created memory in Gertrude Felton Portante
SEVEN SCORE YEARS AND TEN
Two days ago, late in the afternoon of her 85th birthday, my mother
During the last weeks of her illness I was comforted by the exchange
of e-mail with two cherished friends -- one from my Chicago days, and
the other from here in Berkeley. We talked (typed, actually) about my
grief. My loss. My sense of a .bottomless depth of sadness. And even
as I described how I was feeling I began to wonder about the
dimensions of such a personal loss.
Having spent a decade to become an anthropologist, I can still quote
chapter and verse from scholars who’ve written about loss. About
‘webs of meaning’ we are born into. About knowing one’s place in
larger circles of history.
Death has made those ideas intensely personal.
So much of who I am, how I see, and how I understand comes from a
world defined by stories my mother told me.
Some of my earliest memories of stories were about my Great
Grandmother. I remember hearing she was a pioneer who set out to
cross the continent in a covered wagon. Nebraska was as far as they
got. There, in the side of a hill on the prairie,she and her husband
built a sod house. Handed down to me from that time is a single
artifact -- a quilt. A beautiful patchwork quilt stitched, I’m
certain, in front of a giant fire in that sod house, in a setting
that comes straight from American history books. That pioneer’s
daughter was my Grandmother.
By the time I met my Grandmother -- she was already a frail, older
woman living alone in a sleepy town in Southern Ohio. She lived in
simple farmhouse that conjures memories of sweet smelling old wood
and a flour-y pantry. Her house was on a street made of red bricks
and bordered by stately trees. Up and down her street were other
sweet-smelling houses. All with great country pantries. All with
swinging benches on their wrap-around porches
And, of course, her daughter was my mother.
And it’s with her that my world of stories flourished. It was a world
beginning around eighty years ago.
I listened to stories about her mother’s childhood. About her fear of
late summer tornadoes. About her fanciful taste in color names --
‘Baghdad Blue’ being her favorite.
But mostly I listened to stories about her own lifetime.
There were stories about growing up on a farm in the ‘20s and ‘30s.
About a town judge whose feet were so big --so the local joke went --
that used them as snow shoes during great blizzards. About an
eccentric aunt who made a living arguing that William Shakespeare
couldn’t possibly have been the author of certain plays. About
bungalow houses my Grandfather built for $900. About the arrival of
electricity to the farm. About a Shetland pony named Trixie and a
grape-leaf arbor where Pinky, the lamb, would sleep.
There were stories about the Great Depression. Stories of hobos who
would come to the door to ask for food. Stories about ‘show offs’ in
the general store who would display their affluence by jingling coins
in their pockets. Stories about Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation
Corps and the Works Progress Authority.Stories about school teachers
having to bribe a crooked county official by the name of Nixon in
order to get jobs.
And there were stories about a world slipping into global conflict.
About my Grandfather, Tom Felton, listening to the radio and shaking
his head as the world watched the rise of fascism. About the decades
of nightmares of an uncle who took part in the Normandy invasion.
All unremarkable stories except that they come from the experiences
of people with whom I share DNA. Experiences that creep into my
consciousness with remarkable regularity.
By their telling, these are stories that act to extend my life into a
world 70 or 80 years ago.
You and I -- all of us-- stand somewhere in moving circles of time.
We are intimately linked to these immediate ancestors. And were are
just as firmly tied to lives of those yet unborn.
I have a 7 year-old daughter who’s started to hear about a world
thoroughly unlike her coastal California life. She is listening to my
experiences set nearly fifty years ago in a town thousands of miles
away. Stories of my first pre-dawn fishing tripunder a place called
The Silver Bridge. Of my mother staying awake all night to sew the
cloth onto a box kite I needed for school. Stories about our tomato
patch on the hill behind our house. Of my mother and father trying to
set up an ice-rink on a punishingly cold and windy day. About my
mother’s discovery that Bobby Benkins and I had been caught in the
local school bell tower trying to snitch a clockwork gear.
My daughter listens to the stories I heard from my mother. For my
daughter these are tales from a century ago and a world away. And
what I pray for so fervently is that some of those stories become a
part of my daughter. And that they find their ways to grandchildren I
may never meet.
Seven score years and ten. One hundred and fifty years. That is the
size of the circle of time I stand in. My tribute to those who have
come before, my responsibility to those who will follow, is to make
sure I fill in the still-empty parts of that circle.
Sixty-some years ago when the world was at war, my mother was in the
US Coast Guard. Her assigned task was to prevent sabotage at the
country's largest aircraft engine factory.
It seems that young Petty Officer Portante had a sense of humor.
According to the stories, she and a fellow Petty Officer had a running gag that made daily military inspections an exercise in controling their giggles.
One morning the inspection was especially long. A military consultant was being shown the factory. It was a morning, it seems, when whatever the running gag was -- was especially funny.
So there was my uniformed mother -- a handsome and vibrant woman in her 20's, working very hard not to laugh.
A week later a book of poetry arrived at the aircraft plant --
addressed to my mother. It's a book we still have in the family library. The inscription on the book's frontpiece was "Hail to Thee Blithe Spirit." And it was signed by that visiting consultant, Charles Lindberg.
It is to that spirit, that twinkle, that occasionally irrepressible
ability to find something funny -- that I'll speak in the morning.
God speed blithe spirit. We'll miss you.
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