When Memory Fails You

The Ghost Next Door by Wylly Folk St John. Illustrations by Trina Schart Hyman

I’ve read Kyran Pittman’s work for longer than I can remember beginning with her first blog, Notes to Self. I think I found her around 2006 when I discovered there was a community of folks doing something called ‘blogging.’ Her talented husband, Patrick created a logo for me back in 2007 which helped me track time through old emails, but I’d be hard put to come up with an exact date.

All this chatter about memory, dates, and Kyran Pittman is due to a comment I left on her  website, Planting Dandelions a few days ago.

It turns out that in addition to our expat identities as women who married and moved for a love met online, we both collect owls.

Owls you say … stifling a small yawn perhaps.

I’ve loved owls from childhood when I read a book written by my Aunt Wylly called The Ghost Next Door. Kyran recently wrote about her owl collection and asked if any of her readers had collections as well. I left a comment sharing a brief bit about how my aunt was responsible for the start of my owl collection and how her book had influenced my choice of collectables when she’d asked me around age eleven if I had a favorite animal I might like to collect.

Everything I said was true except my memory of the book cover which is ironic when you consider that it’s been sitting on a bookshelf in every place I’ve lived over the last 40 years  except for those that occurred during my transient time in the military.

In my comment I said there was an owl on the cover with love in its eyes, but as it turns out the book cover I was recalling was not mine above, but the one below, a reprint from much later and one I’ve only seen online.   

See what I mean … there’s the ghost child Miranda holding the owl with love in its eyes.

Kyran left a followup comment to mine asking where she might see the book cover and it was then I remembered that my first edition copy had the owl on the title page and not the cover.

You’re probably thinking ‘ so what ‘ unless you write or read memoir and know how important it is that your memories are accurate. Kyran will know exactly what I’m talking about as her book, Planting Dandelions is a memoir and is as she says ‘ … about becoming a family, while still belonging to myself. ‘

I write a lot about family and sometimes I can check in with them to see if our memories match knowing that while some of our experiences may mirror each other, how they affect us and what we remember, may vary a great deal.

Writing memoir is tricky. There are some things you can never forget as much as you might wish you could, while other memories shift just as my cover story did leaving me with an uneasy feeling about future stories. You can bet I’ll be tighter on fact checking in the future.

My brother-in-law, Leon is a writer, editor, and blogger and he has a cute disclaimer at the top of his blog that reads: ” Warning: The following contains opinions and ideas. Some memories may be accurate. ” I loved the ‘ may be accurate ‘ when I read it thinking how clever his warning was, but after my little mixup I wonder now if perhaps he was being more serious than cute.

There are things about The Ghost Next Door and my aunt that never get confused and I’ve written about her impact on my life and inadvertently my daughter Miranda’s in other posts on my blog. You can find them if you use the search space. (I’ve left you a clue below)

Aunt Wylly’s books were always mysteries filled with the kind of delicious clues a curious girl needs growing up, particularly when her home life is such that she needs a more pleasant distraction. Her books made me think and it does not surprise me that the still unfinished novel I began during NaNoWriMo has evolved into a mystery with a fantasy twist. As much as memoir appeals to me, I do like the freedom of making things up as I go when sorting out the plot lines in my novel.

Gifts From Wylly Folk St John

Gifts From Wylly Folk St John

I’ll leave you with the image above of two owl gifts that my aunt gave me when I was a girl. Both sit on a bookshelf in the studio space where I do most of my writing. The book is written in French, a language I never learned, and I’ve had it since it arrived in a birthday package on my 14th birthday.

I kept it all these years because it was a gift from Aunt Wylly never knowing that 34 years later I would marry a man in another country who would speak French and be able to read it aloud to me.

There are loads of memories that connect me to my aunt, some of which I may remember differently from time to time, but all tender and all connected to love.

Margaret Harper, Wylly Folk St John, holding Pam Jones, & Elizabeth Harper

Margaret Harper, Wylly Folk St John, holding Pam Jones, & Elizabeth Harper

This photo was taken at my aunt’s home in Social Circle about the time I made my owl preference known. I couldn’t know then how much influence she would have on my life or how she would affect my writing years later.

Looking at her smiling in these last two images, I can’t help but notice there’s a bit of an owlish look to her and I’m surprised I never saw it before.

Thomas St John with Wylly Folk St John

Birthday Cake Again?

Elizabeth & Margaret Celebrating Cousin Wally's Birthday

September is a birthday filled month for me and if I had an opportunity to eat cake every time there was a birthday this month I’d need to diet through October to make up for it. My birthday on the 10th begins the potential cake fest and my sister Margaret’s birthday today ends it.

Our September celebrations feel like bookends with some significant volumes on the shelf in between. My daughter and husband make up the most important middle part for me with their birthdays falling halfway through and near the end, but Margaret’s big day completes it.

Never in all the years we were separated did I not think of her and it makes me happy to know that I can connect with her for a proper birthday greeting today.

We’ve spent years supporting each other in different ways and the bookend analogy seems right. Margaret was one of the people who helped keep me sane during my unplanned summer in Atlanta and it was no surprise that she rallied to help me when I needed her artistic design and savvy computer skills. I was desperate for online sales materials including flyers I could print while I was trying to sell my house in Atlanta and she put together a lovely website on very short notice.

Additionally, she modified the website and flyers several times as my price shifted, and when it wouldn’t move fast enough to suit my time frame, she turned the website into one designed to attract renters.

Last year I had the good fortune to spend the month of September with her traveling to Paris for a week and having my 50th birthday during our week in London. The rest of the month we traveled around Cornwall and finished with her birthday and a special cake just before she flew home to Alaska where she lives with her husband and their two boys.

Margaret & Elizabeth - London - September 2010

Happy Birthday, Margaret … I think I’ve got room tonight for one last piece of cake.

 

Not Half, But Whole – Remarriage & Children

Bryan Cooper, Cullene Harper, Jennie Harper, & Elizabeth Harper - April 14, 1975

Young children can’t always grasp the concept of how they are related when parents divorce, find new love, and have more children with new partners and spouses. When they each bring children from previous relationships to the new family, the soup becomes an even more complicated mix of half and step siblings making it sometimes necessary for a flow chart of sorts when explaining family ties.

I’m the eldest of four girls with only two of us having the same set of parents. Born in 1962, Margaret and I are two years apart. Ten years later, our sister Pam was born into our mother’s second marriage. I remember hearing words like half-sister then and even though I was a reasonably intelligent 9-year-old, I was a bit confused by the concept especially having only just met four step-siblings that I don’t remember ever seeing again.

By 1974 my youngest sister, Jennie, was born on Easter Sunday and being halfway through my thirteenth year, I had a better understanding of the half not whole concept at least in theory. Nicknamed Bunny, by her granddad, she was the child of my dad and my stepmom, Cullene.

Margaret and I were living in Tennessee when the news came of her birth, having been moved away from Georgia by our mother after a judge decreed my dad should be able to see his children more than one Saturday a month.

By the time Jennie was celebrating her first birthday in the photo above, I was living in Georgia with my dad and Cullene watching them navigate through territory that looking back, was more recent and familiar to me than it was to them.

Jennie was born to Cullene when she was forty having passed the age when she thought she’d ever have a child and with twelve years between my dad and his last diaper change, I’m sure he felt as if he were learning everything again for the first time.

In my life with my mother and sisters in Tennessee, I had been largely responsible for overseeing Pam’s care and knew the kind of childcare things that an older sibling knows when there’s a big difference in ages. ” Watch your sister, ” was an all-encompassing directive that could include bathing, feeding, or playing, and I was good at it.

While planning my escape to Georgia only six months before this picture was taken, I hadn’t realized that saving myself might mean losing my sisters. After I left, my mother cut off all communication and moved my sisters to another state changing my sister Margaret’s last name in the process. I lost my relationship with Margaret for the ten years that followed and four-year old Pam grew up with no memory of me, a situation that she and I have never recovered from. Despite my previous efforts, Pam and I are strangers.

In the image of above, you can see me hanging on to my sister Jennie’s birthday hat. After my move, I remember feeling as if I were free-floating and barely secured, much like the hat with only the tiniest bit of pressure keeping me grounded and in place.

That I am only half in the picture feels like an apt metaphor for how I felt about my life then. Everything familiar was gone and even though I was finally safe from the life I had been forced to keep secret, I was struggling to adjust to one without my sisters, Margaret and Pam, and my mother too, despite her treatment.

I began this post with a whole different focus. I was looking for a cute photo to add to a Facebook greeting for my sister’s birthday when I found this one. Having recently had a conversation with John about children and how little they may understand the half versus whole concept when new siblings arrive, I was struck by the memory of this time in my life and today’s writing shifted direction.

My youngest sister Jennie is 37 today, an age I remember so clearly it feels like five minutes ago. I’m sure she would say I’ve been trying to boss her around her whole life while dispensing advice as if I were a third parent or an older aunt, but I have always seen her as my sister, the baby for sure, but always whole and never half.

Although not the big birthday post I’d envisioned, I want to say, ” Happy Birthday Jennie,” from your sister Elizabeth, who once felt half, but now understands whole.

Sisters - Elizabeth, Margaret, and Jennie Harper - 1974

There Is Something Free At Printemps In Paris

Printemps department store in Paris is filled with all types of marvelous items most of which exceeded the amount I wished to spend when I was there recently with my sister Margaret. Everything in the store has a price tag and even a trip to the loo for a bathroom break cost a euro, but there was one thing that could be had there for free. You have seen it before if you saw a post I wrote a few weeks ago. If you missed it, let me just say that what you get for free at Printemps is an amazing view of the Paris skyline.

I snapped this photograph on a walkway between two of the Printemps buildings. Click on it to get a clear look at the two window cleaners on the upper right side of the image.

This is from the other side of the walkway. I had my Canon G11 set in Color Accent mode which in this case was set to pick up the color red.

Here you can see a small gathering of people trying to catch the perfect shot from the rooftop terrace.

 

Another image from the rooftop.

I know I have completely disregarded the rule of thirds but I don’t care. I like this shot with the abundance of clouds and sky.

More big sky along with the ever familiar Eiffel Tower.

There is ample space to have a rest from your shopping or sightseeing and there is a small restaurant on the same level serving light snacks and drinks. Anne from Anne In Oxfordshire visits friends in Paris fairly often and was curious as to where I had managed to capture images like those above. I told her when she asked in a comment that I was saving the location for another post, but now that I’ve done the big reveal I wonder if anyone worked it out before today.

Dancing Ladies – Going Home

Most of us have signs or landmarks that remind us when we are almost home. For me, it is this stand of trees on a hill not far from the border where Devon becomes Cornwall. I call them The Dancing Ladies and they are always a sign that in just a few minutes everything that is troubling or tiring will be neatly put to rest as we turn off the main road and point our car towards the narrow lane that leads home.

We took my sister Margaret to the airport this morning with John driving just under 500 miles roundtrip and I was delighted to see my dancing ladies on our way back. Although it was not a short trip, it is nothing compared to one she has before her with several plane changes and a long layover in Germany before reaching Alaska.

My sister and her family recently moved to a new location having lived near Anchorage, Alaska for many years. There is a bridge you drive under as you get closer to her former home and people often hang signs of welcome from it painted on large sheets with brightly colored paint making it seem like a perfect landmark.

Although we did not talk about it, I feel sure that since moving a few months ago she has likely found something that signals her new home is close by and her daily journeys are at an end.

I don’t know what new images mark her way home now, but I imagine that nothing could whisper or shout ” You’re home ”  better than the welcoming sight of her husband and children who will be waiting at the airport. It is the first time Margaret has been away from her boys for more than a week and I think after a month here with me, they will be all the landmark she needs to feel welcomed and at home.

Never Alone – Birthday Wishes For Margaret

It is a struggle to find childhood photographs of my sister Margaret taken alone as most of our childish history documents us together, sitting or standing side by side. On Margaret’s birthday today, I searched my files to come up with the perfect image of her by herself but with little success. I would suggest that the universe is sending us a message that Peanut Butter and Jelly are meant to be together while John might say it was the cost of developing film in those days that would have children always paired up in photographs.

This image of Margaret fishing at five is one I remember well. She caught her first fish and dropped the pole with the fish still on the line in her excitement. She did a little happy dance that day that still makes me smile.

She is still five in this photo taken with our first pet, a cat the adults named Useless.

This one is one of my favorites with Margaret looking straight into the camera.

Dressed as a Brownie … I don’t remember this period, but she looks pretty cute.

Here she is only nine, but she’s giving a look to the camera that I recognize still 39 years later.

I discovered this first birthday picture of Margaret blowing out a candle about an hour ago and John graciously rescanned the others so you can see them better.

I have enjoyed having this time with Margaret over the last month. It is rare that as adults we are able to take time away from our daily lives and responsibilities to spend time with a sibling and I certainly appreciate Margaret coming all the way from Alaska to experience a bit of my life here with me.

It is her last day in Cornwall as she begins her long trip back to Alaska tomorrow and I have no idea what we will do today, but I will be in the kitchen in a few minutes making a specially requested chocolate cake for her. It gives me great pleasure to be able to sing a happy birthday chorus in person to Margaret today and I hope this new birthday year brings her sweetness and joy.

Painting The Town Red In Paris … Almost

Painting the town red has had different meanings over the years. From spilling blood to drinking and rowdy behavior none of which we did during our travels yesterday, but we did stay out too late to ride the Metro home and had to take a taxi after seeing the sights below.

This shot could only be obtained by taking it from the middle of the cross walk when it turned green for about thirty seconds which did not seem to matter to drivers who kept going anyway.

Margaret and I went back and forth more times than we probably should have and finally when I felt I had enough to pull a good image from several, I stood off to the side and watched Margaret stand her ground in the ” green for go ” cross walk. She’s the blurry person in the center with her arms up to snap her photo. Note the traffic does not really stop unless they have to avoid hitting you. I found this a bit scary when I was out there as drivers kept coming regardless of right of way.

Table (steps) for two at the foot of the Eiffel Tower .. you can just make out Margaret finishing her crêpe in the bottom right of this photo (ham, cheese, and french fries with a hotdog thrown into the mix) while sitting in the light of the famous landmark. I enjoyed a dessert crêpe with chocolate, banana, and ice cream. I know most people wouldn’t call that dinner, but it did contain several food groups with some sugar mixed in for energy.

Every so often throughout the evening the Eiffel Tower lights up for ten minutes at a time with sparkly lights which make it look even more festive. A boat near the bottom of the image crept into my shot while I was trying to capture the tower with her extra glow.

We waited in long lines to go to the very top of the Eiffel Tower and did so with people who all seemed patient and well-behaved until the two women below broke into the line that we had been in for about forty minutes.

This was on an upper level after having stood for about an hour already in the first line at ground level. They pushed past two smaller and slightly older ladies and seemed intent on pushing past us when Stonewall-Margaret had enough and became an immovable rock. First Margaret made a small space for the two nice ladies to get in front of us and then she planted herself in front of the two pushy women and held her ground moving forward when necessary, but not allowing herself to be rushed.

The women as you can see thought it was quite funny and the older women kept pushing and touching Margaret so much so that at one point Margaret said to me, ” I wonder if she could scratch my left shoulder-blade for me … I don’t think she’s touched that spot yet! ” It was both exasperating and funny at the same time.

Here is Margaret looking pretty well over it just before we reached the elevators to go up to the last level and the pushy woman as you can see was trying to avoid my camera. Other people were watching her poke and push at Margaret and were making faces that showed their surprise at the woman’s bad behavior as well.

After a good look around I snapped a ton of photos some of which you see above and then we stood in more lines before touching down safely on the ground.

Earlier in the day we paid a visit to the Arc de Triomphe where once again we were not content to just gaze up from below, but had to make the climb to the top to take in the view.

I took this one of us myself so it is a bit off-center.

Once the heat drove us down, we saw that there were preparations underway for a remembrance ceremony.

There were members of the military and soldiers everywhere.

This female office was advising a women who was about to try to cross the dangerous looking roundabout to use the underground tunnel instead. After snapping a few more photos, we headed for the tunnel ourselves as we were not allowed to get too close to what going on under the arches.

Posing for glamour shots at a place for remembering the dead always surprises me.

Once we were through the tunnel we saw more activity related to the ceremony happening on the Champs-Élysées.

I don’t think this gentleman minded my taking his picture. Most were willing to pose for us.

The children were waiting so patiently for everything to begin.

Here is a little cafe scene that one always associates with Paris.

And a last one for today. If you click on this you can see the drivers are all talking on their cell phones on their way home after work.

Notre-Dame … Pretty In Pink?

Aside from our feet which are covering miles it seems each day, Margaret and I have found the Metro to be a good mode of transportation although a bit more difficult in ways than the London Underground.

Notre-Dame is the grand cathedral so many come to Paris to see. I had talked with Margaret about my trip in 2008 up to the tip-top of the left tower and she did not mind the wait of about an hour or so to get inside. Once inside we climbed about 500 steps to reach the top and moved briskly up a staircase that became more narrow as we went up. Margaret snapped the image below to show you how worn the steps have become using the person ahead of her to illustrate.

She took this of me on the way back down.

Margaret snapped this tourist shot of me with some of the famous gargoyles in the background. They have wires up to keep you from falling, jumping, or getting carried away trying to get that perfect shot while you’re walking around the upper levels.

I know this shot has been done a thousand times or more but I just love having one to call my own.

If you squeeze in through here and climb up some wooden stairs, you can see the bell that rings in the tower.

When you climb the rest of the way up the stone steps to the top of the tower, you are treated to long distance views like this one and the two below.

While we were on this first upper level, Margaret was graced with a blessing from above while shooting over in the far left between the two gargoyles you see there. A pigeon perched high above her let go with a shower of poo hitting her right on the top of her head with enough force to go everywhere including her camera. She laughed it off with more humor than I would have and after a quick cleanup carried on with her photo shoot.

Safely back on the ground we went inside for a walk around the massive interior of Notre-Dame. We were a bit put off by all of the cameras flashing and people posing especially when flash photography was banned and some people were clearly trying to pray. People seemed to forget that this was a house of worship first and a stop on the “must see”  list for visitors second.

This priest seemed bothered by the behavior of the masses as well.

This is a slightly crooked view of the altar cross from behind.

Some places need a bit of repair.

I must have touched the wrong button as this pink was unintentional.

We left as they were lighting the candles for the evening service.

Here is a last look at the inside.

Outside there were more folks dressed for a big day.

And color choices which left me wondering how he  … yes he, managed to find shoes to match those pants.

I’ll be back with more about this bridge and what I saw there later as well as a story from the bookstore below.

Here are a few night shots of Notre-Dame.

Notice the moon in this photo and how pretty Notre-Dame looks in pink.

* Margaret just read this post and said that she had some pink interior shots as well and she was using two different cameras so it must be something (lighting we didn’t notice) that made some images look pink.

Bedruthan Steps – A Closer Look At A Special Place

Some of you may remember this photograph taken recently by a visiting friend from America. You may have also seen this post where I tell you that only a few minutes after stepping off the plane in Cornwall for the first time to meet John face to face, he brought me to this magical place.

Even in February it was obvious that Bedruthan Steps was spectacular with its jagged rocky face extending into the sea and the cliffs with signs that warned walkers not to go too close the edge, but allowed one to decide where the edge was for themselves.

Because we usually visit this location on the anniversary of that first meeting, it is generally windy and cold and while you can go down the hill behind us in the picture and up the other side, there is a locked gate during many months of the year when the steps behind it are considered too dangerous and slippery for people to climb up and down.

Two days ago we arrived with my sister Margaret and found the gate unlocked. It was my first time to walk on the beach at Bedruthan Steps and not a memory I am likely to forget. Here are some pictures from that beach walk.

Going slowly, we make our way carefully down the steep steps.

Here is a hazy look back at the steps after we reached the beach.

This gorgeous golden sand was everywhere.

John climbing through the rocks to reach another beach.

More people followed us through the opening. I like the informal triangular point they lined up into without knowing. Margaret is in the center with her camera raised.

Off they go back through the opening leaving us alone on the beach once again.

Here’s a windblown sister snap taken by John.

Leaving only our footprints behind we go back to the other side as well.

Dogs were everywhere and all seemed well-behaved and happy to have their time in the sun.

This is a classic Margaret pose with her weight balanced just so and her camera in hand.

A little kiss of thanks before we go for introducing me to this lovely place.

Then it’s back up the steps we go with John leading the way.

Here is a shot from the top of the stairs.

Here is one of John with Margaret behind him coming up even more steps on the way back to the car.

Ugh!   We … are … almost … there … whew!

Taking a last look back, you can see where the first photo was snapped down near the wall and the group of people standing there. (click to enlarge)  I hope I didn’t overwhelm you with photos today, This is only a few of the photographs from our time on the beach and it was difficult to choose which told the story best so I went with more rather than less.

Last Night Of The Proms 2010 – Hyde Park

I know The Last Night of the Proms is more than just a big patriotic sing-a-long, but for this American it was a dream night that I had imagined being a part of since first becoming aware of it several years ago. If you’ve ever had an opportunity to be in a mass of 30,000 flag-waving people singing in unison, you will know exactly what I mean.

Even though I tried to watch with an eye for detail so I might retell my experience, I found myself singing loudly along with the rest of the people gathered in Hyde Park and focused more on what I was feeling and less on observing others. Knowing that this night was part of the plan for my birthday week in London, I had brought back two American flags from my last US visit to wave in what I knew would be a sea mostly Union Jack and English colors. Flags from other countries were represented in spots and I even saw Confederate flag with what looked like Elvis’s face superimposed over its center.

Rarely does an experience deliver the excitement one imagines it will, but being in Hyde Park on September 11, 2010 did that and more. In addition to fun, I had a chance to see up close how some Brits celebrate their love of music with an opportunity to dress up in some wildly patriotic outfits along with a few folks in more traditional formal attire. The Last Night of the Proms ends a two month series of concerts at The Royal Albert Hall and include Proms in the Park on the last evening. It is on this final night that gestures get grander and people show a side that makes you wistfully happy to be part the singing crowd regardless of your nationality.

Some people dress up but don’t seem to want their picture taken. Oops!

The flag tribute in the photo above to the NYC Firefighters was a touching memorial to those who died on September 11, 2001

I like NY shirt on the man in the photo above.

I snapped a couple of photographs with this group and after giving them a quick look at my images, I showed the man who is giving me a thumb’s up how to adjust his Canon G11 so he might pick up an accent color like I was doing for my images that night. I love this cool feature on the G11. It turns out that I gave a little tutorial to a man who spends a fair amount of time in front of the camera instead of behind it. You can see more of Mike Brewer here.

Even though ” No Glass” signs were posted and bags were checked, we saw quite a few folks breaking the rules.

Dancing was happening everywhere with all ages and throughout the evening.

This was an American artist from New York, but I’m afraid I cannot remember her name. Feel free to help me out and I will go back and add it. (Big thanks to Pete who left Nell Bryden’s name in a comment … see more about Nell here)

Check out the Confederate flag with Elvis. Someone told me in our hotel that rooms were full because of the Proms, the Pope’s visit, and Elvis.  It seems they were expecting them ( The Pope & Elvis, though not together)  later in Hyde Park.

Vibram Five Fingers

I wore my ” Monkey Feet ” to the Proms.

Margaret taking in the scenery as things were getting started.

Click on this one to see the field of flags.

John’s eldest daughter took this with her new iPhone. He still looks pretty tan from his channel sailing a few weeks ago.

The fireworks gave a nice finish to things after a less than rousing version of, ” God Save The Queen.”  Do have a look and listen to at least two of our group sings so you can get a feel for how it felt to be there.  Rule Britannia” and Land of Hope & Glory ” are just two from the evening, but they will give you a chance to see what I’m raving about.