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What We Keep

You must remember this


Lately I have seen a proliferation of Facebook posts displaying things such as metal ice cube trays and flour sifters, or steering column mounted gear shifts, with instructions to share if you know what they are. I always know what they are, but that's beside the point. More than mere things, there are skills we have lost, ripped from us by modern technology as surely as automatic ice makers and plastic have relegated the metal ice tray, compete with handle for loosening the ice, to a Facebook meme.


Who these days knows how to kite a check? Believe me, that used to be a life-saving skill and it depended on the fact that a check deposited on one day took about a week to make its way back to the originating bank and be deducted there. Say you needed fifty dollars and your brother didn't have fifty dollars either. Brother wrote you a check for fifty and mailed it. A day later you wrote him a check for fifty and mailed that back. When his check came, you deposited it and spent it, while your check to him arrived in time to cover the check written from his account. He then sent you another check to cover your check. You kept this up until someone actually laid their hands on fifty dollars and put a stop to the process.


Telegrams. You paid by the word, so the composition of a good telegram was an art. These belong mostly to my parents' era, but there was something both ominous and lovely about a telegram delivered to your door. Possibly someone was dead. But possibly your agent had good news and the Post had bought your serial. Or the baby was a girl. Or your son had been expelled from yet another school. (I have among the Family Papers a telegram from my grandmother to my grandfather announcing exactly that.) Or your show had closed, alas, on opening night. You never knew.


Telegrams were eventually eclipsed by the long-distance telephone and it was expensive too, so it required careful management. There were two ways to make a long distance call before direct dialing, both through an operator. A station-to-station call was cheaper but you started paying as soon as anyone answered. A person-to-person call was more expensive but you didn't pay if the person you wanted wasn't there. I would call my boyfriend person-to-person and if he was there, he would claim not to be but that he was expected any minute. Both parties on either end could hear what the other was saying. I would thank the operator and tell her I would try again. Then I would call station-to-station.


My family developed an elaborate code when I was in college in Virginia, built around the now also vanished half-price student standby flights. A person-to-person call for myself meant that I had made my flight home to California. My parents would tell the operator that I was not there, and I would say brightly, "Thank you, Operator, I'll try again about seven." When I missed it, I called for Mr. Charleston DeLay or Mr. L.A. Sunday. A great deal of information could be conveyed this way. My parents checked on the schedule of their weekly poker game with participants outside the local calling zone by calls for Mr. Jackson Low. Mr. Low wasn't there but he was expected at six o'clock on Friday. One player achieved immortality at this racket by reminding the hostess, who was notoriously forgetful, to thaw the chicken meant for the game dinner with a call for "Madame Poulet deFrost."


We shall not see her like again. I miss being able to jerk the phone company around almost as much as I miss the rotary dial telephone, which at least prevented "Jacob" with the almost unintelligible accent from calling from "The Medicare" to ask me how I am today.

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My ex-Uncle Dick

An email from a pal this week asks me if I want a book by Richard Wormser that she spotted at a second hand store. Oh yes, send it on.

I always thought of him as my ex-Uncle Dick, my aunt’s former husband who left the family before I was born, but remained in touch with my parents and a source of story and legend. I only met him once but he was a figure in my adolescent imagination. He was a writer of pulp fiction and short stories, like nearly everyone else in my father’s family back then. During the Depression, he drove my aunt, the only one with an actual job, to the train station every day in a horse and buggy, and when a woman in a chauffeured car pulled up to ask, “My good man, who do you drive for?” he tipped his hat and told her, “For Richard Wormser, the noted author.”

He wrote short stories for pulp magazines, and a slew of the Nick Carter adventures. He was hired and fired twice by Columbia Pictures, and he wrote B movies at Republic and Universal. In World War II he was a forest ranger, and patrolled the Southern California coast on horseback, a job I would have considered pure heaven.

He claimed that his grandfather had Southern sympathies during the Civil War, and so hired a substitute to fight for him when drafted by the North, while he slipped away to battle for the Lost Cause. Of course (you knew it was coming) they subsequently met upon the field of battle, whereupon Dick’s grandfather said sternly to the substitute pointing a bayonet at his midsection, “So much as touch me with that instrument, my good man, and I will cut your pay in half!”

I didn’t believe that for a minute, even at thirteen, but he remained a man of mystery and story — maybe not as interesting as I imagined him or maybe more so. Rooting in the paperbacks in our bookcase routinely turned up one of Dick’s books, the cover splendid with a half-clothed dame or a steely-eyed sheriff.

When my mother and I were setting out to drive me to college in Virginia for my senior year, I insisted that we stop on the way in Santa Fe where Dick was living with his current wife, because I had never met him and was longing to. He seemed reasonably pleased with the idea when my mother called him, and so we arrived at his house, which was fronted by a sign that said WORMSER’S DRY GOODS. I remember a wonderful Southwestern dinner, and a lot of stories about other people I had only heard of. I fell asleep at midnight but he and my mother sat up all night reminiscing and in the morning Mama had an awful hangover.

You need people like that in the family, the storytellers, the subjects themselves of stories told and re-told, apocryphal or solid, even if you just get to meet them once. They people family myth, that expanding landscape of bright color and dim truthfulness where everyone is wild or mad or heroic or all three. Read More 
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The Voices in Your Head

In the post-Christmas packing away, while looking for something else (which I still haven’t found, of course) I came upon three cassette tapes in a chest in the living room. One contains folk songs and train wreck ballads sung by husband and sent to me as many years ago as a cassette tape implies, while we were courting from opposite sides of the country. He knows I am a sucker for hearing him sing (I have always, alas, been easily seduced by boys who sing, although not lately and not since him). The other side has a selection of love poems.

The second tape is poetry from me, to him. No songs, as I cannot carry a tune in a bucket, possibly why I am so susceptible to those who can.

The third is an interview with my mother, conducted by me before her death, sometime in the late nineties, about family history. It isn’t just the history and family tales I value that tape for, although the description of how to kite a check, an emergency banking technique impossible now due to instant communication, was worth the time in itself. It’s the voices. There is a carnal, earthly sense to the human voice that you can’t get from a sheet of paper. When it tells you a story or sings you a song, it is there, in your head, not outside you on the page.

My ex-husband’s widow kept his voice on their answering machine for years after he died. It may be there still and I know, oh I know, why she did it. They come back to us in those old recordings. If you close your eyes, they are here, next to you. The human voice says things that print cannot. We keep them, transferring them to each new technology lest they slip away. Each time they have something new to say to us. I have mined my mother’s stories for endless fictional details but the stories are always better when she tells them.

Sit your relatives down while you have them, and find out the family secrets. The older they get and the older you get, the more likely they are to spill the beans. Give them a glass of wine and sit at their feet. Turn the microphone on. Read More 
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