Once as Alive as You or I

DCIM100GOPROOn the tour of a Norman castle I took last spring, I heard all about the moat and the boiling oil, the outer wall and the inner wall and the poor souls who got tossed over the latter, to fall screaming to their deaths below.

I listened as hard as I could, trying not to be distracted by the vista surrounding us.I found it that fascinating.

at-the-castle

But for all my listening I heard very little of what the daily life in that castle was like, which is what I most yearned to know about. I had to come back home and dig out my copy of T.H White’s The Once and Future King for that; because I had bought a paperback copy of this great tale of the Arthur Legend back when I was young and sure enough, there the tattered volume still stood, on the shelf where I had placed it. I flipped through the pages and there  was the passage I had remembered, outlined and waiting for me all these years later.

In it White describes the great walls surrounding a castle of this same era in England. Then he goes on on to say how things looked from the inside in those far-distant days, and what a spell he does cast with these words:

“So much for the outer defenses. Once you were inside the curtainwall, you find yourself in a kind of wide alleyway, probably full of frightened sheep, with another complete castle in front of you. This was the inner shell ‘keep’ with its eight  enormous round towers which still stand. It is lovely to climb the highest of them and to linger there looking toward the marshes from which all these old dangers came, with nothing but the sun above you and the little tourists trotting about below, quite regardless of boiling oil. 

“Think of how many centuries that unconquerable tower has withstood. It has changed hands by secession often, by siege once, by treachery twice, but never by assault . On this tower the lookout moved. From there, he kept the guard over the blue woods toward Wales. His clean old bones live beneath the floor of the chapel now, so you must keep it for him.

“If you look down and are not frightened of heights (the Society for the Preservation of This and That have put up some excellent railing to preserve you from tumbling over), you can see the whole anatomy of the inner court laid out beneath you like a map. You can see the chapel, now quite open to its God, and the windows of the Great Hall with the solar over it. You can see the shafts of the huge chimneys and how cunningly the little side flues were contrived to enter them, and the little private closets now public, and the enormous  kitchen. If you are a sensible person, you will spend days there, possibly weeks, working out for yourself by detection which were the stables, which the mews,  which were the cow byres, the armory, the lofts, the well, the smithy, the kennel, the soldiers’ quarters, the priest room, and my Lord and Lady’s chamber. Then it will all grow about you again. The little people – they were much smaller than we are and it would be a job for most of us to get inside the few bits of their armor and  gloves that remain – will hurry about in the sunshine, the sheep will baa as they always did, and perhaps from Wales there will come the ffff-putt of the triple-feathered arrow, which looks as if it had never moved.”

I have worked as a professional writer for over 35 years, penning essays and columns and autobiographical pieces and I just know that I would need another 35 years of study to even come close to the verbal artistry of this lonely and complicated man, who took a time 1400 years in the past and brought it to shining life.

 

 

The Spirit of the Weekend

img_2962-1If you separated out the righteous anger we saw yesterday and focused just on the sense of hope and yearning there expressed, you could look to this song to sum that feeling up. I love that the singers are young and that the boy is seen scratching his leg just before the song starts. I love the smooth columnar strength of the darker girl’s thigh and the frail courage of all clear and mortal voices. I love the way a fourth singer  responds to the gesture of beckoning offered part way through the song. I feel beckoned by this well-known round myself. Watch it here –  and see if you don’t find your own self singing along.

 

 

 

 

Got Stuck There for a While

fish-in-a-bowlPersonally, I’m thrilled to have a brand-new aquarium of a year to swim around in. I feel as though for the last two or three months I was moving my little fins through mud instead of water. Put another way, I couldn’t move forward. I mean, I had 95% of my Christmas cards done on December 8th but I simply could NOT finish the rest. I called my husband at work: “I’m going to just throw them all under a bridge somewhere, like that mailman in New York turned out to be doing for months and months.”

He laughed, but I wasn’t joking. I truly I was stuck, the same way I used to get stuck as a kid in various turnstiles and revolving doors, what with my violin case and that bulging book bag over one shoulder. Time simply stopped for me around the first week in November.

Example: I had put a pumpkin on my porch some weeks before Halloween, along with one of those purple kale plants and a pretty sheaf of wheat like they talk about in the Bible when the speaker in The Song of Solomon tells his lady friend that her belly is like a sheaf of wheat.

Well, the kale died the death of most extravagantly colored plants and the stalks became dental floss for the squirrels, but that pretty pale-peach pumpkin I simply could NOT throw on the compost pile, even when neighbors up and down the street were decorating for Christmas.

Instead I set it on the stone wall out back, where still it sits.

img_2871

Even now. Even with that stubborn snowbank sullenly hanging around the edge of my driveway like a schoolyard bully making a silent point about who’s really going to win this battle we’re now joining.

Winter will win it of course, just like the House always wins at the casino. A few more days and we’ll be shin-deep in snow again and quaking like the leaves on an aspen tree. And I know, I know: It’s not as if this is the Yukon, where hardy men send straight strong streams of pee into the frigid air which then freeze into stout shafts for use in their damaged dog sleds. It’s not as if this is even Minnesota, where people’s eyelashes get cemented together while they’re trying to crack open the diamond-hard shell of ice encasing their cars.

Still, it’s winter and winter is cold. And we mind the cold, hothouse tomatoes that we are.

Yet already the days are growing longer and in just eight weeks that old Uniform Time Act will have us all reading the paper in the park until almost 7:00 at night. Until almost 9:00 by the end of June.

Then what? Then the days will start getting short again alas, because Time is a big old ferris wheel that never does stop moving, except ever-so-briefly, to let new little folks on and the rest of us less-than-new folks off, each in our turn.

So what is the universe trying to tell us? Maybe to love the pumpkin for all its beauty and then to let the pumpkin go. Maybe to love what is given today.

It might also be hinting that no matter what bleak, stuck place I find myself in, I should really never throw 200 handwritten, sealed and stamped Christmas cards under a bridge, because does it really matter if they arrive a little late?

Let’s hope not! You guys should be getting mine any day now. 🙂

the cards go out at lastat the post office

Forty Years Ago Now

me and baby carrieForty years ago just about this minute, which is to say at 7:46 on December 31st, I was in the delivery room with my OB/GYN who had decided to induce labor even though I wasn’t even due yet –  so that, as he put it, “he could give Dad here the tax deduction, har-har.” (Oh the sexism in those days! He had also told us two weeks before the birth that while I did my “huffing and puffing,” my husband was welcome to “come in and heckle” if he liked, – as if this were all about HIS brilliant performance!)

When, at 6 o’clock that morning,  we showed up at the hospital as we were told to do, he ordered the full humiliating ‘prep’ done and then personally inserted a kind of knitting needle into me to make my waters break, so of course the child was born with tiny cuts on her head. Then later, when things weren’t moving fast enough for him, he brought on the Pitocin and as the time passed, went on to crank the dose up and up until I was almost levitating off the gurney. Someplace in there came the Epidural, one of life’s great blessings, so everything else was easy. But if my body was blissed out, my mind was as clear as can be and I do remember him telling one nurse to call his wife and say that he’d be at the New Year’s Eve party by 10.

And I guess he was. By 10 the three of us were cozily ensconced in a room. At 11:55 exactly, the nurses on duty brought us a split of champagne and we toasted the future.

Ah memories!

We see backward so clearly. We see ahead so poorly. We didn’t know this baby would be the first of three, or that she would be such a mild philosophical child. She was easy from the start – well, except for that 8th grade year when she was doing the hard work of separating from us.

carrie & katy at the beach

in 9th grade with her cousin Katy at the beach

Today though, she is altogether launched. Today she is 40, thirteen years older than I was when I gave birth to her. Can that even BE?  We had a wonderful winter as I think back on it. I wrote thank-you notes for baby gifts and the three of us napped and napped…

carrie-looks-like-callie…resting up for the excitement of watching that landmark series Roots based on the remarkable book by Alex Haley.

She was too thin at first and then she chubbed up – and before we knew it, Spring came and she crawled down from our laps and away from us, as all babies must.

How blessed we are though, because all these years later we can still get to her in 22 short minutes. Oh Happy birthday Carr! What a joy it has been to watch you grow!

carrie at 6 in a chair

carrie as a mom

 

 

 

7:40 in My Bedroom

img_2745It’s 7:40 in my bedroom. It has been 7:40 in my bedroom for some months now, and a comforting sort of hour that is, whether morning or evening.

The reason it is 7:40 in my bedroom is that for some months I have awakened to the sight of a sweet clock, small and round and newly-broken, but dear to me still, a thing of brass and glass, and fashioned to look like an stop-watch.

This time-stopped clock sits on a bureau which is time-stopped too in its way, as I realize while slowly looking around for a timepiece that’s actually accurate. The bureau once belonged to a very old lady I lived with in my baby days, my Great-Aunt Margaret, who would sit for hours at the whim of us kids, pretending to be a queen, or an ogre, or a conductor on the “train” we made by lining up the empty chairs in the dining room.

Quite near this old bureau sits another, this once belonging to an even more ancient lady, my Great Aunt Mame, who lived with us too. I treasure it because it just feels like the 1860s, the decade when it and Great Aunt Mame came into being. In its slender spare quality, it feels too like that lady, the famous-to-us creator of endless pies and jellies, of moist cookies and plump and steaming biscuits.

As a sort of bachelor brother to these, a third chest of drawers stands over by the window, tall and narrow-shouldered, with a marble top and ebony-colored drawer-pulls as long as the ears of a cocker spaniel. It is the one thing my groom and I ever bought at an estate auction, for the princely sum of $187.50.

Here too stands the knee-high table that my grandfather had built for his “little dearies” as he called them, the four children under six whose blue-eyed mother died in pregnancy at the age of 31. Here as well are the silver hair brushes of that young woman, who left life all too early and took her fifth child with her.

Here in this room, where it is 7:40 always, stands the old bed we found left behind in the attic of our first house, a two-family in the city. At the time, its headboard was black with coats of varnish. I refinished it and we sleep in it still. Three babies got their start in this bed and kept coming back to it, on unquiet nights, with  their blankies and their little afflictions.

My mother died some years ago now. A swan-shaped planter from her last bedroom sits on my night-stand, together with a photo of her at 22, squinting shyly into the sun.

In this room Time is stopped. But outside it, Time, and messy life, have hurried onward, I remember the December that the furnace fainted and cooled, and one of the cats dragged a still-warm squiggle of mouse-life into the kitchen. Around that same time someone spilled soup on the living room sofa. A revolving band of environmentalists kept coming to the door to ask for money. A revolving band of Boy Scouts kept trying to sell us evergreens.

And every day real winter loomed. And every day the Holidays threatened.

When you’re young, you think “Hurry, Time!” You want to be 10 or you want to be 20. You can’t wait for the birthday or the big game to come; you can’t wait for prom night, or for summer vacation.

Then things change and you grow older. Time moves plenty fast enough without your urging, you find. And suddenly a room where it’s always 7:40 is a lovely place in which to wake up, and nicer still when  Mister Sun hoists his own old self high up enough to bring true daylight.

this is our room

 

Posted in Uncategorized

Easy Street

a turkey knows when it's done

I was pretty spoiled as a kid. Raised by a mother-and-aunt combo, I never had to do a lick of kitchen duty. Instead of enlisting my help, this  were forever shooing me away so I could rest up for the night’s homework.

Man, was that a sweet deal.

The amazing thing is, they  didn’t even seem to mind all the holiday cooking they had to. Rather they seemed to actually enjoy the job, perhaps  because of the amazing tales it yielded up over the years – like the one about the Thanksgiving Eve deep in the Depression years, when their lawyer-father came home with a peculiar kind of payment for handling somebody’s case:

A turkey, slackly wet and freshly slaughtered. “Here you go, girls!” he cried happily, slinging it down on the kitchen table and walking away fast to take up his pipe-smoking ritual in the deep peace of the cozy front parlor.

As the story goes, the bird had been butchered, sure, but not completely plucked, alas and alack. Decades had passed by the time my sister and I first heard the tale of this night and our grownups’ frantic city-slicker efforts at getting those feathers off . There was the tweezing attempt, the singeing-over-an-open-flame attempt  and more. We never forgot the gory facts, and them every November from then on begged for more details about out how they finally got the job done. (“Six words,” my mother finally said in a show of merry candor: “A good big bottle of Scotch.”)

So for years Thanksgiving meant pure ease for me, right on through the first chapters of married life when my young groom and I would nervily show up at each of our childhood homes in turn, to gorge ourselves and stretch out like fat lounging hippos in the living rooms afterward. We didn’t cook a thing.

THAT sweet deal came to an end about five years in to our marriage, when seeing us off, my tiny mother-in-law sidled in close and gave it to me straight: “Next year? Your turn.”

From then on, I TRIED with the turkey every year, I really did, but so much went wrong: There was the one I roasted with the giblet-mess still inside, smelly and dark in its butcher-paper wrapping; the one I cooked upside down for added moistness which, when I went to remove it five hours later, disintegrated like papier-mâché and came to the table looking like a fourth-grader’s failed art project; and let’s not forget the one rendered SO moist at cooking’s end that it shot straight out of the oven and slid into home plate on the kitchen  floor.

Those were some hair-raising meals all right. Luckily there were only about 30 years of them.

Now, with this reputation going before me – AND a daughter who wedged culinary school training in between college and grad school – I am back on Easy Street, with Thanksgiving at her house and the lightest of assignments for me: The salad, and come on, who eats salad on this High Feast Fats and Flour?

Finally, a picture of me back on Thanksgiving back in the early golden years at my mom-in-law’s house, she bustling busily around the kitchen amid her pretty-spoiled sons and me, her brand-new not-quite-getting-it daughter-in law, perched on a stool and sampling some grapefruit.

Thanksgiving Day with the fam

 

 

White House Decor Then & Now

This is a picture of the Yellow Oval Room in the White House during the all-too-brief Kennedy years. Tradition dictates that the walls stay yellow in this room, and that there be some of those white-legged French Provincial chairs and tables. Here’s how Jackie tricked the place out.

yellow-oval-room-kennedy-yrs

I know she had a great eye and all but I’m really not wild about this look. To my eye the yellow in the wall covering is too coercively cheerful somehow.  To me it looks like a house in Palm Beach circa 1960, maybe that very Kennedy house where Teddy, old enough to know better, wandered around half-dressed, before waking up his two nephews to get them to accompany him back to the bars when they were both in their beds and half asleep. And really couldn’t you almost curse just anticipating how you’d catch your foot on those spindly glass-topped occasional tables?

So that was the Yellow Oval Room as the 34th president and Jackie arranged it.

Now here’s that same room the way the 44th president and Michelle have set it up:

Obama White House As Home

Of course we see it from a different angle with the three windows in view and that makes it more appealing right there. But I so much prefer this buttery yellow, and the particular green of the window treatments and the sofas – and of course the deep sherry colors in the carpeting and velvet chairs. It all makes me want to take a bite, just like when I see a freshly scooped bowl of Mocha Almond ice cream – yum!

I’ll admit I had to smile at one thing though: the sight, flanking that center window, of the two candelabra, each teetering atop a slender pedestal. Weren’t Sasha and Malia just little girls when they moved in here in 2008? When my youngest was barely two, he took his little white baby shoes on walkabout, ending up in our living room where an immense Boston fern perched, regal as the Queen Mother, on a mahogany fern stand. The minute he went in there, we heard a whooshing sound followed by a muffled crash. The whole rest of the family tore into the room – where our baby boy, in his uncertain Diaper-bottomed stance, turned toward us eyebrows in the air and lisped out one of the few phrases he had learned. “Just kidding?” he lisped hopefully. That flouncy old dowager of a fern was never the same.

Now let’s go back in time and see what patrician Jackie told the TV audience when she gave that famous White House tour in 1962.  And if you don’t have time for that, check out Vaughn Meader impersonating JFK at a press conference during which his pretend wife Jackie also raises a questions. You might as well laugh as cry in life, and I hope Vaughn Meader felt that way too, even if his career doing send-ups of the Kennedy family came to a crashing halt on that fateful November day in ’63.