Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Unfinished Box

From my mother I inherited a restless curiosity. That's meant a jumble of different interests and hobbies, none of which I pursue casually: prose writing, photography, poetry, fossil collecting, fly fishing, fly tying, gardening, cooking. Tomorrow, maybe something new ...

Nature or nurture, I'm not sure which or in what measure, but I got that curiosity from my mother. Somehow, despite raising eight children, teaching piano, and carrying a constant load of heavy church responsibilities, she found time to pursue a wide range of hobbies, and to share them with my long-suffering father and with us, her kids.

As children, we sold "Current Cards & Stationery" to raise money to buy milk goats and, later, show goats, which we took to many a county fair; she dragged the family on rock hounding trips across the deserts of Utah; I went with her to Spanish classes at the University when I was 7 or 8, and pored over old microfiche slides in German at the family history library. We were always going new places and learning about new things. I also remember her buying me a little apple shaped piece of wood so I could practice tole painting, just like she did.

Mom grew interested in tole painting after a visit to Pennsylvania Dutch country. At the time, we lived on the outskirts of Philadelphia, and I think tole painting appealed to her both as a simple, rustic art form--something she felt she could manage--and for its tie-in with her Dutch heritage. Over the years, her skills grew, and, to this day, we have a number of beautifully painted objects: a small rocking horse, a chair, a clock, a doll's crib, and an unfinished box (a small hope chest), which I love precisely because it's unfinished.

My mother painted the box a deep green, the trim in a lighter hue, and then, on the top, one side, and one end, lovely patterns of flowers and other forms. But she didn't finish one end and one side, and there, only faint chalk lines are visible: patterns she sketched but never painted.

I often wonder what other patterns my mother would have painted had she lived past 59, and I don't mean just tole painting, but all the other things that would have peaked her curiosity or tickled her fancy. Mom was the type who would have taken up the banjo at 80. Really. She was never, ever bored, and I will always be grateful for that incredible enthusiasm for life.

I am also grateful that she shared that enthusiasm with us. When my son Jordan was just two she bought a tiny wheel barrow at a garage sale so that, when he visited, he would have his own little wheel barrow to push round the yard and help with the gardening.

In sharing herself and her interests in that way, she left it to us to paint some of the outlines she sketched, and encouraged us, in our own turn, to leave a box of one sort or another for our children and grandchildren: beautiful, we hope, and graceful, but never finished.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

High School Reunions

My mother used to say that high school reunions weren't worth attending until the 20 year reunion. "By then," she said, "all we could do was sit around and laugh at ourselves."

So, I just attended part of my 20 year reunion, and, as usual, Mom was right. It's not that the pretense has altogether vanished 20 years out, and everyone (myself included) seemed anxious to prove that we'd become something, but my classmates and I, as Mom predicted, had all reached the point where we couldn't hide 20 years of wear and tear.

We age slowly, day by day, and that change is almost imperceptible. At the reunion, however, it was like one snapshot (the way I remembered these folks from their yearbook photos) and then a second snapshot taken 20 years later (the way they look now). That change is dramatic and surprising--there's nothing subtle or gradual about it--and that leaves little room for pretense or smug satisfaction. (Okay, so I did take some smug satisfaction in a popular kid or two who hadn't aged particularly well ... )

Even so, it was mostly fun, because we're all aging and experiencing life at roughly the same rate, and I really enjoyed catching up with a lot of old friends and remembering time spent together when we were footloose and fancy free.