Legacies

Monday Morning Musings:

 

I called my mother

just to say, “hi,”

a seemingly inconsequential chat

that opened a door to an unknown world.

We talked about the house my younger daughter will soon have

the number of bedrooms, the bathroom–

and suddenly my mother remembers

as though hurtling back in time.

 

When my mother was little

she tells me,

she sometimes visited her grandmother

and stayed overnight,

the house had a summer kitchen

where they kept pickles,

her unmarried aunts lived on the third floor

they placed a bucket there at night

because there was only one bathroom in that house,

on the second floor

where the artist, her cousin, Abraham Hankins, lived for a time.

Sometimes there were other boarders, too.

Was it convenience or concern for propriety

and the virtue of unmarried women

that caused the bucket,

the literal pot to piss in

to be a fixture of that third floor room?

Who emptied it? That is what I wonder.

A question that will never be answered.

 

When my mother was little,

she tells me,

around four years old,

she had diphtheria.

It’s an ancient disease,

described by Hippocrates,

it can cause the throat and other membranes to swell,

It can be fatal.

There may have been an epidemic that year in Philadelphia,

there were several diphtheria epidemics in the 1920s,

thousands of people, mostly children, used to die from the disease*

before there was an effective vaccine.

(Were those the good old days?)

An ambulance took my mother to the hospital,

her father didn’t have a car,

they had no way to get her there,

they also didn’t have a telephone.

I wonder who called the ambulance?

She remembers–

she says this a few times–

She remembers

her mother standing there

watching and crying

watching her daughter, my mother, being taken away.

My mother dropped her doll,

and they—whoever they were—

would not give it back to her.

She doesn’t say she was sad or scared

but she remembers this,

losing her doll.

The memory has been with her

for almost ninety years now.

They must have thought it contaminated and germ-ridden,

though they didn’t give her a reason,

or she doesn’t remember.

It doesn’t matter now, but–

I hope they were kind to my four-year-old mother.

When she was finally well,

well enough to come home,

her mother made her oatmeal,

comfort food.

The image of her mother crying seems to haunt my mother.

I suppose she seldom saw my grandmother cry.

My grandparents were immigrants,

no nonsense people.

But I have a different image of my grandmother now,

a young woman fearful that her little girl,

her only child, was dying.

This wasn’t supposed to happen in America.

 

When my mother was little,

she tells me,

her mother spent time curling her, my mother’s hair,

wrapping it around a finger to form a ringlet,

a tender gesture, as I imagine it.

But my grandmother was constantly interrupted by customers,

customers arriving in their candy store.

My grandmother took care of store and household

because my grandfather also worked another job.

Home and shop were separated by two stairs,

a boundary of sorts,

a division between two worlds.

My grandmother muttered about those two steps,

up and down all day long.

I imagine my grandmother,

a small woman, like her sisters,

complaining in a mixture of Yiddish and English,

cursing those two stairs.

 

And now my mother is little again

little in height,

not that she was ever tall,

but now she has shrunk several inches,

though her formerly slender body is now large,

These are my earliest memories

she tells me,

as we talk on the phone that morning,

her voice emerging from her little-large body.

These early memories

of people and places long gone

of a way of life that no longer exists.

Someday my mother won’t be here

but her memories

a legacy

like her curls,

I carry both.

Her memories will

float around the Internet

perhaps forever,

or

until something replaces them,

and perhaps my own daughters will write

of my memories on some device that I can’t imagine.

But for now,

my memories and hers blend together here,

in her telling them to me,

her memories become mine,

they now belong to me as well,

colored by my perceptions and imagination.

I think of a grandmother I didn’t know,

who cried when she feared her daughter would die,

who lovingly curled that same daughter’s hair

And I share that image with you.

 

* “During the 1920s in the United States, 100,000–200,000 cases of diphtheria (140–150 cases per 100,000 population) and 13,000–15,000 deaths were reported each year. In 1921, a total of 206,000 cases and 15,520 deaths were reported.” CDC

 

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31 thoughts on “Legacies

  1. Are those family photos, Merril? Is it your mother, your grandmother, their store?
    I LOVE this, Merril, as you can imagine. So similar to what I’m doing with my chapbook. Trying to tell their stories, stories that seem so different from today’s world and yet the people are the same in so many ways.

    • Thanks, Luanne. I’m so glad you liked it!
      It is my mother, my grandmother, and a store–although I’m not certain if it’s the store with the two steps. They had a few.
      Your chapbook sounds wonderful!

      • Such fabulous photos!!!!! I’m nuts about old photos and have a collection myself (I put them on my other blog). I’ve had such a good time with the chapbook I almost wonder why I don’t just keep going and make it a full book. SIGH.

      • I wish the photos were better quality. The one of my mom is a photo of a photo copy that I found in an album someone made for her. I’ve never seen the photo, and I had no idea she ever took dance classes as a little girl.

        Are you doing the chapbook yourself or is someone publishing it? Because if you’re doing it yourself, then you can make it whatever you want. 🙂

      • They look marvelous, though. Isn’t it amazing what “they” forget to tell us?! I am going to try to get the chapbook published by a small press. If not, then I will consider publishing it myself.

  2. I love this story-in-a-story (in a poem!), especially the rhythm of these lines, that give me a feeling I can hear her talking–

    She remembers–
    she says this a few times–
    She remembers

    –and I just when “Ahh” when I read this

    in her telling them to me,
    her memories become mine,
    they now belong to me as well,

  3. Personal history with details. How wonderful to have these images and text, both of which will live on. We don’t realize how medical miracles have circumvented the grief of losing children these days. Unimaginable!

    • Thanks for reading, Marian, in the midst of your moving craziness!
      There are so many childhood diseases now that children don’t have to get. I don’t understand the anti-vaccine people.

  4. How wonderful you were able to find these things out about your mom and grandmother! It truly shows that the early years of our existence has a powerful impact on us; even as we age and grow older.

  5. Merril, you were blessed to be on the phone when your mother’s memories came flooding back. To have a mother alive, is also something we both have in common.
    What a sad but ultimately, happy story. I think this story is so special about your sick 4 year old mother. How “mean” that the ambulance workers didn’t give back your mother’s beloved doll. My mom had a “composition” doll, whose hands were sucked by my Mom while young, eventually becoming just knobs. I cannot imagine the taste of the paper mache combination. (Yuck!)
    She loved her one doll and collected dolls, later in life, due to her interest in them.
    The sepia and cream family and store photographs are beyond extraordinary!

    • Thanks, I’m glad you enjoyed this–and it triggered memories for you, too, of a story you’ve heard from your mother. I’ve never heard of a composition doll, and I had no idea what it was until you explained it. I don’t know what type of doll my mom had. I’ll have to see if she remembers. I suspect it may have been her only doll, but perhaps she got another one when she was better.
      About the photos–I wish I had a real photo of my mom in the dance costume. It’s a photo copy that I only recently found–I’ve never seen the photo.

      • Oh, do you have an aunt or someone the same generation as your mother still living? It would be worth it to ask if anyone has this photo with her in a dance costume, in original condition, Merril. I also hope your mother was given another doll, since she was only 4 when this happened. Poor little sweetheart! ❤
        I am wondering if there are pictures of composition dolls, since I think they were still made by companies, before plastic or rubber type material was used to make dolls. Hers she called, "German," but this could be just the fact her mother was born in Germany and so, she liked thinking it was foreign.

      • I don’t know if anyone is still living who would have the photo. I think the cousins who made the album for her are now dead, and her only brother died this year.

        I looked up composition dolls, and yes, lots of photos. It seems the technique began in Germany.

  6. Ohhhh, what a sweet and sour, bitter and sweet, loving and living poetic memorial to your mom and her memories, to you as her daughter with your memories, to life and to …. well, what comes after. I read every word slowly, savoring the verses “the literal pot to piss in,” the long-ago traditions, the too-young death in diseases long gone, the remembrances of “the good old days” that maybe weren’t so great, but they were the way to live. Wonderful.

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