It’s been a while since I have had time to post, so I am sharing an essay I wrote… Be warned it’s long… but I didn’t want to make you wait for the ending….
Indigo tie-dyed clouds bleed across the paper-white summer sky. Suddenly the sunshine was gone, blocked by the threat of rain. Not a promise of kindly gentle rain, but angry roiling clouds of uncertain storms.
The little blond-haired girl sitting on her haunches along a gravel road looked up and made note of the sky. There was new wind, briefly blowing in the unexpected change in weather, but why?
“Did we cause these angry clouds?” she thought.
Eight small feet popping gravel as little bodies shifted their weight from one foot to another on the side of the road created a wall around a garter snake. Mangled and motionless upon the gravel road its damp white belly picked up pebble crumbs – insides exposed from a short ragged wound. Not cut, but torn by a weathered twig or two held in pint-sized fists. Broken branches, at that instant becoming the upright motionless woody scepters of little would-be prince and princesses awaiting the result of their thoughtless action against God’s little creature.
These rulers of an outdoors kingdom, their feet some shoed, some bare, belonged to four young residents of a rural North Dakota town. These two boys and two girls made up the entire population, at least in this particular age bracket, of Fredonia circa 1960s.
The girls were sisters, but as opposite in color as a family could be. Two years apart in age, the younger girl had heavy dark hair; her older sister was a blond with fine flyaway hair and a soaring imagination to match. That may be why those swirling clouds impressed upon her mind that something was out of sorts in the universe.
For no reason at all they had killed the snake. And no sooner did the harmless little creature stop wriggling than the sunshine was simultaneously shaded from the day and their hearts. Were they going to be punished by a power greater than their parents? How would their parents find out what they had done?
Maybe the little fair-haired girl was the only one that even gave thought to the possibility of punishment for a seemingly insignificant killing of a snake. “We didn’t like snakes – they scared us,” she thought to herself.
Rising to a stand in old jean cutoffs with worn fringed hems framing skinny legs and a button-front blouse she grabbed her younger sister’s arm and made for home.
Home was not far away – a block or two, based on fleeting memory. Maybe it was the perception of a block or two? It could have been more or less. As the years pass a world that seemed so large to little girls has become a pin-dot on a global map. What seemed like an endless playground of trees to climb and abandoned buildings to inspect now melts into the earth on its way to nothingness.
The Fredonia house in which we lived no longer occupies the corner lot one block east of the Martin Luther Lutheran Church. There are still services in that building, a testament to the ornate traditions of the faith of our childhood.
To a youngster that two-story house, on a very large lot, was magnificent with its long upstairs hallway and four bedrooms. My mother once said it was difficult to finance that house. But they needed the room for all the children. Apparently, they convinced the banker.
In the end, Mom was sorry they had to let it go. It has long since been moved to another community. Only the footprint of our occupation remains, a border of trees, two garden depressions and my mother pointing towards the southeast corner of the lot.
“That’s the tree your mother lived in when she was young,” she said. “I always knew where to find her…reading.”
Within the framework of a lifetime, it didn’t seem like that long ago, that place, that tree, those friends. Today, that place is but a 40-year-old snapshot of a moment in my black and white world. Without my memory, it is another minute lost to the advancement of years.
Very few members of my family carried a camera in his or her pocket poised to capture every daily event, no matter how uneventful. We were not local stars. No one really cared to know what we were having for dinner… we were fortunate to have enough to eat from day to day. There were no fast food restaurants or eating between meals. Soda pop was a nickel a bottle and only opened as a treat on a rare occasion. The bottles were always returned for deposit. What a joyous day it was when we discovered discarded bottles in a roadside ditch. Pennies to buy gum.
Food was not nearly as abundant. As starving youngsters we foraged for crabapples and the occasional handout from a neighbor’s mom – a pretty limiting way to find goodies.
If and when my mother trusted me to do the grocery shopping at the local general store, I added a candy bar to the list… thinking that she would never notice. But, guaranteed in those days there was someone always watching out for every penny that came our way.
Our garden provided much of the food we ate. Our strawberry patch provided seasonal fruit that was greatly anticipated every spring. Rhubarb was plentiful and the sizeable leafed stalks provided secret hideouts for skinny children to imagine mud pies were sweet-frosted birthday cakes. Of course, the stolen matches that served as candles on the cake were potential punishment if discovered, but we lit them nonetheless.
We took our chances stealing matches and making up games entertaining ourselves led by curiosity in the natural world and the far-distant world of adults. Life was full of more stolen adventures than toys.
Whatever I remember about my mother and dad back then, I can say with certainty my mother would never want to go back to that time. Life was difficult for her. But I remember those days fondly, those black and white days in small town North Dakota. And now, in the winter of my life there is a longing to put the puzzle pieces of my youth in order.
There are stories. Not many. Pretty short. You have to ask for them.
There are photos. Not many. Black and white mostly. You have to ask for them.
Stored in boxes in attics or passed around from one family member to the next it’s no simple task to track down the record of my childhood.
It is a most fortunate find when photos have lines of cursive names scrawled across the back. Or better yet, finding a relative or two who can remember the wheres and whens preserved in a gray-scale scene.
Over the years, I have collected a photo of the two-room school we attended and another of that Fredonia house. Baby pictures. A few Christmas shots. Then a gap, like a vortex of time, where no real record of our lives exists save for the memories of those who knew us when. And when they are gone, so too dies those moments in time.
How different it will become for future generations. While I wonder about the color of my mother’s coat in the photo of her leaning against a white column on the porch of an unknown white house with her hands positioned carefully in the pockets – looking oh so young and beautiful… my great-grandchildren will see the colors of my clothes.
When I can only imagine my grandmother saying in her German-tinted voice, “Susan, come over here and help me…” my great-grandchildren will know the sound of my voice.
My story, my children and their children’s stories are saved by technology. Not one or two images or recordings, but thousands. For my grandchildren documentation began from the very minute they emerged from their mothers into this strange new world.
This new and different way of life – exposed and visible to all – what does it mean?
Will there be secret moments between little boys and girls running wild through a small town shared only by them for only a moment in time? Or moments of apprehension that they did something bad, witnessed only by unseen eyes of God?
Will there be any secrets at all?