Kelly Schenke ’95
In my family, we pass things on. Tables, chairs, jelly cupboards, these are the physical representations of memory; and when memory fades, the objects remain. I can run my hands over the edges of these things; feel the rough spots, the scratches, the evidence of everyday life. The other week, my great aunt and uncle presented me with a gift: a walking stick that belonged to my Poppop. Years before, when a beloved tree had to be removed from Poppop’s front yard, Uncle Jay chose one of its limbs and in his own gruff way, sanded and polished the gift of his love into the tree limb. Carefully, he etched Poppop’s nickname into the walking stick, so now I can run my finger along the smooth, blond wood and the dark brown letters of the name Kelly.
At my grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary, Poppop stood at the podium, and told us how, before they were married, he used to steal his daddy’s milk truck, and sneak down the old dirt lane to visit my Ma-Ma. When he got home, he’d wipe the dirt from the truck and hide the rags in the barn so his father wouldn’t know he’d been gone. Poppop told us about trapping skunks in the woods behind Ma-Ma’s family farm to sell the pelts for a little extra money during hard times. He spoke of raising hogs and how he loved to watch the little grunting piglets crowd each other for a good place to drink from the bristly sow lying on her side. With adoring eyes, Poppop described his life with Ma-Ma after they were married. Every morning, he’d be out before the sun was up to deliver mail on his rural postal route, but return home for a second breakfast so he could see his two little girls before heading back out into the snow or the rain or the bright blue of a country day. Though he loved rich, dark soil, and working it with his hands, he revealed that he treasured the winter season because it meant more time in the house with Ma-Ma and the girls. During fair weather, he farmed in the late afternoon. Sometimes my mother crawled up into his lap on the tractor, and together they crept along toward the warm glow of the setting sun.
When my cousin, Jim, was just a toddler, he and my grandparents were in a terrible car accident. They were hit from behind, and the car immediately burst into flames. Poppop ran Jimmy across the road and placed him into the arms of a neighbor who’d run outside at the horrific noise. Ma-Ma was struggling to get her car door open, her dress already on fire. Poppop pulled her out of the car and away from the vehicle just as it erupted in another fiery explosion.
Years later, when my Ma-Ma’s body began to fail, Poppop became her cane. I could not imagine a metaphor more poignant than the one he so eloquently created: He’d put his arm down straight, held tightly against his hip, and then flatten his hand and hold it twisted out to the side. I don’t know how he maintained his strength from such an uncomfortable position, but she leaned into him, and he carried her forward.
As time moved indifferently on, and the sinister fingers of dementia began to wind themselves into Poppop’s brain, it was Ma-Ma who did the carrying. As we began to be erased from his memory, Ma-Ma was the tether that kept Poppop grounded in this world. I wondered what it must be like, in the early stages of dementia, to ask, “Do I know you?” and to hear, “It’s ‘little’ Kelly. I’m your granddaughter.” What loss and sadness grips you in that moment? What object can you cling to, to steady yourself? Object, memory…wife. As more and more things and names and places slipped from his mind, one person remained his constant, calming thought…Ma-Ma.
Twenty-some years after he rescued Jim and Ma-Ma from the flames of that mangled car, he rescued me. It was not nearly as dramatic. There were no flames except for the burning fear inside of me. I’d just told my eighty-something grandparents that I was gay. With pain in her eyes and her hands pressed to her chest, Ma-Ma asked me, “Have you suffered over this? Over telling us?”
“Yes,” I said. “I was afraid that you’d stop loving me.”
But before the last syllable had escaped with my breath I heard Poppop’s voice, thick with emotion, but clear and strong. “No,” he said, “That would never happen.”
And, in that moment, all doubt ceased. I knew with absolute certainty that I would always be loved. This was a gift, divinely created, effortlessly given, and infinite in its power.
My Poppop was just an ordinary man, who loved us all so dearly that there was no toil too hard, no sacrifice too great, no fire he would not face, to care for us. He and I share a name, a story both common and uncommon, and a walking stick that I can hold in my hand. My memories will fade. But objects remain. The only objects I have to give back to Poppop are words, and so I put them here, as the gift of my deep and grateful love.
– Dedicated to Walter Singer “Kelly” Kellenberger, Feb. 26, 1922-May 1, 2015
Returning to the Beach in Winter
Jessica Migliore ’07
Today the ocean seethes with ghosts;
its dark tide advancing and then retreating –
this beach so full of years.
Father watches silently. Existing,
but not tangible. Once I find him, he disappears –
a maze of icy tide pools and distant echoes
as continents shift: I forget. Memory as constant
as a flicker of refracted light on water.
It was not this sea in which he struggled;
the failing heart is a wall that cannot
hold back the flood.
We return to this water; molecules
remembering, matter gently recalling us.