100 Years: Kathryn Isabel

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My grandmother’s kindergarten picture, c. 1922

Today would have been the 100th birthday of my grandmother, Kathryn Isabel.

She was a shining beacon of love in my life—I was her first grandchild and held a special place in her heart. My memories of her are deep and vast, and she is associated in my subconscious with safety, love and softness. I lived with her when I was very young, while my also-very-young mom got her feet under her and our lives stable. She was flawed and imperfect in a million ways, but she was also a place I always knew I was safe, and she is woven through the years of my life in strong and visible threads.

There are reminders of her everywhere in my home and in my heart. My entire adult life I have kept a key to her back door on my keyring, even though the house is long gone. On my dresser sits her black leather jewelry box, opening in a tri-fold of soft velvet red. It still smells of her Jean Nate and Coty powder. She loved carnation pink lipstick, the color yellow, and a real Coke poured over crushed ice. She taught me to play Canasta, cribbage, rummy, and poker. She made the best grilled cheese sandwiches in the world, and she would let me squeeze in her rocking recliner with her while we watched M*A*S*H. She told me to always tell the truth, that way “You never have to remember what you said.”

I also understand now with adult perspective that her life was hard and complicated, neither simple nor easy. She was an only child who grew up during the great Depression, raised by a single mother in the days where that wasn’t simple or easy. She is part of the Greatest Generation, and she lived that fact out in every facet of her life. She was a model for the Red Cross during World War II, then married a soldier, my grandfather, who was one of the first wave landing on the beaches at Normandy on D-Day. She had three daughters, who she ended up raising mostly alone because Korea followed quickly on the heels of WWII and military wives do what they have always done.

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Jack and Kathryn c. 1950

I wish I knew more about her everyday life—how she felt, what she imagined, what she hoped for, the challenges of raising three daughters alone while grandpa was overseas, and then how hard it was when he came back and we didn’t have words for PTSD. One of the reasons I started writing this blog so many years ago was because I wished for a daily journal of my grandma’s life. I figured if no one else cared, maybe my children or grandchildren would be interested. She isn’t here any longer for me to ask her those stories; it’s a loss that simply cannot be recovered. (Abigail has a near-daily journal of her entire life, and she won’t ever wonder what her mother thought or felt. Maybe that’s good? It will be up to her to decide.)

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GG Alexander, grandma Kathryn, holding my newborn mother with my aunts at her feet.

She moved to San Francisco in 1967, just in time for the world to change and for my aunts to embrace the ethos of California. San Francisco, while her adopted home, held a special place in her heart. She had original paintings by local artists of San Francisco landmarks and photos of the Golden Gate in her home. She loved her City and never moved again. This is the world into which I was born.

I don’t have many photos of her in her later years. She didn’t like having her picture taken, and she was vocal about hating growing old and the aches and pains that plagued her. She was fond of saying “Growing old ain’t for sissies.” Her hair never went salt and pepper, but instead turned perfectly snow-white. Despite her complaints, I found her soft skin and tender hands beautiful. It would appear the adage about mellowing with age doesn’t apply in our family, because grandma certainly didn’t… she had a necklace made of gold that said “Oh Shit” much like some people wear their names. She wore it all the time, and was known to flip people the bird in traffic, her white hair and pink lipstick flashing through the open window of her little blue Volkswagen.

She died in 1999, shortly after David and I were married. I took her surname when David and I divorced, wrapping myself in the safe security I felt with her. It’s another one of a string of sorrows that she never got to meet her first great-grandchild. She would have utterly delighted in the fat, bouncing, redheaded boy I produced. She loved chubby babies, and a redheaded boy would have tickled her pink.

When she died, she had long-prior made all her own arrangements, and didn’t want services of any kind. She wanted her ashes scattered at sea, and the day her boat went out under the Golden Gate Bridge, my mom and brothers and I gathered pink roses and walked out across the bridge. We scattered the bright pink petals to the brisk Pacific winds that sung her to sleep each night, and that finally helped carry her to her final resting place.

Happy birthday, Grandma. I still miss you every day.

p.s. I named my daughter after you. You’d love her, too.

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Day 47: Swimming

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Taking part in the Ann Dee Ellis 8-Minute Memoir Writing Challenge. This is Day Forty-Seven.

I’ve been stuck on this one, letting it drift in and out, and considering skipping it—because I was also stuck on the narrow idea of lapis blue pools surrounded by concrete, and my general distaste for the sting of chlorine in my nose, and the itch of my skin post commercial swim. Then I realized I was looking at it wrong.

I dont hate swimming, but I am not a creature of the water. If you pull my real astrological chart and look at the math, I am all air and fire. When you add water you get a swamp. It’s not my thing. But I can appreciate it for what it is.

When I imagine hell, it’s deep and watery and dark; not the classical burning and brimstone of Dante. And I may never forgive Steven Peck for making a library so terrifying, but that’s another story for another day.

My best recollection of swimming is as follows:

There was no moon. Despite deep nightfall, the surface of the black lake was balmy and warm and as I lowered myself silently into the silky darkness, the water cooler the deeper my legs slipped, and my breath caught in my chest. Slick plants tickled my ankles as I pushed away from the worn wooden dock, still holding heat of the August day. Acrid smoke from forrest fires hung heavy in the air, carried on the evening breezes away from the lake, but making the air pungent with cedar and off-season holidays.

Pushing gently further from the dock, I slipped the floating tube under myself and laid back into the embrace of the water. The sky above was inky, but the show was supposed to start soon. My eyes closed, the rolling edge of the lake tickled my neck and I breathed in the silence.

I was waiting on the Perseid Meteor shower. Peacefully and and deeply content, I floated alone on the vast still lake. Silently the meteors began to rain down, the only light in the deep black summer skies. I imagine them reflected in my eyes, and wondered what things the world had in store for me. I felt magical- like God put on this show just for me, while everyone else slept. Everything was possible.

Day 46: Christmas Tree

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This is my sister-in-law’s tree, the most perfect Christmas tree in the history of the world.

Taking part in the Ann Dee Ellis 8-Minute Memoir Writing Challenge. This is Day Forty-Six.

The other night as Jon and I walked into a store, I mused aloud if it was too soon to start thinking about our Christmas tree. “You can NOT get another fake tree!” he half shouted from the garden center, pushing his cart along the aisle of new inflatable holiday offerings he admires. He loves those damn blow-ups. If he can get another trashy lawn ballon, I can continue to search for the perfect tree.

I mean, of course it’s too early to think about Christmas trees, and I wouldn’t actually dream of getting out anything Christmasy until after Thanksgiving. My porch is decorated in autumn leaves and pumpkins and I love how Currier & Ives-welcoming it looks. There’s something magical about the short, dying burst of the year. But the orange and brown holidays are all that stand between me and my very favorite thing.

I like a live tree. This will be my 6th Christmas on the east coast, and they simply do not have my kind of life tree here. All the trees are fluffy and full and…wrong. I’m a fan of the Noble Fir, with its at-attention branches and the spaces between its limbs. I love a sparse tree where the ornaments can hang gracefully and not lay limply against the overfull boughs. I have attempted a live tree several times— even going so far as to take the pruning loppers to the tree and cut off every other branch to create space and air amid a tree that wasn’t meant to be that way. It didn’t work. Lesson learned.

So I have resorted to fake trees. There’s something to be said for the convenience and cleanup factor, and after the initial expense, they are free. I even found one that was sort of sparse that I was able to bend and groom into something resembling the spacious trees of my younger years. It’s not the same.

So in order to have a proper Christmas tree, it’s going to be necessary to move back west. I mean, I can’t think of another solution.

There might not be room in the truck for trashy lawn balloons though.

Day 45: Something Scary

Taking part in the Ann Dee Ellis 8-Minute Memoir Writing Challenge. This is Day Forty-Five.

There is much in the world lately to be scared of…and then I stop and I wonder if that’s just where the lens is focused. Sure, US politics are a mess and the tide of nationalism is not a good worldwide trend. I also know that we care more and have more awareness of things that at any time in history. We work to help others, we work for hurricane relief, clean drinking water, vaccinations of preventable diseases (hell yes, I mean that). The world isn’t an awful place. But it can be. There is suffering and sorrow, and if I think about it too much I become paralyzed in my inability to do anything about it.

So I try and think about what I can do. Besides give money (which I try and do but which ends up being woefully small drops in a very big ocean) what can I do in my sphere to contribute in a way that helps somehow, somewhere? That’s a scary, existential question. For me, it means I am moving the pieces around in my head and in my life to go back to school and finally finish my graduate degree. I’m not sure exactly what that will look like, or where it will be, or even exactly in what, but it will be service oriented. I have a lose idea of what I want to do, but for now, that’s just for me to be mulling over.

Day 44: Leaving

Taking part in the Ann Dee Ellis 8-Minute Memoir Writing Challenge. This is Day Forty-Four.

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This is an expert from my memoir, The Burning Point, where I wrote more about leaving than I ever wished to have known. It is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and local booksellers in the west.

There are two images of David seared into my mind. Both are looking back through a departing window.

The first is from the evening we left Little House. He had accompanied me that day to pick up the twelve-foot rental truck; I was nervous about driving such a large vehicle, and grateful for his willingness to help and again be present.

That evening, after the belongings of a household of four had miraculously been fitted neatly inside what seemed a ridiculously small truck by a crew of friends, it was finally just David and me standing in the warm twilight.

“You’re going to visit us, right?” It was hard to talk over the lump in my throat. He pushed some gravel around with his shoe, his hands shoved deep in his jean pockets. He nodded and looked toward the kids running and laughing on the now-empty Little House lawn. The next day my neighbor was dismantling Bean’s wooden fort and moving it to her backyard for her grandkids. It was the last vestige of us.

My car was loaded and secured on a trailer behind the box truck, and we were waiting on a friend to pick me and the kids up to spend our last night in the Northwest.

“I’m scared,” I whispered.

He looked across the impossible space between us, his own eyes swimming. “I know. You’ve been scared all along, and yet you’ve still managed to do the right thing. You’re the star, Tracy Leigh.” There was an entire sky of love and tenderness in his ragged voice.

He tried to smile but turned and called for the kids. He sat down on the front steps of Little House, and took each child in his lap, holding them close and spoke quiet words of his love meant only for each of their ears. I stood apart, tears streaming down my face, giving them the room for their own memories.

Car wheels crushed over the gravel behind me, and it was time. David helped me buckle the teary kids in the backseat of my friend’s car, leaning in to kiss their salty, rosy cheeks and feel their arms around his neck one more time. He stepped toward the back of the car, his hands shoved deep in his pockets again and his eyes red.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered.

My chest felt like an anvil was lodged over my heart, where there were worlds built and destroyed between us. There was everything to say, and nothing left to say. “I know…me too.”

“Go.” He laid his open hand gently on the top of the car and tapped three times.

I clicked my seatbelt and turned around to check the kids. Over their three small faces, he stood alone in the driveway of Little House, slowly disappearing from sight as we headed east.

Day 43: Thank You

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Taking part in the Ann Dee Ellis 8-Minute Memoir Writing Challenge. This is Day Forty-Three.

Dear Uncle Gary,

My early childhood memories are almost entirely peopled by colorful, influential and present women—I have almost no strong memories of the men who were supposed to fill those spaces—except for you. And the space you fill is overflowing with tender kindness.

I was four the day you married Annie in Yosemite, and I wore a pink gingham dress while you let me write on the windows of the car in red lipstick. You treated my designs on the glass as the most worthy, most cherished art, and kept them there for months beyond the day.

You would stop what you were doing to really see me, to explain something, to speak directly to me as though I were a person worthy of respect and attention. You patiently showed me how prisms refracted light to make rainbows, why wild oregano smelled so delicious when we walked on it, and how important it was to be able to dig a volleyball and chill listening to live music. You helped me understand that men could be different from each other, and that I could trust you.

And there was the swing. That belongs to you and me.

Even when life changed and moved on and I grew up, you always found ways to show me that you remembered me and that you cared. You called, you reached out, you offered your help and support beyond my childhood and into my adult life. You have exemplified for me the value of small things, of taking that moment to really connect with another human being, no matter how small. I doubt you know how special and important you are to me.

So I wanted to say thank you. Thank you for being different. Thank you for being present and sensitive. Thank you for showing me in action and word the value of daughters and nieces. Thank you for being kind. Your influence on who I am is far bigger than you could have known.

I love you,
Tracy Leigh

Day 42: When I Grow Up

05Taking part in the Ann Dee Ellis 8-Minute Memoir Writing Challenge. This is Day Forty-Two.

It’s funny how the idea of what being a grown-up means changes as you actually grow up. When I was younger, I imagined a transformation of myself, like a caterpillar into a butterfly, where I was substantially changed, morphed into something else.

I used to think I would somehow mellow, transform into a mild-mannered, more genteel soul. I imagined myself as a patient sage, who did more watching the world go by with patience and wisdom. I imagined myself has having sufficiently banked my fiery passions that they no longer fueled my life, and that calm dignity would cloak me.

Yeah. That hasn’t happened. Surprise.

Just like I knew exactly what kind of mother I would be before I had kids, I knew exactly what kind of adult I would be before I became one. Life has a way of laughing at us, undoing us, doesn’t it?

It amuses me how sweetly unformed the ideas I had about life and my own abilities were. I am actually many of the things I imagined, but they don’t look anything like I imagined they would. A real, lived life, with rough edges and refining sandblasting in places I never expected it is so much deeper, so much richer, so much better, than the simplistic fantasies I once entertained.

I’m wiser. But I’ll be damned before I am ever genteel. My wisdom has come to me not a silver plate with white gloves, but rather through fighting through some of the hardest years of loss and struggle. My heart is carved deep with the lessons I have learned, because of those carved out spaces, I can also encompass levels of compassion and love I never dreamed possible. I know in my bones that we cannot ever unravel or separate loss, sorrow, joy, love, risk, fear, bravery… they are woven together and do not exist without each other. I know that my fire was a gift from God that allowed me to survive things that might have otherwise crushed me. I know that the passions and fire still fuel my direction and shed light on not just my own path, but have also helped other people find their own footing at times. I know that my gifts are my own, and I no longer wish or worry about turning into something that I am not.

It’s simply not possible to be someone else. I love growing up.