By Nancy Stafford Griesinger © 1991
Issue: March, 1991
People collect all sorts of things. I collect old and very fragile things. I spend long, long moments standing in a booth at a flea market or antique show, fingering some precious and flimsy old object. My husband slows his pace and looks back over his shoulder and watches as I pay the owner, then walk away with my treasure. Today I bought a calendar. It cost two dollars. I would have paid much more.
I used to fall asleep in my grandmother's feather bed, looking at this same picture, on the calendar which hung on her bedroom wall. It is a picture of a guardian angel hovering protectively over two young children as they reach, leaning precariously over a cliff, toward a group of wildflowers.
During the day, my brother and I ran around the fields of that Tennessee farm, under the tolerant gaze of our grandfather. We walked behind the horse and plow and compared our footprints in the rich furrows, screaming with fear if he kicked up a snake with the sharp blade. We carried water to him as we fought off circling wasps. My brother and I climbed rocks as tall as we were and leaned on our bellies over the edge of a cliff to peer at a partridge. We hung upside down by our skinny ankles on peach tree limbs. We drank in the wildness of the country, the heady fragrance of honeysuckle vines filling our lungs.
We came home at the end of the day, with fat ticks stuck to our scalp and cuckleburrs clinging to our britches. We came home to fried ham and hot biscuits, galvanized tubs of hot water and homemade soap. We came home to snuggle deep into warm feather beds and gaze at pictures of guardian angels hovering over the shoulders of children, watching them at play. We came home to sleep... a deep and wonderful dream.
I paid two dollars for the calendar today. It was the same picture that had impressed upon my heart as a young girl that love is always with me, hovering over my shoulders. The date on that calendar is the year I was born. I've heard it said that "Memory is the only way home." I place the treasure on my own bedroom wall and dream... home.
There's an old wicker rocking chair that sits beside the bed. It cracks and pops its way into my subconscious mind. The quilt, made for my mother the year before I was born, lies beside it. It was called a "friendship quilt" because it was hand embroidered by friends. When I sit in the chair, I pull the quilt carefully over my legs. There's Aunt Nora's name with the cursive letters (She always thought she was "better 'n ennybody else"). I hear my grandmother's voice.
There are my father's initials... I touch them gently. (That "piece a goods wuz your mama's little ole feed sack dress.") My father was twenty-three when he placed his initials there. The rocker creaks and pops after I have left it. I lie in bed and listen. I listen for the voices one more time.
There is an old locket on the dressing table. The gold is scratched and mottled. The picture, the size of a dime, shows a pensive father looking down at a young mother trying to smile. Across from their picture is another one of the children. He is a beautiful baby boy with sweater and cap. He is squinting into the sunshine. Around him are the arms of his sister. Her plump, four year old arms hold him tightly. She is looking directly into the camera. I think I can read her mind. She's afraid her brother will slip away before the camera clicks. She holds on tightly, lest he fall.
Their pictures have clung to the back of the locket as fearfully as the little girl holds on to her brother, as sadly as the father holds on to his wife.
I snap the locket shut and sit quietly, fingering the mother of pearl which covers the mottled gold, and try to remember the little girl. I can only remember the picture. I will cling to the locket forever. The memory will come back in time... in time, when the voices return...
Memories float on my mind like the swans in the waters of West Bay. These swans remind me of a time when our family was traveling and our father gave us a rare treat. We stopped at a roadside gift shop. I was eleven years old, and Daddy admonished me, looking down over the top of his glasses, "Now don't touch nothing." So, of course, I picked up and fingered every item that attracted me. When the blue china swan dropped from my hands and crashed on the cement floor, I felt my heart sink. The moment that followed was the loudest silence I have ever heard. Daddy dug deep into what must have been an almost empty pocket, and paid ten dollars to the shop owner. I was stunned when the thing slipped from my hands and fell to the floor. I was touched, when Daddy glued the thing together. It sat on my window sill for years, speaking to me with its glued and mute body. Speaking to me, and reminding me of love and other fragile things.
I walk along the bay and watch the colors reflected in the water; the glassy surface folds and spills and fingers toward the sandy shore. I walk along in silence, looking at the purple rim of sky along Old Mission Peninsula. I see the pink haze rest easy on top of the turquoise blue. The setting sun is playing hide and seek with the clouds, and I am standing star struck. The water washes in, and plays with colorful leaves settling along the shore. Theses leaves have blown from trees that cover the peninsula, like Joseph's coat. Sometimes I see the notes written sweetly in the sand. Tom Loves Mary. Today, I noticed footprints. A small child had walked along, barefoot, and squatted here and splashed the water on the ducks. A small foot with nubby toes and delicate heel had stood and watched the water pink its way toward black. A small child stood and watched the sky hold a flutter of wings. Did he wonder if someday he too would fly? Did his mother lift him gently and speak to him of life? Did she whisper sweet stories of dogwood trees and whippoorwill calls? Did she place a worn quilt around him as he slept, while humming her own lonesome song?
I think I'll scoop this footprint up, in my hands, and have it bronzed. I could bribe his mother I think. In twenty years, she'll pay gladly. In twenty years she'll give her pension check for one glimpse of that tiny print in the sand.
People have all sorts of keepsakes. I am fond of very old and fragile ones; sweet and gentle things that hover in the back of my mind.
I used to be ashamed of my grandmother's voice. (If she could just tone down the twang, I thought.) I used to beg my father not to embarrass my boyfriends with his crude country ways. Now, it's Daddy's ways I write about, and the voices I hear are my grandmother's. The voices I write, and try to preserve are plucked with the twang of a southern guitar, and I do get so lonesome for the voices.