a journal of...

A journal among friends...
art, words, home, people and places

Sunday, October 29, 2017


Sitting next to Aunt Vi this morning while she breathes faster, out of a whole night's sleep, watching her in the quiet, I look up and see across from where I sit the wall of the reading room beyond.  The night nurse, the first we've had, has just left, as amazed as I that she barely stirred all that time she waited up.

What I am thinking about is encapsulated in that view before me.

We have made these connected rooms, the reading room and her now bedroom, by doing what we have been doing since before they moved here: shuffling things around to accommodate what's happened in the last two months...their move here, their settling in more comfortably, Aunt Vi's fall one week ago.  This is a house (perhaps I've written this before, but it's becoming more and more so) that is willing to become whatever you ask of it.  With only a few moves, exchanges, switches, this here, that there, what was once a perfectly comfortable set of rooms becomes, once again, a perfectly comfortable set of rooms.

Next to me, Aunt Vi is breathing more heavily now, more noisily and labored, stopping a second or two every now and then to rest from that, too.  I've rubbed her back, arms, legs, during which she spoke once out of her continued slumber, "onh...time to get up?"  No, I say, it's only 6:30.

It reminds me that she's still trying hard to get back into her old routine, when only the week before, she woke by eight ("don't let me sleep late!"), got herself to the bathroom, washed her face, and shuffled into the kitchen for juice first ("good morning", she and my uncle toast), milk in her cereal (not before her juice! she doesn't like it soggy), a few slices of banana ("just a few!"), and then toast (plenty of butter), coffee  (a "spot" of milk) and finally her regimen of pills she slides one by one out of a small bowl, counting slowly, sips of water in between, like a syncopated composition.  Shuffling off again to bathe, brush her teeth, and dress ("what can i wear?" a challenge for her blind vision), at last pulling her hose slowly over each foot and leg, and sliding, just as slowly, into each shoe.  After which she would sit back in her chair, exhausted, but dressed neatly and elegantly, rings, watch, scarf or necklace in place.

Still she strives mentally toward that ordinary life; instead, there is this invalid (in both senses) condition she must succumb to. What I see across the room reminds me in the face of unwelcome change how nonetheless change brings its own balance to things.  The symmetry of the small reading room beyond her hospital bed, delivered five days ago thanks to hospice, comes about only because of this new being she's fallen into.  Yet look at the comfort of it, the inclusion, the completeness.  The arrangement on the wall...quilt and two small framed icons that favor it...weren't together before, scattered instead here and there about the suite.  Yet how intuitively they balance each other, as if they were a puzzle, in theme as well as vision, just waiting for the right day when someone would figure them out.  This view (my aunt in the foreground though the photo doesn't show it, leaning toward me as she sleeps on) is the calming center of this moment. 

And there is another wall, too, in this part of the room facing her, again brought together by her move and only now after the fall  striking its significance: the wall of our family predecessors, loved ones so important to her,  facing her squarely across from the bed though she can't see them, impressing on her (and me) the full import of these moments, too.

 And a third wall, with her favorite painting on it, now arranged before it the necessities of her days (certainly the flowers, included), murmurs silently to her.

A bird outside the window behind her has begun his song; the sky opens; the light she cannot see bathes her anyway.

I am here, bathing in it as well, grateful, if not for her fall, at least for the chance to awaken to this small grace.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Leonard Huber is sitting at the counter in my kitchen here, drinking his first cup of coffee of the day...a dark-roasted New Orleans chicory I pick up wherever I can find it and keep for him.  He drops in a few (we don't count) sugar cubes and some half-and-half.  He's the kind of coffee-drinker most people used to be in the mornings, and only a few any more are: early in the kitchen, the paper in hand, a hot cup ready to muse over, a slow and deliberate refill a little while later.

His better half, Johanna, is not yet in evidence, but there are signs she'll be up soon...a certain rustling in the back guest room, the squeak of the bathroom door.  I begin a pot of decaf for her and for me.

I'm up because, after all, I'm the supposed hostess, but these guests are so often in my company and so used to things here that we all slide into place easily and let the day begin with whatever we are used to.

For Leonard, the coffee ritual means that even while he's stirring it, he's considering the first story of the day, coming up out of a memory from last week or seven decades ago.

"My grandmother lived next door to us," he begins,"so when I got my drivers license I couldn't be  riding her fancy car just for pleasure.  It was my job to carry her all over town visiting her friends and shopping."  Just what an adolescent boy yearns to spend his spare hours doing in a car.

I've heard this story before, and he tells it the same way almost each time, with the same expression.  Leaning back on the counter stool, his body as resigned now as it must have been driving his grandmother, he goes on to talk about the family cars, and relate a few hapless incidents he and they were involved in.

Sometimes he segues into after-hours exploits with a girl he dated in high school, then stood up, then his friend married. Or the one he delivered to her academic doom helping her climb into her boarding school window too late for curfew.

And speaking of school, though in earlier years, there's the one about his father losing his cool after being told by his teacher, "Your son and my son [his classmate and co-conspirator in high-jinks] are the laziest ________ boys I've ever seen."

Do not for one microsecond assume that I am bored by any of these tales.  On the contrary, Leonard (like Johanna) is one of those friends whose friendship is so replete with his origins that you feel you know them inside out.  It's as if you can imagine them as a whole life friend, instead of merely the one you met as an adult.  Each story puts a piece of a puzzle in place, not that it's a mysterious puzzle...just an entertaining insight into the transparent and entirely visible man he is now.  Was now.

Last Friday, answering his request that his last rites include a cocktail party, some friends and I put one on for him after his memorial service, something we could do to relive his spirit (just fyi, we're good at cocktail parties) as Leonard's life wound into remembrance.  We sipped champagne, one of his drinks, and stared a while at the bottle of Pernod no one seemed to know what to do with, its two aficianados gone from this world.

Stories, however, continued.

In college he rides way up to Michigan for his first year, aspiring to be an architect.  It's cold, it's a long way from home, and architecture school is not what it's cracked up to be.  In a year or two, he settles for Tulane, where his fraternity gets into the kind of trouble he's more used to.

After college, he's married and in the Army, stationed at some point in West Texas and then in the Philippines far from his bride.  It's hot, and all his money goes home, and his unit is doing the sort of job you do in the army when there's nothing else to do, but they find entertainment readily enough.

Later, father of four, he's in the cemetery business, like his father and grandfather, and many years later, visiting New Orleans together, we are taken on a grand tour of the grounds and mausoleum.  It's impressive, the work they've done, and it's clear Leonard is proud of his part in it, despite the mishaps with marble cutters and moving grave sites that make for even more good New Orleans stories, so different and so much more lively than even his father's cultured histories.

When he marries Johanna, they struggle along for a while, but manage to hold tight to each other, and eventually sail up into the North Carolina banks, and us, keeping a wonderful bed and breakfast for years until they build their dream house out in the country, and retire (Leonard:  "Retire!  Hah!")

None of this tells you about the friend he was, or the faithfulness his friendship was, or the man whom the obituary listed as being on every civic-based committee in town...there's that story of how they volunteered to move the cannon from the grave in Boston back to its origins...or vice versa, I forget which.  I'm not the detail person I should be to retell his tales; it's the telling I treasured.

Never mind about that. What I will miss most is those mornings he visited, early to the kitchen counter with his sugared chicory coffee and stories.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Good morning...full of energy, I'm sitting out on the porch surrounded by the soft but persistent rain, a cool fall-weather day, maple and poplar leaves blowing down...the best respite of all for the muggy antecedents we've endured the last week or so.

Rain like this draws down into the ground, bringing out the colors of the mums and grasses, picking up the ears of the sage and marjoram...all that's left of the herb garden now.  And it draws me up, too, into a whole string of things that could be endeavored today...this post, for one, more of the one-of-a-kind cards I'm storing up for our November 4-5th show at Cathy Burnham's, tickets for the Mendelssohn concert next week.  Then there's the orecchiette and broccoli rabe I promised my aunt for lunch today.  And a jazz group I'm thinking might make a relaxing evening.

Naturally, I have no idea how much of this will get done...lunch is about the only certainty, though this morning, here with the rain, I feel hopeful for the rest.

I've wanted to write for weeks now, no dearth of subjects racing through my head, though interestingly without words to begin.  Mostly, if I sit down to type, something comes, and then I'm off, until the end, when I plug in photos and send it off to you all.  But this time the things I've wanted to record have eluded capture on the page.  My friend Leonard's passing two weeks ago, my friend Denise's marvelous journey in the Cotswalds going on, my aunt and uncle's (and my) twists and turns as we become a home together, their courage and the many lessons I learn from them.  Someday soon you may read through these life lenses, but right now, there is this refreshing rain (apparently falling in the Cotswalds, too..."a day for staying in, for wine and books", says Denise, maybe or maybe not in that order) and I remember winter days out in our farm long ago, beside a fire, grading papers or reading poetry for the magazine, glad for the chance to be interior.

Now, I think about what's possible, rather than what's gone on.

The rain itself enlightens me, especially in this fall season, so dry here so far.  You may be surprised to learn that all the hurricanes passing east and west of us in the last month have slipped by us, leaving little trace of even nourishing showers, cloudy as it's been.  Yesterday, the sun came out strong and bright by noon, and we took advantage of it to walk in the community park, and quite literally smelling the roses still blooming and fragrant in the garden there, the colors of summer fading from some petals, the colors of fall growing richer.  Even my aunt, whose sight is nearly gone, could recognize some of the huge red and white blooms, and perceive (no, I'm not being arty here; that's the closest word there is for they way she sees/doesn't see at the same time) the masses of miniature yellows and oranges, one of them called Cupcake.  Afterwards we took a ride around what used to be called Grandma's Lake, the tall old trees like archived cliffs on either side of the road.

But today, even after such a pleasant afternoon out, this morning's weather seems more to the point.  I can see my neighbor at work in his shop across the street, building grandchildren things; another neighbor drops by on her monthly collection for PORCH, our local volunteer food drive, reminding me to go through closets looking for extra coats to give against the cooler weather; a third neighbor, raincoat and umbrella for shelter, scurries up the street to work and students on bikes, some coated, some not, go the same way.  My son, in the air to Texas for work, will stay on my mind til he gets home, as always.

And me...I'd like to run right out into this rain and dance in it, for the exhilarating...and grateful...sense of  place and possibility it's given me.

See you in November!

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

skirt weather

 This morning, for the fifth or sixth day in a row, I have reached into the closet and pulled out a skirt to wear, instead of summer's shorts or capris.  Knee-length, if you please, not the short short-like ones that carry me through hot, muggy weather.  Somehow, these late September days, while still oppressive enough to pass for August, are nudging me toward the loose, swingy, back-to-school look stored somewhere in the murkiness of my age-cluttered mind.

I don't believe, of course, that that is the whole story.  Fall might seem like slacks-time, but slacks or jeans feel confining now, closing me up against the possibility of a fall breeze lightening the oppressiveness of 90-degree afternoons.  When others in the north are celebrating yet another dip in their still-warm lakes, I'm intuitively past summer, and on to what autumn should be.  The trees, I must add, are with me on that, shaking down thick crackles like pepper over the rain-starved ground.

Perhaps, too, there is a metaphor to be found in my need for looseness, like swimming free among waves; like lying for hours in a day unobstructed by appointments and tasks, book open in hand; like lunch with a long-time friend which continues into wine hour.  Tonight, at dinner, ruing an overcooked entree prepared in haste, I was chastised (rightly so) by my uncle, "It's that you're too much in a hurry.  I know you have a lot to do.  But you need to slow down."

The fact that the year is closing in (look at the linguistic similarities:  close, closet, clothes, closer) also plays a part...late September always brings that rushed feeling, despite the fact on the other side of the coin that there is still a whole quarter of the year left.  Why the hurry to push time, to grasp all the looseness of never-ending hours while I can?  Isn't December just an arbitrary date on a calendar closing just when the new calendar, usually already in hand, is panting to be opened?

Well, I do have the answer to that...the simplest:  Winter is in the wings, even while most of the shrubs are green, and the annuals still respond to kind, if infrequent, waterings.  If there is ever a season known for closings, it's winter.  Closing up garden, closing up porch, closing up windows and doors, closing up a lot of what frees us spring through fall.  The only thing being opened are the woolens from their storage bags, while we pull clothes close.

I like winter, really I do.  Or maybe I just agree to fall under its spell.  It's a time to hunker down (more dark evenings to read, for one thing) and give the spirit a moment to replenish itself without the need to grow, except at the root.  We pull on sweaters and hide under lap robes; setting out for a brisk walk, we tuck gloves and a scarf in pockets, just in case. Nothing fancy need happen; nothing complicated need preen itself for show.  You can paint small masterpieces; you can knit and sew; you can read and write; you can cook stews and fill the freezer for company that may or may not be coming.  On the rare occasions that it snows here, things shut down even further and you can almost hear the sighs of relief as everyone who can stays home, stays put.  (That's the time to reheat the stew and make some cornbread.) Otherwise, anything you are planning winter-wise is focused on the future when winter is finally past.

It's the time anticipating winter, though, that I like better...the cooler but not chilled weather, the leaves adrift in the air, the sudden urges to spend a morning baking for no occasion at all except to share something warm with others...pumpkin bread for breakfast (if you're looking for GF, try Trader Joe's fantastic mix, which my daughter-in-law turned me on to...and I'm not even a mix baker).  And apple crisp.  By winter, we're so overstuffed with holiday fare that these simple treats which greeted the first chilly days have become old hat.

It's not only I who feel it.  At the library, anticipation of the season has taken on a greater urgency. Summer is a busy time for reading, it's true, with children out of school and families stockpiling vacation reading and elders staying out of the sun.  But last Saturday, exchanging the old week's reads for new page-turners, there was such a crowd among us...in a library as large and spacious and light as ours, it surprised us to feel that half the town had found some excuse to crowd in with us, rushing among the shelves, hurrying to check out, chasing children along the wide inside corridor.  The new coffee shop just opened in the lobby was doing a brisk business, and the paths from parking lots and parks were tread pretty persistently.

I'll admit to having somehow changed my literary tune, too.  Two of the novels I chose were centered around food, or so I thought from the titles:  Allegra Goodman's The Cookbook Collector, and Secrets of the Tsil Cafe, by T.F. Averill.  The first turned out to be a catalog of the lives, romantic mostly, of some early techies, and the second, though it began intriguingly about a boy growing up among cooks, finally disappointed with secrets one guessed too soon.  But I still have the third and fourth to carry me through this week: one about Paris, Ellis Avery's The Last Nude, and a mystery by Louise Penny, whom I gave up on last year, but decided to pull in anyway.  I'd have loved to bring home again The Last Chinese Chef, but it wasn't on the shelf.  Nice safe books, nothing current or adventurous or enthusiastically recommended by the avid and intelligent readers in my correspondence.  Every one redolent of winter's preoccupations.

Today, in a brown skirt with vines of embroidered flowers making the hem, and a fall-green three-quarter-sleeve shirt that sort of goes with it, I'm off to tackle everything from errands to card-making, including a shopping trip with my aunt for her new winter suit.  (At 98, she's decided it's too long since she bought herself anything new).  Meanwhile, I'm hoping that in the workshop this afternoon I can work myself into the right season for our November's show.  That handmade book I've been mentally inventing for months, on Time, ironically, has become more and more a preoccupation, and will soon, I suspect, center the worktable.  I won't be able to hurry that.

If, dear readers, you are scratching your heads, wondering what to make of the puzzling maze this post has become, scratch no more...consider it simply another indication of pushy winter:  woolly rumination.


Apple Crisp

6 tart apples, peeled, cored and sliced
a little lemon juice
a little fine sea salt
1-2 tbs honey

Place apples in a deep pie dish.
Sprinkle a little lemon juice on them and a tiny bit of salt.  Mix well.
Drizzle the honey over the apples.

Mix 1.5 - 2 cups oatmeal with
1.5 tsp cinnamon
1 scant tsp ground cloves 
small pieces of candied ginger
.5 (that's 1/2) tsp nutmeg and
1 tbs coconut oil, liquid.
Sprinkle evenly over apples.

Bake at 350 degrees for 50 minutes.
Enjoy the aroma everywhere in the house; watch the leaves fall.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

A tiny woman with a guitar

I was about to begin a new post, when I opened my mail to a message from a friend...in fact two messages from two dear friends, the best way I know to invite a new page and a new year.  One wished me peace; the other, wrapping her words in a calm, quiet (enviable) mood, inspired in me what she so perfectly called "the comfort in a familiar routine" that such holidays bring...breathing the aroma of apples and cinnamon while ironing table dressings and wiping wine glasses, looking forward to the songs of the ceremony, sung in her family's congregation by the cantor, "a tiny woman with a guitar".  She imagines that my dining room, like hers, will be where family will gather tonight.

Yes, the dining room will be our scene.  Instead of her apple cake, we will have rugelach, the nut-filled rounds with apricot. There will be ginger chicken, and potato gratin, and orange-carrot-fennel salad.  And apples and honey.

I hope to achieve as calm a space to prepare them as my friend has...my aunt will be out getting her hair done, and my uncle napping or reading, and the children not yet at the door.  I'll iron my tablecloth with some quiet music.

Years ago, I'd written a poem, Ironing on Shabbat, about that same calm achieved: the peaceful motion of the iron smoothing the cloth in a house "emptied of temple-goers", more religious than a formal ceremony.  Especially at a time when a little peace and quiet was a rare and most welcome gift for a young mother.

These days I've been making my own tablecloths and napkins by hand from fabric I find around on the remnant shelves; it's part of undoing a tangled day in the evening hours when I'm watching a movie or listening to music. Stitching without hurry, my hands can accomplish something for no required reason. There is sanctuary in the motion of the ordinary when calm prevails.
Even so, holidays like this one underscore the double edge we live with... as the table is plentiful and handsome with sweet things, so is the world outside (for too many, inside, too) full of terrors...want, war, megalomania, meanness.  We could drown in it if we didn't have these rituals which call us so firmly to our better selves.  Would that the whole planet knew how to untangle itself without pulling each other apart.

I too like the music of the service, for me the most spiritual part, like a mantle I wear for remembering.  Prayers for my children, for whom I keep it, the solemnity of halting the outside world to consider one's place in life, one's openness to peace...I do that for me.

With the friend who wished me peace today, I used, on the high holidays, to stay for the meditation service while most of the other congregants went home to nap til the memorial later in the afternoon.  We'd walk the gardens, or sit silently, or consider life awhile together.  Peace, acceptance...so little to ask of life and so precious, too often so far from reach.

And yet...may our tables shine with them, this night and always.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Storm Warnings

Ever since Ivan appeared on the scene, whirling out of the South Atlantic, I've been getting messages from family and friends by all sorts of media inquiring whether I've decided to evacuate.  The fact that the storm is nowhere near me, and, by at least some projections, not likely to do more than send a small tail of rain and wind our way, makes me wonder what use warnings of this sort, to the tune of the background noise of insistent newscasts, are.  And also makes me realize how little I pay attention to things like that.  For better or worse.

Not that I wouldn't move in a hurry if I lived in a Miami high rise and the storm was at my door, as it seems to be there today.  We have, in our time, sat out more hurricanes than I can count, and lived to tell the tale, but only after judicious consideration, or blind indifference.  Hurricanes shift what the weather people design as their "paths" all the time, so projections are little use to coast-dwellers, who, if they have been born and bred to the climate, know better than to expect the expected.  One takes shelter in different ways, depending on a lot of things both at home and in the sky.  My mother and aunts liked to tell a story of a day they spent in the kitchen at the shore, baking, when one of them looked out the side window and noticed that the ocean was running down the street only a few feet from the side lawn.  How a hurricane could sneak up on you like that is beyond belief, except that I, who was small and there with them at the time, must have inherited their cluelessness.  They stayed put, of course, put out candles, I suppose, and listened to the wind howl.  I don't remember hearing how the baking came out.

My husband and I, who had eighteen years earlier traveled through a raging hurricane to our new home near the sound, sat out Irene five or six years ago, along with all our neighbors, despite "mandatory" evacuation orders.  We weren't scofflaws; we lived in 100-plus year old houses and figured that they'd lasted this long without suffering defeat.  Irene too felt right at home and so stayed atop us all day and night until, in the morning, we all looked out at the fine day and fell to picking up the trees littering one another's yards.  Right now, one Floridian of my family has moved north; another, with ailing parents less able to make a trip, has hunkered down to ride it out.  A third southerner, like us nowhere near its path, has made elaborate plans to be somewhere else, where exactly he hasn't decided.  My friend talks about her friends who live in a double-wide in Irma's path, but can't decide whether to stay or find a last-minute motel.  There's nothing like hurricane warnings to show us our tendencies.

Meanwhile, other warnings ride the waves of the air.  I'm not sure I pay enough attention to those, either.  Along the way, things I should have had at least an inkling of have caught me by surprise, like that ocean hurling past my mother and aunt years ago.  A job cut.  A friend's betrayal.  And yet there are others I can feel in the wind right to my bones.  A child in danger (the worst of the worst).  A need to get away.

Close friends I'd planned to see today have had to cancel; his health won't permit the visit...he's at a dangerous crossroads, suddenly brought on, and his wife is on tenterhooks.  While the cancellation is understandable, it's thrown me off this morning in surprising ways.  Coming home from the aborted trip, I changed and began to think of what I could get done instead...there's quite a list...but somehow I couldn't organize myself to what are, after all, pretty simple tasks.  I really wanted to see my friends.

I put on a recording of some Cajun music I like (my friends are from New Orleans in the most entrenched way) and thought about making shrimp remoulade for dinner.  To the tunes of the Breaux Brothers, I began to make some cookies, then went out in the yard to prune the overindulged tentacles of what's known in these parts as ugly-agnus.  The cookies crumbled; the pruning, which I usually consider therapeutic, seemed tedious.  Coming back into the house, I tried a few phone calls, but the work I really have to get done...art I've long neglected (and me with a November show coming up!)...just wasn't in me.   I'm thinking of my friend, blank of mind about his condition, and knowing I probably won't know how he is until much later.  That seems to have drained me of any focus except on him and on his wife, whose voice on the phone was uncharacteristically heavy with portent.  It's difficult to be so far away from those I care about and want to support.

I used to like storms...still in a way, do...but so much experience with those inner ones life throws at us have warn me down.  I believe I'm good at coping with what comes, but these days I think to myself, what next?, and not in a cheerfully anticipatory way.

I'd say that I'm just temporarily out of sorts (I used to tell my husband that, to his puzzlement; "What does that mean?" he'd ask), except that outside it's a beautiful day, one of the nicest we've had in a week of gorgeous weather, and one of my favorite seasons, fall, is in the air, and I've a workshop full of potential just waiting to be realized.  There is every reason to be hopeful, to be full of life, to be engaged in the future.

Instead, all I seem to be able to do is shrug, and wait for it to pass, hoping whatever storm is roiling through me leaves me grateful for the rain, inspired again, and, most important, facing no great loss.  Evacuation isn't really possible in such circumstances; neither is gathering candles and stockpiling peanut butter and water.  We just have to ride it out and accept the yard full of broken trees.  If the dam breaks, it breaks, and we ride its muddy wash out until our feet touch land again.  Then we get up again and start over.

A few days later, we're still waiting for rain stronger than a drizzle, but the weather has cooled a bit, and to counteract the gathering clouds I decided that I'd use up a week's leftovers by making a meal (I'd give anything to share it with my ailing friend) that seems to warm everyone.  Those of you in the same boat might try it, too:

Pot Pie
1. Dice leftover (cooked) chicken and set aside.  If it's been dressed while it was cooked...for example with pesto or balsamic reduction or even BBQ sauce...so much the better for flavor.
2. Saute some onion, celery and carrot, also diced, until the onion is almost translucent.
3. Add the chicken dice, about a cup of vegetable broth mixed with a small can of evaporated milk, and some parsley, sage, and thyme.
4. Add some small-diced sweet potato or butternut squash (or both) and cook for a few minutes, 
then add some green peas and cut string beans, maybe some corn kernels, asparagus, sauteed mushrooms, whatever.  Season with S/P (red pepper is best).
5a. Mash some potatoes with butter.
5b. Make a short pastry and roll out to about 1/4 inch thickness.
5c. Mix up some cornbread batter.
6.  Pour the chicken mixture into your prettiest casserole dish and top with the mashed potatoes (5a.) or the pastry (5b.) or the cornbread batter (5c.)  
If you use the mashed potatoes or the cornbread batter, just mound it here and there over the top.  If you use the pastry, cut out a pretty design to vent the steam.
7.  Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes while the house warms and smells delicious.
If, like me, you don't do meat, just substitute all the vegetables you can think of for the chicken.  If you're vegan, lose the butter and milk.  Won't make any difference to comfort.
If your refrigerator goes out during the storm, you can reheat it on your outdoor grill, 
or share it lukewarm right out of the pot.
A bottle of your favorite wine, red or white, isn't a bad idea, either.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Family History

As we packed for their move to North Carolina in a few days, I opened a box of letters my Aunt Vi had been keeping…not like me, who hoards every letter ever received, but selected cards from family that she held dear to her heart. 

It wasn’t only keepsakes that were saved in that box.  Each card opened to a story, a remembrance, a family connection.

Digging in it, I discovered a watercolor I had sent her with some photographs, and a poem celebrating her 82nd birthday.  The pictures inside, though, were mostly taken 67 years ago come November, when she’d flown to Florida to meet my grandparents at their Miami house and surprised them with another guest:  me.

Though I’d been born in that city during the war, my father being stationed by the Navy there, we’d moved back when the war was over to where my parents had grown up, my grandparents eager to claim their first.  This, then, was only my second flight that far away from home (the first, at six months old, I couldn’t remember), and though it could rightly be called a journey to revisit my roots, the trip to Miami might well have been to another country for one so young as I.  So much to see, such a different landscape and lifestyle.  I loved the sun and bathing and floating around after my aunt and grandparents.

If Miami seemed a far country, we were yet to make, in fact, a real international jaunt.

Card, poem, photos all brought back to me not only that experience, but a more historically significant one, for from Miami we’d flown to Havana, where my grandfather had some business interests.  An inventor of machines for special industrial interests, he and his company had ties to the Cuban and American companies that dominated commerce on the island before Castro’s revolution. 

Since I was young at the time, the images I can recall from that marvelous visit are few, but still clear:  the balcony of our hotel over a street teeming with vibrant life…merchants, shoppers, music, a cacophony of different languages; a dinner at a client’s elegant ranch house farther out in the country where I’d seen my first finger bowl, in each a fragrant flower floating; a walk along the harbor where (remember how young I was) the push and pull of the foot traffic had me huddling between my aunt and grandparents.  How I would like to visit that city and country again now, when so much more of my eyes, ears, curiosity, and knowledge would broaden the adventure considerably.

Cuba today…having been closed to us Americans for so many decades, changed in its relationship to us, its culture and its own historical evolution…would be a wonderful juxtaposition to those small scenes of ancient memory.

But back to our own diggings: the watercolor I’d painted for that birthday emanated, as such images usually do, from the day and the recipient.  It was raining, but earlier that morning it had not yet swelled with dark clouds.  I thought of that first view and how I might preserve it on waking.

Inside the watercolor was the inscription, which rather than explain (we don’t explain poems, I kept telling my students for 40 years; they are what they are…and what you bring to them), I reproduce here:


It is a gray day, four hundred-some miles from
where we should be, and will be soon, lunching with you
in honor of your eighty-second birthday, laughing at old
pictures around the table by the window at the shore;
not there yet but here, the rain is falling in that steady, persistent
way you have always advised for growing—grass, flowers,
an even tide of white-edged waves coming in its wake.
And in appreciation, the bright zinnias dance in their pots,
the herbs unfold into dense plenty, the sanctuarial hydrangeas,
even now on their way out of season, preen and shine
becoming the character of the exotic, the faraway.
For I am thinking of other rains…not only there at the shore
years ago, when we play in the garage or bathhouse,
keeping ourselves busy with old slickers and puckered
cast-off hats from the cellar door, you laughing as,
rippling the wet boardwalk, we raced the molded carriage
up and down, soaking ourselves, or washed clam shells to paint
for a sidewalk stand when the sun and beachgoers returned,
but in other, farther places—Miami and Havana for me,
Scotland and the Hague for you—where as well the rain still falls
in our memory.  Small and leery of new shores, swarming
marketplaces, hustling streets crowing garbled tongues,
I balk and you coax me down from the high, ornate balcony
of our hotel, taking me to dinner in the tropical rooms of strangers
as if all this were only family again at our own complicated,
complicitous tables at home.
It didn’t rain in the parrot jungle,
or at the alligator farm where the wrestlers pretended to battle
the embattled; it might have rained once or twice the days
we planned to go fishing or bathing, but in those old photographs,
the sun seems ubiquitous—dancing on the picnic table in the yard
of palms and flagrant bougainvillea, chasing away territorial crows;
posing well-dressed and territorial myself against the tall,
white marble memorial to a forgotten city’s past, or sitting
like beauty queens on the sand—you always beside me, behind me,
guardian and guarded guest; still in your twenties then, and I only five,
we seemed like short and long echoes of each other, one practiced,
the other practicing for:  a good girl's dream of aunt and me.

That last line, I know, probably resounds in a lot of families...the aunt who took us under her wing, the aunt who was sweet, the aunt who gave us treats (and remembered what we liked best), the aunt who was a shoulder to lean on, an ear to hear what we had to say, the aunt who told us without hesitation family stories, and drew us into them.

It takes no digging at all to bring up the way our aunts all played such enormous roles in our growing years.  It hardly takes a photo, for we carry their leanings in us always.  But introducing this blog is one of my favorite photos, also found in that envelope with the Miami/Cuba images...three of my aunts at my mother's birthday party a considerable time later in time though not affection.  If you are an artist (and even if you aren't), look at the ease with which we arrange ourselves into this composition.  This is a picture of what I think of when I think of my aunts.