Times Past: Grainy Memories

Written by Charli Mills

Charli Mills, a born buckaroo, makes literary art accessible at CarrotRanch.com. She writes about the veteran spouse experience and women forgotten to history.

March 26, 2016

Grainy MemoriesAs a child, I knew the marshmallow give of hot tar while I padded barefoot down the street to the summer swimming hole. I’ve felt the tickle of moss while wading in irrigation ditches, shoes off and jeans rolled up to my knees. I understood sand to be grit I used to wash camp dishes in the dim light of dusk with a creek as my sink. I might be a seventh-generation Welsh-Scots-Irish-German-Basque-Portagee-Dane born in California, but I did not grow up a beach-comber. Cowabunga, surfer dudes and California dreaming was not on my side of the Sierra Nevada mountains.

My only memory of oceanic beaches from childhood is a fuzzy recollection of the clam-digger who drowned; a story I already shared.

To participate in Irene Water’s Times Past prompt, I’m dipping into more recent memory because I simply didn’t spend my childhood upon any beaches. Yet, I do have one summer when I lived along the south shore of Lake Superior, a great inland sea. I followed the feel of sand between my toes to that time. For the record, I’m a Gen X Baby-buster and this is my creative interpretation of adult memories from rural Wisconsin, USA.

Unchained on Sioux Beach

With each step the sand sings to my bare feet.

I’ve lost my home, my job and now I just let loose the leashes on  my dogs. Fear clutches the breath in my lungs and I wheeze. Yesterday I walked out of my office, the one I had for 11 years, after shaking hands with my own replacement. 90 days ago a judge said, “I’m sorry, I have no choice.” 80 days ago my husbanded dumped jeans and t-shirts into the back seat of his car, dismantled his aviation toolbox, set trays in the trunk, and said he had to go west; it was a job. 30 days ago I declared myself a Craig’s List dealer, giving strangers my phone number and address, giving away books, suits, dishes, furniture and everything my husband left in the garage, wishing I smoked cigarettes after each transaction. 10 days ago my boss called me into to her office so she could cry. She said, “I’m grieving.” I’d have grieved, too if only tears could have breached the shroud of terror and loneliness. Five days ago my staff held a going away party with jazz and cake. Despite having disrobed my life’s accumulations, they gifted me new stuff as if homelessness was not my destination.

Damp and coarse like Kosher rock salt used to freeze home-made ice cream, I feel the sand scrub my feet.

This morning I awoke in a spare bedroom not my own, having slept in a borrowed twin bed and surrounded with the last of Things That Still Matter — three crates of books, enough clothes to make choices, a small writing desk and a laptop with a hopeful half-drafted first-novel. It is not my first first-novel. I had cheerfully told everyone I was going to Wisconsin, to the fishing village where my novel was set to finish my book, as if foreclosure had made me Hemingway. The two dogs remained with me even though they limited my ability to find places to sleep and write. They Still Mattered. They remained my last fragment of scheduled time with a persistence to go outdoors. They had to pee early this first morning when I felt the weight of loss upon me like a death shroud. We could have stopped at the clumpy patch of grass, but I could hear the seagulls and Lake Superior close-by. So I went to Sioux Beach, took off my shoes and removed the leashes on two dogs who had only known their house, yard and neighborhood walks.

Sioux Beach stretches vast and empty. So much sand is alien to me.

In this place, as far away from my former home and office as mars is from earth, I force out the fear strangling breath in my lungs. I watch the unleashed bigger dog lunge after seagulls, his dark coloring a beacon on the beach dressed in khaki and white. The water tumbles to shore in waves, making semi-circles of washed pebbles and foam. The smaller dog, roan and lighter, sniffs with curiosity at the water’s lapping edge. I imagine I’m at the ocean and look across the bay until land is no longer visible. Later I’ll learn that even though Lake Superior is an inland sea, its fresh water wave action is due to a sloshing bathtub effect. Gunmetal storm clouds from the nor ‘east can bring 14 foot swells.

Above the surf I still hear the sand.

Quartz particles rub with each step and emit a sound like a tiny singing bowl. For the remainder of spring and summer, I’ll discard my shoes to walk upon this sacred beach. My feet will become polished as if I could afford weekly pedicures. Fear falls away and home becomes defined by where I am and who I’m with in the moment. Structure diminishes, that of houses and time. In the places polished clean by sand, creativity enters and I finally finish a first-novel. I discard my own leashes and trust what comes back to me. These first steps in the signing sand on Sioux Beach are like a return to living fully engaged and alive. Unchained.

I write thank-you notes in the sand to bankers who robbed me with pens as big as ceremonial halberds, watching waves erase the diminished letters of BOA.


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  1. Irene Waters 19 Writer Memoirist

    Charli what an uplifting grainy memory. You are more than a survivor – you are an inspiration. Unchained is a great place to be and a release for your creativity which has gone bounding forewards, like your dogs probably felt when unleashed in such a beautiful, though foreign landscape.
    You have reminded me also that in Australia we have many children who live out west and have never seen the sea. There are at least two organisations (Stewart House and the Far West Children’s Home) I know of that bring many of these children to the beach for a holiday and to organise any medical care they need whilst in the city.
    You have also reminded me that out west any sand along a river bank is also called a beach, so perhaps it is the sand which makes the beach not the ocean.
    Thank you for your grainy memories, again you’ve added a valuable richness to the mix.

    • Charli Mills

      Some people are drawn to the ocean and the beach is full of memories. That’s what intrigues me about a prompt — it doesn’t always lead to the expected. I like this collection you are doing and thanks for letting me be a part even when my responses don’t always fit in. 😉

      • Irene Waters 19 Writer Memoirist

        I’m glad you are enjoying it Charli. It is good to have a Gen X on board and where the prompt takes you is fine by me. It is always a pleasure to read.

  2. julespaige

    Having never had real roots growing up I can only imagine the devastation of
    your losses.

    I may have visited a few beaches…even a few lakes.
    I have not visited any of the Great Lakes yet.

    I like how the grain of the sand polished a new beginning for you.
    And I am happy to have met you and become a part of your writing community.

    • Charli Mills

      I still long for roots having severed the ones from childhood. Perhaps some of us spend life as transplants. I yearn for roots, still. I’ve only seen two of the Great Lakes and I’m fond of Lake Superior having explored shore and sea. Thank you for being a part of this shiny group! 🙂

      • julespaige

        A tad slow on the last prompt…I used to be a tad more adventurous than I am now…

  3. ellenbest24

    A hard read. As bankers who used our beloved letters and used them to form words that stole away part of your normality; still you live on. A better stronger you writes her novel, lives on, loves her dogs and walks on the beach. i love how you hear the sand sing…

    • Charli Mills

      Thank you for reading, Ellen. And I still hear singing in the sand.

      • ellenbest24

        I hope it is a restful tune, I visualise something melodic.

      • Charli Mills

        It’s is, indeed!

  4. Sacha Black

    wow this was hard to read. I’m not even sure I have any appropriate words. You really are one hell of a survivor Charli. So glad that one horrific door closing has given you the chance of a lifetime <3

    • Charli Mills

      The bigger the cliff, the bigger the leap. Hope it all works out. 🙂 Thanks, Sacha. <3

  5. denmaniacs4

    I agree, “a hard read.” I spent 3 decades trying to be of some assistance to people whose losses I barely understood. I have suffered so little by contrast. It is these losses, these fleeting touchstones of memory that writers seek to find, memories of loss and love, which I suppose are the same thing.

    • Charli Mills

      Thank you for reaching out to others in their losses. Writing can be a way to give meaning to something hard to understand or experience.

  6. Annecdotist

    What a beautiful thing you’ve created out of tragedy, Charli, not just how eloquently you’ve written about this devastating experience of loss here but of course the new career you’ve built as an author. And I agree with Irene, the beach of the lake should still qualify, I’d even count the city beaches that get built over her every summer.

    • Charli Mills

      Thank you, Anne. At BinderCon, several authors challenged me to tell more of my story. And yes, beach is the edge of many things.

  7. Lisa Reiter

    Wow, Charli, you’ve had to cut the ties that bind in more than one big way haven’t you. I feel the sand here as your grit and determination and the edge of the water, the firming of a jawline.
    Grim and beautiful words – I’m listening to a survivor.????

    • Charli Mills

      It’s a balance of scales. In one way, the greater the odds to overcome, the greater the outcome. As a survivor yourself, and one to spit death in the eye, you understand the sweet lyrics of a single day — today. Nothing is stationary. Nothing is truly safe and sound and set forever. But if we set our jaw to what hands we’ve been dealt we can hear beautiful music in the polishing of our souls (and feet). 🙂 <3

  8. Norah

    Beautiful, eloquent writing that belies the situation that befell you. It must have felt as if your world was collapsing around you. To draw such beauty and such emotion in a situation so tragic displays the seed of hope and strength of character that help define you. “They” may have considered you a weed in earlier days, but that was only because you didn’t belong in their negative world. When transplanted to where you truly belong, your value is acknowledged and purposeful. More power to you!

    • Charli Mills

      Many things were shattered that first day, and many things were born anew. Not many like to be out there beyond the comfort zone but that’s were hope is tested and we discover our definitions and destinations. Thank you, Norah. I don’t think I’m through being transplanted, though, and I need to re-sprout wherever I land. Writing is my constant.

      • Norah

        I love your definition of ‘beyond the comfort zone’ – ‘that’s where hope is tested and we discover our definitions and destinations’. I’m pleased you enjoy the re-sprouting. I guess writing is a definition and destination for you.

      • Charli Mills

        I went way beyond the comfort zone this past week. If bad situations have a purpose, perhaps it is in helping us refine the meaning we seek in life.

  9. TanGental

    When you settle over the keys, something comes loose and a trickle becomes a flow becomes a torrent. It’s like a biblical cleansing,a washing away maybe even a baptism of sorts and it leaves a sense of you is the gently lapping aftermath. A new you, not a chosen by you you, but new none the less. The commentators say this is a hard read; i bet its a hard write and a harder to live but the tsunami left you standing (well hunched over a keyboard but you get my crappy metaphor) and we, we readers, are all grateful for that. Sometimes I suppose you have to write your own sequel.

    • Charli Mills

      Ah, a well-washed metaphor and beautifully written, Geoff. A second tsunami hit this week. It’s the aftermath. Now that we lease we find we can still be booted from a home. Will it ever end? I suppose not if we continue to live by the sea. And I like the view too much to settle for safer ground. I might be displaced but no one can take what was awakened in me. My baptism holds.

      We watched The Big Short, by the way. Actually felt vindicated though it barely mentioned how fraud was tied into the sub-prime loan bundles. We were never sub-prime until we were defrauded. Interesting to consider how the legal scam could easily hide the illegal ones which must have made an absolute mess on the backside despite “too big too fail; too many to jail.” We must have learned much because we had no trouble at all following the plot line. We even had some big a-ha moments and I think we better understand we lost from day one. But call me Don Quixote because I tilted at banking windmills until they took my lance away.

      I thought it would hurt more to watch the movie, but we laughed probably harder than most people and I felt it showed that Todd and I were not crazy when we said the whole damned system was fraudulent, not just our initial mortgage broker who robbed us.

      I am writing my own sequel and although someone keeps tossing me plot twists, I’m countering each one.

      • TanGental

        You remind me of those children’s toys with round weighted bases that you push over and they bounce right back upright. I realise the weighted base bit might seem less than a charming thing to suggest so upfront apologises. Dad would be furious with me.

      • Charli Mills

        And some days I have the same silly smiley of those toys! And no issue with references to weighted bases. I respect my strong base.

  10. paulamoyer

    Hi, Charli — sorry for the delayed response. Wow. What a powerful read. I remember that summer, and you deserve a big standing ovation for making lemonade out of that big bag of lemons.

    • Charli Mills

      Paula, you really were a rock for me during that time in so many ways. You also helped me see that losing a home was not unique to that period in time, and sharing parts of your memoir and how your parents experienced something similar if in a different situation. You mean so much to me, and I’m glad our children brought us together! <3

      • paulamoyer

        A big ditto on that, to you, Charli. Sorry to hear about the lease, too.

  11. roweeee

    Hi Charli. It looks to me as though everything has already been said. So, I just offer you a cup of tea, hugs and friendship and a Tim Tam. If you’ve never tried one of those, you have missed out on one of the greatest healers there is.
    I am writing a series of letter to dead poets who have inspired me or the A-Z Challenge. They were chosen for their poetry but the posts are looking more towards aspects of their lives. I realised there were quite a few dark choises there so opted for Roald Dahl for D.. The funny man turned out to have suffered more than any of the others I suspect. He has known such anguish. I didn’t know. My husband and I have this saying: “darker the shadow, the brighter the light”.
    Take care. I’m thinking of you!
    xx Rowena

    • Charli Mills

      I need me some Tim Tam! 😀 Your essay on Roald Dahl for D is a stunner of a piece and in part for the story, but also in how you tell it. His response to such anguish benefited many. It’s not happiness we need to pursue, but meaning. It’s deeper. I love that saying! Thank you! And you take care, too! <3

  12. KL Caley

    What a wonderful, powerful read! Well done its breath-taking. I completely agree with Geoff’s comments above too. KL <3

    • Charli Mills

      Thank you for reading, KL. Yes, I resonate with Geoff’s comments above, as well!


  1. Times Past: Grainy memories | Reflections and Nightmares- Irene A Waters (writer and memoirist) - […] Times Past: Grainy Memories […]
  2. April 6: Flash Fiction Challenge « Carrot Ranch Communications - […] week I had shared a soul/sole polishing experience for Irene Water’s Times Past challenge. Every time I thought of…

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