And my trip down memoir lane is inching closer to being complete.
Here’s more of my piece “Collections” from Fall 2000. Enjoy, and please share comments.
On November 17, 1949, Beth Ann Burnett was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Twenty-five years later in the same city, Joy Allison Burnett was born on January 8, 1974. The mother involved in the matter received a phone call in the hospital from the elder Ms. Burnett. So the legend goes:
Beth: “Do you know what day this is?”
Mother: “Well, I just gave birth to your niece.”
Beth: “Yeah, but it’s Elvis Presley’s birthday!”
And in this manner, the newest Burnett was welcomed into the world by a woman who was to teach her many things in subsequent years. Under Beth’s guidance, I was taught the proper way to hold a fork, not to walk in front of windows with the drapes open while “indecent,” and how to cultivate proper Elvis appreciation, among other important life skills. This woman had a collection of varied titles, including Aunt Beth, Aunt B, Beth Ann, and just Beth. To the only younger direct relative she was to have in the world, she became simply Booth.
Given Booth’s girth, it’s not surprising that she occupies such a large space in my adult consciousness. During my childhood days, Booth was a constant presence like a large, soft planet with two orbiting moons over her belly rings. Venus of Willendorf had nothing on Booth. During my first Art History survey class in college, I couldn’t resist mentally placing Booth’s porcelain face on the smooth head of the ancient figurine. Like this Venus, Booth and I also are quite short, five-foot-three at best. I used to measure myself against Booth’s height, back-to-back, until I finally gave up at age 15. I’d never officially reach five-foot-four. I was worried because health class charts said that was normal height. My stature had Booth and my grandmother calling me “Shorty” even back when I was 10 years old, and understandably shorter than the adults. “Shorty” was just one of the many nicknames Booth collected for me.
I partially inherited the self-like posterior that belongs to my father’s only sibling too, for better or worse. Mine isn’t and perhaps never will be as grand as my aunt’s. She would have had no need for a bustle if she had been born in an earlier century.
We also share a notch between the ear, and the place where the lobe connects to the neck. I’ve sneaked peeks at many a passerby, countless times in my “grown-up” life, to discern through clumps of hair whether or not another person had this small biological curiosity that is so uniquely ours. I haven’t found a single person yet, perhaps because I refuse to believe that it’s not something that we alone share.
When she was younger, Booth had long, Lady Godiva locks – uncut and unkempt. Her chestnut hair had the straggly ends that form a “V” in the middle of the back. This mane usually hung way down past her posterior, but occasionally Booth had it chopped into a modified bowl cut that made her look like a Franciscan monk. The hair was healthy and really grew fast, so she’d have enough hair for a braided horse’s tail again within a year or so. Sometime during her mid-40s, Booth decided she had other priorities, so she stopped coloring her hair. The Loving Care color now has slid into a pleasing shade of salt and nutmeg. Booth’s hair is too light to be called pepper.
My fingernails, although now often cut typing-short, also are courtesy of Booth. When I was little, she loved stroking coats of Sally Hansen protein formula into my pliable, young nails. I always was amazed at Booth’s ability to grow long, strong fingernails that could satisfy that itch in the middle of your back better than any plastic black scratcher. She had a collection of those too, in five different colors with advertising imprints in gold paint, like “Andrews Insurance Agency” or “Lenawee National Bank.”
In addition to passing down a few physical traits, Booth and I share the pack-rat gene: the inexplicable urge to collect all things weird and wonderful.
Booth still has in her possession, boxed up in her garage, oddities of 50s- and 60s-era Americana that defy rational explanation. My favorites among these items are several plastic donkeys that shit out a cigarette when you lift their tails. She also has a complete set of the Budweiser Clydesdale beer steins, although to my knowledge she hadn’t tipped a single can or bottle in decades.
The survival of these artifacts within the Burnett family holdings attests to my family’s sense of value. Year’s ago, my grandmother somehow arranged for the covert disposal of my father’s entire Mickey Mantle rookie card collection. By the time he was in his twenties, he had scored at least a dozen, and even the greenest card collection knows that these baseball treasures can now command a find price. After my grandmother’s attic-cleaning path of destruction had taken away my father’s baseball dream cards, Booth’s head-bobbing figurines and crocheted purses and vests somehow remained safely packed away in boxes for decades.
Booth’s collection obsession often mad her a bored child’s best friend, especially in the summertime. She could craftily turn any work into the chance of a lifetime. I once earned 82 whole cents in a single afternoon, as payment for the challenging assignment of picking up pinecones in the front yard, for the generous sum of a penny per capture. The treasured booty I wheeled back toward the granary from the front yard that day thickly covered the bottom of my red wagon. These pinecones were not collected for the sake of a clean lawn, but rather for use in one of Booth’s many handicrafts. With the assistance of a little Elmer’s Glue and glitter, wiggly plastic eyes and fuzzy pipe cleaners, fabulous creatures emerged from the workshop on Booth’s rickety kitchen table. I still have occasional dreams about these fabulous creations, and could probably manage to dig them up in some musty old box in Booth’s closet or garage.
On one particularly gloomy day, I had resigned myself to the search for artistic satisfaction with one of many Donald and Daisy Duck coloring books on my bookshelves. After the rain slowed and the clouds parted enough to let through a little sun, I heard the call to “… hurry up and come outside!” The next few hours were spent by me and Booth, hopping around in my father’s garden. We delighted as we smooshed our toes as hard as we possibly could down into the muddy clay surrounding the okra patch. Some serious earthworm hunting accompanied the toe-smooshing activity.
Booth brought two tin pails from the granary, and we took breaks from our gleeful play to gather up the worms that had come up from the ground after the rain. This particular collection had its practical purposes. We enjoyed the returns on our investment when Dad brought home another collection of bass from the lake.
Dad’s worm-heaven garden was a tiny patch of dirt at the side of the house, surrounded by land belonging to some unidentified farmer. This farmer, of course, was not likewise a mystery to Dad and Booth. The old Centennial Road house, passed down to my grandmother after my grandfather’s death, stood surrounded by two separate crops: a corn field, and a bean field. I always guessed the land belonged to the Wagners across the road, because I often saw them shoveling pig manure in between the cornrows. I never saw them harvesting the corn, because by then I would be back in school for the fall. So, I was never sure it was their field. I figured that people definitely wouldn’t do that with pig manure of they weren’t getting something great out of the deal.
When the weather got hot and steamy in mid-July, the stench from the manure was enough to make your eyes go crossed. My grandmother liked to come out tot he back porch in the summer, take a big whiff and exclaim, “Shooooooooweeee! Shorty, put your shoes back on.” Dr. Scholl’s has made a few dollars off me since, as a result of my grandmother-induced paranoia.
To refer to Booth and my grandmother as mother figures would be like saying that Mother Theresa was simply a nice woman. My mother and father divorced when I was three years old, mostly due to the fact that my mother had a new boyfriend with whom she was expecting another child. Dad always said he never liked letting her out of the house on that weekly bowling night, and in what was soon to be my little brother, he had visible confirmation of his worst suspicions. There is always, of course, more than one side to a family scandal. The summer before I started middle school, my mother (under the influence of several Fuzzy Navels) shared her opinion that my father hadn’t been the most understanding and supportive partner, anyway.
My three-year-old self was blissfully unaware of these adult dramas. My daddy’s absence at the hospital when I first held my brother seemed odd, though. I also puzzled over the identity of the tall, moustached man in mom’s room, wearing the little paper hospital hat and booties. We hadn’t been properly introduced. Where’s my daddy where’s daddy where’s my daddy … it was on auto-repeat like a mantra over and over in my head. Daddy daddy daddy.
“This is your new little brother, Joy Birdie,” my mother said as she carefully slid the eight-pound bundle into my arms.
“Where’s my daddy?” I demanded, unwittingly committing one of the most heinous crimes possible, given the recent sequence of events. Moustache man shot my mother a loaded look, and silently left the room. My seemingly innocent question also got me shuffled away from the action, down to the family waiting area. Daddy daddy daddy became a syncopated chant that made my head bob as I sat in the waiting area with my uncle. I pretended to read a Berenstain Bears book, cunningly flipping the pages at proper intervals. Daddy where’s my DAddy where’s DAddy where’s MY daddy. Maybe if I said it long enough he would hear me, he would come. He did come, eventually, and he used that shared custoday ruling to our advantage. My newly single father moved in with Booth and Grandma in the old house on Centennial Road, and it was to be my home for three out of seven days of the week, for the next 13 years.