More snapshots in the brain, part 2

For an 18 month period when I was 3-4 years old, my family went through some difficult times. These were set within a larger, traumatic backdrop that I won’t take time to explain here. Some of my snapshots are mere glimpses of the mundane, while others are more dramatic and memorable. At this point, my family lived down the street from my grandparents, and this was before my father got a new job that required us to move to another state to begin a new life.

  • My father works as a mechanic and one day comes home with a bandage on his eye (I think, the right eye). A piece of metal shaving had gotten into it. Fortunately, the damage isn’t permanent, although he has to wear an eyepatch for a while.
  • My oldest brother is attacked and nearly strangled to death by the son of my grandparents’ next door neighbors (the ones with the pear tree) while delivering newspapers in the neighborhood. I don’t remember much except seeing him lying on the couch in our living room afterwards.
  • We get a new dog, a beagle (?) puppy, from somewhere and on the way home while I’m sitting with it in the far back of the station wagon, it throws up all over the place. The smell is awful. For potty training the puppy, my mother spreads newspaper over the kitchen floor.
  • We stand on our front porch looking toward a portion of the city where race riots are happening. Thick, black smoke billows up into the sky.
  • We are in the station wagon with my mother driving, and gunfire erupts from somewhere. We have inadvertently driven into a shootout between police and a gang. My mother screams, “Hit the floor!” And that is exactly what I do — get down as far as I can to the floor of the car and lay there.
  • I wake up one morning and decide to go over to a neighbor’s house across the street to see if their kid wants to play. I don’t realize (or seem to care) that all I’m wearing is my underwear.
  • We all get chickenpox and I hate having to sit in the bathtub filled with a mixture of water and baking soda to try to reduce the itching. I also don’t like Calamine lotion.
  • Most Sundays, we drive over to a neighboring city to gather for church in someone’s home. The tunnel underneath the river that separates the two cities is exciting and scary. One of those days, on our return, all lanes of traffic on the highway are stopped due to a bad accident. A car has flipped over onto its roof and is on fire. My father decides to jump out and help pull the driver out of the car, and the driver is badly burned. I jump out, too, and run after him, worried that the car will explode and my father will die. I run up the embankment next to the highway trying to get to my father, but one of my older brothers catches up with me and takes me back to our car before I can reach him.
  • We are convinced that there are vampire bats roosting in the attic of a nearby house in the neighborhood, and I look long and hard at that house while holding onto a neighbor’s dog, hoping to see one.
  • There are foldout stairs to the attic in our house and this is where older siblings sometimes play, so I decide to go up there, too, but I am worried about falling through the ceiling below.
  • I love peanut butter and jelly sandwiches but I am fussy about bread crusts and refuse to eat them. My mother tells me the secret to making a good sandwich is to spread the butter all the way to the edge of the bread.
  • We all get sick with flu and I feel terrible, too. I walk into the dining room on the way to the kitchen and suddenly projectile vomit. I’m amazed at how far it goes and with such force.
  • In the basement are bunk beds for my older brothers, and it’s also where we watch Abbott and Costello and Laurel and Hardy movies.
  • The second floor bathroom has a large pine tree within reach of the window, and sometimes we like to climb out the window and down the tree.
  • For a time, we have a pet parakeet, but it dies suddenly one day.
  • My father parks a long, goose-necked trailer on the side street next to our house and we clamber all over it. My sister falls off and has a rock embedded in her forehead. I may have pushed her.
  • I go with my mother to pick up older siblings from school, and another time, I accompany my mother and grandma as they drive to an open air fruit and vegetable market (which I later learn is the famed Eastern Market — My grandma has a scarf tied ‘round her hair in a band.
  • We love to hear the sound of an ice cream truck — the old fashioned kind that looks like it’s from the ‘50s — and enjoy the occasional ice cream push pop and other frozen treats.
  • I get my first piggy bank, which is a talking one. It says something different for each type of coin I put into it. The only one I remember is for a dime: “Oooo, a shiny dime! That’s ten pennies, you know!”
  • My last memory of this time is watching a moving company empty everything out of our house and load it all into a big moving van. We are moving to a new place, where I will start school.

More snapshots in the brain, part 1

When I was three, my family moved from a small farm town in the middle of nowhere to a large city several hundred miles away where my mother was born and raised. For a time, we lived in my maternal grandparents’ basement until my parents bought a house a few blocks down the street. Here are some additional memories of various things that happened during the 18 months we lived there.

We are crowded together in the basement and I think most of us sleep on sleeper sofas or cots for a while. My grandma promises me that if I take a nap, she will have a special treat ready for when I wake up. I insist that I’m not tired, but I fall asleep anyway. When I wake up, she gives me a scrapbook she made while I was asleep, filled with all kinds of interesting pictures clipped out of magazines. I love it, and it remains one of my most treasured possessions to this day.

I sit on the kitchen counter next to the sink, chatting with my grandma and looking at little china figurines and colorful little informational cards about animals, both of which came as freebies in each box of my grandma’s favorite brand of tea.

My grandpa sits at the kitchen table as we talk about what grandma is making for supper: something with chicken. We say we love chicken, and my grandpa jokingly says, “If you love it, why don’t you kiss it?”

Grandma decides to make papier-mâché objects to entertain us. I’m fascinated by the balloons she uses as the form to hold up the wet, glue-y newspaper.

Grandma works in her garden tending to her flowers and vegetables out back and alongside the driveway to the garage, which sits behind the house. There is a gazing ball among the flowers (petunias, I think). Grandpa has all of his tools neatly organized in the large garage, and there is a set of foldout stairs leading to storage above the garage.

Grandpa sometimes takes us for a walk a few blocks away to a nearby store to buy ice cream and candy. I particularly remember candy necklaces, Necco wafers, and candy cigarettes (yikes) he buys us.

I get my first bike, replete with training wheels, and enjoy riding it up and down the sidewalk in front of my grandparents’ house. I also have a lot of fun riding my Big Wheel in the driveway and on the sidewalk.

My grandparents’ house is full of interesting things:

  • the laundry chute in the first floor hallway
  • a hand painted plaque above the toilet quoting Exodus 28:34
  • a cuckoo clock bought during a trip to Switzerland
  • an old cowbell, also from Switzerland (which I still have, mounted on the wall in our living room)
  • their next door neighbor has a pear tree from which we enjoy many stolen pears (I still love pears)

Also during this time, I go to the hospital to have my tonsils out. I stay overnight after the operation. I wake up scared in the middle of the night in my hospital room. I climb out of my crib and wander the hallways looking for my parents. I also eat vanilla pudding and drink soft Coca Cola to help with my sore throat.

A critical view of returning to campus

A decision has been made by my employer to reopen for in-person, on campus instruction in the Fall. There are important details about the plan that need to be fully understood when assessing it critically. However, communication about this decision has focused on how great it will be to be together again (in comparison to how the Spring semester went, when classes had to be rapidly transitioned to online only.)

In a sense, the upbeat tone and positive spin on the decision are completely understandable. There is real concern about money, basically, although that isn’t mentioned anywhere in official communications. The hope is that this approach will appease many different constituents, but especially that it will bolster the all important enrollment figures. Tuition revenue is vitally important for ongoing financial survival. Publicly, though, greater emphasis for the Fall plan is given to how we will all be able to be together again in embodied community.

Except, we won’t be…not really. Or, not in the same way that we previously practiced, and took for granted. Just about every aspect of the new normal for being on campus will be significantly different in order to safeguard health and adhere to state and national guidelines regarding this pandemic. This includes, for example, the plan for having classes switch off between in-person and online instruction each week, so that the teaching modality will be inherently mixed. This is to enforce social distancing (meaning: drastically reduced classroom sizes) within a constrained class schedule and constrained space options.

Essentially, we are all being asked to twist ourselves into a metaphorical pretzel — and this is hard, very hard work — to achieve a goal of “being together again.” Yet that goal seems to miss the fact that what being together again will look and feel like is going to be a limited imitation of what it was before the pandemic. At the most optimistic, it will allow some, limited level of being together. At the most pessimistic, even a limited “being together again” will foster a breeding ground for wider exposure to COVID-19.

Thus, the question: is it worth it? Is this goal worth all of the very difficult work required to achieve something that won’t at all be like it was before? At this point, I am doubtful. I sincerely hope and pray that I will be proven wrong.

A favorite hymn

One of my favorite hymns of all time, one that carries many memories of times past and provides ongoing comfort as well.

Written by Horatio G. Spafford in 1873.

When peace like a river attendeth my way,
when sorrows like sea billows roll;
whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say,
“It is well, it is well with my soul.”

It is well with my soul;
it is well, it is well with my soul.

Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,
let this blest assurance control:
that Christ has regarded my helpless estate,
and has shed his own blood for my soul.

It is well with my soul;
it is well, it is well with my soul.

My sin oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!
my sin, not in part, but the whole,
is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more;
praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!

It is well with my soul;
it is well, it is well with my soul.

O Lord, haste the day when my faith shall be sight,
the clouds be rolled back as a scroll;
the trump shall resound and the Lord shall descend;
even so, it is well with my soul.

It is well with my soul;
it is well, it is well with my soul.

Inherited from my father

My father and I were not particularly close, but one thing we had in common is an interest in technology and, in particular, photography. You might say I inherited these interests from him.

What is noteworthy and a little strange, however, is that he and I never talked about it; it was not a shared thing between us at all while he was still alive.

Things I remember:

We have some interesting audio recordings of family times thanks to my father recording them on cassette tape. There is one dinner time conversation in particular when all of us are eating dinner as little children that is hilariously chaotic.

He bought one of the first true pocket calculators. I also remember him installing a fancy phone answering machine in his office, using one of the first cell phones, and buying my mother one of the first available microwaves. He really enjoyed using a Super 8 mm video camera and projector to create home movies and show them to family and friends. (Thankfully, we still have many of those movies because some years ago, we paid to have them digitized.)

He used multiple cameras, but the type I remember him using the most was Polaroids, including one of his old ones that he gave to me as my first camera that was an old bellows-type model. He also had one of the first portable TV/VCR combos I had ever seen, which he used in his work as a traveling salesman.

All of this is remarkable given his background. Although he was intelligent and at times experienced a lot of success in his work, he did not graduate from high school, and attended a rural, one-room schoolhouse as a child. During his nearly seven decades of life, he witnessed incredible changes in the world, not only technologically. He recalled listening to reports about World War II on the radio as a child and remembered using kerosene lamps for light at night. He grew up on a farm in the middle of nowhere but traveled quite a bit overseas. He bragged about having the fastest horse at school and loved cars. I lost track of how many cars we had growing up, and his love of them frequently contributed to financial stress for our family.

He was a complicated person who struggled in some areas. And as I noted, we weren’t very close. But I loved him, and learned from him, and like to think his interest in technology and photography sparked my own.

There’s something about this painting

Houses of Parliament by Claude Monet

There’s something about this painting that makes it my favorite one out of all of the paintings on display at the Art Institute of Chicago. Entitled “Houses of Parliament,” it is by the great Impressionist painter, Claude Monet. While less famous than his series of water lilies or haystacks, this work never fails to capture my attention.

There is a dreamy, evocative, mysterious, and even somewhat fantastic quality to it that draws me in every time I see it. And London is my favorite city in the world, so there’s that.