Helena Writes #17: On rummaging for memories
Helena Clare Pittman, one of the Center’s most dedicated teachers (Writing for Children and Midwifing a Small-Scale Memoir), has written, painted, and taught her entire life. In a blog series called Helena Writes, she shares a lifetime of wisdom, one pearl at a time. Learn more about Helena through the Center’s Teacher Feature, her reflection on teaching writing, and her artist’s website.
In her 17th post, Helena offers an experience of how a vintage store find unlocked a precious childhood memory. Enjoy!
One of the things I love to paint in my long lineup Still Life paintings is a group of vintage cans I’ve accumulated—tobacco cans, powder cans, baking powder cans. I love the look of their graphics, their beautiful colors, and the way they remind me of another time: childhood.
When the weather was still beautiful one Sunday, I was out browsing garage sales and stopped in at a friend’s vintage shop, The Cutting Garden, a place that grows its flowers to sell in spring and summer. It has a room of local artist’s work, pottery and hand-wrought, fair trade things from all over the world. I sell my books there.
Beyond the shop is a barn, a place to rummage in the peace of a late autumn day, that odd found world of forgetfulness of the coming winter. Of course, I headed for the barn, to see if there was anything I could find to include in my paintings, a good excuse.
I scored. On a dusty shelf were two tins: a bright red coffee can—Condor, High Flavor, and a True Blue Tobacco. That blue was one I didn’t have, and would make the turquoise Revelation Tobacco can shimmer, as the juxtaposition of two different blues will, akin to the way two similar phrases in writing function, if they appear near enough to each other in a story or poem, one reprising but building on the other. Art is art. I also found an old cottage cheese can I could store cat food in. I have two other cans for Oliver’s and Sebastian’s food. One was here when I came to this house. My sister had found it in a yard sale—an old red patterned flour storage can, and another smaller one for sugar I’d found in a shop up here, just like it in green.
The day felt enchanted. The cans were beautiful in the way vintage things are, their graphics designed in a time gone by, a particular beauty to their faded discoloration—so like people, characters in a story. Dented, scratched, worn by time.
Then, on another shelf, I saw a bread box, the kind with a hinged, curved front door. It was the red pattern of the flour can my sister had found. Part of that set! I thought. I was spellbound. That’s the thing about these objects: they transport me, take me to a place that only exists somewhere inside me. The bread box was too big for my paintings. It would dominate. And I didn’t have the room or reason to take it home. It was made for a family who baked their bread, stored it for a day or maybe two before it was gone. I eat a loaf of bread slowly, stored in the fridge. I stood there. Something was caught in me, knocking at the door—a memory.
They came in sets of four, those cards. Blank on one side, one pattern printed, like the storage tins, in four different colors. Images of animals, birds, dancers. We children bought them at the candy store, though I can’t remember how they were packaged. They weren’t sold with gum, like baseball cards. But they were traded as fiercely. They were as valuable as money was to grownups. My sister and I traded with each other. After childhood was long over, maybe out of nowhere, one of us would say, “Remember trading cards?” A silence would fall, reverent, between us, like a prayer. We’d look at each other and smile. I was seven, you were eleven, we were saying without words, savoring the bond that was only ours. Horses, mermaids, jugglers, elephants, sets and pairs, more valuable than money.
I let the bread box go, but not before I said, alone in that barn, “Remember….?” with some sure knowledge that my sister heard me.
Ruthie Pincus of Brooklyn
Fiction is the way I recovered my childhood. I began Ruthie by telling a simple story, the thing that I knew I had to tell—my grandparents’ coming to America.
But memory is stored in flashes. My grandmother’s words to me over a game of cards. The look in her eyes. I entered the memory to find the story.
Writing is mysterious. Where does that knowledge and voice come from, the one that spins a world and characters to get at a truth that can’t be seen directly because it shines too bright?
Trading cards found their way into Ruthie Pincus, page 42:
I take everything off my collection shelf, which stands in the corner between Hannah’s cardboard crib and my dresser. I stack the two boxes that once were filled with my Uncle Harold’s cigars but are now filled with my trading cards. Twice as many as last year, when my sister, Rebecca, gave me hers.
“How can you just give them to me?” I asked in disbelief. Rebecca just shrugged. After struggling with her for three years to get her to trade the poodles, she just gives me her whole collection. It’s Sam. Since Sam and Rebecca talked about getting engaged my sister is different.
“Who will I trade with?” I asked her.
“Your friends,” she answered. I just stared at her.
Even having a full set of poodles, green, pink, blue, and red, nearly impossible to find anywhere, there’s a queasy feeling in my stomach when I look at them.
“How can you play with these? They have no numbers,” my brother Georgie asked.
“You don’t play with them, you collect them,” I told him.
“What for?” asked Georgie next.
“They’re trading cards, Georgie. You trade them,” I said.
“But they’re empty—who would want them?” said Georgie.
“Donna would,” I told Georgie, trying to be patient, trying not to sound annoyed, trying not to make him cry. Then I ignored him.
But ignoring Georgie is never productive. Next he complained that trading cards are stupid, that they are not like pictures of baseball players.
“What are these?” asked Georgie next, nudging the ballet dancer set I’d lined up to look at. “What ar-rrr-rre theyyyy?”
“Georgie!” I said.
I don’t underrr-st-aaannnd!” said Georgie. Then he started to cry. Georgie is sensitive.
“Look, Georgie,” I said, really trying, showing him the turtles and the swordfish. “These are interesting, aren’t they?” And this worked for a few minutes. He sniffed and wiped his cheeks with his hands. I offered him a tissue. He accepted it.
“Can I have them?” he asked next.
“No, Georgie, I need them!” I answered.
Georgie’s eyes filled up again. “But why?” he asked, his chin quivering.
“To trade,” I answered as gently as I could.
“But they don’t have any num-bbers!” Georgie’s face screwed up and I knew what was coming.
“It’s a set, Georgie,” I told him. “It’s valuable—” But it was too late.
“Maa-mma! MAA-MAA!” my brother Georgie was screaming, running down the hallway. “MAA-MAA IT’S NOT LIKE THEY HAVE NUMM-BERRS ON THEM!”
“Georgie, you need a nap!” said my mother.
“But you can’t play with them, they’re emm-pty!”Georgie tried to explain to my mother.
“Come sweetheart,” said Mamma. “Help me with the stew.” But Georgie was crying at the top of his lungs. “Here, Georgie, wash the turnips for me.
“GEORGIE!” my mother shouted suddenly. Then the house was quiet. When I heard my mother singing, I knew my brother was either washing turnips or he’d fallen asleep on the kitchen linoleum.
Ruthie Pincus is based on memories. But I never had a little brother or an older brother. Georgie and Leon appeared on the page as I told my story.
I really knew Georgie. I babysat for a little boy named Arthur when I was twelve. He lived next door, after we moved from Crown Street and lived in an apartment building in Queens. We could hear Arthur crying through our living room wall. No one could handle him but me, at least that’s what I thought when I was twelve. I remember a kind of respect his parents paid me—“he likes you,” his mother would say. I do remember feeling that his parents didn’t seem to connect with him the way I did, which gave me an empathy for Arthur. Arthur never cried when we were together. We talked and played with his toys until he was ready to go to sleep. Maybe that’s where Georgie came from. I loved Georgie as I listened to him and watched him through my writing, and I loved Leon, the older brother who loved and protected and understood Ruthie. Who knows where these characters came from, really? I must have needed them to tell the story that was taking form over the many years it took me to write Ruthie Pincus of Brooklyn.
It’s odd, but like childhood, that book stands as a reality now. It gave me a voice; it taught me to gear up into a writing I’d never done before, had never needed to do.
I can spend time in the pages of Ruthie the way I can spend time in the memories of Crown Street, where I lived as a child. I came to know my mother through writing Ruthie. And came to know myself much better.
Have you had an experience of a found object transporting you back to another time? What did you think of Helena’s latest post? Share with us in the comments!
Related reading: Read the previous Helena Writes posts
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