Summer Trips: the Kelly Girls

 

rural-road

Most of us can recall a place and time when family came together for catching up, sharing tables laden with food, strengthening the ties of blood. It likely has made a tangible difference in your growing up. The experiences are now spun of memories, more valuable as years pass, crisscrossed with secrets, small enchantments of youth. Those times were threaded with a mysterious blend of innocence and the dawning awareness of looming adulthood. But there were still moments when one’s being was gilded with an exquisite sense of being fully alive. Happy.

Aunt Christine’s house seemed to nearly overcome the yard and sidewalk, two and a half towering stories of red brick casting a shadow that fell on me in the sedan. Asleep the last couple of hours of a two-day (if all went well) trip, I felt cramped and dreamy. Moist heat rolled in through the car windows. Cicadas rasped so loud my brain reverberated with the familiar noise. Three of us five kids tumbled out of the back seat as Dad opened the trunk and set out our suitcases. We each grabbed our own, pausing for the parents. I sat atop my suitcase–stuffed with summer clothes, books and other essentials for a week–and stretched. I thought it was a shame my oldest siblings were in college and had to work all summer. But more food and attention for me.

We had, at long last, arrived in a city outside of Kansas City, Missouri. I was freed to enjoy the start of my eleventh summer. We were all Missourian (I had been born in St. Louis and lived there a year and a half), which meant we believed we were a tad Southern even if it was situated in the Midwest. It didn’t feel anything like my hometown in Michigan. So each year we made the trek back to my parents’ old stomping grounds.

I was about to enter a world defined by Aunt Christine, where fresh-baked pecan and rhubarb pies awaited us, delicate doilies covered almost every surface, the Bible figured prominently on the coffee table and there was a whole room devoted to sturdy boxes and cellophane packages she bought and organized to give to the needy. Her smile was the sort that makes you feel that for every bad thing in life, at least ten good things would happen. I was certain that many of them were due to her presence. Her arms were rounded with hugs as we entered the light-filled foyer. But I knew she was also made of tough sinew and grit as were all the Kelly women, Mom included.

Uncle Glenn, tall, thin as a reed, came forward with sharp shoulders and a few words in greeting. He had a “punny” joke right off but he tended to brevity unless he had something of particular interest to offer. His words also seemed to have double meanings; I sometimes didn’t know if he was kidding or complaining. Dad stepped up and maneuvered around the talk, swapped stories about the past year. Mom seemed magnetized by her sister’s goings-on.

We kids were looking for cousin Bruce. He ran down the wooden stairs, then stuck both hands in his jeans pockets. Dark hair was freshly combed back from a high forehead, gleaming unlike my brother’s crew cut. Bruce’s white cotton shirt looked fresh-pressed. A few years younger not close yet to being a breezy teen-ager, I felt grubby and childish but shared a hug, anyway, breathing in scents of sunshine and starch. I had a bevy of girl cousins but only a handful of boys. Bruce’s voice had a soft, easy cadence. He was surprisingly handsome for a cousin. Polite, whereas my next-older sister and brother bent rules and could be annoying but got away with it. And he knew about things that the men in my immediate family did not, like fishing and hunting. Guns.

Mom and Christine, two of the three sisters who would come together, were “thick as thieves again”. They laughed over this, a peculiar thing to say, since stealing was unthinkable–they were church-going women. But they did conspire when in the same room, talking over intricate details of being working wives (my aunt, at a bank; my mother, a teacher), raising children (Mom’s five to my aunt’s one), managing husbands and household business. Industrious, energetic and, efficient they might have made good CEOs, if they had had the chance. They admired each other’s work, compared shoes (bargains) and print neck scarves (sheer and silky) matched to older dresses.

This world was also shaped by Uncle Glenn. Three or four Cadillacs and Chryslers lined the long driveway. Every year there were different ones that he “bought for a song” (my aunt’s eyebrows rose high at that). They often needed some work and he loved to do it. In this, my dad and uncle had common ground. Dad was fascinated with cars, as well, but tended to purchase smaller ones like a red BMW Isetta that opened up from the front. My wise-cracking uncle’s cars were immense boats. I liked to tag along and listen to rustic car talk, smooth glossy paint finishes, admire the clean, fancy interiors. The engines were strong and dauntless, unlike engines my father worked on that sputtered and emitted greasy fumes until they finally worked up a congenial purr.

The yard was green and wide. I’m not sure I recall the back of the house so much as the feel of it. I have in my mind the picture of a screened in porch–all relatives’ houses seemed to include good porches–where people talked and relaxed, sipped iced tea with a lemon wedge and nibbled rich cookies. There were trees bowing over the grass and groupings of colorful flowers. When the wind rose it was warm, fragrant with the headiness of summer. The cicadas accompanied everything we did. I found their brown, green and white bodies and dark eyes fascinating, strange creatures hatched of the deep heat of summer.

I loved to listen to Aunt Christine and my mother talk, so tried to stay quiet although they knew I was eavesdropping. They laughed readily, whether they were talking about their hair-do or jewelry wants or their last church potluck dinner that included some odd pickings. Their affection showed in a hand on a back, an arm snug around shoulders, a smacking kiss on cheeks. They kidded around as if they wanted to get a rise out of each other. Shared experiences sweet or sour, voices lowered. The words, as my mother’s Missourian vowels returned, were complex telegraphing of intimacies. Their gabfests were the manifestation of loving loyalty.

The adult members of my family had survived the Depression, so they valued every small possession, saved odds and ends “just in case” and never stopped being grateful for plentiful food on the table. My aunt and Mom empathized with the pain of those in need. But Aunt Christine felt it a mission, keeping at the ready every essential for anyone who was heard to be without. The big bedroom with those items were stored was a staggering sight when I checked it out each summer. It seemed as if it was just as full as the year before. A great many families would again have most of what they required at a moment’s notice, whether they were victims of fire or a natural disaster, of medical tragedy or violent homes, and in need of refuge and sustenance. Many found themselves jobless, I knew. She volunteered at shelters and soup kitchens and gave money to many causes. She accomplished basic social work out of her own pocket and offered her skills for nothing.

There were many rooms with high ceilings and rich woodwork. So unlike our two-story yellow house with only three bedrooms to harbor seven of us. But the spaciousness also seemed a little sad, more empty when all had quieted. I knew that my cousin Bruce was treasured as an only child. He didn’t have to do much of anything to be counted worthy. I admired his gentlemanly manner, benign teasing ways, and how he included me in outings with the others. As my other siblings left for college but our Missouri visits continued, I had him a bit to myself. He drove a truck or one of the fancier cars, and we’d cruise through city streets on an errand, or into lush rolling country, radio on, talking as we wanted. It was good to sit by him and press my hand into the June wind as he drove. To go new places.

Once he took me to a rudimentary outdoor shooting range where he engaged in target practice. I watched from the safe distance, shocked by the ease with which he managed his rifle, the shot’s noise crashing about me, the mostly men lined up to aim and fire again and again. Then he held it out to me, something that would not be allowed now. I decided to take it when he instructed me exactly what to do and not do.

The sleek heaviness of it were so foreign I nearly gave it back but he kept coaching me, carefully watched over my every move as I positioned it. When I gingerly pressed the trigger, a shot rang out and the rifle kicked against my shoulder I was shocked. And shamefully elated. I had hit part of the target. It seemed a terrible thing to do but it was like nothing else I had even experienced. I felt a surge of bravery for a split second. Less young. I knew nothing of gun laws and violence. A small city girl, I lived in a community designed and overseen to maximize orderly, safe goings-on. So I felt its force as an audacious thing, and knew I would not likely do it again. But was not sorry I tried it. I never mentioned it to my family, nor did he.

As the youngest of five at home, at times I felt squeezed out or somehow misplaced. At my aunt’s and uncle’s I felt included and special in certain ways. For one thing, Aunt Christine wrote poetry and I did, too. We shared our writings through letters but also when I visited. Her poetry was long and elegiac, often religious and at times mystical. I am certain my poetry was constructed with childish vocabulary, ordinary moments. She never once criticized or discouraged me. Instead, she told me I had a “talent for telling” and encouraged my every attempt. Each small piece I published later on meant something; she took pride in my effort and result.

And, too, she recognized my all-embracing love of God, treated it as a blessing. Her own Christian faith spilled all over at times. It offered compassion as if it never ran out. Though we didn’t always agfree on theological details later, her effortless praise and worship were a profound comfort to me. We shared prayers and our favorite Psalms. We kept each other close. She knew me with a spiritual clarity that required no words. I felt she was an angel’s helper meant to  help guide me.

When Aunt Mary, the oldest, arrived with fanfare, the threesome was completed. She was gifted with a needle, fabric and thread. She owned a seamstress business in a colorful little house, making hand-made quilts, providing tailoring services, creating original clothing. She was single following a disastrous marriage, a rare thing back then, in that place. When she joined the other two it was as if they were a matched threesome, a full set. Except Aunt Mary peppered her talk with salty language that was tactfully ignored. Her wit was sharpened by a past that was darker, I suspected, less protected. I had great fondness for her spirit, recognized a different kinship as I witnessed her spitfire energy, her frankness. The fact that she was alone yet successful and managing fine impressed me.

Their united eruptions of laughter, commentaries on everything under the sun and dramatic expressions–it all merged into a singular, vivid piece of music. I was in the presence of women who had had heartache but were without self-pity, rising from the dust. They just stood up, victorious. They were my kin, and as a young girl I was thankful, even relieved to be included in such a group.

Aunt Christine presided over her gracious home until she was in her nineties. My mother and other aunt lived long, as well. But now they are all gone from this earth. They lost and gained more than they expected while here, no doubt, as it is for us all.

Still, they are with me and I think they may even be watching me write this. So I say this: they could whip up the best flaky, juicy apple pies and fresh strawberry jams. They could bring me to tears with their stories. They each had talents that were put to fine use in several creative ways. Aunt Christine could find me when I could sometimes barely find myself. Aunt Mary taught me to survive with flair and humor. My mother? She was water, air and fire to me. In their presence I had no doubt: I was a part of something good and true. I keep it in heart and soul, and hope I give it away as well as did they.

Mary, Christine, Edna (my mom): Kelly Girls

Mary, Christine, Edna (Mom): Kelly Girls in their 70s

Posted in creative nonfiction, memoir, non-fiction, prose, Uncategorized, WPLongform | Tagged , , , , , , | 5 Comments

All That May Yet Remain

life-in-detroit-in-the-1970s-8 by Dave Jordano

life-in-detroit-in-the-1970s by Dave Jordano

In this case, seeing is not quite believing. He first insists it is a mistake, his mother’s name co-opted from that of a bystander, perhaps, by a rookie staff reporter. Ace scans the half-column article in the section “Out and About” that explored a neighborhood summer festival. There was a battle of the bands and one rock band on the rise, Harry and the Hurons, was headlining that date. A few folks listening to the music were briefly interviewed.

“We came for cheap drinks and hot dogs but, yeah, the boys in the bands first, right girls?” Ellen Smalley of Troy, laughed.

She brought two friends along to enjoy free entertainment and a fun afternoon in the hot July sun. Seated with Miss Smalley, center, is Bethany Janson, left, also of Troy and Candy Lister, right, of Detroit. 

When could that have been, nineteen seventy-what? She wouldn’t have met their dad by then, would she? He smooths the paper on the kitchen table and looks up at Deanna.

“You found this stuck behind dad’s old tool box by the work table?”

He has stopped by after her phone call and a cunning invitation to come over by enticing him with: “I found a surprise about mom, maybe both parents.” She stirs sugar into his coffee mug and sets it down with a thump, steaming liquid splashing over the edge. He jerks his hand away and is about to say something but she is filling her own mug.

“It was actually in a worn cardboard accordion file behind the tool box on a shelf. There are lots of things in there. I didn’t look too  much. It felt…weird, like I had stumbled on private things.”

“Well, you did. We never saw this. What else did you find?”

Deanna pulls out the chair and settles into it like a yellow cloud as her bulky sweater envelops her frame. He squints closer at the picture, then back at Deanna. He examines the newspaper’s capture of the woman’s eyes and eyebrows, the shape of jaw and chin. That hair. The mouth with barest pout.  The similarity of that mouth and his sister’s registers as a tiny twinge under his breastbone but it still isn’t definitive.

“Oh, a few other regular pictures, a couple of dad playing ball in college, I think. An early certificate of recognition for his work at the plastics lab. Other stuff, I don’t know. What do you think of the newspaper picture, though?”

It doesn’t so much strike him as their mother. “More like a relative, like family we knew but hardly talked to, lived off Third Street near the lumber store, our second or third cousins.” He blows across the coffee’s surface. “Last time I heard from them was…don’t even know.”

“It was at dad’s funeral, going on eight years now.”

“Yeah, I guess.”

He looks around the spacious off-white, rectangular room. The same type of (or were they the same ones?) blue and white checkered curtains have hung here since he left for college–the  last time it was re-done. He has returned for Christmas a few times. And their dad’s funeral. The white-painted pine table is still sturdy and takes up a length of wall beneath a large bay window in the kitchen. He used to make a breakfast mess here, get unsolicited advice, practice a speech for school, fight with his sister, get kissed by his mother on the forehead, share Sunday comics with his dad and get smacked across the back of his head when he didn’t mind his manners. All right here, a time so long passed.

“I never heard her talk about either of these girls, though. This was a long time ago, even before dad, I suspect.” Deanna seems upset by the mystery.

He finds it a curiosity to survey and put in place on a timeline.

“But he kept it a lifetime for some good reason.”

“Maybe he met her that very day.” She smiles to herself more than at Ace, as if savoring the romance of such a possibility. “But she is so lovely here, isn’t she? I mean, so full-bodied and young. Man, so different…”

“If it’s even her! I’d ask her sometime when you two are sipping a glass of wine and watching one of your shows. Make it kind of casual, be nice so she isn’t unhappy you snooped around out there.”

Ace has other things to do but he had been in town more than a week without calling them or stopping over. Thus, he feels obligated to hang out. In three weeks he is to begin what he hopes is a new chapter, no longer a lab tech like his dad was before he rose to lab manager and then headed up some projects. No, Ace is now a bona fide earth sciences teacher. He wants to look up a couple old friends, get his apartment in shape. Locate the new, up and coming establishments for dining and drinking.

He feels a shade guilty about his anticipation. A shadow drapes over Deanna’s face like a veil, then it moves, exposing fine lines and eyes bloodshot from too much computer work. She was married ten years but now is back at their parents’ three bedroom house. It has no spacious back yard to redeem its ordinariness. When he walked through earlier he paused at the back door. The cement patio looks as if it’s about to cave under its charmlessness, giving in to a mob of dandelions and cracks that snake their way to the screen door. He might have to do something about this. But he didn’t return to become a big part of their lives. He doubts they want that, either. Too much time has passed between them, a swift river, taking bits and pieces of them to other destinations.

“The thing I can’t get over is how much rounder she is. It makes her look sweet. I mean, she has always had so many edges…She looks a little sad, though, don’t you think? I wonder what that Ellen girl is telling her?”

“I think you should put it back. Unless you want to unleash mom’s wrath. But I’d like the whole story, too. It might be nothing more that a random picture for the paper that dad found and liked a lot. Her youth and all.”

Deanna pushes back her dark straight hair and looks at him a full three seconds before she asks, “Why are you back here, Ace? In Detroit area? You vowed never to return. I didn’t expect it.”

“Ditto, kid, you, either.”

Her cheeky face starts to crumple at his sharpness but she has never been one to go down the first strike so she straightens her back, making her good-sized frame appear larger. Ace stifles a grin; it is a bit like old times. He leans forward.

She folds her arms across her chest. “Well, divorce has side effects, like costing too much money. Impacting state of mind. I have my sanity overall and I have my legal assistant job. I’ll be out of this house in a year or less. What’s your excuse?”

He leans back and balances on the back two legs like he used to, even though it’s hard to not teeter. “I always wanted to teach, I just never made a big thing of it since I seemed destined to be a lab rat all my life, too. But I did youth volunteer work in Philly and I like high school kids, how their minds work. So I look forward to sharing ideas and knowledge they don’t have.”

Deanna’s laughter explodes, then subsides. “I can just see it! You like to have such mastery over things. But kids aren’t controllable like experiments and processes in a sanitized environment.”

“I’m giving it a real try.” He wants to challenge her, inform her of his excellent skills but he holds steady. They are both smart enough; they both want better, even at forty and forty-five. “I want to succeed–so I will.”

She nods and lazily stretches. Then her face hovers once more over the picture of their mother who has come from way back of their dad’s tool box to puzzle them.

“Just who was she, this young woman? I have never seen a picture of her this age. In fact, very few before she married dad. She always says they got lost during moves.”

“I can’t find our mother there, really.” He’s about over this moody nonsense. He lets the two legs thud onto the vinyl flooring. “She looks like someone who really thinks before she speaks, who has all the time in the world to do things but she’s figuring it all out first. Not really like mom.”

“Mom has always lived minute to minute, especially since dad passed. She really does think on her feet–her work demands that.” She holds the paper between them so they can both see it. “Can’t you see it, hope still filling her up with dreams? Like she is someone you want to hug close.”

It takes him by surprise, the hurt of this truthful asssessment, or the lack of those qualities in her. Their mother full of affection and tender dreams? She hasn’t shown them so much of that. Love, it was –is–there. Efficient and hard-working, a devoted partner for their demanding, bright father. A reliable, mostly reasonable mother who has also had a habit of grinding in occasional spiky words. Yes, she looked more open then. Maybe vulnerable. Pensive as the shutter closed. A moment in a life they did not share with her.

He thinks he would like a copy. And then Deanna should put it back and leave it alone.

They both freeze as they hear her step hard on the wooden porch steps, then turn the door knob. Deanna and Ace hold each other’s eyes a fraction of a moment as if to hang on to this frail thread they are reweaving. Before it is frayed again.

Bethany Janson Fishel’s home-dyed dark head pops in, a skimpy wave escaping from her wide-brimmed felt hat and falling forward. Her arms are around two grocery bags. “Who parked their big ole silver truck in my driveway, Dee? I had to park out front!”

Ace stands up first, then Deanna rushes forward to get the bags, talking as she moves.

“Mom, it’s Ace here, he’s moving back! Take off your coat and sit down. I’ll get these.”

Their mother stops and turns, hands in mid-air as they’re emptied of supplies, her direct gaze made fierce by scrunched brows. He comes forward four steps and holds out his hands.

After shrugging off the coat onto a living room chair, she’s pushing up her sweater sleeves as if getting ready to attack more work or start a “play” fight. “Arnold, you’ve decided to come around. There must be news. Well!”

He winces at his birth name. She’s skinny as ever, a narrow woman with a hunch in the shoulders. She strides over as if she hasn’t been on her feet all day. Takes his broad palms into her chilled, thin ones. There is a slight squeeze, then she lets go.

“You got that new job?”

“I did.”

“That’s good. Better to be working then not. You’ll have some challenges with such a big change, not the least of which are the teen-agers!” She follows after Deanna and the bags, then starts to unload them. “Staying for dinner?”

“Not sure.”

Deanna waits for direction, then sits down. “I say stay.”

“Yes, Arnold, catch us up. I doubt we’ll see you for another three or four months so let’s do this while we have a chance.”

“Mom, it’s been ‘Ace’ since eleventh grade. As you know. And that’s a heck of a way to comment on my new job–and coming to visit you two before I’m even all moved in.”

“Now, never mind. Where will you be living?”

“Over in Royal Oak, not far from Birmingham. Small but newer one bedroom apartment.”

She clamps hands on hips, squares her shoulders. The blue hospital uniform is baggy on her. It startles him to take in the fact that she’s still a warhorse of a nurse. Her first job was before he was in school. The same county hospital for the last twenty-five years, almost unheard of loyalty.

“Have to watch the uppity factor over there or you may not cast a shadow on this street without regretting it,” she says in that edgy voice reserved for warnings or corrections. She nearly smiles. “Excuse me a minute while I change my work clothes.”

As soon as their mother leaves the room, Deanna stands close to her brother at the refrigerator. “I forgot to put away the newspaper clipping,” she whispers. “I’m taking it to my room.”

Ace stops her. “No, leave it for me. I want a copy. Put it in my backpack.”

Deanna has trouble with the zippers so he trots over to her in the living room where he left it in an ancient leather chair. The zipper won’t budge. He opens a smaller compartment, rearranges things, takes out a hardback in which to place the clipping.

“What are you squirreling away?” Bethany asks. “Looks like old newspaper.”

Deanna and Ace freeze, the clipping in his hand, her body making an obvious move to block his.

Their mother gestures her aside. “No, I want to see. Is it something you dare not share with your mother? Even better!”

She holds out her hand, like when they were kids and she demanded some small contraband.

They want to deny her access, stuff it into the pocket and lead her into the kitchen. Make pork chops and green beans and a chopped salad. But they know better. Deanna leads the way, sits on the couch, then their mother. Ace last. She turns on the floor lamp. Deanna reaches across, takes the clipping from Ace.

“I found this in dad’s things in the garage. I’m sorry. But I wondered about it so showed it to Ace.”

The newspaper clipping is handed to her. She snags the edge, then holds it close to her eyes. They watch her face but it says nothing. Rather, it says to them “private, keep out”. Her hand trembles the smallest amount. She lays the clipping in her lap, keeps searching the page, her mouth a compressed line from which more lines creep out and down. She’s whittled way down, more than before. Ace sees how old she is, sixty-seven, still working, not able to call it a day. He cannot imagine she can ever die, and then wonders why he has such thoughts. She’s fine, just caught off-guard.

Oak branches rub against the grey siding and cars stop and start on the street. Deanna’s hand is pressed against her chest through the canary yellow sweater. Their mother is so still.

Ace broke the spell. “Mom.”

Deanna grabs his wrist and he leaves it there, her hand proof they are actually back on this too-firm, nubby couch. Together despite their desire to separate from it all long ago.

Bethany Janson Fishel speaks as if she is alone and only the wind has ears.

“My, not even nineteen. That Ellen, what a gossip. Candy…hardly recall. I’m waiting for the rock band to quit playing, the lead singer to come down, sit by me. Harry, love of my life, I suppose.”

Her children are flummoxed. She tries to hide, chin-length hair swinging over her profile.

“Your father was his friend, sound guy who thought he’d go pro. He was hired for the longer piece of the road trip. He fell for me that week, too, but I didn’t know it yet. I had eyes only for Harry Starken.” Her right forefinger taps her chin. “Maybe your dad liked to remember happier moments, before he knew about us.” She pauses, each word a small stone thrown into deep water. “Before Harry died, overdose, cocaine. On the road, me left behind.”

She sucks her lower lip in hard, then lets it go slack.

Deanna’s breath is sucked deep into her. Ace feels his heart hit a rough spot and shift. Their serious father, a wannabe sound guy? Mom, in love with the Hurons’ lead singer? He can’t feature it, but there it is.

Their mother folds the clipping, presses it into Deanna’s hands. Looks them both right in the eyes, her own empty of the old barriers that have strained to keep so much under wraps. Such tenderness and sorrow, lostness and courage. Being found out. More things only she will decipher, unravel long into the coming night.

“His death is why I became a nurse. Your dad and you kids, are why I’ve worked hard so long. Have had some fine times. It all fell together.”

And then she is on her feet and moving into the kitchen, pulling out pans and pots, getting food for dinner, calling them to come help.

Ace stands up with care. He has to make certain he won’t lose balance and steadies his sister, too, whose eyes are wide with astonishment. He links an arm through hers and they join their mother. He suspects the two of them will meet for lunch soon.

 

Posted in fiction, prose, short fiction, short short stories, Uncategorized, WPLongform | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Bad Talk, Good Talk

 

Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

Perhaps all I need to say is: it was twenty-four hours when language of character failed even when it was most needed. A bridge that never got built. But it seems I must write myself forward, into the next moment, right past the uncomfortable restraints of words. I don’t want to linger on bad talk. I want action and illumination, direction and refreshment.

I walked. I was moving along with speed and decisiveness, engaging in what I have begun to think of as “a small salvation walk”–loosening difficult physical, spiritual and emotional kinks. My legs carried me from street to street, beauty to beauty. My Nikon Coolpix was in hand as I kneeled to capture white and orange daffodil petals made translucent by slanting light, admiring the design of cherry tree branches festooned with blossoms, a dappled blue sky giving it depth. There were imaginative garden decorations, burbling fountains, creatures dashing and dozing. I snapped away as eye to mind to heart worked together.

Photography often intensifies the value of a moment for me. Spiritual vision focuses, as well, while senses praise the external world which sometimes can feel imprisoning. The walking part is crucial and today, more so. I am not a leisurely walker, for the most part. My heart beat harder and endorphins surged, breathing filled veins with rich oxygenated blood. It all conspired to allow the history of the day fade, my worries to blur. But I was not looking forward to returning home, sitting with myself. Thinking once more of angry words that had hit the mark the day before. I felt wounded still.

Then as I started up another block, I heard him. He sat across the street. Perhaps ten or eleven, dressed in white button-down shirt and khakis, he was slumped in the driveway, legs sprawled on cement even though thick emerald grass beckoned. He appeared to be studying an electronic gadget. He was speaking loudly. At first I thought he was talking to someone on a cell phone. I scanned the lovely house and yard thinking there was someone else there, a parent, perhaps. No one was at a window.

He was alone and grumbling.

“It’s certainly not like New York,” he said. “I sure didn’t like that.”

A young girl’s voice floated from an unknown place and was delivered to his driveway. “Well, no. You should tell them. They’d want to know.”

“I don’t really care what they want!”

He was still looking down, as if he was talking to whatever was in his hand. I was almost parallel with him, passing from the other side of the street. I didn’t break my stride even though I badly wanted to because now I was curious and couldn’t help but eavesdrop in such a public arena. I looked around again, but no one else was outside, certainly not near him.

The girl spoke with gentle insistence. “But you should.” She paused. “Do they like it here or there?”

“I don’t know. They don’t say, exactly.”

I climbed up a hilly spot when a small movement to the left (my side of the street) caught my eye. One more house down, past bushes, was a girl about the same age. She sat on the top step, hands on knees as she leaned forward. The house was big, green, with a wide porch. Her hair, golden brown in the rich light. We didn’t make eye contact. She was staring across the street even though it was unlikely she could see him, at least not in full. But she kept talking as I walked by.

“Maybe it was just a fly. It could have been a fly or another bug, maybe a flying beetle in the room.”

“Not sure. It was dark. I don’t think so.” His words arced, floated and landed on her steps again. “But maybe it was…”

“You should tell them what you saw, anyway. Lots of spiders like houses here.”

She didn’t sound worried, only clear about what he ought to do.

“It’s sure not new York, that’s all I have to say.” He was adamant. A little discouragement along with resignation. “Oregon…”

I paused then, out of sight of the girl and the boy, wondering what was next. She was silent. As I started again she said something with the certainty she had shown from the beginning, but her words were quieter, floated and dissolved before they reached my ears. Two voices mingled as I gained speed. Crossed to the next corner, next block.

I felt as if I had experienced one of the best conversations I’d had the privilege to hear in a long while. The boy stated his issue (even if I hadn’t understood at first). He let the girl know he was unhappy with something, and that New York was different. The girl responded with assurredness but some concern. He was frustrated with his parents and she accepted this. They shared thoughts succinctly, opinions coming forward without argument. She did not give up her theme. He continued to affirm his feelings while noting his experience of an unwelcome insect. He might or might not take her advice into consideration, especially because here is not where he was used to being or knowing well and that was a mighty fact.

But she didn’t go inside; she kept communicating. She likely knows that some spiders in the Northwest leave a painful wound when they bite and carry poison, but some leave people alone or take nibbles that do not cause real harm. They are master weavers and busy at it–I run into webs everywhere, some silken designs being gigantic–and insects of all sorts are rousing in spring warmth. As far as spiders go, the one the boy may have seen could have lived in that room (his?) all winter long and either is moving back and forth across the wall or ceiling or hanging by a silken thread, Perhaps dead. He didn’t say enough for me to be able to sketch the whole scenario. He didn’t compare what he saw to that with which he is familiar in New York. From which he may have recently moved. (I wish I could have said: “I know what you mean, it isn’t my home state of Michigan, either, but it is amazing here, too, just wait.”) I could speculate all evening and then some.

But the two of them knew what they had to say and they were straight forward. Concise. Reasonable by any brief assessment. And it wasn’t just the girl who cared enough to participate. He likely began the conversation with a complaint. But he heard her. He took her words in, responded and shared openly. They were, by all appearances as I passed through their volleying words, friends. Even good friends, sitting in the last afternoon light of March, caring little what anyone else on the street thought. Creating their own privacy as it was just the two of them. Talking together.

Why didn’t he go to her house or she, to his? I wondered. But sometimes it is like that, you are doing something and then a conversation begins and on it goes, even without being face-to-face in the same space. When you are a kid, it is like that more, I suspect, and it progresses differently than when you are an adult. It can be almost offhand even when serious. Time is less critical and counted, feelings run like rivers, one into another. I have noticed over the years that children construct a whole other world and they spend far less energy caring about what neighbors or strangers think. Or precisely what words to use. They seem to use far fewer but incorporate them better into real, of-the-moment talk. They haven’t learned how or when to use the worst things that can arise from the subconscious or a store of unfortunate but readied epithets as can happen as adults. They haven’t stuffed, even hoarded an abundance of emotions so that, when given rein, they can make an unholy mess.

My walk ended well with more flowers, other children laughing and playing, dogs getting frisky and cats slinking by. Those two kids, though, followed me home. I sat with their words and small faces, recalled their perches on driveway and step. They had called to each other across the gap, reached out with meaning but with no hidden implications or grave mistakes. It was a beautiful thing.

I didn’t know what to write. I still harbor sadness. Being an adult can seem unfair, is complicated and tricky despite the training we receive all our lives, the intelligence we think we have. The hearts we love with and try to make strong. It takes a willingness to be braver and say what you think, share what you feel, dream aloud and note an error made. And for this writer it is sometimes necessary to take “a small salvation walk” outside of myself, to remember that living is an art as well as a challenge, perhaps to some a game, to others a burden. I once wrote in a poem that “making a life is a small pause on a thin reed and growing wings”. I have to discern how and where I can fly, only to alight and take flight in all conditions. I’m still open to change, to learning more about heaven above and earth below and how to navigate it all. I know I don’t always land with great judgement or take off well enough.

But I can say that I am often blessed with lessons needed; I am not alone in this. So, thank you, kids. You were as a balm to heart and soul. Stay there for one another if you can, at least for a while. And may my lips speak as well as did yours, in truth and kindness.

 

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

Breaking Up: a Tale of Friendship

by Doug Wilson

Photo by Doug Wilson

I was done, done, done being there for her. Done playing her peculiar game, one she failed to grasp in its entirety although she set and enforced the rules.

Why do we even gravitate to what isn’t good for us? She was like an uneasy ally. We were two outsiders, she admittedly more than I, who happened to find the same cement bench in the shade after school. If she hadn’t talked to me, I might not have paid much attention to her. I sure wouldn’t have ended up in such a terrible position.

“Who are you waiting around for?” she asked that day, her vowels softened by a lazy lilt.

I immediately pegged her as south of the old Mason Dixon line or she was faking it. After a sideways look, I noticed she was the girl who had joined orchestra class the week before, head down, pretty flute gripped like a stick. I knew very few brass and woodwind players as I stuck with strings–I played cello.

“Nobody, only checking my phone for messages.” As if she couldn’t see that. But I gave her a semi-friendly smile.

“I’m waiting for my mother. She parks across the street, then acts like she’s just idling the time away. Like she’s not old enough for teenagers and actually doesn’t know me.” She let out a muffled cackle. “She looks away when I start toward the car.”

That should have been the first warning: this was one to avoid. Negative viewpoint. But I was sorry to hear her say it.

“Lynn.” She held out her hand.

I ignored it. I’m not that into hand shaking protocol with peers.

“Rona here. ”

I nodded at her and turned away a little so I could keep scrolling in private. The shade felt good but I considered moving to another spot, but it ws sixty-eight degress though it was only March. The main reason I sat there was because my ankle twisted during modern dance class. After four hours pretending it didn’t hurt, it was starting to throb. I was trying to get hold of Grant, my brother, which was like trying to catch a firefly. Not impossible but it took some effort. I had to anticipate where he was going to be in order to catch him in time.

“So, Rona, you play the cello, right? We both have orchestra.”

“Yes, and yes.”

“Good instrument. Classical flute music can be sort of drag; I prefer to jazz it up. And my arms hurt from sitting in class holding it up properly but at least I don’t have to build up callouses like you do. Do your fingers bleed, I mean get torn up so they really hurt?”

I swiveled around. She asked as if she thought it was cool. Was that even reasonable to ask when first meeting someone? But her small, greyish eyes were clear and her voice quiet; she seemed interested.

“Sometimes. Usually not. I practice a lot and avoid getting my hands wet to long so they stay hardened.”

Lynn was rising. “Impressive. Good for you. And there’s my mother, the new and valuable Craft Arts Museum Curator.”

I followed her finger and saw the white sports car, an old model, its cloth top down.

“Watch. She won’t look when I approach the car.” Lynn looked over her shoulder as she started off. “Nice to meet you, see you at our next thrilling symphony rehearsal.”

Symphony? I guessed she was referring to our high school orchestra, which happened to be one of the top five in the state the last eight years. She loped off, her long, somewhat knock-kneed legs carrying her to the car quickly. Lynn climbed into the passenger side without opening the door, and her mother, burgundy hair gleaming, took off too fast for a school zone as soon as Lynn got in.

Lynn was right; her mother hadn’t looked at her.

Grant returned my text. He would circle back to get me since I had hurt my ankle; he didn’t want me to suffer unnecessarily  nor did her want me to miss his football game in two days. He was the half-back and was very fast. As if he needed me there to cheer him on with legions of fans. But I was relieved he would pick me up. Mad that I would likely have to nurse the right ankle back to health for several days.

Bothered by Lynn’s conversation. And intrigued. Who was she?

It didn’t take long to find out. The following week after orchestra class–which met four times a week–our teacher, Mr. Lind, asked her to stay after to play for him so he could assign her to a temporary chair placement. I hoisted myself onto the deep window ledge outside the room as orchestra was my last class. A book report was due soon so I flipped through the novel I had to write a report for that night.

The flute’s first strains were weak and breathy and Lynn started over and had slightly more success. But I already had lost interest, re-reading a few pages of Hermann Hesse’s Demian, my report taking shape in my mind. I had become fascinated by Hesse, felt I had found an author that spoke to me better than many contemporary ones; I often liked older writers more, sometimes even obscure ones. Reading stirred up my mind, kept me company.

But the next measures of notes from Lynn’s flute interrupted me. What had seemed vapid took on rich feeling; what had sounded uncertain now filled the area with brazen confidence. I watched her play through a rectangular window on the door.

It was as if she was a different person than the one on the bench. Body leaned into the music, fingers flew over the instrument as if it was an extension of her hands. The notes were statements and invitations, drawing listeners to enjoy an array of surprises. I noticed a couple of students paused at their lockers to better hear her. Music in Lynn hands took on a life of its own and sailed away, taking her with it.

I waited a long time for her.

“Oh, Rona, you’re here, how nice!”

“I heard you playing. What chair?”

“Second for starters.” A small dimple became a crease as she sulked a  bit.

“Not surprising. Can’t just come in and displace everyone fast. This will be tough enough on them. Where did you come from?”

I meant: Where were you the other three years, who have you studied with, how come you’re so good?

“I was born in Louisiana but lived in Illinois the last five years. The duration of mother’s last marriage. We just moved here over a month ago.”

“I meant, how did you get so good?”

She shrugged. “I seem to have gotten the big musical gene from some obscure tendril on the family tree. Played piano as a preschooler. Then a few other instruments.” She said this as if bored, then detained me, grabbing my forearm. “You want to go to that nearby coffeehouse–what’s it called?”

“Drink.”

“Yes, to drink coffee. What’s it called?”

“Well, the owner named it ‘Wise Fool’s Drink’ but we just call it ‘Drink’. You know, let’s go to ‘Drink’. Silliness,” I laughed.

She rolled her eyes and we set off, me limping as little as possible so she wouldn’t ask me and then Id have to say I danced. I wanted to excel but didn’t, yet. She was so easy to talk with I had to hold myself back while she told her story. Lynn had read as many books as I had, certainly knew more about music and had lived in five places to my current one. And her mother had married three times, now was single and a successful textiles artist as well as curator.

“I’m the only kid but we don’t care for each other.”

I eyed her suspicously.”You’re just saying that. I mean, yes, parents are parents but you do love them in the end…unless she’s horrible to you.”

“I guess not all that abysmal. I don’t like her ideas or style or–well, she’s usually gone, anyway, so what’s the point. Feeling is mutual. I’m more like dad, husband number one. Don’t tell me you have the sort of family that’s cozy, full of hugs and well-meaning. I might have to exit your life right now.” She wrinkled her aristocratic nose.

“What’s the other thing?”

She blinked. “Oh. She’s too demanding. Overkill on my talent. I’m supposed to become famous since she failed to attain it. But is your family all that great? Every family has issues.”

I considered. My dad was a commercial real estate agent who did well; he worked odd, long hours, imbibed more than required. My mom was a legal secretary who wished she was a lawyer but never got around to it. Grant was too attractive to the girls, a good athlete so was my dad’s pride and joy. He overshadowed me. But I got kudos from them for top grades and playing cello well and knew they cared. But I tended to be a loner–it was easy to get lost in my head–though I liked people.

“Basically, they’re decent as family, yeah. Typical nuttiness. Stuff that we all have to deal with. But we definitely have each other’s back.”

I then was sorry for saying it but Lynn didn’t react. “Well, you’re smart, you know? And have a great attitude. Can I just ask to be your friend?”

I had already decided she was worth knowing, even though there was a wince deep down, confusion when I tried to figure out if this was good or not. But she even noticed my book.

Demian? Right, the schisms between the superficial world and the spiritual. Now that’s a problem worth addressing in our culture!”

I had only known one other person who had read the book and he thought it was rubbish. Hesse had made me feel less different and alone, among other writers. We talked an hour then left, walked to the corner and split up–me to home and Lynn to her mother’s museum.

It went on like that all spring. We met for coffee and scones or bagels with cream cheese and honey. We sometimes practiced music for concertos we were learning–her flute overtaking my cello (she was now first chair; I was just second chair). She came over for dinner often since her mother didn’t cook. Lynn made three things well so they ordered out most of the time. She appreciated my parent’s meals and there was always a place for her. We camped out for hours watching classic movies; reviewed books as if we were critics supreme; took good bike rides.

Grant found her irritating, “a mosquito, buzzing around, hungry all the time” but then amended it to being “alright, just not my type. As if I had brought her home for his approval!

“Grant is one of those regular guys everyone should marry at least once,” she said once and I lightly smacked her leg. “Hey!”

“He’s more than that. You just don’t know him.”

“How much more? Is he secretly a sparkling conversationalist? Can he dazzle girls with unbridled enthusiasm for their real talents? Does he have a deep secret that would shock me enough to get and hold my devoted attention? Are his abs just fab?”

“You’re mean, Lynn. Really…you can leave now.”

“I just meant–whatever, alright. See you.” She turned as she exited my room. “You’re not going to live your life like Hesse’s bourgeoisie, are you? No imagination!”

That was bigger than most of our conflicts. She was talking about my brother, who could be a jerk but who I defended without apology.

That night I was so sound asleep I didn’t hear the neighbor’s dogs barking at our new cat on the prowl. She called me twice before I woke up enough to answer.

“Rona, you have to believe me, I’d never be intentionally cruel to you and your family, please understand I was just talking, that’s all, just mouthing off as I can do without thinking!”

“Okay, sure.” I hung up.

On the way to school the next morning I told Grant she had called and dramatically apologized for something that made me mad. I didn’t say what. He had little sympathy.

“What do you expect? Don’t you see how she’s infiltrating our family after almost three months of dinners, weekend brunches and gabfests and last-minute sleep-overs? She’s a little too something, Lynn, and her mom isn’t even around. She’s got tentacles and you’re caught up already. Watch out, sister.”

But I also had spent time at her house and knew how things were, I protested. She needed me. Us. She was smart, had this musical gift and was in need of encouragement and kindness. He wished me luck.

I’d been at their condo a half-dozen times. Her mother was an offish but interesting woman, absorbed by work and her beautiful textiles which were displayed everywhere. Who looked a little theatrical for our neighborhood but it wasn’t a mark against her, to me. She entertained mostly male friends with drinks over long games of chess or take out meals we sometimes shared that were good. But the house was shadowy and spare, the temperature cool; she kept lights low, things arranged just so and had little interest in conversation with either of us. As Lynn had warned. She did keep strict tabs on her daughter’s flute practice and grades.

Time went by. I defended her when it ws appranet she had an annoying glibness and a sharpness that felt harsh despite the drawl that came and went. My two older, close friends come around less; Lynn resented their constant calls. I stuck it out even when my mother asked me where Annie and Elisa were. I felt necessary to Lynn despite feeling like less oxygen was reaching my brain after hours with her. I was captivated.

When school was out for the summer we hightailed it down to Harbor Park where we rented boats and swam and tanned. Ate ice cream and read. She didn’t like to share me, true, but she was shyer than I despite all her talk. Still new to the area.

Lynn was changeable, even volatile. But she was also honest and earnest, smart. We’d had a dozen little fights–a couple big ones–but we usually worked things out. She had such musical talent, but held back and refused to practice as much as expected. This infuriated her mother and frustrated Mr. Lind which gave Lynn great satisfaction. I found it odd but knew her issues with her mother went deep; the woman was way too busy for her, not even maternal enough to want indoor plants or a pet. I knew Lynn envied me my family. And that she had a grip on me–Grant had called it.

But I still didn’t see it coming. I had decided to talk to her on the lake one day about this friend situation, how I needed room to breathe and missed my old friends. It was balmy and blue-skyed and the lake was dotted with boats and happy people.

We floated about in an ancient rowboat. Lynn was playing her flute and I had lain back, arms tucked behind my head, feeling summer’s new heat reach in to my bones. I felt lazy, calm. The park was imbued with peace. Flute music rippled like a silvery wave across the water, melodies rode the breeze, then rested in bushes and trees.

It felt safe and good out there, green waves slapping the boat, that light all golden, music like a spell. It seemed the right time to talk.

“I wish you liked Elisa and Annie more. They’re wonderful people. I like to hang out with them. They’ve been my friends for years. But it seems at times like I have to choose between you or them and that’s just not right. I want to include them more–you’ll see how smart and funny they are.”

The music ceased. I kept my eyes closed; the boat’s rocking was too soothing, the day too beautiful.

“How dare you?” Her voice was pared way down but it was anything but soft. “I have given you all my trust. My time. Shared my life stories. My attention has been yours alone without fail.”

My eyelids flipped open. She was sitting up very straight; she held the expensive flute in her lap.

“Who else understands why you read Hesse and C.S. Lewis even if I don’t always agree they knew that much? Who else gets that you want to be a neurologist even though your mom wants you to be a software designer? Who else but Lynn was there when you almost fell face first into absurd love with Brad Stanislowski, that undeserving friend of your brother’s? Who brought you books and hand-blended mint tea when you had an awful cold?”

She put hands on hips, the left hand still grasping her flute, then stood up abruptly. The bow swayed in the lake and I sat up, held onto the sides. She spread her feet apart and started to rock the boat back and forth, back and forth.

“Stop it.”

She laughed. “Stop what? Upsetting your tidy little world?”

“Stop being ridiculous and mean again. You say too many things you can’t take back. You don’t think of the person who has to endure them.” I was letting it all out but couldn’t stop myself. “Until you see that you might lose something you want, then you’re sorry. You don’t get how to survive other ways, okay, I know. But this isn’t working for me, at all.”

The boat rocked harder and she sneered at me, narrow face reddening, mouth twisted. I hung on, ready to take the plunge into chilly water if she kept at it. I could swim. I wasn’t afraid, after all, of Lynn’s display of self-centeredness nor her attempt to control my feelings. Her frank jealousy. Anger rose up in my chest, then made me calm and steady, ready for a fight. I felt a hint of disgust for her and felt ashamed for it but no matter how much I wanted to care, I could not seem to care enough. My hope for her leaked away in seconds.

Lynn lifted up her shining flute in the honeyed glow of June and yelled, “Well, I’m sick of you and I’m more sick of music!”

As she threw her flute into the lake, my hand shot out in a vain attempt to catch it. We watched it sink with little more fanfare than if it was an ordinary rock. I felt an impulse to dive in but it passed. I was riveted by her act of misery, her outrage. Her failure to get what she felt was necessary was like a constant wound, so once more she had been impulsive. She seeemed forlorn and foolish.

Lynn looked at me with pleading, but her eyes were like two moons that had lost their light. I couldn’t see her well, anymore. Just her nightmarish demands on me. I suddenly couldn’t be the one to try to make things all right.

I stood up and jumped into the water but not to get her flute–that was up to her–and swam back to shore. When I reached it I had goose-flesh so ran the four blocks home.

My mom and dad were still on errands, to my relief, but Grant was snacking from a giant bag of popcorn in the family room, watching car racing on television.

“Hey, what’s up, Rona?”

I stopped, dampening the carpet, smudges of lake muck on legs and arms.

“I just broke things off with Lynn. You were right.”

“Man, glad to hear it. Sorry, but…say, you’re all wet–are you okay?”

“Yeah. Leave me some popcorn. I’m going to change.”

I called to see if Lynn was alright the next day–it had felt like a nervous breakdown was eminent–but when she heard my voice she just said in a deep drawl like she was on a stage, “I really cannot abide C.S. Lewis or you!” And hung up.

I didn’t see her around. Annie said she’d heard Lynn and her mother moved to the hills, away from town. I thought I’d feel terrible enough to cry. But the loss was overcome by relief. I did worry she would be messed up by that day. And never get a grip on her own negligence, that hard streak and where it all came from. That overload of hurt that struck out at others. That did scare me and I did cry a little. How awful for her to be trapped by it. Had she pondered what Hesse and C.S. Lewis were saying about embracing the spiritual life, being grounded in truth? Being brave and passionate enough to be a real seeker? About the importance of embracing one’s soul? Or would all her life be one huge, trying drama?

I saw the flute fall and vanish and wished I might have caught it, if not for her, for the sake of music. She was given such a gift.

It’s over, anyway, and summer is upon us. We each have to figure it out for ourselves. I had hoped to be a good friend. I don’t know if I was, in the end, so pray she finds what matters to her most. Then learns to love it (or someone) well. That’s what I have to do, even if it won’t be an easy road. But that’s just me. Someone living around the edges, looking for the good and true.

 

Posted in fiction, prose, short fiction, short stories, Uncategorized, WPLongform | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Beauty as a Verb (and State of Being)

 

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This just in: science is postulating that cellulite may finally be able to be banished!

I found this news in a credible magazine more often purchased by those who have the requisite cash to refresh and recreate their bodies. (I am not part of that demographic; I read a variety of publications as familiar readers know.) Apparently, dermatologists with top credentials note that this is changing dimpled thighs considerably. It involves loosening and breaking up fibrous bands that underlay the skin, smoothing the visible layer, cellulite seeming to vanish. I picture a giant rolling pin running over buttocks and thighs, then I wonder for what purpose those fibrous bands exist. It seems to me legs and probably derrieres need these to be intact or they wouldn’t be there. But women who are thrilled with this development will seek all promised results. They are intent on changing the human landscape in warmer climes at least. And in their private lives, it may well matter more than I can ever know.

Imagine those who heretofore felt unfit to appear in a bathing suit strolling about world beaches with aplomb. The troops of made-to-order bodies will experience a manifold increase. And I am wondering if anyone will actually scrutinize and calculate the loss of dimpled skin other than those whose worries arise from such issues. Summer is not so far away for U.S. residents. I am certain there are droves who will breathe sighs of relief once they discern fewer to zero tiny hillocks and valleys between hips and knees.

Rather, try this: imagine those who populate any street or beach or office, barely a thought used up on outward impressions made once leaving their abodes. Instead, they are busy playing, strolling with friends, working like the dickens, exercising, eating and drinking or reading a book. Singing a song. Dancing across grass. These women are gazing into the distance, full of hopes, worries, plans, disappointments. Or they may be mesmerized by a turquoise sea at high tide, or the sound of tree branches of shiny leaves whispering in the wind, or the sharp clean scent of snow as it makes a dizzying descent to chilled faces. They dream of things. Practice love. Thigh perfection is not an urgent issue.

Still, I understand both points of view. I am in my sixth decade; what was in good place in my third decade gradually drooped an inch when I wasn’t even looking. I expected as much so there is little to no shock involved. But I was surprised today when I tried on a fun sleeveless dress and noted upper arms no longer sport the biceps I had thought were still there. They used to be admirable due to weight training…back in my forties…and very useful. Instead, they appear to be loosening, too, despite my being active and feeling strong. Well, I have sweaters. I may not think of it again, as I don’t much think of the streaks of white mingling with the old golden brown hair.

Who am I bothering with my aging? Not myself, certainly not enough to lose sleep over. Do the young see their own futures and want to avoid it as long as possible? Other women who are self-consciousness of their own gradual loss of suppleness, those lines about the eyes–are they weirdly embarrassed for me when they could be smiling at and laughing with me? Or men (with middle-aged paunch and thinning hair, their own lines subdividing foreheads) who avert their eyes as they spot a younger version of womanhood? I find it sad that so many people find aging anathema, as if we were truly meant to stay naive children and hormonal teens, just be young forever. Celebrities astound me with their avarice for youth, the need to maintain this illusion. Why, really? Everything in nature springs to life and transforms and breaks down. The cycle is complex and perfect. New human beings take some time revealing themselves, feel awkward as they straddle ages, then become vibrantly mature. Then slow down to a simmer, settling bit by bit. And when ready, we dispense with our physical shells.

I wasn’t born a remarkable beauty so perhaps it is odd I did not often feel as if my visage was not good enough. I fit clothing well enough; my looks were acceptable. I thought the human attributes of soul and intellect were far more interesting, certainly attractive. Bright people were more magnetic to me than superficially lovely ones; soulful people even more so. I thought a sensitive balance was key, a mix of intelligence, heart, strength and grace. Being active was a given for me with endless impulses to move and do. Become more, create more! I still have energy to spare–it can be problematic as I don’t care so much for sleep– despite a few chronic health issues. Activity fuels a responsive state of self empowerment.

Still, I admit to tossing out that old phrase–“putting on my face”. Putting on make up, that is. It refers to readying ourselves for the world, setting in place a removable but protective barrier between myself and unknown social elements. Particularly during teen years, it was an armour or a protest, an experiment with identity and a time for frivolity. It’s an old habit I’ve never apologized for, even during the reign of radical feminism when some women strongly disapproved. (I never burned my bra, either, but I fought and worked along with everyone else for fair and just treatment of females and other human beings.) I have enjoyed the theater of it, the face paint and fashions. I liked being able to morph, one effect for another, and imagined that as an old woman I might still be playing. I do still have a nice collection of Clinique, Cover Girl and Lancome.

And I also recently purchased a new swim suit; I await a good swimming pool so I can dive in with goggles to defend myself from chlorine. I can assure you I wouldn’t have any more interest in swimming if I seriously regretted my physical flaws. I used to adore diving and can’t wait to get at it again.

After all the products used–youth passing and illnesses so far endured and health rebounding–I am still not afraid of aging. I am not afraid beauty will no longer visit me in some way or another.  I know my body will fight with me and also respond to rescue and remediation. Until it will not, anymore. But beauty is not something I feel I must go on a journey to find. It is within my reach in a thousand ways and places. The beauty I adore originates both in the natural world and in our own living. I see it daily. It moves me, informs my thinking, edifies and invigorates me. It lives within and without me, is never static, ever surprising.

My own mother was forty when I was born, with once-auburn hair that was early to grey but soft and wavy. Soon to become much more white. She moved past middle age with minor grumbling, but her eyes, smile and laughter, her firm skin–all this was, of course, unique to her. The geography of her life did leave telltale marks  but she wore little make up–the barest slick of lipstick, a dusting of powder. She said she had little time for it. But her joie de vivre was apparent. Everything she felt rippled across her face. Gesturing hands, inflections of voice spoke of a fascination with and a deep appreciation of others. She was invested in living, not in appearing as someone other or more than who she was. She enjoyed clothes or getting her hair done. Her curiosity about life reflected a penchant for forays into the known and unknown, the sweet secrets of life. My mother gathered her resources for family and others in greater need. There was plenty of struggle but her spirit was a boomerang, coming back again, rising up. She taught me about these things. By living richly, my mother nurtured deep beauty. Even–especially–at sixty, seventy and eighty. 

And I haven’t mentioned how she looked in floor-length gowns she wore to the symphony or opera, even long after I had grown up. Shoulders back, head high. Gleaming white hair may was like a crown. I don’t recall noticing wrinkles; her skin was wonderful with just a dab of Pond’s face cream. She was accessible and funny–people sought her out. I can guarantee she never entertained the idea that anyone’s thighs might be erased of their natural permutations. She stayed around until her nineties and even then had a flair all her own. I loved her vibrant, genuine ways, flaws and all.

The first half of my life felt as if it lacked too often that fine grace I longed to live by. Troubles came like we all get to have, those roadblocks and little deaths that take their toll. I became waif thin; drank too much for my own and others’ good; and tallied failures as much if not more than blessings. I had a great deal to learn despite imagining I knew a fair amount already. But one thing I believed did come true: as I came upon forty, fifty and sixty I arrived a happier person than decades previous. The years have been by turns ridiculous, bruising, ecstatic, enlightening, confounding, and serene. Human.

But beauty yet attends to me; that is, it fills my life with delights, its wisdom and constancy. I gather it around me and take my fill of it, try to share it and create more. What can I do that will improve upon this moment, this time I have here? What will make a difference in the quality of life for my family, for friends, and for those I may never know at all? This is the way of true beauty to me, the daily essentials: each thought and act a chance to care and be kind. To make good use of my soul as well as mind.

There exists in this heartbreaking world a pervasive beauty of countless spirits and manifestations of Divine Spirit. We must see it and claim it. It can reveal itself in ways and places we may not expect. Take the other morning before getting up to embrace another day.

I was coming up from sleep. Floating, not quite conscious of the flesh and bones world. I was moving about in a vast netherworld, an ether of bodylessness. There before me was what I have come to call a Light Being, or an angel or reflection of God that gave me a moment with it. Who knows the exact naming of such things? But to me the Light Beings are part of the spiritual life we inhabit, whether awake, dreaming, or beyond sentience as we know it now.

As they always are, this Light Being was exquisite, blue-white-golden-silvery pulsing energy, radiant and intense. It was transforming into a more human torso, transparent while having a kind of density. Brilliant, expansive as it was suspended within more light, as if treading water but instead treading an energized space. I moved closer and closer, then slipped into the light body, joined this humming, luminous beingness and felt the great joy I always feel, as if I was truly home at long last. I felt Light Beings everywhere. I knew them like I knew the voices of my loved ones or the colors of the sky. Shortly I returned to earthy consciousness, to this home of everyday, multi-layered living.

My life includes make up and fashion forays, cellulite and spider veins. But more than these, it is a lifelong work tempered by heartaches, saved by Love, made sturdy and hopeful by triumphs. It is a weaving of pleasures and prayers. Light Beings. Therein lies the truest beauty for this woman. And when I look at you, my friend, that is what I am seeking and finding in you, too.

 

Posted in creative nonfiction, essays, non-fiction, Personal essay, prose, Uncategorized, WPLongform | Tagged , , , , , , | 9 Comments