Letters: Sandford

Dear D:

            And if I’m going to write about Nanna and Nonno, I have to write about Nanny and Grampy too.

            You had two sets of maternal great-grandparents, though I knew my mother’s parents better than my father’s because they lived a mere mile away.  My father’s parents lived in Nova Scotia.  Or rather, I should say my father’s mother and stepfather lived in Nova Scotia, because Grampy Vic, as I called him, was not the man who raised Papa.  That man, Doug Smith, died when Papa was halfway to seventeen, in 1955.  It was a terrible trauma for my father, but I didn’t even know it had happened because he never talked about it.  He was taciturn and tight-lipped, which meant that I suspected he was always a hair’s breadth away from anger.  Still, when I got old enough—nine or ten—I realized that I could get him to talk if he was doing something—painting, plastering, spackling, that sort of thing.  I sit cross-legged on the floor and send out a question, then wait for the answer that came in short clips.

            “How did you learn to fix things?”

            He had learned in school, in carpentry and auto-shop classes.

            “But why didn’t you become a fisherman like Grampy Vic?”

            How the hell was he going to become a fisherman when he got seasick every time he set foot on the boat?  “I used to get sick as a dog.”

            “Don’t you miss Nova Scotia?”

            I’m not sure when he gave the answer that stuck—whether it was when I was nine, or much later.

            “I wouldn’t give you ten cents for that place.”

            “That place” was my destination for two weeks of most summers.  I took you there when you were not yet two.  We stood in my grandmother’s driveway and I looked out over the familiar brown hayfield that rolled down to the shore.  In the years since I had visited Nanny as a child, little had changed, but everything had changed.  I was the newly divorced mother of a bright button of a boy, but the red and green fishing shacks a mile away—including the shack that had once belonged to Doug Smith—were exactly as I remembered them.  It is strange to remember how, on that particular day, even with a bubbling boy-bundle running delightedly around on the grass, I thought I had so little to hope for.  I hadn’t yet gone back to graduate school, bought my own house, or found true love.  I hadn’t yet become a teacher or unearthed my father’s adoption history.  I hadn’t done the arduous eighteen years in therapy that would force me to face not only old pains but also my own unrecognized intellect.  I had begun to write, but I hadn’t shared any of my work because I didn’t believe in it or in myself.  Writing was a fuzzy dream.

            I have what I wrote about Nova Scotia back then.  I used to get up early, before you woke up, so I could write.  It’s good to able to share it, here, this other part of your heritage:

               “Sandford, Nova Scotia is a tiny, hardscrabble fishing village about ten miles north of Yarmouth, the port from which the Prince of Fundy ferries travelers to and from Maine.  A horizontal row of tiny houses neat and uniform as baby teeth sit up high on the horizon, broken in each of two places by a clean white steeple; this is the backdrop for a cluster of red fishing shacks nestled by the shore.  Tourist literature boasts that Sandford is home to the world’s smallest drawbridge, a red wooden structure that straddles the mouth of an inlet where the boats are docked.  It is odd to read that one of the main reasons that people like to visit here is to see what is noted to be the smallest drawbridge…from here you can stand in the evening and watch as the sun sets beyond the Bay of Fundy.  It is strange to think of Sandford’s shanties as a tourist destination and of its fisherman as a tourist attraction. To me it was the village in which my father grew up and the place that told me—even as a child—what he could not say himself.  In my mind, Sandford was my father: simple, traditional, and pastoral, qualities that enabled me to connect with and love the man who came home each night now spent, angry and uncommunicative.  Somewhere in him must be that clean, bright place with blue skies, a sea-salt breeze, and the shrill cries of gulls that circled the shore…the waves, thousands of points of sparkling light so fierce under the sun, it hurt your eyes to look.  Somehow he must carry inside him the memory of this place, a landscape almost painfully magnificent in its stark and elemental beauty.

               “To get to Sanford, we drove to Portland, Maine, and then onto a ferry that carried us, car and all, across the Bay of Fundy.  The journey was a mix of seasickness and wonder: I hated the stuffy, cramped sleeping cabin but delighted in standing on the moonlit deck–we always crossed at night–to watch dolphins jump and dive in the white froth of the ferry’s wake.  After the crossing to Yarmouth, came a ten-mile drive over Rural Route 1—the Evangeline Trail after Longfellow’s poem—up through Hebron and Chegoggin, through gently rolling hills dotted with weathered cottages and herds of cows, onto the ramrod straight dirt portion of the road that ran through Sandford.  Nanny’s house always seemed fantastically tiny when we finally arrived, a button-sized, green-blue cottage overlooking a half-mile-wide expanse of brambly, rutted fields that sloped between it and the sea.  The first owner dug a crude cellar and over it erected three rooms, and after that my father’s father added on.  As a result the house had a cobbled-together feel, older parts preserved within newer parts, like the space where an ironing board had once folded up into the wall now a shelf sprinkled with porcelain knick-knacks, or a shaving mirror and medicine cabinet intact on a kitchen wall.  A door in the dining room opened to a narrow staircase that led to three perennially chilly bedrooms, heated only by open floor-grates that let up the warm air from the floor below.  In the basement my grandmother kept an old-fashioned roller washing machine that she still used to do laundry, her red, rough hands feeding wet clothes through the wringers and then toting a heavy basketful outside to the line.  Down behind the house was the outhouse stacked with pages from old catalogs and a fenced-in frog pond where my father had raised chickens and ducks as a boy.

               “There were some features of the house—the way of life—that seemed quaint relics of a bygone era.  The cool, dank basement—a dirt-floor cave scattered with tools and fishing gear—was a refrigerator of sorts: in a low-ceilinged room off to the side, a long shelf was laden with mincemeat pies, coffee cans of boiled puddings, loaves of brown-bread, and tins of gingersnaps, peanut butter and chocolate chip cookies.  A clothesline strung across the other side of the basement bore not laundry but salt-cured pollock hung by the tail with clothespins.  My grandfather would tromp down the rickety steps and peel off a chunk of flesh for a snack, or bring up two or three fish for dinner.  These were boiled and served with potatoes and beet greens. With a long-tined fork he would flatten his food into a uniformly patterned disk of white, green and gray which he then doused with butter and hot cream from a pitcher.  Grampy Vic as we called him was a huge hulking lobsterman with a bulbous nose and red face, enormous hands and a maw of a mouth.  He shoveled the cream-drenched fish in great mouthfuls and washed it down with tea.  I sat miserably looking at my own eye-level plate teaming with fish, potatoes and greens, the overpowering fish smell making me want to cry.  “You can’t get up ‘til you clean your plate,” he announced and I would sit long after his plate had been cleared.  But I don’t remember one instance in which I actually cleaned my own.

               “The other fixture in my father’s boyhood home was Nan Goodwin, my great-grandmother Annabelle Frost Goodwin, whom we called Big Nanny.  Big Nanny passed the better part of each day nested like a massive hen in her crushed-velvet recliner in a well-lit corner of the living room where she pieced fabric squares for assembly into quilt tops.  I remember her hands and her eyes: gnarled, arthritic fingers that deftly pushed a needle in and out of swatches of calico while she squinted half-blindly through spectacles that sat low on her nose.  Piecing fabric is all she ever did, speaking rarely and then only to allow that “children should be seen and not heard.”  The silence in the living room was punctuated by two sounds: the tick-tock of a little cuckoo clock and Big Nanny’s occasional inward sigh. “Yuh-yuh-yuh-yuh-yuh-yuh-yuh,” she would say as she drew breath in, speaking to no one in particular and in response to nothing said.  Big Nan scared me.  Her physiognomy, her hands, her hair and eyes, bespoke a constitution as enduring as steel wool: she was conservative, utilitarian, plain and sharp-spoken.  Once a day I observed her great waddling gait as she made her way, sighing and clucking, to her chair where once plopped down she remained for the duration.

               Nova Scotia has a maritime climate; its summer days are hot and humid but nights are cool enough to sleep under quilts.  Nan’s backyard was blindingly bright with white sheets snapping on the line against a sunlit line of ocean that melted into the sky.  Nan would hang the laundry and go to town, leaving me in the care of Clara Landers, a girl two years older who lived next door.  Clara seemed always to be laughing at me as if I were the most unusual creature she had ever met, a pudgy girl from the States who was afraid of bees and brambles. She would lead me through the pasture to the frog pond, giggling as I winced and recoiled at thorns, insects and mud.  How she managed to lure me, one summer, to strip to my underwear and wade in the pond to catch tadpoles is a trick I cannot remember. What I do recall is sitting half-naked and crying, covered from top to toe in sludge, on my grandmother’s stoop until she returned from town while Clara snickered nearby.  “Land sakes alive,” Nanny exclaimed boisterously when she finally pulled in. Something happened to one’s voice in Sandford: the ever-present shush of wind and waves fuzzed the edges of words and carried off portions of sentences.  Nanny adapted by speaking at the same volume inside the house as she did in the backyard.

               “Nanny don’t know why a big girl would make such a fuss over a little mud,” she mused hastily as she roughly washed off the mud.

               “For reasons I do not understand she always referred to herself in the third person, and this I think is the reason, in part, that I was unable to feel close to her: she never seemed owner of the thoughts she expressed.  Inside the house was cool and dim, and smelling of soap and brown bread, and I swallowed my shame with the buttered toast and cookies that she offered.

               “Some days we went berry picking so Nan could make jam.  The fields were hot and dry and the bushes prickly.  Nan could pick for hours.  On other days when I was left in Clara’s care, she and I and her sisters Emma and Ida, and other stray village children would walk a mile down the road “to the Island Pond,” to a secluded spot between two cottages where you could swim.  You had to wade out through the shallow part, the bottom of which was slimy with rotting leaves.  The other children splashed and swam while I sat on the rocks and watched, self-conscious of my plump pale legs.   The return walk back was hot and dusty; sunlight glittered on the road and the village of Sandford was a watery mirage in the distance.  On the way back we passed two churches: the Methodist church on one side of the road where the Landers went, and the Baptist church on the other side that Nanny attended.  Every Sunday the church bells rang and the Sandford villagers, mostly women in hats, walked half a mile to church, the Methodists on one side of the road and the Baptists on the other.  Our church was a simple white-washed structure with a steeple visible from the shore that was said to have been built with timbers that washed ashore when a fishing boat sank.  The building was weathered and the pews hard, worn and narrow.  “I was glad when they said let us come to the House of the Lord,” the parishioners intoned.  I was glad when it was time for the children to leave the service for Sunday school in the basement, where I colored pictures of Jesus and shepherds with broken crayons from a biscuit tin.

              “On occasion Grampy Vic took us out on the fishing boat to pull in the lobster traps.  We drove down the Shore Road to the fishing shanties in his pickup truck then walked out to the pier where he anchored the boat.  Getting onto the boat was the stuff of nightmares for a suburban school child.  You reached the boat by climbing down a ladder and then jumping over three feet of dank, gray-green brine to the safety of the boat’s deck.  In low tide the boat would bob and sway while the seawater clunked and lapped at the pier’s pilings.  Grampy would descend first, then stand with open arms shouting for me to “climb down and jump!” while I stood frozen in terror.  At last I was scooped under his arm and carried down like a rag doll, certain that when he leaped over that dark water we would drop into its cold depths and drown. Nothing of the kind happened.  The boat soon chugged out past the point where the land was visible and we were afloat in an endless expanse of inky-gray, no obvious reference points beyond an occasional red and white buoy, and the sun.

               “How will we find our way back?” I asked him anxiously, and he only laughed and spun the wheel.  I clung to side as the vessel churned and coughed to hone in on the trap markers, terrified we would capsize and be swallowed up.  On one occasion we entered a pod of right whales, sleek, stone-colored mounds that bobbed to the surface and sprayed.  So far out did Grampy go that Nanny kept, on a sill in the kitchen, a pair of worn-out binoculars to scan for the fishing boat at day’s end.

               “There’s Grampy, coming in now,” she would say, and know how long until dinner.

               “Summers in Sandford are now a series of snapshots relegated to memory, never to be revisited, not even by my own child.  The old folks have passed on, the young ones have moved away, and the cottage has burned to the ground.  My recollections of the place are the kind children want to hear when they ask parents to “tell me a story about the old-fashioned days.”  They are the kind I too wanted but never did hear from my own father until childhood was long gone, and I was grown enough to understand how much of a true story is never told.”

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            I hated Nova Scotia when I was a kid: I hated the outhouse swarming with flies and having to wipe with an old catalogue.  I hated the smell of fish and the scratchy feeling of clothing pulled in from the line.  But in the years since I spent summers there, I have learned Papa’s true parentage, secured my dual citizenship papers, and returned to hike the hills of Cape Breton Isle and spend a week living in the house of the acclaimed American-Canadian poet, Elizabeth Bishop. When I was a kid, my father and mother often packed us into the car for long drives into New Hampshire, Maine, and Vermont—trips that lacked a destination, which is why we not infrequently found ourselves stuck on dirt roads that led deep into the woods.  Often they were hunting roads, and more than once the likelihood that we would emerge unscathed was dubious.  But I now think of those drives as a kind of wanderlust on my father’s part, a yearning to outrun or run toward something significant; I am not sure which.  But I understand it, because that same urge has compelled me to go back, again and again, as if I am looking for something I’ve lost but will only know it’s mine when I find it.

            Does that make sense?

            It turns out that my father was running from the same thing I’ve been running toward, and that is the story of family, which is to say, the stories that make us.  Legacy, the lives of those who preceded us, which have as much or maybe more impact on who we become than the coincident factors—where we live, go to school, befriend.  I guess, now that I think of it, that’s partly what I’m doing here, telling you what came before.  That’s something worth your knowing and something worth my doing, though I need to stop for today.

            Love,

            Mom

Letters: Nanna

Dear D:

            It wouldn’t be fair to write about Nonno but not Nanna.  I’ve been told that I resemble her not so much in features, but in the way I hold my head or sit, chin in hand.  I’m glad there’s something of her in me.  By the time I realized your great-grandmother was one of my favorite persons, it was too late.  Her health was failing and within a few years she would succumb to cancer.  But in those last five or six years, she gave a little glimpse into the contemplative and sometimes passionate (another contradiction) woman who had been described to me as a youngster so painfully shy, she didn’t speak.  Maybe most important, the first person in our family who seemed least likely to strike out on her own did so at the age of 68, breaking away from “la famiglia” and my grandfather to claim her independence.

             I had myself just left home to attend college, and I took note.

            Nanna was fair-skinned and auburn-haired, and movie-star beautiful (in 1940s Hollywood, not today’s).  In photographs she has abundant long hair, big dark eyes, and symmetrical feminine features.  In her wedding portrait, my beloved Nonno looked nothing like the typical Italian old man—thick spectacles, white hair—that I knew.  His thick black hair is slicked back from a narrow, almost equine face, and his expression is stern to the point of unpleasant.  They were fox and rabbit, intensity and innocence, paired.  The long and unhappy marriage would last almost fifty years before she decided she had had enough.

            I didn’t know until many years later about the circumstances of the pairing.  Nanna’s family was from the same Sicily-town as Nonno’s, but her family was landed gentry, while he was paesani.  But immigration to the United States was the great equalizer.  Nonno’s father prospered as a tailor, where Nanna’s father, who hadn’t practiced a trade, struggled to keep a grocery store open.  My grandparents’ union was a trade of sorts: she gained financial stability and he “married up.”  The scrappy youth who had loved to box in back-alleys wed the girl who quit school when she got blood-poisoning from nuns who pricked her with a hat-pin for writing left-handed.  In short, he married a delicate southpaw.

            In boxing, a southpaw has an advantage over a right-handed opponent, who is always wide open to the blows.  I would like to say that Nanna had an advantage, but she was more apt to run than fight Nonno’s torrential anger.

            Most of what I knew about my grandparents was transmitted to me at Sunday dinners, a drawn-out affair that involved story-telling and arguments about politics over meals so delectable that sitting for three or even four hours wasn’t a hardship.  First, a salad of chicory and plum tomatoes flavored with olive oil and a pinch of salt.  Next, pasta al’ oglio or à marinara, or with ricotta, then the veal or sausage or bracciola, a roll of beef and eggs cooked in tomato sauce.  The vegetables were never plain; the mushrooms had to be stuffed or the cauliflower served in fritters.  When you thought you could eat no more, the plates went away and out came the pizzelli, cannoli, and pizza rustica, and the Torrone nougat in little blue boxes.  But even that wasn’t the end; there were roasted chestnuts and chestnuts in the shell.  On special occasions, the table held a rare treasure: one pomegranate that Nanna would peel, giving each of six grandchildren a cluster of garnet-colored jewels.  The whole thing, from soup to nuts, as they say, filled an afternoon.

            This is how those long holiday dinners came to be—the ones at Nanna’s house when you were little (you probably don’t remember) and later, at my sister’s house.  You’ve experienced a bit of your Sicilian heritage.

            Sometimes—afterwards—we watched television, which was quite limited in the 1960s and 70s.  More often, Nanna, who was a talented seamstress, would dig old costumes–-a pink silk kimono, a Shirley-Temple pinafore, and a brown velvet serape and feathered hat—out of her closet so the kids could put on a show.  The coveted costume was a floor-length skirt and a black shawl embroidered with pink and red roses.  I’d wear it, pinned in back to fit my kid-sized body, and sing from West Side Story, a song appropriate for my immigrant-descended audience.

            I like to be in America

            Okay by me in America

            Everything free in America

            For a small fee in America

            In the winter of my junior year at college, Nanna got sick with something I can’t remember, though I think she was tired of being verbally abused.  She had lost a lot of weight and was crumbling emotionally under Nonno’s continued rageful onslaught, which we now know was probably the beginning of his dementia.  When she got out of the hospital, she did something totally out of character: she sought shelter in a convent.  There she announced to the family that she was leaving my grandfather and moving to Florida.  I had gone a thousand miles west to escape the family, so I understood something of a “geographic cure.”

            But my mother was livid.

            “She’s too old for this nonsense!  You’re in college–-maybe she’ll listen to you. Try to exert a positive influence.”

            I dearly loved my grandfather, but part of me was cheering for Nanna.  All through my adolescence, when I had talked to my grandmother about my unhappiness at the violence and verbal abuse at home, she had been at a loss for a solution.  We would talk for hours and land on…nothing.  The best she had been able to do was offer to pray.  But now she was leading by example: What she couldn’t change, she would abandon.  Translated, own my mother’s urging that I “exert a positive influence” meant I should somehow coerce my grandmother to come back; cry, maybe, or say I was depressed.  But I refused.  Instead, I told my grandmother that she was the glue holding the family together—important to me—and that I would miss her—all of which was true.

            A week later I received a flowered card with a folded letter inside.

             Everyone is so upset at me–-they do not understand that this thing is not entirely of my doing but rather, due to a complete breakdown.  I think of you in college and remember that life does not stand still–-in fact, it seems to nudge us forward whether we like it or not.  And I am trying to be brave.  Have you ever heard the lovely poem, ‘The Chambered Nautilus’?  ‘Build thee more stately mansions, Oh my soul.’  It is very apropos.

             I am very sad that you feel the distance will make our relationship past tense.  No, lovely girl of mine; we will always be close.  A phone call, a trip at a later date, or better yet, letters like yours and mine today.

            A complete breakdown was something I completely understood. I had already been hospitalized for depression once, the summer after I graduated from high school.  The letter settled it.  Nanna knew what she needed better than anyone else, and I wasn’t going to interfere.

            After she left, Nonno went downhill.  He stopped regularly washing himself and grew thin as a mosquito.  He sat drinking rum and Coke and smoking with the curtains drawn.  He smoked so much that his lower lip turned yellow, and the house that had hosted all those lovely dinners became a smelly dark cave.

            My grandmother went in the opposite direction.  I visited her in Florida over summer break.  She and the women in her retirement complex would gather around the pool to play cards.  She had posted a sign in the clubhouse that said, Turn Yesterday’s Tatters into Tomorrow’s Trends.  Be a “smartie”–-learn to recycle.  It’s fun, it’s economical, it’s sure to turn heads!  There was a steady stream of elderly women who showed up to have their clothes repaired or let out.  They’d stand on a footstool while she took pins from between her lips to tuck here, shorten there.   Neighbors dropped in to chat over coffee and biscotti.  “Anna” or “Anne,” they called her, instead of Antonietta.  Nanna had a new name and a new life.

            But after the neighbors left, sitting with me over cold coffee, she cried.

            “Your Nonno doesn’t understand that I did what I did to save myself.  He is very bitter.”

            It is interesting to me that two people so entirely unhappy for so many years also had something like love between them—not the kind of love I would want for myself, but a cultural bond and the shared experience of raising children. I say this now, with benefit of hindsight that in no way dismisses the violence or rage.  I know for a fact that my grandfather was so explosive with his fists that he once knocked my mother out.  He hit her for wearing lipstick, and by her account, she fell against a clawfoot tub and lost consciousness.  When she came to, one side of her face was purple.  Yet my mother’s talk about her father is laced with deep longing.  I get it because that’s how I felt about my own father.  This is the mystery of human attachment, loving those that have hurt us.  But more about that later.

            Nanna returned to Boston when doctors in Florida found a problem with her heart.  Tests after her surgery revealed a second problem: cancer.  Still recuperating in the hospital, my delicate grandmother began chemotherapy.  The outcome seemed clear from the beginning.  She was unlikely to get well.

            As confused and despondent as he was, my grandfather must have known it too.  He surprised everyone by visiting Nanna twice a day.  He combed his sparse hair, put on clean clothes, and removed his fedora outside her door.  He kept a bedside vigil while she slept.  After she gained a little strength, he would help her to walk and take sips of water.  He would lean over her bed, his hand on hers, and speak to her as gently as if she were a child.

            This, I now see, was the repair work of a broken and remorseful man, the only way he could atone for years of unloving behavior.  I remember his eyes: For the first time, when he looked at my grandmother, they were soft with love.  She looked back at him with the same softness.

            Eventually she returned to their home because there was no place else for her to go; anyone who had space also had a daytime job.  So it was my grandfather, then in his seventies, who tended to my dying grandmother.

            The last time I saw them together, they were sitting on the couch where I had so often watched the Red Sox over shelled peanuts and cigarette butts.  They were talking about their courtship as if it were a story about someone else.  My grandmother had always confessed that she didn’t like kissing, and I had always assumed that that was because my grandfather smelled like an ashtray.  She was relating how scared she had been about childbirth; when she asked her older sister how the baby would get out, she got a cryptic and probably terrifying response: “The same way it got in.”  Nonno grinned sheepishly and added, “You can’t blame us for what we didn’t know.”

            He was talking about sex, but the words seemed applicable in a larger way.  They were the children of immigrants in a new country.  The Great Depression was underway; jobs were scarce.  Soon Italians would be labeled enemy aliens and a world war would take hold.  The world that shaped my grandparents was unimaginable.  What’s more, there was no therapy, no frank way to talk about poor choices or unhappiness, or a young woman grown from a child who might have been on the autism spectrum.  Or learning disabled.  Or something we have words for now, but without a way to talk about it then, was described as delicate and shy but too beautiful to go unmarried.  That’s what young women—very young women—did.  That’s what everyone did, it seemed:  If you had a problem, you solved it by doing something.  My grandmother was twenty-one when she got married, old by the standard set by her older sister, so beautiful that her worried parents married her off when she was sixteen.

            The world at that time, and the old-world tribalism of the immigrant experience, were as much responsible for my grandmother’s unhappiness as was my grandfather.  I’d come to see that the world at any time is partly responsible; it forestalls with time-specific obstacles the same opportunities it holds out.  At the age of sixteen, for example, I was thinking about college, but it wasn’t an obvious path for most girls, and in particular, not an easy path for a girl whose father drove a pickup truck.  My point, I guess, is this: Life is complicated and so are people, and their mistakes are never simply the result of liking bad or wanting bad or being bad.  There is so much more to it.

            If you were to ask me if I believe that about your dad and me, I would say, unequivocally, yes.  And I would also say, with a conviction hardened in my bones, that it is never too late to ask for forgiveness.

            This is my wisdom for today.

            Love,

            Mom

Letters: Happy-Sad

Dear D:

            Sometimes when I am out and about, an unbidden memory floats up and surprises me.  The other day, I was racewalking when I had the distinct memory of the first time I heard you laugh.  It was nighttime in the hospital, and you were a couple of weeks old.  You know that you didn’t come home immediately after you were born; you were diagnosed with hyperinsulinism, a disorder the doctors at Boston Children’s Hospital didn’t know how to treat.  The happy days after your birth seemed truly to darken with worry; unresolved low blood sugars can lead to brain seizures and even death.  My days consisted of dealing with a seemingly endless trail of residents and specialists whose job was to stabilize you, so we could go home.  But it wouldn’t happen in Boston.  By the time you were a couple of weeks old, your plump little body was covered from head to toe in a crusty rash, the side effect of medication your father and I had to give to you simultaneously via two big needles, one in each thigh.  I stood over your exposed legs, syringe in hand, bawling as the nurse walked us through the procedure.  After we injected you, you wailed that singular ragged newborn cry, and—still bawling—I immediately picked you up to comfort you.  I am glad that medicine didn’t work.  I would have been unable to sustain the routine, given all that later happened.  As it is, that moment laid a new trauma down, one that would leave me shattered each subsequent time you sneezed or got sick.

            You had a tube up your nose, tape on your face, and tiny bladelike scars on your heels from the relentless D-sticks to check your blood sugar.  Holding you involved a few minutes to untangle the tubes and wires; it was like trying to extricate a chick from its nest.  I was still recovering from my C-section; no one had checked me to make sure everything was properly healing.  I had these intermittent twinges from the scar that I ignored, except when I worried that the incision would open and I would have to hold myself together to prevent my insides falling out.  Every part of life was bathed in worry.  Emotional waterboarding is the term that comes to mind, trying not to drown in anguish, looking for reasons not to surrender.  I’m not sure what surrender would have looked like, but I do know that I had ceased to have any concern about my own well-being or happiness.  I just wanted you better.

            One late night I was lying in bed; the only sounds, the beeping of the monitors, and the only visuals, the flickering glow of the machines.  Your father was on a cot, buried in a tangle of sheets, and on the other side of the bed, you were sleeping in a glass isolette, swaddled in a hospital receiving blanket.  I so wanted not to be there; your room at home was waiting, decorated with a new crib and dresser, and filled with toys and baby clothes.  I could see it in my mind’s eye, the soft lavender walls, the pretty braided rug, the rocking chair I had chosen so I would have a place to sit while nursing you.  The room on the 9th floor of Children’s Hospital was, by contrast, akin to a crowded tenement, piled with suitcases and trashcans overflowing with takeout containers and medical waste.  Sometimes I would lie there feeling like I couldn’t breathe, like the horror of it all was a giant weight sitting squarely on my chest, so heavy I couldn’t even cry.  Once in a while, I managed to squeeze out a single tear.

            Then I heard you.  At first I wasn’t sure it was you; I thought perhaps I had imagined it.  Or that there was someone in the hall.  Because it was a deep, low, sustained chuckle, as if the person laughing had been listening to a whispered tale and broke out laughing.  I looked over but I could barely see you; you were unmoving and likely asleep.  I must have been mistaken.

            The next time you chuckled, your father was awake.

            “Did you hear that?” he asked.

            I had.  We looked at each other in mutual puzzlement, the relentless conflict (even at that point) temporarily halted by the mystery of a chuckling newborn.  You were a newborn.  One pinched, pricked, unclothed, weighed, studied, and re-clothed, awakened by medical interventions rather than simply by the natural end of a good sleep.  You had no peace.  What, then, did you have to laugh about?

            When babies begin to see, they can follow a parent’s face; they respond to tickling and cajoling with the merest flicker of a smile, as if their little face muscles have to catch on in order to mimic an adult expression.  We hadn’t even gotten to that stage yet: you are still a bit glassy-eyed, mostly eating, sleeping, and pooping, the most normal routine of all babies in the first month.  But in the pit of night, amidst disquieting anxiety, you had given us a gift, an unexpected and perhaps undeserved moment of pure joy.

            I remember how the next day, we told the doctors and nurses, or more accurately asked them, about babies laughing.  It was impossible to reproduce the laugh on demand, so no one else heard it except us.  It was like a message meant for your parents alone.  For me, it seemed to announce, I’m not just a bundle of protoplasm.  I’m the bud of a personality.  Aren’t you intrigued?

            That was the first hint of the person you would become; that hearty chuckle came with your speaking voice when you later began to babble, then sing.  I have a clip of you at about 20 months; you are sitting on the kitchen floor with our then-new kitten nesting inside a colander between your legs, and you are giggling with mischievous delight at his kittenish antics.  When at least he leaps away from the rubber ball you keep squishing onto his head, you shriek with amusement that surprised me then, and still surprises me when I watch the tape.  What was it that made you laugh so?

            The one other time I remember hearing that wild laughter was that same winter; I bundled you up and took you outside so you could play nearby while I brushed snow off the car.  You were a foot away when I swiped a large swathe of fluffy snow from the windshield, and it fell with a pillow-like plop.  You shrieked as if it were the funniest thing you had ever heard, delivering the same succession of hearty giggles.

            That day, I stopped to study you: Who was this almond-eyed little sprite, not yet able to string sentences, letting loose with unrestrained delight?  How could such an unusual and delicious kid be my boy?  I pushed another swathe of snow off the car and watched it plop, but you didn’t laugh.  It couldn’t be forced.  Something known only to you tickled your funny bone.  You had an interior life, and inside that interior life was happiness.

            That knowledge was a balm.  Though the worry about your health had ended, I was suffering from what would eventually be diagnosed as post-traumatic stress.  At the age of six weeks, you had undergone a massive and terrifying surgery to remove part of your pancreas; after a 24-hour supervised fast, you had proved that you could regulate your own blood sugar, and we came home.  It had been 58 days from the time I went into labor until we returned to the room awaiting a newborn that was now a plump two-month old.  Less than three weeks later, you father had stormed out in the midst of an argument about feeding you from a bottle rather than my breast, and soon after that, acquired a divorce lawyer.  By the time you watched me clean off a snow-covered car, I was a single mother trying not to succumb to the current worry, which was making a life in the aftermath of a contentious divorce.

            In short, I had gone from one trauma to another—which meant so had you.

            And yet, there you were, laughing uproariously.

            “Laughter meditation gives you a glimpse of freedom from the mind,” says a website on the healing power of laughter.  The accompanying video looks ridiculous—adults in pastel yoga-wear lying in a circle, laughing at nothing.  Laughing for the sake of laughing; I won’t do it.  But I get it.  As a baby and toddler, you were my little yogi, teaching me something of the happiness that can erupt in the seemingly saddest of times.  Just as your dad and I had called a temporary halt to our conflict—staring wide-eyed and open-mouthed at the wonder of our baby—hearing you laugh enabled me to step outside myself and remember something bigger.  Call it what you will—God, a higher power, the natural world—whatever it is, it dwarfs problems that often seem insurmountable.

            Even now, when I am mourning the loss of my brief happiness with John, or missing you terribly, I will watch that short clip of you—chubby, sneaker-toed, and consumed with delight over your furry little pal, and it’s a kind of reset.  I still miss you, but I can go about my day.  I can be grateful that you are whole and cured, and tall and strong, even as you are too far away to see my smile or maybe even hear my own laughter.

            It’s not as deep or unrestrained as yours.  But even after all of it—your newborn ordeal, the divorce, the loss of my good and generous husband—I touch that same joy, and it gives me hope.

            Love,

            Mom

Diorama

[Excerpted from Wisdom: A Love Story]

When I was in grade school, one of my favorite places was the Boston Museum of Science, where I habitually gravitated to the same two exhibits, both three-dimensional dioramas.  The first consisted of a series of panels that cross-sectioned a woman’s insides to reveal pregnancy from conception to birth.  Early pregnancy was no bigger than a grain of rice inside a dime-sized amniotic sack that soon grew into a thin-limbed being more alien than baby, its umbilicus gray and lifeless.  The last panels showed a belly full of fetus, its limbs crisscrossed and eyes squeezed shut as it passed through the pink pipe of the birth canal, its head squeezed into an oblong balloon.  I remember pressing my face against the glass and thinking or maybe even saying the newborn baby in the last panel looked exactly the same as the one in our church’s manger.  Made of pink plaster, with creased lids around glass eyes, neither Jesus nor the museum-baby resembled the fuzz-headed newborn lying in a bassinette in my parents’ bedroom.  There had been three babies after me, but I didn’t connect the exhibit with my mother, who hustled me along to avoid questions about how the baby “got in there” in the first place.  

         In the other exhibit, a series of panels also presented cross-sections, this time of a chipmunk’s den in each season.  In summer, the ground above its linked underground caves was fringed with grass and flowers, the caves mostly empty as the rodents went in search of nuts.  In fall, the ground was strewn with yellow and orange leaves, and the caves below showed growing stores of food for winter and a nest of dried grasses and leaves.  My favorite was the winter panel that depicted a family of chipmunks sleeping, nestled together, a short distance from another cave full of acorns and seeds.  Didn’t they get cold? I wondered.  A description on the panel told how the chipmunks dug down below the frost line, where it was warm and dry, and slept until spring.  I thought how cozy it must be to snuggle against other bodies, protected by a couple of feet of hard ground from snow, ice, and predators, and from hunger by a winter’s worth of food.

         Fascinated by the unseen, I was trying to make sense of things.  How a husband and wife who fought so bitterly could keep making babies.  Why the same winter that brought the tranquility of snow carved an angry V between my father’s eyes.  Why there was never enough food to fill the emptiness in my belly.  That squished museum baby depicted the pain and vulnerability of becoming human and those burrowing animals, the reality that life without a family refuge was a life driven by want.

A Winter Residency in Pictures

I’ve been at the Vermont Studio Center since Sunday, January 5th, revising The Fullness that Remains. It is now called Wisdom: A Love Story, and it is ready for style edits and a pitch letter. At last. I return to Massachusetts on January 18th.

I’ve been so productive, I have time to work on A Lexicon for Mothers, the manuscript that got me here.

A great way to start 2020.

The Rest of Where the Wild Things Are… Or, What about Max’s Mom? (With due reverence to Maurice Sendak)

[Published 10/26 in Prometheus Dreaming]

            I’m there in the book, conspicuous by my absence.  From behind the scenes, I banish my son to his room, and after his 20-or-so-page tantrum, I leave him some supper.  But I don’t hug him or kiss him, or pull him onto my lap…and there was never a day when I didn’t do those things.

            Here’s what really happened.

            We were sitting at the table and he was—as usual—picking at his dinner.  It was the same dinner I had cooked for him almost every night for the last four years, since he was weaned from a bottle and switched to solid food.  Oatmeal: 90 percent of the time, that’s all he would eat.  No vegetables, no meat, no buttered corn on the cob, just oatmeal thickened to the point of wallpaper- paste and crowned with a mound of brown sugar.  It was a vestige from his traumatic birth ordeal with surgery and feeding tubes: he had been cured, but he remained “orally defended,” in his doctor’s words.  The other ten percent of the time he would eat Amy’s Mac-n-Cheese, but it was a poor second to oatmeal.  I had even taken to carrying packs of instant Quaker Oats in my handbag; dinners out were impossible without them.

            Sometimes, dinners in were impossible as well: now, he spat out a spoonful and said the milk tasted “yucky.”  I sniffed the carton of milk and said there was nothing wrong with it.  I didn’t express my reluctance to get up from my own meal and scrounge for something else that he most likely would (also) not eat.  But he probably sensed it.

            “I’d like you to try one more bite,” I said, and when he protested, I repeated myself more firmly.

            He grudgingly took another bite, and promptly threw up.

            “Uck,” I sighed with exasperation and leaned over to take off his soiled shirt.

            “You’re not a nice mother,” he howled.  “You don’t love me.”

            If only he knew how very much I did love him, how he was the heartbeat at the center of everything.  But I was tired and irritable, and he was sobbing as if the house were on fire.

            I muttered, “I always love you, but right now I’m not liking you very much.”

            Garden variety maternal irritation, but I regretted it immediately.

            The book says I called him a wild thing, and he threatened to eat me up, but as is often the case, reality needs embellishment to be storybook-worthy.  In reality, he wailed, “Are you going to stop being my mom?” and I said of course not, that was silly, and suggested he take a time-out in his room—the very one that becomes an imaginary forest in the book—so he could calm down.  Meanwhile, I could clean up the mess and find something else for dinner.

            And I could give myself a time-out, because the truth was, I needed it more than him.

            After an advanced statistics class that day—the class in which I was an aspiring graduate student, and an in-danger-of-failing one at that—I went to my job as a research assistant where the project team discussed looming deadlines for funding requests.  I was assigned some new tasks just in time to squeak out the door before five o’clock, the beginning of rush hour and the rat-race that was my ten-mile drive home in Boston traffic.  Late pickups from preschool cost extra, and I didn’t have extra.  I bought my own clothes at Savers and his toys from the off-season clearance rack at TJ Maxx—there was always a pile of presents piling up in the back of my closet by mid-summer so I had plenty to put under the Christmas tree in December.  The pay from my job was scant, but a recent court appearance had substantially increased my child support, and I was able to buy him a well-made winter coat and boots.  I might even be able to swing a vacation the following summer, if I saved.  If, if, if: fourteen more years of “ifs” lay ahead before he left for college.  I wondered what would happen then—would I still be a single mother?  Would the sought-after master’s degree have proven the key to a better job?  Would psychotherapy have banished my insecurities?  Would I be less tired, less frequently sick, and most of all, less stressed?

            I vowed not to lean on the horn at pokey drivers or shout curse-words at the ones who cut in front of me—I was trying to practice mindfulness of late—but everyone knows Boston drivers are the worst, and Boston pedestrians are in a category of their own.  They step right into traffic against green lights, almost daring drivers to kill them.  Then a helmetless kid on a bike—wearing earbuds, no less—came up behind me in the twilight and almost rear-ended me when I went to change lanes.  I stopped and felt the beat of my pulse in my head, mindful—yes, mindful—that I had come this close—to flattening him.

            Gripping the steering wheel, I wrote my own headlines and hook: “Bitchy working single mother callously collides with college student on bicycle.  Mother in handcuffs.  ‘For once, I just wanted to pick up my son on time,’ mother wails.”

            Miraculously, I got to the preschool at 5:30 and changed the almond-eyed little boy (Mr. Sendak got that feature right) out of his slippers and into his outside shoes and hooded coat, all the while hearing but not really listening to his buoyant chatter but aware—with something like exquisite pain—of his small, trusting hand on my arm.  Then I hoisted and plopped him over my shoulder like a sack of sand.  It had begun to sleet—weird, Boston weather in November—and I didn’t want him to slip in the icy parking lot.  From beneath his hood came muffled vexation about his afternoon snack, “fairy cakes” (the nickname given to homemade mounds of brown rice and vegetables to make them more appealing to kids) that he didn’t like.  I knew that his lunch box likely contained everything I had sent to school that morning, possibly minus the brownie.  That would mean my four-year-old hadn’t eaten since breakfast.  I calculated how long before he devolved into hypoglycemic crankiness and mentally plotted what I would do upon our arrival: quickly dump backpacks, remove coats; heat milk for his oatmeal, and zap my Trader Joe’s salmon dinner in the microwave.

            Jeez, I thought: I hope I have some wine to go with that. I really, really need some wine, even a splash.  I know there’s a bottle of Old Granddad’s whiskey somewhere, but that stuff is like battery acid.  While my food is heating, I can make his oatmeal, and maybe he won’t fall apart.

            But he did fall apart, and after settling him with a book in his room, I cleared the table and poured a few ounces of week-old red wine, too vinegary to drink, down the drain.  Sleet was pelting the windows, and cars shushed by in the slushy runoff, going (I imagined) to warmly lit houses with the smells of chicken soup or apple pie and a chirping flock of un-fussy eaters.  Underneath my cold window, the burned-down pumpkin-shaped candle leftover from Halloween reminded me that there was no warm yellow light in our little kitchen, and that dinnertime was often the loneliest hour of the day. 

            I looked at the heap of abandoned sugar-glazed oatmeal and took a taste: surprise!  It really was yucky.  I had made my boy eat spoiled food, and he would be scarred for life.  I felt sick from a tsunami of remorse: I sucked as a mother.  But I couldn’t go to him to apologize just yet; I had to reckon with my own guilt and shame, sans the nerve-soothing wine.  I would exploit a few quiet minutes to microwave some mac-and-cheese and empty his backpack.  In it was a newsletter from the preschool, a sign-up sheet for snack-duty, and the discarded lunch, mashed and browned from having sat in his cubby all day.  At the very bottom was a folded piece of newsprint that opened to a picture he had drawn of mommy, and daddy, and Keekee our cat, and cookies, spelled “cokeys.”

            I stared at the lovingly crayoned red and blue stick figures, two big ones and two small, and felt my face grow hot.  There had never been a daddy at our dinner table.  His father left when the boy was a few months old, with me still healing from a C-section.  It would have been a predictable split even without the stress of our infant’s life-threatening disorder; on the cusp of forty, we had wed too eagerly.  A two-month hospital stay and mystery diagnosis shredded whatever pretext of a marriage we were clinging to.  The boy had been cured, the marriage had not.  Now the boy spent half his time with his father, along with his father’s new wife and her three children, but at my end, there was only me and our slant-eyed gray tomcat (in the book it’s a dog), who slept at the foot of the boy’s bed and mostly ignored me.

            I slept alone.

            Now I smoothed out his wrinkled drawing as if it were a love letter and thought of the poet Gwendolyn Brooks’ description of “snacking” on her child with a “gobbling mother-eye.”  I understood the metaphor.  Watching my son sleep, or smelling his warm hair, I could feel my eyes widen to take him in.  Apparently, he felt the same.  One day he said, “I can feel the love coming out of my eyes,” and squeezed them hard to shoot some my way.  I pretended to catch it like a baseball in a mitt, and sent some back by blinking hard.

            “I got it,” he announced, catching the love in his fat little hand.

            But a single mother wasn’t a kid playing a game of catch with invisible jets of love.  A single mother was a gobbler—no, a single mother was a crazed gobbler and a hoarder too, storing up her child’s kisses and milestones and crayoned family portraits as if her life depended on it.  It went beyond photographs, though I had those too.  Everything from his newborn mewling to his first crude letters had been carefully recorded in a book that I stashed in the back of my underwear drawer.  When he was away with his father, I took the book out and studied it as reverently as if it chronicled a miracle—because it did.

            At ten months, I said, “Give Mama some love,” and pretended to eat the syrupy finger he took from his own mouth and put in mine.  For a long time, his version of a kiss was one that perhaps only the woman who birthed him wouldn’t find unappetizing.

            At 18 months, noticing the tears I tried to conceal, he crawled in my lap, put his hands on my cheeks, and said, “More a-ha-ha, Mama, more a-ha-ha.”  I forced a chuckle; he slid off my knee and resumed watching Elmo.  I remember being simultaneously grateful and guilty that the mere sound of my laughter, even inauthentic laughter, had the power to right his world.

            At 2 ½, he insisted that I “sing the baby Jesus song,”—his favorite carol, “Away in a Manger”—while we were in the ketchup aisle of the supermarket.  I explained that it was summer, and Christmas was a long way away, but he yelled so insistently that I gave in and sang him loudly through our entire shopping trip, indifferent to the stares of other shoppers.  Singing in the grocery store was not too high a price for the contentment of a toddler who started out in life with a heart and respiration monitor instead of a crib-mobile.

            When he was three, he said of the bright moonlight illuminating his room, “I’m gonna take the moon out of the sky and put it under a tree because I don’t like it.  It will be cold in my hand, and it will melt.”  And I thought: my kid is a budding poet.

            When he was almost four, he watched me putting on makeup.  “Don’t worry, Mom,” he said out of the blue.  “You’re just a little bit fat,” and I knew he had heard me bemoaning my thickening forty-something body once too often.  And that it was time to start dressing with the bathroom door shut.

            Every mother has such stories; over time, they become almost biblical.  Remember the time you insisted you were a snow elf and called your poop “twinklies”?  Remember when you would only listen to me if I spoke while wearing your monkey mask?  Remember the time you painted a blue wiggly-worm on the hardwood floor, and when I scolded you, you laughed, “I’m a funny boy!” with such wicked glee that I could not be mad?  Remember when you said, “Look what I can do!” in the bathtub, and put your finger in your butt as if you had just done something ingenious?  (I thought instantly of how my own mother would have scolded me: “Shame, shame, shame!” and I said out loud—with gusto—“Wow! You found your bottom.”)  Remember when you sang “Old MacDonald had a wild thing”—also in the bathtub, so much creativity was cultivated in the bathtub—blending two stories together start to finish, and I thought, my kid is a freakin’ genius?

            Ha-ha-ha, a mother and her grown kid laugh in unison, the one-of-a-kind memories binding them together like the stitching on a quilt.  But when the kid isn’t there and the memories come up, the mother doesn’t laugh.  She feels something like a cold wind blowing on the inside, a longing for which there is no balm.  Everywhere she looks she sees presence of his absence: his finger-paintings affixed with magnets to the fridge, the family of toy mice that eats at a miniature dinner-table next to the real one, and even the aloof tomcat who continues to snooze on the boy’s bed even when he isn’t there.  She pours a glass of red wine and listens to Nina Simone singing “Ne me quitte pas,” if she can bear it: “I will hide to watch you,” go the plaintive French lyrics.  “Let me be the shadow of your shadow.”

            Sometimes, as much as she misses the boy, she ignores the stashed memory-book entirely, because she doesn’t have it in her to cry.  “It faut oublier,” croons Nina, it is necessary to forget. And to forget as well the times she was sick of the entire big fat lot of it, motherhood, and tired as well of her own anger wanting and needing to be touched by another adult.  Tired of the times she was tempted to shout, “If you don’t like it here, you can go live with your dad.”  The times it was easy to imagine putting on makeup, going to a bar, and finding a stranger to bed—to embrace rather than fight the bad mother her son’s behavior suggested she was.

            There it was: the truth.  A single mother was a wine-hungry, crazed gobbler and a compulsive hoarder, a dark lover of chanson and an onanist too, but not like Ann Sexton’s lonely masturbator.  A single mother lies awake at night, pretending that the hand skimming the curve of her side is the hand of someone she loves instead of her own.  Sometimes she will lay the back of her hand across her lips and lightly kiss it the way a virginal teenager does, but unlike the teenager, she is trying to remember what she already knows, because it has been so long, and she is so tired that she can’t remember the last time she was desired in that way.  And she misses it.

            But a kid can’t know all this—shouldn’t know all this.  That night, all the boy knew was that his grumpy mother set down a plate of yucky food and made him eat it, and when he barfed it up, she lost her patience and shouted (though, in truth, I didn’t shout; more accurately, I groused.  But it probably sounded like shouting to a four-year-old).

            What kind of a mother does that?

            The answer may lie in Sendak’s picture book.  Not obvious at first, on closer look his wild things have maternal features—the soft-belly pouches from having born children, and the bedraggled bed-hair and un-manicured claws borne of self-neglect.  Maybe Sendak understood that the mother of a wild thing herself imagines hopping a little boat, and sailing a tumbling sea through night and day, away from traffic and task-lists and rainy autumn nights and loneliness, and in and out of weeks, to where the wild things are.

            In the tribe of maternal wild things, a mother could unapologetically roll her terrible eyes and gnash her terrible teeth and show her terrible claws.  For her persistent showing up, day after day, at work and school and for boo-boo knees and story-time, when she was sick or worried or carved out by fear of eternal aloneness, for all of that she would be given a staff and crowned queen of the wild things.  And someone would bring her a flagon of red wine, and she would cry, “Let the wild rumpus start!” and she would howl with abandon, for a little while anyway.  And when she was spent and empty from the howling and carousing, and missed her boy and his cool cat, she would sail into the autumn evening of her very own warmly-lit kitchen and magically find a ready and waiting supper.

            The moral of the story is this: The moral of that other story is the same for mothers as it is for kids.  Occasionally, when the choice is crying versus howling, it is wise to howl, as Sendak’s invisible but astute mother knows.  A soulful rumpus with our imagined monster-kin might save us from being truly monstrous, to one another.

            I stood half-hidden—“the shadow of his shadow”—in the doorway and watched with a mother-hungry eye as my son studied his picture-book.  Then I did what wasn’t in Sendak’s tale.  I went in and sat on the edge of his bed.  I couldn’t fix his disordered eating or guarantee myself eventual job success, but I could take a detour in my imaginary boat and invite my little wild thing to share the trip home.  Because, when I was not a maternal wild thing, I was a good mother—warts and all.

            I stroked his brown hair, kissed his cheek, marveling—as always, as if it were the first time—that the skin was peach-soft, and whispered, “You were right: the milk was yucky.  I’m sorry I was cranky.  That wasn’t very nice of me.”

            Unlike an adult, he didn’t say, “I told you so.”  Instead, he pulled me close for the small tight hug that had the power to right my world.  Ours was a common want, the closeness of one who loves us best of all.  So he gave up being a lonely king, and I gave up being a queen.

            “You must be hungry.” I nibbled his ear.  “How about some mac and cheese?”

            “Okay, Mommy.”

            I scooped him up and carried him into the tidy little kitchen where our supper was waiting. 

            And it was still hot.

In Lawns We Trust

Genesis 1:28:  God said to [Adam and Eve], “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”

To some suburban dwellers, God’s commandment from Genesis seems to mean “to rule over anything that lands on the ground,” including leaves, pine needles, seeds, buds, petals, feathers, twigs, and bark.

I live in suburbia and have a neighbor of this faith living immediately next door.  He is devoted to a Sunday ritual. Almost every weekend, barring rain or snow, he dons his headphones, lights a cigarette, and revs up the leaf-blower strapped to his back.  Then he proceeds to sweep every inch of his yard, his driveway, his neighbor’s driveway, and part of the street.  His property is less than a quarter of an acre.  Leaf-blowing should take him about ten minutes, given that he does it so regularly.  But he is often out there for two hours or more, disrupting the tranquility of a sunny afternoon with the insistent noise of a gas-engine.

It’s horrid and inconsiderate.  But it’s also emblematic, I think, of a deeper American problem, and that is our disconnection from the natural world and our belief that all of it—trees, flowers, insects, and wildlife—is our dominion and needs to be contained, controlled, and exiled.  We are colonizers in the ever-expanding promised land of suburbia.  A leaf-blower is to my neighbor as essential an implement as a covered wagon was to the so-called pioneers.  Weed-whackers, lawn-mowers, hedge-trimmers, chain-link fencing, pesticide, and driveway sealant are others.  And there are more.

Two years ago, I found my neighbor standing in the middle of my front yard after dark, suited up as if he were chasing a bear.  It was November, and I had just scattered vetch and clover seeds for a winter-cover crop, trying to undo some of the salt damage wrought by plows. He used his leaf-blower to send nearly every last seed into the street.  That was the night I told him to keep himself and his machine away from my yard.  I gave him a pass on the absent apology; he might have thought he was doing the single woman next door a favor.  But that hasn’t stopped him, since then, from regularly blasting everything within an inch of me.

There is a terrible cost to the weekend-warrior with a leaf-blower and a container of Round-Up.  All those incandescent, over-fertilized leaf- and flower-free lawns are one reason we are losing pollinators.  Some enterprising film student should hook a tiny camera to the back of a bee and follow as it flies in search of something edible.  That bee will likely fly over unappetizing acres of bright green suburban food-deserts, patches of monoculture decorated with mulch and store-bought peonies instead of tall grasses and beebalm and sunflowers.

Without flowers, bees starve.

Much about this monoculture-mindset is reminiscent of the belief in manifest destiny that justified westward expansion a century or two ago—the idea that we are entitled by God to confiscate lands and to rule indigenous life.  Anyone who infringed on that expansion was considered an adversary obstructing progress.  Many a perceived foe died.

Manifest destiny rationalized the expropriation of tribal lands, the exploitation of the labor of enslaved people to work cotton and sugar and tobacco plantations, and the turning of tall prairie grass dotted with buffalo herds into millions of buffalo-less acres of industrial farms that destroy aquifers, wipe out native plant and animal life, and create oceanic dead zones from fertilizer run-off.  Concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, produce massive quantities of beef and pork at the same time they generate gallons of animal waste that pollute fresh water and sully the air with particulate toxins. Antibiotic resistance is in large part the product of prophylactic medications that are excreted in animal waste and end up in human beings–something like a meat-producer’s analog to Round-Up.  These externalities of industrial food are considered not only part of the cost of doing business, but also an untouchable aspect of private industry on private land, despite the reality that we are all bearing the environmental cost of an “earth is ours to exploit” mindset.

I don’t live in the cattle-belt, but even in suburbia there is evidence of this approach to Mother Earth.  Endless green and vibrant lawns are unnatural: They do not occur in the wild.  I recently planted a large but contained patch of pollinating wildflowers on my lawn—which prior to my living there, grew nothing because the soil was so damaged by over-mowing and road salt.  Two years after I laid the seeds, a lush stretch of black-eyed Susans, hairy vetch, purple clover and assorted wildflowers sprang up.  The yard hums with bees, birds, and butterflies—and my neighbors are deeply and unapologetically unhappy.

One day I noted a spreading splotch of white on the grass they normally mow to about half an inch (with lots of patches of bare dirt showing through) adjacent to my yard.  My neighbor told me his wife put down weed-killer.  Then she appeared and said my wildflowers were ruining their lawn.

A few stray flowers had prompted her to pour so much pesticide on the grass that she destroyed much of it.

I asked my neighbor, oh he of the leaf-blower, what he was going to do about the bleached grass.  “What’s the use of doing anything as long as that shit is growing in your yard?” he griped, waving his hand toward a patch of beautiful yellow and pink flowers.  He couldn’t maintain his lawn, and it was my fault: A few stray blossoms had sullied the monoculture of the front yard I have not, in five years, ever seen him or his wife enjoying.

A year before the seed-blowing incident, I went to Nova Scotia on a spring vacation, eager on my return to see if the wildflowers I had planted along the border of my yard had blossomed.  But the yard was weirdly empty.  I asked around: My neighbor had come over and mowed down “the weeds” while I was gone.  When I told him they were wildflowers, he didn’t apologize or offer to replant.  Taming nature is the righteous calling of the weekend-warrior.  He didn’t think he had done anything wrong.

At the corner of our lot there are some city trees and a patch of scrabbly grass that I considered planting with perennials.  When the neighbor-wife heard that, she told me she wanted to put in some flowers.  “But not wildflowers,” she said.  “They are wrecking our lawn.”  The flowers wrecked it, not the poison.  A few days later, a bunch of Home-Depot-like flats of flowers appeared, spread over the ground as if to stake it out.  I thought: Who cares? I’m not gonna argue—flowers are flowers.  I even watered them after they had been sitting out, untended, in several days of 90-plus degree heat.  But a few more days passed, and the plants did not end up in the ground. An intended planting turned into the making of potpourri, because all the flowers—and the little Japanese maple she bought as well—turned crunchy brown.  And the dead flowers are there still, as if to remind me: No seeds allowed.

My neighbor is no more interested in cultivating vegetation than she is in water ballet.  She laid claim to that patch of dirt before I did—to control it, confine it, and own it.

My garden

Trees aren’t spared, either.  Years back, in a different community, I enjoyed the view of a stately oak tree in the backyard of the house across the street.  At the time I lived in a more urban environment and that tree, with its changing leaves, nesting birds, and sparkle of snow in winter, was a pleasure to behold.  I’ll never forget the day I came home to a machine that looked like something from The Lorax–a tree-grinder that reduced the sixty-foot stripped trunk of the tree to a pile of chips in mere minutes.  I was as grief-stricken as if a dear friend had died.  I asked the homeowners why they took down the tree: It didn’t look diseased.  Their answer: “We are sick of raking.”

I am reminded of this needless tree-death because my leaf-blowing neighbor offered to cut down a grove of about twenty white birches after six of them were storm-damaged.  Why would I cut down all the trees, instead of only the most bent and broken?  “The goddamned leaves,” he said.  “They make a mess.”  I was truly terrified that I would come home one day to find he had leveled my birches, so deep was his dislike.  Ironic: Given the frequency with which he trots out that leaf-blower, I would have thought he loved my trees.  Their annual crop of red, orange, and gold give him a predictable reminder, when he’s got that contraption on his back, of his self-perceived mastery.

Manifest destiny is how the West was won and private property enlarged.  “God gave the World to Men in Common,” said the political philosopher John Locke.  “But since he gave it them for their benefit, and the greatest Conveniencies of life they were capable to draw from it, it cannot  be supposed he meant it should always remain common  and uncultivated” (italics mine).  Translation: Stake out a patch of land; if you work it, it’s yours.  Making a patch of ground the means of production was the basis for property ownership when the United States was still young.  Clearly some people today still believe this is an acceptable way not only to negotiate boundaries, but to dictate how to care for the land itself.

I wouldn’t say that all suburban homeowners are selfish or even the more benign “clueless.”  But if I look around even at the messier yards, I still see too much mulch, not enough diversity, and nothing that calls to birds and bees.  On any given morning in my suburban community, I will pass a truck hauling a huge lawnmower and a team of insistently shrieking leaf-blowers that shatter our collective peace.  I wonder: When did this become a thing, that armies of grounds-keepers are regularly deployed for the maintenance  of ordinary homes?  That I have to crisscross the streets so I can breathe air instead of clouds of dust and exhaust?  Noise is pollution, too, with the attendant health toll.

That is why I have, of late, come to think about suburban yards as emblematic, in some part, of what is wrong with contemporary America.  Suburbia is the final frontier of manifest destiny.  Buy or build a home.  Rip up the surrounding trees and diversity of plant life.  Unroll layers of manufactured grass; border with mass-produced orange mulch that is treated with petrochemicals. Install store-bought flowers that soon wilt because of insufficient soil aerification.  Hang a feeder for the birds that don’t come because there are no insects—because the same Round-Up that makes the grass perfectly uniform in color and density kills wildflowers (aka “weeds”) that draw the insects (aka “pests”) that feed the birds.  Maybe pop in a spindly young tree or two and surround them with more mulch.  Erect a fence—preferably chain-link—that marks your property and keeps people out.  If necessary, tether a dog somewhere.  Install a water hose or lay sprayers that suck up more than your share of water in order to keep the aptly called carpet of genetically modified grass intact.  Invest in expensive lawn and garden tools so you can keep your patch of green trimmed, sanitized, and orderly.  Seal your driveway with a tarry cover so snow and rain run off, carrying away whatever salt and chemicals you have spread and diffusing them in the groundwater.  Don’t worry if your externalities pollute water, destroy diversity, and drive away wildlife.

This is America.  In lawns we trust.

How to Look at the Sun

[From A LEXICON FOR MOTHERS: A Phenomenological Memoir, in progress]

Colander (n.) a perforated bowl, from Latin ‘colare,’ to strain.

If you root around in your kitchen, you’re likely to find a colander, a plastic or metal bowl with holes of uniform size drilled in the bottom so you can rinse pasta or blueberries, or shake out wet lettuce. It is a basic tool for any cook. But this ordinary kitchen implement is like the magic ruby slippers: it has a power that you did not know existed. And that is that if you turn it upside-down on the ground during a solar eclipse, it will enable you to see this celestial phenomenon without ruining your eyes.

Carrie Buck in 1924

I thought about a colander when I was trying to find a way to tell the story of how I came to heal myself from the loss of a child through teaching about Carrie Buck, a teenaged nobody who for a short time was society’s most important somebody. In fact, separate and apart from my teaching and writing, there was a solar eclipse at some point in the years covered in this book, and I searched online for a way to safely view it. I knew that even one glance at the sun could permanently damage my vision. Lacking the patience to make a rudimentary viewer out of cereal box, I discovered that a colander would work as well or better.  You set it on the ground, and as the moon passes through the orbit of the sun, the eclipse is visible in the cast shadow, a circle of light slowly obscured by a darker one.

This phenomenon, called pinpoint projection, works because the holes are small. If the holes are too large, the image will be blurred. You have to settle for the tradeoff: tiny but accurate rather than large and diffuse.

But with a colander there are many holes rather than one. The day of the solar eclipse, I went outside and overturned mine—white plastic, cheap—on the ground. Within minutes I was looking at a kind of fractal cosmology, six-dozen mini-eclipses identical to each other and to the larger phenomenon above me, as well. The metaphor on a cosmological scale is expanding or unfolding symmetry, each part a microcosm of a larger whole. But for me, the lay observer with a simple colander, I understood the cast pattern as merely the by-product of wanting to look at the truth of a thing without being harmed by it.

Observing the tiny eclipses, I had a Copernicus-like flash of clarity. Each telling of the story of Carrie Buck was a mini-eclipse; collectively they told a larger truth. But that unholy truth was one I could grasp only by observing its shadow, the ordinary displacement of light by dark.

Why look away to begin with? Why not dive straight into it? The 1927 Supreme Court case in which Carrie was the plaintiff is routinely taught to students of medicine, public health, law, and ethics as a precedent-setter upholding the reach of state powers conferred under the Tenth Amendment. That dry-as-dust-sounding synopsis is why you haven’t heard of the case but have perhaps heard about Carrie Buck herself, a figure of curiosity and pity. A sepia photograph of her face has appeared on book covers, in documentaries, and history websites, often divorced of context: she is the object of fascination and pathos.

A teenaged girl—raised in foster-care, uneducated, poor, and unwanted—becomes pregnant via rape. In a sequence of serendipitous concurrences—her residing in the virulently white-supremacist state of Virginia, her having been taken from an unfit childhood home, her rapist being her foster-family’s nephew, and on and on—she lands in the middle of a national debate about who is fit for parenthood and which kinds of people constitute an unwanted burden on the state. She loses her case, her baby daughter, and her capacity for motherhood. It is surgically excised from her via salpingectomy, a needle-in-haystack operation to root out the fallopian tubes.

I choose the words root out deliberately and think about a recent discovery that tells me more about this case than the many books I have read. The words for grief, gravity, and pregnancy have the same Latin root: gravitas, for weighty, heavy, burdensome. Grief binds us; gravity grounds us. And pregnancy is a bundle carried for months. Gravigrade is the word for heavy steps, and it is a good word. A mother’s steps are heavy, from the German word heben, to lift up.

I would rather write about the words that tell the story, the way they can unlock its deeper meaning. Because as told by scholars—lawyers and historians—the story is bleached of its soul, as dim as the white pages on which black letters form the words to tell it. Its center is not a law or a theory or a pseudoscience, which is what eugenics (birthing only “good” people) constituted. It is not even a hardened war-hero judge, though he had the final say in a decision for which I will not provide real estate here. No, the story’s beating heart is Carrie, the long-ago, brown-haired, round-faced girl whose voice we cannot hear but for the six deferential words she spoke during her trial and a few preserved fragments of letters, written later in her early adulthood. All we have of her pre-fame life is the snapshot of a girl, her face still soft from recent pregnancy, who stares straight out us from history. She is speechless, but her eyes hide nothing. Even without the story behind the photograph, we see: she is horrified.

But Carrie spoke to me from the first time I saw her name in print, when my young adult son was still a baby, and she haunted me for years before I taught her case, which I did, I told myself, to give a voice to the voiceless. And to the forgotten. I would tell what she could not. I would right the wrong, and I would do it for her.

Midway through each semester of my writing course on ethics, I waded in. First, I lectured about eugenics. I talked about the previous century’s rudimentary science of heredity, and I read out loud the words of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., whom I would come mentally to refer to as “Ollie,” the only way I could wring the rancor out of my lectures. I knew that if my students merely dragged their eyes over the archaically-long sentences of his decision, they would dull themselves to its thunderous cruelty.  I wanted them to hear and feel the words that Carrie heard and no doubt, felt. Words so horrid I could barely get through without choking up: I raised my voice to push them out of my throat, like plunging a clogged pipe.

“We might see in Carrie,” I said, “the proverbial everywoman. Young, poor, shy, and trusting. Unschooled, abused, and traumatized. Through no fault of her own, she was thrust onto the world stage when she was not yet twenty years old—the same age as many of you.”

Then I projected a photograph of the cinderblock shack in which Carrie lived at the time of her death in 1982, and finally, the last photograph of Carrie herself. The round-faced girl was now frail and white-haired and erect in a rocking chair. Her eyes no longer met those of the viewer, and the shock was gone, as was the frown. Instead, the eyes looked away and the facial expression—the downturned mouth, the hollow cheeks—told of the resignation born of lifelong hardship. But there was in her face another quality that gave me hope, somehow. Carrie Buck utterly lacked bitterness or guile. Like the girl in the earlier photograph, she gave her face almost fully to the camera, as if she were announcing simply, “Here I am. See the one you have made.”

She was facing the world, and in so doing, she was asking that we face ourselves.

We would sit with her for a few quiet minutes before I turned up the lights.

The word eclipse doesn’t mean to cover, as one might expect. It comes not from Latin but from Greek, the word ekleipen, ‘to fail to appear,’ to be left out. I didn’t know the etiology when I chose it, but now that I do, I understand. Being eclipsed is to be unseen. It is confinement not to darkness but to invisibility. Young, unwanted, traumatized: this too I understand. In time I would realize I was teaching the case not for Carrie but for myself and myself alone. I would like to say I did so because there is power in speaking the unspeakable and in appointing myself chronicler of the aggrieved. But my reasons weren’t as clear as that realization I had, staring down at the mini-eclipses under my colander. The story simply insisted on being told the same way breathing is not a choice, or December thrusts us into winter. The story came out of me again and again, and again.

As I told it, I cried, each telling like an increment of the moon’s progress across the sun.

The cost of the telling was high. It was a life—it was my life. But the reward was higher.

I looked at the sun without getting burned.