Column: Memories are made of this

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From the Eclectic Mind of Roger VanHaren
By: 

Roger VanHaren

Note from the author: In a week filled with medical appointments and an amazing surprise joint birthday party engineered by our kids, I’m taking the lazy way out and re-running a column from April 30, 2005. — Roger VanHaren

In a stack of pictures in the basement, there are two pieces of original artwork. One is a pastel of my grandmother Christine VanHaren done many years ago by my cousin Larry VanHaren, a professional artist who lives in Dallas. I never met my grandmother because she died shortly before I was born, but I feel I know her when I look at that picture.

The other original is a crude oil painting of an old log cabin, its torn tarpaper siding nearly stripped away by the winds of many northern Wisconsin winters and the vandal woodpeckers whose search for wood-boring insects led them to its gables. My mother painted the picture in an art class at the Senior Citizens Center in Oconto Falls, and my dad framed it using rough-sawn barn boards salvaged when our old barn was torn down many years ago.

The hanger on the back of the picture is a rusty iron staple, which for all I know could have come from the rickety wooden gate that closed the garden fence near the house. The picture lacks perspective – Grandma VanHaren and Grandma Moses share this quality – and its framing is pretty rustic. But sometimes (like right now) when I think of it, time seems to stand still, and I’m 6 years old again and standing in the kitchen-living room of that old house, and memories become reality.

I lived in that old house, my family’s homestead, until I was 7, and many things about it are more vivid than remembrances of any other place I’ve lived since then. Images rush to mind in torrents of sounds, smells and sights, and special days leap into full view.

It is August 1945. Electric power lines have not yet reached into the rural areas of northeastern Wisconsin. Mom stands in front of the huge old iron cookstove that dominates the room. The stove is big, black and forbidding. I have been warned many times of the dangers of touching it. But at the same time, it is central to our lives in this house. It is where all our meals are cooked, where Mom’s delicious hard-crusted homemade bread is baked. It is our heat in the wintertime, our clothes dryer, mitten warmer, water heater and room humidifier – there’s always a massive black kettle of water steaming on one of the orange-hot back burners.

Mom is frying our supper. Mom fries almost everything, and I love fried foods. Today she is frying one of my favorites – diced young carrots, thin-sliced red-skinned potatoes and bright white new onions in bacon grease. The sweet smoky pungent aroma of the frying hash mingles with the bitter bouquet of boiling black coffee and the mouth-watering smell of golden brown loaves of bread that are steaming on the table. (Mom usually lets me have the hard “heel” of one of the loaves, liberally slathered with butter or honey – or both!)

I’m sitting next to the heavy, battery-powered mahogany RCA Victor console radio, tracing the outlines of the dog on the logo, dying of starvation. Starvation is a frequent condition for me: I’m starved three times a day most days, and even my snack of bread and butter hasn’t assuaged my craving. Gabriel Heatter has announced his usual “Ah, my friends, there’s good news tonight!” He always says that, no matter what the news is. I learn of the horrors of WWII from that old radio and Gabriel Heatter. Every evening at 6:30, Gabriel Heatter gives us his version of the world news, always beginning his broadcasts with, “Ah, there’s good news tonight!”

Tonight he is droning on in his sonorous voice when suddenly he seems to interrupt himself to bring us an important news flash: the U.S. Army Air Corps bomber, the Enola Gay, has dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, The report tells of the massive destruction and the estimated thousands of lives lost. I am way too young to understand the enormity of this event and the one a few days later when Heatter announces a second bomb has been dropped on Nagasaki. But Heatter and others on the radio seem to think that this will bring an end to the great war, and so I am thankful for that.

Yes, that picture – a real treasure for me – is a stimulus for me whenever I want to “go back,” and sometimes it’s fun to do that, isn’t it?

Note: My cousin Larry VanHaren was struck and killed by an automobile shortly after I wrote this essay.

Contact Roger VanHaren at rjmavh@gmail.com.