The whole month of May gone and complete radio silence from me, and here we are well into June! May was momentous, sandwiched between life events of late April and early June that added up together make quite the series of happenings: death, birth, and a birthday.
In late April, the last of my grandmothers died. Only she was not a grandmother in the blood-relative way, but in the way of the relationship that she chose to have with me and my siblings. We called her “Baba,” a nickname given by my younger brother when he was learning to talk, and though it sounded nothing like her name, Mary, Baba she was, and Baba she stayed. When my parents were a young married couple, Baba took them under her wing, and as just-down-the-street neighbors we spent countless hours visiting the Carlsons–playing in their yard, learning to swim in the pool, sharing meals and holidays. The four Carlson kids were a generation older than the Rider four, and like aunts and uncles or older siblings, they helped bring us up– babysitting, entertaining, teasing, teaching, making us laugh, and by being good models for living in the world.
Baba was a completely modern woman, who along with being a degreed dietician, had real skill for cooking, sewing and gardening. She was demanding and loving, with a hearty laugh and an inquisitive mind. From Baba we learned what it meant to be loved “with a bushel and a peck,” or a swat on the “britches.” She delighted in us, her chosen grandkids, but didn’t let us get away with a thing. If we ran out of her house and let the screen door slam behind us we’d hear about it. If we splashed her drying sheets on the laundry line, we’d hear about that too, in no uncertain terms. We also knew to throw frisbees and toys for the dog carefully, not in the garden! Later on, we’d also hear about it if there was any question about our individual directions in life, what we studied, who we dated, where we were headed, because she cared about us like we were family.
As with many memorial services, Baba’s was full of tears and laughter and emotion. I couldn’t get through the first strains of Morning Has Broken and had to stop singing. But, along with everybody else I laughed in recognition at the memories and stories compiled by family members, of Mary, the person we knew and loved. The dominant theme running through the recounted stories was one of a woman with an undeniable gift for hospitality. Her table was a bountiful, and beautiful, and creative one, and the food, always delicious. I count myself among the fortunate to have eaten at such a table, and the sense memories of Christmas Eve turkey dinners, the smell of homemade fried chicken, delicate lemon custards, and rich coconut layer cake, are so strong that these foods will always remind me of Baba. It was also at Baba and Dev’s table that we children practiced our best table manners, learning how to use extra forks, cloth napkins, and most importantly, to wait to eat until the hostess was served.
After the memorial service, my sister and I took a nostalgia drive through the old neighborhood where we grew up. We drove past our childhood home, a two-story Victorian-era house made of stone, now cosmetically improved and added onto since our day. We continued up the block past the Carlson house, built a bit later than ours, painted a new color, but otherwise much the same from the outside. I snapped some pictures, and admittedly, felt a little sad. All of the houses on the block are as they were with small notable differences, plantings, paint colors, surface improvements. Old houses in a nice, quiet, residential neighborhood, and many seem to have security warning signs prominently posted outside just in case someone with bad intentions gets any ideas. Inwardly I couldn’t help thinking “that’s not the way it used to be.” Exactly like the safe neighborhood where we live now in southern California, where the trend seems to be “fix-it-up and keep people out.”
As we completed the neighborhood circuit, my sister stopped the car so I could take a couple last pictures of a best-loved play place of our childhood, the “farmer’s ditch.” This seasonal irrigation ditch ran parallel to our street, a block down, and from west to to the farm country out east somewhere. We loved wading there in the summer, would take rubber inner tubes down it, getting out at every under street grate, and walking back a few blocks to do the whole thing again. When it was dry it was a place to make forts and explore and collect rocks, close to home, but a world away. Here’s the ditch running with water, just as I remember it below the elementary school grounds:
But just on the other side of the street from this same spot, somebody has improved on my memory, and I’m not sure I like it. I suppose the truth is that I like the idea of the shored-up bank along the ditch, and the idea of the sanctuary that it looks to be for someone who owns the space.
But this ditch is not what I remember, and my memory is what I want to keep. And I wonder, would I be welcome there, in our old place?
May, 2011, saw the birth of my newest nephew to my youngest brother and his wife, while other nephews turned 5, and 15. My own birthday marked the solid move into middle age, as the five candles on my cake marked out a “41.” And so life goes.
Any passing on of a loved one is hard, but what seems painfully clear to me is that as the elders born early in the last century pass on, with them goes something we of the younger generations can’t replace. Even as we celebrate lives just begun, we mourn the passing of a time that won’t come again.
You can’t step in the same irrigation ditch twice.