Funkybutt clip courtesy of Juli Berg and Candace Corelli.
Music by Blue Dot Sessions and UltraCat, via a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial License. Songs used: “A Palace of Cedar” and “Scalloped” (Blue Dot Sessions) and Disco High (UltraCat)
“This is Roller Skating” by The Roller Skating Foundation of America (public domain, Mark 1)
Roller skating rink ambient sounds from SoundSnap (www.soundsnap.com).
Is there this one thing that you can’t throw away or wish you hadn’t thrown because it had some kind of meaning for you that was connected to another person or an experience?
Well, that’s what we’re going to talk about here on Mementos – so thank you for joining me, Lori Mortimer, your host, on this first episode.
We’re going to explore the personal meaning and deeper stories behind the items people keep. What makes an ordinary item a memento?
Not collectibles, but individual items that are really containers of meaning. Items that hold memories, they hold stories, emotions, and sometimes raise questions that will never, ever be answered.
The idea for this podcast sprouted after my mother died and I had to empty her house.
About three days before Habitat for Humanity was coming to take what was left, I came across one particular item that threw me for a loop.
What I found was something that had belonged to my mom when she was an adolescent and which I didn’t know she owned. At that point, I’d already cleaned out every closet, every cabinet, every kitchen drawer. I had looked in every pocket of every coat and every pair of pants and every skirt. I had literally touched every item inside the house and had had decided its fate.
So I started working in the garage.
And I was digging in this back corner underneath the stairs to the garage attic. So I had I pulled out the shop vac, and I found my brother’s old chain saw in there. And Behind that, I found my dad’s old manual typewriter, and that was a pretty cool thing to find.
And then I saw this wooden box. It wasn’t very big, maybe a foot by a foot square, maybe about 8 inches tall.
I crouched down to move further under the stair with that sloping ceiling.
So I reached and I grabbed it by its handle, and I slid it toward me across the floor. It was just covered in dust, and near the handle, it had a brass latch on the front.
I honestly had no idea what was in it. I had never seen this box before.
It was clearly old, because nothing comes in a wooden box like that anymore.
So I brushed away the dust and I opened it up.
And inside was a pair of white leather roller skates.
And they had wooden wheels and wooden stoppers on the front.
And I just didn’t know my mother owned these.
At this point, I had found a lot of personal things. I mean, but this … there was sobbing.
There was wailing. There was snot. I mean, I just lost it.
But why? I mean, it’s roller skates.
I think it was a lot of things, right? I think it was, you know, she had only just died a couple of months earlier. And there was then all the pressure to go through everything, to sell the house, and to get rid of so much personal stuff.
But I really think that what I saw when I looked in that box was that the person who died wasn’t a 74-year-old woman. It was my grandmother’s daughter.
I think that’s what hit me. My grandmother’s only child just passed away. And my grandmother most likely gave her those skates.
My grandfather died in 1944, when my mother was 2 and a half. And my grandmother, who had to find a job immediately, started working two weeks later. But she made very little money.
On Fridays, all she had left was a nickel to take the bus to work. And she needed her paycheck, so that at the end of the day, she had bus fair back home.
So these roller skates must have been an extravagance for the only child of a single mother.
She was, of course, a child I never knew. So the roller skates are like this connection to my parent as a child who I could have never known as a child.
When I saw the roller skates, I imagined the teenage version of her. I had also just recently found a picture of her as an adolescent, which I imagined to be of the same vintage as the skates.
It’s like she’s totally doofy in this picture. It’s like her eyes are closed, and she’s got this big goofy smile. And so I picture that girl in those roller skates at the roller rink in the 1950s wearing a poodle skirt with a white blouse with a little scarf around her neck.
Male voice: This is roller skating, America’s favorite fun sport, a wholesome year-round recreation. Teenagers rate it tops for exciting fun and for wholesome recreation. Wholesome sport for all ages. Wholesome, outdoor fun, wholesome, wholesome, wholesome.
We are convinced that on the American scene, one of the most potent ways of attaining fitness is by well administered.
Lori: Huh. I wonder what he’s going to say.
Male voice: Wholesome
Male voice: Healthy sport.
Lori: But I roller skated in the 70s, and it’s different in the 70s. We’re talking roller disco, we’re talking shaking your booty, we’re talking tight pants, guys, with the shirts unbuttoned all the way down to their navel. Roller disco was a thing.
My friend Juli even made an homage to roller disco with her senior project in film school.
It’s called Funkybutt. The tragic story of an aging one-hit-wonder roller disco queen.
My mom’s roller skates really got me thinking about these sort of parallel experiences that my mother and I had decades apart. And like parallel lines, they kind of went along the same path, but our streams never crossed.
I remember what it was like to be a 13- or 14-year-old girl going roller skating, and that feeling of, oh, thank God, it’s all-skate. It’s not couples’ skate, it’s not guys’ choice. Where I have to stand there like a big dork with pimples and sweaty palms feeling all awkward, probably smelly too, and wondering if some boy who I didn’t even know was gonna come by with his sweaty hand and ask me to skate.
And then you’ve got that issue of, like, how do I hold hands? Is it like gonna be like that interlocking finger handhold? What are we doing here?
I wonder if my mother had similar experiences when she went skating. Was she also a dork standing there waiting for some boy to pick her?
I mean, who … who thought this was a good idea?
When I think of roller skating, I think of the most awkward and least confident period of my life. And like a lot of people, I am okay with mostly burying memories of my adolescent social life. You won’t find me keeping my old roller skates.
But my mom kept hers. For about 60 years.
My mother had a few catchphrases. She’d say things like, “If it had teeth, it would bite you.” “Because I said so.”
And this uncomfortable nugget:
“Herpes is forever.”
One of her other catchphrases was, “I’m not your friend, I’m your mother.”
And what that meant was, at least to me, there were just certain subjects or conversations we wouldn’t broach. There were certain opinions or thoughts or experiences I was just never going to be able to share.
And that kinda makes sense for big topics or for difficult topics to talk about.
But roller skating? She had told me she used to roller skate in our basement when my older brother and I were little. That’s how young she was when she was already married and living in the suburbs with two kids.
I mean, did your mom roller skate in the basement?
I’m thinking she was wearing those white roller skates, too. Which if you think about it, would have been only 9 or 10 years old at the time.
I have no memories of seeing her skating. And I have no memories of skating with her. I also did roller skate. We just never went skating together.
One of the things that struck me about finding her roller skates was they had already made the cut and followed my mother three times in her life. Once when she got married and moved in with my dad. Once a couple of years later when they bought our house.
And then once again, over 40 years later, after my father died and when she sold the house and moved into the last house she owned. I helped her clean out the old house, and I never saw these skates. She remembered them. She brought them with her to the new house.
Did she keep them because they reminded her of her mom? Did she keep them because they connected her to her best friend growing up, who she must have skated with? Did she keep them because she remembered skating in our basement when she was a young mother? I have no idea.
So the skates, I guess, are kind of like my connection to my mom when she was a young girl. They’re attached to memories. They’re not my memories. They’re her memories. It’s like I’m keeping her memories, which I don’t even know anything about, alive.
Remember, folks, herpes is forever, but not our moms.
Next time on Mementos, we’re going to hear from Karen Krolak. SHe’s gonna tell us about the handmade item that connects her and her dad and why it’s so important that she holds on to it.
Music in this episode was provided by Blue Dot Sessions and UltraCat under a Creative Commons attribution license.
Funkybutt clip courtesy of my OG, Juli Berg, and Candace Correlli.
If you like what you heard in this episode, there’s more to come. Just click that little subscribe button on your podcast player so you don’t miss a thing.
There are so many people to recognize and thank for this podcast’s existence. First of course is my husband, Steve. Steve, you’re my everything. Thank you.
There’s also the community and staff at the PRX Podcast Garage. It all started there two years ago last August and I haven’t looked back.
It’s safe to say that without the amazingly supportive Boston audio community, I would have never gotten this far.
We’ll see you next time on Mementos.
Mom:Hi there. Happy birthday. Sorry I didn’t get you earlier, but I was at a conference, so I will try you later because I do want to talk to you on your birthday. But it’s a beautiful day in New Jersey, just like that day 50 years ago when you were born. So I hope you’re having a good day, doing something that you want to do, and having fun. And know that I love you, honey. Bye bye.
Lori: I love you too, Mom. Bye.