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.

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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.

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.

Poetry

No, it’s not over. I’m still here. And it’s not that there hasn’t been plenty to say. I just haven’t. The assigned theme for poetry group last week was writer’s block. This is what I wrote:     

                            

                              *   

                              *   

                              *   

                              *   

                              * 

  

A variation of what I wrote in November. October had enough inspiration in it to keep me making poems for years to come, but I’m better at finding poetry than at making it. Yesterday I found it in the sky; birds. They were not geese and there was no V formation. No MC Escher imitation of birds turning in sync, now snowy breast, now silver wing. Just birds. Black ones, plain and graceless and all the more beautiful because. They reminded me of this by Gerard Manley Hopkins:      

Pied Beauty

Glory be to God for dappled things–      

For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;      

For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;      

Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;      

Landscape plotted and pieced–fold, fallow, and plough;      

And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.      

All things counter, original, spare, strange;      

Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)      

With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;      

He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:      

Praise Him.

Thanksgiving

“Let us be grateful to people who make us happy, they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.”

Hi

 

I’ve been reading a lot. And drawing. None of it makes its way here. I don’t know why. I’m really a very private person. Someone made the observation that the Pixie talks when she wants to, but when she doesn’t she just doesn’t. She’s as closed as a nut.

I guess I’m a little like her.

 

I was lately inspired to visit my grandparents. The cemetery isn’t walled or gated or overgrown and forgotten. Just a not-so-big Methodist cemetery in rural America. Open, sunny, well cared for. Optimistic. It would never be the setting for a scene in a Gothic novel. I’m glad. I’m glad to look out across a field of green and see sun warming the stones. Yes, I’ve cried there. The memory of playing tag between the stones is stronger. The cemetery runs right up to the Sunday School steps. While I waited for my mother I memorized the names on the headstones, making up stories to go with them. When she was late I visited the graves of my great grandparents and my sister, who lies beside them. I talked. I rarely thought to bring a tribute. I’m not good with observances and formalities. My tribute was my words. In my head I talked to them as though they were there. And now, my grandparents. They weren’t famous. They weren’t war heroes or social activists. They were more than that. They were mine.

A huge basket of wildflowers was spilled over the new grave that summer day seven years ago. She’d have loved them. Wild, leggy beauties that looked as if they’d been gathered on a mountainside. It would have been a shame to leave them to wilt and rot. We picked the ground clean and carried bouquets home to remind us of her. She’d have laughed and done the same. And that’s how it was. We each of us carried something of her away inside ourselves.

On the Road Again

 

I’ve been away. I’ll tell you about it later. Right now I want to talk about white-line fever. Not the book, the movie, the television show, or the song. No; Highway Hypnosis. Technically, a mental state in which the person can drive great distances, responding to external events in the expected manner, with no recollection of having consciously done so. The driver’s conscious mind is apparently fully focused elsewhere, with seemingly direct processing of the masses of information needed to drive safely. Automaticity. The conscious and subconscious minds appear to concentrate on different things. You sleep deprived mothers know what I’m talking about. It’s not just for truckers anymore.

I’ve had it many times on the road though and I don’t like it. I want to notice one place melding into another. The hardwood forests of New England easing into the scrub pines and eventually the scattered palms of the South. The soil that turns to sand as you near the shore. I want to feel the differences between one place and another. A uniqueness of space.

There’s truck driver blood in me. When I was ten I thought I’d grow up to be a Truck Driving Artist Librarian President of the United States. I’d take the Oval Office on the road and multi-tasking to a new level. My father drove a semi. From the time I could climb in, I spent hours sitting in the cab pretending to drive through the deserts of New Mexico or along the rocky coast of Maine. Always with an empty load, sailing along like the breeze. Free. My friends did not do this and I thought it was my truck driver blood that made me different. A rover.

Sometimes a sort of white-line fever comes over me at home. I go through the motions of domestic life daydreaming. In my mind I’m somewhere else. Today I’ve been back to Budapest, which I haven’t given a fair assessment of here, then to China and Japan. I want to see Mount Fuji from the air. I want to float down the Yangtze River. I want to be on the road. I want the wind in my hair and white lines running on before me.

Heal Thyself

 

Dr Gray leaned back in his chair, rubbing his nose meditatively. Then he spoke, eyes still closed so I wasn’t sure if he was talking to me or himself. I always get the feeling he’s more of a philosopher than a physician and that in itself makes me feel better. In college we had a Philosopher in Residence. Every now and then I wandered down the hill and up long, narrow, switchback stairs to visit. It was like climbing the Sacred Way to consult the Oracle. At the top was a small, dark landing and a door. That’s all. I drew myself up to knock and the door opened onto a sanctuary. Sun poured in from long windows and stacks of books rose up everywhere like the vapors of Apollo himself.

There are no stacks of books in Dr Gray’s small office, but there are paintings. His wife is an artist, which is how we met. So we talk a lot about her and a lot about art and a little about my physical health. This suits me fine. As he walks me out I realize there is a life-size marble bust of Julius Caesar there in the hallway. He’s sitting on a faux woodgrain laminate desk as if the waiting room were too plebeian for him. Obviously the doctor would see him immediately. He’d wait right here. If it were a smaller sculpture I could imagine someone walked through and said: I’ll just set this down here a minute. But this is Caesar, large as life and ten times as heavy. He demands homage.

Dr Gray sighs. “That belongs to Dr Billons. I think he wants to put it on ebay.” Dr Billons, who I’ve never met, has been brought into the practice as a relief pitcher. I imagine him young and brash and wearing rubber gloves. He’s very clinical, probably diagnoses patients with his eyes open. This is his? Suddenly I don’t want to pull his name off the door. I want him to assess my lymph nodes speaking Latin. I picture him reading Catullus to the matronly receptionist between patients. “I entreat you, my sweet Ipsitilla, my darling, my charmer, bid me to come and rest at noonday with you…”  as she photocopies and files prescriptions for antibiotics and diuretics.

“You want it?” Dr Gray asks. Yes. YES.

No. Well, yes. But no, not really. What I really want is to have it at my doctor’s office. Julius Caesar wearing a bronzed breastplate and set on a chipped laminate desktop amid oil paintings of the doctor’s garden, his boat, his cat even. I want my doctor to know I was once 18 with a ridiculous crush on a colorblind painter and that I cut the tip of my finger off with a paper cutter trying to impress him. I want him to ask how many kids my sister has now and what I’ve been reading. I want to hear the funny story about his vasectomy and to have his home number in case I need it. I want there to be a huge marble bust of a Roman dictator sitting in his office for no particular reason. I want him to be a real live human being and to know that I am.

Isn’t that what we all want?

So I left Dr Gray the way I used to leave the oracle at the top of the stairs; no clear answers but lighter in spirit, with much discussed and more to think about.

Words

 

Words have been on our minds. Today is the spelling bee. For two weeks my daughter has had words to spell tossed at her from every quarter. Conversations usually go like this:

Me: Eat your lunch. Spell tortilla.

The Speller: Tortilla. T-O-R-T-I-L-L-A. Tortilla.

Son: These are peanut butter sandwiches, Mom. Not tacos. What’s your favorite dinosaur?

Me: Brontosaurus. Spell brontosaurus.

Speller: Brontosaurus. B-R-O-

Son: Mom! Brontosaurs didn’t exist! Spell apatosaurus.

Speller: Apatosaurus. A-P-P – wait. A-P-A-T-O-S-A-U-R-U-S. Apatosaurus.

Me: I know, but it’s my favorite because it proves scientists make mistakes, too. Mistake.

Speller: Mistake. M-I-S-T-A-K-E. Mistake.

Pixie Child: Do dinosaurs really eat only girls? Spell ‘girls rock’.

During lunch yesterday we had my iPod playing on the surround sound. The Speller asked to hear a certain song and I said sure, telling her it was popular when I was a teenager and treating them to a little dance. She laughed indulgently, then made her point.

Speller: This song is explicit. E-X-P-L-I-C-I-T. Explicit.

Me: No, it isn’t. It’s… Oh. Wow.

The boy’s eyebrows went up.

Pixie: I know what explicit means.

The Pixie’s favorite thing to tell strangers right now is “I know a bad word. I can’t say it, but it sounds like…” and then she sounds it out for them. Apparently slowly enunciating a word does not equal saying it. There’s always that laugh at the end. She gets to say the word with impunity because she’s not really saying it. Not technically. Then she tells her story. “We were in the car and Mom was singing and I don’t think she was paying attention because I think she forgot to turn because she stopped at a stop sign. I can spell stop. S-T-O-P. At the stop sign she said that word and I said I think you just said a bad word and she turned the car around and we turned onto the road that doesn’t go by Cracker Barrel. Do you want me to tell you the word again?”

So I don’t know who I thought I was kidding yesterday when I said “Yeah, we’ll have to take that song off your iPods.”

Son: It’s not like we’ve never heard the word, Mom.

Me (with horror): Where? Where have you heard that word?

Son: You. You say it all the time.

They’re all smirking at me at this point. I smirk back.

Me: Well. I’m not going to say it anymore. It’s a bad word and I have a better vocabulary.

Son: Give me a dollar every time you say it.

Me: A nickel.

Son: A quarter.

Me: A nickel. I have to wean myself.

Son: You’ll stop sooner if you give me a dollar every time.

Speller: If you give each of us a dollar.

Me: I don’t have that much money.

Speller: Then you won’t say it, will you?

Sometimes it sucks having smart kids. But don’t tell them I said that. They’re smug enough. I haven’t had to make any pay outs yet, thankfully. Nor have I had to flex my wider vocabulary under stress though. Maybe I should write some phrases down so I’ll be ready. In case I can’t bite my tongue.

I am perturbed.

This situation is odious.

Stop being so fractious. I love you and do not want to pay you a dollar.

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