Monday, March 30, 2015

Not Pictured: 16 Years and Change

I have stood at this window more than six thousand mornings.

Gil and I took possession of this house just yesterday, in May 1998, a day that poured rain. When we woke the next morning, the first sound we heard was the raucous augury of crows, nesting in a half-dead tree we hadn't noticed out back.

I came down to investigate. Through this window, I saw a sanitation truck lurching past, the trash workers tossing in the wet boxes from our move. They followed behind the truck on foot, patting its iron flanks to forge onward, crying, Hey-up!

I drank my tea and tried to fathom how we'd own this structure, this land--in two or three decades, after discharging our debt. I patted my belly, where the baby grew.

Who will we be when it's done? 

How can I answer, now that I know? I want to warn the young woman at that window that in two years, everything she knows will be so changed.

She will be grateful that the mortgage is low, then, and that her new widow's benefit covers it. She will wake alone to the sound of crows, put the baby in front of cartoons, and come to this window to light cigarette after cigarette, furtively blowing her misery out the window.

Some days the sanitation guys will be there--they will sometimes see her, looking out at them from her window. She will wave at them, or they at her, as the trucks groan through, and they will move so swiftly, sweeping discards up and flinging empty cans in their wake, forging on, crying, Hey-up!

She will use the house as collateral for graduate school, living off loans and paying herself to read and think and stay sane.

She will carry the baby to and fro from the driveway to the back door, heavier all the time, a toddler, a preschooler, no daddy to carry that sleeping weight late at night like they'd dreamed.

She will refinance repeatedly over the years to keep it all going.

She will marry a man she now calls Charles Bukowski. She will get a teaching job when she is 40. She will do many other things she doesn't expect. Some of them she won't be proud of. She will buy a better car and an extension ladder after he leaves. She will teach herself to grill outdoors, and be really surprised how simple it is.

She will have the tree of raucous crows removed.

She will plant a pink flowering almond in her first husband's memory.

She will befriend someone who becomes her lover and then her third husband.

On a Monday in March, 16 years and change from the first morning, a realtor will come to see them at their request. She will know nothing of the tree of crows that is gone now. She will not know the story of the almond tree. Maybe she sees the view from this window as a difficulty. It is certainly lacking in allure to the casual eye.

The woman I am now should keep the blind drawn when we show the house. But for a few mornings more, I won't. I will stand at this window looking out, sometimes at the trucks that renew us and move on.


Tuesday, February 24, 2015

In the Practice of Her Calling

via Flickr Creative Commons, 2015 Photographer: Constanza
My mother was a nurse, and it defined her life. She fought her parents to become one, put herself through school without their money. They believed nursing was beneath her. All those bedpans. All that blood and stink. But my mom, who created doll hospitals in the backyard and ministered to stray cats and dogs all her childhood, marched herself to nursing school in 1949 and never once looked back.

I looked back for her. Playing at the back of her closet, I would lift the lids from two hat boxes to reveal her enticing separate selves before marriage: in one, the glad girl’s turquoise pillbox with a sequined net veil, bought with her first paycheck. In the other, the stiff, formal cap of the nurse, banded with a thin ribbon of black velvet. She'd pinned the Florence Nightingale Pledge to the satin inside: pass my life in purity and to practice my profession faithfully.... 

"Isn't it scary, the hospital?" I asked her once. I was seven.

She stopped whatever she was doing. Maybe she dried her hands on a towel, or smoothed down the sheets for bed, with a practiced hand.

"No, oh no," she said. "I like the hospital. It's where people get better."

When we were writing the eulogy, about 20 years after that conversation, my sister came up with the best detail: that our mom's hands were cool when you were feverish, and warm when you were cold.

She was the consummate nurse: always there and unflappable. She made even the most unacceptable acts of care somehow okay. She performed private ablutions for us as if just pouring tea. She held our heads, wiped our bodies, washed our linens, and woke in response to the lightest, faintest cry.

When I was12, an anxiety so deep took hold of me that—every night for three years—I crept into my parents' room and stood by their bed to call her name. Without fail, in that deep, interstitial hour of fear, her eyes blinked open at the first whisper: “Mom.” 

“What do you need, baby?” Awake, no transition, just present and waiting to know. What I needed was so complicated that it became simple. I needed her awake to know I was there. That’s all. I would settle down with my pillow and blanket on the floor beside her, reaching my hand up as she reached down to hold mine. The terror retreated to a distance, and I slept. It was true what my sister said: If my hand was cold, my mother's was warm. When mine was hot, hers was cool.

I inherited those hands. I have used them to soothe my child for 16 years and counting. In this, the worst winter of our lives, I have used them a lot. Sometimes I feel them doing the only good possible, which is to say, I feel it when they fail.

They are good hands, as my mom’s were. They often work well. But in the nights of my adulthood, I know what my mother knew: Sometimes, your hands can't make things better. Sometimes, the most healing hands won't do. Yet those nights you will lay your hands on anyway, knowing all the harms you can't touch.

Other posts about my mom are here and here.
For a glimpse into my own tenuous mothering skills, click here.

[photo by Constanza, Flickr Creative Commons]

Five Star

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Angel of the House Has Left the Building

Here is all I know about the day my mother left:

I wasn't alive. For as long as I could remember, the family had told hilarious stories of hijinks and mayhem that did not involve me. They always went something like this:

Older sister: Mom, Dad, remember that time when we had all those jars of pennies, and we counted the pennies, and there were so many that we had enough for all four of us go to Six Flags together?
Mom: Of course!
Dad: That was so fun!
Older brother: Haha, yeah!
Me: When was that? I don't remember.
Everyone in unison (turning to me): YOU WEREN'T ALIVE.

I was six years behind my sister, seven behind my brother. For all the really epic family stories, I was never alive.

The story of my mother leaving was epic. We know it was epic because it only came out on special occasions, and was always told as if it was funny. It often came out at Thanksgiving, right after my mom had re-emerged from the marathon of dish-doing that had followed the swift blur of eating that had been the pivotal target of hours of turkey-making, which started at six a.m. on Thanksgiving Day, just before we kids got up for the marathon of interminable, inexplicable, dependably dull Parade Watching.

As we handed around the pie and coffee, Older Sister or Older Brother would inevitably say, "Mom, mom, tell the story about when you left home." And my mom would tell it. Every time she told it, the details were essentially the same. Every time, all of us laughed. Every time, I was not alive.

The story of my mother leaving was not funny at all. This I have only learned in the years since I heard it, amid those peals of relief-laden family laughter at Thanksgiving. I know now that my mother's story was not funny, because I have lived it. Many times. So has my Older Sister. Together we, the two remaining women in our once-nuclear family, understand how serious a day that was.

We know it was serious because we have never since discussed it. Never once, that I recall, have my sister or I mentioned this story to the other. Our mother is gone, and what can it prove? Only what we already know.

My mother was gone for less than 24 hours. One day, the story goes, she got so fed up that she left my dad a note, left the two toddlers who were not me in the care of a neighbor, and took the bus downtown. She checked in to the Fairmont Hotel. She booked a hair appointment for the next day at a salon. She took a bath, slept soundly, dressed with care the next day, ate a leisurely breakfast, strolled through the aisles of expensive clothing and perfumes, got her hair did, and then...

...checked out of the hotel and came home in time to make dinner.

Did she hesitate? Did she consider never returning? Did stranger, harder, distinctly more permanent solutions cross her mind, then or ever? We will never know. We enshrined the story of her brief rebellion in hilarity, as though it had been made only for our amusement. Like everything else our mother did, it was all about us.

Never once did any of us ask her a single serious question about that day.

So we will never know what made her return. We know perfectly well what made her leave.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Trigger Warning: Life

To the best of my knowledge, compost worms do not experience rage. This is not a verifiable fact, of course. But after four years as a worm wrangler, I'd say that the skill sets required to be a worm are incompatible with rage of any kind.

Panic, on the other hand, seems to set in fairly regularly.

Every few months, I lift up the lid on the bin to reveal Wormaggedon. The young ones are clumping around the edges, clinging frantically to each other above the soil line, while the senior worms muck about in the dirt doing whatever senior worms can do. I can never tell if they are fighting, flailing, or finally fomenting rebellion against the vertebrates. Whatever they are doing, they are doing it together.

Let's review. To be a worm, you must:
  • snuggle with other worms;
  • spend most of your time in wet, rotting silage;
  • make of that silage a rich, black gold that powers the world;
  • prefer to live your entire life in a closed, dark, nearly anaerobic (but not quite) environment;
  • be very at ease with fouling the nest you sleep in.
The only other lifestyle in the world that requires tolerance of these conditions is that of reality show starswhich does nothing to disprove my no-rage theory but everything to make you click that link I just provided.

I think worms suffer from existential torque. The very living conditions they thrive in--wet, cramped, and fecund--also contribute to their occasional crash. Plus, their life's work is crazy-making. How would you feel if you'd been put in charge of both destruction and creation in the same plastic tub?

Something about being skin to skin and ooze to ooze with all those enormous forces of life, alongside your destructive-creative kinfolk, creating fertile ground together from half-rotted lettuce and broken eggshells and spent coffee grounds: That's got to be pretty freaky. It's the essence of intimacy. It's the urgent work of making things be. That tends to cause panic, yes? Desperation, even? The urge to....escape?

I asked my friend at Red Worm Composting for advice, and my special friend said this:

Let’s first talk about the word “escape”, since it is a crucial factor when it comes to evaluating the situation. If your worms are indeed trying to literally escape from your worm bins – especially when doing so en masse – you definitely have a serious problem that needs to be addressed right away.
If on the other hand you have a handful of worms crawling up the sides and lid of the bin, with perhaps a few dummies ending up dried up on your floor – you are probably ok! Especially if your system is brand new.

Thanks, special friend! My system is definitely not brand new, but I just counted dead dummies and I have fewer of them than panicked live ones.

So I think we will be okay for another autumn.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Sometimes, She Was Not Reading Women

So I embarked on this crazy project, to read every book in my houseThe first book took me two weeks to finish. The next one took about a week. The third one, I devoured in three days. I started filling notebooks and underlining quotes and scribbling ideas in the margins. Just like my mom used to do.

Beautiful as they are, these books I am reading are not what you would call pleasure books. They lead not to escape but to confrontation. I'm not knocking escape, mind you. I just, lately, crave the real.

Blame it on the company I'm keeping these days. I am suddenly surrounded by other women who are also reading--and writing-- to save their own lives. We exchange messages on Facebook or by text, often in splurgy, unapologetic ALL CAPS that lend urgency to everything we say. We laugh a lot, because we have to. We are cracking each other up, to avoid cracking up alone:

I remember such friendships in my mom's life, back when I was one of the bunch of kids underfoot saying pleeeeeeeeease and why caaaaaaan't I? Our moms wiped our faces with one hand and ashed elaborately from their cigarettes into the big glass ashtray with the other. Sometimes, in groups of two or more, they sat at the kitchen table laughing so hard their coffees spilled and one of them would get down on her hands and knees, swatting the floor and screaming with laughter so hard they wept, wept, wept down on the linoleum.

The flip side of this hilarity, yet connected in my mind, was my mother quietly reading, sometimes at that same kitchen table. I crept near her, afraid of her scholarly silence but craving her touch. The pictures of the women whose books she was reading--Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Alice Walker, Maya Angelou, Judith Viorst--stared back at me as I stared at them. Sometimes, she was not reading women. Sometimes, she was underlining phrase upon phrase in another kind of book, an enormous volume with no pictures except the color illustrations of a woman's insides or a ripe new baby, umbilicus attached. After she died, we read her notes in all the old books: "YES! YES"! in the margins in all caps, in those books by women. And in the other books, the ones she read for her work as a nurse: "MEGO" ("my eyes glaze over") or, in polite looped cursive that did not need to be all caps to make its point: "Bullshit."

I might, tentatively, call her name. She would look up then and smile.

"What, baby? What?" Her eyes took a moment to adjust from the page to my face. Her hand caressed my cheek. I was keeping her from her own thoughts. I felt shame that I would do so, and gratitude that she would look up.

The name I called her was not her own, but mine for her: Mommy. Even the formal name she answered to was not hers. Evelyn Rozelle Brenner Wormser: the first two given by a woman, the last two by men.

I never asked what her true name would be, if she could choose it.

What would she have told me?