Another Great Lady

Back in 1996, when Erma Bombeck died of kidney disease, every print and broadcast outlet in the country ran a piece about her: the lady from Dayton who one day sat down and began sending dispatches, from the front lines of parenthood, that grew into a column and 11 books and a weekly slot on the tube.

 Though uniformly fond, many of these tributes seem slightly dismissive, framing her as “housewife humorist” or clever dabbler.  In a tribute in The Boston Globe, Diane White noted this too, speculating it was perhaps Erma’s choice of subject matter that led people to see her as a “suburban mother who started writing columns as a lark.”

But as White also reminded us, she was a 32-year veteran of deadline journalism.

 Just like me, only I’m now closing in on 35 years on the job.

The morning of her death, my friend Cindy called from her desk at work. I see Cindy rarely since the long-ago days when she had me as her 12th grade teacher. The first thing she asked: Was I writing about Erma this week? “What gets me,” she said, “is how they make it sound like the column was just some easy thing she wedged into the odd-half hour.”

 But no one spending a half hour could hope to put it the way Erma could always put it. She said she once lived in a place so small she had to iron in the playpen. She said if her kids had looked as good as the kids of her perfect neighbor, she’d have sold them. She spoke about the child who could “eat yellow snow, kiss the dog on the lips, chew gum that he found in the ash tray,” but wouldn’t drink from his brother’s glass.

I quoted some of this in a get-well column I wrote and sent her three years ago when 20/20 first revealed the extent of her illness. 

In one of the pieces, she was imagining how each of her three kids might someday recall her, one as “the thin…dark-haired [mom] who used to read me stories, bake cookies, paste my baby pictures in the album “; one as “the somber-looking bleached blonde who used to put me to bed at 6:30 and bought me a dog to save on napkins”; and the last as “the grayish lady who fell asleep during the 6 o’clock news and was going to show my baby pictures – when she took the rest of the roll at my wedding.”

She had just that light way of remarking on things like Time and its effect on us all. She told the truth, beginning in an era when the “Women’s Pages” revolved chiefly around the woman’s role as consumer, cook, and student of etiquette.

She also dealt with the feeling that comes to women raising kids in America’s insular families: “No one talked about it a lot, but everyone knew what it was. It was a condition, and it came with the territory.” That condition was loneliness. 

I learned about this loneliness when I left my job teaching to care for some babies. When the babies napped, I read the paper and met the writer who would one day change my life. When the babies woke, I put them in boots and snowsuits and pushed or walked or carried them, somewhere, anywhere I could find another woman in another house trying to do the hardest job on earth all by herself.

Today by conversation’s end, Cindy and I hadn’t figured out a time when we could catch up more by phone, much less get together. “How about I call you at home some night?” I asked, picturing her there relaxing with her husband and one-year-old. “Are you kidding?” she said. “ That’s the last place I have time to talk!”

Erma would totally get that. I hope she and Maya Angelou are having a great old laugh in Heaven right now.

Job? What Job?

Ah the sweet forgetting that comes over you when you shake off the reins step out of the traces a while.

All of us Americans were on ‘away’ holiday for three days now and I myself have been gone even longer. My man and I took a trip down the Danube on one of those Viking Cruise Lines you see advertised so heavily on public television. Who by now doesn’t associate that start of Downtown Abbey and its the shot of the retreating fanny of His Lordship’s hound with the image that just precedes it, showing a view like this one, of the ship we overate on for seven days and nights? 

the freya

The experience was delightful, to say the least: Free wine and beer served every day at lunch and dinner, which for me on my customary diet of seeds, kale and the  pale watery juice that surrounds your cube of cube, felt like the height of self-indulgence! 

But back on land now with a fresh ring of lard around my waist, it’s time to address all the things in my life that were so pressing I almost missed the plane trying to get them all done.  It’s twenty past seven on this post-holiday morning I’m ready to get back to work on all those projects – if only I could recall what they were. 

what do we want joke

 

There’ll be more to tell about that trip once I catch up but for now let me pause a minute and repeat: what a sweet forgetting it is to just float a while – and you don’t have to be an elder to know that it’s true. 🙂

Visiting the Graves

mt. auburn cemetry springWondering about what Memorial Day means to people nowadays, I conducted a small-scale poll find out. “Another Monday off,” three people told me. “The start of summer,” reported two others.  

Time was, the day meant more. Time was, it marked a time to pay respects at the graves of the dead, lying quiet now under that ‘rafter of satin and roof of stone’ Emily Dickinson speaks of.

I told a friend about my research and she said she figured almost nobody saw it in the former way now. “Just maybe the old-timers.”

So  call me an old-timer then; because every day I think of the dead, and every day I feel death’s silent swoosh, as if a great black curtain were rushing shut above me.

I saw a dead bird in the yard, its stiff body propped oddly erect somehow, its small head resting on the soil, as if listening still for breakfast. I saw a tree on a twisting road with a spray of flowers tied to it, signifying someone had died there, hitting it in his car. Outside a funeral home, I saw two people stood holding each other. Not moving. Not hurrying to break apart, or giving small pats. Not even speaking, but only holding each other as they stood and stood. And I saw all these things in one 90-minute period.

The man I love lost his father young. when he was 13 and in his sorrow so long-unexpressed, he found he could not speak his father’s name or go to visit his grave. But his mother went sometimes, and when I came into the family she took me too.

Then I began taking myself there. When our last baby came and he a boy-child, I took him there, not yet a month in this world. Eventually, our two other children learned where it was, the daughter 14 and the daughter eleven. The older one would bike there sometimes to sit and draw. 

One fine spring evening when the whole family mobilized for a dinner out, the hour came and we could not find this older daughter.  “Let’s try the cemetery,” her younger sister suggested, and so we drove there.

Once inside its gates, we looked and looked, but plainly she was elsewhere.

Then her younger sister the eleven-year-old did a fine brave thing. “Park the car,” she told her dad.

“Let’s get out a minute,” she said. She circled the vehicle and took him then by the hand.

“Come,” she said simply. “I will take you to your Papa.”

And so she did. And I tell you as the woman who has loved this man long and long, then with his hair all dark and now with his hair all silver, that a change began in him that very day.

Was it finally facing that first death, or just being so gently invited to? We didn’t know. All we knew who loved him best was that a sadness deep inside him started lifting.

In denying death, we somehow deny ourselves life and live diminished. For do we not all sense that it is life’s completion? That death is but a door, through which we all will one day walk – and who knows what adventure awaits us there?

On Busing Other People’s Trash

dirty dishesHere’s some more let-it-go advice I have been given on this riverboat cruise. It was 6 o’clock this morning and I’d gone up on deck to get coffee from the fancy machine that dispenses, day or night, whatever kind of hot drink you want, from regular to decaf, from espresso to cappuccino and back. And I noticed right away that some other voyager had enjoyed his or her coffee already, and left the soiled cup right in the way of others who might come after.

“Now that’s rude!” I mused aloud, without half knowing that I spoke the words rather than merely thinking them.

Then I heard a light voice.  “Behind you,” its owner said, and here suddenly there was another person present, not more than 18 inches from me. I prayed  she hadn’t been the one to leave her cup.

“I’m sorry. This cup…. I just thought… I didn’t know what to do with it. I mean, it’s kind of in the way here…” I said, and ended by picking the thing up bringing it into the empty dining room to set on the bar.

“Hold up,” she said

“I’m sorry,” I said again.

“No, no, hold up, seriously. Relax! You’re not on mom duty here.”

“No?” I said.

“No,” she said.

Then I didn’t know WHAT to do: Bring the dirty cup and saucer back? Leave my own soiled cup and saucer there when I got done, by way of demonstrating a commensurate carelessness? 

She must have seen my confusion. Anyway, she put her hand on my arm. 

“Seriously,” she said. “You just need to R-E-L-A-X.” 

I saw she was right. Of course she was right~!

So I want back to our stateroom and made our bed – with David still in it, same as always. 🙂

Letting Go

First day away and all I could think is why didn’t I bring my hairdryer?

And then I remembered: I didn’t bring my special hair-straightening drier-with-the-brush attached because I figured we’d be in Europe with the wrong kind of voltage and who knows but what the thing would explode, even using the right adapter/converter. Only wouldn’t you know in our tidy Hobbit-sized stateroom the cruise line has thoughtfully provided a couple of 110-volt outlets.

THEN I REMEMBERED: I’ve stopped straightening my hair, which now curls all around and around exactly like the vines surrounding Sleeping Beauty’s castle. 

I also thought why oh why didn’t I bring my little fan that I always need to get to sleep, for its sweet little zephyr that it provides? And for the white noise to that helps me forget that there’s a person two feet away from me who sometimes snores to beat the band.

THEN I REMEMBERED: We’re moving fast down the longest river in Europe and so there’s my breeze for my white noise and me too.

Finally I thought why on earth didn’t bring my diary with all this free time so I could write down everything I was learning in this country and the sweet shops signs with their approximations of jazzy American English?

THEN I REMEMBERED: the last time I brought my diary over the miles to Europe I left it on the airplane. My DIARY, that my kids will get such a bang out of reading aloud to one another while drinking one day long in the future. And it was November when I lost it! Ten-and-a-half months of funny tales lost and gone forever.

 So I mourned these things – for about fifteen minutes.

And now I’m sitting looking our at this lovely braided muscle of water that looks like the anatomical drawing of the humans quadriceps and think to myself, this is how you let go.

You just … 

Let …

Go…

And if I can learn to do that this week maybe I can learn to let go when life really demands that of me. And anyway: Budapest and all its history! Budapest and The Danube and Vienna by Wednesday morning!

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized

To Go and Stay Here Both

daybreak in NovemberIt can still bring me near to tears, what Lincoln said to the people of Springfield when he left that place to take the oath of office. I love every part of that speech, but today especially I’m thinking of the part where he refers to God as being that one who can go with him, and remain with them, and be everywhere for the good. I think about that a lot when I‘m leaving a place and wish I could leave and stay at the same time.  Even checking out of a hotel room I stop at the door, suitcase and car keys in hand and thank the room for sheltering me.  I picture how it will feel to itself empty, before the next guest arrives. I wonder if a part of me remains there always. I had a moment of such wondering this past fall in a hotel room as I looked out my small window at this view, which I captured on my phone. I was packed and ready to go that morning, but I had some time to think. Thanks to the lifting of that fog of Obligation I feel so often, I was able to just sit a while.

I mention all this because today I’m picturing how my house will ‘feel’ with us gone from it these next eight days, but I do not worry for its safety, because a family member is staying here.
IMG_1857

He’s staying here not for the cats: the cats are safe in Heaven. He’s staying here not for the plants either: just last Monday I brought all the plants to ‘summer camp’ on the screened-in porch where the light and the moist May air will make them practically jump for joy. He’s not staying to bring in the mail, which you can stop and start up again in 30 seconds via the USPS website.

He is staying here because he’s a member of our family by now and I can confidently picture him here, since he stayed her for much of the summer before this one that’s about to begin.

 He will lower the blinds in the kitchen, a thing we never think to do. He’ll stock the shelves with his weir bright blue juices and his Ramen Noodles and his Pop Tarts. He’ll wash the dishes and wipe down the counters every day because that’s how he is, and then jump on his bike and ride off, enjoying this free week before his summer job starts. 

So this person will take care of my house. And maybe, 30 years from now when he comes back to help bury me, he will remember himself here, a young man with his life all before him, even as I remember myself waking up here for the first time on a spring day in 1979, a young woman nine months pregnant, with curly black hair, and my own life before me too.

me and baby carrie

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Lively Times Bus Station

bus station rainy dayI recently I took a bus to a part o​f Massachusetts where spring comes early, as I knew well, ​having lived there in ​my college years​. By late March, lunchtimes would often find me heading to a quiet campus spot by the pond, where I would stretch out on the flat belly of river-plain and let the sun’s warmth seep into my bones.

The day the following events took place however, the temperature in that valley stood at 42 degrees six weeks into spring or not, and ​a steady rain flung itself like handfuls of cold pennies at all our faces. 

I say “our.” I was in a bus station that late afternoon along with what seemed to me like an usually large number of people, perhaps because of this gruesome twinning of the cold and the wet. ​I thought maybe ​they had come to get in out of the weather. 

In the Ladies Room, an elderly ​lady with a cane waited outside the occupied wheelchair-accessible stall.

“Are you coming out soon?” she asked after a while, rapping on the door. Then  “​You’re not handicapped!” she  snapped at the far younger woman who emerged at last. 

“I certainly am!” the woman shot back. “Want to ​see my license?”  

“N​o​ THANK you​!” the older lady ​pronounced, ​hobbling past to enter the stall in question. 

​Now at one of the sinks, a young blonde was telling all present about a man she had just encountered who couldn’t stop remarking on how beautiful she was 

​and how many boyfriends she must have  – “right up until he started calling me a loser and saying I’d never amount to anything​.” 

“Goodness!​” said one of her listeners. “How did you react to that?” 

“I slapped him ​and said ‘Go back on ​your meds​, fool’ 

In the ​large waiting ​area, meanwhile, things felt much more placid. 

A thin man came in out of the rain wearing a ​huge heavy-duty trash bag, one corner of which made a whimsical peaked cap atop his head​,with a hole cut out for his face. Because the bag stretched clear down to ​the floor, he had to ask several people ​for help in ​taking it off. 

The security guard came through then and demand​ed to see people’s bus tickets.

​Everyone ​lacking such ​a document was ordered to leave. 

Some drifted out. Others seemed to just lift and resettle, like birds on a wire after the quieting down of a mild disturbance ​below. 

Two men stood watching ​an update on the Don Sterling affair on the TV screen that hung from the celling. 

“It’s rare when a white man gets called out for racism” said one.

“Ah, the guy was just jealous​, ​h​is girlfriend with a bunch of young guys” said the other. Both were African American.​ 

The clock on the wall marked the slow-passing time. 

A middle-aged woman punched her phone awake and got to work excoriating  the person who answered it, while over by the windows, a bus driver and two lounging civilians debated the merits of cremation vs. burial.​​

​”Cremation’s way cheaper too!” said one.​

“Hey dust to dust either way,” said another, by way of ​finishing ​on an amiable note. 

The clock-hands kept inching onward. More of the ticketless drifted in. 

And thus by degrees id the afternoon drained away. 

​Then, ​a fresh wind, ​as nimble as like a set of salad tongs ​in the hands of a professional chef, began tossing swirls of litter outside by the buses​, just as, in the sky, a ​slice of ​clear blue opened up right at horizon’s edge.

Violets

violets_closeupJust about a year ago now, I received this note in response to a column I wrote for Mothers Day.  No words that I could add or bookending remarks that I could possibly add to it to make it any more meaningful than it is already.

Here then the letter from Pattie Wesley of Woodbury Connecticut.

“This is my first mother’s day in almost 65 years without my mom.  She died in January, just shy of 88.

“It is my first spring without her. She loved spring.

“This is my fist violet and dandelion season without her.

“As a young girl, I would run out on the morning of mother’s day and pick violets and dandelions to fill the construction paper pocket I made for her.

“She loved it.

“When I first returned to this part of the world 26 years ago, I went out one day in my parents’ yard, picked violets and brought them in to her. She burst into tears.

“’You always brought me the violets,” she said.

“This is the first spring since, that I have not been able to hand her the violets.

“My mother was in the geriatric unit at Bridgeport Hospital for more than a month before she died. The nurses would tell me she kept asking, ‘Where is my mother?’ apparently not a good thing to hear from an old person.

“Indeed, one day when I walked into her room, she was asking the nurse, ‘Where is my mother?’

“The nurse said, ‘Jane, your mother is not with us.’

“Looking straight at me, standing in the doorway, she said, ‘She’s right there.’

“I do not think my mom thought I was her mother. 

“I think she lost the word daughter.

“I think she knew, after years of holding me, that I was now holding her.”

And so she was. She held one parent and then she held the other as I learned just now when I wrote to Pattie to ask of I might share this tale:

I do want you to know that my dad, closer to 98 than 97, died in October of 2013, after my mom died in January. He was doing okay until we buried my mom in March on her birthday. Then he slipped down hill. His sweetheart was gone and he died, 24 hours after my brother and sister in law had said good bye and 30 minutes after I told him I loved him for the last time.

“They were excellent human beings and the best parents. I miss them every day and I don’t wish them back. Each, in his or her own way was ready to go. Their children are the luckiest people in the world.”

As I said at the outset, no words that I could add…. No  bookending remarks except a word of thanks to you, Pattie, on behalf of us all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Words we didn’t have in the old days:

“Denial”

“Issues”

“Challenges”

Heck we didn’t even have “addiction”. We didn’t have the word and we didn’t have the concept. We just had Well dear, Uncle Joe…. is nervous.

Don’t try telling ME the world isn’t better now. 

Oops (Part 999)

Ah jeez. I washed my husband’s pants with the wallet still in the pocket.

‘What IS that pounding sound?’ I remember asking the air halfway through the drier cycle but even then I didn’t get it. I thought there was a sneaker in there or something, but when I looked nope: no sneaker. I slammed the drier door shut and pressed the On button again. 

It wasn’t until hours later when I finally pulled the clothes out to fold and smooth them that I felt something heavy in those pants of his. What has he got, a tennis ball in here?

No such luck. It was his wallet. That which was once a smart and tidy fold of leather now resembles a very small damp badger rolled up in his protective ball.

Meaning it looks sort of …rounded.

And afraid somehow.

Never mind that even today, a full 48 hours after I threw it in that load of wash and soaked the whole thing with the usual slimey shot-glass of Tide, the thing is STILL damp. Oy!

Extracting the items from inside the wallet was a job too. It was like trying to deconstruct a sheet of baklava.

All his business cards. All his careful notes. All reduced to pulp.

I just feel awful.

There’s only one silver lining: His credit cards appear to be as healthy as ever – unless there’s some horrifying truth about the magnetic strip and two hours of Pounding, Rinsing and Roasting on High that I don’t yet know about, please God no. Because after all, even a highly forbearing man has his limits.

And this is that forbearing man. And these are the pants.

DSC_0080