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.
Delightfully familiar: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