Ode to the (Nondigital) Archive

I found myself in need of information this week that–gasp!–could not be found electronically or in a normal kind of library. I had to head over to the University Archive on our campus, housed in a place called Special Collections. (I capitalize those words to suggest the appropriate amount of awe I had for the place, having never been there.)

I was on the hunt for course catalogs, course descriptions, and (hopefully) old syllabi from the general education curriculum in the 1940s at the University of Kentucky, especially communications classes, and especially in reference to the Army Specialized Training Program. WHEW. Welcome to the life of a research assistant.

So I headed over to Special Collections. And once we figured out that the somewhat-hard-of-hearing, elderly man assisting me had misunderstood and thought the whole time I was talking to him that I was looking for horse catalogs, rather than course catalogs, it was a pretty simple process. As I was working, he also dug out some old departmental files for me to look through.

I claimed my space at a big wooden table bedecked with old-fashioned lamps and carved signs forbidding the use of “ink or ballpoint pens.” Then I buckled down.

There was something pretty darn awesome about just being in that place. Being there. Hunched over a book that hadn’t been opened in decades rather than hunched over my computer. I mean, really, if you’re going to get bad posture anyway, this is the way to do it. That is not to say that I don’t love digital archives, too. (In fact, I love to flip through the 1912 issue of Poetry magazine, found here. Technology is amazing, I can’t deny it.)

But there’s something about paging through mimeographed interdepartmental notes from the 1920s, or opening a 1930s program from a Shakespeare production, or reading news clippings about Robert Frost’s visit to campus. And there are random, amusing things, too. Someone had clipped a newspaper article with the title “Wife of Dean Beats Off Man with Umbrella.” That was certainly worth putting in an archive, wouldn’t you say?

One of the best items I found, though, was the 1951 inaugural issue of The Green Pen, a booklet put out by the student-run English Club of “the best freshmen writing” of the year.

Some of the writing could have been lifted out of things being written this year in freshmen comp. One essay began like this: “It is a sad but true fact that democracy is a decreasing reality in our American way of life.”

Yes, that was written in 1951.

Just like now, back then students were worried about both their local communities and the national conversations, they were worried about religion (or the lack thereof) among their generation, about whether the University should have an honor code, about American life, and about war (though, granted, in the 1950s some of the students writing about war had actually served in WWII).

But here’s why I loved being there, in that stuffy research room, reading through those files: it was a good reminder that we’re in the same place.

I see how this revelation could be discouraging to some folks, as in, are you kidding me? We haven’t made any progress in sixty years? They were writing about that back then? How depressing.

But as I read through these student essays, I found it encouraging. Encouraging. As in, the world is not falling apart.

It wasn’t then, and it isn’t now.

Even when it seems like it.

The Warmth of Community

A week or two ago, we were tricked into thinking that Autumn was on its way. The lows were dipping into the 50s, and we started to get chilly at night, sleeping with our windows open. We even broke out a quilt, still packed away from last winter. I know. We were fooled.

It’s now quite toasty again and last night, even with the fan, it never really cooled off upstairs. But the quilt is still on the bed, because we refuse to acknowledge that it’s late September and rather unpleasant outside.

Every morning, we pull up our covers (yes, Mom, we do), and we spend a few seconds musing about our quilt. Every evening, as we get ready for bed, we spend a few more seconds musing about it. When I happen to wander through the room at other moments during a given day, I muse.

What the heck could we be musing about?

I thought you’d never ask.

This quilt is an artifact of community. My students are writing about communities for their second papers, and they have to select an “artifact” of the community as a way of analyzing the community’s values, so I’ve been thinking in terms of artifacts a lot lately.

It’s the quilt my mom put together after our wedding. She cut out large 12×12 pieces of material before the wedding and then set up a table at the reception where guests could write us a message with fabric markers. Then she turned it into a quilt, a big one, big enough to cover our king-sized bed.

On the whole, it’s a fun idea, and we ended up with a diverse array of messages–congratulations, of course, and recollections of shared memories, Bible verses and prayers, beautiful calligraphy right next to chicken scratch and poor penmanship, and drawings of all sorts–including one of a dinosaur eating another dinosaur, complete with blood, thanks to a young cousin. It’s lovely and fun and we get a kick out of the oddness of our loved ones. (Yes, you.)

But it’s an interesting artifact for reasons other than the particular, often quirky messages we reread to each other each day. As the years go by, I imagine it will become even more dear. Already it is a witness to people who have passed out of our lives, especially family members who have gotten ill and died, but also friends we haven’t spoken to in years. With sadness, we look at it and mourn broken relationships, yet we also see it as an account of joy, a celebration of new births and recent marriages, as we notice who is missing from the quilt. It is an account of our history up until June 19, 2004, a smattering of different nicknames, different groups of friends, different churches, close family members, long-far-off family members I couldn’t pick out of a crowd.

Of particular significance is  the medium of the message, the more I think about it. These messages are on a quilt, which is not just an artifact, really. It’s a blanket, a comfort-er. It keeps us warm when we’re chilly.

So thanks, Momma.

And thanks to you, community, for the warmth you give us.

antique red stepstools & hand-me-down lawn tools

As I pried off the unflattering plate rail from the top of our kitchen cabinets this week (don’t worry, Dad, I got it all off without breaking it, and I saved it for you), I found myself standing on an old, rickety, red, wood-and-metal combo stepstool. It’s somewhat uneven, since it’s missing one of its plastic foot things, but it works okay on the linoleum. Apart from its rickety charm and the fact that it collapses nicely into a small awkward space beside the cabinets that’s good for little else, I like this stepstool because our neighbors in Texas gave it to us.

Among many things.

When we bought our house in Texas, we met our neighbors pretty quickly. The very next day, in fact, our neighbor Pat left her business card while we were at church, and when I called to thank her for stopping by, she brought us over half of a pie. (She also told me she was very pleased to hear that we had been at church.)

We soon met an elderly couple who lived on the other side of our house, Mr. and Mrs. Friar. We never did see their name written down, and J always spelled it “Fryer” and I always spelled it “Friar,” so who knows. I’m using their real names because it adds charm to the story and you could never track them down even if you tried.

Mr. and Mrs. Friar were sweet neighbors seriously in need of someone to talk to. I will confess that there were times, in fact, that we drove around the block instead of pulling in our driveway if we saw Mr. Friar out pulling in his garbage can because we knew we didn’t have time for an hour repast of meandering conversation. (I said it was a confession: don’t judge.)

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Dinner Tables: Food and Community, part 3

For pretty much as long as I remember, the dinner table in my house growing up was always a place of conversation. Long after the plates were cleared, the leftovers were dished out into individual portions, the pantry was raided for some kind of dessert, even if it ended up being a Little Debbie Oatmeal Creme Pie, we’d sit and talk and talk and sit.

Then I went away to college.

On breaks, when we’d sit down for a meal together, the sitting and the talking got even more involved. Of course I had to find out what was going on in every branch of the family, every long-lost friend’s life; I had to hear every “you’ll never believe when I tell you this” incident.

Now, in my grown-up life, I still like to sit and talk after meals. J likes to get the dishes done. This used to be a point of contention between the two of us until we worked out a compromise: I sit and talk; he clears the table and does the dishes. It might sound like he gets the rough end of the bargain, but the truth is, (a) it makes him happy to have the dishes done and (b) it makes me happy not to have to move after I’ve eaten (and (c) I do get up and help after awhile–goodness gracious). It’s not just about sitting after I’ve eaten, though I suppose there’s something about good digestion in there, too, but the real “work” of the sitting is the conversation. So for us the conversation continues as he stands at the sink in his food-and-dish-soap-splashed apron. (This has gotten slightly more difficult in the new house, since the kitchen and the dining room are separate, but we’re managing.)

And I really like this time we have together, talking and sitting, doing dishes and talking.

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“Putting Up”: Food and Community, part 2

I’m still thrilled about beginning our tomato sauce canning campaign for the year last weekend. I think the appropriate words to use are “put up” when talking about preserving (as in, “we put up 17 pints of sauce”). I didn’t grow up saying that, but I kind of like it. In this particular part of the country, they use “put up” to mean “put away” for just about everything (as in “put up the laundry” or “put up that choir music until next week”). Maybe I’ll start saying it. We’ll see.

“Putting up” food is a lost art, though it is gradually gaining popularity again. I’m happy with this trend. I remember my mom’s freezer full of homemade applesauce, strawberry jam, and bag upon bag of frozen cooked corn.

These are all hot, messy pursuits, but in the middle of winter you tend to forget all of that.

Still, when you’re right in the midst of it with sweat trickling down your back (and front), and you’re trying to wipe your brow with your forearm to avoid getting tomato goop on your face, well, sometimes it’s hard to appreciate the task at hand. While blanching and peeling the tomatoes on Saturday, I was trying to think of the ways I could write a poem about the event (and trust me, I will). Two things came to mind: open heart surgery and the Eucharist. I’m pretty sure I can work with both of these ideas.*

See, back when I was in elementary school, I went to work with my mom for “take your child to work day.” My mom happened to be a nurse in the heart room at the local hospital–that means she worked in the very room where open heart surgery was taking place. Do you believe they let us eleven-, twelve-, thirteen-year-olds put on scrubs and masks and hair nets and stand beside the table while some poor soul was anesthetized, lying on the table, sternum cranked open? Well, they did. And I remember it as if it were yesterday.

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Cow Bell Alleluias & What We Do on Easter

Our opening song at church this morning was “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today,” which won’t surprise any of you raised in low church traditions like mine, considering it was, ahem, Easter.

But about halfway through the first verse, I found myself unable to sing. This is something that rarely happens to me.

In fact, I’d already paraded around the house singing it a dozen time at that point, and even called my parents bright and early to sing it as an Easter greeting to them, waiting for the sung “Ah-a-a-a-leh-eh-luu-yah” response I knew I’d receive. (I get it honestly, what can I say?)

So it’s not like I’m not familiar with the song.

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On Renovating Bathrooms & Sleeping in the Basement

Since last week’s post was a throwback to early house renovations, and because, coincidentally, this week my dad is in town once again to help work on our house, I thought I’d offer a shout-out and a post from 2010. Thanks, Dad. (And let’s not tell anyone you’re sleeping in the basement again this time, okay?)


When we bought our house (and up until three days ago, actually) the upstairs bathroom looked like this:

In case you can’t tell, the most notable feature of this bathroom is the slim four or five inches between the toilet and the tub. As has been noted previously, the hubster and I are both extraordinarily tall. This posed a problem.

As in, sitting on the toilet required your feet to be in the bathtub. Ahem.

So J devised a plan to move a wall a few feet in one direction, pull out the toilet, swing the tub around, replumb all of the old cast-iron piping, and, well, a partridge in a pear tree. J is very handy, and I’m patient, so we dove on in. This weekend, our first dad came to visit to help with the demo work and reframing in the new wall.

I suppose that driving almost ten hours in a car in order to do some back-breaking labor (I’d say ‘literally’ but you wouldn’t believe me, though I saw how it took three of them to carry the plumbing down the steps) is a commitment to community of sorts, or you could say it’s just being a good dad. Either way, it’s admirable.

But there’s more.

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What we really should do…

When we first moved into our home about eight years ago, there was a very petite, very elderly-looking woman who walked up and down the street every morning. She looked so strong and hardy for her obvious advanced age. I wanted to take my kids, ooch over, and flag her down to chat, but always just waved shyly and said “good morning.” The reason I was so hesitant? Plain and simple: I had no idea what to say to her.

Things that were readily apparent…..she lived alone, she had lived a long, long life, she seemed friendly enough, should have made it easy to strike up a conversation. Were you married once? Has your husband passed away? How long have you lived here? But where to start? What to say? What if I offended her? What if she couldn’t understand me well and it was painfully awkward.

Well one day, I did it.

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Corn Cakes & Memory Food

My mom sent me an e-mail this week with some news:

I had my first corn cakes this morning!!!!

She was pretty excited, as you can tell from the exclamation points, and I was, too. Though we live in different states, only a few days earlier I’d meant to call her with the same news. For real.

corn cakes

I, too, had made corn cakes for breakfast.

Maybe you’re thinking, “What the heck are corn cakes?

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Pappy Sands, the Stories We Tell, & Remembering the Good

Pap2My Pappy Sands passed away on Sunday night, January 27th.

Alzheimers had slowly been stealing him from us for more than a year, but his sudden, rapid decline in recent days caught us by surprise. At Christmas, his family had gathered around him to sing carols together–and he sang along, knowing the words. In fact, when I greeted him in December, he kidded with me about wanting to call me Betty. Maybe it was confusion. Or maybe he was cracking jokes. Either way, he was in good spirits.

Pappy Sands and Grandma Bev, his wife, owned a campground in New Hampshire. Throughout my childhood, we often drove the nine-hour trip north through the night to visit in the summer, especially over my birthday, the day before Independence Day. Flipping through his old photo albums, there were an inordinate number of me opening birthday presents year after year after year.

Pappy and Grandma were snowbirds in the winter, and eventually retired to Florida. We frequently drove south to Florida–again through the night–to celebrate the Christmas holiday in the warmer weather.

So yes, lots of pictures of those Christmases, too. One year, for some unknown reason, I had a Christmas sticker on my forehead in every single photo. Why I put it there in the first place, I don’t know. Why nobody insisted I remove it after the first few photos, I really don’t know.

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