The Power of Memory

The sequel to my Raised in a Barn piece …

My son is an only child, so I asked him once how much he’d minded growing up “in solitary.”  He told me he’d liked having his own room and possessions without having to worry about siblings messing everything up, and he enjoyed all the attention and the regular proximity to adults and their world, but his one regret was that he had no one to share his memories.  There was no brother or sister involved in the events of his childhood, no one to corroborate or contradict now when the stories start, no contemporary to help keep the memories alive when Mom and Dad, grandparents, aunts and uncles are all gone.  And implicit in all of it was the fact that there was no one to share the blame when things went south.

I, on the other hand, am blessed with sisters — two of them.  And we had a younger brother whose memory is sweet beyond words.  When my sisters and I are together it’s all about the memories.  Even when we aren’t actively talking about the past it’s there, part and parcel of who we are.

We had no shortage of memory-making opportunities during our growing-up years.  We lived on a farm, across a gravel driveway from our grandparents, so we had plenty of space, including two good-sized houses, for inventing make-believe.  We built forts in the barn and tent cities in the house, decorated dollhouses upstairs and down, strung paper dolls, Baby Linda dolls, Barbie dolls and their wardrobes from one end of the house to the other, set up tea parties in Grandma’s garden, made mud pies in front of the playhouse.  Whatever fantasy world a child is capable of creating, we most likely did.  And possibly the most interesting, compelling, and fabulous fun to be had was playing dress-up in Grandma’s attic.

Getting there was a bit of a trek.  The stairway was hidden behind a wall in the kitchen and accessed by a door.  Once we stepped up onto the landing, the view was straight up the narrow staircase, with not much hint of what lay beyond.  It was always perfectly still up there and the air felt heavy.  We could hear wasps buzzing in the windows, but we knew from experience that if we left them alone they could probably be counted on to return the favor.  Every once in a while Grandma would go up there with a big pair of scissors and methodically cut off their heads, which we found deliciously cold and efficient on her part.  Of course it only added to her cred, and we already tended to obey her faster than we did our mom.  This is the same grandma who pinched the heads off the red and black box-elder bugs she found crawling across her floors and feared neither snake nor spider in her garden.

There was a shallow ledge parallel to the stairs which served as storage area for an intriguing assortment of items, both old and newer, but there wasn’t much time to take it all in as we had to concentrate on not tumbling back down to the bottom.  At the top was a bookcase holding musty old volumes, including my first acquaintance with Gone With the Wind.  It literally fell apart before I got to “Frankly, my dear …”.  Also sitting on the shelves were several of our dad’s iron toys from childhood.  Those heavy cars and trucks and cleverly-designed coin banks brought a nice sum years later when our parents held their retirement auction.

I don’t recall venturing up that staircase alone until about junior high.  It wasn’t so much creepy up there as heavy with history and the weight of lives lived, and it just seemed better experienced in the company of others.  Our dad’s model airplanes still hung silently from the ceiling of his former bedroom, and the pictures on the walls beckoned us back to an era we knew very little about.  There was an old feather mattress on the bed in the biggest room, and everything had a patina of dust that made it seem as though nothing had been touched since the original occupants, our dad and his brother, went off to take up lives of their own.

The space held enough mystery to provide the perfect setting for make-believe, so it naturally followed that we and our friends would spend hours on lazy summer days assembling just the right outfits and posing for Grandma and her old Brownie box camera.  We had a wealth of treasures to choose from, as the bedrooms included slant-ceilinged unfinished closets tucked under the eaves, full of a wondrous array of dresses, hats, gloves, jewelry, shoes, jackets and coats dating from the late 1800s forward.  Flowing crepe dresses, hats with veils, long gloves, moth-nibbled fur coats and stoles, all of which we set off with bright red lipstick and old-lady face powder.  Our grandparents’ house wasn’t air-conditioned so the upper story was stifling hot in the summer, but we didn’t mind.  We were having far too much fun to worry about it.

It’s a simple memory, this one.  No big drama happened, no momentous story.  Nothing to see here, folks, might as well move along.  Just ever-changing groups of young girls trying adulthood on for size.

Speaking of size, it strikes me that our feminine forebears must have been truly petite, delicate women.  Incredibly, I see my four-year-old self wearing a dress that looks only slightly too large for me, albeit too long, and other photographs tell the same story.

I can only wonder at the patience it took for our grandparents to listen to us clomping endlessly up and down the stairs, giggling and chattering nonstop.  And amazingly, I don’t remember any of us ending up in a heap at the bottom.  Or maybe since it didn’t happen to me my brain thinks it didn’t happen at all.  One thing we didn’t do at Grandma’s house was argue.  At the first sign of trouble all she had to do was remind us quietly, “If you quarrel, you’ll have to go home, remember?” and everything was suddenly copacetic again.

When we finally tired of the game, I’m sure it was left to her to restore order to those magical closets, even though it was part of the deal that we at least try.  I do know that we three sisters would give a lot to go back and thank our grandparents for all they contributed to our lives in countless ways.  They were a huge part of the rich, full childhood we enjoyed and took for granted, and there’s really no way to overestimate the value of that kind of heritage.

Katie and Judy dress_up

My cousin Katie and I.  She was eight or nine and I was four years old.

Me with my friends Karen and Jo.


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Linda
    Mar 17, 2013 @ 21:11:28

    Judy – I adore this story! Brought back my memories of snooping through my grandma’s upstairs rooms that belonged to my Aunt Carol and Uncle Calder. There was a Shirley Temple doll that drew me there every time and I loved to reverently hold and play with her. I don’t have sisters to share those kinds of memories with – little brothers just didn’t “get” it. Don’t we love those sweet people who made it possible for us to be!



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