Tag Archives: memory-making

what I want to give my sister for her birthday

Good morning, good morning. Here I am again at my little desk, the one with the candles and the mug of (decaf) coffee doused with soymilk. the one with the quiet and the rush of traffic outside that can sound like the waves if I let my ears unfocus enough. The one that settles in around me, drapes itself around my shoulders, whispers, “quit stalling and write now, girl.”

Today is my sister’s birthday. I would like to tell you about birthdays of her past, from when we were little, but I can’t remember any of them. Is this an age thing or a trauma thing? At what point do you quit asking that question? I would like to be able to tell you, when my sister turned six, she had a big party with all of her friends from our school in the city, where we’d moved when I was still in kindergarten and she was only three. She wore a pink dress to the party and my mom made her a cake and all the kids played pin the tail on the donkey  with a paper donkey that my mom made out of construction paper and pile cleaners for whiskers. But that’s not a true memory. I don’t know what happened for her sixth birthday, or her seventh, or her eighth. By her 8th we were living in Omaha, weren’t we? It’s not just big-sister narcissism — I can’t remember my own 6th or 7th or 8th birthdays, either. (Let this be a lesson to you, parents who are knocking yourselves out trying to one-up yourselves and every other parent in the neighborhood when it comes to your kids’ birthdays.)

I want to have those memories, though. I want to have a direct thread to the length of our togetherness. I want to remember more clearly how much we loved each other, and what we fought about, and when we disappointed each other and the secrets we kept for each other. I want there to have been good secrets between us. I know we had them. I just don’t remember.

Today I’ll visit my sister in her little apartment, celebrate her birthday with her husband and her child, and our mother, too. Family.

What can I give my sister on her birthday? I can’t give her memories of Before — we each have so few of them. I can’t give a history, a tracing back through the terror into the place where we loved each other without reservation and had nothing to complicate that love. I can’t tell stories of the little girls we were; those stories are buried deep in us now. I spend two week with my beloved in the place she was a child, and she enters into story after story — about her life at home, about each one of the good friends she had in the neighborhood, about her brother, about grade school, middle school, high school,about jobs and sports — about a normal sort of growing up. I listen with delight, of course, because I love her and I want to know — to have known — her at every age she’s ever been. And I listen with an ache, too, not just for the fact of those sorts of stories I don’t have about my own life, but for the fact of memories I don’t have, either.

For my sister’s birthday, I’d like to give her those memories. Not a different past — I can’t consider that, knowing that a different past would change who we are now, would change where she’s found herself and what a beautiful person she and her husband have made — but an easy drop into memories of a time when we were ok just as we were, when we were just girls with a future ahead of us, with normal struggles and worries and longings, when we ran after butterflies and climbed trees and she put up with all of my big-sister meannesses (pretending the dime is less than the nickel, pretending the garden hose is a snake, squeezing lumps of mom’s thick, natural, brown conditioner into the tub while we were in the bath and trying to convince my sister to tell mom she’d gone to the bathroom– can you believe she would’t do it?) When we argued over how or whether to play together, when she complained about always having to be the baby when the neighborhood kids played House because she was the littlest or youngest one, when we collected leaves and rocks and weeds, when she came with me down the alleyway shortcut home from school even though mom told us not to go in the alleys. When she trusted me to lead her into safe places. When the only danger we knew was a sharp piece of gravel under our bare feet. When she got bubble-gum ice cream at the Baskin Robbins and I got rocky road. When we had each other still, even though mom and dad left one another, when we had to walk into new houses and our parents’ new lives, meet their new friends, keep smiles on our faces even though we just wanted everything to go back to the way it was before. We could always make each other laugh, and used to swing on the swingset in the backyard for what seemed like hours — maybe it was 20 minutes, but time elongates the memory, I see us forever there on the swings, caught in that helpless laughter, not able to look at each other because when we do, we start laughing all over again.

These are memories of the time of Before. They’re still in us, all of it is, all those years, all that hope, all that wonder and the regular fears and anxieties of childhood, all that play and possibility. The Halloween costumes and the May baskets and then christmases in our homemade flannel nightgowns and the dresses mom made that looked like Christmas trees. All the open space of Nebraska and endlessly long boring car rides and dad telling us how much longer it would be by telling us how many songs there were to go yet and grandma enfolding us into her arms with a love that was bigger than we were and a little scary. The smell of grandparent’s basements (that, for us at least, didn’t have any danger in them), the smell of the fourth of July in the middle of the country, the smell of the snow in the middle of February.

These memories are still ours, even underneath what came after. Our stepfather didn’t obliterate our histories, no matter how hard he tried. We live them still. Our histories, our togetherness, our sisterhood: that’s what got us through. Today I can’t bring a fat stream of memory, but I can bring homemade scones and [shhh…] and we can eat dinner together and watch her son play and not have words for what it means that we survived as long as we did to be able to make it into this now, with this new life between and through us, growing into his own memories, erupting with surprise at every new experience, just like we did once, together, for so long hand-in-hand.

how we build our own traditions

Good morning good morning. It’s later than I wanted it to be, but also, I suppose, exactly the right time. The candles are lit, and I’ve got coffee that was magically waiting for me when I went downstairs to make it. I’m still not quite accustomed, I guess, to being with someone who rises earlier than I do.

At 6:30 am it’s still dark outside, but the tree is lit up, and the candles help make small pockets of light in this beautifully-fertile dark time. This is the time of year, right around the winter solstice, when I remember — when I work to remind myself — that all I can ever actually see is right where I am, and the very next step in front of me. For all of my planing and visioning and hoping and waiting, all that’s ever certain is exactly what is, and the possibility of the very next moment. I like the early hours because I can let the dark enfold around me while I release these words, no Klieg lights on them, no inspection, no harsh interrogation. They slip from my fingers through the soft caress of the candlelight and into the quiet morning to be exactly what they are.

Something in me is slowing down. This is a time to rest, to pause, and even to honor what got done this year. I come to the end of the year and check my bank book and call myself a failure. While everyone around me is rushing about to buy their beloveds all of the christmas presents, I’m trying to decide whether I should resurrect the girl I was at 28 and start making candles again to give as gifts. Already, the baking I do every winter season is underway — this year I have it on my list to bake 14 different kinds of treats: red velvet pinwheels, pepparkaker, cinnamon nut brittle, Russian tea cakes, extra spicy double-chocolate cookies, raspberry thumbprints, Meyer lemon shortbread, anise-almond biscotti, multicolor spritz, buckeyes, cardamom nut bars, anise pretzels, kifli, and Hungarian cream cheese cookies with apricot lekvar. We’ll see if I get to them all.

Around the baking, the annual holiday grieving is also upon me. This is meant to be a time of family and celebration and tradition and remembrance, but my most vivid christmas memories from childhood tend to be pretty awful, which impacts how I hold this time of year — or rather, how I can allow it to hold me. In my 20s, I began to recognize the winter solstice as my winter holiday of choice, even as I went home (when that was possible). The oldest winter festivals of the people I am from in eastern and northern Europe centered around the solstice — this honoring of the dark, and welcoming, too, the return of the sun. Solstice, for me, was something deeper than christianity, something deeper than commercialism, something that helped me think about how to tend and trust the needed, quiet dark within myself.

This year I grieve, too, that I have reached this earliest middle age and still I have none of my own holiday traditions or legacies. After she and her son went to pick up a tree for her house, my sweetheart and I unpacked her holiday ornaments so that the three of us could decorate the tree. She told the stories of each one — this one her son made, this one she made, this one was from her mother’s tree, these were from the collection of her beloved friend Franco, this one she and her ex bought when their son was… and so on. I stayed knelt down by the box of ornaments, unwrapping and trying to keep myself from crying until after the decorating was done. I wanted to be right here, in this moment, with them, making new memories that would form the basis for something solid in future years, not grieving what was lost. But I slipped into the grief anyway. Where were my stories? For all of my affinity for Solstice, I have celebrated Christmas every year of my life — and yet, I’ve got no collection of ornaments to bring to this tree, none of my own stories to share. Instead, I enfold myself into someone else’s stories, traditions, family customs. Mine stayed tucked away and lost. Through two marriages, I gathered no history in the form of shapes and colors that get hung on an evergreen tree every late December. How could that be?

But the truth is that I left those stories behind when I left the relationships — I couldn’t bring them forward with me, into a new life, into a new relationship — onto a new tree. If any of those ornaments had come with me from my childhood, the story would have been different — those I would have claimed. But I don’t have those. I am fortunate, I guess, that my parents do. When we go to my father’s house for the holiday next week, we will see the brass angels that my father’s mother had made when my sister and I were born, engraved with our names and the dates of our birth, and we’ll remember. We’ll remember something before. We’ll remember decorating his tree, which only happened before my mother married the man who would sweep us up into his cape and disappear us from the world for awhile. We’ll remember those oldest Christmases that were still fraught but tender and sweet all at the same time.

Slowly, year by year, my sweetheart and I are building our own collection of holiday stories in the form of ornaments, memories we can hang on the tree, those images that act as placeholders for a history we choose to claim publicly and visibly. Building connection and relationship and history can only work like that, can’t it — year by year, minute by minute, standing in the circle of light, looking out at exactly what is, seeing where our feet and hands can go next.

This morning, as I looked over the stacks of tins that hold all the cookies I’ve made so far, something else occurred to me — in this annual cookie-a-thon, I’ve developed my own holiday tradition, something I can carry with me anywhere, and that connects me to the women in my family who shared love through food (butter and sugar, especially). I make my mother’s anise and almond biscotti, my grandma Cross’ peanut brittle, my grandma Sherman’s Russian tea cakes (I can’t actually say whether she made these, but I have strong body memory of eating them at her house, so the association lives in me anyway). I think about the hands of these women in my own hands, I remember their power and grace that existed even when they failed, and I think about how they kept going. For all of her loss and all that I wish she had done differently in her life (and in my own and my sister’s), my mother never gave up, and I am grateful for that.

So today I will listen to more christmas music and weep and bake more cookies and start packing up the gifts I can afford to send: some butter and sugar and flour and history and tradition and hope, darkness and light altogether blended.

Here’s to your heart today, to the stories you carry and the ones you release, the stories you miss and keep searching for. Here’s to the ways you trust your own ability to create tradition that can ground you in connection and community — such risky, necessary, terribly beautiful work. And of course, as always, here’s to your good, good words.