Monday, February 23, 2015

The Book, Part 2

Well, I'm still reading the book. It's big--620 pages--but that's not why it's taking me so long. The first half went at a normal pace, but now that I'm deeper into the book, the husband is deeper into his Alzheimer's, and the reading is slow and painful. Sometimes unbearable.

But the commonalities are interesting, and affecting. In 1952, Eileen Tumulty's mother gets pregnant. The family is thrilled, and Eileen spends a lot of time envisioning herself with her baby brother or sister. So much happy anticipation. And so much grief when her mother has a miscarriage.

In 1952, my mother became pregnant. Our family was thrilled, and I spent a lot of time thinking about the baby brother or sister of my dreams. I was devastated when my mom had a miscarriage.

Note that I said "I." I was 8 years old, and the grief in my memory was mine. All about me. I assume this egocentricity is typical of an 8-year-old. But I haven't been 8 for a long time. You'd think I would have given some thought to my parents' grief, especially my mother's, before now. But it wasn't until I read about the fictional Tumulty family's experience that I realized the impact the miscarriage must have had on my mom.

She had gotten pregnant with me right away, but her second pregnancy ended in miscarriage when I was a toddler. Apparently it lasted long enough for the doctor's to be able to tell her she'd lost a boy. I assume my parents had been trying all those years until they succeeded--briefly--in 1952. She was 37. She didn't know she would die within six months, but she almost certainly knew her last chance at having another baby was over.

Why this didn't hit me until now  . . . why it took a book . . . I don't know. I had issues with infertility myself, and pregnancy and childbirth have always figured prominently in my life. They still do, in a way. But for some reason I never took on my mother's grief. I never cried and said, "Oh, Mommy . . . I'm so sorry." That is, until now. 

Saturday, February 07, 2015

The Book (no, not that book)

In November I was scrolling through Amazon's Black Friday specials, ignoring the novels because if I added one more to the stack next to my bed it would surely topple over (again) or guilt me into insomnia. The same goes for my Kindle, except for the toppling over part.

But something made me pause at We Are Not Ourselves, by Matthew Thomas. I think it was the title, vaguely reminiscent of the first books I read about reincarnation and related subjects back in the 1960s. So I read the first few lines of the description, and was stopped cold.

The book is about a woman named Eileen, born in 1941 and raised in Woodside, Queens. She's an only child. She marries someone who is nothing like the young men she grew up with. He's a Ph.D. scientist, and rather serious. At some point well into their marriage he gets Alzheimer's.

My name isn't Eileen, but everything else is awfully close. Uncomfortably close. I was born in 1943 and raised in Woodside, Queens. I was an only child. My husband was nothing like the young men I grew up with. He was a Ph.D. scientist, and rather serious. He had progressive dementia for 10 years before he died.

Of course I had to buy the book.

To be continued . . .

Saturday, January 17, 2015

The Big Dig

I’ve been working for over a week on cleaning out my pantry. It’s a small room off the kitchen that I managed to stuff with stuff for years. I kept thinking I should tackle it, but kept dropping the ball. Finally, before Christmas I bought a cedar wardrobe (on Craigslist) to replace the one in the pantry that was falling apart, and knew I’d have to get serious about mucking out before it arrived.

A corner of the room has been inaccessible because of a file cabinet and boxes, so the process was like an archeological dig. I found a German cherry pitter and a green-bean frencher that hooks up to a power drill. I found a corn cutter, a big commercial bread pan (for a 6-lb. loaf), and parts for at least three vacuum cleaners I no longer own. I found Legos my children played with when they were not in their 30’s and 40’s. And I found (and threw out) an embarrassing number of dusty boxes of pasta that had fallen to the floor.

When we set out to do a major clean-out or reorganization, at some point we invariably make a bigger mess than we started out with. At least that's how it always works with me. Every day this week I’ve had stuff all over my kitchen, dining table, and beyond. Even now, a pile of umbrellas (who knew I had so many?) and hangers (ditto!) sits on my sofa. Some of what I pulled out of the pantry will go back in, but much has already gone to the trash or to Salvation Army. 

"Energy comes from knowing what to do," I've often quoted, and the one category that's pulling the plug on my energy is paper. I've always had two filing cabinets in the pantry, but they took up too much room, and I got rid of the one that had been filled with accordion files holding "things to save," as I wrote on some of them. Most are letters: from my parents, from Jill, from my son, from me to my son, from me to Jill, from me to my dear friend Lisa. There are other things in the files, too: clips from my newspaper column, clips of articles I wrote and photos I took when I was a reporter, issues of Woman's World, Yankee, and literary magazines with my stories and poems in them, letters from my Russian penpals, letters from Norman Cousins, singleton letters from various other people I wrote to over the years, printouts of countless journal entries, and more. Paper. Paper.

An article I read on decluttering recently stated that we keep unnecessary things because of two reasons: fear of the future, and wanting to hold onto the past. I admit I want to hold onto the past. I have wanted to hold onto the past my whole life, ever since my mother died when I was nine. I absolutely do appreciate my present, but I'm unwilling to abandon my past. I understand this, but I won't try to change it. If the result is an armload or two of fat files I'm not sure what to do with, so be it.

Meanwhile, tonight my daughter and son-in-law arrived in their uber-pickup bearing the new (old) cedar closet. They carried it inside and set it in place. It needs a little leveling (actually, it's my old house that needs the leveling), but it fits perfectly and looks great. And Peachy, who hopes that the new, cleaner space will attract some interesting residents with tails and whiskers (and I don't mean cats), thinks so too.

Tuesday, January 06, 2015


My daughter Gillian's acrostic poem to me, written April 1998 when she was 22:

Laughter is our way
Uplifting in like
Cleverness, and the
Knowledge that we share.
Yellow garden spiders and
Simple card games are
Ties that bind us.
Older and wiser we
Never forget, best friends

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Christmas Eve

Slowly we sang it

The red-robed sopranos
spread out among us
and the altos
and the basses
all among us
singing slowly

Ivory candles
tapered to halos
on our faces
silver halos
in the dark gold night
lighting the grand
brass pipes
and the worn
wooden pedals

Slowly we sang it
and the silent night
never seemed so holy

Monday, December 15, 2014

Something Saved

The manila envelope was labeled Photographs. Certainly not unusual in my house, where my father's photographs vie with mine for the title of Most Ubiquitous. After four or five years of scanning my dad's prints and negatives, you wouldn't think I'd find any more photographic surprises, but they still pop up.

The best ones are photos I don't remember ever seeing, and this envelope contained a bunch of them: my late cousin Terry blissfully dancing with Dave at their wedding . . . my stepmother's father's family portrait from Scotland at the turn of the 20th century . . . my dad's older cousin Peggy in a bathing costume that included high button shoes . . . my grandmother with one of her sisters and their mother. And a snapshot of a young woman I didn't recognize. She was attractive, and held a dog on a leash. On the back was a note to Lucky (my grandmother) from Babe (her daughter).

"You're so much like Babe." I heard it most of my life. Babe (whose real name was Esteare) was my father's younger sister. I was very young when she died, and have only two vague and disparate memories of her: One, in her Manhattan apartment, watching some sort of gold metal revolving Christmas display, its movement triggered by a candle flame. Babe was swathed in fur, ready to go out somewhere. In the other, we are at her Patchogue, Long Island, summer house, and she's showing me her tiny vegetable garden, pointing out how carrots grow underground.

We didn't look alike—she inherited her father's black hair—but according to my dad we had the same laugh, the same sense of humor, the same way of talking to dogs, the same tendency to get emotional. I believe it. For one thing, she and my dad were close. For another, I know I inherited some striking personality characteristics from her mother.

Her mother. My grandmother. "Lucky."

Dear Lucky,
Thought you would like to have this—last picture I took of B.J.
Best love,

Until this morning, I had never seen her daughter B.J. all grown up. The initials stood for Barbara Joan, whom I've written about before. I wrote a poem about her, too. She was 20 years old when she died. My daughter Gillian was 25.

I looked at Babe's note, written with a fountain pen in the red ink she favored . . . the strong, attractive handwriting . . . the painful stumble on the word "last" . . . the "best love." I imagined her effort to make her writing look normal on this occasion. I saw th and g just the way I write them. I felt what she felt. All of it. Everything.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Conversations With Joey

Occasionally I post on Facebook about interactions with my 3-year-old grandson, Joey. It's usually easy to make them concise (because they usually are concise!). But here's a longer one from today.

We were at the piano, and as usual he knelt on the bench to peer at the sheet music and "read the directions," as he says. Most of the time they instruct him to sing "Old MacDonald" or "I Dropped My Dolly in the Dirt" (black-key song), but this time he said we should play a tune about Jack.

"Who's Jack?" I asked.
He explained that Jack was on the ice and fell.
Ah, I thought. This is a book someone read to him, maybe at the library.
I asked if Jack fell through the ice, and he said yes.
"That's terrible!" I said. "So dangerous."
"Yes," he said gravely. "It's very bad."
"So did someone rescue him?"
"No," he said.
"No??" I wondered what kind of book this could have been.
Then he had second thoughts. "The fireman came."
"We have to play Jack on the piano," he reminded me.
"Jack has a song?"
"It's not a song," he said, clearly trying to be patient with ignorant Grammy. "You play it on the piano."
Oh. Okay.
So I played a few bars of Dylan's "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right."
"Yes," Joey said. "That's the way it goes."

Later, as we sat down to read a book he looked around the living room. "Where's your boss?" he asked.
It sounded like "boss," but I didn't think that could be it. "My ball?" I asked.
"No—your boss," he said.
"My boss?"
He nodded.
"What's a boss?" I asked.
"A boss is a mom or a dad," he explained.

I told my son about this, and he said they had no idea where Joey got the word, but he uses it often.

And then as I posted on FB today, we read the book. Every line (I mean *every* line) prompted a "why" question. After 26 pages of this, I asked, "Why do you ask 'why' so many times?" He thought a moment, and then replied, "Because I need to talk."