Avon Calling

(Part of my Blowing on Embers series)

Smell: the sense that triggers our strongest childhood memories.

While it’s the aroma of sauteed onions or fried chicken or vanilla and cinnamon wafting from the kitchen that conjures up distant memories for most people, my strongest scent memory comes from an altogether different place.

For as long as I can remember, my mother has used Avon’s moisturizing cream on her face. Today’s “new and improved” product no longer comes in that familiar green jar, and these days the contents don’t have much of a scent at all, but back in the old days the aroma was distinctive.

avon jar

As a girl, I often found myself slipping into my parents’ bedroom on the sly and heading straight towards Mother’s dresser. I could count on finding the ubiquitous green jar in one of two places—either in the top middle drawer or, more often, front and center on the dresser top. I stood there, furtively unscrewing the lid to take in a deep whiff. The scent brought me comfort and a profound sense of closeness to my mom—even though she was only two or three rooms away.

As far as I know, no one in our family ever knew about my fixation, and to this day, I can’t for the life of me explain why I didn’t just walk down the hall to wherever Mother happened to be and give her a hug. She was certainly huggable—and she was always there. But for some reason I found something alluring about surreptitiously getting my “Mom fix” from that little green jar. Maybe it was the concentration of the fragrance, somehow making my sense of Mother an even stronger presence than the real thing.

But what made this secret habit so funny, so bizarre, is this: I never liked how that cream smelled!

These days I keep an old empty Avon jar in my own dresser, just for the memories. I call it “Mom, Distilled.” I do miss that old scent, though.

Blowing on Embers

Blowing on Embers

Blowing on Embers: I came across this lovely phrase the other day.

Have you ever sat around an evening campfire? Remember how when it started to die out and you weren’t quite ready to call it a night or maybe you wanted just one more toasted marshmallow, you blew on the embers to keep the fire alive?glowing coalsWell, Johanne from www.sunnysideheanne.com has  put a new spin on that old tradition. After she lost her father, mother, and a special aunt, all within a year, Johanne and her sister wanted to make certain they wouldn’t forget their own story.  They began a new family tradition—trading stories of childhood memories. In other words, they began blowing on embers of the dying fire of their family’s personal history.

Reading Johanne’s story, I immediately identified with the concept. Recalling memories is a favorite pastime around here. It’s why I create and peruse photo albums and scrapbooks. And it’s what I do with much of my writing.

I’ve told children and grandchildren about memories from when I was no more than two years old, one from even earlier in my life. These “memories” are actually no more than snapshots in time, and I’ve come to realize I don’t so much remember them as I remember the remembering of them from stories told and retold. But that’s the point, and it’s why it’s so important to keep recounting them.

Reminiscing is a social activity that gives meaning and coherence to our personal narratives. It keeps family history alive. It triggers nostalgia, and nostalgia gives us an endorphin boost, improving our mood and making us feel better able to tackle whatever challenge we face at the moment.

Memories, especially childhood ones, are fragile. Without jogging them, they fade, ultimately dissolving, like a morning fog, into nothingness. Yet, our early moments are powerful ones, shaping our lives. As we weave the vignettes into a whole, our life stories emerge. We better understand who we have become.

The accumulation of childhood memories, even those enhanced by retelling, also influences our on-going behavior. There’s evidence that when childhood memories are triggered, we behave more kindly and ethically towards others. Our memories, it turns out, serve as a moral compass.

So let’s get to work. I’ll be blowing on my own embers on this blog. Maybe the glowing coals of my stories will spark some of your fondest childhood memories. Share them. It will do you—and the world around you—good. I’d love to hear your stories. Feel free to share them in comments beneath each post.

Dashed Dreams

(In previous posts, I’ve mentioned that I’m an essayist. I’ve decided a more accurate term, at least in some cases, is vignettist. Here’s an example.)

When I was a child of eight, I had one—and only one—goal in life: to become a movie star. My parents, as if my dreams had wings, did their darnedest to dissuade me.

Every time I waxed poetic about life as a Hollywood starlet, they responded with some sort of negative. The probably mentioned how unlikely it was to succeed in show business or brought up the hardscrabble life of acting wannabes, raising the specter of years waiting tables for tips as I waited to be discovered.

Maybe they said those things; maybe not. I only remember one overarching argument against an acting career: actors are always getting divorced. They waved their prime example, Elizabeth Taylor, in my face. But I had the perfect eight-year-old comeback: “Not Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher!” They were my proof positive that acting could be divorce-free.

And then my idols went and ruined it for me. I guess you could say Debbie and Eddie—and Liz—are the reasons I never made it on the big screen.

It only took one play to hook me on acting. For that, I thank our ever ebullient drama director, Dorothy Murphree, who made it so much fun. (The cast party didn’t hurt, either.) I portrayed a Chinese child in our church play about Lottie Moon, a Baptist foreign missionary.

The Candy Incident

(Last week, I wrote a story about my dad. It’s only fair to share something about my mother, too. This piece, in a slightly different form, originally appeared in the Asheville Citizen-Times.)

My mom has a reputation. It’s all about her sunny disposition, her ever-present smile, her consistently quiet and pleasant manner. So perhaps it’s understandable that I’m drawn to stories about the times her temper has gotten the better of her.

At ninety-three, she’s had plenty of opportunities for temper tantrums, but I can count hers on one hand and still have a finger or two left over. One of my favorites goes like this:

Mother was nineteen or so when she was at the stove in her family’s kitchen making candy for her boyfriend (who later became my father). With her sisters gathered round, the inevitable teasing began. Mother didn’t like being teased, especially when it came to matters of the heart. Her anger only egged her siblings on. Finally, she’d had enough. In her fury, she flung the entire pot full of boiling candy mixture across the room.

The hot, syrupy liquid missed her sisters, but it landed on a glass pane of the back door, oozing down in a streak. When their father came in from his day’s chores, he saw what looked for all the world like a crack in the glass. Frugal man that he was, he saw repair bill dollar signs and was ready to mete out some harsh punishment for the perpetrator.

The girls were quick to set him straight. What not one of them was willing to do, though, was to clean up the mess. Mother’s righteous indignation prevented her from doing the job, and her sisters refused all responsibility—after all, they hadn’t thrown the stuff. The hardened candy remained where it landed.

As the years passed, no one could any longer recall how long the streak stayed there or who finally broke down and cleaned it. They never forgot the event, itself, though, and often when they got together, one or another of them would retell the tale to everyone’s delight, even Mother’s.


My Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

My Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

It all started the night before. As my netbook (the computer where I do all my writing) was updating, the screen suddenly went black. Then these words appeared: no bootable device found. No, this wasn’t part of the worldwide ransomware attack. My problem occurred days earlier.

I tried not to panic. But practically everything I’d ever written was on that computer. While most of it had been backed up on a flash drive, I’d forgotten to do that for the last few months. You see, I have this challenge. It applies to all facets of my life. I can be going along just fine, doing everything I’m supposed to. Then something happens to interrupt the pattern—a trip, an ailment, anything that gets me out of my routine. That’s when my brain suffers the same kind of fate my computer did. No bootable device found.

Still, there was nothing to do but attempt a good night’s sleep before taking the netbook to the local computer docs for a thorough internal exam. The fellow at the desk assured me it’s almost always possible to retrieve the data. Stay calm, he cooed. “Stay calm” was the mantra I kept repeating while the Gnome and I ran a couple of errands before going home to await the call from the self-proclaimed computer geeks.

One of those errands was to the local big box home improvement store to pick up some drywall and painting supplies for our latest home rehab project. The clerk said we were in luck. This was the last day of a 10% discount on paint and paint supplies. I moaned to the Gnome. If only we’d known, we could have gotten the couple of gallons of paint we’d need shortly. Paint is expensive! The clerk reminded us we had until 9:00 pm. Not likely—we had work to do and another hour-long round trip to town wasn’t in the cards.

The call came in the early afternoon. Stay calm. Stay calm. It’s almost always possible . . .

Almost. The operative word. “We’ve done all we can do here,” the guy said. Our hard drive had a mechanical failure. The next step was to send it off to intensive care specialists. It would take a couple of weeks and if—if—there was anything salvageable (that didn’t sound optimistic), it would cost another $400-$1,000. Plus the cost of repairing or replacing my computer.

By this time, I couldn’t remember anything that was on my computer. Could any of it be worth $1,000? Especially if I couldn’t remember what that might be? I couldn’t concentrate. Everything began to go wrong. I varnished the wrong side of the treads for the new stairs we were building, for one. Seemed like a good day to chuck it all.

I suggested we go back to town, after all, and pick up a pizza. We could use the trip to see what computers were available locally and maybe we could even get that discounted paint. We searched in vain for a paint chip naming the paint we needed to match, so we grabbed an old paint can with the paint code on the lid.

While the paint guy tried to match the code, we perused paint chips. We were sure we’d recognize ours if we saw the name. But all we found were names like Dust Bunny, Wool Coat, Basket, Spirited, Capricious. Really? Do you have any idea what kinds of colors those are? Then there was La La Love, Someday, Semi-Sweet, and Panacea. I could have used a little semi-sweet panacea about then. The name of our paint had been nothing like these. Besides, we’d gotten that can six years ago—an eon in paint time. All the names had changed.

We had a long time to scour paint chips. The paint guy simply could not make a match. Every gallon he mixed up, and he mixed up plenty, came out wrong. Too pink, too green, too anything but what we had.

We’d been waiting almost two hours when he came up with a color that was pretty close. Good enough on a new wall, perhaps. But not where we needed patches in existing walls. Maybe the remaining paint in our old can would stretch far enough to make those touch-ups. We decided to get the new mix, along with a can of white. Thinking about the 10% discount, we picked up some more paint-related supplies.

That’s when the checkout clerk (followed by a manager) told us the paint discount only applied to business accounts. What?! We could have waited till some other day for the disappointment of not finding a match. Too late now to look at potential computer replacements. Dejected from head to toe, we just grabbed a to-go pizza and headed home.

On the way to the house, we checked our mailbox. Nothing jumped out at us, so we laid the small pile on the counter and ate our pizza as we mulled over possible next computer steps. Then I took a second look at the mail. A letter from our utility company. I figured it was the next month’s bill; instead, it was for a fuel delivery I’d already paid—apparently a few days late, though there was no due date listed on the bill and I’d paid it well within 30 days of its receipt. Turns out that’s not their measure, so I owed a whopping forty-six cents in finance charges.

Forty-six cents. Perfect ending.

Post script: Still haven’t figured out what to do about my lost data. We found a highly-reputable service on line whose maximum charge is less than the minimum quoted to us on that no good day. I vacillate between going for it (it would be nice to get my e-mail address book back, for instance) or just throwing my arms up in surrender and starting all over with a clean slate. Decluttering, even if forced, can be refreshing—my own personal reboot.

Good Times

Good Times

I couldn’t wait for Daddy to get home from work each day. I was all set to beg him to take me outside for my favorite three-year-old activity. No doubt, Mother tried to put me off at least long enough for her hello kiss or for him to change clothes and sit down for a few minutes’ rest.

But I must have prevailed more often than not because my fond memories include Daddy still in his gray dress pants, long-sleeved white shirt, and wide, maroon-flowered tie crouching with me underneath our house—our white, wood-frame house that sat about three feet off the ground atop brick pillars—tormenting strange-looking insects while we swirled skinny sticks in their narrow, cone-shaped holes chanting in unison, “Doodlebug, doodlebug, come out of your hole; your house is on fire and your children will burn.” If our taunts worked, we’d find a doodlebug attached to the stick when we pulled it out.

Doodlebugs are actually bristly, grayish-brown, larval-stage antlions who prey on ants. In the sandy soil of the eastern South Carolina home of my childhood, they caught their quarry by digging shallow pits in the soil where they’d lie in wait for an unsuspecting ant to drop in—literally—for a tasty meal.

The doodlebug moniker apparently derives from the curlicue trails antlions “draw” in the sand (much like the meaningless doodles Daddy typically made with his pencil and scratch pad when he was on the telephone) as they search for the perfect spot to dig their traps.

Of course, I didn’t know any of this way back when. All I knew was that I making a little magic with the man in my life, and I was enchanted.

Daddy and me a couple of years before he taught me the doodlebug game


At the Car Wash

There was a time in my life (several, actually) when money was really tight. So tight that sometimes the only way to purchase groceries was with a credit card. So tight that the Gnome and I foraged wild cherries and asparagus in the nearby city park and dug day lily tubers from our back yard to sauté for supper.

Then came the day I lost a five dollar bill. I panicked. I cried. I called everywhere I’d been that day. I searched high and low—the depths of my handbag, my pockets, under the floor mats of the car, across the parking lot. That five dollars was a lifeline; the idea of it having disappeared in a poof like a magician’s cheap trick made me physically ill. I’m glad to say I finally found it—tucked in a hard-to-see spot between my car’s front seat and the door post.

So, a drive-through car wash, though it cost less than a dollar in those days, was a rare luxury. As I sat quietly watching the soapy froth dance on the windshield and those big, blue brushes caress the car’s skin, I felt as if I were receiving a massage. Not that I’d ever experienced a professional massage, but it seemed like how a massage might feel. I reveled in it.

I drove through a car wash the other day. No magic this time, just a plain old car wash. But every time I think about those car washes of leaner times, my lips spontaneously curve into a Madonna-like smile and I sense my shoulders relaxing.