Archives for posts with tag: childhood memories

Growing up, I lived out in the country. The only light on warm summer nights came from lightning bugs. I never even heard the words “light pollution”. It was a special kind of paradise, though I didn’t realized it until I grew up, moved away, and looked up into a field of darkness overhead. It was as if the familiar blanket of stars had been covered by a blackout curtain from WWII. Only this one was so all encompassing that it blotted out the entire sky.

Memories of a completely unobstructed night sky are with me still, vivid and personal. From the time when I had grown enough to be outside by myself, chasing butterflies by day and lightning bugs by night only to marvel at their wonders, I would often come to a halt in the driveway, where a big patch of night sky was unobstructed by trees, stand still, look up, and up and up.

I wouldn’t discover science fiction for several more years. Much more time would pass before I even thought of writing…anything. Even so, I was drawn to the stars. Instinctively, I felt a kinship. A sense of belonging to something beyond my house, the farm it was connected to, the greater wide world of continents and oceans. Even the big, blue daytime sky. There was up, and up, higher, higher still, and then there were stars. Oddly, I’ve always been aware of all of that up, up, higher, highest nature of the sky. Even in full daylight, I knew there was more I couldn’t see, but that patience would bring back to me when the sun disappeared and blue turned to black. 

Unfettered starlight seemed like magic to a little child. On a clear night, the entire field of vision available to an up turned face is sprinkled with light that appears along a range from dust to nearly opaque white swaths. Maturity brings with it the understanding that the most dense parts are what we can see of our own Milky Way. Imagine…the miraculous naked human eye can perceive the edge of our galaxy, though our minds can hardly take it in. Glorious is a word I learned to use early in life, just from the simple act of looking skyward.

Though I’m in a place less isolated now, I still find myself pausing after getting out of the car at night. Remembering those childhood hours spent standing still, tilting back my head…staring and staring, drinking in my fill of the knowledge that I was watching outer space, filled with wonder and awe, again I pause to stand beneath the black and silver and gold of the heavens. 

It’s different here, but a dedicated dreamer can use a hand to block out an interfering streetlight and see as much as there is available. Much of the Milky way is lost to me, but Orion is with me still. I’ve seen comets and the occasional meteor. There is enough of vast star filled space to thrill me and rekindle the particular sense of awe borne only of staring long and hard and deeply into the star sprinkled darkness that’s always above us, even when our own personal star shines so brightly that no other light can compete.

I started thinking about those childhood nights of stargazing accompanied only by the sound of my own breathing and the rustle of wind through cornstalks, when I came across this awesome article that gives the best, and certainly most eloquent, directions for stargazing I’ve ever seen. I wanted to share it, so it may help others looking skyward find their way through the outer reaches of our home.

I came across some old pictures that to anyone else are just that. Old fading pictures. For me they’re memories that are as bright as the blue sky, green pine needles, and colors of sunrise on the days they were taken. They’re all from the yard of our farm where I grew up.

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This is autumn looking across the road toward a large wooded area, with a creek hidden from view running through it. I remark on that because such densely forested tracts are becoming rare, as more and more trees go down so houses with large yards can go up or agriculture continues to grow. The field struck by such bright sunlight belonged to a relative for a long time. Often neighboring farms were held by extended family members for several generations, but as the last farming inclined members died their farms were sold to big operators, until all family connections to neighboring lands are lost. This road has long since been paved, but I can so vividly remember creeping along in the hot sun as a little kid, squatting occasionally to study individual rocks among the jagged layer of gravel. Even growing up on a gravel road can be cool, if you know how to make it that way. My mom did. She made it both educational and fun, by teaching me to be a fossil hunter practically in my own yard. That gravel was quarried from who knows where, with ancient layers of literally buried treasure. Of course gold would have been nice, if we want to get really literal about buried treasure, but I was thrilled to spot something unusual and pounce on a special rock. There were sometimes partial foliage images to be found. I remember at least one perfect indentation of a tiny sea shell. It looked like a minuscule Japanese scallop had been pushed into cement, then pulled out to leave it’s shape behind for a child who would later come to find real Japanese scallop shells lying along Shell Beach on Sanibel Island. Maybe that’s where my love of the shore, all shores really, originated.

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And here’s a sunset through the branches of the tree from the previous picture. That tree always weirded me out, because it almost cost us our house. My mom was starting to cook dinner when my daddy brought the tree home and we went outside to supervise the planting. By the time we came back in, a fortunately small grease fire had started. It was probably scarier than it was house threatening, but I never forgot it and it made me forever wary of pine trees. It was pretty, though, and perfect for that spot.

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A furrowed field blanketed in snow is a familiar sight on a farm.  I always loved the unique way it looked…corduroy ground, burrowed under a frosty veil, waiting for spring.

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This snow scene features my favorite pecan tree. There was a low branch on the other side, where I liked to sit and dream away a summer twilight. The old house in the distance was a lingering dinosaur, in that it had no running water. The well in the back yard was my only experience of seeing water being physically drawn from the ground. It was a lengthy process involving a metal container lowered and then slowly (the last resident was an elderly woman) emerging from its shaft, with water streaming from holes in the metal that had some purpose I didn’t understand. Even as a little kid, just knowing about that well made me extremely grateful for the shiny metal faucets in our house. That old house up the road was weathered and gray. I’m afraid the only time it ever looked beautiful was as a silhouette in this picture.

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In contrast to frigid winter is this warm, molten gold sunrise sky. This time the silhouette is part of the barn roof. Like the old house and many trees, the barn is long gone. Most of the old ones are. They had such character and a rustic beauty all their own, but, as old fashioned agricultural practices faded away, most owners tore them down to get them out of the way. Occasionally, a lone antique barn can be spotted still, sitting in glaring isolation, awaiting the day when perhaps with regret they will join so many others as mere memories of days past. This image lives in my memory as what I saw, rain or shine, fall or winter or spring, sunrise or blue sky as the view as I got on the school bus. A constant in a child’s life. A rite of passage on the way to growing up.

I woke up last night and couldn’t go back to sleep. An all too common thing with me. As often happens, a wave of tangenting thoughts set in, until I landed on a weird memory I thought I’d share.

When I was a kid, my Daddy would suddenly decide he wanted to spend a Sunday afternoon visiting his sister, Bertha. Yes, I really had an Aunt Bertha! She was sweet and soft spoken. I was fond of her, but I was even more fond of the fact that I hadn’t been named after her.

Aunt Bertha lived about an hour and a half away, in an area of odd geography. Where I grew up, which is also where she grew up, the land alternates rolling hills and flat fields. Where Aunt Bertha settled the land was very flat. Except when it wasn’t. We’d be driving along, admiring the huge fields of nodding sunflowers that seemed to add an extra glow to the sunbaked afternoon. Then, suddenly, the flat fields gave way to the closest thing to mountains anywhere around. Red hued bluffs rose abruptly to loom mildly over the surrounding checkerboard of farmland. I never understood why, unless it was a place where the Cumberland Plateau swept toward the Mississippi Delta. A couple of other places where the geography changed drastically were more subtle descents, so maybe the minor bluffs were the result of the great earthquakes of 1811 and 1812 that changed the landscape of that area forever. Whatever the cause, I can so distinctly remember the change in the air, as we entered the cool, leafy contrast to the sunflower sunfest we left behind.

One curve in particular made Daddy slow our progress, so he could point out the place where a small stream of clear cool water emerged from the rock face. I had trouble believing his stories of drinking water that ran directly from the ground, and marveled at the imagery as I imagined how such water would taste. My wellwater had always come from a faucet, tasting slightly of iron with a familiar metallic tang. The very idea of drinking from a stream seemed like magic.

One particular time we were not concerned directly with water, be it from stream or a faucet or a restaurant glass. No, our minds on that day were occupied by a bizarre story we’d heard on the news. An unassuming, unsuspecting family in a town near where my aunt lived became notorious for their 15 minutes of fame, when they used up all the water in their water heater. Some malfunction I still don’t quite understand the mechanics of caused alarming pressure to build up inside the tank. Eventually the alarming pressure became dangerous pressure that basically turned their mundane water heater into a missle.

According to the news story that was the buzz of a third of the state, the water heater blew right through the roof of the house and landed in the yard! No injuries were reported, except perhaps the family’s collective dignity.

Of course we had to find that house. We wouldn’t rest until we’d witnessed for ourselves the site of such a marvel of modern ingenuity gone so horribly wrong. Now that I think of it, maybe that afternoon is where my desire to visit places I’ve read about in novels originated. Dickens’ London, Rilke’s Paris…the water heater peoples’ house.

Without an address we just drove into the small town and aimlessly went up and down streets, looking for signs of excitement. It took quite a while, but we were in no hurry. The quest for confirmation was all consuming. A time came when we knew we were on the right street, approaching ground zero. There in the distance, growing ever closer, was a small ranch style house, with a water heater size hole in its gray shingled roof.

It looked so normal. A neat yard. A well kept home. Not a single brick out of place. Any of one of a thousand small town families could have lived there. But only one family called what temporarily passed for a minor tourist attraction in the rural South home.

The Water Heater People.

We drove by slowly, gawking as if we’d stumbled into the single exhibit of a small town cabinet of curiosities. It was absolutely nothing. Yet it was everything we’d hoped to see. A house with a hole in its roof. A house I never forgot. Somehow, my child’s mind was beginning to think like a science fiction writer already. In my mind’s eye, the appliance with a bad temper and a penchant for flying took on the accoutrements of a dreamer. It sported sweeping little wings out each side.

That house had launched a water heater toward the stars.

This is not a Santa and Cupid mashup, though I know the title makes it seem that way. I caught the end of The Polar Express earlier tonight and it made me think about how that movie really captures the magic of Christmas that comes with childhood. Sadly, I think it’s true that as we grow up most of us lose, if not the ability to hear the bell, the ability to hear it the same way.

I can so distinctly remember looking up at the sky at night as a little girl, trying to catch a glimpse of Santa’s sleigh…a mere bright speck against the darkness. In my mental scenario, there were always sleigh bells, faintly jingling from a great distance.

I believed, as only a child can.

However much I believed, the weirdly logical little kid I could be had questions. Chiefly among them was: How could Santa bring my presents, since we had no chimney? He always did, but how he got in really bothered me. A writer in the making, since my young life was a veritable chorus of “But HOW?” and “Why????”. My parents told me he came in thorough the keyhole in the front
door. When came the inevitable demand for technical specifications, they defaulted to the answer most kids will accept. Magic. Okay. I bought it well enough to ignore the niggling doubt that such a big guy could get through that tiny opening. Especially with all the presents I expected and usually got. When I woke up to the big boxes with the jolly one’s name on them, I was quite happy to tear into them, with hardly a calculating glance toward the front door.

Earlier this year I was chatting with an elderly couple while at McDonald’s with my computer. The conversation turned to what Christmas was like when they were children, which inevitably led to the no chimney question. That’s a bit surprising really, since I assumed every house back then had a chimney. A particular sparkle came to the old woman’s eyes as she smiled softly and told me how her parents handled the dreaded question. They told her that Santa Claus is made of love and love can always find a way in.

So simple. So perfect.

I suspect that for children of the Great Depression love may have been the mainstay of many Christmases. And I know from the childhood stories of elderly relatives that the smallest gift during those hard times were immensely treasured. That woman’s parents wisely gave the answer that children accustomed to small joys and abundant love could treasure along with their meagre holiday bounty.

So I wish for us all a day overflowing with joys big and small, the kind of love that always finds a way in…and the ability to hear at least the echo of remembered sleigh bells jingling from the sky.

Merry Christmas.