A classmate in elementary school collected coins on dares to place the mashed up remainders from lunch trays into his milk container and drink it all down, in one chugging gulp. I was never sure whether hunger, attention, or money drove him on each day.
We all collect things, I suppose, the remnants of others, to keep within ourselves. For me, it is what people say, the stories they tell, and the remembrances of their words years later. The jagged edges of the broken bits, sanded by time, fit together as a blessing of sorts, one bestowed on word and story keepers.
A guest speaker I invited to talk to college students shared her moving tale of being the first black child to attend the formerly all-white school she rode past on a bus every morning before schools were desegregated. Her story was powerful, and made a huge impact on her audience. A student asked our speaker if she attended her high school reunions. A collective gasp filled the classroom when the speaker slowly indicated that she had not -- she knew they were held, but no invitation had ever been extended to her. The past smacked us all in the face that day. The speaker has since passed away, but I remain so troubled by her classmates’ failure to offer a final, and just, kindness. I keep this memory and am determined to see people treated with dignity.
As a child, I saw parents rallying with meals and cards, flowers and sympathy, for a teacher who had never been nice or caring in any way toward me. In truth, I was frightened of her and truly mystified by the outpouring of kindness to someone I experienced as mean. My mother then told me that this teacher had lost a baby when it was born. This did little to explain the outpouring of sympathy to my elementary self. But as a woman, I now understand and appreciate the kinship of grief, and the importance of bearing witness, even to those with whom we do not identify.
As a teenager, I was sitting in a class staffed by a substitute teacher pulled in at the last moment to watch over us and share some wisdom. This flawlessly dressed woman spent most of the time talking about her college memories. I was shocked when she teared up and declared, “It was the best four years of my life.” I had not yet been to college, had only barely arrived in high school, but suspected even then that the school years were not destined to be the best times of my life. I felt an overwhelming sadness for this woman, who had a spouse and children, a dog and a home, a career she professed to love, exciting hobbies, and numerous friends. I wondered if she realized how just how forlorn she sounded, talking about a time in her life, decades past, with a sense of palpable joy, while her current life warranted a full-bodied sigh. Now that I am solidly here in the land of middle age myself, I know college did not represent my best years. Perhaps, I now consider, what the woman yearned for was having no worries about mortgages or health, risk-taking children or suburban drama. Remembering or dreaming of a time when anything is possible and the future seems magical may indeed be a cornerstone of happiness.
In the 80s, my sister lost her best friend, a family pet I refer to as her spirit cat. Old photo albums show picture after picture of the two of them entwined. After he died, she cried and talked of going to be with him. I sympathized and felt so badly for a little girl with a broken heart. Years later, when my own spirit cat died and I felt as if I had too, I could finally empathize, wanting to curl around him and stay, both of us covered in dirt. Such love makes us who we are.
Junior high was a trial for me. I was bored and awkward, with the hallmark inward focus of adolescence. My classmates and I attended annual safety lectures which provided a welcome reprieve from classes I found wholly tedious. One year, a state trooper was sent to address the school. He informed us that in all of his years on the job, dealing with hundreds of automobile collisions, he had never had to cut a dead body out of a seatbelt. I swore then that I would never be in a moving car without buckling mine. For years afterward, I wondered about that man and all he had seen, if he could sleep well at night, if he had someone with whom to share his stories. I wondered about the outcomes of the living bodies he had extricated from seatbelts, if they had healed, how they had weathered their post-accident lives. I had so many questions for this man, a person who ingrained a lifelong safety habit in me and hopefully others in that gymnasium full of young people.
His successor, also a law enforcement officer, spoke of various accidents he had investigated during his career. They were all troubling, but one sits with me still. Two boys were playing on a farm and decided, with the invincibility of youth, to investigate a silo -- a place they had been warned not to go, and where they were later found dead. After a heartbeat of confusion, the horror set in. They had jumped in. Those poor boys then suffocated, crushed beneath innumerable pounds of cattle feed. They had been sucked down into that grain, particles filling their mouths and noses as they tried desperately to breathe. I could not stop picturing them, wild with fear, drowning in grain.
Over 30 years later I still ache for those boys, their devastated parents, and the officers who retrieved the bodies. I think of them when I drive past farms and barns and silos on my way home to visit my own parents who are now in their 70s and still sharing their stories.
May I long remember their words.
Sarah Bigham teaches, paints, and writes in Maryland where she lives with her kind chemist wife, their three independent cats, and an unwieldy herb garden. Her work appears in Bacopa, Entropy, Fourth & Sycamore, Pulse: Voices from the Heart of Medicine, and elsewhere. Find her at www.sgbigham.com.
In my pile of muck-around weekend t-shirts I keep one from the V-Bar- V Heritage Site inArizona, home to a fascinating display of petroglyphs. Its navy blue color has long since faded and it is practically falling apart due to numerous holes, but I adore this soft shirt and keep it in the pile. It is too fragile to wear now, but makes me smile while putting laundry away. I loved the trip my wife and I took when I acquired this memento, but even more I loved the cat who, for 16 years, kneaded holes of love into the shirt while we napped on the sofa.