The older I get, the smaller my memories. I don’t mean that I remember less, necessarily, but that I remember differently. Instead of entire seasons or full days or complete events, I remember specific sensory experiences tied to concrete objects — the smell of fresh, unused construction paper on the first day of school; the hard waxed surface of a black speckled linoleum floor; the weight of the hard plastic telephone receiver in my six-year-old hand.
Out here in the middle distance, I am experiencing the first sensations of becoming an antique, of watching ways of life I remember well disappear forever. It struck me recently, looking at a photograph of my father talking on the kitchen phone, that my children might never have even dialed one like this.
But beyond my own paltry life experience, this past week at my mother’s house in south Texas confirmed my fears that when she is gone, with her will go so much that I don’t know and can only barely guess at, based on the objects she will leave behind, artifacts of her years on earth from 1928 forward.
Mama says: “You better let me know what you want before I’m gone, so I can put your name on it.” She is being purely practical; she doesn’t plan to depart right away but wants to be prepared when the time comes. Her boldness unsettles her children and grandchildren who’d rather not imagine a world without her in it. But her modest request sent me on a treasure hunt through her house, not for heirlooms or jewels or pieces of furniture but for small totems that hold clues to the past — an apron, a teacup, a photograph.
I stroll through her earliest photo album, black and white snapshots with white borders and ragged edges mounted on black paper with embossed sticky corner tabs. Her inscriptions, drawn in elegant loops with a fountain pen in white ink. All of these shots, labeled 1944 through 1947, are outdoors, the images soft-edged with natural light: my father and his Navy buddies on a ship in the Sea of Japan, handsome and sun-tanned; a USO girl smiling on deck, then jumping sideways, her eyes wide, her hands pushing out from her chest as the boys trick her with a live fish; my parents’ high school buddies leaning against their tall black cars, their nicknames enshrined on the page: Blackie, Jaybird, Preacher.
My parents as newlyweds, posing at the edge of a field against a row of identical white shingled houses, the lawns new and treeless. My father in his baseball catcher’s uniform, a fat mitted hand wrapped around my mother’s neck, her arms around his waist, her long silky legs entwined beneath baggy shorts as white as her teeth.
By the 1950s, the family photographer has moved indoors, though the shots are far from candid. My mother has kept our little orange booklets of black and white family photos in a box that once held flashbulbs, the box an artifact as surely as the photos themselves, cheerful posed images of healthy, scrubbed children, their birthday cakes, their guileless lives. An inordinate number show us dressed in our pajamas, at night when daddy is at home to operate the camera.
Faded color photos the shade of distressed grass chronicle the 1960s, the parents more serious and weary, the girls experimenting with hair styles, rolling their long locks on orange juice cans. From the 1970s, a posed shot of a teenaged girl in a long purple sweater and black vinyl boots with buckles. Her hair, unnaturally straightened, falls nearly to her waist. Looking at her, I remember the scratchy waist band and airless heft of the polyester suede jeans she wears so proudly.
My mother can barely hear, so our most comfortable time together is spent watching old movies on the Turner network where she can read the dialogue. We watch Night of the Hunter, and Grand Hotel, and Tarzan with Johnny Weismuller and Maureen O’Sullivan and the curly-haired kid who played Boy. I know every scene in these movies and wonder if my children have ever or will ever see them.
Days pass and I wander the house like a ghost looking for its shadow. The borders between my mother’s life and mine mingle and merge, two streams at a strange confluence in time. I slip a worn cup towel into my suitcase and breathe in the scent of nearly 60 years at table, of grease and soap and dishes I have eaten but never cooked, the scent of a mother’s life, once removed.
Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.