Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Dangerous Book - Episode 5

When I finished laying out the plants for tomorrow's planting, I took a long bath, soaking in a sachet of yarrow, rosemary, violets, lavender and valerian. Then I dressed, taking my time. Really, I was waiting for sounds of the croquet party to start. I didn’t want to be the first one out there, like an eager dog with her tongue hanging out. When Billie’s screen door slammed three times and the sound of a tonic bottle being opened caused a general laugh, I gathered my oatmeal cookies and a bottle of gin and went out to join Peter on the verandah steps sorting through the hoops of an expensive croquet set.

Billie’s voice is noticeable. Quiet and lulling, like someone used to being the only calm one in a room full of crazies (and in fact she did used to teach high school Biology). I admire her and will take neighbor lessons from her, but I don’t know that I will know her for long. She and her husband Alan are summery people, the kind you know for a season or a year and then remember fondly. They played blue and orange.

Another couple arrived as Peter and I were setting out the croquet hoops.

Kate Arundel, who I have met in my official rambles through the Archaeology department where she is a star graduate student but doesn’t act like one. She’s been given a very plum assignment for the May interim session. The department is sponsoring a dig, which she will oversee, on the ground in front of Gorgas (Library) where, during the Civil---oops, War of Northern Aggression---a cadet dormitory stood. She’s modest about the project. “They’re always digging stuff up. We never find anything, but it’s good practice.” She played green ball.

Kate’s husband, Jacob Cline, is almost her opposite in temperament, but also strong in appearance. He’s low lying, stocky and red. Red tempered too, I think. Bit of a pontificator, but since he’s in law school, it makes sense. He’s the guy who reads the rules before leaving the house, but then leaves them behind, so we all have to trust him and his memory. Not that there seems to be any reason not to, but…. He played red.

Which left Peter and I with yellow and black, the brightest and the darkest.

I spent the evening with these couples pretending every so slightly that Peter and I were also a couple. Had the feeling he was also pretending. When we were alone at the drinks table freshening Veronica’s gin and tonic (yes, she’d dragged down a folding lawn chair and was watching with Phoebe), he asked me out.

Would I like to get together for a movie or go for coffee. Safe things. “ Lunch,” I said, because we both work on campus and lunch is the safest date of all. “Sounds good,” he said. We agreed to meet by on the steps of Gorgas Library early next week and watch the start of Kate’s archaeological dig.

It doesn’t matter what we do because we share friends and can see each other for a long time within the crowd and that will give us a chance to get to know each other and keep an eye on each other and be friends.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Dangerous Book - Episode 4

Let me describe the look and layout of Monnish Court. At a glance, two sorority houses appear to be facing off across a scratchy, keyhole-shaped lawn. These buildings have two stories in the center and are flanked by single, one-story units on either side. There are tile-floored verandahs fronting the main part of the building, each of which contains four, one-bedroom apartments. Each of these apartments has a small, screened back porch leading into the kitchen. I live on the first floor, right. These buildings are perpendicular to the street. A third building, consisting of a string of one-story apartments, faces the street, which is shady with well-grown oaks. The complex sits well back from the sidewalk and although completely visible and entirely accessible (a decorative red brick wall and wrought-iron fence serves as its entrance), there is a weave of invisibility about it that may be the result of its age or its resemblance to some kind of institution. Certainly, there are never any “For Rent” signs in evidence or the usual litter of college housing.

Throughout the afternoon I was aware of a man and woman in their early thirties trotting back and forth from the parking lot to the ground floor apartment that abutted our main building. I’d been vaguely aware of them pulling up in their rental truck and of friends carting in boxes and lopsided lamps. One man carried a television with the cord dangling dangerously near his feet. He could so easily trip. I called out to warn him, but he survived the two steps up and disappeared within.

I was smoothing the earth when one of them walked toward me extending his hand. Still kneeling, I clasped it and he pulled me up. He had snappy brown eyes and soft hair I wanted to smooth. Unlike the other man, this one did not wear a wedding ring.

“Dig anything up?” he asked. His nose was delicate and his flexible mouth worth memorizing.

“Yes,” I said, pointing to the edge of the veranda where I’d laid the blue bead, the nails and the bracelet.

“Veronica said you needed some help.”

“I’m fine,” I said, wondering how on earth she’d ---

“She called me at Alan’s,” he explained. “She’s my aunt.”

The loan of a man. She’d remembered!

“I’m prepping for tomorrow.” I said, indicating the waiting assortment of herbs and plants.

“I’m Peter,” he said.


“We’re setting up for croquet this evening,” he said. “We’ve decided it’s warm enough for gin and tonic.”

“Yes, it is.”

“Come on out, okay?”

“Love to!”

Wow. Thanks Veronica. I owe you one.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Dangerous Book - Episode 3

As if on cue, Phoebe returned in a clean dress wearing a sunhat the size of a fruit bowl.

“I’m going to help you pick out your plants,” she said.

Bypassing the local stores, we headed to the university’s arboretum sale where I learned we were too late for either very exotic and popular plants but could make a nice garden of herbs and flowers each, according to Phoebe, enhanced by powers I’d probably need at this “transition point” in my life.

“What makes you think I’m at a transition point?” I asked.

“You’ve moved from a big city to a small one. If you were in Tuscaloosa as a student, I wouldn’t think much of it but you’re not. That suggests you’re retreating somehow.”

“I’m not sure retreating is the right word, or maybe I just wouldn’t want to admit defeat. I consider this move a kind of sidestep. I want to breathe a little.”

She nodded. “Not too much, though. Small places can suck you up and university towns can be dangerous.”

“How’s that?”

She stopped picking at a basil long enough to answer slowly. “Too few people of the kind you want to know. Too many cocktail parties. The changes here are shallow. But don’t ask me what I mean by that because I don’t know. Do you know the word ‘churn?’”

I nodded, taking the plant from her. I thought of the coast line at home on Long Island and the rougher shells and pebbles that bounced and beat against my feet when I stood too long in the shallow water.

“University towns have a lot of churn,” she said.

The secret to change, said Phoebe, once we were back at Monnish Court, is intent.

Per her direction, I planted the following in short rows:

· chamomile for headaches

· marjoram to banish sadness

· lavender to see ghosts and “attract men for sexual purposes”

· rosemary, which, when worn on the head, helps memory, wards off thieves, protects travelers when crossing the sea, alerts the mind and zings up a pot roast

· Oregano for pizza, lemon balm to help stop one from dreaming and thyme for purification and the curing of nightmares.

· Sage for cooking, healing and prosperity.

· Yarrow: “Where the yarrow grows, there is one who knows. Love for seven years.”

I’d take that seven. It would be more than I’ve had so far.

· Basil: to inhale!

Change and prayer require effort. I have come to believe that prayer and power are the same. Both require effort, intent. Neither should be used for evil. As I was arranging and re-arranging, Elizabeth (aka Mrs. Moth) walked across the large and shabby lawn at the center of Monnish Court to stand behind and watch me. (Really, if you want to make friends, buy a dog and plant a garden---you will be overwhelmed.)

Mrs. Moth is a frail and convalescing ghost, stick arms and dowager hump. Her skin and hair are faintly purple. She reminds me of a ficcus I kept that never flourished, but somehow survived.

She handed me a small foxglove in a plastic pot. I don’t smile easily, but this gift raised one. The foxgloves were the hardest to find at the Arboretum sale and I thought I’d lost my chance to have one. They are very southern, gorgeous and seem to reward both abuse and neglect.

“Find a place where it will get full sun,” she said watching me with a critical eye. She’s either been a gardener or a high school teacher. “Blooms like bells,” she said.

As a result of this gift, I changed the shape of the plot from a rectangle to an arch and placed the foxglove in the center.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Dangerous Book - Episode 2

April 12. Holy Thursday 11 p.m.

“You’re never going to get anything going with those azaleas in the way,” said Phoebe. She watched from the porch, holding my little dog Juniper on her bony lap.

“Forget it, the roots go down forever,” I said.

“Sure you can,” she said. “Just chop at them and pull.”

The azaleas might have been dying, but their hold to the earth was tight as rigor mortis. By the time I hit the root ball of the first plant, Phoebe had wandered off, leaving Juniper asleep on the chair. I would have rested after dragging what felt like a corpse over to the dumpster, but knew that if I stopped, I’d never start again.

So I kept digging. The second one, not as tenacious, seemed to release itself eagerly.

And there were distractions. Neighbors I’d yet to meet greeted me with flattering interest. The graduate student who lived upstairs asked what I was doing, seemed to search his mind for an opinion, grunted and moved on, perhaps in search of one. Professor Sergeant stopped with his dog, Astible and offered to take Juniper for a walk.

Professor Sergeant lives across the hall and is in many ways a perfect neighbor. It’s unlikely we’ll ever know each other; he’s well into his forties and tenured. A different sphere, but he’s cordial and we have our dogs in common.

It doesn’t matter whether I want him to walk Juniper or not. My silly little dog loves him and follows his every command. She even likes Astible, which is unusual. Juniper is usually quarrelsome with dogs her own size.

Once the azaleas, the stones and the endless roots were dug, I knelt over the plot, which had expanded to the size of two sofa pillows and raked at the dark earth with my fingers, uncovering small treasures lost or buried. Among the inevitable handful of iron nails, I uncovered a blue bead the size of a marble and a gold link bracelet with a single charm–a baby’s head with no inscription. The bead, a Turkish “donkey” bead signifying good luck, had rolled from under a clutch of small rocks. How long it had been buried there I’ll never know. Yet how clean it was, I thought, rolling it in my palm, as if it had been suspended among the stones. The bracelet, however, had been invaded and knotted by grass roots and took some doing to untangle. Had it been lost, buried, or hidden? And by whom? I put them aside, thinking to ask Phoebe when she’d re-emerged.

Once the azaleas were up and gone, the roots cleared and when I’d dug as deep as I could, I mixed in ten pounds of manure. By now the worked-over earth was as supple as cookie dough and I was enjoying myself, no longer struggling. The plot was mine.

Veronica, walking past from the parking lot, stopped, startling me with her butter voice.

“Honey, you should get a man to do that.”

“Ma’am,” I returned, “If I had a man, I wouldn’t need a garden.”

“I’ll lend you one,” she said.

There was something about her wide wet eyes, the eager open look of hers that uneases me. I returned to my shovel with sense of panic. She departed.

When I’d done, I wiped the tools, restoring them to the storage shed. Returning to my little plot, I knelt before it, scanning the space. It is the size of two lovers lying side by side. To my left the pile of bricks I’d collected from around the complex wait for their arrangement. Now, I needed some plants.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Off the Grid: 10 Things About Week 8

I'm not sure what's happening to me in these eight weeks. What is eight weeks anyway? Two months. Most of a quarter. It takes about a month to change an old or develop a new habit. I've yet to commit to a real life off the grid as I'm still exploring my possibilities. Fact is, I'm no entrepreneur. My energy levels are so affected by the layoff (even though I don't miss my old job), the heat, the rush to Florida and the, oh-how-to-put-it, "grief on toast" sensations of losing my mother one step at a time, that I'm not sure of anything anymore. Can I list 10 things I'm sure of?

1. A girl in the park this morning, taking surveys about the green market asked what attracted me to it. Color: I held three giant sunflowers and two tomatoes, music, scent of coffee, bread from The Bread Garden, "All the senses!"
2. Existence. We're here. We're here. Wave.
3. I would revise this notion "We're all in this together." to "We're individual boats bobbing in the same ocean. At any given moment, each one of us is absolutely alone. This can change in the second it takes to spot another boat, but we are each traveling to that far horizon in our own little skiff.
4. The taste of watermelon equals the taste of summer.
5. Surrender is winning. (thank you Cowboy Junkies)
6. Despite the key words, those jobs you don't apply for are those jobs you don't want.
7. There's an unacknowledged section at the top of my canvas where ideas for the future hover like a waxing moon.
8. Catholics are raised to be emotionally reactive. Taking on the pains of the mother is kin to taking on the pains of Christ. This, however, is a stalling tactic and circumvents real life.
9. I am motivated primarily by love.
10. Someday this will make me weep.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Dangerous Book - Episode 1

April 12, Holy Thursday Cloud, windy, cool.

I’ve been drinking coffee and will not sleep much tonight. You find me propped up on my living room couch in the middle of the night. A small lamp spills its light across my page and I have much to tell after all this time.

Lent is the season for planting and preparation. This year I’m following instructions from neighbors here at Monnish Court, an odd little apartment complex in Tuscaloosa, Alabama where I have lived for about a month.

Earlier today I dug up a row of neglected azaleas from the front of our building. Had I known how firmly rooted the damned shrubs were I would never have taken them on. But I didn’t know. Then too, when having no purpose of my own, I’m easily manipulated.

“Freddy Monnish didn’t intend for those shrubs to stay there forever,” said Phoebe, an octogenarian neighbor who talked me into trying my hand at a small garden. At one time, each of the tenants had cultivated his or her own little garden.

“One year our tomatoes were the talk of Tuscaloosa,” she said.

I doubted this, but she showed me black and white photographs of well-tended plots before which posed the enthusiastic gardeners of another time. “That’s mine. I was good at herbs.” She pointed to a thin woman dressed in saddle shoes, high-waisted blue jeans and a man’s white shirt.

“Phoebe, you looked just as shy then as you look now,” I said.

She shook her head slowly. “Nobody changes much, but I wasn’t ever as shy as I let on.”

There was a look of anticipation in her face, as if the door to her life was in the process of opening. She was the kind of girl who would walk right through whatever door she approached. Yet seeing her now, I thought her doors seemed very much closed.

We were sitting on the 1930s-era porch chairs I’d bought at Spiller’s, a once prosperous furniture store in Tuscaloosa’s downtown that have evolved into an antiques mall. The chairs, heavy with wide arms and faded cushions, were not as portable as outdoor furniture from Walmart’s but are comfortable and "go" with their surroundings. After washing them down with soapy water, and covering the cushions with clean canvas, I set them out on the verandah where a warm wind dried them by afternoon.

As if on cue, Phoebe toddled over with her photo album and a tin of homemade cookies, thick and buttery. I produced a pitcher of iced tea laced with lemonade.

“And that’s Veronica?” I asked, pointing to a round, indecently innocent face. It belonged to my upstairs neighbor, a woman in her late sixties with the a startled naiveté in her eyes. In the photo she was sitting on the steps to our building. Behind her sat a lawn chair, almost identical to the ones we were sitting on.

“It is Veronica,” said Phoebe. “And here’s Elizabeth (who lives across the courtyard and could be seen pacing behind her living room blinds) and…” Her finger hovered over the image of a man posed where my garden will be. He looked full of chin and very proud. As well he should, his patch of garden was thick with what appeared to be foxglove, tomatoes and a mass of indistinguishable flowers. Probably marigolds. Behind him the azaleas I was attempting to uproot stood thick with leaves.

“Robert could never choose between flowers or vegetables, though he’d say he would,” she said with a thread in her tone that spoke of resentment. “So he mixed them both. He was always experimenting.”

I wanted to know more about him, but the bitter nostalgia in her voice inhibited me.

“What did Veronica grow?”

“Tomatoes and peppers, mostly,” said Phoebe, her voice crisp again as it always was when speaking of her. “She grew wonderful tomatoes. Better Boys and, oh, I don’t remember, an heirloom sort she had sent from home. She started half from seed and half from plants and by June we couldn’t tell which was which.”

“She looks so young.”

“About 20. A very young 20.”

We both studied the photo. Veronica’s cheeks were as big as biscuits; her teeth, like chips of buttermilk seemed to tear out of the page. She would have been a student then, majoring in social work. Phoebe, I knew, had been a math teacher at the public high school where she would stay, even through the sixties, when middle and professional class parents moved their bleached darlings to the private school they would open in the wake of de-segregation.

“It doesn’t look like anyone’s grown anything for a long time,” I said wondering how much sweat it would take to dig up the probably root-locked azaleas whose tips brushed our ankles.

“The trick is to take a couple of Advil before you even start,” she said.

So, using tools Phoebe borrowed from the church next door, I strained my arms digging up three miserable shrubs, or bushes, or whatever the hell azaleas are.

Knuckle Update - Paying for Assisted Living

So, today's job is to find the right forms from the VA. It's like going on a scavenger hunt!
There are over 17,000 forms on the VA website and while I know the ones I need are there, I'm a bit daunted.
Evidentally, there's a supplemental payment for eligible veterans and their surviving spouses (Roach) to help with the increased rent one pays to move from the independent apartment or house to the ALF. The "helpful" for-profit companies offer to facilitate this, but I'm looking to see if I can't manage it myself.
So. Day one:
Daddy's discharge papers. Done
now what?
More as it happens...or doesn't.

Friday, June 12, 2009

In my workshop - Bobbsey Twins Write Their Own Book

I'm so happy to have my collection of Bobbsey Twins books back under my own roof.
These books were not the impetus for me to start writing...that honor goes to Anne Frank, but when I was about six years old and starting my conscious ramblings through the house in Queens, by which I mean poking and prying where I had no business.

That house, in a "village" tucked below the Whitestone Bridge and sort of north of Flushing Meadows, future home of the 1964 World's Fair, Shea Stadium and a couple of very very large cemeteries, was a tall and narrow place, shingled in asbestos that glittered in the sun. It might be called a duplex now because it contained two apartments and a basement, but we called it a two-family house. When I lived there, from birth to age 8, my mother and father, sister and brother lived on the first floor and my grandfather, who owned the entire house and his daughter, Ann (Fat Aunt Ann) and her husband and their two children all crammed into the top floor apartment. There was a basement with a coal shoot, a 'finished' section complete with bar (stocked) and a steel pole we'd crack our heads against if we weren't careful.

There was also a work bench and the leftovers of my Uncle Dave's motorized airplane hobby, the bits and pieces of someone's infatuation with carrier pigeons during WWII and an assortment of solid furniture from the 1930s, including a spiffy telephone table I latched onto even at six. I latched onto it because it held a little door and inside the little door were a handful of books: The Bobbsey Twins, The Bobbsey Twins in the Country, The Glass Heart and Eleven Came Back.

Although I'd yet to see what the kids today call "chapter books" I must have recognized the Bobbseys as children. I certainly didn't know what to make of The Glass Heart or Eleven Came Back but that didn't stop me from purloining them either (I eventually read them).

Thinking the Bobbsey book was a collection of stories, like my 50 Famous Fairy Tales or my 365 Children's Stories, or even, presumably, my missal, I opened the book at the chapter titles that caught my attention. Probably something to do with food or gifts. Do you remember that first experience of actually figuring something out? I do.

The first step occurred that moment in the somewhat musty basement with its coal dust and the damp magic of unknown cubbyholes and things not meant for me, its nearby bag of tomatoes from Grandpa's garden and that tingling sense of a voice overhead that would call me away from this found new world before I knew what I'd found.

The second step was upstairs in the room I shared with David, pouring over the chapters as if they were stories and realizing, by going backwards, searching for the beginning and finding it at the beginning, that what I held in my hand was not a collection of stories, but one long story that would outpace the hour and for the rest of my life outpace the days and the long nights and the frightening jitters of not knowing what to do next.

Read a book and be transported, be comforted, be enlightened, be found.

I wonder if all adventures start this way?

Life off the Grid - Stripping the Facade

Monday - no mascara
Tuesday - no foundation
Wednesday - no lipstick
Thursday - no hair goo
Friday - no mirror

can this go on?

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Knuckle Update - Waking Up

 Helping the rehab with Roach was like having a job for a week. We had goals, some of which were do-able and others, because I was new at the job, were beyond what was possible. Given time, these goals: stand up without assistance, dress self, use bathroom without assistance, etc., must be achieved if the ultimate goal, return to The Oaks as an ALF resident (we can kiss independence goodbye), is ever to be met. 

Motivation: scare the crap out of her with images of nursing home or, as it turns out, a shared apartment. Remind her of improvements made in course of three weeks. Frequent attagirls. Reminder that the Irish simply do not quit. (Ask the English.)

Carrot and Stick: Must sit in wheelchair for dinner, but dinner is a burger and fries from Checkers.

Goals reached: sat in chair for 4 hours while hair was washed, cut and set. Sat in chair for 5 hours while fresh air breathed outside, PT completed, lunch in Felini-esque dining room managed and visit from kindly doctor endured. Began to take in reality of situation.

Bonus:  Gave the knuckle.

See you soon, old lady.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Knuckle Update - Why We Call Her Roach

My brother dubbed our mother the Roach. It's a play on her name (Rose) but a testament to her unflagging and quite amazing staying power in this enterprise we call life.

So here are 10 ways I discovered just this week that she's not going gently into that good night.

1. Called for me until I arrived, then started calling for my sister. Who had just left.
2. Told me I had a fat ass.
3. Demanded I pluck her chin hairs.
4. Refused to believe she'd had a mini-stroke because it didn't feel like that.
5. Using her left hand as if she's always used her left hand.
6. Demanded hair appointment.
7. Opens mouth to be fed.
8. Orders fork to be filled with meat, potato and mashed turnip.
9. Asked for Diet Coke.
10. Refuses to see doctor.

Can I go home now?

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Knuckle Update - Fighter or Nursing Home Wench?

Got very sleepy drunk on two fairly small glasses of wine last night. Maybe it's the sudden sun and heat, the hours juggling imprecations to the Knuckle and a webinar on "Are You an Entrepreneur?" (probably not.)

Today I'll watch the IK struggle through her physical therapy---the walker parade around the room and, hopefully, some leg lifts. If she's not too tired after that, some occupational therapy. She definitely had some kind of mini-stroke but it's her spirit I'm worried about. She's so apathetic. Something's died or hiding. Is it possible for the spirit to die and not be recovered as the body is worked and the digestion ministered to? She will eat what she likes: oatmeal, slips of fresh apple and pear, a large strawberry. She'll even drink Ensure and who can possibly like that? 
She drinks her liquids. 
Maybe she's trying her best and it's we who are impatient in our fear of what's to come. Which death are we to outsmart? The body is hard to kill, the soul another matter.