Category Archives: memoir

Fade Emphasize Reorient

This photo of my father, sister, and me on the back porch at my grandmother’s served as a writing prompt. It goes on some but if you want the gist, just read the first two paragraphs. Some of the pix below are double exposures created in response to this week’s Paris Collage Collective’s challenge. Those filter-plays made a statement about memory — how in one moment one detail comes forward and another fades and in another moment, some other emphasis occurs, some other element disappears.

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The thin woman on the porch lounger I don’t recognize, but she is my mother. Her eyes are closed, head canted away from the chair across the porch where my grandmother — her mother-in-law — sits. Is it respite Mom seeks? A moment of quiet in the hubbub of family — nieces, nephews, sisters and brothers-in-law — all crammed tight in the borough of Queens, mere blocks separating their cluttered lives?

Meanwhile, on the steps my father puts one paternal arm around my sister, who is seated on his lap, and uses the other to pull a reluctant four-year-old me into his side. He looks intent. Perhaps he exerts a little force. The sun is in his eyes. Does my mother sleep or merely pretend? I’m certain that I am whining, while my sister stares with a stoic maturity at the camera lens, her left arm hanging at her side, a casual refusal to hold the fatherly hand that keeps her on his lap.

His hand looks so big.

My sister and I wear matching red plaid dresses with white aprons. I’m certain my mother sewed them. Earlier that day, she must’ve helped tug on our matching white ankle socks and buckle our patent leather Mary Janes.

His hand so big, our Mary Janes so small. A repeating rhythm of white — socks and apron bibs. His face intent, mine in high whine, my sister stoic.

I imagine my grandmother is talking to my mother and my mother’s closed eyes and head canted away constitute a pointed refusal to engage. It’s not just the weariness, in other words, of raising children. There is a third out of the frame, by the way — my brother.

Legend has it my mother was hysterical and temperamental but to hear her tell it, the family in Queens was cruel and excluded her. Who wouldn’t turn away? Who wouldn’t throw a dish or two at some later date, especially if after twelve years or so she continued to feel marginalized, unheard?

I can speak to my mother’s bouts of hysteria but I can also say with confidence that she was a good judge of character. So who knows? I suspect alcohol had a lot to do with any undercurrents and skewed allegiances.

My whining face shows up again and again in the scant archive of my girlhood. Usually with my father behind the lens, perhaps in service of a Christmas photo. Early on I think: what a sour puss! Later: what was it about my father’s gaze that so discomforted me?

Who knows with what harsh insistence he demanded we three sit still? My squirming surely had something to do with the outfit as well — the built-in tulle slip, itchy in the extreme, and the too-tight collar, one year wrapped in a faux mink.

We were special alright. The matching expertly-made outfits a kind of testimony.

When my cousin sends batch after batch of recently converted slides, the paucity in my own family record is once again brought to mind.

The gaps in the record. The whining.

On a porch in Woodhaven, Queens, I am sipping Coke out of a glass bottle. Unbeknownst to the adults, ADD not even being an idea back then never mind a diagnosis, the caffeine probably calmed me, afforded some extra boost with which to deal with the reluctant pose, the itchy dress, the summer sweat in my father’s armpit, my mother’s non-discriminating refusal to engage.

In many pictures I can’t tell if the tow-headed girl is my sister or me.

In one batch, there are gleeful baby shots. Clearly me but a version I am unacquainted with. There I am clothed only in a diaper — smiling, mouth open in laughter, a slight blur because I’m leaning into a joyful roll. These photos are doubly provocative. One — as previously mentioned, the absence of such photos in my family photo boxes. And two, the near certainty that someone NOT MY FATHER looked through the lens, therefore capturing a child mid-rolic, giggling with a sparkle missing in every single Christmas photo.

I say “every single Christmas photo” like it was an annual thing when it may have only happened twice. The tradition unsustainable, for whatever reason.

We came to the porch in Queens from Schenectady, Pittsfield, or Rome, Georgia. Outsiders. Tow-headed from southern sun — okay Georgia, then. Where my brother was born. Dressed like little dolls, fed Coke, called to sit for a picture. My father sports a crew cut — the engineer on a corporate ladder, unlike the family he left behind — cops, homemakers, secretaries, and linemen. He pulls me close. I don’t like it. My mother’s head turned away, eyes closed.

If I saw girls dressed like this today I’d cringe and wonder what nightmarish home schooling they were made to endure, what fundamentalist dogma corrupted their souls. But back then it was standard fare. Siblings dressed as twins. A mother who sews.

And then there’s the father trying to exert control, imposing mild threats perhaps, one daughter wriggling in complaint, the other consigned to his big hand on her thigh, her own hand hanging down, passive and apart.

Dove serenade

Bougainvillea blossoms litter the yard like the tears of a passing angel. The pool, mid-repair, gapes like a wound. Another one.

Birdsongs I don’t recognize stitch at the margins of sky. I’ve learned that at least some of the songs are produced by a pair of mockingbirds. Irritating, mischievous creatures. My brother despises them and wishes he had a BB gun.

Snapshot: two nights ago, Billy fell asleep during the Lakers game but any attempt to change channels was met with an indignant snort.

Dogs bark from across the canyon.

My back hurts the usual amount. Took Tylenol yesterday. It helped. But even with my hands crabbed with arthritis and my achy sore spine, around here it’s hard not to feel like a locomotive fueled by blessings.

Look at me pop up to get a blanket for brother, lean over using both arms to spread on lap and legs. There I am standing and chopping onions for dinner after kneeling and clipping the rosemary bush. I get to take my own damn shower.

What makes you feel gratitude this Memorial Day weekend? This is a Peet’s coffee household. Oh, yes!

The generosity of others is on full display. I might’ve mentioned that I like chocolate covered almonds. Within three days, the basket on the kitchen counter over-spilled with bags of the confection.

A misty smog smudges the sky again this morning. It has generally cleared later in the day, but sitting under its pewter gloss now, it’s hard to believe the sun will shine. Isn’t that a comment about something?

Silhouetted against the grey, perched on a dead branch: a mourning dove. She regales me with her call. When she flies off, her wings creak.

Riff on old family photo

The prompt for this writing was to imagine someone in shadow.

Aspire as in a form of breath. The earring catches on the collar. The heart flutters fast for no reason. Will the silk rug remain in place, the one that was my mother’s? Will the box of old photos reveal any secrets, or even anything new?

There’s my sister on my father’s shoulders, chewing a finger in nervous gesture in the summer sun. He grips her ankles and wears the relaxed face of a young man in his prime. Out for a picnic. Lulu Brook. On the other side of the state park’s carved sign stands my mother, shoulder canted backward as if to put my face front and center. I am say, five months old. There is a lace bonnet on my head. She wears the face of a young fertile woman in her prime, bringing babies into the world on time, every two years, one more to come.

I lived in the Berkshires for many, many years and then, not far from there in the Connecticut River Valley for a few more. But, I never went to Lulu Brook. It’s somewhere in the Southern Berkshires near the Connecticut border, I think. See? I don’t even know. By the time I lived in Western Mass., ages ten to twenty-one with time outs for school and travel and in three different abodes, there were no family outings to state parks. Suburbia and its demands. Dual careers and those demands. Three kids turning into angry or secretive adolescents and those demands.

And eventually, heart failure. His. The angina was so bad one night that he fell face forward into his dinner plate at Lenny’s Restaurant on Route 20 in New Lebanon, New York. If you lived far enough west in Massachusetts, you crossed the New York state line like others drove a little extra to get to the bigger mall. Somewhat revived on the stretcher rolling out the door, my father quipped, “Don’t order the scallops!” He was funny like that. But no sense of humor would keep his arteries from filling with plaque and seizing. Even surgery only granted him three years more.

But on the summer day of the photo, the year of my birth, when he was twenty-eight and my mother was twenty-four, what could they know of what lay ahead?

One generation earlier, hope skewed much more toward survival, my mother’s father arriving to Ellis Island in his twenties, soon to work the docks in Brooklyn and not long after that, to marry my grandmother, Alice, whose family still lived in County Cork. His name was Albert. They called each other “Al.” It wasn’t until my mother’s younger sister was in grade school and visiting a friend’s house that she realized that not all parents called each other “Al.”

My great-grandmother also came here but returned to Ireland for a while after the death of her young daughter, Mary. Perhaps she wanted the solace of her own mother or maybe she needed the quiet rural landscape of her ancestors instead of the grimy racket of Brooklyn. She was already pregnant with another daughter, who she would also name Mary. I think about the second Mary, conceived before the first Mary’s burial, being born into a clutch of intense grief, expected to bear the name of a little girl already gone into the light.

You wonder how a mother could do that to a child, I don’t care if it was common. Rather than placing honor on new life, it has the stink of a curse. “See New Mary! How much longer will she live than Dead Mary?” All Marys will eventually be Dead Marys, but still. The older sister wasn’t yet dead when the cells of Second Mary began their furious division.

Speaking of furious cell division, my mother might have been pregnant with me in this photo. If not, then it is mere weeks off. Is she smoking? Even with two pairs of eyeglasses on, I can’t quite tell, but probably. It’s the right gesture. It’s the correct hand. It’s the reason I was born teeny and spent the first nine days of my life in an incubator.

Arms aloft Sufi

Found my protective talisman. My agent of change. My reminder of where transformation lies.

The whirling Dervish.

Coming of age as I did near New Lebanon, New York, the site of The Abode, I knew Sufis. Worked with a few at a Japanese restaurant near the intersection of Routes 20 and 22. Watched the waitresses go weak in the knees when Pir Vilayat Khan came to dine.

Even before that, though, I’d spent a summer working at a camp in Nova Scotia run by a Sufi. I bunked with another Sufi from Czechoslovakia (it was still around back then). I learned heart-centered meditation that summer, which competed with the TM I’d learned the year before. There was lots of storytelling and swimming naked in the sea, which is warm up there because of the Gulf Stream.

Years later, when I took part in a group that looked to Rumi for wisdom and occasionally cleared the floor to whirl, I was primed.

Whirling draws down heaven, even when you are a clod with no teacher and slim practice. Reliably so.

Somewhat like Grace’s Tree Woman, this glowing image of dervishes has been in my possession been for many, many years — most recently, pinned to the basement fridge (in my studio) with magnets. Ten years? More?

It wasn’t until cutting the outline of the Sufi that I realized the similarity of the arms held aloft to the girl running up the steps and the skateboarding boy.

Maybe it’s time to dance again? Or whirl?

*

Prompt 16. Acey’s Collage Month.

See also my Flickr album. SoulCollage and the tags here on the blog.

Signs

The penultimate text from the hospice social worker said, “I hope (if you believe in this), she will send you signs.”

I’ve been looking. Waiting. Would my sister send a sign? There have been three now.

Friday was my first trip up to Salem alone in a while and for some reason I was filled with dread.

I needn’t have been, for my sister made her presence felt right away when a solar powered lantern went on. Poof. Just like that! My sister got it for herself at Christmas and even though it’s been plainly visible for three months, not once have I seen it lit. Hi, Noreen.

The second sign came in the form of four turkeys: two strutting by themselves, one squished dead on the side of the road, and the fourth roosting in a tree up the street in the gloaming.

The first turkey showed up during Finn’s and my morning walk. Nothing unusual, though I was a little surprised that it was alone.

But then, a second bird in Peabody — also alone. I’ve never seen one on the North Shore.

My tingly-sense was activated.

Almost an hour later as I neared home, I saw the dead one. It was crumpled up against the guardrails dividing Route Nine, feet sticking straight up in the air. The glorious feathers in a heap. I gasped.

I’ve seen dead geese, squirrels, rabbits, cats, blue jays and skunks, but not once have I ever come across a dead turkey. It was heart breaking.

But later, just before full dark, I took Finn around the block and spied the fourth turkey — way up in the branches of a maple tree. On my street. I was stunned. I’ve only seen roosting birds one other time and it was an entire flock.

The thing was part shadow, part creature, its presence both spooky and majestic. Hallowed. Sent.

Lastly, today I came across a stack of box lids — the last things in my sister’s hall closet. I planned on keeping them because they make wonderful sorting trays for paper, which is why I was a little surprised that these were empty. Oh, but wait.

In the stack, folded up, was a map of Italy! Can you believe it? This last piece of ephemera came as a gratifying benediction, one week after reserving plane tickets to Rome.

Even though my travels over the years stirred up my sister’s anxieties, I know that she’d be thrilled on my behalf about this trip.

I have the map to prove it.