a journal of...

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

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.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Life Changes

This time of year, there are quiet shifts in our neighborhood.  People leave and return from vacation, or leave permanently for newer horizons, like the couple who stayed in the house behind me, doing a fellowship here before returning to their home state where a job and their baby's grandparents awaited them.  The house is empty now, so we're all waiting to see who will next become part of our world.  Except for that cottage and a newly built house down the block with a young family arrived, there's been remarkably little removing among us.

 As summer has progressed, we ourselves have come and go (though not speaking of Michelangelo), by all sorts of means, connecting to families far-flung.

Life changes in less dramatic ways all the time:  children grow, heads and beards thicken or thin, strides lengthen and shorten, voices rise and lower, shadows in windows quicken and slow.  And on the horizon, changes  await our connection with them, some planned, some unplanned.


In this house, which I had begun to call The Inn for the frequent company I enjoyed, most of the rooms have these past few weeks been in an uproar, readying for some new residents to join me.  My aunt and uncle, now in a retirement village (think hundreds of acres, hundreds of "homes", a 30 minute bus ride across "campus"), will be my housemates.  Their changing health, until lately pretty good, and increasing blindness make watchful care more necessary.  I've certainly got the room to include them.  This is a house used to change, having been built as and remained a college rental until I took it over and changed its character.  Its spaces, perhaps oddly situated for newer houses, are nonetheless amenable to the shifts of various living requirements.  So it didn't take a lot of imagination to see that simply switching what was the large sitting room with what was the smaller guest room across the hall would produce a comfortable and private space for two, even given the usual multi-generational comings and goings around here.

But you know how renovations blossom:  once you begin to move and replace, other projects (not a few waiting in the wings for "some day") rear their heads, crying "What about me??"

For instance, I'd been wanting to paint the kitchen ever since I saw the wall color I'd initially chosen drain it of life.  What better time than the present when I am in the midst of change anyway?   This time I borrowed the tried and true Honey Gold from the dining room walls. As I cleared shelves and walls and counters to begin the job, the dining room, in consequence, drew itself up, affronted with piles of everyday pottery, ceramics, glassware, tools, piles of cookbooks, linens...how on earth does one collect so much in a kitchen?

Meanwhile, my own room, formerly Poetic Plum from a wild impulse I'd had when I moved in, found itself being repainted Quietude.  I have to say that none of the art, quilts or drapes turned a hair at the tonal shift; it's as if they were waiting for the restful background as much as the kitchen was for its new sunny disposition.

Thinking about whom I was trying to accommodate, I realized a few updates were due to the bathroom, too...a grab bar, uncluttered cabinets, and a lick of cleaner white, though after the first coat I realized I'd used the wrong shade...do you know how many whites there are?  I made a coat closet out of a storage closet, and rearranged the laundry room for easier use.  As stuff collected and as the back rooms traded identities, the mountain of Things I Don't Need and Wonder Why I'm Keeping grew and grew.  I sent out a plangent call for help moving, shifting, dragging out, fixing, restyling...and fortunately--and gratefully--I received agreeable responses.

The closets needed emptying and clearing, too.  For a few nights, I dug in, unearthing boxes of photographs, each a home for a different era of life...old relatives (a few nameless, though I might recognize a face), childhood, parents' lives, college lives, children's lives, husband lives, houses and towns, friends, travels, keepsakes from all sort of situations and circumstances.  Didn't that set my work schedule back a day! But on they went to their new memory closet.  Along with six file boxes of letters, calendars and cards, a set of graduation portraits, a stack of unhung diplomas, awards, citations for work I'd forgotten I'd done, etc. A bin of family history took up the whole bottom shelf; it's still uncatalogued after two decades.  Another bin (my grandfather's old suitcase, actually) of memorials, firmly shut since I stored them, remained so.  As did files of old stories and manuscripts, and odd clippings.  But alas their new storage was only half the size of the previous one, and so the mountain rose, nonetheless.

How does so much get crammed into a life, I wonder?  How does one ever get so far carrying all that baggage?  Not to mention those six bookcases of books that had to come down from their dusty shelves and be replaced...somewhere.

At first, all the clutter of lives past shifting from room to room appeared so beside the point. Perhaps by then I was tired of the shoving and stretching and rolling, the undoing and the redoing. The recycling bin yawned temptingly. One by one, though, each photograph and souvenir had brought up a whole world of not only memory but perspective, and even invention, forecasting analogies to come.

One item in particular reminded me of the move I made forty-one years ago last month, halfway across the country to a new home: two babies, a suitcase each, diaper bags and toys, purse and papers...and no promised airline aide in sight (thanks, Delta).  I got a cart, piled everything and everybody on it, and somehow we made our connecting flight and arrived at the right future.

Where then, I ask myself, looking at time's detritus surrounding me these days, do all those other former lives, belong in the present and future I step into day by day?

Yes, yes, I'm getting a bit too metaphysical, I know.  Aristotle and Descartes would have words on the subject, but, I'm sorry to say, wouldn't solve the problem.  (Philosophy mostly fails when presented with actual life situations.)

Where are the boundaries of a life?  Are our eras simply short stories unveiled in monthly series?  Are they novels, where chapters fall into one another, if not seamlessly at least relatively?  Are they shelf-fulls of encyclopediae kept for reference, or infinite databases that link the known and the unknown in sometimes scary connection?  What do I save?  What can be left, safely, like the children in Amy Tan's story, along the way?

Please don't suggest that I digitalize everything and put it on discs.  The horror of that storage system (at least for me) is best exemplified by considering the difference between a still, constant photograph of one's grandchild, framed on the side table one passes fifty times a day, and the photographs stored on a flash drive one catalogs efficiently but never thinks to download and open.  Well, but, my niece reminds me, you could still have a digital photo frame on the table to show one by one...

Or maybe I ought to project a screen on a wall, like those photographic art exhibits in museums: in frame after frame, the artist in period costume, taking eccentric poses, and the people around her, some related, some not, appearing over and over again mouthing words no one can hear, in places one has to stand and wonder over.  It's tempting.  If only I had a free wall.

In any case, it does take a life change to remind us where we've come from.  I'd like to believe that we'd also find the map to the future in those same frames, too.