Monday, November 19, 2012

Hostess and Home - Memories of Childhood

As I first sat here with my coffee on a cold morning, all I could think of was  - "a Hostess Snoball would taste good right now." You see, they are a weakness of mine, but like many comfort foods of childhood, one to be savored just once every couple of months, as a treat, to recall something from long ago. I can go several months and not eat one, but now that they are gone, the shelves empty of pretty much all the Hostess products, it's hard to not think of one.

Memories of childhood are so different for many people. I am lucky in that my memories of childhood are good. Laughter and exploration wrapped in an warm blanket of sight and sound and tastes that are still on my tongue. Memories of the past are like that, often having that impossible quality of perfection we often give to materials things, a favorite book, a favorite tool or firearm, sometimes to a whole relationship we can never get back to.

If we could only get there again, have that again, hold that again, our life would be somehow better, as if some cold case crime was finally solved, the reminders of things that hurt us behind  bars in our mind, never to be freed again.

We've all talked about it. I have often written about it, some small trivial thing of the past that appear to contain the sublime and there's no explaining it to everyone as much as you try. Still in your minds eye it's there, and will always be. Clear and as sure as if it were yesterday and for me one such memory was opening up the lunch box and finding my Hostess treat, next to my peanut butter and honey sandwich, apple and carrot sticks.

My Mom was diagnosed with colon cancer in the Sixties.  The long term survival rate back then was only 1 in 7.  She was only in her forties.  I was four.  It was about this time of the year. She came home after Christmas,  chemo shunt in place, and did everything in her power to make our life normal.

I don't recall her leaving for the hospital, only the worried look in my Dad's eyes. But the photos bring it back, one of my oldest brother at her hospital bed with a little aluminum tree on the nightstand, as she holds up a flannel nightgown Dad picked out and bought "from us" that she opened from her hospital bed.

The Doctor's treatment did not cure her, but it gave her several more Christmas mornings, including the one where my young siblings and I pooled our allowances and bought her a nightgown we picked out all by ourselves. It was red, see through and very short, trimmed with fake fur that was shedding like a polecat with mange even as we wrapped the gift ourselves.  I'm not sure WHAT discount place on Main Street we got it from, but as young as we were, we thought it was quite spiffy, and oh, won't our quiet, cookie baking Mom love this!  I still remember the fits of laughter she had to try and suppress when she opened the package and held it up (Dad seemed to like it though).

I remember her making our school lunch's with cookies from home if she was up to it, and our Hostess treats when she wasn't.  It was Ding Dongs for the boys, Snoballs for me. I'd eat one at lunch and take the remaining one to the playground after school, eating it perched on top of the biggest, tallest piece of playground equipment I could find, defying gravity, feet dangling into the air, Mom watching carefully from a distance.  Then, we'd go home to start supper, eager to tell Mom about our day and we'd listen to her laugh, that sound, the stored honey of her spirit, carried on wings whose load was heavy, delivered to us, her children, to make us whole.

I remember the snow days, when school was cancelled.  Mom would hand us our snow gear and off we'd go. Another day of adventure. We'd grab our inner tubes and and go barreling down the snow laden slopes of the neighborhood park, with no admonishments to "be careful" or "did you brush your teeth", or "you're tracking snow into the house!" On such days, we were just allowed to be kids and, if for just for that unique time, to be completely carefree. When we were so cold and tired we could barely stand, with scrapes and giggles and bruises, we'd tromp back to the house for hot chocolate and a sweet baked treat.

Before cancer, our list of "should do's was really quite long. And like other families that cope with disappointment or disease, we quit using the work "should" quite so much. The house may have been be a bit messier, but given the choice of cleaning or building a snowman with her kids, doing that ironing now or joining us in a snowball fight, the choice went towards those small joys

Still, she maintained her discipline as a Mother and for every sweet snack we got there were still those family dinners where you had better eat your vegetables.  She and I had a doctrine of mutually assured destruction involving acorn squash.  She refused to not make it, and I refused to eat it, sitting at the table long after everyone else was excused, the squash growing as chilly as that Veggie Cold War, until finally, she gave up and sent me to my room without dessert, something that was not easy on either of us.

I was too young to appreciate the depth of what she did for us, instilling in us love for each other and appreciation for the blessings of our table. But I was old enough to see that courage is simply the power to see past misfortune or expectation, to hold on to the things that affirm inwardly that life, with all it's trials, is still good. Be it a warm hug or sweet treats handed to us with a smile and a touch on our head, a benediction of love that could only come from the wellspring of faith that stayed within her.

I can not, now matter how hard I try, remember her voice, but if I close my eyes I can remember that touch.  It was not a touch as heavy and uncaring as a slap, but one that simply said-  I love you, but you must  have courage and craft your life for yourself, just let me share it as long as I can.

Watching us spread our wings, knowing she would likely be gone before we were grown, had to be so hard. Like any Mother, she was concerned with our safety, but not to the point where we were ever wrapped in bubble wrap, spoiled and coddled, given everything we wanted, without effort. We worked hard for our allowance, doing chores, but when the chores were done we were encouraged to go explore the world around us.

Myself, I'd get on my bike and go ride the dusty gash of  a roadway near the railway tracks, where I could see and hear the trains go by, the engine passing in hissing thunder, sparks flying up like fireflies let loose from the rails, dust coiling behind it like a tornado in trail. Such began my adventures, my love of motion and machinery.

We had no timetable, yet we always seem to know when the train would come by, one moment the tracks empty, the next, filled with the rhythmic rumble of sound, of life, that materialized it seemed, out of nothing, with that air of the deliberately accidental that lingered like smoke, long after it disappeared from sight.  I simply stopped my bike and stood watching, compelled to pause, still in that infinite clutch of the temporary confederation of two elements, water and air, the frailest of integers and units of measure combing into a force that can not be bound, not even in death.

Such is memory, such is life,  those moments that perhaps were predestined, glimpsed only so briefly before they are gone, those memories that come with smell or sound that linger. Memories plucked from the infinitesimal, with infinitesimal longing.

We crammed a lot of life into those short childhood years, as did our Mom, more than we expected her to have, but not nearly enough. It's been a lifetime since she left us, and all that remains is the memories, that comes on the wings of a snowfall, that raises a smile every time I see an acorn squash at the grocery, that rumble into life with the roar of a locomotive or the soft crackle of a little cellophane package being gleefully opened by eager hands.

It's five a.m., it will only be a few hours before I have to head back to the city and work.  The alarm went off much too early, these hours often the only time I have to write. Outside, the moonlight filters through darkened trees, their branches raised up as if in prayer. From a distance comes the whistle of a train, the mournful sound carried on the windless cold that is memory's heat. Inside, Barkley still asleep on his dog  bed, there is only quiet and a photo on my desk of a tall young woman with dark auburn hair and ice blue eyes, in a simple wooden frame.

I know there is oatmeal and fruit in the kitchen. But at the store I found one last package of Snoballs. I think this one time, my Mom would not mind if I had one for breakfast. I'll put on my coat, and head out on the porch, eating it perhaps, perched on the wooden railing, feet dangling into the air, just for one more moment, ignoring the inherited, perpetual recognition of gravity, my Mom watching carefully from a distance.