Thursday, April 21, 2011

Another Kind of Time Machine

It seems just like the other day when I wrote about the four-wheel time machine we drive from place to place, experiencing the changes of season as we go traveling.
Heck, it really was just the other day--last week, in fact.
As often happens though, a certain sense of serendipity occurs that makes me rethink and revisit what I've just said. While I was satisfied enough to describe a car as a method of time travel, another, more interesting thought escaped me entirely:
We are time machines, each and every one of us.
We, with our memories and remembrances, are able to transport others to times and places that might otherwise be lost forever.
It all became clear when I visited with a friend.
She's someone I've known for as long as I can remember, because she was a good friend of my mother. Mom would be 100 years old this September, a fact that remains quite surprising to me despite the fact that both she and my dad died over 30 years ago. There are still plenty of people around Galva who remember my folks well. Dad was the local pharmacist, and touched many lives with his hard work and quiet good humor. And mom was, well, a perfect people person, who especially enjoyed the friendships she made with "the younger gals" through Women's Club, bridge and church work.
My visitor was one of those young friends, now a grandmother and great-grandmother herself. She had some things to show me; some things to tell me, she said. Not just about my mom, but regarding my grandmother Mamie--my dad's mother and a person I never met.
I wanted to see. I wanted to hear.
"I don't really have that much," she said.
But actually, it was a lot.
One of the things she shared with me was a black-and-white photograph of my mom and the young lady who would become her sister-in-law, my Aunt Mary. They were standing in front of what I recognized as the old North School in Galva, which burned down long ago. A little boy stood with them in the photo.
"That's my brother," said my visitor. "They were his teachers."
Now, I own a lot of pictures of mom, and even a few of Aunt Mary, but this particular place and time was something more than just a snapshot, because I knew that life would change quickly for the two smiling schoolteachers in the photo. Soon, Miss Garrigan would become Mrs. Arntson, as Aunt Mary would join my Uncle Paul in Washington DC, where he had gone to work and go to law school at night. My mother, who was already engaged to my dad at the time, had to wait awhile longer, as the income she earned as an elementary school teacher was a main means of support for her parents, who had lost the family business and home due to the depression. Grade school teachers had to be unmarried in those days, so she would remain Miss Arntson until her mother and father were able to find work. But even that happy eventuality would turn tragic, as my grandmother died after being injured at the Illinois Asylum for the Incurable Insane in Bartonville, where she and my grandfather had found employment.
Looking at her young, pretty face, I was filled with the bittersweet knowledge of the love and marriage and children just around the corner, but also of the tragedy yet to come in her young life.
And while that precious picture would have been enough to make the visit meaningful to me, there was more.
You see, not only did my visitor know my mom well, she knew my other grandmother, my dad's mother, as well.
I always envied my friends who had grandparents growing up. By the time I was born, when dad was 46 and my mom nearly 40, there was only one left. After the unexpected death of my maternal grandmother, my gramps moved back to the city in Wisconsin where he and she had grown up and were first married. We saw him once in awhile, but it was never enough. And I always felt like I was missing something when my friends would talk about the wonderful times they spent with their grandmothers.
My grandmother Sloan lived in the house where I grew up in the southwest part of town, just down the street from where my friend lived as a little girl.
"Mrs. Sloan lived in the third house down from us," she said. "A neighbor girl and I used to visit her often."
I was anxious to hear. "What was she like?" "What did you talk about?"
My friend remembered the things a third grader remembers.
"She made good cookies," she smiled. "And she gave me this."
She showed me a picture of a little purse--made in the shape of a Santa Claus and meant to be hung on a Christmas tree.
"I still hang it on my tree every year," she said.
Cookies and gifts are little things, I know. But knowing about them helped me imagine the simple warmth and generosity of a woman--my grandmother--who was widowed at a young age and struggled to raise two sons alone. A woman who still had time to visit with a couple of little girls from the neighborhood.
We talked awhile longer, trading memories of people and places we both knew, until it seemed we had shared enough.
But there was one more thing.
"Oh, and your grandmother used to let us grind her coffee beans," she said.
Quick as a wink, my wife rushed to the kitchen and came back with an old wooden coffee grinder that I've owned since it was passed down to me long ago.
"Is this it?" she asked.
My friend smiled.
"Yes, I believe it is," she replied.
As I sat and looked at her as she held that long-kept antique on her lap, I couldn't help thinking about why I love living in a small town so much. Because we know each other and we often know the most precious parts of each other's lives. And so, we talk, we share...and we remember.
Because we are, each and every one of us, a time machine.

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