My mother-in-law, Mary Elizabeth Parsons Hutchins, saved everything. I mean EVERYTHING! Her “SAVE” notes tacked on a half-eaten cookie wrapped in Saran Wrap, or decades old tubs of play dough, became legendary. The notes were adorned with little hearts and soft, flowery penmanship, but woe to the hapless soul who thought that might mean you could toss it out because, after all - it was a half eaten cookie that had been sitting on the counter for three days. Oh no....
When she passed away, the task of sorting 80+ years of sentimentality fell to her daughters. They have spent months going through a garage, bedrooms, old trunks and china cabinets stuffed with Mary’s treasures. Michael and I, being thousands of miles away, are in the enviable state of saying, “Hey, if you find _______________ or _____________, put is aside for me will you?” without having to do the hard work, physically and emotionally, of deciding what is destined for the trash and what should be sent on. In the last several months we have received regular packages stuffed with photos of our kids, Michael’s old report cards and even love letters between great-grandparents dating back in the early 1940”s. Good stuff indeed.
Yesterday Michael opened a package that was a 5th grade flashback. A handmade book with covers of wallpaper carefully chosen from one of those sample binders every elementary classroom had back in the day. The outside was blue pin-stripe with a bold Eagle/Phoenix motif. I can imagine a 10 year old boy thinking this pattern was just right, classy but oh - so - cool. The inside covers are a fake wood paneling as this was the 70’s after all. The narrow pages are pastel with faded purple ink that can only have come from a hand cranked copy machine. Do you remember those behemoths in the teacher’s break room? A rubber cylinder with a big handle and stacks of paper with carbon sheets that stained your hands blue? If you were sent down to - gasp - make copies! - your reputation as teacher's pet was sealed.
The book is divided into three categories:
Limericks - a five-line poem that consists of a single stanza, an AABBA rhyme scheme, and whose subject is a short, pithy tale or description
Cinquains - a short poem consisting of five, usually unrhymed lines containing, respectively, two, four, six, eight, and two syllables
Haikus - a Japanese poem of seventeen syllables, in three lines of five, seven, and five, traditionally evoking images of the natural world
Some interesting things leap out to me here. What teacher in their right mind asks 5th grade boys to write limericks?! Even today, Michael - age 58, can rattle off the raunchiest (the dictionary used the more urbane, bawdy) limericks, all committed to long term memory in elementary school. I can only imagine the tittering behind grubby little hands covering snaggy - toothed mouths.
Michael’s 5th grade English education far exceeded mine. I have no idea what a Cinquain is and my computer didn’t either. It kept trying Chinquapin as an auto correct, which is a North American Chestnut tree. I learned what a Haiku was as an adult, but didn’t actually attempt to write one until a couple years ago. This was good stuff! I feel a bit envious.
As we sit on the couch together and carefully turn brittle pages, Michael shares the memory of instructions the rest of the class seemingly understood but were senseless to him. He talks about not knowing what a syllable was, though “I am sure the teacher explained it to us.” I could see his little blond head swiveling, his wide blue eyes watching all the other kids putting pencil to paper, scribbling away while his mind reminded blank. While my experience with this was not words but music notes, I remember the knot in my stomach as if it were yesterday. His fears do not play out though because in the Haiku section, Mike Hutchins has penned a pretty good 5 -7 - 5. In actuality it is 6 - 7 - 5 but hey, who’s counting?
I have included some of my favorites from this Mailbox Memories collection. These kids are all about 50 years older now. Who knows where they are, how their lives have turned out, if they are still with us? I like to imagine their 5th grade classroom though, a time where everything is still an exciting adventure, all of life is theirs for the taking. I like to think of this day, feet swinging from aluminum-legged, poly-coated chairs, battered wooden desks with books and papers stuffed in their messy rectangle of a mouth. A classroom where penmanship is still taught, small fingers gripping the old yellow #2 in quiet concentration, laboriously forming literary works about bears and rainbows, angry teachers and old ladies from Spain.
Will this 5th grade masterpiece make it down to the next generation or the one after that? No, Mary’s son and certainly none of her millennial grandchildren have the SAVE gene. What we do have is a new memory of the two of us bonding over what it was like to be ten and terrified of getting it all wrong, only to realize not knowing what a syllable was and not being able to read music has not kept us back as adults after all.
It also allowed me the joy of putting fingers to keyboard after a long writing slump. So thank you Mary. Thank you for all the crazy things you saved and all the love and heart that went into each item you stuffed into a box - sure it would be enjoyed sometime in the future. In this case, it most certainly was.
There once was a clam named Sam
Who closed the door with a slam
It knocked over his mother’s power
It turned him into clam chowder
And this is the clam named Sam.
There once was a young lady named Myrtle
Who got herself a very nice turtle
She thought it was dead
and poked at its head
Can you guess what happened to Myrtle?
The once was a lady from Spain
Who had a very great pain
You might have to go to bed
Her husband Wayne said
So you can get rid of that pain
Creepy, crawling insects
Walk, fly, or climb
Is bad for teeth
Teachers yelling at you
Work not done on time
Bears are big animals
They are pests - they raid trash cans
They are fun to watch
Geese fly in the air
See the interesting V-shape
They are going south
That one yellow leaf
Clinging to the maple tree
Twisting in the breeze
*I would not be surprised if Tammy is still writing today.