Saturday, October 18, 2008

The JEANS, AHLAGEES AND OUR SISTERS of My Town

"Slow down" and "be careful what you wish" for are wise and eloquent words from Guest blogger, and peoria.com forum member aVoice...

As time goes by… and it does… I find myself better recognizing certain subtle things that are commonly experienced by human beings. Sometimes, recognition hits hard and leaves a deep impression. Almost as though the very notion that we may have anything in common had never once occurred to me at all, at any other point in time. I'm certain whatever I'm experiencing at that particular point in my own life and whatever maturity has developed with which to contemplate, rather than skim over these commonalities, both contribute to moments of a heightened sense of perception.

Most recently, the matter that has captured my attention, and affects me profoundly, is that it seems so obvious that we're not always ready for the things we once thought we deeply wanted. Moreover, age has no bearing on that principle. Regardless of how many candles were on our last birthday cake, we still seem to experience that phenomena.

For example, the seven year old son of friends has begged and pleaded for siblings for quite some time. Now that he has received the very thing he so desperately wanted, he's not completely certain that he's happy with the situation. He's become decidedly aware that what he thought it would be like once he attained his goal, and the reality of the situation, are two very different things.

With too much ease, I relate to his struggle, probably moreso than someone closer to his own age, simply because I am seven times plus three years older than him and have experienced the same inner dilemma many times over…. finally getting what I wanted only to realize it wasn't what I thought it would be.

As a kid, I couldn't wait to grow up. Everything centered around that one goal of being "grown up and finally being able to do whatever I wanted." Oh brother! It's laughable now how many times I shrugged off the words of "old people" who wisely warned me to "slow down" and "don't be in such a hurry." Now I am that "old person" who offers that same bit of advice to kids, who also shrug it off and continue headlong toward their goal.

It reminds me of the classic play, "Our Town," written by Thornton Wilder. It's main characters initially are George and Emily, who are also in a hurry to grow up, falling in love with one another as they do so, and of course, the elders warning them to slow down and not be in such a hurry. Finally, they reach the grown-up goal and marry, as grown-ups do, and all the while life itself moves on around them. Lives are born. Lives leave this world. All too soon, Emily's life ends and she finds herself gathering daily in the local cemetery with the other residents who "live" there, to discuss the days events. Watching. Concerned. Hopeful for those they love and always desiring the very best for them.

I was introduced to "Our Town" in the sixth grade by a teacher I didn't particularly care for, but I did fall in love with Wilder's unusual play, and only learned much later in life that it had won a Pulitzer Prize.

It fit in perfectly with my passion for reading books of long ago people and happenings, as well as hearing my Mom's fascinating tales of her own childhood and the people who filled it. I recognized the awesome power of words while I was still very young. They were the currency that bought the time and attention of this kid, who otherwise had too much busy stuff to do to sit still very long.

My Mom spent that currency wisely, weaving together the fabric of many worlds,… her's, mine, and so many others. Aunts, uncles, cousins, parents grand, and parents great-grand, whom I'd never known or barely ever knew, all took their place at center stage, time and time again, as if pulled briefly from their hiding places and given a new breath of life.

"Your grandmother, my mother, now that was one little German-Irish lady you didn't want mad at you!" and "her mother, your great-grandmother was so prim and proper. Every button had to be buttoned and her long hair in a tight bun on her head…." were words I grew familiar with as the actors prepared to take their places. While Mom spoke in the background, my own imagination soon became crowded with both the practical and the fanciful activities of ancestors who vied for my attention while they mimed their own stories in front of me, a rapt audience of one.

People who had lived and breathed, laughed and cried, sailed oceans and changed the world, passing from it long before I was born or while yet a wee babe held in my mother's arms, took a bow and told me their stories all the more vividly after one particular conversation took place with my Mom.

On assignment from my second grade teacher, I went home eager to obtain the needed information. "Mom, my teacher said that we're all supposed to ask our parents about something called our jeans and ahlagees, and tomorrow we have to take turns standing in front of the class to talk about that and our sisters."

A moment of puzzled silence preceded an amused chuckle from my Mom, who had a very quick, witty sense of humor, before she asked "Do you mean your geneology and ancestors, babe?"

"Yeah, that's it."

After taking a few minutes to better explain the meaning of those two terms, Mom, the most patient teacher in the world, also told me the little bit she knew on the subject of how our ancestors "crossed the pond" and came to settle in what is now Peoria, Illinois.

Attempting to sum it all up, she ultimately said, "You tell your teacher that you are the great American melting pot, babe. Your ancestors are German, Dutch, Swede and a little bit of Irish. Your grandpa, my Dad, always used to say that the little bit of Irish must have come from a clever leprechaun." The ornery twinkle that lit her crystal clear blue eyes told me that the joke should have been over my head. But, I understood it well enough, in that way non-city kids usually do understand, simply by noting the behavior of the animals that share their country way of life.

Our conversation proceeded in the usual way and soon my Mother's powerful words and storytelling skills were once again weaving together mental images in the window of my mind, causing me to virtually see and hear people I'd never met. But not just ANY people. Now I understood so much better than I ever had before, that these were MY people. MY ancestors. The people whose very lives were necessary for my own life to exist. The people whose own lives created my family tree. My geneological roots and limbs. The mighty oaks from which this grateful acorn fell. Or, as Mom said, giggling, the mighty oaks from which a nut or two sprung forth.

How I longed to know those people better. All of them. How I wished with all my heart that I could truly see the world that each of them had seen, and experience all the things they had experienced before they slipped into the shadows of their hiding places.

I realize now though that much of what they saw and experienced probably wasn't very pleasant. Yet I wonder, like me, were they in a hurry to grow up and experience all of it? Surely they must have been. Just as the little guy must who now sits snuggled at my side, asking question after question, like I did at his age.

"Grandma?"

Was that cute little blonde haired lad with crystal clear blue eyes really talking to me? Wow. Time really does fly by. Why was I in such a hurry to get here and have some pup call me Grandma? Grandma indeed! I feel too young and alive to be anyone's Grandma!

"Yes, babe?" I, nonetheless, replied sweetly.

"Why don't you use a pencil? You always use an ink pen and your crossword puzzles always look so messy."

I couldn't deny that he was right, but like my Mom, I could tell him the story and maybe through it, he'd meet a mighty oak or two.

"Well babe, it's like this. My Mom, your great-grandmother, LOVED crossword puzzles, and ever since I was a little kid I hated them. I thought they were stupid because I could NEVER figure out any of the answers. And I could never figure out how my Mom could solve every puzzle in every crossword puzzle book that she got her hands on. She always used a pencil and it had to have a good, clean eraser on it so she could rid herself of any wrong answers she had lightly penciled in. Anytime she had a few free minutes, which wasn't often since she worked full-time at home and at a full-time job outside our home, she'd sit down with her crossword puzzles and love every minute of it. She called it relaxing. That didn't make any sense at all to me since I found them so frustrating. Well, when I was about your age, we were driving to Colorado for vacation. Like always, my Mom did her crossword puzzles while my Dad drove. And trust me, the way he drove scared the daylights out of everyone! My Mom blocked it out by focusing completely on solving an endless number of crossword puzzles. Us kids focused on pestering each other until Dad laid down the law and we knew we better not make a single peep or do anything further to upset him. I got sooooo bored I couldn't take it anymore! So I leaned forward to look over my Mom's shoulder and tried to figure out some of the answers to the puzzle she was working on. Like always though, I couldn't come up with even one correct answer, so I asked her how she always managed to figure them out since they were so hard. Her reply was 'Well babe, they're really not that hard once you get used to doing them.' 'Get used to doing them?!,' I nearly shouted back at her. 'How does ANYONE EVER get used to doing them?! They're stupid! I'll NEVER get used to doing them because I'm NEVER going to do them!' Very patiently she tried to show me how to piece the answers together, and said 'it's easier if you can get on the same wavelength with the person who wrote the puzzle and try to think the way they think.' That sounded even more stupid to me and I happened to mention that somewhat loudly, on the verge of hysteria from being stuck in the car for so long. Your great-grandfather did not like to stop for ANYTHING until we got to where we were going, and boy oh boy, let me tell you, that could be extremely stressful when it felt like you were already two hours past the point of desperation for a bathroom. I don't really remember if that was the case or not, but chances are very high that it was. Between that and being overly annoyed with the quiet little things my brother and sister kept doing to bug me …. like looking at me…. and being stuck in the car so long with your great-grandpa driving like the whole world was his own lane at 80 miles an hour, and your great-grandma seemingly happy as a lark in her own little world, I was about to snap. Welll….actually, I did snap."

"What happened, Grandma?"

"I blew my top like a volcano, buddy. Like a big, silly volcano and very loudly and emphatically told my mother that I would NEVER, EVER, EVER understand WHY she liked crossword puzzles and why she wasted so much time with them and I most certainly would NEVER, EVER, EVER need any of the pointers she was trying to share with me. To which she very patiently and sweetly replied 'Never, ever, ever is a very long time, babe. Maybe when you're my age you'll feel differently.' I more or less shouted back 'I WILL NEVER BE THAT OLD!' and she just laughed a cute little laugh and kept right on filling in her puzzle and said 'Ok babe. We'll see.' I think I was just so annoyed that I wanted someone else to be annoyed with me and she wasn't doing one thing to help me out on that account. So I yelled 'Well even IF I ever am THAT OLD and do like crossword puzzles, I'll use an ink pen and not a pencil! That way EVERYONE can see ALL my mistakes instead of everything looking so nice and neat like yours do!' "

While that little boy with the blonde hair and crystal blue eyes, very much like his great-grandmother's, laughed heartily at the absurdity of his grandmother EVER being so young and saying something so foolish, I tried to maintain my dignity by attempting to fill-in another answer in the crossword puzzle laying in my lap.

Once again though, he broke into my own little world by asking, as though he'd just heard the stupidest thing he was likely to hear in his entire life, "so that's why you love crossword puzzles now and always use an ink pen to solve them?"

"No babe, but the rest of the story wouldn't be complete unless you heard that part first," I replied while trying to write over the top of the wrong answer I'd already inked into my puzzle.

"Grandma?"

"Yes, babe?"

"So what is the rest of the story. Or am I going to be sorry I asked?"

"Probably. But… we won't let that stop us, now will we?" Grinning, and receiving one in return, I forged onward. "When your Dad was still a little boy, somehow, some way, in a moment of desperation for something relaxing to do, I found myself trying the crossword puzzle in the newspaper and I could actually answer some of the questions. I couldn't find a pencil so I used a pen instead and started laughing when I realized that I actually was doing exactly what I'd told my Mom I would do, a long time ago. It amused me so much I just kept doing it. Not only was a passion born for crossword puzzles, but a habit… let's say my own personal little tradition… was created of always solving them in ink. And then while we were visiting at your great-grandparents' home many years later, I happened to wake up one morning before anyone else. So I pulled my crossword puzzle book and ink pen out of my suitcase and went out on the front porch to enjoy the peace and quiet… while relaxing and indulging in a crossword puzzle, of course. I was concentrating sooooo hard that I didn't even hear my Mom walk out onto the porch. But I heard her giggle and I KNEW what she was giggling about. She remembered too. I looked up and smiled as she asked me very sweetly 'Would you rather use a pencil, babe? I'll bring one out for you. Your puzzle will look nice and neat that way and no one will be able to see all your mistakes.' I grinned and said just as sweetly in return, 'No thanks, Mom. I may have been wrong on one count but I have to at least do what I can to be right on the other. I'll keep my word and stick with my ink pen.' We had an awesome time sitting there laughing like two silly idiots, telling old stories over and over, and laughing some more, buddy. It was as perfect a moment in time as a moment in time can possibly be."

"Grandma?"

"Yes, babe?"

"Is that the same great-grandma that sent her grandkids birthday cards in foreign languages that no one ever understood, not even her, and always signed them 'LOVE ALWAYS from YOUR Sweet Little Ol' Granny.'?"

"Yep, that's the one, babe."

"I see where you get your silliness from, Grandma."

"Hey, watch it buster. And how many times do I have to insist that you call me Sweet Lil' Ol' Granny and NOT Grandma?!"

"All the time, Grandma. All the time. I remember that great-grandma a little bit. She always said that her grandma had german ears. But I've never understood what she meant by that. What are german ears?"

"I haven't a clue, hon. But she seemed to think she could tell how much german a person had in them by their ears. Kind of like they were some sort of gas gauge or something, I guess."

"Am I full-blooded german, Grandma?"

"No, babe. You are the great American melting pot. You're German, Dutch, Swede, a little bit of Irish, Lebanese and American Indian, on your Dad's side of the family tree. You'll have to ask your Mom about your ancestery on her side."

"So I don't have german ears then, Grandma?"

"I'm not 100% certain, babe, but I don't see how that could be possible since your melting pot has more in it than mine does. Personally, I think you have cute little leprechaun ears."


From the stage that I recognize as my own personal "Our Town," I see and hear the familiar faces and voices of those who gathered to watch in awe the happenings of those who remain on the other side of the veil that divides here from there.

Sweetly, tenderly, someone comments, "He has my baby's eyes… his grandmother's eyes… and her hair. Sweet Lil' Ol' Granny, huh? She remembers. How touching…. she remembers."

"Those are your eyes, Sweetheart," I hear a familiar and much loved male voice say, as he caresses the hand that rests gently in his.

"That grandson is just like her when she was a little kid! The questions never end!," remarks someone whose voice I seem to recall vaguely from my childhood.

Another replies, "Yeah, and where do you suppose they got that from?," causing each person to turn and look at one another, their expressions saying loud and clear "Hey, it wasn't me!"

The voice most familiar returns again, now filled with ornery spunk, "Must have been the leprechaun."

As their laughter settles into hushed awe, and their thoughts turn to the hopes and dreams for the acorns that dropped from their limbs, one heavily accented voice shouts from the rear of the crowd "Will someone PLEASE tell me what german ears are and am I the ancestor who's supposed to have them?"

Nearly all blend together into a melting pot of laughter, while that same voice mutters, "What's funny?! That's not funny! Who would ever tell a child such a silly thing?! I hope you're happy with what you've gotten started. German ears! Why …. I never….!!"

I still find them all so extremely fascinating and wonder often what their lives must have been like. But now that I've reached this particular grown-up stage of my life, I truly have to wonder why I was in such a hurry to get here. Like most, I now recognize that the play is over all too quickly and it's best enjoyed when savoured slowly, one moment at a time, rather than at a mad dash to the closing scene.

"Grandma?"

"Yes babe?"

"I think it would be ok if you used a pencil now to solve crossword puzzles. Do you want to use one of mine?"

"Don't be silly, buster. Some things just need to be left alone and enjoyed for what they are."

"I guess, Grandma. I don't think I'll ever like crossword puzzles, though."

"Ok babe. We'll see."

The stage lights dim and the actors fade from view as an acorn contemplates the enormous task of being a mighty oak, feeling quite certain that the legacy that has been placed in her lap is much more than what she'd bargained for.

2 comments:

Ramble On said...

Great read! Thanks for sharing. You have quite a knack with the pen.

wacko said...

What the hell is this all about?