Her first memory was buying something. When she was a young child her family had taken many camping trips, and she loved picking up and touching everything in the little souvenir shops. The shops were mostly for campers to pick up the odd loaf of bread, or sticks to roast hot dogs on and bags of charcoal, but the souvenirs were the real draw for Mina. The little rock collections were especially attractive. They had been polished and were smooth and shiny, and Mina loved stroking them. They had sweatshirts and tee shirts too with the name of the park on them.
Campers inevitably didn’t plan ahead for doing laundry, or for colder nights. The campground laundry rooms were always too small and not very clean. Sometimes campers would go into town for a bigger laundromat so they could get done quicker. But in the shops, she herself coveted the birch bark canoes, and loved to smell the cedar boxes. She didn’t really want one, as they had dumb sayings on them. They just smelled good. One of them was a box with a solid block for the bottom, that said, “For the man who has nothing, here’s a box to put it in.”
On one occasion, her sister Gina bought an Eskimo doll with a real rabbit fur coat. Mina bought a tiny canoe, consoling herself that she would get the large one later. And then she saw the “magic tricks.” Her attention was drawn by a “pendulum” that was supposed to answer all your questions truthfully. This was so fascinating because, as a young child, people never wanted to answer her questions. This could give her a measure of control over something, though she didn’t yet really understand what that meant. She remembered that a cousin had a magic set and she always seemed very on top of things. She wondered if there was a connection there. She turned back to the register and bought that too.
She enjoyed other things about camping. It wasn’t just the fun gift shops. She climbed trees and took hikes by herself. At her favorite state park she loved to sit on a bridge or at the top of the dam and just let her mind wander. It didn’t really go very far, though. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that she let her mind go blank. When she thought back to those days, she was so glad she’d never seen a bear, out hiking in the woods by herself like she did. Back then the state parks had nature programs for families who were camping, and she really enjoyed the outdoors.
Anyway, back to the pendulum. She practiced as they rode in the car on the way to the next stop. At some point, they were to see the 1967 World’s Fair in Montreal, but it was a long drive while sitting too close in a car with no air conditioning. Rather than looking out the window at the scenery, or the funny little old fashioned towns they passed through, she asked the little ball some questions. Sometimes they saw antelope and one time even a buffalo. But her brothers were in the way and she couldn’t really see out the window. They sat four across in the back seat of the aqua blue sedan, and because she was the smallest, she had to sit in the middle, and straddle the “hump.”
So first she had to determine which way her pendulum would swing for yes and which way for no. Then she was ready for all her secrets to be revealed! The directions indicated she should ask a question that could be answered either yes or no, one to which she knew the answer. “Am I wearing a red sweater?” she asked.
Her brothers doubled over with laughter. “Shut up!” she demanded. “I’m concentrating.” This only made them laugh harder and she had no choice but to ignore them. “Am I wearing a red sweater?!” she asked in a somewhat more compelling voice. The pendulum began to swing towards her, and then away. Toward, and away. “That must be yes!” she exclaimed. Her sister rolled her eyes. “You ask it something,” she encouraged Gina.
“OK,” said Gina. “Will my sister ever grow up?”
“Will I get another cat?” Mina asked silently in her head. The pendulum said yes.
The boys thought this was about the funniest thing they’d ever heard. Mina kept to herself for the rest of the ride. But the pendulum was the very beginning of her attempts to gain a measure of control over her life. She loved collecting things, and loved putting them in special little boxes. When the boxes were full, she put things in drawers. As she grew older, she put things in larger boxes. Every time she moved, she had crates full of books that she always took with her to support her love of reading. There had even been a secret panel in the floor in her room at home where she could hide small items.
As they toured across the Northwest and Canada, she saw Indians, as they called them back then. The Indian souvenir shops were always the best. Beaded articles, soft leather moccasins, and rabbit fur pelts. Of course, they weren’t from India, and later they were called Native Americans, First Nation, or aboriginals. She thought it would be fun to be an “Indian” and wear moccasins, walk in the woods in each other’s footsteps to avoid detection by the enemy, and shoot arrows. When she was camping, she often made little villages out of birch bark and sticks and stones.
As a little girl, she liked to keep to herself and play by herself. She thought it was normal and she liked the quiet. When they were home she liked to go to play in the woods, or as she got older she had a few friends, but was still not considered especially popular. Her beautiful soft cat was her best companion and would follow her around hoping for a lick of her candy. She hiked in the nearby woods and pretended she was on a survival mission.
Her father worked long hours and her mother stayed at home unless she had church functions to attend or clubs that she joined with her husband. Mina and Gina’s mother loved to bake and cook for her family. So the children would play outside or in their rooms, and they learned early on to clean the house. They didn’t often have friends over, but when Mina did, she tried to form clubs of which she was the leader. The clubs usually disbanded when the members couldn’t think of a good purpose for joining together. They tried to write stories, and a girl from down the street wrote about aliens who stole her family’s deodorant. But she did have a lilac maze in her yard that seemed magical and wonderful, especially when it was in bloom with its intoxicating scented lavender flowers. And for her fifth birthday, she had received her big yellow cat.
Mina noticed smells. When she was in elementary school, there was some green sawdust-like stuff that the janitor would use for sweeping the floors. She was not sure why, but it had a funny smell that was sort of like chemicals mixed with sweat. She realized later that may have been the janitor. There was a smell of rubber balls and floor wax in the gym, sometimes with a whiff of leftover potluck food. She remembered the fresh smell of the lake where she went to church camp in the summer, and the smell of a gas furnace, cigarette smoke, and pressure cooked chicken that all combined to smell like her grandparents’ house. Upstairs in the attic at her grandparents’ were old hats to try on, and a doorway that led nowhere but down, in a hurry. The door was nailed shut so the grandchildren would not fall and get hurt, or worse.
One of her favorite smells was the candy store downtown. The scents of all her favorite candies mixed together to smell sickeningly sweet, but in a way that delighted children. She remembered throughout her life the pressed tin ceiling, the big display windows, the marble counters, and the open bins of candy that were sold by the pound. Maple sugar leaves, sugar babies, and coconut neopolitans were staples and so delicious. Scented candles were a favorite of hers too. She had to be very careful with the candles, of course, but enjoyed strong scents like patchouli, rose, or vanilla.
As Mina became a teenager, she developed a love of perfume. She bought cheap Avon perfume from her friend’s mom, or the “teen” fragrances from the drugstore. At one point, she had 20 or so different bottles of fragrance. Her mother thought she should use them up before buying more and just did not understand. Mina did not understand then why some of her old favorites were discontinued--Love’s Baby Soft that smelled like baby powder, and Love’s Ambergris which was supposedly made from a waxy substance found in whales, something like musk.
Later she realized the perfume companies, and probably all companies, were constantly changing their product mix to entice impulsive people like herself to buy all the latest things. As a loner, she was not really in tune with the latest fashions, and just wanted to dress like her friends because if they liked a certain jacket, it must be right, and she just did not have the self-esteem to set her own style.
Family members were especially cruel at times--like about the pendulum when she was a child-and she tried to make herself invisible, like she had read in a book was possible. She thought of the Simon and Garfunkel song, “I am a Rock.” It was like that. I am an island, she thought. Bargain shopping for things makes me feel more worthy. If I have cool things, then I must be cool by association, she thought. But she would buy things and they wouldn’t quite work out. She didn’t really have a plan, just wanted to buy everything she liked that she cast her eyes on. She loved the little hippie shops downtown with their black light posters, hand made pictures and cards, and so much cheap jewelry. She had dozens of pairs of earrings and wore them to school every day. She loved leather bound books and bought them, even though she worked at the public library. It was as if owning the books validated her as belonging among the intelligentsia.
You could learn so much from books. Why, she had even read encyclopedias at a very young age, afraid to touch the pages with pictures of ants and other bugs, shuddering at the thought, but she couldn’t look away either. But it was as a teenager, with the perfume and the books and the earrings, that something shifted. She became reluctant to use some of her best things, because they had cost so much, and she knew she couldn’t afford to replace them. She would stock up on fancy shampoo, or another bottle of perfume, and then fear running out, because if they gave her worth, she could not risk being caught without them.
She went on a long time like this, collecting ornate boxes. Sometimes she didn’t even put anything in them. She was so timid. She couldn’t make decisions even about her own life. So she just acquired things she liked and things she thought should have sentimental value. She had a candy tin her grandmother had given her, a carved wood box of the type made and sold cheaply in India, a miniature cedar chest all the girls received in high school, and the cookie tin her grandparents had had in the back entry cabinet. Was it a treasure obsession, and she loved all her little treasures? She had even had a wooden antique crate that she had painted pink with colorful flowers on it to stash her diaries and her other private items in her playhouse, which she still used as a teenager as a place to camp out overnight in the backyard. She wrote poetry back then, non-rhyming love poems mostly, and some poems about melancholia.