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Thanks for the Memories

January 30, 2019

Pay attention. Pay Attention! PAY ATTENTION!!!

The words hammer in my head like the woodpecker furiously drilling holes in the lifeless poplar tree at the edge of the forest: pay attention!

Phases of my life

The many phases of my life.

The majority of my life seems to have rushed past without allowing me the time to properly record and catalogue it. Minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years have disappeared with barely a trace memory of where I was, who I was with, what I was doing at any given moment. When I try to put it all into some sort of perspective, there are far too many holes – too many “blank spaces” – in my memory bank to formulate a full picture. Where did the time go? How did I get here (I turned 65 in November)? Why can’t I remember so much of the past? What have I missed? And is it possible to get any of it back? (And, yes, I know aging has a lot to do with “memory loss”, but I’ve been pondering this question for many, many years!)

According to Catharine Young in the short TED Ed video, “How memories form and how we lose them” (http://youtube.com/watch?v=yOgAbKJGrTA), strong memories are formed when we are paying attention and deeply engaged, and the information is meaningful.

Family Vacation (1991)

One of many annual family vacations (1991)

From that perspective, I can understand why some aspects of my life are completely missing from my memory banks. Years of marriage and motherhood (laundry, cooking, cleaning, shopping, banking, child rearing, arranging family vacations, volunteering at pre-school and primary schools, driving here-there-and-everywhere, keeping everyone organized and on track), combined with part-time and then full-time work (teaching and corporate training for three different educational institutions – mostly evenings and weekends at first, then part-time and finally full day during the day as the boys got older) made it nearly impossible for me to fully pay attention to any one activity, never mind be “deeply engaged” for more than a few minutes (or hours, when teaching) at a time. And while I like to think everything I did during those forty-odd years was meaningful, it was so intertwined (home and work and family obligations) that, in hindsight, I have no idea how I managed it all and maintained my sanity, never mind my memory of what took place when.

CollaborationClearly there was little time for any of those myriad events to coalesce in my short term memory space before being passed along to long term storage (or tossed aside to make way for the next bit of information being taken in). Truth be told, considering my 24/7/365 schedule back then, it’s a wonder any of it made its way into the old storage banks at all.

Now that I’m retired, I have lot of time sit back and “remember and reminisce” about “the good old days”. That’s when I usually sit down with one of my many photo albums (and thank goodness for them, and the fact that I took lots of pictures and kept them organized [at least by date] so I can flip through the pages and study them in detail). Most of the time, I have at least some recall of the people, places or events pictured; however, more times than I care to admit, the details are vague or – even more distressing – I find myself drawing a complete blank.

Me in my Little Black Dress, 1965

Me in my little black dress

Occasionally, I force myself to sit quietly and nudge my aging brain to focus on a specific time in my life or past event. It takes some doing, but I have been able to extract dusty memories from the deepest recesses of my mind and record them for posterity (see: “I Remember” in 4 parts; “The Little Black Dress”). And while the “big picture events” of the last twenty or so years are pretty clear, it’s getting harder and harder to see the details of the more distant past clearly; they’re just slightly out of focus. I sometimes wonder if I’m running out of storage space.

According to a Q & A on Scientific American , “The brain’s exact storage capacity for memories is difficult to calculate. First, we do not know how to measure the size of a memory. Second, certain memories involve more details and thus take up more space; other memories are forgotten and thus free up space. Additionally, some information is just not worth remembering in the first place.”

Who decides what’s worth remembering, what should be forgotten, and how long memories should be kept? Surely it wasn’t me – because there are things I would dearly love to remember, but simple can’t recall at all. Here’s just one example:

Not long before my mother died, she gave me a large brown envelope filled with Mother’s Day cards, birthday wishes, and thank you notes my boys had sent her over the years, together with postcards from business trips I’d almost forgotten I’d taken and family vacations to the Caribbean, Florida, and California. There was also a newspaper article from 1984 about a “mom-to-mom” program at the local YMCA. A program I, apparently, had organized and run. While it certainly seemed like something I would have done, I had (and still have) absolutely no recollection of it whatsoever. I read the article several times, noted the photo of me in my living room that accompanied it (which means the journalist must have visited my house), and drew a blank every time. Not a twinge. Not a glimmer. Nothing. Had I not been paying attention? Not been deeply engaged? Wasn’t it meaningful enough for me to have remembered twenty-five years later? I have no idea.

In any event, in my frustration over not being able to remember it, I destroyed the article. I wish now I’d kept it, as it is one of many “missing” pieces in what is clearly the many faceted and complex jigsaw puzzle of my life.

New Grandmother (Feb 2015)

We live our lives as if it’s a race – rushing through events and activities, days and weeks, actions and interactions as if there’s some fabulous prize waiting for us at the finish line. And in our hurry to get there, we too often neglect to pay attention to the many special moments that would become memories – memories that will sustain and entertain us when we reach … the other side of 55.

 

 

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Can’t Get Enough …

July 15, 2018
1960sSugarCrispBox

1960s-era cereal box

Every summer I buy myself a box of Post “Sugar Crisp”. It’s one of those cereals with absolutely no nutritional value. The ingredients list reads: “SUGAR, WHEAT, GLUCOSE SYRUP, SALT, HONEY, CANOLA OIL, COLOUR”; a ¾ cup serving has 120 calories and 17 grams of sugar (63% of the recommended daily allowance for an adult). It’s so sweet it makes your teeth ache. It’s clearly not a healthy breakfast choice. So why do I buy it, year after year? Because – together with Ontario strawberries, freshly shelled green peas, corn on the cob, and banana, grape and cream soda flavoured popsicles – Sugar Crisp is, for me, the quintessential taste of summers at the cottage (1959 through 1963).

My family, 1960

The family (except eldest brother) in 1960

For the first ten years of my life (1953 – 1963) our family lived in a house in downtown Oakville, Ontario (Canada) that my father had converted into a triplex. My parents, two brothers, two sisters and I lived on the ground floor, my grandmothers lived in two apartments on the upper levels, and my father ran his own business from a converted single car garage out back. It was a very busy, crowded household to say the least. As the summer of 1959 approached, my mother told my father she needed a break from the demands of looking after two teenagers (17 and 15), two school-aged girls (8 and 5½ ), and a baby (not yet 1), as well as two grandmothers who could pop downstairs (and did), unannounced, at any moment during the day (generally in response to the sound of a crying baby or bickering children). She knew of a cottage for rent on the lakefront (near friends) a mere 5.5K (3.5 miles) away. Dad rented it for the summer (and for four more afterwards).

Considering the cottage was barely outside of town and only steps from fully serviced homes, it was rather primitive. The main room was divided (roughly) into a kitchen with antiquated appliances, an eating area (an old table set below a “flip up” panel that allowed a view, through the screened-in porch, of the lake), and a living space with a musty trundle bed and a worn carpet (we added a fold down couch, a table and a TV to make it more “homey”). The two bedrooms were separated from the living space by six foot partitions (vs. true “walls”); they were “furnished” with double-sized metal bed frames with sagging mattresses on them. The screened in porch ran across the back on the lake side with doors on each end and two single metal bar/spring bed frames against the inner and outer walls (this is where my sister and I slept most nights, in sleeping bags). There was no running water, so we had an outhouse for “doing our business” in; my sister and I regularly collected water for cooking and cleaning in 3 gallon milk jugs filled from spigots in nearby Coronation Park. The yard was large, with lots of trees and space for hammocks and a trapeze; there was a wooded area at the back where I would take my suitcase full of Barbies and their clothes and play happily for hours on end.

Cottage1959

My sister and I in the lake by the cottage, 1959

 

Cottage1960

Playing in the yard at the cottage, 1960

Cottage1961

Plenty of room for hammocks and playing dress-up (1961)

Cottage1962

The only actual photograph I have of the cottage (from the rear); that’s my father sitting on the beach

We were hardly isolated. There was a cottage just beyond the woods on the east side (and houses beyond that) and our friends’ house was right next door (to the west) with several cottages just beyond it. A boat launching ramp sat adjacent to the (Coronation) park, and Hollydean Market was right next to the park. Across Highway 2 (a two-lane road that ran in front of the cottage) was a large wooded area that was surrounded on the other three sides by homes and a school. Still, when we were at the cottage, it was like being in a completely different world – one filled with the freedom to wear our bathing suits all day long, explore the beachfront and paddle in the lake, feed the ducks, or walk to Hollydean for groceries and popsicles (the popsicles being our reward for picking up whatever Mom had asked my sister and I to buy for her).

The teenagers chose to say “in town” (they had part time jobs in the summers) and Dad generally only came out on weekends. The grandmothers visited once or twice but never slept over.  Mom didn’t drive, so she and my sister, brother and I (along with the dog, cat, rabbit – and a chicken one year that my father “rescued” from a trucking accident and brought out thinking my mother would cook it – HA!) were pretty much on our own. Some of our friends had cottages “up north” in Muskoka or other areas of “cottage country” and they laughed at the fact our cottage was only fifteen minutes from our house. I didn’t care. Those were the best five summers of my young life!

Cottage1963

Our last summer at the cottage, 1963

In 1963, the owner of the cottage offered to sell it to my father; unfortunately (for me!), a house my mother had coveted for several years came on the market around the same time and my parents couldn’t afford to buy both properties. The house, naturally, won out. 1963 was our last summer in the cottage; we moved into our new house (four blocks up from the house we’d previously lived in) that fall. Summers were never quite the same after that and I have only the vaguest of memories of how I spent them. The summers at the cottage, however, are still sharp in my mind. (The cottage was sold and the building torn down a few years later; a large, lovely house now sits in its place. Hollydean Market has also disappeared and the property where it was located is now a cul-de-sac of ugly McMansions on tiny lots. The park remains, but has been modernized to include a splash pad, an open air theatre, and other amenities we never could have imagined back in the 1960s.)

And so, every summer I relive a few of those summer-time memories by indulging in a bowl or two of Sugar Crisp (the rest ends up in the garbage!), shelling peas on the deck, and wandering about in the woods (sans Barbies!) It’s just one way I’m holding on to the more precious aspects of my childhood as I rack up the years here on … the other side of 55.

Worth Waiting For

March 18, 2018

The snow curls up its toes and retreats,

inch by inch, from the decks and gardens and driveway.

Buds push their way out of reluctant branches,

rebelling against the frigid night-time temperatures.

Turkey vultures soar overhead on invisible thermals –

one, then two, now four, no – six.

Warblers and wrens and a wood thrush

serenade the forest with their lilting song

while the squirrels – black and grey and red –

scurry to and fro, searching for food

and building nests from last autumn’s leftover leaves.

The cottontail rabbits and the fox,

the white tailed deer and the contemptible mole

leave tracks and trails in the melting snow,

and through the mud of my burgeoning garden.

A sky bluer than I’ve ever seen –

with nary a wisp of cloud visible in its broad expanse –

wraps itself around the forest, the fields, the countryside,

its brilliance a testament to Nature’s glory

and the promise of what’s to come.

My patience has finally paid off –

spring is just around the corner.

March17_SpringCometh

The Daily Prompt for today (March 18) was patience; poem ©by Margo Karolyi … The Other Side of 55

Mr. Inscrutable

January 27, 2018

SherlockHolmesYears ago, someone described my husband as ‘inscrutable’. I laughed – not only because I’d heard him called a lot worse, but because I could read him like a book (a Sherlock Holmes sort of book, mind you – the kind with lots of clues that you may not recognize as clues at first because they’re buried beneath a layer of mystery and misdirection, and you need to apply a significant amount of deductive reasoning and take more than a few leaps of faith to get to the bottom of things.)

A good deal of his inscrutableness comes, no doubt, from his Hungarian heritage (he is distantly and directly related to the last King of Hungary, who was also a Karolyi; he immigrated to Canada with his parents and sister in 1966, at the age of 10). Others’ inability to read him or his expressions may also come from the generous amount of facial hair he sports. His beard is as much a part of him as his six foot six inch height. (I mentioned to my granddaughter once [I don’t remember how the subject came up] that I had never seen his chin except in a photo of him at age 8 or 9; that he’d sported a beard for as long as I’d known him [and for twenty-plus years before that]. When she was here at Christmas, I noticed her casting surreptitious glances at him [he also noticed; it definitely made him uneasy – he’s not quite sure what to say or do around a clever and inquisitive three year old who thinks he’s a bit odd because he doesn’t engage with her like everyone else does]; later she came over and whispered in my ear, “I can see his little chin peeking through his beard.” I suspect I’ll never clearly see what lies beneath!)

WeddingPhotoWe met in 1998, shortly after he’d been hired to coordinate a prestigious post-graduate program at the College where I worked. He heard ‘through the grapevine’ that I was the departmental web design ‘guru’; he needed someone to run a weekend workshop in web technologies (and, ultimately, to teach web-based courses in the full time Program). To say our first telephone conversation immediately endeared me to him would be a lie; I thought he was brusque and demanding (I later learned he’d been hired only the day before the school term began and had been ‘thrown into the deep end’ without any time to plan or prepare [the previous coordinator had left rather spontaneously and the program was in disarray]; this was his first foray into teaching on a full time basis). Once I’d proven myself an able, experienced, and popular instructor – and one with the same kind of passion and approach to the teaching/learning process as him – things smoothed out and we learned to get along. Over the next five years we worked side by side, reinventing the Program (enhancing the course mix, improving delivery methodologies, reinforcing outcomes and expectations; as a result, enrollment doubled and employers competed with one another to hire our graduates). During that time our collegial relationship gradually grew into a genuine friendship, and then – after years of working together – something more. We were married in 2003 (the second marriage for both of us). And despite the fact that many people thought it would never last, we’re still living ‘happily ever after’ fifteen years later!

I admit that it took me years to figure out how he operates at times. That ‘inscrutableness’ of his often takes the form of annoyance over small things I’d just shrug off, delight over technical breakthroughs I simply don’t understand, and a clear preference for his own company (apart from me and one or two close friends, he really doesn’t like people all that much and is uncomfortable when forced into social situations with anyone other than immediate family). CoinsHe has an attention to detail and a need to figure things out that I admire; an ability to adapt and overcome any obstacle that I envy; a tenacity (obstinacy?) that occasionally drives me crazy. In many ways, we’re complete opposites (as with our teaching specialties, I’m ‘form’, he’s ‘function’); in other ways we’re far too much alike (we both like to be ‘in control’, which is fine so long as we’re each doing our own thing in separate areas of the house / property, but not so great when we need to make a decision about something we both have strong opinions about). Probably the best way to describe us as a couple is as two sides of the same coin (I’m Queen Elizabeth on the front; he’s the hard working beaver on the back of a nickel – or maybe the highly adaptable and always-on-the-move caribou on the back of a quarter).

During the early years of our relationship, I admit I tried to get him to change – to be less enigmatic and more easy-going (it didn’t work – any more than his attempts to instill an interest in complex scientific principles changed me into a geek freak!) He’s still unreadable at times, likes to ‘keeps himself to himself’ (my granddaughter calls our house ‘Grammy’s house’ and the garage/shop ‘Grampa’s house’), and is unwilling to accept anything less than the very best from himself, no matter the task (from making me tea in the morning to washing the dishes at night; from shoveling snow and chopping wood outside to rebuilding a car engine from the ground up in his shop).

Ultimately, I’ve come to accept him the way he is – to read his moods and expressions (or lack thereof) and allow him the space he needs to be quiet and think, or provide an ear when he wants a sounding board. And he’s adapted to me and my habits as well (e.g., he’s learned to stay out of my way when I do housework, and to not interrupt me when I’m typing madly at my computer). We share a number of hobbies, interests, and activities (even more since retiring to the country), but still enjoy ‘doing our own thing’ as well. It’s a good fit.

And while he’s probably still unfathomable to some, he’s mine, now until the end of time here on … the other side of 55.

The Squirrel in the Attic

January 21, 2018

Not long ago, someone asked me about my writing strategy. Where did I get my ideas from, and how did I turn them into a story? At the time, I muttered something along the lines of, “Well, stuff just sort of comes to me and I get it down as best I can, and then I rework it until it forms a story.” Not the most profound exposition on how to write a coherent tale, but the question had honestly caught me by surprise.

I was thinking today about how ideas actually do come to me (because, let’s face it, thinking is easier than actually doing something productive on a dull, dreary Sunday afternoon) and I recalled an excerpt from Anne Lamott’s book (on writing and life), Bird by Bird, that dealt with that very subject. She put forward the idea that our unconscious (which is where a writer’s most insightful ideas form) is sort of like a child (or, in her case, “a long-necked, good-natured Dr. Seuss character”) who lives in the cellar, spending his or her days creating characters (as if playing with paper dolls) and handing them up through the cellar door for us to use in our story-telling. She encourages writers to come up with their own image or metaphor for this “collaborator” who resides in the non-rational, unconscious mind.

ScaredySquirrelI immediately pictured a squirrel in the attic.

Not a real squirrel, of course, but one that looks like Scaredy Squirrel from Mélanie Watt’s storybooks – a little wide-eyed and eager to please. I envision him running around in the narrow space above my writing room, gathering and hoarding not nuts and nesting materials, but random people, situations, settings, and snippets of conversation he’s found who-knows-where. Things I never could have come up with on my own, even if I’d sat in front of my computer for a hundred hours.

I picture him dropping them through a teeny, tiny hole in the ceiling, right next to the cedar beam that runs across the centre of the room, where they land on my head, seep into my brain, and rush through my nervous system. They emerge through my fingers, which hammer rapidly on the keyboard, forming words which get strung together, as if by magic, into sentences and paragraphs and pages. Then, ever-so-gradually (but not effortlessly), these disparate pages weave themselves together and form a story. With luck (and some perseverance), the end result is a tale about flesh and blood people living complex but authentic lives in places we can see and hear and smell. They’ll have convincing conversations about real problems, and overcome any number of obstacles to reach their goals. Ultimately, they will survive and thrive, while growing and changing dramatically before they reach “The End”.

Clearly none of this could happen without the assistance of my collaborator – the squirrel in the attic. I suppose I should take the time to thank him (I think I’ll call him Musey, because I see him as part muse, part research assistant, part general dogs-body) for his contributions and his participation in my creative endeavours.

ScaredySquirel_PeekI suspect, though, he’d just stare back at me with his beady little eyes, through the hole in the ceiling, twitch his fluffy tail a time or two, and get on with the business of gathering more nuggets of brilliance to pass along.

Because that’s what he does!

~~~

And now you know how I write what I write here on … the other side of 55!

 

Perhaps It’s in the Fine Print

January 16, 2018

Is there some loophole

in the contract of a family

that allows one or more members

to cast out,

disown

and disenfranchise

another

without qualms

or guilt

or even so much

as a backwards glance?

 

You are born into a family,

you don’t get to choose

your parents

or siblings.

You are taught

to honour

and obey,

to respect

and fit in.

But what if you are

the black sheep,

the outlier,

the one who just

doesn’t belong?

 

Does that give others

the right

to judge you

and criticize your decisions,

engage in treachery

and deceit,

be disloyal

and two-faced,

to celebrate your failures

and disparage your successes

as if you didn’t deserve them,

and turn envy into hatred

and resentment into lies

repeated so often

they become their truth

and their insidious licence

to destroy relationships

built on a lifetime of

love and trust and blood?

 

Hollywood makes movies

and TV shows about

dysfunctional families

who are more authentic

than most would admit.

Someone once said

“family is made up of people

you wouldn’t associate with

if you weren’t related to them”.

Surely that doesn’t give them

the right to

rebuke you for

not sharing your personal pain

or not asking for their approval,

their sanctification

for decisions made,

roads taken

that were none of their business

in the first place.

Or to censure you

for supporting and caring

for another

with total unselfish devotion

when they wouldn’t

or couldn’t

do the same.

 

Where is the loophole

in the contract of a family

that allows

jealousy

and envy,

suspicion

and distrust

to eek past

loyalty

and faithfulness,

familiarity

and affection

to so thoroughly

and contemptibly

taint the principle

of “true brotherly love”?

 

Perhaps it’s in the fine print.

FamilyOutlier

 

NOTE: I’d like to give a shout out to KJ Eastwick (“Stories from an Eclectic Mind”) , whose Daily Prompt-inspired poems have motivated me to rekindle my own interest in writing poetry, something I hope to continue exploring here on … the other side of 55.

Speaking to the Void

January 1, 2018

How do you

start a conversation

that no one wants to have

about truth

and loyalty

and trust

about respect

appreciation

and gratitude

How do you

start a conversation

when no one is willing to listen

to the words

the thoughts

and feelings expressed

about wrongs

that need righting

lies that need exposing

How do you

start a conversation

that frightens people

so badly that

they cover their ears

and close their eyes

shutting their minds

to anything

and everything you have to say

How do you

start a conversation

with people who simply aren’t there

NotThere

This poem was inspired by today’s Daily Prompt (conversation); © Margo Karolyi, 2018; The Other Side of 55