A collection of writing.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

For as long as I can remember

For as long as I can remember, my sister hasn't been able to remember anything. By anything I am referring to sentimental memory. She remembers where all the things are in her house because everything in her house is so meticulously arranged, how could she not? There is none of that messy stacking or pushing plastic containers aside to find the right lid. She has managed to place each and every thing in its each and every place; blocks of post-its are colour-coordinated, bills are in chronological sequence, her remote controls set side by side always in the same order on the coffee table: the TV one is next to the DVD one and the VCR one is on the end because she comes from an age of VCRs and they coexist with the more modern technologies.

Her sentimental memory leaves something to be desired. She has conveniently forgotten most of her childhood and is proud of it. Whenever I ask her to tell me what our mom, who died at the age of 37, was like, she pauses and then, in a most nonchalent way declares, "I don't remember."

This lack of common historical data makes the nice, old time family memory exchanges most unlikely and when they do occur they tend to be a one-sided affair. Most discouragingly, even if she claims to recall nothing, she will not hesitate to correct what she perceives as my mis-guided memory.

"I remember we took egg sandwiches to mom, " I proudly assert.

"You were two. I don't think so," she then tells me that she is going to the kitchen to make something for lunch and asks if she can put me on speaker.

We have been having these speaker conversations for years, but now they are sincronised to the different continents we reside upon. I in Europe, Italy to be exact, and she, Nebraska, in the middle of the United States in a place so flat and so cold that she refuses to leave it, just to spite it, and as it would seem, to spite herself.

My sister has always been plainly honest, unkindly so, arriving painfully to the point in almost any discussion, no matter how grave or delicate. When I told her that I was thinking of having a baby, she told me very plainly that it was just because I missed my dollies and that it would make more sense to go buy one of those than for me to bring a child into the world. Ok, it turned out she was right, but it's the way she says stuff that gets to me.

When I called her from a phone booth in Milan to recount the panic attack I had on the flight that took me to my new home in another country, she announced without conscience or diplomacy, "That was God punishing you."

When I asked her if she was an organ donor, she was quiet and then told me that there was no way she would donate her organs, ever. When I delicately asked why not (explaining how compassionate a move it seemed to me to be), she volunteered that it was nice that I felt so strongly about my convictions and then changed the subject, with a tone that meerly tolerated the musings of a younger sister.

Her insights are extremely versatile and all encompassing. She knows a lot about a lot of stuff and our quarterly conversations usually take the greater part of a day covering everything from soap operas, to film scripts, from child development to political philosophy. This is what makes her interesting and is the reason I like talking to her.

It isn't that she doesn't love me or appreciate me. She helped me write a report on the book, 'Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee' when I was eleven years old, gave me the Boston Women's Collective publication of 'Our Bodies, Ourselves', introduced me to The Byrds' 'Sweetheart of the Rodeo' and Elton John's 'Goodbye Yellowbrick Road' and invited me to stay with her every summer in Denver, San Diego or Boston, depending on where she was living at the time, rescuing me from, well, our family. She shared her space, her time, her friends, her money, her daughter, her clothes, herself with me. It's just that she doesn't remember any of that, so you can't really sit down and reminisce about the good old days with someone who was there but hasn't got a clue what you're talking about.

Recently I got up the nerve to suggest that she be kinder with her words. She told me to grow a thicker skin. About seven years ago, during one of our marathon conversations, I said, "God, you and I are completely different!" This for me, was a revelation.

"Well, duh," she said.

My sister could ice skate. there are photos of her and mom on the ice across from grandma's house at 102 Waterloo. They look natural, dotting a white canvas with long, extended leg, pom-pom stocking caps, striped socks and felt skirts.

I tried to skate once and was coaxed out into the center of the rink by my schoolmates, guiding me as I weaved the blades inward and outward, inward and outward. Then when I thought it could get no worse, a whistle blew and a man's voice, interrupting the BeeGees music blaring from the speaker system, told everyone to clear the ice. I waivered. I tried to move but could not. Twenty seconds later I was alone, in the middle of the skating rink, a mere echo of myself, mortified. The humming of the ice cleaning machine came closer when I realised that the guy was going to have to swing by and pick me to take me to safety of the carpeted corridor that ran from the ice to the place where you rent your skates. Sitting down on one of those long benches, I unlaced mine, tears rolling down my face and off the tip of my nose. I never skated again. That kind of thing would never have happened to my sister. She liked sports.

She follows football and my dad loves that about her. (I pretend to be interested in football so I can talk to my father about something when I visit.) She knows the game, the players, the rules, the records, the trophy winners and the coaches. To me The Cornhuskers are the team that I used to pray would win so my dad would be in a good mood on Sunday afternoons. Otherwise, things could get ugly. Spit would fly while curse words intertwined with the names of players I never heard of and I would run into my bedroom, put on Liza Minelli records and lay low until he went to work the next morning.

This last Christmas she had some old film restored and transferred to a digital format as a present for our dad and our step mom Patti. I asked her if it had been sad to watch it.

"I sent you a copy- you can watch for yourself."

Is it sad? I persisted. No, she said it had not been sad for her to watch the footage of babies growing up and puppy dogs in the grass and the old house on Jackson Boulevard and the baseball toss in the yard and the little boy, our brother Scott, who at the age of 47 would commit suicide. It had not been sad for her.

I sat down the afternoon her package arrived and watched the frames of a lifetime away that started before I was born. There was my sister, first child, round, dimpled, smiling. There was our brother blowing out the candles on a chocolate cake. There was our dad and mom at the Bronx Zoo and the cherry blossoms of our nation's capital. And there was me. That footage had been taken after mom was gone. I was two. There were cousins and a cat and dog. There was a dolly on my lap.

When she asked me what I thought about the films, I told her she was right. They weren't sad and thanked her for putting it together for all of us. I told her that it was cool to see Scott and she agreed it was and then we talked about manicures and books. She went into the kitchen to fix something to eat and as I pictured her under the light of her stove, opening the fridge door, cutting up vegetables and picking herbs from her balcony, she put me on speaker. By the time I hung up, the sun was down on my side of the world while her day was just getting started. I picked up my dog and took him to bed and as I lay in there, I thought about the time my sister and I took the bus, 15 hours north to visit grandma. She was teaching me French phrases from her high school course. The next time we talked I reminded her about that trip to Rapid City but she told me she didn't remember.


  1. Here is a comment from the subject of my essay, my sister Valerie:

    Part ONE:

    Let's consider the phrase ...
    "For as long as I can remember."

    Is that "as long" as in as far back?
    Is that "as long" as in what shape your current memory is in?
    Is that "as long" as any one person can "remember" back to?
    Is that "as long" as I (with the emphasis on me) can "remember" - as opposed to "as long" as you (not me) can "remember?"
    Is that "as long" as I CAN remember - as opposed to CAN'T remember?

    Who knows!
    It's the English language.
    And the use of the English language - as a society. Or culture.
    And the individual's use of the English language, which - of course - differs from one individual to another. Not to mention what this English phrase means to someone who doesn't speak English as a first language.

    It is what it is.
    You say it. I say it. He, she, it says it. You say it. We say it. They say it. (Remember that verb conjugation sequence from French? Or whatever?)

    But if we are indeed talking about memories - as many or as few as they may be - as vivid or as pale as they may be - as real or as imagined or as embellished or as stripped down as they may be - then everyone has memories.

    Here I am reminded of the Streisand classic … Bergman, Bergman, Hamlisch.
    “Memories … Like the corners of my mind … Misty watercolor memories - Of the way we were..Scattered pictures … Of the smiles we left behind … Smiles we gave to one another - For the way we were. Can it be that it was all so simple then? Or has time rewritten every line? If we had the chance to do it all again … Tell me - would we? Could we? Memories … May be beautiful and yet. What’s too painful to remember … We simply choose to forget. So it’s the laughter - We will remember. Whenever we remember - The way we were. The way we were.”

    After my Grams died, I sat in a BIG storage unit – in the middle of her memories – which became real history to me. Each box that was opened; each sack that was emptied; each note in her handwriting – or in my handwriting – or in someone’s handwriting that I read; each piece of clothing and jewelry; each photo (no writing on the back) of each person I DID or DIDN’T know; each tangible tactile item. It took days, weeks, months.

    What she kept (and there was PLENTY) are now in my head and in my heart and in my soul. Sometimes I look at my garage and wonder who will sit for days, weeks, months looking at my memories.

    Who knows.

  2. Part TWO:

    I recently thought about starting a BUCKET LIST. Not a list of all those things I haven’t done, but would like to do before I die. But all the things I never did, because I chose not to. I figure at the age of almost 60 that there should be at least 20 – 40 – ? But, no. There aren’t 20 – 40 - ? Is that because I DID most everything I wanted … OR because I can’t remember what I DIDN’T do – by choice.

    After a few months of intermittently contemplating, I figure this is it.
    1.I never worked the Olympics (for TV) – which means I never went to the Opening Ceremonies.
    2.I never went to dinner with a sportscaster in LA who thought he was “all that.”
    3.I never got rich.
    4.I never got famous.
    5.I never talked about the men in my life OR the men NOT in my life.
    6.I never talked about my altered states of consciousness OR NOT.
    7.I never got my short story published in Cosmopolitan.
    8.I never held a staff meeting in the men’s urinal – though I threatened to.
    9.I never got married more than once.
    10.I never had more than one child. (I am fond of saying, “I did it once. I did it right. I didn’t have to do it again.”)
    11.I never stayed “too long at the fair.” Another English-ism that means I didn’t do anything until I was too old, or too forgetful, or too self-centered, or too isolated, or too self-deluding, or too used up.
    12.I never looked too far ahead.
    13.I never betrayed those I respected.
    14.I never started something I didn’t finish.
    15.I never lived my life on terms defined by someone else.
    16.I never lost my faith.
    17.I never lost my soul.
    18.I never lost my sense of humor.
    19.I never lost my sense of irony.
    20.I never lost myself.

    OK, so there’s 20.

    There are plenty of things I can’t find.
    What happened to that short story I wrote for Cosmo?
    What happened to that exposé I wrote on the University of Nebraska Miss America Preliminary?
    What happened to that dress my mother made me for my report I gave in elementary school on New York City?
    What happened to my sheet music for “What’s it All about, Alfie?”
    What happened to that picture of me and Mike Vostad from the Homecoming Dance at Washington High School in Sioux Falls – a vibrant purple crepe chemise – when my hair looked perfect – and the guy gave me my one-and-only orchid, which he couldn’t afford?
    What happened to Mike Vostad?
    What happened to Bill Smith?
    What happened to that fake leather dress (with the puffy inset silk sleeves) that I made to see BJ Thomas?
    What happened to that 60’s green crepe/full length/one-shoulder prom dress I made (with the new-fangled plastic zipper that kept coming unzipped)?
    What happened to the bright pink/full length Las Vegas gown I wore in the UNL Miss America Preliminary. Or the peasant dress with the shawl that I wore in the talent competition?
    What happened to the bright pink crepe/full length prom dress (with the fall) that I wore to Creighton Prep?
    What happened to the B/W blocked shift I wore for graduation from Westside High School?
    What happened to the purple short shorts/matching top I wore on the streets of NYC in the summer?
    What happened to the hot pants I wore on the floor of the Nebraska Unicameral as a page?
    What happened to my peach-colored twist dress I wore to my first boy/girl party in Rapid City?
    OK … enough about clothes!
    What happened to the mobile I made for my daughter’s baby room?
    What happened to my Book of Job from Job’s Daughters?
    What happened to the Masonic book (from my Grandfather) that I gave to my friend Steve who died?
    What happened to the wall-size oil painting of my brother’s eyes?
    What happened to my size 12?
    What happened to my brown hair?
    What happened to my pink DeSoto with the B/W leather interior and all-electric push button everything?
    What happened to my voice?
    What happened to my face?
    What happened?

    WOW … that’s a long list!

  3. Part THREE:

    So … let us return to … “For as long as I can remember.”

    Well, that says it all. Don’t you think?

    For as long as I can remember … is as long as I can remember.

    Do I wish there was more? No.
    Do others wish there was more? Probably.

    Is there more? I would rather contemplate that question in the context of LIFE. And DEATH.

    Here’s one thing I know for sure. I was always an old person in whatever age my body was.

    First, I was the only child. Then I was the oldest child. Then I was the eldest grand daughter and the eldest daughter. Then I was the only mother my daughter has. Then I was the only Grammy my grandbabies have on the Marino side. Then I was the end of the Marino line. And, one day, I will be the only child, the oldest child, the eldest grand daughter and the eldest daughter … but I won’t be anyone’s little girl anymore.



About Me

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That's my fabulous dog, Martin, who models the 'downward-facing-dog'yoga posture for me each and every miraculous day. He is a great companion, stellar traveler and all-around lovebug.