Sunday, June 2, 2013

Looking Back

Three years ago I started to write a memoir. The purpose was to hopefully help my grandchildren to better understand who I am, and to try to preserve, at least for myself, the memories of people, places and events that no longer exist as I knew them. A couple of weeks ago I completed the first draft. It consists of 312 pages of rambling, disconnected, disjointed words, sentences and paragraphs completely lacking in literary form or merit. But despite its crudeness I think it comes close to accomplishing my purpose. It took three years because frequently I walked away from it; deciding that what I had written for the past hour was garbage and the entire thing was trash and I should tap the delete key and be done with it. But I could not bring myself to delete it, and each time after several months had passed I’d take a hesitant look at it; decide that it really wasn’t too bad and could perhaps be salvaged. And so I plodded on until it ‘felt’ finished. I have printed it, had it spiral bound and placed it out of the way in a desk drawer. At some future time…I don’t know when, I’ll pick it up again, read it from cover to cover, and at that time if I think it’s worth the effort begin the lengthy process of rewriting…rearranging, adding, eliminating, expanding and contracting. In other words, as Stephan King has labeled it, I'll do the housecleaning. Finishing it would be solely for my own satisfaction. It will never be published and only a handful of people at best will read it before it’s consigned to a landfill somewhere.  But even if no one reads it, it was worth the effort, in part because it set free hundreds of moments in my life that had been locked away in the recesses of my mind.

In the 1940s coal was delivered to our house once monthly. Each home had a room in the basement called the “coal bin.” It had a window accessible from the street where the coal truck would park and lower a chute into the room. Two to three workers would pour coal from buckets onto the chute. I remember how black the clothes and faces of the men were, and how coal dust settled on everything in and outside of our house.

To get Ice for our ice box we put a sign in the window. On one side of the sign were the numbers 25 and 50. On the other the numbers were 75 and 100. Depending on how you placed the sign told the delivery truck how many pounds of ice you wanted. Later, when things settled down after the war most of the homes in our neighborhood bought refrigerators and ice delivery stopped. We didn’t have a refrigerator so it was my job to take my coaster wagon to the ice house about eight blocks away to get ice when we needed it.

When my parents decided we could afford a telephone mom went to the neighbor and used their phone to call Ma Bell at the telephone company. The person who answered asked if we wanted a desk or wall phone, and if we wanted a private or semi-private line. It cost less for a semi-private line so that’s what we chose. It was that simple. Two days later we had a black rotary dial phone and anxiously waited for it to ring. If it rang just once the call was for someone else…you never knew who you shared the line with. When it rang twice the call was for us. If you wanted to make a call and heard someone talking when you picked up the phone, you hung up and tried later. To this day I remember that phone number.

School environment was completely different in those days. Teachers and other authority figures – doctors, priests, lawyers, police, etc were respected. Misbehavior in school was rare and limited to petty infractions with sometimes amusing consequences. For example if you were caught chewing gum, you were made to stand in front of the class with the gum on your nose until class ended. If didn’t bother us guys but the girls were usually embarrassed.  

And then there was the ragman. Toward the end of the 1940s horses had pretty much disappeared from Milwaukee’s streets. There were still a few horse drawn milk delivery wagons but if you heard the unmistakable ‘clop-clop’ sound of iron on asphalt you knew that the ragman was in the neighborhood. He would announce his presence with a singsong cry of…”Aaaaa raggggs.”  We kids would always rush up to the horse and pet it while asking the ragman, “What’s the horse’s name?”  Apparently most horses were named “Getouttahere!” If our mothers had rags to sell the ragman would weigh them and pay a few pennies per pound. The woman always complained among themselves that the ragman’s scale was wrong and he was cheating them, but they’d be out there again the next time he came through.

The street in Milwaukee that for many years was my neighborhood, and the house next to Linder’s grocery store where we lived and had coal and ice delivered. This is a recent photo but nothing has really changed in these past seventy years. The Lindner store is long gone (I altered the photo to try to recreate it) and the residents are mostly Hispanic now, but the street, houses and trees are pretty much the same. Often my mother would send me to the store to buy some small item she had run out of…butter, bread and other things. I distinctly remember her giving me ten cents to buy lunch meat for sandwiches. Ten cents! And if I asked him, Ed Lindner would give me a large chunk of beef liver so me and my friends could go crabbin’ at Jackson Park lagoon. If I caught enough crabs I’d take them home and mom would boil them with some ingredients I’ve forgotten and after they cooled, me, my sister Joyce and our parents would sit at the kitchen table and peel and eat them.  There wasn’t much meat on them but they sure were good eating.

Those are just a few of the times in my life I’d forgotten about and through writing a memoir was able to experience them again. Thinking of them warmed my heart and brought a smile to me face. I don’t think being old is necessary to write a memoir. I do think that having the maturity to objectively look at the past and your role in it is crucial because not all memories are pleasant. Like everyone, I’ve had moments of elation and despair; triumph and failure. And like everyone, I’ve done things I’m proud of and others I’d rather forget. In that vein there were some things that were painful to write about but I considered necessary to present a balanced picture of myself to my grandchildren. Other memories were left buried simply because they were too personal to write about.

In looking for information to fill gaps in my memory I discovered what historians already know…memory is the worst tool we have for accurately recording and recalling events. Often I discovered that I remembered things as I wanted them to be, not as my research later proved them to be. It’s hard to give up long held beliefs when confronted with evidence to the contrary. That’s why I say maturity; as well as courage is necessary to write an objective memoir.

Writing a memoir has proven to be much more than I’d anticipated. I was expecting a purely intellectual process involving the arrangement of numbers, dates, places and people in some logical order. I was not prepared to sometimes be put through an emotional wringer, being forced to continuously ask myself “why?”…why did I act as I did…why did I make the choices I made? Why and how did I form the beliefs, values and perceptions that I did? In being confronted with those questions I developed a different, and I hope wiser perspective of the environment I lived in, the people I knew and more importantly, how I became the person I am today.

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