Lois Greene Stone, writer and poet, has been syndicated worldwide. Poetry and personal essays have been included in hard & softcover book anthologies. Collections of her personal items/ photos/ memorabilia are in major museums including twelve different divisions of The Smithsonian.
DESCENDING A STAIRCASE
Downsize. Change. Simple words sometimes remind us that our passage through time has changed from ‘endless’ to closer to ending. Our adult lives were shaped by observation and quiet commentary from others. Reflection, yet always noticing a ‘new’ in familiar, is part of the present.
As sun streams into my personal office, in what once had been my daughter’s growing-up bedroom, I’ve noticed that my oak desk drawers no longer match the plastic laminate top. The real wood slowly faded its color in streaks of sun-bleached patterns; the effect has a modern art appearance.
Cardboard boxes, that once contained shoes, currently store unsorted photographs my widowed mother had once given me to assemble and hand down to the next generation; stacked on my desk, the boxes look like steps leading to nowhere. My memory flashes a futuristic painting I had to learn for an Art History class: Nude Descending a Staircase. As if taking a test, I scribbled Marcel Duchamp’s name on a scrap-paper pad, then added ‘lines, angles, experience going down a flight of stairs’. I marvel a moment at the human brain and its ability to store, then process, information it received decades ago.
Outside the double-hung window with its plastic partitions to form window panes, only mounds of snow seem visible. My calendar changes the year. This seems to be a good time, without birds chirping or the need-to-go-outdoors distraction, to finally force myself to pull down the uppermost cardboard box, descend its stairs-shape, and begin to clump that collection into distant past, past, more current. The brand name, of the pair of shoes once nestled inside amid thin tissue paper, assaults my eyes. I pull several yellow two-ply nasal tissues from the holder propped near a brass desk lamp, and try to cover the side of the box’s shoe logo. The tissues drift down and clump helplessly.
The house is quiet; I am alone. I glance again outside the window glass as a few flakes of snow tap and briefly cling to a pane, then I look at the first black and white photograph. My maternal grandmother, in a proper dark suit and hat, carrying white gloves, is standing at the opposite end of a high desk. My short-stature grandfather, in 1917, is being sworn in as an American citizen. The pin stripes on his suit look narrow next to the thick stripes on our country’s flag that was spread open and tacked to a wall as if it were a huge picture. The stars are fewer than our current flag. ‘Mama had been secreted out of Russia by horse-drawn cart as a 16 year old girl, settled in New York City, sent for her fiancé who came in steerage, and they were married in New York. Papa is a photographer’. My mother had affixed this data on the 5x7 photo’s back. The swearing-in as citizens event, even to my mother, had less importance than her sentences about her parents’ courage plus their wish to be part of America’s people. The photograph concealed their traveling in steerage, having to learn to speak English, living in a walk-up tiny apartment with one bathroom for all tenants on the floor. My mother’s handwritten note had me think about her parents as refugees, also once young with ‘endless’ life ahead.
I picked up the second photo lying in my cardboard box. My grandpa was on a stage with Eleanor Roosevelt; she was at a podium delivering a speech. An on-stage sign read “Learn the 3 R’s of To-day Registration-Reconversion-Reconstruction Women Make History on October Registration Days” My grandpa had much less hair than in 1917, so I quickly turned the photo over to see if, perhaps, someone had scrawled the date but no one had.
Negatives. In our present digital camera time, there are no negatives to slip into envelopes we have to date so if/when we want a copy of an old picture, we slide the negative from its sleeve and give to a developer. Negatives were the actual size of the photo back in the early 20th century. A brown envelope had preserved a collection of 5x7 black and white negatives. No developer today would even have the equipment to make copies from any. My boxes of 35mm slides, capturing my children’s growing years, are obsolete and no projectors are being manufactured anymore. I put the negatives in the bottom of the shoe box.
When I was teaching English Composition at a local college, I found myself so absorbed in each student’s words that I spent way too much time reading/grading individual essays. I was doing the same with these old pictures. Realizing that just one box would take hours, I did the ‘easier’ thing, what I couldn’t do with students’ essays: I put the cover back on the box for a ‘someday’ pretending that the future years have longer lengths.
Going downstairs, I wondered if that cubist painter, studied in my Art History class, would have captured more than the lines and angles of my legs and arms in a ‘z’ shape just like my staggered cardboard boxes of photos appear? What might he have drawn had he seen the boxes on my desk? I’m superimposing people and cardboard storage in my head; perhaps that would be painted.
Downsize. Quite impossible when choices have to be made. Easy to toss out the trash or today’s newspaper, but tangible pieces of our lives require consideration even if there’s no monetary value. How much easier it’d be to put an old leather baby shoe into the garbage.... or would it? Why was it saved for decades in the first place?
I can alter my daughter’s growing-up space into my personal office room because furniture and square footage don’t have handwritten notes affixed. However, I was shaped by observation and quiet commentary by so many faces in black and white photos, I can’t consign them to oblivion
PREVIOUSLY PUBLISHED - 2009 The Jewish Press
A LENGTH OF CLOTH
Draped by a neighbor’s front door is a pretty ornamental flag with a pattern of flowers and potted plants. The owner changes it seasonally. But my mind flashes to the Service Stars from my childhood: red background, gold rectangle center, a blue star centered and a blue ‘v’ in the gold rectangle. I think there were gold fringes on the bottom. Not very large, I hung these banners on my bedroom window as it was in the front of our house; anyone passing on the street knew that we had family members serving in the World War II armed forces. If a gold star was on anyone’s banner, it meant someone in that family had been killed in action.
With 25-cents allowance money, I bought tiny war-stamps and pasted each carefully into a special album; when I had 75 collected, I could actually get a $25 War Savings Bond! Since posters seemed to be affixed to many-many walls proclaiming ‘Buy Victory Bonds’, I felt patriotic and grinned when looking at one as I, too, was part of the Bond drive.
My mother got ration stamps; these were not fun nor collectibles. Monthly there were 48 blue ones for canned goods, and 64 red ones for perishables. I don’t know why she kept calm when I used an entire month’s worth of sugar rationing attempting to make my own marshmallows, failing to read the directions, and tossing out the mess!
I never thought about gas being rationed because there were busses and the Long Island Railroad near by, but some relatives on the South Shore of Long Island said they were only allotted three gallons of gasoline each week. Sounded okay to me.
We ate a lot of what my mother home-canned. Seemed like a strange term because she was using a jar and not a tin can. Many vegetables came from our Victory Garden in the backyard, and I hadn’t realized that meat was in short supply as I much preferred macaroni anyway.
I created my own coloring books. Mostly, the ones for sale, were “America at War”, or “Flying for Victory”. Since I cut out my self-designed paper dolls and fashioned their clothes, drawing copy and pictures for a coloring book was pleasant, creative, easy for me.
Could I collect more scrap metal than my sisters? I crushed each empty tin can with my shoes to make it flat. If, on the street, I saw discarded foil from a cigarette, I picked it up and added it to my ‘save’ pile. My mother drained all the grease from cooked chickens, and such, and put that into glass jars to donate to the ‘war effort’. Grease was too disgusting for me.
Some mothers on our street were Rosie the Riveters, actually wore slacks, and worked with fire-torches in steelworks. Imagine that! My mother, in her snood covering her hair, and her Swirl wrap dress, was a housewife.
“Oklahoma” opened on Broadway in 1943 and was still very popular by 1945; then came “Carousel” at the Majestic Theatre. Musicals were a wonderful escape from reality, and I was completely engrossed with the singing and dancing even if I didn’t quite understand the social message. Sure, for 30-cents I could see a double-feature movie, cartoons, and a Newsreel, but too many films were about war.
Writing V-Mail and receiving letters back from uncles overseas also was another adventure. It didn’t bother me that someone actually read my mail, or theirs, and deleted portions with heavy black lines thinking something being written was harmful to our country, I liked the idea that my words had enough impact to have someone take the time to cover up what seemed suspicious. I barely knew what ‘suspicious’ was.
The war ended; my parents cried with happiness. I shrugged my shoulders because I didn’t understand politics or such anyway. What I did understand was my 1945 outfits had skirts with too much fabric, went to mid-calf, and was all because the textile people suddenly had material again. The ladies who seemed to like actually find working outside the house and getting a paycheck were told to go back to their houses as the men would be home to replace them. Some were angry; I didn’t understand that either.
President Truman proclaimed a ‘day’ set aside each year to honor mothers of America, and Mother’s Day was to begin on May 13, 1945. I bought a gardenia for my mother, yet still had a penny left for my sugar-dots affixed to paper that I so loved to eat.
I took the banners off my window panes; my uncles were coming home and the stars had stayed blue. But, at that age, I’d thought a gold star was like my piano teacher’s on my sheet music and never did associate it with anything else.
We don’t have Service Star flags in our 21st Century, but wars continue, history repeats itself, terrorism hit America in 9-11, and freedom to enter schools or cross the bridge into Canada with ease is gone. On doors, some hang decorative flags and change each with the seasons; the flags are pretty to look at and not associated with anything except an art form.
Our troops today, in places we rarely studied in history classes years ago, feel anxiety not too different from those who donned uniforms in each war. What if they were honored by silk rectangles affixed to windows facing streets? Think neighbors might pause and nod to other neighbors a little more often?
©2009 The Jewish Press (7/3/2009 issue)
reprinted July/August 2010 Over the Back Fence
reprinted July 2011 Senior Beacon