Monday, August 31, 2009

Home Again

She said to give it all away and that’s okay for the couch

and the recliner, but there are some things you just take home:

We can always use Q-Tips, freezer bags, the new pound of butter

and finally, how many boxes of toothpicks can you toss

before tasting that shred of bacon again and thinking,

okay, I can use these.

The pile is slid into a handy tote or a Xerox box with handles.

Can you have too many nail clippers?

And I want her little ring and her other little ring

and you can have the ruby because you gave it to her

and in our family all gifts are returned in the end.

In my poverty I gave poetry as Deborah gave service

and Janeann gold and good sweaters. All in returned in time.

But what about the little things:

her pink towels are brighter than mine,

so yes, pack them.

At home I wash them immediately

as if trying to dissolve the faded scent of l’air du temps,

yes, something’s in the air all right,

but even a soaking tide won’t wash away this lifetime.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Knuckle Update 1917-2009

Peacefully, in her sleep
last night.

A rough day with the Knuckle yesterday. She'd been refusing food for about a week, refusing to exercise, refusing to speak or look directly at us. The combination was a final form of control, all that's left to us.
Would you like me to call a priest?
Why, am I dying?
Well, yes. If you don't eat, you will die.

But I'm not sure the Karen Carpenter diet was what did it. And I will never know.
What I do know is that she did not want to live on the second floor another day.
With her last hairdo behind her, she passed to an easier place. Possibly as surprised as the rest of us.

It's a kind of freedom, isn't it?

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

DAngerous Book - Episode 10

Before dark that evening, Phoebe and I stood admiring the gardens when two men in suits sauntered up the path leading to our building. They stared hard and suspiciously at Professor Sergeant’s additions. Veronica was with them.

“Oh, dear,” said Phoebe, taking my arm. “He has overdone it, hasn’t he?”

Professor Sergeant’s grief for Astible seems Victorian in its enthusiasm. In one short afternoon, he had redesigned the landscaping in front of our building. Unfortunately, it’s made the rest of the property look twice as neglected.

Veronica introduced Eddie Dowling. I clasped the hand of a man with a recognizable face.

“Our state representative,” said Phoebe.

The other was the Reverend Charles Wright, pastor of Calgary, our landlord.

Something about permissions to dig?

“Your little plot is just fine,” she said. “But Professor Sergeant …”

“We think he’s thrown off the balance a bit,” said the politician.

“Though we appreciate his efforts,” said Dr. Wright. Another politician.

“Is there a problem, Edward? asked Phoebe. When she said Edward in her plainest voice, the man’s hair stood up.

He sighed deeply, as men will when confronted with the unanswerable. Clearly there was a problem, why else would they be here? But his old teacher still had power. “Maybe,” he said, with a look to the minister, “we can put in something new over here.” He pointed to the buildings opposite where the original azaleas now looked worse than ever.

“I’ll help,” I said without even thinking. There was a kind of family tension that I, as a middle child, felt rushed to ease. “I bought plenty of manure.”

I was thanked and dismissed with the smooth-faced condescension I’ve grown used to---it’s a southern thing. “We’ll send the boys over with the back hoe,” he said. Overkill.

“We’ll tell William to be real careful with the mower,” Eddie promised. “You know, young lady,” he said to me, as if any second I was going to vote for him, “I once spent a lot of time on this complex.” He looked toward my apartment and sighed. “My daddy lived where you stay now,” he whispered with a glance at Phoebe. Then he shook hands all around and led the minister away.

“What brings a minister around on the busiest day of the Christian year?” I wondered.

“That’s a good question, Dearie,” said Phoebe. “A damn good question.”

And why did Eddie Dowling whisper when he looked at his old apartment?

When they left Professor Sergeant came out and stood on the veranda steps looking like Atticus Finch--- if the role had been played by Truman Capote.

What Professor S. bought:

· Two doomed camellias left over from the fall

· Four gardenias

· Six azaleas. Six!

He lined them up, realized his garden overwhelmed mine and so gave me three of the azaleas, two gardenias and a camellia, doing the planting himself. Because my garden is long and flat, reaching from the wall of the verandah like a large mat, he returned to the Arboretum and came home with a similar number of wildflowers and herbs for himself.

The professor also brought pots of moonvine that we agreed to plant so that when they grew they would reach the columns on either side and entwine them and never stop growing but reach the verandah’s roof some thirty feet above us. Astible’s memory will be fragrant as well as green.

It took him far less time to dig, prepare and plant his garden than it did for me to do mine, but his heart was more fierce and his motivation strong. Monnish Court had such an air of benign neglect it was almost invisible from the street. Our efforts made the courtyard leap out so that when people walked by they noticed we’re here. Maybe Dowling and Wright objected to that?

I’d hoped to hear from Peter that night and kept an ear out for the phone, but alas, mine did not ring. Billie and Alan dashed out before six and did not return until nearly midnight. I was sitting on the verandah worshipping my work and Professor Sergeant’s when they staggered past. Billie waved but did not stop. Take your time, Nora, I told myself. Take your time.

Once a garden is planted, all you can do is watch it, smell it, learn to recognize pests from protectors…. It’s a child and a pet, a busy live thing. Let the tomatoes be lined up along the back and between them gladiola bulbs given to me this morning by Alan. And next to them, let the basil grow bushy and even woody by August. Before them stand the sage, chives, peppers, lemon balm and mint. In the front row are oregano, thyme and lavender. Inside the borders, near the bricks I placed several seedlings of penny royal----a pretty ground cover. I had a rosemary plant as well but at Phoebe’s suggestion planted it separately in a large clay pot. Rosemary for remembrance, I murmured. “It’s tough and woody,” said Phoebe. “You don’t want it taking over.”

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Life Off the Grid - Week 18

I spend a third to a half of my time trying to crawl back onto the grid. I want a job. I want a place to curl up and settle my breathing. I miss shopping. I miss J. Jill. The new catalog is great. I want to rip up the stained carpet and put down the wood floors I've been saving up for.
I want. I want. I want.

There is something so expansive and full of the possible, however, in those days when I meet another freelancer for lunch and we sit in the midday sun blinking like moles. Of course, the life of a freelancer is rugged. Possibly too rugged for a slug like me. If I wasn't underwritten by the GA-DOL, I'd be screaming by now. Or babysitting. (And I will be babysitting really soon.)

And hosting writing classes.
And cleaning out garages.
And heading back to Florida to be the one who doesn't tell the Knuckle she's got a lot to live for. If there's anything we've ever seen eye to eye on, it's our willingness to talk about dying. So that when she says to me, as she has to sister in law and the nurse and the physical therapist that she wants to be with her husband and son (both dead), I can nod and say "I'll bet you do."

It's absolutely and entirely possible that I don't have a job so that I can have the 'freedom' to help her with this. Who knows? Not me.

Holy cow.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Dangerous Book - Episode 9

Veronica was sitting on the verandah with a pitcher of tea and several glasses when I returned from the cemetery. Mrs. Moth sat with her, nibbling on a heart-shaped sugar cookie.

“He’s over at the garden center right now picking out a spirea,” said Veronica by way of a greeting. I did not correct her. After we’d finished our coffee this afternoon, Professor Sergeant said he would buy several gardenias and a mix of vegetables and herbs. He’d even offered to give me one of the gardenias. For balance, he said. For symmetry.

“I think he said camellia,” said Mrs. Moth. “And I’m sure he’ll buy something for your side, too.” Mrs. Moth is the quietest of the three old ladies of Monnish Court. She sighed and spoke with repressed passion. “He loved that little dog,” she said, brushing crumbs from her fingers with finality. “More than you love yours.”

Before I could deny this (and I don’t know how she could be right or if she’s right, what a thing to say!), Veronica interjected.

“He was very angry,” said Veronica. “He was very rude.”

“He thinks Veronica killed Astible,” said Phoebe.

I must have looked horrified and I know I pulled Juniper closer to me.

“I’m sure he doesn’t,” I said, thinking of our QuikSnak conversation earlier and how affectionate he’d sounded about Monnish Court’s three old crones. But just because he hadn’t shared his anger, didn’t mean he didn’t feel any.

“He thought she might have eaten some of the brownies I brought out last night,” said Veronica. She had the most innocent face I’ve ever seen on someone her age (mid sixties?) A big round moon, wholesome and blank as a notebook in September.

“You fed that dog chocolate, Veronica.” Phoebe used her teacher voice to good effect.

“It couldn’t have harmed her,” Veronica blustered “I fed her a crumb.”

“I think we were all feeding the dogs last night,” I said. “Juniper was a party pig.” My dog will never be called to heel except during parties when she turns into Lassie. She’s particularly fond of cheese straws.

“And she didn’t get sick!” Veronica was triumphant. Or relieved.

Juniper squirmed down from my arms. She’d seen or sensed Professor Sergeant’s return. To her this still meant Astible would be coming out. It’s evening, but not dark yet. Time to plant my own garden.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Hand-to-Hand Project

Earlier this summer, Atlanta artist Cecelia Kane, who has produced the Hand-to-Hand Project since 2003, invited me to participate in this rather amazing collaboration.

Here's a description of the show from the website:

"Since March 2003, when the war in Iraq began, I started a series of paintings in response to the war. I chose as my material simple cotton gloves and painted a news story each day about the war directly on to them.

Each glove is a "rosary bead" in a daily witnessing. In 2006, I expanded the project to include over 100 artists as a continuing community dialog."

-Cecelia Kane

I'd been aware of the project for some time. Several of my artist friends who work in all kinds of media had participated. I have to say I was a bit intimidated by it. Fortunately, this is my Off the Grid time when I say yes to all invitations to make and show art. The timing couldn't have been better. Except that the war, particularly the war in Iraq, has long since folded itself into the creases of my mind. I thought I had a bit more engagement with the fighting in Afghanistan, but the fact is, with no personal contact among those in the military, an aging resentment of the sentimentality with which we treat today's soldiers (compared to those who fought in "my war") and Bush out of office, even a healthy intellectual disgust was long dormant. I was very curious to see what I would make of the assignment and how I would respond to the subject. I love working with the random.

The project calls for each artist to select a headline relating to the war in Iraq (and only Iraq) for each day of her/his assigned dates. Cecelia slotted me for June 29-July 4.

Ah, Independence Day! That might be intriguing. Or not.

But it was also the week I was moving the Knuckle from her indie apartment to assisted living, so cherry picking headlines was out. I wound up scanning and picking from The NYT, The LA Times, the BBC and some small town newspapers.
On one day, VP Biden was in Bagdad, on another day the story I chose had to do with a war-made millionaire. Of course, there was, as there always seems to be, a headline with the current death toll.

I played with the gloves for a long time thinking I'd string them out. Cecilia's instructions recommended that I use my own methods and work within my own interests. For me that meant a book. It was a short step to figuring out how to stitch the hands together to form a "hand book" but my words were not particularly instructive.

While printing the headlines on each glove (also as instructed) I decided to leave the last word of each headline off the front of the glove and print it on the back instead. This would force the reader to turn the page and create a little dramatic tension. I also saw that the single words on the backs of each hand could form their own message. Or not. I decided to stick with the random.
I printed leaves on the white gloves but in an excess of excess I then dipped them in a wash of red acrylic. Perhaps they were too pretty. I'd been collected metal bits picked up from the street and other places and once I'd stitched the gloves together and sized pieces of bookboard for the cover, I decided to add lace-edged handkerchiefs. My piece was now completely out of hand, no pun. I found an assortment of metal bits that worked for me. A key from an old American Tourister suitcase spoke to the cynicism with which I view all wars and connected to the story about Biden's Independence Day visit. I also have a heart-shaped tag from the Viet Nam War, which I included because I wanted a real person's real tag included.

Finally, I aged the piece with walnut ink and tucked it away in a cigar box, where those little bits of flotsam and jetsam wind up surviving when more precious objects do not. After a few days in this "baking" process I opened the box and realized the piece was finished.

Off it goes to join the other "beads" on Cecelia's endless rosary where it will take its place among a larger prayer.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Just Like I Pictured It

I'd joked that my trip to New York was an attempt to refresh my accent and pick up some bagels and corn muffins, two things that really cannot be replicated. Not to say Atlanta bakers, especially at the Colonnade, don't know their way around a corn muffin, it's just that the Long Island muffins are bigger, sweeter and more textured. I miss them. I also miss the bagels though it true that one should never eat anything bigger than one's head.

Seeing old friends, especially those you haven't spoken to in 35 years, can be scary. I have no children's pictures to show off or husband to display or ex-husband to regret. My issues, such as they are, are pretty much self-inflicted and therefore less interesting. Of course, my meetings with the two pals I hadn't seen or heard from since Nixon left for Sacramento were fairly short, given the amount of "I can believe we haven't talked in so long" and the "So, what ever happened to..." This meant we were spared deeper reflections or memories. Or even the fascinating question: How did you think I'd end up?

When Jane, who I was good friends with in college but lost when she began teaching way out on the island (and married) and I left for Atlanta, ran to me, she cried "I see you in your face!" I saw her in her face too. We keep our eyes, our smiles, those nascent lines that were once only suggestions of a new map are now creased with use and well-traveled smiles.

She is also at a cross roads: retirement an option, ex-husband forgiven (more or less), children leaving.
So is Laura, though hers is quieter. Her marriage happy and intact, her daughter moving to college, her health challenging. She's more involved with her mother's care than I am with the Knuckle's but her life has a serenity that I would have forecast. Laura has a gift for happiness. Her house, like Karen's, is filled with pictures of family, something mine is decidedly not.

I saw two other friends, women I've kept up with over the years and fall in with easily. And I saw my godmother and cousin. I'm closer to these relatives than any others.

I thought I would return with some degree of insight but really, it's just been very refreshing to make these old connections. They have reminded me that despite my peripatetic work life, I do have roots.

Dangerous Book - Episode 8

Professor S. outlined his garden on the opposite side of the path from mine. Our two freshly dug plots – his to the left of the steps and mine to the right – would balance the front of our building nicely. On his side there were three derelict azaleas reduced to twig and sparse leaf but unable to die. I did not offer to help him. Nor did I plant my own garden. Instead, I took a walk in Evergreen, where strolled through the older section and came upon Phoebe doing some weeding.

“This is lovely,” I said with some envy. I owned a solitary grave in Flushing that my parents bought when their first baby was born dead. My grandparents bought plots nearby and so did my aunt for her first husband, but no one thought to establish the kind of family compound Phoebe Moore’s family had here. Why, it’s got a black iron fence around it and two crepe myrtles. The daffodils were lovely, the iris mauve and abundant.

She didn’t have an iron bench in her plot, but kept a folding chair in the old Eddins crypt. “It’s been empty for as long as I can remember,” she said. “It’s never locked and Mrs. Stripland lets me keep my tools here.” Mr. Stripland is the owner of Evergreen.

“I didn’t know charm bracelets were back,” she said, noticing mine. “I haven’t seen one in years.”

“I found it when I was digging up the azaleas.”

“Did you?” she asked, looking at it more carefully.

Her fingers were beautiful. I don’t know why I was so taken with her. Most old ladies scared me to death. Old ladyhood scared me to death. I knew I wouldn’t have the money or the children or even nieces or nephews to take me in. I knew my entire boomer generation would wind up living together in old Kennedy high schools converted to the purpose. That’s why we all grew up in packs, so we could die in packs. But when I talked with Phoebe I forgot that fear.

“Do you have any idea whose it is?” I asked, fingering the solitary charm and thinking she must know. Doesn’t she know everything?

But she shrugged. “It could be anyone’s. I guess you could ask Veronica or Elizabeth. I’ve never seen it. You found it, though.”

“Finders keepers?” I had to admit. I’ve always been into “finding things.”

“Why don’t you go home and plant your garden now,” she said. “You’ve been playing with those plants long enough. They’re going to dry out.”

“Professor Sergeant is planting a garden, too,” I said. “He’s going to bury Astible and put a garden over her.”

“That’ll spiff the place up,” she said.