Tag Archives: memory

A HISTORY OF TEA

DSCF6075The thread of sense memory runs deep.
My mother scoops dry black shrivelings
Of Lyons tea
Out of the red and black tea caddy.
The rippling rope of amber
Pours from the spout of the
Battered aluminum pot.
A ghost of steam
Rises above the rim of bone china.
She would not think to start the day
Without her cup of tea—
Milk, two sugars.

Mimicking the grownups,
Three little girls sit in three little chairs,
Teddies perched on laps,
Around the low wooden table,
Sipping sweet milky tea from miniature cups.

Granny wreathed in
Roses and fat bumbling bees,
Labrador dozing in the shade.
Teapot resting under the knitted cosy
Beside a plate of warm shortbread.
Sugar lumps in the silver bowl.
Milk in first, one sugar.

Grandfather’s breakfast ritual:
Small gold teapot for one
And a half.
If you were lucky and early to the table
He’d save those soupy black dregs for your cup.
A fond gesture from a man at a loss for words.
Splash of milk, no sugar.

Banging in the door at four o’clock,
Schoolbags dumped,
Tongues hanging out
For McVitie’s and afternoon tea
Strong enough to trot a mouse across it,
As my aunt would say.
Dreaming in the firelight,
Staving off homework,
The pet rabbit munching on Gingernut biscuits,
Between the paws of the great yellow dog.

The interior hush of the car
After a rain-lashed buffeting down the beach.
Hot tea poured into tannin stained mugs.
A stew of dogs and tea and humans,
Steaming up the windows.
The wind keening and rocking,
Trying to get inside and share the family picnic.

Waking to dull yellow light filtering through the wall of the tent
And the hiss of the gas burner boiling the kettle.
The milk bottle resting in the dew of the morning grass.
Or the sip of wood-smoke from a fire blackened pot.

The taste of tea at once so familiar
Became strange and exotic
With the sharp bite of Greek lemons,
Or a handful of crushed mint and orange blossom
Sweetness swirled in small glass cups
In a Tangier souk.

Bewleys of Grafton Street,
Cathedral of stained glass windows and dark wood,
The place to take the pulse of Dublin
While sipping tea and eating gobfulls of sticky bun.
Thought too, the site of betrayal
Of my college coffee drinking years.

But the tonic effects
Could not be banished beyond the realms of coolness.
In the wee dawn hours,
After a late gig and too many pints,
Bleary-eyed under the buzzing strip lights of the all-night caf,
The table strewn with plates,
Fag butts put out in the runny remains of fried eggs,
Life saving pots of scalding tea to ward off the inevitable.

In my new homeland
That anemic thing dangling on a string
Was no substitute for the stuff that would
Put hair on your chest and fur on your tongue.

But old habits and all that—
If not the tea, then the age-old ritual
Of sipping and sharing
Passed on to my husband—black, two sugars.
My daughter’s first phrase—will you have a cup of tea?
Getting straight to the heart of the matter.

And now?
I sit in the green chair, cradling the yellow mug,
Warmth seeping into my palms,
Thinking and not thinking,
Each honeyed sip of green tea
Bringing flesh to my bones.
My own ritual.

Three thousand miles away my father
Shuffles from the bedroom
In the predawn hours,
His head a cushiony place
Familiar with rote patterns—
Set the kettle murmuring on the stove
Scald the battered aluminum pot,
Reach for the red and black caddy,
Pour the boiling water over the tea bags,
Shuffle back to bed
Carrying my mother’s first cup of the day
And his own—milk, one small sugar.

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IRISH THANKSGIVING

DSCF9559I step from one world into another
Like a bather setting my toe in the icy Atlantic on a June day.
It is a painful transition
And yet once the gut is sucked in with a sharp inhale of breath
My horizon shifts and it is palatable.

I step into the damp air of an Irish morning,
Tang of salt and mud off the Shannon estuary,
Strong whiff of cow manure. I know I’m home.

The navy suit and general greyness of the men at the passport desks is expected.
One takes my passport and in a soft Galway accent—
you would be forgiven for thinking the fella had a marble rolling around in his mouth
says to me, Ah you must be David and Sally’s daughter. Tell your parents I was asking for them.

I am at once comfortable with the scale of things:
Four steps to the luggage belt, a few more and you’re out the door
into the waving arms and hurrying faces and cries of delight.

I drive the Shannon to Galway road
Sun at my right elbow shuddering into existence over the horizon to the east.
I think of Dublin 200 kilometers away, my birthplace and rooting of my soul.
Haven’t been there in years,
And like the thought of meeting a childhood friend
it fills me with pangs of horror and awe—
how could you change so much, and not at all?

But back to the driving. In the stone-walled fields along the road
Sheep and cattle, already on the move,
search for the first dollop of creamy winter sunlight to caress them,
stroke the night’s chill out of their bones, and who can blame them.
The long November grass is bowed down with a rime of hoar frost.

Heading north, smoke rises from the odd chimney,
a few cars on the road this Sunday, off to early mass,
but mostly I’m on my own.
Sleeping towns left to the rooks and grey crows, scavenging on the verge.
A pair of swans fit for a ballet, necks kissing reflections on the surface of a lake.
Sheep, and more sheep,
And piebald, shaggy-hoofed horses in rough fields, more marsh than grass.
I have the radio tuned to the local requests show,
still playing the horrendous hits from my 80’s teenage years.
I am a traveler through a strange land of rebuilt memories.
Before my eyes the landscape, the smells, the sounds – that jackdaw-
Are a time lapse photograph.

A scene plays out—corner of my eye—a nativity:
under a bare beech tree the cow stands with her calf and attendants,
burnished like some godlike being, fit to be kneeled in front of.
The old abbey is draped in pearly morning fog,
awash with a light that would do Monet proud.
I remember why this is a fairytale land.

My parents are out on the gravel to greet me before I’ve gathered up my wits,
dogs barking like the half-witted maniacs they are.
We gush through the front door all bags and whisking tails and exclamations.
I step into the bright kitchen, moments of calm reign sipping tea
—ah the taste of a great lump of yellow butter sliding across a piece of toast—
and talking of the journey and the weather and the latest gossip.
My eyes follow the birds fluttering around the feeders,
At once alien and yet ordinary
The greenfinch, blue tit, bullfinch; still remember the names.
My father has the usual complaint,
Bloody magpies, always bullying the others.

My feet crunch the brittle grass and leave dark footprints
On the path to the lake.
I brush past brambles burred with frost,
dried seed heads, orbs of frozen dew, lit up like Christmas baubles by Herself.
Ducks explode out of the reeds with raucous quacking,
beating at the water in panic.
A flash of iridescent blue is the kingfisher
perched in the alder at the end of the pier for a second
before torpedoing on up the bay.

I draw in cold, moss scented air. Re-acquainting myself.

Tomorrow I’ll start the work of clearing out the attic—
blowing dust and dead flies off forty years of family stuff.
But until then, I’ll revel in the familiar, and give thanks.

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THE ROLE OF MEMORY IN STORYTELLING

melissa with poppy - Version 2My youngest son just turned seven. Watching him play with his birthday Lego, it dawned on me that he has reached my memory lifetime, that is, the age from which I have distinct memories. It was also the age I vividly remember writing my first story.

It was about a little girl who wished for a pair of red shoes. She pestered her mother until her wish came true. Against all her mother’s warnings, she wore the red shoes to go exploring. One shoe got stuck in a muddy puddle and was lost. Slowly, the shoe disintegrated, becoming part of the soil, where it nurtured a lush patch of grass . Along came a cow that ate the grass, and was subsequently killed and her hide turned into a pair of red leather shoes. Strange story for a seven-year-old, but with a satisfyingly circular pattern, and, most importantly, based in fact. Yes, I was the naughty child who’d lost her red shoe.

A baby learns that if you smile at your parent just so, you elicit an instant response, or if you pull the cat’s whiskers, chance are you’ll get scratched. From birth, we build a narrative to make sense of the world around us, based on our interpretation of previous experience.

For a writer, consciously tapping into this memory bank is essential. Storytelling, at its heart, is a thing of memory. When I create a story, I delve into a scrap bag and pull out fragments of places I’ve been, weather I’ve experienced, and characters I’ve met. I stitch together a plot and blend it with sense memories to make it come alive—perhaps the salt and dead fish-laced air of a harbor, the heat shimmering off a city sidewalk, ripe with the scents of hotdogs and car fumes and drains, or the solo chorus of a lark rising high above a peat bog.

When my first grade son writes a story his default mode is a graphic novel: elaborately drawn settings and multiple characters with cryptic little speech bubbles. When prodded he will tell me the complicated and action packed plot. These stories are nothing like the ones I wrote at his age, mostly involving princesses and furry animals, but firmly based in recalled events.Milo Pic 1

I know that all children, given the right encouragement, will express themselves through art. As soon as my older children could hold a crayon, they spent many hours drawing—dragons, knights, princesses, superheroes. As a toddler, my seven-year-old who is more than a decade younger than his brother and sister, seemed reluctant to pick up art supplies. I didn’t push him. Then, at the age of four, the drawings started to trickle in from preschool—small, lavishly detailed scenes that required much explanation from him before I could grasp what they were about.

Observing him draw at home, I noticed an interesting thing. His drawings were “live action.” He was animating his fantasy world on the page. No wonder it had taken him a while to conceptualize how to do this. He is a 21st century storyteller.Milo Pic speak 1

Today, in our screen-centric era, kids move easily between the real world and game worlds, often, at least partially of their own making. These worlds can be so enticing that kids (and adults) feel as though you are present in that fantasy world.

I can’t help wondering what kind of storytellers this makes them? Many of their “memories” are constructed from these fantasy experiences, blended with reality. No doubt the next generation will write extraordinary works of fiction. They will create worlds that we would be hard pushed to conceive of. Storytellers of the mid 21st century will break old molds.

And yet, I believe that nothing can replace the scent of wood smoke on the air that instantly transports me to the moment of arrival at my grandmother’s house. Or the feel of slick pebbles underfoot and ice-cold water stinging my knees as I wade into a lake. Or the shame of facing my mother wearing one red shoe, and one muddy sock.muddy red shoe