Our unseasonably cool weather, in combination with other goings on in my life, has conjured up memories of summers past, where my own childhood connected with that of my father’s, though at the time I didn’t recognize it as such.
Traveling east on summer vacations always landed us at the home of Aunt Daisy, who was sister to my father’s mom, and for an unknown amount of time, surrogate mom for Daddy and Aunt Carol. It was a different time really, when guests traveled to stay with family rather than at some local inn, and when hosts never made guests feel unwelcome, even when they arrived with their entire household in tow. For my Aunt Daisy, this entailed my parents, my Greek grandfather–who by that time had taken up residence with my parents– and whatever children my parents had at the time.
I was around for four such trips, though I’ve no memories of the first which took place the summer following my birth. But by the time I teetered on the age of kindergarten, and we had ventured back for our second serving of a cool summer in upstate New York, I was able to latch onto a couple of memories for posterity, and though neither is remarkable, they are precious all the same, in the way that every day is a brand spanking new adventure in the life of a child.
The spankings from my brand new adventures always came from Mom rather than Dad, though I heard my Aunt Daisy tell a story more than once — the kind that grows to the stuff of legend through the sheer number of tellings–of Daddy once bringing himself to slap my hand, accompanied with a quiet wavery voice saying “NO, NO”. I could tell that my Aunt Daisy relished the story’s telling — of ‘Jackie’s’ feeble attempt at parental discipline–for it was always accompanied by such riotous laughter. So it was probably Mom rather than Dad who helped make the memories of a bedeviled goat and a forbidden staircase–both childish lures to my own fascination–stick to my memory, compliments of her hand on my small childish behind.
By our third visit to Oswego, I had come into my own way of storing memories, without further guidance of Mother’s hand. I was ten the summer we descended onto the doorstep of Daisy’s new home, which in a former life, served as the old country school house. The summer days were ripe for picking and preserving memories, as even today, I can rummage through the cellar where I’ve stored my oldest and best memories to recall a moving picture of my young and vital father throwing smooth stones, as big as my adult hand, into Lake Ontario, after our family had consumed a simple supper of fried fish sandwiches at a local fish stand, prepared by my daddy’s very own Aunt Gib; I can see our young family taking a small road trip to enjoy another part of the lake with a picnic lunch and a swim with Gib and Daisy and some young cousin my age (was his name Kip?) the very day Gib introduced us to the taste of Mountain Dew soda pop; and then there’s the big reunion picnic my Aunt Daisy hosted in honor of Daddy’s homecoming, which was held in Aunt Daisy’s backyard, with food and people galore spread all over her picnic tables beneath her cool and inviting grape arbor. The memory of Daisy’s grape arbor inspired me to have one built for Mom and Dad, that still stands today near the foundation of my maternal grandmother’s home, just steps from Daddy’s house.
But the loveliest everyday memories were made on Aunt Daisy’s enclosed back porch, where she and my parents and an assortment of drop-in guests would while away the afternoon while sharing snippets of stories about their shared past. While the adults were talking, we kids would entertain ourselves with a huge chalkboard parked on the porch. Several of the aunts and uncles took notice of the quality of my drawings, but by the time we had returned for our fourth and final visit, Aunt Daisy thought I had lost some of my talent. Knowing what I now know, the loss of any artistic ability was minor compared to the losses suffered to my true and original self.
I remember shaking off Aunt Daisy’s comment like a dog with a pesky flea, just as I had learned to shake off other hurtful comments from the intervening years, that had taught me the need to become a person that the world might like better, than that naive girl who had once enjoyed receiving adult accliam for some blackboard pictures. And raging teenage hormones and cosmetics were helping me in my transformation, as these days I much preferred to draw on my new face.
The night of our fourth arrival, Aunt Daisy showed us to our rooms amidst whispers that her husband had just been diagnosed with cancer a few weeks before. So the visit of 1969 was more somber in spirit — no parties, no reunions, though everyday life on Daisy’s back porch went on. A few days into our visit, Aunt Daisy– thinking she was doing me a favor– advised me to relax rather than to bother with cosmetics, as there would be no guests around, onlya bit of family now and then. But finding her suggestion silly, I chose to hide behind my face paint; and she, sitting on the other side of the porch, probably found me silly for going to so much trouble for no good reason.
Forty years later I sit here and smile, with a clean face and still no ability to draw–except for whatever gift I possess in painting images with words– and still full of memories of those ghosts of summers past. Perhaps these ghostly memories haunt me for a reason, as I am left to wonder why Daddy refuses to talk about them. And it is Daddy’s very silence that has spurred me to take matters into my own hands– accepting help from friends and lucking onto a fruitful website that holds pieces of Daddy’s puzzling life– that I now hold copies of old census records from the 1920s and 1930s and some old newspaper stories of Daddy’s family, including a sizable article reporting his mother’s fatal car crash and a few obituaries scattered across the decades of Dad’s aunts and uncles, who are now truly ghosts of summer’s past.
It is difficult to reconcile Dad’s desire to pay visits to his mother’s family against the painful memories that Daddy’s childhood holds. Maybe the visits were a way of Daddy reconciling his past with his new life and wife, a way of showing his mother’s family that a good future can come from a sorry past, and that forty years later, I now see teaches me the same lesson. Perhaps we trekked back east so Daddy could share bits and pieces of his childhood story in the way that he could. Not with words, but with the important faces of his life.
However the visits came to be, I am thankful for the memories and even the bit of light they still shed onto Daddy’s shadowed history. And I hope that these visits somehow helped my father lay some of his own childhood ghosts to rest.