A Painting of Memory

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I lived in the company of ghosts. I know now that they were ghosts. But I also know that they were indeed company.

The house where the vapors lurked has 9 main rooms, not counting baths and laundry and storage and closets. Of those nine rooms, I inhabited five. I used only one of the three baths, one of the 6 closets, none of the storage areas.

A small room off the main part of the basement had clearly been designed for cold storage when the house was built in 1914. The wooden door at its entrance was at least four inches thick, the door of a vault. An ancient Frigidaire ice box still sits inside, its bottom compartment open and yawning, appearing expectant for the ice man to make his daily rounds, lugging the enormous block of ice that would keep the perishable foods cold and fresh for the next 24 hours.

The storage room has built-in shelves that run along two sides. In one corner of the shelves, the Lionel trains from my childhood lay in their original boxes. People have told me that the old boxes are often as valuable, or even more valuable, then the Lionel trains themselves. This matters not at all, as far as I’m concerned. Their value lay in the fact that playing with the trains, as they wound around our Christmas tree each year of my childhood, was the only time my father ever got down on the floor, on his hands and knees, and smiled the whole time.

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On the other side of the shelves, the HO trains from my ex-husband’s childhood lay in boxes that had been neatly labeled, and packed, and shipped to us by his mother. Of his three siblings, we had been designated The Keepers of the Trains. I asked him if he wanted the trains when our marriage ended. I asked him several times. He always said yes; but he never came and got them. Eventually he moved far away, with the trains still in their neatly-packed boxes, shipped to us at great expense from his parents’ house in West Virginia.

So many things were just like this – the shards and shreds of a life gone by. Like all people who marry, we came from two separate families, and we joined together to make our own new family. I became the Keeper of the Trains, a role I chose freely, without burden or regret – because I understood that there may come a time when someone would want those trains.

I lived among closets filled with the history of others, because any of the things within them might be needed at any time. Or perhaps the rooms themselves might be needed, as they have been many, many times as my children – and several of their roommates, and friends, and significant others, and spouses – needed a place to live, to call home.

They will not need this again from me.

It is more likely, in fact, that the time could come when I am moving towards my twilight, that I might need sanctuary from them.

I rattled around a great deal of space, in case I might be needed.

In my new home, I have three closets which are not even full. Both of the train have been given to my children, and hundreds of the other things we brought from our old families and collected with our new one.

I lived in the company of ghosts. I know now that they were ghosts. But I also know that they were indeed company.

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Photographs by Richard Nickel

Three More Nights

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When my marriage of twenty-one years came to the death throes of its legal ending, I scrimped and saved for a new mattress. This morning, nearly fifteen years later, I lay in bed until the unheard-of time of 7:30. I will sleep on that mattress only three more nights. It is long past its useful life; a new one sits in a box downstairs. I will instruct the movers to leave the old one behind, to be hauled away. The one in the unopened box will be driven to my new home on Thursday, set up in my new bedroom, and made ready for me to lay down my head at the end of the day when I will move from my home of thirty-two years.

I took out a lease on my new apartment nearly a month ago. Each week I visit it, at least once. I walk through the rooms and plan my furniture arrangements. I take measurements here and there, but I never write them down and don’t remember them later. Often I simply stand in each of the rooms, one at a time, and drink in the quality of the sound. Filmmakers always record this: the sound quality in each room when no one is speaking and nothing is happening, because each room is completely unique.

Sometimes when I walk into my empty apartment, I hate it. What was I thinking? I ask myself. I want to fall on the floor and cry. I go through machinations in my head to determine if it’s too late to change my mind. Other times I walk in and I am nearly overwhelmed with the lovely, homey charm that told me this assortment of rooms could be a home, a real and true home, for me.

I lay on my old mattress this morning listening to a rain so gentle, I had to work to hear the fine drops land. I listened to the birds’ joyful songs, the ridiculously loud ones and the more restrained, for a very long time.

I walked through the door of this dearly-loved house with a new baby in my arms and the entire life of a family ahead of me. After thirty-two years, there are many times when I ask myself if my body will know how to breathe in a different place, if my eyes will cease to see, to make sense of things, when the views out my windows are entirely foreign and not the views have been a constant through the whole arc of a life lived.

In three nights, a new chapter begins.

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Becoming Billie

As I [try! to!] return to writing the novel “Pushing the River,”  the character that I find haunting me is Billie.  As regular readers may recall,  I knew there would be a character in the story who struggles with significant mental illness, and that her lifelong struggle was a large part of the landscape that produced two very different sisters who are pivotal in the book.  In the novel  overall, the character of Billie Rae is relatively minor and remains mostly apart from the action.  But her impact on the sisters — both past and present — is looming and ever-present.  I wanted the description of her illness to be minimal, but memorable.

I have previously posted excepts from Billie’s story; this is a continuation, meant to be somewhat of a jigsaw puzzle.

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Billie Rae would brush her hair for hours. “That feels so nice,” she said. “Please, just a few more minutes, Stevie, pretty please?” Steve weren’t never the one who had brushed her hair – it was always Carol. But who she’d gone fishing with, and who made her special grilled cheese sandwiches just the exact way she liked them, and who done her hair, had gotten all mixed together inside of her. They was all people that used to be there, and now they wasn’t.

Billie wasn’t scared no more to walk home from school all by herself. She and Steve talked the whole entire way. He laughed and laughed at her stories. “You’re still my baby sister, Billie Rae, but I swear that when your times comes, you are going to have yourself the pick of the litter, the cream of the crop. The boys are gonna be lining up, Billie girl, so they can laugh their fool heads off.”

The door to her mama’s bedroom was closed when Billie got home. Always. She knocked on the door, said, “Mama, I’m home? Did you have a good day, Mama?”

She no longer waited for a response.

It was completely silent on the other side of the bedroom door. Billie used to remove her shoes in the kitchen, and tiptoe to her mother’s bedroom. Without making a sound, she lowered herself onto the floor and rested an ear against the cool glossy paint of the door. She sat for a long time, straining to get even the faintest hint of stirring, an audible breath, any sign that there was a life on the other side.

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She made up stories after that. Her mother had been secretly taken away by gypsies and was playing a tambourine with bright yellow and orange streamers every evening around a roaring campfire while men played the fiddle and women told tall tales and babies ran amok. Her mother had run away with a traveling circus and proven to have a remarkable talent with the elephants, who understood that she loved them dearly and would do whatever she wanted for the reward of her gentle strokes and soothing words. Her mama had been sucked right out of the window like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz and was traveling through a magical and wonderful land, but all she wanted to do was get back home.

Billie had a recurring dream. She was in a beautiful place, right next to a dazzling blue sea. She said to the owner of the restaurant: “I’m waiting for my family. They’ll be right here.”

“We’re very busy today,” he replied. “Very busy.”

“They’ll be right here.”

He seats her at a table. She gazes out at the endless blue and feels a sense of tremendous peace. She enters a dozy, dreamy state. When she emerges from the deep reverie, a woman is sitting at her table, kitty-cornered from her. Billie is unsure what to make of this. She thinks that perhaps the owner has allowed the woman to sit there for a bit because it is so crowded. She’s not sure whether to pretend the woman is not there at all, or whether she should say something. The woman looks up from the book she is reading, gives Billie a small smile.

“My family will be right here,” Billie says, with an edge of assertiveness in her voice.

The woman smiles her small smile again, and resumes her reading. Friends, or perhaps they’re family, come over to the table, with much chatter and buoyant good cheer. They pull out the chairs and sit at Billie’s table, everyone talking at once as they open their menus and engage in a lively discussion of what wonderful foods they will all order. The waitress comes to the table, and Billie’s earlier sense of peace shatters like a pane of glass, the shards floating inside of her body, tearing at her.

The others look at her when it is her turn to order. “But…my family…”

They laugh, and return to their conversation. Billie doesn’t know if they don’t believe her, or if they don’t care. The little shards of glass rip at her guts.

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Top painting by Otto Pilny

“Pushing the River,” new excerpt (continued)

My brother, Roy Mills Monier, would have been 60 years old on October 9.  He died outside of Quito, Ecuador on December 6, 2001.

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And I don’t just mean with them family members, and their kin and friends and pets that was constantly coming and going; and I don’t mean with all the things they gathered and put in different rooms that marked their lives neither.  I mean that it was full up in the only way that can make a house into a home.

            It was a good long spell that everything seemed to get bigger and bigger.  Not just them little ones, but life itself.

            But the tide, it surely did turn, and thence came the long stretch when everything started going the other way.  One by one, they started packing up and leaving; the Husband, then the Boy.  It was just the Little One left in the house with my Lady when she got the phone call that the very last of her kin had dropped down dead in some far off country.  She was standing right beside me, holding the phone in her hand, when I heared her gasp real loud, and her voice went all shaky.  With that phone call she had no more kinfolk, no more of the people who raised her up or stood along side her while she was doing her own growing, no more people to hold on to her stories.

            I think that might have been the moment, right then with that phone call, that my Lady began trying to push the river.

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Any Tuesday

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Accustomed to waking up between 6:30 and 7:00 am, I was in a profoundly deep slumber when my dog Scout whimpered quietly at my bedside around 6:00, letting me know that she could not wait any longer to go out.   I was also deep into a dream, a dream of such intense aching feeling that fully awake and caffeinated as I have been for two and a half hours now, a veil of sad wistfulness remains heavily between me and a rain-drenched, beautiful morning.

Last night, a friend told me that she feels the bottom has been hacked off the hour glass of her life, and that her remaining time is hemorrhaging out, giving her an ever-increasing sense of urgency that she must do everything in her power to ensure that those she most loves in the world will be safe, and loved, after she is gone.

Ah, if only this were possible.

I watched her sob as she recognized that we can love powerfully, ferociously even, but in no way is this a guarantee of anything at all, except that we have done our very best — lived, and loved our very best.

 And that must be enough.

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A Report on the Natural World, 6/24/13

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Scout is the third dog that I have had in my adult life; thereby, I am on my 24th year of having a ready-made reason to get outside every morning.  We go to the large park at the corner of my block most days.  When it is below zero, my fellow dog owners and I bitch and moan and compare the relative warmth of our boots.  When it is well above 90, we bitch and moan and say that we really must be getting home, pretending that it is our dogs who can’t stand the heat.

Scout is a meanderer. I call her the Ferdinand of dogs, as in the children’s book where the ferocious-seeming bull wants nothing more than to sit in the field, and smell the flowers.  Scout wanders the park each morning, slowly, thoroughly, nose to the ground, not willing to miss one single thing that might be infinitesimally different from the day before.

Each spring, we experience an alarming wave of birds’ nests falling from their tree homes, or perhaps they have been helped along by squirrels, cats, raccoons, possums – any of the variety of wildlife we have.  Each year, for a time, our parks, yards, sidewalks are littered with tiny, dead baby birds.  Some are brand newly hatched from their shells, others are feathered and nearly fledged, one hair’s breath away from spreading their wings and living a life.

Considering that we have experienced an influx of fox and coyote – surprising considering that we live within spitting distance of the third largest city in the United States – I am always taken aback that the bird bodies are there at all, and so many.

A nest fell from one of the tallest trees in the corner park, and the carcass lay right against the trunk.  The first morning Scout and I came upon it, the parents mounted a riotous, all-out demonstration of their protective agony, complete with shrieking, wing-flapping, diving and swooping.  Each morning Scout nosed the baby gently.  We witnessed the body progress from its state of newly-fallen perfection, to being covered and consumed by teeming maggots, to becoming strewn bones and feather, until the morning when there was no remaining trace whatsoever.

It has been more than two weeks since we found the baby bird, more than a week since there has been any remaining sign of its life.  Still, every morning the parents shriek and wail.  Every morning they swoop down and peck the back of my very confused, 87-pound yellow lab.  They follow us part of the way home.

Do animals understand death?

Do we?

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My Brother Missed His Son’s Wedding

When a family member misses such an important life event, the air in every room is noisy with his absence.

He was not in the car when his wife picked me up a the airport, nor was he waiting back at the house, in the kitchen, with that slight frown of intense concentration that always accompanied his slow, deliberate, quietly jubilant cooking adventures that lasted full days.

His wife threw a party the day before the wedding, her sisters-in-law abuzz with busy helpfulness. Both sides of the family gathered, old friends, new meetings, hearty hugs and rich laughter abounded. The hum of celebration grew large, peals of laughter regularly piercing through. Still, the roar of my brother’s absence remained.

He did not see the expression on his son’s face when he saw his bride for the first time, coming down the aisle of the sweet chapel on her father’s arm. He missed it all.

As my daughter and I sat in the first row, waiting for the ceremony that would make my brother’s son a married man, my daughter whispered to me. She asked me if I missed him.

Oh yes, yes I do.

My brother Roy died on December 6, 2001. He died in Ecuador, on the side of a mountain very near its summit, immediately and without warning. And I think it would not be false to say that his absence, and my missing him, has been with me since. The loss of him, of a living brother, the little boy who was already there when I was born, the skinny, freckled, snake-catching, marble-collecting, bow-shooting, cowboy-playing, fly-tying person whose living presence told me that my own life and experience were true. He helped me know who I was. Every day he did this. Just by being alive.

I read this poem, by Rilke at his funeral:

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You don’t survive in me
because of memories;
nor are you mine because
of a lovely longing’s strength.

What does make you present
is the ardent detour
that a slow tenderness
traces in my blood.

I do not need
to see you appear;
being born sufficed for me
to lose you a little less.