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Times Past: Food From the Sea

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Times PastGeneration X, Rural Northern California

Foam-edged waves pushed kelp across wet sand. I don’t recall the waves at Monterey Beach (California) being big or crashing. My focus was on the semi-circles of water that glided toward my yellow rain-boots (or were they red?). Benign wave remnants after the ocean crested further down the slope of beach where I was not permitted to go. Wave remnants, like early memories, glide across my mind. The memory of the rain-boots might not be from that day. But I do recall stopping my chase to watch the men in dark waders — my father and his father clamming further out where I could not go, dragging another body up the shoreline instead of buckets. It’s fractured, that memory, but in family lore the day the clam-digger drowned in a deadly riptide we stopped going to the beach. And it must be true, because I don’t have any other childhood memories of the ocean.

When Irene Waters posted her new monthly challenge, Times Past, I knew I’d want to participate. I never considered memoir to be among the styles of writing I’d pursue, but reading the memoirists who write flash fiction as Rough Writers, I am up to their challenges in return. I’m eager for Irene’s Time’s Past because it will form a revealing look across generations and place. She offers that we can respond to her prompts in any form we like. I’m going to use it to challenge myself within the form of creative non-fiction. Her first prompt is:Β  The first time I remember eating in a restaurant in the evening.

I cannot think of seafood without thinking about the body of the drowned clam-digger. It never fully struck me the man was dead, but the solemnity of the adults and the curiosity of seeing an ambulance lodged in my mind like a mis-filed note. Somehow it comes up attached to the seafood folder.

The first time I ever ate out at a restaurant in the evening — a huge deal in the 1970s for a kid — was the Ormsby House Seafood Buffet. I was born near the coast of northern California, but moved to the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada mountains by age seven. The nearest big towns with restaurants were Stateline (Lake Tahoe), Carson City, Minden and Reno. These were the big Nevada city-centers (well, big to a kid who lived in a town with the population of 99) which catered to the gaming industry. My parents often went to Carson City when relatives or friends visited. Adults only.

On this particular occasion I was invited to go and allowed to bring a friend. I was nine. We went to the Ormsby House, an older yet elegant high-rise casino. Most of the casinos offered a seafood buffet on a Friday night, but this was supposedly the best one. Excited for my first evening restaurant meal, I felt I had been dropped into the Willy Wonka factory for seafood. There was squid salad with diminutive whole squid among cold macaroni; oysters Rockefeller; shrimp cocktail; and clams in the shell. And that was the salad bar! I had cracked crab legs with steaming butter and a wedge of lemon. For years I’d recall that meal, but it was the only time I ever went.

Later, not far from the garish blinking lights of Carson City’s casino row, my father set up a temporary tree stand, and from the ages of 12 to 16 I helped sell Christmas trees from that lot. I often dreamed of going to the Ormsby House, but we were in work clothes and covered with pitch and the scent of pine. Instead, every night my father would hand me cash from our collection and I’d trot across the street to buy us all dinner in a bag from the fast food chain, Long John Silvers. I discovered hush-puppies (fried balls of cornmeal batter) and deep fried clams. It was a good seafood fix.

Once I moved away from California, I moved further and further from those Pacific coast waves and fresh seafood. In Minneapolis I found Sea Salt, a little seafood stand at Minnehaha Park, and it was one of the only places to find fried clams. Every Christmas, I’d put tins of smoked clams or oysters in my children’s stockings along with an orange and peppermint stick. When they grew up and we had friends or spouses join us in the stocking exchange, they found the smoked clams odd. Now, I crave the fish and chips served at the local gas station four miles down from Elmira Pond, not for the fish or potatoes but for the side of Pacific Ocean fried clams they serve with it.

And I wonder who that man was. Like the true color of my rain-boots, I may never know.


28 Comments

  1. rogershipp says:

    “When they grew up and we had friends or spouses join us in the stocking exchange, they found the smoked clams odd. ” Isn’t that so true… That is what is so wonderful about true family traditions!!!

    Liked by 4 people

  2. Annecdotist says:

    Beautifully expressed, Charli, puts my more pedestrian effort to shame! But interesting that we are both plunging into Irene’s challenge at the same time, and with similar reservations about the genre.

    Liked by 4 people

  3. Charli your writing grabs you the minute you start reading. You succeeded well with your out of genre experience writing creative non-fiction. I will see that drowned clam collector for many days in my mental images. Thanks for being the first Gen X to contribute. It balances the experiences but despite that wonderful sounding meal at Ormsby House it doesn’t sound as though it was a common occurrence for at least you from your generation. Will be interested to see other Gen X responses. I now know clams will get you salivating. Thanks for joining in.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Charli Mills says:

      It was the first image that came to mind and I puzzled over it for days until I realized it was the clam/seafood connection. I wasn’t sure if it would work, but that’s why I like these challenges — it gets us to try something different. Eating out was a big deal and not common. Which is why I absolutely love eating out, and I certainly introduced my children young to all kinds of ethnic restaurants.

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  4. Norah says:

    I can’t believe you won’t now go delving into the identity and story of that clam digger. That’s not my historical digger, Charli. Though it would distract you from your main fare at this stage, so I understand your need to let him lie for a while.
    What an experience for a child at the beach. I experienced the day as being rather dreary, with the sadness tinging my feelings.
    Oh, I would have loved to join you at the seafood smorgasbord. I looooove seafood! And those clams on the side at your local – yum!
    What is a gen x? I just don’t get these gen descriptions at all. I was trying to think what I was. Then I remembered: old! I think they call me a baby boomer! πŸ™‚

    Liked by 3 people

    • Charli Mills says:

      Oh, Norah! Yes, I already did and after an hour of searching I forced myself to stop, though I’ll keep searching as I have time. I’m most curious to solve it now. You would love the seafood buffets at the Nevada casinos — so extravagant yet so cheaply priced (because they take all your money gambling). I’m thinking of those clams…

      Gen X is the forgotten generation! πŸ™‚ We are tucked between baby boomers and the darling millenials and no one even cares to market to us (an over exaggeration). But we are the smallest generation demographic. Of course, being in marketing, I studied the demographics and many of my marketing peers are gen x, too. Many of us have been squeezed out of jobs by baby boomers who won’t retire and millenials who will work for less. Many entrepreneurs are gen x because we tend to make our own way. And sniffle because no one knows who we are! But, hey, we’re getting old, too. πŸ™‚

      Liked by 1 person

      • Norah says:

        Thank you for living up to my expectations. Not that living up to my expectations is part of your reason for being here!
        I would love those seafood buffets.However the description “cheaply priced” reminds me of a restaurant we went to a few times when we were staying at the coast. We got a huge seafood platter for $10. It was great value and we loved it. One day, a few years later, I read in the paper that the restaurant had been closed by the health department. The place had been overrun with rats and cockroaches. Our memories were tarnished forever! πŸ™‚
        Thanks for explaining Gen X. My son is Gen X like you. Bec is Gen Y. Grandson is Gen Z and Granddaughter Gen Alpha. I should have just looked it up, but then I wouldn’t have got the richness of your description. πŸ™‚
        Now I know who you are!! But you’re not old yet! πŸ™‚

        Liked by 1 person

      • Charli Mills says:

        Oh, no! What a way to destroy your memories of what you thought was great food! You’ll have to keep me up to date on the generations after millenials (Y).

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  5. Sherri says:

    Fiction to memoir, memoir to fiction! This is great! Long John Silver’s eh? I remember it well πŸ™‚ But Charli, what a disturbing memory of the drowned clam digger. It’s fascinating when we delve into memoir, which details come straight to mind, which don’t (the colour of your boots for instance). The story behind your family lore, not going back to the beach after the drowning, not knowing if it really happened or not, yet you wonder and remember it still, those details firmly etched in your memory and attachments made still through eating seafood both now and then. I agree with Norah, a story definitely worth delving into at some point. But oh seafood? Love it! And reading the stories so far for Irene’s wonderful challenge, the one thing that really stands out is how for those of us of a certain age, eating out as kids was rare, something really special. Very different to today…

    Liked by 2 people

    • Charli Mills says:

      You remember Long John Silvers! Yes, memory confounds me in that way and how at one point I had to sift through stories told and memories retained or lost, it was stressful. I love the freedom of making up details to fill in all the gaping holes. πŸ™‚ But I’m learning from you wonderful memoirists that your processes are similar to fictional development, especially when research is involved. I’ll probably continue to search for this mystery clam digger. And yes, different all together for our kids in regards to eating out.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. julespaige says:

    I really enjoyed both stories.
    I think family traditions are fascinating.
    But the link in your post doesn’t work.
    I’ll try to find it another way…

    Liked by 1 person

  7. jeanne229 says:

    Oh now I want to play πŸ™‚ Your story was so evocative Charli, pulled me right in like a riptide…as all your writing does. Memoir is not all that far removed from fiction, especially, as you observed, our memories are often indistinguishable from stories that have somehow lodged in our memories. Beautiful piece! Haunting. Sensory. Memorable. Oh and funny about the smoked clams. I am not fond of them, but the young men in our family love them, and they make me think of my son. The clams always appear right in their little tin with the other appetizers on holidays.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Charli Mills says:

      I had a bit of a horrifying revelation in my adult life when I realized most of my memories were stories retold over and over in our family. I went through a time of trying to recapture or recognize a “true” memory and realized that I stored both emotional and kinesthetic memory rather than visual. It was disconcerting, but that’s the thing with memory, it is recalled through different senses. On the other hand my imagination is visual and more sensory so fiction feels freeing…I don’t have to “remember right.” Happy to hear your son likes the smoked clams, too!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Lisa Reiter says:

        Loving this and the discussion. Makes me laugh that memoir is not your genre when you illustrate nearly every post with a piece! Meanwhile wondering where to get my hands on smoked clams to give them a go. Not sure I’ve ever seen them here! xx

        Liked by 2 people

      • Charli Mills says:

        And that’s how little I know of the genre, Lisa! I think of memoir as what I write but with a fact-checker by my side, making it accountable like journalism. Then I start to doubt all kinds of memories — was it really that color, that day, that hot or cold. I like writing my creative interpretation of life. πŸ˜‰

        Liked by 1 person

  8. […] to eat out. Thanks to Grandmama. Sherri,Β Judy, Deborah, Geoff, Anne, Jules,Β Jeanne, Christine,Β Charli, […]

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  9. […] only memory of oceanic beaches from childhood is a fuzzy recollection of the clam-digger who drowned; a story I already […]

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