Ping-g-g!

It is thick crystal, sloping out from its solid base just enough to look graceful, the grooves cut in its sides flaring up from the bottom, ending just below its smoothly turned lip.  It looks expensive, probably was.  I have kept it these seventeen years because it was a wedding gift.  The one time I filled it with a spring bouquet of peonies it couldn’t hold them the way I want peony bouquets held.  But I displayed it on a shelf for months at a time where I could flick it with my finger as I walked by.  Ping-g-g!  Such a lovely crystally ring.  Recently I gave it away.

I could wear it.  Of course I could.  And when I lost that ten pounds that was coming off right away I’d actually be able to button it.  Loved that sweater, black with bright autumn colored flowers embroidered in clusters in just the right places.  I spent a little more than I usually would because it looked so classy. Now, after seven years admiring it each September before refolding it for another year on the shelf, I have slipped it, Si-i-igh! into the bag headed for the thrift store where I volunteer each week.

Just after I turned five in May we moved into a house with a thicket of old roses hedging in the small front yard.  They bloomed in early June.  Never before, or since, have I experienced such a powerful and dazzling fragrance.  For that two weeks of bloom time each year of my young childhood I sniffed myself dizzy and plucked and tossed petals for a thousand brides.  And into the first flower bed I cultivated when I moved here seventeen years ago I placed a rose, the first of many.  I have, in fact, planted roses in each flower bed in my house yard where they have been nourished with compost, old manure and various other potions advised by various sources, and not matter what type of rose I plant, where I plant them or what I do for them, they remain sullen sticks that bloom grudgingly, producing small blighted mockeries of my delightful memories.  This fall I moved through my yard spritzing yellow paint across each one, for the young man helping me will dig out only what I have marked.  Thwa-ack!  His shovel hits the earth.

Let’s see, when was the last time I did cross-stiching?  Or quilting?  Such lovely patterns in all these books and needlework magazines.  When was the last time I looked at them?  Of course, they fit neatly on the shelves in this small cupboard and some I’ve had for forty years.  Out!  Out!  Someone else wants them, may actually use them.  Deep breath, Who-o-oh!  And into the bag they go.

I lift the lid off the large box.  It is filled with receipts, pawn tickets, neatly drawn diagrams with scribbled notes, a few photos, a ledger book, an empty wallet; stuff; things.  I look at each one, a few I set aside to keep, the rest go back into the box, which I carry out to the burn barrel.  Six years ago my son died and while it is way past time to turn loose of these unimportant leftovers of his life; they cannot be simply tossed into the trash.  I light a match, the flame rises and I sob.  The smoke floats away, my pain does not.

“I need to clean things out.” my mother constantly worried the last few years of her life as she gave me things to take away.  I was amused because I didn’t understand, but now I do.  As I have become older my surroundings have become full of stuff I no longer use, no longer need, or don’t really care about any more.  Being who I am, I tidy it up and tuck it neatly away out of sight.  The problem is that everything tucked away is part of the story of who I am, who I was, and what has been important to me.  I just don’t want to let go.

This morning I rolled over, fully awake, and looked at the clock on the dresser on the other side of the bed, which promptly flicked to 5:11 a.m.  For two weeks now, no matter how late I go to sleep, I have waked at the exact same time, and every morning I have closed my eyes again but lain awake until my restlessness pulled me up and out of my warm nest.  I know what God is doing.  When I first began writing here, it was the new ideas that woke me early, lifting me from comfort into the struggle to express a new story.  I have no new stories and I don’t want to get up.  But this morning I let go of my right to decide, such an important part of me, and put my feet on the floor.  As I walked across the room I’m pretty sure I felt a subtle flick on the side of my head.  Ping-g-g!  Yes, I am still here, learning to let go.

 

 

 

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Lessons

I loved my first year at school; the adventure of leaving home, the excitement of spending the day in a crowd of children, the pleasure of learning new things.  In fact, I had just learned a new game.  It had rhythm, it had rhyme and it rolled off my tongue, so faced with the decision of which after school snack to eat I used it.  “Eeny, meny miny mo, catch a nigger by…”  “Oh we don’t use that word.” my mother interrupted.  I stared at her astonished.  I had been reading for a year now, hungrily devouring every word in front of my eyes.  I thought they were all the same.

But my mother didn’t waste time with explanations.  “We catch a bunny by his toe” she said, “or a tiger.”  Obedient, I tried those words.  A bunny was soft, squishy and pale.  But a tiger; well now…  At recess the next day when the need to choose came up I announced “Oh, we don’t use that word.”  The other girls didn’t care and for as long as we used that game we caught a tiger by his toe.  I suspect they didn’t know any more about the forbidden word than I did.

Another memory, however, floats in my mind as well.  I was alone in the living room playing on the floor when my father came in.  Looking straight at me he said, “You know, some people like to lump other people all together in a group.  They use words like wop, or mick, or jap, as if people from one place are all the same.  But they’re not.  People are individuals and they behave differently so instead of lumping them all together under one label we take people one at a time.”  This made perfect sense to me because I knew I behaved differently from my brothers, so spellbound, I listened to my father as he explained this idea, proud beyond words that for some reason I didn’t know he had chosen me for this very important conversation.

My mother said nothing to me beyond her few words that afternoon and my father made no reference to my rhyme so I prefer to say that is why it took me fifty years to connect the second memory to the first.  My parents partnered in steering me away from racial stereotyping, a lesson I didn’t understand at the time.  But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t ready to learn.

Two sentences and two choices and when I tried them out I discovered I preferred strong to soft and squishy, experienced the power of word choice and took it straight to school the next day.  From my father I heard that I must always look and watch and make my own decisions.  Though I don’t think he meant to he planted a tiny root of skepticism in my young mind.

Over my lifetime I’ve noticed that I only learn what I am ready to take in.  Anything from ignorance to pride can block the entry of a lesson offered, but that thing I need to learn always lingers, waiting for me to be ready.  When I finally heard the disdain in the speaking of the forbidden word I immediately knew why my mother didn’t like it and was instantly skeptical of the judgment it expressed.  And I can see now that while my parents were trying to instruct me about something I did not understand what they were actually doing was sharing with me their attitudes about people and words and personal responsibility.  And so I think about the wide variety of things I have tried to teach in my lifetime and see that not one of those things has come close to being as important as the attitude, the love and the conviction with which I shared it.

 

Pennies and Green

When I peer way far back into the dimness of the beginning of my life, I see a book titled “I Have a Penny”.  I know it came from the library because there would be times it was not in our house, while I asked anxiously for its return, and when we moved just after I turned four it was gone from my life forever.  But still I clearly remember the cartoonish figure of the little girl, the red tent of her coat, the circular scribble of dark curls down to where her shoulders would be, the simple round hat on her head and the penny safe in the purse clutched in her two hands as she strode out to spend what was hers.  I liked it best when my mother changed the narration to “Stella Has a Penny.”  The story I don’t remember at all; probably because the story was not the important part to me.

And then I was four years old, confronting my parents with the demand for “real money” because I didn’t want those bus tokens I thought they were trying to fob off on me, and receiving in response from my father a coin that satisfied my grasping little heart.  I also remember hotfooting it down the hill at my first unsupervised moment, crossing the street and making two turns to get to the store on the corner where I planned to spend that coin clutched in my tightly closed hand.  My memory shows me almost nothing else of that trip, only that the lady in the store was amused and my mother, when she showed up, was not.

Several years later I was reading the words “I do not like green eggs and ham.  I do not like them Sam I am.”; about thirty five thousand times before I lost count, by demand of my youngest child.  He was also the baby who had laughed at the sight of green food. He didn’t have to taste it; if it was green he wanted it.  Green was the color of his drinking cup when he left his bottle behind.  It was the color of all his favorite shirts during his total childhood.  It even was, with the consent of his bride, the color of his wedding cake, overruling his mother-in-law, who was just grateful that it was a pale green and covered with an icing of white.

Then, just the other day I had in my grasp what I thought was a large amount of money.  It wasn’t really, but I have discovered over the years that just like the little girl in the book I clutch money in my two hands as if it were a precious thing indeed, and despite hotfooting it down the hill every so often I cling to it like ivy to a wall.  So, when I heard a voice saying “Let it go.” I punched my automatic “no” button; but for some reason it didn’t work.

I do have to say that now and then, as I’ve been in the process of growing old, that same voice has reminded me that just as the wall provides no food for the ivy, money is not my food; it is only one tool used to provide what I need.  And I know that no matter how tightly ivy clings to the wall if it is cut away from the earth it will die, and if I choose money as my main resource I too will wither up and go dry.  So in response to the voice, I pried those fingers back, scrubbed away the glue and let that money fly.  It was done in a minute and though I felt some loss and just a touch of fear, most of all I felt the nourishment of my heart.

As for my son, if you ever want to make him happy show him something green.  I can guarantee you that his eyes will light up and he will laugh; just one more proof that we are what we are and in some ways we never change.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finding the Words

“He’s so dignified.” she said, this tall person I didn’t know.  She had just realized who my father was and was beaming down at me with approval.  To my five-year-old mind dignified was rather stiff and serious.  “My daddy isn’t dignified, he’s funny.” I thought, but I stared up at her with my mouth closed, because I knew I didn’t have the words to make her understand who my daddy really was.

Several years later, a teenager in need of a fancy dress, I was in a store showroom trying some on.  My mother and I made all my clothes but she had brought me into the city, a special trip into a store with higher prices than she had ever ventured into before, and she was enjoying my search for something I liked. In those days, and especially in that store, a sales clerk was always there, helping you choose a garment, assisting you in your struggle to put it on, taking it back, suggesting another.  And suddenly I, bursting with excitement, said “We’re trying these on to get some ideas for what to make.”  I saw an immediate freeze in the sales clerk’s face and we were out of there.  What my mother had planned as a fun outing for me I had turned into a big embarrassment for her.  I wish to this day that I had kept my big mouth shut.

And so it goes.  Sometimes I can’t summon up the right words and sometimes the words that tumble out of my mouth are strident, or clumsy or foolish; which is just another way of not being able to find the words.

At the beginning of this year my husband suffered a terrible loss and for over a month was stunned into silence and immobility.  Business had to be tended to and things had to be done, so I and others did the work, made arrangements, settled the details, until he began to wake and reach out beyond himself.  It is still hard for him.  People ask “how is he?” and I am expected to have words.  Some people even supply their own words.  “He just has to get over it and go on.” someone told me recently and I stared with my mouth shut debating between fainting or a good hard punch to the jaw.

I have said “He’s getting better.” which is a lie.  I have said “Things are easier.” which is another lie.  I know that some day I will say “He’s okay.” and the people who have never experienced such pain as his will be relieved because his being okay is their assurance that even really bad things become less bad while people who have experienced the same sort of deep sadness will understand that he has processed his horror into a shape that will fit inside his mind and the trauma has slipped down to live under cover until an unexpected brush with memory spurts it out in tears or anger or guilt or some other fresh anguish.  And as I live through this with him I am re-learning one more time what I discovered seventy years ago; that for some things in this life there simply are no words.

 

 

 

Mr. Roth

I loved Mr. Roth.  We all loved Mr. Roth, us girls in the first three grades.  If he came into our room during the day, which he seldom did, we all flocked to hug his legs, reached up to pat his side and burbled cries of delight with sparkling eyes, attention which he seemed embarrassed to receive.  Maybe he was just diffident about causing such a scene in a working classroom.

Mr. Roth was the school janitor; he was old, with a big belly and kind eyes and outside of class he might reach down and lift one of us quickly up into the air and down, a fun ride that made us laugh.  He lived alone in the school basement and with his wife in a small house with a small yard surrounded by a chain link fence just two blocks down the street from the school.  In my eyes both places were equally his home.

And then he wasn’t in the basement anymore.  He had retired, whatever that was, and every time I passed the small house going to and from school I looked to see him but never did.  Now, as I look back my memory hazes over; I don’t know how long it was before I knew that he was sick or if I heard it at home or at school.  And then he died.  And though he had never attended services there the funeral was going to be at my church.

It must have been on a Saturday because my father was home that day, which I spent in anticipation of the moment when my mother would say “Get dressed, it’s time to go to Mr. Roth’s funeral.” but the appointed time approached and she didn’t say anything at all.  So I did.  And my parents were bewildered.  And I was adamant that we must go.  I didn’t see the signal that passed between them but my mother told me to get dressed, my father changed out of his chore clothes and he and I jumped into the car and drove to town.

The service was already started.  Our small church was packed and it was standing room only in the entry hall and nursery to the right, which had the advantage of a large window looking into the sanctuary.  We squeezed into the nursery and I suppose my father must have lifted me up for a bit because I remember looking through the window, eagerly straining to see what a funeral is and finding it to be a room full of people, and I remember being filled with a great satisfaction that my father and I had come.  With the nursery door open the sound of speaking and singing came in and then it was over and we went home.  And I was happy.

I had loved Mr. Roth as a little girl loves a kind old man she hardly knows and I knew that because I loved him going to his funeral was the right thing to do.  Why I was certain of that I do not know because his death is the first one I remember.  I did not mourn him; he was dead and gone and to my young mind that was a simple fact that needed no explanation.

I was twelve the first time I sang at a funeral and the first time I saw a grown man cry.  And because I play the piano and organ I have provided music for dozens of funerals over the past sixty years, witnessing emotions ranging from anguish to fury to wordless pain.  And because I am old, I have lost the presence of many people I have loved, and experienced for myself the emotions of heartbreak.  Still, being old seems to have brought me back to where I was as a child.  If I love someone, I honor them when they die and no longer demand an explanation, either from them or from God.

It’s not that I have slipped sideways back into a child’s uncomplicated view of life or that I have stripped myself of attachments and emotions so that I may exist in serene acceptance of whatever may come.  No, it is because I find myself living completely the wonderful richness of old age with my mind, my heart, my very life, filled with people who are dead and gone, but just like Mr. Roth, have stayed with me.

The Circle Skirt

It was the beginning of the school year and the full circle skirt was such the fashion for the fifth and sixth grade girls.  For first recess every morning we congregated in our chosen space to assess and judge the circular completeness of such skirts, demonstrated by any girl fortunate enough to be wearing one of the wonderful garments.  The boys were busy elsewhere and uninterested besides and if some younger boy was stupid enough to venture near and pretend he was old enough to show an interest in our underwear we chased him down and beat him up.

And now my personal prosperity was about to include me in that magic circle of school girl fashion.  Using the first money I had ever earned, raising fryer chickens the past summer, I had chosen three dresses from the Sears and Roebuck catalog.  My memory says there were three but my mind only shows me two, a blue and pink plaid with a white, almost bib-like collar, and a brown tiny autumn print with some kind of neck decoration.  It was the brown one I was wearing because I thought it made the truest complete circle when I twirled.

I stood in our front room, whirling one way then abruptly whipping into reverse, tossing my skirt out in flowing ripples then snapping it into tight folds around my legs, a mesmerizing spectacle of circular greatness.  I was waiting for my father to come home, the sparkle of my excitement ready to burst out upon him in all its dazzling glory; and here he was.  When he walked in the door I was standing in the middle of the room, grinning at him.  “Look daddy, it’s my new dress!” and I whirled around and around, my skirt making a perfect circle from my waist.

My father stopped a few steps inside the door and looked at me, attention in his face and his posture.  “Uh-huh.” he said and nodded his head.  I was still dancing.  “Look!” I exclaimed and held my arms straight out as I twirled to impress him with how far out the edge of my skirt was going.  He doubled his interest and excitement.  “Uh-huh, uh-huh” he said, nodding his head all the while.  And I stopped.  Something had just broken past my excitement and pride of purchase and was standing directly beside my desire to share it all with my father.  As I stared up at him I understood, completely and totally understood, that “uh-huh” was all the excitement I was ever going to get from him.

My daddy was the person in my life who told funny stories and sang silly songs.  He could play his harmonica through his nose and roll up his tongue and whistle an almost tune.  He made up nonsense words and taught us his old high school cheers.  I could follow him around and talk all I wanted while he listened.  But he never danced or jumped or ran; he walked.

Over the years I learned that when a piece of truth tore a slot in the skim of my life and popped right through I was looking at a revelation, but this was my first and I was surprised.  Staring up into his face I saw my placid, non-responsive but interested father as he was and knew for certain that he could never ever reflect back to me the emotions that were whirling me around and around.

I am glad to say that instead of being disappointed, I made the instant decision that it was okay.  He couldn’t do what he couldn’t do and I decided to accept him as he was. The other side of that decision, that I had no right to insist that he change to please me, was a delayed lesson that I have learned gradually over the years as I have headed into old age.  But on that day, having faced the truth without being saddened by it, I danced on away, whirling in my joy, anticipating the moment when I would share the newness of my dress and the perfection of its circle with all the other girls.

Cat and Clyde

She leaned heavily against the outside of the kitchen window, glaring at me as I stood washing something in the sink, her claws out and dug into the metal screen.  Cat hated everyone, including those who fed her.  I was told her name but we never formally met because when I moved down here she did not deign to be introduced.  Except for the occasional confrontation through glass she spent her life across the driveway among the sheds and rusted bodies of antique cars, Chevrolets, to be exact, where I would catch glimpses of her as she strolled from one hiding place to another.

Then we had a small field fire on that side of the driveway that swept down across the creek and started up toward her kingdom.  I was watching the men controlling the burn when I was startled by the flash of a taut stretched body flying through the air.  It was Cat, shooting across the field from one spot to another without stopping, without hesitation.  It took me moments to realize it was field mice; the field mice were fleeing the fire and she was killing them all.  Jump, snap, then a quick leap to the next, until the fire came to its ending place and her regal self strolled away to one of her hiding places without a backward glance at the carnage she left behind.  It was then that I knew for certain that Cat was a cold-blooded assassin, a killer without passion.  Self-contained and self-sufficient, she did her job as she saw it and accepted shelter, food and water without surrendering her disdain for anyone besides herself.   She lived almost twenty years and died on her own terms, don’t think she didn’t.

It was about three years ago that I met Clyde.  He doesn’t live with me.  He was just a kitten when we first met, eager to become acquainted, certain that touching and being touched is the most important thing there is.  He hasn’t changed much, except that he has become a very large cat, sleek and heavily muscled, but still eager to leap into the nearest lap.  Some cats lean and cuddle and rest, but Clyde is too direct for that, nor does he have a lot of time to waste, for though he likes to come inside to make a quick snack of the house cats’ food and possibly sit on someone, Clyde considers himself an outdoor cat and he always has things to do.

I was at his house a few weeks ago, we were stirring around in the morning, when someone glanced out the back door and announced, “Clyde has a squirrel.”  I had heard that Clyde is a hunter and proud of it, so would often bring his prizes to the back porch for his family to see and appreciate.  I wanted to be part of his approval team so stepped to the door with a smile then stopped, mouth open and eyes wide.  There was Clyde, looking up at me with his “Good morning, how are you?” face and at his feet was the body of a squirrel, not a squirrel, the body of a squirrel with a little bone stub sticking out as if its head had been popped right off.

I reared back.  “It has no head.” I exclaimed.  “Oh, he always starts at the top and eats his way down.” I was told.  I looked again.  There was no blood, no fur, no indication that this squirrel’s head had not been snapped off whole, and I realized that Clyde had just made a thorough job of eating ears, tongue, brains, bones and all and was ready to go on down if I would just step away and let him get on with it.  So I gave him a friendly nod and turned away.  When he came into the house later in the day he placed the squirrel’s heart on the kitchen floor as a gift to the home.

Two workers; equally skilled and accurate, highly efficient, obviously very fast, but oh so different, and wouldn’t you know it, thinking of them stirs memories of me at work.  I remember myself at six, dustrag in hand, moving fast, wiping every flat place on the rocking chair, then up and down and around the base of every slat, before poking the rag into the curlique to make it clean.  Dusting was a chore I did not want to do but I was thorough when I did it, and precise, and I knew without a doubt that I did it right.

It took me years and much experience to see that such confidence in job performance focused my satisfaction on precision, efficiency, speed and job completion, making me somewhat self-contained and definitely self-reliant.  I would never apologize for being what I am because I know that being organized, swift, efficient and precise are desirable traits, never to be disdained.  It just took me a while to understand that touching and being touched really is one of the most important things there is, and when I finally did understand this important thing I began trying to remind myself to include in every task completed a little gift for the home.