Now that we are in the period of time between Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, I have an admission to make.
My parents died about 16 months apart, in 2004 and 2005. I do not think of them every day, though, which sounds like an awful thing for a child to admit.
Usually when I think of them, it’s a random thing. I’ll see or hear something and it will complete some mystic circuit between the present and the past and, just like that, there is Mama or Dad.
Last week, I was looking in my cabinets for a mixing bowl and spied an ancient, slightly misshapen, pock-marked metal bowl that, aside from photos, may be the last of my mother’s things that remains in my possession.
I”m not sure of the original purpose of the bowl, which is probably 60 or 70 years old. As far back as I can remember — more than a half-century — it was one of the bowls we used when shelling peas or butter beans or snapping green beans. There is nothing distinctive about the bowl, yet if I were to mention it to any of my siblings, they would immediately see it in their mind’s eye.
Seeing the bowl in the cabinet conjured an immediate memory — the pinging sound made when the first of the first shelled peas the bottom of the bowl, sitting in lawn chairs in the back yard with Mama under the shade of an old oak tree, watching my fingers turn purple and sighing at the thought of how many peas remained to be shelled compared to how little progress had been made.
For the most part, that’s how my memories of Mama and Dad return. The triggers are random and insignificant – scenes from ordinary life.
Friday, I ran into Dad — a memory of Dad I mean — at the grocery store.
I had only a few items and the store was busy, so I opted to use the automated check out.
As I was scanning my items, the female voice inside the check-out scanner, said: “Please place item in the bagging area.”
“Huh?” I thought. “What are you talking about? I DID place the item in the check-out area.” So I figured I’d just ignore her.
The voice was not convinced, because when I tried to scan the next item, she wouldn’t budge. She refused to let me scan the next item until I complied with her demand.
“Fine,” I thought. “Have it your way.” So I pulled the previous item out of the plastic bag and put it in again.
“Please remove item from the bagging area,” the voice said.
So for about 30 seconds I moved the same item back and forth from the bagging area. The voice was never satisfied. Finally, the voice said: “Attendant has been notified.”
I kind of felt like she was calling the cops on me.
As I waited for the attendant to come haul me away to grocery store jail, the lady at the next scanner noticed my problem and gave me a sympathetic smile.
“Technology,” she said.
That was when dad showed up.
“My dad would be loving this,” I told the lady. “He would have stayed here all day, arguing with this scanner. And he would have won the argument, too, I bet.”
That’s the way it was with the Smiths — a clan of arguers, debaters, passionate word warriors. Voices were raised, fingers wagged, gestures to the heavens made in most dramatic fashion. For outsiders, the enthusiasm was sometimes mistaken for anger. But to the Smiths, a lively argument was a spirited competition, nothing personal.
My mother’s people, the Thorntons, were inclined to be polite, careful not to give offense, always looking for common ground, willing to concede a point for the sake of harmony. While the Thorntons, when confronted, were often content to retire to higher ground, The Smiths stayed and slugged it out with grim determination for every inch of contested soil.
Maybe that’s another reason Mama loved shelling peas. It requires focus. You can argue or you can shell peas. You can’t do both and do justice to either, at least not if you’re a Smith, for whom arguments require considerable freedom of movement.
I can only guess what kinds of memories other sons and daughters have of their departed parents.
Mine are simple, comforting: Mama serenely shelling peas into a metal bowl. Dad punctuating an argument with a well-placed, “Confound it, man! Listen!”
Lives are made mainly of a long string of mundane moments, so maybe it’s natural that our memory records them and feeds them back to us, often when we least suspect it.
That’s what I believe, anyway.
Dad would probably disagree.
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]