Category Archives: Memoir

Letter to My 40th Class Reunion

It was 40 years ago last June, a warm Tuesday evening on the 12th, that we lined up in our green caps and gowns outside the front entrance to the high school. Laughing at each other’s jokes, we waited for the signal to march inside for commencement.  The grass was freshly mowed, a light breeze stirred the air, a few puffy clouds dotted the horizon.  And inside, a gymnasium full of parents, friends and family politely fanned themselves, awaiting our entrance.

We’d done it.  It was 1973, and we were the cocks of the walk: the graduating seniors.  We imagined ourselves experienced.

Last night, I looked out on a 40th reunion, and I saw what experience really looks like.  We were no longer virgin canvas; our faces had been transformed by the process of living into complex statements of character.  Every face there was utterly beautiful.  We had become walking stories.  I wanted to hear them all! Yet at the same time,  every face carried a precious piece of the “once upon a time” that was Nelson County in the early seventies.

I have recently found myself wishing that I could go back and eliminate the wasted opportunities, that I could somehow know every single classmate as a close friend. But you remember high school: the cliques, the shyness, the peer pressure, and of course, the still fresh divisions of black and white in the ’70s.

Now, all those actors’ masks that once seemed so necessary and so compelling – we simply toss them aside.

And so, last night. . . forty years out. . . we show up. We present ourselves to each other with that stumbling fearlessness that only comes with age. We arrive with our faded dreams, our crowned glories, our pictures of grandchildren, our memories of departed classmates, our successes and failures. . .  and this is what forty years written over eighteen-year-old faces looks like.  Rembrandt was never so sublime.

Last night we looked at each other, and we glimpsed something that we somehow always knew: we are all one human being – written over and over again by an author who delights in the variation assigned to us as individuals. It is for us only to recognize ourselves in each other.  And celebrate. 

We are the celebration of that creation, of an era that has found itself at last.  A more rural, less worldly moment in county history than today.   A time fraught with its own uncertainty: the winding down of the Vietnam war, the rise of counter-culture, the essential progress of civil rights, and above all an eternal dilemma: whether to accept our parents’ views on society, or to strike out along new paths and to forge new visions of the world.

If there had been an open mic last night, I am not sure I could have made it through this. But I want to say that I consider you ALL my closest friends whether you were there or not, or whether I am ever able to tell you in person.

Until next time.  Be well. 

It’s For You

Phone_handsetAt our house, we still have a land line. This is mostly due to our rural location where cable Internet does not reach. But also, we live in a marginal cellular coverage area where the reception changes with the leaf color, the weather, and whatever limb our chickens happened to roost on last night.

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“Dude! Where are you now?”

So, we’ve held fast to our land line: this ringing box with a wire connecting it to the wall. Can you imagine? Such old school stuff in this age of pocket connectivity. But think about this. When you call a land line, you’re calling a place attached temporarily to a personality. When you call a cell phone, on the other hand, you’re calling a personality attached temporarily to a place. Indeed, people are the only real units of reference in our mobile calling culture. Technically it doesn’t matter whether they are two rooms away, two states away, or on a lay over in Reykjavik.

The absence of place as a necessary condition has been challenging for us seasoned communicators. You’ll often hear older callers ask early in the call: “Where are you?” when calling a mobile number. My wife does this all the time. It’s as though she cannot talk comfortably to me without first establishing my whereabouts.  (I should probably leave that point alone for my own well-being and move on. . .)  I  guess we need more than the immediacy of the person’s voice at the other end; we want to know what situation we have called into – whether that someone is lounging in their pajamas, driving down the interstate, or sitting in a Taco Bell.  Otherwise, we feel slightly disconnected – as though we might be channeling a disembodied spirit. Knowing place somehow supplies the weight our words ought to have for each other.

We first got caller ID for our land line many years ago. At first, it felt deliciously sneaky to know who was calling before we would answer. It was the caller, then,  who occupied the exposed position and not the one answering. But soon enough, just having that extra bit of information became normal – and something we’ve come to depend on to frame our minds before we pick up.  

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Dialing ‘CRestwood 7- 5647’ in the 70’s would cause a wall phone like this one to ring in our hallway.

Consequently, we have long since forgotten how to take a phone call with any sense of real curiosity. This much is gone. Can you recall that sense of anticipation as a teenager when the phone rang? A state of high alert would ripple through the household. Or again on Christmas mornings, when the ringing phone often meant the hiss of long distance and faraway voices calling in to re-connect across the miles. The compelling mystique of the unanswered phone is largely a curiosity now.

Nowadays when the land line rings, one of us will reluctantly drop a fork, get up, and check the readout. Chances are, we don’t know the caller (and sometimes even when we do); we say to ourselves: “They really want to speak to us? they’ll leave a message.” What a couple of curmudgeons we’ve become!  But this trend reflects the sheer number of junk calls that now come streaming down the line.

I remember a lecture once given by the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, in which he recommended a practice he called ‘telephone meditation.’  In his inimitably measured way, Thich Nhat said: “On the first ring, simply listen to the sound of the bell. Stay exactly where you are. Breathe only. On the second ring, rise with dignity and go to the telephone. Breathe only. You know that you can afford to do this,” he said, “because if the other person has something really important to tell you, she will not hang up before the third ring. And on the third ring,” he continued, “you answer. In this way, you bring no unhappiness, no anxiety to the phone, because you have taken the time to re-establish who you are. That is what we call telephone meditation.”

I’ve always liked that idea. But when that strident sound splits the silence of the house, how easy it is to forget all of that.  And do I dare avert my eyes, ignore what the LCD wants to reveal to me, and simply say (as we once did) with a happy expectancy: “Hello. . . ?”

I suspect I might often find more inner peace in just allowing it to ring.

my dad’s garden

Returning from my week in the Chilean desert, I was struck by the vibrant green which now colors Albemarle County.  Each year, April kisses Virginia with an unmatched pallet of color: pinks, reds, yellows, and whites.  Dogwood and azalea blossoms layer over a virginal green that saturates the eyes with its vibrancy.  The effect is visceral, redemptive of our wintered souls.

Dogwood blossoms in Virgina

It’s time to prepare the raised beds behind our house for seed. But because the sun must overlook tall oaks on either side of our spread, the direct radiation these beds receive is relatively small – about six hours. Consequently, we tend toward vegetables that do well without long exposure to sunlight: kale, kohlrabi, spinach, garlic, and perhaps mint.

In working the soil, I fondly recall the garden my father planted year after year on Piney River.  Dad gardened old-school.  He planted long, wide rows you could wheel a wagon down.  His garden soil was loamy chocolate, a perfect storm of silt, rotted manure and clay.  It yielded an aroma as complex in its way as a  pot of vegetable soup left simmering on a back burner.

Each Spring, dad would ask a local farmer to come with his moldboard plow and turn over the land.  I loved to watch the plow cut the soil, to see the dirt curl over into thick ribbons of taffy. A day or so later the farmer would return with a disk set, and after a few passes I could plunge my eight-year-old arms into that tilth to the elbows.

Fascinated, I wormed my small hands deeper and deeper into the soil until they suddenly encountered the cold: a mysterious region where the spring sun hadn’t penetrated.  This always came as a shock to me.  I wanted to imagine the earth as a warm-blooded creature. But instead, there lurked a corpse-like chill beneath the surface. My boyish imagination got the best of me in those times, and I withdrew my arms quickly, lest some awakened thing grab them from below.

Dad’s garden lay in a fork between a small creek on one side and the Piney River on the other.  We constantly pursued the minnows in the little creek that gurgled through our yard.  They darted up and down the rill like elusive brown shadows. The water was clean and cold, originating from a hillside spring several hundred yards behind the house.  But it ran through a cow field before passing our house, and so we kids were told not to drink from it.

Across the one-lane road, the Piney River, old man of Woodson valley, rippled and sighed its way past our house as it had done for thousands of years. The river was a given in our childhood, a mostly benign entity that suffered our visitations with fishing poles, our barefooted rock-hopping, our wildlife safaris.  Overturning a river jack often yielded the sight of grey-brown crawfish, which comically jerked backwards into the disturbed silt.

Piney River along Woodson Rd

Every couple of years, dad burned off the entire garden lot before plowing it.  This was a wondrous event.  The tall dry reeds and underbrush caught fire quickly.  The whole triangle of land became a raging inferno, and we stalked around the edges with rakes to control escaping flames.  The roiling orange tongues licked higher than a house, and you could hear their explosive crackle for a hundred yards.  Dad left me in charge of keeping the flames contained on the side where I stood, and I remember how big and responsible I felt at those times.  The heat was so magnificently intense it scorched my face, and I would turn away.

The working of a garden restores and connects us in ways we do not fully understand.  Central Virginia is perhaps the most beautiful place that exists in the Spring.  To put your fingers into the ground against this backdrop, to grab a handful of soil with enough clay that it packs to a ball, yet enough sand and silt that it crumbles easily, brings reassurance and blessing to the soul.  The life cycle is repeating again, and we are part of it.

Ode to an Old School Desk

My dad drove me to Fleetwood Elementary that first day in the Fall of 1962.  We had moved up the Blue Ridge from Salem during the summer.  I was a fresh-faced second grader, and hitting Fleetwood was like landing on Mars.

These were rough-hewn, mouthy kids, sent in from local farms and the mountain hollows of Nelson County.  I had no training in their glaring, shoving code, and I was in constant danger the first couple of weeks.  All seven grades were thrown together on the open field at recess.  You kept your radar up.

“Kirk, why don’t you sit over there?” Mrs. Webb said to my shell-shocked face as I stood in her class.  She motioned to an empty seat one row over from the windows.  I slid into my very first school desk.

At West Salem Elementary, we had modern classrooms. The chairs and tables were bleached oak and shined with a handsome luster.  The room smelled new, heavy with the aroma of clear glossy varnish. Our tables had little compartments along each side where you could hide your hands or a half-eaten jelly sandwich. We blinked at each other like confused nestlings around those tables.

At Fleetwood, on the other hand, the desks appeared to have been taken wild from the nearby mountains.  They were scarred with graffiti and compass needle ruts.  I regarded my first desk apprehensively, not knowing whether it would buck or tolerate the skittish newcomer.  Other than one good-natured creak, it made no complaint. I quickly became a seasoned desk jockey.

Picking a desk each year was an art, like selecting a used car. You kicked it around a little, checked its level, wiggled the top.  As in real estate, location became the major concern: a balanced decision  involving bullies, hissing steam radiators, windows and the teacher’s line of sight.

A kid developed a strong bond with a desk.  After working it over for a few days, you knew its finer points –  how to play Yankee Doodle from its squeaks, and how far you could lean without catastrophe.  If you were lucky, the bumps on the underside were pieces of gum you had hidden there. So too, the boogers. You soon memorized that inverted landscape, restlessly exploring it day after day.

When it rained outside, the phys. ed. teacher sometimes had us sit on our seat backs and play dodge ball.  This was stratagem no sane teacher would countenance nowadays.  We put our feet in the seats, balanced our butts on the chair backs, and from this precarious position we took turns flinging the ball at one another.  The luck of the draw determined who got the first ball, and the kids who sat beside you had no chance.

If you caught the ball, you were okay, but if it bounced off you, you sat down. This did not mean you could let your mind wander. You hadn’t left the field; the action continued mere inches above your head. By the end, the survivors were evenly spaced around the room, at least one kid had fallen off their desk, and we had all been covertly trained in the art of home wrecking.

I never won, but it was the greatest fun to have that big red ball zooming around the room. It never hurt when it hit you, and the whole idea of being emotionally damaged by being struck from another kid throwing an object at you was as alien as . . . well, it was just alien. Even city kids knew the world dealt lumps. Can you imagine what would occur now if someone let that happen to their poor darlings?

I’ve gone a bit off track from the desk.  But reminiscing will work this tangential effect. We carry a reservoir of stories within us, and for good or ill they constantly whisper to us who we are.  The past is a quilt of experience, and the pattern our memories form can be more revealing than the memories themselves. We wrap ourselves in our experiences.

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(Desk image courtesy: Greenpoint Vintage Furniture)