My friends in their eighties laugh at the notion that I’m old at sixty-seven. Still, how long can one go on being middle-aged? Middle-aged carries all sorts of responsibilities and burdens - working for a living, saving for retirement, caring for teenagers and parents. Old brings freedom and power.
As an old woman, I’m free from hoping that men will find me sexually attractive. When I was younger I was on an everlasting honey-hunt. I dressed and walked and talked to entice the male of the species.
I’m free from trying to be what other people expect me to be. I can’t say I’m free from worrying what other people think - ‘How can she let her daughter dress like that?’ ‘She only reads bits and pieces of the Times’ ‘She doesn’t compost’- but I no longer expect perfection of myself, having long since stopped expecting it of anyone else.
I am aware that when I simply act like myself - blunt, profane, opinionated - some people enjoy it because I don’t fit their notion of sweet old grandma. But as I have told Amanda, who is in middle school and at the painful peak of self-consciousness, the only person who pays much attention to me is me. Everyone else is far too busy worrying about themselves.
As an old woman, I feel powerful despite the crumbling - the whiny joints, hole-y memory and various other ailments. When my hair began to go gray, it was a tweedy pepper and salt. I died it purple for a couple of years, and when I let it grow out it had become a lovely puffy white. Irrationally, I gained confidence from my white hair. I walk into a meeting and believe people think I know what I’m talking about and am worth listening to. This may be delusional; it is contrary to the common notion that old women become invisible.
The world doesn’t want me to call myself old (insofar as it’s paying attention, having rather more pressing matters to attend to.). Huge amounts of internet verbiage are dedicated to avoiding the word. As soon as people find out that one or another synonym means old, and refers to them, they apparently get pissed off and the word becomes verboten in its turn.
I believe people shy away from the word out of fear. Along with freedom and power, aging brings loss. Regardless of what you call it, the last twenty years or so of the journey will have challenges and growth that we never imagined when we were younger.
One of the lesser challenges is how to respond to young people who insist on denying we are old. A waiter recently asked, “And what will the young lady have?” Finally fed up with this sort of thing, I said, “I’m sure you don’t mean to offend, but I’m not a young lady. I’m old.” He actually began to argue. I insisted, “I’m proud to be old,” and he retreated, looking very uncomfortable. I left a good tip to make up for it.
A group of journalists interested in aging issues surveyed 100 journalists about appropriate ways to refer to old people. (They didn’t say whether any of these 100 were nearing 100.) In Words to Age by: a Brief Glossary and Tips on Usage, they came up with guidelines “intended to help journalists represent midlife and older people in socially neutral language that respects their individuality without appending presumptuous labels to them, either directly or indirectly.”
The favorite term was “older.” Than whom, I have to ask? They also approved, with much discussion and many cautions: elder, middle-aged, midlife, boomers, senior. They disapproved of: baby boomers, senior citizen, elderly. After a while of reading all this I stood up and yelled “OLD, OLD, OLD.”
So if I’m rejecting synonyms and euphemisms, and insist on old, is it old lady or old woman?
Hip young men used to refer to a lover as “my old lady.” Though the phrase has a nice musical sound, ‘lady’ belongs to a class system and a set of rules. The concept puts women on a pedestal. It's a great place to be if you want to be revered, but it restricts travel. I never heard those hip young men call themselves gentlemen.
As a young feminist I rejected the sense of ownership, the elitism, and all the strictures that come with the name. My father used to tell me to sit like a lady - ie legs down and closed. A lady doesn’t admit to having genitals, or if she does, she calls them private parts. She doesn’t ever use bad language. Now, as an old feminist, I can’t possibly call myself a lady, since I’ve taken to dressing inappropriately, in warm weather wearing nothing but a caftan all over town, letting my body take the air.
Old woman. The words come to a full stop. The sound is forceful, not flowery. Woman is strong, generative, sexual. Since I stopped being a girl I’ve been a young woman, middle-aged woman, and now I’m happy to call myself old woman.
Old is a proud title. By the time we are old most of us have walked many miles and climbed many mountains. We have survived our own mistakes. We’ve had lots of sorrow and lots of joy, some triumphs and accomplishments. We may have the wisdom to keep regret and pride in proper proportion. We have a lot to think about: our past is a multi-volume novel, and our future looms close with some of the biggest challenges of our life. I am awed, and yes, scared. I know I may have a very hard journey toward the big End. It will be no easier if I try to deny it.
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NEXT POST: NOVEMBER 28
Congratulate me - I am a Parent of a Teenager, or POT. Oh, technically she’s not a teenager - she’ll be just 12 in November. But she’s been well into puberty for a year, and where her body goes, her psyche, behavior and attitude follow.
You know, I’ve done this before. My son, now 44, was once a teenage boy. He did what many boys do - barely spoke to me for several years, and occasionally took my car at night and went Lord knows where. Once he got it stuck in the mud behind a convenience store and the police brought him home. Another time they caught him swimming in the public pool at midnight. He did twenty hours of community service.
Amanda’s mother, now 31, was once a teenage girl. She spoke to me a great deal. She also spoke on the phone a great deal, and I remember our life together as a constant battle to prevent her from using the phone late at night. (This was before cell phones). She ran up over a thousand dollars in phone calls to psychics and sex-chat lines, and I ended by cutting the wires in the phone jack in her room. POTs are sometimes driven to bizarre actions in a desperate and futile attempt to keep some control of the situation.
So here I am on my third go-round. (My stepdaughter Leah doesn’t count, as she lived with her mother, who took the brunt of it.) It should be easier this time, because I’m not doing it alone. All POTs sorely need a woe-sharer and perspective-provider, and Joe is a most magnificent partner. On the other hand, I’m 67, and have been heard to mutter, “I’m too old for this shit.”
Many parents turn to books to help them through all the ages and stages of child-rearing. My Bible is Get out of My Life, but First Could You Drive Me and Cheryl to the Mall? by Anthony Wolf, a clinical psychologist. When I’m living with a teenager, I’m always talking to other parents to find out if theirs is as horrible as mine. Wolf’s book is full of dialogues and situations that sound as though he’s been spying on us. It reassures me that this is all normal, and I’m not alone.
A strange experience for POTs is to hear about their child from other adults - coaches, teachers, friends’ parents. We met last week with all of Amanda’s teachers, and the praise flew around the room - responsible, mature, engaged, willing, bright, asks good questions. The one that moved me close to tears was ‘happy.’ But I did wonder if they had the right child. It’s enough to make you believe in doppelgangers.
Wolf says the child self and the becoming-adult self live side by side in the teenager, and if things are going right, she will reserve the child-self for home, while the outside world gets the grown-up. “The self that adolescents bring out to deal with the world is in fact a truer reflection of the level of maturity that they have achieved.”
The adolescent’s job is to break away from her parents. The stronger the bond, the fiercer the struggle. And the feelings are ambivalent. It wasn’t all that bad being a little kid - it’s tough to give up all the perks of childhood and venture out into a world where you’ll have to make your own way and do your own laundry, especially when you secretly fear you won’t be able to. All the feelings of loss and fear distill into anger at those all-powerful creatures, your parents.
out into the world source:flickr.com
Most of my interactions with Amanda are at meals and in the car. In about fifty percent of them I am the target of her contempt. She may tell me that the way I eat apples is disgusting, or ask what that red bump is under my nose. She can express contempt silently, with only a glance or a glare. This morning I put on my turn signal earlier than she considers appropriate, and the scorn shivered about her skin like heat on a pavement.
I usually handle all this loathing pretty well. But sometimes in response to withering contempt, I do wither. I feel despicable and disgusting. Other times I fume silently: ‘All I do for you...you can walk home from the bus stop in the rain...forget about the earrings I was going to buy you...and the Halloween costume? you can just go as a bitch.’ The worst is when I giggle; teenagers hate to be laughed at. But what else can you do when after 60-odd years of eating apples an 11-year-old tells you you’re doing it wrong?
I have read Wolf’s book twice. What I have taken from it is the following: teenagers lie, disobey, and refuse to do household chores. The job of parents is to cope with this. Wolf accepts the reality, doesn’t waste energy in wishing it were different, and advises us how to handle it. “You do not win the battle for control with teenagers.”
The lying is interesting. They will lie adamantly, indignant at your doubt, surrounded by all the evidence that belies them. When called out, they will say something like, ‘oh, I forgot.’ Wolf gives spot-on, very amusing examples of this, and says, “If the trustworthiness of teenagers is the foundation of integrity in our society, we are in big trouble....Lying is bad. I am not defending it. But it is also the normal response of the vast majority of teenagers either to cover up a wrong or to manipulate a situation to advance their cause.” All we can do is verify when possible, especially if the issue is important, and call them on their lies.
Though adolescent in her moods and attitudes, Amanda is still only 11. Her sins are mostly venial: leaving dirty dishes in her room, watching Netflix when she’s used up all her screen time, putting on makeup the minute she’s out of my sight. Sex, drugs and booze are still a little way down the road, though I know we’ll get there sooner than I wish. But Wolf’s general approach to disobedience applies to all levels of crime. We must not abandon our rules and requirements, but restate them firmly each time they are ignored. We should be judicious in devising and imposing consequences Piling consequence on consequence produces only a thick book of crimes and punishments, and a child grounded until she is 37. We probably don’t want them around that long.
As for refusing to do chores: “An absolute fact of adolescence is that if you do not nag, they will not do what you want...If having a teenager do nothing is acceptable to you, then do not nag. But if it is not, you are stuck with nagging.”
I always find myself surprised when it works. I tell her to change the kitty litter and walk away before she can argue. I repeat it every hour or so, always with no emotional involvement. She waits long enough to make it clear that she’s doing it only because it suits her, not because she has to obey me, and then she goes into the atrium and cleans the litter.
Teenagers are masters of manipulation and diversion, swift to turn a discussion of homework or chores or curfews into an emotional battle with “I’m just stupid and I’m dropping out of school,” “it’s not fair,” “you don’t trust me. ” Parents have to stick to the issue at hand. They must try not to let the outrageous statements and their own guilt and uncertainty pull them into the maelstrom. When our teenagers are hysterical, we must try not to be, and reserve our creative counterattacks for our rich fantasy life.
In the face of insults, defiance, and deceit we should continue providing the basic maintenance they need (feed them, buy them clothes and school supplies, drive them here and there) as well as go on doing all the loving, special things we used to do so happily when they were young and adorable. If we followed the rule of Tit for Tat, our children would probably starve and go naked, and we would certainly have to cancel Christmas, birthdays, and all family outings.
Wolf discusses a good deal more than I have mentioned, always with humor, intelligence, and a startling acceptance of reality. He covers specific problem situations with suggestions as to how we might cope. He does not expect us to be saints during the stormy years, nor to avoid mistakes. But he helps us to trust our judgment, and assures us that it is very likely our child will turn out to be an ok human being. Not all teenagers are hellions. But if you or someone you love is raising one who is, I strongly recommend this book.
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NEXT POST: OCTOBER 24
My sister Luli has charisma. Her charm is compounded of her eccentricity, her humor, and her avid interest in all sorts of subjects - gypsies, lepers, neanderthals, nuns, books, cats, food, gardens - and especially other people.
Luli makes friends everywhere and all the time. Some are friendly acquaintances, like the bus drivers with whom she shares gardening stories or the copy store clerk who helps her create her homemade greeting cards. Some are new friends, like the women she meets at the gym. She’ll arrange to meet for coffee, and soon progress to lunches that can last several hours. And then she has her long-time friends - the group of writers she calls the coven, her friend Mary Jane in New York.
She has formed independent friendships with several of my friends, and arranges to have coffee with them when she comes to visit. This used to feel like poaching, but our sibling rivalry has diminished with time. (It's okay as long as I know they love me best.)
Luli’s charm has overcome the usual distance which medical professionals maintain with their patients. Like all of us, she has had her share of medical issues. The most frightening was a pulmonary embolism, which, after many horrors, led to her joining a research project on effective dosages for blood thinners. She so charmed the doctors who were following her that they asked her to describe her experience to a class of medical students, and speak on a radio program about the research.
But Luli’s most significant medical problem is not the thickness or thinness of her blood. Luli has had depression most of her life. Anyone who has experienced depression in themselves or a loved one knows it is an absolutely godawful chronic disease. Treatment is complex and long-term. Finding effective medication is a matter of heartbreaking trial and error, and some medicines will work for a while and then lose their efficacy. But medication alone is not enough to suppress the demons; I believe most experts agree that counseling is essential.
Since she moved from Manhattan fifteen years ago, Luli has been very lucky to have found a psychiatrist who suits her. And because Luli is so loveable, she and Dr. Shrink have formed a close relationship, and the doctor has gone to extraordinary lengths to help Luli through the terrible times.
A faculty member at a medical school, she is a consultant to the cardiology fitness program at a very swanky and expensive gym, which I shall call Merry Meadows. Because she believes that exercise is an essential component of treatment for depression, Dr. Shrink arranged a scholarship for Luli, who has a heart condition, to participate in the 12-week program, where trainers guide and monitor progress.
As she always does, Luli plunged in full-force, and astounded everyone at Merry Meadows with her enthusiasm and hard work. When her twelve weeks was up, she drew cartoon thank-you cards for the staff, and the program director told her she had been an inspiration to everyone, staff and geezers alike.
Meanwhile, the Merry Meadows program director has asked Dr Shrink to write a proposal for an exercise program to treat depression. I was lying in the hammock, watching a hummingbird play in the bamboo, when Luli told me about this in our daily phone call, and I immediately had a brilliant idea: the proposal should include a stipend for Luli.
Luli’s duties would include a monthly tea date with the director or a designee, who might be a program participant -Tea with Luli could be a bonus part of the treatment program. She would participate in publicity - TV or radio interviews - for the Merry Meadows program. But her primary duty would simply be Being Luli. It would be like a MacArthur Fellowship on a smaller scale.
Even when she's a teapot, she's still Being Luli
As for the stipend, $20,000 a year for the life of the program seems appropriate. (Luli said we should ask for a million, but as an old grant-writer, I told her that would look ridiculous and scare them off). In addition, Luli would get a lifetime gym membership including a trainer at Merry Meadows, and a lifetime supply of nice T-shirts to work out in. She says the participants don’t dress up, but I’m sure none of their attire is quite as stained, stretched and hole-y as Luli’s.
Finally, when Luli, aged 99 and pleasantly exhausted from her Merry Meadows workout, fails to wake from a good night’s sleep, Merry Meadows will provide a lavish funeral, and pay travel costs so her nearest and dearest can attend. This is not an exorbitant demand. There probably won’t be that many of us by then; nobody’s offering ME a free gym membership.
Note to Luli: If you look to the right you will see that you now have your own category, so you can read about yourself till the cows come home.
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NEXT POST: SEPTEMBER 26
From time to time I'll post photos from my garden, to follow its changes. I've indicated the volunteers, aka weeds.
I have a bad habit of gobbling books, racing through them to see what happens next. (This is similar to the way I often eat.) But sometimes a really fine book will slow me down. It’s partly a matter of vivid, melodious writing, with every word the right one and no words to spare. It makes me want to savor the sentences. And if the characters move me, the stories are page-turners, and it’s filled with delicious details, why wouldn’t I want to linger at the table?
The River’s Memory, a novel by Sandra Gail Lambert, not only rewarded my careful reading, but made me want to read it twice. It tells the separate stories of six women and one little girl who lived along the Silver River in north central Florida. Lambert writes as though she were possessed by her seven characters. She lives in their worlds, sees their visions, and dreams their dreams. Each character becomes real, with her own distinctive voice. Because Lambert inhabits their lives, we do too, and care desperately about the fate of these women, all but one long gone.
All the characters are intimately connected to the river, and to wild nature. They are solitary, sometimes lonely - though some have lovers, their lives are centered in nature, work, their creative vision, or simply survival. Their stories give us the history of Florida from prehistoric times into the 21st century: the extinction of species, indigenous trade before the European invasion, lynchings, the first world war and the flu epidemic, and the tacky tourism overlay which, for so many people, represents Florida. Artifacts from one story - a pot shard, a dugout canoe, a shred of scarf, a silver hip flask, appear in the stories that follow.
In the 16th century a Native American potter finds her clay and her inspiration in the river. Surrounded by enemies and treachery, brought down by illness, she holds onto her creative vision - all that matters is the clay, the next pot. From one enemy she hears rumors of invaders from across the sea:“...Men furred like animals, too many to count, who rode on top of beasts....they say that the hair dangled off their faces like moss and some of their chests shone like the sun. Weapons bounced off of them.”
Just before the Civil War, a little girl on the Florida frontier has the woods and the river for her playground. “I poke the caterpillar. The yellow horns pop out of its back. From this close, I can see the slime. I touch them and wipe my finger on the hem of my over slip, and it stains, but maybe Mother won’t see. The horns flop and suck back under the skin. I poke it again, and the horns do it again. They look the same yellow as what ran out of the sore on Sister’s leg....Now I see all the other caterpillars... I pull at one and its feet suck onto the leaves. I pull harder, and it keeps eating even with the back half of its body in the air....”
“Mist is lace on top of the water. A little more day and it’ll disappear. Sister and I wave our hands into the white, and it spins into the sky like smoke. I lean beside Sister and we reach our hands until they touch the water and make circles in our reflections.”
It is 1918, the height of the War and the flu epidemic. We are at the Florida Industrial School for Girls, where inmates labor in the kitchen. With contagion spreading through the school, an orphan girl runs away, looking for her grandparents’ old home. She finds it abandoned and in ruins. She grieves and remembers, and her pain - aching head and bones, charred throat, itchy skin - seems to be one with her grief.
During the Depression, a woman born with no legs, who walks on her hands, finds her freedom rowing and swimming in the river at night, communing with the manatees. She eases her constant pain with rum. Her parents have done their best to give her privacy and independence, while keeping her at home. They have built her a downstairs suite with a separate entrance. “But I don’t need a room of my own. I need the rest of the world.”
Boys who spot her in the river surround and torment her like mosquitoes. “The line of them have unbuttoned their pants. They waggle small penises and laugh. I’m on my second generation of little boys. It seems that any of their parents who remember I’m a woman haven’t told them. No one’s yelling Mockie or Jew boy, so this particular batch doesn’t know about that either.”
The end of the 20th century, and an old woman in a hospital. As she lies dying, her pain eased and tongue loosened by ample doses of painkilling drugs, she tells her memories to a prim lady from the local Historical Society.
Her lover - a 65-year-old woman with “sparkles of red” in her silver hair,“my gal”- comes to take her home, but she demands to be taken to the river instead. There she lies among pillows in an abandoned canoe, while her lover poles them down the river.
“Arrowhead stalks stretch up my spine and bloom their white flowers into my breasts.... A turtle swims away from us, the flip of her turtle feet a tickle along my ribs, and an alligator splashes off the sunny bank...I see the alligator’s old relative, the crocodile, blinking its transparent eyelids and swimming in the ancient ocean that existed here above us all.”
The sour salesclerk in the Silver Springs souvenir shop has worked there for thirty years. She observes the tourists buying tchotckes with grim amusement. “My ex-mother-in-law collected owls. I guess she still does. I guess women have to collect something so their families will know what to buy them for gifts.”
She’s been doing the job for thirty years, and now has to deal with her first “younger-than-I-am boss.” When she is fired, she runs from the security guards and climbs the fence to the river, where she is caught in a fierce winter storm.
10,000 years ago, when giant sloths still loomed twenty feet above the native hunters, and saber tooth tigers were not quite extinct, a woman travels the coast to trade with the river people on behalf of her tribe. “These people who live so far from the sea, they pack together, and they stink - of the sticky pine in their fires, the sour bark drink they make, the rock dust that floats from their chert quarry...” Lambert fully imagines the life of these prehistoric people - their tense negotiations in trade, their intimate knowledge of the natural world, the children who remain unnamed until they have survived the hazards of early childhood.
This is a book of the body, of the senses. Sights, sounds, smells, touch lead through memory to revelation or understanding. It is a book of close description, but not the sort that makes your eyes glaze over, waiting for something to for godsake happen. Each story is filled with suspense, often with violence, threat, and tragedy. And the details are so telling - funny, poignant, or heartbreaking.
The River's Memory is a feast. Don't gobble it down; savor it.
The River's Memory is available from your local independent bookstore, or from any of the usual venues, in paperback and ebook.
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Next post: August 29
There were five on the boat
In the middle of the night:
Two in the cabin cramped under the deck,
Three with the ice chests under the stars.
Fishing all day
Under flat hot haze,
(The boy drank juice,
They let him cut the head
Off the maco shark Tom caught.
He sawed it with a bait knife
And saw what was inside.
No other boats that day,
Twenty-five miles out.
At Currington's Ditch
The Gulf gave wonders:
A blowfish, valiant puffer,
And always sharks.
'When you reel in your line
There could be anything.'
The sky began to clear
In the afternoon,
And sunset gave them glory
Yielding to stars.
They grilled the maco on the camp stove,
Finished the Fritos,
And cut into the chocolate cake
That Joe's wife Sara sent.
Coffee kept them fishing in the dark,
With Coleman light and stars.
No moon until they slept.
Bill started in the cabin.
They sent him out for farting
And so he joined the two:
Joe on the ice chests,
A jacket for a pillow;
Wayne on a lounge chair,
Hand hanging in fish scales.
Bill took the rear,
Spread a tarp,
And lay watching stars swing above him.
Cradled in the rocking,
And woke to water pouring in beside him.
And watched Joe stand as
Wayne fell off the lounge chair,
Boat fell from their footing
And water welcomed all.
Bill came up.
Mound of white hull
Tracked by moonlight.
Tom climbing up one side
Joe clinging on a line
Wayne coming out from underneath the bow
And no one else.
The boy was gone.
Bill looked again:
The boat with three men clinging now.
He bellowed my son's name
And fell under a wave
And rose to cry again.
Joe caught his arm
And hauled him out.
He caught a breath to shout again
When brown arm curving
Past the second wave
Five on the boat again
Under the stars
Traitor turned over
They clung to her hull.
They talked of how it happened;
No one knew.
Of rescue, and Joe said,
"It's Sunday one A.M.
They don't expect us back
Till Monday night."
So all fell silent for awhile
And watched the solid sea.
'This was not my mother ocean.
No crest of beauty moving toward the shore
Nor sails near and far.
A bird perhaps
Or sometimes more
Who flew in safety and in power
Above us as we lay.'
They lay face down like sunbathers,
Lined up to broil.
And when the rain brought blessing
Embraced to hold their warmth against the cold.
Watched empty ocean over others' shoulders.
'This was another ocean,
Of curve and wave
And endless motion.
The sky itself would not be still,
But glittered stars
Or drifted clouds
And nowhere could our eyes have rest.'
Watched empty ocean teeming still below
(When you reel in your line...)
Thin sounds, thin light,
Dream-fish washed pale,
(When you reel in your line...)
Man o' war from Portugal,
Tuna, grouper, mackerel,
Lemon, maco, hammerhead
(There could be anything.)
Inland, I had no idea of danger.
Free of lover and of son,
Three-day weekend to unwind,
I had no plans, I could do anything.
When Monday night came
And they didn't
Angry at first (Bill promised he would call)
And then began to wonder.
Empty ocean, one head bobbing,
Pushed the vision under and
At midnight called the Coast Guard.
Dreamed: we'd found them
Woke: we hadn't
All in a rush
Upon my chest
Thought motionless above a sword:
No certainty, no pain.
Waiting brings its own reward:
At eight o'clock, at ten, the phone again.
They say a storm is building
North of Tampa Bay."
"I know. I heard."
And through the day and into dusk
Until the call from Joe's wife Sara.
News so easy, words so plain.
"They found them all
And all are well.
Come to the house.
We'll drive to fetch them
Back from Cedar Key."
What story would they tell,
What could they say
To wash my fury and my fear away?
The engine died,
The truck broke down,
We lost our way?
Then at the house,
Joe's mother in the door,
"I have bad news.
The Coast Guard called us back.
They only rescued four.
We know that they have Tom and Wayne."
"But of the other three"?
"One of them is missing.
They wouldn't tell us who."
In the living room a country family.
Trophies on the mantelpiece,
Coffee on the table.
The television gave us light
Until an aunt turned on a lamp.
In the bedroom Sara lay
And waited by the phone.
Sat with her.
Two pregnant women waiting.
I stood by a window,
It will be finished soon.
When this cigarette is gone,
When that runner turns the corner
God, he runs so slow!
"The Coast Guard wants you on the phone."
My son is dead my son is dead.
Someone walked me down the hall.
"Your son is safe, he's doing well,
We need consent to treat him."
"But Bill and Joe,
Which one is gone"?
"We cannot tell.
You all must come."
And so Joe's Dad and Mom and I
And theirs was dead or mine was dead
Took Sara's car
(She had to rest and wait in that dark room.)
We took one car
And drove two hours
And I watched cars, clouds, trees, flowers,
And theirs was dead or mine was dead
We didn't know.
We didn't know how long
The time had been for them.
Three days, almost three nights they lay,
No sleep, no food, no water.
No rest for eyes from emptiness
Though weary minds devised odd sights
And some they told aloud.
My son saw fires on the waves,
Wayne saw a barge,
And on the second night,
Bill saw Death in a cloud
And watched it pelting toward them lit by lightning.
The storm brought waves above their heads
That threw them off the boat.
They struggled back to cling
To the hull and to each other.
Third day brought thoughts of rescue.
They knew the search was on.
By afternoon Joe's mind was gone.
He seemed to cheer a football game,
Cursed, and shouted Sara's name.
All vision now inside his eyes
Behind the brown stain rising as life fell.
Bill held him on the boat
Still and heavy in his arms.
Did he die there
Or in the wave that threw them off again?
Bill swimming out to pull him back.
"He's dead Bill. Let him go."
And as they spoke, he sank,
Lean scarecrow in the water.
A half an hour later
The helicopter came.
Thank God for days
That heal salt sores in the flesh
Change funeral to memory
(Joe's mother in the door
Turned as I neared
And would not speak.
Her son was dead.)
The story encrusted with telling,
The pictures in ambush at night
Come fewer and fade.
Thank God for days.
But something stays.
Under wave the nightmare,
Under surf the stones.
And in a year I go
To the beach north of Daytona,
Pitch my tent behind the dunes,
Sleep and wake to rain,
Stagger between boulders
And on the rock beach
Sit and watch the sea.
The rain ends with the sunrise.
Horizon shows the dawn:
No glory, merely day.
Above the line, pearl light.
Mist to the north tells rain.
Twelve pelicans measure the sky.
Below is broken slate,
But if there be measure of dread,
Dark under water confuses my eye.
Five lying, one dying,
The trying to save him
The waiting, the waves, yes
This is part of what they saw
Grey ocean, silver sky.
But from no land,
From grave instead.
My son is dead.
'He is not dead.'
He almost died.
'He did not die.'
He might have died.
'He did not die.'
My son will die. Dark ocean, let me be the first to drown.
Dear readers: I wrote this poem thirty years ago. I have traveled a lot this month, and been entirely obsessed with sewing this week, so I did not finish an essay for you. But I'm very proud of this poem. It is a true story, with the names changed.
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NEXT POST: JULY 25
Recently I went to a presentation billed as “Silencing the Inner Critic.” It was very disappointing, and the speaker was very irritating. She teaches all-day workshops on creativity, and her hour-long talk was nothing but an outline of those workshops. It was full of enthusiasm, vivacity and charm, but very little matter. As you can tell, she certainly didn’t silence my inner critic.
But there’s always a nugget or two to carry away from these things. Nugget #1 was my resolution to resume daily, first-thing-in-the-morning writing in my notebook. And #2 was the gratitude journal.
I’ve kept a notebook for many years, a cheap spiral bound thing, badly battered by the time it is full. Once I tried keeping several - green for gardening plans, blue for my diary, red for writing projects. That was a silly, if elegant scheme - I can’t keep track of three notebooks - and I soon abandoned it. Now my notebook is always red, because I would like to be read. (We seldom-published writers must have our amusement.) My current notebook, a lovely fat one, is extra-special because it was a Christmas gift from Amanda. It was the first time she gave Christmas gifts, and I was delighted by her empathetic selections (Joe got a foam rubber football.)
My notebook holds my diary, my free-writing click, first drafts of fiction and blogs, and many shopping and to-do lists. Sometimes in my diary I describe or celebrate a special day, but more often it’s where I focus on my troubles and try to come to terms with them. Sometimes it’s therapy. Sometimes it’s whining.
I had heard the term “gratitude journal,” but it never grabbed me. Now I thought I’d give it a try. And I have been surprised at the effect. Here are samples, one from my normal diary, one from my new gratitude journal:
May 16. Friday. Tonight is Amanda’s Honors Chorus Concert. Yesterday I had a gloomy, out-of-sorts day followed by a night of poor sleep due to an upset stomach. Boy, this is writing that cries out for me to stop, and is also putting me to sleep. My life is irksome. I stay irked. I think I look for things to irk me. I am falling asleep.
May 19. Monday. Gratitude: I am thankful that yesterday I could talk with Joe about my misery in this hard time with Amanda. Only he understands what is happening here; only he need know. And yesterday he gently reminded me what Dr. Lynne said about temporarily letting go of the demands we would normally make as parents. That makes it easier for me to try and let go of my demands without feeling I’m being lazy, irresponsible, without feeling the people looking over my shoulder saying I’m a lousy parent.
I’m grateful that he wants so much for this trip to NY to be what I’m hoping for, and that we are going to NY and staying in Chinatown.
I am grateful - almost breathless with excitement - that I’m driving to Orlando Thursday to meet Sue and Anne, staying in a luxury hotel. I think we’ll drive back to Gainesville on back roads.
I am grateful that yesterday Amanda played in the pool with me - a little hostile, a little aggressive, but still we played.
I am grateful that I took away two precious nuggets from the empty talk yesterday at WAG - the gratitude journal, and the renewal of daily writing, which has disappeared in the chaos and grief. I do indeed, have indeed, focused on my misery instead of my joy, and am/was becoming a negative gloomy glump. Maybe there was something to Dad’s reply to “How are you?” “Oh, I’m always well.” He did live to 98, after all.
I am happy that I planted my three gaillardia yesterday, maybe rescued (I hope) the one poorly-planted cleome, THAT A MONARCH BUTTERFLY finally came to my thriving milkweed, and that I have three more milkweeds to plant. Soon, if the monarchs come, I will have six ugly naked stalks. And maybe the ugly nameless plant Bill gave me, with its tubular salmon-colored flowers, will bring me a humming bird.
I am grateful that I am making progress with singing. An die Musik - itself a song of gratitude and perfectly tailored to my situation, about the escape, comfort, release, shelter of music - is coming along. Two techniques - head singing and pushing out my diaphragm through a whole phrase - should solve my range and breathing problems. Though I have trouble executing both of them. Still, my range in warm-ups is already wider than it was - down to Bflat below low C, and up to high E. These music lessons are my salvation. Indeed I have many salvations.
I am grateful that I can talk to Joe, and that he is helping me ease back on Amanda by taking on some of the reminding himself.
I am grateful that I have this morning time. The quiet sleep-breathing of Trisket behind my chair - she always wants to be where I am.
I am late to the party. I googled gratitude journal, and of course I found a long list of links. I could read 8 tips for starting one, or take 11 steps to a powerful one. Berkeley presented research. Oprah weighed in. I found ads for beautiful little notebooks titled Gratitude, prices ranging from $9.99 to $156 for used(!) Amazon offers free two-day shipping if you subscribe to Amazon prime. You can also buy the “Bargain Attitude Changer. The #1 gratitude journal app for over five years. Use it for at least three weeks and your life will never be the same again. See demo.”
I think I will pass. I’m perfectly content with my red spiral notebook from the dollar store. It makes a big difference to begin my day rejoicing, and it helps me notice small delights throughout the day. I am grateful for my gratitude journal.
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NEXT POST: JUNE 27
All my life I have loved to sing. Family gatherings always included singing, with my brother Dickie playing the guitar. On long car trips, in between territorial squabbles, Luli and I harmonized in the back seat. I was in the chorus in high school, and the Jacksonville Concert Chorale when I was a young lawyer.
I sing in the shower. I sing while I’m cooking, cleaning, gardening or driving. But constant song annoys those of us who like to be lost in thought; Joe sometimes and Amanda always asks me to shut up. I comply, though losing my singer makes me sad, and I sometimes resent being silenced, so I decided to take singing lessons and join a chorus.
In February I went to the United Church of Gainesville’s women’s retreat. This is one of my favorite annual events. I like the women I’ve met at the church, and there are interesting workshops, religious, spiritual, artistic, or goofy. The setting is lovely, overlooking a marshy lake. And the best part is I have two days and a night on my own, with a room all to myself.
At this year’s retreat I met Rebecca Pethes, a young woman whose rippling curls and liquid voice are bright and warm as a new penny, and who teaches voice at Gainesville Guitar Academy. We instantly hit it off.
Then I attended a workshop, “Sound bodies, the first musical instruments,” where we made as many sounds as we could with our voices and bodies - rattling our tongues, popping our cheeks, howling, stomping, clapping, slapping and finally singing. After the workshop Jan Tucci invited me to join Voices Rising Community Chorus, an intergenerational group of singers who perform a wide range of music in two concerts a year.
Director Ruth Lewis and the chorus. image: Senior Times click
Now every Monday I have a singing lesson. I told Rebecca I wanted to lengthen my breath, strengthen my high voice, and learn to sing softly. We started with one of my favorite songs, John Prine’s Angel from Montgomery, and I began to practice stretching out my vowels and making my consonants quick and crisp. When we had wrung most of the learning out of that, she gave me Caro Mio Ben, an 18th Century Italian song with a simple romantic melody and melodramatic lyrics, full of cruel lovers, languishing hearts and endless sighs. I love it. We’ve been working on it about four weeks, and I am learning to let the air just fall into my lungs even when I want to gasp for breath, to let it flow out again over my vocal cords without straining. I’m finding a balance between my chest voice and my nasal voice.
Sunday nights I sing with Voices Rising under the direction of Ruth Lewis, an enthusiastic and exciting conductor. I have always loved classical choral music. In boarding school we trooped up the hill to sing Vivaldi’s Gloria with the neighboring boys school, including the trumpet-filled chamber orchestra, and I was hooked. In Jacksonville we sang Mozart’s Requiem, with the thundering Dies Irae. Now I play it on my stereo at full volume. We sang a concert version of Verdi’s Aida, with four excellent soloists but alas, no elephants. I still thrill at the name of Aida’s lover Radames.
Radames and Aida. image: arovingpittsburgher.blogspot.com
The repertoire for our upcoming concert includes only one classical piece, Sicut Cervus by Palestrina. The other pieces cover a wide range - folk songs, popular songs, and a show tune. At first I pooh-poohed eighty voices singing these simple melodies, but I’ve come to enjoy them. And we also get to sing a complex arrangement of the gospel Walk in Jerusalem, a deliciously woeful contemporary piece, Lamentations of Jeremiah, and the thrilling Pan-African national anthem, Nkosi Sikelela.
Amanda is galloping furiously into adolescence, with me and Joe barely holding on.When I practice my singing, when I’m thinking about my throat and breath and lips and tongue, about the pitch and rhythm of the notes, I forget everything else. When I’m singing with the chorus, surrounded by a great ocean of music, my life disappears. For an hour on Monday and two hours on Sunday night, and in my daily practice sessions, I take a vacation from my troubles. I believe in music. Singing brings me joy.
THE VOICES RISING CONCERT is May 4 at First United Methodist Church, 419 NE 1st St, Gainesville. There are 2 performances: 3pm and 7pm.
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Next post: May 30
Gainesville, Florida is a most marvelous place. Though we have our share of ill and elderly, hardly anyone dies here.
Like many boomers approaching seventy, I’ve started reading obituaries. I like the little nuggets of stories they present, though it surprises me that many families write such long ones, considering the cost. (I believe newspapers didn’t used to charge for obituaries, but everything now must be a profit center.)
The obituary page was particularly full today, with fourteen obituaries. But only two of the dear departed had died. Half of them passed away and one passed on. Number 11 took his stroll onto Glory Lane, number 12 went to be with the Lord, Number 13 set sail on her final and greatest journey. And the heavens became brighter as they received Number 14. Considering the subject, the obituaries page is a very lively place.
Some of my dearest friends have told me that I am very blunt. This is a tactful way of saying that I am tactless. I deny the charge - nobody knows how often I bite my tongue - but I admit that I detest euphemisms.
I often bite my tongue. image:topenglish.sk
Recently some good people in Gainesville organized a service to help homeless people with terminal illnesses. One of my favorite local geniuses, who shall remain nameless, proposed a design for the business card. It was clear and simple: “Croaking? Call (phone number)”. I thought it was just right, but I’m not involved in the project, and nobody asked me.
In idle moments I like to imagine my own obituary. I think about the things I did that mattered to me at the time, and wonder how far back I should go. I feel no need to say where I attended elementary school, that I came in third and last in a swimming race when I was five, or that I earned a sewing badge in Girl Scouts by making an apron. (Gainesville obituaries delve deep.)
I know that I wouldn’t want to mention a beloved dog or cat as a survivor, but I fret a bit about which children I would list, and how they should be described, what with steps and fosters. I couldn’t truthfully say they all mourn me.
So I edit and revise, happily dithering. The one statement about which I have no doubt is the description of what happened. I don’t intend to pass on, or away, or into Glory. I’m just gonna die.
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NEXT BLOG POST: APRIL 25
For her 80th birthday, one of my mothers-in-law* asked that we each write a eulogy, telling what she has meant to us. The convention is to prepare a eulogy after death, but a post-mortem eulogy is not much good to the deceased, and Naomi is anything but conventional.
I first met Naomi when Joe and I were courting. I was 49 and she was 62, so we began a friendship rather than a quasi mother-daughter arrangement, a friendship that started with food. We share a love of eating and feeding people.
It’s a five-hour drive to Deerfield Beach. When we arrive at Naomi's it’s too early for the big dinner we know will come, so she serves us crackers, cheese, nuts, olives, prosciutto wrapped around mozarella, and of course a welcome glass of wine. Dishes of candy ambush me throughout our visit. Bagels and lox isn’t enough for breakfast: you need egg salad, tuna salad, salami, pickles, breads, coffee cake, strawberries and bananas with sour cream.click At Thanksgiving or Passover, one dessert isn't enough. You need five.
Naomi has a generous, adventurous heart. She has had three marriages with two husbands. (If a second marriage is the triumph of hope over experience, what can you say about a second marriage to the same man?) She raised five sons, and once told me that she loved raising children - it was all she ever wanted to do.
I have struggled so with my various motherhoods; I envy her the perfect fit she found. But a generous heart is bound to be broken, and I don’t envy Naomi her grief. She has suffered the worst, not once but twice. Her third son died at 33 after a long illness. Her fourth died suddenly at 50.
Naomi’s big heart warms to a large extended family, many friends, and the world at large. She offers rides to destitute strangers, and all the protests from her family won’t stop her. She becomes passionately engaged with the children whom she represents as a volunteer guardian ad litem, and is tireless in finding resources and exploring possibilities for “her” kids.
A dozen years ago, when I told Naomi that my daughter was pregnant, she understood my distress. My daughter was nineteen, unmarried, and unemployed, with only a high school education. A moment passed, and then Naomi said, “It will be my first great-grandchild!” and her good cheer made me break down. It was wonderful to know this baby would be welcomed into the family.
And Naomi has thoroughly welcomed Amanda. Her school pictures adorn Naomi’s refrigerator. Whenever we visit, Amanda heads straight to Naomi’s dresser, where a pretty box contains the little gifts Naomi has set aside for her: maybe a colorful dollar bill from her latest trip abroad, a tiny doll, glittery stick-on nails. For all her grandchildren, Naomi has been a source of love and fun. She offers a welcoming ear, and they confide in her.
Naomi lives large. She has traveled, alone and with family, all over the world. (I believe she skipped the Arctic and Antarctic.) She has many of the ailments of old age, but she doesn’t let them stop her. Several times a year she flies to New Jersey to visit Irma and Al, her sister and brother-in-law, and paints the town in Manhattan. She jumps at any opportunity for a luxury cruise with her friend Linda.
As I leave middle-age and enter old-, Naomi is an inspiration. If I make it to eighty, I will be glad to have her courage, spirit, and energy.
*Though I lost my mother when I was young click, I have been blessed in middle age with two top-notch mothers-in-law, Naomi Childers and Annette Jackson.
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NEXT POST: MARCH 28
Jennifer woke early. She hadn’t had much sleep with the full moon shining in her window, but her brain clicked on, and she knew she was ready to start the day. She plugged her iOn into the port on her wrist, typed in rise&SHinE and got out of bed, leaving her husband sleeping.
Bless-ed Johnny had set up the coffee when he came home last night. All she needed to do was push the button, and type in the password. Br*wNOW. She took the dog out to pee; he was an old-style canid, and didn’t need a password. She carried in the newspaper, and poured herself a cup.
Johnny had been away for three weeks, and she’d had to make her own coffee, as well as walk the dog, mow the lawn, and do the laundry. She had programmed herself and her iOn to perform these chores, so she could function on her own, but it was so good to have him home.
After coffee, she went back in the bedroom to get ready for the day. If they hurried, they could make love, using the wHamB!m12 password. But Johnny was sound asleep; he had come in at 2 am. She would give him a real welcome tonight. She threw on her sweats, gathered her office clothes and gym bag, and tiptoed out of the room.
She entered Int!keAM and ate her breakfast, relishing every bite, and lingering over the second cup of coffee. She carried the newspaper into the guest bathroom, settled herself on the toilet, and typed D##-D## into the wrist port. The system functioned smoothly, and she barely had time to read the comics before it was time to flush and head out.
WheRearemYf**ck!ngKeys was her longest, most complex password. Last year she had tried a fingerprint recognition system, but it was frustrating. Sometimes she had to swipe her finger a dozen times before the stupid iOm responded. Inventing passwords was an outlet for her creative self, and according to Neurodoc, the brain-health blog, remembering passwords was an excellent exercise to delay senility.
In the car, she punched F&TNEss into the dashboard and dozed off until they reached the gym. It was day three of her prescribed regimen, so she entered ligHtW*rko*t and her body went smoothly through the thirty-minute routine, while her mind wandered. Candles. Scented body oils. Her new silk gown, with twenty tiny buttons down the front. She engaged her abs and tightened her butt, but her skin tingled, and her inner parts opened and softened as she thought of the night ahead with Johnny.
The gym showers were eight years old, and becoming temperamental. Nothing happened when she punched in HOT. She tried WARM, but again, nothing. She settled for COLD and took a very quick shower.
At the office she picked up her flash drive, plugged it into the iOn, and entered yEssir . She turned the treadmill in front of her computer to the lowest speed, and looked over the list that appeared on her monitor. As usual, the bosses had given her twelve hours of busywork to complete in eight. She sighed, turned up the treadmill, and entered hUrRy.
All day she labored. The chores required just enough attention to prevent her from thinking, but not enough to fully engage her. She plugged her earphones in and entered tEc*nO into the iOn to fill her empty neurospace. Her eyes grew red from staring at the monitor, her legs ached from walking. At noon she typed in an order for a high protein shake, and drank it as she worked. She was damned if she would work overtime on Johnny’s first night home. She only left her desk to pee, and her brain was so fried that she had to return to the computer to look up the pee password (yoUr*ne).
Finally she was finished. She logged out and raced to the car, slept soundly as it drove her home. Johnny the Prince had everything ready. He had taken the day off, and cooked a magnificent meal: cumin-scented chicken with an orange-avocado sauce, fresh greens with garlic and hot peppers, and tiny chocolate tortes with rosettes of brandy whipped cream. Afterwards they sat by the fire, then turned on the Muzac and danced.
“Tonight I want it hot, sweet and slow,” he whispered as they waltzed across the floor, and she felt his words deep inside. “Meet me in the bedroom,” she whispered back, and she went into the bathroom to get ready. A quick shower, a dab of cologne, and the long white gown with pearl buttons that he would have to open one by one. As she typed it in - H!tSw**TsloW - her cheeks felt warm, her skin moist. She knew she was delicious all over.
He had lit all the candles. He waited in the bed. His strong arms welcomed her, the curly hair on his chest damp from the shower. He pushed her away and slowly opened the buttons, kissing as he went. They rolled and grappled, stroked and sucked and licked until they couldn’t wait any longer, and together they reached for their iOns. Y*sY*sYES she typed. Nothing happened. Johnny’s breath was coming faster and he moved in the purposeful rhythm she knew so well. Oh god, what was the password YESy!sy!s. Nothing. He was almost there and she ached to join him. She knew there were three yesses, with a mix of punctuation and upper case, but how were they arranged? Too late. He gasped and groaned, collapsed on top of her. She felt him pulsing deep inside.
“Sorry,” they whispered together. Soon he got up to take a shower. Now she remembered, and punched it in: y!sy!sy!s. But it wasn’t the same without Johnny.
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NEXT POST: FEBRUARY 28
I was very young, and very deluded; I thought I’d outgrown the need for a mother. As a little child I adored her. As a girl I loved her and took her services for granted. As a teenager I sneered at her, deceived her, and swore I would never be like her. I was thrilled to go to boarding school and escape my ignorant parents.
After two semesters in college I began traveling: West Indies, Europe and North Africa, Canada. I visited my family, but my home now was Ann Arbor. My parents were irrelevant, and knew little about my life.
Mother was sick and in a lot of pain for a long time. I was feeding my one- year-old son in the kitchen when the phone rang and my father told me she was gone. I told Eric that his grandmother was dead, and cried just a litte as I packed my bookbag and rode my bike to class.
The memorial service was six weeks later. The night before I was to fly to Washington, Eric got a high fever, and I couldn’t go. I was glad to miss the service; I had no need for a lot of mawkish reminiscing.
I was 40 years old when I finally began to grieve for my mother. I was in a counseling session, dealing with some minor life-glitch, when her death and my loss came back to me full force. I thought of taking bereavement leave, but I wasn’t sure it was available 17 years after her death. Instead I took sick leave and spent three days crying and walking and crying some more.
It’s been 43 years since she died, a short lifetime ago. Through all those years I didn’t have a mother. I go through my resume of law, activism, community work, writing, child rearing, and wonder if she would have been proud of me. I ache to talk with her. What would she have told me as I raised my different sets of children? I want to ask her a thousand things.
Now I have memories, pictures, and a few objects from my mother. The memories and pictures have worn a groove in my mind so that when I try to think of her or see her face, I can only summon up the same few stories.
When I was three she left me behind when she drove to the grocery store, and I ran down the driveway crying, desperate to catch her. When I was twelve, sitting in the car in the dark, not looking at her, I asked about sex, “Does he just stick it in?” I wish I remembered her answer - we were not a bawdy family. At fourteen I was pitiless. I left a letter to a friend in my mother’s typewriter that began “I hate my mother.” She cried. It seemed to me she was always crying, and I despised her.
I called her from Montreal to announce that I was married, and she asked, “Do you love him very much?” “Well, Mom, I met him eight days ago; I hardly know him.” “I always thought I would pin your veil.” Her sentimentality embarrassed me.
When Eric was seven months old, I took him to DC to meet my parents. By then my mother was often in the hospital, and spent her time at home lying on the couch. I put Eric down next to her. He took one look and began laughing, that irresistible baby giggle. She laughed back and it seemed they would never stop. He made her laugh all that long weekend. It was the last time I saw her.
My father lived another twenty-seven years after my mother's death. The memories he shared with us were filtered through his love and ego. Most of them are wildly implausible myths of his mastery and machismo. When he died we found an accordian folder of all the letters he had written to her the year before they married. She was in college at George Washington. He was six years older, traveling in Costa Rica as a coffee buyer. She saved all his letters, but he had not kept hers.
I have very few keepsakes from my mother. One is a Japanese black brass figurine of two turtles. Mother kept them on the back of her desk. The baby turtle is climbing onto the big turtle’s back. I hold it, feeling its weight, marveling at every intricately etched detail of shell and flesh. I wonder whether she hefted them as I do, and what she mused about as she held them, cool and heavy in her hand.
Mother always wore two pieces of jewelry: a gold ring with a large blue topaz, and a heavy Navajo bracelet. She left them both to Luli. After I began missing my mother, I bought myself a ring at an art fair, the silver folded like labia around a small opal. I wear it all the time. In New Mexico Joe bought me a bracelet very like Mother’s, with the same twisted wires. I cherished it for about six months, and then it disappeared. It turned up last summer under the bed, and I have worn it ever since. It fits my wrist snugly so it doesn’t wobble around and get in the way. It’s a bit like a shackle, but it feels like a link to my mother.
I have one of my mother’s books, Mary Boykin Chesnut’s A Diary from Dixie. It is the diary of a Confederate officer’s wife, a vivid account of the domestic life of the Charleston social elite as the war rages just offstage. Mother had southern roots. Her grandmother, who ate rats during the siege of Vicksburg, used to take her to the movies, and mortified her by standing when the pianist played Dixie. Mother wrote her name inside the book, Marcy Gray Eder, in the clear angular script that recalls all the letters she wrote me.
None of her letters remain. But in my father’s things we found her 1923 high school yearbook from Central High School in Washington, D.C. She was in the drama club, and an editor of the literary magazine. Unlike most of the graduates, she smiles in her picture, her face tilted slightly down so her big dark eyes look up at me. The caption reads:
This fetching young person with mischievous brown eyes and remarkable personality is most dramatically and poetically inclined. Besides great literary ability, she possesses a truly enviable scholastic record. As to ambitions, Marceline is going to strive to outdo Bernhardt, ‘the immortal Sarah,’ and those of us who know her are sure of her success. Original, clever and peppy - why absolutely.
1923 YEARBOOK: MOTHER IS ON LEFT PAGE, UPPER RIGHT
The yearbook generated my fourth novel, my biggest struggle so far as a writer. First it was the story of Delia, a middle aged woman searching for the truth about her mother Lillian, and Lillian impatiently responding from the afterlife to all her misconceptions. I spent over a year floundering in that direction, writing quite a lot of it, until I acknowledged it wasn’t working, and decided simply to tell Delia’s story. I had a great time immersing myself in accounts of Greenwich Village in the sixties, but I kept sneering at Delia. Writing is revealing - Delia was more like me than any of my previous characters, and I didn’t like her. My novel is now in its third iteration. It is the story of Lillian’s long marriage. I’m almost certain I have found the right story, and I’m working pretty steadily.
When I read the yearbook caption I wonder what happened to the actress and writer during the forty-four years of my parents’ marriage. Where was that peppy young person with the remarkable personality? If I had known her when I was an adult I would certainly have a very different view, but with my limited vision I believe my father swallowed her up and she disappeared. ‘Aren’t men wonderful?’ she’d say. ‘Marcy, don’t touch that, you’ll break it,’ he’d say. The alchemy of fiction lets me take the glimpses and fragments of her life and their marriage and give them a different story. In my publication fantasies I dedicate this book to Marceline Elizabeth Gray, the woman I search for, the woman she might have been.
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NEXT POST: JANUARY 24
GENTLE READERS: I am getting deeper into my novel. So I am cutting back on the blog, and from now on will post one a month.
For Amanda’s 11th birthday Joe and I planned a slumber party. The girls were to arrive at 6 on Friday, and leave at 10 the next morning. As I always do, I fretted considerably over the details.
Sleeping (hah!) arrangements:
Last year we had a small slumber party, with four girls, as a kind of trial run. This year I had allowed Amanda to invite eight girls, betting that only about five would come. (In Gainesville it is considered rude to reply to an invitation.)
With two twin mattresses, an inflatable mattress, and two foam camping pads, we turned the living room into one solid bed in front of the couch, with a space left open in front of the fireplace to avoid disasters. I was sure that we could get two on the very deep couch, others could sprawl crosswise aross the twins, for a ratio of three girls to two beds, and someone could sleep in the recliner. But seven of the eight girls came to the party. They had all grown about three inches since fourth grade. And they snubbed the foam mats.
The inadequate bedding may have been the reason several of them never went to bed. When I told one father that his daughter claimed to have stayed up all night, he said cheerfully, “Oh, she’s ADD, she never sleeps.” Now I understood why he had not lingered when he dropped her off.
Fried chicken, baked beans, canned corn, chips and dip, cookies, s’mores, ice cream cake, and six liters of soda pop. Of course they didn’t eat the corn, my one pitiful attempt at sneaking in a vegetable.
We didn’t have them when I was a little girl, but now every child leaves a birthday party with a bag of gifts. Fortunately Amanda reminded me of this a whole day before the party, and I had a lot of fun at Dollar Tree. Nail polish with decals and glitter, a candle in a glass, a box of skittles, and mardi gras beads.
One girl was going to be late, so we decided to delay dinner until 7. Joe was concerned: what would they do before dinner? I assured him that they could entertain themselves. And they did - as each guest arrived, she joined the pack who were running and screaming from the living room, through the kitchen, down the hall, to Amanda’s room and back again. They settled in Amanda’s room for awhile with the door closed, doing God knows what. Then they returned to the living room to eat an entire bag of Doritos with cheese glop.
For the most part, Joe and I stayed out of the room and within hollering distance. I walked around cleaning up messes more or less as they occurred. I overheard hideous mean girl gossip about the girl who arrived late, a lot of “well she told me she doesn’t like you,” “she thinks she’s so hot...”
Amanda is mercurial in her friendships, and two days after inviting everybody, decided she didn’t like that girl, supporting her dislike with a long list of hateful remarks. So I was worried that the girls would be cruel, but when the latecomer arrived about 8, the party gained new energy, all of them tumbling and wrestling on the mattresses. I was such a goody-goody little girl. These girls are much rowdier. They all play sports, and their play is rough and physical. Not a lady in the bunch, thank God and Title Nine.
image:thegraphicsfairy.com pk yonge blue wave team. image:preps.gainesville.com
They ate almost all the chicken, most of the cake and all the cookies. They drank six liters of soda and belched magnificently. They lay on the mattresses and watched Like Mike (an orphan’s magic sneakers make him an NBA superstar), farted and accused each other of farting. When they weren’t shrieking, yelling, screaming, belching, farting, they were laughing or whispering.
At ten o’clock I went to bed, leaving Joe in charge. At 10:30 the laughing and screaming was even louder, and woke me up. I went out to see what was happening, and found they were all in the pool. We hadn’t told them to bring bathing suits, because the temperature was in the 60's, the water temperature 70. But they pleaded with Joe to let them swim. Some of them borrowed Amanda’s bathing suits and the rest swam in their clothes. They batted beach balls around and screamed until I came out again and asked them to keep it down because of the neighbors.
They stayed in the pool about half an hour, and then took hot showers. I put all the wet clothes in the laundry, and at about midnight Joe lit the fire. They made a million s’mores and watched Joyful Noise (Queen Latifah, Dolly Parton and teen romance).
They dropped one by one, until at 4:30 I came out and told the last two to go to sleep (they were yelling), and found them beds in the front room.
When I got up again at 7:15, three were up playing hide and seek. By 8:30 all but Julie were up - we couldn’t get her out of the recliner. Somewhat subdued, they ate huge amounts of waffles, eggs, sausage and juice for breakfast. As their parents came to pick them up, they searched the wreckage for their clothes, stuffed animals, and dvd’s. They succeeded in finding almost everything - I had to sort through a few socks, bras and t- shirts later that day.
In my eavesdropping I had overheard plans for pranks involving syrup and mayonnaise. At one point they emerged from Amanda’s bedroom and I heard, 'What if her grandma finds out?' 'Just don’t say anything.' In the end, there were no serious problems. They left a door unlatched and Trisket got into the atrium and ate most of the dog food. After each girl fell asleep, the wide-awake ones scribbled on her arms with marker. And they apparently took one girl’s retainer from her purse, hiding the case under the couch, and the retainer under the cushions. It was a couple of days before we found them. Luckily, the retainer wasn’t damaged.
It helps me to observe other girls in their natural habitat. Like many American preteens, Amanda is precociously sexual, slathering on makeup and sulking when I make her clean it off, begging for the shortest shorts and tightest shirts, bragging about all her boyfriends, dirty dancing at every opportunity. Her seven friends are similar. But at kissing scenes in the movies they yelled 'Gross!' and dived under the pillows, and their favorite activity at the party (aside from eating) was hide and seek. All their pseudo-sophistication fell away, and they seemed like little girls again.
Amanda had an over the top party-girl weekend. At 2 o’clock she had a volleyball game, and to my astonishment her team won, though five of the players had been at the party. They had a team party afterwards at Stevie B’s (a pizza and games joint with the nastiest pizza in the southeast) and of course Amanda couldn’t miss that. From 5 to 8 she had another birthday party, this time at a Karaoke club. She got all tarted up in leggings and spangles and earrings, but no way was she going to sing, she told us. By the time we picked her up from the karaoke bash (the birthday mother told us she had to make Amanda give up the mike) she was a rude and sullen mess. But I held on to the memory of her snuggling back into bed at ten that morning, mumbling ‘thank you, Grandma’ before she fell asleep.
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NEXT POST: December 27.
Mike Chielens died last Saturday. The many online comments on his obituary noted his love of baseball, beer, and rock and roll. Chielens was director of Legal Aid of Western Michigan, and the comments also spoke of his kindness, his fight for the underdog, his respect for everyone. But I knew Chielens when he was a brand-new legal aid lawyer at Jacksonville Area Legal Aid - JALA. He was a laughing elf of a man, a tiny guy with a huge heart, round face, red hair, freckles.
Chielens loved to flirt. Though he looked like Howdy Doody, with a little boy’s physique, his charm and intensity could bowl women over. But he was loyal to his fiancée in Michigan, and whenever Van Morrison sang Brown Eyed Girl, Chielens talked about Jan, a warning to us to keep a safe distance.
Mike Chielens and Mike Milito shared an apartment. They were fun-loving wild men, smart, determined, and fierce for justice. I knew them when we were young, when all of us were young, a gang of northerners with law degrees who descended on Jacksonville to be turned into lawyers under the leadership of two slightly older Harvard Law graduates.
Jacksonville was a blue-collar city, with a large poor black population, a large poor white population, some uppercrust southerners and a whole lot of insurance executives. Lefty lawyers had trouble finding friends outside legal aid, so we became a close-knit group, living in little bungalows in Riverside, near downtown. Some of us lived at Jacksonville Beach, and kept open house on weekends.
When we first came to Jacksonville, my five-year-old son Eric and I stayed with Sara until I found a place, an upstairs apartment with no air-conditioning, but well shaded by thick pine trees. Later, when I was no longer a VISTA volunteer making three thousand a year but a staff attorney making ten, I moved to a house, and new arrivals would stay with us.
On Saturday mornings I’d start my laundry in the laundromat on King Street and Eric and I would walk to visit one friend or another while the clothes dried. Julie and Graddy kept M&M’s on the back of their toilet to encourage their toddler to get up in the night to pee. Sue and Max always had coffee aging in a percolator.
In the evenings we often gathered at my house so I wouldn’t need a babysitter. I cooked dinner, Jim brought his guitar, and we sang harmony. I had serial crushes on most of the guys, but generally avoided fishing off the company pier, and instead paired up with quite unsuitable men whom I found elsewhere.
My family came down for Thanksgiving, and legal aid friends joined us. My father was impressed that fourteen people could be so jolly on only two bottles of wine. He didn’t notice some of us sneaking off to the back of the house to smoke dope.
One day our program director came into my office and found me crying. I had discovered that Eric’s after school care was atrocious, and didn’t know where to turn. That night, Paul’s wife Shirley called and said Eric could come to her house after school - she had four daughters from elementary to high school. They lived two blocks from me, and two blocks from Eric’s school.
Shirley and I decided to train for the first Jacksonville River Run, so every morning she knocked on my door at 6:30, and we ran through Riverside and Avondale, on past the huge oaks and houses of Ortega. After the River Run, I drove to the beach and joined a party that lasted well into the night.
LIZ AND SHIRLEY IN THE FIRST JACKSONVILLE RIVER RUN
I stayed at Jacksonville five years before I moved to Gainesville. One by one, my friends left JALA for Atlanta, Grand Rapids, Providence, DC, Los Angeles. Most of us stayed connected to poverty law in one way or another.
At every time and place of my life, except one desperately lonely year in Montreal, I have had a group of friends. Happily, in every group there is always one who keeps us all connected after we move on. For the JALA gang it’s Marie, who writes long, chatty Christmas letters, who organized two reunions in Florida, who made an email list of old JALA comrades and told us when first Mike Milito, and then Mike Chielens got terrible cancers.
MARIE (far right) ORGANIZED REUNIONS
Milito and his wife Judy went on Caring Bridge, where we could read the step by step horrors of his treatment, and finally, thank God, his slow recovery. Chielens didn’t use Caring Bridge, but Jan sent emails and Marie forwarded them to us.
Mike and Jan put themselves through torture, with the hope that they would have many years on the other side They didn’t; his condition grew worse and worse and after about a year of hell, Chielens died. I got the news from Marie, and cried and cried. It was Marie who sent flowers in all our names, with Dylan lyrics - ‘May you stay forever young.’ And Marie who said, 'don’t pay me for the flowers,' and organized a group contribution to Western Michigan Legal Aid.
I hadn’t seen Chielens in over thirty years, and only kept up with him second-hand. But I grieve for him, and for that time, for that community of young people happily misspending our youths together. We played hard, but we also worked hard, certain that our cause was just, hopeful that we could change at least one little corner of the world.
I have reached an age where my friends and famiy will be dying, unless I go first. Many of my friends have survived cancer, some are battling it now. I write this in Miami Beach, where we have come for the unveiling of my late brother-in-law’s tombstone. Adam died suddenly, a few weeks after his fiftieth birthday celebration.
Thinking of my own death doesn’t dismay me much, though I hope to hang around long enough to launch Amanda and see her land on her feet, and it would be nice to see my books published and acclaimed before I go. But losing my family, losing my friends - that’s very hard.
Young people see old age as boring, or at best, peaceful. They think all the excitement and adventures are theirs. But facing all this loss, facing my own mortality, this is a profound, if difficult, adventure.
Here's to Chielens. Here’s to all the friends I have lost touch with, and all the friends I will someday lose.
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NEXT POST: NOVEMBER 29
My writer friend Sandra, a voracious reader, introduces me to many books I might not otherwise see. Some of them take me into a world I have never thought about.
Good Kings, Bad Kings by Susan Nussbaum is a novel set in the Illinois Learning and Life Skills Center, a nursing home for severely disabled children. It is a novel with a purpose, to let disabled characters speak for themselves.
Nussbaum believes such institutions “need to be done away with, once and for all” click. But unlike so many writers with a cause, who hit you over the head with a righteous bludgeon, Nussbaum never seems to be preaching. She creates a fully realized world and gripping plots, and though she writes from the point of view of seven different characters, she mostly makes it work. I wasn’t far into the book before I recognized their vivid individual voices, and no longer needed to flip back through the pages to see who was who.
Three of the speaking characters are teenaged residents of the Center, three are employees, and one is an employee of the health care corporation which owns it. Her job is to recruit new residents, and investigate Center operations to find cost cutting opportunities.
The teenagers don’t define themselves by their disabilities, though the world may do so. They are typical teenagers - falling in love, mischief-making, yearning to be understood. They resent authority and scorn the adult world.
A FAMILIAR TEEN LOOK. IMAGE OF LINDSAY LEE USED WITH HER PERMISSION click
Listen to Yessenia, the fiercest and funniest of the gang. She is a bad-ass 15-year-old who has just been released from juvenile detention. Her aunt who was raising her is dead, so she is placed at the Center, and attends Herbert Hoover High School.
I went there on account of I am physically challenged, and they send the people which have challenges to Hoover. They send peope with physical challenges, but also retarded challenges, people been in accidents like brain accidents, or they’re blind or what have you. I do not know why they send us all to the same place but that’s the way it’s always been and that’s the way it looks like it will always be because I am in tenth grade and I been in cripple this or cripple that my whole sweet, succulent Puerto Rican life.
Moving into the center is a shock for Yessenia.
They got the most stupidest rules in here that I ever heard of...You’re not allowed outside the damn building alone without passing another one of their bullshit tests. By ‘outside the building’ they don’t mean plain old outside either. They mean outside like ‘stay on the grass in front of the door.’ They think you’re too stupid to even walk out the door on your own. I was raised in the city. I grew up in the Puerto Rican ghetto. I think I know how to walk outside a damn door...you’re not allowed alone on a bus - a regular bus that I been taking by myself since I was a child - without a houseparent. This is almost worse than Juvie. At least at Juvie you were suppose to be punished.
Joanne, a disabled woman, is a data entry clerk at the center, who is connected to the Center for Disability Justice. She befriends some of the residents, and hopes to get them the subsidies the law provides so they can live independently when they reach 22. Yessenia learns about disability activists from her, and when a boy dies after being scalded in the shower, Yessenia takes action. She chains herself to a tree with a sign “They kill and abuse children here.”
IMAGE: MIUSA.ORG click
DISABILITY PROTEST IN CHICAGO. IMAGE: NGA.ADAPT.ORG click
In response to the death and Yessenia’s protest, the board of directors hold a damage-control meeting. Michelle, the recruiter, takes notes.
[The lawyer wants to] take the emphasis off the small number of children who die [and emphasize] the very large number of children who live...I write down, "Most children stay alive here.”
Cost-cutting means most employees wear several hats. Ricky, the Center’s bus driver, also has to restrain the children or take them to the time-out room when they misbehave. He and Joanne become lovers, and he tells her
All I do all day is punish these children...When we’re in the bus - when me and the kids are in the bus everything’s cool. We got our own little kingdom, you know? But more and more all they want me to do is lock them up or hold them down and I hate it. I hate it.
And Joanne says to me, ‘ Maybe you need to think about getting out.’
I’m like, ‘ Yeah, but then I think they’ll get some other gorilla instead of me and at least if I’m doing the job it’s one less psycho messing with them, you know?’
‘Raping them,’ she says.
Neither one of us talks for a while after she says that.”
We hear from the child who is being repeatedly raped by one of the aides. We hear from Teddy, the man who is in love with her, He is almost 22, and looking forward to independent living.
I’m starting to save my allowance up. It’s part of my plan for running away. I saved last month’s allowance for a week...but then Louie stole it. I know it was Louie cause he’s a asshole and I had it the night he worked and next morning it was gone. I had it under my seat cushion and he was the one who plugged my wheelchair into the charger after I was in bed. It don’t do no good to complain. They just say ‘I didn’t do it...’ and you can’t prove it they did.
When I’m on the loose I’m gonna get a place to live and an aide. I’m gonna go to bed as late as I want. I’ll eat dinner when I want. I’ll have beer. I’ll take the bus wherever I feel like it....
The day I turn twenty-two they want to ship me off to a old people’s home. They’re going to stick me with the grandmas and the grandpas....So that’s why I got to run.
We all begin life needing twenty-four hour assistance. Those of us who are lucky gradually become more and more able to do for ourselves. And then if we live long enough we may again need assistance.
Only the richest of us can afford a personal care attendant twenty-four hours a day, and society as a whole is not willing to subsidize such private care. So we establish institutions, where we can achieve economies of scale, and then we try to avoid looking inside to see how those economies, and the additional economies of the profit motive, play out.
We only value personal care-giving if it is provided free, by loving family members, usually women. Because care-giving is valued in sentiment rather than dollars and cents, we pay abysmally low wages to those who give care, and profit-driven corporations cut costs by reducing staff to dangerous levels. The alternative, of funding well-paid assistance in individuals’ own homes or small group homes, seems too costly for us to bear.
I have quoted extensively from the book, because I really hope you will read it. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll want to throw things. Nussbaum opens the doors of a dreadful place. She shows us lives and circumstances that most people have never seen. But though the book is horrifying, it is not depressing, because the characters are so impressive, and because things look pretty hopeful for some of them at the end. I feel lucky to have heard from them.
I’ve just finished Connie Mae Fowler’s five-day writers’ workshop in St Augustine.click The best part was the workshop sessions and new writer friends.The second best part was having the hotel room to myself.
The farewell dinner was last night. About 6:30 in the morning I wake to a steady rain. I get dressed. I pay attention when I put my cell phone in its holster, because the last five days I’ve kept it silenced in my purse. Methodically, I pack up each area - the bathroom, refrigerator, closet, dresser, desk, bedside table. Nobody distracts me with “Grandma, can I go get a donut?” “Liz, have you seen my glasses?” With everything packed I go through the room one more time, to be sure I haven’t left anything. Then I load the car.
Parking in St Augustine has taken all my cash, so I drive a couple of miles to Publix to get money for a housekeeping tip. I buy a sandwich for the road. I leave the tip, check out, grab a banana from the buffet, and head home through the driving rain.
The thick, dark clouds are breaking up in the sky to the west, and by the time I reach US 1 the rain is slowing. I leave the town behind, and now I’m on 207, a fast secondary road with trees, egrets, and puddles on both sides. There is little traffic. I am entirely happy; the workshop revived my flagging writer, giving me energy, confidence, determination. I’ve made two decisions. I will put writing first every morning, and make no dates before 11. I will no longer say, “I’m retired,” but “I’m a writer.”
'O Happy Day' is playing on the CD player. I think I’ll call Joe, share my happiness. I reach for the phone. It’s not in the zipper pocket of my purse. It’s not anywhere in my purse. I feel my jeans pockets, my shirt pocket. Nope. I review all my packing, and I’m puzzled. I remember turning off the alarm - is it possible I left it on the bedside table?
I pull over on the shoulder, trucks whizzing by as I get out to search. Passenger seat and floor, tote bag with notebooks, books, and magazines, computer case with a zillion compartments, center console, suitcase, under the seats. Nothing. And nothing to do but drive back to the motel. I consider calling to ask, but of course...
I’m proud that I’ve stayed calm, not frantic - it helps that I left early so there’s no worry about getting to my 11:00 therapist appointment in Gainesville.
The worry begins after the friendly desk clerk has given me a new key card, after I’ve methodically searched each area of the room, looked in all the drawers and under all the furniture, after I’ve stripped the bed, after I’ve returned to the buffet and asked the woman who’s making new coffee if she's seen my phone. Back to the car, a more careful search with no trucks whizzing by two feet from my butt. I empty each bag, check the pockets in all the dirty clothes, move both seats and feel around under them. By now I know I’m repeating myself, hoping magic will put the phone where it wasn’t. I pat my jeans pockets, then my shirt pocket, and my hand bumps the cell phone belt.
Such a rush of relief. Then the real worry begins. By the time I reach the place where I pulled over, an hour after my first departure, I’m near tears. This is no short-term memory loss. This isn’t like the comical incident of dressing a salad in a colander click, or locking my keys in the car.click. I paid attention when I stowed my phone, but with all the searching, all the thinking about what I had done, I didn’t remember it.
The Muumuus and I joke about senior moments and brain farts, cozy and comfortable in our aging together. This wasn’t a moment; it was an hour.
Now my thoughts are flying. Alzheimers. Dementia. Researchers say about 1 out of 8 people over 65 suffers from dementia. I’m afraid to tell Joe, afraid tell Dr. Lynne, my therapist. I have told Joe that when I don’t know him anymore he can put me in a nursing home and divorce me, but he has to visit regularly to make sure I’m well cared for.
I already have a strategy for my keys, and almost always put them in the basket by the door. Now I need a strategy for my glasses and phone too, and a mental checklist whenever I leave the house. I will have to establish compulsive habits. I must be present in every moment, pay attention to the now.
MY KEYS ARE HERE
But if I can’t let my mind wander, how will I write? Half the writing happens in my head when I’m cooking or cleaning house, swimming or walking. Just when my writer has come alive again, my mind starts to melt. It will only get worse. I will call my doctor and have the annual checkup that was due in July, ask for a referral for a neurological workup. There is a drug that can slow the progress of Alzheimers; best catch it early.
Last night I read a New Yorker piece about Phillip Roth and his friends. Roth decided to give up writing fiction at 78. “It’s hard to remember from day to day what you’ve done.” In Iris, the movie about Iris Murdoch, there is a scene where, as Alzheimers advances, she puts down her pen because she cannot remember words.
PHILIP ROTH IMAGE:NYTIMES.COM IRIS MURDOCH IMAGE:TELEGRAPH.CO.UK
I arrive at Dr Lynne’s with ten minutes to spare. We’ve been dealing with an old trauma, so that I can put it behind me. But this is too urgent; my fear is right at the surface. So we plunge in. She has theories about memory loss, information about how it works. My story doesn’t worry her, and so I worry less. That night I tell Joe about it. He understands my fear, but thinks it’s like looking all over the house for his glasses when they are on his head. I see his point and feel better. But I still want an assessment.
This morning in the paper, two items. Glory glory, Alice Munro has won the Nobel Prize for Literature. (In a New Yorker interview a year ago she said she would probably stop writing because “I’m eighty-one, losing names or words in a commonplace way.”) And Julie Samples, a graduate student at the University of Florida, has just published a pilot study in the Journal of Neurological Sciences.
The first deterioration in Alzheimer’s is often in the olfactory nerve, and begins on the left side of the brain. Julie put a dab of peanut butter on the end of a ruler, and brought it closer to each nostril until the person could detect the smell. She and her advisor report, “If they can smell it far away it means that nerve is working. If you have to bring it all the way up to the nose it means it’s not working as well...We were blown away with what we saw...The right nostril was normal, and the left had impairment” in Alzheimers patients but none of the other subjects.
You know I went straight to the peanut butter jar. I put a bit on the end of a knife, blocked each nostril, and sniffed. Both my nostrils (and hence my brain?) worked just fine, smelling the peanut butter from about eight inches away. When I used the whole jar, I could smell it from a couple of feet away. I suppose I will mention this to my doctor when I get around to my so-called annual physical. And maybe I’ll ask for an assessment. But I am greatly reassured.
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NEXT POST: NOVEMBER 1
I bought The Random House Children’s Encyclopedia at Amanda’s school book fair last fall. It is simply beautiful - each article is one to three pages of blocked text with lots of interesting illustrations. For several days she browsed through it, spending a lot of time on The Human Body and Reproduction. Then it went on the shelf.
Yesterday I took it down to look through it. Still thrilled by the format and illustrations, I looked up subjects at random (after all, it’s Random House). A page about Ballet, with photos of Margot Fonteyn, Rudolf Nureyev, and Anna Pavlova, and a drawing of the five positions.
ANNA PAVLOVA. IMAGE:ARTSALIVE.CA
One for Barbarians, with a beautiful jeweled gold belt buckle. Past Bats and Birds to Castles - a most wonderful diagram/drawing of a castle with a cutaway to show the interior - storerooms, spiral staircase, and lord and lady’s richly furnished bedchamber.
Circuses, Cities, Civil War. One page for English, one page for American. But where was Civil Rights? The Find Out More section of Civil War - American sent me to Abraham Lincoln, Slavery, and United States of America, history of. The Lincoln page gave me the Gettysburg address, the log cabin, the election, secession, the war, Mount Rushmore, and a timeline including the Emancipation Proclamation. The abolition movement was “led by white middle-class Northerners.” Harriet Tubman and Andrew Scott get a mention, but where is Frederic Douglass?
On to Slavery. A brief survey from Mesopotamia through Greece and Rome to the European slave trade and abolition, with some details about slave ships, slave markets, and slave rebellions.
United States of America, history of has a timeline. It includes entry into World War II, Kennedy’s assasination, Neil Armstrong on the moon, and Reagan signing the nuclear disarmament treaty with the Soviet Union. WHERE IS THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT?
Oh, good, there’s an index - one of my favorite parts of any non-fiction book. And it does list the civil rights movement. It sends me to a single page on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The page includes seventy words for the whole movement, plus about fifty for Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott. Eyes, Oil, and Pirates get a whole page each.
Selecting topics for an encyclopedia must be an agonizing and disputatious process. I can’t imagine doing it on my own, or even worse, with a group of “experts” all fiercely fighting for space. But neither can I imagine producing an encyclopedia for American children which doesn’t cover the Civil Rights Movement.
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NEXT POST: OCTOBER 18
Breakfast is one of my favorite meals. (The others are lunch, dinner, and snacks.) I get up pretty early, sometime between 4:30 and 6:00, and drink my coffee, free-writing if I’m on a roll, reading the newspaper if I’m in a slump. I wait a while for breakfast.
I like the variety of breakfast. It might be a chunk of cheese with grapes and a piece of bread. Peanut butter and jelly melting on hot toast. All the scraps and bits left on the chicken carcass I had planned to save for soup. Leftovers from the night before: broccoli and mashed potatoes, spaghetti and meatballs,stew. I like more conventional breakfasts too: I never get tired of Cheerios, Grapenuts, Miniwheats, cornflakes. In the winter I love oatmeal, which tastes so much better when you call it porridge. Winter is also the time for Orlando tangelos or marsh grapefruit from Henderson and Daughter at the farmers’ market.
Because I believe breakfast is important after the long night fast, I search for ways to be sure Amanda eats it. In third grade she wanted to eat breakfast at school. I knew it was sugary junk, but I didn't argue. My maternal battle cry is choose your battles.
Like many adolescents (yes, she’s not quite eleven, but decidedly adolescent) Amanda now resists breakfast, as she resists every other suggestion, request, or demand. To make the morning a little more pleasant, I’ve revived and revised the menu from Grandma’s Café, which used to be open in the afternoon after preschool.
I wake her at 6:30, and she chooses from the menu or suggests something else. I speak as little as possible in this encounter - she needs time to float up out of sleep. I go into the kitchen and fix her breakfast and my own, call back to her “It’s ready,” and then, depending on my own mood and my sense of hers, I retreat with my breakfast to my chair, or settle at the kitchen table. I put her plate on top of the refigerator to keep it from Trisket, who has stolen many omelets, tuna melts, and bowls of porridge over the years. click
Amanda almost always shows up within fifteen minutes, mostly dressed, mostly ready for school, and she almost always eats what she has chosen.
A few years ago Luli gave me a big electric griddle, and sometimes Amanda makes Sunday pancakes from a mix for the three of us. She has become very adept. She doesn’t need to measure, but judges the batter by its consistency. She knows I like mine small and dark, and she always gives me the little crispy drops that fall on the griddle.
When Amanda was in kindergarten and living with her mother, I used to pick her up to drive her to school. As I drove I would gauge her mood, and ask whether Angel’s Café was open. It usually was, and it was the best breakfast spot in town. The
service was faster than any McDonalds - I asked for coffee and almost
before the words were out of my mouth she was handing me a cup of black
coffee, brewed in the big pot with the wooden spoon that had somehow ended
up in the back seat. The only item on the menu was whatever you want. Sometimes pancakes
with eggs and bacon, sometimes black beans and
rice, spaghetti and meatballs, or best of all, chicken soup. The recipe
is obvious to any five- year-old. “What did you put in the soup?”
I asked. “Chicken.” “And what else?” “Soup!” indignant at my ignorance.
Angel's cafe closed years ago, but I still love going out for breakfast. Then I eat things I don’t cook at home: biscuits with sausage gravy, bacon, stir-fried veggies and tofu, salmon cakes, breakfast burritos.
I know many of our breakfasts don’t fit one diet theory or another: too many simple carbs, or eggs, or Lord preserve us, SUGAR. Feel free to go through the list of what I eat for breakfast and shake your finger at all the food sins: sugar, fat, eggs, potatoes, pesticides on the banana peel, caffeine in the coffee.
Food has powerful emotional resonance. I feel safe when my freezer is full of homemade soups, stews, beans, casseroles. I feel safe when Amanda goes off to school with a full stomach.
I have doubts about so many parts of parenting: the rules, the lessons, the consequences, when to be strict and when to loosen up. I’m not crazy about all the junk food in our lives, but I get in as many vegetables, fruits, whole grains and legumes as I can, and I don’t have any doubt that eating homemade meals together is good for our souls, and good for our family.
Have you ever taken the Meyers Briggs test? If you do, you’ll end up categorized along four different scales, including introvert/extrovert. This doesn’t have much to do with the usual idea that an introvert is shy and retiring while an extrovert is a party animal.Susan Cain's book, Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, made a discreet splash last year. I can’t bring myself to read it. I’m sure it’s full of important data, amusing anecdotes, and helpful advice, but it sounds too earnest for me.
The concept I remember from Meyers Briggs is that an extrovert gets her energy from being with other people, while an introvert charges her battery with solitude. No one would think it, since I can be pretty lively in company, but I am an introvert. I need huge doses of solitude to keep me going.
Once when Amanda was four and sitting quietly, I said something to her and she complained, “I was thinking, and now I’ve lost my think.” That’s how I feel. I like my thinks, and want to be left alone to wander around with them.
When I get home and see Joe’s car in the driveway I am likely to feel, “Oh good, Joe’s home.” When there is no car in the driveway I feel, “Oh boy, I’m alone.”
Once we were spending the evening with Mary Anne and Larry. I’ve known them over thirty years, and the four of us are as close to family as friends can get; among other things, we share late-in-life parenthood. I said to them, “Being with you is almost as good as being alone.” They understood that I was expressing profound affection.
Since I retired I have had lots of solitude. Amanda goes off to her school, Joe goes off to his. My day stretches out in front of me, available for puttering, reading, writing and thinking. I love that.
Still, I have discovered that you can get too much of a good thing. Recently I had minor surgery on my foot. I have a walking cast, but mostly I have to sit with my foot elevated. The pain comes and goes, and if I’m willing to sleep for hours, I can control it with drugs. With all this solitude and enforced leisure, you’d think I would write and write, read and read. Instead I’ve bought streaming Netflix, and I’m watching many movies, as well as multiple episodes of Parks and Recreation.
This experience confirms my belief that watching TV is depressing and addictive. And when I’m confined to a chair, solitude is no fun at all.
So while Sartre had a point when he said that Hell is other people, Milton also got it right. "The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven." I've got my dog, my cat, my ice pack, good books, good drugs, but if I can't emerge when I want to, my little solitary heaven becomes a bleak and gloomy place.
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NEXT POST SEPTEMBER 20
Note: The Feminist Grandma is taking a long vacation. She will return the Friday after Labor Day. Here is a post filled with pictures to tide you over.
The week after school lets out, with Amanda happily attending a three-week program at the Hippodrome Theater, I fly to Chapel Hill to visit my sister Luli for four days. I rent a car at the airport, and in twenty minutes I am parked in front of her notorious garden and her bright pink front door.
Luli is eager to show me the changes inside. She has replaced ancient carpet with gleaming laminate, and painted her kitchen in shades of Mexico, one of her favorite countries and cuisines. For many years Luli has avoided acquiring any more tchotchkes, but this attack of Mexican fever has overcome her resistance.
I carry my day pack upstairs, where my room and private bath, complete with coffeemaker, welcome me.
On the door: a cheerful greeting for a writer
When I come downstairs, Luli tells me her tentative plans for our visit. She’s emerging from a depression and has pulled a muscle in her hip, and I’m still battling a terrible cold, so we don’t plan too much. For my cold she has made her famous garlic soup. The first day I drink it my sense of smell returns. The next morning when I brew my coffee I can smell it - a small but important pleasure.
My visits to Luli are a combination of vacation and writer’s retreat. Though it is delightfully familiar, her house is not a home away from home. At home I have Amanda, the dog and cat, weeds and watering, laundry, and mountains of stuff waiting for clutter-busting. Here I have nothing to remember or take care of.
When I visit Luli I’m only responsible for me. As I do at home, I get up ridiculously early each morning, but here my time is not limited by the alarm which starts my day with Amanda. I sit up in bed and write until I run out of courage or steam, and then push myself further. In four mornings I write the first draft of this blog post, several practice poems, four pages of my novel, the skeleton of a goofy proposal to raise money for Girls Place with my writing, and some free-writing.
Luli has never had children and can’t understand why anyone does. Though she often says of this or that child, ‘she’s so funny,’ ‘he’s so sweet,’ she’s so bright and helpful,’ she always follows it with ‘and you know how I feel about children.’ She says we should have stopped with Adam and Eve. I don’t point out the obvious, that in that case there would be no Luli or Lizzy or garlic soup. Her reiteration of this idea whenever the topic of children comes up is probably no more irksome than my constant anecdotes about Amanda.
Luli’s house is a condominium. For several years she has planted a small garden - lettuce, tomatoes, herbs and flowers in pots and raised beds. Her garden became raggedy over the winter, and early this spring the condominium board notified her via a note in her door that they had received complaints, and she must dig up her garden.
Though bylaws of the condominium association forbid any gardening beyond pots on the back deck (well-shaded by woods) and the tiny front steps, gardens flourish all over the complex. Someone complained last year about someone else’s garden, but the board chair at that time was growing corn, and the complaint never went anywhere.
Luli was distraught. Her garden is one part of her multi-part plan to stave off depression. When depression nonetheless strikes, Luli’s courage and strength astound me. Though it is a lifelong struggle with a disease that saps all will, she has never given up.
Luli asked that the matter be put on the board’s agenda for the April meeting, and took three neighbors with her. Condominium boards, like all committees, have their stock characters: the tight-ass, the touchy, the ditherer, the bloviator. They have their intra-committee feuds and scars, and many more mouths than ears. Often their members are retirees eager for the opportunity to exercise power once again.
Luli and her allies sat through the two-hour discussion of her garden. She explained the importance of her garden, and her neighbor the geologist demolished the allegations about drainage. Afterwards Luli wrote a brilliant follow-up letter reiterating her arguments and addressing the board’s concerns. She received an email from the chair saying that he personally found her arguments very persuasive, and the board was considering amending the bylaws.
They continued to discuss gardens at length at the May and June meetings. They still have reached no decision, though in the minutes of the June meeting they advised residents not to begin new gardens until the matter is resolved. April was planting time, and Luli had not waited. Her garden thrives as it awaits the verdict.
My time with Luli is filled with visits, projects, expeditions, great meals, and talk. The first visit is with her neighbor Margaret. Both of them are in their sixties, and live alone. They take turns calling each other early every morning to make sure they are both still breathing. Last summer the three of us did an all-day expedition to the North Carolina Zoo, and we had such a good time that we resolved to do a Margaret expedition every time I visit. click Unfortunately, Margaret had a conference this week, so we make do with dinner together Tuesday night. Delicious Malaysian food: baby bok choy in a smoky sauce, crisp, oily roti with a cup of chicken curry, and a cold glass of wine.
Wednesday morning Luli and I go to the PTA thrift shop, where Luli continues her quest for Mexican tchotchkes. I sit on a comfortable couch with a bad book while she shops. Along with the tchotchkes, she finds the vegetarian cookbook she had hoped to get next Christmas, several coffee mugs, and a National Geographic filled with ancient Mayan paintings.
Wednesday afternoon the garlic soup begins to kick in. At her request, I have taken many pictures of her garden. I download them to her computer, and we cull them from 28 down to 4. Like me, Luli is decisive, and it was a pleasure working together. I show her how to compress the files for emailing, and she sends them to friends, her psychiatrist, and Joe, together with a poem. She resisted the temptation to send them to the condominium board.
Thursday there’s a new friend for me to meet - Stevie, whom Luli picked up at the gym. Luli makes one or two new friendships a year, as well as friendly acquaintanceships with neighbors, bus drivers and store clerks. She has a constantly growing circle of support for those times when she needs it, such as the terrible time when she almost died from a pulmonary embolism.
Stevie comes over in the morning and we paddle in the pool for a couple of hours, treading water and talking. We go to lunch at a deli down the road that has excellent matzoh ball soup. They call themselves a New York deli, but they don’t have chopped liver, so I don’t know.
After Stevie goes home I nap for over an hour. At Luli’s Retreat I sleep longer and better than anywhere else. When I wake up, Luli brings out her files of greeting cards. Her income has always been considerably smaller than her talent, so she looks for ways to supplement her Social Security. A few years ago she decided to sell her wonderful drawings as greeting cards. A gift shop agreed to sell them, and she produced about thirty different designs. Unfortunately, the project was not a success - her $500 investment yielded $400 in sales, and accordian files full of neatly organized cards. I like to keep a stash of greeting cards for all occasions, so I bought a bunch.
Luli's wonderful cards inspire the next project: my own Father’s Day card for Joe. I draw dainty hearts and tiny flowers on the front of a blank card, with six lines of heartfelt bad verse inside, while Luli makes dinner - lampchops, pureed cauliflower, and broccoli.
On Friday the temperature descends to a respectable 85 degrees, and we both have a lot of energy, so we go to Duke University’s Nasher Museum. Their special exhibit is works by Wangechi Mutu, a Kenyan woman living in Brooklyn: huge collages, installations, and sketchbooks. Her work is disturbing and exciting, like a mix of Hieronymous Bosch and science fiction: humanoid creatures pasted together from images of animals, human parts, serpents, machinery. click
Expeditions, projects, and friends are great fun, our meals are delicious, and undistracted writing time is a blessing. But the best part of my visits with Luli is the talk. We talk while we eat, while we’re driving, after breakfast in the morning, and after dinner at night, reclining on couches with our feet up. We talk about our lives: childhood, flaming youth, middle age and now. We talk about our parents, our brothers, books, gardens, and cooking, We laugh and grumble at climate change, disgusting politics, and the strange behavior of high-tech, low-manners people.
Friendship is wonderful - what would I do without my friends? But Luli and I have known and mostly loved each other for more than 65 years. As children we battled, as teenagers we plotted, and now, as adults, we support, advise, commiserate and nurture. Sisterhood is powerful.
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Next post: September 6
My reason for writing is to live other lives, and I do that by burrowing deeper and deeper, quarter inch by quarter inch, into the center of those lives.
Her characters are quirky, but everyone, if sufficiently known, is quirky. No one is boring. This is not to say that some people don’t bore us, especially if they won’t shut up, but if we could hear their thoughts, know their histories and habits, their joys and sorrows, we would find them unique and fascinating.
Though Tyler takes us deep inside her characters, the experience is not claustrophobic, because she achieves a perfect balance between action and response. (I’m currently reading a writer who writes one sentence of dialog or action followed by a paragraph of the character thinking about it. I’m choking.)
Many of Tyler’s books deal with marriage and family, the ties of time and affection that can bind people together despite conflicting expectations and desires, and radically different world views. She writes about the daily, often mundane incidents of ordinary lives - walking a dog, preparing a meal.
The incidents are peculiar, yet feel entirely realistic. In Accidental Tourist, Macon washes his clothes each night by stirring them around in the bathtub while he takes a shower. In Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, the darkest Tyler book and probably my favorite, Pearl, in a rage at her daughter’s messy room, drags all the clothes out of the closet and dumps the dresser drawers out on the floor. One of the funniest scenes I have ever read is at the beginning of Breathing Lessons, another favorite, when Maggie and Ira, her husband of twenty-eight years, are driving to a distant funeral and talking at cross-purposes - she wants to focus on their son’s relationship with his ex-wife, while he wants to understand how Maggie smashed up their car just as she exited a body shop.
Anne Tyler is an accessible literary writer. Her writing never intrudes, or distracts us from the characters and story. There is no self-indulgence here, no ‘Look at me, I’m writing’ pyrotechnics, just a smooth flow of language that carries us deeper and deeper into the characters’ lives. Still, because I write, I tend to notice and analyze a felicitous phrase, and from many years back I remember her description of a woman washing dishes as she watches her children out the kitchen window, “her careless ease with dishes, ceaseless care with children.’ I marvel at that - I’m sure that rhetoric has a name for such word play.
For years I devoured each of Anne Tyler’s novels when it appeared, and then for a while I lost track of her. I recently found her again, and read The Beginner’s Goodbye.
Aaron Woolcott's wife Dorothy was killed when a tree fell on their house and crushed her. Now, according to Aaron, she has come back. The novel is about healing from a loved one’s death. That description could fit a self-help book, but here there are no platitudes, no encouraging advice. It is a vivid, comical tale of loss and recovery.
Aaron begins his story with, “The strangest thing about my wife’s return from the dead was how people reacted.” Immediately I accepted his point of view, though for most of us the strangest thing would be not the reaction but the return.
She was unique among women, Dorothy. She was one of a kind. Lord, she left a hole behind. I felt as if I’d been erased, as if I’d been ripped in two. Then I looked down the street and saw her standing on the sidewalk.
Dorothy keeps reappearing - at the farmers’ market, in the street, outside their house. He is eager to see and talk with her, and looks for her everywhere. Aaron believes both that she is ‘real’ and that it is all in his head.
I had first tried to do without her - to.’get over’ my loss, ‘find closure,’ ‘move on,’ all those ridiculous phrases people use when they’re urging you to endure the unendurable. But eventually she had faced the fact that we simply missed each other too much. She had given in and returned. That’s what I liked to believe.
Aaron’s account of their life together is filled with his love and grief, his memories, his regrets. He argues with her each time she reappears, and concludes that although he loved her, their marriage was unhappy, or at least difficult.
He reviews their clumsy courtship, when he was eager as a puppy and she was unaware they were courting, and goes on to explain the many ways they were at odds with each other. He loved her for her lack of feminine charm - her frumpiness, her failure to nurture him - but also resented it. He was blind to her hesitant attempts to take care of him, to make herself more attractive. When they married she diffidently offered to wear a white dress -“I could do that. I wouldn’t mind.” and went on to describe it in detail, including a bouquet. And he responded “We’re neither of us the type for that, thank heaven.”
Other people - his colleagues at the vanity press where he is an editor, his neighbor, his sister - try to offer comfort and companionship, but he fends them off, much the same way he fended Dorothy off. Eventually he does 'find closure, get over it, and move on,' though he says
It’s like the grief has been covered over with some kind of blanket. It’s still there, but the sharpest edges are muffled, sort of. Then, every now and then, I lift a corner of the blanket, just to check, and -whoa! Like a knife!
Lately I’ve been preoccupied with loss, dreading not my own death, but the death of people I love. This is probably a function of my age. You needn’t be 65, or morbidly obsessed, however, to enjoy The Beginner's Goodbye. If you like fascinating, maddening characters, and you enjoy laughing out loud when you read, do try Anne Tyler.
In December my friend Iris went to New York for six months to be nanny to her newborn (and first) grandbaby, Amelia Jane. She would stay with her son Jordan, his partner Danielle and the baby in their two-bedroom Brooklyn apartment.
This plan evoked various responses from the Muumuu Mamas: ‘WHAT!?!’ ‘Omigod,’ ‘Isn’t it amazing that they asked you?’ ‘It will be an adventure.’ We ended up enthusiastic and supportive, but also convinced that Iris was going to need a break. We resolved to go to New York one weekend and kidnap her.
With money issues and schedule issues, only five of the Mamas ended up making the trip in April. We took the first flight out of Gainesville. The others were exhilarated, but Joe and I had run out of coffee, so I was uncaffeinated and subdued. I bought a cup the minute we reached the airport, and then realized I couldn’t take it through security. So they went ahead and I sat, happy alone with my coffee, until I heard Michelle’s laugh like rippling water, and my vacation began.
As we waited at the gate, a man overheard Michelle describing a report she had seen on TV about high-intensity cardio exercise, and he entered the conversation. Fully caffeinated, I felt the Muumuu rising, and offered to demonstrate the intense cardio I do when I have no machines. This entails a super-rapid bouncing on my feet while flailing my arms in the air. I heard the man say “I didn’t see it,” so I did it again. It turned out he was talking about part of the TV show, but I’m sure he benefitted from my thorough demonstration.
In Newark we took public transport - airtrain, New Jersey transit, subway. When I was little I would follow my parents through train stations and subways without a clue, and when in my fifties I finally negotiated the system alone, I felt like a grown-up. This time too, I felt able and free, competent in New York City. I’m too old to worry about looking like a tourist, since that’s what I am, and we asked directions of many smiling people. I think people like to see a gang of women “of a certain age” having a good time together - if they think that we're 'cute', so be it.
WAITING FOR THE TRAIN IN NEWARK - MARCIE, MICHELLE, JULIE, LIZ, PEGGY
The six of us (including Iris) had two rooms at a midtown hotel. Some guidebook had said midtown was a desert, but we found plenty there to enjoy. And I loved looking up and up, to the angles and curves, glass and blue and copper.
We all had wondered about six women sharing two rooms - that’s a lot of togetherness. But it went beautifully - it was like a slumber party, except that we fell asleep by 10. Michelle, a member of the Gainesville band Other Voices, wrote a song in the shower and sang it to us. Julie read us a poem by Billie Collins about beginnings, middles, and endings, and cried as she read. click We talked about our parents, our children, ourselves.
We did as much as we could, and ate as much as we could, in our four days. Our first night we met Iris’ son Jordan for drinks before dinner. I lived with Jordan when he was three - it’s a treat to see him grown. Only after he left to catch his train did we realize he had picked up the check.Our dinner reservations were across the street at Basso 56. We were warmly welcomed though we were half an hour early, we sat long over our meal and the waiters never rushed us, and the food was unpretentious and perfectly prepared.click
After dinner we walked, enjoying the buildings and store windows. Picture six middle-aged women in their sensible walking shoes looking into a store window at pumps with five-inch heels curved like a scimitar. Picture them breaking into song. Do your best to picture the smallest of them demonstrating her Irish jig in front of a huge sculpture of a rat. I tried embedding the video but alas, the technology defeated me.On a rainy morning we took the subway to the Tenement Museum on the lower east side. click There we toured the tiny apartment of the Moores, Irish immigrants who moved into the higher-status German immigrant neighborhood. The tour was very well-done, packed with ideas and information, and it helped us imagine their lives.
Afterwards we walked to Chinatown in the rain for lunch - the Muumuus tolerated my crankiness, though they were as hungry and tired and wet as I. The restaurant was almost empty, but the remaining diners were Chinese, which seemed a good sign. We couldn’t understand the waiter, and our happiness and enthusiasm had no effect on him, but he took our picture impassively, and brought dishes until the lazy susan was loaded.
While I took a nap, the others visited Grand Central Station. While I visited my niece and her family in Washington Heights - quite a transit adventure, as the subway was being repaired - the others walked on the High Line and ate a French lunch in the Village. One afternoon we went to the theater: Marcie, Peggy and Michelle to Once, a musical, and Iris, Julie and I to Old Hats, a clown revue by Bill Irwin, David Shiner and Nellie McKay. We were worn out, and ate in our room that night - the company was terrific, the food so-so.
Sunday was our day for walking around Brooklyn; we wanted to see Iris’ habitat, and of course, meet the baby. We decided to visit Ground Zero first; we took the subway, and saw the construction fences stretched around the site, the new World Trade Center rising in all its American hubris. Young men were peddling books of photographs. They pointed out the huge neighboring building that remains, and then pictures of the vanished towers, dwarfing it.
We walked down to City Hall and across the Brooklyn Bridge., The weather was warm and clear, the water sparkling.
At the end of the bridge we walked down and around to a neighborhood called Dumbo (down under the Manhattan bridge), to an outdoor weekend market of food vendors. We shared spring rolls, Ethiopian vegetables, fried fish, pecan pie made with bourbon, a huge black and white cookie, a salad.
Jordan, Danielle and Amelia Jane met us there. Danielle was instantly at ease, gracious and friendly, she and Jordan both besotted with their adorable baby, in a zebra-striped onesie and a blue denim hat. All the Mamas oohed and cooed and took turns holding the baby.
We walked the rest of the day, first along the water with a fine view of the Statue of Liberty, and then through Brooklyn Heights with a stop for shoe shopping.
Our subway ride to Bay Ridge was creepy: one of the tracks was blocked off for asbestos removal, and dust was flying. In Bay Ridge we sat out in the sun while Jordan served us grilled vegetables and wine.
Then we walked and walked and WALKED past beautiful fancy houses to a middle eastern restaurant, where we ordered too much food.
We walked home to Jordan and Danielle’s, and bless him, Jordan drove us back to the city.
My favorite parts of the trip? The food, of course. Theater. The wonderful streets of New York and Brooklyn. Meeting the baby and Danielle, checking out Iris’ temporary life, and seeing Jordan thriving. But the best part was being together on this adventure. Six women who care about each other, ages 55 to 67, all with children, many with grandchildren. We are quick to inquire, to comfort, to rejoice and grieve together, with tears ready to spring, but laughter the dominant note. Whatever would I do without the Muumuu Mamas?
Note: There are probably far too many pictures of Muumuus. But it makes me so happy to look at them that I can’t resist. (My resistance is way down anyway because I have a bear of a cold.)
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Next post: June 7
Note: Every writer of a certain ilk must write at least one piece about gardening. I am of that ilk.
For years I had believed, without really thinking about it, that it’s wrong to buy a garden. You're not allowed to have a nice garden unless you do the work yourself. I don’t know the origin of this belief, though it is certainly connected to a sense of guilt about our prosperity, as well as admiration for the gardens created and tended by my friends. But when we splurged with my retirement money and built a glorious pool and deck click, we decided to go whole hog and pay for landscaping.
Bill Copenhaver, a good friend of Joe’s, was our landscaper. I drove out to his nursery and walked with him among the plants, talking about what I like, and why. I wanted native or near-native plants that, once established, don’t need a lot of attention, that tolerate a bit of cold and plenty of heat. I like curving lines, bright flowers, and plants that don’t look too tidy.
A good landscaper is an artist who paints with plants. Along with expertise in plants, Bill has an eye for space, balance and color.
With gentle persuasion over several weeks, Bill convinced me that we should dig up the so-called wildflower bed, a round area in the middle of the yard which I had left un-mowed. It was filled with wild petunias, spiderwort, Spanish needle and fleabane.
A huge red and gold lantana had grown up there, and a magnificent beauty berry. In the summer, clematis (virgin’s bower) covered them with its soft fragrant flowers.
As I list all these I begin to regret that we destroyed them. But I have more clematis farther back in the yard. We moved the lantana and beauty berry to the bed by the shed, and the other flowers will pop up abundantly at the edge of the woods, where they will not be mowed.
I’ve never had a garden that didn’t eventually wither from my neglect. Now I know my plants will thrive. Bill and his son Asa laid drip irrigation tubes in all the mulched beds. He extended them to the citrus trees in the side yard, and the anise bushes at the fence line, which will protect my neighbors from the sight of my naked swimming.
It’s hard to say whether the pool or the garden is giving me more pleasure. I see beauty everywhere I look - out our bedroom window, all around the pool, back by the shed, around the corner of the house where the citrus and herbs are growing. I walk around every morning, sniffing, deadheading, weeding, peeking at buds, looking for the tiny fruits forming.
The Florida blueberries have little berries on them, behind a pink flower. On the drift rose there are blossoms and many promising buds. The yellow jessamine are reaching up to the trees and the border grass is filling in, the dune sunflowers spreading till their tips touch. The princess plant is back from the freeze; the gaillardia burn red and orange. The grapefruit, tangelo, savannah holly and fringe trees are blooming, scenting my afternoon swim, and more lovely smells are coming: native azaleas, lavender, rosemary, and pineapple sage.
clockwise from top: drift roses, gaillardia, grapefruit, blueberries, dune sunflowers
In sixty-five years I have made many decisions, some good, some bad, .. Together, Joe and I have made three which I believe I will never regret: to marry, to adopt Amanda, and to build our pool and garden.
Note: You can reach Bill Copenhaver, owner of LanDesign Landscapes, Inc., at firstname.lastname@example.org
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Next post May 24: The Muumuu Mamas Take Manhattan (and Brooklyn)
I have spent my adult life obsessed with poverty, and hanging around with people who have way less than enough. I believe it’s wrong that some have so much, and some so little, and when I bother to analyze the reasons, I find that the difference is rarely attributable to personal merit. click So I suffer from what people sneeringly call liberal guilt.I share all kinds of embarrassing personal information with you - about my messiness, my weak resolve, the complete and comical failure of my short-term memory - but the hardest thing for me to write about is our luxurious life. In the name of honesty, however, and out of my obsession with our latest adventure, I have to confess that we now have a swimming pool.
I’ve always wanted to have an outdoor living space. North Florida is glorious year-round, and it seemed a shame not to take advantage of it. We had a hammock in the backyard and a small wooden deck, but from May to September it was too hot and buggy to sit outside, and rain was a problem year-round.
Amanda gets the credit for suggesting we build a pool. I first seriously considered it when I was at the beach with the Muumuus: I jumped into the icy pool before dawn and felt all my old joints cry out in relief. Joe and I talked it over for months, and eventually decided that since we had the money, and it would make such a difference in our lives and health, we would go ahead and do it.
We began the process last April, consulting with contractors and making decisions about features and design. Joe did most of the work, and though I truly appreciated it, I had to struggle for patience with repeated discussions of every conceivable detail. click In the end we decided on a salt-water pool with solar heat, a lap machine, a big deck, and a screen enclosure with an overhanging roof, so we could be outdoors all year round.
First, three big trees had to come down. It was not a difficult decision. Two were completely hollow. The third, very close to the house, was a menace: the tree surgeon told us it would certainly come down on its own if we didn’t take it down. We had already had one tree through the roof click and weren’t eager to repeat the experience. Still, these trees had filled most of the sky in our backyard, and framed thousands of sunsets. It was sad to see them come down, but after they were gone, we discovered that the newly opened sky, still surrounded by trees, gave us many more stars.
The tree surgeon finished his work and the big machines came to stay for awhile. They rumbled around, tearing up the weeds and wildflowers, leaving a big expanse of bare sandy dirt. It was noisy, and there were men in the yard for months, but it was fascinating to watch the pool being built. I had a ringside seat from my recliner, and sat watching with a cat in my lap and a glass of tea. The best was when a concrete mixer moved into the driveway for a couple of days and sprayed concrete through a huge tube into the hole - they call it blowing the pool.
They built the deck, installed the pump, the salt chlorine generator and the lap machine. The electrician came and upgraded our circuits, hooked up the machines, installed lights and a fan. A solar contractor installed a bunch of tubes on the roof to heat the water, and a different company built a high screen enclosure. Finally they filled the pool with water from our garden hose - it took two days.
In November, for the first time, Joe and Amanda and I jumped into the cold water and played around for about ten minutes, till we were chilled to the bone. And then every morning before drinking my coffee, so that I was too sleepy to think, I jumped into the 64-degree water. I loved it, looking up at the stars and feeling the icy water on all my aching joints.
After ten days of this, I developed a terrible rash on my legs, arms, breasts, butt, and belly that itched like poison ivy.
A friend speculated that the curing concrete was affecting the water. Though our test strips didn’t show a problem, I decided to wait thirty days to let it cure, and try again. But when the time came, I kept postponing the trial. I was afraid the rash would return, and was bracing myself for the disappointment of a pool I couldn't swim in.
Finally in March I ventured in again, and all was well. Now Joe and I are swimming almost every day. In the evening the three of us cavort, and with the weather and water warming up, we’ll be inviting friends to play. Inside the screen, the bugs can’t get us, and when we get too hot, we just jump in the pool. Joe’s spacious design has given us a high open room, where we can sit under the roof and watch the wild Florida rains. Neither broken nest egg nor liberal guilt can diminish my delight.
Six months ago I told you how Amanda almost met Michelle Obama, and about my letter to Mrs. Obama. click I was beginning to wonder whether we would ever hear back, whether my letter had landed in the great pile that don’t get past her staff, never to bear fruit. Then, just a day after the election, a manila envelope arrived for Amanda, with the simple return address: The White House.
Remember how lovely it was to get mail when you were a child? Partly it was the magic - how did somebody know your name and address, and how did the letter get to your house? It had a certain Santa Claus-Easter Bunny-Tooth Fairy quality to it. I still feel a bit of that same excitement when I get a real letter, from someone I know, among the bills and ads.
So when Amanda came home from Girls Place and dumped her 100-pound backpack on the table, I said,
“Look, you got a letter from the White House.”
“It’s for ME?”
“I think it’s from Michelle Obama. Open it.”
Inside was a letter and an 8x10 color photograph of Michelle Obama and her dog Bo. Bo had been groomed to a toy-like fluffiness - it’s hard to say which of them was more stylish. Both of them had signed the picture.
Amanda was every bit as thrilled as I was. It didn’t matter that I’d secretly been hoping for an invitation to tea. Watching her take it in, her quiet pleasure as she put it carefully back in the envelope and took it to her room, was worth more than any invitation.
The next day, she gave me permission to take it away to be framed. The young man at my favorite frame shop was delighted with the project, and we chatted about Mrs. Obama as we deliberated over matting and frame. The result was, as framing jobs always are, more perfect than I could have imagined.
She took it to Girls Place, where everyone oohed and aahed. She took it south for Thanksgiving for all the relatives to see, and to a visit with her Mommy. Now it hangs in Amanda’s picture gallery, the hall outside her room, with her signed poster of the University of Florida women’s volleyball team, and her many paintings and cartoons.
Here is Mrs. Obama's letter:
As First Lady, I have no greater joy than learning about the remarkable students across our country. That’s why I am so happy your grandmother told me about your impressive accomplishments.
Every American, no matter what age, has a special role to play in leading us to a better tomorrow. That is why it is so important for you to study hard in school and stay active in your community. If you keep up the good work, I know you will have all the tools you need to achieve your dreams.
Keep up the good work, and remember I believe in you!
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Next post: April 26
I have been writing, or struggling to write, for over twenty years. I've encountered the usual obstacles: lack of discipline, lack of confidence, preoccupation with job and children, and the biggest one of all - the empty page.
Natalie Goldberg taught me to overcome the empty page with free writing: writing whatever comes to mind, letting words flow out of the pen without stopping to think, judge, or even punctuate. I have many old spiral notebooks filled with free writing. click
The empty page no longer scares me. I know that I can throw everything onto it, and when I come back later I will find nuggets of treasure amid the trash. And after twenty years I no longer lack confidence; I know that multiple revisions will turn a first dreadful draft into something that pleases me. But there are still the problems of discipline and distraction.
I recently discovered a practice that has helped me. It comes from Julia Cameron’s book The Artist's Way click, but I was introduced to it by another blogger, Mandy Stadtmiller. click Mandy says the process has helped her get rid of her censor, warm up her writer, and find connections she never expected. It even changed her life: in just one year, daily morning pages led her to get a divorce, lose 40 pounds, and revitalize her career.
I began doing daily morning pages in January, free writing three pages every morning in my spiral notebook, scribbling away about anything and nothing. Sometimes it is journal-ish, describing an event, or more often, working out my feelings about something. Often the Rhymer emerges and nonsense doggerel pours out. And sometimes I write "I dont wanna, I dont wanna, I dont wanna," or "Ive got nothing to say."
In the past I have tried writing for a certain length of time, but if my mind wanders, or I’m interrupted, I feel guilty that I haven’t really written for half an hour. With this process, I write three pages, regardless of how long it takes.
Since the beginning of January I have missed only one day of free writing. It has not changed my life as dramatically as it did Mandy’s, but then, I don’t want a divorce or a forty-pound weight-loss. (Twenty might be nice.) It has revitalized my career, or more accurately, brought my novel back to life, and helped me with my writing.
With this practice, I begin every morning with an achievement, and this small success sets the tone for the rest of my day. It gives me the motivation to exercise, and to do the pesky errands and chores that inspire procrastination. Most of all, it gives me the motivation to write.
Nobody but me cares whether I write. It is not a job that stands in front of me demanding I do it. In fact, writing a novel, which takes me three or four years, is more like encountering a series of crossroads with no signposts. Fear of taking the wrong road sometimes makes me a master of avoidance. So I need all the help I can get to walk into the unknown.
The uncensored rambling clears the sludge out of the pipes. Sometimes clear water follows - thoughts about my novel, or ideas for a blog or story. I scribble NOVEL or BLOG at the top of the page so I can find it later. (That’s also where I jot down daily to-do’s as they pop into my mind and attempt to distract me from the task at hand. Then when I am through, I have my day laid out for me. )
Free writing every morning gives me daily practice in throwing my Inner Editor out of the room. It’s essential to get rid of her, because whether I am writing fiction or essays, ideas and inspiration refuse to come while she's whispering, "That's stupid. Who cares? Why bother?"
I googled The Artist’s Way so I could link you to the book. After twenty years it is now a 'movement' - with a workbook, a video course, and a web community. Well, that’s fine. All I needed was the daily three pages in my notebook. I appreciate Mandy for pointing me to them, Julia Cameron for prescribing them, and Natalie Goldberg for showing the way
I'd love to hear from you. Maybe you have a writing tip? Click "comment," below
Next post: April 12
Unless otherwise attributed, all content is copyright 2013 Elizabeth McCulloch. You may use it if you include a link to this blog.
Gainesville, Florida is a Tree City, which means it has a plan, a budget, and staff dedicated to maintaining the tree canopy. click In my neighborhood the sky is filled with tree tops. Sunrise, sunset, moon and stars, fluffy white clouds or dark mountains of thunder-heads - all are framed by the curving branches.Though Gainesville prides itself on its tree canopy, trees are not an unalloyed blessing. Sweetgum balls threaten bare feet. Acorns make a racket on the roof. A giant sycamore across the street sheds 8-inch brown leaves every fall, littering gardens all around. Worst is the pollen. The daily paper gives us the pollen count, but we don’t need the paper to tell us it’s been high for the past week. All of our cars are covered in fine yellow powder, and even those who are not very susceptible are sneezing and coughing non-stop.
And then there is the lethal combination of old trees and hurricanes. In the summer of 2004, four hurricanes hit Florida: Charley, Frances, Ivan, and Jean. Frances and Jean came to Gainesville. Trees fell on cars, houses and power lines. The streets were littered with huge branches and trunks, and all over town people lost electricity for weeks. As Frances blew away, our power came back in just thirty minutes, and I said to Joe as we went to bed, “We’re so lucky to have lights; I feel as if a tree should fall on us or something.”
Not five minutes later our neighbor’s huge water oak obliged, crashing down on the roof right over our heads, breaking the beams and cracking the ceiling. We carried everything into the living room and slept on the couch. In the morning we saw the mess. The tree was over four feet in diameter. It leaned across our side yard and covered half the roof. It was dead, the core was rotten, and it was just waiting for a big storm to take it down.
The ceilings were cracked in all four bedrooms. We lived in the living room for the next nine months while workers invaded our home, drilling, hammering, painting, listening to right-wing talk radio, and reeking of cigarette smoke.
Several letters to the editor at the end of that terrible hurricane season had an I-told-you-so tone, sneering at tree-huggers and complaining about the money Gainesville spends protecting trees. But even with litter, sore feet, pollen and calamity, I remain a tree-hugger.
At the end of my street is a city nature sanctuary. It's about 155 acres, and includes Paradise Pond and Hogtown Creek Headwaters Nature Park. Paradise Pond is a stormwater drainage area, two clearings in the woods. The first is a small pond, or in dry weather, a mud puddle. The trees here are full-grown, filled with birdsong and hammering woodpeckers.
In the second clearing, spindly saplings, all nicely labeled, were planted in a ring around a long oval depression - I’ve never seen enough water in it to take it beyond soggy. My dog Trisket and I last went there four years ago. It was not an inspiring sight, and we preferred the pond, where she could splash around and get muddy.
North Florida spring begins in February, with redbuds, dogwoods, and yellow jessamine high in the trees. Now it’s early March and we’re well into spring, though just last week we had to cover all the tender plants at night and scrape ice off our windshields in the morning.
After a long hiatus that was bad for both of us, Trisket and I have resumed our daily walks, and we returned to the second clearing and the ring of trees. The saplings are now sturdy adolescents, big enough to cast a bit of shade. Like all the trees in Gainesville, they are leafing out in every shade of jade,bronze and brick. The leaves are still too small to conceal the graceful branches and bright blue sky.
Though most of the labels have disappeared, some remain: white ash in the olive family, pignut hickory in the walnut family, and an overcup oak in the beech family. How did an oak get into the beech family - intermarriage? I check the internet and find that oaks, beeches and chestnuts are all in the same family: fagaceae. Who knew? My ignorance is as wide as the world. There is one tree I know without a label: the winged elm, so called because of the cork wings along the twigs.
copyright 2002 Steve Baskauf click
We’ve recently planted a lot of trees in our yard: tulip poplar, red maple, Savannah holly, fringe tree, white marsh grapefruit and honeybell orange. I walk from one to the other, examining their buds, touching their still-smooth bark, dreaming their futures. On my walks with Trisket, it’s easy to keep my eyes on the ground, looking for broken pavement and other obstacles. But trees pull my gaze up to the beautiful sky. Whether I’m pondering or brooding, grieving or rejoicing, I feel blessed by the universe. I love trees.
Many thanks to Stefanie Nagid and Stefan Broadus, both with the City of Gainesville, for helping me find information. Here is a gift for you that I found on a morning walk:
Sunlight in branches,
Silence in birdsong:
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Next post: March 29
Unless otherwise attributed, all content is copyright Elizabeth McCulloch. You may use it if you include a link to this blog.
In 1970 I was a 22-year-old hippie with a 3-month-old son. The baby's father had gone off to Tahiti to build us a hut on the beach - his dream of the week. In the previous week’s dream I would support us while he finished high school, college, and a PhD in nuclear physics. The morning he left for Tahiti I told him I would not follow him. I had my own inchoate dreams. I was going back to Ann Arbor, where I had friends to help me get started again.With other young mothers, mostly single, I formed a baby group. We talked while the children played, and it soon became a consciousness-raising group. We read Our Bodies Our Selves. We examined each others’ cervices with a transparent plastic speculum, and tried to see our own in the mirror.
We all tried to figure out where we were going, and what we would do next. Even the married women didn’t want to be “just” wives and mothers. We would not be defined by a relationship to a man, nor hitch our wagons to a man’s life, but make our own course.
I had not been raised to support myself. The goal was a husband and children - I would take care of the home, he would bring in the money. That was what my mother did.
Now it was obviously up to me. So I went back to college. I would become either a children’s librarian or a lawyer, the former because I loved children’s books, and the latter because I wanted to change the world. By the time I finished college I had decided on law school.
I was a full-blown feminist, bristling with outrage. When I wasn’t wearing flamboyant minidresses, I used to wear brown overalls and hiking boots. I was quick to flare up at a man who assumed I was looking for a leader rather than a lay.My father and brother teased me when I visited. “Look at the feminist fixing breakfast for her baby.” “You’d better shut up or somebody will get kicked in the balls,” I snarled, and raced off to tell my sister what I'd said. We didn’t speak like that in our family.
The bristles are soft now, the edges and prickly bits smoothed out. Forty years and raising a son have done that.
Some 70's feminism seems comical now. Popular media defined the movement through symbolic acts, sometimes invented by the media, without acknowledging what the symbols represented.
Bra burning. Flikr.com click
The movement suffered from internal politics, and from a perception that it ignored issues of class, race, and sexual identity, and addressed only white, middle-class, heterosexual women’s issues. But though certain organizations were self-annointed or selected by the media to represent feminism, the movement of the 70's was anarchic, and way broader than any group. Women of all kinds were telling the truth as they saw it: Robin Morgan, Alice Walker, Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich.
True, these were intellectuals, mostly not subject to the indignities of welfare or the hourly wage. And many middle class women did focus on their own issues. Some professors, free to come and go on their own schedule, complained when a secretary stayed home too often with a sick child. They organized around barriers to tenure rather than the abysmally low pay of custodial staff.
But others: writers, lawyers, community activists and organizers, took on welfare, childcare, health care, domestic violence and rape. The women's movement I knew was not about a few leaders selected by and filtered through the media. It was about women supporting and valuing women. It was about changing the world so that women could be self-supporting and achieve power in the workplace while still valuing motherhood. It was about encouraging men to expand their role in the family and share as equal partners.
Some of the changes fueled by the movement are minuscule, some are being eroded by reactionary forces. Some made things worse for poor women. Welfare reform's fraudulent veneer of empowering women to work failed to conceal the intent to reduce welfare roles by any means necessary. But without the feminist movement of the 70's we would not have domestic violence shelters, rape shield laws, the glorious flowering of women’s history, and younger generations of women who assume they are equal to men: equally entitled, equally capable.From feminism I learned the significance of being an outsider. For me the most important issues are still those affecting the least powerful. I know that poverty and injustice crush men as well as women, and I am thrilled to work with the (mostly) guys living in tents in the woods. I care more about what happens to them than I do about access to tenure, or a glass ceiling at the top of a business ladder, though I know those matter too.
But as a group, I like women more than men. I understand and forgive our foibles. I see the world through a female lens, and value “women’s work.” My heroes are the suffragists, the welfare rights organizers, the women in the civil rights movement, and the countless women in the third world struggling against all the brutal forms of patriarchy. I am still a feminist, and proud of the name.
Johnnie Tillmon - welfare rights organizer click
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NEXT POST: March 15
I’ve become accustomed to having a partner parent. But, as I explained in my previous post, Joe went to Capetown for two weeks just before Christmas. With him gone, I fretted and fumed. Amanda was too much for me, and it felt as though all the tough parts of parenting were mine.
I brooded and sulked, and thought about our lives together, and finally I decided that I wanted Joe to take over supervising homework, the job I hate most. Amanda hates homework too, and she puts a lot more effort into avoiding it than doing it. Every week, her teacher and I would email back and forth, looking for strategies to make it work. School problems were taking all my creative energy. They caused tension between me and Amanda. And I never knew what I ought to be doing, how much I should be involved. I never got it right. Even in a rare session when she tried to be amiable, I couldn’t explain math to her. “Grandma, I don’t want to be rude, and I’m really listening, but I don’t understand anything you’re saying.”
After Joe returned, the house was full of holiday and guests, and I couldn’t find a time to bring it up. He was grading papers when he could fit it in, not a good time to ask him to take over more work. For days I silently argued with him, and rehearsed different ways of presenting the proposal. ‘It’s making me miserable.’ ‘I’ve been in charge since 2nd grade - won’t you do it for the rest of 4th grade and see if things improve?’ ‘I’m not doing it anymore, you’re in charge.’ I expected him to refuse; I prepared for a fight.
Our guests went out to dinner; we sat by the fire. He told me his troubles, most of them due to me. I listened the best I could, and finally told him what I’d been thinking. Without a pause, before I could give reasons and explanations, he said, “I’ll take over homework.” I was flabbergasted.
Amanda went back to school January 7. Joe met with her teacher, and told her he's taking over. Now he picks Amanda up every evening at Girls Place and she does her half hour of reading while I get dinner ready. After dinner she does math and other assignments, while he keeps her company. He is exceptionally patient, and a great explainer. Sometimes she balks. Sometimes he yells. But they both stick with it, and homework time is half as stormy and twice as productive as it was when I was doing it.
Joe is gradually overcoming her resistance. The other night while I did her hair she demanded that he write math problems for her on her whiteboard. After she did about six, he wrote an A+ on her whiteboard, with a nicely-drawn medal.
The change has affected her schoolwork, and her school behavior, but it’s done much more. The nightly work together has brought them closer. He’s taking over more - I sit back and bite my tongue as he tells her not to take more food than she can eat, to get her jacket, to wait for instructions before she tries to fix something. He’s much better at this than I am; he doesn’t take it personally when she misbehaves, just calmly corrects her, imposes the consequences, and moves on.
Amanda and I are getting along much better too. I have fewer things to bug her about. Watching Joe as a father is making me a better mother - I try to ease up on her, and don’t let indignation interfere with problem-solving.
A tiny piece of me is jealous of Joe’s skill and success. A huge piece of me is teary-eyed grateful. All my other family chores are lighter because they’re not weighed down by resentment. I’m the cook, and Joe has long been in charge of doing dishes and cleaning the kitchen. But when our usual routine of Joe and Amanda cleaning up after dinner was interfering with homework, I told him I’d take it over.
I was surprised by how much tension this relieved. I used to have sour thoughts: Why doesn't 'dishes' include iron skillets? Is he ever going to empty the dishwasher? Now I get the kitchen as clean as I want it, when I want it. Apparently he hated cleaning the kitchen every night almost as much as I hated homework. So he is equally grateful to me.
School is going better, Joe and Amanda are closer, Amanda and I have more sunshine, and the house is bubbling with love. But for me, the best is what this has done for my writer-self. My creator, problem-solver, ruminator are now free for my writing. I’ve had an explosion of energy in my work. In three weeks I’ve come up with nine topics for the blog and written two posts. I’ve researched and submitted queries to two agents. Most exciting, the novel I've wrestled with for four fucking years suddenly came clear; I intend to finish a plan by the end of April, and a first draft by January 2014.
I am elated, exhilirated, and endlessly grateful to Joe. Sometimes after Amanda goes to bed we lie on the couch and listen to music. Last night I looked at him and thought, “It’s amazing that I’m married to this man.” We will have our private celebrations, but I think he deserves a public hooray from the heart. Happy Valentine’s Day to my dear husband Joe.
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Next post: March 1; "Feminist"
Our Martin Luther King holiday weekend was filled with the sounds of "We Shall Overcome." Three men sang it in church, accompanying themselves with guitars and trumpet. At the birthday rally at the Bo Diddly Community Plaza, we all joined hands and sang it together. I turned around and was thrilled to see Amanda holding hands with her two friends, and singing out.
I have always thought of We Shall Overcome as a gospel song, but it never mentions God or Jesus. According to Wikipedia, it was a union protest song derived from a gospel song, and part of its tune is from the spiritual, No More Auction Block for Me. It shares with gospel the expression of faith, and like gospel it offers the solace and encouragement of a candle in the darkness.
I was 17 the first time I heard the song: January, 1965, my first semester at the University of Michigan, an all-night teach-in against the war in Vietnam. What 17-year-old, new to college, wouldn’t welcome the chance to stay out all night?
There were informative workshops, with maps and pointers, in small seminar rooms. I went to a couple, but mostly I joined the crowds of students milling around outside in the cold. At midnight we stood in a big circle on the Diag, holding lighted candles and singing We Shall Overcome.
In high school I had longed to join the freedom riders on the buses going south, though I was probably secretly glad my parents would never allow it. The teach-in was my first taste of protest, and it fed my inchoate longing to make a better world. I only dabbled in those days - a few protests in Ann Arbor and Detroit, the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago - but the spirit caught me.
In my 60's I'm still a child of the 60's, though the media claims we've all moved on. My watchword is “Light a candle AND curse the darkness.” I haven't lost an ounce of idealism, and most people I care about haven’t either. I know a whole bunch of gray-haired, wrinkled-y people who feed the homeless, carry peace signs, act for social justice and speak truth to power.
Amanda first heard "We Shall Overcome" a couple of months before, when we watched Eyes on the Prize. She had come home from school angry. “Why do they always have to talk about Black people and slaves and all those bad things that happened to them?” I had the sense that beyond Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, she had heard nothing of the Black heros and achievers. I stammered something about Dr. Charles Drew and blood banks, Benjamin Banneker and the design of Washington D.C., but I especially wanted her to know of the many thousands of people who were the Civil Rights Movement. So I bought Eyes on the Prize from PBS.
I should have screened it myself first. I had forgotten that it included the graphic image of Emmitt Till’s body, the pictures of the strange fruit hanging from southern lynching trees. But most of the first hour was about courage and strength and organizing. Our conversations since then, as well as her frequent singing of Keep Your Eyes on the Prize, reassure me that the movie, though strong medicine, was helpful to her.
After we came home from the rally and march, I told Amanda that many of the old people she saw there had been part of the Civil Rights Movement she learned about in the movie. They had marched, sat in at lunch counters, been the first black kids at all-white schools, gone to jail for the cause. And she said, “This might be wrong to say, but they were lucky. I wish I could have been there and seen how it was. I wish I could be part of it.”
Arlington, VA sit-in. crmvet.org
She has the idealism of so many children, the fierce desire to help, to do something that matters. When Joe can’t be home to watch her on Thursday nights, she rides the HOME Van with me. click click She’s happy as long as she gets to distribute candles and batteries, and she connects with polite friendliness to everyone she encounters.
I assured her the struggle is not over. There’s still plenty of work to be done, plenty of justice yet to be achieved. Who knows what Amanda will become - I can see her as a comedian, a child-care worker, a track star. I will be delighted if she grows up to be competent, kind and reasonably happy, with a life full of challenges and joys. And just maybe she will join the community of those who work for justice.
I'd love to hear from you! Click 'comments', below.
Next post: February 15 "A Valentine for Joe"
For over thirty years, we have celebrated Christmas at my house with visiting family and friends. I love it, but at Christmas my control freak - a bit over-developed from parenting - goes manic. I have to be in charge of everything, and everything has to be right. Like many cooks, I want control of my own kitchen. But my need for control extends beyond that, and I can fuss and worry through the weeks leading up to Christmas, and the few days of house-guests, as if comfort, joy and world peace were all up to me.
The schedule might change from year to year depending on everybody’s arrival time, but generally we decorate the tree on Christmas Eve. Christmas dinner is either Christmas Eve, or the day after Christmas. With Doris and Luli’s help I prepare a big feast, and gather family and friends around the table. Late breakfast on Christmas morning is followed by a morning of oohing and aahing over opening presents, with single malt, aquavit, Calvados or other delicious sipping drink, Luli’s dundee cake, Don’s famous cookies, and whatever chocolates turn up in the gifting. The afternoon is for lying around, playing with new toys, reading new books, and a long walk. No need to prepare a feast after the morning orgy - we go to our beloved Chinese restaurant for Christmas supper.
Christmas dinner: turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, gravy, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, a green veg and salad, and three pies topped with whipped cream. Don and Doris contribute plenty of wine.
Breakfast? When I think of Christmas breakfast I drift into Italian, though I don’t speak the language - abondanza, mangiare, que piacere - and gesture con brio like an orchestra conductor. A feast of scrambled eggs and sausage, fresh grapefruit, home-squeezed orange juice, herbed mushrooms, bagels and lox, homemade muffins or coffee cake, a plate of fresh pineapple and strawberries, tomato salad, accompanied by coffee and of course, sipping liquor.
This year everything changed. Luli, my kitchen co-conspirator and conciliatrix, visited in October instead of making her annual Christmas trek. And at the last minute Joe had a essential meeting scheduled in South Africa. He would be gone for two weeks, returning December 22nd. All of a sudden I was on my own for Christmas preparations and Amanda’s Christmas break. I was NOT a happy camper. I’ve done children and Christmas alone and with a partner, and the latter is way better.
The first challenge was to gussy up Amanda’s Christmas break. Girls Place does wonderful programs for the school holidays, with lots of expeditions. link My friend Mary Anne and her daughter Ariel took her to the Little Match Girl ballet. But I wanted us to have special treats together. We went to the Hippodrome’s annual production of The Christmas Carol - I’d waited till she was ten because it’s scary - and went clothes-shopping. Alas, Amanda redirected her anger with absent Grandpa to available Grandma, so she was kind of a Scrooge-ette during these treats.
I had other cool ideas for fun, but she got the horrible bronchial thing that’s been going around Gainesville. Meanwhile my own rage simmered and became the blues, accompanied by shame that I was struggling so without Joe.
I had planned to buy the Christmas tree with Amanda, but she was so sick we had to postpone it. Six days before Christmas there were no trees anywhere. At Lowe’s they were taking down their big white tent and said they had no trees left. But I saw five in the corner, and bought the least miserable one. Many bare branches, many brown needles. After a few days in the living room, poisoned by Amanda’s scorn and disappointment, it looked even worse. I put it out on the deck, and bought a fake tree. Apparently you have to spend an awful lot to get a nice one; at $70, this one was very straggly. I threw up my hands and decided Joe would have to deal with it when he got home.
My son wasn’t coming. Leah couldn’t make it from New Orleans because her car was iffy. No friends were available for Christmas dinner. With the group so small, no Luli to help, and Joe only here at the last minute, I decided that I would simplify. We’d lighten up the food and add more walks. Don and Doris come from Connecticut and crave walks in our lovely winter weather.
The first change was to lighten up the food. Five Cornish game hens marinated in olive oil, lemon, and rosemary as they thawed. I sauteed beautiful green chard with bright red stems in olive oil and garlic, while Doris was happily in charge of cooking up the brown rice with red peppers and onions. I’d planned a plate of tomato salad - Don and Doris annually rave over our Florida tomatoes - but to my dismay my tomato grower stayed home from the Saturday Farmers’ Market. So in the end the main course was reduced from eight dishes to three.
No wrestling still frozen giblets out of a turkey. No guess work on timing - four, four and a half, five hours till the turkey is done? - and last minute gravy-making. Game hens take barely an hour, pan juices are no trouble at all, and the gluttonous girl in me is as thrilled as Amanda at having a whole bird to myself. Dessert remained excessive, but preparation was easy. Not my two pies - pumpkin seasoned with tangerine zest, pecan with dark rum or maple - and Luli’s winter fruit and berry pie. But Mrs. Smith’s frozen apple pie, though a bit heavy on the cinnamon, was perfectly fine, and her cherry pie was bliss.
Breakfast would be grapefruit, eggs and sausages. Though for days I waffled (waffles? no, too much) over whether I shouldn’t at least make my low-fat blueberry coffee cake, I held fast to simplicity, and asked Joe to buy a pecan coffee ring at Publix. We had coffee and Amarula - a cream liqueur made from the berries of the marula tree, which grows in the miombo woodlands of Southern Africa. Every one loved it but me, and Amanda loved the label about the majestic elephants who feast on the marula fruit. I stuck to Calvados.
Next, I let go of gift-control. When Joe was a child, he and his four brothers each found a laundry basket of presents under the tree, and tore into them all at once. When I was a child, we distributed all the gifts and then, starting with the youngest (always me), we opened them. Over the years I experimented with various approaches to accommodate Doris’ desire for the oohing and aahing and sharing and thanks, and Joe’s increasingly itchy need to be done with the interminable ritual, which went on for hours. This year I asked him to consult with Doris and devise a plan. They did. Amanda distributed the gifts and we opened them one by one, Joe too generous and kind and fond of Doris to deprive her, and probably pleased that I’d let go of one more thing. It didn’t hurt that with fewer people, there were fewer gifts, and of course he had the Amarula.
I couldn’t entirely squelch my Mom-in-Charge, so I turned her attention from food and ritual to planning great walks.
On Christmas Eve, we took a picnic to Kanapaha Botanical Gardens. The weather was lovely, warm and overcast. We walked the labyrinth, Amanda leaping over the low hedges and startling the lizards. Then we took the long walk to the herb garden, sink holes, bamboo grove, lake, hummingbird garden, cactus garden and finally to the broad porch of Summer House, where we rocked and ate our picnic.
Joe had stayed behind to rest after his trip from Capetown. While resting, he solved the Christmas tree problem. He returned the costly, scraggly tree to Lowe’s, shook down and brought inside the brown and balding fir, found its best angle, and wrapped the lights inside, close to the trunk, where they illuminated rather than hid the ornaments. Like every Christmas tree, it was our loveliest ever.
On Christmas day, after opening presents, I wanted a chance for Amanda try out her new skateboard, the gift she’d been yearning for. The Gainesville-Hawthorne Rails to Trails was just the ticket - paved, and perfect for walkers, bikers, scooters. The trail to Hawthorne is hilly and curvy, so we took the route past Evergreen Cemetery and she began to master balancing, turning, and stopping.
Finally, there was the obligatory trip to the Alachua Sink on Paynes Prairie. Everyone was out in force for the post-Christmas walk: Gainesville natives, visiting families, turkey vultures, limpkins, moorhens, herons of all types, egrets and of course, the alligators, seeking the afternoon sun after a chilly morning. They were huge and numerous. Amanda bet we’d see 25, Joe bet more than. Joe won.
This was such a happy, non-frenzied Christmas. I missed some of the abondanza. But the only missing elements I’d restore are Luli, Joe's daughter Leah, and my son Eric. Maybe I am finally learning to let go.
I am very fond of this song, and can't think of anything better for the season. (Also, I'm exhausted - see below). Happy holidays to you all; I hope no one is offended by my failure to mention their particular religion.
I urge you to sing this to that fine old tune we all know and love)..
On the first day of houseguests my true love said to me, “I can’t wait to see Lu-lee.”
On the second day of houseguests my true love said to me, “Where’s my list?” and “I can’t wait to see Lu-lee.”
On the third day of houseguests my true love said to me, “Fetch Don and Doris,” “Where’s my list?” and “I can’t wait to see Lu-lee.”
On the fourth day of houseguests my true love said to me, “Eric comes tonight,” “Fetch Don and Doris,” “Where’s my list?” and “I can’t wait to see Lu-lee.”
On the fifth day of houseguests my true love said to me, “TOO MANY GIFTS!” “Eric comes tonight,” “Fetch Don and Doris,” “Where’s my list?” and “I can’t wait to see Lu-lee.”
On the sixth day of houseguests my true love said to me, “I’ll never eat again,” “TOO MANY GIFTS!” “Eric comes tonight,” “Fetch Don and Doris,” “Where’s my list?” and “I can’t wait to see Lu-lee.”
On the seventh day of houseguests my true love said to me, “Let’s go get Leah,” “I thought you said you’d do it,” “TOO MANY GIFTS!” “Eric comes tonight,” “Fetch Don and Doris,” “Where’s my list?” and “I can’t wait to see Lu-lee.”
On the eighth day of houseguests my true love said to me, “Who’s coming next?” “Let’s go get Leah,” “I’ll never eat again,” “TOO MANY GIFTS!” “Get it yourself,” “Fetch Don and Doris,” “Where’s my list?” and “I can’t wait to see Lu-lee.”
On the ninth day of houseguests my true love said to me, “We should change the sheets,” “Who’s coming next?” “Let’s go get Leah,” “I’ll never eat again,” “TOO MANY GIFTS!” “Eric comes tonight,” “It’s not my family,” “Where’s my list?” and “I can’t wait to see Lu-lee.”
On the tenth day of houseguests my true love said to me, “We should change the sheets,” “Whatta ya mean ‘we’?” “Who’s coming next?”“Let’s go get Leah,” “I told you I’d do it,” “TOO MANY GIFTS!” “Eric comes tonight,” “Fetch Don and Doris,” “Leave me alone,” and “I can’t wait to see Lu-lee.”
On the eleventh day of houseguests my true love said to me, “Here comes Matt and Amber,” “We should change the sheets,” “Whatta ya mean ‘we’?” “Who’s coming next?”“Let’s go get Leah,” “Where’d you put my wallet,” “TOO MANY GIFTS!” “You forgot the onions,” “Fetch Don and Doris,” “Where’s my list?” and “I can’t wait to see Lu-lee.”
On the twelfth day of houseguests my true love said to me, “I’ll see you later,” “You forgot the onions,” “Leave me alone,” “Whatta ya mean ‘we’?” “I told you I’d do it,” “It’s not my family,” “You said you’d do it,” “GET IT YOURSELF,” “Where’d you put my wallet?” “Where’s my list?” “I’ll never eat again,”and “I can’t wait to see Lu-lee.”
The Feminist Grandma is taking a vacation - I'll be back January 18
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People of my political ilk were pretty thrilled, or at least relieved, by the outcome of the last election.
All of us lefties had complaints about the first four years of Barack Obama, but we also spoke of his administration’s many unheralded accomplishments. Here’s one you likely never heard of: the No More Homeless Vets initiative, announced in 2009 by Eric Sinsheki, Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). click
In this initiative, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) provides rental vouchers, and the VA provides outreach and case management, as well as other services to support people once they are housed. This program is for people with serious mental illness, physical disability or substance abuse history. According to the VA, “Veterans with the most vulnerability are excellent candidates for this program.”
I am a veteran, not of the armed forces, but of forty years of studying, navigating, advocating in, and being subject to government poverty programs. So when I see the words “job training, employment assistance, mental health services, housing assistance,” I am not impressed. I know that all these programs can suffer from eligibility hurdles, peculiar rules, inept staff, and most of all, severe resource limits that let them serve only a small percentage of the people who need them. And they are targeted at people who are the hardest to help. After childhoods of appalling abuse, adulthoods of self-destructive behavior, and for combat veterans, a government-sponsored season in hell, some people will never be what we choose to call self-sufficient.**
Season in Hell
But last year the VA announced that the number of homeless veterans had been reduced 12% from 2010 to 2011. Since 2009 the VA-HUD program had successfully housed 33,597 Veterans in permanent, supportive housing, providing case managers and access to VA health care.
Of course they’re tooting their own horn. The VA blog contains plenty of complaints from veterans who still aren’t getting what they need from the system. click I have no way of evaluating the program on a large scale. But I have seen it succeed here in Gainesville, one person at a time.
For me this initiative is personified by the outreach workers who accompany the Home Van on our weekly campsite rounds. Many homeless vets are discouraged by bureaucracy and especially suspicious of the VA - they will not seek out services. So the VA workers go to the woods to find them. The workers find out what the veterans need - documents, legal assistance, health care, drug treatment, vocational certification - you name it - and come back week after week to move the cases along.
One by one, every month or so, one of the men or women living in the woods tells us, “I’ve got an apartment. I’m moving in next week.” John*** and Deena, both vets, have lived in a tent in the woods at least as long as the HOME Van has been going out. John is reserved, Deena more open. She always had a hug for me when I gave her socks; I’d say 'How’s it going?' and she’d shrug and smile. When she told me they were moving into an apartment, my first thought was ‘Oh no, we won’t see you anymore.’
Mad Mack is a scrawny old vet, a Led Zeppelin fan, who’s been housed for two years. He comes by the HOME Van many evenings just to see his old friends. I’m sure his case manager knows he smokes reefer - he makes no attempt to hide it.
Felipe is a blustering, obnoxious guy, eager to tell anyone who’ll listen why he’s better than ‘those bums.’ Last week he told us he’s about to move into an apartment. I was thrilled, as I had been for all the others. If The Feminist Grandma’s affection were key to being housed, there would be an awful lot more people on the street.
The VA has chosen the right way to help homeless veterans. They work one on one, encourage and nag, help navigate the mazes of different agencies, until finally the veteran has housing. Then they help with the many challenges in transitioning from camping in the woods to living inside.
The HOME Van has long experience with this approach. Our volunteers have helped a few people find housing, and then shored them up in various ways - dealing with bureaucracy, taking them to medical appointments, even managing their money. Though we have way less money than the federal government, we have the advantage of being ruled by our hearts rather than regulations. click
The VA Secretary says, “No one who has served this nation as a veteran should ever be living on the street.” But I hope the No More Homeless Vets initiative will be a model, and we will extend these services to the homeless people who are veterans not of the military, but of a thousand hardships most of us can’t imagine. Some will continue habits that middle-class people simultaneously frown on and indulge in.
But stoned or sober, employed or not, anyone is better off living inside, and the whole community is better off when nobody has to live in the woods.
** None of us is self-sufficient. We depend on family, friends, and an endless array of public benefits: roads, airports, police, libraries, schools, emergency response - that’s just off the top of my head, early in the morning.
*** All names are fake, of course.
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Next post: December 21 - a rerun
I love lists: shopping lists, lists of people invited to a party, but especially To Do lists. The lists are like a scaffolding around my thoughts, which are always under construction.
At busy times I live in a cloud of non-specific anxiety as To Do’s float and sink in my consciousness. If I catch them and write them on a list, the anxiety melts away, almost as if they’ve already been accomplished.
I have To Do lists all over the house, written on receipts, the back of envelopes, the margins of my writing notebook. The little scraps of paper often disappear into my purse or my car, but I know they exist, and can usually find them when I wonder what I’m supposed to be doing. Still, when Amanda discovered “sticky notes” on the computer I was delighted - here was a list that would never stray. More than that, it would be an electronic nudge, nagging me every time I went to the computer. Oh, what wonders I would accomplish!
I happily made a list organized into categories. I deleted and added diligently for several weeks. And then the list, which pops up every time I turn on my computer, became just part of the wallpaper, and I didn’t see it anymore. It lost its power. The five items remaining on it date from last summer, and I’ve returned to the scraps of paper.
There are two kinds of people: listmakers and Everybody Else. Perhaps the Everybody Elses have excellent memories, and whenever they think of another task it pops into place on a list in their mind. Maybe some of them truly live in the moment, and everything they do is spontaneous. But I have virtually no memory, and my thoughts wander here and there. And if I always acted spontaneously, my house would be littered with broken crockery and cookie crumbs, as I have a hot temper and a huge appetite.
Maybe some of the Everybody Elses don't feel compelled to accomplish anything. There is something very appealing about the concept of highly spiritually evolved people who can simply Be rather than Do, people who can be still in every part of themselves. But whenever I have decided to take up meditation, I have always put ‘meditate’ on my To Do list.
I feel a lovely sense of satisfaction when I cross an item off a list. There’s nothing wrong with that. But all these years, as lists littered my life, I have been thinking that when I had crossed off every item I would be through. All my jobs would be completed, every obligation met. I had never noticed that as I cross off one task, two pop up in its place, like Hydra heads or air potatoes. Last week the lightbulb went off, and now I realize that I will die with unfinished To Do lists. Life is an endless succession of things To Do.
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Next post: December 7 (omg, it CAN'T be almost December)
I recently read an astonishing email, a bride’s instructions to the ten women she was inviting to be bridesmaids. They included requirements that the women clear their calendars from February through August, respond to bride’s emails and calls within a day, and attend all three wedding events, in Vail, Vegas, and New York. click
I was horrified and amused, and was thinking fondly of our own wedding, when I suddenly realized that it was October 9, our thirteenth anniversary. (To be honest, I did have to look inside my wedding ring, where the date is inscribed, to be certain. I can never remember whether it’s the 8th or the 9th)
Our wedding was a modest, do-it-yourself affair. We rented the Boltin Center, a city-owned community center. When I booked it, the only hitch was that they were planning to paint and refurbish it, and hadn’t scheduled the work yet. What would we do if we made all our plans only to lose our location?
It is the only time I have ever engaged in municipal corruption. A close friend was high in city government. He assured me that he would see to it that the painting happened after the wedding. If we had asked him to expedite the work, that might have posed a problem, but delaying it wouldn’t trouble Buildings and Grounds at all.
When we made our guest list, I was struck by the size of Joe’s family. His list was huge: his daughter, four parents, three brothers and a sister-in-law, nephews, and dozens of aunts, uncles and cousins. Both my parents and all but two of my aunts and uncles were dead; I was unconnected to my cousins. I did have my son, my two brothers and their wives, my sister, and the seven nieces and nephews. It made me sad, and also made me fear being swallowed up by The Jacksons.
Planning the food was not too hard, though it was our biggest expense. A friend was a caterer, and she prepared a lovely lunch buffet of salmon, an elaborate rice pilaf, and a green salad. We served no liquor, as Joe didn’t drink, we saw no need for it, and we are both cheapskates.
Our wedding cake was the best I have ever had. Joe’s cousin Stephanie had her own cake business. She made us a three-tiered yellow cake with French raspberry buttercream, made with butter and eggs, not the nasty grocery store stuff. We topped it with my sister Luli’s Sculpy figures of Joe and me dancing together. She swears they are anatomically correct, but the clothes are sewed on so we couldn’t check.
Stephanie brought the cake layers and the frozen frosting down from Boston on the plane. The night before the wedding she and Joe’s brother Adam carefully thawed the buttercream with her hair dryer, and she assembled and decorated the cake.
I had no desire, at 51, to be married in white, looking like a big fluffy marshmallow. Instead I wanted a pretty red party dress with a swirly skirt. I looked through pattern books until I found just the one, with a fitted bodice, scoop neckline, and full gathered skirt. I had a hard time finding the fabric at JoAnn’s, but the Christmas prints were in, and I found a bright red gingham with tiny darker red pointsettia leaves.
My friend Nancy offered to make it, and I spent the night at her house in Orlando. When it was basted together and I tried it on, I couldn’t breathe. “I never knew you had such big boobs,” Nancy said. We fixed it by opening the bodice and making a triangular insert, with ornamental buttons down each side. I had planned to wear dressy flats with my party dress. But two days before the wedding I broke my toe, so I was stuck with white adhesive tape and sandals.
There were two bridesmaids - Joe's daughter Leah, 13, and my daughter Rebecca, 17. It never occurred to me that they should wear matching dresses or coordinated colors. Rebecca and I went shopping. I steered her away as best I could from the teen trollop look, and we bought a lovely black knit minidress with red and white trim.
Leah’s mother took her shopping. I believe she bought a cream and mauve floor-length dress; however, I never saw it. On our wedding morning, Naomi, Joe’s mother, called and asked if there was a Target in Gainesville. Leah had left her dress in Tampa. I didn’t envy Naomi. Leah was at the self-loathing stage, and shopping with her could not have been fun. But they succeeded, and bought a black dress with blue flowers.
I look at the pictures now and laugh. Rebecca’s dress barely covers the essentials. Leah is thoroughly swaddled. And I am gloriously decked out in my silver hair and the perfect party dress I dreamed of when I was twelve. I had no idea till I saw the pictures that my concept of pretty hadn’t changed since 1959.
A few days before the wedding Joe and I had the requisite prenuptial quarrel, when he told me he planned to go down to the Boltin Center the morning of the wedding to supervise the placement of the chairs. We were expecting about 100 guests, which made quite a tight fit. Joe had drawn a detailed diagram on graph paper for my friend Iris, who was in charge of setting up the room, but he felt he needed to be there to supervise. I had intended a quiet morning at home, just the two of us, to get in the mood for the wedding.
“I don’t need you to manage my mood.”
“Iris doesn’t need you interfering. We delegated this to her, and she’s very competent.”
“We just have different meanings of ‘delegate.’ To you it means just hand it over; to me it means you supervise the job.”
Now you just know I had to go look it up in our big fat dictionary to confirm that I was right. I hope and believe I didn’t race back to him with the definition. We fumed in separate rooms, and later Joe agreed to the quiet morning together.
The night before the wedding our friends Mary Anne and Larry had a family gathering for us in Mary Anne’s beautiful garden. My nephew Ben grilled burgers and dogs, and we hired a shucker to deal with two bushels of oysters. Mary Anne and my sister Luli made side dishes.
Luli was in heaven - I believe she ate three dozen oysters. Joe’s large family mingled with my small family, and there was food and love and happiness to spare.
Joe and I had our quiet morning together, interrupted only by Naomi’s call at 9, and then the doorbell at 10. His friend Jaleel had driven all night from D.C., and arrived to find it was too early to check into his motel, where he had hoped to take a nap before the wedding. We gave him fresh-squeezed orange juice and led him to the guest bedroom.
Joe, Leah, Rebecca and I drove to the hall and waited downstairs. And waited. Joe went to find out what was holding things up. It turned out Stephanie was rebuilding the cake, which was to be displayed in the back of the hall. The Florida heat had softened the frosting and the top two layers were sliding off. I don’t know how she did it, but she hid any repairs with fresh raspberries. Luli, who has been a food professional most of her life, was awed by Steph’s aplomb.
Finally Adam came to tell us everything was ready. The girls walked down the aisle, carrying flowers from a friend’s garden, followed by me and Joe. Patti, a dear friend who’s a notary, waited for us, and my oldest brother Don stood at the front playing the wedding march on his harmonica. I saw him, and our families in the front row, and friends from all over, and blubbered all the way down the aisle. I sniffle now as I think of it.
We exchanged slightly modified old-fashioned vows (losing ‘obey,’ adding ‘come what may’) and each read a poem, one solemn, one silly.
And then we were married, and the fun began. The band got everybody dancing by putting them in a circle and teaching them the cajun two step.
Everybody ate but me - I was too wrought up. We ran the gauntlet of blessings and soap bubbles, and went off for two happy days at the beach, accompanied by the top tier of the wedding cake.
I love going to the weddings of people I care about. I love the gathering of family and friends, and of course the dancing and eating. If it is over the top I share my catty thoughts only with sister Luli, who is intimately acquainted with the nastier aspects of my nature.
The point of a wedding is to make a public commitment, shared with and supported by the people you love. I prefer a wedding to be a celebration, not a spectacle. To each her own, but I’m sorry when I hear it conceived as an entertainment extravaganza starring the bride. It can be a lovely occasion, but it’s the least important part of the long adventure of marriage.
For forty-seven years, since I began living on my own, I have struggled to be a person who kept a tidy house. For forty-seven years I have failed, and now I give up. I don’t rob banks, wage war, or sneer at poor people, but I am a person who keeps a messy house, and that’s just the way it is.
Although I love tidy spaces and beautiful places, the real reason for my long struggle was What Will People Think. I don’t want people to think I’m a slob.
When my son was young and I was pretty young myself, family used to come down to Jacksonville to spend Thanksgiving with us. I welcomed house guests because it forced me to clean up. Before they arrived, I would tidy and clean to the best of my ability. But one fatal year I thought, ‘To hell with it,’ and my one incentive for a thorough cleaning was gone.
I’m much older now. My son is grown, and now it’s me, Joe, and Amanda. For several years a small, shabby house on five beautiful acres of land was available across the creek from our neighborhood. Joe had recurring fantasies of buying the land, fixing up or tearing down the house, and having a lovely, welcoming home with huge old camellias and azaleas, surrounded by woods and a creek at the bottom.
But Joe and I have different decision-making styles. He is deliberate (or dithering) and I am decisive (or rash). The idea of building or rebuilding a house together filled me with horror. There are approximately ten zillion decisions involved in remodeling, and I imagined years of discussing faucets and soffits.
Every few months Joe would bring up his dream again, and I would argue against it. The argument about our decision-making styles was unsuccessful (and provocative). The argument about the huge project we were already undertaking (Amanda) did not prevail. But one night I asked him to look around the front room where we were sitting together on the sofa, which is redolent of dog. I pointed out the television, which rested on several defunct stereo receivers and tape decks and was garnished with a towel. The wicker chair he had proudly purchased at a garage sale for $2.00, now Ouzel’s scratching post. Trisket’s cardboard carton of old bones.
And that was just the front room. I suggested that perhaps we are not the kind of people who live and entertain graciously in a beautiful home, like so many of our friends. Our decision-making styles are different, but our housekeeping is similar: sloppy.
Do I care? I like tidy. I like it when the yard, a collection of what you could euphemistically call ground covers, is mowed, when the wildflower (aka weed) bed is edged.
I love the sense of peace when the clutter is in tidy piles. But I don’t notice the piles that remain for months or even years. I’m capable of thoughtful, intentional decor. It’s just that things wander, land, and become invisible. For instance, look at this photo of our mantelpiece.
From the left we have a handcrafted baobab tree, a gift from Amanda’s adoption party, with a couple of matchbooks at its feet. Next, a box of thank you notes with an empty plastic bag tastefully stuffed behind it. The groovy silver plastic thing used to turn, making constantly shifting geometric patterns. The piece that broke off is barely visible next to it. Next, a lovely whiskered cat made by Amanda, three candles from our long-abandoned evening moment-of-silence ritual, and a collection of elephants and Buddhas. Above it all is a Christmas ornament made by Amanda when she was three, which hung for years above the door but recently graduated to the chimney.
Even as I write this I wonder about publishing it. I am appalled that I have not outgrown worrying what other people think. I don’t really believe in all the oughts and shoulds I’ve absorbed over the years, but they still nag at me. The pictures in the women’s magazines haunt me.
I’m sure I’ll continue with occasional clutter-busting projects.In a previous confession regarding clutter I hopefully asked, "Is it possible that at sixty-four I have finally conquered clutter?" click
Now I’m sixty-five, and the answer is no. But from now on, I’m no longer pretending to myself or anyone else that I’m a tidy person. I am a person with shoes in the middle of the living room floor, Bandaids in the middle of the kitchen table. And though it makes me uneasy to write it, I’m going to practice saying, "So what?" until I can really mean it.
The views expressed in this piece are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of her nearest and very dearest, Typepad.com, or the World Wide Web.
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Next post: November 9
Like 66% of the country, I am a fan of Michelle Obama. My enthusiasm is extreme, however, and there’s a reason for this. In October, 2008 I had my first knee replacement surgery. For weeks afterward, I lay on the couch, heavily drugged. Twice a day I did excruciating exercises, but other than that I spent the time reading, sleeping, crocheting, sleeping, and surfing the Web on Joe’s laptop.
Already a fan of Barack and Michelle, I began reading everything I could about the campaign. And then I found a website devoted entirely to Michelle’s wardrobe. click Only the Oxycodone can account for my fascination. I pored over the pictures, read the descriptions, clicked on links to the designers.
You’d have to see the way I dress to know how peculiar this all was. I have several pairs of baggy pants, a drawerful of beloved t-shirts and half a dozen printed rayon shirts from Goodwill in my closet. These, with strangely-painted shoes, make up the bulk of my wardrobe. click I also have four long cotton dresses from Deva, identical but for color, which I wear for dress-up, sometimes embellishing them with a scarf. click But Michelle inspired me. For a brief period I added a wide belt and a costume jewelry brooch, two of her signature accessories, to my dresses.
I had my second knee replaced in March, 2009, and my fascination with Michelle was revived. One afternoon, drugged and with nothing better to do, I made an intricate collage on a blank greeting card. It was a woman attired like me and Michelle (dress, belt, brooch), leaning on a candy-striped cane like mine. I wrote an enthusiastic note, expressing my admiration, and saying among other things that the collage was inspired by her, and Malia and Sasha might enjoy guessing the images I had cut up to make it.
I’m quite certain the card was promptly sent to the Secret Service for their Dangerous Loonies" file. But at the time I was sure her staff would select it to show to Michelle, and she would reply with an invitation for me and Amanda to visit her - she and I could have tea while Amanda and Sasha played in the new White House playground. Strangely, it didn’t happen.
Several years have passed. Like many lefties, I have been dismayed by some of Obama’s actions (drone warfare is unforgiveable), but I remain a fan. And Michelle has never disappointed me. I no longer check on the fashion website every week to see what she’s wearing, but I read anything I run across.
A few weeks ago Michelle Obama came to Gainesville for a political rally at the O’Connell Center, a sports arena.
That night I picked Amanda up after cheerleading at Girls Place and she said, "Grandma, Michelle Obama came to Girls Place and I wasn’t there!" I hardly believed her, but I went on line, and sure enough, the Gainesville Sun had 37 photos of Michelle Obama at Girls Place, mostly dancing with the younger girls to that inimitable song, Toody Tot.
Image: Rod C. Witzel The Gainesville Sun click
I was devastated. Girls Place is the most wonderful place you can imagine, full of love and empowerment, focused on "at risk" girls, mostly lower-income minorities. click Amanda goes there every day after school - she’s been going since kindergarten. But she had come straight home from school that one day, because she had two scheduled activities, and wouldn’t have time to finish her homework at Girls Place.
I was surprised by how upset I was. I’m usually good at letting go of what can’t be helped. But it really bothered me that MICHELLE OBAMA CAME TO GIRLS PLACE AND AMANDA WASN’T THERE! Then my friend Patti suggested I write a note telling her what had happened and asking if she would send a picture to Amanda.
So I did. This one was less manic than the collage card. I enclosed two absolutely irresistible photos of Amanda in Maine. I hope this note will not join the other in the Secret Service file, but will yield a photo and a note to Amanda signed by my very favorite First Lady.
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NEXT POST OCTOBER 26: SLOB: OR WHAT WILL PEOPLE THINK?
“So, do you have big plans for the weekend?”
A nineteen-year-old cashier at Publix asked me the question as she tallied up my vegetables. I had never seen her before. I was taken aback.
“Uh, I’m a pretty private person,” hoping she would get my meaning
IMAGE FROM ENVIROMOM.COM
The bag boy chimed in. I'd never seen him either.
"Oh, I can tell she’s the kind that goes with the flow, aren’t you ma’am?”
“Well, as I said, I’m a pretty private person.”
I walked out stunned, and all the way home I thought of what I coulda shoulda said.
'I’m having a triple bypass.'
'I'm planning to assassinate [any one of various political candidates].' That one would lead to complications.
'I'm going to eat potatoes, broccoli and carrots and curl up with People magazine.' (Yes, I bought People. Gabby Douglas was on the cover. I’m embarrassed to admit they can also get me with Michelle Obama or the British Royal Family.)
GABRIELLE DOUGLAS ON UNEVEN BARS AT 2012 LONDON OLYMPICS
Apart from the intrusiveness of the question, it poses another problem. My memory isn’t so good, and besides, I’m apt to be wool-gathering as I wait for my groceries. When yanked back and forced to think about my weekend, it’s quite a struggle. ‘What am I doing this weekend? Let’s see. There’s riding lessons, and Girls Place volleyball try-outs. I thought we’d go to church. Wasn’t there something else? I thought there was something else. Hope I wrote it down.’
When I answer the phone and it's my step-daughter she says, “Hi Liz, what’s up.” And I’m stumped. I suppose there’s a stock reply to this, but I don’t know what it is, so I scramble to compose a status report. “Oh, I’m just sitting on the couch and staring.” “Nothing much, just about to do laundry.” The boring bleakness of my report brings me down.
I’m used to “How do you do?” “How are you?” I know that the response is “Fine, thank you,” though it feels odd and dishonest to say it when I’m in trouble. I think maybe young people felt that traditional greeting had lost all meaning, and they wanted to be friendlier, so they came up with this.
My sister Luli tells me that at her grocery store the clerks are required to ask, “How has your day been going so far?” They clearly do it grudgingly. She went to the manager and complained that it was NOT a good idea, and he told her glumly that the directive came from higher up.
I’m on Twitter because a literary agent recommended it, but I’m hopelessly out of date. I’m not interested in the private life of total strangers (except the royal family) and I don’t want total strangers inquiring into mine.
Manners differ, not only across cultures, but across generations. And manners are artificial. Within broad bounds, polite is whatever contemporary culture says it is. If enough people no longer return phone calls, those of us who leave voice mails must just learn to text. If the new standard greeting is going to be 'Do you have plans for the weekend?' or 'How’s your day going so far?' I suppose I’ll have to learn the standard and meaningless response.
Still, I’m allowed to grumble to my sister and friends about the astonishing rudeness of the younger generation. And once you start doing that, you are well on your way to curmudgeonhood, a status I confess I find appealing.
I suspect the Inuit people don’t really put their aging parents on an ice floe to drift off and die. But if I am hopelessly and happily out of date, it may be time for me to go with the floe.
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NEXT POST OCTOBER 12: ME AND MRS. O
The first time I married I was twenty-one. I married a French-Canadian man I had known eight days, and I became Mme. Lessard. The second time I married I was fifty-two. I married a man I had known four years, and I remained Elizabeth McCulloch.
The first marriage lasted fifteen months, until I moved from Montreal back to Ann Arbor with our 3-month-old son. I delayed getting a divorce to protect myself from another impulsive marriage. But when I finished college and applied for law school I wanted my own name. So I filed for divorce and a name change.
By that time I was a full-force feminist. I wasn’t going to give up my husband’s name and take back my father’s. Instead, I took a name from my late mother’s side. I remembered her telling me that her grandmother McCulloch was a suffragist. With all those syllables, Elizabeth McCulloch sounds strong and determined, a name not to be ignored. So I changed my name, and Elizabeth McCulloch I have been ever since.
In the courtroom it only takes a moment to change your name. In reality, it takes years. At first you don’t recognize it. A law professor calls the roll. There is a silence, and then you say, “Oh, that’s me.” You sign your name and absent-mindedly use the old one, the way you write the wrong year on a check in January.
It was a few years after the divorce that I learned I had chosen the wrong grandmother. Chambliss was the suffragist. McCulloch was the daughter of the Confederacy who hid in a cave and ate rats during the siege of Vicksburg. No slouch, certainly, but I would not knowingly have named myself for a Confederate hero.
By the time I discovered my mistake, however, the name was mine. It had blended into the new woman I was becoming. I still struggled with self-doubt, and was still a chameleon in love, coloring myself to match each man. But at home I was the only decider, and at work I had to assert my client’s cause. I was learning enough about a particular piece of the world - poor people in the justice system - to hold my own with the opinionated and knowledgeable men of my family.
Name changes run in my family. My father rejected his father’s surname and took his mother’s, changing from Jacobs to Eder. My nephew did the same, going from Eder to Garcia. My sister Luli changed from Eder to Gray, my mother’s maiden name.
When we adopted our granddaughter Amanda she was eight. We didn’t think she should or would want to change her name, but on the other hand, we didn’t want her to feel we were unwilling to share names with her. With great delicacy, we told her that the adoption judge could change her name if she wanted him to. She didn’t hesitate. “I want him to name me Jasmine Victoria Barnhill.” We get the straight-face medal for not laughing. We explained that she can take that name when she is eighteen, but in the adoption she could only choose our names. She decided to keep her name.
I began writing fiction years ago, and thought I would use the pseudonym Elizabeth Gladly, a name inspired by Penelope Lively and Elizabeth Jolley. That way I could protect my privacy from the hordes of fans who would want to follow my every move, and I could write honestly without jeopardizing my professional standing. But when I retired, I didn’t have to think about professional standing anymore, and I’ve long since given up fantasies of hordes of fans.
My husband Joe married Elizabeth McCulloch. I don’t recall discussing it; I don’t think it ever occurred to him that I would change my name. We get junk mail addressed to Joseph McCulloch or Elizabeth Jackson. But people who know us know our names.
We tempt the fates if we say never, but I believe I’ll never change my name again. It is part of me the way food and drink, the air we breathe and the life we live become part of us. I am Elizabeth McCulloch.
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Next post September 28: Curmudgeoning, or Going with the Floe
It's been just over a year since the first post on The Feminist Grandma. Please give me an anniversary gift: urge three friends to take a look.
In August we went to Maine to celebrate my brother’s 80th and my nephew’s 50th birthday. Twenty-five years ago my brother Richard, a writer, and his wife Esther, a painter, bought a house on an island fifteen miles off the coast of Maine. Over the years four of their children have bought houses on the same island. It is an island of about 1300 year-round residents, mostly lobstering families. In the summer the population swells with artists and a few tourists. Richard and Esther spend the whole summer there, and their children coordinate so they have at least a week when they are all there, and the young cousins can hang out together.
The trip from Florida is long and complex. We spent the night in Jacksonville to catch an early flight to Boston, then drove five hours to Rockland, Maine, where we took an hour-long ferry ride to the island.
We arrived on Monday afternoon on the 4:30 ferry. The weather was hot, with bright blue skies. We left on Sunday morning on the 10:30 ferry. The island was fog-bound. Above our heads, the foghorn blasted every two minutes. We weren’t five minutes out when the island had completely disappeared, as though our week there were a magical time removed from our lives.
With no cell phone service or email, no TV or electronic devices for the kids, it was magic. We swam in the quarries, cold clear water that tasted clean enough to drink. We explored rocky tide pools. We kayaked in coves with fog hiding the open ocean, staying close to the shore to ensure we would find the way back. An osprey flew toward us, calling to distract us from its mate in a high nest.
There are seven cousins including Amanda, ranging in age from three to fourteen. (The eighth cousin is married with twin babies of her own; they’ll undoubtedly join the gang when they’re older.) The five older cousins run in a pack, moving from house to house, supervised by one couple or another. Amanda had three sleep-overs with the only other girl. On our final night Joe and I took them all out to dinner. The children sat by themselves at a table by the window. Amanda had her first whole lobster, which she demolished with glee; Joe and I sat with Don and Doris, my oldest brother and his wife, and our own lobsters.
We celebrated the birthdays with two family parties. Friday evening Ben and his husband Scott had a cocktail party at their rented A-frame on a cliff overlooking the ocean. The children disappeared up the cliff, and soon seven-year-old Gus returned crying. The big kids had run off and left him. There was a rumor that the test for inclusion was to define “puberty.” Amanda certainly knows what puberty is.
The next night there was a big party at the house that Michael and Fleeka and their two boys share with Luke and his daughter. Richard and Michael had crowns decked with ribbons and wildflowers. We sat in a row to watch the 2012 Family Olympic Games.
Amanda won the sack race. Then she and my niece Claire tied their ankles together and doggedly practiced running with three legs. But at Ready, Set, Go they hopped a few yards and fell laughing on top of each other. The suitcase relay was chaotic as teams kept mixing up their vests and hats. I took part in the rolling-down-the-hill race, and spun so fast I was sure I must be winning. But I arrived last at the finish line, and lay for a moment until the world stopped spinning.
I was very proud of myself to have participated and survived, but the real star of the hill roll was three-year-old Gabe, who rolled in circles like a little grub, and kept on rolling long after his rivals had crossed the finish line.
After the games, the ribs were just beginning to cook, so we saved them for dessert after the cake, and made do with burgers and dogs, salads and chips. When the mosquitos arrived, we went inside.
The children and several adults crowded into the playroom to rehearse the play, adapted by Maria, the oldest daughter, from The Wind in the Willows. Most of us were ducks, with cardboard beaks and tails, waddling and waggling in a line through the living room, down the hall, back through the playroom to the living room again. Mole and Toad and Ratty had recitations, and as each said, “Heads down, tails up,” we ducks all complied. Gabe was the star again, with a particularly fetching tail waggle.
After the play it was time for cake and presents. A spice cake, a chocolate layer cake with whipped cream frosting, and then gifts and homemade cards. A huge bag of potato chips and a leather-bound Bible for Richard. Smelly cheese for Michael, and a print from one of the local artists, to be selected by him. Don and Doris brought books for all the children - a beautiful book about horses for Amanda.
The guitar came out, and we sang while Amanda played tom-tom. Then we danced to a mix tape put together by my nephew Jamie, and Amanda was able to strut her quite astounding stuff. No sleepover that night; we bundled her back to the motel to get some rest.
Last spring we took Amanda to her friend’s birthday party. When we arrived a couple of hours later to pick her up, the mother urged us to stay: “We haven’t done the pinata yet, or opened the presents.” The children played in an inflatable pool with a hose and water balloons, smashed the pinata, and squabbled over the candy. We sat under the portable canopy, shelter from the fierce sun, with the other grown-ups, eating hamburgers and watermelon, drinking tea and beer.
We were the only non-family and the only non-blacks, and everyone tried to make us welcome. I talked knee replacements with the grandmas and aunts, and Connecticut winters with a boy who was heading to college up north. The birthday cake was a work of art, made by a 16-year-old cousin who has mastered fondant - a beach scene with umbrellas and clown-fish and bright blue fondant ocean. When we left, I told the mother and grandmother that it was the nicest children’s birthday party I had ever been to: “You can’t rent family at the Party Store.” I went home grieving for Amanda, who yearns for black family gatherings.
Amanda is in an odd and challenging situation, a black girl who began her life in tough poverty, raised now by old white people who have more than enough. Who knows how long Joe and I will last? I want her to have plenty of family when we're gone
Now she has three families. There is her mother’s family. She rarely sees her mother, but I keep her in touch with Grandma Cookie and her maternal aunt and cousins. There is Joe’s family - grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins. She sees them often, and the love is mutual. And there is my family, who welcomed her into the pack of cousins as though she had always been there.
A wise woman I know says “All families are multi-cultural.” I want Amanda to see many places and many ways of living. Exposed to so many different worlds, maybe she will never feel she belongs anywhere. But if all goes well, she will understand that she belongs everywhere.
THANKS TO JOSEPH S. JACKSON FOR THE PHOTOS FROM MAINE (and for making all the travel arrangements!)
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NEXT POST SEPTEMBER 14: "WHAT'S IN A NAME?"
Discreet. I like that word. In my mind I still partly live in my mother's world of short white gloves, hats and stockings, a world which was starting to crumble just as I was old enough to enter it.
I used to be very averse to exposing my private life to the world. That has changed since I began blogging, and I’m not sure why. For a long time I was embarrassed to let anyone know what I was really thinking. The Voice of The Fathers was VERY strong in me, condemning a lot of what I did and thought, and I’ve always half-agreed with them. Of course it wasn’t The Fathers, it was my father.
Now I write posts about fuck-me shoes and crude adolescent behavior on trains. I’m no longer embarrassed by my body - I''ve posted pictures of myself exercising in my underpants, and in a wetsuit like a fat black sausage. Below you’ll see me happily lumpy in a bathing suit. At 65 I believe I’ve earned my lumps.
A friend tells me that to write memoir effectively you must be fearless. But I am not fearless. I may seem to be baring my soul, or at least my past and my thighs, but I don’t write about my deepest sorrows or biggest regrets. I don’t write about the thoughts and deeds I’m most ashamed of, not for lack of material, but precisely because I am ashamed.
I am more careful now about other people’s privacy than about my own. When I write about friends or family I usually clear the piece with them. None of them has ever objected to anything I say, probably because I am still bound by ‘If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.’
I am particularly concerned about Amanda’s privacy. I keep her worries, fears, and misdemeanors to myself. I avoid writing much detail about her life, except the sunny innocuous parts.
I recently posted two pictures of Amanda as a toddler; you couldn't connect them to the nine-year-old she is now. I am leery of putting up contemporary pictures. I also have an ill-informed fear of the internet, and what might happen to a photo of her there, as though a stranger would track her down and harm her. I know there are real dangers to children on the internet, but I suspect the ones I fear are not real. Still, the Grandma in me yearns to share with the world the adorableness of this child. So at the end of this post I’ve put up a few more baby pictures.
In fiction I have always felt obliged to make up characters. I feel I'm cheating if I merely disguise someone I know. After I finished my third novel I wondered whether I would be a better writer if I were willing to go deeper inside myself. I created a character based on me, though the scenes and details were imaginary. But I found I loathed her.
I would not venture to defend any of these opinions, nor apply them to the work of other writers. Indeed, I don’t believe they rise to the level of opinion; instead, they remain in the warm, murky waters of feeling. They are mine, and I share them with you without any attempt to persuade.
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I'M GOING ON VACATION. NEXT POST: AUGUST 31.
This is a tribute to my dear husband Joe, who is father and grandfather to Amanda. We married when I was 51 and he was 40; we never expected to raise a child together.
I’ve been a single mother and a married mother, and married is way better. Amanda has two parents to love and support her, with different views and personalities. We share the work. We figure out knotty problems together. Most of all, we rejoice together as we watch her grow.
A single mother’s mood controls the emotional weather at home. When she is angry or depressed, tired or stressed, the child has nowhere to turn.
With two parents, when one is angry, Amanda can go to the other for comfort. When one of us is in a conflict with Amanda that is heading downhill, the other steps in and takes over. Joe is brilliant at distracting her from her angry stubborn stance until she is ready to cool down and comply.
Joe and I balance each other. By nature I am a little too controlling and rigid, he is a little too loose and laissez faire. This certainly produces plenty of conversations, some of them loud. But with the benefit of both our perspectives, I let go of a thousand things that don’t really matter, and he supports me on those I feel strongly about. We confer on complicated issues of how to handle behavior. (We both believe rewards rather than punishment are the way to go with this child, but that’s WAY easier said than done!)
I do most of the practical work and logistics. I set up schedules and systems for behavior, chores, homework, bedtime routines. I arrange afterschool and summer programs. I’m usually the driver and cook, the nurse when she’s sick. I’m the protective one, the strict one. I do more parenting; Joe does more playing. He’s more fun than I am.
Since she was very young, Amanda has loved the beach. The first time we took her was a blustery, chilly day, but that didn’t stop them.
Since then he has taught her to make drip castles and ride the waves. Last weekend they rented a wave runner and went charging around in the ocean at Miami Beach. He let her hold the throttle.
When she was little they’d play toddler hide and seek. She’d hide in the sofa cushions, he’d call “Where’s Amanda?” And she’d pop out crying, “Here she is!”
They’d dance in the living room to Bob Marley, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and he’d spin her high in the air. She’s too big for that now, 55 inches and growing, but in May they went to the Girl Scouts’ Father-Daughter dance. She had a most spectacular magenta dress with spangles, jeweled sandals, and rhinestone earrings. Joe said, “You look beautiful. But I think there’s something missing.” He opened the refrigerator and pulled out a wrist corsage of pink roses.
Joe’s grandfather taught him to explore nature; his father taught him to sail. Now Amanda shares his love of rocks and fossils, and they sail Hobie Cats at Lake Wauberg. He loves Disney World and wild rides as much as she does; I stay home and enjoy the silence.
When she’s earned enough screen time they watch videos and share popcorn. They love monster, space alien, and adventure movies. They also love nature movies (especially when one piece of nature eats another piece of nature).
His favorite part of fathers’ day weekend was going to see Men in Black II, and wading in the creek with the dog and Amanda. She was particularly impressed when he ran into a banana spider’s web.
My own father was not a romper. I remember watermelon seed spitting contests. I remember my little hands inside his big ones as we washed up before lunch. He made up stories about a little girl, her doll, and two dragons. But mostly I remember him as distant, a little scary, someone to be avoided. If he announced it was time go for a walk or a drive, I knew I was in for a lecture.
Researchers believe that fathers play a key role in developing girls’ self-confidence and self-esteem. A strong relationship with their father can be a shield or antidote to all the possible toxicities of their young encounters with boys. (This is not to say that daughters raised by lesbians suffer; research also suggests that children of lesbian couples have stronger self-esteem and self-confidence than those of heterosexual couples.)
I began writing notes for this when I was at a five-day writers workshop in St. Simons Island, Georgia. When I asked Joe he never hesitated, “You should go.” He is the main cheerleader for my writing and genuinely happy when it goes well for me. So I had five days in a motel by myself, responsible for no one and nothing but me. I never had that with the other children until they were old enough for sleep-away camp.
I won't claim that our life is nothing but hearts, flowers, hugs and smiles. The words killjoy and irresponsible have been heard once or twice. Sharing child-rearing and chores produces plenty of disagreements, and we have the occasional eye roll and mutter. But we always end by talking it over. We’ve both learned to listen. I know from experience that two heads and hearts are better than one.
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NEXT POST JULY 27
PREAMBLE: The Promulgation, Correct Style, and Enforcement of Guidelines at the University of Opakulla College of Law are governed by these Guidelines. These Guidelines are not intended by the Promulgatrix hereof to offend any person, place, thing, animal, vegetable, or mineral.
WHO: The responsibility for making exceptions to the policies set forth herein, as well as for enforcement of said policies, shall be borne by the Associate Dean for Regulation and Good Order (ADRGO).
WHAT: The general College of Law policy in regard to Promulgation, Correct Style, and Enforcement of Guidelines is as follows:
1. Guidelines shall be promulgated whenever a problem arises or whenever somebody
a. has nothing else to do OR
b. has a good deal else to do, but is in the procrastination phase of task achievement.
2. Guidelines shall be promulgated by those offices which have direct responsibility for the Subject Matter thereby governed, or by whoever is sufficiently irritated or otherwise stimulated by the issue therein addressed.
3. The Subject Matter of the Guidelines shall always be expressed with the initial letter capitalized.
4. Guidelines shall be written in the passive voice. Exceptions to this rule shall only be made by ADRGO when it has been demonstrated by the applicant for such exception, under the preponderance of the evidence standard, that her/his locutions have become so hopelessly ensnared by the passive voice that what was being attempted to be said by her/him cannot be remembered by her/him.
5. Persons found violating any College of Law Guideline once shall be chastised by whoever witnesses the violation. Such chastisement shall be promptly reported in writing to ADRGO.
6. Upon a second violation of College of Law Guidelines, the violator shall be required to undergo a two-hour written examination regarding all the College of Law Guidelines which have been promulgated up to the time of such violator's second violation. Said examination shall be conducted at 7:00 A.M. on the Saturday following the second violation.
7. Further violations of College of Law Guidelines shall be punished either by termination of employment, or by assignment to the violator of the responsibility of filing and cataloging all past, present, and future Guidelines of the College of Law, at the complete option and discretion of ADRGO.
I'm blissfully happy to announce that I won the Ruffin-Walz and Edna Sampson awards for best novel at the Southeastern Writers' Association Workshop.
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NEXT POST: JULY 13
(The information below, as well as the photographs of ancient sheela-na-gigs, comes from Eamon P. Kelly, Sheela-na-gigs, Origins and Functions. 1996. Country House, Dublin. It’s available used from Amazon; I couldn’t find it anywhere else.)
Have you ever seen Celtic Woman, the wildly popular Irish music group? They are five young women: wispy, sweet-voiced fairies in flowing diaphanous gowns. Though the membership of the group changes, the face on all their albums remains the same - a fresh-faced redhead with a flirtatious smile half-concealed by her long curly locks.
Celtic Woman is to Irish culture as the Kingston Trio were to folk music. Lush instrumentals soar behind them; their movements and facial expressions are carefully choreographed. They perform at night in old Irish castles lit by flaming torches, with dry ice sending fog into the air. But if you visit those castles and look carefully, you may find a different Celtic woman, earthier and more vital than these five, despite her 900 years.
Sheela-na-gigs are carved into the cornerstones and keystones of Irish churches and castles. Their legs are spread and their hands point to or hold open the vulva. The figures are emaciated, with big heads. Breasts, if any, are small. The meaning of the name is uncertain; it may mean old hag of the breasts, or old woman on her hunkers.
Sheela-na-gigs seem to have evolved from ancient exhibitionist friezes in Ireland and along pilgrimage routes in Europe. The grotesque bodies with swollen vulva showed Hell’s punishment for lust, a sin particularly attributed to women.
The Church considered the Irish sinful and licentious, and disapproved of their married priests, as well as their customary laws on divorce and remarriage. The Norman invasion of Ireland in 1146 was part of Rome’s attempt to rein in the Irish church. The sheela-na-gigs, single figures carved on blocks, began to appear in the next century, first on the cornerstones of churches, and later on keystones of castles above the entrance, apparently as a protective figure. From the 17th century onward many were deliberately destroyed, and only about a hundred remain. These have been well-rubbed around the vulva, indicating they were considered fertility symbols.
Eamon Kelly says “It is clear that a deliberate effort has been made to represent sheela-na-gigs as grotesque, hideous and scary.”
I guess it’s in the eye of the beholder. I like the lady with the braids - but is that a moustache, or teeth? This other one looks quite contented, and given the position of the fingers of her left hand, may be about to be positively blissful.
I never liked the crotch shots in Hustler magazine; their airbrushed smiles and curves seemed unconnected to the wrinkly folds and openings below, as though the women had no idea what was going on down there. But I love the sheela-na-gigs. To me they say “This is mine, like it or lump it.”
Our sexual organs are hidden from view, and many young women may not know what they look like. When I was fourteen, about a year after I started my period, I decided to try tampons. Though I had examined the little drawing on the Tampax instructions, I didn’t realize there were three different holes. With great difficulty and a lot of pain I inserted the tampon in my urethra. I knew something was wrong but didn’t know what until I tried to pee and the tampon emerged soaked with urine. Fifty years later the memory still makes me squirm.
The word pudenda derives from pudere, Latin for “to be ashamed.” In the early 1970's feminists celebrated female sexuality. In our consciousness-raising-cum-baby-group in Ann Arbor our bible was Our Bodies, Ourselves. We were determined to overcome shame and self-consciousness. With a hand mirror and a transparent plastic speculum, and a lot of laughter, we took turns trying to see our cervices.
My sister Luli has spent a lifetime being outrageous. One Christmas she gave me a delicately molded silver pendant of a vagina dentata. (A toothed vagina, and you don’t want to know.) It resembled a shark’s mouth. I wore it for about an hour, but I had to take it off - it felt too hostile.
When I told Luli of my discovery of sheela-na-gigs, she naturally had to make some, out of Sculpey® baking clay. Mine is delightfully exuberant. I used to hide it in a drawer, but now that Amanda is older I keep it on my desk. I have given her a hand mirror. I hope she will explore every part of her body, and rejoice in her sexual self.
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NEXT POST JUNE 29
A few weeks ago I went with my sister Luli and her friend Margaret to the North Carolina Zoo in Ashboro. It was the best day I have ever spent at a zoo. Certainly the weather helped: blue sky, a steady breeze, high 70's. But it was the zoo itself that impressed me.
The North Carolina Zoo has the advantage of space and a temperate climate - almost 1400 acres in the rural Piedmont, an hour and fifteen minutes from Chapel Hill. It was built in the mid-70's as the first natural habitat zoo in the U.S. designed by Dwight Holland, a painter and designer who directed the zoo for many years. In the 80's it was expanded using a master plan by Jon Coe, a landscape architect who specializes in zoos.
The zoo has two sections, North America and Africa, about a mile and a half apart as the snake slithers. We began with the cypress swamp in North America, and the contrast with other zoos was immediately apparent. The first exhibit we passed was various carnivorous plants - sundew, pitcher plants, Venus fly traps. The signs had lots of information, but not so much as to be daunting, and the ranger there answered all our questions. I loved learning a bit about the animals’ environments as well as the animals.
About 1100 animals of more than 200 species live in habitats designed to mimic their natural environment and give them as much space as possible. All the habitats are behind glass; the larger ones with ample seating - benches and risers - to let us wait for the animals to appear. Walking from one exhibit to the next we were usually in the shade, and many paths were landscaped to feel like woodland trail. The most impressive habitats were the western prairie, with elk and bison, the chimpanzee habitat, and the 37-acre African savannah, with elephants, rhinos, ostriches, antelope and gazelles.
From a visitor’s point of view, the disadvantage of large habitats is that you may not see some of the animals up close and personal, or indeed not see some of the animals at all. We arrived at the prairie and climbed up to the top step of concrete risers. A vast expanse of waving grass and wildflowers was all we could see until Luli, our best spotter, saw what might be an elk’s head in the distance above the grass. A twitching ear confirmed it. A little later we realized that what looked like some sticks next to her were velvet-covered antlers. We waited, enjoying the fresh air and wild flowers.
Human families came by, the children clambered up the steps, looked around, and moved on. Then the female elk stood up from the clump of grass and ambled toward us along the perimeter of the prairie, walking the length of the glass and disappearing into the brush at the far end. The male followed her. He was molting and his shaggy winter coat was in tatters. Finally, a calf came along - we had had no idea it was there. We probably sat fifteen minutes watching for elk, and then we moved on, past an extensive poster display about the loss of the great prairies, and modern day attempts to use the land for agriculture while preserving what native grasslands remain. We stopped at another viewing point, and under a distant clump of trees saw a dark mound that was the back of a sleeping bison.
We had come on a Monday, to avoid crowds of children - I thought field trips were usually on Fridays. But the first thing we saw when we arrived were about seventy-five children from the Liberty Preschool, and we saw many school groups throughout the day, as well as parents and grandparents with preschool children and babies. Despite, or perhaps because of the long walks between exhibits, and waiting sometimes in vain for a glimpse of the animals, the children and hence the parents were calmer and better behaved than I have ever seen at a zoo.
Certainly the children acted like children - growling at the cougars, yelling “Wake up!” at the alligators - but they were far happier and less whiny than I usually see at zoos. They had lots of room to run, and weren’t tugging at their parents to move from one animal to the next. Spotting the animals soon became a game for them, far more interesting than watching a couple of bears or lions pace in a small cage.
We came to the endangered red wolves. Their habitat was shady - brown ground covered with dry leaves, a shelter in the distance, a pond up by the glass. We couldn’t see any wolves. A father asked his family - “How many frogs can you find?” Together we found eight huge bullfrogs in the murky pond. Then a little boy spotted two ears behind a log, and patiently instructed me - “over there, see, just past the big tree”- how to find the wolf. Soon someone found a small red wolf over by the fence and we watched him for awhile.
The Sonoran desert, in a huge glass enclosure, was as hot as it sounds. But it was fun looking for the critters - birds, lizards, snakes - and the designer had thoughtfully provided grates in the path that blew cool air up at us.
We had arrived at the zoo at 9:30. We were desperate for coffee and ready for lunch by the time we finished the North American section. We bought bad pre-sweetened cappucino and sat in the shade at the Junction Plaza, where they have the special attractions - animatronic dinosaurs, the dino theater, a carousel - and a tram to take you between the two sections. There was a restaurant, but Luli had prepared a picnic lunch - roasted vegetables, bread and cheese, grapes and strawberries. When we were through, we took the tram to “Africa.”
We walked away from the tram, rounded a curve and suddenly saw three giraffes eating from tree tops and two zebras grazing the grass. One family was more absorbed by the turtles swimming in the pond. At the chimpanzee exhibit we watched from a distance as a toddler chimp climbed repeatedly onto a nursing mother’s head. Each time she gently lifted him off and set him on the ground. Eventually another grown chimp, a male I think, came out of the woods and enticed the toddler away with a game of stick throwing.
At the lemur island, there were a couple of red-ruffed lemurs and six ring-tailed lemurs. According to various internet sources, ring-tails hang out on the ground while red-ruffed are arboreal. Lemurs have not been informed of this. The two red-ruffed lemurs had the good sense to race around on the ground, but all the ring-tails were up in a most astonishingly spindly tree, mere twigs. They leapt and climbed from limb to limb.
I was pretty tired by the time we got to the savannah. We sat on benches on the large overlook. We saw one huge elephant far in the distance, and a couple of white rhinos, a kudu, a water buck and a Thomson’s gazelle a little closer. Canada geese were everywhere, voluntary residents.
When we all agreed we were through zoo-ing, Margaret looked at her watch. It was ten minutes to five, and the zoo closed at five! We had happily stayed almost eight hours, way longer than I usually stay anywhere, but now we had visions of spending the night in the African savannah. We went down to the service road and flagged down a truck. The kind driver radio-ed a ranger in a golf cart, who came to pick us up and take us back to the tram to North America, where we had parked. We saw many families walking, but he gave us a ride because we are old. White hair is such an advantage!
There are all sorts of policy and ethical questions in regard to zoos, of course. click How do we justify penning up animals for our edification, even with the most enlightened approach to zoo design? Why is the state of North Carolina supporting a zoo that very few of its citizens can get to or afford to visit? I can just imagine the legislature that passed that appropriation - I wonder who was the legislator from Ashboro!
I know (sort of) the counter-arguments: breeding programs, preserving endangered species, fostering respect for wildlife; jobs, tourism, economic development. Jon Coe, who has generously shared information since I found him on the internet, says, "Regarding the morality of zoos, we may fault the original animal collectors, but I see today's zoo animals as "refugees from the human war of conquest over nature." Most zoo animals (at least mammals) were born in zoos and couldn't survive release back into the 'wild' even if any suitable areas could be found which aren't already at full carrying capacity. I believe when zoos can deliver the kind of experience you and your friends had and the quality of animal welfare NCZ provides it's animals, then they are justified. But there certainly are zoos and especially some private collections I cannot justify."
I've told you about my favorite parts of the zoo. Some of the habitats struck me as small, and I don't know about caging gators and other reptiles that aren't endangered. I can’t sort it all out, and I don’t believe I have to have a carefully-reasoned moral stand on every subject. Sometimes I just seek my pleasures in the world as it is. If you like visiting zoos, the North Carolina Zoo is worth the trip.
Note: In research for this post, I became totally absorbed in Jon Coe's website, where you learn a lot about zoos, and also can see his poetry and sketches from the field (ie wild areas few of us will ever visit).click
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Next post June 15, "Sheela-na-gigs"
I love to read about pioneer women, about their struggles and hardships, their courage and strength. They worked so hard, found joy in tiny simple things, and came together in celebration and sorrow.
I know that the pioneers made their lives by destroying the world of the Native Americans. This sentence would logically be followed by a “but...,” and an excuse, but I have no exculpatory statement to make about the brutal imperialism of the westward movement. I only have my belief that we must take history as we find it, and my awareness that my own comfortable life is built on the oppression of others, at home and around the world, and so I won’t cast the first stone.
Elinore Pruitt Stewart was a homesteader in Wyoming when she wrote these letters to her friend Mrs. Coney. She had been working in Denver as a laundress, furnace tender and housekeeper to support herself and her 4-year-old daughter Jerrine. She hated the city, and wanted her own homestead, so she placed an ad seeking employment on a ranch, with the idea she would learn about ranching life as she established her claim. A Scottish homesteader, Clyde Stewart, hired her as a housekeeper for his small cattle ranch.
Elinor was an adventurous young woman. She says, “I wanted to just knock about foot-loose and free to see life as a gypsy sees it. I had planned to see the Cliff Dwellers’ home; to live right there until I caught the spirit of the surroundings enough to live over their lives in imagination anyway. I had planned to see the old missions and to go to Alaska; to hunt in Canada. I even dreamed of Honolulu ...I aimed to see all the world I could, but...first I wanted to try homesteading.” As it turned out, homesteading was all the adventure she had, and all the adventure she needed.
Clyde Stewart is a comical character in her letters. “Mr. Stewart is absolutely no trouble, for as soon as he has his meals he retires to his room and plays on his bagpipe...It is ‘The Campbells are Coming,’ without variations,...from seven till eleven at night. Sometimes I wish they would make haste and get here.” Six weeks after her arrival, she married him. She kept it a secret from Mrs. Coney for a year, ashamed that she married so quickly. “But although I married in haste, I have no cause to repent. That is very fortunate because I have never had one bit of leisure to repent in.”
Even after marriage she was resolutely independent. She had filed her first claim, on the land adjoining Mr. Stewart’s, soon after she arrived in Wyoming, and planned to file for another 160 acres in the desert as soon as she had enough cash: $40 to file and $160 after five years. “I should not have married if Clyde had not promised I should meet all my land difficulties unaided. I wanted the fun and the experience.”
In her first summer in Wyoming, Elinore mowed hay for over two months. She also milked the cows every day, did all the cooking for the ranchhands, and put up sixty pints of jellies made from wild fruits.
When the ranchhands departed for the roundup and there was a lull in the work, she went camping in the mountains with a saddle horse and pack horse, Jerrine riding behind her. On their second morning they woke to find new snow weighing down the tree branches that sheltered them. It was still snowing hard, and she says, “I began to think how many kinds of idiot I was. Here I was thirty or forty miles from home, in the mountains where no one goes in the winter...”
But as they rode through the snowstorm they came across the little farm of Zebulon Pike Parker, an 80-year-old sheep farmer who was too tender-hearted to sell any of his thirty sheep. They spent the night with him, breakfasting on coffee, venison steak, hoe cakes and honey, and then he accompanied them on the two-day journey home. Zebulon and Elinore became the best of friends, and later she reunited him with his southern family - he was illiterate so he had not been able to stay in touch.
Elinore made friends of all ages and types. When the ranch hands were out on the range and there was no one to cook for, she was free to go off on adventures. With Mrs. Louderer, a lonely German widow, she prepared a Christmas feast for the shepherds in a dozen distant camps. Because cattle men and sheep men were enemies, she didn’t mention her Christmas plans to Clyde, but after cooking for several days to keep her household supplied, she set off to Mrs. Louderer’s ranch.
“I never worked harder in my life or had such a pleasant time... We roasted six geese, boiled three small hams and three hens. We had besides several meat loaves and links of sausage. We had twelve large loaves of the best rye bread; a small tub of doughnuts, twelve coffee-cakes...and also a quantity of little cakes with seeds, nuts and fruits in them, - so pretty to look at and so good to taste...I had [brought] thirteen pounds of butter and six pint jars of jelly, so we melted the jelly and poured it into twelve glasses.” They drove across the country in their four-horse sled - “Tam O’Shanter and Paul Revere were snails compared to us” - delivering twelve boxes of Christmas feasts to the delighted shepherds.
Elinore was quick to help a a stranger in need, who then became a friend. She organized a huge birthday celebration for an ancient woman who was raising her granddaughter. The feasting went on all day and the guests left the next morning. At the end of a long letter telling the story, she mentions that she has been very busy, arranging the funeral for "a dear little child [who] has joined the angels."
A year and a half later she confessed to Mrs. Coney that it was her own son who had died. “For a long time my heart was crushed. He was such a sweet, beautiful boy. I wanted him so much. He died of erisypelas. I held him in my arms till the last agony was over. Then I dressed the beautiful body for the grave....Little Jamie was the first little Stewart. God has given me two more precious little sons. The old sorrow is not so keen now. I can bear to tell you about it, but I never could before.”
Elinor’s life was filled with love, adventure, humor, friendship, and incredibly hard work. She relished life even when she was engulfed by sorrow. “When you think of me, you must think of me as one who is truly happy.” She lists her blessings: “my home among the blue mountains, my healthy, well-formed children, my clean, honest husband, my kind, gentle milk cows, my garden [with] loads and loads of flowers...chickens, turkeys and pigs which are my own special care. I have some slow old gentle horses and an old wagon. I can load up the kiddies and go where I please any time. I have the best, kindest neighbors and I have my dear absent friends. Do you wonder I am so happy? When I think of it all, I wonder how I can crowd all my joy into one short life.”
Note: Elinor made ample use of poetic license in her letters. According to information on wyomingtalesandtrails.com, Stewart left her first husband after a year of marriage. He was still alive when she married Clyde. Though she presents herself as a southerner, she actually grew up in Oklahoma. And Clyde was born in Pennsylvania, rather than being an immigrant from Scotland. She lost the right to file a claim when she married, so her claim had to be made in the name of her mother-in-law, who was a head of household.
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Next post June 1: The North Carolina Zoo
I am not always a nice person. “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all,” was one of my mother’s favorite sayings, but sometimes...
Joe and Amanda and I went out to dinner Friday night to celebrate the end of the FCAT’s, Florida’s terrifying standardized tests. We had a wonderful time at Harry’s downtown. Joe had a weird martini, I had a normal martini, and Amanda had a Shirley Temple. She was in high spirits, and decked herself with Mardi Gras beads, which she shared with the large plaster alligator next to her.
After dinner we headed to Mochi, where the frozen yoghurt is self-serve and the toppings range from blueberries through chocolate chips to Cap’n Crunch. Amanda boogied down the street ahead of us, but waited for us at the corner before crossing.
On the corner by Mochi we encountered a fair number of people who call themselves Warriors for Christ. A young man with a crewcut was standing on a milk crate. I believe he had a megaphone. Proselytizing Christians irritate me anyway, and anyone who calls himself a Warrior is down ten points with me before he opens his mouth.
He did open his mouth, and addressing me, asked, “Do you care about Jesus?” I should have just said no, of course, and continued on my way. Instead I replied, “I don’t give a shit about Jesus,” (I may have used the f-word instead; I’m not sure.) “You’re going to go to hell,” he told me, as I walked on with Amanda. “And you’re going to take that little girl with you. You have a responsibility to that child.” Amanda made some gesture which I caught out of the corner of my eye; I believe she was flipping a bird.
Amanda does believe in God and Jesus, and cares about them both when she thinks of it. I asked her whether that boy’s Jesus was the one she knows, and she said no. We agreed that the only Jesus worth knowing is all about love, not hate and aggression. After we left Mochi, we crossed the street to avoid the asshole, and encountered another young Warrior who asked if we would like a leaflet. I politely told her no thank you, and we went on.
Now the last thing I need is a callow youth telling me I have a responsibility to Amanda. As I fume about it now, I make lists of all the responsible things I do that are focused on her, and wonder whether he’s ever been responsible for more than a goldfish.
Although I am not a believer, I usually try to respect the beliefs of others. I do find it annoying that strangers feel entitled to interrogate me, but I know that many Christians feel that it is part of their duty to spread the Gospel, as it is the only path to their Heaven. They’re supposed to be fishers of men (and women and children too, I suppose).
So I put up with them when they call to me on the street, and even when they knock on my door. Part of me is sorry I was rude, and gave a rude example to Amanda. But a bigger part of me gets a giggle whenever I think of it. Joe was happy that we had dinner AND a show. I think perhaps I should drink martinis more often.
Next post May 18: Letters of a Woman Homesteader
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This post is dedicated to Sandra Lambert, my inspiration and friend, who has been awarded a well-deserved residency at Yaddo.
Every writer dreams of a writers’ retreat, a place where she* can go for a month or so to be free from the demands of family and friends and the chores of daily life, a place where she can spend all day as she chooses. In her dreams she chooses to write.
There are many writers’ retreats now, in various idyllic settings in the United States and abroad, but perhaps the most venerable and prestigious are The MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire and Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, New York. Established at the beginning of the last century, these two have hosted the luminaries of American literature and other creative arts, both those who have entered the canon and those who are unknown or long-forgotten, as most writers are.
The problem with Yaddo and McDowell and all the other retreat centers is that they are highly selective. They pride themselves on providing space and time to writers of the highest quality; most successful applicants have already been published in prestigious literary journals. Where can the poor scribbler, toiling daily with her pen, unheralded, unsung, perhaps unstrung, find support for her efforts?
We are proud to announce that, thanks to the generosity of the Clarence T. Yucko Foundation, there is now a place for the mediocre writer to dally with her muse. The Foundation has endowed the Yucko Artists’ Colony and Retreat in Heavenly Haven, Florida. Every summer in August thirty fortunate writers will be afforded the opportunity to dedicate themselves solely to their art in a four-week, all-expenses-paid residency. They will enjoy solitude during the day, and fellowship with other writers at night. We predict that from this caldron of creativity great quantities of verbosity will rise like steam.
Applying to Yucko
In line with egalitarian principles, Yucko’s philosophy is that the average person of no particular talent should be recognized and rewarded. Recall Senator Hruska’s famous words defending the nomination of Harold Carswell to the Supreme Court. “...[T]here are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers. They are entitled to a little representation, aren't they, and a little chance?” We believe the same principle should apply to writers.
The primary criterion for the Yucko Residency is prolixity. Along with the application form, the application calls for a writing sample of no fewer than 50,000 words. Of course the admissions committee will not read these, but the word limit will be strictly enforced, and any submission below the minimum will be discarded. (Applicants may, however, provide a stamped, self-addressed envelope for the return of their materials if they desire.)
And because our intent is to reward those writers hitherto unknown, publication by any non-subsidy publisher or literary journal shall disqualify candidates. A hist ory of self-publication or blogging, however, is no bar to admission.
Yucko is housed at the former Sleep Eze-y Motel on the outskirts of Heavenly Haven, near the interstate. This charming lodge has thirty-five fully-furnished guest rooms equipped with coffee-maker, microwave, and small refrigerator, with bathrooms en suite. Each room contains a single bed, a dresser, a desk, and a chair. The rooms are air-conditioned with window units, so that each resident may control the environment. Mosquito netting is provided, though residents should bring their own insect repellent. We recommend repellent with DEET of 25% or higher.
To avoid distraction, television and telephones have been removed from the rooms, but the spacious lobby, which also serves as the breakfast room, contains a television. Cell phone reception is spotty in Heavenly Haven and not to be relied on. Residents may use the telephone at the front desk. Should residents need internet access, Wifi is available at the McDonald’s four exits down the interstate.
Daily life at Yucko
A continental breakfast is served in the lobby between 8 and 10 each morning, with juice, pastries and cereal. A box lunch will be provided each day so that residents may eat in their rooms, undisturbed. A typical lunch box contains a can of Vienna sausages, a package of soda crackers, and a juice box. Dinner will be purchased from Domino’s Pizza, McDonald’s or our local Asian restaurant, Chinee Takee Outee. Residents will vote each morning for that evening’s restaurant, and may make their dining selections from the take-out menus available in the breakfast room.
“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” The old saying applies to Jills, too! Fortunately, Heavenly Haven offers countless diversions for the writer who needs a break from her labors. We have resurfaced the Sleep Eze-y swimming pool, which will be open until 9PM each evening. In addition, shopping at the Dollar General, bowling at Tamiami Alleys, and communing with nature at the municipal park along the Caloosahatchee River are all available within easy walking distance.
A short drive down the interstate brings the more venturesome residents to Lake Okeechobee, a tropical paradise which was the setting for the hurricane in Zora Neale Hurston’s novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. Fishing and boating are available, as are hiking and biking on the Lake Okeechobee Scenic Trail, more commonly known as the LOST trail.
Are you an as-yet unpublished writer? Do you struggle for time and energy to nurture your gift? Apply now to the Clarence T. Yucko Foundation. Your dream retreat awaits you this summer.
*Although the Foundation will not discriminate on the basis of gender, the admissions criterion regarding publication will undoubtedly favor women writers. Therefore we refer to our applicants and residents as “she.” click
I'M STILL VERY EXCITED SO I'M PUTTING IT ALL IN CAPS. TO READ MY FIRST PUBLISHED STORY, CLICK HERE:CLICK
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Babysitters are hard to find, but on Wednesday night Joe and I finally have a real date, all by ourselves, while my friend Nancy takes care of Amanda. We have dinner at a little Italian café in Macintosh, and sit long over our wine. On the way home I say, “Shit. I forgot.” I forgot to pick up Amanda’s bike at school; she rides the bus to Girls’ Place after school so I bring her bike home each day. Joe takes me home, switches to my car, with the bike rack, and drives off.
After he leaves: Shit. I forgot the eggs. (Let’s save space and minimize vulgarity. click From now on it’s S.I.F.) I boil ten dozen eggs every Wednesday night for the Thursday HOME Van run. click Okay. I’ll buy the eggs tomorrow on my way to school, where I shelve books in the library, and boil them before going to HOME Van Central to make cheese sandwiches.
In the morning I look for my car key; Joe took it off the key ring to get the bike. I grab the car key and the key ring and head to the store, buy the eggs, and go on to the school.
At the school I stash my purse under the seat, grab my keys and lock the car, and go inside to do the shelving. But they’ve already started setting up next week’s Book Fair, so most of the shelves are inaccessible; all I can do are the biographies. Great. I finish the job and head to the car, glad that the time pressure is eased. I have to be at HOME Van Central by 10, and it takes about an hour to boil, chill, and pack up the eggs.
At the car I discover what you probably already knew. S.I.F., and locked the car key in the car. There it is on the console, laughing at me.
S.I.F. my phone. I could use the phone in the school office, but my Triple A card is in my wallet, in my purse, locked in the car. I’ll have to go home and use Joe’s.
It’s only about 3/4 of a mile to the house, so I have a nice walk in the cool early morning, thinking I’ll start the eggs cooking, call Triple A, then ride my bike back to the school and wait by my car for rescue.
S.I.F. The eggs are in the car. I’ll do the eggs in the afternoon, after I’m finished with sandwiches, and drive back to HOME Van Central by 3, when Bill and Mike pack the supper bags. Then I’ll have an hour and a half to kill downtown before the van run. I can go to the library and get San Francisco guidebooks; Amanda and I are going to California for spring break to visit my son and two nephews.
S.I.F. to charge my phone; it’s down to one bar. Joe wakes up and tells me there is a spare set of keys on the sideboard - I thought I had returned them to my neighbor Kate. (I borrowed them back from her the last time I locked myself out of the house.) I don't think my current car key is on that ring, but it’s worth a shot. Joe offers to drive me to the school, but I’m all set to go, and I figure the bike ride will unfrazzle my nerves.
At the school I try the key - no good. I call Triple A. Though I tell the dispatcher my phone may die at any minute, she is required to take me through all the questions.
I load my bike and Amanda’s bike onto the car, and sit on a rock to wait. It’s less than half an hour, and I get a good start on writing this post.
S.I.F. hasn't really ruined my day. True, I lost my leisurely afternoon, and I will probably get a letter from Triple A threatening to raise my rates if I make another service call. But I had a nice time at the library looking for guidebooks, and got a new novel by Bharati Mukerjee. Joe met me downtown for Mochi, the addictive self-serve frozen yoghurt. I had half an hour drinking an iced coffee and reading my new book at Maude’s (across the street from, and way better than, Starbucks.) And I found a topic for my blog. click
I AM VERY EXCITED SO I'M PUTTING IT ALL IN CAPS: READ MY FIRST PUBLISHED STORY AT CLICK HERE
Next post April 20: Yukko, a Writers' Retreat
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