Making space

Anyone who’s ever worked in kindergarten or first grade knows that emergent writers often write strings of letters.

For example:   The flowers grow.

Sometimes the strings of letters are much longer and harder to decipher. A next teaching point would be working on the concept of words.

Enter Mr. Finger Space.

He’s a handy little tool for young writers, to facilitate their thinking about each word they’re trying to write and to begin making spaces between them.

I have, as you can see from the leading photo, a colorful collection of googly-eyed Mr. Finger Spaces ready to get to work.

Today as I passed by the jar, this gathering of Spaces seemed so beguiling that I thought: There’s a blog post in this. Somehow. 

I snapped a photo and went on my way.

I knew the accompanying story would come. That’s how it always works. A spark of inspiration, given time to grow . . .

This time it came pretty quickly.

As usual, it didn’t arrive as the expected story. Not about a little writer employing a cheery craft stick—I mean, a Mr. Finger Space!— to compose a sentence of separate words for the first time.

No.

It came after a conversation with a colleague about her wonderful weekend getaway, reconnecting with old friends, reliving priceless experiences:

There’s so much I’d forgotten, that I haven’t thought about in so long . . . it was incredibly meaningful to have those memories come rushing back. How important they were, those times we shared. I loved every minute of remembering and at the same time was saddened by how much I’ve lost because day-to-day responsibilities take all my focus . . . you know there’s not room to carry it all around in your head all the time . . . .

You need to write about them now, I told my colleague. My friend. Those memories, while they’re freshly stirred. Preserve them before they leave you again. Spend time going back in your mind, immersing, and you’ll be surprised at what you can recall.

I know this to be true from my own experience, over and over again.

A sigh. The longing was etched on her face: Just how to find the time . . . 

That’s when the googly eyes of Mr. Finger Space appeared in my mind; I immediately understood the message.

Moments of love and laughter, priceless gifts, slipping away under the weight of just living. Fragile strings of memory running together until the beautiful meaning is nearly obscured . . . .

The only way to stave off such loss is to push this often senseless, insensitive, jumbled-up world back, if only for a few precious minutes, in the midst of every run-on day. To breathe. To plunge deep into the recesses of your mind, to know yourself, who you are, and what really matters. Feel the stories pulsing through your being. Fight for them, to keep them alive.

Find the words. They’re all there, within you. They just haven’t been put into organized form yet.

Make the space. 

Put your pencil to the paper. Just start.

The rest will come.

Kilroy

He flew back to me from long, long ago.

My memory of him is dim, fleeting. I can only see partial scenes, the way a migraine sufferer is unable to look directly at objects because of a big gray spot but can see things around the periphery.

In a summer writing session last week, my co-facilitator challenged participants with quick-writing a bird story—for “everyone has a bird story.”

I have quite a few, some of which I’ve already written.

I looked at the page, waiting, my thoughts circling like birds themselves, tiny dark things against a whiteness, when suddenly there he was, crisp and clear, his black feet gripping the black perch, his crested blue head tilted, white face gleaming, a bright, black-rimmed eye regarding me with curiosity.

Oh, I breathed in my mind, I’ve been wanting to write about you! I’d almost forgotten.

He blinked, ruffling his beautiful blue, black-striped feathers. He watched me expectantly.

Kilroy.

*******

Aunt Jack’s house is different from anyone else’s. It’s full of stuff but not messy. I feel a strangeness here. Maybe it’s the animals. A big, speckled brown bird with a white ring around its neck and long tail feathers stands on a hunk of wood. “A pheasant,” Grandma explains. Aunt Jack is her youngest sister. The deer heads mounted high on the wall watch me with their big, soft eyes. I am scared of the bear head and its disconnected feet with sharp claws up there. On a shelf stands some small cat creature, the color of sand with brown spots. I think its mouth is open and its teeth are showing but I look away and hurry past.

I’m in a zoo of dead animals. Stuffed. Someone killed them all.

I do not know who or why.

Aunt Jack is small with a white, heart-shaped face, always smiling. She has brown hair almost to her shoulders and brown eyes as big and soft as the deer. She’s always moving, even when she’s sitting. I like to listen to her talk; her voice is like music, her words quick notes skimming through the air like stones tossed over water, or sunlight flickering through tree leaves on a summer afternoon. As much movement in her light voice as in her slight body.   

She’s always happy to see me, hugs me, says my name in her pretty, musical voice, and I remember how I have the same name as her father. Because it’s also Grandma’s middle name. It’s a special thing. 

I follow Grandma and Aunt Jack from room to room. When we go back through the living room, I see him.

On a tall, black perch, in front of the backside of the sofa.

A blue bird with a white chest and black stripes on his body.

I think he’s stuffed, too.

But his crested blue head tilts; a bright, black-rimmed eye regards me with curiosity.

“Oh!” I say, coming to a dead stop.

Aunt Jack laughs. I think of wind chimes.

That’s Kilroy. He won’t bother you, honey.”

“He’s your pet?”

Yes. I found him on the sand by the river when he was just a baby, so I brought him home.” 

Kilroy blinks, ruffling his beautiful blue and black-striped feathers. He watches me expectantly.

I take a step closer. I have never seen a bird that wasn’t in a cage inside a house before.

A living one, that is.

“Hi, Kilroy,” I call in my friendliest voice.

—Squawk! 

I jump. He sounds like Grandma’s screen door opening.

Grandma and Aunt Jack just laugh.

Kilroy smiles.

I swear.

*******

I don’t know how long Aunt Jack had him, or how many times I saw him. He was free to fly around the house, and I don’t remember any droppings. If I remember correctly, he stole shiny things like pens, rings, and coins, and hid them, sometimes behind the refrigerator, and he liked to crack nuts open and eat them.

I try to imagine my great-aunt walking on the sandy riverbank by her home, discovering the fledgling, carrying him to the house, feeding him by hand. Kilroy was devoted to Aunt Jack. The most enchanting part of their story is how he’d wake her in the mornings by walking on her chest.

Aunt Jack couldn’t have children. I can only guess how much she loved Kilroy, the living spot of color and joy amongst all those dead, unblinking creatures.

The grayness overcomes my memory here; only a little bit’s left around the edges. I can’t recall if Kilroy was allowed to fly in and out of the kitchen window. Maybe. But I’m not sure. It’s too far away, too dim. The memory, like gossamer, disintegrates when I try to touch it.

What I do know is that one day he flew out of the window and never returned, although Aunt Jack went out, calling and calling for him.

And that she still felt his little bird feet walking on her chest every morning, long after he was gone.

Blue jay feather

Blue jay feather. Robert NunallyCC BY

My last remaining aunt tells me that Aunt Jack did leave a window open enough for Kilroy to come and go as he pleased. He’d peck on the window when he wanted her to open it. When Aunt Jack was outside, he’d fly to sit on her shoulder. Remembering Kilroy piqued my interest in blue jays; I had to look them up. They can live twenty-six years in captivity and usually around seven in the wild. And they aren’t really blue. The color is produced by their feather structure scattering light— if a feather is crushed, the structure is ruined and the blue disappears. The feather is dark brown or black. Blue jay feathers, then, are illusions of light. 

No illusions, however, about blue jays symbolizing energy and vitality—Kilroy embodied it, in all his blue glory. As did Aunt Jack herself.  

 As for the dead creatures: The stuffed bear and wildcat are apparently from another early memory that’s merged with this one over time, but my last aunt says there were definitely stuffed birds on Aunt Jack’s mantel. I opt to leave the bear and the cat in the story with apologies to Aunt Jack, who’d be delighted, I think, that she and Kilroy are still remembered.

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.

Calling The Roll

Old telephone

Vintage rotary dial desk telephone. Joe HauptCC BY-SA

Kindergarten is fun.

Most of the time.

We have two pet turtles. They are green with bright orange stripes on their necks. They fit right in our hands when we take them out of their tank to race on the floor.

One turtle crawls so fast. “Go, Speedy, go!” we shout, scrambling beside him on our knees.

The other turtle stays in one spot.

We try tapping his behind.

He won’t move.

“Oh, Slowpoke,” we sigh.

I love the turtles so much that Mama makes me a dress out of turtle fabric she found. It’s “navy blue,” she says, with white turtles all over it. She sews on a ruffled white collar trimmed in red and blue. It’s a little bit like a clown collar. 

I am so proud of my turtle dress. I wear it for Picture Day.

But that is not my favorite part of kindergarten.

And I do not know why it is called a garden — I don’t see a garden anywhere.

My favorite part is the rocking boat.

It is brown. It has two benches, so that two of us can sit on one side and two more on the other. We can rock it kind of like a seesaw.

“Row, row, row your boat,” we sing to each others’ faces, “gently down the stream . . . “

Our Teacher teaches us how to sing a Round.

It is SO MUCH FUN, singing the Round, rocking the boat, holding our toys we brought for Show and Tell.

In a box on the floor there are things we can put on — hats, costumes. 

I put on a wig so my hair can be long and not short with two cowlicks in the front.

I wonder why a cow would lick my hair and when I ever saw a real cow anyway. I do not remember this. But, during circle time, when The Teacher asks us one by one what we want to be when we grow up, I try to think of something different from everyone else. When my turn comes, I say, “A cowgirl.” 

Maybe my cowlicks made me think of it. Or maybe because I love boots (since they don’t have laces that need to be tied) and that job lets you wear them all the time.

I don’t know any cowgirls or cowboys, though. We live in the city.

The Teacher stares at me for a second. She doesn’t smile. She moves on to the next student — a boy who says “astronaut.” 

Anyway, I love my long hair when I put it on. If I can’t get anybody to rock the boat with me, I will rock it by myself, wearing my long hair. And sunglasses.

But then is the worst part of kindergarten.

“Class. It is time to take your seats. I am going to call The Roll.”

Our Teacher is very tall. Her voice is very . . .  unhappy. Someone has made her unhappy.

We all go to our seats without a sound.

What’s wrong? What have we done? I can’t figure it out.

She’s going to call The Roll.

Is The Roll like The Police?  What will The Roll do to us? 

Does The Roll wear a big shiny star like The Sheriff in cartoons? Does The Teacher have a secret phone somewhere on her desk, to call The Roll if we aren’t good?

Is this about the cowgirl thing? Maybe I should have said I want to be a Teacher. Like the other girls did.

I am scared.

I do not want her to call The Roll because of me so I stay very, very quiet.

*******

It took months, seriously, for me to understand what my stern, no-nonsense teacher was doing after she made this daily “calling The Roll” announcement. She never picked up a hidden phone to make a call. A shadowy figure wearing a law enforcement badge never materialized. After days and days of wondering why in the world she was just reading our names out loud, I finally figured it out.

Oh. THAT’S what calling The Roll means.

What a relief.

It’s my most vivid kindergarten memory. As much as I treasure the humor of my misconception now, it reiterates several important things to me, as an adult and an educator (for no, I never became a cowgirl, as I thought of that only in the spur of the moment, so to speak).

My takeaways from this trip back in time:

-We forget how literal young children are. How easily misconceptions occur. Someone once told me about hearing this line in Psalm 23 as a child: “Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life.” It frightened her: Who is Shirley Goodness? Why are she and somebody named Mercy going to follow me around forever?  She kept looking back over her shoulder for them to show up. When my youngest son was little, he didn’t understand that “satisfied” was something good and fulfilling; he interpreted it as “sad-is-fied”: Why would anyone want to be sad? When someone asked him, “Are you satisfied?” he took it to mean Are you sad? and replied, “No, I’m fine.”

-Atmosphere is everything. We will never know what kids are thinking if they don’t feel comfortable asking questions, or if our body language, expression, and tone send the message that we’re unapproachable. Reliving the memory, I can now attach names to my five-year-old feelings: Confusion, apprehension, fear, inadequacy.  Remember, calling The Roll is my most vivid kindergarten recollection.

-Beware of what really causes harm. The sale of small pet turtles is illegal now because of salmonella. Multiple children sharing wigs or hats (IMAGINE!) is not permitted anymore because of lice (thankfully, we didn’t get them). Those changes were made for the safety of children, yet the turtles and the head coverings were a big part of the joy in our long-ago classroom. Of course we don’t want to breed disease and infestation; that would be unthinkable. But what about breeding — just as unintentionally — confusion, apprehension, fear, or the subliminal message that a child’s own thoughts, ideas, feelings, perspectives, experiences are not important? How damaging is that to young psyches? Should it be any less unthinkable?

-Time to imagine. The moments of play, of make-believe, kept the atmosphere in my kindergarten classroom from becoming one of complete compliance by encouraging some healthy free-spiritedness.  While academic expectations have changed dramatically for primary grades over the years, play, encouraging imagination, is still vital. I’ve never seen another wooden rocking boat and have forgotten what we actually called it. When my classmates and I were in it, we could be anything or anyone we wanted to be. We sailed out on a sea of our own making; we weren’t even in the classroom anymore.

Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily

Life is but a dream.

Extremely deep philosophy, there, when you think about it.

I’ve heard it said of late that children don’t have imaginations anymore, that they’re all into video games and devices, that they can’t entertain themselves.

Maybe. Maybe not.

What I do know to be true about children —then, now, and for all time — is that they are always trying to make sense of the world around them, because it’s all still new to them. Children are virtually covered with invisible antennae, receiving and interpreting volumes of sensory experiences, some of which they’re not able to fully process, just yet. The world’s a busy place; there’s so much to learn, far beyond the confines of the school day. Infinite seas of thought to sail, so many adventures to have.

Remember being that age, Teacher, Grown-Up? Remember the uncertainty?

It pays to slow down a bit now and then, for you are the seasoned Guide. Readjust the sails as needed, for the children, for yourself. Row gently down that stream, for your living cargo is priceless and reading every one of your signals, all along the way.

And may no one ever need to call The Roll on you.

Memory box

Memory box

Memory Box. AntaraCC BY

This weekend I caught a bit of an interview with Jon O. Newman, a senior judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Judge Newman has written a memoir entitled Benched. The subtitle is rather epic, something you should experience on your own . . .

What caught my attention, however, was the Judge’s statement that “everyone should write memoir, for your children, your grandchildren.” He went onto say how valuable a person’s memories are to the successive generations, especially for the unique knowledge they impart.

These statements were both invigorating and validating to me for a number of reasons.

First: I’ve been writing a good bit of memoir here on Lit Bits & Pieces. It may well be my favorite thing to write. When I am composing a piece, it’s almost like I have “street view” of moments and people as they were long ago; I can see it all from so many angles, from within and beyond my childhood self.  Judge Newman said, “The more you write, the more detail you will remember.” It’s astonishing, really, the little things I begin to recall, one after the other, once I start writing. The images return in startling clarity. I write in scenes, small moments. I tell writing teachers that memoir is really small moments on steroids, all pumped up and full of meaning.

Secondly: I write these pieces of memory because they hover so vividly, begging a landing place, and because I truly love the time-travel. They’re meaningful to me, so I try to preserve them as best I can. What’s astonishing is the response I sometimes get from a  reader; I never anticipated such deep chords would be struck. It leaves me, every time, in wordless awe at the power, the “magic,” of writing.

Lastly, having watched my mother-in-law and grandmother suffer the ravages of dementia — and the loss of their dignity — I write to celebrate the human brain at its most glorious, the triumph of the human heart over its darkest moments, the joy and the story of lives well-lived.

In this way, my blog serves as a memory box for me, homage to those who’ve gone before, and perhaps a gift to those who come after. As the photographer of the beautiful image at the top of this post wrote: We should save part of our memories in a box . . . we may need it later . . . 

Tonight I celebrate memory. My own and the bright fragments given to me by those I loved — those I still love, for in truth, when I write, they are ever so near.

Between the moon and New York City

Harvest moon

Harvest moon. patrick pearceCC BY-NC-ND

I have to get to work early. Several teachers have asked for help, and I need to prepare. It’s sometimes all or nothing in the life of a literacy coach.

I rue the hour, but I quickly realize a perk.

A gift, even.

Against the pre-dawn October sky, the full moon is enormous. Breathtaking. As I drive the back country roads, it looms just ahead of me, darting in and out of trees as I round curves

Oh, the Harvest Moon! So beautiful, I think.

The moon is oddly big and bright. I knew it was full when I woke up, as the bedroom was bathed in ethereal, silvery light even with the blinds drawn. There’s something deeply magnetic in its intensity this morning, beyond its size. I shiver. The first autumn chill is in the air. It’s the time of year when strange things are afoot, stirring the dying leaves, whispering of time past.

Do you remember.

Something dormant wakes with a jolt, rushes back – the electricity of being young, on the cusp of a major life event, with the unknown stretching before me. I’m like a racehorse at the starting gate, quivering with anticipation, ready to break free, to run for all I’m worth.

I blink, and the overpowering moon transports me right back.

I am nineteen and I believe I can be an actress.

I really do.

After several years of high school plays and local theater productions, plus a year of college theater courses to my credit, I’ve decided I want more than the traditional education route. I’m chasing a dream: I’ve applied to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City.

They’ve scheduled my audition.

In a rather surreal haze, I catch a train in my Virginia hometown to meet my older cousin, Dan, in Washington, D.C., where he lives. The next morning, we hop on Amtrak to New York.

I’ve been to the Big Apple once before, with my high school drama club. The proximity and height of the buildings almost suffocated me: “There’s hardly any sky to see,” I told a classmate. I then learned why it’s nicknamed The City That Never Sleeps. All night long I heard traffic, voices, sirens.

This time I know what to expect.  This time I am pulsing with energy, ready for my moment – a racehorse pawing the ground at the gate.

This train isn’t moving fast enough.

Dan is wildly excited about my audition: “You’re the maverick of the family,” he tells me.

I look at his earnest green eyes. For a moment, I fear I’ll disappoint everyone. Our aunt, our mothers’ unmarried sister, has given me a framed picture of a harlequin holding a rose, sitting on a crescent moon amongst stars in the sky. This reminds me of you, she wrote on the back. Somewhere between the moon and New York City.

Lyrics to “Arthur’s Theme,” of course. The song by Christopher Cross, subtitled “Best That You Can Do”:

When you get caught between the Moon and New York City
I know it’s crazy, but it’s true
If you get caught between the Moon and New York City
The best that you can do,
The best that you can do is fall in love.

My spinster aunt means it as an encouragement for me to do my best, believing I’ll succeed on the stage. I understand this just as much as I understand I’m not about to be falling in love.  At nineteen I am decidedly jaded. I don’t want a boyfriend and have secretly sworn off relationships. Guys my around my age, I’ve learned, are not to be trusted. I do not have time to waste on them.

“What do you have to do for the audition?” Dan asks, as the ugly backsides of major East Coast cities zip by the train windows.

“A dramatic piece and a comedy piece,” I tell him. “For the dramatic, Alison’s monologue from Look Back in Anger, after she’s lost a baby. For the comedy piece I’ve spliced together Babe’s lines from Crimes in the Heart. Dark, Southern humor. Really hilarious.”

His eyes glow. “You have to perform these for me!”

Once we are settled in the city, I do. It’s my final rehearsal.

Dan is delighted. “You’re going to make it. I just know it.”

I’m not sure, but I think I detect tears in his vivid eyes.

The hour comes. After a short conversation with Academy officials, I step onto the empty stage. There’s no spotlight. It all feels quite ordinary.

I give the monologues all I’ve got, full rein to the electric charge coursing in my veins – the best that I can do.

The faces of the Academy people are inscrutable. They shake my hand:

“Thank you. We will inform you of our decision by letter within a few weeks.”

I stumble back into the shadows of Madison Avenue where I barely recognize my cousin.

“How did it go?”

“Okay, I think,” I tell him, and only then do I realize how violently I’m shaking.

“I am so proud of you!” His smile is magnificent as he wraps me in a bear hug.

Now we can roam the fabled streets at our leisure. It’s January and utterly freezing, but we don’t let that stop us from going to the top of the Empire State Building where our carefully-styled hair stands on end in the frigid gale. In a tiny restaurant, I have my first cappuccino – a frothy, cinnamon wonder. At a nondescript shop we buy teal scarves that are at least four feet wide and about eight feet long. We loop them around our necks multiple times.

Dan says, “Have you noticed how people are looking at us? They think we are somebody – they’re trying to figure out if we’re famous.”

He is right. I catch our reflection in the shopfront glass – we can pass for ’80s pop stars.

That bright image is a freeze-frame. The rest of my memory curls like fog around the edges of it.

Dan was also right about something else.

A couple of weeks later, I pulled an envelope bearing the Academy’s return address out of a stack from the mailbox. My hands shook so that I could hardly open it.

I cried.

I was on my way to New York City for real. To live, to make my way, to do what I loved best.

I didn’t have a dime to my name or any idea how I’d manage to find a place to live in New York, come August; all I knew was that in the meantime I needed to keep performing. I went to the next community theater audition, for Whose Life Is It Anyway? I walked through the door and instantly spotted, across the room, sitting in a chair, the handsomest man I’d ever seen. Black hair, brooding dark eyes, classic features – if we’d been living in the 1940s, this guy could double for Tyrone Power.

He looked up, saw me, and smiled.

If you get caught between the Moon and New York City
The best that you can do,
The best that you can do is fall in love.

I was going to New York.

I didn’t want a boyfriend.

We both got parts in the play.

This was the end of January.

In May, he gave me his mother’s diamond engagement ring.

We were married in August.

The Academy said I had a year, if I wanted, to enroll.

Within the year, my young husband told me he was called to the ministry.

If you get caught between the Moon and New York City . . . .

There are Things Meant to Be and Things Not Meant to Be, I hear myself whisper.

At least, I think that’s myself whispering.

I blink – and here I am, three decades and two grown boys later, still married to the same preacher man, driving to work, pondering how to help teachers and students, while a magical moon dips in and out of the trees. I am in rural North Carolina, a far cry from New York City. Never made it to Broadway, except as a member of the audience.

But, as Shakespeare wrote, All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players; they have their exits and their entrances . . . .

I wonder what Dan would say now about my being the family maverick. He’s been gone for years. His exit came so early; he died at thirty-four.

I drive on under the Harvest Moon, noting how the darkness is no match for its spellbinding brightness. I am flooded with gratitude for all I’ve been given, realizing that the autumn of my life has not even begun.

Yes, Moon. I remember.

And so I play my part – the best that I can.

slice-of-life_individual

The last stop

 

Nursing Home

The Last Station Nursing Home. Ulrich JohoCC BY-SA

I push the wheelchair down the hallway. We pass an old man in a wheelchair; he lifts his hand in greeting, although he’s never seen us before. In the lounge, a tiny, gray-haired woman is holding a doll in her arms, rocking it while she watches TV. She takes a spoon from the tray in front of her, scoops up something orange – maybe jello, maybe mashed peaches – and tries to feed it to her doll. My throat constricts. With every step, I feel like the world is converging, that I am being squeezed into a narrowing tube.

I come to the room. 

“Here we are, Grandma. This is your room. It’s really nice.”

In the wheelchair, Grandma covers her face with her hands. She begins to cry.

I kneel, nearly panicked, feeling akin to Judas Iscariot. “Stop! Please don’t cry. You will make me, cry, too. Is that what you want?”

Instantly her hands drop. She lifts her wet face, squares her thin shoulders. “No, no. I don’t want you to cry.”

She looks at me with those watery blue eyes that I know so well. She places her bony hand over mine on the arm of the wheelchair. “If I have to come to this place, then I am glad you are the one who came with me.”

For a long while we just sit in the waning afternoon light, holding each other’s hands. There are no words.

Because there are no words.

I feared the day would come when she didn’t know me. She forgot many things – what era we currently lived in, that many family members were long dead. I debated whether or not to tell her when she mentioned her brothers or her son – my father – that they were gone. How many times can a person stand to lose someone they love? She watered her artificial poinsettia at Christmastime and, still in possession of her physical strength, managed to get out of the building through a window (if I recall that detail correctly).

She eventually lapsed into a docile silence, looking at every visitor with a sort of curiosity, but no longer struggling. She’d stopped speaking. At this point, she wasn’t feeding herself any more, so I would feed her whenever I was there.

Taking the plastic spoon in my hand, I say – I don’t know why, maybe because of tradition, habit, courtesy, or simple spontaneity – “Grandma, do you want to say the blessing?”

I know she hasn’t spoken in weeks. I guess I expect to say grace for her now.

But she bows her head, clasps her hands . . . and recites, perfectly, word for word, the Lord’s Prayer.

I sit, awestruck. This isn’t the family blessing, my grandfather’s prayer, that we always say when we give thanks. But she knows it is a prayer; it remains intact in her mind.

I thought of all the nursing homes I’d visited through the years, usually during the holidays to sing Christmas carols. The Alzheimer’s wards are especially haunting, with their heavy doors and alarm systems. The people sit, physically present, enduring their days, but mentally elsewhere, often unresponsive unless one of two things occurs. When a child comes in, the faces of the elderly suddenly light up. It’s an eager expression. They lean toward the child, smiling. Some even hold their hands out to the child. Whether it’s the newness of life or the memory of  what once was, the presence of  a child is magic here.

As is music.

Carolers walk the halls, singing, and residents wheel themselves to the doors of their rooms. Some smile and wave, others nod in time to the song, until we sing “Silent Night.”

Some of them were just sitting at dinner, one leaning to the other, saying, “I don’t know where I am. What is this place?” The other responded, “I don’t know either. And who are you?”

They may have been playing Scrabble earlier that afternoon, although the words won’t come and the tiles are too hard to see anymore.

But when “Silent Night” begins, the light comes back on in their faces. They sing every single word with us – even a woman, rocking her doll. 

This is my grandmother’s favorite hymn – she taught me to play it on her chord organ long before I started school, placing my little fingers on the keys over and over until I got it right. 

She was born the day after Christmas and died three days before Christmas, almost on her ninety-first birthday. We sang “Silent Night” at her funeral.

These thoughts and images swirled in my mind yesterday as my son played the keyboard at his grandmother’s convalescent center. I noted the absence of one resident who followed me nimbly to the exit the last time I visited – I saw the eagerness on her face, the light of it – just as the alarms went off and the nurses gently escorted her away from the door.

She died last week.

My son plays hymn after hymn; the residents clap after every lively rendition. Someone sings in a clear, soft soprano, every single word of every stanza, in perfect time with the music.

This is my story, this is my song . . . .

Even at the last stop, when time seems to be no more, when the days and nights and years and epochs melt together, when the stories lie dormant, music sweeps in like a breeze, stirring  fallen leaves into the air again. The words rise to the surface, for they are there, always there, in the deepest, darkest places. No matter how long they lie, the old, familiar melodies bubble back with the first strains. Released.

They sing, and I marvel. At the power of it, at the gift of it, at the peace of it.

Shadows are gathering, deathbeds are coming. Silent nights are coming. But until then, their hearts go on singing.

I stand amazed.

 

Forgotten

Forgotten

Forgotten Sounds Pt.II. Marco NurnbergerCC BY

Memory makes us. If we couldn’t recall the who, what, where, and when of our everyday lives, we wouldn’t be able to function. – “Memory Basics,” Psychology Today

This week, I remembered a poem I wrote as a teenager.

Some of the lines returned to me, complete and clear.

I couldn’t recall other lines at all.

I wrote the poem after a dream. In this dream, I was with a group of young people around my own age in a deserted beachy area with trees. We had reunited there on a hazy afternoon when the light is most golden, just as the sun begins to set, and with great joy, we began singing.

Except that I really did not know these people, this place, this song. In the dream I knew I was supposed to know all of these things, and I didn’t. I was meant to belong, to be a part, and I couldn’t. The sense of mounting sadness over the desperate attempt to remember the significance of these people and the words to the beautiful song so that I could join in was overwhelming.

The dream haunted me so that when I woke, I wrote the poem.

Remembering my poem for the first time in years, I wanted to reread it, to recapture the lines that were missing in my memory. I could envision the little stapled booklet I made, could actually recall other poems I wrote in it, word for word.

I couldn’t find it.

I searched everywhere I thought the booklet ought to be – I could not remember where I put it.

Things like this become compulsions for me. The more I searched without success, the more determined I became to find the missing poems.

At some point I realized the many layers of irony folded into this situation: I wrote a poem about forgetting something I could not remember in the first place, because I wanted to remember the experience; not remembering all the lines compelled me to read it again, and I forgot where I put it.

I began to think about what dementia patients must feel like.

But I kept looking, and yesterday, in a box of old notebooks, in a planner under some loose papers, I found it:

Forgotten Remembrance

My mind, it plays a melody

That it hasn’t ever heard

A voice sings in my memory

But remembers not a word

Faces I don’t recognize

Are singing this with me

Sadness streaming from my eyes

Such a haunting harmony

I hear the music chiming there

And then again it’s gone

Hidden in my mind somewhere

Chiming off and on

I ought to know this tune

These words I’ve sung before

I’ll try to learn them very soon

So I can sing them more

I can’t remember this refrain

I’ve forgotten it this far

My mind cries out to know this strain

And what the lyrics are

But all I know is sorrow

A deep and dark despair

I’ll cry and cry tomorrow

For what was never there.

At last. My mind can rest now.

I certainly can’t end on such a dark note, so today I pay tribute to the vital, mysterious power of memory, how it makes us who we are; to writing, which preserves who we are at various points in our lives and sets us free from whatever haunts or hurts us; and to the foresight of my young, rather gothic self for having grasped it.

 

slice-of-life_individual

 

 

 

 

 

My Patronus

As a headmistress and co-founder of my school’s Harry Potter Club, I was recently admonished to take the Pottermore Patronus quiz, as all other Patronus quizzes are essentially heresy. I approached the task with a bit of trepidation, having heard of people attaining aardvarks and the like.

For the non-Potterite: The Patronus charm produces a silvery animal guardian, usually representative of the individual casting it.

Being a fantasy fan since childhood, and considering my headmistress role, it was necessary: I plunged into the virtual dark forest to seek my symbolic protector. On the site, ghostly words appear in groups of three amongst the trees; the seeker chooses one and is moved onto the next set. At one point in this quest, when I paused too long, the words evaporated with a reprimand: “You are too slow. This game requires quick reflexes.” Silently chiding myself for overthinking simple word choices, certain that this blunder would land me with an armadillo or caterpillar, I picked up my pace. At last, in the ominous forest, a silvery shape materialized.

A white mare.

Beautiful and powerful, my white mare galloped through the forest, luminous against the darkness. Enchanting.

My next quest, naturally, was looking up the symbolism.

From various sites, the synthesis is that a white horse represents wisdom, power, loyalty, heroism, nobility, victory – encouraging, yes, but also inversely raising an intrinsic, lofty bar: am I worthy of the white mare? Do I deserve her? Never mind the fact that I gained her by playing a game with an end product based solely on word choices, not short answers or soul-searching responses. The writer in me delves deep into the metaphorical.

I already knew that white horses can symbolize death or the end of the world. They are considered psychopomps, creatures that guide human spirits on their journey from Earth to the afterlife.

As I pondered these connections, my Patronus suddenly conjured up road trips with my father and sister. Three hours is an eternity to young children cooped in a car, so to pass the time, Daddy taught us a game he played as a child:

“When we go by any horses, if they’re on your side of the street, you get a point for each horse. If you have a white horse on your side, it’s worth ten points, because you don’t see many of those.”

My sister and I instantly glued our faces to our respective windows, for we’d been by these random pastures before. We’d often seen horses grazing, strolling, sometimes galloping. I was sure – I just knew – I’d get a white horse. Maybe more than one!

“The thing is,” Daddy continued, “if we pass a graveyard, and it’s on your side of the street, you lose all your horses.”

So we played the game. My sister and I gained horses with glee, then lost them with loud groans, without realizing that one of us would win on the journey to the destination and the other would win on the return trip.

Daddy drove on in peace, smiling to himself.

How many horses I won and lost, I’m not sure, nor do I recall how many were white, only that they were there by the wayside on a long, tiresome journey. Those white horses are obscured by time now, very dim, but still real, ever more priceless, in my misty memory.

Enchanting, indeed, that one should reappear as my guardian after so many years, and that I should have gained it in a game venue that didn’t exist when I was a child.

Daddy, I think, would be pleased. Perhaps he is, from his place on the other side.

Reflect: What creature might symbolize you, and why? I’ve often played a game with students, challenging them to think of an animal that begins with the first letter of their first names (I’ve always chosen fawn in these scenarios – perhaps I should change it to foal?). No two can be the same, so each student ends up with a unique animal and has to think of ways the animal might represent them or their lives. Think – and write.