She Dug Up Her Mother?

I just read an article in The Times about the subject of ‘serial’ memoir-writing that names author Kathryn Harrison, who has penned a number of autobiographical works over the course of her life. At one point she is quoted as saying she knows she needs to write yet another memoir when a perspective on her life becomes ‘an obsession’. For example, she writes, “It was only when I was on the phone with the funeral director out in Los Angeles, asking him to dig my mother up, burn her up and send her to me, that I thought to myself, ‘You’re behaving weirdly now. Perhaps you should start taking notes.'” The result: The Mother Knot, a book in which she finds peace of mind about her challenging relationship with her parents by scattering at sea her dead mother’s ashes.

This topic of trying to figure out – and write about – what happened to you really hit me as I read about it just now because it’s what I have been doing for 40 years: namely repeatedly beginning upon – and repeatedly not finishing –  a memoir of my own, filled with the often dramatic turns that both my life and the life of my parents and grandparents took over time.

I myself have never once thought of having my mother’s remains disinterred. Far from it. I like thinking of her in that old cemetery.  “Oh mom! You love that pale violet suit that you’re wearing still! ” I think even now, more than 30 years after she left us in such haste. I picture her there and recall how, on the cold winter day we left her on that little hillside,  I bent and scooped up a handful of the dirt that had been dug from the open grave. My cousin saw me, sidled over and said, “WHAT on EARTH are you going to do with THAT?”

I didn’t know the answer to that. I just know I needed it and I have still, in a slender glass vial. It is the more dear to me because it is dirt from the same grave where my grandfather has lain since 1958, with my sister and I looking on in our little Mary Janes and our new white gloves. It is dirt from the same grave where his bride lies, the young woman who was my grandmother, though neither of us had the chance to enjoy that bond since she died in the impossibly long-ago year of 1910.

Having this vial of earth comforts me yet, as does the fact that I still have the bright blue blouse my mother was wearing, all dressed up and feeling fine, when she died in my living room in at her own 80th birthday celebration. I still have the little purse she was carrying that December afternoon. I still have her cane. So much happened to her, both as a child and as an adult. So much happened to her two parents. How can I not wish to get it all down on paper, and say how it affected me, and how these effects have played out in my own life?

One day last year when I told two dear-to-me 16-year-olds only a part of this story their eyes widened in near-incredulity I suppose because truth really IS stranger than fiction and who among us, when young, can believe all that will happen to us in life?

Will I ever get it all down in words then? I have less energy than I once did so I have begun to doubt that I ever will, and maybe it doesn’t matter. I had a dream shortly after my mother died. In this dream, the two of us were trotting down a wide set of stone steps together, creating that rhythm people fall into when, sure of foot, they take on such flights of stairs. Halfway down, I looked over at her in surprise and said to this woman who in life saw most poorly and could walk only with a cane, “Mom! You’re running!”

“I know!” she called back, still mid-trot. “I’m not old anymore!”

It was a dream so vivid I’m not so sure it even was a dream. Maybe the idea of linear Time is a clumsy fabrication, the best we could do with our tiny minds. Maybe there is no Past but only an eternal Present, in which case why write your rueful memoir at all?

 

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For Bobbie at Year’s End

Bobbie at 15The Christmas I was 9, our mother began an annual practice of giving both her kids a daily diary, which, for the next three years, I virtually never wrote in except to scribble “Had Gym today” on every Tuesday that school was in session.

My older sister wrote in hers though. “Got a horse today,“ Nan fibbingly scribbled on one page of her own personal journal, and so I made a similar entry .Then, when she penned “my horse is expecting” some few days later, I told the identical whopper in my journal and never mind that these two facts could not have BEEN further from the truth for two children living (together with their mother and three ancient folks all born before the Election of 1876) on a narrow city street that trolley cars screeched past both day and night. The only thing that was true between the equine world and us was that we maybe accidentally smooched the televised images of Spin and Marty’s horses while going for the two Disney idols themselves. To put a finer point on it, kissing the TV screen during the Mickey Mouse Club show was basically the most adventurous thing either one of us did back then. So, apparently we thought it best to make stuff up.

But then, when we were in Sixth and Fourth grade respectively, our sweet resident old people died within 15 months of one another. And so, invited to live in a new city with our Aunt Grace and Uncle Jack, Mom closed up and sold the old house and moved there with us, to a street with no trolleys, no lamplighter at dusk, no dusty elderly man with a pushcart bleating “Raaaags!” in an effort to collect folks’ unwanted textiles

I did write in my diary in this new place, which to Nan and me resembled nothing so much as the set of a 60’s TV show with, instead of back alleys and in-ground garbage pails, there were kids on stilts and pogo sticks playing right out in the street. There were tough little crab apples for hurling at one another in the great The-Boys-Against-The-Girls wars, and endless games of kickball ,and skating on the crusty mirror of ice that Mr. Talbot conjured up every winter using just his flat backyard and a garden hose. THEN my entries were action-packed, all right, like this one when I threw my first party:

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But they only became more “inner” when I fell in love.

Because in those days the Church said that kissing for more than five minutes was a Mortal Sin, I became haunted by a letter-of-the law-mentality that lurks just under the surface of most of my entries of my Middle School and High School years. I look now at the record of all that angst – about my immortal soul, and my homework, and whether or would do well enough in school to get a college scholarship – and how I do feel for that young girl drawing at the top of the diary’s pages a heart for the kissing, a church steeple to signify I had gone to Confession, a pair of googly eyes for the all-nighters I pulled trying to get those A’s!

At age 13, I developed a friendship with a girl so much like me that we would read one another’s diaries at the end of every year. Thus, Bobbie saw it all, right up to the time, when, still a ‘mere girl’, I fell in love for keeps, and decided together with this ‘mere boy’ of a guy that we would marry as soon as college was over.

Below is the letter she wrote me after reading my account of my very last year of life as an uncoupled person. It is a letter I found to be so loving when I drew it from between the pages of that year’s diary just now that I thought I would share it here. Here’s what wrote, in long-ago 1968, as she returned that year’s volume:

“Here you are, Terry dear. I will no longer read entries about the Aprils-Junes-Septembers in Terry’s life and you, I’m sure, will stop writing them if you haven’t already. Such a progression from the scrawly writing of the young, young Terry, and then Mike in eighth grade, and Nan’s boyfriend, and that near-death experience when she gave him the Ex-Lax valentine! All that and the pink and golds of heaven and on to next-door Dicky B. and bedroom windows with walkie-talkies between, and Kathy Rodger. and Peter Paul and Mary and of course a different boy and the overstuffed chair in the basement study where that interfering religion made a lovely thing so hard and tortuous.

“So many entries over the school years with your tiny top-of-the-page pictures of the weather, the days’ outfits, the little church spires and stars – and later only weights at the top of pages and notes reading “Oh God it’s 2am!” or “up at 5 sewing clothes” (or making that facsimile of a 12th century manuscript, or just plain writing papers.) Then Senior year and the end of Special Chorus and the Keith dances but Terry’s list of duties continuing, on to college, where most of the pages now are too recent to be memories ….Let’s never stop knowing each other.”

And we haven’t stopped.

I record all this today because I want to report that I never stopped writing the diary either and have just this last hour made the final entry in the 2018 volume. There are 61 of them now, all in a row, all stored in old National Geographic binders in a third-floor bookcase.

I don’t know who will ever read this centipede of a life story except maybe my children, if even they have the fortitude. I do know, however, what writing it has done for me. Week after week, month after month, year after year it has taught me to feel so very grateful for good friends like length of days and the peace of mind to live them out.

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Grateful? You Bet I Am

For 8 weeks this past summer I couldn’t drive, or dress myself, or haul the heavy ropes of wet laundry out of the washer and ‘thunk’ it into the drier. I had had the dread rotator cuff surgery on my right shoulder, which left me hurting like the dickens, both day and night. Also, as a righty, I could eat only with my left hand, which meant I spent a lot of meals feeding my ear.

Then, ten days ago, I had a second and unrelated fix-it repair and am now sporting a tidy zipper of stitches on my insides.

I am grateful today to be on the mend from both interventions. I can drive again, a good thing since some of those Uber drivers gave me a hard time for asking to be brought what they considered too-short distances to be worth their while. Once, still very early in my recovery, to spare myself the sulky lamentations of those few, I tried walking to my destination in my sling and brace, on a 93-degree day, along a road whose sidewalk suddenly gave out, such that I found myself picking my way in flip-flops along a trash-littered soil embankment that was tilted toward, rather than away from, the road – along which cars were zooming by, 15 inches from my teetering body.

Big mistake, that effort. I learned from it though, and am grateful for that. I’m grateful too that now I CAN haul stuff out of the washing machine. And almost dress myself without help. And deftly just fine with my right hand (and don’t I have a fresh little batter of fat to prove it!)

But really today I am grateful for so much more, as well all no doubt should be.

  • I’m grateful for the help of my family and for my women friends whose candor and open heartedness have created a kind of shelter in the storm for us all.
  • I’m grateful for the guys at Kevin Ryan’s Fells Hardware,  who routinely offer to cut the wrongly sized curtain rod I have brought in for a consult instead of having me buy the $40 shears that would let me to the job at home. “Why spend the money?” Kevin will say, he whose presumed goal is to get people to do exactly that. I have had such great talks with these folks over the years – about the pain of Shingles, about depression, about the War of Northern Aggression, as some Southern historians still refer to it.
  • I’m grateful for Jimmy at the Post Office, who lost his wife last winter and lets me now and then gently inquire as to how he is doing.
  • I’m grateful for John at the Shoe Hospital who gave me the name of a guy he said was the best window repair guy he had seen in his 87 years. The guy himself turned out to be on another project but he introduced us to his brother Mike Sheridan, who every day for 90 days from 7 ’til 3, came to this house and worked, both on ladders and in the machine shop he set up in our garage, so as to give new life to every single window and piece of trim on this gracious old lady of a house. Mike, your gifts with the living wood, as well as your meticulousness and work ethic, are remarkable and I hope you know that.

I go on too long here so I will have to get to the many others in another post.

My husband ALMOST went out to rake earlier but on seeing these frigid temps, settled for a morning indoors. He is in the shower now. Our son Michael and his Jen,  here from the big city, are still sleeping. And our daughters are texting hilariously back and forth to us all about the foods they’re trying to prepare for this afternoon’s feast. Soon we will get to be with all of them, plus a harvest of grandbabies and more family beyond that.

My assignment is only to provide two autumn salads and a raw vegetable plate, and maybe offer a consult on the gravy when that crucial moment comes. I need to be about that work now, but how could I let this lovely claret-colored morning pass without saying how lucky I feel right now for my many blessings, I am who am no more deserving than the many who this day are hungry or far from home? May we all  feel ourselves cradled in Hands far larger than our own, and in so feeling. do more and more and yet more for others.

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Whatever Follows

dogwood on LakeviewWhatever might follow in the weeks ahead I have to say this has been one beautiful season, and in spite of the usual vacillations. Temperatures hit the mid-80s one day and four days later we came close enough to a hard frost that a baby maple I see every day took a nasty fright and went instantly crimson. Now as I write, a big wind is muscling around outside,  giving even the grass blades a stern combing-back.

I sometimes hear westerners say our old New England is just all damp and claustrophobic with lowering skies and too-near horizons.  I don’t see it that way. 

Anyhow it’s sure not that way now on these bright tangy days that have us all feeling happy and energized as we kick through the leaves and set out those jolly toy balloons that the world calls pumpkins. My own personal housemate got to feeling so energized last weekend that he climbed out on two of our roofs to prune the limbs of trees that in actual fact didn’t need pruning at all (but that’s just me.) I watched with my heart in my mouth as he executed one deep squat after another while balancing inches from roof’s edge and then extending to its farthest reach a 12-food pole with a lethal sickle on the end and – SNAP!  pulling the trigger. Here he is first contemplating the job…

dpm contemplating the job

And beginning to execute it…

dpm up hi to prune

I sent our visiting houseguest Machias out to spot him in case he started to pitch forward and fall. (Machias is six-foot-nine with a rower’s mighty legs so I thought he could maybe execute a rescue.)

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But “I’M FINE!” insisted  my mate –

and by some stroke of luck he turned out to BE fine as this triumphant look testifies.

smilin' Dave on the roof w machias

Myself, I attempted no such feats of strength and balance that day. I just walked a few miles, set out some seasonal decorations and reveled in all this beauty.

Here was the sun that day, glowing still strong at 5pm, behind one of our front porch columns….

the porch oct 5pm

Then at the top here was the sun only moments later in the side yard, filtered through our little dogwood…

And finally, out back, here was the sun setting our neighbors’ tree even further aflame.

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All this was on the Saturday. Then, on the Sunday, we had the privilege of attending the wedding celebration of a couple who, together with their families, threw one amazing party.

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It took place on a hillside farm with 180 guests on hand to enjoy popcorn and cider, adult beverages of every kind and food that never stopped coming.

in the barn

Best of all, the two brides helped make the music. Bride Alli, from all I can tell, plays every instrument on God’s green earth and her band was playing; whereas Bride Angela, by her own admission not a trained singer, took the mic and spoke of the meaning this one particular song has for them both.  Then, at first softly, and then in full and glorious voice, performed “Hallelujah,”  by the late Leonard Cohen.

Here’s my favorite recording of this wonderful song, that today seems to me to capture all the beauty and longing of earth’s seasons, and even of our own too-short lives.

Some Last Thoughts on the Judge

img_0408Earlier this week I heard some things on NPR that gave me a slightly altered perspective on Brett Kavanaugh: Someone who knew him at Yale said he was always the one standing by the keg hoping to get the girl. “He never got the girl,” she added.

A friend who also knew him from Yale spoke of how surprised he and his friends all were to learn at graduation that he had done quite well, a fact he attested to last week before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Through his whole student career, Kavanaugh said, (rather inelegantly) “I busted my butt in academics.”

And, as we now know, he also partied. Fifteen times in his testimony he spoke of beer. “I drank beer. I liked beer. I still like beer.” He wouldn’t answer when asked if he had ever had so much to drink that he blacked out. With a face contorted by anger at the presumption of this question by Senator Amy Klobuchar, he said, “I don’t know Senator, have you?”

So here’s a man about whom it can be said that he worked hard and he partied hard. Perhaps in his mind, as in many of our minds, he thought that the one thing justified the other. Many if not all prosperous Americans feel they richly deserve the fancy car, the ski vacation Aspen, the commodious house surrounded by wide green lawns, and never mind that others in this country also work hard; work at two, even three, jobs and stand at bus stops both in the dark of morning and in the dark of night. They know they can never let loose and party hard because of the silent judgment directed toward those who have less, especially if they are people of color or people otherwise judged as ‘other’. Think of the still closely-held belief that reveals itself in that old American taunt, “If you’re so smart why ain’t you rich?” That tells you what we value all right. The accumulation of wealth is the primary measure of a person’s worth.

Still, my mind keeps returning to this image of that 19- or 20- or 21-year-old boy who stood so often by the keg hoping to get the girl and rarely got her. He told the Senate Judiciary Committee that he was virgin in high school and “for many years after.” I’ll admit I laughed out loud on hearing that last week in my car but maybe it was true. I know that most of my classmates were virgins in high school, as I was myself. And I dare say most of us stayed that way for one or two years after but not for ‘many years’. By the age of 19 or 20 most of us had begun seeing ourselves as adults and were getting about the business of living. And I do understand that the world was different then. This was in the later mid to late part of the 1960s. But in the self-indulgent, feel-good 80s Brett Kavanaugh was still clinging to his virginity for those many years he speaks of? That strikes me as both sad and unlikely.

I know the Senate will likely have cast their vote to move the nomination forward before I get these scattered thoughts posted. Still, I had to set them down. The Judge’s notions – as well our own notions of what we are entitled to – expose dark trends in our possession-loving American hearts. We want what we want and we’re sure we deserve what we want. And that’s the best way I can state it at the moment.

Can’t Cook, or Clean, or Do Laundry

I still can’t cook, or clean, or do laundry. That’s what the surgeon still says, God help me.

It’s been some summer I’ve been having, as full of twists and turns as the classic Wild Mouse ride that almost yanks your head clear off the celery-stalk of your dear little neck. (Or wait, maybe it’s more accurate to call those twists and turns ‘ups and downs’ in honor of all the Big Boy roller coasters out there.)

The story is, I had one of the tendons in my shoulder repaired in mid-June and it’s kind of sad, because even all this way through August I dread the nights for the pain that they bring. When you’re moving around as you do during the day, see, you’re sort of ok, in part because your movements pump the healing blood up into the site, a badly needed thing since, as I understand it, the shoulder doesn’t have much of a blood supply on its own. Most nights, by contrast, I’m so sleep-deprived I keep thinking I’m the parent of a newborn again,

Ah but the mornings! The mornings this summer have been lovely. This is the view from the guest bedroom, a view I relished every morning as I sat sling-bound in my rented recliner chair. fullsizeoutput_5127

So an undeniable upside has been having the time to look out the window at Nature.

A second downside, however, is I can’t near do near enough walking, since walking any real distance makes the pain in my shoulder worse. (Now if I were a NUN, gliding along on the roller skates my sister Nan and I always suspected the nuns in our convent school had hidden under their robes, it probably wouldn’t hurt much at all.)

But the upside there? I’m getting a LOT of reading done.

A third downside is that I can’t blowdry my hair. Oh, I can wash it, sort of, using my one functioning arm. I just CANNOT lift both arms in the way you need to do to blow it dry. And without blowdrying, my hair looks like a stainless steel  scouring pad after months of use when it loses its integrity and just splays out in runaway coils. I shouldn’t complain about that, I know, because now I get to go to this walk-in salon where I can get any one several operators to style and blowdry my hair FOR  me – and really only once did I get a stylist who gave me a definite Phyllis Diller look.

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Fourth downside, and I’ll stop here, I promise:

I can’t wear the contact lenses I have relied on for nearly 30 years. I just can’t get them IN, where I need both hands for that operation and I can’t get my dominant hand anywhere near my eye. I’ve never worn glasses in my life until now and frankly I’m not doing so well with the whole progressive lens thing. But the upside here if I’m honest?  What I’m really doing this summer is getting a whole lot of binge-watching in, and God bless the invention of TV!

So here we are…

 I slept poorly last night, natch, but again this morning I woke to a matchless summer dawn.  Below, the view from my office-that-is-an-office-no-more since I’ve left the column-writing game but is instead just an airy upstairs room that anyone at all can relax in. In fact you guys should come by anytime! I have a fridgeful of eats from the Prepared Foods aisle and I can show you my newly mastered trick of tucking in the top sheet on even a king-size bed using just my own little toes.

(Click on the video if it looks askew. It plays right when you do.) 

 

The Upside of Being on the DL

I think where I last left off in this absorbing tale  I was two days out of surgery and throwing up on my new recliner ‘lift’ chair, an apparatus that still looks to me like a still from a Stephen King movie where somebody’s long-suffering furniture comes alive and goes after its idiot owner.

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Today though, I’ll spare you further grisly tales and say only that there are real silver linings to recovering from an operation. I mean, where would the world be without the caregivers, whether paid or voluntary? Immediately after ‘losing it’ in that grab–the-towels way,  I called two RN friends, both of whom manifested like a couple of  heavenly apparitions, one bearing an analgesic far less terrifying than the oxy the surgeon had prescribed. (And THAT stuff, whoo! You take it and you still have the pain, all right. You just also have a whole lot of other weird sensations too. On oxycodone I felt like a wildly scrambled swirl of hurt wrapped up in a cotton candy cocoon.)

Besides remembering that I was the recipient of a lot of good care in those first weeks spent feebly sitting around in my ice-filled sling I now recall watching a super long, multi-episode documentary about the Roosevelts.  Visitors came and went and I would greet them with  “Look! It’s the Roosevelts!” to which most would reply, in somewhat puzzled fashion, “Ah yes, the Roosevelts.”

I also remember in this early time of confinement actually looking at some of the seeming thousands of catalogs that drop through my mail slot every week . It seems I am now officially, and universally, targeted as a likely customer for catalogs with names such as “A Time for Me”, whose translation might as well be “Make Your Own Damn Dinner,” and “As We Change,” whose primary message is “Of Course WE Like Your New Mustache But Should You Ever Wish to Get Rid of it Our Newly Patented Mini-Taser Will Do the Job Nicely.)  Mostly of course such catalogs are marketing just two main items: (1) Loose-fitting clothing and (2) Vibrators. Who knew?

And look at that: Even setting down such a racy observation shows me that now, with the knife eight whole weeks in my past, I’m at last getting back my ability to smile. 🙂