The charm of memory

It was where an adventure began. Everything had the charm of novelty—learning how to grocery shop, what was available over the counter in a pharmacy, the virtues of pointing and pantomime, that it was okay to drink wine at lunch, what a wealth of cheeses there was to explore, that the French know their way around a tarte citron, and what it was like to live in a language and culture not my own.

There was the thrill of standing on an exposed section of the Roman road—not cordoned off but there to stand on, and boats going through the lock of the canal, and sunshine, blue sky, and flowers even during the winter. When we walked a geocaching trail on the Canal de la Robine on a golden day in December, I realized that I was over feeling that Christmas should be cold and snowy!

There were day trips—learning to drive standard shift as a teenager came in handy since automatic-shift rental cars were hard to come by—that took us to interesting places. We explored the countryside around the city and the nearby seaside towns. Along with navigational triumphs (and mistakes), we seemed—every single time we came back into town—to drive the length of Boulevard Marcel Sembat at least three times. We also discovered, and to this day, still say, that the last 30 kilometers are the longest.

There were things to dislike of course: an annoying amount of dog poop on the sidewalks, the mistral blowing for several days in the winter, the frustrating self-serve gas stations that didn’t take cash or our credit cards (because they didn’t have the security chip needed) when we wanted to refill the gas tank of a rental car late at night. Set against that were great meals and friendly people and beautiful sights.

While you can’t go back and there will never be another first time, it was lovely to return to Narbonne recently, walk streets still familiar, visit favorite places, and enjoy the charm of memory.

Click (or double-click, depending on your device) on any image to launch the slideshow.

Beauty for Elka

When my friend Jeff married Elka several years ago, I lucked out because while at first she was ‘Jeff’s wife,’ over the years she became ‘my friend Elka.’ I remember saying to Jeff one night, as he drove me to my train after a visit, that I liked Elka more and more every time I saw her.

About three years ago, Elka was diagnosed with cancer. Over the long months of treatment, I was rarely geographically near, but I tried to be there for her long-distance. I read every CaringBridge post and commented regularly so she and Jeff would know I was thinking of them. I emailed, made a couple of visits when I was in town and her health allowed it, and I sent beautiful pictures because she said they made her happy. After one particularly brutal chemo session, she asked me to send her more photos, so I put together a slideshow titled ‘Beauty for Elka.’ It was one of the last times I would send her photos (and receive one of her enthusiastic thank-yous), as she died within weeks.

A couple of months ago, I was telling a friend how much I missed Elka. I said, ‘I’m not trying to pretend we were best friends, but . . .’  My friend finished the sentence for me, ‘she was a positive and beautiful presence in your life.’

Exactly. And somehow, sharing the ‘Beauty for Elka’ slideshow is a way to memorialize her on this first anniversary of her death.

Images © Melissa Corcoran.


CorcoranBToday would have been my mother’s ???? birthday. (If you’re wondering if I know when my mother was born and how old she would have been today, the answer is yes, I know, but she said she’d come back and haunt us if we revealed her age.) In her honor, I am posting an edited version of the eulogy I gave at her recent funeral.

“Vroom vroom, she’s coming around the curve, she speeds into the straightaway.”

That was my mom, playing ‘racecar driver’ after Sunday Mass. She would start her race commentary at a specific intersection on our street and continue it until our house. It was a routine we loved and asked for often, but my mom, being smart, didn’t do it every week—it was a treat we enjoyed all the more because it wasn’t a given.

This is not the only memory I have of my mother driving. There was the time when she and I drove my sister Nancy to Denver for her freshman year of college, then drove to St. Louis to visit my brother. In a role reversal, it was Mom who was speeding down the highway; when she asked me to keep on eye on the billboards for a motel, I said, “well, I would, Mom, but they’re a blur.” Then there were her car trips to see my sister Susan in another city; Mom’s trip times got progressively shorter over the years. We’re pretty sure she started lying about what time she left home so my sisters wouldn’t know just how fast she was driving!

This was part of the person my mom was—speed demon, college graduate, Girl Scout leader, traveler, adventurer, social worker, Catholic, choir member, friend, grandmother, mother.

My siblings and I have many memories of Mom’s years in the Girl Scouts. She began as a troop leader with the girls a year younger than me and there were many weekend camping trips in which the whole family joined. She was a camp counselor in the summers and eventually became a trainer, attending workshops in other states. I am proud of the fact that Mom was a lifetime member of the Girl Scouts and I like to think of the positive influence she had on a generation of girls.

When my siblings and I were in grade school, Mom started taking courses at the local community college. It took her five or six years to accumulate credits equivalent to two years of college. My senior year of high school, Mom started full-time at a nearby university. I remember her sitting at the dining room table, crying over her statistics homework, but it didn’t stop her. Her graduation was a family celebration of her accomplishment.

After several years of working at a hospital as a social worker, Mom applied for and was granted a Rotary Club Scholarship. That sent her to Wellington, New Zealand for ten months. She had classes to attend, but took advantage of her school vacations to explore New Zealand and Australia, making friends with whom she exchanged visits for many years.

After I completed my first Danskin sprint triathlon, I challenged my mother and sisters to join me in participating the next year. Mom went back to the gym and started training. During that time, she had a couple of bike accidents that probably would have broken the bones and/or resolve of someone else. Not Mom—she continued training and with my sisters and me, completed the triathlon. Whenever someone at work or the gym would say he or she didn’t think they could do a triathlon, I’d say, “well, if my 69-year-old mother could do it….” That tended to shut them up!

There were a couple of areas of Mom’s expertise that I found frustrating, only because I didn’t inherit those talents. One is that she had a green thumb—her African violets were the envy of many and her houseplants thrived. As someone whose horticultural accomplishments peak at keeping a cactus alive, I was envious. The other area was music. I can’t carry a tune but Mom sang and played the piano. It was one of the joys of her life to sing in her church choir and it was extra special to her when her two older grandsons joined the choir and sang with her.

Back to that race car routine. I thought of it during my recent stay in Italy because, after years of being an uber-cautious driver, I think I may be turning into my mother, at least when I am in Italy, where I seem to have become rather fearless. It’s a cultural joke with negative connotations to say ‘oh dear, I’m turning into my mother,’ but in reality, there are worse things to be than a leader, traveler, adventurer, friend.

July 20, 1979

This is a story I like to tell and since today is the 35th anniversary of what occurred, I’m telling it!

As a prelude, I’ve always thought of myself as a ‘space baby’ because I grew up at the same time the US space program did. I remember my dad showing me our local newspaper with a group portrait of the seven original astronauts and telling me to remember their names because they were going to do great things. In my parochial grade school, we watched the Mercury launches on a TV set up in the cafeteria. The space walks in the Gemini program were a scary thrill. And to this day, I still visit the “Apollo to the Moon” gallery every time I go to the National Air and Space Museum (NASM) and pay my respects to the three astronauts who died in the Apollo I cabin fire:   Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, Edward H. White II and Roger B. Chaffee.

On July 20, 1969, my family and I were in Washington, D.C. We visited the precursor to NASM and saw capsules from the Mercury and Gemini programs. That night, we watched as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the moon.

Ten years later, I was living in D.C. and several events had been planned to mark the 10th anniversary of the moon landing. During my run on the Mall that morning, I saw the platform set up in front of the museum for the ceremony involving the astronauts and a host of dignitaries. As I ran past, I could faintly hear one of the speeches. That night, the museum stayed open late, offering visitors a chance to visit the exhibits and watch archival footage.

I was on the fence about going, but my boyfriend, who had other plans that night, urged me to go. When I arrived at the museum, it was like a big party, with people of all ages wandering through the galleries. There were plinths set up in the open area at the center of the museum, with televisions and VCRs showing various clips.

The clip of the walk was scheduled to be shown for the same time as it had happened ten years previously. Prior to that, the tape of the landing on the moon was shown.  People were sitting on the floor all over the open area, glued to the televisions. As we heard those words “Houston, Tranquillity Base here.  The Eagle has landed,” tears filled my eyes. I thought I was the only one foolish enough to be so emotionally moved, but I looked around and saw that almost every adult was wiping away tears. Two young boys were next to me with their parents and looking at them, puzzled as to why they were crying.  The father said to the boys, “you don’t understand, when this happened, we didn’t know it was going to work.”

The reaction when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon and we heard “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind,” was joyous and when the flag was planted by the astronauts, unabashedly patriotic. Having grown up in the era of the Vietnam War and anti-government protests, I did not expect that everyone would cheer and clap at that moment, but they did.

I’m glad I had the chance to share in that communal commemoration – it was one of the best nights of my life!

Aunt Melissa

My sister was babysitting her six-month old grandson for a long weekend recently and invited me to her place for a couple of days to join in the fun. The time spent with my great-nephew made me realize again all the ways in which I enjoy being an aunt.

My nephews and niece and I have our own traditions. Once they were at toddler stage, we began the practice, when I visited, of my taking them out for an excursion, sans parents. One year, we had a sibling vacation in Boston and I took the two older boys (six and four) and my niece (two) to a movie and lunch. We were walking back to my apartment when we passed FAO Schwarz and I took them inside. To quote a co-worker to whom I told this story, ‘what was I thinking?!’ It was a little crazy inside with massive amounts of stimuli but we did okay until it was time to leave. I shepherded them out the revolving door only to find I was short one child. I had the two boys clamp their hands around one of the stanchions outside the door and made them promise not to move until I returned. I raced back inside to find that my niece had been captivated by the wind-up toys in action near the door and stopped to watch them. Sheesh—I was wiped-out from stress for the rest of the day! And as you can tell, scarred because that was over 20 years ago and I still get a clutch in the heart when I think of it!

When my oldest nephew started college, I joined him and his parents at the school to help him move in and get settled. That was a start of another tradition, which is to show up for, and participate in, the college move-in for each one of them. Two of my nephews have attended my alma mater, so I’ve had the added fun of revisiting the campus and seeing it through their eyes. I still have one more college trip to look forward to.

Over the years, I’ve noticed that just as I treat them differently than their parents do, the reverse is true. When my sister several years ago told her boys that she was thinking of getting a tattoo, they were appalled. When I said the same thing some weeks later, the reaction was ‘cool, what would you get?’ (For the record, I didn’t get a tattoo.)

My sisters and I have often talked about how genetic material seems to have jumped sideways. For example, one of my nephews approaches a museum the same way his uncle does—as if he’s studying for the exam. My oldest nephew and I have the same rent-a-fact ‘business’ (being the oldest teaches you to speak authoritatively, even if you don’t know what you are talking about!). Then there are the things that make you wonder if the child is in fact related to you—one of my nephews does not like chocolate and one of my great-nephews wakes up with a smile on his face.

One thing I find a little disconcerting is how well they know some of the stories from my and my siblings’ childhood. Once at my mom’s house, we pulled out the bun warmer to put some rolls in it and the boys knew all about how the dent got there (my brother and I were throwing around pots and pans during an argument). I think the story they know best, though, is the story of how, when I was in high school, I drove an hour out of the way to get to a skating rink ten minutes from our house. Now whenever I’m trying to navigate to a place, I hear ‘life is an adventure, right, Aunt Melissa?’ because that’s what I used to say to my sisters when I was lost. It’s all so embarrassing!

My nephews and niece may not know this even now, but since they were babies, my friends and co-workers have listened to stories about how clever, how charming, how cute they are and looked at innumerable photos.

There are roles we embrace, roles we discard, roles that change over the years. Through it all, my role as aunt has brought me much joy, so here’s looking at you, kids: Andrew, Michael, Paige, Nicholas, and Benjamin.

Photo of boys and Paige_cropped