May 10, 2015 by Thomas Wictor
A memento mori is a work of art that reminds the viewer that we all die. Over the past few weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about death, most likely because of the threats I get. The level of physical danger I face isn’t clear, but I live as though every second could be my last. It isn’t as stressful as I thought it would be. Though on some days I wish I could return to the life I had before, it’s too late. My posts have been picked up by the Iranian and Arab media. What will be, will be.
Every day I’m hit with a powerful memory of our vacations in Miami, Florida. Of all the places I’ve been, Miami of 1968 to 1972 is the place I’d most like to revisit. We used to stay in the Columbus Hotel, which was on Biscayne Boulevard.
The elevators had operators who were all Cubans and were blown away by these blond and red-headed kids who spoke fluent Spanish. They’d stop the elevators between floors for us and open the outer door, leaving only the gate shut.
Being on neither floor was surreal, a supernatural state of existence.
What we loved the most about staying in the Columbus Hotel was room service. They made incredible hamburgers, the French fries served in a kind of wine sauce. Just delicious. Staff wheeled the dinner in on carts with white linen tablecloths, and each dish had a stainless-steel cover with a hole on top.
You have to understand that we were raised in oil camps in Venezuela. For kids like us, old hotels, white-linen table cloths, and stainless-steel plate covers were magic. I can still remember the scent of those French fries in wine sauce. It wafted out of the holes in the plate covers. Anticipating this once-a-year meal was as good as the food itself.
The downside of Miami was our annual physicals and trips to the dentist and eye doctor. But we endured those because the reward was staying in the Columbus. The hotel’s Bahamas Room was where I first tasted grape jelly. Our breakfast toast was served in metal racks.
Each of us was given a small dish with butter pats and little containers of grape jelly. In Venezuela we could get only strawberry jam, so grape jelly was mysterious food of the gods.
I don’t know why every day I’m hit with incredibly vivid memories of Miami. There’s no sense of sadness or foreboding. I’m not pining for this period of my life. When the memories come, it’s as though I’m reliving the experiences. It happens every afternoon at about 3:30 and lasts no more than a minute.
Yesterday I opened a drawer in the kitchen of Lyle Cat’s house, and there was the double boiler that my parents got as a wedding present. I put it on Tim’s porch and took a photo; Tim is standing behind the security gate.
How many eggs did I hard-boil in both of those pots? How many cans of soup, stew, and baked beans did I heat up? How many hot dogs did I cook?
That double boiler is fifty-six years old, like these photos.
When we moved from Tyler, Texas, to the Netherlands in 1975, we put most of our possessions in storage. In 1978 we moved to Norway. When we called the warehouse in Texas, we discovered that the building had flooded, and our stuff had been sitting in water for three years. My father flew back to see for himself. He said that a layer of dark-green mold covered everything.
“It was like really thick cake frosting,” he told us.
Among the items lost was my parents’ wedding album. Well, exactly one month to the day after my mother died on October 13, 2013, I found the album in a box of her things. It was sitting right on top, in plain view. I’d gone through the box before and hadn’t seen the album.
That’s where I got the black-and-white photos I posted above. The color images are from slides.
When I look at those photos, I feel the same way as I do when I’m hit by the memories of Miami or when I held the double boiler: unmoored. Not depressed or hurt or anything like that. Just…adrift. We weren’t meant to live this long. Originally we were like viruses: Our only purpose was to reproduce. We lived short, violent lives and didn’t accumulate double boilers, wedding albums, and half a century of memories.
A few weeks ago our last original neighbor was carted away to a nursing home. He’s ninety, a World War II navy veteran whom my mother knew all her life. I’ll call him “Bill.” He was a very stubborn man who refused to follow any of his doctors’ orders. One day he came home and slammed the door of his truck. I went over to see if everything was all right.
“They told me I gotta lower my cholesterol!” he shouted at me. “Dumb bastards!”
“How high did they say your cholesterol is?” I asked.
“They said it’s 890!”
I almost fell over. A total cholesterol level of 240 is considered extremely high.
“Well, I don’t believe in cholesterol!” Bill yelled and stomped into his house.
As far as I can tell, he had at least ten strokes from that day on. When they put the old sailor in the nursing home, he demolished his room and had to be sedated. Nobody’s said how he’s doing, but it can’t be good. They got rid of all his furniture by simply putting it out on the sidewalk. People came and carted it away. What I mean is, scavengers came with pickup trucks.
After everything was gone, a small object was left in the driveway. It was the broken-off leg of a 1960s-vintage sofa.
I keep it as a reminder. It’s healthy to accept that you won’t live forever. That knowledge can’t help but make you a more responsible citizen and a nicer person. If you don’t let it scare or anger you.
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