Category Archives: Time Machine

Picture Perfect

I came home from picture day in the fall of 1981, and my mother said, “Did you comb your hair before your pictures?”

“Oh no,” I said, all first-grade innocence, “It didn’t need it!”

Mom groaned.

1981-fall-carol-1st-grade

The pictures came back the way she predicted. If they did retakes then, she didn’t bother with them, and I’m glad. I like it all – the barrettes clipped high on my forehead and bangs coming out anyway, the crooked part, and what I thought of as my cowgirl shirt.

I remember that shirt, though if I’m being absolute honest I don’t know whether I remember it on its own or because it’s immortalized in my West Hill yearbook. Years later, my city-dwelling freshman-year roommate would tell me that she thought I’d show up to the dorm with Garth Brooks posters, dirty boots, and one of those funny country shirts. When I got done laughing, I remembered this beauty, but I kept it to myself. I’m confessing now, Annie: I did have a cowgirl shirt.

The next year, it was clear my mother hadn’t forgotten the incident.

1982-fall-carol-2nd-grade

I have no doubt that I cried as she braided my hair that morning. It’s always been thick and slightly unruly, and to achieve the slicked-back look we have here must have involved copious amounts of yanking and Dippity-Do.

That outfit I absolutely remember. Even though it was a jumper and I had to wear tights with it (looses, my brother called them, because they never stayed up), I loved it. The dark blue material was a tight corduroy, and I could run my fingers over the surface all day long. It was like having a stuffed animal, but without the social ruin.

No one knows what happened to my other braid in that picture, which just goes to show. It doesn’t matter how much you prepare and how you’ve learned your lessons from the past. There are some things you just cannot control. Best to let go.

And, for the love of all that is holy, stop trying to make everything perfect in the pictures, because the ones you will love twenty years from now are the ones that show you laughing out loud, even with the double chin.

Marigolds

1993-08-keely-sterling-road-cropped

I love the sass my niece is bringing in this picture, but my favorite thing is the flowers, despite the fact that I cannot stand marigolds.

The flower bed along our driveway extended out toward the road and then curved around and went along the frontage for a bit. Every year, my mother planted the entire expanse of flower beds in orange and yellow marigolds. I do not know why. I’m pretty sure even she didn’t like them. Maybe it was a habit. Maybe she thought she couldn’t grow anything else – I come by my dubious gardening skills honestly.

Whatever the reason, every spring I went out there with her, carrying endless flats of marigolds and a load of resentment. I hated planting the stupid marigolds, and so did she. It was not fun, even when she didn’t step on the business end of a rake, levering the heavy wooden handle right up into her face to give herself a fat lip. She loved explaining that one at church the next day.

This snapshot is dated on the back, in my mother’s cramped hand. It was August of 1993, the month I left for my freshman year of college. It was the last time everything felt the same, right before my world shifted off its axis.

My father was sick, and I had known this for a long time, but I didn’t know how sick. Maybe I didn’t want to know. Maybe I was too wrapped up in myself and my new adventure to pay enough attention. I’d been off at school only a couple of months before I got a phone call telling me to come home right away.

I called my cousin Gina, in her sophomore year at a school half an hour away, and she dropped everything to come and get me. She drove me home, two and a half hours away, listening alternately to my tears and my silence, and holding my hand. I was too inside myself at the time to notice, but I think now that it must have seemed as if her world were shifting, too. Ferrying around someone cast into the early stages of grief and denial is a job for a grownup, and she wasn’t much farther out of the nest than I was.

He didn’t die that weekend, and I went back to school Sunday night, confused and afraid, and pretending I was fine. I drove back by myself, in a stripped-down gray Toyota pickup that Dad had intended to drive to job sites someday. It hadn’t been pressed into service, and it was still nearly pristine, the vinyl seats untouched by concrete dust and fill dirt. There was money in my pocket for a freshman parking permit. I’d begged for weeks that summer to be allowed to take a car to school and been turned down flat every time. I’d won, but victory tasted acrid. The marigolds were gone by then, the November air too cold for even their hardy nature. It had been their last summer.

Dad held on until February. The next summer, Mom was buying a house that didn’t have a contracting business attached, and when I packed, there was a pile for school and a pile marked New House. The first time the little gray truck and I went home sophomore year, my belongings were stashed in a basement bedroom, and I had to ask where the stairs were when I was done eating supper.

I went back to the old house with my mother once that fall, but I left after a few minutes. The mirror that had hung on the wall behind the couches over the years was hanging over marks in the carpet, and the kitchen looked forlorn without the family table covered in the green and blue terry tablecloth. I was too inexperienced with grief to know how to talk to my ghosts, and so I abandoned them.

I cannot stand marigolds. I do not like the smell; I never have. And so when I see them now, I run my hand along the blooms, and hold my fingers to my nose. They smell awful, and familiar, and like home.

The Crew

undated-gassers-masonry-crew

This picture is not dated, but based on my father’s glasses, it was taken before I was born. He’s third from left, my dad, and four of the other fellows are my first cousins. (There are two I don’t recognize, which doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t related to me, too.) It would have been early morning, when they gathered for orders before scattering to various job sites, and a chilly day. Late fall, I think. That’s my driveway, the one I grew up with – dad’s contracting business was based in our house – and I’d forgotten there was ever a lamppost just there.

They all had names, the men who worked for my father, but mostly I knew them as The Crew. I was young, and I wasn’t paying much attention unless I knew you already, or you distinguished yourself by wearing overalls with no shirt and white chest hair everywhere in the summer, or by riding your bike up the road to work, no hands, arms crossed on your chest like a cigar-store Indian.

I don’t think I was down there much in the morning when they gathered, though sometimes I ran leftover donuts down from the kitchen. When I did go, my primary impression was, oddly enough, of safety and warmth. I didn’t belong there, in a gaggle of men dressed to lay brick and sucking down coffee before a long day of hard work, but I scuffed around the dusty floor with impunity. Some of the men were rougher than I was used to, but every one of them had a smile for me, or a pat on the head.

I am taller now, and less likely to be patted when I appear in their lives, but I’m still reaping goodwill from those men. Not even counting all the cousins, it’s an ordinary occurrence for someone to say, “You know, I worked for your dad when you were born.” (The Crew fluctuated in size over the years, but I think the mid-seventies were a high point.) One man, now dead these many years, told me sternly every time he saw me, “Your parents were good folks. There might be folks as good, but none better.” Dad had given him a job when he was fired from a long-standing position for, Dad was pretty sure, being too old. I think if he had found Dad standing over him with a knife in the dead of night, he’d have been sure there was a really good reason.

Because our house was built as both dwelling and business, it was a little odd-looking, and whenever anyone from school visited for the first time, they usually said, “That’s your house?” Our house was unusual, it’s true, and it wasn’t perfect. But it definitely had some things to recommend it.

That Time I Ran Track

7th-grade-track

Well, there are just so many places to go with this, aren’t there?

  • Yes, I was once upon a time on a track team. One season, in the seventh grade. I was trying to find the thing I was good at. (Spoiler: It wasn’t track.)
  • Is it possible I used to be an even pastier hue that I currently am? Maybe it’s just the lighting.
  • Speaking of lighting … squint much?
  • And while we’re in that general area, the glasses. Saints preserve us. I remember those glasses. They had a horrifying curlicue on the temples. There’s no accounting for taste, especially when you’re twelve. I’m pretty sure they appear to great effect in another photograph, but I am absolutely sure I’m not emotionally ready for anyone to see that particular picture at this time.
  • Could I look less comfortable?
  • I think it’s possible that there’s a banana clip on the back of my head. The eighties. It was a difficult decade for hair.

I don’t remember a lot about that season except being terminally discouraged at every practice. Meets were worse. The coaches did not know what to do with me, and I did not know what to do with myself. I was awkward and miserable and as out of place as a polar bear in Ethiopia. I still don’t know why I stuck it out for the entire season, except possibly that I had to prove something to my mother, who didn’t really want me to be in any sport ever. (Seeing the schedule some people maintain to get their offspring to all their practices and games and meetings has given me more sympathy for her position in recent years.) Unfortunately, I think the only thing I proved to either one of us was that I was stubborn as sin, which was not exactly news.

The one bright spot that still shines in my memory is Bobby, a guy who went to the same church I did. He was an upperclassman at the high school, a standout athlete, and movie-poster handsome. The middle school and high school teams practiced at the same time on our town’s lone cinder track, and he knew my name and used it, nevermind I was a weird, dorky kid. He was nice to me every single day, while also not pretending I was going to be track star, which was frankly a relief. I could see the toll it took on people to be falsely encouraging. (“We’re going to find your event, Carol!” the one coach kept saying. “What do you think about trying hurdles?” I thought she was crazy was what I thought, but I gave it the old college try anyway and picked cinders out of my knees and palms for a few weeks.)

I hear a lot about sports teaching life lessons and I don’t disagree, although I don’t think what I learned in seventh grade track is what people are usually thinking of. I believe the lesson, as I sit here in my forties and remember someone who just said hello to me every day when I was twelve and hated the way I looked and the way I felt and the way I was in the world, is a very simple one.

A little kindness goes a long, long way.