Memory triggers

OverstuffedArmchairThe other day I caught a glimpse of a flowered, overstuffed chair on a TV sitcom and my mind flashed back more than 50 years, to my grandparents’ living room. Clear as day, I saw again Mimi’s flowered, overstuffed armchair, backed against the wall between her living room and dining room.

Just over the chair hung a large framed photo of the U.S.S. Trepang, Uncle Ponk’s submarine home during WWII. I heard again Mimi’s matter-of-fact voice recounting his wartime adventures, not realizing until years later how terrifying those days in the Pacific must have been for him, a young sailor just out of high school.  (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USS_Trepang_%28SS-412%29 for a little history of that ship.)

In my mind’s eye I saw the swinging french-style doors separating the two rooms and heard the little squeak one made when pushed. On the living room side the doors were faced with sheer, not quite see-through nylon curtains, affixed top and bottom with narrow brass rods.

The soles of my feet felt again the cool grit of sand tracked across the linoleum floor. (It was summer time; shoes were optional both in and out of the house.) Shades of pastel blue and  green floral patterns on the floor complemented those on the sofa and chairs.

Large, light and dark cherry pink blossoms predominated on Mimi’s slip covers, some of them hand-sewn from feed sacks. That’s right — feed sacks. Chicken feed for Mimi’s hens and rooster came in 100 pound sacks made of cotton material, never paper or plastic. None were ever discarded. Pillow cases, aprons, kitchen curtains and furniture covers could be constructed of that material.

Mimi owned a sewing machine in later days, but for the feed sacks she just used a large needle and strands of white thread. Her careful stitches never raveled. She didn’t need a pattern, at least I never saw her use one for these creations. If she got tired of a particular pattern, or if the material wore through, well, another sack would be along most any day.

In my house, I treasure several such triggers from that country farm house. Like granddaddy’s platform rocker. One of my earliest and fondest memories of my mother’s father (Da to us grandkids) is of him sitting hunched over in his rocking chair in the living room. In those days it was covered with heavy faded pink brocade, the pattern worn off on the arms and seat.

Da would call us over and suggest, with a twinkle in his eye, that we didn’t really want a slice of his apple, did we? He would proceed to use his pocket knife to slowly pare a large, shiny red apple, taking special care not to break the single spiraling peel.

When at long last he was satisfied that all the peel was indeed off, he would not halve or quarter the apple. Instead he carved thin flat ovals, offering one slice at a time to first this child, then that one, then one for himself, until every smidgeon was gone, all the way down to the seeds.

Other days he would bend forward a little so one of us could reach the top of his head with his metal pocket comb. His coarse, gray hair cut short in a military-style bristle, we thought it great fun to run the comb back and forth through his hair and watch it spring straight back up. These days it would seem like a peculiar way to have fun, but it certainly amused us kids back then.

I don’t remember Da ever rocking in that chair. He sat in it to read mail or a farm magazine, to pull off his boots at night or watch TV in later years, but mostly he reigned over us grandkids from that chair.

Today that chair resides in a place of honor in my sunroom, not often used as a chair by me but well used for naps by one of my cats. She doesn’t rock in it either. I never look at that chair without remembering Da, the apple or the twinkle in his eye.

Then, there’s Mimi’s pie safe. For newcomers to these parts, a pie safe kept pies (and cakes too) safe — from flies and gnats, mostly. It housed an assortment of other stuff too, like everyday plates, an occasional piece of mail, toothpicks and a few knick-knacks, but its most important contents were Mimi’s home-baked cakes and pies.

Coconut pies. Pumpkin pies. Coconut layer cakes or pineapple layer cakes. There was always a pie or cake in that safe, you could count on that. In the bottom section, dark and dry, Mimi would store one of the huge fruitcakes she baked at Thanksgiving, wrapped in rum-soaked cheesecloth and kept “safe” from sweet tooth marauders until Christmas time.

That pie safe now safely resides in my house too, not full of pies and cakes but books. Every time I pull one from those shelves, I can almost smell the grated coconut, pumpkin pie spice or rum-wrapped fruitcake.

Memory triggers appear in lots of places these days, like the block of ice I saw in a commercial one night. Suddenly it was a summer day in downtown Florence, school was out and all the neighborhood kids were skipping and yelling behind the ice wagon.

I smelled again the long-eared mule —  or was it a horse? I saw the splintered wood of the wagon bed… fingered coarse wisps of wet straw poking out around the frozen edges… ran my tongue around a mostly-clean sliver of ice… stuck my sandaled toes in the icy water dripping on the steamy pavement… and watched the driver swing his ice tongs, catch a choice block, and lug it over his shoulder to the ice box in our apartment on West Palmetto Street.

Pleasant memories, mostly.

March 23, 2015
(Adapted; first published October 21, 2004)

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