Friday, June 22, 2012

Fiction Friday - mothers

I'm not sure where this is going. A friend was telling me about her relationship with her mother and I was struck by how very different it was from my own. So, I started thinking about all the mother-daughter relationships around me. Not even my sisters and I have the same story to tell.

The beginning of a story below was inspired by that conversation, though in no way does it reflect her actual relationship. I'm thinking of somehow looking at several mother-daughter pairs in a short story and this is simply a sketch of a possibility of a part of that.

             She woke to the telephone call from the nursing home with the news her mother had passed. She was peaceful; her friends were with her. “What must these people think of me,” she wondered after asking them what they needed from her. She didn’t mean to sound annoyed at the call, she genuinely needed to know her responsibilities in this situation. Did she need to call the funeral home? Was there some authority that had to be notified?
            “Your mother has made all of the arrangements. Her wishes were written out and notarized, and her lawyer has already been in touch. The cremation is scheduled for tomorrow. I just need to confirm your address so the ashes can be sent.” The woman on the other line didn’t sound judgmental. She must encounter all sorts of reactions to this phone call that is likely a daily routine for her. People go there to die, and when they do, someone needs to be called. Cynthia knew that the receivers of those calls reacted in some crazy ways. She remembers a friend telling her that when the hospital called to say her father had died over night, she giggled. Can you imagine that? Her friend was mortified. She loved her father and was genuinely sad when he passed. She tends to giggle when she’s nervous and she had been anticipating that every night after she left the hospital and for a few days, she recalled, she giggled every time she picked up the phone. So, Cynthia knew that this woman from the home had heard much worse than her unfeeling “What do you need me to do?” She calmly gave the woman her address, wrote down the number she was given for the crematorium, and thanked the woman for her time and the care she had given to her mother.
            She hung up the phone and went to refill her coffee cup. Her hands were cold. Though it was June, the temperature had dropped to 54 degrees according to the weather app on her phone. She had no students scheduled until late in the day so she was spending the morning painting. “That’s funny,” she thought as she picked up the brush from the table. She hadn’t noticed before that the house in this scene was her childhood home. There were a few differences – the green was lighter and more inviting, the front steps were not overgrown with vines – but the basic outline was there, the gambrel roof, the attic dormer, the field stone foundation.  It shouldn’t have surprised her. She had talked to her brother earlier in the week, and received notice from the home that her mother’s death was imminent. Her thoughts had wandered all around childhood since.
            Cynthia wondered if her mother had been told they were calling her. She couldn’t imagine that it was her idea; couldn’t imagine that her mother had given her much thought at all in those last weeks. Her friends were with her, the woman had said. Her friends were always with her. Perhaps they tried to console her on the realization that her children would not live up to their expectations. Now this made Cynthia smile. Yes, surely her friends faulted those self-centered children for abandoning their mother in her old age. What children would not make the short three-hour flight to say goodbye to their mother? What children would leave her there without so much as a phone call for three years? Cynthia held the brush over the clapboards of her painted house.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

artifacts of a life - my lap desk

My brother is divorcing from his wife and last month he sold the house where they had lived for about 8 years. This sort of transition always results in unwanted stuff, and he brought a carload of it to my Mom’s house in anticipation of my niece’s yard sale (which has yet to happen). He welcomed us to take anything that might be useful, so, as I was helping him unload the car, I picked up the lap desk and put it straight into the passenger seat of my own car.

It’s a simple thing that you can buy at Target, which is probably where he got it. The desk side is a nice orangey wood color, contoured to fit in your lap – meaning there is a curve to accommodate your belly. There is an oval hole cut out to serve as a handle for carrying the desk around. A thin black velvet cushion is secured with velco to the bottom so the desk sits comfortably on your lap. And that’s all there is to it, simple, elegant, exactly what I wanted.

In the winter, I was content to work on my laptop at the kitchen table. Plenty of space to work, convenient to the coffee pot and easy to take breaks to do laundry or other household chores. But once Spring arrived and the porch furniture was set up, I took both laptop and coffee cup out there to work. I like writing with the laptop on my lap, appropriate to its name. But, My little MacBook Air is not actually designed to sit right on my lap. The keyboard is so small my wrist quickly became sore from resting on the edge. Then, I’d tire out trying to hold my hand up. I vowed to skip ice coffees for two weeks to buy a lap desk that would support my wrists.

My brother’s desk fell into my lap after less than a week of coffee depravation.

So now, nearly every day, I set myself up on the porch, books and magazines cluttering the table, my backpack leaning against the couch, coffee cup refreshed, and start to write. Some days I type away on my lap for over an hour without stopping; others I spend more time reading blogs than writing posts; but whatever I’m doing, it’s in comfort, with well supported wrists.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Slice of Life - from school to library

Yesterday was the last day of school in our town so, of course, we went to the library.

My girls are great readers and when faced with a week of unscheduled freedom, they make sure to have some good books on hand. We are at the library at least once a week so you would think they would have a certain familiarity with what’s on the shelf that would equate to preplanning and quick decisions. But no, even if we had been there the day before, they still require browsing time.

That’s great for me. I either browse the fiction shelves, check the catalogue for matches from my “to read” list, or sit on the couch that has become our meeting place and read whatever is in my bag. We all love visiting the library and can’t imagine being there “too much.”

Yesterday, the librarians were all smiles. When we checked out, one practically sang, “Last day of school and you decided to come to the library?” “Where else would we go?” I called back. Her grin was priceless and I wished that my camera was handy. “Half the students in town are here today, getting started on the summer reading program or stocking up for a vacation week.” “Where else would THEY go?” I returned.

Our library is always busy, every time we go in, no matter the day.  But, until that quick exchange with the librarian yesterday, I didn’t really notice. It is a weekly destination for many families, and not just for the cool Zentangle workshops. They reserve rooms to work on school projects, get recommendations from the fabulous Young Adult librarians, flip through magazines and newspapers knowing there will be someone nearby with whom to discuss the news. The shelves behind the circulation desk are always crammed with titles patrons have requested that are sent over from other libraries. The public library is the place to be.

Is our community unique in its library patronage? I don’t think so. My unscientific observations on Facebook and the blogosphere confirm that people are reading . . . a LOT.

On the last day of school yesterday, my girls and I went to the library. After lunch, one brought her book out to the hammock and one stretched out on the porch with hers. It would make any librarian smile.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Slice of Life - my part time year

This year, I shifted from being a full time teacher to working very part time. I taught only one class each semester.
I made the shift in response to a bunch of family changes: my girls were hitting adolescence, my husband took a job that involves lots of travel, my Dad died in 2010 leaving my Mom alone, and I got it in my head that I wanted to write. I loved teaching, but I knew teaching would always be there; these very important people in my life would not.
So here it is at the end of my first “year off”; time to reflect.
But really, I don’t have to look any further than today. Got my girls off to school (on time, even), took a good long walk with the dog, spent some time trying to choose a text book for next fall before going to pick up my Mom for a doctor’s appointment and some errands, and was home before my oldest got off the bus. In celebration of their last week of school, and their first week without homework or soccer practice, we went to the mall to get some summertime supplies, over to the bookstore for one paperback each (Andre Dubus III’s House of Sand and Fog for me), and stopped at the ice cream stand on the way home. This evening, I sat on the porch with my sweetheart before he headed out with some friends and I headed to the laptop to write.
This day, at the edge of summer vacation, at the end of my part-time year, epitomized what I wanted to do with my time, with my life (except I have, also, been improving the family nutrition – just not today). The year has worked out well, and when it was time to let the university know my availability for the fall, we decided to keep this up for one more year and check in again in January.
It wasn’t easy to walk away from a teaching job that I loved, but I feel so blessed that I had the option open to me. Today was a great slice of my life as it is right now.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Fiction Friday - Bringing Dad Dinner

I've been thinking a lot about how we remember. There are some things that stick with us, but so much of our past lives seem lost. One phenomenon I've noticed is that we make a montage of memories - few distinct stories, but many quick glimpses, melded together; memories of days and days combined into one brief image. The very short story below is fiction but based on my memories of my mother's memories - bits of story I've heard over the years that I have surely mixed up and confused but that, nonetheless, tell me something about my mother's life. The story is unfinished. All comments are welcome.

Bringing Dad Dinner

She remembered walking with her brother. She held the lunch pail in one hand and her brother’s hand in the other. She was trying to remember her mother. Had she been at home, did she make the lunch? Or was she at work herself? But, if she was at work, wouldn’t they be bringing her a lunch as well?
These questions fade as her mind wanders along the streets heading toward the mill. It was quiet. Most people were home at dinner. Ah, now she remembered; her father worked second shift and the meal she carried was supper, still hot from the stove, in a metal pail covered with a thin towel. A meat pie and some potatoes, probably some peas, bread with butter. Her mother made delicious bread and the smell returned to her just then. The house often smelled of baking bread. She became quiet relishing in that smell for a while, before returning to her story.
Albert never liked brining dinner to their father, there were other things he wanted to do, but she was too young to go alone so her big brother was sent as well. Probably, he would have preferred, if he had to do the chore, to do it alone, faster, without his dawdling little sister slowing him down. She enjoyed the walks and tried to make them last. In the spring and summer their were blue cone flowers growing along the edge of the sidewalk, or Queen Anne’s lace which looked like the doilies her mother made, crisp and white. Perhaps, on her way home, her brother might let her stop to pick a few, but she knew they had to make it on time to meet Dad for his meal break so he would have enough time to eat.
She tried to remember if her brother carried a drink to go with the meal. She has no memory of drink, just that warm pail with meatloaf or meat pie or a bit of roast. And the bread, of course, always the warm bread, the butter already melted into it.
There was a courtyard, she remembered going through a gate. Their father knew where to meet them and they went straight to that spot. The men were just now filing out of the mill for their meal and some fresh air. A few men, she knew, would walk over to the pub to get some food and a beer. She had heard her mother talking about that with a neighbor, something about who went in and who had better not. She smiled, and paused again in the story.
Their father sat on a low brick wall and gave her a quick kiss on the cheek. His face was red and his hair wet with sweat. He pulled the towel off the top of the pail and inhaled deeply. He spread the towel on his lap and began taking things out of the pail, biting into each before placing it on his lap. Mother would have put some gravy in a bowl and she must have put in a small plate and a fork and knife. She just remembered the food, the smell of it, the pride when she said she had stirred the gravy or kneaded the bread dough. The extra delight he showed when tasting the food she described. He ate quickly, talking little. Albert would tell him about school and the trouble their oldest brother was getting into. Dad would either frown or chuckle, depending on his mood and the type of trouble. “And how about you?” He would always ask, after Albert had finished. She tried to tell him only things that would make him smile: how she helped mother with the laundry, or finished her homework right after school. And he did smile, almost always.
Some days, he seemed too tired to smile, or distracted. She couldn’t remember a pattern but now, these many years later, she wonders if his distraction came around bill paying days, or rumors at the mill. He had been through some difficult times, she knew. Very difficult times. Mother had told her how they never expected her to survive, the youngest of the brood. They had very little and were doing their best to feed the children in front of them rather than the child yet unborn, unknown. She was so small when she was born that  her father could hold her in his one hand. They fitted the bottom drawer of mother’s dresser with blankets and made that her bed so she could sleep near them. They had already lost the twins, and did not want to lose her too, but what was there to do but prepare themselves and love her while they could.
She surprised them all by reaching her first birthday, and look at her now, outlived all of them.
But now, the work was steady, they had enough to eat and a good place to live. They all went to school and had the books they needed and good clothes to wear. Dad even brought home ice cream on payday, waking them all up when his shift was over, since it wouldn’t last in the icebox. They went out to the lake sometimes. Still, there were days that distracted him and he ate without hearing the prattling of either child. Albert, older brother that he was, would quickly see his father’s mood and quiet himself, but she was just a little girl and she was sure she went on in oblivion and probably added to his distress.
When he finished eating, he would carefully put everything back into the pail, arranging whatever dishes there were so that they would not break. “Tell your mother that was delicious. Thank you.” And then he would kiss her and pat Albert on the shoulder and turn to get back to work. She remembers walking by several men still at their meals or smoking or laughing with one another. She remembers urging them in her head to get back to work, worried they would be late. It never occurred to her that her father was the odd one, going back in early. She thinks she remembers him talking about working on a few problems, taking the time to come up with better ways to do things, or of repairing a piece of machinery. He and her oldest brother Clifford would talk about machinery on the weekends when they worked on the car together. It occurs to her now that her father must have been more like Cliff than she knew. Perhaps he took part of his dinner break to fiddle with some machines the way Clifford always did at home. It didn’t occur to her to wonder about any of this as a child. She had no picture of her father at work; he ceased to be real until she saw him again in the morning.
On the walks home, Albert let her fall behind. She knew the way and wouldn’t get lost, despite what their mother feared. She had time to pet a cat or pick a flower or make a pass through a hopscotch course. If she lingered too long with a friend, Albert would be back to fetch her to avoid getting into trouble, but then again, he might linger himself. He had a lot of friends in the neighborhood.
She loved bringing her father his meals, but she’s quite sure she didn’t do it every night. She wondered for a minute what he ate when she didn’t make that walk. She smiled and I wondered if she was remembering those men who’d better not be at the pub.
Now, more than seventy years later, she still couldn’t make that walk herself; nor was Albert around to walk with her. She might be able to do it if she could hold on to my arm. But, she’s not sure she would know the way. I assured her, that once she was there, she would know. So much is still the same.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Spiritual Atheism - the connection

I use the word God often, but I’m not often sure what I mean by it. The image of the benevolent (if sometimes vengeful) bearded father of my childhood catechism stays with me. Intellectually, I want to believe in the Great Mother; I want the image of a round, slightly wrinkled grandmother to appear when I think “god.” But, when I conjure it up, I feel fake; feel as if I am appropriating a Women’s Studies logo designed to fit my political beliefs rather than making a connection to the all-powerful.

The “all-powerful,” there are problems with that. When I really stop to reflect on the spirit, I do not think of any sort of all-powerful being, but of a connection between all things, a spiritual link flowing between us. In his “Dark Materials” trilogy, Phillip Pullman calls it Dust. I think of it as an energy emanating from the earth or the universe, I don’t know, perhaps emanating from each of us. We take from it, and give to it as we can; our breath, our bodies, our thoughts, our emotions, our actions – all equally important in the mix.

Because of this connecting energy, it is important that we act according to a relevant moral code. That is, if we are “good” to each other, we add positive energy to the stream. When we are not, when we abuse others on the spectrum, when we live with hatred, then we add negative energy to the stream.

Part of this energy I can only define as magic. No rabbit out of the hat or endless length of kerchiefs, but something of the magic in fairytales, or, rather, tales of fairies. L. Frank Baum (of Wizard of Oz fame) wrote a wonderful biography of Santa Claus that depicts a part of the world I want to believe in. It is guided by love of humans and all living things, by a respect for the world, a code of conduct that requires adherence to an organic rulebook. There is a code that demands certain treatment of the natural world – how to approach deer, which trees can be cut for firewood – a code that allows humans to live in cooperation, not domination. And there are protectors, tree nymphs for instance, whose job is to keep balance.

Is that so far off from Christianity that calls on us to love our neighbors? Well, that is, if you include animals and plants and all the living world in the neighborhood.

Whatever God might look like – and really, how important are looks? – I have to believe in this idea of the connected universe. I don’t understand the connection, but I think that’s beside the point, too. There’s the whole theme of mystery to explore as I go along.

This is going to be an interesting journey; has been so far.

What does your God look like?

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Tuesday's Slice of Life

Discombobulation. It’s the word of the month.

Doesn’t help that I’m colder now than I was in March, starting my day in confusion. (It is June, right?) Doesn’t help that my semester is over, along with my paychecks, but new expenses keep cropping up. Doesn’t help that my husband was gone on a business trip for two weeks and though he’s back he’s so plowed under by jet lag and allergies that I still feel like he’s gone. (And, he’ll be gone on another trip next week.)
I am out of sorts, lacking focus, uninspired. And cold. (Had I mentioned cold yet?)

I’ve been trying to figure out why I am so off kilter. I started to think about yesterday. Yesterday I got the kids off to school and some early morning errands completed. Then, I sat down to be a writer for about two hours. I felt great all day. I focused myself and took the time to write – not for anyone else, just my own project that may never be read by another set of eyes; but mine have read it. More importantly, my brain thought up the words, my fingers typed them. The process of writing improved my yesterday.
Today, I missed a meeting of the neighborhood group this morning because I couldn’t get my act together, I ate an incredibly unhealthy breakfast while running errands, I made a few pointless drives to find upon arrival that I couldn’t get done what I wanted to get done. When I came back home I was so flustered it didn’t even occur to me to sit down to be a writer. I did laundry, cleaned the kitchen, searched for Anya’s missing purple raincoat.
I found my way to this screen after checking in on Facebook, reading email from school, looking for details about tomorrow’s workshop, and updating the calendar. Now, having read a few slices of life, my scattered self is regrouping.

This is my first post to Slice of Life. I’ll make a commitment to add something every Tuesday because I like the idea of building a community of random, scattered people with all sorts of harried and beautiful lives. And because, doing so today helped settle the discombobulation.