I don’t know if this was because the kitchen facilities were rudimentary enough there that anything disposable was valued, or whether it was because my grandparents had apparently acquired a lifetime supply of these particular placemats and no one wanted to use them at home so the cabin was a good place to keep them. But for my entire childhood, these placemats signified a meal at the cabin, regardless of who was sharing that meal – whether it was just my family of five on one of our occasional faux-camping forays up to the mountains; or the annual summer gathering of cousins and aunts and uncles and grandparents; or a special time hosting out-of-town visitors, for whom a cookout at the cabin was a necessary part of any visit to Colorado.
But after my grandparents were both gone and the Forest Service appropriated ownership of the cabin, there were still copious quantities of unused placemats. My mother took a stack and had them laminated. I keep one of those laminated placemats and use it as a protective surface for my computer during the summer months when I work at the table in the backyard.
It's one of those iconic pieces of memorabilia with no intrinsic value – indeed, it’s a sheet of paper that could be reproduced endlessly on a color printer – but it contains so much memory value. Yet its origins puzzle me. Someone put together the artwork for this placemat decades before the existence of desktop publishing, so it must have been a fair amount of work. Presumably it was a marketing piece of some sort, promoting the existence of family cattle ranches in Colorado, and yet I can find only one reference to an organization on the entire placemat: the “Auxiliary of Cattlemen’s Association” in the introductory blurb preceding the recipes. Who created this piece, how was it distributed, and how did my grandparents come to own seemingly thousands of them? Was it something they ordered, and if so, why in such enormous quantities? Or was it sent to them, perhaps in return for trade group membership, the way charities send address labels in return for donations? But again, why so many?
As kids we loved to read the different brands, as well as the names of the towns in Colorado where all the different ranches were located. To this day, there are dozens of towns in Colorado I’ve never heard of, despite having traveled to the state nearly every year of my life. The first order of business, of course, was always locating our own family’s brand, the Mill Iron S symbol used to mark my grandparents’ cattle at Red Butte Ranch in Aspen. (Hint: It’s in the bottom row.)
Even though I have the laminated placemat in my kitchen now and can look at it every day, it still brings back vivid sensory memories of the cabin. The smell of wood smoke in the fireplace; the furriness of the cowhide rug under my bare feet; the sound of the whitewater rapids rushing by just beyond the deck outside; the taste of an icy cold can of soda lifted from the wooden barrel filled with spring water kept outside the door. And with sensory memories come more visceral ones, like the excited hilarity of our annual multigenerational “family skit night” at the cabin – one of the best evenings of the year, as far as I was concerned.
These are the kinds of objects that make my memoir clients’ accounts of their lives most vivid, and they are also the artifacts that help us most to remember. Some are valuable heirlooms; some are functional household items; some are as trivial as a paper placemat produced by the thousands. Quotidian as it may be, when I look at this placemat, I remember the cabin.
Are there items in your household that bring you immediately to another time and place? Have you written down those memories? If not, please do! Need help getting started? Be in touch any time to discuss your memoir ideas: NancySWest@gmail.com.