Tag Archives: memory

Watch For It

He stopped at the curb to press the crosswalk button, casually swinging his briefcase as he checked both ways for traffic. Any second now he’d set the briefcase down to tie a shoe or adjust his jacket. Wait… wait… and there it was. Today he tied a shoe. The light turned green and I drove through the intersection glancing at him one last time as he stood to pick up his briefcase. He nodded slightly as I passed. I raised one hand from the steering wheel.

I leave for work very early in the morning. Almost every weekday for a of couple years now I’ve seen this same lone man at the same empty intersection at the same early time of day. We each wake up to carry out our daily routines unconcerned, and mostly unaware, that the other exists except for that thirty seconds or so each morning at the intersection. He generally approaches the corner about the time I come to a stop at the light.

That early in the morning he’s the only pedestrian and I’m the only car. I forgot who began to wave first, but after months of early morning crossings it just seemed silly not to. He’d become as much a part of the landscape for me as the row of trees by the school, the yellow house with the picket fence, or the bridge over the creek. Their constant presence is an odd reassurance that all is right and routine. On rare days when he wasn’t at the intersection, I wondered where the man might be. He’d reappear the next day and all would be normal again. I laugh at myself for noticing such things but I suppose others do too. It’s not just me?

And it isn’t only the man with the briefcase. A rusty white van pulls out in front of me at the next corner. Further along, two black labs do their early morning romping behind a fence. A man in a red hat hoses off the sidewalk in front of an office building. Over time I began to notice these things and soon actually watched for them.

Each evening going home I walk past a woman smoking a cigarette under a tree out back. The security guard at the parking garage sings loudly to himself. Back in the car and I pass the same food truck along the same stretch of road every day. Closer to home and those two black labs are either lying in the shade or barking at squirrels. Those routine sights in my personal landscape satisfy something, I’m just not sure what. It’s not just me?

A while back, returning to work after a few days of vacation followed by a long weekend, I eagerly checked off my daily landscape markers. The briefcase, the dogs, the sidewalk washer, all there as usual even though I’d been gone a while. That evening on the way home I saw the woman light her cigarette and head towards the tree out back. I laughed again at myself for even noticing, but she was, after all, a part of my daily landscape.

As I neared the tree on my way to the parking garage I wondered if the security guard would still be singing after all of my days away from work. That’s when I heard the woman’s voice.

“Hey.” she said as took a puff of her cigarette. “Haven’t seen you in a while.”

It’s not just me.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Small Town Ways

With a warm spring finally here and hotter weather to follow, a store near me has filled its seasonal section with all things summer. Though still April, I saw stacks of Fourth of July themed party supplies, plastic cups for poolside use, and a display of various sunscreens. It was the sunscreen display that reminded me of a day trip I took years ago with my kids.

The three of us set off to spend a day on the beach of a small town I’ve visited all my life and I knew the kids would enjoy sun, sand, and saltwater. As for me, I immediately felt calmer simply leaving work, traffic, and fast-paced living. While the kids argued in the back over who would be first to get in the water once we arrived, I drove and looked forward to experiencing again the small town ways I love but see disappearing. It’s hard to describe those ways, but you know them when you see them and every time an example pops up I hear myself say “There it is.”

People used to wave when they passed one another. Strangers smiled and nodded to each other. If you got lost while traveling you pulled over and the service station mechanic happily got you back on track. If he didn’t know how to then the man reading his newspaper while waiting for an oil change certainly might. And you didn’t have to ask, he’d eagerly put down his paper to help.

There it is.

People reminded one another to carry an umbrella as the weatherman had mentioned thunderstorms for later. If you needed a pen then the woman in line behind you was glad to offer hers. Everyone seemed genuinely interested in each other. There was no agenda, helping out wasn’t done for personal gain, and kindness was expressed simply because it was good and right.

There it is.

As I parked the car at the marina the kids scrambled over each other to race to the beach. I looked around, sad to see some of the quaint out-buildings now gone. Rustic boathouses and a tiny bait shop were replaced by an over-priced restaurant and a store with neon signs screaming at me to buy souvenirs. No wonder small town ways are disappearing; they have no place to live.

Carrying towels, toys, and floats, I made my way over hot sand to where the kids waited by the water. It was then I realized I’d forgotten their sunscreen. Reluctantly, they left the beach to walk with me to the shiny new store at the marina. I hesitated, unhappy about supporting something that helped replace the very ways I’d been reminiscing about, but the kids needed sunscreen. Gone were the days of the smiling bait shop owner asking how he could help. We’d just have to go in and hope a cashier would even notice us.

Walking in I was surprised. There beneath garish fluorescent lights was an old man stocking greeting cards. Wearing faded jeans and a worn flannel shirt, he used a cane for balance as he stooped to fill the lower shelves. Although surrounded by displays of magazines, coolers full of sodas, and racks of colorful t-shirts, I saw no sunscreen. Interrupting his work, I nodded towards my kids.

“Do you have any sunscreen?” I asked. “I forgot theirs.”

“Well, I believe I might.” he responded with a smile. “Let me look.”

He seemed out of place there surrounded by beach jewelry, scented candles, and baskets of packaged seashells. Dance music over store speakers nearly drowned out his voice. As we followed him through aisles crammed with flip-flops and plastic buckets, I thought sadly how his working in such a place was final evidence that the small town ways had been all but swallowed up by sterile progress. This man, and others like him from the old days, had to adapt to the new or be left behind. Surely in that transition small town courtesies would be lost, gone for good, all part of the change.

The old man led us to the checkout counter but I still saw no sunscreen. Using his cane again, he stooped to reach down behind the cash register and lifted up an old knapsack, obviously his own, and opened it on the counter. He dug inside removing a frayed wallet, rusty keys, and a tiny old notebook before saying “Yep, got it.” With a smile he produced a large tube, told me there was plenty to cover both kids, and handed me the last of his very own sunscreen.

There it is.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Finial Moment

Friends and I enjoyed brunch the other day. Afterwards, I suggested we stop by the local antique store to see what was new…

No one got the joke.

Still laughing at myself, because it never takes much, I held the door for the others as we entered and went our separate ways down cluttered and dusty aisles.

We hadn’t been there long when I saw, tucked between Mason jars and wicker baskets, an old Thanksgiving decoration like one Mama used when I was a kid. It was a turkey with a cardboard head but the rest of it was the honeycomb style that opened and latched onto itself, giving the turkey a big round body. Its cardboard head was bent and its big round body didn’t latch anymore, but I held it up to look at it and wondered whose it used to be, where they might have placed it, and how many kids had ever touched it or crunched it.

“You want that thing?” one friend asked.

“No, I’m just having a finial moment.” I responded.

“Ok…” my friend said. He waited for an explanation.

For years and years, the same floor lamp stood in the same corner of the den at home. It was always positioned at one end of the couch regardless of how the room was arranged. Mama rarely rearranged, so the lamp stood in the same spot forever it seemed. The lamp sported three light bulbs and was about six feet tall counting the huge beige shade. As a kid I thought it was “fancy” because as you turned the switch you could opt for one, two, or all three bulbs to be on. Wow! Poking up above the huge beige shade was a tarnished bronze finial about an inch long.

Under that lamp at the end of the couch Mama sometimes worked crossword puzzles or sewed loose buttons. Daddy would temporarily leave his recliner to sit under the extra light to squint at a roadmap or at the faded date on an old coin. My three sisters and I took turns sitting under that lamp to do homework, color, or play games.

We laughed, argued, and watched television under that lamp. Daddy told stories about his workdays and Mama made sure he was caught up on neighborhood happenings, all under the lamp. That lamp saw holidays and birthdays and every day as soon as it was dark outside it was turned on. It was the last light to go out at night. That same lamp had been there forever and would be there forever. Such a thing couldn’t be replaced.

One day Mama replaced it.

I came home after school to see the old lamp standing beside the trash can. The shade itself, admittedly less beige and torn in two spots, had been smashed unceremoniously into the trash can. Poking up above the less beige lampshade was the tarnished bronze finial. I pulled at the finial and realized it could be unscrewed from the shade. I’d gotten it almost off when Mama walked by on her way to the clothesline.

“You want that thing?” she asked as she adjusted the laundry basket on her hip.

“Yep.”  I said. I removed the finial and kept it.

That was almost forty years ago and I still have it.

I don’t know how many times over the years I’ve come across that finial, but each time, I’ve held it and remembered countless days and nights at home as a kid. That little finial sat in the same room with me and my family as we celebrated happy times, cried over sad times, or did absolutely nothing but be with each other one regular old evening after another.

Photographs are wonderful, but to hold an object in your hand that has the power to bring back so many memories is a gift. We should accept those when they’re given.

I have several boxes full of items like the finial. Sometimes I go to the boxes just to have a finial moment with one object or another.

When I hold a tiny porcelain giraffe I think about Nannie in her chair by the window. She’s crocheting and smiling because someone’s walking up the path under the walnut tree coming for a visit. Her rolls are almost ready in the oven and my aunt Dessie will be over later to fix her hair for church tomorrow. Nannie had a hundred houseplants and for years the tiny porcelain giraffe stood in the dirt under her Christmas cactus. When she gave me the plant I got the giraffe. The Christmas cactus died long ago, but I kept the tiny giraffe and when I look at it I see the plant blooming on Nannie’s table.

Three little magnets I keep in the box remind me of Granddaddy. When I was a kid he used those magnets to show me “magic”. He’d put one magnet on the dining room table and ask it to spin, which it did wildly for him but not for me! I never thought to look for him holding the other two magnets in his hand under the table, close enough to make the third one react on the tabletop. He could make two magnets stick together or make them push apart, all at his command. It was magic to me. Even when I was old enough to know how he did it, I played along. The satisfied grin he gave after each performance was enough to keep me playing dumb forever. One day he called me over to the swing where he sat chewing tobacco. He “taught” me the trick, swore me to secrecy, and gave me the three little magnets.

The jagged little puppy tooth I keep makes me smile. The collie we had growing up was a good friend to us all and I still miss her, my first dog as a kid. We got Mitzi as a puppy and for thirteen years she watched me and my sisters grow up. She walked Mama and Daddy back and forth to the garden and she was gentle towards the many smaller animals that came and went through our house during her time. As a puppy, she lost that tooth in the kitchen one day and before Mama could sweep it up I took it to my room. I remember when we brought Mitzi home and I remember when we buried her. A thousand fun times are recalled when I look at the little tooth that once gnawed my hand while a tiny tail wagged.

My boxes are full of items that spark “finial moments” for me. The hinge from a gate by the barn, a feather from a quail I hatched in an incubator, a pocket knife, and a simple brown rock are just some of the items. All hold stories and images stronger for me than any photograph could trigger. I remembered these things as I talked in the antique store that day.

My friend listened to me go on as I stood there with the old Thanksgiving decoration in my hand. Several times his eyes glazed over, boredom I’d assumed, so I cut my story short. As it turned out he wasn’t bored, he was remembering…

I leaned over to put the broken turkey decoration back on the shelf as I wrapped up my story but before I could stick it back between the Mason jars and the wicker baskets my friend took it from my hand.

“You want that thing?” I asked

“Finial moment.” he said, and headed to the cashier.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Small Green Marble

A massive purse sat propped open in her lap as I approached. From the seat beside her she moved a small pack of tissues, two pens, and a broken pencil to make room for me. I took my seat and gasped as something jabbed me in the left buttock.

“I think you forgot this.” I said, handing her the bristled end of a broken hair brush.

“Sorry!” she shook her head apologetically. “I wanted to clean out this old purse on the ride to work and I have thrown things everywhere.”

The bus continued its route while she continued her cleaning. She shuffled through hand-written notes, balled up scraps of paper, and checked and rechecked zippered compartments in the giant purse.

“Well look at this.” she said as she held up a small green marble. “I found it in the yard one day when I left the house and forgot I’d put it in here. My son is grown but he had a set of green marbles he played with all the time. I’m sure it was one of his.”

“You should hold on to it then.” I said. She stared at the marble she held in the air.

“I’m too sentimental as it is.” she said and handed me the marble. “Here, if someone says you’ve lost your marbles, now you have proof you haven’t!” We both laughed and I took the small green marble she pressed into my hand.

“It’s crazy to hold on to it just because it reminds me that my son was a tiny boy.” she stared through the bus window.

“Not really.” I said. “I have boxes of things like that marble”.

She turned around and tossed the last few items back into her purse that had been scattered in her seat as we’d talked. She looked at me expecting, I assumed, to hear what I had in the boxes I’d mentioned.

“You wouldn’t keep something as silly as a marble, would you?” she asked.

“Ohhh yes.” I said as I thought of my sentimental trinkets. “From the time I was a kid I’ve kept a puppy tooth our collie lost, a feather from a quail I hatched in an incubator, and a heart-shaped rock I found in the pasture.”

“I just might keep those too.” she smiled out of courtesy.

On a roll, I continued. “I have the cracker tin my grandmother used in her kitchen, a tiny basket my son carved from a peach pit, and a pocket knife my uncle gave me for helping him one day.”

“I just might keep those too!” she smiled again and seemed to give thought to the relevance of everyday trinkets.

I told her more about various items I have in boxes and drawers, any one of which could look like meaningless trash to others. To me, each has a story.

Who could know the number of times my grandmother’s caring hands opened the cracker tin? The sharp little puppy tooth is a reminder of my collie’s first year as my best friend. The peach pit basket was carved by my son with the help of my father who passed away just over a year ago.

Every tiny silly trinket I keep is accompanied by a wonderful story. All I need to do is pick one up to go back in time for a minute or two. Good reminders of great times. At the mention of each of my keepsakes the woman beside me agreed she just might keep that one too.

I felt I’d bored her with too much nostalgia when I saw her turn away and stare straight ahead. She had a slight smile on her face, though, when she turned to me and pointed at my coat.

One step ahead of her, I had already reached for the small green marble in my pocket. I pressed it into her hand.

“I just might keep that.” she said.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Dumb Little Dish

That dumb little dish meant nothing to me, so I threw it in the trash.

With temperatures dropping, I took plants in from the porch. The dumb little dish covered in dirt and crusty old plant fertilizer had been under a Christmas cactus to catch water.

It was an ugly saucer actually. The last remaining piece of an ugly partial set of hand-me-down dishes given to me twelve years ago when I moved into a new place and had nothing for the kitchen. Each plate, saucer, and cup had a nonsense design of white geese, blue ribbons, and an occasional flower, or maybe the thing was a butterfly. It wasn’t good china…

Over the years, pieces broke and were thrown away. I began to use the last few saucers as trays under my paltry collection of houseplants. Time had whittled the set down to this one lone dish. With new plastic trays to catch water from the plants, the dumb little dish meant nothing to me, so I threw it in the trash.

It had two big chips in it anyway. One chip happened when my son Evan, only four at the time, turned it upside down to use as a ramp for his MatchBox cars. The second chip happened when Greer, only six then, decided it would make a nice boat for her Barbie. In a stormy capsizing incident, the boat was chipped. A few chips but so what, we still used the dishes. They were all I had at the time.

In the summer we’d sit on the screened porch and I’d cut slices of hot dog on those dishes for Evan. I’d watch his little tan hands pick up one piece at a time and smile as he popped each into his mouth. Greer would ask for two helpings of macaroni and cheese on those dishes and being the fickle little girl she was, decide she wanted none after all.

Evan continued to use a dish or two as car ramps, flying saucers, or to hold his crayons as he colored. Greer’s Barbie often used the dishes as wading pools, boats, or stages from which to sing to imaginary audiences. One Christmas Greer and Evan got watercolor paint sets from Santa Claus. Every remaining dish in the decrepit set was called on to be used for mixing paint. We had a grand time!

Those dishes held soups and sandwiches, marbles and doll shoes, eggs and bacon, army men and princess stickers. That ragged old set of dishes was there every evening at the dinner table, every lunch on the porch, and every time one of the kids needed a spaceship or a place to save rocks they’d found.

The dumb little dish that meant nothing and that I’d thrown in the trash was the last remaining piece from those days. It had somehow survived Matchbox cars, Barbies, watercolor paints, and a myriad of dinners and childhood activities. Twelve years, two chips, and a thousand memories later, it was still here.

That dumb little dish meant everything to me, so I took it out of the trash.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Kindred Connection

“I dread the holidays.” The woman seated beside me on the bus today said. She flipped through pages of a sales flyer that reminded her to buy early and save.

“The shopping?” I asked.

“No, the family!” she responded. “I’ll have to spend time around all of my father’s siblings and I’ve never felt connected to them. Did you spend much time around your aunts or uncles while growing up?”

“Oh yeah…”, I began as the memories started flowing.

She interrupted me. “His siblings lived nearby but didn’t interact with me very much. How about yours?”

“Oh yeah…” I said as I stared upwards about to relate a funny family story.

Again she cut me short. “I just didn’t enjoy being around them.” she added.

Instead of being cut off, I only nodded my head in understanding.

However, I didn’t really understand at all. I was lucky to come into this world literally surrounded by a large extended family. My father’s siblings were also my neighbors because my grandparents had a small farm and had given each of their five children an adjoining piece of property on which to build homes and raise families. Because they lived beside me, across the field, or just past the walnut tree, my aunts and uncles were as much a part of everyday life as my parents.

There are countless recollections I associate with my father’s sisters and brothers, but some specific memories come to mind whenever I think of each individual.

My aunt Noody encouraged me in whatever I had set my mind to. When I was a kid she spoke to me as though I were an adult and she made me feel relevant. We often took neighborhood walks together and talked about anything that crossed our minds. I trimmed her crepe myrtles and in return she made for me the best potato soup I ever had.  When our extended family gathered at the bay, Noody not only laughed at us kids playing in the water, she joined in. In swimming cap festooned with pink plastic flowers she patiently taught me to float on my back. She went roller skating with us kids too. One particular night I rested on the sidelines and she said “Don’t sit there like an old man. Come skate!”

My aunt Jenny once brushed a spider off of me once. When the giant hairy thing crawled up my pants leg she instantly brushed it away with her bare hand. She was my hero for doing that. Jenny laughed loudly and liked to hear others do the same. Once, while several of us kids were in a swimming pool, Jenny suddenly came down the sliding board wearing a huge floppy hat and holding an open umbrella above her head. She laughed as hard as we did when she plunged into the pool. Every Halloween for several years she drove my sister and me around town to visit people. Too old for trick-or-treating, we still dressed up as old women and no one laughed at us any harder than Jenny.

Interrupting my thoughts, the woman on the bus said, “And when I was a kid they never did anything fun with me. Did yours?”

“Oh yeah…” I began again, smiling at the funny anecdote I was about to tell.

She cut me off again. “My family is just not fun.” she said.

Assuming she was finished, I started thinking again.

My uncle Tuck, for decades now, has made sure that our extended family has been able to use the cottage on the bay. Tuck insists we use the cottage whenever we can and is kind enough to update us on where in the shed the fishing poles are located, not to forget to use the crab pots if we want, and to please try to go down more than we did last year. With each trip down he reminds us to help ourselves to anything we find in the refrigerator and to just have fun. There were also many times when Tuck’s calm and logical advice helped me figure out solutions to quite a few problems.

My uncle Jiggs was at our house on my first birthday. Mama said he came in, squatted down, and called me. The first steps I ever took were from Mama to Jiggs there in the kitchen. Jiggs lived across the field but also had a farm where I spent many summer weekends. When up against what to me were impossible mechanical issues with maybe a tractor or truck, Jiggs would  calmly suggest we just “think about this thing for a minute”. By the end of a cup of coffee Jiggs had thought it through and miraculously, to me anyway, solved the problem. During that process Jiggs never got upset. He would make a joke out of it, think about it, then fix it.

Fortunately, as a kid, I had an almost daily connection with my father’s siblings and their spouses who influenced me just as much. I can’t imagine growing up without their presence, guidance, and comedy! I was thinking about them all when the woman on the bus elbowed me to get my attention.

“And they’ll ask me questions over and over but when I begin to answer they’ll just cut me off. Ever known anyone like that? she asked.

“Oh yeah.” I said.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Scent of a Memory

When I finally moved away from my parents’ house I still lived only a few miles away. I moved occasionally over the years but never more than a twenty minute drive or so from their house and the place I grew up.  A couple of years ago when I decided to make a bigger move, Mama clutched her breast at the travesty of my moving so far away. “It’s only two hours from Richmond to D.C. It’s not a big deal”, I tried to console her. To her though, I may as well have been taking part in efforts to colonize the moon. She couldn’t hide her distress when she asked “But won’t you get homesick?” I had never lived far from home maybe, but I had traveled to other countries, for years I went on annual week-long beach trips with old friends, and I’d had countless weekends away over the years. Homesick? Silly Mama, that’s not something to worry about. I’d never felt that way in the past and couldn’t see why I ever would. I made the move and homesickness was never a thought.

Until I smelled a cantaloupe.

While growing up, summer days always saw a cantaloupe in Mama’s kitchen. A huge bowl in the refrigerator was always full of a recently sliced melon and another would be waiting in the wings. There could be one in the large kitchen windowsill, maybe one on the floor by the stove, and probably one on the counter sometimes cut in half just waiting for Mama to return to the task. The smell of cantaloupe was always in the kitchen. After hot days riding bikes with cousins or building forts down in the pasture I looked forward to that bowl of cold, sliced cantaloupe that I knew would be waiting.

I would simply walk into the kitchen and smell cantaloupe.

These days I ride a bus to work each morning. The only smells are those of exhaust from passing traffic and bus fumes from the 4A as it picks me up, takes me a few miles away, and drops me off at a Metro station where I catch an equally smelly shuttle to cross the Potomac into Georgetown. One morning as the shuttle neared the university and stopped at a light, the greasy smell of the vehicle combined with the odor from asphalt pavers working on a side street. It wasn’t the best way to start a morning. As we sat on the shuttle waiting for the light to change the woman next to me began to rifle through her tote bag. She momentarily opened a plastic container and the aroma hit me. She had cantaloupe.

I felt a strange feeling come over me and for a minute I closed my eyes, unsure whether it might be the acrid odors of exhaust and asphalt that were finally getting to me. No, that wasn’t it. I was homesick. The smell of the shuttle, exhaust, bus fumes and asphalt disappeared. Instead, the smell of those few small chunks of cantaloupe took me back to Mama’s kitchen, building forts in the pasture among the blackberry bushes, and lazy summer days riding bikes with my cousins.

I had smelled a cantaloupe.

Stuart M. Perkins

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