And if this issue is to be a summer festival of the arts, it must be the theme of Short Takes this time around as well. We purposely left the invitation to the Short Takes contributors general: write a short piece, we pretty much said, on whatever facet of the arts interests you at the moment. Tell us whatever about the arts you’d like us to know. And we got, as you will discover when you read on, a delightful, distinguished and most variegated assortment of prose and poetry.
There is, however, a sub-theme that unites many of these pieces. It is not just the public that discounts the talent of women over sixty. We ourselves share that perception a little bit. Even as we aspire to become better writers, painters, weavers, composers, we question our abilities, our talents, our right to a room, or a publication, of one’s own. It is not surprising, perhaps, given the world we came of age in – the world we still live in – that we who were first into the second great wave of feminism have nonetheless not escaped entirely the view others have of us. As this issue attests, however, they – and we — are so wrong about us.
But, at least it makes for an exceptional batch of Short Takes. I invite you to enjoy…
I didn’t often venture past my courtyard the first few months after my husband died.
Somehow, that crisp spring morning, I pushed myself out the door thinking it would do me good to get some fresh air. As I took to the walking trails, the cheerful chirping of the songbirds and the faint scent of pine trees slowly reawakened my senses.
The Pine Hills community where I lived was sponsoring a crafts fair on the village green. I meandered through the fair with little enthusiasm, but was drawn to an Etsy booth that featured striking colorful quilts with contemporary designs. I struck up a conversation with the two men who ran the booth. Henry designed the quilts and his partner Brian sewed them. Inspired by their creativity, an idea took hold of me. I asked if they could make a memory quilt from men’s ties. Before I knew it, I was telling them about my husband Dick, our lives together and how he had recently died from glioblastoma. The tears that previously had not left my house, flowed freely. Brian shared that his first husband had also died of glioblastoma. We hugged and cried together. I spent much of the afternoon at their booth, where they provided me with a chair, a box of tissues and warm understanding.
Later that week Brian and Henry came to pick up the materials. Since Dick had worn a tie to work every day, I was able to provide them with a multitude of ties and shirts. They reassured me they would have enough to make five quilts, one for myself and one for each of my children. I pulled out a tie I had bought my husband for our anniversary that had the Hebrew words “Ani L’dodi V’Dodi Li” – “I am my beloved and my beloved is mine” – from the Song of Songs. The wedding rings we exchanged 42 years ago bore this inscription as well. I asked them to incorporate that tie into my quilt.
On delivery day, I was astounded to see an incredibly beautiful butterfly design.
“You totally surpassed my expectations! We raised butterflies, photographed butterflies and they were a very important symbol in our lives. How did you know?“
“When we saw your house we sensed your love of nature and butterflies. Working with your husband’s shirts and ties, we could feel his love and compassion and it spoke to us and this design came to mind.”
The quilt is draped over the couch in my living room. People often comment, “It is a work of art. Why don’t you hang it on the wall to display?” But I like to wrap up in it every night and feel the love and cherished memories it holds.
My father sits at the wrought-iron patio table, sumi-e brush in hand. He dips the brush into the ink well, staring out at the persimmon tree and beyond.
The windfall of rotting persimmon has wafted through the air and drawn teeming wildlife. Last Saturday, a sea of iridescent Junebugs appeared, splashing their Orient splendor on the floor of our yard in a liquid current of metallic blues and greens. It is our first attempt at banana squash and they are thriving; some have grown two feet long and thicker than a sumo wrestler’s arm.
My father refuses to spray the banana squash. Instead, he sets a few choice ones on sawn pieces of two-by-four beams. The rest he leaves for the hoards of insects that have magically appeared. He seems pleased.
Is he reliving a time when there was not enough to feed the family? Is there solace in this scene where, as with unleavened bread in an earlier time, there is enough for all? Do the iridescent beetles count among the syllables of my father’s poems?
He leaves the fallen persimmons where they lie. Is it age or is there some hidden intention behind his action?
My father pushes the block of chalk to and fro, in unison with his breathing. It is a meditation practice, to empty the mind. What syllables is he contemplating? Is he recalling the time when he patiently waited as his older brothers crossed the Pacific in steerage, one by one, to join their father in America? At last his turn. In his passport photo, he looks sad for a young teenager. Sorrow must have been his companion while crossing the ocean alone, leaving behind his mother and all he had known.
When the fruit trees start crowding one another’s canopy, my father is reluctant to uproot one of them. He says the shock may be too extreme and the tree may not recover. Instead he prunes the branches and the trees lace together in a natural embrace.
My father is a man of few words. Is it his training in tanka that makes it so?
Is he counting syllables when he speaks to me? Silence is full of loud exclamations.
His sumi-e ink forms characters across the rice paper. Five lines, standing in formation by syllable count: 5, 7, 5, 7, and 7.
It takes a poet, meditating as he prepares ink from a block of charcoal, to sweep aside the distractions of rushing traffic, flying e-mails, and chirping cell phones, to once again see that which is only visible to the eye and the senses.
I see the thin line of economy threading through the natural world. There is precision and eternity in the count. Tanka is a centuries-old long tradition, intended to capture all that is hidden in nature.
He listens to nature’s measured whisperings, while softly, steadily, counting, counting, counting…
I used to collect teapots, when I still collected things. You can tell my favorites by the depth of the brown stain within. They say not to wash that out, not to use soap or scrub aggressively because the tannins build up and contribute to the flavor, like memories.
My favorite pot was a gift from my husband Marc. It is ceramic, a full eight cups, with a beautiful spout. He bought it at one of those crafty shops where you pick out the object you want, decorate it yourself and have it fired. He bought it for me during a dark time in my life and painted it cream with six bunches of blue daisies and yellow daffodils climbing up the sides. The leafy stems dance around the circumference and a ring of green leaves adorns the lid hallowed by a blue daisy at the center of the knob. I see this teapot every morning, on the shelf above my vitamins, and I use it when people come over, or when I am sick and need to brew a big pot. In this teapot I always use Swee-Touch-Nee tea bags stored in the red, gold and black metal manufacturer’s tin given to me by my father 35 years ago, still shiny with its neat rectangular lid. It was a Passover gift.
Each spring, in my father’s memory, I buy a fresh paper box of 100 Swee-Touch-Nee tea bags and put them in the tin. They make a good strong black tea, fine either with milk or lemon and honey, good at any time of day. A hamish cup of tea, like my father.
Inside, the teapot is dark with tannin stains. I give it a good rinse and let them be, ignoring the urge to scrub. I do the same now, 12 years after my father’s death, with some memories of him. Those still need to steep a while longer.
Every Saturday afternoon, I waited for William Owen. Bent over his walker, he shuffled in at exactly ten minutes before the hour and sat in the fourth row, third seat from the right. He weighed less than a sack of potatoes. Unlike many of his classmates, he never fell asleep. At attention, his eyes wide behind thick glasses, the film class was his manna. He spoke once in four years. After Terence Malick’s Days of Heaven, William Owen’s voice exploded like an unplugged pipe. “That was beautiful,” he said. He never missed a session. On the Saturdays I felt exhausted, I thought of William Owen dragging down the aisle with his walker.
Then, his name wasn’t on the fall enrollment list. I stumbled through my first lecture without him. The Activities Director assured me that William Owen was alive. “He’s very fragile. He’s 89 years old,” she said.
By now the film class had over 100 people in it, but no one came every week. No one held on to my words. Without William Owen, I felt adrift and despondent.
Thinking vigorous exercise would help, I signed up at a gym and drove to the mall for workout clothes. A small store tucked down one aisle caught my attention. Surfing posters brightened the black walls, and the floor boasted a five-pointed star gone psychedelic.
I reached for a hot pink tee shirt blazing “Bitch” in white sequins and chuckled. A young man walked towards me, his long legs squeezed into black leather pants. His left hand gripped a cell phone. I shoved the tee shirt back on the rack. I felt too old to be in the store.
Dyed black hair swung over one eye. He stared at me with the other. “Did you teach Poetry?”
I nodded. That was five or six years ago.
“I was in your class. Great class.”
He didn’t look familiar even with five earrings in his right ear.
“I didn’t dress quite like this.” He gave a boyish grin.
Then I saw him – he had been clean-cut in rumpled shirts and khakis. The last class, he shyly handed me his CD: jazzy rock with good lyrics.
“Of course. Still writing?”
“Well, it’s mostly music now, which is great, but …”
“There’s something about writing just poetry, you know?”
He had struggled at first. By his last poem, a letter to his father, he eloquently argued to end their long-standing conflict. The students had clapped like crazy when he finished reading aloud.
In the Poetry class, words had been important, and now I wanted to give this young man a whirligig of wisdom.
“Gotta get back,” he said. “I’m the manager. Just seeing you inspires me.” He put out his hand. I shook it and he quickly left. Words weren’t necessary; I had been his William Owen.
As distinguished from crafts, those myriad Girl Scout and grammar school projects – lanyards, felt ladybug pincushions, lace doily hearts pasted on red construction paper, art with a capital “A” is found in museums and galleries. As a teenager I adorned my jeans with embroidery and ribbons sewn on the hems. I carted dusty misshapen lumps with wicks home from the beach, sand candles with unstable bottoms whose rivers of muddy purple and red wax marred the top of my dresser.
My daughters and I, on a spa vacation the week between Christmas and New Year’s, search for things to do together. What can we all enjoy – three women, 17, 26 and 62? We sign up for the craft offerings.
In the art studio we sift through mounds of colored beads, filling paper plates with our choices in glass, plastic, metal and ceramic. Patterns emerge – shades of blue, of black, white and silver, earth tones for me.
We don’t speak of my older daughter’s heartbreak, how her partner of five years left while she was at work. I don’t ask my younger daughter what colleges she applied to or about her last test scores. Yet these are the reasons we are here.
We sit across from one another at a rickety card table. We trade beads, offering them up like hors d’oeuvres. We string them on stretchy cords to make bracelets, which we will wear all week, rattling our wrists at one another.
Between exercise classes, meals, and spa treatments, we shape lumps of clay and affix yarn to boards sticky with beeswax.
Our last afternoon, we fashion prayer wands. We write our intentions for the New Year on slips of paper to be wrapped around sticks, then covered in yarn. We select feathers, charms, and herbs to dangle from the end.
“Some guests plant their sticks on the trail for a stranger to find,” says the man who guides us. “Or you can take yours home. The process is what matters and your intention.”
We sip hot cocoa with cinnamon and nibble sweet tamales. We share balls of yarn and advice – how to switch colors, how to attach the crackly spray of pungent herbs.
I ask my younger daughter what she wrote.
“That’s private,” she says.
“Yeah, Mom,” says the other, taking her sister’s side.
But her eyes are soft as she passes me the scissors. I flew across the country when her girlfriend left – when my daughter, who so rarely asks for anything, let me help her move.
At week’s end we pack. My older daughter lays her prayer wand on the coffee table. It won’t fit in her luggage. Now it sits in my office, alongside mine. I don’t remember what I wrote on that slip of paper, hidden beneath rings of blue, green and gold yarn.
Yet I know my intentions, for my daughters and for myself.
Arts & Crafts
I saw the handmade craft show sign in front of the old red community center by the shore of the lake. On impulse, I pulled into the gravel driveway, making my way between raindrops and puddles up the rickety stairs, into the building.
Years ago, when I first moved here and was furnishing a brand new home, the theme of the decade was “country” style, and I embraced it fully. What a treasure trove I found throughout the area – small cottages turned into gift shops, brimming with lace curtains, schoolhouse clocks, goose statues with ribbons around their necks, dried floral wreaths, homemade soaps, dipped candles.
On any given day, I could be found traveling from town to town, ducking into shops, reaping the abundance of handwoven tapestries, fluffy stuffed sheep, Halloween figurines perched on cabinet ledges. I brought these treasures back to the house, surrounding myself with the lofty ambition of making a home.
We built a family there. Though the house was new, its paint still fresh and carpet yet shedding from installation, the life inside was ancient, the essence of family that stretches back generations. Traditions, holidays, the aroma of roasts in the oven, windows steaming from baking and boiling, sounds reverberating up one story and back down, a house that breathed, sighed, groaned with life.
My childhood goal, to live in a house long enough to be able to find my way around in the dark, had come to fruition. The walls embraced me as I wandered in the moonlight, fingers touching the smooth banister, feet remembering the creak in each stair. Only the cat came out of the shadows, an escort as the rest of the house breathed steadily, slowly, given into dreams.
We watched our daughter bloom and grow, hands upon piano keys, tennis rackets, telephones, then, finally, clutching diplomas and awards, heading east to school. Her room a shrine: her teddy bear, Toby, still sitting on her pillow, waiting for her return, resignation in his button eyes. At dawn, I often walked into her empty room, sat at her desk, watched the sun peek over the rooftops, trying to feel her, so many miles away, then turned and strolled down the stairs, another day in an empty nest.
The animals remained. Stoic, loyal, captives behind locked doors, children who never grew up. I buried my face in their soft fur and breathed in the memories of so many days and nights behind these green shutters. Even now I hear the piano, and the barking of the slaphappy dogs as they careened around the wood floors, sliding and lunging, a carnival of noise, the echoes heralding change, a new dance card.
We left that house one day in August. Such heat that day, the movers begged to arrive at dawn. Like turtles, we carried our memories on our backs, up and into new closets, cabinets, and drawers, familiar yet foreign, settling in like goslings to our new nest. The animals didn’t question. They simply went along, rejoicing in a new yard, a new house, never looking back or morose. The gift of living in the moment transported them in and out of cardboard boxes as though they were taking the Grand Tour.
Our daughter was grown up and long gone. Married and busy, she was no longer around as we unpacked our things and tried to make sense of the new, barren garden and the quiet evenings, the piano gone with her, silence filling the rooms, our aging faces reflected in the windows.
We touched the calendar in surprise as the pages crumbled beneath our fingers, day passing day so quickly it was stunning. In the early hours, we spoke of golden years, and retirement, trips abroad, grandchildren, as we sipped our coffee and stretched out on the couch.
Then came the darkness, a lesion to the brain so swift and so merciless we hardly had time to understand that it planned to take him like a pirate and bury him by the sea.
And so today, I walked around the old wooden building, and the craft show. It smelled the same, of old attics and sweet caramels, knit caps and tallow. The floors were uneven, my feet braced as though on the ocean, keeping balance as I wandered from booth to booth. For a moment, I felt as though it were twenty years ago, the wares still so familiar, ageless handiwork, the murmur of the crowd softly reverberating against the dusty walls.
I gently touched a windowpane. The last time I peered through the glass, he was here on this earth. Alive, and healthy. He was here the last time I walked on these creaking, splintered floors. I touched the doorframe, and an old table in the corner. He had still been here, waiting at home for me to walk in, the dogs swirling about me like fish, splitting the air with their happy barks. I breathed in the moment, pretended he breathed with me and whispered, “It once was. It was so.”
I stepped back down the stairs, and into the wind, rain tracing my cheek like tears. I drove across the potholes and ruts back out to the road, trusting the car would find its way home.
Naked in the Mall
around the outdoor art display in Cherry Chase.
And yet – my painting, my naked self,
hung in startling view on the walkway
for all to ogle, make fun of, deride.
Cheeks burned in unaccustomed blush.
Afraid to look full on, I focused sideways,
stealing quick-dissolving glances,
hovered well in back of other strollers
who might be eyeing with the thought of buying.
Wait – someone’s stopped to take a closer look.
OMG, I’ve got to flee. No, stay. See as a fresh eye sees:
a large canvas splayed in triangular shapes running amok
with brooms and brushes – paired in descending size –
aggressive push broom to intimate toothbrush.
Its background industrial green, horizontal pipe running through.
The floor wide-planked, weary, ending before it should.
Paint brush handle mis-attached, another homage to Cezanne.
A scruffy feeling over all: how over-used the hairbrush looks,
how bruised the slyly pointing dish brush handle.
Oops! It’s spilling off the canvas in search of privacy.
Of course it craves privacy: Blatantly sexual, erotic as hell.
Might as well be a poem by Anne Sexton with all its flaunting.
Look how flirtatious the broom shoulder,
how macho the scrub brush postures.
Shoe brush insouciant, curved, lying in wait to be seduced.
Even the zigzag netting of the whisk broom bespeaks action.
This painting is no twisted take on domesticity
swamped by the detritus of daily living.
Male and Female Created He Them its title.
Susan Hecht has a gift with people and with words. Some say we each have only one story that permeates all we write. Susan always inspires me to keep digging.
Being inspired is such an awesome feeling. Almost as pleasing as a time when I have given breath to another.
I think from now on I’ll call you my William Owen.
Willy, Billy, Bill?
Susan Hecht’s, “William Owen” could/should be used in the first session of every writing class nationwide!! Very inspirational and honest, as good writing needs to be.
I enjoyed reading this collection. Each piece is a gem, and they fit together as gems on the front of a necklace.
I truly enjoyed reading the Short Takes this month. Although I loved the Artwork and accompanying stories, I missed reading the usual fiction and non-fiction stories. Still a great issue.