Monday, April 18, 2011

Fortified by the Other Side

Dad was warming up to the punch line of his story. He leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees. His eyes were bright as he described an auction in which he bid on a portrait of a distant relative on behalf of the board of the Drexel Foundation. He was successful in his charge, he told us with relish, but at significant cost. Significant cost. So, he was called before the board “to explain the bidding process.”

It was a tense gathering held at the Drexel University Art Gallery. On the walls, above and behind the severe individuals ranged about him, were portraits of my father’s mother and grandparents. When Dad told the trustees of this relationship – and Dad laughed when he said this, a choked chuckle that let me know he was near tears – they cheered.

At first, I thought Dad meant his relatives cheered, and I had a momentary image of Gaga and Grammy and Granpa Mills beaming and rooting for my father. I wanted to think Dad sensed their exuberant support from the Other Side as he justified his actions to the board.

On the wall in my bedroom hangs a small oval watercolor of my mother's mother, my grandmother, Byeo. Auburn curls frame her face and she wears a pale blue dress adorned with pink roses. At some point, she sat before an artist, smiling her small smile, as he mixed colors and dipped his brushes. At times, I feel, in a shivery prickle along my skin, the poignancy, the presence, in that moment, when Byeo was warm and young, posing, alive.

Where is she now? I want to believe that the soft flush in my skin while standing before her painting, remembering her, is her touch.

Particularly during hard times, I imagine her, sitting by my side in the passenger seat of my car, striving to assure me all will be well. Can she, like air, meld with my molecules, travel within me, as fluid as blood, sparking memories and feelings to sustain and comfort?

When my mother faces trouble, she appeals to her parents, hoping they are vigilant from their heavenly perch. Years ago, as she and Dad spun in a three-sixty on an icy road in Vermont, she begged them to hold off on-coming cars. When my nephew, Jared, was little, doctors feared he had a rare disease that would cause unbalanced skull growth, so Mom sought Byeo and Poppy’s intervention. And I know they heard from Mom when I had cancer. Apparently, they have us all covered.

Dad’s mother, my Gaga, lost her firstborn son, Hobie, when he was eighteen months old, a tragedy that haunted her life and that of her children. When my sister’s son Campbell was about the same age, he fell backwards, face up, into a glass cupboard. Dagger sharp shards scattered with the force of the boy’s fall, but he sustained not even a scratch. After desperate hugs and tears of relief, we all whispered, Gaga: she was not going to lose another baby boy.

Throughout my life, I’ve been lavished with love and endearments. While Byeo called me “Lambie,” Gaga preferred “Moosie-dear,” a variation on the widely used “Lea-Mouse.” For a while Dad opted for the questionable “Lea-lice,” I assume for the pleasing alliteration as opposed to some connection with the vile bug. I’ve saved boxes-full of letters closing with “oceans of love,” “oodles of love,” and countless “X’s” and “O’s.” With this foundation, I should have the sure-footed durability of a pyramid, but often I’ve felt timorous, unsure of myself. Lately, however, I realize I am stronger. Family and friends, age and post-cancer wisdom have played a crucial role, but also, I smile and stand a bit straighter when I think of my ancestral cheerleading squad.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Another Chance

The narrow path to the feeders is lined with mounds of snow, four feet high. With a flutter of wings, two hungry chickadees, alarmed, fly to low branches as I trudge forward lugging a bucket of seeds. Gluttonous squirrels and messy birds dined well this morning and scattered a fan of sunflower hulls, black as the sweep of a crow’s wing, over the snow. I lean down to scoop out some seeds and …what’s this? Three holes in the banks surrounding the foot of the pole. Squatting for a closer look, I see curving tunnels littered with the leavings of rodent breakfasts.

“Are they stocking up for the Snow Ball?” I wonder wistfully.

When my kids were small, snow days meant snuggling up with cozy stories, and Jill Barklem’s tales of the mice of Brambly Hedge and their grand winter celebration was one of our favorites. If little Tucker and Casey had seen the tunnel entrances at the foot of the feeders, they would have been wide-eyed envisioning an apron-ed mouse matron bustling in a kitchen crammed with crabapples on shelves, dried thistle hanging from beams, and mouse children nibbling popcorn.

I miss my little ones desperately, and I miss the world I was allowed to re-enter through them: a world of bright colors, bubbly tub times, baby-doll tea parties, forts, silly songs and happy endings. A world where a hike around the yard could be an adventure because onion grass and sticks were the makings of stew, acorn caps were fairy hats and a tumble of boulders was a giant’s castle. Instead of schedules, experience shaped each day. A parade of ants might bring us to our knees to watch in wonder the struggle to haul a crumb to a nest in a rotted log. A rock overturned would uncover a hidden haven for tiny bugs, squirming salamanders and writhing worms: a chance to teach compassion and gentle quiet instead of stomping and shrieks.

Now my kids are twenty-seven and thirty. I love the people they have become. But I miss grubby little hands, kissable cheeks, goofy dances and feet pajamas.

After storing the seed bucket in the shed, I stomp the snow off my boots before going into the kitchen. It used to be such a production to wrestle little kids out of parkas, sodden mittens and wet socks. Lots of whining and giggles. Lots of mess. Lots of noise. It is silent in the house as I slip off my boots and place them neatly side-by-side by the back door.

Tea might be nice. And I want to read some cozy stories.

Many of our children’s books are stored away, but I’ve kept some in the shelves in the living room. I know exactly which books I want and where they are: Jill Barklem’s Winter Story and Happy Winter by Karen Gundersheimer, right there on the left side of the top shelf. Often little hands reached for these books so their jackets are faded and torn. Happy Winter is still sticky, as a matter of fact, because it holds the recipe for our first-snow-day tradition, Happy Winter Fudge Cake. If I were to call Casey, who turns twenty-eight next week and say, “Happy Winter! Rise and Shine!” She would say without pause, “I love the early morning time,” so beloved and well-read was this book. And as I turn the pages slowly, with love, each picture, every cheery rhyme, is achingly familiar.

And because I want to immerse myself in the mood and the memories, I climb the stairs to the second floor, open the hall closet and pull out the small jacket wedged to the wall by the press of adult overcoats. Fleece lined brown corduroy, zippered front and hooded, with "Osh Kosh B’Gosh!" on the inside label - it was Tucker's. I am doing this to myself on purpose, fueling the tears, but it feels good to hug that little jacket close and remember, so easily, the small boy who wore it.

So, I settle in with a cup of tea, Tucker’s jacket and a book, and smile as mice dig snowy tunnels, carve ice columns, and prepare “hot soups, punches and puddings” for their Snow Ball.

Winter Story by Jill Barklem, Philomel Books, 1980
Happy Winter by Karen Gundersheimer, Harper & Row, 1982