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From Fly Creek

December 22, 2011

From Fly Creek: Still singing, beyond our hearing

This column from Christmas 2001 still speaks deeply to me, and perhaps will to you, too. Take it, please, as my Christmas gift. What, I wonder, happens to our memories, once we’re gone from the earth?

I don’t mean the ordinary memories that drift like clouds through our minds; those will certainly go (one way or another) with us. I mean those other memories, so strong that they’ve rooted in objects outside us. Do such memories somehow stay in those things? Do they last there,  long after we’ve reverted toearth?

I have, for instance, my grandpa’s hammer, a great, heavy-headed relic that’s a joy to use. Grandpa was a carpenter and shipwright. He died when I was 10, but I’ve not forgotten him---I can feel his bristly bear-hug even as I  write this. A profane, warmheartedman was Grandpa. His swearing, his plug tobacco and stogies pained his wife.

They delighted us grandsons enormously.

Grandpa, 50 years dead, lives for me in that hammer.

When I drive a nail with it, I feel, in my right shoulder and arm, his fierce zest for the job, his delight in every jarring impact. And at the last blow, I have to do what he so often did. I address the nail: “Now, (BANG!) stay there, damn it!”

Grandpa lives on for me, and not just in my thoughts. He’s in that solid old hammer. And his wife dwells just as strongly in our Fly Creek kitchen. She’s present in a crockery mixing bowl, tan with blue stripes, at least a century old. Grandma had the bowl through her long life, used it to mix an endless succession of cakes and corn muffins.

When I was about 4, I stood next to her one day as she mixed a batch of corn bread on the counter, high above my head. I wanted to stir; and she, slave to her grandsons, let me.

As I held my arm straight up, fist gripping the wooden spoon, of course I couldn’t see what I was doing. And, rising on tiptoe and craning my neck, I pulled the bowl over, down on myself. The crockery bowl clapped over my head and shoulders. The quart of cornmeal batter, thick and gritty, covered my face, my head, oozed down inside my shirt. (As I write this, I can feel that bowl and that batter, too.)

Grandma pulled off the bowl, cleared my face and eyes. And, to this day, I hear her dear voice every time I stir something in that bowl. She offered what comfort she could: “Now, don’t cry! Look! It’s all over me, too!”

That heavy hammer will outlast me, surely — and the crockery bowl, too, barring accident. But I want to know: When both end up in an estate sale, then pass into other hands, will those memories still be in them?

A week before Christmas, I unwrapped some things that had spoken deeply to a woman I never knew. She’s gone now from life, and for me the objects were mute. But it was easy to sense that they’d once held treasured memories. And perhaps still do.

The Mohican Club has a wonderful fresh Christmas tree this year, 11 feet high, touching the ceiling of the club’s front room. (Andy Hage and Dave Peplinski cut the giant spruce for us and had to trim off a couple of feet before it would fit.)

Maybe, passing on Main Street, you’ve seen the tree, framed in the tall front windows. Such a tree needs a lot of ornaments — more than the club had.

So one of the older members made a grand, generous gesture. A widower, he brought in all his home decorations. “No more trees at home for me,” he said gruffly. And we all understood.

It fell to me to finish decorating the tree. And so one afternoon, as shoppers bustled past outside the club’s front windows, I set up the stepladder and opened the boxes.

Most of the ornaments were standard issue — globes of solid colors, some striped or sprinkled with glitter.

As I raised the boxes’ lids, I became sure those ornaments hadn’t been seen since they were last packed away by the widower’s wife.

I was a widower myself for seven years; I understand that husband’s grief. He’d probably felt reluctant even to touch boxes so linked with happiness past. That made me unpack them with great care. His wife had given one box special attention; each ornament in it was nested in a crumpled paper napkin.

Though these globes were transparent and showed small scenes, they weren’t really much different from the others.

But something must have made them special, treasured by a woman who’d surely smiled over them as she unwrapped them each year.

Were they gifts from a close friend? Passed down from another generation? Bought to hang on a first Christmas tree?

No telling, now. The woman is gone, and the ornaments mute. But when I’d finished hanging them on the lighted tree, I stood silent, listened for some faint echo of meaning from them. I heard nothing, but never mind. Far beyond our perceiving, they might still carry some blessed memory. Perhaps like an old hammer or mixing bowl, come at last into strangers’ hands.

After New Year’s, I’ll carefully store those special ornaments. They’ll be wrapped in the same paper, crumpled and soft.

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