Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Christmas Presents and the Thoughts that Count

Every year I twist myself into a moral maze of ordinary human bitchiness that is eventually understood but never quite figured out, if you know what I mean.

I never seem to get what I want. And I persist in thinking I'm going to. I'm talking relatively stupid stuff here, not love, a place in the world or a reason to live. Not good health and no regrets, an end to the war, a fking job. I'm talking pedicure kits and Borders gift cards.

I used to cringe when my mother would groan upon opening another scarf, rose-shaped pin, stuffed animal or rosary. "What am I supposed to do with that?" I cringed because I grokked all too well the disappointment, anger and yes, hurt, that comes from not being understood. Of course, in my family, getting the wrong gift was equal to not being loved. "If you loved me, you'd know what I want. You would have heard me, seen me, listened to me. But you didn't, so you don't."

Really, sometimes the thought doesn't count at all. And that is because the thought was not for her. Or, now that she's dead and I have to claim my inheritance, me.

I could see her point. Old people are living on time and need time and should be given gifts of time. This includes experiences (being taken out of the home); stamps, ephemera: magazines that can be enjoyed and thrown away, for example; wine, food and flowers; massages, gift cards and light sweaters that button down and only if their existing sweaters are stained, which they probably are.

As if the people who love us are actually not people but fairy godmothers. Santa Clauses that read minds and have endless imagination.

Here's another thought I'm grateful to have had. What if we really do get what we give? That would mean I'm the one not reading your mind, not exercising imagination all year, day after day. Now there's a thought that counts.

The thought. Actually, the thought is starting to mean something to me. There's probably a decade coming of the thought being the important thing, maybe less as I'm not all that emotionally evolved, but we'll see. My sister is a good person who, despite our advanced years, continues to see herself as my protector. I'm convinced that this is why she does for me rather than with me. As in, "I'll paint your kitchen. Don't touch anything." Years ago, I'd have shrugged and left her to it. But this year, when she painted my kitchen (and this, I should add, is one hell of a Christmas present and exactly what I wanted AND needed, take back the purple satin pencil case and the pendant of an obscure Irish saint) I was quite desperate to get in there with her and learn all she had to pontificate on, I mean teach me about, the job. So I stayed put and did as I was told, when she told me to do it.

It is not the thought that someone had to throw you a gift you're only going to recycle, it's the thought that they had of you and of their hand stretched out, laden, in your direction. I know this because by the time Christmas, and the gift giving, getting, and worrying, was all over, I'd forgotten that I was ever as angry as I was. The irritation is gone, replaced by humor and a little spiteful but cleansing re-gifting.

Dangerous Book - Episode 23

Episode 23

I like having Billie for a neighbor. She’s kind, responsive and never judgmental or out of sorts. She’s not the kind of person you think would have any problems of her own. Any neurotic worries. Wholesome people make me wholesome. I try to be like them and generally succeed.

Billie doesn’t gossip. I’ve been waiting for her to mention the tension between Kate and Jacob --- atleast bring up his drinking and how angry he gets during a croquet game when he’s losing. Especially when he’s losing to Peter. But she never says a word about other people’s personal lives, so I don’t. I can’t. I’m becoming their friend, but it’s only been a month. Less. I have no right to gossip about anybody.

But I sit with her on the verandah, caught between wanting to talk about Peter, insinuating his name into our conversation whenever possible, feeling embarrassed when I find her turning the talk away from him. He is becoming a delicious obsession. When I can no longer “be good” I go to bed. Love is a narcotic. It takes away the sins of the past. If I can wake up thinking of Peter, I will not think of Marshall or the abort. Funny things, memories. The images that come back over and over are not what you think they’d be. I would have thought the image of Marshall being hit by that yellow truck would be with me every morning. I would have thought the image of me lying with the legs in stirrups talking through the dim noise of the vacuum would be what greets me in the morning. But it’s not. What greets me is the memory from the evening after the abortion but before the afternoon of the yellow truck. Imagine a screen door. Him on one side. Me on the other. My finger tips pressing the dirty mesh... I will let Juniper sleep with me tonight.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Dangerous Book - Episode 22

Sunday night

Back from visit to hospital. Phoebe’s on a tear, hates being cooped up in a cold room and did I bring any socks and why not, what is she supposed to do with brand new slippers?

“When else are you going to wear them?” I asked.

“Christmas!” she barked, glaring at me.

Feel her feet, she said. They’re blue with cold. I held them. I held the good one. The fractured foot had been wrapped, her long toes jutted out beyond the flexible cast. These I tried to warm by blowing on them, but this only irritated her. No, she was not angry with me but with her helplessness.

“I’ll bring you your socks,” I said.

“It won’t do any good,” she said, fractious as a thwarted baby.

We sat in silence for a while. I could tell she wanted to apologize for snapping but at the same time knew she couldn’t help herself. For my part, I just wanted to help her feel better but knew that hashing out her fears wasn’t the thing to do. So we sat in a fog until I asked her who Beau was.

“I didn’t ask you to go snooping around my apartment, did I?” she barked.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t think I was snooping. I saw the painting of the cemetery and couldn’t help myself.” I told her about the maps I’d made just that day. “I turned it over to see the date.”

“Dates not on it,” she grumbled.

“So I discovered. But the name Beau is.”

“It’s not a name,” she said. “It’s a relationship.”


More silence. I watched her eyes revolve around the room, at the television screen, at the door to the hallway, the bathroom, every where but at me. Finally they seemed to rest on nothing, on the radiator, the windowsill, already crowded with flowers and cards.

“Beau Dowling,” she said.

“Dowling? The man who died on his birthday?”

She nodded. “Eddie’s father, Robert Dowling, was a friend of mine.”

“The Monnish Court gardener!”

“The gardener.”

“He painted, too. Wow.” And they called him Beau. Not Bo, a Southern nickname for little brother, but the French for beautiful. A word for boyfriend. Suitor. Swain.

“Why did you call him Beau? Was he your beau?”

“He was everyone’s beau. It was just who he was,” she said. “Ask Elizabeth to bring my socks when she comes tomorrow,” she said, dismissing me.

“And how did he come to die on his birthday?”

“He got sick,” she said. “At his party. They said he ate something he was allergic to and died before they could get him to the hospital.”

“That must have been awful.”

People have faces like fraying rope. All the things we hold tight, all the things we tie up and forget eventually loosen and slip free. There seemed to be this kind of an activity visible on Phoebe’s face in the minutes we spent discussing Robert Dowling.

“I wasn’t there,” she said, spitting out the words as if they tasted of bullion. “But of course it must have been.”

As if she had conjured him up, another visitor, Eddie Dowling, walked in. She welcomed him with open arms, literally. He hurried to her, reaching into her bony grasp with familiarity and affection.

I slid away, murmuring a goodbye only I could hear.

“Why do I watch her so carefully?” I asked Billie, much later. She’d brought over a bottle of cold Pinot Grigio and we were drinking it over ice.

“She’s in pain. She’s probably frightened of losing her independence,” she said. “It’s natural to worry about someone you care about.”

“But I hardly know Phoebe. How can I care about her?”

Thursday, December 17, 2009

From the Butts of Babes

Thanks to Chickory for the cute little eggs from her cute little chickens. Fresh eggs are richer, deeper, more yellow and more flavorful. The difference between these little gems and the big white objects at the supermarket is instantly obvious. Eggy Eggy Eggy. Yum, thanks Chick.

Best Part of the Day - The Beginning

Sometimes the best part of the day is the beginning. Perhaps it's the pink innocence viewed only by looking up or a glimpse of the morning's original intention, which, like most, are well-meant.
An hour later and this sky is gray as a gun and just as menacing. When I was a little girl I asked my father what our souls looked like, and he used the white sheet metaphor: starts clean, sins are the spots that dirty it. Confession was a spiritual laundry day back then. Speak your sins, say your Act of Contrition, your 2o Hail Marys and come out clean all over again. I'm beginning to use these morning skies as evidence of the day's soul---clean and clear and open, if not ready, for what comes.

I try to remind myself, in these moments (all fifteen of them), that whatever worries I went to bed with, or rolled over and nudged awake in the night, do not need to be resurrected for the day. What purpose do they serve? How does putting another nail into my head help me create a new life?

News about a job I really thought I had a chance of getting came yesterday after a relatively brief but obnoxious game of phone tag lasting two days (that's a week in applicant world). I didn't get it, obviously. Added to the weight of what's been a pretty trying year (and I know there are people close to me who have had an even worse year), I felt for a while that I should just let the bilge rise in my throat and cry it all out. But I am not much of a cryer and so switched to some good, old-fashioned self pity. But self pity is passe, isn't it? I was left with getting back on the job boards and the Linkedin and the cookie jar and the busy work and so filled in the rest of the day. A sympathetic email from a good friend almost made me cry.
Just like rain is not far from the silvery pink dawn, tears are not far from my throat.

And again, the dawn comes, blue this time with tinges of green, and I decide that one day was enough to mourn that lost opportunity. Today is for housework and preparation: my sister and brother-in-law are coming. Christmas will be here tonight.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Dangerous Book - Episode 21

April 22 Monday home early

Although Frederick Monnish was no slave to symmetry (witness the pattern of arcs and circles within the square courtyard), he seemed to treat each unit as a father might a family of jealous children. If unit one got a fig tree, then it’s opposite, unit 6, must have one as well. Rows of azaleas facing north called for rows of azaleas facing south. The one store row of flats that face west must have their own shrubs, also azaleas. Over the course of the court’s 60 years, some changes crept in. Roses flank the front walk and a hackberry has grown up and over Billie and Allen’s roof. At Phoebe’s kitchen window, a small magnolia gives the room a greenish tinge and more privacy than the rest of us get.

When Phoebe asked me to return her gardening tools and pack her overnight bag for the hospital, I jumped at the chance to visit her apartment. Why? Because other people’s space is evidence of their choices and, as such, their souls. Her living room is an excavation site in the making. A museum of miscellany. A goldmine, but of what and for whom, I could not tell in just one visit.

There’s a faint odor of old lady which made me want to open her living room windows. I did open them with some difficulty and shut them again before leaving.

Her kitchen door was blocked by a trash bin too full for her to lift. I emptied this for her. I made her bed, changing the sheets and rolling the soiled ones into a laundry basket I found, after a bit of search, in the hall closet. When the phone rang, I answered it.

Mrs. Moth wanting to know why Phoebe’s door was open. She seemed charmed by my explanation.

“Go into her bedroom closet and take out the blue housecoat. You should find a pair of matching slippers in there, too.” I brought the telephone with me.

“There are a couple of robes here,” I said.

“Take the clean one.”

“With the tags still on it?”

Of course the one with the tags still on it. She didn’t say this, but I know.

“Cut the tags,” said Mrs. Moth. She didn’t say where the scissors were, but I found them, eventually, in a bedside drawer.

I was ordered to pack underwear, a night gown and to select a day dress that buttoned down the front. (Phoebe and Mrs. Moth are the last old ladies to eschew pull-on pants and jogging outfits.) I was to also gather various sundries and toilet articles and place everything in a small suitcase I would find in the hall closet. Whatever book was on the bedside table should be included as well. Also, a bit of knitting in the living room. I was to bring this over to the hospital as soon as possible. I was to keep Phoebe’s house key and return to water the plants except for the African violets. She wasn’t going to be away that long.

“And don’t tell Veronica you’re doing this,” she said in a brisk tone that had the slightest hint of confidence to it. She didn’t want me to know Veronica wasn’t allowed in, but she had to. “Just keep it to yourself.”

Like the good daughter I am, I promised I would and, further, did not try to ingratiate myself by asking why. That would not have been ingratiating and I figured I could find out why on my own.

Phoebe’s things were easily found. Despite, or in spite of Mrs. M’s orders, I packed two house dresses, both fresh and nearly new. My curiosity about them was satisfied when, after some examination, I found they’d been hand made from an old-fashioned pattern. That’s smart!

Phoebe was a reader. On her night table were several mystery novels, an assortment of current novels by middle aged women writers where the conflicts are familiar and the writing clear. But there was also an old hard backed edition of Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I opened it. A first edition!

I packed two mysteries, but left the F. Scott behind. When you’re in the hospital people are constantly interrupting you. Light reading is best.

Her knitting was where Mrs. Moth said it would be. As I rolled the beige ball of a yarn inside a length of knitting, being careful with the needles and the stitches, my eye was caught by a funny little water color painting to the right of her window. I took it down from the wall for a closer look. It was a view of the cemetery, of Evergreen, painted, I guessed, in the 1960s in the very stiff, paint by numbers perfection that epitomizes even the amateur work of that period.

It was much more realistic and studied than my maps and sketches. I recognized from its perspective, the plot where I’d found Phoebe. Her own. There had, evidently, been a crepe myrtle on it once. And there were fewer headstones and no peonies or stone border. As I replaced it, I noticed a date on the back---1959---and an inscription, “I have found my heart in you.” And the name, Beau. I looked around, but did not see any other paintings like it.

I retraced my steps back to the bedroom, adding a cardigan for Phoebe. The art in here was various and all original. A still life in oil of a bowl of peonies, white with faint pink centers in a blue bowl. A photograph of a handsome man. Another of a group of young women, from the same period, possibly the same roll, as she had shown me the day I planted my garden. A wedding portrait, obviously her parents.

Oh yes, the apartment was a biography of artifacts. Who was B.D.? Had the inscription been addressed to Phoebe or someone else? Why wasn’t Veronica welcome? Does Phoebe have any more first editions? What else? What else?

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Dangerous Book - Episode 20

April 21 Sunday

Tonight Prof. S. asked to borrow Juniper for a walk. When he returned her he gave me Astible’s leash, the one he promised.

“She’s too small for a choke chain. I don’t want to tell you how to train your dog, but you know, she’s only eight pounds.”

I agreed, wishing I did not feel the need to control her so cruelly, but the fact was she minded better with the chain.

“Don’t we all?” he asked. “But there are other ways.”

Had a nightmare about Marshall[AG1] sometime early this morning between waking for the first time, always at 3:30 a.m. and the second, get up time at seven. In this one, he left me at the river. On the day after the abortion, we joined two friends of his and went rafting on the Chattahoochee. I had no business doing this. It was far too strenuous and by the end of the day I was nearly in tears. His friend’s girlfriend and I drove home together in one car while the guys drove the other. All the way home, I kept checking the mirrors and turning around, something certain in me had decided they were going to dump us, take off and keep going. That Sharon was going to drop me off and join them and they were going to fly off, leaving me to face the white walls. Perhaps I wanted this to happen. I wanted to be tucked in bed with tea and toast and a soft novel, but I was hiking and pretending I was a Protestant and that the night before had not happened and, by God, I was going to keep pretending.

In my dream the guys did disappear. At a turn in the road we went one way and they went the other. Sharon wouldn’t stop. She hadn’t seem them laughing. I tried to take the wheel but whenever I touched it, it folded and turned to jelly. I woke up yelling, “Wait. Wait!” Only when I woke up, I was not yelling and Juniper was licking my salty face and I felt like such a coward.

Marshall chickened out on me. That’s all. And I chickened out. And maybe we were supposed to. Maybe you didn’t. He did. And you let him? Wait. Wait.

[AG1]changed from Beattie