Reading, Revisited

 

I’ve been given a writing assignment. I like those. Especially when the ability to concentrate is at low ebb. I find myself wandering off lately. Physically wandering off has always been a habit of mine (apologies to everyone who has ever waited for me). Daydreaming, too, is a kind of wandering off (guilty). I mean wandering off mid-thought though. Mid-sentence, even. Nothing sticks in my head for long.

At the bookstore I found Lampedusa’s The Leopard. Or it found me. It’s “the story of Don Fabrizio Corbera, Prince of Salina, a 19th century Sicilian nobleman caught in the midst of democracy and revolution.”  Honestly? This description did NOT excite me. It had been so highly praised by a friend though that I thought someday I should read it. I told this to myself repeatedly, the way I remind myself to eat salad. Someday. Now, my writing assignment was to begin: “I went to the bookstore because I wanted to read The Leopard.”  – and it does. But it’s not true and this is not my writing assignment.

I’d gone to the bookstore because I’d gone to the pet store because I was supposed to be grocery shopping. Obviously. I needed escape. The bookstore is almost in sight of the pet store and it is a near perfect place to escape for an hour or two. I rode the escalator just for the view and wandered through the stationery and journals. I looked for Sherwood Anderson’s Poor White, knowing full well they didn’t have it but unable to think what else to want. Walking alone in the woods clears my head so that I can pick out a thought like a string and follow it to its end. It’s productive. Losing myself in a busy bookstore is just that: losing myself. And sometimes I need that, too. Hearing a hundred other voices I’m unable to hear my own. I am free to forget.

The phone in my pocket rang. So much for forgetting. I leaned my head against the shelves and closed my eyes. It occurred to me I must have looked prayerful and so I opened them. There was The Leopard,  directly in front of me. In my head I heard my friend’s voice proclaiming it “absolutely astonishing” and I plucked it off the shelf.

Since Mom died, I haven’t been able to immerse myself in a book. My mind skims over things and refuses to focus. But The Leopard,  lush and lyrical, drew me in. For four days I was in Italy with the Salina family, watching revolution take place on battlefields and in ballrooms. The blurb at the back of the book begins: Set in the 1860s, The Leopard tells the spellbinding story of a decadent, dying Sicilian aristocracy threatened by the approaching forces of democracy and revolution. The dramatic sweep and richness of observation, the seamless intertwining of public and private worlds, and the grasp of human frailty imbue The Leopard with its particular melancholy beauty and power, and place it among the greatest historical novels of our time.

“Absolutely astonishing” is absolutely right. It was good to be engrossed in a book again. Reading, for me, is both the escape of losing myself in a crowd and the clarity of mind I find walking in the woods alone. A dichotomy, and yet there are few more perfect pleasures.

Fat Tuesday

 

Fat Tuesday and we’re feeling fortunate. I’ve made too much pancake batter, throwing in frozen blueberries by handfuls, the Fashionista cracking the eggs and pouring in half the bottle of vanilla. I sprinkle cinnamon until the batter is splotched with brown. We rub the griddle down with butter and the pancakes start to pile onto the platter. The syrup is lumberjack sized and there’s an audible “whump” when it makes contact with the table and a sweet relief when the strain is gone from your arms – that’s how big it is.

Fat Tuesday and we’re talking about how much we have and how little we’re willing to do without. They’re talking. I’m listening. The Boy says he’ll give up pancakes for Lent and I take another bite, wondering what’s wrong with them. But they taste great and I remind myself that this child means what he says. He’s enjoying them so much right now it’s hedonistic. He’s become a gourmand and he knows it’s wrong. He’s a good kid. I don’t know where he came from. The Pixie – who gave up triangles last year – swithers. “Flowers. Actually, not flowers. Cats.” Someone points out the fact that we have three cats and she can’t pet them for forty days. “Forty days!” she cries, and I’m right there with her. Forty days without the bristly feel of Huck’s head or Tom’s soft, furry belly? “Purple,” she says “or maybe pink.”

Pink? I see my beloved pink tartan handbag, the pink scarf I wove for myself, remember the favorite pink pearls. Pink? Maybe. It’s only forty days.

Thursday and I’m sliding into a booth seat in a diner, shedding my coat and scarf. It’s late and we’re giggling. The waiter comes to take our order. I ask for a Coke, no ice. “I thought you quit drinking soda.” I say I did. I know they’re bad for me. “What was that – yesterday??” and we laugh. It’s good to be out late. It’s good to be laughing with a friend. It’s good to be alive and I don’t want to give up anything. Not for a day, not for forty days, not forever.

Last Week

 

After breakfast the table was cleared and supplies laid out: cardstock, colored pencils, glitter, glue… it was valentines day.

I struggle against the store-bought ones. I don’t know why. They’re adorable and so alluringly easy; just fill in the blanks. But I remember too well the red hearts on white paper doilies, carefully cut and lovingly (if sloppily) pasted in place. The red and pink ovals folded and woven together – over, under – into one heart. It just doesn’t get more poetic than that.

I read the first name on the list of the pixie’s classmates. “No” she said. Excuse me? Everyone gets a valentine. Forget all that stuff about love or even his cousin, like. I’m not about to let her hurt anyone’s feelings. Everyone gets a valentine. “NO. I’m going to make mine first.”

(Yours? They’re ALL yours! You’re the one making them! Who else’s could they be?)

Biting my lip hard, I looked up. She was writing her name across an envelope in red. She was making herself a valentine! And she was making it first. What a strange and wonderful creature she is.

This was not, of course, my first thought. I started Catholic school at a very impressionable age. My first inclination was horror. “Vanity!” I heard Sister Mary Something cry. But she is not vain. Precocious, but not conceited. She simply knows enough to love herself.

Politics

 

My five-year-old is a Republican. “Obama is a bad President.” she says. Of course I tell her he is not. It’s a hard job and I wouldn’t want it. “Yes he is,” she insists. “Grandma said.” I laugh a little at this and she gives me a stern look. “He makes bad rolls.”

Rolls? She must mean rules. She clearly thinks I should be taking this more seriously and so I ask why his rolls are bad.

She shrugs. “They’re probably moldy. Are you going to make lunch?”

Yes, but I hope Mr Obama hasn’t made the bread.

Hands

 

My mother had beautiful hands. Images of them are woven through my childhood memories. Even then I noticed them. Elegantly shaped and graceful, they seemed to me like birds moving through the air.

I remember her swimming, and then I thought they were like fish; strong and supple – agile. They were capable hands. Not just pretty to look at, but useful: cooking or cleaning, gardening, creating…

She painted faces on rocks and put them under the apple tree and in the flower beds to make people smile. She taught me to hold the broom with authority and sweep like I meant it. She combed my hair with her fingers and massaged my scalp. I remember her hands resting easily on the steering wheel; the pressure of her palm turning the wheel and her fingers out straight, floating in the air. Self-assured, unafraid.

But most of the time her hands appeared in continuous motion, busy with whatever needed to be done. They were dependable.

To me, the effortless grace of her hands made the work seem light. But I’m grown now and I know it wasn’t always. I know it was hard and I know she wasn’t perfect, that she faltered at times like anyone else. I also know what she sacrificed for me. I know the work her hands did for me. To make my work lighter, to give me opportunities, to offer me happiness.

When I needed them most, her hands were soothing. Hers would find mine and hold it. There was no need for words. Under the table at lunch, she’d squeeze mine and I’d know she loved me. She understood. There was comfort and relief and rest in her hands. I believe that she has those things in God’s hands now. Comfort and relief. And rest.

I miss her. I’ll remember her hands and what they taught me. I’ll remember their beauty and fearlessness. I’ll remember their love.

Forever

 

“Where are we going?”

A direct question that should have an easy answer, but nothing’s been easy lately.

“Grandpa’s.” A glance in the rear-view mirror at her wrinkly brow makes me explain. She has two Grandpas. “Mom Mom’s Grandpa. We’re going to Mom Mom and Grandpa’s house.”

Silence. I may be off the hook. She is only three.

“Ellie and Evie and I know Mom Mom died.”

Deep breath. Breathe again. The anger and hurt – the grief – wells up suddenly and I ease it back down the way I survived childbirth. Only deep breaths and let them out one at a time.

“Do you remember Mom Mom?”

“Yes.” I wonder if she does. She’s only three and saw her so seldom. Mom called her Baby when she forgot her name. “She brought me candy.” Yes.

She is only three. How long will that memory hold? The tears are running free now, but she needs me to talk. Passing my mother’s house, I ask if she knows what it means to be dead.

“Can she open her eyes?” I picture them as I saw them that day.

“No.”

“Well then what does she do all day?”

I want to say she sings and she dances. I want to say she’s with the angels. I want to be reassuring and motherly and all that comes out are tears and shallow, gasping breaths.

“She loves you.”

“All day?”

“Forever.”

Is that enough?

Sensible

 

We have a dark and quiet hour together every morning before my son goes off to school. I don’t wake the girls till he’s gone and we have the chance to talk, just the two of us, or not talk and sit in companionable silence instead. I set his plate before him this morning with eggs, bacon, bagel, and the directive: Drink your juice.

“Mom! You sound just like Dad. I don’t want—“

“And I don’t want to get bitched at because you didn’t drink it!”

Oops. Things can get a little heated over the orange juice at our house. I fought the urge to cover my mouth. I am adult. I keep telling myself.

“You owe me a nickel.”

“I’ll give you a quarter if you’ll drink your juice.”

“Plus the nickel?”

“Don’t push it.”

He downed the juice in one long swallow. I laid a quarter by his plate. Why isn’t everything this simple?

An hour later I’m serving the same meal to the girls. It is not quiet. The Pixie complains she can’t eat her bagel because of her snaggletooth. Her front tooth is dangling crookedly and she looks like Nanny McPhee. I sit by her and tear the bagel into bites she can chew on the side. “Better?” She nods her head. It’s a good morning and I decide to try the juice bribe. As if anything involving girls could be simple.

“Why do I have to drink orange juice?”

“It’s important to your dad.”

“Why? What does he care? Why’s he always yelling about it?”

Beats me, but he is and someone is drinking this juice. (probably me, after she leaves)

“Scurvy” I say instead.

After a discussion of Scurvy: Causes and Effects, the oldest daughter looks frightened and drinks her juice. Her younger sister is still dubious. “My teeth are already loose – SEE?” and she bares her teeth at me, the front one jutting out drunkenly as if to prove her point. I tell her about Captain Cook circumnavigating the globe (“What?”) and staving off scurvy with a steady diet of sauerkraut and Tropicana orange juice (“So?”), hoping to distract and take her by surprise when I swing the conversation back to the glass on the table. I pretend to be a brilliant military strategist but, as you probably guessed, I’m not. I get lost in my own story and the girls are gone. Finishing the Pixie’s orange juice I consider Captain Cook. He explored the South Pacific – Can you imagine? Leaving England and finding Tahiti?  – and went home. Went home! How grown up and sensible. How incredibly dull. 

A friend once told me she hadn’t had a hot meal or her own plate in years. Every breakfast, lunch, and dinner – even in a restaurant – consisted of whatever her boys hadn’t eaten. At the time I didn’t have kids of my own. I couldn’t imagine. It made me angry. Not so much allowing others to invalidate your needs, your very existence as a person, but to do it to yourself! I would never!

And yet, here I am. The kids have gone off to learn, to explore, to circumnavigate the globe, and I sit drinking leftover juice, nibbling the crust of cold toast from someone else’s plate.

How grown up and sensible. How incredibly dull.