Private Matters

Nellie Chatfield

Grandma Nellie

My father was German and my mother English, which could explain everything. On my dad’s side I’m a generation removed from hardworking, church-going, duty-bound dairy farmers. On my mother’s I come from freewheeling, drinking, smoking, gambling, hell-raising cattle ranchers with a couple of righteous Catholics thrown in for some temperance. I happen to know my maternal relatives had more fun; I can tell from their stories. Most of them didn’t see much value in being good except my Grandma Nellie Chatfield, who was of the opinion that rectitude was required behavior, and the higher she stood on her moral ground, the lower her family descended. I tend to take after Nellie and my father’s side of the family. How unfortunate for me, and for those around me, especially those who tend not to behave.

61. Noreen Clemens early 50s

Noreen, my mother

I imagine it’s no coincidence that my writing began when I was 53, the same age my mother was when she called it a day. Nor that it took me five years to write our chronicles, the same amount of time I lived with her when I was a kid. I have a suspicion she’s had a hand in this whole thing, directing from the ethers, enjoying having her story told. She would have LOVED all the attention. My father, on the other hand, would have cautioned me to keep much of what I wrote behind closed doors. He was a private man, of the generation that didn’t discuss affairs of the family, money, or sex.

Dredging up some of these stories was a cross between Groundhog Day and post-traumatic stress syndrome. It’s amazing how long the shelf life is on the defining moments that smack us as kids. They’re like Wonder Bread: always fresh.

I made it through my childhood, then I lived through five years of writing about it, which was at times as anxiety producing as experiencing some of it the first time around. My right shoulder froze, then my left, my stomach wasn’t happy, nor was my sister, and I had three computer crashes. In the last one I lost my motherboard. Now what are the odds of that? I didn’t even know a computer had a motherboard.

Cathy and Noreen 1957 when we lived in Hawaii

Cathy and Noreen 1957
when we lived in Hawaii

My mother is still with me; I’m continually bowled over how I manage to recreate her in so many of my relationships. The bane of my existence and my greatest teacher, she is a gift that keeps on giving.

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  1. The thing about the older generations wanting to be remembered has struck me many years ago: Even though my mother lived in Switzerland and her sister, aunt Elsy, in Aspen, the two were close and loved each other. I never quite understood that, since Mother was a very loving and responsible woman, while aunt Elsy could be mean, and in her younger years she—to put it gently—had lived to the fullest. They inscribed their friendship in me when Mother decided to leave this world on her birthday, and aunt Elsy on the same date, exactly one year later. Like radio waves, some things exist even if we cannot see them… thank you for reminding me.

  2. My mother obviously wanted to be remembered; she was born on Valentine’s Day and died on Mother’s Day, and we’re still finding skeletons in her closet. Another great teacher who is still hanging around! Your writing is fabulous as always.

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