Ponder this:

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Corduroy sneakers in the snow

I have just finished reading The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls.  I think I should have read it during sunny months instead of during the winter doldrums, when I am too susceptible to the memories that such a story brings to my mind.  Or perhaps I should have taken a breather after reading Lit by Mary Karr before I read another memoir.  Fathers incapacitated by ill health or drink, dying, mothers oblivious to their children's physical and emotional care, cold, leaking winter houses, spoiled (if any) food...  It's too much for me.  

During much of my teens I lived alone, my father having died years before, my mother hospitalized, my sister away at college.  

I was given to believe that it was illegal for my mother to sign any legal documents because of her mental incapacity, so during my weekly hospital visit, in violation of whatever law that was (if there indeed was such a law), I would secret the monthly Social Security check to her for her endorsement so I could take it to the bank and cash it.  Once I had money, I would pay whatever bills there were.  And I would buy a package of sliced bacon and place it in the old GE lever-handled refrigerator's meat drawer.  The sealed package was less food than a talisman.  My best friend's family had big Sunday breakfasts of eggs and bacon that her father cooked.  Their house smelled of food and security.  Seeing that package of bacon in my refrigerator was a comfort.  After weeks of lying unopened in the refrigerator, the bacon would begin to grow spots of blue-green mold and even then I wouldn't throw it away until there was more mold than bacon visible.  With sad resignation I would dispose of it.  And buy a new package.  In those days I had a little touch of anorexia. Now as I type this, my stomach is growling and rumbling. I haven't eaten today and the urge to overlook hunger comes back with these memories.

Every cold weather day when I woke up in the morning and when I got home from school I needed to take the small tank from the back of the kerosene heater in the livingroom, carry it to the uninsulated back shed off the kitchen and balance it while I filled it from the big tank.  I almost never managed to get it done without spilling kerosene on myself, and even if I was successful with that, my hands always carried that scent. Kerosene, being oily, doesn't wash off easily, and I wondered every day when I got on the schoolbus if I smelled like the fat dirty people who sat in the kerosene dealer's office when I went there to pay the bill.  The office was messy and dirty and the windows were opaque with filth. And the whole place smelled like kerosene.

Sometimes the water heater would go out overnight and the apartment would fill with soot. I would wake up with black marks at my nostrils and the corners of my lips, and oddly, at my ears, having breathed that sooty air for hours.  Cold water and a washcloth full of Dial soap couldn't get those marks off my face and I'd have to go off to school with my dirty face, pretending I looked normal.

In the summer I washed the dirty clothes in an old wringer washer on wheels that somebody had given to us. I had a hose that I'd hook up to the kitchen faucet to fill it for the wash and rinse cycles, and it had a nifty attached hose with a hook at the end through which it drained.  The machine's tub leaked badly, so it drained onto the cracked linoleum floor as much as it drained into the sink.  When I had finished hanging the clothes on the line in the back yard I would mop the kitchen floor with the pool of water.  I felt adult and competent.

In the winter I would carry the dirty clothes the block or two to the laundromat. I might have owned boots, I don't remember. I usually wore the corduroy sneakers with holes in the toes that my sister had grown out of and left behind.  My toes only hurt until I stopped feeling them. Right now I'm reliving a solitary dark evening walk through a sparkling snowfall, carrying the broken plastic laundry basket to the laundromat, shuffling through half a foot of snow.  I composed a poem  for the next day's English class, repeating and revising it as I walked.  Our class had recently read Elinor Wylie's Velvet Shoes.  I have no memory of my poem but I know that it was well-received for its alliteration...lots of "s" and "sh" sounds.

I wore those same sneakers the night our church youth group went Christmas caroling.  When we had finished the round of the village and entered the leader's house to have popcorn in front of her fireplace, everybody took off their footwear inside her back door. She saw my holey sneakers encrusted with ice and snow and was shocked.  "Is that what you've been wearing? Your feet must be frozen! What would your mother think to know I let you walk around all night like that!" I'm sure I just smiled sheepishly and shrugged, simply an unruly child who had disobeyed her concerned mother's cautions about proper outerwear.

The friend who lent me both of those books felt I would identify with the authors' stories.  I do.  It is unfortunate perhaps, and perhaps not, that that identification and empathy takes me into my own memoir.

Click on the link to see others' contributions to Sunday Scribblings The Good Old Days.


Joe Todd said...

There are stories and then there are stories. Thanks so much for sharing your "Corduroy Sneakers"

Barb said...

You write so honestly, June - I am both mesmerized and heartbroken. I think that reading a memoir sometimes lights the way to our own hidden memories - or at least ignites our empathy and compassion for the human condition. You have a real gift. You should write these memories into a memoir if they don't give you too much pain.

Von said...

Hi June,painful memories revitalised are sometime so unhelpful, whatever our friends think.We went through enough trauma without reading about someone else's and who wants to identify with pain and more suffering? Empathy maybe, pain no.
Writing about it brings more pain which can cathartic, therapeutic or sometimes just makes us re-live things we'd rather put in the past.Whatever you do has to be right for you.
People who don't know talk, about courage..sometimes you do what you have to, to survive, whatever it takes.Life is tough, sometimes gets tougher, hopefully you're in a better space these days and have choice! Good wishes,great blog.

Barb said...

Oh, June, June - I read your comment to me and nearly sprayed a swallow of tea all over the computer. Now, why didn't I think of elbow macaroni? (Cooked, of course!)

Anonymous said...

I love memoirs and this is a good one.

NuttersNotes said...

Wow...the conditions and circumstances people must overcome. Life is richer for you to have this in your rear view mirror. Thank you for sharing this piece

Sandra said...

There is the cold and darkness of winter and cold and dark memories that are hidden in us all. We no longer have to experience this kind of pain anymore. We are no longer helpless as adults. You've come a long way and me too. I sometimes have to be reminded of the hard past in order to be grateful for today. Thanks for your post. It's a winter awakening for me.
Best always, Sandra

Old Egg said...

Some memories like yours give you great strength to cope with all eventualities. Yes, is was a sad read but also uplifting. Thank you June.

Americanising Desi said...

your honesty is your strength :)

good thing it hasnt dwelled in the good ol days only!


Good Ol' Days'

Wanda..... said...

June...I agree with Barb, you are a gifted writer. Your post slowly created such concern in me for that child. It left me with so many questions.

Bonnie Zieman, M.Ed. said...

June: You are an incredible writer with a past rich with experiences that mesmerize your audience. What a resilient, courageous, resourceful child you were! I can only try to imagine the feelings you must have endured as you struggled alone.

You could certainly write a riveting memoir of your own, if you were of a mind too. I'd certainly want to read it.

Thank you for sharing this. I hung on every word.

Archna said...

"lying unopened...opaque with filth...dirty face...pool of water...solitary dark evening"...what images you've painted. Such a clear sense of emotion through these words. Living is true inspiration. Thank you for sharing that life with us. Thank you for reading mine as well.


Carolynn Anctil said...

Wow. I'm left quite speechless and I admire your strength and fortitude.

That was a lovely, touching memoir and proves that beauty can be found everywhere.

What an honour to 'know' you.


Lord Wellbourne said...

June, dearest June. I am choked-up and humbled. There is mist everywhere I turn my eyes. You are your own gift--embrace yourself and feel my arms already around you.

Dee Martin said...

gosh don't go read mine now - it is NOT uplifting. I think it just plain SUCKS to have gone through all that. I have the feeling that you may have glossed over a lot of bad. I wish you all kinds of good to make up for all that. Gah! Sending you hugs.