books about horses, nonfiction and fiction like Black Beauty and Misty of Chincoteague. We would bring these books home, read and re-read them, treasure them and return them. We would sit for hours on our front porches and draw horses from them.
In the summer before seventh grade, my parents moved us to a foreign land—from my inner city home to a tiny hamlet, a village of +/- 700 people, depending on which road you took into town and which population sign you believed. My best friend had moved away a year before when her parents divorced, so life had already changed significantly for us, but no longer would she be a 20 minute bus ride away; now it was nearly 40 miles north and west, out into the rural countryside.
Bad enough that you start to feel like an alien in your own skin at this time in your life, and as excited as I was for the adventure, I was terrified. I was an introverted kid who would act tough to fake extroversion. I was a short-haired, non-makeup wearing, socially awkward tomboy who didn’t care about clothes or pop music. I preferred classic rock, ripped jeans and riding my bike.
But before I reached the pastel prison that was small-town junior high, where you were judged based on your hair or music preferences and hand-me-downs before you even had a chance to open your mouth, introduce yourself and give them something truly awkward to judge you by, I found the library.
It was a tiny little building, but I remember when we drove into the village that first time, it loosened one knot of anxiety deep within me when I saw it. An old house, stuffed to the rafters with books, a ladder to the upstairs with more books. It smelled of forgotten words and molding pages and it was terribly exciting. I remember visiting often in those years when I first moved to town, but seldom were there many other visitors. I had the run of the place, and it calmed me. Called to me.
Of course, soon after this, I became a teenager. I knew everything. A tiny, little musty library had nothing for me and I left it behind. And then one day it closed. It felt like the Neverending Story, where the Childlike Empress tells Bastian about how the stories end if nobody is reading them. Heartbreaking to me now, but then I’m sure it was just a “huh” moment.
But I did continue to read. The stories stayed alive in me, through the school and public libraries in the suburban city where I attended school, through those “offer you can’t refuse” book clubs that would send a stack of books for a dollar if you buy one more in the next year.
I’m doing my part to keep the stories alive.
In hindsight (as is usually the case), I can romanticize these visits to the library, both the big city and the small village locations. But most of all, what I remember and hold dear are the stories. The books.
I’m old now. No longer a child and at that awkward middle age where I feel like I’m balancing between being an old lady acting too young or a young lady acting too old. I could never have imagined where I would be at 43 when I was visiting those libraries, but I guess I never questioned that it would be somewhere surrounded by books.
I’m passing on my love of reading to my children, and I hope that someday they look back on their childhood and those books are something that they cherish as well.


  1. I wanted to highlight areas as I went and write "I KNOW" and "Me tooooo" in the margins. And add a note about the excitement of a bookmobile visit. Since I couldn't find a computer way to make that work, I'll limit myself to two specifics. "REAL vampires, not sparkly ones" - I KNOW. Barnabus Collins would turn in his coffin if he could see those sparkly versions! And "pastel prison." Oh my - the perfect description to more than once life experience for me. I want to claim the description. I told myself that would be stealing and I tried to come up with alternatives that achieved that sentiment. "Baby-blue bondage" immediately came to mind - but somehow that doesn't seem right. I'll keep working on it! Happy New Year, Mari!

    1. Yes--loved the bookmobile! We also had this craft caravan that would come around from the nearby Boys & Girls club in the summertime, with all kinds of hands-on arts & crafts projects. It was the bomb! Kids today just have no idea. They're so much more advanced in some ways, so much more protected in others.

  2. This was a wonderful read, Mari! I had to laugh at Shel's response; my husband and I tried to watch the old Dark Shadows on Netflix and I could not get through more than 5-6 episodes -- SO hokey! But boy, did I get into it back in the day. I also spent some time in Milwaukee - S. Milwaukee, Greenfield, Waukesha...this post just jarred loose some forgotten tidbits of my past.

    You have a gift with words. :)

    1. You can take the girl out of SE Wi, but never the SE Wi out of the girl! Greenfield makes me think of Skate University (with the awesome, fast white floors) where I spent many a Friday night and Waukesha!? I got my first tattoo (and my 2nd) at Waukesha custom. But that's a story for another day. :)