This is my own reflection on my experiences with high school graduation. Rough Writer and memoirist, Irene Waters, has linked her monthly prompt, Times Past to the Carrot Ranch Community in an effort to offer a greater breadth of writing opportunities. Literary art can take many forms and creative non-fiction is one. You can join in with Irene’s prompt at her blog site, Reflections, and Nightmares.
Join in an be sure to include your generation and location (rural or urban, country). I’m a Gen-Xer from a rural area in the US, reflecting upon my millennial children’s graduations in the suburbs of Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA.
When I think of high school graduations in the ‘burbs of the Midwest, I think of how wasteful the expenditure on the parties. We are talking the equivalent of a modern wedding. When I graduated, it was typical for families to have parties go out to dinner, but it was something the immediate family did. My own graduation came at a difficult time in my life and I did not enjoy let alone experience such celebrations.
When my kids each graduated, I was most proud of the fact that they were going to college. I come from uneducated roots and was the first in my father’s family to ever go to college. My children watched me graduate from college and it never occurred to them to think they wouldn’t go. High graduation was important, but not take-a-loan-from-the-bank important to celebrate.
We were the anti-graduation party-poopers of the ‘burbs.
While neighbors scrubbed garages clean and rented huge tents, tables, and chairs, and coordinated with other neighbors to not host parties on the same day (yes, there exists an entire season of grad parties), we celebrated with less pomp and circumstance.
My eldest graduated from an environmental science alternative school known informally as the Zoo School. She and most of her classmates placed importance on their scientific studies and held events like The Recycled Prom where students attending dressed in clothing from thrift stores not the $500 dresses at the Mall of America. They were not materialistic.
However, my eldest daughter graduated naked. Good thing she had a cap and gown, for that was all she wore to step upon the stage to accept her diploma. I didn’t know until I hugged her afterward.
My middle daughter also graduated from the Zoo School but wore a dress. Her graduation infamy came a few weeks later as she was moving out of our house and she accidentally caused a mattress to ignite when one of her friends flicked a cigarette butt and it caught in the box spring of the mattress. Flames lit up the back of their truck in full sight of the swanky grad party going on next door. They stopped, grabbed a garden hose and doused the flames as part-goers gawked.
Embarrassed and not sure what to do with the sodden mattress, my daughter and her friends dragged it around to the backside of the house and propped it up to drain. After they left and it dried enough, the mattress rekindled! And it caught our house on fire. Good thing the grad party was happening next door. Fire trucks arrived and my next door neighbor ran into the house to rescue our pets. We were fortunate that the siding was all that burned.
No one has forgotten the graduation party that the Mills Family tried to burn out.
My son did not graduate from the Zoo School because he wanted to run cross country for our public school. Not only did he not want a party, he didn’t want to walk to receive his diploma. He said college mattered, not high school. He graduated from college twice, once with a BA and again with a Masters. I was there to see him walk both times proud of his accomplishments.
We went out to dinner.
By Irene Waters
Unlike Charli scooping snow from her porch as the Lady of the Lake weaves her winter charm and C. Jai, holed up escaping the cold, I hail from the Sunshine Coast of Queensland and our weather is glorious. Warm to hot days with inviting surf and river activities. Pools to fall into or exercise with noodle. Sultry breezes blow at night and palm trees sway. It is a delight wearing light, possibly skimpy clothing. In other words, I’m having fun in the sun.
Reading this you may wonder what has this to do with Times Past. This is the present. Charli and C. Jai prompt me to think of the few very cold experiences I have had and they have given me an amount of understanding as to what it is like to live in a cold climate. As a memoirist I believe that from our past we create the future we wish to have. Our experiences give us our identity and without our memories that identity fades and disappears as in those suffering from dementias. Reading memoir is a way for finding understanding of a life different from your own, to learn that you are not alone with the condition you find yourself in, sometimes it allows the inarticulate to find expression for what they themselves are going through and they provide social histories. Unlike some who perceive memoir writing as naval gazing, and a second-rate form of literature, I see it as a crucial part of identity creation and life itself. Everyone tells memoir and most fiction has elements of memoir buried within it.
Memoir is a part of a genre called creative non-fiction. Creative non-fiction is a true story told in a compelling way. This means it has a narrative arc as in fiction and it uses elements from fiction in the writing of it. Memoir has as a sub-genre only recently started to be studied and has few rules. In this nine month series that Charli has invited me to present I will examine what elements make up the genre, areas of danger in writing memoir, memory, writing other types of creative non-fiction, writing memoir as fiction, fictive elements, BOTS and the narrator in memoir.
On my own site, Reflections and Nightmares, in the first week of the month I will give a prompt for a challenge called Times Past. This is a monthly memoir prompt challenge that I hope will give us social insights into the way the world has changed between not only generations but also between geographical location. The prompt can be responded to in any form you enjoy – prose, poetry, flash, photographs, sketches or any other form you choose. You may like to use a combination of the two.
I invite you to join in. Charli is going to post her response on the third Friday of the month. If you wish to respond there are three ways you can do so: respond in the comments section of my post (these can be any length) for the month giving a link or ping back to your post, link on Charli’s post or in her comment section with a 99 word flash response. With your contribution please include with the heading your generation, (these can be found on the Times Past page ), the country that you lived when the story took place and whether you lived in a rural or city area at the time.
In the post on the 2nd Friday of the month I will give the prompt and the address where this can be found on my site. This month the prompt is High School Graduation. Was high school graduation a big event for you or did it pass unnoticed? As a city baby boomer high school graduation was not an event that my school, at least, made much of a fuss about. I believe that this may have well have changed with different generations and certainly by geography. I know from the American television shows (Gidget, Happy Days and numerous movies) that in the States high school graduation was quite different to what mine was.
Looking forward to your memories.
Wind howls across the high mountain desert of Gallup and rocks my RV with a steady wave-like rhythm. I’ve heard the joke several times already from locals: spring arrives, depositing Arizona in New Mexico. With the airborne sand, I do believe it’s from across the state-line to the west. It’s so gusty here, highways post windsocks to warn of cross-winds that can tumble a semi or RV. For now, we’re rocking while stationary.
It’s more than windy today at the ranch. I thought I scheduled a guest for the series Raw Literature, checked the calendar and see that I scheduled next week! In the midst of a move and a break-down, it’s just another hiccup. I’m fond of lemonade so today’s scheduling lemons gave me opportunity to participate in Irene Water’s fascinating memoir prompt, Weather: Times Past. What’s unique about her prompt is the collection of data based on memory, generation, region and urban or rural proximity. Participants and readers get to compare experiences. It’s open to anyone, and as is the case with most responses to prompts, this is a piece of raw writing.
Memory of a Gen X Buckaroo, Weather in Rural North California
The old Californios Ranchos sat inland from the coast where fog creeps in by night and burns off by mid-morning. This region is home to cattle ranching, centuries old. Before there was California, there were the Land Grant holdings of Mexico and the original Missions of Spain. Weather didn’t change ownership; gold did. When Sutter discovered a gold nugget at his lumber mill, the (18)49ers poured into the region, and the US claimed it as a state: California.
To the ranchos, a change of hands didn’t mean a change in work. The miners needed to eat, and the ranches provided beef.
Some men came to mine, others to set up businesses. My family came to ranch, raising cattle, apricots, turkeys, hay or managing ranches. One grandfather was the foreman for an original rancho and another bought it after making his wealth by turning his ranch into a golf course. For generations, both the men and women in my family rode in the San Benito Horse Show & Rodeo. I even won several trophies for horse showing and one for goat tying, all before I was of an age to go to school.
This is buckaroo country — a culture unique to the Californios influence of the Ranchos style of ranching and horsemanship. And like any agricultural community, it’s always focused on the weather. In rural California, dry spells could turn into years long droughts, and rain could flood the dry river beds. It was a deluge-fueled flood that first caught my attention in regards to weather, and it was so severe, it cut off ranches from communities. One of my earliest recollections is standing with my parents on one side of a raging torrent of water as my grandparents stood on the other side. That memory has transfixed a fascination and horror of floods.
Many more times I would stand over flooded rivers in other states, drawn to relive the earliest memory of how water could swell so vast and swift, muddy and full of churning debris. Such has been the weather cycle in California and I wonder how the earliest ranchos managed. And that is how I begin raw thoughts for historical fiction. The confluence of memory and history and curiosity.
So I will end with a trio of flash fiction (at this rancho, its always 99 words, no more, no less) based on where my thoughts led me.
The Bad Dream of a Californios Girl
Maria shouted across the arroyo swelled with frothing mud. “Papa! Vaya con Dios! Papa! Mama!”
“Maria! Maria! Wake up. You’re dreaming the bad dream.”
Maria gasped in the dark, feeling her Aunt Tessa’s hands. “I’m awake, Tia.” Outside, she heard rain splatter against the hacienda’s shutters. She shivered.
“Maria, I’ve fixed of a cup of cocoa.” Her aunt lit the hurricane lamp and Maria saw the steaming cup sitting on the small table by the window. Her aunt had fixed her cocoa five years ago when she escaped across the flooded arroyo. The flood that swept away her parents.
The Only Path Left
Father Sean Kincaid, nudged the mare to press forward in the rain and sopping ground. He’d experienced thunderstorms back in Missouri, but this was different. God Almighty had forged a sky river the first 12 days of 1851. Hadn’t scripture promised an end to God’s flooding wrath?
The bridge he’d crossed earlier was gone. Not a splinter remained. Sean’s chest tightened. On the other side was his parish church. Behind him was Rancho Santa Ana he had failed to reach because of a landslide. He looked up. Not to God, but to the steep incline he’d have to traverse.
Capitan reared and snorted. The stallion charged his herd, pushing mares back, away from the river overflowing its banks on both sides. A deadly lake, pooling in the moonlight, eroding pasture. Capitan whinnied, turning on any horse who tried to bolt in fear.
“Damn stud save them mares,” Joe said, over coffee. The old ranch-hands gathered after mass at Kincaid’s Cantina.
“Unlikely, Joe.” Corey Fairfield expressed the skepticism of a vineyard owner. Educated.
Patty poured toppers. “Unlikely? As unlikely as your sons serving in the Pacific?”
Corey flushed at the chuckles. Their sons were Marines. Good horse-sense meant survival.
Gen X, rural California, USA
Granny-gear is as expected: slow, slow enough a toddler can drive. If that sounds surprising, you’ve not grown up on cattle ranches in the American west. Every buckaroo has stood behind the wheel (yes, stood because to sit is to lose sight over the dusty dash).
“Hold it straight, follow the rows,” were the instructions I remember.
Where are the adults, you might wonder. On the back of the truck, flaking hay.
Back when I was a toddling buckaroo on one of the oldest land grant ranchos in northern California, my task was to steer the truck straight so the adults could cut the wires on rectangular bales of hay (each weighing about 125 pounds) and peel away portions. The hay was dry and it came off in chunks called flakes. The herd of 300 black ballies (a nickname for the cross-breed of Black Angus and Red Hereford for which some calves were born black with white faces) trailed behind to get their winter hay.
Winter in this part of California was the wet and rainy season. It turned the blond hills green for a brief time. While the hills had time to grow grass beneath massive oak trees, the cattle roamed the barren hay fields and ate nubs and dry flakes. Feeding was a daily ritual and everyone worked, even the toddlers. Though I don’t recall thinking of my driving chore as work.
Just like with horses, I never had a fear of driving. Probably because I was exposed too young to have the common sense to fear large beasts and steel cages on wheels. By the time I was 13, I no longer lived in buckaroo country. My parents moved to the Sierra Nevada mountains where my mom ran a general store and my dad logged.
I worked in the summer logging camps, leaving for the job in a logging truck at 4 a.m. I had to be back by 3 p.m. to saddle my horse and ride out to check the cattle for a local ranch. My task was to keep the cattle from coming off the high summer pastures. Any I encountered, I’d have to push back to the mountain springs among quaking aspen.
Granny-gear took on new meaning this phase of life — it’s the lowest gear used to slow a logging truck on a mountain pass or a exit the rough-cut switchback known as a logging road. Hardly a road! Heading off the hill, as the phrase goes, requires low-gear and high prayers. I used to enjoy listening to C. W. McCall’s Wolf Creek Pass, an 8-track tape my dad had:
We’d gear down for our own Sierra Wolf Creek pass (the song is about a hairy switchback in Colorado) and at one corner I could see the wreck of a Cadillac from the ’60s. I remember the belch of the jake-brake as we approached and geared down to granny. We never lost a load, or a truck, either.
At the logging camp we had an old Willys Jeep, the kind the US used in WWII. The thing about a Willys is that in granny-gear it could go up, down, over and across anything. After lunch, I was allowed to take the Jeep for a drive, and I found pioner trails and even old mining camps in this ride. And many old roads required granny-gear and 4-wheel drive.
4-wheeling is a distinct western heritage and why so many people in the US West drive trucks. It’s what replaced the Conestoga wagon and horse. For me, a truck is a work vehicle. We have the Mills farm truck and have hauled our own firewood and had many adventures in it. But I still dream of one day having my own Willeys.
And you bet I’d take that Jeep 4-wheeling the back-roads of the west in granny-gear.
Join me and others in a look at wheels from Times Past with Irene Waters.
As 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.
Standing in the grocery aisle I stare helplessly at bright plastic containers labeled with biblical promises to remove my stains. Nearing the half century mark and I still have no idea how to do laundry properly.
Women’s work. Historically this is true. Soiled doves, the frontier prostitutes of mining camps often began their careers between the sheets by first washing them. A woman in need of money could always find work in a mining camp washing men’s union suits and socks. Even Sarah Shull, a competent accountant, had to find work as a laundress in the mining town of Denver, Colorado after Cobb McCanless was killed and she no longer had a benefactor. His widow certainly wasn’t going to take her in, dirty laundry as Sarah was to the family.
But this is not a historical reflection. Writer, Irene Waters, calls us to reflect on Times Past in our own lives. She asks if laundry is women’s work. This intriguing monthly prompt is a generational and geographical comparison. So let me state, I’m a Gen-Xer and I grew up in rural California.
My mother was the queen of the laundry. Why, I have puzzled all month until the point I can delay no more (or miss the chance to participate). As a child, my parents practiced the typical slave labor of ranching or farming families. The idea was to birth many hands to work the fields or cattle. My father changed it up a bit by only having one set of hands. Also, he traded his cowboy boots for logger’s corks and he bought my mother a store to run in a town of 99 people (for those of you who follow the flash fiction at Carrot Ranch, yes, I just realized the connection, too).
The store was an old mercantile built the same year as our house: 1861. It catered to winter skiers and summer campers, a true mountain tourist town. We lived summers in my father’s logging camps and I worked for the ranch that encircled our small town with summer pastures. I did everything as a kid — stacked cordwood, bagged ice, pushed cattle, cleaned dishes by hand, stocked shelves and fed our horses hay. But never was I tasked with laundry.
As far back as I recall we always had a modern washer and dryer. My mother did the laundry as if it were some homage to my father. His family was big on cleanliness and town clothes had to be spotless. My mother used liquids from various jugs to whip up some sort of cleaning cocktail of which she never revealed its secret. Thus my extenuating befuddlement regarding laundry.
No one ever taught me.
Thrust on my own, I had to use the laundromat with coin operated behemoths. I bought Tide because it’s what my mother used, but all the other ingredients seemed redundant to me. Of course, my clothes began to look dingy. Not that I was particular about that. I had children and discovered the dreaded laundry monster, an ever-growing pile of dirty clothes where items morphed like mold. Where did all those clothes come from? Never did I cater to my spouse the way my mother did. By the time my kids could reach the wash machine lid and understood the dryer wasn’t a carnival ride, my family was on their own!
To this day, I’m stumped buying laundry detergent, trying to figure out which ones will really set me free. Besides, I sneak my clothes into my husband’s loads. Woman’s work? Not if I can help it!