Tis the Season to be Jolly: An Introduction
In the so-called temperate zones of the north, this is the deepest, darkest, coldest part of the year. Beneath the snow and ice blanketing the cold ground and furring the trees, there is nothing but dead, browned grass and bare branches. If you had never come this way before, you might think the earth had permanently died.
It is no coincidence that this is also the moment for the December holidays, stitching the cold and dark with the joyous glow of light, warmth, and cheer. Just when we need an antidote to frigidity and fear, the world’s religions provide us with one, replacing depression and gloom with frolic and fun. “God rest ye merry, Gentlemen.”
The earliest anthropologists were Europeans, white men astounded by the stories (some true, many made up) of weird and wild lands, peoples, and customs brought home by those explorers we used to hear about in grammar school. From these tales, credulous writers like Henry Maine, James Frazer, and James Campbell spun even more fantastical tales. They imagined benighted continents where people actually believed that without an annual human sacrifice, strung round with frenzied dance and elaborate ritual, winter would never give way to spring, plantings would never again reap bounteous harvests, and both people and land would wither and die. In those tellings, the holidays come at the darkest times not just to make us all feel better but out of what the true believers of a simpler age thought to be dire necessity.
Real anthropologists, men and women who actually travelled to those fabled lands themselves, put the lie to those stories. So-called primitive people were, they discovered, considerably more sophisticated than Maine, Frazer, Campbell, or any of their eager readers. If there is one thing everyone the world over knows—at least everyone not confined to a big city—it is that spring follows winter, inexorably, every year, whether or not a prince has been killed and his body dismembered to feed the dead ground, and there is little that mere mortals can do, short of contributing even more toward global warming, to change that. The winter frivolity does not in fact cause spring to come, but it does serve the happy purpose of reminding us that it will. I write this during breaks in the annual task of decorating the apartment for the holidays, setting out the ornaments, moving the menorah stage center, and, once everything is in place, dimming the house lights so that the tree, the candles, and the garlands of lights will sparkle. But, in doing this, I am not girding my condo against the darkness and the cold. I am in Florida. The sun does set early, but with a magnificently incandescent red glow that turns the pleasure boats on the lake into silhouettes between the darkening sky and the gleaming water. Once twilight settles in, the air becomes soft, balmy, faintly scented with frangipani. Winter is no enemy here.
And yet even here, there is cause for reflection, for resistance, for resilience in the face of the myriad threats that, despite a heartening midterm election, still stalk our world. And also as we confront the inevitability of our increasing years. We are in the last of our time here, my partner and I. But by some unearned and unexpected twist of luck and fate, this is a very good moment for us. We are in excellent health, even if it is measured in large part these days by our ability to climb stairs. We have each other, homes in New York and Florida, a mutual love of theater and books that we can afford to enjoy. Our children are fun, productive, loving, and in pretty good shape. We each have work that fascinates and engages us.
Yet we know that this period of abundant happiness will last perhaps a little while longer, and even then only if we are very lucky. Humans go against the tide of nature. While just about everything else cycles through the fallow and the bountiful, the dark and the bright, from life to death to life again, humans are on a downward trajectory to an inevitable end. Except for continuing all those routines–the right food, the right exercise—that are supposed to encourage good health, resistance is all but futile. We will get older, no matter how valiantly we resist. And age will bring whatever it has in store.
That leaves resilience. And the question: when it comes, when the good times fade, when we can no longer enjoy these unexpected fruits of a well-lived life, will we be able to marshal the resilience needed to take it as it comes? To look again at those holiday lights and refrain from cursing their false promise? One never quite knows what adversity will make of one. The best I can say is: I hope so.
But in that quest, I can be guided by the examples of resistance and resilience that our readers present below. Beset by problems far more frightening even than mine, they have lived to tell their tales— and have even learned how to thrive. They have found within themselves the resilience to resist. I salute them. And I commend their work to you.
Intermezzo in A Major, Op. 118, No. 2
My Father, Archived, Me Quietly Screaming
Middle of the night it started. Was it before or after Devra finished Ruth Franklin’s Shirley Jackson biography and texted my cousin Edye who then emailed me? Was it Edye’s Uncle Alex Gaby, Leon’s brother? How could it not be, with a name like that? Then her sister Carol chimed in and I Facebooked my sister. It took her longer to answer, being the baby of the family and less emotionally invested, a better sleeper.
I’d done some Googling of my dead father in the middle of the night during an earlier bout of guilt just after I found a pristine copy of his novel on Amazon—last copy and no more on the way—wrapped in cellophane, with a pulpy broad leaning on a table in a bar on the cover. Diminishing the seriousness of the book, which I might have known.
Had I read it.
How many times did I lie to him about having read his book? I was two years old when it was published, but still. He’s dead twenty-seven years, and now I’m a writer whose daughter doesn’t read her stuff either and I’m Googling him in the middle of the night because it’s humid and I can’t sleep after being diagnosed with some cardiac condition. Not what he had, but he did die from his sometimes generous/sometimes crazy heart just exploding one evening while watching Wheel of Fortune. It’s all I can think about, waves of fear and guilt. Bed spinning. while clichéd, is exactly what it feels like.
Much use of the word abyss. As in me screaming “sorry” across it in the dark, sweaty night.
There it is. The New Yorker ran his short story. Archive: September 27, 1941. Before the war took him away and never dropped him back to where he had been.
The fucking New Yorker. I remembered Collier’s and Ellery Queen and the Saturday Evening Post. The Hitchcock screenplay. The short story that MGM bought and made into a Grade B movie only shown at drive-ins. Hot Rods to Hell. A cult classic. But the New Yorker? I am one degree of separation, the closest I will ever get to the crème de la crème of publishing. Crème de la crème being a favorite phrase of my father’s; for emphasis he might crook a pinky finger, tilt his head.
So. Devra has just read the Shirley Jackson biography and there he is. Mentioned by Jackson’s husband, critic Stanley Hyman, in the same breath as E.B. White and James Thurber, my father’s story—my father’s!—described as “one of the punchiest and most horrible stories about chauvinism against the Negro ever written.” Page 151. My “unknown” father’s story an example of rare social consciousness, transcending the magazine’s short-form fiction.
My father doesn’t know this. And I can’t tell him. I prop the novel with the bawdy cover up on the nightstand like some people do with photos of John F. Kennedy or Frida Kahlo. Maybe the Pope.
The House on Pine Street
tearing apart the house of their childhood.
The house he and I bought together in 1987.
The house I left behind in 1997
with him in it.
The children are grown and in homes of their own.
Despite twenty-five years gone, I still somehow consider
that house mine.
I still feel Me in it. I still feel my kids.
My ex rips out the cabinets.
He rips out the counters and the floor.
He tears out the island where I used to sit every day
a phone to my ear at noon on a routine call to my mother
who is no longer alive.
He rips out the pantry. On the door, there used to be
a huge calendar, to track all of the kids’ activities
and my own. Track our lives together.
He rips out the half wall between the kitchen and the living room
that half wall where I used to lean and tell him about my day
while I kept an eye on the dinner, bubbling on the stove
and the kids did their homework in their rooms.
The house, my kids say, is going to look completely different.
And I see in their eyes the Christmas stockings that hung
from the half wall
the snacks grabbed from the pantry.
Those snacks shared after school and before bed,
all three of them laughing at the kitchen table.
And I feel, as he tears apart the kitchen, that he
tears out the last vestiges of Me. Of those kids. In that house.
Who I was
in that house.
Who they were
1532 Pine Street.
With the memories in my eyes,
reflected in my kids’ eyes,
I hug all three
and tell them again their stories.
Elizabeth would’ve walked the couple of kilometers from the Picasso Museum to La Rambla, but her feet were killing her and, my God, the humidity! Sebastian had insisted she dress up, so she slid into the taxi wearing a navy shift and strappy Gucci heels that showed off her toned calves and demure, taupe pedicure.
“It would reflect badly on me if you went out in one of your Bohemian get-ups,” he’d said.
Not that she had any of those “get-ups” anymore. That was the old Elizabeth. Before Sebastian. Back when she was Lizzie, which he deemed unrefined. She’d been so taken with him. At fifty, he was still boyishly handsome and sophisticated-–bespoke suits and a continental, boarding-school accent that made her swoon.
Sebastian was a collector. They’d met at an opening in Santa Barbara, where she’d worked for the caterer, whirling around the gallery pouring Veuve Clicquot for the guests. By the time she learned he was married, Elizabeth had convinced herself it was love.
Lately, though, she was suffocating. Sebastian spent his days in meetings with artists and dealers and sent her on cultural missions to museums and cathedrals. Her assignment in Barcelona was to study Picasso’s Las Meninas series and report back on how it paralleled the Velázquez Las Meninas she’d viewed at the Prado in Madrid last week.
Elizabeth exited the cab at La Rambla, fanning herself with a brochure, and took a seat at a tapas place. She munched on olives and sipped sangria, and, while waiting for her gambas ajillo and patatas bravas, she pulled out a paperback. The Sun Also Rises was a reading assignment from Sebastian. Elizabeth prayed he wouldn’t take her to a bullfight.
In front of her, two twenty-somethings hopped off bicycles in a fit of giggles and shook the sand out of their espadrilles. Long hair, damp and curly from the beach; faces glistening with perspiration from bike riding. They were breezy and carefree in gauzy blouses, tattered shorts, and hoop earrings that shimmered in the afternoon light.
Elizabeth ordered a second sangria. She was thirty. Not much older than these girls and living as Sebastian’s mistress like some lady of the manor, not allowed to let her own curls out of their prissy bun. Except in bed, the one place he appreciated her wild side.
Elizabeth paid her bill and left Hemingway on the table. In a side-street resale shop, she tried on torn, white cutoffs and an embroidered, yellow peasant blouse. She had a fleeting thought of Sebastian’s tacit disapproval of used clothing as she reached for a pair of vintage Birkenstocks and a floppy straw hat.
Elizabeth bartered for the outfit, trading in the navy shift and Gucci sandals for all of it.
“Anything else, Elizabeth?” the shopkeeper asked.
She pulled her hair out of its bun and shook her curls.
“It’s Lizzie, actually. And yeah, do you know where I can get a bicycle?”
Resistance and Resilience
I love these two words. Together they provide inner steadiness. I’ll tell you about a time I was stubbornly resistant, a time when I was powerfully resilient, and a time I experienced both together.
I grew up in New York City and lived in apartment 6B in a tall building with elevators and a doorman named Matt who opened the building’s large front door for us. Every day he tipped his hat my way and said, quite Irishly, “Good morning, Missy.” I scowled, looked down, and said nothing — an ornery four-year-old adolescent-in-training. Why? Because my mother, a cheery sort, begged, cajoled, and scolded me daily, pre- and post-Matt: “What is wrong with you?” I resisted. I felt strong—not my mother’s “good little girl” for once. I was also rude. Within two years that faded; as I left the building each morning my father walked me to school, Matt, in good form, said, “Good morning, Missy.” I grinned and waved, “Hi Matt.”
Many years later that early resistance to maternal control became, as they say, integrated. As a woman, I called my resistance assertiveness—feminist but not Nazi. Deep inside I felt that little-girl resistance. I loved that kid.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, I was a proud mama to four lively children I adored. I was sheltered from the “world” yet in thrall to the church’s altar and things called holy. The Episcopal Church had voted in 1976 to allow the ordination of women priests. Naively resistant to any and all possible dangers, I entered the ordination process and got walloped—flatly, out-and-out rejected not once but twice. Apparently, I could not be a mother and a priest—a “dual vocation” they called it. I resisted with all the vigor and anger of that little girl. Anger—righteous indignation—was unbecoming to “high” vocations, and certainly to women of the cloth.
I collapsed into a grief so profound it felt like falling down the deepest, darkest, most silent well. There I heaped my pain onto God, who listened to my prayers when scolding might have been more obviously divine. Emboldened by this lack of divine scolding, I brewed my own little dark-hearted parable of woe and empowerment, including divorce, Dad’s death, my sister’s death, anger, therapy, seminary, and grief profound enough to flatten me. Meanwhile, I studied theology and hoped my beloved children would forgive me. My soul healed.
Resilience took over. I fell in love with biblical stories like mine, moved to a condo, dated a man I’d later marry, did chaplaincy work, and bought a Crockpot whose quiet genius—patient, warm, maternal, simmering—made dinners perfectly cooked if not stunningly diverse. I learned to simmer with resilience, and retrieved enough resistance to apply again for ordination.
My natural resistance joined my maturing resilience. Together they got me ordained, even though the bishop sputtered a bit about my history.
Cassandra Sets the Record Straight
I didn’t intend to keep my word.
I’d never bow to a vain young god
who once killed a man for claiming
to be a better musician.
Nor did I wish to be like Daphne,
whose father saved her from Apollo’s
lust by transforming her into a tree.
Many think I can’t be trusted
because I betrayed a son of Zeus.
Some say that Apollo, in his rage,
took away, with a kiss, the gift
of prophecy he’d granted me
in return for my promise.
Others say he spat into my mouth,
nullifying my ability
to foresee the future.
The truth is that Apollo’s lips never
touched mine, and he didn’t have
the power to take back a divine gift.
The price I paid for freedom
was to no longer be believed.
I’m called a liar and a madwoman,
while Apollo enjoys the adoring
attentions of the Muses.
Apollo has his kithara to play,
and his fame as an archer,
slayer of serpents, bringer
of plague, and rouser of armies.
He’s lately been seen in a chariot
pulled by lions. Some say it was
pulled by swans.
Last night, I had a vision of the fall of Troy.
When I awoke, my eyes burned
and my heart was crushed
by a terrible dread.
But I’m a princess,
the proud daughter of a king
and queen. I’ll remain true
to my sacred vow of chastity
and use my powers to aid my people
for as long as I draw breath.
Migration, mixed media by Alanna Pass
To bend and not break
As dawn spreads, I pull my blinds to see the maple tree outside my bedroom window. Today autumn leaves blink yellow and gold and move aside when the red-crested hummingbird comes to rest. A wind ripples by and the branches bend in submission or welcome. This lovely tree, aging just like me, leans so close I can touch her with my fingertips. If I still my soul, I hear her whisper:
Be strong in root and growth, but resilient in wind and rain; live into the coming winter and the spring will follow. Blend with change of hue, spread arms to greet sleet and sun. Be fearless, release what clings to you. A buffet will not break you and, no matter the deluge, you will not drown. Open your blinds each morning. See that am here.
Thirteen Conversations I Never Had with Dad
Dad, I’ve waited a half century for us to have this talk. Now that you’re six feet under, the time is perfect.
Remember that hot August night when Mom needed milk? You winked at me and asked, Wanna come? I’ll get you a candy bar. You chose me over my little sisters, which made me think I’d won the prize for being the good daughter.
I should have stayed home, melted into the couch, watched more Three Stooges.
The National Center for Victims of Crime reports that children are most vulnerable to sexual abuse between ages seven and thirteen. I was eleven.
At Kroger’s, you grabbed the milk, I picked out a Heath bar, then we headed home. In the car, you laughed, squeezed my bare leg, dragged me across the bench seat, and poked your fingers into my shorts. The car swerved back and forth across the highway. Our headlights flashed over bushes, trees, and oncoming cars. I laughed hard…loud. Did I sound happy? Did you look into my face? If so, you’d have seen terror.
Instead of going home, you pulled the car onto an abandoned street. In the green glow of the dashboard lights, you begged, don’t tell, your mother. She’ll be mad at you. These words pierced like an arrow. My mother was my best friend…my confidante.
When you begged me not to tell, I thought I heard remorse. Maybe we’d pretend this never happened…act normal. I had no idea this was only a preview. You’d hunt me down, corner me, then poke, prod, and expose yourself. I grew afraid to leave my bedroom.
I needed someone to tell me, this is not your fault. I needed my mother. She was the one person who loved me. Yet, how does a girl tell her mother that she is being hurt by her father, the man her mother loves?
She’ll be mad at you. These words would haunt me. How could you shift the blame onto a naïve pre-adolescent child, who didn’t even know how babies were made?
I stayed in my bedroom, locked the door. I’d be in there day and night, night and day…year after year. I’d lie on my back, stare up at the gold glitter in the ceiling and imagine galaxies far, far away. I’d take a rocket, travel there, and no one would find me.
I wished I’d helped you more. These were the last coherent words you said to me. How do you think you would have helped? Better yet, why didn’t you help?
Or is help your version of sorry?
Don’t try to answer. Don’t sneak up behind. Don’t haunt my dreams. Don’t whisper in my ear. I’ve grown used to the silence, and I’m sure you’ll grow used to it too.
leaning into the riding mower
boot off the brake, clutch out
in wide spanning circles
she moves with ease
familiar with the worn path of duty
she’s a one-girl rodeo show
honed all the tricks of a country wife
marriage being her timed event
steadfast as a wheel-horse
she stays in the saddle, still
waiting for her trophy buckle
In My Backyard
In July 1988, I was going to help save the world from disease and poverty, ignorance and fear, so I joined the Peace Corps. And then I dropped out. Less than three months overseas, I came back to my hometown of Fresno without a job, my dog, furniture, or a head held high. I had given all of those things away.
When people asked why did you leave? my answers were vague. Not the right time. The islands too isolated. Even, I missed my dog. I think these were all true, but depression had claimed me in a remote village in the South Pacific and I couldn’t quite name it. Back home though, shame settled so deep in my bones that I slept disgraced for two weeks straight in my childhood bed.
Sometimes I still wonder why I went. I was twenty-nine years old, my long-distance boyfriend had found a new love, most of my friends had married, and I had always been the anxious girl. The one who feared merging onto a freeway, heights, and deep water.
So, what the hell, sign up to live thousands of miles away among strangers! Sign up to fail. So I joined. And then I dropped out.
But purpose still pushed me. In college and clinics I had learned about the prejudice of old and new infectious diseases. I believed strongly in the wonders of science and had faith in the truth. Within a month I enrolled in graduate classes where I typed public health papers on my reliable Smith Corona typewriter. Within two months I got my dog back; I recovered my car in three. I took a clinic job one city away where I learned about local disease and poverty, ignorance, and fear. I got an apartment, bought secondhand furniture, and with coworkers traveled to migrant camps and rural health fairs, handed out bleach to the homeless, and learned to stick needles into people’s vulnerable veins. The epidemic was in our backyards.
Eight months later, I wrote my first grant proposal on that old Smith Corona typewriter.
Needs: AIDS testing and education
Target Audience: Farmworkers, at risk teens, (really almost everyone)
Budget Request: $100,000
Reasons: Too many to count
Deadline: Too soon for someone without any knowledge of budgets or state guidelines or how to fit countless objectives into the Department of Health’s formulated boxes.
I studied. Learned about statistics and communities and how to ask for help.
So on December 1, 1989, five hours till deadline, I made Xerox copies of the 100-page document. Two hours till deadline. I drove down Highway 99 in winter fog to deliver the proposal, without one error, one city away.
Postmark: 11:40 PM and then I drove to my childhood home and slept in my childhood bed and wept.
But we got the damn grant.
And maybe somebody was saved.
“LA FLUTE ENCHANTÉE” from SHÉHÉREZADE by Maurice Ravel
The shade is soft and my master sleeps,
A cone-shaped silken cap on his head,
And his long yellow nose in his white beard.
But I am still awake,
Listening to the song
Of a flute outside that pours forth
Sadness and joy in turn,
A tune now languorous now lively,
Which my dear lover plays.
And when I draw near the casement,
Each note seems to fly
From the flute to my cheek
Like a mysterious kiss.
My mom Sally didn’t know the month, day, time, or who was in the next room. She did know her daughters’ names and the rewritten words to her favorite songs. Alzheimer’s takes the memories you least expect to lose.
We would arrive home from a ride around the neighborhood and Mom would beam when she saw our house.
“Be it ever so humble, there is no place like home.” She would smile with never forgotten tenderness.
Cancer stole her right breast when she was well into her eighties. She equated the loss to losing a precious home.
After her mastectomy she told us “This is where I held you when you were born. You knew you were home.” She cried mournful tears touching her newly flattened chest. Her phantom breast held the cries of her babies.
“I guess I am lucky; they only took one. I am one-tit Sal!” she would say to any startled listener. Seeing their expression, she would look at me and wink. Her sense of humor was forever intact.
Alzheimer sleep has no rhythm and no hours. A bit like cancer, another thief, this one also steals not only memory but rest.
One night, sleeping on the pull-out sofa in her living room, I heard Mom crying. She often woke up many times in the middle of the night.
I snuck quietly to her door, peeking into her room. I hoped that she was just having a bad dream. She heard me and looked up.
“Maya?” she patted the bed next to her. “Get in,” she said in that tone only a mother giving an unequivocal command can use.
She was used to us lying together in her king-size bed in the mornings. It isn’t easy to crawl into an on-loan hospice hospital bed, especially with the sides up. The bed was permanently in that position so she wouldn’t fall during the night.
She no longer remembered she couldn’t walk and would try to stand to go to the toilet. Forever elegant but now incontinent, she hated wearing Pampers and being wet.
I put my hand on her forehead, “I’m here, Mom.”
“Oh dear” she said, “I have to tell you something! I am pregnant.”
With no incredulous expression I responded. “Oh, Mom, you’re having a dream.” Anxiously stifled tears sat in my throat.
I moved the chair closer to her bed. “I will sit here with you. Try to go back to sleep.”
When I heard her stirring the next morning I peeked into her room. I wished her a good morning and moved the chair back next to her bed.
“You had a dream last night, Mom.” She reached between the bars for my hand.
“You told me you were pregnant.”
“Oh no!” she said, more upset than I expected.
“You didn’t tell anyone I said that, did you?”
“No, of course not. But why wouldn’t you want me to tell anyone?”
She squeezed my hand tightly.” Because I don’t have a husband.”
tread lightly over roads of tar, cobbles and dirt
march in solidarity in our homeland
and across the world; we blend to one
in this sea of pink, of suffragette crowns,
a garnish on our heads
Great grandmothers, mothers, grandmothers, aunts,
daughters, friends from long ago, we honor you,
you, who have carried us this far
your spirits guide our every ebb and flow
in our blushing sea
we roll call your names, never forgetting
as we demonstrate against inequality, for liberty
you are forever embraced in this sea of pink
with suffragette crowns,
a garnish on our heads
Come women, all hearts, all hues, all generations
clamor with determined voices, echo throughout
canyons of time to never be crammed into an
archaic black night again
in this sea of pink, with suffragette crowns,
a garnish on our heads
Combers of change, we demand it,
crash onto our shores of tomorrow
as we proceed
with spirit sisters walking at our side,
conveying promising words to tell
how far they have come
their life-force arouses our confidence,
because of them
we travel forth,
we must go on…
we know we will succeed
Twenty-first Century Women march on; march on
together, in our sea of pink with suffragette crowns,
a garnish on our heads
Ten things I wish I could tell you…
Once last January, when the phone rang, I thought, “Oh good, Pete’s calling.” But I had buried you two weeks before, and no, of course that wasn’t you on the line. But every day this year there have been things I wanted to tell you, trivial pieces of our shared lives.
- Every morning I put on the bathrobe you gave me for Christmas before I go out to pick up the newspaper. Then I put it on again before I settle down to watch TV before bedtime. It’s warm and soft and to me it feels like you’re hugging me. I don’t know what I’ll do when it’s too warm to wear a winter robe.
- Remember the flycatcher that nested outside our front door last year? It’s back and it wove a strand of the silver wire that you wrapped around the Christmas garland along the outside of its nest.
- About a year ago, we watched episodes of Murdoch Mysteries about the power of guarana. Well, today I walked into Panera and saw their poster for the new summer drinks—they all contain guarana. We should be able to enjoy one together.
- Today I saw the first gosling near the mall, right where we usually spot them. And of course, that reminded me of the time we were stuck in traffic waiting for a duck and her ducklings to cross the road. The last one couldn’t scale the curb, so you got out of the car, scooped it up in the palm of your hand, and put it back in line with the other ducklings. You loomed so large, and the duckling was barely visible. Did you know that Chris—our contractor—called you “the gentle giant”?
- There was no sense in paying insurance and doing maintenance on a vehicle I would never drive, so I sold your truck. Old and battered as it was, you loved that truck. I was stunned by how awful I felt selling it—as if I were giving a piece of you away.
- Going through the seasons is its own kind of pain. On what would have been your 82nd birthday I opened the pool. At first I couldn’t swim without you, but I thought you would just roll your eyes at that, so I got used to swimming alone and learned to enjoy it. In September I closed the pool and ached at how quickly the seasons slip by without you.
- I had to buy a new car because the transmission in our Honda was going. At first it was so painful to drive a new car and not have you sitting beside me, but all the new safety features won me over and now I love it.
- The holidays are approaching—your absolute favorite time of the year. You made the holidays magic—decorating the house, spending days baking traditional Italian cookies while listening to Christmas music, inviting friends in. I can’t maintain all those traditions without you, but I can bask in the memories while I find my own way to celebrate.
- I wish I could tell you how much our children and friends have helped me through the year—arranging to have coffee or lunch with me, going on hikes, to museums… I don’t know how I could have managed without their ongoing support. I will always miss you and I will always love you, but bit by bit, I am re-learning to be happy.
Love in a Pandemic
I encountered a couple of my neighbors
in the bread aisle of our local supermarket.
“How are you?” the man asked me
so tentatively I felt sure he’d seen
the House For Sale sign in my yard.
This pregnancy was draining her,
the woman said, rubbing her belly,
grimacing. “I can’t eat almost anything.”
Her husband frowned into their cart
as though the items had got there
when his back was turned,
him half-aware, at best, of what they were.
He reached in and lifted out a loaf of bread,
replaced it on the shelf, then touched her arm.
“We’ll be all right,” they said together.
Outside the store, stars streaked
a path through the showery sky,
intent upon their task of polishing the dark.
McKenzie Salmon, mixed media by Alanna Pass
It was fall, 1976, my senior year of high school. College application season.
Mom cooked supper while Napoleon, my orange tabby, begged for food. I laid three college applications on the counter. Because I had to use ink, I had filled them out slowly, methodically. I wanted them to be error-free. They represented hours of work.
“What are those?” Mom asked.
“College applications.” I handed her a pen.
She lifted one and read the first page. “Why did you write ‘education’ under ‘Intended Major’?”
I want to be a teacher.
“I’m not signing these. You’re not going to be a teacher.”
I most certainly was.
“You’re going to be a doctor or lawyer or something else.”
I most certainly wasn’t.
Mom had waitressed all her life, but after my parents bought a tavern, she poured beer, mixed drinks, and emptied ashtrays in a cigarette haze while the jukebox shouted songs from the ’60s and ’70s.
We screamed at each other, a couple of crows fighting over the applications like they were roadkill. Napoleon retreated from the kitchen.
“You can do better,” she said.
We screamed louder. She refused to sign, and I refused to cross out the word education.
“Fine,” I said. Picking up the applications one at a time, I tore them in half. “I won’t go to college.” I left the severed papers on the counter and stormed out.
A few days later, I laid a pen and three newly completed applications on the counter. “I need you to sign these.”
Mom picked up an application. I had written “undeclared” in the space under “Intended Major.” She signed all three. A wordless compromise.
I didn’t ask why she didn’t want me to be a teacher because I thought I knew. Throughout my high school years, she bragged to friends and relatives that her daughter was going to be a lawyer or a doctor, so, of course, if I became a teacher, I would embarrass her.
When I became an adult, Mom shared her stories with me. She was the only girl in her Catholic high school mechanical drafting class. She wanted to be a graphic designer. In 1958, at the same Catholic school, she wrote an essay supporting birth control and refused to rewrite it, even when administrators threatened to withhold her diploma.
But she didn’t tell me about getting pregnant at eighteen and having to marry my father—I knew the story anyway. I grew up with their unhappy marriage.
Now, I understand that Mom raged because when she was in high school, she was told her choices were secretary, nurse, or teacher. Then pregnancy erased even those options. Perhaps it was also because Roe v. Wade didn’t happen until 1973. Too late for the choices she might have made. Maybe she raged to give voice to her lost dreams. Whatever the reason, I no longer think Mom objected because of what her friends would think. Not even because I wanted to be a teacher. Her anger that afternoon was never about me. I became a teacher, and she was proud.
Golf On A Friday Afternoon
Rutgers University; married student housing, both graduate students
teaching third grade
husband just turned 25
making the trek from New Jersey to Flushing, New York one Friday
unusual for us but planned on dinner with his parents
older, established, stable
his dad, brilliant, cerebral, quiet
Eisenhower look alike
law and engineering degree
factitious, tasteful, slight air of pretension
life force of the two
gentle chill in early October air; his dad had the day off
for 9 holes of golf
lovely table set; stuffed cabbage – her signature dish
visible note on the table stating he’d be home at 6
my husband’s father and my husband wrote the book on punctuality
if they say 6, it’s not 5:59 or 6:01, it’s 6:00. Sharp.
which came, and went
could be traffic. Maybe he joined a slow-moving group
“let’s eat” my mother-in-law declared
her house, her rules
couldn’t taste a thing, though – too eerie
someone at the door!
there he is!
but why the front door?
no one comes in through the front door of the house. Only the side.
it’s not his dad at all
two police officers, one fat, one thin, looking for the upstairs neighbors
why the neighbors?
chubby one said they had news they wanted the neighbor to give his mom
my husband, frozen, statue like, asked for the news
his mom, behind me, like a shy child hiding from strangers
why are they telling us this
he left perfectly fine to play golf, at 66 years of age
on the 9th hole
watched the light leave my husband’s eyes
never to fully return
his mom rushed to the garbage can where that note now was
smoothed it out, caressing the paper
calm, secure household morphed into controlled confusion
no crying, wailing,
methodically, trance like
my 25-year-old husband turned into the man, not the son
need to identify body, plan funeral
many months later, per her wishes move his mom to a studio apartment in Manhattan
rather than remaining in the large home of his childhood
my husband, always strong, dependable, reliable
became more resilient to life’s challenges
every future milestone – joyous tinged with grief
his dad didn’t see him grow into manhood
receive his doctorate
move cross country
meet his beautiful grandchildren
a transformation occurred
he embodied his dad’s spirit
five decades later and still will never again
eat stuffed cabbage
did his dad take the swing
what went through his mind
on the 9th hole
My Hair, My Rules
So, I’m 75 and dying. No, not the dying like kicking the bucket dying. Not yet, not if I can help it. I’m dying like gonna dye my hair pink, and butter my butt if folks don’t like it. Including my boyfriend, Holy Holcomb, the retired mortician. Thinks he knows all there is to know about cosmetology and hair.
Oh please. My hair, my rules.
Me and Holcomb, or Holy Holcomb, as I’ve called him since I first discovered the old boy’s hung like a horse, we were having ourselves a fabulous little roll in the Hope Springs Senior Living hay when I told him, “I’m gonna color my hair pink.”
Perhaps my timing was off because Holy Holcomb screamed bloody murder. I assumed it was the idea of me with pink hair, but, you know, it could have been a muscle spasm from doing the dirty.
Anyway, Holy Holcomb screamed, then said, “No way, Babe. Pink is for rabbit eyes, not hair.”
“Wrong. Pink is for septuagenarian punks. Babe is for Paul Bunyan’s Ox. My hair, my rules.”
I first met Holcomb when Mom died. Younger than me by a good bit but, even five years ago, he was no spring chicken. There he sat in the Happy Trails Mortuary cosmetology cabinet, studying his high-pigment makeup for stiffs. I mean, really, talk about artificial, the cherry-berry red paint on his shelf looked more clown than casket. Plus my mom never ever wore red lipstick, just clear lip gloss.
I sashayed up to him. “Ix-nay on the cherry-berry kisser, Mister. Make her real.”
“And you are?”
“Next of kin.” I straightened my shoulders. I’m a looker, not ashamed to know it, not ashamed to show it.
He put the paint down, wired Mom’s mouth shut, as if even then she’d have something say about a hook-up commencing over her dead body, then asked me out. Been together, more or less, ever since. Though I still sow a few wild oats in my head.
“You can’t do pink dye on white hair, Eve. Not at your age. It’ll burn your follicles, break your hair. You’ll be bald.”
Mister, you don’t tell this gal no. In the scheme of life and death, like, hair matters anyway? Well, yeah, it does.
So the next morning I squeezed into my pink spandex tights and tee, put on clear lip gloss in honor of Mom, then marched into Hope Springs’ Breakfast in the Bistro.
The room got real quiet.
Holcomb rose, cleared his throat. “You did it.” He hesitated. “Sure looks different.”
I grinned, shimmied my fat ass, then tossed my gorgeous pink wig to the table. I stood big, beautiful, and bald.
“Bought myself a pink wig and shaved my head,” I announced to the room. “First round of chemo starts next week. Cancer’s not gonna call all the shots. My hair, my rules.”
I bowed to loud applause. Holy Holcomb bowed to me.
Fifth Grade Volunteer
The principal’s voice on the PA recites the pledge.
Just like the 1950s.
Mr. N talks to his class through their individual Chromebooks.
Adults roam: special-ed literacy coach, paraprofessionals, and me, a volunteer.
ELA English/language arts: Reading Fluency—”The Cricket and the Mountain Lion.”
In small groups, I read, each child reads, we read together until I can recite it by heart. At least someone is fluent.
Omicron has emerged.
Kids have been wearing facemasks for two years—in the 1950s we would crouch in the cellar expecting the H bomb to obliterate us.
My mask clouds my glasses.
The kids range in size from little pipsqueaks to tall ones beginning puberty
They work on sentences—declarative, imperative, interrogatory, exclamatory— How can you tell which is which?
It’s on the tests—Mr. N says apologetically. This is the worst class I’ve had in 20 years, he adds.
They work on a flow chart tracing cause and effect: Bonnie throws a snowball which causes Annie to toss one that hits a teacher. Which is the cause and which is the effect?
Why is this important? Also, on the TEST?
They watch their own videos on their own screens.
A girl with long dark hair wears the same oversized lifeguard sweatshirt every week.
Back home—Grandma dies of Covid.
Mom and Dad divorce.
White supremacists try to take over the country.
Global warming causes catastrophic storms.
Schoolchildren are killed with guns shot by other children.
But the fifth graders go on learning what to call sentences and what cause leads to what effect.
Burning fossil fuels causes global warming which leads to species extinction—This is not on the worksheet.
They pick up their folders, their Chromebooks, their earphones, their backpacks and move on for science.
Little Girl Moonrise
on both palms;
often, too often, the moons of me.
I unfurl aching fingers
and watch the moons rise.
Though my nails are deeply bitten,
they still make moonscapes
when fists clench and clench again.
I let rigid arms go limp,
releasing trembling ribs and legs.
First deep breath over raw throat—
At last safe to cry,
no longer wrapped so tight.
Crouched in the corner, again and again,
I gather up rocks shattered by the moon-quake,
bits of shadow from crater-edges—
try to figure out how they fit.
Each time, so many times,
I put the pieces back together,
more or less—
a cobbled-together self,
until I am old enough to get away.
I will not be eclipsed,
I will have a life,
Lost and Found
Dust from the past
More gray hair than she has regrets
If she left here today
Put her keys in the bowl
Where would all of the memories go
Sees her eyes in the mirror
Memories move from behind
Dark rooms and sticky soles
She remembers the bars
All the times that were hard
And the love that went down at the old lost and found
There was dancing at the old lost and found
Women strutting spinning round and round
Outliers and outlaws
Out on the town
For just one night feet never touched down
Memories pour out
The back of the mirror
Cowboy boots, red flannel shirt and new jeans
She sees her standing
Her back to the wall
She’s going to hold her
Before the last call
There was dancing at the old lost and found
Women strutting spinning round and round
Outliers and outlaws
Out on the town
For just one night feet never touched down
The cops came in for a bribe
Threatened to take them downtown for a ride
They all knew what to do
For those boys dressed in blue
They had secrets and closets for most of their lives
The cops would show up around 10
All the women would have to pretend
No touching or kissing
But after they left
All the women got out on the dance floor again
There was dancing at the old lost and found
Women strutting spinning round and round
Outliers and outlaws
Out on the town
For just one night feet never touched down
There’s a woman in the corner
For all the girls
Sitting at the bar
Telling stories love lost
And the will to survive
She’s hoping her songs
Keep someone alive
We would dance at the old lost and found
We strutted spinning round and round
We were outliers and outlaws
Out on the town
For just one night
Our feet never touched down
After college I moved to a bigger city for work. A red-haired, 30-year-old Dallas newspaper editor, worn from his two years in Vietnam, interviewed me for a job. He moved into my apartment shortly after. We drank every night, I broke wine glasses, my PR internship ended, and the neighbors stole my handbag while I was moving out to Andy’s new place. There was no longer any discussion about my working for the paper. We were a couple, yet his reporter friends treated me with condescension.
Andy drank more and came home later at night. He sometimes entered slurring and blaming me vaguely for being out with someone else. Still dressed for work, he would struggle to release himself from his shirt, tie, and 3-piece suit, then careen off to bed. He almost never removed his socks. “My feet,” he told me, “were in jungle water for two years.
The fungus of Vietnam stuck with him. He daily berated himself for not having a “real job,” making just $13K with the paper. Andy’s father had been a postman all his life, which had ended a few years before we met. Andy’s mother sold ladies’ apparel at a local department store. Like me, Andy had no siblings, though one night, in a drunken blur, he began talking incoherently about a sister he once had. The next day he denied she had existed.
In recent years, I discovered unexpectedly online that Andy had died long ago, before he would have turned even 50. I remembered his chain-smoking, heavy drinking, and anger. At me in particular. He would lash out if I behaved in what he thought was a childish way, like exclaiming “Wow,” or car dancing to a rock tune, or wanting to rush outside into a rare Texas snowfall.
Now I imagine how resentful and deprived he must have felt during our brief time together. I was several years younger and his war had never intimately touched me, except for wearing a black moratorium armband once or twice to march in a grassy park. I was from the generation that hated the Vietnam conflict and was not afraid to protest on campus and in the streets. We were the fortunate ‘70s youth who just barely escaped from a war that was so confusing, prolonged, and failed that it was called an era. We had no idea about the dark, hopeless experience endured by returning soldiers.
One night I woke to Andy’s fist clobbering the side of my head. I turned to see his shaking arm raised high in the air, hand clenched.
“The helicopter,” he murmured the next morning over his black coffee and cigarette. “Shooting a machine gun from the ‘copter.”
I was not strong for Andy. When I left after two years together, our failure became another casualty of an impossible cause. But it was the only way I knew to save myself from the black mold of war and inevitable heartbreak.
Before Me Too
will fit into a human hand.
Naïve in seventh grade
I watched the ritual
of our teacher standing
in front of the window
his arms draped
around the shoulders
of two of my more
waiting for the second-load
buses to arrive before
Removed and yearning
cold and lonely
I could earn it
I watched the wind
blowing like ghosts
over the playground
We all liked the teacher
and missed him
even grieved for him
when he didn’t return
to the classroom
the next year
No one bothered
to tell us
why he had to leave
Chance Encounter in McDonald’s—2/3/09
There was the time I went shopping at the Atlantic Center on a crowded weekend. I found myself starved for lunch and not yet finished shopping. McDonald’s was right there and, in those days, I was less fussy about what went into my mouth and what came out of it.
I waited in the long line of shoppers for my little bit of greasy protein and chemical drink and found a lone seat, off to the side, where my only fellow eater was a slender elderly Black lady two small tables away. She wore an old-fashioned black hat that looked like it had come from her mother’s milliner, her somewhat shabby cloth coat was draped about her narrow shoulders as she delicately nibbled on her McSomething and sipped her coffee. We glanced at each other. I don’t know what she saw when she looked at me, a plump, white, middle-class, gray-haired, cheerful woman in her fifties with too many packages.
The restaurant crowd thinned out and we were alone in our corner. We began to chat. How we got to the topic of religion, I don’t know for sure. She was praising God, I believe, or talking about depending on God for something or other. With our newfound intimacy, I saw no reason to humor her beliefs.
“I don’t believe in God,” I said, pleasantly, between bites. She looked up, astonished, from her Styrofoam cup and held her gaze on me in a straightforward open-mouthed way.
“What?!” she said, “You don’t believe in God?”
“No,” I affirmed, “I just can’t see a reason for it.”
“But, what happens after you die?”
“I don’t know.”
She turned back to her place setting for a moment of recovery. “But… haven’t you ever had anyone die?” she asked, while looking at her coffee.
“Yes,” I said. “It’s terrible.”
“Yes—it’s terrible,” she said, turning back to me, “But, if you’re gonna see ‘em again, well, you can bear it.”
I took a long sip of my diet Coke through the thick plastic straw and turned back to her.
“Yes—I guess believing that could help. But I just can’t believe it. It doesn’t make sense to me.”
“But, who do you think wrote the Bible?” she posed, as though that challenge should make a difference.
“Men wrote it. Lots of men who lived at different times.”
She stared at me frankly shocked. “But, what do you do when someone dies?”
“I feel very, very sad and I miss them, and maybe I feel those feelings for a long time. And, maybe I never forget all the good things about them.”
I finished the drink and gathered my debris from the table. I stood and picked up my bundles. “Well, I’ve got to go. Nice talking with you,” I said.
The lady watched me, speechless, as I moved toward the exit, stopping once to throw out my McRefuse.
Self Portrait of a Shoreward Woman
You cannot separate one from the other, for I unfurl here
like a sail on a ship
Atlantic saline flows through my veins, granules of sand
permanently dwell beneath my fingernails, tuck inside
the folds of my belly button
My hair resembles sea weed in its chaotic profusion
long strands, tangled brown, touched with silver salt
are not coifed like a bottle-blonde pageant queen
I dress year-round in plaid flannel, fleece, and jeans
clothing suited for the weather, like clapboards worn gray
thrashed by ocean air, protects its wooden shell
Open the barn door and you will find my beauty inside
among the rusty tricycle, grandma’s jelly cupboard,
half-empty paint cans, old stone crocks
My ears are ambivalent conch shells, for I hear waves
crashing violently, the flap of sea birds landing gently,
the hollow howl of the wind
I am a mighty oak rooted deeply along the shore
offering shade to those who sit beneath–not the pretty pine,
short stocks, ready to uproot in a sudden storm
I offer stability–
will take a beating, will remain strong and steady
Swallowtail Dance (Chianti, Tuscany)
On the terrace of Hotel La Noce, a black butterfly (a Coda di Rondine, the server says) flits and flirts around us. Its spotted dark body is as tiny as a fairy fly, but as dazzling as the feathered Sulphurs in Van Gogh’s Butterflies and Poppies, where their lemon wings, dipped in onyx, center and stir the painting alive. They dilute the verdant background of vines clinging for attention. Shrivel shy russet blossoms.
Now this ebony Swallowtail dances, dashes, and darts among the guests and suddenly lands in my hair.
That’s good luck, my daughter-in-law Karin says.
It’s a sign of transition, Carol, my friend, offers.
The server shakes her head and states: Someone who has passed has stopped to say hello.
Immediately, I think of my mother and her immense love of nature: birds, butterflies, and bees that flooded her garden aching with gardenia aroma, so intoxicating my sisters and I would each push our nose into a flower’s orange center and claim we would faint from its perfume.
Even the swords of her lavender gladiolas would pierce our red hearts as we stroked their upright green fans. Then we’d try to catch Monarchs that zipped in and out of small citrus milkweeds’ faces.
Finally, the black Swallowtail untangles his wings from my hair and flickers back into the blazing Tuscan sun. Darkness entering light. Softly I whisper, Thanks for stopping, Mom.