Guest blogger Lanie Tankard returns today to talk about memories of her childhood using “luminous particulars”-a phrase borrowed from Jane Kenyon and Ezra Pound via my former colleague at Goshen College Ann Hostetler. Lanie’s word for those wonderfully evocative objects is “touchstones.” If you enjoy this beautiful essay, you may want to read her first guest post here.
I am holding in my hand a rusty key. No door does it open, but the mere touch against my palm unlocks a flood. Strange how memories descend unbidden.
At the top of this key is a six-sided hole through which I put string to wear around my neck. The bottom of the key has no teeth to toss the tumblers in a lock, however. It bends instead at a right angle encompassing another hole, this one square. That opening fit the bolts on my roller skates so I could tighten them around the underside of my saddle oxfords.
Then, once the straps were buckled around my toes and ankles, those gray metal skates were ready to roll down Selwyn Road. My six-year-old legs pushed first one and then the other forward — up, up, up that long ribbon of sidewalk between the postage-stamp lawns and narrow grassy strips dotted with maple trees next to the street.
Rolling like a river, I’d cruise until the toe of a skate caught one of the cement slabs forced upward by expanding tree roots, flinging me rapidly downward onto my knees and taking the wind out of my sails. Tears trickled across my freckled cheeks while blood oozed down toward my bobby socks. I tottered home a sadder but no wiser girl, though, for I would be out there the next day after school, my knees painted Mercurochrome red and my skates ready to spin again.
That powerful panorama from my formative years popped up on the Magic 8 Ball of my memories all because I held an old rusty key in my hand. The physical reality of a touchstone can have a powerful effect on our buried images.
Originally, “touchstone” referred to a stone that left a mark, like chalk. What remained behind was a representation, a reminder. It also meant a stone tablet (slate, for example) upon which a mark is left by softer metals. The word is defined as “a standard by which something is judged” and has thus come to mean an object we can touch that brings up a memory associated with it, akin to a memento.
A character named Touchstone in the role of the court fool appeared in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, constantly clowning, perhaps underlining the capricious nature of memories. A famous monologue from that same play may shed light on the role of touchstones in helping us recall earlier stages of our lives:
“All the world’s a stage
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.”
The interesting thing about touchstones is that what might be one for me is not necessarily one for you, although certain collective touchstones when seen or heard can come to represent a time or place for a whole country or generation — to wit, a poster with the image of Che Guevara, or a Beatles record, or a peace symbol. Of course, when these touchstones can literally be touched, they become so powerful that they represent an entire era.
From time to time, my three daughters would bring me boxes of “stuff” they no longer wanted, saying, “Do whatever you want with it — just don’t put it back in my room!” So, to reduce their clutter, I would sort through it all, culling the wheat from the chaff, donating, tossing out, until a certain wooden duck, say, or perhaps a Care Bears purse, or maybe a colorful Mexican pot would trigger a tableau in my mind of that daughter using the item, much like a scene from an old newsreel.
Swiftly and surreptitiously that object would go back into the “save” pile, which would soon overtake the “toss” and “donate” stacks. I felt honor bound as a mother to hold onto such things as if in a time capsule for an adult daughter searching for her identity someday, or a grandchild in the distant future on an archaeological dig for what made the parents tick.
From time to time, a daughter passing through the living room or den might spy one of these items I had cleverly woven into the interior decorating and pause.
“Didn’t I throw that out…?” she’d start to say, but then, shrugging her shoulders, move on.
Yet can we really select touchstones for another? While there are definite commonalities, there are also individualities — that Rosebud quality underscored by the classic movie “Citizen Kane.”
Indeed, I still yearn for the black cast-iron trivet given to me as a small child by Aunt Mary and Uncle Fred. It featured sheep jumping over a fence, with the words “Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep” above them. My father had attached the trivet to a small wall lamp and hung it as a nightlight in my bedroom. Every evening of my childhood, I fell asleep looking at those words in the dim afterglow of the bulb after my mother tucked me in. When I was at college, my parents passed the lamp on to my young nephew. One day when he was older, I asked my sister if she still had the lamp, but she said she had sold it at a garage sale.
Was that the point at which the trivet became a touchstone for me, when I could no longer physically touch it except in my memories? Is an inaccessible object a touchstone? I’ll always wonder, I suppose, what memories might be unlocked if I found it. I’ve combed eBay with no luck. Jorge Luis Borges speculates through a short story in his book Ficciones that things “lose their detail when people forget them.” The loss of that trivet hasn’t erased my memory of it, but Borges suggests that the excavation of old objects allows us “to question and even to modify the past, which nowadays is no less malleable or obedient than the future.”
Recently I sent a book to a friend who had just given birth to her second baby. I love to help stock the libraries of newborns, to enable them to discover the joy of reading. When I received the thank you note, I cried. The mother said her daughter would definitely treasure the book because it was the only one she now owned. Their house had burned down three days before my gift arrived, and they lost everything, even their beloved dog. The parents and the two little girls were not hurt, thank goodness, but I couldn’t help thinking about all those touchstones. How does a person recreate the tactile reminders of a life lived?
When I turn the well-worn pages of my copy of Rachel Field’s Prayer for a Child, I am on my mother’s lap again. If I could find Evelyn Scott’s The Fourteen Bears in Summer and Winter, a book that I checked out of the library almost every other week to read to our three girls, I would have a daughter on my mind’s lap for sure. I could probably find electronic versions of these classics to download, but the tactile nature of books is important to me in my reading. The adult is always searching for the child still within, as well as reminders that the person’s own adult children were actually smaller at one time. Touch plays a major role in accessing our inner selves.
But so do all the senses. If I sit down and try to recall with clarity the summer of 1954 in my life, I can likely dredge up vague events that probably occurred. Yet if I chance upon a black-and-white photo of a blond short-haired girl sitting in a blow-up wading pool with a friend on a warm Cleveland afternoon, it is not the contact of the picture on my hand that brings a rush of memories but rather the sight of the image on the paper that does. I can feel the water against my legs and the concrete driveway underneath the pool’s thin plastic bottom. I can see Mrs. Kirby’s laundry hanging on the clothesline next door, and my mother coming down the back steps with a couple of Brown Cows for us to drink.
I can hear the bubbles I blew through the straw in that root beer float as we tried to outdo each other with the biggest mound. I can taste the cool liquid going down my throat, and feel the ice crystals in the vanilla ice cream against my tongue.
So a touchstone may not need to be felt — merely seen, or heard, or tasted, or smelled, perhaps. What if you don’t have a touchstone? What if your house burns down? How, then, will you ever access all those memories? Through memoir. If you write it, they will come. Touchstones simply speed up the process. They’re not a requirement.
But still . . . if you should happen upon an old rusty skate key, oh what a flood of skinned knees it will unlock in your mind.
©Elaine F. Tankard August 2009