Chicka chi lick chi lunk chi lay….This is how it began. My mother wonders if I’ve ever heard this silly tune, and I can’t place it and the closest I can come is Boom Chicka Boom from a summer camp counselor gig twenty years ago.
The song sends her reeling back in time to the 1930s and hidden slips of memory make a slow emergence. I’ve been watching for over a decade now how memory fades to gray obscurity like her silvery white hair, thinning and stripped of color. Why do minds fail?– I wonder. The memory is still there tucked away in some fold inside her cranium, I am sure, but the retrieval is where the malfunction happens. The whole piece is gone, the people, the houses, the connections that made the memory a complete vivid thing, and so it must be hard for just a slice to be recovered as a fragment of the former whole.
“My dad walked to work everyday. Mueller Brass. He was a chemist.” This statement comes shooting like a solar flare, a brightness for her, a cheerful thought uncovered when I tell her that I’ve just returned from taking the kids to school. She remembers walking to school, and her dad walking to work. She’s told me before about the little candies her dad would bring home from work for her and the other children.
“I walked with my brother Doug to Roosevelt School, it was not more than a mile away.” This reminiscence surfaces when I remind her (again, again, and again) that my children don’t walk to school, it’s too far away. She utters with obvious pleasure, “we walked.”
“Sometimes we’d go to Gomer’s house for lunch and she’d make us pancakes. We left school at lunch time and walked to her house. We listened to records on her Victrola.”
I ask her about Gomer, whose pet name has stuck even until now, the grace of some little child who couldn’t say grandma. Her given name was Hattie and she was short and thin, and I work hard in my imagination to create this woman, because I never met her and can’t recall any clear pictures of her, and yet I can see her in my mind with muted colors.
Gomer was her mother’s mother (and my great-grandmother), and I have her Bible, black leather with frayed edges and broken binding, her name inscribed in a loopy, elegant but simple inked signature, the kind of script I never see anymore. The “H” in Hattie, bold with a sharp stroke off the top left, makes me think that she was a determined, original, and independent woman. One day I found a crackled, pressed leaf somewhere in the Psalms and gently touched its thin flaxen veins, and her.
My mom says that Gomer “went around doing something for people, taking care of the elderly, and she looked nothing like my mother, who had a pug nose and high cheek bones.” She loved them both, her mother and grandmother, and I know this because I ask her, and she laughs at my question that seems absurd to her, saying, “of course, I loved my whole family!” Her mother with the high cheek bones, that was my grandmother, Thelma, the only one I ever knew, and my mom looks nothing like her. She was some remarkable lady, and perhaps I will write about her another day.
I ask about her grandfather, Gomer’s husband, what about him?
Granddad, she says, was a gardener for an official at Mueller Brass. I want to know what he was like, and she remarks, “I don’t know, he was just Granddad.” I labor in vain to solicit more details about Granddad, about what kind of garden he kept, and if he was funny or stern. Nothing. Except she does say that Gomer and Granddad slept in separate rooms, him upstairs and her downstairs, though she found nothing odd about this, and perhaps for the 1930s it wasn’t so unusual. She reminds me half a dozen more times that Granddad was a gardener for the head of Mueller Brass. It must have been an important post, in her mind at least.
This is what’s left. Stray, dim thoughts of what must have really mattered. Pancakes for lunch at Gomer’s.
Hi Ho, chicka chi lunk chi lay.