Roses in the smoke

Red rosebud

Rosebud. Jan SoloCC BY-SA

By the chain link fence of our backyard, a rosebush grows. 

It’s really growing in our neighbors’ backyard, but, according to my mother, there’s an agreement that the roses hanging over into our yard are ours, and the roses on the neighbors’ side are theirs. 

So, early one Sunday morning, my mother ushers my sister and me out to the fence. In one hand my mother holds pair of shears. In her other hand is a cigarette. Salem. Menthol Fresh.

“Pick out the rose you want to wear,” she says. “From the ones on our side.”

The roses are vivid red with a hot pink tint. Some are wilting. Some are big and full. Velvety. Their fragrance is heavy in the air. 

“This one!” says my sister, pointing to a large bloom.

That one might fall apart while you’re wearing it. Find one that’s not all the way open yet.”

Why did she tell us to choose?

We finally select tight rosebuds that my mother thinks are acceptable. She puts her cigarette in her mouth and clips the two buds. Then she clips a third one that’s partially open.

“Why are you cutting three roses?” I want to know.

My mother blows a cloud of smoke into the air. Menthol and tobacco mingle with the scent of roses. “One’s for me. Grannie is living, so I’ll wear a red rose to church for Mother’s Day, too.” 

She has three straight pins in her sleeve. She removes one to pin my sister’s rose to the front of her dress. 

I am thinking about Grannie. Her mother is not living. “What color rose will Grannie wear, then?”

White,” says my mother, pinning my red rosebud to my dress.

I am sorry for Grannie, her mother being dead, having to wear a white rose. One day my mother will wear a white rose on Mother’s Day. The thought floods me with sadness. The colors make me wonder—why?  Why red for living mothers and why white for dead mothers?

Is red for the blood?” I ask.

My mother, in the midst of pinning her own rose, leans in. She can’t hear well. Sometimes she doesn’t catch everything other people are saying. “What?”

Do people wear red for living mothers because they still have blood in them and white for dead mothers because when they die there’s no more blood?”

My mother frowns. An upside-down V appears between her eyebrows as she looks at me. I can tell she heard me and that she doesn’t understand the question. Before I can try again, she says, “All right, we’re ready. The bus should be here any minute. Let’s go wait out front.”

We ride the bus to church because my mother doesn’t drive. She never learned how. And Daddy is asleep because he’ll be getting up to go to work while we’re at church.

We stand out front, my mother, my sister, and me, wearing matching dresses that my mother made, with our three red roses pinned on, waiting for the church bus. It’s really an old school bus, now painted navy blue and white. My mother lights another cigarette. My sister plays with her necklace—a tan-and-white rabbit’s foot on a piece of yellow yarn around her neck—and I think about colors. Red and white. Living and dead. Blood and no blood.

Good thing we have our own red rosebush for Mother’s Day, or what would we do?

It would be many years before I wondered what color rose a person might wear for a mother in an altered state. As in the case of, say, addiction. As in, if the relationship had disintegrated because of it, because the mother is consumed. Because it happens, somewhere, to somebody, every day. What is the color of dysfunction? Of existing, but not really living? Surely not a blend of red and white, for pink is too cheery. Gray? Does a gray rose even exist in nature? If it did, why would anyone wear it as homage to a mother?

One would just not wear any rose at all, rather than wearing one the color of ghosts, of shadows, of clouded memories, of the mists of time, even if the sun occasionally breaks through to shine on what was good, as on a rosebush blooming along a chain link fence and a bud like a drop of blood on a little girl’s dress, even as swirling smoke envelops it, before the ashes fall.

Eating life

My friends and I spoke recently of family members in various stages of dementia and failing health.

Our declining ones hallucinate. They see children who aren’t there and can relate what the children are doing: running down the hall, making a mess with cereal, simply standing there in the room. They speak of loved ones long dead, as if they are well and visit regularly. Time is a viscous fluid in the brain of someone nearing the end of life; it is often hard to discern if the person is speaking of events that occurred yesterday, today, or fifty years ago.

Sometimes the visions are unnerving.

My father would visit Grannie, my mother’s mother, in the hospital. He’d help feed her. One day during their conversation, Grannie casually told my father: “I see Earline over there.”

My mother’s sister, who died of cancer years before. She never married and lived at home with Grannie.

Daddy, taken aback, asked, “Where is she?”

Grannie pointed. “Over there against the wall. Under the clock.”

There was a clock, in fact. High on the bare hospital wall.

Daddy said, “But . . . ”

Grannie cut him off. Looked him right in the eye: “I know she’s dead.”

Never one to tolerate fancies, my father asked, “Well, what does she look like?”

Grannie hesistated. Maybe grasping for words. “Kind of grave-y.”

A mere observation, without emotion or alarm. She may as well have been commenting on the weather or the hospital food.

I told this story when the topic came up with my friends, as we commiserated on watching our aged loved ones endure these haunting effects.

“It’s so strange,” said one friend, who has two relatives suffering with dementia. “Neither of them ever liked to eat eggs. Never in their whole lives. Now that’s all they ask for – Can you bring me some scrambled eggs? Run on over to IHOP and get me some eggs.”

I tried to recall if my grandmothers and mother-in-law made this request. But they’d all liked eggs; it wouldn’t have been unusual.

While my friends talked, I kept thinking There’s something to this egg thing.

It’s true that the tastes of dementia patients can change, that they sometimes develop cravings for things they never liked before. The answer could be that simple; eggs are a simple food.

They’re considered brain food. How interesting that a person succumbing to dementia should begin to crave them. Numerous articles on foods good for the brain reference choline, a nutrient found in egg yolks, that helps improve memory, brain cell communication, and even fetal brain development. Eggs are protein, the building block of the brain, the building block of life itself.

This is where I leap from the physical, the scientific, to the metaphysical. All around the world, since ancient times, the egg symbolizes life. In some belief systems, life-energy. An object small enough to hold in your hand, the egg represents the universe, health, nature awakening, new life about to emerge, immortality.

And hope.

They may sense it, they may not, those whose brains are slowly giving way. Perhaps it is the final rallying cry of the brain alone, this impulse to eat eggs, in an effort to hold on, to carry on.

Can you please bring me some eggs? 

Eating health, even as it ebbs away.

Eating hope.

They are eating life.

Divine appointment

Cardinal

Cardinal Singing Along. Don and Janet BeasleyCC BY-SA

Broom in hand, I descend the brick steps where moss has newly sprung. The sidewalk needs sweeping and I’ve only a minute. Must get to school early, to prepare for the day; the minutiae of all that has to be done circles round and round my mind. 

But I have to do this first. Oddly. Sweeping the sidewalk is not part of my morning routine. 

Hurry. Hurry.

All is still but for the light chatter of a few birds, waking. The sound of early spring. The sound of April. Of a new day. I pause, listening. How cheerful, how happy their bird voices are, even if to them it’s just regular conversation. My spirit eases, just hearing them. I note that the light is unusual. Against random trees and shrubs, the dawn gleams amber in patches. Everything else is a backdrop in half light. There’s an edge to it all, a starkness. The sky is moody. Altocumulus clouds, dark in their middles, gleaming around their rims, are gathered in bands or waves; this is what scientists call a mackerel sky, I think. Strange light.

—Time. Be aware.

Right, I must hurry.

Just as I put broom to concrete, I see it.

Over in the neighbor’s yard, in the shadows under the bushy, unpruned crape myrtle. 

The brightest spot of color I’ve ever seen. Red. Rosy, electric red, brighter than any neon light, as vivid as fire, glowing, but not burning. Just being. I blink. How does such a color even exist in nature? It has to be a cardinal but I can’t see the rest of him, just his plump breast. A half-memory from childhood stirs in my mind, of pretending I had a pet cardinal and spraying pine-scented air freshener throughout the house to create his forest, where he could fly freely— but for all my attraction to the male cardinal’s plumage, I’ve never seen it to the intensity and brilliance as right now in this capricious light.

I want to see him better but I dare not move. 

I think I’ve quit breathing.

Could I, maybe, get a picture? If I’m stealthy, can I make it into the house and back with my phone? 

I have to try. I have to capture this image.

I watch him as I ease toward the house. He moves a little, hopping in the dappled grass.

As soon as I reach the steps, out of his field of vision, I race through the front door to the kitchen, grab my phone, turn, shoot back through the door, take the steps without making a sound, stop, and creep to where I can see the crape myrtle.

He’s still there! I can’t believe it!

An astounding spot of color, radiating an otherworldly light.

Holy.

I aim my phone and zoom in . . . 

On the screen I see the thin myrtle branches up close. The grass, the shadows, the sunlit patches. —Where’s my bird?

I look away from the phone back to the scene, to get my bearings . . . don’t know how I could have missed, I aimed right where he was standing . . . .

Gone.

He is gone.

In the second between my sighting him and my lifting the phone, he vanished. Without a sound or any perceptible movement. He was and then he was not. Just like that.

Nowhere to be seen at all.

I stand frozen, phone in hands, an inexplicable feeling sweeping through me. 

The moment passed and nothing remains of it. Stunning, that spot of fiery color like no other, in the shadows under that tree. One glimpse of glory. He was so beautiful and I never even saw all of him. Even if I do see him again—and I’ll try, at this same time tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after—it will never happen again, not just like this. The clouds will not be the same. The position of the sun will be slightly different. It can never be again exactly as it was. 

I so wanted to capture his image, the holiness of it, to keep it forever, and I could not.

But I hold it in my mind. I cling to every breathtaking detail. 

I write it before it leaves me, wondering at the tears burning behind my eyes over this one bird, this one moment, why it should be so significant, to make me feel so much.

I was just there, unexpectedly, and so was he.

For one shining moment, we just were.

New life

Baby robins

Baby robins. DanCC BY

Easter morning.

I have a new spring wreath for the front of the house. I should have put it out before now. What’s taken me so long?  

I step out onto the wide front porch, wreath in hand. It’s chilly out here. A light fog hovers;  I shiver in the pre-dawn grayness. The smell and taste of salt from the Bay hangs heavy in the air. I will hurry, as there’s lots to do to be ready for the sunrise service down on the beach. Waking, feeding, and dressing a toddler takes time. Maybe I will wait until after the service to show him his Easter basket . . . 

The old wreath on the front of the house is in terrible shape. I’m ashamed of how it looks, that I’ve left it up for too long. It’s a grapevine with flowers and greenery at the bottom center, behind two white stuffed geese wearing blue bows around their necks. Except that the geese are gray now, speckled, mottled by the elements, and the blue ribbon is faded almost to colorlessness. 

I reach for the old wreath and something dark flies out, startling me so that I drop the new wreath onto the porch floorboards.

A bird. 

I notice, then, the rim of a nest tucked into the wreath’s artificial greenery, behind the stuffed geese. The dry grass of the nest blends in with the bits of fake Spanish moss.

And I hear squeaks.

Standing on my tiptoes to peer into the nest, I see four baby birds. They’re still mostly pink skin, with just the beginnings of dark, downy fuzz. Their wide yellow beaks open.

Mama, feed us. 

I stand, hardly daring to breathe, watching, awed by this new life. How fragile it is. What a precarious place for it to be, for this wreath is attached to the house by just one nail. If it doesn’t hold . . . I cannot bear to think of it.

I retrieve the dropped wreath and step slowly, carefully away. Mama Bird is somewhere nearby, fussing and fretting over the safety of her babies. I will leave them in peace.   

As place my hand on the handle of the old door, I think about this big old house, how long it’s been standing, the storms it’s weathered in a place where storms tend to be more violent due to the proximity to the sea. That it’s a strong shelter, a parsonage provided free to my husband, our little boy, and me. I am going to worry about those baby birds on the front of this house, but I have to believe that the sheltering grace will extend to them, cover them, as it has done for me. 

The sun is just beginning to pierce the fog as I take one last look, as Mama flies back to her own, and Papa Bird shows himself for the first time, landing on the white porch rail by the column, his head cocked, watching me. In the pink light of a new day, I think of the old words: “Behold, I make all things new.”

Doesn’t matter how old, faded, ruined, broken . . . new life begins in the most unexpected ways, in the shabbiest of circumstances. 

Easter morning.

I wipe my tears. I go back inside, new wreath in hand, to my own new life.

The angel’s pedicure

img_4489

My son, the Cadillac man, and I stand looking at the angel statue.

Specifically at her pink toenail polish.

“Really?” he says in disgust. “Painted toenails?”

I giggle. “I know! How many depictions of angels have you seen with painted toenails?”

He shakes his head. “I’ve never seen an angel with feet.”

I start to laugh, but . . . the way he says that . . .

He turns, walks off in his unassuming, old-soul way. I watch him go, wondering.

I said depictions.

He said he’d never seen an angel with feet.

Not that he’d never seen an angel.

RSVP

They sit at the table before me, these two boys, with their books open.

The book’s too hard for them. I know this. But they’re fifth-graders now, having been in intervention groups since first grade, and this is a book they really want to read. 

So we’re reading it together.

The book? Wonder. By R.J. Palacio.

We stop to discuss words and phrases that they have questions about, such as “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”

I don’t get it,” says one of the boys. “Why is the mom talking about a tree? What tree?”

You’ve studied figurative language in class, right?” I ask. The boys nod. Their expressions are perplexed. “Sometimes words and phrases mean something more than what they actually say. That’s the case here. Think of a tree loaded with apples. If an apple falls off, what eventually happens to it?”

Someone comes to eat it,” offers the other boy.

Maybe,” I laugh. “But let’s say the apple stays on the ground where it fell and no one ever comes to eat it. What will happen?”

They think. I can almost see their brains scrolling.

It’ll go bad, won’t it?” asks the first boy. 

Yeah,” says the second. “Like, brown and mushy.”

“So,” I press on,”what’s inside of that rotting apple?”

“Seeds?” says the first boy. 

The second boy says “Oh!”

“What?” asks the first boy.

The seeds. They get in the ground and grow into more trees.”

Now you’re getting there.” I lean in. “You know about life cycles from science. So what will these new apple trees do?”

Grow more apples!” says the first boy.

Yes. The new tree does exactly what the mother tree does. It grows the very same kind of apples. So when August’s mom says ‘the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree’ when Julian’s mom doesn’t RSVP to August’s party, what is she really saying? Think of what you already know about Julian.”

He acts like his mom!” says the second boy.

For a second, tiny rays of light beam across both boy’s faces, driving their clouded expressions away. Then . . . 

“What’s an RSVP?” asks the first boy.

You’ve never heard of it before?” I ask.

He shakes his head.

I turn to the second boy. How about you?” 

He shakes his head, too.

“It’s what people put on a party invitation so that the people throwing the party know how many other people are coming, so they know how much food to buy or how many prizes to get.”

Their faces are blank. 

It’s French. RSVP stands for répondez s’il vous plaît: Please reply. When you get an invitation with RSVP, you’re supposed to let the sender know yes, you’re coming or no, you’re not. That’s what’s happening here in this chapter. August’s mom has sent the invitations for his party and people are saying their children can’t come. Julian’s mom doesn’t even answer.”

Oh,” says the first boy.

It hits me then.

Hard.

Guys, have you ever gotten an invitation to a birthday party or anything?”

 They shake their heads. 

I look at them for a long moment while my mind races. My thinking process is like a bubble map sprouting out in every direction, bubbles upon bubbles, thoughts multiplying exponentially.

What some children— including my own—may take for granted as a natural and fun part of childhood isn’t every child’s experience. Superman, Captain Hook, the Titanic, even—alas!—Barney the Dinosaur themed-parties clamor in my mind. 

These two boys have never had, never even seen, a party invitation.

 This is a matter beyond understanding the heart of this scene in the books before them.

It’s now a matter of understanding how the world generally works. Of broadening their world. 

 I recall a university professor giving a keynote address to would-be educators years before. He described his impoverished childhood and taking an aptitude test in elementary school. He told of this question: “What color are bananas?” I can’t recall the four answer choices (one of which was presumably yellow and the right one) but he chose “black.” Because that is what he knew; his father could only afford the bananas that were reduced when they began to spoil. He’d never seen a yellow banana.

How could he know?

How can these boys know what an RSVP is, or care? Until now, it’s never appeared in their world. It has no significance, no relevance.

All right, then,” I say. “That’s enough for today. We’ll read more and talk more about this chapter tomorrow.” 

They gather their things and head back to class.

That night, I make two invitations, personally addressed to each boy:

You are cordially invited to attend a popcorn and book celebration

with Mrs. Haley at

(the time of our group meeting, two days away).

(On an additional slip of paper):

RSVP – I will ____ will not ____ be able to attend.

The envelopes are on the table at their places when they come the next day.

“What’s this? ” asks the first boy.

That’s our names on there,” says the second.

Well, I guess you have to open them to find out,” I say.

Rustling, tearing. Reading.

What’s this word?” asks the first boy, pointing.

Cordially. It means ‘warmly’ or ‘in a very friendly way.'”

A popcorn party?” says the second boy, eyes lighting up.

A popcorn and BOOK party,” I tell him. “We’re still going to read.”

Can we have Dr. Pepper, too?” The first boy bounces in his seat.

That all depends,” I smile, “on my knowing how much popcorn and Dr. Pepper I need to buy. How am I going to know?”

Oh yeah . . .” 

With their pencils, both boys check I will be able to attend on the slips. The second boy slides it across the table to me. The first boy follows his lead.

Great! All my people RSVP’d that they’re attending! So tomorrow is our celebration. Just promise you won’t get popcorny fingerprints and Dr. Pepper on our books.”

They giggle.

Together we read a little more of August’s struggles. All the while my heart is hoping that right now, and tomorrow, and what little bit of time we have together in the tomorrows beyond, will lessen their own. And that their learning will become one long celebration, filled with wonder.

To dream, to write, perchance to connect

Connection

“Connection” by Dylan O’Donnell

Henry is sound asleep on the sofa, his head on two throw pillows, snoring like a middle-aged man.

He is my family’s  endearing, shamelessly-babied Lab-Pit mix. Three years old and in his mind, he owns this sofa. It exists solely for him.

We don’t tell him otherwise.

Within moments, Henry’s breathing changes. His smoky gray body shakes; his white paws twitch. He whimpers at a higher pitch than he ever does when he’s awake.

“He’s dreaming,” we humans say to each other.

That whimper. It sounds puppy-like. Afraid. Vulnerable. Nothing like the rumbling from deep within his chest when Henry “talks” to us (translating to “Hello, I want something, so drop what you’re doing, pronto, to do my bidding”).

Which leads me to wonder: What is he dreaming about?

He is a rescue dog, found wandering the streets. He was timid for a long time before attaining his current level of confidence (and world domination).

Is he reliving a scene from his early life? Was he mistreated? Abandoned? Did something frighten him badly when he was a puppy?

Do dogs really dream like humans do?

The answer, according to Live Science, is yes: “Dogs likely dream about waking activities much like humans do.”

I am the one chasing a rabbit here: Captivated by the article,  I keep on reading beyond dogs to rats to flies—yes, says a cognitive scientist, even flies may dream in some form.

Sounds like something straight out of fantasy . . .

You may visit the site to read about the rats and flies yourself, if you like, but here are the article’s big clinchers for me: That sleep “adds something” to the process of learning and remembering, that sleep is “a sort of categorizing of the day’s activities” and a chance for the brain “to explore in a consequence-free environment”:

The idea is that, in sleep, the brain is trying to find shortcuts or connections between  things that you may have experienced but you just hadn’t put them together.

Cognitive scientist Matthew Wilson, “What Do Dogs Dream About?” Live Science

Categorizing of the day’s activities . . . yes, this often happens to me as I fall asleep. Reliving moments, subconsciously archiving them in specific mental folders for future retrieval as needed. A subliminal attempt at order and organization—how I appreciate that. The brain is an indescribable marvel, the ultimate computer. I envision lines arcing this way and that along a grid, an image of our brains actively searching, reaching, connecting and grouping things, while we rest.

My uncle once told me he could sleep on a problem and before he woke, the solution would materialize in his mind. Some mornings, in the transition between sleeping and waking, I can “see” the day’s events before me, and a detail or an approach will offer itself in a way I hadn’t thought of before. This has a name: liminal dreaming. 

But as I am awake, here is where I very consciously, intentionally, connect some psychological dots.

As Henry lay dreaming, prompting me to wonder about his background and the stuff of his dreams, I happened to be reading Ruth Ayres’ new book, Enticing Hard-To-Reach Writers. It is a must-read for educators, whether one teaches writing or not. Ayres has a lot to say, from firsthand experience, about the brains of children who’ve suffered extreme trauma and neglect. She also has a lot to say about the power of writing, of story, to heal and to save . . . I cannot help thinking now of the thirteen Turpin children in the news and the discovery of  their “hundreds of journals” which officials speculate may have helped them survive the unimaginable at the hands of their parents. If this is true, we’ll soon know.

But as for my dog, his dream, a website, the book in my hands . . . they all converge on the work of the brain:

When I write, I realize new ideas. I make connections. I figure out what I need to do next. When I write about what’s happening . . . something significant happens: I begin to see things from a new perspective. This is how learning happens. This is how growth happens. 

-Ruth Ayres, “Writing Always Gives More Than It Takes,” Enticing Hard-To-Reach Writers

To sleep, to dream, to subconsciously categorize, make connections, problem-solve . . .

To wake, to write, to consciously realize ideas, make connections, problem-solve . . .

Revisit the child in the photo at the top of this post. He’s immersed in water, a symbol of life, an expression of contemplation on his little face. He’s absorbing the experience. The world is big. Sometimes alarming. Not always fair. When he lies down to sleep, what dreams may come? Will they haunt or heal? Hold him back, or help him overcome? He is at the mercy of his dreams. As are we all.

But to wake, to write, is to immerse in thought, to gain unexpected perspective, to remain open to questions, to answers, to possibility, to wonder, to hope.  Dreams, in all their mystery, come and go at random; their meanings and value often elude us. When we write—an equally mysterious process—we actually take hold of meaning. We continually unfold it, one layer of thought leading to another, branching off in directions previously unseen. To write is to go both deep and wide, to actively broaden the scope of one’s own world, to expand one’s sphere of interest, to explore what’s within to better relate to what’s without  . . . to connect.

I mark the page in my book and reach over to rub my quivering dog.

“Shh, shh, Henry. It’s okay. I’m here.”

At the touch of my hand he eases. He lifts his head, regards me with bleary eyes. His tail thumps. He readjusts, curling himself into a tighter ball there on his sofa.

He sighs.

The sound of satisfaction, of being connected, of being safe.

Still born

Lost in France WWI

WWI digital collage by jinterwasCC BY

“In this place, time is not measured by weeks, or months, or years, but by deep human experiences . . . .” -Woodrow Wilson, 1915

By Christmas, she’s too weak to get out of bed. She listens to him singing carols with the children in the front room by the fire, his resonant bass filling the house. If the pain would stop, she thinks, I might could play a song or two for them . . .

The piano stands silent as she drifts in and out on the sound of his voice.

He peers in at her. How strangely frail she is, birdlike, lying there with her black hair spread like wings over the pillows, skin as white as the sheets, dark circles around her eyes. Until the lost baby in September—poor, stillborn thing—she’d been tireless, out in the cotton from dawn to dusk, all the while keeping an eye on their three children at the edge of the fields.  

Her strength hasn’t returned, but she’s alive. He is grateful, for he walked the valley of that shadow once before, fourteen years ago. Just down the dirt road, over the canal footbridge, under a stone on the land his father gave for the building of the church, lies his first wife. Nineteen years old, buried in her wedding dress, holding the infant who never had a name to inscribe on the stone:

a place made vacant

in our home can

never more be filled.

A place now filled by a woman who’d been twelve at the time of her predecessor’s passing. 

She opens her eyes. Huge, black eyes that look straight through him, making him shiver.

“Francis. Go get Mama. Please.”

Turning back to the front room, he kneels with the children—ages six, four, and two—and gathers them in his arms. “Listen to Papa. I’m fetching your Grandmama. Stay close by Mama, hear?”

The older girl and boy nod. The two-year-old squirms against him. He hands her to her big sister. “Mind her. Keep away from the fire. I’ll be right back.”

The six-year-old regards him with solemn eyes, big and dark, so like her mother’s. “Yes, Papa.” She grips the little one’s hand, tight.

He grabs his coat and cap. The children watch him through the frosty window, hearing the echo of his boots running over crunchy patches of snow.

They file into the bedroom where she lies with her face turned toward the other window and the winter white world beyond. 

She moans as the pain in her middle cuts like a knife and the whiteness deepens to gray. I am turning inside out. If I didn’t know better, I would think . . . 

Then the darkness swallows everything.

*******

Day blends with night, it all runs together, until a cry shoots through him. He bursts into the bedroom, blue eyes wide with shock.

There, in the quivering circle of red-gold light cast by the kerosene lamp, stands his mother-in-law, her face shining with perspiration. Before he can take it in, she crosses the creaking floorboards to hand him a wriggling, wailing bundle.

How can this be? How can this be? pounds his heart. The baby was stillborn nearly three months ago!

His wife, smaller, paler than ever, watches from the bed, black eyes glittering in the lamplight. “Merry Christmas, Papa, one day late,” she grins. “It’s another girl.”

Who is very much alive, crying for all she is worth, here in his arms.

His instincts kick in. He jiggles the infant and begins to sing, softly, tears spilling down his cheeks.

The newborn and her mother both drift away on the sound of his voice: “Sleep in heavenly peace, sleep in heavenly peace.”

*******

“So, you see,” says Grandma, “I was a twin.”

“How can that happen? Having a stillborn twin but not the other for almost three more months?” I’m hanging on her every word as she makes up her four-poster bed. Through the window of her room, with its tongue-and-groove walls painted a cheery pastel pink, I can see her homeplace just on the other side of Granddaddy’s garden. The tin roof gleams bright silver in the morning sun. For a second, I see it in the icy December of 1915 . . .

She shrugs. “It’s rare, but it happens sometimes, even with animals.”

“But how did she not realize she was still expecting for that long? She’d already had three children, not counting the one she lost!” My  great-grandmother went on, in fact, to have a total of eight children, all of whom I know. Not counting the lost one, of course. Grandma’s twin.

Grandma shakes her head. “There’s no telling. Women didn’t go to doctors like they do now. When she lost that baby, it came early. She just didn’t expect there to be a twin remaining, I guess. Women lost babies all the time. My sister had stillborn twin girls. I was there and saw them. They looked like tiny dolls, not quite finished . . . ”

She says this with a matter-of-factness that I cannot comprehend.

“It’s so mysterious, that you were still born after all,” I say after a bit, following her to the kitchen, where she ties on her apron.

“Oh yes,” she says, flouring the spot and croaker that Granddaddy caught in the creek. “Life is full of mysteries, that’s for sure.”

“You’re kind of a Christmas miracle, then, aren’t you?”

Grandma chuckles, placing the fish in the frying pan where they sizzle and pop, sending up a fragrance that makes my stomach growl.

“Just one day late,” she smiles.

She goes about her work as usual, while I drift away on the sea of her stories, filling in the minor details that have been obscured by time, envisioning these great-grandparents who died before I was born, sensing the tenor of their daily lives, yearning to know more. I halfway expect, as I go out on the back steps to gaze at the empty homeplace, that I might see them in one of the translucent windows, waving to me in recognition.

I have to stop myself from waving back, in case anybody else happens to be watching.

*******

Happy Birthday, Grandma. Your stories live on.

Love always from your and your Papa’s namesake. 

Angel hair

Angel hair

Vintage 1960s Bradford Carillon Spire Tree Topper on eBay

We are decorating the tree.

It’s not a real tree. My mother opens the big cardboard box, pulls out the pole, sets it up. Then she takes the branch sections out. Spots of paint on the twisted metal branch ends match the spots of paint on the pole. There’s an orange row, a blue row, a red row, a yellow row, and then the top section, all in one piece.

The tree is together, whole. 

The string of lights has big colored bulbs. Red, green, yellow, blue. Most of the ornaments are Styrofoam balls covered in silky, hairlike strands. Red, white, blue, gold. They shimmer in the light. I am allowed to hang some of these on the tree.

The most beautiful thing of all is the tree topper.

It is not a star. It is a tall, pointed, gold thing. Three sparkling silver bells hang over a rounded part where gold bars make a swirly cage over a soft, bright, pinkish-coral ball of something.

“Can I hold it?” I ask. 

My mother places the topper in my hands. I can see the room, I can see us, reflected in miniature on the golden surface. The silver bells are frosty with glitter. I am entranced by the pinkish stuff. “What is this?” I ask, pointing.

Angel hair,” says Mama. “Don’t touch it—it will cut you.” 

She takes the strange, beautiful thing from my hands, then, standing on a chair, works it down over the tree top where it sits like a crown. 

I am thinking many thoughts. How can angel hair cut me? My own hair is so soft. It could never cut anything. Are angels so strong, so powerful, that their hair is somehow sharp? Why do angels have hair this color, like the sky at sunset? In every picture I’ve ever seen, their hair is blonde or white. Maybe even silver. I cannot picture hair this color on an angel, or what kind of face such an angel would have. I shiver. Angels are gentle and good, right? Don’t they protect children? A song is on the radio, something about falling on your knees, hearing angel voices . . . I am not scared, exactly. I am still. I am full of wondering. How did the angel lose the hair that is in our tree topper?

Then I think of another song.

Rock-a-bye baby

In the tree top

When the wind blows

The cradle will rock

When the bough breaks

The cradle will fall

And down will come baby

Cradle and all.

—Why would a cradle be in a tree top? Who would put a baby in a place that was so dangerous? Why wasn’t the baby protected?

So many whys. So many things to wonder about. 

My mother shows me how to toss little handfuls of icicles, long silver strings, on the edges of the branches so they’ll catch and hang there until the entire tree shines with make-believe ice and magic.

All the while, I keep looking up at the angel hair. 

Wondering.

* * * * * * *

If I could speak to my little self, if my voice from my vantage point now could reach across the vista of decades, I would say: There will be many angels in your life, with skin of many colors, real  hair of many colors, not spun glass, They will not cut you or harm you. They are the people who bring healing when others bring harm. They will bring comfort and joy that outweigh pain and loss. They will pull the scattered pieces together when things fall apart, so you will feel whole. Things will not always look  as expected; people who should protect make perilous choices, but there will always be better angels who step in when needed most. Always. 

Be strong. Believe. Be the better angel, whenever, wherever you can.

Merry Christmas, child that I was.

And Christmas grace to you, my reader in the here and now, to the child you were and to all of your angels.

Remember. Let the wonder live anew.

Letters

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It’s a neither-here-nor-there day in June, the middle of the year, not exactly warm but not really cool, either. The blinding noon sun makes for dark shade under the trees while an intermittent breeze stirs the new leaves, dappling the sidewalks with moving shadows. People come and go from assorted shops, crossing the cobblestone street. Their voices are muted, distant. I concentrate on guiding my husband’s steps over the uneven pavement. Still adjusting to having just one eye, he struggles with depth perception and will stumble, so he grabs hold of my arm. The restaurant where we’re headed for lunch is just ahead and I am fantasizing about the she-crab soup when I happen to glance to my left, and that’s when I notice something unusual.

There, nestled close to a house entrance, in the flickering light and shadows, is an old letter box.

I’ve walked here many times and haven’t seen it before.

It appears to be wrought iron, standing on a pedestal. Ornate. I can’t tell how old it is; probably a replica, fittingly weathered.

It captivates me completely.

I forget my soup, my husband; his hand slips away. I wonder what stories might surround this vintage mailbox.

I can almost see a woman in long skirts, shawl pulled tight in one hand, a poke bonnet enshrouding her face, a creamy parchment envelope clutched in her other hand. A letter to her husband, off in battle:

The garden is thriving. I’m putting up quarts of snap beans and pickles, and soon I’ll be about the fig and pear preserves. The cow is sickly, however. I don’t think she’s long to be with us. I pray that your cough is better than when you last wrote. I think of you every passing hour, marking them with determined delight, as each one that passes brings your return that much closer. Baby and I miss you desperately. You will not believe how she’s grown in your absence, or how like you she is, so full of confidence. It shines in her eyes, which are your eyes, always reminding me . . . .

Or maybe there’s a barefoot girl in a long white gown, loose hair rippling over her shoulders, sneaking from upstairs to leave a letter just before daylight, darting back inside before the roosters crow and before a young man on a horse clip-clops down the street. He dismounts, goes to the box, finds what he’s waiting for—a time and a place. She’ll be there. He folds the letter, tucks it inside his shirt pocket, against his pounding heart, just as he remembers he shouldn’t be seen here. In one swift motion, he’s astride the horse and down the cobblestone street, fog closing in after him.

Maybe there’s a portly, mustachioed man in an overcoat, golden watch chain glittering against his vest, retrieving a notification that all his investments are gone. He staggers back against the house, slides down, collapses in a heap on the sidewalk.

Or a black-haired boy in breeches mailing a scrawled envelope: Santa Claus, North Pole. He isn’t asking for anything for himself: Dear Santa, This year can you please bring my Christmas present early? It isn’t really for me. It’s for my Mama and Papa. My baby brother only lived three days and they’re so sad. I didn’t even get to play with him or teach him how to play ball or take him for a ride in the goat-cart. If you could, please, Santa, could you bring a new baby brother? Or even a sister? Or can you ask God to send one soon, so Mama will not cry anymore?

Or . . . .

“Are you coming or not? Why are you just standing there?” My husband has gone several paces without me and has had to come back.

“Oh!” I start, my reveries vanishing. “I, um, just wanted to take a picture of this old mailbox.” Out with my phone. Center, snap. Done.

“Okay. Let’s go. I’m starving,” I say.

But it’s not she-crab soup I’m now hungry for, or food at all. I am craving the character of people who knew how to persevere, who could not have imagined sending and receiving messages on devices within seconds and growing impatient even with that. People who didn’t have the entire world at their fingertips but who read the world in a different way, with a wisdom born of living close to nature. People who knew how to read one another, who knew what mattered most, who had to wait for it, who kept on living in the meantime lives that were far richer with much less.

For everything that is gained, I muse, how much is lost.

For a time, then, I leave the mailbox behind me, but it remains in my mind, an image even clearer than the one on my phone. It pulls at me like an ancient lodestone draws iron. Every time I pass by now I will have to look and make sure it’s still there. I need for it to be. I want to step into the silence, into the moving shadows, to discover what messages await me there, to marvel over whence they come.

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