It’s official: I am a GOMER. Look at me with over-the-glasses sunglasses and Medicare card!
(GOMER is an acronym that stands for Get Out of My Emergency Room. Emergency room physicians well know that patients of a certain age can come into the ER with a minor complaint, only to have testing reveal major health issues. Hence, the quaint moniker.)
I start dinner prep at around 4:15. I groan getting up off the couch. I often can’t remember why I went down to the basement: to fetch something from the downstairs fridge, from the dryer, from the pile of used Amazon envelopes?
PORTRAITS AND COVID
Two nights ago my phone spit up a series of photos from early 2020. What a stunning reminder of how shocked and frightened we all were at the beginning of the pandemic. I’ll share a few. You’ll see the results of my mask-making and you’ll see expressions both haunted and grim.
Because COVID has wrecked our sense of continuity, this review of images helps to ground me. So does the following narrative.
Two years ago, my husband had just returned from China. Mid-February we both came down with what we thought was the flu, or was it Covid? We couldn’t get tested because they said it was too long since exposure, it being a month after he returned. This, even though peers in his office had returned more recently. A dozen engineers were sick as I tried unsuccessfully to round up a test.
I might’ve sprung the $200 for an antigen test but they were too unreliable to make it seem worthwhile. Irinsed groceries with a dilute bleach solution and left mail in the garage for four days before bringing it in the house. The postman to whom we open the door because he’s a nice guy and he loves Finn and Finn loves him became a threat I silently referred to as my “sole vector of disease.” He reported that he’d never smelled so much Lysol in his entire life. I watched the red dots on the Johns Hopkins COVID chart guessing correctly that we were right behind Italy. We cancelled first a trip to Florence and then the compensatory trip to Quebec.
I’m curious what others remember in those early weeks. How long ago does it seem? How strange, still?
This post is a prompt response from yesterday. Of five provided images, the one I responded to was of a piebald horse (not unlike the one above). I quote two poets: Gerard Manley Hopkins and Joyce Kilmer and for your enjoyment include the entirety of the Gerard Manley Hopkins poem, Pied Beauty, at the end.
It helps to know that I am ten years plus into writing a novel in which one of the central characters is Eliza Lucas Pinckney (b. 1722) and that the other three main characters are enslaved Black women.
Rhombuses of Light
The morning light is sectioned
mintons and mullions
through the glass, hitting floor and
wall, bending at baseboard.
She often referred to light
It’s the glow we like
especially when April
breezes seep past sills
and chill. But what about the
bend at the baseboard?
An easy compliance.
“Glory be to God for dappled
things,” said the poet.
Rhombuses of light
are not pied or
dappled, but when created
by a window speak
to the relationship between
solidity and light.
She repeats herself. All
those references to clouds!
It’s time to find and replace.
Thunderclouds with slate
grey bottoms, slants of
rain like an etching against
the horizon. Again, Eliza,
Her friend rode a dappled
grey sixteen hands high. How I had
to look all that up, authority running
to cats and dogs and at a stretch to
the way the interior of a barn
smells and how light catches
dust and particles of hay
drifting below the rafters.
How light and gravity inform
Imagination as authority,
not a popular position
Ripples of clouds above
the marsh, liked ruched
silk. Sunlight on creek
shining like pewter. God
in nature. We get it! Eliza
Gerard Manley Hopkins
Light will slide up the
wall as day goes on.
Sometimes the miraculous has
a predictable element to it.
All those author interviews
and how they make her
shrink. What’s on HER
bedside table? Did she
even read as a child?
The Case of the Hidden Staircase.
But it occurs to her now,
more memory than thought,
that reading Gerard Manley
Hopkins as a teenager
opened a previously
undisclosed chamber in
You can do that with
language? Light can
bend at baseboard
and be celebrated and in
Why does one element
mimicking another thrill
the senses? Light like
water. Sedimentary rock
like ripples of corduroy.
Memory like glass.
As a priest, he told
himself to shut up.
Figures an early hero of
mine would go to such extremes
and for all the wrong
reasons. Virginia Woolf with
rocks in her pockets.
Heroes, heroines, perhaps
best not to have them —
but how else learn how
to write, how not to panic,
how to pick at a scab and
Just once, she’d like the column
to soberly reveal an author
that didn’t read until she
was seventeen or so. Too busy
mucking about in creeks and
negotiating with terror. Why
Music floods the chest.
A good reason for silence,
she thinks, a single window
at a time being enough,
the light passing through
glass from the east,
inching toward the center of the hall.
You mean to tell me
the rhombuses of light float down the wall
and not up as morning progresses?
of observation. What motes?
What barn? Memory like glass.
Eliza’s daughter was about to
turn eleven when he died. Eliza’s
husband. Harriett’s father.
The dates are there for the finding.
July 12, 1758 and August 7, 1758.
What I make of turning
eleven just after the death of
a parent is not what you will
make of the same.
Even Harriett, poor dear,
would have made several
things of a singular devastation.
She had wanted to read
“Pied Beauty” at her father’s
funeral. The altar boy
turned atheist would have
appreciated its point, even
if Longfellow and Poe were
his favored fare.
Her sister overruled the selection.
of bullying that can’t even
be attributed to grief.
“I think that I shall
never see a poem as
lovely as a tree,” he
wrote in my autograph
book — remember those? —
“But with his help, I’ve
made a Dee.”
“He fathers-forth whose
beauty is past change.”
Swapping out an altar
in the Catholic Church for the
Kinderhook Creek doesn’t mean
one has no god.
Trout fishing as sacrament.
Harriett was ten about to turn
eleven. I was 24 or 26 and the fact that I can
never remember without adding age-at-death to
one birth year and then subtracting another
birth year speaks to loss.
In the spirit of learning through imitation, here’s something written after reading three pages from Jamaica Kincaid’s “At the Bottom of the River.” As promised, it’s pretty stream of consciousness.
There’s the book about indigo, the one about slavery, one called, “Unexplained Presence.” If you could explain anything you would. You know you can’t, but the trouble is you keep trying. A fan in a summer window whirrs, more to block out a roofing crew than to cool the hallway.
All hallways connect one thing to another.
Remember how little Markie crawled up the stairs and his brother trailed behind, exclaiming, “You’re a good climber-upper!” Stairs connect up to down, the present to the past.
With all the molecules swapped out since our babies were learning to walk, we might as well be different people. That’s supposed to make us feel better — scientific evidence that we are not, after all, stuck. But what of all the unread books? The tome about journalism highlighting Ida B. Wells or the new massive biography of Frederick Douglass? You don’t even take the time to reread his Fourth of July speech.
You go, instead, to the rocky shore looking for talismans, hoping to be refreshed because the evidence in hand suggests that you are indeed stuck.
The man’s forearms still lovely, still eager for son. You write ‘progeny son’ instead of ‘solar sun’ and give the game away. Our issue, 1,000’s of miles away, having left, and left again. Airports foreclosed for now. Even a run to the PO to mail care packages means defying the odds. Contagion everywhere, anywhere.
If you look at the lozenge of of light on the floor, what do you actually see? The puddles of gold like stepping stones from here to sleep.
At the shore, you gather palm-sized rocks, silently condemning the neighbor who fills his truck and fills it again to line his long driveway with Pebble Beach artifacts. Your offense is so small by comparison, three rocks in the pocket, but the impulse is the same.
A mist came in. The surf crashed in brownish rolls. We could smell the kelp. We could smell the brine. All the smells, stepping stones to the past.
Remember when Thacher Island light houses bellowed out their caution on days like this? If they were to do so now, I might weep. And why don’t they now?
The sandals are left in the car. The espadrilles get sandy and, because of recent downpours, muddy, too. We used to come here as children, as families, as the last of the boomers, ready to accept all as our due and then reject the same with ideology, entitled rage, and dirty espadrilles.
We were too young to protest the war. As Saigon fell, I was taking my boyfriend by the hand, lying him down, unbuckling him. We were too young to go to Woodstock. We watched the reels wistfully, knowing all the songs. We missed the mud. The dirty hair. Jimi Hendrix before he died.
We protested Three Mile Island instead. We made ‘Take Back the Night’ banners instead. How many forthright and righteous women does it take to bring down a single, lying predator — twenty, thirty? And maybe not even then.
I put the thieved, striped rocks in the garden where they can talk to others of their kind. ‘I was stolen from the beach. How ’bout you?’ ‘I long for the sound of the surf, for the sound of the fog horn, for the sound of children scrambling with their plastic pails and sunburned shoulders.’
Sunburns no more! Lighthouses silent!
When the sun illuminates a long string of cobweb draped from ceiling molding to light fixture, it’s hard not to gasp. How long, exactly, has it hung there?
How long had the creepy pair lured girls to the massage table? Why do we call her a ‘madam’ or ‘socialite’ and why do we call him anything but ‘convicted sex offender’? She turned up in New Hampshire, not Zurich, not the Upper East Side. She thought her money would shield her.
Will she live long enough to tell her dirty secrets?
The muddy espadrilles resist the bleach, refusing to be spiffed up. Now the toss away shoes cost unreasonable sums — formerly priced like upgraded flip flops, now like a mid-level shoe.
No foghorn blare. The mist a fine spray. We were refreshed. The dog always between us. Pebbles rattling in the backwash of surf like we remember. All the rock tokens. The light puddled on the floor. Hallways and staircases leading somewhere. Recalling the toddler proud of his new velcro sneakers. “Here, Markie, chew on these!” Those were the days when the little one put everything in his mouth, chewed banisters and socks. Memory like a plaintive foghorn, marking out where the invisible island lies.
Look at the lovely Rosenthal platter — that flourish along the scalloped edge; delicate blue flowers draping off the rim. I have service for eight plus another smaller platter, a casserole, a tea pot (squat and round) and coffee pot (tall and slender), plus matching sugar and creamer, candlesticks.
They were a wedding gift from my mother.
Recall this: Mother is back from a trip to Germany with her second husband. They are seeing the world! While on the continent she buys an entire set of china for her daughter who, at the age of 33, is at last engaged to be married.
When Mother hands Daughter the crumpled brochure, Daughter doesn’t bother to hide her dismay. Are the dishes too feminine? Is she inclined toward blue these days? Such a fraught exchange!
They’ve been here before. A history of thwarted choices gives Daughter an unhealthy sense that she’s entitled to sour incivility. So many items ticked off! How much did Mother spend, exactly?
There will be a cost to Daughter’s wounding response and she knows it. It’s no longer a gift-giving occasion. It’s all about Mother’s hurt feelings. Daughter’s cooing and back peddling will be accomplished with a combination of guilt, annoyance, and compulsive, middle-child diplomacy. Of course the dishes will be beautiful! It took a second, is all! Of course, it was a generous gesture!
They’ve been here before, too.
Does it matter that I love the dishes now? That as I wash off the residue from last night’s dinner, I do so with care, knowing how inconsolable I’d be if the platter broke — my mother dead and gone these 22 years past. Stuff has the power to undo us sometimes.
The Weight of Things, Part II
We’ve purchased a shed in the sorry acknowledgement that our belongings have outpaced our capacity for sorting, disposal, or storage. The garage is packed: sports equipment, gardening tools, lumber, Christmas decorations, craft booth panels, two table saws, bikes and chairs. There’s beer brewing equipment, scuba gear, coolers, kayak paddles and beach chairs. At least three complete socket wrench sets, possibly more.
Now picture Son moving to Parts West with two suitcases. His entire apartment is boxed up in the garage, too. Now what? Most is too heavy to ship.
Too heavy indeed! Here are the pots and knives Mother purchased in such industrious cheer — the dish towels and extension cords, an array of spices! He’ll make curry and roast chickens! He’ll eat on Mexican dishes while looking at the spectacular skyline. Oh that view, Mother exclaimed, that view!
And then there was the dreadful pick up eight months later. Utter disarray.
Seeing these things makes for uneasy recollection. For some reason it is the contrast between the early optimism and the later despair that gets to me the most. I don’t know why. The hard questions arise, prime among them — how could I have missed so much?
I know how — because I wasn’t even looking.
It’s a little better now — maybe you can build up an immunity to memory by repeated exposure to triggering belongings. Things have resumed their status as objects. They are once again problems to be solved — sell? donate? keep?
The iron skillet is coming in the house, but — anybody want a waffle iron?
I was meeting with a fellow landscape-volunteer for the elementary school when her husband called. “Turn on the TV. Turn on the TV.” The friend said, “it’s Osama bin Laden”. Believe it or not, that was the first time I’d heard that name (an unthinkable state of ignorance now, with FB, twitter, etc.). We watched the towers go down in real time.K was sent home from work, the office closed. There was the fear of more planes, more death.
Because the boys were young (7 and 5), we didn’t watch the endless replays. We had a camping trip planned for the weekend and were glad to have a reason to interrupt routines, but actually drove down into North Adams at one point to buy a newspaper. A couple of times while the kids bombed around on their bicycles, K and I turned on the van engine and listened to the radio in a state of shock. I remember feeling a sense of kinship with our grandparent’s generation, listening for news about the war, huddled around a radio.
I remember how startlingly blue the sky was on 9/11. A perfect fall day. I remember reading an email from the school saying, “we have not told them.” I remember calling a friend over before I walked over to pick up the boys, embracing her and crying, “what kind of world are they growing up in?”
On Facebook yesterday (it’s 9/12 now), I watched a video clip of tolling church bells on the campus of UMass/Amherst. Not only was it a haunting sound, but the comments rolling underneath gave me chills, especially the ones saying things like, “my son was in kindergarten that day and now he’s a junior at UMass”. And then there were comments simply saying what they were doing that day. Where they were or who they lost. We will all remember.
It took days to find out if my brother was okay. He had been scheduled to fly from somewhere in Europe into D.C. to give a lecture. All the other doctors (sensibly) cancelled, but he was adamant about showing up. He first flew to somewhere in the Caribbean and next to Canada where he rented a car.
My brother, like my son, went to McGill and had crossed that border many, many times without incident. But this was post 9/11. Because he was coming from Europe, he had multiple currencies on his person — suspect. It was a one-way car rental — suspect. And then there was the Irish surname — also suspect given the long and troubled history with bombs (my sister maintains we’re related to Timothy McVeigh, but never mind that).
The police at the U.S./Canadian border thoroughly took apart the car. I don’t mean pulled him over to inspect the trunk and open a few suitcases — I mean, unbolting door panels, ripping up floor mats, lifting seat cushions.
I may have gotten some of those details wrong, but you get the gist.
What I don’t remember — is what we said to our sons, our young and impressionable and fairly innocent sons. What did I say?
P.S. That’s a SoulCollage card referring directly to the attacks of 9/11 and also referring indirectly to my maternal grandfather (using magazine images), who came to NYC in 1923, spent decades working in the bowels of ships while raising a family in Park Slope, Brooklyn, before moving up to Newburgh, NY.
P.P.S. The creepiest local connection was that the Boston hijackers spent their final night on this earth in a hotel less than a mile down the road. The place has since been razed and an apartment building sits there now.
P.P.S. A good friend of mine move to Battery Park sometime later and when we visited her, we went to Ground Zero. It was awful. One of the worst things? Looking at the dust on nearby building knowing that it had DNA in it.