Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Dressed and Ready to Go

The kitchen smells of minced garlic toasting in olive oil on the stove. I chop the artichoke stems very fine. From the garden, I salvaged a few sage leaves that survived the early frost and they are crisping in the oil as well. I know what Cam would say if I phoned her. I can easily hear her voice.

“Lea! How’re you doin’?”

“Great! I’m making stuffed artichokes.”

“No kiddin’. What’re you putting in the filling?”

“I’ve got some sage from the garden, toasted garlic and breadcrumbs.”

“Oooooo. I always put in a bit of salt and pepper, as well.”

“Yep. I’ve added them along with the stems.”

When Cam talks about food, it’s as if she could taste it. The words roll languorously about on her tongue, zesty as lemon, smoky as slow-cooked sauce. She relishes each ingredient, the aromas, and the textures. No surprise, as much of her life was spent in the kitchen, cooking for her parents, her brothers, and for all of us.

I come close to reaching for the telephone, but Cam won’t be there to answer; she passed away last week.

She was ninety-two and hadn’t been cooking much lately. Over the past year, her forgetfulness led to smoke alarms a few times too many. Sausages browned to black on the stove as she went to the bathroom; hamburger charred when she was drawn into a TV show. Like Cam, her neighbors at Heritage Village were elderly, most in their eighties. Much as they loved her, they were frustrated about standing in the cold or rain while awaiting the firemen’s “All clear.” It was not just inconvenient; they were worried - about her as well as themselves.

At Heritage Village, the policy is three strikes and you’re out. Luckily, not really out, but forbidden to use the stove. She certainly didn’t cook with as much enthusiasm as she used to anyway; she was tired. But still, she missed the smells and fresh food.

When Cam joined us for Christmas last year, she made up for lost cooking time; a full day was spent preparing homemade lasagna and squid. Dave and his aunty rolled mounds of dough thin, then sliced them into strips. Casey, Tucker and I helped layer the pasta with creamy ricotta cheese, sautéed vegetables and rich tomato sauce. Stuffing the squid, or porkies, as Cam called them, was a messy business, leaving her crooked fingers caked with stuffing and her apron dusted with flour. Christmas carols played on the stereo, the same songs Cam listened to when her brothers were at war, the songs we’d heard as children, and that Tucker and Casey had grown up singing. Sometimes Cam and Dave would swing into a dance or croon along with Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby.

Cam’s greatest pleasure, other than time spent with family, was playing Bingo. Whenever Dave called his aunt, his first question was whether she’d won at Bingo that week. If she answered in the negative, he’d tease her about dishonoring the family name. “You dingweed!” he’d say, and she would laugh like a school girl. She got a kick out of the nickname; maybe the silliness appealed, or perhaps its youthful ring. Whatever the reason, Cam took teasing well. She could always laugh at herself.

Cam worried constantly about family members, from the time that all three brothers served overseas during World War II, to the time that she quit her job to take care of her parents. Then Uncle Jack got cancer, and Dave’s father, Tony, had a stroke. Often, therefore, her worries were well-founded. But she also worried unnecessarily if Dave didn’t call every day, or if she couldn’t find a phone number, or bill. Dave would mimic Cam’s wail, feed it right back to her, when she moaned about some small insignificance. And she got the joke; her groaning would give way to laughter.

Timmy the van driver and Cam’s friend, Theresa, found her. They had come to pick her up for Bingo, just like always. Usually, Cam was waiting outside when the van pulled up. She’d be wearing a beige knit jacket and matching pants; her white hair would be neatly coiffed following her weekly trip to the hairdresser. She’d have her bulky handbag clutched to her body with both hands. This time, Cam wasn’t out front so Timmy was anxious. She waited a bit, then decided to go up to Cam’s apartment. Theresa agreed to accompany her, just in case.

They found her on the bedroom floor, dressed and ready to go.

Dressed and ready to go. That describes Cam pretty well. She relished life in the same way she relished mussels in garlic and wine, scraping each shell clean and sopping up the juice with a nice chunk of fresh bread. She’d stay up until 1:00 am to watch her great-nephews, Trevor and Christopher, perform. Well into her eighties, she once went out on a boat night-shrimping in Florida with her niece, Peggy, and her beloved, Paul. It was dark on the water and the chill numbed their hands, but Cam never complained. In fact, when Peggy asked how she was doing, she laughed with delight and said, “I’m enjoying myself!”

When Peggy’s daughter, Jenny, gave birth to a little girl, Cam found a new love. Now four years old, Victoria is cute, smart, and funny, and her parents are conscientious about keeping Cam up-to-date with photographs.

Cam kept Dave company during his daily commute from work. He’d call her as he sat in traffic on the Merritt Parkway and they’d chat about his day, about her latest Bingo game, about Victoria’s most recent accomplishment. Cam told him when Cousin Jackie fell ill, and when Johnny Talbot called. She told him when Jenny’s sister, Lisa, started her own business as a personal chef. “Isn’t that somethin’?” said Cam. But she never wanted to impose, “I won’t take any more of your time….” she'd say, and Dave had to beg her, “Don’t hang up! Don’t hang up!”

As I run cold water into the pot, I wish I could call her. I know Cam would love these artichokes. She would have eaten every leaf with gusto, starting close to the pricker-sharp point, then working her teeth to the stem end.

Loving every last morsel.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Christmas House

Dave and I have bustled all week to prepare for our Christmas party. Brush in hand, I’ve dabbed Chelsea Blue paint on doors and sills that need touch-ups. Cupboards are scrubbed clean; furniture is lemon polish fragrant; potpourris are revitalized with cinnamon scent. Dry floors, massaged with oil, are a rich red-brown. I imagine the house stretching and waking, as rapturously pleased with itself as our cat Raven under a soothing caress.

We began decorating by hauling boxes and bulky plastic bags from the attic and crawlspace, every hutch and window seat yielding Santas, snowmen, teddy bears, and garlands. As I unwrap the tissue protecting each item, I remember its place in Christmases past. When Tucker and Casey were little, they helped craft the papier mache carollers. The miniature wooden village first appeared under my parents’ tree in the fifties. The velveteen Santa has been with us since Tucker was one, a gift from his grandparents on his first Christmas in 1980. Little hands, growing hands, aging hands have held and admired each memento.

After days of puttering, near every surface in the house boasts a vignette: a woodland village, nativity or Father Christmas. Still, something is missing. Greens.

Casey used to decorate the house with holly and evergreens, but she’s missed the party for the past few years since she left for college. Last week I was saddened by her blithe departure the Sunday after Thanksgiving. I yearned for the days when she lived at home, when she reveled in creating arrangements of holly, filling jars with cranberries, and hanging ornaments. But she was all asparkle at the thought of returning to school as she drove into the dusk, saying, “I’ll be back in three weeks for Christmas!”

An hour later she phoned from a rest stop on the interstate. “My headlights died! I do NOT believe this!” The hoped-for quick fix from Triple A did not pan out and we received another, more subdued, call. “Mom, would you and Dad mind retrieving the car from the rest stop to bring it home for repairs? I’ve called my roommate and she’s going to pick me up and take me the rest of the way to school.” And then Casey spluttered and sniffled on her end of the line. “The reason I was so cheery when I said good-bye was because I planned to surprise you by coming home to help with the party. And now I can’t because I won’t have a car!” Dear girl! It meant so much that she wanted to come.

So I inherited her job of collecting and distributing the greens. Yesterday, with a basket over my arm and shears in hand, I circled the yard, a snowy expanse marred only by deer tracks trailing from the woods to the bird feeders. What a glorious day to be browsing through holly and winterberries, green and crimson against naked limbs and white snow.

Laden with clippings, I returned to the house and strolled about adding a sprig of pine here, a branch of berries there. Shaded by a bit of feathery fir, the figures on the mantels appeared to relax and brighten. White wooden swans glided gracefully once provided a pool of pine. Even great-grandfather Francis’s somber face seemed almost jovial once holly boughs crowned the frame of his portrait.

Dave returned from Home Depot with arms full of pointsettias. We arranged the scarlet flowers around the victorian carollers singing amid cotton snow in the front hall fireplace. Candles graced tables, mantels and sconces. All that was lacking was the final touch of a match to bring the rooms flickering to life. In still semi-darkness, tiny flames dancing white and blue at the core, seem a visible glimmer of the spirit of a house. How much more so when they lend their glow to a holiday party.

This house has hosted over two hundred and twenty Christmases, but we held our first party here five years ago. Certain elements have remained constant: Dave wears jeans, an oxford shirt and Christmas tie; I greet friends in a flowing dress. Dave brews beer and smokes fish; I shop, bake, mix dips and decorate. The kids’ papier mache carollers sing in the front fireplace; Tucker’s velveteen Santa sits on the hutch in the living room.

But of course, some things change. Tucker and Casey are away at school. Where Casey and her friends Lindsay, Jess and Devlin once passed hors-d’oeuvres and washed dishes, now Lindsay’s little sister, Kara, and her friends help out. They are in the kitchen now, circling the poached salmon with lemon slices, filling bowls with nuts, and garnishing dips with dill and basil. Kara is a senior, so she’ll be gone next year. We’re here, but the kids grow up.

As our friends arrive, they set offerings of lacy cookies, brownies, and bisques among the cheese boards, crudite, crackers and platters of fish already arrayed on the dining room table. Pat inches aside a plate or two to make room for a thick yellow zabaglione in a cut crystal bowl. Michelle places her spinach dip in its cradle of pumpernickel bread on the sideboard. Barb brings a pyramid of zucchini squares. To me, it feels like the house celebrates with us as it glows with candlelight, the rooms echoing with hymns sung by the Westminster Choir.

My eyes well briefly with tears while I think of both the blessings and transitions of this night. My Dave is here with me, chatting with guests. Kara takes overcoats, just as Casey used to do. Hugs and laughter and love linger with me in the hall even as new arrivals head to the living room for a home brew.

A hooked rug I just completed lies on the floor in the corner. It features Santa against a midnight blue background. I imagine an unborn little one saying of it some day, “My grandmother made it thirty years ago.” I picture an older Casey arranging the alpine village on a spray of evergreen, perhaps preparing for a party of her own. And I allow myself a wonderful thought, that those future parties might still be here, in this house that delights to hold them.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Spirit Visits

At night when the murmur of beloved voices has whispered to silence, I sometimes sit musing in the near dark by a fire quieted to embers glowing red. Uneven floorboards, oak and chestnut, smoothed by centuries’ footfalls, speak to generations of living in our old house. As I read David McCullough’s book, John Adams, immersed in the founder’s life and ideals, I can’t help but wonder who slept here. Not in terms of celebrity, necessarily, but as I contemplate the span of American history witnessed and celebrated in these familiar rooms, I long to know the stories. I find comfort, for some reason, in thinking about those who lived before us. They weathered their own storms of personal or global making. Now on the other side, they know all the answers.

Intent on conjuring the shadows of the mothers who’ve gone before me, I imagine an aproned woman, flushed and awkward as she leans to tend a pot on the fire, striving to keep her heavy skirts from the flames. With an exhausted smile, she ladles hot stew for a pale young man after his day of labor. Where did she find the energy to enjoy that food herself after tending to family, chores and animals?

Why do we never see her?

The young man has made himself known. He is thin and bearded and has set the hair on Dave’s neck up straight when glimpsed by the fire. Our neighbor, Jim, sheds inexplicable tears while sitting in this room. His mother is a psychic, and when he sought an explanation, she said she'd “seen” a family in mourning when last she visited us. A young man, thin and bearded, was laid out for a wake. He bore a resemblance to Jim himself, as a matter of fact. Maybe there is a connection.

When our daughter, Casey, was little, she reported sightings of this spectral visitor peering at her from the doorway when she lay in her bed. For years we dismissed these tales as childish fantasy.

While the previous residents remain here, I have yet to perceive them. Friends who are more sensitive than I marvel at the ghostly stirrings. “You don’t feel anything? My god, there’s all kinds of activity!”

We tenants, past and present, have disagreed, periodically, as to whether lights should be on or off. More than once, Dave has returned upstairs in the morning, a bit wild-eyed, with the news that our ghostly friends had been about during the night. Lights absolutely extinguished at bedtime have been on when he went down for breakfast. There’s no pattern to the lamps chosen, so it’s not faulty wiring.

One day, after Dave seemed particularly agitated by this feisty fiddling with switches, I waited until the kids left for school and Dave headed to work. Standing in the front hallway, I respectfully called to those within hearing. I thanked them for passing the house on to us. I told them how much we loved it. And I requested that they leave the switches be, and restrict appearances around my little ones and their anxious father.

It appears they listened, these eternal homeowners, and for the most part, they keep a low profile.

I let them know that there are times I’m not ready to meet them, when even the thought of a filmy form at the foyer window leaves me gasping. But on other occasions at the flickering fireside, my stool pulled as close to the dancing light as I dare, I long for a visit. I close my eyes and wrap about me the beeswax-scented, pewtered past, and seek the woman who once worked at this hearth.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Election Day

It is Election Day and it feels like Christmas.

I awaken to the reflected colors of yellow leaves and a brazenly scarlet Japanese maple, as garish as a lipstick-red kiss. Light emanates through the window as the sun rises behind the trees. It is Election Day. Thank God. The Bush years are almost behind us.

Dave comes into the bedroom, already dressed for work. His tie is a swirl of red, white and blue flags. We grin at each other and he kisses me good-bye. “I can’t wait to vote,” he said. “It feels great to be so excited.”

After Dave leaves, I hop up and sing “America the Beautiful” as I pull off the comforter and shake the pillows out of their cases. “Oh beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain.” Tobama, our tiger cat, twists about the tumble of sheets crumpled on the floor as I snap out a fresh one and slip it over the bed corners. “For purple mountain majesties above the fruited plain…”

By the time Tucker and Casey were toddlers, they knew all the words to “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” and “America the Beautiful.” Their reedy voices warbled of liberty and brotherhood, unfazed by tricky high notes, as they built to a boisterous crescendo, more for the joy of sanctioned yelling, perhaps, than for the potent meaning of the song. I can’t help but smile in remembering them belting, “America! America! God shed his grace on thee! And crown thy good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea!”

Brotherhood. From sea to shining sea.

The phone rings. It is Casey, now twenty-five years old and breathless as she strides to work in New York. “Omigod, Mom. You should see the lines! Everyone is out waiting to vote!”

Casey is registered in Easton so she sent in her absentee ballot a month ago. “I wish I could vote today,” she says. “I want to be part of this. You should see all the people!”

“You are part of it; you voted. I was just thinking about you and your brother singing 'My Country ‘Tis of Thee' when you were kids. Do you remember the words?”

“Of course I do!” And as she walks, she sings out loud, “My country ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty! Of thee I sing…” Today is Election Day and a sense of pride in country wells forth. “Let freedom ring!” Casey finishes up and giggles. “You see? I still know it. All right, I’ve arrived at work. I’ll check in later.”

“Okay. Bye Sweetie. Love you.”

The top sheet drifts onto the bed and I smooth it flat. I want to share this day. I call Mom and Dad and then my sisters, Rita and Francie. “Happy Election Day!” I crow. I’ve never done this before. Who calls to wish people “Happy Election Day” as if it were a holiday? But so much rests on this vote. With the past eight years as backdrop, my sense of the fragility of democracy - the novel, noble concept of a government by, and for, the people – has heightened. My sisters aren’t home, so I leave a message. Mom and Dad are getting ready for their election night party. Dad says, “I’ll be in great despair if this doesn’t go our way.”

“It will, Dad. Think of what the country has been through for the past eight years. Today will go well.” We sign off with promises to touch base during the evening.

I call Tucker and we wish each other a Happy Election Day. “There have already been some glitches up here,” he says. “They didn’t have me listed.”

“What? You’re kidding. How could that be?”

“I don’t know, but luckily I’d brought a registration card just in case there was any confusion with my change of address. The guy checking me in said they’d had about a hundred similar problems. And this was early.”


“I know. But it’s going to be okay, Mom. It’s going to go well.”

We say good-bye and I turn to rummaging through my underwear drawer in search of my flag pin, but can’t find it. A white turtleneck and a red and blue scarf will do the trick. Today, wearing patriotic colors feels right. “Oh beautiful for spacious skies…” begins another loop through my mind and I hum as I grab my purse and make sure my license is in my wallet. Of course it is. Where else would it be?

I am stuck on the first verse of “America,” so I decide to check Google for the lyrics. I type, “What are the words to ‘America the Beautiful’?” The site opens with a graphic of the flag waving above the White House. A tinny rendering of the melody issues from my MacBook. I hadn’t expected the music and tears spring to my eyes. What’s that all about? This is an emotional day, even more than I realized, I guess.

I scan the lyrics; the song is longer than I’d thought. Some of the words seem dated. Others pertain almost eerily to current events: “America! America! God shed his grace on thee ‘til selfish gain no longer stain the banner of the free.”

Blowing kisses to the cats, I lock the door and head out to the car. An Obama sticker is on my rear bumper, an Obama yard sign posted in front of the rhododendron bush by the road. They remind me to take the pins off my purse; no campaign paraphernalia allowed within, what, 75 feet of the voting booths?

On the radio, soundbytes of McCain and Obama play over “America the Beautiful.” I hum along quietly as I drive under spacious skies to the elementary school to cast my vote.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008


As I prepare to leave for work, I breeze through the house, this lovely shell, barely aware of my surroundings. So at times, I reflect, Mom was right. While I see the painting that once hung in my grandmother’s house, it doesn’t register as more than a backdrop. Yes, I know that the drawing Casey drew in art last week is posted on the fridge, but it’s barely a blur, as I rush to the kitchen to pour a glass of orange juice and toast a Poptart.

The doorstop from Mom’s childhood room in St. Louis is displayed on the dining room mantel and Dad’s red chest, his toybox of sixty-five years ago, holds sweaters at the foot of my bed. Uncle Jack’s mess kit, Ama’s lap desk, and even Tucker’s cast-off sneakers, are remnants of lives and places precious to me that have come to rest in this house. When I slow down to notice, each one tells a story…

* * * *

As charred and crusty as it is, Uncle Jack’s World War II field mess kit is ingenious. Two oval metal trays with deep sides form the top and bottom, one partitioned to better organize the meal, the other converting easily into a saucepan. The band holding the two halves in repose swings up and out to form a handle. As Aunty Cam sorted through decades of keepsakes in preparation for moving, she discovered the mess kit and gave it to us.

Dave’s Uncle Jack died four years ago of colon cancer, too young, and unnecessarily, at age seventy-six. Despite his persistent and accurate reporting of symptoms to his doctors, their tests failed to detect the lethal tumor. “It was hidden beyond reach of the scope. We’re sorry....”

Like his brothers, Tony and Phil, Jack served in the army in Italy during the forties. He was an ambulance driver, charged with retrieving bodies as much as transporting the wounded. As he hunched by a campfire after a day’s work, warming Spam and beans neatly partitioned in his aluminum tray, was he haunted by visions of the limp-limbed corpses he’d hoisted into his ambulance, the sons and brothers who would not return home?

While on leave, he visited his relatives in Caserta and fell in love with his first cousin, Josephina. But even as a soldier, an ocean away from home, Jack answered to his mother, Lucia. Mama would not tolerate romance with a first cousin and demanded an end to the courtship.

I remember sitting at the table in Cam’s kitchen when I first heard this tale. Garlic toasted in fruity olive oil on the stove while Cam squeezed fresh lemon juice onto the salad. Cam explained, “It would have been one thing if the cousins had been born of two sisters, but they were of brothers. Too close! The blood was too thick.”

I shook my head sadly for Uncle Jack’s lost love.

“What?" said Cam, brows lifted in surprise at my response. “What’s not to understand?”

When Uncle Jack came home, he stashed the mess kit in a dark corner of the basement of the yellow house on Stratfield Street, along with Tony’s bomber jacket and some wartime magazines. Jack resumed his work as a mason and, on the weekends, tended the family garden and pear tree. He was silent about his experiences overseas.

Cam's face drooped in recalling those years. As she added a jar of tomatoes to the garlic, she said, “He was like a stranger when he came home from the war.”

* * * *

The small mahogany lap desk is carved with maple leaves encircled by tiny diamonds and interwoven vines. My mother gave it to Casey, but once, it belonged to my great-grandmother, Ama.

In sepia photographs, Ama’s eyes are deep-set, and almost melancholy. They remind me of her daughter, my grandmother Byeo, and even, of my mother. As I grow older, when I look in the mirror, I see all three women in my own deep-set eyes.

Mom loved her grandmother dearly and describes her as high-spirited. Once while waiting for a train, Ama snuck uninvited into a church during a wedding. One of the ushers was so taken by her charm that he insisted on escorting her to a seat directly behind the bride’s family. Given the circumstances, Ama’s manners prevented escape and she missed her train while witnessing strangers’ vows.

My parents were married in Ama’s house in the fifties. As I trace the carvings on the lid of the lap desk with my finger, I wonder if Ama addressed the invitations to the ceremony upon its leather writing surface.

* * * *

Each morning, I do my exercises on the floor in Tucker’s room. Although he is still in evidence in the Tae Kwon Do trophy, the bi-plane he crafted from toothpicks in fourth grade, and countless texts from bygone courses, he now attends college, and the shift from boy’s room to store room is occurring.

As I lie on my left side, doing leg lifts, I’ve noticed a pair of clunky black sneakers under the bed. They’re big, maybe size eleven, and I wonder when Tuck wore them last.

His final years at home were unhappy; he was miserable at the local high school. The bus would pull up in the afternoon and the front door would slam. Tuck would clump, clump, clump up the stairs, grunting to the forced cheer of my greeting. The door to his room would crash shut, and there he’d brood, emerging only for meals or phone calls.

Where had my little boy gone?

I recently hung a photograph of Tucker and Casey on the wall in Tucker’s room. Casey, at about three months old, appears uncomfortable in the arms of her big brother, but his face is contented as he smiles at someone off-camera. I remember the day that Dave took the shot and while doing my daily exercises on the floor, I’ve realized that smile, so full of love, was for me.

The angel-faced Tucker in the picture has grown up, and thankfully, so has the angry boy who kicked those sneakers under the bed. Once enrolled in a boarding school where he felt he belonged, my boy seemed to become…well, the happier boy we used to know.

Perhaps we were wrong to hold him here as long as we did. We are given our children for such a short span; I didn’t want to lose him any sooner than necessary. I guess sometimes the losing lies in the holding.

I could be a proper housekeeper and clear out the space under that bed. Send off those sneakers to Goodwill or the church... and eventually, I will. Right now though, I’m keeping them as a shrine of sorts – a frozen moment. I picture Tucker just home from school or Tae Kwon Do untying his sneakers. He kicks them carelessly out of the way, and they tumble, laces dragging, unseen, untouched, for six years.

* * * *

As I spin through my days, dusting Dave’s pipe rack or adjusting the print Casey gave me, it is interesting to think consciously of that action as a moment caught in time. On one specific evening, Uncle Jack fit together the halves of his mess kit, swinging the handle in place until it caught. Ama, at some point, signed a letter with her spidery script, closed the lid of her lap desk, and never opened it again. Tucker, one afternoon, toed off his black sneakers and kicked them under the bed for good.

On each of these simple items left behind, that final touch remains. A connection.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Old Apple - Part III

[Note: Parts I and II appear below]

A gray mist obscures the woods, and the trees encircling our property appear arrow-straight and somber as mourners at a funeral. My view from the bathroom window takes in the full breadth of the yard, from the swamp to the stone walls bordering the abandoned road. It is open and coldly bare. A lone chickadee hops onto the shed roof from the protective boughs of a hemlock. Her head swivels, inquisitive, confused. Too exposed! She retreats to the safety of the hemlock.

Cut flush with the farthest peak of the roof is the stump of the apple, her sawdust strewn like bird seed on the asphalt shingles. Clearly she was gone long before Chris came to take her. Only the merest ring of bark circles the dark tunnel rotted to her core. Chris reported that his co-worker was so anxious about the extent of the rot that he refused to climb her. We’re lucky she was able to hold her limbs steady above our house through last week’s high winds.

The cut was long delayed and I’d said good-bye many times, standing at the window, treasuring close-up glimpses of jays and titmice, the cocking of their heads and the fluffing of feathers with a quick pecking groom. We have loved this view into the life of our tree and her visitors.

Dave and I went out today to salvage some pieces from the brush heap of her twigs and branches; I will use some boughs as the bodies of Christmas Santas for Tucker and Casey. Our friend Phil also suggested that we use others to stoke the fireplace and when Dave smokes fish. “There’s nothing like the smell of apple wood,” he promised.

So, the apple will remain with us, lending solidity to a Santa Claus, a fresh smoky taste to Dave’s fish, and in aromatic wisps as we sit cozily by the fire. But I will miss her in the springtime when a cloud of pink blossoms bustling with busy songbirds no longer shades our window.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Old Apple - Part II

[Note: This piece follows the essay below.]

A red squirrel scampers up the apple tree, then hovers at the brink of a gaping hole. His brush of tail quivers - in excitement or anxiety? Two jays swoop, raucous and bullying, from the limbs of the tree to the feeder, sending a whirl of cold-fluffed titmice flying. All of this life has centered about our aging tree, yet her time is nearly past.

The shingles on the shed roof are warped and wrinkled as the apple leans closer to the house. Yet another arborist, the fourth, (we’ve sought many second opinions) has confirmed that this cutting is timely, but I’m saddened at ordering the death of this friend.

Her branches, clawed and skeletal this January afternoon, offer easy perches for tiny birds eyeing the feeders as they await the blue jays’ departure. In finalizing plans with Chris, the tree-man, I asked him to give the creatures ample warning before beginning the cut to allow them time to escape. Hands in his pockets, he smiled, assuring me, “I’ve been a vegetarian for twelve years now; I’ll make sure they get out alright.”

This old tree has thrived through world-altering changes. For a hundred and fifty years, her canopy has shaded backyard activities, from demure young ladies in linen frocks sipping fresh-made lemonade to Dave and Steve wailing “Brown Sugar” during their summer Woodstock revivals. But, after many delays borne of our reluctance and the tree-man’s busy schedule, the apple is due to fall Friday.

I will go out now to press my hands against her trunk - to give warning, give thanks, and seek forgiveness. It’s hard to imagine coming home after work to find the shed’s embrace empty.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Old Apple - Part I

[This is the third essay from the series "More Than a Shell." The first two are listed below.]

Our house has evolved along with the families who lived here. A haphazard mish mash of sheds and additions mark two hundred years of changing interests and needs. A door from the bathroom off the kitchen opens into the potting shed. A tool shed is tacked on behind. Like a caboose on a train, a playhouse brings up the rear. The apple tree growing in back of the house might have been chopped down for any one of these structures, but instead, they were built to wrap around the trunk of the tree.

The apple supplied shiny red fruit for pies, cider and cobblers. It was valued as a retreat for limb-climbing children and a shady spot for a cool sit-down after a morning’s work in the yard. It would have been a shameful waste to squander such an asset, so a couple of old doors, the wood still just fine, were used to encircle the tree and protect its bark during construction.

Since we’ve lived here, several large limbs have rotted and fallen. Yet the tree’s scars house birds and squirrels, and its apples, once shrunk to ridged brown walnuts, provide them with food during cold winter months.

I peer out an upstairs window through the apple’s crooked branches. A bright-eyed titmouse of soft dove gray perches beyond the windowpane. A flicker darts to the trunk, exploring the empty socket of a fallen branch, poking his head out a mite further down. Squirrel siblings clamber and chase the length of a massive limb; all of this life happening just out my window.

We love this tree, the eccentricity of its shed-wrapped trunk, the image of its inner tunnels and chambers, home to all manner of nibbling, furred and feathered friends. But we’d like to build an addition of our own - a New England-style porch. We imagine summer evenings spent lazing in green wicker chairs, or autumn afternoons warmed by an amber sun as we sit overlooking flaming red maple woods.

Of course, we want to save the tree, so we’ve called in the experts to gauge her health. Various treemen have walked around her impressive girth, rocking on their heels, speculatively eyeing our friend while scratching a chin. “Well, she’ll last maybe a year, maybe ten, barring high winds.” Five years ago the insurance company threatened to withhold coverage on the house if we did not cut her down. We had the tree pruned and wired and she squeaked by inspection, but clearly we’ll have to make a decision soon.

I cancelled the cut once already, like holding off putting an old dog to sleep. “She’s doing okay, it’s not time yet.” I get teary at the thought of gazing out the window to see only roofs. I'll miss the antics of a bright-eyed titmouse glimpsed through a veil of apple leaves.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Making It Home

[This essay follows "More Than a Shell," posted August 26]

When we moved in, the house had been vacant for over a year, a year of stillness but for the scrabble of mice and the settling of old floors. Unaccustomed churnings stirred the languid air when our kids raced through rooms and clattered up the stairway.

For close to two decades, Dave and I had lived in the dormitory of a private school in Greenwich. Communal meals, the thumpings of the five Moore boys playing basketball in the apartment overhead, and the constant on-call activity of dorm life had been our routine. Now night’s darkness was unbroken but for the call of owl and coyote. As much as I love Nature’s wildness, those eerie voices could turn a peaceful walk with our malamute, Kody, into a frenzied break for the house. “C’mon, Sweetie, c’mon,” I’d urge, tugging her leash, as cartoon images of yellow eyes and dripping fangs skulked unbidden into my mind.

Casey and Tucker, ages seven and ten, had loved the house during preliminary tours, but they hadn’t fully grasped that buying it meant leaving our home at the school. They were accustomed to having a gym and playground in the backyard, and friends next door, upstairs, and down the hall.

Dave and I tried to transfer as much familiarity to their new rooms as possible. I traced the markings on Tucker’s door in Greenwich that gauged his growth: 9/16/81 - 16 months - 32 inches, through 7/11/90 - 10 years old – 4 feet 11 inches. Tucker copied those milestones on the door to his room. (The most recent addition reads, “12/20/ 2001 - 21 years - 6 feet 2 inches.)

I had gingerly peeled Tuck’s artwork and Greenpeace and World Wildlife decals off the old woodwork to re-create the same effect on his new bedroom door. “I liked my old room better,” he scowled at the unveiling. I was disappointed by his reaction, but we all felt homesick.

Greenwich had been busy and suburban. The school was academically challenging and highly competitive. The grocery store and main shopping area were nearby. The hospital where my kids were born was one minute away - all so convenient, so fast.

There were no commercial centers in our new town. The grocery store was a ten-minute trek and it was years before we located the hospital. But, that first summer, we discovered three working farms within four minutes of the house and an orchard with blueberries, peaches and apples just down the road. We picked berries, rode bikes, and explored the surrounding woods, marveling that we lived in the New England of Currier and Ives.

“No Trespassing” signs marked the borders between our property and that of the Bridgeport Hydraulic Company, but we risked outlaw status in meandering along the stream and up the ridge. As I child, I would have loved these forays, but my kids whined about ticks and cultivated my worries about hunters as excuses to stay indoors. They preferred the entertainment of TV and computers, and groused when I shooed them outside.

Autumn brought apple-picking at the orchard off Route 58, and with school’s opening - friends. Once yellow buses rolled and kids came over for play dates, Casey and Tucker began to feel at home. It was harder for Dave and me: we had no welcoming classroom of built-in pals, and it had been years since we’d felt like the new kids in town. Finding new doctors, a new mechanic and new friends was hard.

At the first parent open house at the elementary school, Dave and I wedged ourselves expectantly into the tiny children’s seats in Mrs. Ledbetter’s second grade classroom and checked out the other parents. We rifled through Casey’s desk, her folders and workbooks. We scanned bulletin boards looking for her papers and artwork. What we found was a sign that all would be well: a pen and ink drawing, prominently displayed, of a child walking down a country road. Beneath the picture, were written the words “Childhood should be a journey, not a race.”

We were home.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

More Than a Shell

[A few years back, I wrote a series of essays about life in our 1780's house. I plan to post them in the upcoming weeks.]

Approaching the front door, the black wrought iron railing still bears an “M” for “Meyers,” although Mr. Meyers passed away a good five years ago. The brass knocker, too, confounds visitors as it continues to read, and perhaps always will, “Meyers.” It is not nostalgia on our part, or an unwillingness to release the past. This house took us in twelve years ago; Dave, Tucker, Casey and I are its family now. But unless some future bustling efficiency or yearning for accurate documentation spurs us, the Meyers will stay on in railing and knocker.

The garden bordering the railing is unequivocably ours. We dug up thriving pachysandra that had overtaken the small front yard, inspired by an Impressionist oil of an English garden. It was a wonderful distraction for me in the early months of summer, calming my mental tumult of shoulds and imagined fears in the pursuit of weeds and dead heads. Now in October, the sedum has turned almost rust, its heady sweet honeyscent a whisper lure to pollen-heavy bumblebees. Purple asters lie prone, downed by their own weight, but still vibrantly blooming. The cosmos, too, crawl the earth, seeking the sun with upturned pink blossoms atop feathery green stalks.

This wild tangle no longer calls for my care, but like gleeful children finally free of supervision, has grown inventive in its autumnal glory. Goldenrod as fragrant and lovely as any chosen flower has boldly unfurled her yellow laced fingers, a comforting caress for the bristly brown heads of passed echinacea and bee balm. The gomphrena is ablaze in clover-like buttons of garish magenta. Faithful impatiens, shaded by catmint overgrown now that my ministrations have dwindled, stretch and smile in plentiful splendor.

The house itself offers a simple face of white clapboard; a massive center chimney of painted brick is the most distinguishing feature. Black lanterns of iron, once mounted on a carriage postern, flank the front door. With barely an effort, I can picture the expansive canopy of the towering ash tree that shaded the house when we moved here, although it came down almost two years ago. From the corner of my eye, I catch a glimpse of my dancing malamute, our dog, Kody, pleased that I’m home. In reality, she too is gone, but this house holds its tenants. We all come to stay.

Colonel Isaiah Jennings built the house in 1782 upon his return from service during the Revolutionary War. I like to think he knows we are here and approves of us. We found this place as many buyers do, by flipping to the pages beyond our price range in the realtors’ book and then finding it impossible to return to our side of the tracks. How could we walk away from the yawning fireplace that could fit our family of four with ease, the warped wide plank floors and massive beams hewn by some long ago hand?

When we began the purchase process, my mother would call almost daily with anxious questions. “I’ve been up all night worrying. Have you considered crime in the area, other new kids in the children’s classes, the rabbit warren effect of the rooms?” I don’t think it was really the house that caused her concern; it was more the life change for me. After living on various school campuses since I was fifteen, I’d be living in the woods a good quarter-mile from the nearest neighbor. “This may not be worth it,” she cautioned, “A house isn’t your life; it’s the shell for your life.” But, our house has a spirit; it is more than a shell. And despite my mother’s reservations, it was only with her help that we’ve come to live here.

As we stood in the front hall that first day in 1990, the empty rooms - newly painted white as an open canvas - held the promise of the rest of our life unfolding. I pictured Mr. Meyers’ farewell pause on the threshold after his forty-five years here; perhaps he smiled sadly at a fleeting image of his wife, by then deceased, resting by the fireplace, or the scampering dance of his small daughter, now grown. Surely all of the laughter and sorrow of each family steeps into plaster and supporting beams like tea suffuses a watery brew.

After the Meyers’ belongings were swathed in moving rugs, folded into boxes and trundled out on the shoulders of sturdy young men, the house was left empty for over a year, awaiting the next link in the chain. At least, that’s how I see it. I am keenly aware of the changing of the guard. It is our time now, but we are temporary stewards, and that is the privilege of living in an old house. We've become part of its heritage, entrusted during our tenancy with honoring its past and keeping it safe for those who follow.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

More Than You Want to Know...

Rebellion is not in my blood. If anything, I’m pathetically obedient. I was raised to be a good girl, and I still do what I’m told. The mere thought of getting in trouble makes me nervous. Recently I noticed a sign posted on a neighbor’s lawn advertising his law practice. Our town is very strict about limiting signage. My stomach twisted as I thought, “Won’t he get in trouble for that?” Like I said, pathetic. But when it came to scheduling a colonoscopy, I demonstrated a cocky defiance.

Since I turned fifty, my doctor has urged me to schedule the procedure. She’s been polite, but firm. “I’m not going to harass you, but you should really get this done.”

Yeah. Whatever.

I am punctual, reliable and well-behaved, but when, at each of my past five annual physicals Dr. Wolfson has said, “You need to have a colonoscopy. I’ll prepare the paperwork,” I’ve shrugged and given her a smirk that said, “Prepare away, but I’m not gonna do it.”

My husband Dave, the model child, dutifully had “his first” right on time when he turned fifty. He was very Zen and beatific about it. “I like the fasting. I feel cleansed,” he said.

Oh please.

But Dave has a reason for his timely evaluation: his uncle and grandfather died of colon cancer. So, I’m aware of the danger, but I don’t think it will happen to me. I told Dr. Wolfson, “Let me run this by you. I don’t eat meat. I have no family history of this disease. I have no symptoms and I’m very regular. What are the odds that I’ll have a problem?”

She was quiet for a moment, considering. “Less, perhaps, than for some, but this is a random cancer. It can happen to anyone. Make the appointment.”

You’re not my mother; you can’t make me. (Of course I didn’t say that, but I was thinking it.)

The truth is, I wasn’t concerned about the procedure. Even the whole yucky process of drinking a gallon of vile liquid didn’t worry me. It was the fasting. The fasting that brought a Buddha-like smile of serenity to Dave’s face filled me with dismay. I get cranky if I don’t eat every three hours; how could I make it through twenty-four?

In February, I noticed an odd vibration in my lower regions where it definitely did not belong. I did not tell Dave. Why make him worry? I made an appointment with a gastroenterologist, then canceled it when the sensation went away. Whew! I guess it was nothing. The feeling returned in May and I thought, “Oh for God’s sake, fine! I’ll make the appointment.”

I told Dave, without divulging my motivation, that I was ready to take the plunge, so to speak, and have a colonoscopy. As he turned fifty-five this year, he, too, was up for another round, so we decided to do it together.

As a preliminary, we met with Dr. Belker, an attractive, graying man of athletic build and optimistic outlook. His jaunty gestures, raised eyebrows, and broad smile radiated his enthusiasm for his field; he was a doctor who not only treated cancer, but prevented it. We knew we had the right man for the job.

And he had the right staff. Before we sat down with Dr. Belker, a nurse completed our forms and instructed us with a mix of authority, humor and kindness. She tolerated our manic giggles and “pain-in-the-butt” jokes. As she rose from the desk saying, “And now you’ll meet the doctor face-to-face,” she laughed out loud when Dave responded, “the last time he’ll have that pleasure.” I bet she’d heard the remark plenty of times, but when the subject at hand is colons and rectums, bathroom humor is a must.

At this juncture, I want to mention that I’d noticed something odd. I worry about everything. I awaken most days, except when I’m on vacation, with a knot of anxiety in my stomach. Why? Why? Why? I wish I knew. I scan the options: any health concerns? A project at work? New disasters on the world front? Even a routine dentist appointment sparks butterflies in my stomach, but once this colonoscopy was on my calendar, I felt nary a flutter. Interesting.

Two days before C-Day, Colonoscopy Day, I purchased 2 liters of Fresca to mix with the Fleet Phospha Soda that would purge our systems. I also picked up the recommended package of Gas-X to ease any discomfort and stocked up on Jell-O (lemon and lime), Italian Ice, and vegetable broth to stave off hunger pangs.

Dave and I started the day before the procedure with a hearty bowl of Jell-O. Yum! Refreshing AND satisfying! Well, refreshing at least.

At 3:00 PM, we poured frosty helpings of Fresca and added 1½ ounces of Fleet laxative to each. We touched glasses with an appropriate toast: “Bottoms Up!”

Hmmm. Salty with a nice touch of grapefruit. This would not become a favorite cocktail, mind you, but it wasn’t bad.

Then we waited…but not for long.

I confess I was a bit less enthusiastic about the second dose at 11:00 PM. I was tired, hungry, a little sore, and I knew what to expect. Again, it wasn’t bad – neither the drink nor the, um, process - but I just wanted a handful of chocolate chips and cashews and then, my bed. Ah well. Soon enough…

* * *

It is C-Day. We rise, cleansed and lighter… five pounds lighter in fact. A happy by-product that sadly, I will reverse by late afternoon following a joyful gorging on chocolate and blueberry Poptarts.

Our beloved and saintly friend Joan arrives promptly at 7:45 to take us to the endoscopy center as we are not allowed to drive ourselves home due to the anesthesia. I feel, if anything, a giddy sense of anticipation as we set out. Not even a hint of anxious flutters. Intriguing.

The receptionist welcomes us to Suite 2 at the center with, “Are you the lovely couple here for a wonderful procedure?”

“We are,” we crow, an exuberant chorus.

She grins while arranging a sheaf of forms requiring our signatures, her long fingernails festive with yellow and pink stripes brilliant against her dark skin. “You know, you’re the second couple in here this morning. I think it’s very romantic.”

“Maybe someone should capitalize on this trend,” quips Dave. “They could run couples’ colonoscopy cruises.”

The receptionist loves this and shakes her head, laughing as she points to the door. Joan hugs us, saying, “I’m so proud of you for doing this.”

Maybe that’s it. Maybe that’s why I’m not nervous. I put this off for a long time and I’m glad - glad! - to be taking care of it. I, too, am proud of myself.

We pass through the door into a nurses’ station surrounded by curtained cubicles. Dave and I are directed to adjoining stations and told to remove our clothes, put on the hospital gown provided (open to the back), and make ourselves comfortable.

I’ve come prepared. I brought a canvas bag that holds my book, writing materials, socks and a sweatshirt. I hate being cold, but it is positively cozy in my little room. I put on the fetching white johnny-gown, flecked with a pattern of blue dots and diamonds, a nice complement to my new plastic I.D. bracelet. My feet are toasty in a pair of gray peds. I settle in with my book, content.

A nurse is prepping Dave. I hear them chatting away next door. Dave is gifted in his ability to communicate. He can connect with anyone, almost immediately. His brother, Steve, always kids Dave about all of his friends – the cashiers at the grocery store, the garbage man, the plumber, the Fed-Ex guy. The nurse says to Dave, “I know just what you mean. I wonder about that myself.” It sounds like they’ve by-passed prep-questions, taken care of courtesies and leapt to meaningful discussion. How does he do that?

Nurse Mary Lou sweeps aside my curtain of aqua, blue, and cream decorated with starfish (starfish?) and introduces herself. She confirms my name and procedure, asks me to identify my signature, and runs through a list of health questions. I try to think of something to say that will make us instant friends, but can’t come up with a thing. I am not Dave. I am momentarily unsettled when I realize she’s preparing an intra-venous drip. Rats. I hadn’t known this would involve needles. I’d envisioned one of those masks where you breathe deep and sleep, but after the initial stick, I barely feel it. I comment on the bubbles visible in the tube – I’ve seen a few medical shows, after all. Mary Lou assures me they are harmless, but indulges me in clearing the line. For now, the I.V. is carrying fluids to keep me hydrated.

Mary Lou leaves me with my book and my drip. Through the wall, I hear the murmur of sports announcers and referees’ whistles as Dave watches the Olympics in Beijing. Someone is sneezing repeatedly in another cubicle. I hear blips and beeps and the rush of air. Hospital sounds.

Again, my curtain is pushed aside. Jose introduces himself and asks if I’m ready. I am.

He wheels me into a dimly lighted room. Dr. Belker, draped in light blue scrubs, sits studying a monitor among an array of equipment. He greets me as Jose inserts a tube in my nostrils and tells me it’s oxygen. The form I’d signed earlier appears beneath my nose and again, I’m asked to identify my signature while yet another person, or maybe it’s Jose, arranges the tube snaking from my arm. “Turn on your left side please,” he says.

A blonde woman wearing black-rimmed glasses and a white lab coat bends over the catheter in my arm. “I’m Karen Tyler and I’ll be your anesthesiologist.” She repeats the list of questions about allergies and health issues. There’ll be no mistakes here with all of this double-checking.

“I’ve started the anesthesia and soon you’ll fall into a refreshing sleep.” Dr Tyler smiles reassuringly and pats my arm.

“Sounds great since I’ve had a real problem with that ever since menopause and I could use…”

And then I’m opening my eyes and there is my yellow Block Island sweatshirt on top of my canvas bag and the lights are bright and I’m in a different room. I blink and look around. Is it over?

“You’re back,” says a nurse that I’d not met before.

“I have to go to the bathroom,” I say. She points the way to the restroom and I pad groggily across the floor, clutching my johnny closed behind me.

“Your husband is done too,” she says and directs my gaze to Dave, still asleep, in a cubicle near mine. She adds, “When you return to your stretcher, someone will be in shortly to bring you a snack.”

I go to the bathroom, flush, unlock the door and shuffle over to kiss Dave on the cheek. He doesn't even stir. I return to my bed.

Dr. Belker breezes by and says, “You’re awake! Everything was fine. You are clear and so is your husband.” And then he’s gone.

“Which side of the brain does anesthesia affect?” It is Dave waking up. Without missing a beat he’s asking a good question. He doesn’t realize he’s in recovery, the procedure over, and Dr. Tyler is back in that dimly-lit room, on to another patient.

We’re through and we’re fine.

A nurse brings me a heated blanket, warm as if it just came from the dryer. I snuggle in happily to wait for my fruit, juice and crackers.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Inching to the Ladies' Room

Menstruation, childbirth, children leaving home, menopause – the links of shared experiences that bind the female sisterhood range from poignant and painful to peevish. While it may be the least significant, certainly the most common bond is the time spent waiting in line for the Ladies’ Room. As we stand shoulder-to-shoulder, inching forward at a snail-like pace, friendships are forged, life histories are shared.

The line to top them all was a rest-stop experience on the New Jersey Turnpike. The traffic was appalling and I was desperate, so my husband dropped me off when the service station ramp came into view so I could sprint across the median and lanes of crawling cars. Given the traffic, I should have known what I would find inside, a queue that stretched the length of the building. My automatic “Oh my God” was uttered by every woman that pushed through those doors, falsely believing she was within minutes of relief.

It fell to those opposite the doors to assure panicked newcomers, “Don’t worry, the line moves quickly.”

It was an inspiration to watch new entrants. Upon first seeing the line, their faces would fall. But they’d shake it off, straighten their shoulders, breathe deeply, then hike stoically to the far, oh so far, end of the room.

I found out that Giants’ Stadium had just disgorged a mass of spectators. In addition, many women were returning from Washington where they had participated in a “Million Moms March” to protest the Iraq War. I was filled with admiration for the valiant protesters standing before and behind me with jaws and cheeks clenched, their discomfort masked by pleasant expressions as they made their way toward the beckoning sign - "WOMEN."

When I reached the position opposite the main entrance, I assumed the mantle of comfort from my sisters before me. “Don’t worry, the line moves quickly,” I said with an encouraging smile to those gasping in dismay as they breached the sliding doors.

I chatted with a young woman from Maine who had been “holding” for over an hour. Men have no idea of the courage displayed on a regular basis by women in excruciating pain waiting in the lines that they so blithely sail past as they dart in and out of those line-less Men’s Room doors.

Why is there such a disparity in lines? Does it really take so much longer after that initial unzip to pull down pants, hike up skirts and sit, or perch precariously on toes to avoid seat contact? Even factoring in the placement of two sets of tissue squares on each side of the seat, maybe replacing one as it slides into the bowl, even then, why is it that lines are de rigueur for women while men don’t know the meaning of “wait”?

At times, Kegel maneuvers prove unequal to the urge and action must be taken. I have been party to one of those rare rebellions when, with arched eyebrows and a giggly show of boldness, we ladies stormed the Men’s Room. Leaving a lone guard, a platoon of would-be tinklers thrust aside the door to that bastion of urinals and mis-shots and got the job done. I don’t know why we don’t do that more often. I suppose girls are raised to be patient. Perhaps fortitude nurtured through a lifetime of waiting for the bathroom is one of the reasons women endure.

Because they can so easily whip it out and go anywhere, men have no understanding of the discomfort of holding. There are too many smug boyfriends and husbands who boast that it is their policy “not to stop” on long drives. “Once we’re on the road, we are going.” Humph. A friend of mine once showed a macho idiot a thing or two as he purposely wiggled the steering wheel to jostle the car upon learning of her need for a restroom. “I’m telling you, I’ll go in the car if you don’t stop!” She cried.

He had his fair warning. I hope the urine stained his BMW’s leather seats.

It is relief divine to approach the inner sanctum after a long wait. The mix of camaraderie and competition among the final three poised on the threshold, those urging their bodies to hang on but a moment more because the end is literally in sight, is fascinating. Six pairs of eyes fixed on locked doors, the gracious smiles of the newly emptied patrons as they head to the washstands, the grateful looks and quick-step stride of the soon-to-go.

Even then, there are challenges to be met. Entering the stall, body tense and ready, there is the dilemma of pocketbook placement. The hook on the back of the door is generally missing. Have too many people forgotten their bags? Does the management feels this teaches responsibility? Too, the extraction of toilet tissue is not always easy. Those oversized plastic canisters house three rolls – two in reserve. If the tissue strip has been torn short, it requires worming a hand up inside the contraption in order to isolate and grasp the end of a sheet – all while balanced on tiptoes and grappling with a purse.
The ecstasy of long-awaited release is accompanied by insight gained into neighboring squatters – choice of shoe tells a lot about a person. There are spiky heels, flipflops, a bandaged toe, painted nails (That looks like my favorite, Cherry Crush!), or a pair of little feet sharing the stall with Mommy – a tiny voice reporting exactly what is produced.

For me, the washing and drying of hands is made cringe-worthy by faucets and dryers that turn on automatically and stay on, often far longer than necessary, wasting precious water and electricity. They have obviously been calibrated according to some standard of hygiene that I flagrantly neglect. At times, the opposite situation exists, where the flow is an insignificant spritz that allows a mere moistening before shutting off. It takes two or three tries to assess the timing and limber up the reflexes to catch the paltry spray. And then the finale. Much as I worry about wasting electricity, those blow dryers are deliciously warm on a chilly winter day.

The exit from the ladies' room demands a certain diplomacy. Those departing, after all, are cleansed, empty and relaxed while others remain in clench-mode. Some adopt a demure smile with eyes slightly averted upon leaving. Others strut out with a manner just shy of cocky. It is, however, in the very nature of women to nurture. Most exit with a straightforward gaze and a comforting smile that conveys, “Don’t worry, the line moves quickly.”

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Cannons, Clowns and Fly Swatters

[This is another excerpt from "In the Bubble" - my journal about our sabbatical in the fall of 2005. After leaving Tuscany, Casey, Dave and I spent eight days in Germany and Austria. The following tells of our stay in Hallstatt, Austria, having visited Dachau concentration camp the day before.]

Oct. 9, 2005

Snow-capped mountains ring crystal-pure lakes parting Dachau’s breath-stopping shroud as we chug toward Hallstatt by train. We have befriended a little blond sprite of a boy named Nicholas. He and his grandfather live in Hallstatt and they will tell us when we reach our stop then direct us to our hotel. It feels good to have someone take care of us, even in this small way.

Nicholas’ tiny fingers appear through the crack between the seat backs, miming Dave’s gestures as they play chomping alligators.

* * *

The food tastes fine, but the gun is distracting.

Having seen it in action this morning, Dave and I are stunned to discover it here, at Pizzeria Muhle, resting on a sideboard when we walked into the restaurant for dinner.

We’d awakened early in somber moods unrelated to the weather or the beauty of the setting. Sunshine caressed petunias of magenta, pink and white that spilled from the flower box beneath our window at Gasthof Simony. The light, nourishing as the water flowing from the fountain in the street below, bathed the town square. The soul-sickness of Dachau was not easily purged, but we were soothed by the snow-capped mountains and silvered lake.

After eating a substantial breakfast of hard-boiled eggs, cheese, fruit, cereal and bread, Casey, Dave and I explored the village, coming to rest on a tiny stone walkway threaded between Hobbit-like doorways and balconies lush with flowers. The houses around us clung impossibly to the hillside, each stepped one upon the other.
“I wonder if he feels abandoned,” Dave worried.

He was talking about his father, Colombo.

Casey and I were silent. What could we say? No one had known what Colombo was thinking for over a year, since his stroke.

“We’ll make up for our absence when we return,” I offered. I’d made many deals with God before we left, promising solicitousness-forever in visiting Colombo, Ma Sly and Aunty Cam if we could have our two months sabbatical uninterrupted by any aging-Sylvestro crises. I added, “But, I bet he’s not aware of time passing.”

“I hope not.”

Fingers of late morning sun reached us as the faithful of Hallstatt, clad in dirndls and lederhosen, inched past us, hiking the steep stairs to church. They smiled kindly, perhaps discerning the glint of tears on Casey’s cheek, the sadness of this trio of strangers.

Suddenly, BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! Three heart-stopping shots echoed about the mountains.

The braying of flugelhorn, trumpet and French horn yanked us to our feet and we raced down the path to locate the source of the shots and bellowing brass.

A curl of white smoke hung over the town square as a parade of men in Tyrolean dress trailed a band led by a standard-bearer waving a white flag. A clown with a red face figured prominently in the line-up. A clown. Intriguing... disturbing.

Music alternately mournful and rousing resonated over blue waters as we joined the procession winding through narrow village streets to the boat ramp on the lake. The marchers filed onto a relic of the salt industry, a flat-bottomed “Fuhr” boat, designed to carry heavy loads in shallow water. Each passenger wore pink and blue flowers interlaced with ferns tucked into their hatbands. A little guy of four or so was precious as a doll dressed in his lederhosen and green loden jacket.

As the boat was launched, three men in the stern tamped gunpowder into massive wooden guns. All assembled waited with fingers in ears. The men lifted arms and fired. BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!

The mountains towered beyond, as the boat glided over crystal waters. We kept pace with those left onshore, running along the road bordering the lake. A woman in a powder-blue dirndl over a white blouse with puffed sleeves explained that the ceremony was an old tradition associated with a hunting and shooting club.

“But what is the purpose? What’s with the clown?”

She shrugged, miming a hand clutching a beer stein. In broken English, she said, “mainly, it’s Proust! Proust! Proust!”

In unison with the standard-bearer, a white flag waved from a balcony on the hill as the boat reached the far side of the lake, the music dwindling to a sorrowful moan.

And now, hours later, Dave and I are astonished to find one of the intricately carved wooden guns, a hand-held cannon really, casually resting on its side at Pizzeria Muhle. It is like spotting Excalibur, a celebrity among weapons.

The gun’s owner droops across the bar, cross-eyed and disheveled, after his not-yet-finished day of revelry. Still, in his short lederhosen and Tyrolean hat, he is as quaint as a drunk can be.

The restaurant’s proprietor, Toro (pronounced “Tewrew”) is chatty and hospitable and pulls up a chair to join us. Despite his geniality, he leers in a way that would make me uncomfortable if not for Dave’s presence. He insists on buying us a round of drinks and after we’ve finished eating, waves us to the bar to meet the cross-eyed owner of the gun, his brother Steve, and some friends.

Round after round of assorted liqueurs, rum and coke, beer and wine are plunked on the bar in front of me. I’m feeling pretty cheerful already, so I stop drinking despite the continuing appearance of filled glasses at my elbow.

Casey had taken a pass on dinner and is reading back in the room, but given the colorful assemblage, and the gun of course, I decide to fetch her.

I scamper down the vine-bedecked stairway cut into the hill, past flower-draped balconies, over a wooden footbridge below a waterfall, and through an arched alley opening into night-quiet fairytale streets. I am intoxicated… by the setting and, yes, from the liberal offerings of Toro and the boys. I smile to myself as I stand by the fountain in the village square and call up to the lighted window above the words “Gasthof Simony.”

Casey’s face appears haloed by the light, framed by petunias. “Hi Sweetie!” I giggle.

“Mom! Are you drunk?” Her voice is a whispered hiss. She is accusing, but amused as well.

“You have to come back with me! To the restaurant! One of the wooden guns is there and they’re giving us free drinks and the bartender is pretty cute and it’s a beautiful night for a walk!”

“Guns? What restaurant? How cute? Wait a minute. I’ll be right down.”

Within moments, she is out the door, laughing as she gives me a hug. “Look at you! You’ve been having fun, I guess!”

I hug her back and say, “Just look at this! Look around us.”

We are quiet, smiling, as we turn a full circle. The night is soft on peaked dormers and velvety petals. The water splashes in the fountain beside us. “Magic,” says Casey.

It is magic.

Together, we retrace my steps, two heroines in an enchanted village.

At Pizzeria Muhle, the scene is unreal, but not exactly magical. Casey is greeted with jocular toasts and of course, a free drink. How does this man make any money, I have to wonder. Casey poses with the gun, affecting a gangster stance, or at least, as gangster-like as possible given the heft of the weapon.

In the course of conversation, I discover I’ve spent the evening addressing our host by his last name; I had noticed his certificate of restaurant management on the wall, not realizing that, in Austria, names are reversed on official documents. Oh dear. I must’ve been written off as another rude American.

It is 2:00 AM, way past time to depart. I give Ferdy, no longer “Toro,” a friendly hug. He turns me around firmly and picks up a fly swatter, saying, “And now you know what we must do!”

I think, “Hmmm, no. No, I don’t. Iffy, but Dave and Casey are here. How bad can this be?”

Not bad, but bizarre. He spanks me with the fly swatter!

I probably shouldn’t have called him by his last name all night.

Cannons, clowns and fly swatters. This is quite a little town.

We stumble down the steep path toward the square and decide on a head-clearing walk along the lake. Casey is bug-eyed at the spanking and we struggle to stifle our snickers. We recognize another celebrant from this morning’s ceremony who introduces himself as “Shorty.” He offers, hand to zipper, to prove he isn’t short where it counts. My daughter is near choking as we assure him we need no demonstration.

Shorty urges us to join him for a nightcap at Pizzeria Muhle. Casey snorts with laughter as we thank him, but decline.

We part ways, sending our best wishes to the gang at the Pizzeria. A short while later, Shorty’s voice comes to us through the dark, “Lea! Dave! Casey!” Nothing more, but it was fun to be hailed in familiar fashion in the middle of the night in Hallstatt.

* * *

After the excitement of last night's festivities, we spend a quiet morning in our room at Gasthof Simony writing postcards and reading. Dave opens his new book and settles back in the cloud-like nest of our feather-bed. A short while later, he exclaims, “You’re not going to believe this.”

Before leaving the U.S., Dave stocked up on reading material at Borders. He’d asked the salesgirl for a recommendation with the caveat, “I’m an NPR kind of geek.”

“I have just the thing,” the girl had said and handed him "Salt" by Mark Kurlansky.

He’d never heard of it. He didn’t read the back cover summary. He brought the book home and packed it.

As he read the first twelve pages, here at Gasthof Simony, he learned that we are visiting the salt capital of the world. The opening chapter of the book was about Hallstatt.

What are the odds?

Sometimes it seems that great cogs are turning, and once in a while, they lock neatly into place.

Within an hour of Dave’s opening the book, we find directions to the salt mines, eat a quick snack of bread and cheese, walk maybe ten minutes along the lake, and take a cable car up the mountain to the shaft’s entrance. Is it travel or the ability and time to be open, by which adventures unfold?

We gather with about eighteen other visitors in a large locker room. A bored employee distributes formless uniforms of heavy blue gabardine. Casey and I preen and perform a run-way strut in our becoming outfits.

Moments later, as I zip into the earth’s bowels on Europe’s longest wooden slide, I am glad of the fabric shield against friction. I dismount with a flourish and check the digital read-out flashing my speed. Apparently I beat Dave in this race to the center of the earth. I pump the air with my fist along with all the other triumphant sliders who’ve surpassed friends and family members in this pointless victory.

It is cool and dark as we follow the guide past underground lakes and pink protrusions of raw salt. Some outcroppings are lighted and glow like lanterns. Mannequins clad in skins enact Iron Age salt extraction. Casey, wishing always to enliven our photographs, poses with her tongue pressed to the salt wall, ignoring my protests.

On the way out of the mine, we stop at the gift shop and Dave selects several small chunks of pink salt. He plans to give Tucker and Dad a copy of the book "Salt" as well as these samples from Hallstatt as Christmas presents. He also claims one of the chunks as his own and christens it, cleverly, “Salty.”

[To see photos of our trip to Hallstatt, click here.]

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Another Excerpt from "In the Bubble"

[In the book, this excerpt immediately follows the one posted last week. To clarify the scenes following, our daughter Casey and her college boyfriend, Charlie, broke up shortly before we left for Italy. Also, Dave's father, Colombo, was in a nursing home, having suffered a stroke the preceding fall.]

Sept. 13

Casey has undertaken a cooking project. Dave and I suspect that her industry masks a whirl of thoughts. Rather than kneading, she pounds the pasta dough, her brow creased in angry concentration. Pinching off portions of the wad of dough, she rolls long sausage shapes, one might say, penile in form. The rolling is vigorous and punishing and her expression while chopping off small pieces to create the more vaginal cavatelli is one of grim satisfaction.

“You know,” she announces, her eyes flashing with passionate evidence of her Italian genes, “If he would put himself in my shoes for a change, that would be nice, but Oh no, he won’t.” She points at me with her knife, jabbing the air at a spectral Charlie for emphasis. “I know what’s going on here. He wants to hook up with a freshman and I won’t tolerate that.”
Although she's engaged by the events of each day, she misses Charlie, and we still hear her muffled sobs at night. For two years, she has envisioned a life with this boy. Although she's heard nothing from Charlie, a number of her girlfriends have written to report his activities. In August, he was honest in telling Casey he doubted he could wait for her, and apparently he is spending a lot of time with one of the new students.

I draw my daughter’s attention to her rolling and cutting, to the evocative shapes of her dough. She laughs and whips that penile pasta more aggressively, gleefully twisting it to painful pretzel contortions, “Take that, Charlie!” in every twitch.

In the midst of Casey’s tirade, Dave asks plaintively if we’ve seen his “kitchen glasses.”

He has been in a slump for the past two days. He was inordinately concerned when he thought we were on the wrong road to Lucca and now, he’s irritated about his glasses. This morning, he told me that he’d dreamed Mr. Latuga, an old family friend, spoke to him from The Other Side to tell him that Colombo had joined him and was doing fine. During our first week in Italy, Dave was distracted from worry about his father, but every conversation with those at home, while reassuring regarding Colombo’s status, stirs Dave’s guilt about going away.

A hunt for the glasses is initiated. As his annoyance billows, Dave’s mouth thins, zipped to withhold stinging words. I know he's thinking, "Why can’t she just leave my things where they are? What is this compulsive need to pick up and neaten?"

“If I moved them, I put them on your bureau, “ I say tightly as I droop after him, checking the bathroom, the guest room, the laundry. I do this a lot – traipsing about in search of Dave’s belongings, struggling to fend off his gloom. “I didn’t realize you had ‘kitchen glasses,’” I explain in clipped tones. “I thought you just had several pairs of glasses – general category – and if I put them with your things, it would be all right.”

“Is it a problem if I leave a pair in the kitchen?” his tone implying that an anal-compulsive such as myself should be committed.

“Perhaps you could use your ‘bedroom pair,’” I snipe.

Casey, dear child, shares an eye-rolling “men are idiots” moment with me. It is good to have another woman around. She says, “I’ll take a quick look and I bet I find them.”

She steps into the hallway, kneels on the floor to look under the armoire… and triumphantly brandishes the missing glasses.


“You must have dropped them when you fell last night,” says Dave.

After returning from Lucca, I missed the step from the kitchen into the hallway and fell, twisting my ankle. I must have been doing a little surreptitious straightening on my way to bed, and deviously flung the glasses out of sight when I tumbled.

So yes, it was my fault.

Sept. 14

Cortona, site of Frances Mayes’ Under the Tuscan Sun, is an enchanting place - incantevole! The moment the surrounding walls are breached, the town extends her hospitality with an invitation to the W.C. Pubblico. What joy! Most of our excursions involve lengthy drives to our destination, followed by painful clenching upon arrival while scouting out a bathroom. Bella Cortona to spare us that search.

We’ve come to Cortona for an antiques show advertised on a wall in Fonterutoli. After our experience in Lucca, we confirm the details of the show with a group of genial old fellows sitting in the main piazza in the shadow of a large watermelon slice. A watermelon slice? Yes – a mammoth slice that would feed the village, but for its being made of steel. It must be a remnant of an exhibit of some sort, but it’s an odd complement to the medieval Palazzo Comunale that dominates the square with its wide stone staircase and massive clock face. I ask for directions to the armory where the show is being held and one of the men rises from the bench to escort us.

“Non e necessario, signore! Per favore, non voglio le disturbare!” I protest.

“Prego, prego. Andiamo!”

I am embarrassed about the imposition, but our guide insists on taking us to the door of the armory. He leaves us with a wave of a work-toughened hand and heads back the way we had come.

“He thought you were a babe,” says Dave.

“Oh please….”

We buy our tickets and enter the building. As we wander from room to room, studying the exhibits, we bask in a sense of legitimacy. In this context we are not solely tourists who mangle the language; here we have value as potential buyers.

We peruse dark oils of nursing Madonnas, suffering Christs and sumptuous still-lifes and take note of the prices on the vendors’ cards. Apparently, we will not be buying any paintings. Another booth features antiquities - mammoth terra cotta urns, marble lintels, and a marble washstand dating from 600 AD. That such ancient artifacts can be purchased is stunning, but again, we check the prices; they’ll not be purchased by Sylvestros. What we are able to afford is cookware: a hand-hammered, wrought iron grill dating from the early 1800’s. In terms of Italian history, it does not rate the term “antique,” but it will fit perfectly in our 1780’s home.

We return to the car to stow our well-wrapped package. The logistics of fitting the bulky piece in a suitcase when the time comes to leave Fonterutoli is also stowed away for the time being. Unencumbered by grills or cares, we set out to explore Cortona.

As in all the hill towns of Tuscany, houses and churches of stone nestle side-by-side along narrow roads that scale steep inclines. Flowers cascade from containers mounted on wooden doorways, balconies and the sills of green-shuttered windows. Clumps of moss grow like fuzzy hedgehogs from chinks in the ancient stone wall that flanks the path to the summit.

Occasional signs urge us to visit Santa Margarita. We’ve never heard of her but when an elderly signora sweeping her stoop points earnestly upward, saying, “Santa Margarita,” we comply.

It is not an easy climb. Casey takes it as her charge to enliven our photographs by lying on the ground, face contorted, pretending to claw her way up the path. We pass an elderly couple inching along, encouraging one another, “It can’t be much further.”

It is much further, as it turns out, but it’s worth it.

Like a guardian sentry, the nineteenth century church keeps watch over a sea of countryside – open fields, farmland, villages, vineyards, and, far in the distance, a glimmering lake. Inside the neo-medieval structure, soaring arches painted with vines rise to deep blue domes spangled with stars. Santa Margarita herself is our hostess. She rests in a glass case on the altar, her worldly remains garbed in simple robes and a white cap.

Dave extols this practice of displaying relics – a finger, a head, the whole skeleton if you can get it. The Italians are at ease with death. Their deceased saints and loved ones remain among them. In fact, Italian cemeteries are happy places to visit. Each headstone bears a photograph and the dates of birth and death. Bouquets of flowers and plantings adorn the graves, and luci di compagnia, literally “lights of companionship,” give comfort even in darkness. One senses the lives behind each headstone, and when visitors walk between the rows of graves, I imagine the spirits nudge each other, glancing up in curiosity just as any Italian sipping his coffee at a café might do.

Every town, no matter how small, has its own wall-encircled cemetery. In Fonterutoli, departed family members are buried in an enclosure of white-washed walls, a serene extension of the neighborhood. Cortona’s huge cemetery seems to float mid-air, built into the side of the hill.

We light candles for Steve, Colombo, Cam and my parents, then purchase a pamphlet about the saint and collapse in a pew to rest and read.

Margarita’s story is very Cinderella, without the romantic ending. After a childhood of abuse by her wicked stepmother, she was swept away as a young woman in an affair with a wealthy landowner. She lived with the gentleman for nine years and bore him a son. Then one day, while out walking her dog, she came upon the body of her lover. The cause of his death remains a mystery.

The family of her beloved wanted nothing to do with her, nor did her father and his nasty bride. Margarita ultimately dedicated herself to helping the poor and was named Cortona’s patron saint after her death. Her son followed his mother’s example and became a Franciscan monk.

Sometimes I envy the security of those pictured in sepia photographs or old paintings. They know the ending. They are finished with life’s rude jolts and the specter of losing loved ones. Margarita’s skeleton, encased in glass, is surrounded by yellow lilies, flickering candles and fragrant incense. Those bones, once cloaked in flesh as vulnerable as mine, lived the words in this pamphlet. Death seems a peaceful resolution to her difficult life.
As we sit in the pew, monks in floor-length brown robes sweep past on their way to prayer in the side chapel. I hope they’ll chant.

Dave believes that he lived a past life in the Middle Ages. He has memories of his robes and sandaled feet in the dust. He claims that if anything happens to me, he will return to that long-ago life and enter a monastery. He watches the monks and checks out their moves.

A hum fills the church; I can feel it in my chest. The incense smokes, its perfume heavy. The monks are shadowed beneath their hoods. Candle flames shiver as men’s voices drone, singing ancient words. The sound swells, a river of spirit, borne to the heavens as it has been through the span of centuries.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Excerpt from "In the Bubble"

In the fall of 2005, we were fortunate to spend two months in Italy. The following is an excerpt from the book I am writing about the experience.

Sept. 12

I throw the kitchen windows open to a sun-filled morning and the sounds of a heated conversation in the piazza below. The line between argument and discussion is thin. I try to catch a few words – in order to practice my Italian rather than from curiosity – but the talk tumbles headlong and the local use of an “h” for a “c” stymies me further. The Italian "casa," or “house,” for example, becomes "hasa," and the need for a double translation taxes my limited linguistic abilities.

Our plan for the day is to stop in nearby Castellina for breakfast coffee and then drive to a town called Lucca this afternoon. A poster on the wall near the old roman road announced a wine and cheese festival there tonight. Fun! I busy myself re-arranging the clothes draped in our window, hoping to find a lasting sliver of sun so that our jeans will be dry enough to wear.

La Signora who lives across the street is framed in her window, spreading dishtowels and clothing to dry on the line stretched below the sill. Clothed in a blue housedress, she is heavy-set and dour, her dark bangs held back with a silver clip. “Buon giorno!” I call out, eager to use my Italian, to see if there is a smile beyond the thin line of her mouth. “Sembra che sempre lavora,” I comment. “It seems like you’re always working.”

“Si,” she agrees, her expression unchanging.

I blather on, in my broken Italian, about the difficulty of drying clothes with all this wet weather. I try to play my “I, too, am a homemaker” card by bemoaning the fact that the laundry I washed three days ago is still damp.

“Deve avere pazienza,” she says, straightening her dishtowels without looking up.

You must have patience. Huh. Who has time for that?

* * *

We are soured on Lucca before we leave the car. The traffic is terrible, extending the two-hour trip. Dave is tight-lipped in his belief that we took the wrong road, and finding parking requires endless circling. Plus, Casey and I have to go to the bathroom.

Under different circumstances, we would love this place. Surrounded by massive ramparts from the sixteenth century, the buildings have an almost Swedish flair in their pastel colors and window boxes tumbling with pink and white flowers. As travel author Rick Steves points out, “the ghost of a roman ampitheater” defines the piazza which is encircled with shops and apartments built into the remains of the arena. Italians recycle everything.

Turns out, we misread the day of the festival on that poster. How Sylvestro. That evening of light-hearted revelry, wine tastings and fireworks will take place next week. Disappointment, residual drive grumpiness and insistent bladder pressure do not bode well for Lucca.

We trudge aimlessly down one street after another, a disconsolate trio, feeling out of sorts and out of place. We pass a bar lively with people cheerfully enjoying the company of friends. Humph. A “W.C.” sign is painfully, enticingly, visible inside.

I am chronically immobilized by anxiety at the thought of making false moves, a concern that is heightened while traveling, but I have to go soooo badly. “Maybe we should ask if we can use their bathroom,” I offer, my mind whirling to bolster this bold suggestion. I think, “You’ll never see these people again. If they say no, or look at you like you’re a jerk, it DOESN’T matter.” Drawing on whatever paltry reserves of courage I possess, I walk in and make my request in crappy, hesitant Italian.

“Certo! – Of course!” smiles the wonderful, dear girl behind the bar.

Lucca is a lovely spot.

By the time Casey and I emerge from our blessed release, Dave has found a glass of vino rosso and a seat next to Julie. Blond, tan and athletic, she reminds us of a combination of friends from home and so we are comfortable with her immediately. Julie adds to our renewed good cheer by informing us that the pickles, boiled eggs, bread, pesto, cheese and salami arrayed on the bar are free snacks. Free?! Omigod – what an incredible town.

Julie tells us of her past as a high-powered lawyer in Los Angeles. “About three years ago, I did a bike tour of Europe following old pilgrimage routes. It changed the course of my life. I had known I wasn’t happy before I went on the trip, but I needed to distance myself to understand just how uncomfortable I was. I had not felt at home in my own skin for years. Can you imagine that?”

Yes, I can. Perfectly. I shiver in recognition.

“So,” she continues, “I left. I signed on with the company I’d traveled with, and now I run bike tours here.”

A balloon of elation expands in my chest at this reminder, steady as a heartbeat, that I have choices. Just this morning in Castellina, Dave, Casey and I chatted over espresso and cappuccino with a family who’d left their home and jobs in Boston to move to an island off Portland, Maine. “We had lived one way for twenty years and realized that wasn’t the way we wanted to spend the next twenty.”

I am bolstered by these travelers’ stories of new paths taken. While Dave tells me, gently, that I’ve made the choices that have shaped my life, somewhere I feel like I lost my grip on the wheel. My perception of others’ expectations has been my compass, but I am trying to wrest back control. I have reduced my workdays at school to allow more time to write; a giant step for me in life’s game of “Mother May I?”

I look at Julie as she sips her wine. She seems open and relaxed, content. We touch glasses in a salute to her success and our meeting. Just as life can turn on a moment, a chance encounter or experience opening a new path, so can a connection – a friendly bartender, an almost familiar face - draw you in from the cold of anonymity, to become one with a crowd chatting companionably in a window.

Ci piace molto, questa citta Lucca. We love this town of Lucca!

Monday, June 30, 2008

Straightening My Underwear Drawer

By the end of this sunny day, the forsythia spikes in the yard may burst full yellow against blue sky. Frogs and birds clamor from swamp and swaying limb, calling, “Come forth and walk or weed whack!”

Eventually, I will.

For now, however, I am sequestered inside. Last night I made the mistake of trying to locate a specific necklace to wear to a friend’s home for dinner. This resulted in a frenzy of flinging, an eruption of socks, undies and camisoles while plumbing the depths of my underwear drawer in pursuit of my gray-bead necklace. I found it, but now my bedroom is strewn with the detritus of the search, leaving me no choice but to purge.

Although it is probably the first place your average robber would rummage, my underwear drawer holds my most precious possessions.

The robber would be disappointed.

My favorite costume jewelry - spangled silver drops, a bounty of bangles, beaded earrings – are cleverly hidden (shhhhh) beneath my bikinis. Two clay pennants, gaily splotched with pastel glaze, are etched “To Mom” by my long-ago kindergartners. Rusting “Clinton/Gore ’96” campaign buttons and bumper stickers are jumbled among miniature Disney figures, Barbie dolls, Cabbage Patch Kids and stockings.

My underwear is balled and squished, barely given space in this drawer that bears its name.

I keep important papers here as well - greeting cards from Dave, my kids, and Mom and Dad. I love the handwriting, so reminiscent of the authors: ill-formed, awkward little kids’ scrawlings, Dave’s hurried script, Dad’s illegible letters, Mom’s cheerful, looping, penmanship. I’ve saved these samples to call up the writers once they are grown up or gone.

Tearfully I peruse a collection of poems and hymns, suggestions I’ve clipped together “For My Funeral.” I’ll remind the kids to check my underwear drawer when it’s time, anticipating their saying, “Mom! Don’t even talk about it!”

I flip through envelopes of mis-matched photographs - pictures of my grandmother, Byeo, hugging my six-year-old Mom, a blurry shot of toddler Casey dressed as a bride, and Tucker at five, grinning at the prospect of breakfast served in bed as a special treat. My senior-year picture occupies an envelope along with Dave's, Casey’s and Tucker’s. All four of us, our adolescent skin air-brushed to perfection, smile formally - so much younger! A muddle of memories mixed up with my stockings and socks.

There are jury notices, passbooks from banks that have closed, and IRS envelopes, some from ’94 and ’95. I have organized this drawer before, but apparently not very well.

I make separate piles on the floor: formal papers, letters, cards, toys, jewelry and, oh yes, underwear. The wastebasket overflows; the drawer is now neat and self-contained. It slides in and out of the bureau unimpeded, the battle to control errant undergarments won.

The space allotted for each component remains constant: a layer of little dolls, clay pendants and campaign buttons on the bottom, socks and underwear piled neatly on top, to the left side. A box of bangles and earrings is tucked in one corner, and my abbreviated life file - pictures, poems, papers, letters and memos – spans from the middle of the drawer to the right.

I trot outside to the garbage bin and shake the wastebasket, upside down. A flurry of faded snapshots, outdated notices and cast-off knick-knacks tumble like blown dandelion weed. I re-think a few items and snatch them back, then turn to admire the forsythia.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Girl Wars - A Confession

It was a gentle spring day as we gathered in the school courtyard for lunch, a gang of fresh-faced girls with ponytails bound by bulky yarns of pink and green. While the regulation green tunic each of us wore draped my scrawny body like a pleated sack, other girls were already curvaceous. My hemline ended, as required, just above knobby knees; other girls were daring, cheating on inches, their skirts brushing mid-thigh. The braces on my teeth had not yet completed their work; other girls smiled widely with straight, white teeth.

We were in eighth grade, old enough to know better.

Metal lunchboxes opened with a grinding squeak; brown bags rustled in unfolding. After I checked between the slices of Wonder Bread in their wax paper nest, I traded my bologna sandwich for Gay Smith’s tuna. I loved the way her mother made the salad, adding a dollop of ketchup to the mixture of fish and mayonnaise.

We chatted companionably and ate.

Sarah, a petite blond - curvaceous, short-skirted and wide-smiling - held out a small wax bag and offered a cookie. “Help yourself,” she said, leaning closer. In remembering, I imagine a glint in her eyes, a malevolent twist to that grin, but I returned her smile gratefully and reached into the bag, pulling back in revulsion when my fingers touched soft, yielding feathers.

Who would’ve thought a dead sparrow so frightening?

Borne by one friend or another, that poor bird with its lolling head and frozen claws pursued me throughout the afternoon. I put on a gratifying show, shrieking when the floppy carcass stared bleakly from my desk at study hall, and screaming when it was dropped on my head as I sought refuge behind a door.

I shudder to think of it even now.

As if my response to the bird wasn’t entertaining enough, the next day I heard rumors that my best friend was hunting me, harboring a dead squirrel in her bookbag. When we sat, side by side, in her mother’s car on the way home from school, she laughed when I asked about the squirrel. She set the bag on her lap and stuck her head inside. “Would I do this if there was a dead squirrel in here?”

Of course, I believed her.

Before turning into my driveway, she asked If I’d fetch her math book from the bag that now rested on the floor between us. Thinking nothing of it, I bent to comply. Again, my hand brushed the bristly fur of something dead.

What was I, some kind of idiot?

Oh, and I haven’t yet mentioned that in addition to the squirrel and the bird, no one but my best friend was speaking to me. This was a war, randomly declared. One of the popular girls, those with straight teeth and short skirts, would select some unfortunate from the lower ranks and a war would commence, for three to four days. Needless to say, once the ceasefire-on-Lea was called, I never wanted to be on the receiving end again. You would like to think – I would like to think - that having felt those barbs, I would have spared others that pain.

But it didn’t work that way.

Mid-way through the year, a new girl joined our class. Ruth had shoulder-length, mousey brown hair. She smiled a lot and was eager to please. No official war declarations had gone out as yet, but she was new, so it was a given.

A few weeks after Ruth joined our class, we bounced along in the bus on our way to “The Farm,” home to the school’s athletic fields. Every girl wore a white blouse and green tunic. Every girl was armed with a hockey stick. I was flush with relief at release from pariah-hood. I, too, was eager to please.

Over the engine’s rumble, over the clack of wooden sticks, came a chant from the front of the bus. “We hate her! We hate her!” Bubbling chatter quieted as it grew, the chorus swelling louder as it rolled toward the back, gaining strength with each row of seats. Gleefully, (It was not about me!) I sang along. Spiteful. Exuberant. “We hate her! We hate her!” I knew the war-on-Ruth had begun.

She was sitting next to me, her tremulous voice parroting the wretched refrain. I turned to her and touched her arm. She was startled, pleased at being acknowledged. “Do you know who we’re talking about?” I said.

As I remember the moment, a hush descends at my question, though I imagine our exchange went unnoticed. She hesitated, her shoulders caving as she whispered, “Me.”

I wish I could tell her I’m sorry.