remembrance of things past

Posted by on February 21, 2008

During my entire time in Florida, I struggled with a sore throat, eye cold, cough, and earache, in that order. These ailments layered down upon me and went through stages of benignity, but never lifted altogether. So although the weather was what I had dreamt about escaping to, I plainly lacked the energy to maximize my time there in the ways I had imagined, and cared little for excursions. On principle, I tried to get outdoors with Esme at least once each day, taking her out in the stroller or just letting her roam, supervised, in the backyard, its spongy jungle grass bouyant under the soles of her small shoes. But mostly I stayed indoors, took it easy, and made runs to Walgreens for kleenex and things that come in dropper bottles. I came home with my suitcase a veritable medicine cabinet.

One night after taking some nighttime cold medication, I got in bed intent on that one needful sleep thing, but could hear the voices of my family in the living room, close, noisy, and impossible to block out, even through my congested head. It is my weakness to never lie in hiding when a good rankle is taking place; the devil in me wants to join in the fray. There wasn’t any rankle or fray going on, to be exact, but I still wanted to join in, so I gave up on sleep even as the drowsy ingredient in the medication began to take effect, dragged my quilt out to the living room, and found my place within the conversational circle my two older sisters and parents had formed without the aid of electricity, sitting in Floridian moonlight. I had forgotten about Floridian moonlight, and also my mother’s quirky habit of turning off lamps prematurely in the evening. But I discovered that when three sisters gather in their parents’ old home, the very place where they grew up, without any husbands– new blood– to alter the dynamic, the old household is reborn, reconfigured. Being at home this time was like going back in time. I half thought that I would have go to school in the morning, or get chewed out for sneaking into my sister’s room and stealing a squirt of her perfume. Lying in bed, I half expected to hear my sister’s footsteps pounding up the front walk just before her curfew, and my dozing dad rousing from his arm chair like a grizzly bear in spring to unbolt the front door for her.

The five of us have not been all together in that house for fifteen years, and I didn’t know when this special configuration, like a rare astronomical event, would happen again. I knew that we were long overdue for such a reunion. Of course, we have all seen each other separately along the way and gone home at different times. And of course, we all keep in touch and no one doubts anyone’s love for the other. The rarity of this reunion was mainly due to geography, the care of small children, and limited funds. Both of my sisters married what my family calls “northern men,” who caused them to settle in far flung locations. I married a so-called southern man but still landed rather unluckily in Northern Indiana–at least for the time being. But I knew as my grandmother’s death approached, that finally something was happening that would have the power to draw us all back at the same time– to cut through our busy schedules and limited budgets so that, at whatever price, we all had to buy a plane ticket for the same dates.

So the familiar voices of my family were bouncing around the living room one night and I felt compelled to join in. How do I describe such a conversation when it contains a world unto itself of contextual information? As I listened I tried to weigh my writing abilities and gauge whether or not I might one day be able to convert all of this family data into a novel, or even a short story. I’m not sure. It would be a huge project like nothing I’ve attempted. Families are so complicated, and mine is no exception. My mother kept a very basic family diary during the early years of our childhood. She wrote down the funny things that we said, major headlines in the news, when we were sick, and what we did. She brought these red hardback diaries out to the living room in a big stack and begged us to divide them up and take them home with us. I didn’t have room in my suitcase, so my sisters took them and promised to pass them to me at some point in the future. We sat around reading some of the entries and laughing. Once when I was three I told my parents, “No one is making me happy.”

I think my obsession with wanting to understand my family comes from being the youngest. Being born last is like walking into the middle of a movie and trying to figure out what is going on. You can’t interrupt the flow to ask irritating questions (the youngest always gets labled as a pest), so you quiet down and become hyper-aware of clues in the dialogue as it progresses. This is what makes me want to write–hyper-awareness, and the feeling that I will never wrap my mind around the whole thing. But it is in my nature to stubbornly, ceaselessly try, because I will never believe myself to be caught up.

It seems fitting to me that I come from a city where everything constantly changes and develops– Orlando. My old neighborhood, College Park, looks different every time I return. At my grandmother’s funeral, I met my grandfather’s old business partner, whose name I have heard many times but who I had never met before. He talked about how his family came to Orlando in the 1920s, and I told him he must have lived a very interesting life, witnessing such dramatic change in one place over so many years. He said it had been interesting “and wonderful, really.” He seemed like a very sweet man, with watery blue eyes, and not a drop of cynicism. I would not have been able to span that many decades in Orlando, watching the touristy takeover, watching the urban sprawl, without calcifying into one large block of salty cynicism. So, this man rather mystified me, and confirmed my suspicion that my understanding of human nature is still insufficient for authoring fiction.

The photo above is of the grocery store that we always shopped at growing up– Publix. It was not a stylish grocery store in my childhood, but has become so now. The owners remodled it but kept the retro neon sign. In my mind this Publix is somewhat iconic of my childhood. I don’t think of myself as being old enough or interesting enough to have anything worthwhile to remember, but during this particular time with my family, I did feel like the content of my life was starting to feel, for the first time, expansive. The more change I witness, the more stories I watch circle to semi-completeness, the more things begin to make sense, and the more I long to tell them, write them. On a quick run to Publix one night, my sister and I bumped into a familiar face. She was the mother of our old babysitter Carol. Out of nowhere she said: I remember (speaking to me) the day you were born. I was shopping and ran into your two sister’s being babysat by your dad’s secretary. That was a long time ago.” I responded that it was thirty years ago, to be exact. I can’t explain why but it was nice to run into someone who remembered the day I was born.

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  1. Alishia
    February 21, 2008

    Am I a dork that I am commenting within minutes of you publishing this? Probably. Because I spend way too much time on the internet in the evening. This popped up in my Google Reader just as I was preparing to sign off. I wanted to ask if you’ve ever read any Richard Russo? He’s an expansive writer. Good at incorporating many aspects of a lifetime. His latest, The Bridge of Sighs, captivated me. I read it in about five days. At the completion of which my husband said, “Girls, now we get Mommy back.”

  2. Jenny
    February 21, 2008

    First, I love the photo and how totally retro it looks, as well as your description of your family chatting in the dark living room, the Floridian moonlight, your mom’s habit of prematurely turning off lamps, and the journals she begged you all to take, as well as your description of being the youngest child–that’s totally, totally what it’s like!

    You are a master with details, and synthesis, and pulling together all these seemingly incompatible threads to weave something beautiful from your life.

    It was so good to talk tonight. I miss your voice and knowing that we could see each other with relative ease. I’m glad I can still encounter your voice trough this blog.

  3. Julia
    February 21, 2008

    Thank you so much, Alishia and Jenny. I have NO problem with someone commenting on my blog the second I post. In my unbiased estimation it actually makes you incredibly cool. ; )

    But Alishia, I haven’t heard of Richard Russo, and I’m so glad to get a recommendation. I’m just now getting back into novel reading after a long spell of not reading novels at all, so I will check him out. Thanks.

  4. Manuela
    February 21, 2008

    I LOVE your writing! Has someone told you already that you SHOULD start a book?
    It was a joy to read this and as being the youngest myself I can totally relate to this:”Being born last is like walking into the middle of a movie and trying to figure out what is going on.” I love that comparison.
    Keep on writing.

  5. anna j
    February 23, 2008

    I concur . . . you could easily write a book far superior to so many “popular” works published lately: you are a true talent, with the potential to be read as a classic author many years from now.

  6. Kate
    March 8, 2008

    Lee, oops I mean Julia, I too concur with your friends that you should be a writer! You have an incredible way with words, I am truly in awe. I don’t think I ever thought about being the youngest as walking into the middle of a movie, precise! For the record I am so glad that you joined us that night, I missed you. I love you, Tots