Treasure Trysts presents memoir moments triggered by a gift box containing old photos, one of which was an old photograph of herself taken in 1964 by a Mendocino garbage collector who went by the name of Scrib.
This is Susan’s second piece as Guest Writer. Her first was The Auto-Body Connection.
© All Rights Reserved. Susan Canavarro.
This week I received a meaningful and thoughtful gift from my stepmother Lois. The treasure box was full of old photos of my father’s paintings, a few 8×10 photos of me, a 1972 letter to the editor written by Dad concerning the construction of a nuclear power plant in Point Arena on the California Coast, and a small booklet of pen and ink and watercolor sketches by my sister Veneé. After discovering the gifts inside this box, tears rolled down my blotchy-rosacea cheeks for thirty minutes or more.
You may ask why this gift moved me so strongly, but perhaps first, before telling the story of the package and its contents, I need to tell you a bit about my life prior to this point—specifically, my kinetic life after my marriage dissolved.
In the summer of 1987 I packed my car with as many of my “things” as I could stuff into it, said a tearful goodbye to my husband and drove off. Caught the ferry to Anacortes and drove all the way to Monterey. This break-up was not the first. I had left several times before but always came back. Ultimately, I felt like I was going crazy and that leaving was the only solution. If I were on my own, I could finally be my own person, not a wife and not an emotionally distraught step-mother. To some degree, that came about when I left this last time, especially after I reentered college.
With only what I could carry in my car, I left everything behind. I had to start anew. Get an apartment, get a job, and buy all new bed and blankets, and chairs and kitchen equipment. I virtually lived on the floor of my apartment in Monterey for months.
Along the way, after leaving my husband and after a half-assed attempt to get back together again, I moved several times. I moved to Chico to go to school, from there to San Jose for graduate school, then on the Monterey to be close to my demented mother who died one week after I moved, and then I moved north to Fort Bragg. From Fort Bragg I moved east to Sacramento, and then finally on up to Florence, Oregon. With each move I downgraded my living situation and I gave away more of my possessions and wound up buying more items again, like beds and chairs and computers, etc., only to have to give them away upon my next move. Here in Florence I had to move out of my first good apartment and into a small, narrow, cold, and moldy old travel trailer. Out of necessity, I got rid of more things and bought lots of plastic to cover all the non-thermal-pane windows. Finally after 3 years in the funky trailer, I was old enough to get into low-income senior housing, where I’ve been since early 2009, with only one move to a downstairs unit, and in the process of that last move and all its attending frustrations, I tossed many more things into the dumpster. Those things held memories of bad relationships and difficult times. I let go of a lot anger in the process.
But, in 2003, before moving to Florence, I planned for the real possibility that I might actually become homeless and have to live in my car behind some lonely and/or isolated gas station. I gave my brand new bed and other furnishings to Salvation Army; I gave several framed paintings and a Futon sofa/bed to my good friends in Merced—I should say they were gracious to take my paintings off my hands. I gave away my top-notch stereo system to the son of a friend who had done some work repairing my PC. I gave my desktop PC to him also. I gave away my smaller portable record player used for folk dancing sessions and all of my dance music and notes. All of my precious art books, collected and well-used for over 27 years, I donated to the Sacramento Fine Arts Center to do with what they pleased. I gave away my first drawing and painting table and stool, purchased when I had finally gotten my first dedicated artist studio in our 2500 square foot house on Orcas Island. I gave away all the large and heavy items I knew I could not carry in my car.
I entrusted into the care of my sister our family photo album, consisting of pictures of our childhood years with photos representing us through all the grades on into high school and in all the front yards of our many lived-in houses; photos of our parents when they were younger and celebrating their marriage with a photo taken at a Hollywood lounge; pictures of our automobiles, pictures of grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins and friends, and pictures of our family dogs and cats and chickens and roosters and ducks and nasty angry geese that we had cared for over the years; images of my mother’s garden before it and she became ravaged by dementia. Images, each representing a miniscule part of who I was and who I’ve become, given away when I gave custody of those items to my sister in 2003 just before my final trip north. I also entrusted to her my wedding album which not only included pictures of our wedding in one of Dad’s unfinished houses, but also pictures of the husband’s family, all our Christmases spent with his brothers and sisters, his mother, pictures of our stepson, and his growing years; Christmases on Carmel beach at the mouth of the Carmel River on cool, blue-sky sunny days.
I knew Veneé would take care of these photo albums. She had done an extensive genealogical study of our family and had been tacitly elected as the family archivist. Little did I know at the time that she would be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2008. Dreams gone, lost, dead, buried in the dark depths of my sister’s subsequent struggle with Alzheimer’s. I have no idea what happened to all of her things, to the family albums and to the book she had created about our family history.
I loaded my car up with a new laptop so I could stay in touch with people, and my clothing, a few kitchen items, a small TV, paintings and art supplies, and drove to Florence. I shipped six boxes of books via UPS, so they could haul them up the stairs for me! I made three trips with my car loaded with small items. Again, I lived off the floor in my new Oregon apartment. I slept on an air mattress, ate and worked at my simple portable table. I bought an unfinished door and placed it across two plastic light-weight saw horses and this became my new painting table with a high art stool.
Along each step of the way, with each looming move, I gave up more of my precious belongings. It was just stuff you might say. You can buy more stuff when you get settled somewhere, you might say. That may be true, but only if one had the extra money to do so. After moving to Florence, I didn’t. And you cannot replace all those old photos if they disappear into a black hole. Due to financial necessity, I had adjusted to living light, to living without my old belongings and without much new stuff, but I felt the loss. I not only lost my husband to his errant ways, but I lost the stuff of my life. At each step of the way I gave away a bit of my self, never to be found again, except in memories, and those were fading fast.
When Lois’ package arrived this week filled with old photos of Dad’s paintings and sketches, photos of me learning how to throw a pot on the potter’s wheel, and of my sister’s wonderful watercolor sketches, and the insightful and revealing letter to the editor written by my father in 1972, it opened a flood gate letting loose the waters—I was awash with memories and emotions. I remembered who I was when I was 17, 18 and 19— that trusting, fresh, young spirit—and it reminded me of long losses of time between then and now at age 66, but I am so pleased to have these old images filling in my memory gaps.
In the old brown portfolio were several 8×10 black and white photos of me. One, an image of my face as I leaned against the upstairs window sash looking out of an old abandoned building in Mendocino. My eyes, shielded by lowered eyelids and dark lashes, looked down at Scrib the garbage collector as he pointed his camera at me. A professional photographer, yet he supported his family by collecting garbage and hauling it off to the bluffs and dumping the trash into the ocean and on to the rocks. For decades that’s how the north coast folks got rid of their garbage.
I wrote about Scrib in my memoir Fragments: Growing Up Bohemian Poor in Dementia’s House:
There I was in 1964, not yet 18, in Mendocino at my father’s place, insecure and on the brink of a breakdown for fear of being unlovable. So what do I do? I fall in love with the married garbage man. I had a thing about falling in love with unavailable men—married, gay or just plain emotionally, physically or intellectually unavailable.
Charismatic, intelligent and witty, Scrib drove a large green garbage truck. In those days detritus was garbage and recycling non-existent, but for dumping it all back into the sea from whence we all came. Scrib backed the old rusty truck up to the edge of the bluffs just off Main Street and tipped the bucket, spilling garbage on to the rocks and sand 100 feet below. Ultimately, all of it dispersed by the ocean’s crashing waves.
Even though I knew he was married and had two kids, I flirted with him. He didn’t seem to mind. When he was not acting the garbage man, he was a fine art photographer, a writer and poet. We had trysts in derelict buildings that dotted Mendocino. He shot many photographs of me standing in front of open doors and windows in the streaking dust-filled sunlight. With long brown hair and hazel-green eyes, I was his Rapunzel, flaunting my sexuality, enticing my prince of a trash collector to climb the blackberry vines and pick me. Choose me, my heart called out. Save me! Save me!
After I moved to Santa Rosa to attend Junior College, Scrib surprised me by showing up at the motel where I was staying. My roommates were a bit surprised that the quiet and shy Susan had an older boyfriend. However it appeared, though, ours was only a brief summer platonic encounter. My romance with Scrib was seemingly innocent and safe. We were sexually attracted to each other, but no sex beyond kissing. I trusted him implicitly. He was married. I didn’t have to make a commitment, nor did he. We both knew this and we both knew it was morally wrong.
I missed seeing Scrib, I missed his attentions and pined for him after he left that day, but I very quickly fell in love with another unavailable man—oh so cool Dan, a Santa Rosa guitar player/folk singer.
My relationship with Scrib remained platonic probably because at age 17, I knew nothing about sexual matters, and of course, he knew I was too young.
I thought Scrib’s photos of me were lost. To see one of them again was a sweet treat. It brings back my carefree summer salad days in 1964 -1967 Mendocino. Whether I want to or not, I recall all the young men I flirted with and dreamed about, for whom I pined and suffered countless hurts: Scrib the married garbage man and a photographer who took many photos of me on our secret trysts; Philip the writer and poet who once wrote me a love poem that I carried in my wallet for over 25 years; Dan the coffee-house singer and guitarist I stalked at the Santa Rosa Coffee house and as fate would have it, whom I sat next to on the bus to San Francisco and thus began our brief encounter; the fishermen boys from UC Berkeley, John a pianist and Gil a classical guitarist, both students wigged out on pot and other drugs and the Beatles and now gone; then on to beautiful and handsome Peter, a counselor at a youth camp near Philo and stealing away together in the middle of the night to climb down the bluffs on the Bodega coast; and Russell the intellectual with his blond hair falling in his eyes, his rough pock-marked face oh so serious yet smiling at me in the Caffe Mediterraneum living in his tiny purple Berkeley apartment with the orange kitchen, and who cared for me when I needed caring; and Lee the blonde film student from San Francisco State who created a short film with me and a young man running through the dappled sunlit forest to a romantic tryst—after all these years, I now understand this proverbial love scene has been used by many film students and commercial movies. Not very original.
In 1968 another John showed up in my life in Pacific Grove. He enlisted and went to Vietnam soon after we met and came home married to a Vietnamese woman. The man I married, Antonio who played classical guitar and with whom I had secret liaisons at the Monterey Peninsula Cemetery was married and his wife was wont to show up on campus. I knew all along that if he would cheat on his wife with me, he would eventually find others while we were married, but in my bliss, I ignored all the signs.
It’s a long tragic list for which I do have a few fond memories and many unpleasant and embarrassing moments. I was cute, flirtatious and alluring and I easily became infatuated with every man who crossed my path. A romantic addict, I wanted to be loved and to be in love. I often wonder how I survived. What strength I must have had to survive that time of hippies and drugs, innocence and ignorance without becoming a drug or alcohol addict? How did I survive falling in love so many times yet remain so naïve and trusting? Or was it that I was too frightened to get drawn into all that free love and sex, and the reckless lifestyle of drugs? I often think all of my neurotic fears saved me. They kept me out of serious trouble!
© All Rights Reserved. Susan Canavarro.