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These little things (11/01/2010)
By Janet Lewis Burns
Isn’t it amazing that, as we age and accumulate memory after memory, we can recall certain seemingly insignificant bits and pieces from our distant past? You run into former acquaintances from time to time, and classmates at reunions, and something stirs within you, an intimate familiarity.

It can be like the lyrics to that old, sentimental song, “a cigarette that bears lipstick traces, the sigh of midnight trains in empty stations, the winds of March that make my heart a’ dancin’ , a telephone that rings but who’s to answer, how strange, how sweet to find you still, and still my heart has wings. These foolish things remind me of you.” Well, I may be getting somewhat sappy, but you get the picture.

It was the lighter fluid that did it! As I sat with our fellow squatters around one of our last campfires this season up north, the acrid scent of smoldering wood soaked with lighter fluid ignited my memory bank. My mind somersaulted back to my 9-10 year old, shy and moody self. I was sitting on the narrow, wooden bench with Mrs. Harner, as she gave me piano lessons on our monstrosity upright, “plink, plunk” piano back home, pushed into a corner of our playroom like a beached whale.

In wintertime, a white-headed Mrs. Harner, along with her talent and patience, bore the lingering scent of fuel oil on the delicate, sheer dresses she always wore. I hadn’t thought of her for decades. I must not have shown much promise, my momentary doorway to fame slammed shut on the likes of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata,” Liszt’s “Liebestraum,” and something called, “Papa Hayden’s Dead & Gone,” which was the extent of my short-lived abilities. I soon discovered that piano practice interrupted the call of the wild...my inclination to flee the confines of responsibility.

Times, they are a’changin’ ! Think of all that’s come to pass in our parents’ and grandparents’ lifetimes! Most started out frugally, yet content, down to earth, making do, living simply, and adhering to Christian virtues, in the conservative Midwest. It was a laborious, manual world back then. A man’s word and handshake were good as gold.

In this new millennium, it’s more apparent than ever that leisure, once a precious commodity, has been sacrificed –for making big money and a name for one’s self, to flit from one social event to another, to give our children the opportunity to compete and to excel in everything (whether they want to or not,) for greedy, cutthroat pursuits, to spend money before earning it, and to finance and promote unscrupulous political agendas.

The most used kitchen aides at that time just after WW II were busy women’s hands – kneading, stirring, whipping, washing, stoking, peeling, scouring, and scrubbing. My folks burned wood in the kitchen and basement in clumsy, dirty wood stoves, when I was in grade school, so the furnace wouldn’t run as often.

It seems ridiculous, in light of present spendthrift habits, remembering how Dad would harp about using too much water to take a bath and turning off the light when we left a room. Mom religiously salvaged bread bags (by the drawer-full,) grease left in frying pans, dry bread and sweet rolls to spread over the snow for the birds, and bits and pieces of bar soap to scrunch together for reuse.

I recall cutting strips of cloth from old clothing to fashion into colorful balls for carpet rags. The better pieces of somebody’s shirt, slacks, apron, and dress were stitched together by hand and filled with eiderdown, at quilting bees, to create unique and homespun bed covers. There remains a demand for these quilts, which sell for prices our grannies would have conniption fits over.

These little things define and distinguish one generation from another, and reflect progress and advancements in technological pursuits. This new millennium will be a doozey!

It depends on what you mean by the word “progress.”

Janet Burns hoards many memories of small town USA. She can be reached there today at patandjanburns@embarqmail.com

 

 

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