Being Here with All That Matters

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It can take a lifetime to realize your true worth. Sometimes I still feel I am on the verge of determining what, exactly, that is. Most of the time, despite self-doubts that knock around in my head at inconvenient times, I have a handle on it. For starters: I’m a human being who is glad to still be here. Who is hopeful I can carry out at least one kindess a day. And I love to create. But there are those times when I am not so sure that is enough.

If one has siblings who are super achievers, the weighing in can feel a bit aggravating and arduous. I don’t mean in terms of status and prestige, although it is tempting to oversimplify and stop right there. So, for example, calculation of my life income via nearly thirty years being a counselor and in other human services positions is easy and swift. It indicates my social security is nothing to broadcast but, let’s face it, every bit helps. When I called my sister she responded, with frank sympathy, “I’m sorry.” There was a pause on the line because, in fact, I was thrilled that there was more than a few bucks coming my way. I didn’t know quite what to say next. She knows my husband has done well enough; we will get by. Or figure things out as we go, as more and more do in later life. But this is a person who has made savvy and multiple investments. The fact is, I didn’t manage to accumulate what the rest of my siblings did. I trod different paths. I was busy first surviving and then, relieved at last, paying bills readily, helping out kids and enjoying modest vacations a couple times a year. And being grateful. Once you have been poor, you do not forget blessings.

This came to the fore of my thinking before all four of them (plus spouses and my adult kids et al) arrived for my daughter’s wedding. I looked around our apartment, aghast. I was throwing a pre-wedding, large brunch for our daughter and family. I scanned the main rooms and saw the place again as others must. And felt compelled to buy new curtains and exchange the old, dust-expelling vacuum I’d used for eighteen years for a fancy new model. Cleaning took days, wherein I found lots of things I hoped I would. And hoped I would not. And then I found myself trolling the sort of store I usually avoid. It was a place where you drop good money on decorative items. It was introduced to me by another sister and niece who like to shop there to change up their already gorgeous homes. I had no idea it existed until then.

I roamed awhile before I was willing to part with nearly forty-five dollars for a cake stand, small fabric and painted wooden pumpkins for my big dining room table, fake and colorful fall leaves to spread around them and a ceramic candy dish that looked seasonal. Okay, it was another pumpkin-type, but white, with a lid. Rarely do I purchase things that intentionally reflect the season. I bring things home from the woods, or beach sometimes. But I was about to perk things up in my humble home! It felt so foreign. Usually my idea of decorating is buying new books to stack neatly on and around various tables and a desk. And flowers, always bright ones in interesting vases, with some good art and photos on the walls. And frig. Yes, still, at this age. (I also cut out magazine pictures to tape on the laundry room wall. Something to look at as the clothes spin.) But I was willing to venture into a new direction to spruce things up a bit. To feel better about “entertaining”, such as it was.

All this extra fuss for my own family–which has been here several times over the years, of course. It was a special event, true. But I could not escape that familiar, uncomfortable feeling that my siblings got to where I once expected to end up. But never did. And that it mattered, still. Not like it did when I was thirty or forty, no, yet I was left with a niggling of anxiety. Then I bought and arranged the flowers and set them about and felt…more at home. My cozy spot in the world. I excitedly prepared with my daughters and husband, laid the table with a favorite yellow tablecloth and matching and stray pieces of stainless. I lit a white candle in the glass owl candle holder. Around which were the fancy pumpkins and leaves.

There was a time when I was ashamed of what I failed to accomplish. That I wasn’t a professional musician, too–or just a bone fide, high-paid professional with the Italian leather heels and smart suits to prove it. That I hadn’t finished my Bachelor’s degree. I had one and a half more years to go but it never seemed feasible. I was swamped with raising five children under the age of six while my husband advanced his career. He was often gone so I learned quickly to take care of household and children, adapt to one more town after yet another company transfer. I struggled with chronic health issues not yet correctly diagnosed. My friends were the mothers who dropped off their own kids before hurrying off to jobs. I grew up in the sixties and became a mother in the seventies–this was a time to be breaking waves, Doing Something Important! And I, feminst and rebel that I had been before marriage, was now a housewife, raising a bunch of fascinating, mischievous, fussing kids.

So I labored over self-improvement in smaller ways. Tried to bury the disappointment in myself. Found solace in nature, the kids on their own treaure hunts. Still, I developed an alcohol problem after a few too many of this and that to ease me into dreamless sleep or numbed busy-ness. That was not a good learning experience but learn I did, in many hard ways.

I did return to college a few times. One more class, a few more credits. Many more classes and trainings for my eventual paid jobs. But there was usually a more pressing need of our money or my time. As I organized the house or ferried the children to one activity or another I was haunted by my father’s voice from years past: “You’re really not finishing college?”

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But I dreamed. There lurked, still, that fervent desire and visceral need to create something, a book of poetry, a painting, a dance, more music. Even a noticeably better world, yes, please God. Between laundry loads that were completed by one a.m., errands tightly scheduled and child rearing, little stories made their way from mind to paper. I was struck with sudden melodies and lyrics that I configured and sang when the house was empty. And one of the happiest of winters was when I took a correspondence course on writing for children and youth–and got thorough critiques and encouraging feedback. Yet somehow, deep down, the confidence I’d enjoyed as a child and youth did not return with enough force. I tried to stop hungering for artistic pursuits so deeply. To no avail. Making crazy fun art with the kids was a joy, dancing and singing up and down the stairs with them was freeing for us all. But too often it was like I had lost my one great love– despite all the other wonderments in life.

As parents know, it can be quite demanding enough to get food on the table and children safely tucked into bed. Add also: to guide, corral, hug, discipline, instruct, reassure, cheer on, nurse and hold them up with an underlying and undaunted spiritual faith. All this counted to me, every moment. I hadn’t planned on being a mother but when it happened I felt like I’d hit the jackpot with five. Especially since two of the children were little ones my husband had started to raise and the three others had arrived despite my being informed they would never happen. Does anyone need an immediate lesson on altruistic and undying love? With kids as both students and teachers, you must dive in and swim, making certain they’re close by at every turn and dip. Your frenzied focus becomes adoration in no time without your even realizing it. You also discover how much courage can be summoned.

So it went. There are countless untold stories of women–and men–who’ve had dreams that seemed to drop away. Who so gave to their families yet also craved what called them creatively, artistically. Who look into themselves and fear there will be parts of their souls missing sooner or later. That they may even disappear. Tragically.

Well, the truth is: this is nonsense. Such a potential fate seems suitably dramatic when you are younger. Long before you endure the grief of unexpected losses and live through real life nightmares– yet also unearth resources within and without that you never once suspected would be there. The secret answer to the dilemma of “everyday life versus art” is that you just do what matters most, for whatever reason you choose. And it can all become holy. It is in how you see it, become it. I have primarily loved my children–first. It wasn’t hard. Loved life, itself, which sometimes felt harder. But nothing has been left out, not laughter or tears, not designing ways to solve tenacious problems or being surprised by miracles. It remains each day lived authentically that has mattered. This moment-by-moment creative act of becoming a full human being. Taking it all in. The beautiful, boring and unattractive; the sweet, spicey and bitter. And making–or letting–all the unknown or noteworthy things happen.

Who I was became who I am, a person with diverse interests and skills, talents and limits. Not once have I regretted hurtling myself into happy curiosity. Or nurturing a passion for mercy, a belief in kindness. Persistence. Faith in that power of Divine Love even when it seemed the distance between God and myself was so great I had to shout for help. Those, I would have not forgiven myself for failing to claim. It’s certain my life has been marked by failures. Yet what I didn’t learn from well has come to matter much less as time goes by.

Where did this post begin? Oh, our front door kept swinging open. My husband was finishing up the eggs, bacon, sausage. My family brought top-notch scones, pastries, muffins–of course. I got coffee brewed. Orange juice filled my mother’s old, pretty pitcher. The place vibrated with chatter and laughter; there were hands extended, chairs added to make the circle bigger.

As they arrived, I completely forgot most of them are better educated (well, my children mostly are, too), have made more money, have owned more real estate, have travelled the world many times between them and, thus, speak more languages (in more ways than one). My siblings and I may not have so much in common besides blood ties: large, blue or softly hazel eyes and musical ability. I guess I should include a mulish stamina despite physical and other challenges. And a manner of speaking that reflects our upbringing, growing up within a culture of, well, culture–it can seem rather too civilized, perhaps. And then there is how we take over conversations, insinuating there is a fascinating story unfolding (often true). How we can shrug off everyday ridiculousness. And, come to think of it, a concern for the well being of others. But our defects of character? Don’t tempt me. Loyalty forbids I divulge too many secrets tonight. For that, there is fiction to write!

It looks like we are more like family than not. You can see how I love them, bottom line, even after all that has changed, even distanced us. They are valuable and deeply valued. And so am I.

So we hugged, gabbed and ate our fill and the daughter about to be married felt great that her extended family came from afar to celebrate with us. Me, too. Thank You, Lord, for such good moments and more to come.

 

 

Processional: I walked my daughter to the altar and her groom; her father played guitar as she walked.

Processional: I walked my daughter to the altar and her groom; her father played guitar as we walked.

Posted in Creative non-fiction, memoir, Personal essay, prose, Uncategorized, WPLongform | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Train En Route to Halloween

Photo by Michael Putnam

Photo by Michael Putnam

Five days before Halloween I got on the train at Eighteenth Street station, arms full of packages. My feet were relieved as I sat two seats in front of him without a thought. There didn’t seem to be anything to notice about him. He was asleep. I, too, felt bone tired.

It had been a day of spending money for Lauren, her fortieth birthday mega-spree, but she encouraged me to shop as well, so I said, “Why not? A little only. For old times’ sake.” We played this out on a smaller scale each year during her birthday week. But that day Lauren refused to let me pay. It was humiliating at first–who could not pay for a pair of leggings and a comfortable sweater? I was more willing to accept her generosity after I bought our usual Irish coffees, accomanied this time by Dutch apple pie.

I tucked her into a cab before scrambling for the train. She went her way; I went mine. I can’t recall a time when we last visited each other’s homes. Well, two years ago, during holiday season we carolled with the almost-defunct book club where we’d met. We started the revelry at her place. I’d stood in front of her new house, utterly diminished. It was so big it ate up the sky, which you normally could see out there. Afterwards I had trouble savoring cookies and coffee we were served. I was too busy gaping at the glittering, tasteful decorations. Tamping down envy that hadn’t netted me in a while.

When we first met, things were not just different. They were entirely another chapter from a story that is lost to me now. I had a roomy, renovated two-story brick townhouse and a husband and twin daughters soon to attend college. I worked because I wanted to. Yet despite my change in circumstance, Lauren remained a good friend, close, even, if you count bi-weekly phone calls a sign of valued friendship. I tend to do so, anymore. That line of communication has been a tether to what was once a good life, what is still decent and safe. But, too, it’s often felt as if we were allowing quick glimpses into each other’s lives. Without risking any significant intimacy, any surprises. Or damage. There had been so much before and gradually Lauren came to prefer things without unseemliness. I guess I provided her with more rough edges than anyone might appreciate.

I piled the packages onto the empty seat beside me. The train car was only a third full. Distracting sounds frayed me further: metal wheels on tracks, a man coughing and repeatedly blowing his nose in the back, three children shrieking and laughing as their mother read a newspaper and various muffled conversations between companions scattered about. I pivoted in my seat, hoping to throw a warning glance at the rowdy kids but they were blithely unaware.

Behind me, the sleeping man I had first laid eyes on stirred. I couldn’t see his eyes. His gentlemanly hat was atop a strong-boned and lightly five-o’clock-whiskered face. He had been snoring until then. He raised his shoulders and repositioned himself, hand rubbing his chin. It was then a ring on his finger winked at me. I leaned over the seat to see it better.

It appeared to be white gold or platinum, unlikely sterling silver but I couldn’t be sure even though I knew something of fine jewelry. The simple band was mounted with a respectable diamond. Two small rubies on either side. The ring shone fiercely, dramatic in the gravelly afternoon light.

I whipped back around, fingers pressed against my mouth. My head felt like it had once on a speed boat, inundated with dizziness. I braced myself, both hands grasping the edge of the seat.

It had been a long time, yes, nearly seven years, but one cannot forget such things. The ring I had just observed was just like Rolf’s ring. The one never recovered, along with contents of two jewelry boxes, buffet drawers, china cabinet, a small safe and so on. The list was almost obscene to contemplate, yet inconsequential when compared to the far, far graver costs.

But that one piece… it was a ring we had bought together to mark our tenth wedding anniversary. Not ostentatious, but commanding attention. He had joked about it.

“I need a far better job title to match this signal of success! But it’s our marriage we celebrate and, anyway, it covers our fifteenth, too. I think rubies are due for that, so two-for-one.” He laughed, a sound that brought me contentment.

“How do you know such things? It’s alright–we’ll come up with another great idea. Maybe ruby-colored slippers?”

“That’s a picture, our fancy feet stretched out by a fire!’ He sighed. “By then maybe we’ll have a down payment on a small lake house…you always wanted that…” he’d said and kissed me well and fully, like a promise. The jeweler turned away to afford us privacy.

As the train gained speed I touched my neck, then bit back tears. The diamond necklace he gave me was elegant, delicate, with two small tear-shaped gems on each length of white gold leading to the matching, larger stone that nestled below the base of my throat. It was so beautiful that Grace, my barely older twin, suggested I wear it across my forehead when we went to the symphony or opera, like someone far more daring. Like an important woman would, she added, elbowing me.

I did not, though I tried it once when in my room preparing for a night out with friends a couple of years later. I liked to look at it even if I didn’t wear it. In the mirror I observed a pleasant, plain wife of the department head of Interdependent Anthropological Studies place it just so on the high forehead. It looked absurd at first, then the romance of it grew on me. Rolf was emerging from his shower with towel around his waist. He walked over and put damp hands on my chilly shoulders, their radiant heat warming me. Making me smile. He grinned at the woman, lucky me, in the mirror. I thought randomly: “Sweet skin and diamonds, love and lust.”

I suddenly recalled all this as if it was that night again. My heart threatened to usurp my breath. Just as it had the night of the burglary. That ending of everything as I knew it to be.

Seven years ago I was chatting on the phone when we arrived home, first with Estelle then Grace at NYU, when he yelled at me from the second floor railing.

“Anne! Call police!”

I lowered the phone as the hair on my arms rose up. “What?”

“Our house–our things–someone has broken in!”

In panic I headed to him, passed the dining room, took in my home’s disfigurment, such disarray. I never knew what it meant to say one’s blood ran cold but every bit of the glow of a happy evening–no, life–left me, then my insides were ice, my mind immobilized until Rolf swore from the blind end of the hallway, yelled at me again, his voice thundering down on me.

“Leave now, Anne! Leave! Go outside–call 911!”

His face was the color of the ivory walls, his thick hair still sleek, his deep-set eyes dark with outrage and fear. He pointed to the door we had just entered; I ran down the stairway I had just ascended. Opened it. Turned to see Rolf’s trousered leg and large foot disappear down the shadowy hallway. I wanted to race up and grab him, drag him down the stairs with me but felt disoriented. Nauseous and strange, as if I wasn’t really there, as if I was wearing someone else’s body. I heard something, a rush of jumbled sounds–hands and feet scrambling? something–our possessions?–being dragged along the wall?–and yet obeyed my husband and called for help.

The sky let loose rain hard as stones. I stood there in my silky dress coat and high heels. Told the dispatcher all in ten words or less. And through the cold veil of wet I heard far worse, red-hot pops of sound, small enough to be softened by rainfall but big enough to invade my ears and attach themselves to my insides.

I could not breathe. Move. I tried to see through darkness and downpour but–nothing. It was quieter now. Except for me.

“Rolf!” I screamed, throat torn by the sound of his name “Rolf! Rolf Jacob Eberling! Rolf, my love, my love!”

Can a person drown in tears, inside rain? I vacated my known life as rain sliced the air and me in ten directions.

Others shouting then. Sirens and wild lights. Sitting on the sidewalk with head to lap, hands over ears, rocking, rocking. Hands grabbing.

Eventually he came out to me in the flesh. Bleeding into the watery world. On a gurney. But his spirit had been ransacked. Emptied of his essence. I was robbed of him. It was as if I’d died, too, and all this time I had been crawling back to the land of the living. Surveying the world from a corner of the blanket of grief. Because my daughters asked itof me. Begged.

Now here I sat on the seat on a workaday train, weeping. No one noticed when I got up and bent over the sleeping man. He looked so ordinary in his nice woolen coat and hat. A rumpled middle-class businessman on his way home.

I pummeled his meaty shoulder and his head jerked back, knocking his hat off. He grabbed my wrists.

“Lady, what are you doing?”

“Take it off! Take off Rolf’s ring!”

He unfolded himself, a foot taller than I, stopped me at arm’s length. He kept me there with one broad hand clamped on my rain coat.

“What? What ring do you mean now?”

He held up his hand and examined the terrible thing on his finger. The same finger that should have had a ring on it when Rolf was wheeled away from me into oblivion.

“This ring? My ruby and diamond ring? Right!” He frowned at me and shook his head, then reached into the aisle and grabbed his rolling hat. When he was righted he blinked. “You’re not well, lady. Sit down. Now.”

I planted myself on the seat across from him and he sat with forearms resting on his legs, tense, at the ready should I wale away at him again. The train shifted from one track to another. I could see that ring gleam in flickering overhead lights. I held his gaze even though I shook. His eyes were grey, heavy-lidded, skittish then still. I slowed my breathing and leaned forward. Mimicked his stance.

“Mister, tell me where you got that ring. I need to know!”

He cupped his ringed hand with the other. “Why do you ask?”

“Someone lost one just like it–” my throat wanted to close but I kept on, stronger–“someone who lost his life over that ring…our whole life lost…”

I watched him closely. His face shuttered, or so it seemed to me, as he lowered his head.

“Uh, sorry, ma’am.”

He looked up again. His eyes seemed wrong, calm but harder at the same time. I couldn’t see beyond black pupils but I noted uneven teeth and a gold crown inside his half-open mouth. Tried to memorize him. Dark blond hair. Torso solid, rectangular against the seat, alert for defensive action even as he appeared at ease. This man on a train was hit by a crazed woman who ranted and accused him. Yet he was unperturbed. We swayed as the train slowed and rounded a corner.

“How did you get it? Did you dare take it off him? Did you shoot him? Kill him in fact because he caught you? Your very incompetence brought my husband death!”

My voice had somehow deepened and strengthened, an anvil held aloft in the car. I got to my feet and stood above him for a moment, ready to call for help, fists ready, too. I was inhabited by something I should not let loose. People looked at me now, alarmed or at least annoyed. The man rose, straightened his coat, the ring sparking at me.

“You’re very upset, that’s the truth. But I don’t know what you’re talking about, lady. I got it at a pawn shop downtown. Years ago.” He rubbed his forehead then snugged his hat closer, forefinger fingers ficking its rim, a period to his statement.

Brakes ground against wheels. We fell forward a half-inch. I knew my stop was coming up. Perspiration broke over my forehead, chest, back. The man slipped past me, lithe and quiet, as if he didn’t want to leave any trace of himself. I followed after but others got up and clogged the aisle. As if they all lived in my part of the city, had to leave. Maybe they were hiding him! But no, they were likely trying to escape me.

The train came to a halt. I pushed my way out, got my cell phone, pressed Lauren’s “favorite contacts” number. I could see the back of the ring bearer’s head.

That thief, that murderer! No escaping me again. I would finish it for Rolf.

Did I say these things aloud? Everyone looked at me as we clamored off the train. They scattered into the dusk, left me to my own devices. I searched the platform and held the phone to my ear.

“Anne? Is that you? Hello? Anne, are you okay?”

I spotted him. On the other side. An attractive woman in black boots, long bright hair, an arm about his waist. He spoke to, then kissed her. She glanced toward me, shook her lioness head. I began to cry and hung up on Lauren as I realized my bags of fine clothing and accessories were still on the train. Goods for someone else. How that disturbed me in the midst of it. I stumbled toward the walkway as the train sounded its warning, started to move.

Then I imprinted on every memory cell exactly how he looked, stood, walked, talked. And the woman, his cohort. In case I got the nerve to call the police. Made a report of a stranger with a ring….how foolish. The illusory, maddening world threatened to upend me once more. I breathed with practiced precision, stood up straight.

And then, slowly, just so, the stranger turned and peered back at me, delivered to me his unwavering, laser-sharp stare, and he held up a hand, the one with the rubies-and-diamond-studded ring. He gave it a cheery, pageant-style wave that sent lightning chills crashing up my spine then down to my furious, forlorn core.

Posted in fiction, prose, short fiction, short stories, suspense stories, WPLongform | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Wine/Beer/Bride/Groom/Me

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Maybe this shouldn’t be the opening paragraph about a unique and blessed October wedding in the forest that I helped bring forth. But there it is, a vivid memory of my laundry room. It was a curious moment: seeing something so utterly out-of-place, perhaps even anathema, in one’s home. I stood before my cramped laundry room and stared. Stacks of six-packs beside groupings of red and white (and pink? —I had never seen that) wines had overtaken the floor. I almost took a picture of the bizarre arrangement of alcohol hogging space where laundry often waits to be transformed. And then laughed at the ridiculous sight. Thank goodness I didn’t need to pay for it. Our guests would have good choices to accompany the Cuban buffet-style food. I would soon sip limonada and be at ease. Happier than I imagined. Certainly alcohol would not have added one worthwhile thing.

Visiting family members were also startled and amused. That would be the only time anyone would see alcohol stored in my home. I am not a drinker; neither is my husband. We don’t keep it about just in case someone else would like a beer. I have been in recovery so long that I’ve stopped thinking about it every day and can barely recall my last drink. Some people might say that is not necessarily a good sign. I find it evidence that of a life of well-being that fits me like a glove, molded around my understanding and acceptance of chemical substances’ power and my sturdy faith in God, kept in focus by engagement in creative activities and an active lifestyle– what long ago seemed too elusive.

This past week-end, a week after the wedding, we hiked two different trails–one along the Columbia River through marshland meadows, and one through the forest. I could have continued longer and farther except for muddy, slippery paths. Peace first played hopscotch with me, then gradually pervaded every step. Later on I wrote poetry. I had to watch a decidedly “soapy” tv show. I read Psalms and offered my prayers heavenward. It was all part of the necessary recuperation time following the wedding. I was more tired than I had been since being kept awake all night by babies.

But the store of mini-bar staples in the laundry room was only a tiny slice of what was to become an epic time to embrace, capture in memory, and later anlayze. The wedding of my youngest, A., came to be on a misty Sunday afternoon despite gently (did I write that?–yes, it was a tender fraying) frayed nerves. And then it was done. How is it that momentous occasions can be planned into wee hours of the night for months and then be happening and then finished so quickly? Adrenalin, wonderment, even mishaps all carried me forth as if I was under a spell.

Marc and I raised five children. Each shared tasks as we neared deadlines. There were one hundred plum napkins to be folded. There were purple and teal balloons to acquire, twenty bags of ice to heft and fifteen floral (delphinium and limonium with ferns) arrangements to be set atop tables. One helped me sort a ton of candy and fill bowls as part of favors. Another gathered beautiful stones and purple velvety bags for guests to fill with their choices. Another sister typed and printed descriptions for each and the seating list. A.’s only brother offered to help with transportation despite being a groomsman as well. And there was the bride’s and groom’s cake to create and bake. A.’s sister, a baker extraordinaire from Virginia, had offered to make it: nine layers of rainbow hues. It took a complicated day to create and was lovely to behold.

I double-checked my notebook jammed with directives, contacts and orders. I had been confident everything was moving along, yet there seemed to be ten last things to address. Teal as well as white linens: tick. Were all woodsy decorations together in one bag to take to the reception site? Tick. The maps in case someone was lost getting to or leaving this wedding in the woods: tick. Cheese and meats and crackers and drinks for five bridemaids and make up artist who would be here on day of wedding: tick. Did anyone get the giant coffee creamer still needed? And my camera would peter out if I didn’t plug it in once again.

But who had time or inclination to take pictures? Ah yes, my brother and sister-in-law, who happen to be award-winning photographers. What good fortune that they were present the whole week-end. Have I mentioned I have four older siblings? They were here, along with spouses, from a family Saturday brunch we put on to the “Day Of”. We chattered away and noted the weather map with relief: no rain forecast Sunday after an earlier drizzle. The aftermath of a typhoon had seemingly been banished.

Three bridesmaids were women I have known since their youths, now career women, wives and mothers, still quirky and bright. Two more were A.’s older sisters, one who flew in from New York, one who resides in our city. They all fluttered around my daughter like human butterflies, emanating warmth and kindness. Buttoned her into her vintage ivory, lace-adorned dress, spoke in breathless tones, laughed with her. Fussed over her (my mother’s) sparkling jewelry. Snapped pictures of her gold brocade shoes.

And then the ride to the Wedding Meadow. I drove. My oldest daughter sat beside me. The bride rode in the back, her satiny skirts spread out across the seat to keep it wrinkle-free. We chatted a little but we were mostly lost in our thoughts, the chief one on my mind being that we would be there on time as I zigzagged across busy lanes. We were nearly there with minutes to spare–until we were halfway down the one lane service road that led to the meadow. Coming toward us was a huge truck, only it was trying to back out.

It was laboring but making few gains. A helper jumped out of the truck and frantically tried to direct the driver away from flourishing forest vegetation. It was the party supply truck, and though it had delivered the chairs in time the driver seemed unable to get out of the way and let us by. Our tight schedule…foiled by a truck that was too big for the dead-end road!

We might have wept with frustration. But did not. It struck me more like a medium, one-alarm emergency.

“Can you believe it? Everything has worked out perfectly until this. Too weird!” That was me.

“Who would have thought someone would attempt to drive a semi back here?” That was A.’s oldest sister.

“Well, if this is the worst thing that happens, not so bad, I guess.” This was A.

“Well, he’s actually backing up more.”

“Mom, put it in gear!”

The next ten minutes I tried to navigate a curvy, gravel one-lane road in reverse. I kept turning a little loosely, slipping off the actual road (trying not to worry about a possibly slippery slope) and having to wildly correct. I was getting us to safety and getting us to that wedding. Minute by minute, inch by inch, we moved backwards to the main road.

“I can’t even see where to pull over!”

“Keep driving, the truck is coming! Oh, wait, now there’s a car coming the other way…”

“Mom, keep going–stop, just pull off there!”

“Turn around, mom, just get us there now…”

The semi lumbered off without so much of a wave from the driver. I felt stunned by the foolishness, the ordinariness of the mishap. I put the car in drive. Headed back down the road, to the Wedding Meadow. I snickered a little despite my concern. Of all things…a truck. But we were fifteen minutes late. My other daughter hopped out to alert the guests that the ceremony would soon begin.

The bridesmaids, groomsmen and groom arm-in-arm with his mother made their way to the presiding Douglas fir which sheltered the minister. Ring bearer, my grandson, and flower girls prepared the way. Sage was burned and a brass bell was sounded by my granddaughter: one vibrant note, a pause, another ring, pause, a ring, making a circle around all celebrants. From the distance travelled guitar music, played by her father. I walked A. down the winding, piney trail where ferns reached out and branches swayed over us. Toward the meadow where D., families and friends awaited. The air was misty, cool. Sunlight and shadow played in branches, a breeze shifted tree tops. A. turned her face toward mine. She smiled a mysterious smile, eyes lit with a love which arose from deep within and belonged to her and D.. Then we emerged from the woods and stepped onto the path, followed the gentle terrain down to the waiting group. I kissed her cheeks, hugged her close, stepped back. Then A., effervescent enchantress, turned to D., good-humored, debonair–best friends touched by romance. Hearts held fast with vows and hands with ribbon soon were set free to embrace the adventure together.

 

Florals from wedding reception

Florals from wedding reception

Posted in memoir, non-fiction, Personal essay, prose, Uncategorized, WPLongform | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

White Room, Black Shoe

Photo by Guy Bourdin

Photo by Guy Bourdin

It is a searing October, one that you wait for, yet are still surprised by when it flares in the quiet of morning. From the bed, we can see in the distance a few orange and ruby leaves fall against a blue sky. Here the buildings are densely packed and light struggles to wend its way through shadow. I roll out of bed, disturbing Ian in the process. Padding across the hallway, I half-expect her to be there, packing the last few things that had been strewn around her sleeping bag. The furniture was taken the night before. She only stayed overnight because another friend nearby was picking her up. Later she had a plane to catch.

The bedroom holds a cloying dampness that escaped her foggy bathroom. She might have raised the window sash and dried things out. Encouraged the outdoors to inhabit the new emptiness. But she isn’t one to adore nature’s wiles. A difference between the two of us. She only tolerates city offerings, whereas I am a glutton for both.

Pale. A silent, pale room. Not like her overreaching life. That is what I think as the room stares back. Whiteness overwhelms me, its sheer blankness, how it pulses nothing in my direction, a clean slate for someone else’s urgent imagination. Not mine. I only see her still, as she was a week ago, narrow bed pressed against a corner farthest from the window, her powerful, long legs draped across the sheets as she leaned against a large pillow. She said the color white soothed her, kept things simpler and the mind freer. There was one picture on the wall: she was wearing an ivory dress, playing in the expanse of green grass behind her childhood home. He mother reclined in a chaise lounge by the pool; her father sits beside her in a wooden chair that seems to have been moved from the house. It was all the vivid colors she needed there, she said: green and blue-green. Her parents actually wore greys and taupes. Blended in with the greyish background. It was a family preference, a quietness of color, of style. Sotto voce. Even the impressive stone house was pallid. She loved that picture; it was the last taken with them, she told me, before she left home. Before her growing renown distanced them.

On second thought, her sateen pillow had tiny rosebuds on it. She liked the idea of roses. When once we got a bouquet and placed it on the dining room table she caressed them, then pinched her nose with thumb and forefinger. They were reminiscent of her mother’s failed garden.

“They were dreary, their heads drooping, petals ruined. Mother cut them off without a thought, planted things that required little care. Yes, she was thoughtless–I so loved them once.”

Her recalled words jar me. I know she spoke of roses as if she was speaking of her youth. Speaking of her parents. They wanted her to be a lawyer or surgeon, like her aunt or father. She was their only child but she danced, anyway. Could not do otherwise.

I hear Ian as he rouses in bed, then pads up behind me.

“Well done.”

I can feel his smile. He means she has left just a small trace of herself. He means she has done what was promised: all but disappeared. I think he worried last night that she might change her mind, hang on to the door frame as he pushed her out.

How little he knows her, her strength. So unlike him.

Ian’s eyes meet mine, revealing tentative relief. He places his hand on my cheek, kisses me though I can barely feel his lips. My eyes are open. He is trying to not make any ripples, to keep the morning calm. And also trying to ferret out my love for him without my noticing. This, despite the words that rattled the walls a week before.

I stare at her shoe and turn to him. He shrugs, hands held up, then moves toward the kitchen. He will make omelets with potato and onion and bell pepper. The coffee will be freshly pressed and poured into small china cups resting on saucers. It was how I liked it once, before last week. Now the china we found at the antique store begs to be chipped, even thrown.

The shoe looks dangerous on the floor of the white room. I know it well. Today it assumes the presence of a weapon, a benign object that really is an explosive. It is strange it fell from her bag and she didn’t pick it up. It’s one of a pair I admired; she wore them with black slacks and velvet jacket lined with Chartreuse silk, a favorite color to wear recently, a color I chose for her. Monochromes are becoming less prominent. I wonder how she, a dancer, could neglect it, even in a terrible hurry to get to another city, another ballet company audition. The far-flung stages. A virtuosic life.

It was not unexpected, what happened. Only a matter of time, I thought from the start. Ian: beautiful, strong, lean and graceful despite an embarrassing virility. And terribly well-mannered. People love or hate him easily. And he feels he can pick and choose.

Ian knew her weeks before I did. He dances–danced–in the  same company. She needed a room after her last boyfriend grew tired of her long hours rehearsing and performing and a few eccentricities, she said. We had an extra for six months before our long-term roommate returned from Italy. She moved in and made it hers immediately until last week, when she unmade it, left us, then returned to pack two days ago. The bedroom was occupied by her presence for five months and one day.

“She had to leave, anyway, because Lee soon comes back,” he reminded me yesterday. “She’ll bounce right back in Germany. We’ll be better than ever.”

I was brushing my hair with hard strokes, dislodging every snag. He kissed my neck as I swallowed tears.

She: Marisa. Marisa Tellis-Delgado. My finest of friends. Extraordinary principal ballet dancer.

Ian is not as gifted but his charisma makes up for it. For now. I don’t dance, did once. Yes, for eight years. I do not miss it. But Marissa and Ian are two who cannot live without it. I, on the other hand, can live without almost anything. I see what such obsession does to people whose undying passion is their very lifeblood as well as their work. It insinuates itself into their innards, becomes their breath of life. The past, present and future. There are more options than that, and I need choices to make my living whatever I want it to be one day to the next. I love pastry-making and jewelry design, apple trees on the half-acre we maintain outside the city and riding horses in the woods. I need less activities, perhaps. More friends.

But even when he fails me, I stay with only Ian.

Yet what would you do if you connected to someone and that someone cared in return and it was all you ever hoped for in true friendship–until your husband decides otherwise? It was a revelation, becoming friends with this woman. But he said it was too much. I needed to spend more time with him but what he meant was less time and energy with her. His insatiable hunger for attention and appreciation! His relationships must support his needs, first and last.

Ian dances his life. He is selfish with it. I have to live mine. And I give it away. Maybe too often.

So he drove a wedge between us. It didn’t take long. He placed himself where he should not have been.

“Marisa and I had lunch together,” he said when it started. “We suddenly realized how much we have in common.”

“Suddenly? Hasn’t she been living in our flat for months? She’s quiet but not that quiet. Why the lunch talks now?”

He yawned as if bored with the topic yet it was necessary to report. “I don’t talk about much, just interests like dance and music. You. We work together. I don’t want to interfere. She likes me, not just you. I can have friends as well.”

“I hope so. What do you mean by ‘interfere’?”

“Your … devotion to her.”

I was polishing a silver ring I had just finished. It shone in my hands.

“You mean, our friendship? You mean, that I have found someone I enjoy talking with and sharing my time with while you devote yourself primarily to dance?” I shook my head in disgust. “Ian, I have made a close woman friend at last. Don’t ruin this.”

“Marissa is important out there in the dance world. Charismatic, smart, incredibly talented. Everyone adores her, not just you.”

I saw him make a moue with his mouth, like a little child.

“Oh, stop. Marissa makes time for me for reasons you don’t understand. It’s like we’re sisters at heart…sympatico. You have time for you.”

He mentioned the next day he met her for lunch again. Marisa said nothing of it to me. Sometimes she and I walked together early in the morning or met after rehearsal for tea. We might stay up after dinner once or twice a week, talking for hours in her room or the living room if Ian could stand it. Two weeks passed, then a month, but I didn’t realize what was happening until Marisa finally mentioned it.

“I keep running into Ian at the dance studio but also Beauford’s Restaurant. He practically waylays me even when I’m with someone else. I suggested we see enough of one another at work and here. But he is either pursuing me or he thinks we’re such good friends.” She put her hand on my wrist, shook it a little, gave it a squeeze. “Like you and I are. Imagine! I don’t even connect to him unless we are dancing. You know how that goes. And he talks about you, little gripes. I’m sorry, but can you suggest he be less relentless?”

I told him I knew he was bothering her and to back off. Marisa was not only important to me. She was, after all, a tenant.

“Don’t run her off as you have others.”

“I just meant to be friendly. And don’t rehash what’s done and over,” he hissed and turned on the television.

He has issues with people sharing our space but he must have this expensive flat. Must have his way. Must have me to himself. I trust him despite his beauty because I know his secret, that he is afraid he is no one valuable. Jealousy lurks in his blood, a sickness waiting.

The last night we three were together he spoke up as he served coffee.

“So, Marisa, I think we should address things.”

She placed her willowy arm along the back of the sofa. “What things?’

Ian sat between us on the easy chair. I was in the rocker, rocking, the green cashmere throw draped over my legs, thinking about lighting a fire in the fireplace. I stopped moving and braced myself.

“You know…whatever you want to call it, how you’ve gathered up both of us, how you seem to require us each to share more with you than we’d like. To follow you around like lovelorn puppies, like groupies.”

“Speak only for yourself, Ian,” I said, trying to control myself. “You are being ridiculous and rude.”

“I’ll say what I observe to be true.”

He shot me his offended look and turned back to her. She seemed bemused, as if she couldn’t interpret his language. He continued.

“Marisa, you’re greedy. Isn’t it enough that you’re a star? You can’t have my wife, too!”

Marisa’s jaw dropped. Her amber eyes glimmered in lamp light, her dark wavy hair swayed.

“Ian, that’s absurd. You think I’m in love with her, or both of you? Or just you because you’re so dashing, wonderful? What an ignorant idea. I cannot get rid of you, my friend. I dance with you and see you here and you try to get me to spend more time with you…you seek me. I do not seek you.”

She gazed at me, eyelids heavy with misery, then back at him. A deep breath was inhaled and released.

“You are utterly mistaken. I care so much for Helena. She’s honest, frank even, yet so kind. She’s smart and savvy and likes to laugh. At silly things! How often do we find that in our mad, competitive world? It is a relief to have Helena in my life–someone who understands dance but is not swallowed by it. Who is good to me for my own sake! Not for what I accomplish. Not how much money I can bring in. Not how I can make someone look better on stage. She just knows me, like that! ” She snapped her fingers sharply. “I would choose her over ten of you. And I suggest you examine your motives.”

Marisa stood up, every muscle moving in perfect alignment. A queen unafraid. She put hands on her hips. “You haven’t a clue to your unhappiness. You can’t bear to share her? Well, of course not. She’s a treasure! While you, Ian, are a fool. And, I might add, a bore.”

Marisa left. After a few seconds I followed. Ian was immobilized by her steady rush of words, each aimed with precision at his ego. But he called out, anyway.

“You don’t belong here! Get. Out. Helena, please stay here!”

I wanted to yell back at him, but nothing left my lips.

So now, this morning, the room is cleared out, stripped of Marissa’s quietly burning presence, left like a bone to bake in the last flame of October. I go back and pick up the shoe from the polished wood floor. I take off one of mine and put hers on. It fits as it first fit. I walk out her room, past Ian in the kitchen where he is whistling and cooking. I keep walking, out the front door. I want things to go on as before but I don’t think they can. Love of a partner may be less crucial than that of a friend. It depends on who loves best.

Still, right now it’s just Marisa’s shoe on one foot and my old one on another. She is sitting at the Headliner Cafe with scones and coffee. We’ll talk about something good before she heads to Germany and is dogged by fame. We will plan visits, promise “for always”. I may be gifted her other shoe. But the opulent glow of that room has already begun to dim.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in fiction, prose, short fiction, short stories, Uncategorized, WPLongform | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Making My Way Upstream

flyingfish

I am no domestic goddess. I was all but shooed away from the kitchen as a child and youth as my mother reminded me that I needed to study or practice my cello or voice lessons, work on figures for ice skating, or whatever else was crucial to learn and do that moment. My parents were forward-looking people in a time when most were solidifying traditional roles. They wanted all their children to have their minds broadened, seek excellent educations. Mave a few good waves intellectually or creatively. I didn’t complain. On the contrary, I felt sprung from the brig.

It’s not that I didn’t enjoy the inviting ambience of kitchens. Few things were as reassuring as watching my mother create a fresh apple pie. I didn’t mind helping a little–I could swiftly peel apples and potatoes, occasionally in one long peel, thanks to her tutoring. But other than making salads, toast and poached eggs (the egg poacher promised me easy success), chocolate cookies and grilled cheese sandwiches with tomato soup, thanks to Campbell’s–well, my repertoire was severely limited but it didn’t impact me. (That was later, after marriage to a man whose mother ran her own catering business.) The best I could do some days was open a jar of home canned pears or peaches and sprinkle cinnamon with a dash of wheat germ on top for garnish. This was my response to being asked to make a fruit dish. Voila–nutritious sweetness, about the extent of my culinary aspirations.

I was good at being a hostess, however. I could refill glasses and coffee cups with elan. I could offer silverplated or cut glass bowls full of nuts and mints, platters of shining strawberries or lace-delicate cookies; I could sneak away an emptied dish and replace it with something new. I had no idea this was what waitresses did for money. It was just what children did when told. I was trained in niceties as well as the art of interested, fairly intelligent conversation. I didn’t have any argument with this. I liked to listen to and examine our guests. They often were musicians with fascinating tidbits to share. And a palpable tranquility is evoked when one behaves in a civilized way. Manners are still valuable to me, seemingly verging on extinction if many street and sidewalk behaviors are any indication. They may seem superficial to some, but if you practice long enough you will daily begin to feel more benevolent toward the general populace. And much more patient with those you’d prefer to ignore.

But while engaging in conversation or completing my small kitchen task, I was longing to climb our sheltering maple, get comfy in a crook of the tree and write another play for neighborhood kids. Yours truly snagging the starring role, of course. I wanted to sing the song wending its way through my brain or finish a poem I had begun the previous evening. And there was that montage I had begun with cut out pictures of a South American jungle, and a paddlewheel boat gliding down the Mississippi, plus that chic woman–Jean Shrimpton, a famous model, or was it Verushka, my favorite?–dashing across the street in London, a Pucci scarf dangling from her fingers. The scattered words I spelled out in different types: DO WHATEVER COMES TO YOU NOW. Or some such thing that found its way into my pile of clippings and I found clever or ironic.

As a child and youth I gave over to dreaming regularly. And today, as ever, when that creative impulse comes over me I’ve often felt as if in a trance. I just need to let things happen, be available to follow the muse. Right then. To do otherwise can feel as if I am a creature out of its natural habitat, an awkward, flopping fish trying to find its way upstream when what it wants to do is leap the tantalizing bank and fly. Or play a rousing Irish jig at a corner cafe before some sharp, hat-wearing guy and a gum-snapping brunette come in and grab said fish to fry up for a meal. Oh, gosh…apologies, I got caught up in the fish flying scene and my proclivities. What rescue does the next paragraph have to offer?

Well, back to the post at hand. The fish can carry on alone a bit.

There is always, in this adult life, work and obligations, and with those may also come the privilege to attend to creative work. To play but play whole heartedly. Thoroughness was the way. I understood that early on. It takes discipline to complete anything and to do it well, more of the same. It needs to be being done in a timely manner, too. “Every thing has its season”, I read and heard.

So that is what I have told myself as I have wrapped up the wedding plans. There has been so much to plan, re-check, alter, research, find a Plan B (or C) in the event Plan A falls flat. To complete the whole, the small details must be aligned and made to fit. The goal is a good wedding. Not an expert one, not one that the society pages review, thank goodness. But a wedding that will bring together families and friends and leave indelible contentment and laughter in the hearts of my daughter and her fiance.

Okay, but when do I get to write?

Every word that has gone into these posts the last five or six weeks has come at the cost of something else. Right now I should be cleaning the bedrooms. Or perhaps storing some of those mountains of books that are lined up against the electric heat board (in case it has to be turned on, or they get in the way of someone’s feet). I have more laundry to do. (Don’t we all?)

But I want to write. I long to write. Always.

It’s not that I have life-altering insights that others haven’t already noted a few times over. The feel and shape and sound of words entice me, bedazzle me, hold me up and free me. They are a currency I use to garner beauty and wonderment. They are what keep me afloat when everything has sprung a leak. Words can be the most attentive companions when other ones have somehow disappeared. They are the live wires that transfer–sometimes seem to translate–mythic ideas or fresh poetry, prayers I am given or tall tales from other realms to me, a writer. As an avid dictionary reader, I can say I have never met a word I have not fallen for, even when it turns out to be the wrong one.

So I am giving myself a few moments today. I know after tonight this place will be resounding not with words placed upon a page but those with life that is pulsing, soothing, words fully inflected issuing from the unique voices of my family members. Oh, it will be a cacaphonious symphony of sound and meaning. May we all enjoy such times.

Yes, I am about to put on my “hostess apron” and answer the doorbell many times. Greet adult kids at airports. Put out coffee and tea, scones or a pot of stew, all the necessary accoutrements. I am set to direct the logistics like a traffic conductor, whistle in hand. And I even bought a new teatowel and kitchen rug. I checked to make sure the best tablecloths are stain-free. I am hoping my husband will still be willing to cook most everything. I am truly not talented at this  but “act as if” because I like gatherings. But I can and will wrap my arms around each person. I can welcome them, smell autumn on their shoulders, or saltiness of tears (that wedding…), arcane and memorable scents of all as they sidle up and say something funny or good in my ear. I will be intensely present because I care to be here, and don’t want to miss one minute. Even if there are mishaps or difficult moments. It is the multi-texture of life, what is in between, under and over each weave that I seek to know and file away. It’s love.

The family members and friends all intrigue and inspire me. They are funny, daring, bright, full of foibles that can drive us all crazy, with hearts that beat in strong, diverse ways. I am going to dive in and write of them and the events. Infant poems are just there on the edge of thinking and dreaming, whispering secrets, unfurling colors, shapes, feelings. A story alights briefly, then floats, wings hovering, its energies infusing me with ideas. I will not forget; I will keep it all in the waiting place inside and finish my present work. I tend to believe the story itslef knows I will put down the tea kettle and pick up the pen again.

 

(Note: Due to the impending nuptials of aforementioned cherished daughter, I will not be posting again until later next week.)

 

Posted in creative nonfiction, memoir, Personal essay, prose, Uncategorized, WPLongform | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment