It’s Only Cardboard…

Yesterday at work, I took my soup to the microwave at the end of the hall to heat it.  While I stood waiting for the broth to bubble, I caught sight of several large sheets of cardboard leaning against the wall.  They were marked as trash, and my immediate reaction was, “Oh no!  Don’t throw it away.  There’s so much you can do with cardboard!”

When I was growing up at the house at 30 Green Street, cardboard was saved and used for  myriad art projects.  The lightweight sheets of cardboard around which my father’s dress shirts were folded quickly were doled out for art projects.  I loved to draw my own paper dolls, carefully cutting them out, sketching faces with colored pencils and fashioning clothes out of bits of construction paper reserved for school projects and sick-in-bed days.  Some days I used the cardboard to create masks for my younger siblings, cutting holes for eyes and nose, and stretching an old elastic band to hold the masks to their little faces.  Cardboard became a flag to tape to a pencil and wave at the veterans who marched in the Memorial Day parade or a poster to paint with tempera and advertise a sidewalk lemonade stand.  It was the stuff made into swords and shields to play pirates in the back yard, or a lean-to for imaginary hobos.

Cardboard boxes were used to store summer clothes during the winter months, and winter clothes that my mother packed away in spring.  They stored tools in the garage, linens in the attic, and books that no longer fit on the shelves in the living room.

Cardboard boxes also made great summer sleds.  One sibling would sit inside the box, holding a jump rope or baton.  The designated puller would drag the rider all over the back yard, until the puller tired and the roles were reversed.

One hot summer afternoon, my sister Robin and I decided that dragging through the yard was not nearly exciting enough, and decided to try riding our cardboard box sled down the stairs.  My taste for adventure trumped my better judgement, and I volunteered to make the maiden voyage.  The stairs in our old New Englander were steep and covered with a green and brown print runner, worn thin at the edges.  At the top of the stairs, I sat in the box, and bracing my hands against the bannister and wall like a luger, pushed off.

I have never careened down a staircase faster.

I landed with a thud against the heavy front door and lay crumpled on the landing, wondering if there was blood was running from my aching head.  Robin quickly abandoned the idea of a second attempt, and went off in search of a popsicle and a bit of shade under the maple tree.

Perhaps the most common use of cardboard in our home was for patchwork.  Our house was  close to a hundred years old, with wall with holeplaster and horsehair walls that lifted from the lathing and crumbled when curious small fingers poked at them.  Small holes became big ones, and without the funds to do proper repairs, my mother resorted to patching the holes with sheets of cardboard and masking tape.  I saw nothing unusual in this, and actually liked the patches, pretending they were secret portals to unknown worlds.  It wasn’t until I was well into my teens that my parents had the funds to replace plaster and patches with sheet rock.

Looking back, I wonder if visitors thought the cardboard and masking tape patches were strange. They must have noticed- they were in plain sight, among the peeling wallpaper, threadbare rugs and chipped woodwork.  And yet, our house was always full.

What I know now is that people didn’t visit 30 Green Street for the décor of the walls.  It was the love that lived within the walls that lured the steady stream of children and adults who entered through the front door and exited through the back.  The sound of laughter from the kitchen table and the offer of coffee and conversation permeated the crumbling walls and blurred the cardboard patches that held them together.

Now, I live in an apartment with clean white walls.  I keep my out-of-season clothes in plastic bins that keep my garments clean and dry.  There are no patches in my life- at least none that can be seen. My use for cardboard is limited to times I need to donate items to the Salvation Army or Goodwill.

But still, when I see large sheets like those waiting for the cleaning crew to tidy my work hallway, I think of the possibilities and wonder…

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The Silver Maple at 30 Green Street

When I was growing up, my siblings and I frequently perused the pages of the World Book  Encyclopedia, devouring articles that told of far-away places and intriguing science experiments.  One of my favorite sections was one on the five senses.  Time and time again, I would read the chapter, staring at the examples of optical illusions and sampling foods with my eyes closed.

We all know that our senses are strong- a familiar perfume, a sip of a drink, the softness of a favorite pair of jeans- senses can set off myriad memories and transport us to days that have hidden in the archives of our memories since we were young children.

Last Saturday, I had one of those sensory transports as I visited my sister Martha-Jean at her country home in Northwood.  It was a beautiful day and as we sipped iced coffee on her deck, I watched the breeze ruffle the leaves of the silver maple tree in her back yard.  The fluttering leaves sang a familiar song and immediately my mind went back to the house where we grew up- the house at 30 Green Street.

The house at 30 Green Street was an old New Englander, built as housing for foremen who worked at Ellis Mills, a textile factory that produced rich and luxurious wool fabrics.  I was a child during the end of the woolen mills era.  The mill was a mighty giant that sat at the foot of Dye House Hill- big, strong, and to me, a little scary.  At night its windows lit the sky with a pale industrial glow as its walls echoed with electrical hums and rhythmic banging. During the day my siblings and I stood on the bridge across from the mill and watch as the fabric dye cascaded into the Chicopee Brook.  It seemed to me that the sleepless giant would always be there, but when synthetic blends wooed textile consumers away from expensive wools, the mills closed. The whirring and banging were silenced and the darkened night sky snuffed the glow from the windows.

In the back yard of our house was a large silver maple tree, and when the sounds from Ellis Mills ceased, the rustling of its leaves whispered a lullaby that drifted through my bedroom window.   The tree’s shelter created a stage for Martha-Jean to act as Pied Piper in her wonderful imaginations.  Under its branches, we created a pirate ship where we made Robin and Scott walk the plank we had fashioned from wooden boards found in the garage.  We tied Teri to the trunk, declaring her to be our ship’s pet monkey, and served bread and water to the crew- neighbor kids who brought sticks to use as oars.

Under the tree we built a doctor’s office and made poultices from mashed catalpa tree flowers, rubbing them on each other’s mosquito bites, convinced that the sap would stop the itching.  We spread blankets on the ground and played with baby dolls, sprinkling real talc upon their plastic bottoms and pinning cloth diapers that we stole from our baby brother’s bassinette.

When he was eight, my brother Scott climbed the silver maple.  He sat in its swaying branches, higher than the house roof while my mother stood below, yelling that if he did not fall and kill himself, she might just do the job herself.  And it was under the silver maple that Kevin and Eric were caught having sword fights with two-foot long barbecue skewers, and were subsequently grounded for most of the summer.

In the winter I would lie on my bed and stare at the bare branches of the silver maple, looking for the twining tendrils to outline shapes against the frigid sky.  Here was a castle, here an old man’s hat, and there a horse’s head.  The shapes disappeared with the wind, and then reappeared when the branches stopped dancing in the breeze, creating endless distraction from my homework.

In the spring, the helicopter seed pods would flutter from the tree to the ground. We split  the seeds in half, keeping them attached to the blade, and placed them on our noses like the horns on a rhino.  And in the fall, when the October winds turned inky black and smelled of bonfires and pumpkin, the bare branches of the tree moaned warnings of witches and ghosts, urging me to quicken my steps when it was my turn to take the trash to the back yard burn barrel.

“That tree is driving me crazy!” Martha-Jean observed, shaking me from my reminiscence.  “It’s so messy.”

“Oh, I like it.  It takes me back,” I sighed.  I wondered if the silver maple at 30 Green Street was still standing, or if it, like Ellis Mills, had outworn its usefulness.  The whisper of the tree’s branches were suddenly sad to me- a swan song announcing the end of yet another era.

“C’mon, let’s go pick some strawberries,” she urged.

I stole one last glance at the tree, and followed her to the garden.  I carefully tucked the fresh memory of 30 Green Street away.  “I’ll be back,” I silently promised.  “I’ll be back.”

Catch a Falling Star

This morning, my friend Gerry sent me a testimony he wrote about a dear friend who suddenly passed away.   Through the email I could sense the sting that he is feeling- the kind of shock that sends you reeling and leaves you disoriented and confused.   I remembered that same feeling one evening when I opened a letter from my sister.  When I tore open the envelope, a newspaper clipping fluttered to the floor.  I picked it up, expecting to read some cheery news about one of my nephews.  Instead, I found the obituary for my closest childhood friend.

The winter I was in first grade, I moved from the parochial school in nearby Three Rivers, to the public school in my home town. This was done because I spent the first half of the year standing in the corner, rapping my own knuckles with a ruler as penance for horrible sins only a six-year-old can commit, such as spelling my name wrong, or arriving past the second bell when the bus was late.  The months between that September and December were filled with fearful tears and the few memories I have of those days are shrouded in lonely darkness. 

First grade in public school was very different from St. Anne’s.  The classrooms were bright and sunny. My teacher was Mrs. Cassidy, a petite lady who wore flowered dresses and corrected me with a gentle smile. At St. Anne’s, I had been taught to write in cursive, using the Palmer method.  Mrs. Cassidy showed me how to print rounded letters between the wide lines on special penmanship paper.  It was fun, like artwork, and when I was finished, I decorated the margins with small sketches of puppies and tulips. How Sr. Lucien would have cringed!   Under Mrs. Cassidy’s guidance, I learned to add and subtract, to read and to sing songs about April showers and the grand old flag.  My Monday morning stomach aches were replaced by enthusiasm, and I finally relaxed enough to begin making friends with some of the other children.

One of those children was Linda.  She was delicate and blonde and reminded me of a spring lamb.  She wore a red and black cowgirl outfit, complete with boots and fringed shirt to school, and her lunch box was shaped like a barn. Linda invited me to her sixth birthday party and on a beautiful May afternoon, I gathered at her house with other little girls in pastel dresses to eat cake and play “Pin the Tail on the Donkey.”  I still remember my party favor- a string of amber beads to wear around my neck. They were translucent and glistened in the sunlight and to me they were as precious as diamonds.  But more precious was my friendship with Linda.

Despite her fragile stature, Linda was daring and adventurous.  She and I would spend overnights at her house, rise early in the morning and armed with chocolate covered graham crackers,  explore the woods behind her house.  We swam in the icy waters of her brook during the summers and slid down her snow covered hill in the winter. We sang songs to each other over walkie-talkies, earned 4-H badges by planting Mother’s Day seeds in paper cups and shot BBs at each other’s feet.  As teenagers, we rode a motor scooter through nearby pastures, daringly cutting the headlight in the dark, as if to look danger in the eye and tempt fate in a wicked game of roulette.  We whispered about boys and borrowed each other’s clothes, and smoked cigarettes in the school bathrooms.  And through the years, we watched the clear night skies for shooting stars.

After high school I went away to college.  Linda did not.  Our paths didn’t cross again until many years later, when I was in the early months of my first pregnancy.  She arrived at my house, her baby boy- Micah- happily packed on her back.  He reminded me of her as a child with his elfin eyes and wispy blond hair.  We excitedly caught up on each other’s lives and went for a walk. When we returned, I started to bleed and within a few days, the baby was gone and I was left in a quiet house with empty arms.  Buried in my own grief, I mourned for weeks.  Months turned to years, and somehow, Linda and I lost touch, never to see each other again.

Linda’s memorial service was much like she was- free, open and non-traditional.  Her friends and family spoke fondly of her sense of adventure and her zeal for life.  We all agreed our lives were brighter and happier for having known her and then with a tear and a hug, we went again in our separate ways.   I will always carry the regret of not being there while she was sick, of not standing with her in the dark days, of not saying goodbye.

People’s lives are much like the shooting stars Linda and I sought.  Some do a long, slow swan dive, leaving trails of red fire so bright that we can still see them long after their lights have burned out.  Others, like Linda, dance so quickly across the night sky that if we look away for an instant we’ll miss them.

Life is short.  Take a little time, look up a falling star and say hello, before it’s too late.

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