I was strongly influenced by Justin Hall when I first started my blog in 1998 and used a very personal voice. Still do, obvs, as I talk to a reader which might be a person I know, one I don’t, my future self, or unfortunately increasingly these days a scrapebot for AIs or spam trying to steal a human skin for itself.
But I calibrated myself by one of the very most personally exposed humans on the Web, and that led me, in my crowd of personal sharers, to think of myself as holding a fair amount back. But when compare myself to the average person, even the average blogger, I shared a lot. (Faith No More plays in the back of my head and morphs to “we share a LOT”.) Particularly once I started retroblogging to fill in my pre-1998 past; writing an autobiography in slow motion.
Since I’m not the person I was then, and the Web and the world are not what we hoped they’d become, not all that stuff needs to stay out in public. It can fade like spoken words. Yes, yes, the Wayback Machine, but when you use that you understand that you are looking at a snapshot in time. That’s apparently not true of people reading blog posts even ones with the year (years ago) in big type on the page, judging by some of the comments I’ve gotten. So I gently fold and put away the oldest things, packing my public life away into a closed chest of memories.
Today I travel in time to be with my beloved grandparents, such a big little girl at six years old. Sitting with my dear grandfather, from whom I think I may have learned my sly sense of humor and what bits of urbane panache I have. I know it must be very hot weather, not only because the children’s amusement park we’re in is in Fresno in August, but because I am wearing a sleeveless short dress and sandals, instead of my characteristic childhood turtleneck, jeans, and sneakers.
The Flickr comments from my mother and her cousin on the pictures of little Dinah running, with hair in two ponytails, exploring the fanciful park, are personal reminiscences as parents, but they mention the golden (plastic) key you could turn to get a story by each exhibit. I kept that amazing, magical key in its pink cardboard box for years and years. At some point I think I gave it to someone with similar fond memories of the place.
I do not remember this place in particular, but I remember my feelings about the key. And I remember those few magical places where a kid could just run around without a grownup trying to stay within 30 feet of you all the time. I remember the grownups sitting in the shade and the bubbling bursting excitement of running and playing and imagining, and the sound of child voices and sandals on cement.
That memory and post fold away into the trunk and I lift up an image of my grandmother, mother’s mother and partner of that grandfather who with his Clark Gable looks gave her an exit door from her lovely but intense family. Mennonite to Methodist, evidence that for all her kindly people-pleasing she had a strong will to get some of what she needed. Present Dinah grieves that it was not enough at the very end; she was sad and missing something, but didn’t go for it in the way she had in the mid-1930s when she went off with that mechanic from across the street. Here she is in this picture, holding little me in her lap, hair wet from a bath with nude cousin (cropped from picture) also post bath beside.
Grandma is younger than my memory of her. Hair dark, face no more wrinkled than mine now. No gray like me now. And I do the math. She’s two years younger in this picture than I am now. Grandmother to a couple six year olds. We were lovely and I’m glad to exist, but I’m glad not to have grandchildren of my own, or the child or children they’d require. She was a busy person, I think still working then, office work if I remember rightly. There’s a great picture somewhere of her with a big coffee thermos heading off to work in pants and a cardigan sweater. I think it must have encouraged me in my pants-loving that I had a grandma who wore pants and did vigorous things (sawing firewood, camping, hiking).
In this picture I’m wearing a long sleeved, long flannel robe in royal purple with white lace at collar and around the yoke portion of the top. My cousin (only hands in shot) is despite wet hair, as ever, warm enough and comfortable in her skin. From the hands you can see that despite only two months difference between us, I am smaller, more delicately built. One might have predicted with my slim fingers, button nose, and long ears (an inheritance from grandpa) that I would grow up to look quite elven, but I stayed short and over time have become rounder. More hobbit in aesthetic and preferences than elf.
We are enjoying in this picture an activity that little children and grandparents still do: looking at pictures and having them described to us. But there’s no iPad here; this is a metal contraption with one side of white plastic (cracked at the top, it was a little delicate) with ridges in it to hold slides. Behind the plastic is a light bulb to illuminate the tiny images in the slides.
The picture is in the kitchen I remember from childhood, though I do not remember the artwork, a corner of which can be seen behind grandma’s head. The table is covered with a sturdy tablecloth in a large pattern of red and white check. We had that for years and I vaguely think I inherited for a while. Don’t remember what became of it, but it was sturdy indeed. I will watch for it in more recent pictures.
I fold that away, and then pick up something much more loaded. A picture of a poem written by my biodad when my parents split. When I wrote the post I titled it “the best gift ever”, but its emotional content has become more complicated over the last five years. In the free verse poem my biological father says “And so I said to Dinah: It’s OK to like [my stepfather] as much as me”. Which was a great gift.
The rest of the poem reinforces that message that no one has to be the bad guy, but also that he’s not without flaws. For decades I focused on the first part and it served me well in making the endings of my relationships much kinder and less traumatic than they would otherwise have been. And for that it’s still a great gift.
After he died (indirectly at his own hands through the effects of untreated alcoholism, which I have no memory or evidence of affecting me in childhood or even most of my adult years), I revisited this and got some new perspective. Along with the gift were some burdens; the expectation laid on a six year old to be fine with all this. All the adults involved were young and I was a verbally mature little kid, but I was not an adult.
As I appended to the post in 2018: “setting the expectation a six-year-old would handle the whole situation with calm maturity was rather a heavy load to lay on a kid. It created a mix of useful skills—not getting worked up or rocking the boat when it wasn’t going to change anything, being able to keep authority figures happy, along with the lessons mentioned above—and the foundation for some things that had less positive impacts later, when my acting above my age had become so good that sometimes the adults around forgot the maturity with which I expressed myself didn’t reflect actual experience. That tendency to align myself toward the adults leaves me suspecting I missed out on some great bonding with my peers, especially in my teen years.”
Part of the reason I play so much as a grownup is to let that little kid part of me just be a kid.
The end of the poem is directed at my mother and stepfather and handing over the responsibility of teaching me to them. “The responsibility is yours now”. He stepped away from parenthood in some ways, though he remained involved and gave lots of financial support which allowed me to go to a great, independent, frankly a bit hippie, private school on six acres of land. But there was, for my entire childhood, this poem pinned up in the hallway with art and photos, a reminder to be cool with this, to be cool with him stepping away from active parenthood. Plus among the things he mentions to teach me about are “about feelings that come & go, about fantastic summer snow, & the winter in my soul.” So, an explicit acknowledgement of his depression. Which is like, great for understanding family history but a hell of a thing to lay on a six year old. But what did he know? It’s was the early 1970s and he wasn’t even 30 yet.
I’m glad we kept this, though maybe it didn’t need to stay pinned in the hallway? I’m glad I kept it after my folks moved out of that house almost a quarter century ago. It gives me a puzzle piece which, when fitted with the writings I cleaned up from his house after his death, creates a clearer picture of a guy I didn’t understand very well. And that picture releases me from thinking there was something either of us could have done differently in our relationship with each other (other than him getting into treatment for that terrible intertwined problem of depression and alcoholism). But he was always careful to shield me from that problem and in that and his enthusiasm for me and my projects throughout my life, I see his love for me.
Holding the love, acknowledging the flaws, I gently and lovingly fold this memory up and pack it away.
The end of that year and photos of Christmas. My cousin and I, she looking a year or two older than I after her growth spurt, standing in long dresses in front of a magnificent tree. Always fantastic trees in the house I grew up in and the house to which my parents—my mother and stepfather—retired, and for that magic I have a huge burst of gratitude. Entrancing and absorbing throughout childhood and comforting each year now. A lot of work to set up and clean up those trees and though I know it brought and brings them delight, I appreciate the part of it that was making magic for me and for the rest of the family who would gather for the holidays.
My cousin and I have long straight hair, hippie girls, with rough bangs cut across to keep it out of our mouths and mostly out of our eyes. I’m holding a package, about to deliver it to someone’s lap. This may be the year that our elf duties began. How soon the aspects of that duty of sorting and timing became part of the job, I’m not sure, but it was an annual task I enjoyed greatly in those years of many many packages. I would, at least in later years, figure out how many packages there were for each person and then space things out so no one was stuck having opened all of theirs and just watching the others. (We opened one at a time in my family, so Christmas morning often stretched into the afternoon. You could open your stocking as soon as you woke up; such early wakings for an otherwise late sleeping child! Then once all the grownups had breakfast and coffee and gathered in the living room, you would at last come to the presents. Some years there were so many and so much exclaiming and passing around of things that we would have to take a lunch break before finishing off the pile. A fine festivity.)
In the second picture my cousin and I sit on the ground, surrounded by wrapping paper, each holding up a wee pair of binoculars and peering around the room with them. I am looking up at a seashell hanging on the lower branches of the tree. Less fragile or less precious items hung down there in range of the backs and wagging tails of our two dogs. I don’t see them on this tree, but it wouldn’t be many years before someone, probably my clever mother, hit on the idea of little bells there.
With the memory of the smell of pine, and the anticipation of bells, I fold away the magic of Christmas morning. Memories pack away and I open the even better gift of the present moment.