Ancestral Noise

Two days ago, the temperature where I live was 82 degrees F. or 27.8 C. for most of the world. Today it was 79 and now tonight, it’s 46. The wind is howling outside my bedroom window. When I went to call my dog inside from the yard, I saw one of my shepherd’s hooks lying on the ground, the hanging basket of purple calibrachoa which I’d hung yesterday having fallen, most fortunately, in an upright position next to it. In the morning light, I realized that the wind had more kick than I’d initially realized.

With the mostly mild but still fluctuating weather, I got excited about getting an early start on planting vegetables and annual flowers. I took advantage of curbside pickup from a local nursery and grabbed tomato plants along with peppers and some brilliantly hued blossoms. After planting a number of flowers in pots and hanging baskets, I rechecked the weather forecasts and realized that the cold wasn’t finished with this part of the world yet. Thankfully, I was restrained enough to keep my seeds in their packets, the vegetables in their containers and half the flowers out of their summer homes. Now I’ll be spending time trying to keep everyone from freezing to death until the weather is less wayward.

The unpredictable temperatures are in keeping with how everything feels these days. Despite our best attempts, we are frequently in control of nothing. Nature can assert itself any time, just like it dished out this novel virus that has turned global human life upside down and sideways. Watching the perhaps temporary environmental gains which are a byproduct of this pandemic, you have to marvel at the poetic justice of it all.

CNN – “Coronavirus shutdowns have unintended climate benefits: cleaner air, clearer water…”

For those of us who are trying to abide by the social distancing recommendations of health and government officials, the challenges of rapid adaptation to our new limitations can be overwhelming. Life’s daily structures have fallen away. Some people stay in pajamas all day and forget whether it’s Tuesday or Friday. Some are bored, some are antsy and others are depressed.

I’m trying to create structure for myself. Gardening is one of the ways I can have an element of normalcy in my life. It certainly beats sitting inside all day, doing deep dives into Instagram, reading the same news over and over again, not to mention avoiding the tantalizing pull of the refrigerator or kitchen cabinets. Without my regular swimming regimen, that is dangerous to my health. The other day I read an article about how people were stocking their homes with prepackaged and canned foods that were nostalgia-producing, reminding them of their childhoods. Then there are those folks who are immersed in baking frenzies, churning out breads and cookies to the point where the hunt for flour and yeast has caught up with the quest for toilet paper. I’ve done a bit of that, even taking photos of the comfort foods that remind me of life as a girl in my parents’ house. Not my usual photo subjects.

There is definitely good fortune in having a beautiful natural space just outside my door where I can work and enjoy the birds flying over my head or the animals skittering through the grass. I’m also glad I have the ability to get in my car and just drive around for a change of scenery. But along with appreciating and exploring the natural world, there is certainly plenty of time for interior delving. As our family saying goes, ” wherever you go, there you are.” My busy brain chugs along night and day. I find myself thinking that I don’t have time to think about all the things I’m thinking about – writing that makes me laugh but it’s true. I’ve had some remarkably vivid dreams during the past few weeks that have been interesting and action-packed enough to merit recording them in my journal in the mornings. Usually they’re a mixture of real life scenarios with some oddball twists. I’m always happy when Michael is present in them, but even though some part of me is directing those movies I have no idea about the “why” of their stories.

Even more interesting to me is this aural soundtrack that keeps injecting itself into my waking hours. While I’m outside trudging through my chores, there’s an undercurrent of commentary accompanying my activity. Many times what runs through my mind is evoked by what I’m doing at the moment. When I was stolidly walking through the yard with a two cubic foot bag of wood chips slung over my shoulder, I heard myself saying the lines I’ve repeated for so many years. “I am sturdy peasant stock. If I lived in another time, I would’ve been a peasant woman with a yoke across my shoulders, a water bucket on each end, marching 10 miles up and back to the river.” If you interviewed my family and friends, they’d corroborate that statement.

And then there are the voices of these three, my father, my mother and my maternal grandmother. It’s not like I’m thinking anything profound about any of them. Rather, I just hear them in my head saying random mundane things, comments that were the stuff of daily conversations throughout our lives. Many of them are simply inane. My dad, in particular, was an inveterate jokester, substituting silliness for more direct expressions of affection. Both my parents made grammatically incorrect statements, many of which I tried to point out for awhile and before eventually, just learning to let them go. My grandmother spoke pretty decent English but liberally sprinkled misnomers and Yiddish cursing into her speech. I can also hear the criticisms of my older sister and the wacky ideas of my brother. Why is this string of language rolling along inside my head?

The other day my son, who recently came home after a self-quarantine period in Chicago, looked at me and said he wanted to interview me to learn more about our family history. He’s aware that when I’m gone, I’ll take a lot of information with me. My siblings and I shared the common experience of our parents and grandparents. My brother is dead. My older sister and I have been estranged for 5 years, following the death of our mother. That leaves me and my younger sister in our part of the world as the repositories for all of our childhood memories. When we’re gone, they go with us unless we pass them on. I’m thinking that perhaps this interior soundtrack needs to be codified before it disappears. Maybe that’s why it keeps popping up in this unexpected period in time, when I have fewer external distractions. Ever since Michael died, my inveterate list-making habits of a lifetime, have expanded to include all kinds of things about him that I know better than anyone. Of course our kids and some close friends know some of these random facts, but certainly not as many as the ones stuffed in my brain. Even I, with my prodigious memory, have surely had many little gems get buried by time. These are some of my list categories. I keep them in my phone, adding items as they emerge for whatever odd reason.

I guess it’s the historian part of me that’s clamoring away inside. Being in the midst of an unusually powerful life-changing event with concurrent awareness of its magnitude is uncommon in most people’s lives. How many times have we all looked back to a moment, in retrospect understanding that it marked a turn in the road, unnoticed at the time? This moment is not like that. Everyone is aware of the unusual events. Maybe for me, that’s an explanation for why there’s all this aural traffic going on just below the surface of my consciousness, reminding me that these moments are fleeting, that there’s no time like the present to record memories for posterity. So I’m going to do it. Here are a few random and ridiculous examples of my family’s voices, which my children and theirs will know, long after I’m gone.

Dad to us kids, inquiring about our school day:

“Did you do your scientific studies? Did you marry your teacher today? What’s the matter with you – you got rocks in your head?” And then – “Why don’t you take a long walk off a short pier.” “Dry up.”

Mom – “If you swallow that gum, your insides will stick together.” “Why don’t you go wash around.” “That person is a timtom (stupid.)”

Mom and dad – “You wanna go to show? (a movie)”

My older sister – “Modulate your voice, Renee. You’re terribly loud.”

My brother – “Let’s have a practice birthday party.” “Let’d practice all our holidays.”

Grandma – “Gey avek.” (Go away) “Gey cocken offen yom.” (Go take a shit in the ocean.) “You’re a momzer.” (You’re a bastard.) “I need to get my description filled at the drugstore.”

And a bit of dialogue between Michael and me:

Renee: “Will you put the dog out?” Michael: “Why, is he on fire?”

There. Sometimes I’m thinking profound thoughts. And other times, I’m just chuckling my way through the resonance of ancestral noise. I’m relieved to write some of it down. From the family in my head.

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