encyclopedia letterEnclosed you will find your copy of the 1959 Britannica BOOK OF THE YEAR … This handsome book provides you with unbiased, accurate information on every important phase of world affairs. It enables you to discuss current events and world developments with authority …

At my mother’s urging, my parents stretched their meager budget to buy a set of encyclopedias just before I was born. The set was given away years ago, but I kept the 1959 Book of the Year documenting the state of the world the year I was born. I recently cracked it open, and out fell bundles of memories.

Michael and I went to dinner at Mom and Dad’s house last week. All I had to do was ask a few leading questions—prompted by that book—to elicit stories about that time. More than anything, that was the value of the 1959 Book of the Year.

I learned that in 1957 my parents vacationed in Cuba. They drove to Miami from Fort Lee where my dad was stationed, and stayed overnight in a cheap hotel near the beach. The next day they drove to Key West and flew in a tiny plane to Havana. My mother thinks this was the first time she ever flew in a plane. She remembers Havana as inexpensive, old-world elegant, and exotic. They stayed two nights on the third floor of their hotel where there were no screens—only shutters—because, they were told, “the bugs don’t come up this high.”

They took a bus tour out to the countryside, were offered (and declined) undercooked chicken, visited a walled fortress, and ate at a café where there were rumblings about Castro and the revolutionaries holed up in the mountains. After two nights, they returned to their tidy life in Washington, D.C.

jo and darcyFrom the Book of the Year I learned that in 1958, under the rule of Emperor Haile Selassie I, Ethiopia sent a cultural mission to the U.S.S.R. That was the year my father was stationed in Asmara at Kagnew Station, a listening post where the chief aim was to find out what the Russians were up to. I lived there from age six months until my sister Jill was born in 1960.

The encyclopedias went with us, there and back.

When we moved to Washington, D.C from Africa, we lived on south post at Fort Myer, now part of Arlington Cemetery. During the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, my mom received instructions: she was to keep our Opel station wagon’s gas tank full at all times, and if “anything happened” she was to load me and my sister Dana into the car, plus the footlocker with emergency supplies that was kept on our back porch, and drive as far as she could get on a tank of gas on the Henry G. Shirley Highway away from the city. “Of course everyone else would be doing the same thing. The highways were already always clogged. It was kind of a joke,” she said at dinner the other night. “You don’t get to kiss your husband goodbye. You just go.”

My dad went to Korea in 1964 and then to Vietnam in 1968. Mom was head of household when he was away on tour. When he came home we all had to adjust, but her adjustment was greater. My sisters and I coasted along, mostly oblivious to world events and our parents’ hardships.

Two dear friends from my college days visited this past weekend. We hadn’t seen each other for 35 years. I drove them out to Winslow and up to Grand Canyon, all of us talking a mile a minute for hours at a time. Tamara was the first person I ever knew who made the trip west, well before I moved to Flagstaff. In 1977 she visited the Hopi mesas, hiked to Havasu Falls and visited the Museum of Northern Arizona. Her memories influenced how she saw the place; we witnessed her younger self revive her current self as we drove through the landscape.

Mindy hadn’t ever been to the southwest, and she saw the place with fresh eyes. As chief archivist, she also brought an old photo of the two of us on our way to a costume party in 1979. My fresh face stared out from under a hat I’d inherited from my granddaddy, and I remembered being that young woman: hopeful, certain and unabashedly free. I don’t remember lots of details of that time, but maybe details don’t matter. Who am I now? Who was I then? How do the two relate?

As I drove home from Phoenix this afternoon I listened to an interview with photographer Sally Mann. ”Using photographs as an instrument of memory is probably a mistake because I think that photographs … impoverish your memory in certain ways …”

And yet sometimes photographs are all we have to construct memories.

These days I talk to my mom and dad several times a week. Mom is a bundle of energy. She walks nearly every morning, does all the cooking and household work. She reads. She watches Jeopardy almost every afternoon. She sews and gardens. She just bought a new Mac computer, and is taking computer lessons every week or two at the Apple store.

I think another woman might have been tempted to become cynical or hard under the circumstances of her life. Did Mom ever lose hope or despair of the state of her life? Those are bigger questions, harder to discuss, and still to be answered.

As Mann pointed out in the interview I listened to this afternoon, photographs only document a split second, not the seconds before or after. We can hide what’s tragic or painful or joyful from the camera for milliseconds. The Book of the Year offers “unbiased, accurate information on every important phase of world affairs and enables you to discuss current events and world developments with authority.”

But what about the bigger questions, and the lasting effects of our kismet?