Last week my time machine landed smack-dab in the middle of the past. What a happy but sometimes sad trip it was –- happy because those days, those decades, were brimming with such good times; sad because so many people I knew once upon a time are now departed. Too many school chums, friends, relatives, co-workers, neighbors. Gone. My parents, two brothers, oldest sister. Gone. Like ghosts, their happy but faded faces glow and glimmer – tinged now by sadness – from among the cracks of brittle photographs.
My trip to the past happened during a bout of early spring cleaning. In the storage spaces of yesteryear there gradually grew a tall stack of memory trunks (big old cardboard boxes stuffed with stuff) that I hauled through life from place to place. I rarely rummaged through those boxes; I let silent little storms of dust invade them. Now is the time to do a total inventory, I figured.
The boxes contained items kept by pack-rat me: grade-school drawings, souvenirs from travels, journals, letters, thousands of photos, and among all the papers many faded do-lists scrawled on the backs of scraps of paper, envelopes, napkins.
It’s eerie how old do-lists, with their done and undone items, can retrieve the past in such vivid specifics, almost to the way the weather was on the day you jotted them down. Even more than photos, do-lists can spring open old days with vivid immediacy.
One list, I could tell instantly, is from an autumn day in 1983, written shortly after moving into a downtown apartment above the Broadway Floral shop in Alexandria (in fact, right across the main street where a ferocious fire destroyed very old buildings just two weeks ago).
Items from the list:
Insulate windows with that plastic 3M sheeting. (undone)
Start saving $50 every week in bank for sure!! (undone)
Check into getting a couch. (undone, settled for a used one)
Get oak table at Anderson Furniture. (done)
Zip-strip and sand floors in living room, dining room (done but took forever)
Frame the Manet art print (done)
Ask landlord if it’s OK to paint walls (done)
Finish reading “War and Peace.” (finally done, years later)
That list took me back to that particular Saturday morning, sitting in my recliner among a sprawl of unpacked belongings, penning my do-list on a yellow legal pad, a cool breeze coming through the screens, the stereo playing the Eagles’ greatest hits. The time-machine do-list allowed me to see once again those billowing curtains, to hear the squeaks and squawks of the busy traffic down below, to smell that Saturday morning street (asphalt, car exhaust, occasional delectable whiffs of fresh-baked goodies from the bakery across the street.)
Tumbling from the memory trunks were letters and cards, which I’m still reading: From niece Aleah 35 years ago: “Dear Denny, Happy Valentine’s Day. I liked playing dominos with you. I love you. Thank you for the teddy bear. Come again soon. Shane loves you too.”
And there are stacks of photos, one of them from a Halloween party, 1973. There sits Leroy, who died just last year, gussied up as a pirate; his girlfriend Lori as a peasant woman. And there, as a red devil, stands Byrd, dead since 2000. In that big kitchen, all clowning around laughing, are brother Michael (now gone), Janet, Jim, Marge, Steve and others – all thankfully alive, still thriving, still clowning.
The river of time, its currents so deep, flows so fast. Too fast. I would like to encourage everyone to slow down for awhile and take a backward journey. It’s a wonderful way to discover and rediscover vividly those half-forgotten yesterdays that lead to now and to tomorrows.
All you have to do is wait for a snowbound Saturday or a long rainy Sunday, then haul out those dust-covered memory trunks, settle down snugly in your armchair time machine and off you go, rushing into the past. Bon voyage!
Author: Dennis Dalman
Dalman was born and raised in South St. Cloud, graduated from St. Cloud Tech High School, then graduated from St. Cloud State University with a degree in English (emphasis on American and British literature) and mass communications (emphasis on print journalism). He studied in London, England for a year (1980-81) where he concentrated on British literature, political science, the history of Great Britain and wrote a book-length study of the British writer V.S. Naipaul. Dalman has been a reporter and weekly columnist for more than 30 years and worked for 16 of those years for the Alexandria Echo Press.