Things

There’s this teapot. Pale turquoise and old. It used to sit on a little table behind my grandmother’s chair. Whenever we visited Aunty, as we called her, it was a backdrop to her rocking and telling stories. When she was headed toward her end days she gave things away. She asked me what I wanted and I told her the teapot. Not because it was worth money but because when I see it, I see her there, in that chair.

So where is the teapot now? Safely kept in a high cupboard. My husband has a habit of breaking things. I’ve learned over the years that things actually mean nothing. They’re just objects. Their value comes from the stories and memories, which can’t be broken or lost. So I don’t get too attached to things anymore. And if there is something I’m attached to, it gets placed in an out-of-the-way spot. Of course I recognize the teapot has no value in that cupboard. I rarely remember I have it. Someday my son will wonder why I kept that old thing I never used.

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The delicate, almost translucent, tea cup on the right is even older, belonging to my great-grandfather. The pitcher was also Aunty’s and she always used it for orange juice. And thats granulated honey in the microwave.

Occasionally I come across this popular writer’s prompt: ‘what do you carry?’. Of course there are so many interpretations of this question, from the emotional burdens we carry, to our secrets, to our things and how they reflect on our life. What do you carry?

I spent most of July traveling in Scotland and Denmark. The first time I went to Scotland, in 1979, I had a small backpack that carried all I needed for six weeks. This time I had a large rolling bag to check in and a smaller bag for under the airline seat.

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Very old things, ivory and bone and amber, in Rosenborg Slot (castle) in Denmark, built in the 1600s.

I packed way too many things. Partly because I googled Scotland weather and read it was raining, rather than contacting friends to find out they were having record-breaking heat. The woman I traveled with packed even more, and then bought luggage to hold all the things she bought. She traveled with six pairs of shoes and four different jackets, all the same style, but different colors. I don’t even own six pairs of shoes.

In airports and train stations and buses, I saw the things we feel we need to carry. So much paraphernalia. So much stuff. Especially on the planes. I feared we would never get off the ground. It was rare to find someone traveling light, and typically when I did, it was a young person with a backpack.

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Things the Vikings carried 1200 years ago, now in the Viking museum in Aarhus, Denmark.

Why do we need so many things? Is it a sign of our culture, a sign of affluence? Would any of those things we feel the need to travel with help us if the plane crashed on a deserted island? Would six pairs of shoes keep you alive? Then why do we need them?

It’s not just traveling overseas that I see this. Every Friday when I leave work I see the same thing on the highway. People headed east for the weekend, hauling huge trailers, driving giant bus-like motor-homes that in turn tow boats and smaller cars, or more trailers. All of it full of the things they can’t go a weekend without.

Things make life easier but they also weigh us down, physically and emotionally. I came home from this trip promising myself I’m going to get rid of stuff.

Except the teapot.

Unloved Books

Sorry, I know I just posted here, and I try to avoid flooding people with blog posts, but I just saw something that fascinates me. I’d post about it next week, but I’m going to be away from the Internet for a bit.

Goodread’s Facebook page just asked people to list what one book everyone else likes, that they don’t.

Wow, so many responses! I kept scrolling through more and more comments, and then started seeing a theme.

A lot of the same books were listed over and over. 50 Shades of Gray and Twilight were at the top of the list.

What fascinated me enough to want to blog about this, though, were the reasons. Even though we can never make all people happy, writers want to know why someone likes a book, or doesn’t. That knowledge gives you something to strive to avoid.

A lot of people listed classics like Grapes of Wrath, Moby Dick, etc. The almost-universal reason was ‘it’s boring’. That makes sense to me because the classics were written for a different era and a different generation of readers. Back then, the world we lived in was much smaller. People didn’t travel like now, and the internet wasn’t there to open the world for us. So books tended to have long passages of narrative description to show the reader that world. These days a few sentences of description are all that is needed for most readers to ‘see’ the setting.

Some responders wrote that they hated a book so much they threw it against the wall when they were finished. I kind of want to read those, because for a book to cause such a strong reaction, there must be something there. The reader may hate the book, but obviously a few nerves were touched.

Most responders though, had similar reasons for not liking a book. Boring. Flat characters. Unrealistic plot. Unlikeable characters. Stupid protagonists. No change from the beginning to the end (in other words no character growth). Condescending to children. And just plain bad writing.

Those are all things writers strive to avoid and learn how to improve upon.

So how would you answer that question, and most importantly, why? Show us writers what to avoid.

An Aunty

The story goes that she drove by a house with a chimney fire. She stopped to tell the people and found a single dad raising a teenage daughter. This was in the late 1940s. She ended up staying as a housekeeper for grandpa and raised mom. There are underlying whispers of other stories. That there might have been more going on between Aunty and grandpa. That they might have married except for his heavy drinking. The nights when he would be drunk, yelling at mom and Aunty and throwing slices of bread across the table at them.

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Mom’s wedding. Grandpa in the suit, Aunty on far right.

She said she was Canadian and was very proper. She never left the house without coat, hat, skirt, gloves, purse, all matching. When we were born she told mom to have us call her ‘Aunty’ because ‘those children have enough grandmas’. She was a nanny to well-off Seattle doctors and lawyers but never had children of her own, even though she was married four times. It was so sad that, as she told us, all four died of pneumonia. As I got older it dawned on me to wonder about that. I wore the wedding rings from her marriage to Ben, who, she said, was her favorite. And hmmm…lived the longest.

She was small but with these awe-inspiring huge breasts. And her arms had long flaps of skin that she would let me flip back and forth while sitting on her lap.

Lisa and Aunty

Cooking for her was a handful of this and a pinch of that. Amazing platters of fried chicken and, oddly, platters of fried smelt as a side dish. She would take little Nilla wafers and painstakingly frost each one, then add sprinkles, for us. Stewed tomatoes and dry toast for breakfast. A glass of carrot juice with Metamucil stirred in. Hard ribbon candy stuck in solid lumps in little crystal bowls. Glass bowls with layers of different colored Jello flavors, with fruit in between. Collections of salt and pepper shakers.

Her windowsills were full of jars of plant cuttings that never got planted. Her clothesline had mason jars of rose cuttings hanging from it. She swore that was how to root roses, that the motion of the wind moving the jars of water made the cuttings root. She always had beautiful roses.

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And of course she was feisty. One time young men moved in across the street and started harassing her. They would park in her driveway and block her in. Stand outside her bedroom window at night and smoke, so she could smell it and know they were there. She started sleeping with a bowling pin next to her bed.

And then she recognized one. The son of a doctor she’d babysat. She stomped across the street and lit into him in front of all his friends. Phrases like ‘I wiped your bottom’ and ‘I taught you better’ and ‘you should be ashamed’. Mom was horrified, afraid there would be retaliation. But they never bothered Aunty again.

There was the day when we were in her boat of a car, huge with tail fins that always smelled musty. She sat on a pile of pillows with another pile behind her, to see over the steering wheel. There was a group of teenagers in the middle of the road with their bikes. She stopped and waited. Honked. They laughed and didn’t move. She honked again. Nothing. She gassed it and drove right through the middle of them, right over their abandoned bikes as they scattered.

Each summer she took one of us on a trip. We were special, singled out, and didn’t have to share her with siblings for one whole week. We’d get to ride a bus and go someplace we’d never been. The youngest spent the whole week homesick but still wanted to go. We all wanted that adventure with Aunty.

three of us

The upstairs of her house was exciting to sleep in because it was scary. A narrow old staircase that creaked loudly. A big bed three of us shared. A sloping roof with narrow windows at each end. A bookshelf crammed full of moldy smelling Reader’s Digest magazines. And, across from the foot of the bed, right were the roof angled down, were three small doors. If you were brave enough to kneel and crack one open, a blast of cold, stale air would come out. You’d see nothing but pitch black. You were left with only your imagination to show what might live behind those little doors.

I had a very vivid imagination.

Freckles

and freckles

She told the same stories over and over until we became bored and tuned them out. I wish now I could remember them. The one that sticks with me was about a black horse (in my memories, a stallion). She thought she could ride him and ended up galloping down Main Street out of control. She survived but got in trouble. The story was supposed to be a moral for us to listen to our parents.

I like that image though, of Aunty when she was Ethel Ellen, before she was prim and proper with the sagging breasts and sagging flaps of skin of old age. Before she took in a lonely teenage girl.

Back when she was young and free and riding a wild stallion.

Aunty & us Easter