Growing up down the crick in the 80s, Sunday dinner with the extended family wasn’t just something you saw in a Rockwell print. Sitting around the table, weighted down with metric tons of food, presided over by my grandfather, with aunts, uncles, and cousins jammed in elbow to elbow wasn’t a television trope. Living it then, I didn’t recognize it as anything other than the normal way of things. It’s only in hindsight I can see just how remarkable those Sunday dinners were.
Sunday dinner was always the big meal of the week, but Sunday lunch is just as fixed in my memory. It was almost invariably hamburgers – fried up in a skillet, or more rarely from the electric grill on the patio, and served with chips and maybe baked beans. I’m sure there were other sandwiches, but it’s the hamburgers that seem to be stuck in my mind’s eye as I look back across the decades.
I’ve long maintained the spirit of Sunday dinner being a household “event.” It’s consistently the biggest and most wide-ranging meal I make every week… though unlike my grandmother, I’m mercifully not making it to feed a dozen or more hungry mouths.
Now, these many years later, I find myself recreating those lunches, too. Sunday lunch is hamburgers or ham salad or BLTs. Perhaps it’s not an exact recreation, of the lunches that I remember so clearly, but it’s absolutely done with intent.
I know the poet says “The good old days weren’t always good.” He’s probably on to something there. Even so, they weren’t all bad either. One of the great mercies of time is it tends to smooth off some of the rougher edges of memory. I appreciate that immensely.
Two millennia ago in ancient Rome, one of the gravest punishments the Senate was empowered to hand down was the damnatio memoriae – literally damning the memory of a failed leader by erasing them, as completely as possible, from the historical record.
It’s an official forgetting. It’s a bold statement that some people, some actions, are unworthy to even serve as a warning to others. Some people can best serve history by being exiled from it.
I have no idea at all what pulled that little nugget of information to mind this afternoon. Yep. No idea at all.
Picking Concord grapes is one of my first vague childhood memories. There were friends of the family (distant relatives, maybe) living way the hell north in Erie. They had a house in town, an endless supply of Pez candy, and what now would be called a vintage Volkswagen van. Back then, in the early 1980s, it was just an old van, of course. It’s funny, the things we remember.
We’d go north to Erie in the fall. There was grape picking. I know my memory isn’t completely faulty on this because not long ago I saw the photographic evidence. I’d eat those damned Concord grapes until I got sick. Forty years later, if I don’t impose a touch of self-discipline, I’ll still eat those uniquely purple grapes to the point of making myself sick.
I’m convinced it’s these partially formed memories that are responsible for my ongoing love of grape soda, or candy, or anything flavored in that particular grape-y profile.
My local Mennonite fruit stand had Concord’s by the quart basket this weekend. I didn’t clean them out, but I put a dent in their stock. They’re the kind of thing that have to be enjoyed in season so when they’re ready it’s a race to eat as many as possible. I’ve avoided making myself violently ill (so far), but boy I’m right there on the cusp… and I regret nothing – especially the memories.
I woke up this morning thinking about the old “Honors Lounge” at Frostburg. Twenty feet deep, eight feet wide, and half subterranean, there wasn’t much to it. A few beat up couches, a dorm-sized refrigerator, and a coffee maker that as often as not stayed on for three days at a time and burned the dregs rock hard in the bottom of the pot.
It had a view of the sky, a tree, and the side of a building. Then again most of Guild Center wasn’t known for its views aside from the rare room that looked over the upper quad. It wasn’t much, but for a couple of years it was my home away from my home away from home. It was a great place to kill an hour between classes if you didn’t have the heart to face the climb back to the top of campus or needed to avoid the wind-driven snows coming down from Savage.
It was an unexpected, but happy recollection from out of nowhere this morning. The brain dredges up some of the strangest details when it, still sleep addled, takes a brief stroll down memory lane.
There’s a certain smell in the summer. Maybe in my mind it’s actually the smell of summer.
It’s a smell of damp wood, sun-scorched earth, brackish water, salt marsh, and the slightest hint of creosote. It’s strongest, most potent in the high summer, just after the sun sets, maybe around 8:30 or 9:00. It’s a unique smell I only catch somewhere near the Bay after a blisteringly hot day with high humidity. On days when the weather is just right, you can feel it in the air as much as smell it.
This is the time of year I can smell it here at near the head of the Bay. I could smell it from the patio of my one-bedroom bunker in St Mary’s County, too. But the first place I smelled it was in Tracy’s Landing. It was a million years ago when I was a kid and summer was defined by “long” trips to my aunt and uncle’s house. It wasn’t more than three hours from home, but the drive then felt like it took forever. The flatlands of tidal Ann Arundel County might as well have been another planet from the ridges and valleys of far western Maryland.
It feels like that was lifetimes ago, now. More than anywhere else it was on these summer trips that I learned to love the Bay and the critters that dwell in, on, and near it. Those summer days were filled with buckets of corn distributed at a waterfowl sanctuary in Shady Side, picking fossils out of the creek out on the “back 40,” feeding Stormy and Hazy, the resident horses, gathering up vegetables for the night’s dinner out of the deep garden plots just a few hours before they were on the plate, trot lining blue crabs in the West River in a hand-made skiff, or chasing rockfish out on the “blue water” Bay in a proper work boat. There too, innumerable family events unfolded – back before family got too damned weird.
All these years later and I remember it all with stunning clarity thanks to something as completely ephemeral as a smell I can’t quite describe.
I’m sure I learned something new this week. Meandering through seven whole days without picking up one remotely interesting tidbit feels like it should be hard. Actually it feels like it should be impossible if you have any kind of inquisitive mind. To be fair, I’m sure I did actually learn more than one new thing as I was pouring through the latest hundred-odd pages of Pax Britannica. Those new things, though, aren’t really the kind of nuggets you bring to your blog on Friday night. Well, I sure some people do, but that’s not how we do things here.
The fact is, I’ve scoured my memory for the better part of the last hour hoping to tease out one little factoid that I could turn into a paragraph. I’ve been soundly defeated in that effort. My post-work Friday afternoon brain dump seems to have eradicated more than the stuff time stamped during business hours.
There’s also the very real possibility that I’ve completely overestimated my ability to remember random minutia. I try to make note of the interesting stuff, but even that system seems to have failed me this week… and maybe that’s this week’s lesson. It turns out I really can’t rely on my internal memory to keep track of jack shit anymore and need to make a conscious effort to be a better note maker.
Yeah, I guess that’s what I learned this week. It’s lame and I’ll probably have forgotten it by this time tomorrow, but there it is.
1. Short term memory. Since the weather was set to turn frosty, I made a giant pot of chicken barley soup Sunday afternoon. I enjoyed exactly one bowl of it. Then I cleaned up, put the soup on the counter to cool before sticking it in the fridge, did some evening reading, and then promptly went to bed while my lovely soup sat out at room temperature for the better part of 14 hours. Could I have eaten it and not gotten violently ill? Probably. Even so, the soup is now feeding the wildlife across the fence line in my backyard woods and I’m utterly disgusted by my apparent inability to remember one simple thing to do.
2. Standard time. It’s my rant every fall, but it needs to be said. When you work in a room without windows, it’s pretty irrelevant to your life how early in the morning the sun comes up. Even if I did have a window, what it’s doing outside is of fairly limited significance. It could be dark until noon and it wouldn’t change my typical day in any meaningful way. But sure, I guess there are people who for no explicable reason put a premium on driving to work with the rising sun directly in their eyes. Personally I’ll take my daylight in the evenings when there’s a chance I might actually be able to do something with it. Maybe I should just work a deal with the boss to spring forward and fall back my work schedule periodically since we can’t seem to stop fiddling with the actual clock.
3. Impeachment. We should all, regardless of party, be deeply embarassed at how the House of Representatives impeachment hearings are being covered. The impeachment of a sitting official is the real “nuclear option” afforded by the Constitution. Far from a moment of deepest gravity, both parties have inevitablely contributed to the breathless media coverage that has given the whole process thus far a carnival atmosphere. We should all be embarassed that this is the best the elected representatives of the world’s oldest continualy operating republic and the professional journalists who cover them can muster. We should be embarassed, but we shouldn’t be surprised.
I just signed the paperwork starting the process of selling the condo I bought in 2001… Back when I was a fresh faced, 23-year old college graduate just a year or so into my first adult job in extreme southern Maryland. Back then St. Mary’s County was just starting to grow up – it’s first great strides towards becoming another bedroom community for the District.
Coming out of a two room granny flat that was about the size of my current laundry room, the condo felt palatial at the time. It was 725 square feet of all mine. The first step along the path of my own version of the American dream. If my time in Frostburg molded me, St. Mary’s, and my little condo was where I was tempered and really learned how to be me outside the orbit of the known and familiar.
With the paperwork signed, I’m about a week and a half from seeing the place back on the market for the first time since I snatched it up. I’m feeling an awfully heavy dose of nostalgia tonight – for nights on Solomons, at the Brass Rail, or the Green Door, for friends made and contact lost over the long intervening years, and more than a little for the 23-year old version of me who was so very determined to bend the world to his will, got kicked around a little by life, and kept on coming.
I’ve had chances to sell the place in the past, but could never quite bring myself to let it go. Now, though, it feels right. My long time property manager is closing up his business and being a long distance landlord has lost a lot of its luster. It’s probably a few years past time, really. The place deserves a shot at an owner who’s going to call it home again. I’d like to see that… but of course if another investor shows up with a big bag of cash, I’m not going to send them away.
As much as I’m feeling and appreciate the moment of nostalgia, it does have it’s limits when it comes to making decisions with the dollars and cents.
1. Losing my mind. Any time I leave the house I carry my wallet, a wristwatch, and a pocket knife. Stopping to pick them up on my way out the door happens just by force of habit. When I come home, I set them down in exactly the same place every single time. It’s a usually foolproof system that works for me. Except for the one day when it don’t. Walking out of the house “unarmed” isn’t life altering. I could have gone to the local bank branch for cash in a real pinch. It’s mostly the inconvenience of it. Plus, knowing that for some reason i deviated from what should be a perfectly repetitive routine makes me wonder what else I missed…. and that bugs the hell out of me.
2. George R. R. Martin. I swore to myself I wasn’t going to give George R. R. Martin another nickel until he gave us the next proper installment of the Song of Ice and Fire series by delivering The Winds of Winter. Of course my resistance caved immediately when Amazon put the option to pre-order Blood and Fire directly in front of my face while I was looking for something totally unrelated.
3. Cecil County Public Works Department. The CCPWD took the last three months turning what was once a tree-canopied country road into my neighborhood into what looks like a 1/2 scale model of Route 40. Sure, the old road lacked a shoulder, two full sized pickup trucks could barely pass in opposite directions without rubbing mirrors, and getting distracted meant running into the ditch or driving headlong into a tree. It was the thoroughly un-modern counterpart to what I’m sure is a well-designed and engineered modern road. It also lacks 100% of the soul and beauty of the road it replaced, which is part of the reason I moved way the hell down here to the end of the peninsula to begin with.
I remember growing up hearing stories about where people in my parent’s generation were when President Kennedy was assassinated. My grandparent’s generation could tell you where they were on a Sunday in December when news broke of a sneak attack on America’s fleet in the Pacific. To me, those dates and names were pages in a history book. I was too young then to appreciate that these events weren’t dusty history to the men and women who lived through them. They were visceral, living parts of their life’s narrative.
As each year we’re further removed from the shock and disbelief of a September morning. For more and more of our citizens, September 11th is just one more of those dates that mark an historical reference point rather than a life experience. For those of us who lived through it and the days that followed, though, I have an increasing suspicion that the day will always feel a bit like current events – a recent memory, still very much alive and tangible.
The stories of where we were, what we were doing, and who we were with will probably always be seared into our individual and collective memories for as long as one of us remains to tell it. The confusion at first report, the wide mouthed disbelief at seeing the second plan burrowing in, the continuous loop of smoke rising from the Pentagon, and two buildings that crumbled in front of us are were a clarion call to arms, to unity, and to remind us that our long experiment in democracy was and remains surrounded by those who would snuff it out.
Seventeen years on, it’s a punch to the gut I can feel just as strongly today as I did all those years ago. Over all the long years from then to now, we sought justice and rough vengeance, we rebuilt, thousands of families found the internal fortitude to go on living and endure, but most important, on this day and always, we remember.