Monday, May 26, 2008

Coffee, Tea, Madeleines, and Memory

Every morning of my life, my first cup of coffee reminds me of my grandmother, and the year I spent with her after I returned from five years in Taiwan, and while I waited for my father to return from his posting in England.

Gram always got up before me, even on school days, and made coffee. None of the fancy stuff--Maxwell House out of a can--and no fancy brewing technique--just a Farberware percolator. The results were strong and aromatic: coffee smell. I'd almost invariably wake up then, and join her for a cup liberally doused with milk and (then) laced with sugar; it was probably more like "coffee milk" with which my other grandmother treated me almost from infancy, with a bit of doughnut for dunking. I gradually weaned myself from the sugar (Gram drank hers black), but never could do without the milk.

I'm always amused, too, when I go to Starbucks these days for my usual nonfat latte and occasionally grab a pack of madeleines for the trip to school. This combination almost always leads to my turning off the radio and letting my mind go wherever it wants to, instead of listening to NPR for news on the latest catastrophic event.

So Proust's tea-and-madeleine experience is essentially universal, although most people are not eloquent enough to write huge tomes about memories that engage readers for nearly a century. He died the year after my father was born, and the year my house was built (I'm great at finding connections that mean absolutely nothing).

This morning, the combination of fresh coffee (freshly-ground Ruta Maya organic, filtered through a Cuisinart into a carafe that keeps it hot but doesn't over-cook it; still, my tastes have changed very little) and the memory of my grandmother carried me further: to her Memorial Day tradition of gathering flowers and taking them from her house to the family plot in the Big Pine cemetery, thirty miles north. Gram didn't care for cut flowers in the house, claiming that they were better off and would last longer in the garden where they belonged, but on Memorial Day she'd pick everything then blooming: sweet peas, honeysuckle, trumpet vine, and put them in a huge bucket with enough water to keep them from wilting during the trip.

I can still remember the ride north, with the windows open in the Chevy ('57, I think; she later got herself a souped up Chevy Nova). In the high desert, mornings are cool and crisp no matter how hot it gets later in the day. By the time we left the cemetery, it was already warming up, and we were tempted to stay there under the trees. But there were always things to get done, so after a couple of hours of stories about folks buried there, we headed home and the ride back was a little quieter than the ride up. Although I didn't live with her after that year, except during summer vacations, I made the Memorial Day trip several other times during my life, and I'm pretty sure we took my children once--even though they were probably too young then to remember. They've been back, of course, when we buried her ashes and later those of my father. And my one true regret in life now is that I don't live close enough to go up there every year with flowers for her.

On this memorial day, I wanted to note my family's "collection" of veterans in that cemetery. Thanks to, I've now got access to various military records that help fill in some gaps, and I recommend that folks take advantage of this treasure trove if they've got vets of their own.

My father's father, Ira Uhlmeyer, fought in World War I, and his participation in that particular war made possible my enrollment at the University of California, Riverside. I received a La Verne Noyes Scholarship, available only to direct descendants of veterans of WWI. Were it not for that scholarship, I doubt if I'd been able to spend the summer working in my home town (for less than minimum wage at a local frosty shop), and would have had to find better-paying work nearer the college. As it was, I got by with the summer gig in Lone Pine, and a work-study job on campus. At any rate, here's my grandfather's draft card (click for a larger view):

My father, Thomas William Uhlmeyer, served in the Army Air Corps during the second World War, and later joined the newly formed U. S. Air Force and served during both the Korean and Viet Nam "conflicts." He retired after 23 years as a Senior Master Sergeant, never having had the ambition to become an officer because he loved what he did and going to officer candidate school would require changing jobs. Always the raconteur, Daddy wrote down his Pacific theater experiences in WWII, and as soon as I get my scanner working, I'll start publishing them here--complete with pictures.

My cousin Eddie Uhlmeyer (eldest son of grandfather's brother Charles) joined the Army during Viet Nam, but was stationed in Germany for most of his enlistment. He died in an auto accident not long after his discharge, and is also buried in the Big Pine cemetery. Eddie and I got to know one another the summer before I started college, and I still miss him. Like most Uhlmeyer men, he had a terrific sense of humor and was fun to be around.

And so today, as I linger over my coffee, I'm remembering these three men in particular, as well as Ralph Hoard (mentioned previously). I may be a pacifist under the skin, but even those of us who think there are better ways to solve problems than by killing one another appreciate the job our soldiers have done on our behalf. Many of my current students are Iraq and Afghanistan vets. I'm glad they made it back, and I worry every day about the ones who are still "over there." Another of my students recently lost her brother in Iraq, and I can only begin to imagine what today must be like for her family. But as long as people haven't managed to figure out how to keep political conflicts from erupting into war, and as long as we remain mortal, remembering our dead one day a year is the least we can do.

I hope somebody's remembering Proust today, too.

Photos: My grandfather's draft card, courtesy; Proust's grave in the Père-Lachaise cemetery in Paris, taken by Paul Louis, from Wikimedia Commons.

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