We are surrounded by diaries whether or not we've ever touched pen to paper. Diaries conjur memories for me, the kind that remain vivid after years have passed--mental journaling brought to life by, in this case, the pungent smell of freshly ground wheat.
A peaceful image stubbornly persists: Ma on the farmhouse porch holding Luke, a soft-eyed dog too big for her lap. A dog who, when the weather was fine, came and went as he pleased with no more than a tap of the screen door against its frame.
The summer before my eighteenth birthday, I stayed in town with friends to work at Woo's Café, peeling onions in the back alley--apron a lonely patch of white amid stacks of celery crates and scarred metal trash cans. As the supper hour approached, I'd be promoted to waitress.
I remember a hot August Saturday night after work when homesickness drove me forty miles at fifty cents tip money per gallon to the wheat farm and family I missed. No one was home when I got there--supper dishes undone--chicken gravy congealed in the cast iron skillet. I remember the relief in my Mother's eyes when she came in later to a cleaned kitchen--long hours of cooking and driving wheat truck having taken its toll.
It was late by the time we got to bed, by then a cooler evening breeze whisking another layer of wheat chaff and dust through the open windows. Sometime after midnight, a staccato outburst of gunfire sent us sprawling sideways out of our beds. Feet pounded down the second story staircase in accompaniment to the breathless curses of my two younger brothers and a restrained 'hup, hup' from Dad, who'd learned to damper his reactions after two heart attacks.
He'd gone to shush the boys after a bout of insomnia, lit a cigarette on his way up the stairs, shook the match and mindlessly flicked it away where it arched into an open dresser drawer filled with jockey shorts, socks and a strip of firecrackers leftover from the Fourth of July.
Once the sequence of events had been pieced together, after the relieved guffaws and snorts of self-derision had abated, after the besieged dresser had been carried outside to cool, and the dog had been coaxed back from where he'd sensibly disappeared---at last we tried to get back to sleep and I lay there thanking God that Dad had survived and that the boys weren't old enough for Viet Nam.
Then the next day as my sleep-deprived, youngest brother emerged from a bath slick-haired and hurriedly applied forgotten deodorant to the underarm of his shirt, I thought, why do I worry--the military won't have em' anyway, and quiet merriment fluttered inside my breastbone before taking wing across the patchwork fields of the Palouse, winnowing its way toward a faraway place that I now think must be reserved for the echoes of bluegrass bands and invisible birds who travel on shimmering currents of joy.
This piece appeared in the fall 2010 issue of Flashquake.
words: Sue Ellis, Washington (more: A Change of Plans)
image: 'Abendspaziergang' - Inge Flessa-Glauner, Germany (touch the blue)
another collection of decades: Keepsake (#22)