On Being Backed Up By Your Mom

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I get such a kick out of this picture; I don’t know why. I can’t recall my own mother backing me up like this when I even metaphorically stuck my tongue out at anyone. Parent-child solidarity was rare when I was a child. Most people my age go on about how they got punished twice for wrong-doing, once by the teacher who discovered them at it, and then again by their parents when they got home at night.

Come to think of it though, my mom wasn’t like those parents either, and actually may have BEEN more like the filly-mare team pictured here. For one thing, she was twice as old as all the other mothers in my Second Grade class. She’d seen some hard things in her life and at age 50 was not about to let anyone push her kid around. For another, as I gradually realized over time, she had a wee bit of a problem with authority and liked nothing better than to challenge it whenever she had a chance.

I say this because two months after my seventh birthday I got kicked out of the much-becalmed convent school my sister and I attended – for talking, of all things. And I don’t mean I got sent to the Sister Superior’s office. I mean I got hauled out of my little nailed-down desk-and chair combo by my scarlet-faced teacher, handed an empty cardboard box and told, “Pack your books! You don’t go here anymore!” Out of all patience, the good sister threw my coat at me and told me to go stand alone at the abandoned edge of that urban schoolyard under the darkling shadow of the elevated train while she had the main office call my mother to come fetch me.

I stood there and stood there. “What will I do now?” I remember fretting through my tears. “I think I’m too little to get a job!” And then I saw my mother bounding up the hill of the school grounds in our goofy old station wagon. She took me home all right, but the next day she brought me back and, on encountering the young nun there by the doorway, hopped from the car and strode right up to her.  “See HERE!” she began. “A child who talks in class is a child who is BORED!” and what could this green young nun say, especially since it did really kind of look as though my mother was actually sort of lifting her up by the snow-white bib of her habit?

Anyway, my mother saved me, even though I didn’t faintly deserve saving. Because the truth is, I did talk, endlessly, to the kids in the seats to the front, back and sides of me. I was guilty as charged. I have always suspected that Mom knew that as well as I did, a fact that remained unspoken between us for the rest of our time together on this earth.

The funny thing is, her doing that for me made me more, rather than less inclined, to stay on that straight and narrow ever since.

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Get Back to Work, You

On a plane ride home from Tampa, I saw a giant of a man in the seat in front of me who wore such a skimpy tank top that I had a chance to count every one of the thousands of shoulder and back hairs visible to me.

Then, on that same flight, a mere 30 seconds after the pilot turned off the Fasten Seat Belt sign, a woman in one of the backmost rows began shouting “Jesus Christ,  will you people MOVE!”

Later, as we were all proceeding along the lengthy peristaltic trek to Baggage Claim, I saw at the bar of one of the airside eateries a youngish dude in a cowboy hat who kept shoving his napkin up under his sunglasses as he wept and wept while talking on his phone.

These were all things I noticed in one three-hour period.

It has literally been months since I have come to this blog to write down anything at all, whether happy or sad. Suffice to say it was some summer. But now, finally, I think I’m ready to begin again, maybe because of the kindly dermatologist I saw for the first time just before that flight. He asked what I did for a living so I told him I had taught high school English in my 20s, and then added with a look that was unmistakably nostalgic, that for 36 years I had written a weekly newspaper column.

Had written?” he asked .“Yes,” I sighed. “A day came, kind of out of the blue, when I felt I just couldn’t do it anymore. Writing a weekly column is like having to produce a term paper 52 times a year, I could also have quoted author Sidney Sheldon’s observation that a blank piece of paper is God’s way of telling us how hard it is to be God.

It was at this point that the nice dermatologist said something that has echoed in my mind ever since. “But of course you still write, don’t you?” he asked, and I literally hung my head. “Um, well…” I stammered, shamefacedly – and felt lucky to get even those two words out.

You know how when we were kids the grownups would sometimes say, “Let that be a lesson to you?” Well, I let that moment be a lesson to me. And it was only days later on my trip from Tampa to Boston that I suddenly noticed these three people I opened with above.

Why was the cowboy crying? I would never know. You can’t intrude on private grief by going up to someone and asking but still: I wondered.

Why did that mountain of a man wear what amounted to an above-the-waist thong on an airplane? Did he not feel embarrassed, the way I would feel if, say, my travel companion suggested I pull out a razor and start shaving my armpits? (Shaving on a Plane, now there’s an idea for a new trend!)

And I wondered even more about the yelling woman at the back of the plane who by now had elbowed her way to just two rows back from me. “Why don’t you go in my place?” I said to her.

She looked at me quickly, maybe to see if I was being sarcastic.

I wasn’t. “No, really,” I said. “I’m in no hurry.”

“It’s just that I get panic attacks,” she said. “I have awful claustrophobia.” And I thought yes maybe she does, because hadn’t I noticed her at the outset of the trip joshing good naturedly with the people around her as she was stowing her bag?

I had indeed. And maybe I would not have ‘seen’ her at all if that lovely doctor had not metaphorically lifted my chin, thus encouraging me to keep on doing what I so clearly love doing, that is noticing things and writing down what I notice.  Maybe, speaking of God, doing that is even a kind of prayer.

On the Road.. er, Ship

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Water travel is always so broadening, especially in the hips. Especially if you’re spending nine days on a Viking Riverboat cruise where the food never stops, even at breakfast, what with the stout coffees and delicate teas; the fresh omelets and smoked fish and sausage; the veggies both raw and cooked; the breads and rolls and croissants; the cereals both hot and cold; the bowls of berries and the platters of sherbet-colored melon; not to mention the juices from every kind of fruit Eve ever thought to toss in her Garden-of-Eden blender.

This tour I set out on last month made its way through the Netherlands and into Belgium. Some of us also took the optional excursion as well, to visit World War I battlegrounds near the border of France. (After such indulgence on board, it felt only right to bear witness to the suffering the people of these lands endured during the bloody century just before this one, and I can say more of that in another post.

There in Amsterdam on that first full day, I learned about this old, old city that, staggeringly, saw over 17 million visitors last year. While threading through some of its 165 canals I learned too that it is home to people from 181 nations if you can picture it. I can’t, as my own list of the world’s nations stops at around 40.

It has a population of 850,000 people, 40% of whom are under 30 and there’s a frightening thought. I mean, what if these youth kick off a real virus of a border-crossing movement to take out all us oldsters, wallowing in our nifty AARP benefits and discount movie tix?  What then? Oh, admit you’ve considered the possibility. I mean can’t you sometimes just feel them behind you in the subway stations, waiting ‘til no one’s looking and shoving you in front of the train, Frank Underwood style?)

Still, they’re pretty adorable, the young, and here in Amsterdam especially where they’re all the time wheeling past on bicycles like so many American tykes in the great era of Hot Wheels. Sure, they drink and get high and amble over to the Red Light District to check out the patient ladies sitting bare as newborns in their cozily furnished display windows. And yes, in a typical year the city has to fish some 12,000 bicycles out of the canals, tossed there in moment of youthful high spirits. Nonetheless I am heartened by the sight of them. At the AnneFrank House there are at least as many young people as older folk waiting in line to get in. At the Rijksmuseum too where all the Rembrandts are kept. They are not innocent of history, the young people here. They know what has transpired here in this fallen world.

One crisp morning I stopped for coffee at a Starbucks with a whole plaza of outside tables. It was a place overflowing with both older people like me and with the younger too in their practical backpacks and their jaunty scarves, and as I sat among them all in a freshening breeze, I thought this is what peacetime looks like. For if this isn’t what people the world over don’t want I’ll eat my hat as the old fogies used to say: What we want is only to sit together, the young and the old and the in-between, the babies, the dogs and the toddlers too, and feel the blessing of each passing moment.

I thought all this. Then, it being almost time for another storied meal onboard, I trotted the quick mile-and-a-half quick back to the ship.

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Travel Don’ts from a Hapless Tourist

A few things you’d best NOT do when traveling for ten days to countries where you don’t speak the language: One, fail to pack a warm enough coat; Two, fail to pack the most important hair product in your bristling arsenal of hair products because you foolishly believed the cruise line when it said no blow dryers or flatirons; and Three, scratch the living daylights out of the oh-so-delicate tissue protecting your eye, necessitating a trip to an eye doctor with whose staff communication was impossible given the language barrier.

But let me take these step by step, not necessarily in this order.

I’ll start with the forbidden hair care items about which the cruise line was as primly stern as the evil governess in a 19th century novel. No, you may NOT bring your own electric appliances, heavens no, it said the literature they send out ahead of time say. The current, you know. The strain on the ship’s energy sources. Anyway, they sniffed, you’ll find one of those leaf blower hair driers right in your stateroom.

But the problem for me, see, is that with the type of hair God gave me I have never been able to get even an approximately normal look by wielding a round brush in one hand and some honking-huge drier in the other. Instead I have to use the kind of drier that has the brush attached right to the heat source, the kind that were designed for men in the great ago of disco. (Think John Travolta’s hair in Saturday Night Fever.) Most of the women onboard this Viking longboat sported fabulously fluffy and /or shiny hair styles come the Cocktail Hour and the elaborate dinner with all that complimentary wine that the waiters kept unstoppably pouring. I can’t imagine how even one of them managed to look so great when here I was at these events looking like the homeliest Chia pet on the block.

Next, there was the issue of the warm-enough coat I had failed to bring which didn’t seem as it was going to be a problem when I unpacked that first night onboard – until it turned out that the weather report for the Netherlands and Belgium, which had PREDICTED temperatures in the low 60s with partly cloudy skies actually MEANT to say low 40s with a nice-two-for-one combo of pelting rain and hail. After one day-long walking tour on Saturday I couldn’t have said I had hands at all. You could have cut off all my fingers and applied nail polish to the bloody stumps and I wouldn’t have known the difference.

And finally, there was the wholly unanticipated visit I had to make to the eye doctor in Antwerp after, in an effort to remove the contact lens in my left eye, the darn thing just would not budge. This was at 10 at night after one of the fancy dinners with music and trivia games in the lounge afterward. I dug and I dug  ‘til the white of my eye turned dark red. See, I just knew the lens was in there and had rolled up into that part of my brain where I keep the multiplication tables and the names of all the major rivers in the world.

So the next morning I went to the ship’s concierge. He called a local ophthalmologist to make me an appointment. When the hour drew near, he called a taxicab to take me to the office of this good doctor.  Who peered with the standard blinding scopes and strobe lights into my eye said that whatever lens has been in there during that last elegant dinner was in there no more. Which means that what I had actually done was to cross-hatch with dozens of tiny slices the whole white of my eye. Death by a thousand cuts, in other words. But HOW after 30 years of daily putting in and taking out these single-use contacts, could I miss the fact that, before taking out the contact in my right eye, I had already taken out the contact in the left one?

All I can think is, must have been the wine. 🙂

There’ll be more to say about this wonderful trip in future blog posts. I just had to get the nonsense part told first.

chia pet

 

 

 

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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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