Thursday, December 4, 2014


My parents went to Europe and all I got was this lousy memory.

I was with them, an infant stowaway.

Aside from film slides stored somewhere (meaning, cumbersome to find and reproduce, therefore effectively lost) I'm left with visceral tags: The rising thunderous storm of pigeons (I'm told that was in St. Mark's Square in Venice) … the heavy warm waft of doughnuts frying somewhere along a gray, wet narrow street (I'm thinking London, maybe Diagon Alley™®; I get things mixed up) … the glorious first taste of Smarties®™ (think M&Ms©™), leading to a lifelong addiction.

I remember finding terror in the limitless blue sky, as I lay on my back in a wooden playpen in the backyard where we lived on the air base in England (I'm gonna say RAF Croughton, near Banbury). I remember feeling I would fall up and disappear.

I remember what must have been cocktail parties in our house, lit like a cave and just about as smoky, grownups wearing shiny paper hats, pink and yellow and sapphire, that caught the spare light, and drinking opaque yellow liqueurs.

The mythos in our family is that Mom could not be held bound by being born in North Dakota and raised in Montana. She was an unplain girl on the edge of the Plains, steeped in literature, a teacher. She married Dad, an Air Force GI, and they promptly got transferred to England, where Mom was meant to be. She was a woman of the world.

Or so I gather. I inferred a lot. My advice to you: Ask direct questions, while you can.

At some point, maybe toward the end of their hitch in England, my parents took time off (a month?) and, with Mom's youngest sister (my Aunt Margo) in tow, took off around Europe. We camped (I have a visceral memory of that, scaffolded with photos seen long ago) in a Volkswagen®™ bus, at least for part of the trek.

Your guess is as good as mine where we went and what we did, besides the doughnut smelling and Smarties®™ eating and the Hitchcockian terror of Venetian birds.

The Colosseum, King Ludwig II's castle, Neuschwanstein, great rolling fields of grass ending in hedges? I may be thinking of Disneyland, somehow.

What memories I have cling uncertainly to tangible objects. I grew up surrounded by antique furniture from England. They are tools of househusbandry still, holding the dining utensils my parents acquired. Up until my parents' deaths, we ate at the antique dining room table, its legs like twisted grapevines, smooth and polished to a glow, the end legs cleverly swinging out from the center to support the table wings.

The antiques are left to my sister and me. How my parents acquired them (a farmer named Barney, maybe?) and got them to the States is unclear to me; their context steadily fades. What to do with our inheritance is the matter for another post someday.

The tangible objects I have now are also yanked from context, but their creation has always fascinated me. They are brass rubbings my parents made, probably from jaunts through England.

I gather it was a hobby, maybe even a craze, to transfer the images from incised brass funeral plates onto paper with crayon. Remember overlaying paper onto a penny and rubbing the image of the penny onto paper with the lead of your pencil? Same thing, larger scale, greater care.

I gather also, from a bit of research, that brass rubbing is strictly limited now, at least in England, lest the brass plates (or lattens) become damaged by the rubbing.

In my research, I came across this 1961 video that cleaves to my visceral, film slide-aided memory exactly. It was produced just about the time my parents joined the craze. I picture them stealing into a church on a jaunt, just as the actress in the video does, seeking the vicar's permission (he's used to this request and wouldn't turn down a small fee) and then laying out the butcher paper over a graveplate and compelling the image to leap onto paper with a sphere of jet black shoe wax.

There are more — I can't say how many — but I have three of them. They hang on the wall of my office. My Mom must have cut them carefully around their edges and pasted them to heavier paper, which has browned warmly like a meerschaum pipe along the edges. These are the ones that were sandwiched under the glass top of the coffee table in the sitting room.

Their viscera drew me for as long as I can remember. An image that feels stolen and invasive as an X ray, capturing not just the fine carved lines, faithful attention to detail, but the nicks of time and the nail heads that were never meant to be visible.

The plates from which the rubbing were made are messages to the world that these people, whom you should know about, lay in repose below these plates; this branch of this family thus endeth in this soil below the floor of this church.

Yet I don't know these people — these people in their finery making their final supplication for justice and mercy.

This family heralded here is a mystery too. I'd guess the crest marks the joining of fiefdoms and therefore of the symbols, a ram-loving lineage that has added stars and swans, and a hand in its own small crest over one of the cherished circle devices.

Perhaps Mom took notes about each of these. If so, I haven't seen them. The images exist out of time and place on my wall, the careful lines telling me something I can't know.

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