Category Archives: writing

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.

*. *. *.

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.

Remember shopping?

Last weekend when Sunday evening arrived, I couldn’t figure out where the time had gone.

Oh yeah. I went shopping. Shopping for cotton t-shirts to replace the food stained collection currently in my drawers (I didn’t gain weight during the pandemic, but I did ruin a lot of shirts by eating dinner on the couch) and for shorts and pants. Went to the PO for passport photos.

K and I went to THREE places in search of a new side chair for the living room. Look at us, I might’ve said. Shopping for new furniture like adults! It’s not something we’ve done much.

Then I returned one of the shirts from Uni-Qlo because it was too tight. Got the large instead. I might have dropped what for me was a small fortune at JJill.

How much time we used to routinely spend in pursuit of food and other goods! Errands, errands! Decisions, decisions! Driving, parking, waiting in lines! Finding the bathroom, because…

Today, I was at it again. I returned the shirt I bought to replace the too-tight one because it still bound at the neck (I have a thing about that). Returned the swanky JJill outfit. I loved it but it was too drapey and long for a short woman with curves. This is when I wondered if maybe I enter a fugue state when clothes shopping, one in which I’m a slender woman standing five-seven.

I also returned the olive shorts bought last weekend because when I went to put them on this morning, I grabbed another pair of olive shorts. You know, the ones I forgot about.

I believe this fugue state might have a clinical name, but never mind that.

This morning I headed to the mall at 10, forgetting that nothing opens until 11, even though I was just confronted with that fact last week. Made a quick right into the Wegman’s complex and good thing, because we have two social gatherings coming up. I will bring bruschetta and artichoke dip to one, seared, honeyed shishito peppers and a plate of tomatoes with homegrown basil to the other.

Back home now and I’m breathing a sigh of relief.

In other news: I hit the “below obese designation” on the scale this morning. Talk about relief! This, merely by employing the trendy but sensible process of intermittent fasting. I didn’t give anything up. I didn’t start using my exercycle. I just stopped eating at 7 pm and held off eating again til 1 pm. It works!

The catalpa blossoms litter the yard. The white scatter offers unusual floral beauty, but also precipitates a little dread since we will need to pick up rotting piles of them in a couple of days. Our back catalpa — we have two — didn’t used to flower but now does. Who knew trees changed gender? Probably all of you…

With mild temps and sun, I’m able to edit on the deck under the umbrella. It makes for pleasant typing, even as I am reaching a point of deep reluctance. I hope it’s a temporary resistance, for I have a ways to go. Line by line editing is pure pleasure for me. I could do it all day, every day. But this business of moving big chunks around and deleting or drastically shrinking entire chapters requires a different kind of focus. Ugh. Maybe this new mood signals that I am nearing the end. I hope so.

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.

when rabbit holes are “work”

You may recall that my manuscript consultant suggested an epilogue. How about 1758? That’s the year Eliza and her husband, Charles Pinckney, return to South Carolina after a lengthy stay in England. Charles dies in July. Malaria claimed a lot of lives in colonial America.

Prior research had been pretty laser-focused on the years 1738 to 1744. With many historic tomes, in fact, I just stopped reading at 1745. I barely read Eliza’s letters after her marriage in ’44.

Well that’s not entirely true. I read them two or three times, but I didn’t MINE them and their footnotes for personal events and tone and history.

So I had to ask: what was Charles Town like fourteen years after my original narrative ended? Also, because one character flees to Philly, what was the City of Brotherly Love like in 1758?

Imagine my glee — yes glee! — to learn about an early abolitionist who published the very first unequivocal position against slavery in the western world! His name was Anthony Benezet and he was a Huguenot-turned Quaker. The Quakers adopted the proclamation in Philadelphia in 1758. *

I found a Library of Congress lecture by one of Benezet’s biographers, Maurice Jackson, and listened to it in its entirety (those of you who know me understand how rare that is).

Why isn’t he better known?

His pamphlet or Slave Almanac was later copied in large measure by better known abolitionist John Wesley and relied upon by the likes of Granville Sharp.

I noodled around Ben Franklin’s early career as a printer (he was out of the business by 1758) and his then equivocal stance on slavery — or at least his unwillingness to attach his name to those early anti-slavery pamphlets.

The other thing to know generally was that the French and Indian war was going on. It was the reason why Charles and Eliza Pinckney had returned to South Carolina. They wanted to secure or sell their properties.

Fun fact: the Join or Die flag originally referred to the necessity to cooperate in the fight against France and only later was coopted by the Revolutionaries battling Britain.

* The proclamation was approved at a Quaker Yearly meeting in 1758 but not printed until 1759.

In other news, the wisteria is blooming and I got my hair cut. New glasses ordered. All systems go!

And I’m making a tunic. Ha! I’ll let you know how it goes.

Rainy day after Address

This post/poem is in response to the prompt: “some days disappear like…” courtesy of Kathleen Olesky. Also, though it’s presumptuous, Rumi also deserves a credit here.

(Above: writing room as seen in mirror)

Some days disappear like

Some days disappear like snow on an
outstretched tongue, quietly, others
like butter in a hot iron skillet
with a froth and a sizzle.

Some nights land like a stranger
lurking in the bushes, leaving
us shaken and afraid, others

come on us like Magi
to the Christ child, bearing
fragrant and precious
gifts, unexpected.

An afternoon can drawl
or contract, lounge
or catapult. Is the rhythm a
function of what we had for breakfast and
the dreams that visited overnight?
Or are they perhaps their own
small kingdoms, with rules external?

My favorite times are mornings
born of rest when the pulled
curtain reveals a lovely
soft wash or a hearty
glare of eastern light. A
new day, no matter what.

Let’s meet there, near the
windowsill and pull it up,
the sash, and lean, together,
and breathe, then shout, “Thank you!”

 

 

 

Here’s the Rumi poem I was thinking of.