Scattered light

When I was a child, I looked forward to seeing the dentist.

His name was Dr. Job. Like Job in the Bible, long o, not as in “teaching is a hard job.” I could not understand this when I saw his name on the office door: Why do we say ‘Jobe?’ It says Job! J-o-b. That’s not right. It should have an ‘e’ on the end. J-o-b-e …

It irritated my father: That’s how his name is pronounced. He knows how to spell it. Now stop.

Dr. Job had white hair and a white coat and to be honest I wasn’t happy to see him.

No.

I wanted his rings.

After each visit—usually for a filling—Dr. Job reached into some magical cabinet and brought out a box. With a big smile, he opened it before me like a hawker on the city streets selling watches out of a car trunk.

The box was full of rings, set in foam rubber, as if on display at a fine jewelry counter.

“Which one would you like, hmmm? You’ve been a good little patient!”

Of course I was good … there were rings for the taking! How they glittered. All different colors, sizes, shapes. It didn’t matter which one I chose as they were adjustable; their metal bands were split to be widened or narrowed to fit.

One day I looked and looked it—had to be the best ring—until Dr. Job finally cleared his throat: “Ahem. You need to pick one, all right?”

I settled on a ring with a pale purple stone cut in facets like a diamond. I put it on the ring finger of my right hand (not my left, that was for getting married someday). Feeling like a princess, I said: “This is alexandrite, right?” (so … as a child I was fascinated by birthstones and pored over them in mail-order catalogs. My own is emerald. To me, at the time, this pale purple was prettier. June’s birthstone. Point to ponder: How many kids today know about birthstones? ).

Dr. Job looked at me and blinked. He closed the case and returned me to my father.

The main reason I remember that ring is because of a scene in a different office. Plagued by allergies, I had to get weekly injections in both arms. Sometimes I had reactions, rashes or big knots that burned. While I sat waiting, waiting, waiting at the doctor’s office, before and after the shots, I read all the children’s books and magazines—I loved Highlights. Then I read the grown-up stuff, like Reader’s Digest. One afternoon I was too tired to read. I sat sideways in the waiting room chair, leaning against the wall in the late-afternoon shadows. I reached up to rub my sore left arm when waning light from the window caught my “alexandrite” ring. A dozen tiny rainbows appeared on the wall beside me. Mesmerized, I move my hand this way and that, watching the rainbow-spots dance, vanish, and reappear. I forgot the time, forgot my swollen arm; I was too busy scattering the light.

This whole story returned to me as I was continuing my containment cleaning and sunlight caught my ring (diamond, on my married finger) just right.

Scattered light. Tiny rainbows. On a day, incidentally, when Highlights became a destiny…

Ethereal moments call for an etheree, don’t you think.

Time

waiting

in shadows

sometimes brings gifts

otherwise not found.

Like seeing little things

that remind us how it was

to be children full of wonder

scattering light everywhere we go,

making bits of rainbow dance on dark walls.

Signs of the times

A friend wanted to know if my family would like some face masks.

She is making them.

She sent us pictures of the fabric—she has bolts of it—for us to choose the prints.

Yesterday she and her husband pulled up in our driveway to drop off the masks. My husband and I went out to meet our friends, offering our thanks only in words, no hand-grasps or hugs … a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing … a few weeks back, we were all sitting around the dining room table here in the house, laughing and telling stories after a lasagna dinner. It seems long ago.

When will we be able to do so comfortably, again?

When I look at these masks, I see all that they represent. Shields in time of trouble. A friend channeling inertia into something productive, a practical means of battling an unseen enemy. Self-care spreading out like a blanket to cover others. Homemade love. Colorful patterns against the dark backdrop of our days.

These masks are artifacts of our times. Symbols of our story as we live it. And nothing connects humanity as much as story.

As I walked out to the driveway to receive these gifts, my grandmother’s voice echoed from across the years:

You won’t believe it, but where these woods are now used to be houses and farms, up and down this little road … when the Spanish flu came, it hit all but a couple of them … twelve people died in one week … Mama made pots of soup and Papa would carry it to their doors. He wouldn’t go in, of course …

Grandma wouldn’t have had living memory of this. When the influenza pandemic began in January 1918, she was only two. But she knew the stories. If my own memory serves me correctly, as I walked the tiny country cemeteries surrounding her homeplace, listening to her narratives of the people resting there—for she knew all their stories, and how they were connected— there was an unexpected commonality.

A death year. 1917.

That was before the Spanish flu.

Grandma nodded. There was a sickness before: They called it hemorrhagic fever. People would bruise and bleed from their noses and ears and eyes … a lot of people who tried to take care of the sick caught it and died, too …

She was hardly more than a baby then, a girl born and raised in a hard place in hard times, but here she stood, by the weather-worn stones under a cloudless blue sky, telling the stories seven decades later.

Because of story, these events are lodged in my memory a hundred years after they happened.

My father was Grandma’s first child, born during the Great Depression. Flour companies made their sacks with patterns and bright colors so people could make clothes out of them … look at my handmade face masks and tell me they aren’t reminiscent. A second child, my aunt, arrived with the war. Granddaddy moved the family from North Carolina to Virginia; he found work in the shipyard, where production increased to the point of cranking out ships in less than a third of the time it normally took. How can one not compare that to the scramble for mass production of ventilators today …

Grandma said: It was so hot that summer. I was miserable, being pregnant. I’d sit by the upstairs window and watch the iceman delivering blocks of ice to grocers … companies stopped making refrigerators … everything went into the war effort. I just cried. I’d have given anything for some of that ice … then we had ration cards and could only get certain things at certain times … once my sister Jack and her husband pooled their gas ration cards with ours and we all went on a trip to Massachusetts … it was so beautiful and so cool there …

I look at these masks and that is what I see.

The story of overcoming. Of determination. Of resourcefulness in time of scarcity. Of finding a means to be a good neighbor, a good friend, a real and present help in time of need, even if from a safe distance. Sharing so that everyone has enough. Acts of service, gifts of love. Sacrifice.

The story of surviving.

It’s a collective one.

When I was death

Seems it’s time for some fun … here’s a memoir initially drafted and revised over several days in front of fifth graders, who chose the topic from several I gave them. Today I dust it off with an appreciation, greater than ever, for the power of improvisation …

*******

Mom hung up the phone. “That was Diane’s mom. There’s a costume party at church and Diane asked if you want to go.”

“YESSSSS!” I shouted.

“That’s what I just told them.”

I loved dressing up. I used to do it for book reports in my fifth-grade class. Once I was Aslan from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, which was really fun, except that my tail kept falling off. How exciting to have another opportunity to be someone or something else! What will I be? Maybe I can talk Grannie into taking me shopping for a gypsy costume, or maybe a cowgirl …

“Here’s the thing,” Mom went on. “They’re coming to get you in about an hour.”        

“Oh, no!” I cried.  “I don’t have a costume! What will I wear?”

Mom smiled. “We can think of something.”

She had improvised before. When my sister and I were maybe six and eight, we went trick-or-treating dressed as a little old lady and a little old man. Mom found a flowery dress for my sister and suspenders for me. She drew wrinkles on our faces with a brown eye pencil, dusted our hair white with baby powder, and even sketched a little mustache above my lip. When I saw the photos later, I didn’t recognize us; I even asked, “Who are these short old people?”

Now Mom went down the hall to the linen closet. She came back to the kitchen with a white sheet.

“M-o-m-m-m,” I moaned, “that’s lame. I don’t want to be a ghost.”

“Who said anything about being a ghost?”

She somehow twisted the sheet around me until it looked like a long white robe. She pinned the part around my arms so that I had long, floppy sleeves. She followed me to the bathroom where I looked at myself in the mirror.

“What am I supposed to be?”

Mom said, “You figure it out.” 

She walked off and left me there.

“MOMMMMMM!”

I could not go to the party like this. I didn’t look like anyone or anything; I just looked silly. This was worse than being a ghost.

In the mirror, I contemplated my long brown hair, which came to my waist. What I could I do with it?

Suddenly I wanted to look really creepy. I grabbed Mom’s comb and hairspray. I teased my hair until it was wild and looked like I’d never combed it a day in my life. Kind of cool, but not enough. I fetched my watercolors from my room. Back at the bathroom I painted big, black circles around my eyes. Better, but I still didn’t feel finished yet.

Mom came back to check on me. “How’s it going?”

“Ok. I need something more. I don’t know what.”

Mom studied me for a minute, then disappeared from the bathroom. She returned with a bottle of white shoe polish. “This might do the trick!” She proceeded to sponge my arms, hands, face, and neck with the shoe polish. The thick white liquid dried fast and started cracking. My skin looked like old plaster beginning to flake off. It was awesome, like a zombie or something.

My sister came to investigate. “What in the world ARE you?”

“You better watch out,” I said in a raspy voice, holding my hands up like claws in the air. “I am DEATH.”

“Whatever.” My sister rolled her eyes. “All I can say is you look better than usual.”

“Get out of here!” I snapped.

Right then, the doorbell rang. I ran to throw it open: My friend Diane, of course, looking very beautiful in a fancy Snow White costume. She even had short black hair like Snow White with a red bow tied in it.

She stared at me for a minute. “What ARE you?”

“Death,” I replied. “Bye Mom!”

When we got to the fellowship hall at the church, I saw princesses, cowboys, astronauts, cheerleaders, football players, Superman, and a mummy. All night long these characters came up to me, asking, “What ARE you?”

“Death,” I said.

“Coooooool,” they all nodded, except for the mummy. He said, “That’s weird. Death is something that happens. It’s an event. Not a person. How can you be Death?”

“You’re a mummy,” I told him. “You figure it out.”

I had fun creeping people out with my wild hair and my crackly skin, which someone said looked “ancient.”

Then some grown-ups worried that the shoe polish might not wash off.

Uh-oh. I hadn’t even thought of that … had Mom? How long would I be stuck looking like this?

I was worrying about it near the end of the party when my name was announced for having the best costume. Unbelievable! No one but Diane knew that I had slapped this together at the last minute, without any kind of plan. You never know what you can do until you have to. Then I went bobbing for apples and not only did I win that contest, I set the record for the fastest time: one second! I held my breath, dunked my head in the freezing water, pinned the apple to the bottom of the tin tub so I could get my teeth in it, and came up with it so fast that my long hair flung cold water across the crowd, making all the costumed characters scream and laugh.

“Hey, Death, hey, Death,” they called, “your scary face just got washed away!”

I was just me again.

And secretly glad.

Photo: Ghost (cropped). TCtroi. CC BY-SA

The kitten’s song

My favorite teaching moments are those when classroom teachers have invited me in to model the writing process. This occurs a lot less than it used to, as writing workshop in my district has been replaced by a curriculum with embedded writing. I’ve been remembering those moments lately. I miss walking in with a list of ideas for students to choose from. I miss drafting and revising in front of them while they ask questions and make suggestions regarding artistic or stylistic choices. I miss hearing the flood of their own ideas, their own experiences … and sharing mine with them through writing. Perhaps that’s what led me to go back and reread those mentor texts.

The writing of this one was, to me, the most memorable. I wrote it over several days for a fifth-grade class studying memoir. I explained that one way to make memoir come alive is to pick a moment of strong emotion and pull the readers in so that they feel it, too. I asked if they wanted me to write about a moment from my life when I was happy, sad, embarrassed, angry, or afraid.

They were tough. They said: “A time when you were sad. Make us cry.”

Okay …

They chose, from the topics I gave them, ‘the sick kitten.’

And so I walked back into my memory, and wrote.

Here’s “The Kitten’s Song,” with a bit more polish at every writing (for revision is never really over, is it).

*******

Free kittens – take one.

I saw the sign propped on a chair at the entrance of my college cafeteria. A disheveled guy—another student, I guessed—stood there holding a cardboard box. I hurried over to look inside:

One dark little ball of fur.

“Is that the last kitten you have?”

“Yeah,” he replied. “No one wants her because of her tail.”

“What’s wrong with her tail?”

The guy scooped up the kitten and showed me her backside. She didn’t really have a tail. Just a stump.

“What happened to her?”

“She was born this way. The only one in the litter like this.”

The tiny black creature sat looking up at me with big yellow eyes. She meowed.

Poor little unwanted baby.

There was, of course, only one thing to do:

“I’ll take her!”

I named her Moriah after a magical black cat in a wizard story, The Forgotten Beasts of Eld.

When she was nine months old, Moriah had seven kittens. Some were solid black, like her; the others had gray and white stripes. The three boys had long tails but the four girls had stumps like their mother.

All of the kittens were beautiful to me. The day after they were born, my mother and I were admiring them when we realized something was wrong.

In the bed I’d made out of a low box lined with a soft blanket, Moriah lay nursing her babies. The smallest kitten, the runt, had been pushed away by her bigger brothers and sisters. This tiny ball of gray and white fuzz rested at the side of the box by herself. When I picked her up, I saw a big open sore where her tail was supposed to be.

“Mom!” I cried, showing her the raw place. “Look at this! What happened?” A horrible thought entered my mind. “Do you think something did this to her? Did Moriah —would Moriah — bite her kitten’s tail off?”

Mom shook her head. “Gracious, no. I think the kitten was just born like this and we didn’t notice until now. Looks like her tail never finished forming. Could be spina bifida. It happens to human babies sometimes, when their spines don’t seal all the way. It’s probably because of Moriah’s tail defect, as she’s passed on to her daughters.”

“Will it it heal?”

“It might. We’ll have to keep an eye on it.”

“Poor little thing,” I mourned, stroking the kitten’s head with one finger.

I tried to help. I put the kitten in the pile of her brothers and sisters so she could get to the milk. They still pushed her away. I moved the biggest kitten, who loudly complained, and put the runt kitten in his place, but she didn’t try to nurse.

“What are we going to do, Mom? If she doesn’t get any milk, she’ll die.”

Mom said, “Bring her to the kitchen. I’ll get a medicine dropper.”

I came to the kitchen and sat at the table, holding the kitten. She weighed no more than an egg, just a soft warm spot in my hand. Her day-old eyes were still closed. Mom washed the medicine dropper we used when we had earaches, then she took some milk from the refrigerator and warmed it in a pan on the stove.

The kitten purred in my hand, a pleasant little vibration, and I suddenly felt that she needed a name.

If I name her, maybe she’ll get well and strong.

I was trying to think of a name when Mom handed me the dropper filled with milk.

“Feed your baby,” she said.

The dropper seemed too big for the kitten. When she opened her pink mouth, my heart leaped with hope, but she only made a cry, the tiniest cry I have ever heard in my life, so small that it was hardly a sound at all.

“Mom, I can’t do it.” By now my hands were shaking.

“Give her to me,” said Mom.

My mom could fix anything. Once she rewired our oven all by herself. She made a lot of our clothes and took in sewing for other people. She could mark patterns on fabric, cut it to precision, and every piece turned out exactly right. As I watched that tiny gray-and-white kitten in my mother’s capable hand, I was sure Mom could get her to take the milk.

I remembered a song then, from a movie I watched with Mom when I was little. The movie was her favorite, The Sound of Music, and this the song I loved best:

 Edelweiss, edelweiss,

every morning you greet me.

Small and white, clean and bright

You look happy to me.

Blossom of snow, may you bloom and grow,

bloom and grow forever …

It’s about a little flower that grows on the Alps of Austria where the movie is set, but for me, in that moment, the kitten became Edelweiss. It was a perfect fit. As Mom tried to get the kitten to drink from the dropper, I sang the song over and over in my mind like a prayer:

Blossom of snow, may you bloom and grow,

bloom and grow forever …

The milk only ran down the sides of the kitten’s face. When I looked at Mom, her mouth was set in a straight line. A tear rolled down her cheeks like the beads of milk on the kitten’s.

After a minute, my mother said, “She’s already gone.”

“NOOOOO!” I wailed. “Keep trying!”

“It wasn’t meant to be, honey. She was too sick.”

We held her for a moment and cried.

I wrapped Edelweiss in one of Daddy’s white handkerchiefs and buried her in the backyard. I found a nice rock in the yard with a flat surface and painted a little white flower on it. I put it on the grave and cried there a long time, for Edelweiss, for everything that has to die. Moriah came to sit on the ground beside me, a warmth at my side, purring deep and strong. She looked up at me with winking yellow eyes and all I can imagine is that she was saying Thank you.


Many years later, I wonder about that rock, if still sits in its special place, if the sun and rain have erased my painted flower. In my memory, the kitten named Edelweiss hasn’t faded. She stirs whenever I start thinking life’s not fair. I remember how she purred. You look happy to me … I don’t know if that is strange or not. I just know that Edelweiss, who only lived a day, is somehow part of me, always.

Whenever I hear her song, I remember.

*******

Photo: Kittens 001. Bryan Price. CC BY-SA

Stayin’ alive

The master says it’s glorious thing to die for the Faith and Dad says it’s a glorious thing to die for Ireland and I wonder if there’s anyone in the world who would like us to live.

—Frank McCourt, Angela’s Ashes

A friends tells me she can’t turn on the news at home anymore because her first-grader is terrified of catching “the cronavirus.”

I remember that terror …

It began with nosebleeds. I had so many as a child that the pediatrician told my father the vessels in my nose might need to be cauterized.

“Carterized? What is that?”

“Burned.” Said my father, before thinking better of it.

Burned?

BURNED?

I lived in mortal terror of having another nosebleed, of having the inside of my nose burned.

I told my Sunday School teacher about it: “My nose might have to be carterized if I don’t stop having nosebleeds.”

“Well, it’s better to have a vessel burst in your nose than one in your head.”

A vessel can burst in my HEAD? What does that mean? What happens to you if a vessel bursts in your HEAD? Do you die?

My head felt weak. I tried not to move it very much.

“Why are you walking so stiff and hunched up?” snapped Mom.

And then there was the sign in the church stairwell:

FALLOUT SHELTER

“What’s a fallout shelter?” I wanted to know one evening after supper when our neighbor walked across the street to play Yahtzee.

“Oh, a place where people can go if there’s a nuclear bomb, to be safe from the radiation,” said Mom, taking a drag of her Salem.

“Yeah, and this is the first place that would be attacked,” said our neighbor, shaking the dice, “with all our military bases and being so near D.C.” The dice rolled across the table. “Damn! Nothin’! I guess I’ll have to take it on Chance.”

How will we get to the fallout shelter to be safe, if it’s blown apart?

Why do we live here?

Nuclear bombs… the vessels in my nose, the ones in my head … what’s gonna blow first? What will happen to me? How’m I gonna stay alive?

—Yes, I remember the terror. To this day.

—Remember the children.

Photo: Fallout. m anima. CC BY

The bullet

 

Bullet

“Dodged” a bullet. John Spade

I don’t often get reader requests for posts here on my blog, but after sharing an exercise on writing about your past —”When you look back at your life, what do you see?”— a phrase about my childhood home stirred some curiosity and I promised to tell the story behind it.

So if you read Dust motes and asked about “Bullet in the living room rug, in the floor, if you know where to look,” today’s post is officially dedicated to you.

To recollect these details, I had to submerge a good while in Long Ago. When this event occurred I was around eight years old. That part’s blurry.

The rest, however, is all too vivid . . .

Mom lifts the curtain again but there’s only blackness beyond the picture window. I know by her sigh that the street is empty. No sign of Deb. She has never been this late before. She’s usually here before supper but tonight we had to go ahead and eat, hours ago. Baby Aimee—Deb’s baby—is fussy because she’s ready to go to bed and can’t settle. Mom holds her on one hip, says “Shhh, shhh, you’ll be going home to sleep soon.” Something icy glitters in my mother’s black eyes as she looks out of the window into the night.

Aimee’s eyes are almost as black as my mother’s. Big and round. They make me think of Looney Tunes characters when they’re sad, how their eyes go all huge and dark. Baby Aimee’s eyes always look like this, huge and dark, even when she’s standing in the playpen staring up at me in the daytime when I get home from school. She can stand without holding on now but isn’t really walking yet because she’s only one year old. She hangs onto my mother, her cheeks pink and watery, her big eyes shiny.

Mama,” she cries over and over. “Mama.” And she buries her face in my mother’s shoulder.

I am sorry for Aimee because she’s little and doesn’t understand things yet. I am starting to feel sorry for Mom because it’s not easy to take care of someone else’s baby while they work all day and then don’t show up and you don’t know why . . . 

“Mom! What if something has happened to  . . . “

She turns on me, her mouth a tight line under those icy-hot eyes. “Shh!” she nearly spits.

And I know, I know why.

Mom’s afraid.

Just then headlights shine through the window. Mom snatches back the curtain. Her body softens like a flower in a glass of water. 

“Thank God.” 

She squeezes past the playpen—it takes up the most of our living room floor spaceand goes to open the front door.

I hear Deb’s laughter before I see her.

Someone is with her.

They come in.

Deb is short with shoulder-length reddish hair and glasses. She dresses in what teachers at my school call “mod.” Sometimes short skirts and boots or chunky shoes, sometimes vests and bell-bottoms. Deb smiles a lot but tonight she can’t stop laughing about something. Even when she says to Mom, “I am sorry it’s so late, had some car trouble…this is Ab. My boyfriend.”

Ab, standing partly behind  Deb, is very tall. His face is thin and white, his hair black, curly, reaching past his shoulders. He’s wearing a long fur coat. I’ve never seen a man in a fur coat before. He nods to my mother when Deb introduces them but he says nothing. 

Mom looks at me, hard. “Go to bed now.”

I know this really means “I’ve got things to say that you don’t need to hear” and so I head down the hall without a word—

—BANG—

—a flash of light, the loudest sound, thunder in the house, like a car hitting it, shaking it, rattling the windows—

a scream, not sure whose, my mother’s or Deb’s—

baby screams—

I run the few steps back to the living room.

There’s a funny smell, something smoky.

Pieces of brown fur, hundreds of pieces, floating through the air. 

Deb’s crying now, her screaming baby in her arms. Ab’s face is whiter than before. I stand, frozen, as my mother demands the gun he has in his pocket, or the pocket he had a minute ago, before he blew it to smithereens.

HOW DARE YOU bring a gun into this house, around other people, around children! To stand here with your finger on the trigger…Give. It. To. Me. NOW.”

And Ab places the handgun in my mother’s open palm.

As her hand closes around it he hurries out of the door, away from her, back into the night.

*******

After Deb and Ab were gone—and after she vacuumed up all the fur—Mom ran her fingers over the rug. She found the hole and the bullet lodged in the hardwood floor beneath. For as long as we lived in that house, I could find the bullet, too.

The house still stands, so as far as I know, the bullet remains there to this day.

I can’t recall what became of Deb and her beautiful baby, Aimee, or how quickly after the bullet they quit coming to our house. I changed their names in case they’re still alive out there, somewhere. I wonder if they are. And what their stories are. And if I could stand knowing.

I really wonder about Ab.

All I know is that my mother kept his gun a long time. I’m not sure she ever gave it back. Or where in the house she hid it. Somewhere far away from children…

I think a lot about the darkness of that night, of a baby’s big, frightened eyes, of being completely at the mercy of others and their choices, not just sweet baby Aimee, long, long ago when I was still a child…but my mother, who didn’t drive, who babysat for many years to make ends meet, who accommodated other people’s schedules and whims, who was dependent on others to go anywhere or get anything she needed. Some might say powerless.

But they didn’t see her take a gun away from a strange man who towered over her, a man who, as far as I know, never darkened our door again.

I did.

The moment reverberates in my mind still. Lodged deep, so deep in my memory, lying there all this time, covered by layers and layers of stuff …

The power remains, if you know where to look.

 

Live in the moment

I love to write memoir. I usually write it in present tense, as if the event is occurring.

Such as:

The nurse wheels me out of x-rays. I am trying so hard to not cry from pain and fear when I see him standing there in the exam room. He has something in his hands . . .

My Baby Ann doll. Smudged face, short white hair in cowlicks now, from lying so long in the toy box.

Despite my pain, I’m suddenly irritated: I can’t believe he brought Baby Ann! I don’t play with her anymore. Not since I was eight, last year. I want to say Daddy, I am too old for dolls now, don’t you know?

But I look at his face, I see the worry, because of me, because of my arm that the doctor is getting ready to pull and pull, to set the bones . . . and something inside me twists, gives way. I start to cry for Daddy because he’s trying to help me and doesn’t know how. I cry for me, for the pain about to intensify at the doctor’s hands and I don’t know how much.

I even cry for Baby Ann and her smudges and cowlicks.

When I write like this, I am there. It is happening. I see the exam room. I remember my red shirt with ruffled sleeves, ruined by plaster of Paris so that I could never wear it again. I see my father’s face contort, turn grayish-green, when I scream during the torturous pulling of my broken left arm to set it. I see that old doll, so vividly, in Daddy’s hands.

As I write it, see it, relive it, I think, How beautiful, Daddy.

I didn’t think any such thing at the time. Nor did he.

Which brings me to now and the idea of recognizing moments as they occur.

I saw the sign at the top of this post in a shop today. When you’re in the throes of a daily writing challenge, you learn to look everywhere for ideas. I took a picture of the sign as soon as I saw it.

I knew, in that moment, I’d write about it. Somehow.

Because that statement about living in the moment and making it so beautiful that it’s worth remembering speaks on two levels. Worth remembering in order to write about, of course. And being fully present for the people in your life. It is a call to be mindful, to savor every moment together. Moments typically aren’t as beautiful alone. Certainly not in being together and feeling alone (read “UNPLUG,” if you wish).

Memories will live, yes.

But what makes them so beautiful is how we live our now. Be present now. Make time now.

For we don’t know how many minutes we have.

-Do we, Daddy.

Your story matters

img_4990

“The world needs stronger stories.

We’re here to live a story and we’re made to live a good one.”

– Ruth Ayres

The focus of Day Two of my district’s Teacher Summer Writing Institute was Your story matters, with the driving question for teachers: “Why is it important for me to see myself as a writer?”

The bottom line is that we grow strong at writing by writing. If teachers expect to help students grow as writers, teachers must be actively writing. And teachers must believe in the craft, in the process, in the transformative power of writing, if they expect students to. As Ruth Ayres states in Enticing Hard-to-Reach Writers (Stenhouse, 2017): “When writers believe their words matter, nothing can stop them.”

Our group of K-12 cross-curricular teachers took some time to delve into their own stories by charting “peaks and valleys” from their life experiences. Peaks meaning moments or experiences that were positive—not necessarily milestones like getting married, seeing your newborn child, etc., although these can be peaks. Exploring moments or memories that have stuck with us over the years, those that carry great emotion, can impart greater insight to why we are who we are (see Your why for the expanded explanation of this activity). One of my peaks, for example, is from 5th grade, when I saw a classmate  do something extraordinarily brave. It’s my definition of “noble” to this day (if you want to read that story, see The Valentine ).

Valleys, or pits, are harder moments that have also defined who we are and why. They’re often ones of loss, but not always. Sometimes the valleys are moments of despair or disappointment, especially in yourself. Yet there’s great learning and insight attached to these moments. One of my valley-moments occurred when my mother invited a boy who bullied me to my birthday party.  When I began writing this piece, I recalled only my anger at my mother and our conflict. But a funny thing happens when one continues to write . . . I learned a truth that has stayed with me, subconsciously, all these years; it continues to shape me and my relationships with other people (you may read this story, if you like: The birthday ).

So the teacher-writers explored their peaks and valleys. They watched an extraordinary Ted Talk on perspective and assumptions of others, The Danger of a Single Story,” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. They read articles and books of their choosing on writing. They studied visual texts.

Their takeaways:

“Writing about the peaks and valleys was so therapeutic.”

“I loved having the space to write. I began writing about one of my peaks and my mind hopped to something I saw recently; these two things don’t seem to be remotely connected . . . I wrote that instead because the image and what I was thinking were so vivid. I don’t know the last time I wrote like this.”

“I thought about things I haven’t thought about in years.”

“It’s so cool how writing takes you to places you don’t expect.”

You stories matter. Not just to you, but to others who may need to hear them.

Write first, Writer, to know thyself.

Find your stories and to discover where they take you, and what they mean. What they reveal to you about who and why you are.

Then tell your stories. Encourage others to tell theirs.

That’s what stories are meant for.

Wisteria, part 5

Wisteria long arbor

Wisteria arbor. Jason BakerCC BY

Here’s my last installment of a tale told by a wisteria vine.

“Setting is everything,” said the facilitators at the writing workshop I attended last summer. “Setting drives the plot, the actions of characters . . . .”

That’s certainly true of this story.

All my life I’ve been haunted by an old house in the woods beside my Dad’s childhood home. I looked for it every time I visited my grandmother and we walked down the narrow dirt road. She’d point it out through the trees (she knew where to look; I had trouble finding it):

“There it is, the Griffin house.” 

I’ve seen many old, abandoned houses since, in various stages of falling down, but the Griffin house, obscured by thick woods, was the first. The allure, the spooky wonder I felt as a child, was immediate and intense.

It’s never left me.

None of the people who lived in this house were my relatives. They’re in my blood only because of the place and the stories, real and imagined. My aunt, as a child, used to run on a path between her house and the Griffins’ to play with the Griffin grandchildren. Eventually, said my aunt, the wildflowers and weeds grew taller and taller, and then . . . well, everyone and everything grew up.

The Mixon road began across from the right front of my grandparents’ yard. Standing in the Griffin yard, to the left of my grandparents home, the Mixon road would have been visible to the far right, branching off of the main dirt road. By the time I came along the Mixon road consisted of only two wheel tracks in the grass, a path leading partway through the woods and fading away where fields were still being farmed. There’s no trace of the road at all now; scrubby brush has overtaken it. No one would know a road, or a house, was ever there. Grandma said that the Mixon home down this vanished road was beautiful. It was two stories with a double porch, dating back to the Civil War. That house was gone long before I ever came to be. 

Perhaps this story springs only from a hopeless romantic streak, but as the wisteria grew heavier and heavier in the trees of my ancestral homeplace with each passing year, it stirred the stories, imaginings. For fractions of seconds, I could see the old, hidden Griffin house as it was. I could feel the thrum of farm life, see a mother surrounded by little children, sense a man pouring his soul into the earth to make it produce enough to feed his own.

That house is, for me, an abiding image. I can forever pull back layers to find new and deeper meanings: the passing of time, “memento mori,” we are mortal, and who will remember us when we’re gone?

The wisteria is another abiding image. If it has attached itself so to me, then why not to my characters?

When I happened upon an science article about plants having memory, I wondered, What if such memories could be tapped? What if a botanist actually had a means of, say, sticking a needle in a plant to extract its memories? 

As a writer, I get to do just that. Without the needle.

In previous segments of this story, Jennie Jay Mixon has grown up to marry the widower neighbor, Thomas Griffin. The wisteria finally blooms for the first time. The affinity between girl and plant deepens; their lives, their maturity, mirror one another. In this final segment, the mirroring takes an unexpected, divergent turn . . . .

*******

So Jennie Jay transplanted herself in the Griffin household as the mother figure to six children, the oldest being barely younger than she. Jennie rooted herself in the family as if she’d always been there. And in some ways, she had. She wrapped her love around Thomas Griffin the way I wrapped myself around the arbor frame. Like my arbor supported me, Tom’s strength secured Jennie Jay. Under the arc of their love, the children, the farm, flourished.

Until their first baby died, weeks after birth.

She spent that day drifting between the house, the cemetery, and me, wandering as if she were that lost toddler of long ago.

He finally pulled her to a bench he’d placed under me, sat her on his lap.

I did all I knew to do, Tom. She seemed to be getting stronger. What did I do wrong?

Nothing, my love. She was just too little. You can’t blame yourself.

I ache to hold her. To feel her warmth. I think somehow I needed her more than she needed me. I am just so empty. 

There’ll be others to come, who need you. And I need you, Jennie.

She smiled a little then. She pressed her wet face against his coat. He leaned his head back against my trunk, let her cry, and cried along with her.

But he was right. In time, more babies arrived: Twins, then two more.

I was a part of that last fertilization. Really, I was.

They crept out of the house one balmy summer night under a waning crescent moon when I was blooming riotously, having been pruned back a few times for my own good. I sheltered them as they loved each other, murmuring of long ago: dandelions, destiny, The Powers That Be.

And me. Jennie Jay and Tom whispered of me, even then.

Let it be duly noted, however, that I find the efficient business of self-pollination far superior, although this interlude did clarify some finer points.

And children grow almost as fast as vines; one by one, they all left home.

Tom began to wilt.  Rheumatism, Jennie called it. She fussed over him, waited on him. He basked in her attention much like I bask in the sun.

Considering the span of their ages, everyone expected him to go first; it was the natural order of things.

I perceived it before she did.  How, I cannot convey, but I discerned something stealthily growing, snaking its way silently through her inside parts, bit by bit. The terrible truth is that this Thing was like me. Powerful in the way it grew and took over. I had not fully known my own power until Tom extended the arbor with an enclosed walkway of trellises. My new shoots, innocent, so tender, had spiraled through the lattice. As I grew, my tendrils tightened; I began to pull the lattice into myself, out of control, until Jennie Jay and Tom cut that part of me away.  They left the overhead beams of the new walkway for me to extend myself and luxuriate, but no more lattices, as I would only destroy them.

I sensed nothing good in the Thing that slowly choked the life out of Jennie Jay. It wanted to live, she wanted to live, I wanted to live; but I could not desire to live if my living was at the expense of hers.

The elongated arbor allowed me to get near the bedroom window. Jennie Jay, so small and white, lay still on the bed. Tom’s cane remained in the corner, for he seldom left her side, even when the neighbors came to relieve him, or when the children came to say good-bye.

He held her whenever she screamed, when the Thing, out of control, took, bent, consumed, destroyed. He was holding her on that last morning. The sun had just risen; dew sparkled like scattered seeds of fiery rainbows.

Her eyes opened, looked through the window at me.

It’s morning, Tom. Time to get going. I’ll wait for you under the wisteria. Come on whenever you’re ready, dearest.

Humans say envy is green. I am green. I know envy. I envied the pine tree given for her casket. I wanted to be the one, would have sacrificed myself, to hold her forever and ever.

Of course he knew. Before he nailed the lid shut, he hobbled outside with a pair of shears to clip a little sprig of my purple flowers. When his children and the neighbors attempted to help, he shooed them all away. He carried my flowers, placed them under Jennie Jay’s white fingers, kissed her hands, her face, one last time, and nailed the lid himself.

He planted her beside their first baby, a wise distance away from the first Mrs. Griffin.

In his grief I was powerless. I could offer no condolence, could not weep, could not acknowledge our loss in any way other than shedding my blossoms, borne by the breeze to collect on the mound where she lay.

I lost track of time then. So did Tom.  He did not come to me again but went quickly after her, his existence too intertwined with hers for him to adapt to a world without Jennie Jay in it. She was his world.

By then the garden was no more. The yard soon went wild. Grasses and weeds grew tall; the pecan tree rotted away. The Griffin children, their grandchildren, their great-grandchildren, came back from time to time, always in a hurry, visiting the graves, showing the land to potential buyers.

No one wanted it.

The barns collapsed. The house and I kept standing, even as saplings grew into trees around us. My arbor could not bear my weight; I crushed it. I latched onto a sturdy oak, where I climbed and climbed above the darkness of the woods which claimed for itself what was once the productive farm of a good, kind man.

I reached the house, at last. All traces of the whitewash were long gone. I wove myself through the bare clapboards and window frames, up the narrow staircase, back out between the cypress shingles.

She lived here, she was happy here. Her babies were born here. The walls and I were the last testaments to their love, that peculiar human gift. My tendrils tasted it all, absorbed it, took every bit and stored it deep within myself. My twisted trunk attained the girth of a man. Parts of my vine grew larger than Thomas Griffin’s muscular arms when they first wrapped around Jennie Jay.

I am all that remains. The house caved in from the ravages of time, weather, and me, but I am compelled ever onward and upward. Trees do not grow fast enough to suit me, for my goal is to reach the sun, that life-giving, golden orb beckoning from the periwinkle sky; I sense that something of Jennie Jay is there, just on the other side.

Until then, I draw from the essence of her deep within myself, where every sensation is preserved, where she lives on and on and on.

Her first and last words were of me.

First and last, first and last. My images of her keep circling, circling, ever-circling.

She was the first child I ever saw . . . .

Wisteria & old house

Old North Carolina home covered in wisteria. David R NCCC BY

*******

The End.

But maybe not.

Wisteria’s last line is also its first, so, back to The Beginning . . . .

Wisteria sprig

Wisteria sprig. Maggie McCainCC BY-SA

Wisteria, part 4

Wisteria vine

Wisteria. Asiya QureshiCC BY

I love things that are old. 

I am having fun tinkering with this little story about the old days, based on my grandmother’s childhood memories and stories that occurred before she was born. The ancient oral tradition . . . as I listened to her, faint images of people partially materialized in my mind. I wondered what their extended stories might be, what their lives were like on family farms in this remote, woody place that I visited each summer. In my lifetime, it was nearly all woods; few traces of the community remained. 

The wisteria remains. It hangs in the trees where the farm houses once were, its abundant, pale purple flowers the very image of April in North Carolina, whispering of long ago.

I starting wondering what stories the wisteria could tell, what it had witnessed across the years.

Then I heard its voice. 

I guess I’ve always had a wild imagination . . . 

It’s also fun to relate Wisteria’s story, beginning in the 1880s to the turn of the twentieth century, thus far, in segments somewhat like a serial in newspapers or magazines of that era. 

In the preceding installments (Wisteria, Wisteria, part 2 , and Wisteria, part 3), the vine tells of its mysterious origin on the Griffin farm and its developing kinship with a girl named Jennie Jay, who’s become a teenager harboring a secret. Mr. Griffin, father of six, has just lost his wife in childbirth with the seventh. The vine isn’t able to bloom, not an uncommon condition.

In today’s post . . . well, just sit back and listen to what Wisteria has to share . . .

*******

I woke the next spring to find Mr. Griffin building a porch on the front of his house. Every day, neighbor women stopped by with fudge or a pot of chicken and dumplings or stew for his family. The married women stayed only minutes, but the widows . . . they lingered, smiling and chatting at Mr. Griffin as he tried to work. By now I understood a lot more about humans than I used to. I stretched myself closer to the house for snatches of conversation.

Mr. Griffin, it seemed, had little to say.

He managed, somehow, to finish the porch. He left the gardening to his children and whitewashed the house. It stood tall, narrow, and bright in the sunlight by day; it glowed in the moonlight at night, as white as the stone markers just across the dirt road.

In all this time Jennie Jay did not make an appearance.

Her mother walked over one afternoon, bearing a basket, when the Griffin children had gone Up the Swamp to visit their mother’s relations. Mr. Griffin leaned against a porch column, smoking his pipe, gazing at the place where his wife, his baby, and his parents were planted.

He straightened, nodded, when he saw who was coming.

Miss Aurelia.

Hello, Thomas.  Here, I fried a chicken and made some biscuits for you.

I greatly appreciate it.

Your porch is lovely.

Thank you. The children enjoy it. Just got the swing up this morning.

How are you?

Can’t complain. You?

We’re all well.

A pause. Then—

Jennie Jay came home today.

Ah. So she’d gone away, had she.

Mr. Griffin puffed his pipe. He took a long moment to respond:

How did she like Raleigh?

She says she likes the shops but hates the city.

They both chuckled.

My sister said she was terribly homesick. She couldn’t understand why Jennie Jay wanted to come back to the ‘sticks,’ you know.

A slight smile played on her face.

Mr. Griffin just stared ahead. He made no reply.

She asked about you. Wants to come by.

He turned and looked directly at her for the first time since she arrived.

His voice was suddenly hoarse:

Well, by all means, Aurelia, go and tell her to come.

********

From my high perch on the arbor they built for me, I knew she was coming before he did.

In a yellow dress, her wide-brimmed hat a corona, she gleamed against the reeds and trees, a far cry from the tottering child who once escaped her mother.

He’d hurried in the house to shave, then waited for a while in the new swing, which faced the old Mixon road. Where she’d be walking. Then he took to pacing back and forth out in yard by me, until she finally came into sight.

He stood in my shadow as if rooted, drinking her in the way I drink in sunlight: Jennie Jay, pink-cheeked, blue eyes shimmering, pulsating with life. Her pale hair, long tendrils that my thin green ones could never begin to match, hung loose under her hat.

His gray eyes were as sharp as knife blades when she drew near, his expression unreadable.

He extended his hand:

Welcome home, Jennie Jay.

She grasped his hand, smiling.

Is that all you have to say to me, Mr. Thomas?

He trembled. Oh, could I feel it.

Just say it, man, say it!

God above, Jennie, you are beautiful.

Did you miss me while I was away?

I did.

That is good, because, Thomas Griffin, I. Missed. YOU.

She threw her arms around him.

Her hat fluttered to the ground beside my trunk; there were no more words. He clasped her to him like he might never let go. He sobbed, but Jennie laughed, even as the salt water flowed down their faces; she reached up and pulled his to her own.

By my calculations, she was in her eighteenth year.

I was about sixteen.

****

It happened.

On the day Thomas Griffin married Jennie Jay Mixon and brought her home in his old mule-drawn buggy—by her request— he had a special wedding gift waiting. He wouldn’t let her look; she had to keep her gloved hands over her eyes until he was ready:

All right, love, you can look now.

It was me, of course. In full bloom for the first time in my existence.

My heavy lavender clusters spilled like grapes over the arbor; my fragrance filled the air. I was majestic and I knew it, nearly as resplendent as the young bride.  My one regret—if my kind is allowed a regret—is that I couldn’t bloom yellow for her.

She laughed and cried at the same time, just as when Mr. Griffin first held her in his arms.

It is amazing, amazing! Oh, Tom, how…?

It just happened, Jennie. Of its own accord. All for you, I’m sure.

That wisteria is the most beautiful thing in the world.

Ah, my sweet, salty Jennie Jay.

Wisteria blooming

*******

This isn’t the end of the story. Not yet.

To be continued, one last time . . . Wisteria, part 5.