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

Oh. Dear. Procrastination.

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Who was it who said: writing is what one does when one has thoroughly exhausted all possible ways to procrastinate.

A couple of weeks back I had what I thought may be a serious AHA moment. I had put aside the novel I’d been slogging away at for nearly a year for a whole lot of good reasons – I wasn’t sure I had the desire/energy/wherewithal to complete a story that possessed me deeply for a time, then, well, didn’t any longer. I was no longer sure if a good story was even there, or if I cared enough to have those characters continue to possess me.

Putting it aside was the right thing to do.

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Meantime, I wanted to keep writing something, and didn’t have a fleshed-out idea for a longer, novel-length work. As you have read in these blog posts, I turned my attention to whatever was in front of me – thoughts about the opaque creature who happened to be my mother, and my reluctant return to the world of health clubs after a blessed 15-year absence.

The AHA was thus this: the gym stuff was fun, and funny. That was precisely the idea, and nothing more. The mommy stuff? Well, it dawned on me that those vignettes might actually be a part of the original novel. Perhaps I hadn’t put it aside after all. Perhaps I had (unknowingly!) meandered down a side road that turned out to be connected to the main artery.

Perhaps. If I can figure out how the heck to do it.

Or even where to start.

It’s currently 5:38 pm. I set aside the entire afternoon, save for a half hour dog walk, to find an inroad for the task at hand. ANY inroad, just a start.

Here’s what I’ve done so far:

  • played several games of Scrabble against the computer (my winning average is 51.8%)
  • texted pictures of my new haircut to several friends
  • browsed the websites of 3 different furniture stores for new living room chairs. The ones I have were bought on Craigslist for the sole purpose of “staging” my house when I thought I was going to sell it. Eight years ago. Still here in the same house. Still have those same chairs.
  • thought about every conversation I’ve overheard during the past couple of weeks to see if there was any good material I could just steal outright.
  • looked at my vacation pictures a few more times.
  • vaccummed, for godssake.
  • trimmed my eyebrows.

Oh good! My friend Rita just texted me that she’s on her way to pick me up for dinner!

Tomorrow is, after all, another day.

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I Lied. There Is One More “Stories of My Mother”

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When Heidi went into heat the next time, my parents arranged to have her spend a number of days with the breeders where we got her. They had selected a mate for her. We all drove out to drop her off. The house lay at the fringes of land that were well past the suburbs, but not quite rural. There seemed to be dogs everywhere, some in large cages set around the enormous yard, and others who roamed the house freely. I wondered if the same dogs always got to live inside, or if the breeders rotated them inside and out, following some schedule. Their immense pride in their dogs was evident. Both the man and the woman went on at length, telling me each of the dog’s names and several of their predominant character traits. I got the feeling that I was actually supposed to remember all this, because of their joy and the weight they gave to every detail they imparted.

It was a confusing mess to me, despite the good cheer. I wanted to know if Heidi would have to be outside in one of the cages, and I was told that she would, because she and her new male friend would need privacy and time to get to know one another. I could not understand the convivial good spirits everybody seemed to share. We were abandoning Heidi with strangers who were going to make her live outside all the time.

The body of a female dog makes a complete puppy from the original fertilized cell in about 63 days. The average size of a litter is 5-6 puppies, although the variation is enormous. It’s rare to have just one puppy in a litter, but it does happen. A couple of months after we fetched Heidi from her exile, my parents once again got the wooden pen ready for her in the basement. The same old blue bedspread and dingy pink blanket that her first litter had been born onto lay on the floor. Heidi occasionally scratched at the blankets, rearranged them with her nose and paws, and circled around and around as she waited.

One afternoon, Heidi squatted down in a corner of the pen and stayed in the same position, motionless, and staring straight ahead. She looked like she was trying very hard to poop. I wanted to ask my mother if this was true, but she had already told me that I needed to stay completely quiet if I was going to watch. Heidi let out a long, low moan. She inched her rear end closer to the floor, so slowly, and out came a translucent thick balloon with a puppy inside of it.

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There was only one puppy, which was an enormous surprise. My parents decided that we should keep her, and that she should be named “Elf,” the German word for eleven. She was to be the 11th dog that my family had. They counted the dog that my father’s nurse had gotten for us unannounced. We visited him where he was chained at the far end of our back yard until my mother couldn’t stand it for another minute. I’m not really sure what happened to Toby. They also counted the black puppies that had not been viable.

I don’t think my parents realized that Heidi had been a relatively compliant, trainable dog until Elf. Looking back, I think Elf was most likely just dumb as a box of rocks. Even in photographs, she has a wild, glassy look in her eye – an animal with unbridled enthusiasm, absolutely no comprehension, the brute strength of an ox, the stubbornness of a mule, and a bad bad case of ADD.

I thought having two dogs was great fun.

My grandmother (the good, good one) was visiting us, and my mother had planned a big dinner. An eight pound beef roast sat on our kitchen counter, thawing out for the upcoming feast. My grandmother heard a commotion, and walked in to find Elf with the giant slab of meat clenched firmly in her jaws. My grandmother shouted “NO NO NO,” and reached out with both hands to rescue the meat. Elf snapped at her. My grandmother called out for my mother, who came running into the kitchen and immedaitely understood the situation. My mother spoke firmly to the dog and reached for the roast. Elf snapped at her as well.

I didn’t see any of this. I came in at the part where my mother told me that my grandmother was going to be in charge for a little while, and that she would be back soon. She put Elf on a leash and left. When she returned, Elf was not with her.

The only thing that was ever said about it was this: “I will not have a dog that snaps at its owner.”

We sat around the dinner table that night as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened, though my father seemed unusually quiet.

I understood that we were not supposed to talk about it, but I was sick with sadness and confusion. I remembered the time when Elf was brand new, her eyes still closed tight, her body squat and furrowed with newborn puppy wrinkles. I was sitting inside the pen holding Elf on my lap, and somehow she slipped off. I picked her up, horrified at my clumsiness, and saw a tiny bubble of blood at the side of her nose.

After dinner that night, after my mother had finished the dishes and turned off the kitchen light, I said, “Mommy, do you think it’s all my fault? Do you think Elf was such a bad dog because of the time when I dropped her when she was a tiny puppy?”

“Maybe,” my mother said. “Maybe.”

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Artwork: Paul Gauguin, Mary Cassatt, Mary Cassatt

Stories of My Mother, #6

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Meanwhile, my mother came home from her weekly hair appointments sporting a face that seemed only vaguely reminiscent of the one she had left with. In her her eagerness to embrace the day and to sell her wares, Gretta sent my mother home each week with shockingly inappropriate eye make-up and a passel of samples. We tried to be kind. But the colors that were smeared across my mother’s eye lids were truly an assault to both nature and my mother.

My mother never did “do” her eyes on a daily basis, but on the now-rare occasions when she and my father went out for the evening, she would spread Gretta’s samples across her bathroom counter, stand in front of her room-sized mirror and attack the job at hand in much the same way that she attacked gardening. My mother, in fact, had no eyelashes. Well, damn few, in the sense that what hairs did manage to sprout forth happened to be sparse, fine, blonde, and exceptionally short. Nonetheless, my mother grasped her eyelash curler (a medieval contraption I tried a small handful of times to largely painful and highly undesired results – meaning I either ripped out more eyelashes than I “curled,” or I ended up with lashes that formed a severe right angle, heading straight OUT for a short distance, and then straight UP) with no end of determination for the task at hand.

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Mascara of the day bore little resemblance to the technological marvel of lengthening, thickening, volumizing, curling, smudge-proof, waterproof, lash-defining, no-clump, lash-separating types that incorporate resins, waxes, nylon fibers, and light-reflecting particles that overwhelm us today. My mother’s mascara was a brownish goo that I’m pretty sure was actually a combination of shoe polish and cold cream. The applicator wand was essentially a screw, much like one would find at the local hardware store, where the tarry goo insinuated itself between the threads of the screw. Once my mother had curled her lashes, swiped the mascara screw across their length, then repeated the entire process a second time…well, it’s difficult to describe the end result. It did look as if my mother had something coming out from the edges of her eyelids – not eyelashes, exactly, but something.

My mother relished the idea that Gretta’s little eye shadow samples had taken a page directly from Elizabeth Taylor’s 1963 role as Cleopatra. Like Gretta’s miscarriages, my mother followed the news of Taylor’s frightening health scare that nearly ruined the production, her great love affair with Richard Burton, and the charming fact that once married, she referred to herself as Betty Burton. So. My mother stood before me, clumps of…something… on her lash line where her real lashes had once been, colors that could scarcely be imagined swathed across her lids; and as a final touch, a kiss of lipstick in one of the exact pale, frosted shades that I had recently tossed away. In her gown, and her glory, my mother asked me how she looked.

I loved my mother. I said she looked just swell.

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On the Eve of 2014

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My mother had on her fur coat.  They must have been going to the symphony, or maybe the opera, back in the days when they had season tickets to both, before my father put his foot down and announced that he refused to go any more and thereby broke my mother’s heart.  They came into the living room to say good-bye to my brother and me, all gussied up and remaining at a distance.

We had a babysitter.  Kathy Bates (nope, not that one, though having the always-a-hoot actress as a babysitter would certainly have been swell).  At 10 and 8, Kathy was not all that much older than my brother and I were; but we were very much little kids, and she had crossed that treacherous threshold into Early Adolescence.  Kathy looked, most unfortunately, exactly like her father.  At the age of nearly 13, she was well on her way to her final height of 6 feet tall.

She was athletic and strong and awkward and rangy all at once.  Her hair always seemed to be horribly greasy, and it was evident that she curled it, teased it, sprayed it and in every way possible fought with it to achieve what little détente she could.  She had clearly outgrown her pants and not yet grown into her blouse.  Because we were watching TV, Kathy had to reluctantly don her glasses – the narrow, black-framed, pointy-tipped specs of the time that everyone spent years making fun of before shocking number of hipsters across the country took up their cause once again.

I was, in every way, fascinated by her.

She must have gotten special permission from my parents, as our TV watching was Regulated.  No more than one hour per night, and only approved shows.  We were permitted to watch all the PBS we wanted; which needless to say meant that we watched absolutely none at all, ever, period.

Kathy was kneeling on the floor, her PFFlyer-clad feet tucked underneath her as she sat no more than three or four feet from our little old black-and-white TV.  Her eyes were already glued to the screen as my parents said their goodbyes.

It was Sunday, February 9, 1964, and the Beatles were about to make an appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show.  My brother and I had no idea what to make of the awed, rapt solemnity with which Kathy Bates seemed to be approaching this event; but we understood the fact of it, if not the reasoning, and so knelt on the floor beside her.

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The minute Ed Sullivan says, “Ladies and Gentlemen, The Beatles!” the girls in the audience break into cheers and screams and yells.  Kathy Bates’ hands fly up to either side of her face, cradling her cheeks.  She moaned in ecstatic agony for a second before crying out.

Kathy looked over at my brother and me as if suddenly remembering we were there.  Our mouths were probably hanging open.  I spent the rest of “All My Loving” pretending to watch –I thought Paul was the cutest thing ever.  John scared me.  Ringo had a great goofy crazy smile.  And George?  Well, at the age of 8, George who? – but secretly studying every single move that Kathy made.

It was one of those pivotal moments in life, when a brand new door opens and you get a white-light-blinding glimpse of a world that is so much bigger, and scarier, and more complicated, and more magnificent, than you ever imagined before.  Thank you, Kathy Bates, for fanning a flame of curiosity and wonder.

Readers, may your 2014 be filled with such moments.

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