Sunday, December 2, 2007

Nostalgia - part 1

I decorated my Christmas tree today. I don't have a traditional tree. I have this tree!

Yes, it's an outdoor tree, but I have almost 300 ornaments (not including all the glass balls no longer used) and this tree allows me to see them all without having to walk around it. None of them are hidden or forgotten. I've been collecting them since my first apartment in 1970 so pulling out the ornaments brings back a flood of memories. That coupled with a large (for Seattle) snowstorm yesterday has reminded me of a much simpler time in my life.

I was born in a very small town in rural Southern Illinois in what had once been referred to as Bloody Williamson County. It had been the scene of violence, massacres, KKK activities and gangster wars from the late 1800’s through the 1920’s. Fortunately things were peaceful by the time I arrived, but the façade of the hospital still bore scars of the many bullets fired at it during one particularly nasty siege. I wasn’t supposed to be born there, but the hospital in the town where my parents lived burned down three weeks before my older sister was born and it took a while to rebuild things there.

I started out as part of a traditional post-war family. My parents met during World War II. My mother was from North Carolina and my father from Southern Illinois. By the end of the war they were both Captains in the Army. I’m a baby boomer – the second of three girls.

When I was 6 months old, we moved to another small Southern Illinois town - 25 miles from the Mississippi river, 30 miles from the Ohio River, situated in the rolling foothills of the Ozarks with forests and lakes everywhere. At 4,400 people we were one of the bigger towns in the area. Our claims to fame were the state mental hospital and the Bunny Bread factory.

In the spring the countryside was a plethora of color. The acres of budding apple and peach orchards were breathtaking. The fragrance of their lovely pink and white blossoms filled the air and promised delicious fruit in the fall. Wildflowers grew everywhere and fields of happy daffodils greeted you. It was a wonderful time of year.

Summers were incredibly hot and humid. We were lucky because we had huge trees to shade the house and a window-mounted air conditioner. When we were home, we pulled down the shades on the sunny side of the house, closed all the windows and doors and let that sucker run on high. For cooler days or nights, we had a big attic fan to keep the air circulating. But we were used to the conditions so the weather never stopped us from living our daily lives.

Tornados were very common during the summer. You always knew when they were coming because everything would get deathly silent - the birds wouldn’t sing and the air would be absolutely still. Like clockwork, the sirens blared and we would run out into the fields and watch the funnel clouds go by on their way to strike one of the neighboring towns. For some reason they never hit us, so as kids we didn’t worry about them. Even so, during the school year we had tornado drills where we would all go into the hallways and duck and cover.

Late summer was the time to harvest the orchards. The peaches in Southern Illinois seemed sweeter and juicier than anywhere else in the world. We would stop at the roadside stands and buy baskets of them and the owners always gave us samples. Then we would have delicious peach pies or cobblers. Sometimes we would can or freeze them to be enjoyed later. Because we had orchards close to our house, I always managed to sneak in and eat my fill of peaches straight from the trees. They were and still are my favorite fruit.

This was also the time for the county fair – a very big event in our town. There were rides, animals, exhibits, demolition derbies, trotting races, entertainment and lots of good food and events to keep everyone’s minds off the impending start of the new school year. By fair standards, this was a very small one, but it sure seemed big to us when we were growing up.

Autumn was always beautiful. We had lots of deciduous trees that turned brilliant colors. When the leaves fell off, we would rake them into huge piles then run and jump on them like they were gigantic pillows. Autumn was always my favorite because my birthday was in early October. I was just under the cutoff for school, thus always one of the youngest in my class. I started Kindergarten when I was four.

Winters were usually mild. On the extremely rare occasions when it did snow, we would pull out our rusty sleds or cardboard boxes and go hurtling down the hills and then build snowmen before it had a chance to melt. That usually only lasted a few days. Everything stopped when it snowed because it was such a rare occurrence and there was no equipment to clear the roads.

Today in Seattle reminds me of those Southern Illinois snowstorms - a big dump of snow followed by a quick thaw and melting - gone in the blink of an eye. Here - as there - few know how to drive in it, either going too fast or too slow and both creating hazards. But it is beautiful to watch from my window.

More later.


Stephen Parrish said...

I'm an Illinois Boy and can relate to much of this. The "Dirt State" is underrated; it was a great place to grow up.

Mary Witzl said...

Your childhood memories are lovely. They remind me a little of Mildred Armstrong Kalish's memoir 'Little Heathens,' about growing up in Iowa, one of the N.Y. Times Notable Books of 2007, and one I am looking forward to reading.

Lucky you, with all those peaches! There is nothing in this world like the smell of a juicy, sun-ripened peach -- no fragrance beats it, though perhaps orange or lemon blossom comes close...

Merry Jelinek said...

Wow, your memories of growing up in southern Illinois are so very different from mine, so close to Chicago... even the weather here is different, when it snows it sticks around for a quite a while, usually. The last two years were really light and I felt bad for my kids who had to largely forego the fun of sledding and snowmen.

I love the way your write about the peaches and the smell of the orchards - you have the same love affair with nature as I have with concrete. There's something about where you come from, no matter how flawed or beautiful it is universally, to you it will always be home.

cyn said...

wow. that is a great tree for all your ornaments! i love the remembering of childhood memories. i look back a lot, too, fondly on moments in life that have shaped us without our realizing.

The Anti-Wife said...

Don't know about the big cities, but the small towns were great places to grow up.

There's nothing better than a fresh, ripe peach - especially if stolen from your neighbors orchard. The fragrance of the blossoms in the spring was truly heavenly.

The Anti-Wife said...

I'm glad I had open fields and wildflowers instead of concrete, and even the 11 years I spent in Chicago didn't make me a fan of snow and cold.

I've had many trees of differing types through the years but this is truly my favorite. The ornaments are all special memories and I want to savor them, so being able to see through the tree is a perfect solution.

Church Lady said...

It must've been an enchanting part of your childhood growing up near an orchard, especially a peach one!

Illinois sounds beautiful.

The Anti-Wife said...

Parts of Illinois are beautiful. The thing most people don't realize is it's a very long state - almost 450 miles from top to bottom, so there are many different topographies and climates. It's hot and humid everywhere in the summer, but the winter in the southern part of the state is much milder than in the north.

The Anti-Wife said...

Oops - make that almost 400 miles long. My magic fingers aren't working very well today.

Ello said...

What a great post. Your summers and autumns were very vivid. I really enjoyed it. Being a city girl, it is really a different perspective for me.

Also, I especially like your tree! Now that's alot of ornaments!

The Anti-Wife said...

It was a great way to grow up.

Maddy said...

Well I've been blogging about today, telling everyone how I hate snow [except from a safe, warm inside sort of a place] and this is the first time I'm almost tempted to enjoy it outside.

Something peculiar has happened to blogger comments so just for now, this is my calling card "Whittereronautism"so we can find each other.

Nina Pierce said...

I giggled when I saw your tree, I do indeed have the same one on my lawn. But what a wonderful way to display beautiful ornaments... mine do indeed get buried in the branches of the tree.

Your memories are wonderful. I grew up in a small town in Maine. Different but the same.

日月神教-任我行 said...