Posts tagged: memoir
After I’ve run the security gauntlet, after I’ve shown my ID, after I’ve exposed the contents of my bag to whoever is manning the scanner, after I’ve emptied my pockets and made my way through, the world shrinks to the faces and voices I hear in the airport.
An airport is a collection of every kind of human and there is no better place for watching people. The strangers in the crowd are rich, poor, kind, crude, happy and unhappy. They are young. They are old. They sprint down the concourse or they ride in chairs pushed by others. We all hurry and we all wait. We move forward and stand in line. Some speak languages I don’t understand, but at that moment we all have one thing in common: We are all trying to get from here to there.
I stop to buy some fruit for breakfast and beside me a man sits hunched over the bar, his overnight bag at his feet. His face is strained and his mind is far away and I wonder if more than his drink is on the rocks.
As I walk past the “spa” another man stares off into the distance as he massages the neck of one more anonymous passenger who’s bought a little time in the chair. He is a robot with strong, warm, hands.
I find an empty gate and stop to charge my phone before I depart. A few rows away a pilot, his luggage piled beside him, is talking on the phone and after a few minutes I realize he’s talking to his wife and they are discussing the terms of their upcoming divorce. His voice is thick with anger and pain and, embarrassed to have stumbled into the scene, I unplug my phone and move on.
When my flight is called, people immediately crowd the gate, jockeying for position too early, dragging heavy bags behind them, anxious to get on the plane as quickly as possible before all the overhead bin space is filled. One couple works as a team. She edges forward, slipping between people who are distracted by last-minute emails or texts, their attention on their iPhones instead of what is going on around them. Once she’s in place she motions for him and he slides in beside her. Another mans silently gauges the diligence of the gate agent and I see him decide to slip into the priority line, hoping the harried agent won’t notice. She doesn’t.
On the plane two elderly women, their white hair permed, pink scalp showing between the tight curls, settle into their seats and, delighted to have an empty seat between them, forget we haven’t even taken off. They drop the middle seat-back tray and set up the picnic they’ve brought along, just like they’re on a train. They pull out sandwiches brought from home, wrapped in aluminum foil and tucked into folded paper plates, then settle back into their seats. Moments later the flight attendant comes by, sees what they’ve done, and gently—like she’s speaking to her own grandmother—tells them the tray must be up for takeoff. They’re embarrassed and hurriedly put everything away but something in me responds to their sweetness, their homemade picnic and the gentle way they do as their told.
Once all passengers are on board, just before they close the doors, a woman tries to switch to an empty seat a few rows up but it’s in an upgrade section and the flight attendants won’t let her. “It wouldn’t be fair to those who paid extra to sit there,” they tell her. The woman goes back to her assigned seat, with a few less inches of legroom, and turns away to look out the window.
Sometime during the flight we pass over the Rockies and the air becomes rough. The man across the aisle smooths his palms over his knees again and again in a soothing motion. His face shows nothing but his hands keep moving until the worst is over. I wonder what he would do if I reached out and covered his hand with mine, the way I would do with one of my children.
The women eat their picnic.
When we land everyone jumps up and starts dragging bags out of the bins, piling them into the aisles and around their feet, anxious to get away, to be part of the prisoner exchange that happens each time a plane rolls up to a gate.
It’s like a movie. All hours of the day, in airports around the world, the scenes are repeated as passengers file in and passengers file out. Each of us carries more than a bag, more than a boarding pass. We all bear the invisible weight of a story.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap’s audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the U.S. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at email@example.com
Photo: Seedlings grown at Arbor Day Farm are ready to be sent to new Arbor Day Foundation members
I call the Hawthorn tree outside the window my “weather tree.” If it has leaves, it is summer. If the leaves are wet, it is raining. If it has berries, it is fall. If there is snow on the branches, it is winter. If the limbs are edged with tiny green buds, it is spring.
Countless times each day as I work, I glance up at the tree, noticing the way the birds are dancing in the branches or the wind has set it in motion. March can’t make up its mind, but April starts the short season of spring in the Northwest. Flowers bloom, trees, like my Hawthorn, bud out, grass begins to grow again, sending pale green blades up through the dead leaves and other detritus of the previous fall and winter. Tulips wake up and jonquils bloom. April stirs a body. It makes you want to go out and plant things. Like a tree.
April also brings Arbor Day and countless tiny tree seedlings packaged to be given away to school children across the country, always with the same exhortation: Plant trees!
Last fall I visited Arbor Day Farm in Nebraska City, Nebraska, and the sight of tables full of plastic tubes filled with miniature Blue Spruce, White Pine and other species being packed to ship out to new Arbor Day Foundation members, brought back the excitement of being a child given the gift of a tree, and the way we felt important as we planted the spindly seedlings in the back yard.
I walked the grounds of the teaching farm, through the Hazelnut grove, through the orchard, sampling heirloom apples, and I was reminded of the importance of trees in my own history.
My grandfather was a naturalist and often pulled one of his tree-identification books from the bookshelf to show me an illustration. He kept a mental inventory of beautiful or rare trees he discovered as he drove the back roads of the deep south. I remember him pulling over and stopping the car to show me a tall Dawn Redwood in the neighborhood. He pointed to the tangled branches of the Monkey Puzzle tree in the yard of a grand old house at the edge of town. When the majestic Ginkgo trees at the small private college with which he was affiliated turned to gold, he took me to see them, waiting patiently while I gathered a handful of delicate heart and fan-shaped leaves that had fallen. One year he gave me a small Ginkgo. I planted it, moved it twice, and then finally left it behind as I moved away forever. As far as I know it is still there, an unmarked legacy to a man who loved nature and loved me.
When I moved west to Spokane I immediately visited the city’s “tree garden,” the 56 acres of trees and shrubs at Finch Arboretum just west of downtown. I still go there sometimes. It is an excellent place to wander.
While I was at Arbor Day Farm, my daughter and son-in-law were in the process of buying their first home. I decided I would give them an Arbor Day Foundation membership as a housewarming gift so they could plant the 10 free trees that come with the membership in their new backyard. My son, another nature-lover who grew up to be the kind of man my grandfather would approve of, spent the winter studying the history and properties of that most majestic tree, the Douglas Fir. I decided he needed a membership as well and I know he will happily plant his ten tiny firs on the property surrounding his mountain cabin. I am intrigued by the foundation’s work on sustainable hazelnut farming as a way to provide nutrition and combat the effects of climate change. Joining that charter will give me three hazelnut bushes of my own.
I still have a box of old photos that belonged to my grandparents and there are one or two faded, unmarked, photographs of trees that must have caught his eye for one reason or another. Looking at them I remember they were taken before cell phone cameras, that he didn’t just drive by and snap a photo the way I do now. He would have had to make a trip with a camera. Then the film or slide would have to be developed. This wasn’t a whim. It was a compulsion.
I thought of that when I came across an old Arbor Day poster. It stated “Trees prevent wind erosion. They save moisture and protect crops.” True. But it was what was written after that that grabbed my attention and resonated in me. “Trees,” the poster declared, “contribute to human comfort and happiness.” And they do.
Beyond the indisputable environmental impact, there is an intimate connection between trees and the human spirit. Looking up at the constantly-changing sky through the branches of a tree, feeling the texture of the bark against our fingertips, breathing in the organic perfume of a living thing, we’re moved in subtle ways we don’t always stop to recognize.
Sometimes, like the Hawthorn outside my window, they simply remind us that there is a rhythm to life, a cycle of seasons that come and go and come again.
Note: National Arbor day is the last Friday in April but each state can set its own day. In Spokane, Arbor Day events will be held on Saturday, April 26.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap’s audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
I hadn’t been in New Orleans for a long time, but the mystique is still true; the city is one you don’t forget. A lot has changed over time and after the devastating hurricane in 2005, but as I walked, taking in familiar sights, the distinctive architecture, the soft Southern voices and the sounds of jazz and Zydeco music, I knew exactly where I was.
I’d flown down to cover the maiden U. S. voyage of the Carnival Sunshine, sailing from the Port of New Orleans, and my husband was with me. We had a day to explore the city before the cruise began and we made a quick tour of the French Quarter and the waterfront, before heading up Magazine street to the New Orleans destination we’d really come to see: The World War II Museum.
I spent a week last summer touring the countryside of the Normandy region of France, and I’d visited most of the D-Day landing sites and museums. Since my return, I haven’t been able to shake the experience. The scope and stories of the profoundly life-changing experiences of the survivors, and the sheer number of lives lost, is, even 70 years later, overwhelming. I was anxious to see how the WWII Museum’s D-Day exhibit captured that time in history.
But first, before we explored anything indoors, we had another, more personal, monument to see. When the museum opened in 2000 my husband’s family purchased a commemorative brick to honor their father who served in the Marines and was stationed in the South Pacific during WWII. My husband, with one of our daughters, had visited the brick once before, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, but I hadn’t seen it.
With the help of a map supplied by museum staff, we found my father-in-law’s engraved brick on the walkway near the entrance of the museum. My husband brushed away a few fallen leaves and I took his photo with it. We stood there for a few more minutes without saying anything, both of us lost in our own thoughts of someone we’d loved.
My father-in-law died in 2009 and he never got to see the small monument his children placed at the museum to honor him. But he knew it was there and I think it pleased him.
For the next week, cruising around the Caribbean, soaking up as much sun as possible before going back to the cold, already snowy, Northwest, my mind kept going back to the red brick carved with my father-in-law’s name and the torpedo bomber squadron to which he’d been assigned.
I’m glad we’d dedicated most of our free time in New Orleans to visiting the museum. The D-Day exhibit was moving and comprehensive and captured the true horror of the battles of the war. And it gave us a chance to revisit a personal history, to stop and take a moment to remember a kind and gentle man.
We travel to experience the unique culture of another place. We travel to explore history and to broaden our view of the world around us. But I’ve come to realize that there is another benefit to travel. At some moment, usually when we least expect it, usually wrapped in fragrance, color or some other sense, even the most seemingly insignificant moment is stored somewhere in our memory and can return like a gift.
It is winter here now. The days are short and sunlight is scarce. For weeks the temperature has hovered just over, but usually under, freezing. Fog rises and lingers. Clouds the color of lead hang over us. I’m not complaining. That’s just how it is in this part of the world at this time of the year. But the other night I reached into the refrigerator for olives to serve with our meal. As I put them on a tray for the table, I suddenly remembered standing on a pathway in Italy, just under the branches of an olive tree on a narrow terrace above the sailboats in the bay of Portofino. The ground around me was littered with fruit and leaves that had fallen. It was mid-October, just before the start of the Italian harvest season but there were already a few dark ripe olives on the pathway. I stooped and picked them up and held them in the palm of my hand, appreciating the frisson of pleasure at the memory of being in a beautiful place so far from home.
At home the weather was already beginning to change. Winter was only weeks away. But I’d claimed a few days grace in the sun by making the journey to Italy. I remember so much from that trip. The scenery was beautiful, the food was delicious and the climate was warm and hospitable. I remember the sun setting over Rome and the shadowy stillness of the Coliseum, the energy of Florence, and all the interesting people along the way. But I’d forgotten that moment on the path along the coast, in the shadow of trees that were heavy with olives.
Winter has a hold on us now, but the bowl of briny olives brought back the simple pleasure of warmer weather, of feeling the sun on one’s back. I’m always surprised by the way a travel memory can lie dormant, deep within us, surfacing when we least expect it. Travel brings many pleasures. But some take their time, finding the way home across the miles like a slow postcard, bringing with them the image of a beautiful place and another day.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a travel writer based in Spokane, Washington. Her audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of ‘Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons’ and can be reached at email@example.com
(Photo by Cheryl-Anne Millsap)
We meet a couple of times a month, schedules permitting. We drink a cup of coffee and if I’m lucky there’s cake or pie. Then we spend an hour or two working on the words she has put on paper since we last met.
In her mid-80s, she is writing down the memories she spent a lifetime collecting, organizing them as a surprise gift for her children, great-grandchildren and newborn great-grandson.
My job is more than just editing what she’s written or giving her advice about the choice of words or a turn of phrase. I’m her coach, there to give her confidence.
“I’m not a writer,” she said the first time we spoke by phone. “I’m not a writer,” she says as she hands me the paper. Oh, but she is. And like all of us, she has a unique story to tell.
She married young and stayed married for half a century. She raised a family, navigating the upheaval and shifting social landscape of the late 1960s and 70s. She volunteered at her church, traveled some and survived the loss of a spouse.
Now, grounded by arthritis and failing eyesight, she wants to leave her family with a window to who she was and how she came to be the woman they know as mother and grandmother. The stories she is writing down aren’t grand, sweeping dramas. They’re the quiet stuff of an ordinary life.
Her children know their parents took a cruise through the Panama Canal but they don’t the couple sat on the deck one night and, holding hands, began to talk, looking back over their years together. And that both ended up in tears, crying over the flush of first love, over the harsh words, the occasional cold nights and wasted time given over to the ordinary spats and grudges of any marriage. They wept over the sweetness of family and the beauty of the life they’d had together. In less than a year he was gone and she’s never told anyone about that night. Until now.
The children know the dishes on the table each Christmas belonged to a great-grandmother, but they’ve never heard the story of how that china, packed in excelsior and shipped in a big wood barrel, made its way across an ocean as a wedding gift only to arrive just after the groom succumbed to influenza and died leaving a grieving young widow. And the barrel was passed down, still unpacked, to the next generation.
She is writing about the scar on her knee and how she got it when she fell through the ice as a child, ripping the skin on a jagged rock on the edge of the lake. She’s putting into words just how it felt to hear the ice break beneath her and feel herself plunge into water so cold it stole her breath. How her legs were so numb she didn’t know she was injured until she was pulled to shore and the blood trailed bright scarlet across the ice. The memory is still so terrifying she’s never talked about it to anyone. Until now.
So we meet. And one day at a time, one word at a time, I encourage her. Together we tell her story as she becomes the writer she never believed herself to be.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance writer based in Spokane, Washington. In addition to her Spokesman-Review Home Planet , Treasure Hunting blogs, she chronicles her travels on CAMera: Travel and Photo. Her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
(photo by Cheryl-Anne Millsap)
Most Monday nights we gather together
We open the door of the small building that houses the studio of an artist friend and walk into the warmth of a room filled with the all the tools and spirit of creativity.
There is a kind of homecoming each time we meet. Someone might bring a loaf of fresh bread. Someone else puts cheese and crackers on a plate. On a good night a bottle of wine is opened and shared.
For the first half-hour we talk. We talk about what has happened since we last met. Catching up with marriages, work and all the other portions of our lives, we strengthen the ties that bind us together. And then, when it’s time, we get to work.
One by one, safe in the company of kindred spirits, we read the words put down on paper since we last met.
We are a circle of writers. Some of us do it professionally, others are more casual. But the one thing in common is that each one of us writes because something inside us won’t rest until we do. Each of us has a story to tell and we want tell it in our own way.
There is, deep in the center of most people, a strong desire to leave something behind. We want to leave our story. A map to who we were. A chronicle of the things we dreamed and worked for; of the loves we shared and the heartaches we survived.
In the Monday writing studio we are in turn, survivors, lovers, mothers, wives and sisters. And what we share - besides the bread and wine - is the determination to overcome the barriers of shyness, insecurity, fractured schedules and even, occasionally, the interference of others. We want to write and we’re willing to go to great lengths to find a way to do it.
Most Monday nights there is a reason not to go to the studio. There is work to finish before deadline. There is housework. There are family responsibilities that pull at us. But usually, unless we’re out of town, we make it. We open the door to the writer within us. One word, one Monday, at a time.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap writes for The Spokesman-Review. Her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at email@example.com