October 30, 2013 § 3 Comments
It has been a warm and lazy autumn this year, the frost held at bay. The trees still have a firm grasp on their leafy dressing although they are changing from green to firery fall colors. In spite of yesterday’s strong winds few leaves are scattered across the ground at the park but their dry scent is in the air.
In the center of the playing field stands a teenage girl, her feet surrounded by a ring of bulging plastic bags. Her arms bend at the elbows and her hands cover her mouth as if in surprise. She looks around as if waiting for someone to rescue her. But after a few moments she bends down and grabs several bags in each hand and lifting them walks across the field.
For whose help might she be waiting? What cargo is she carrying with such reluctance? What is in those heavy bags, I wonder. Is she a street girl in the making, her bags holding what is left of her memories? Or is her burden more prosaic? Groceries, perhaps, although the nearest store is two long city blocks away?
When she reaches the pathway she stops again, her arms now stretched out long and straight, the bags hanging so low they almost touch the ground. She again looks to the right and left, pauses for a moment then continues down the path that leads out of the park.
As she disappears from my view I hear a voice shouting and when I turn see a middle-aged man with a long blond ponytail and shabby clothes pushing a shopping cart brimming with the flotsam and jetsam of his life. He angrily protests the sanctity of his inalienable rights to the occupants of the patrol car that is closely herding him down the parking lot toward the road.
“Is that what you’re gonna’ do? Follow me until I leave,” he yells, putting out a hand to steady his wobbling cargo. “I served my country now I can’t get a god damn break!” A rusty station wagon entering the parking lot swerves around him as he crosses the street and heads towards the creek. A woman gets out of the car and opens the rear hatch releasing the heavy bass beat of music from the local radio station.
She reaches into to the interior of the car, rearranging a variety of cardboard boxes and bundles. Then leaning against the rear fender, she lights a cigarette, surveys the scene and spots a young man with two dogs straining at their leashes. “Them pit bulls?” she says, squinting against the smoke in her eyes.
The dogs swivel their heads in her direction, legs stiff and trembling. “Yes,” he says as he drags the snarling dogs away from her and stuffs them in a nearby pick-up truck. “Sure look like a handful,” she answers, then flicking her cigarette into the grass, turns with a smile to greet two old ladies who are approaching.
“How are you girls today,” she says, as the two old women push their matching walkers into the park in step and in unison. They wear wooly handmade sweaters accented with bright yarn flowers, thick soled tennis shoes with wing logos and old world kerchiefs around their head.
“I got some real deals for ya’,” the station wagon lady says pulling something from one of the cardboard boxes and waving it towards the old women. “No want, no want,” they exclaim waving their hands in dismissal and continue on their way chattering in an unknown language.
When the black man with the blue jacket carrying a fishing pole and orange tackle box passes her, the station wagon lady pulls a boom box out of the car. Walking beside him she loudly complains that the friend who owes her money has not arrived yet but she can offer him this practically new radio for just a few dollars. Shaking his head, the fisherman picks up his pace and heads towards the pond.
The woman throws the radio into the car, walks to the park exit and with her hands on her hips looks north. When I pull out of the parking lot I pass a young girl standing before the open trunk of her car sorting through a pile of clothing and sports equipment. Why is it, I wonder, do we all carry so much stuff around with us.
In fact, there is a whole industry now that is built on storage – special boxes and drawers and chests and lockers and units to keep the things we once consumed but now cannot swallow. We pay others to keep what we do not use but cannot let go of.
We all have baggage – old stories, old dreams, old memories, old prejudices, old thoughts – and we carry it with us from place to place and job to job and person to person like luggage on rollers. Conscious of our burdens yet unable to release them – we carry our past with us if not in our cars or in our homes, in our souls – we then look for others to share them. But when we compose our online criteria at match.com we demand that ‘no one with old baggage’ need apply.
December 10, 2012 § 1 Comment
It was a knight from the Order of Santiago who found the small girl wandering along the Way of St. James in the year of the Bad Rains. Charged with delivering a message to the Templars at Ponferrada, the knight had no time for crying children and, so, without a backward glance, left her at inn called The Laughing Horse in the valley beyond Pedrafita Pass.
Throwing a few silver coins upon the table, the knight said to the protesting landlord, “No doubt some distraught mother will come looking for her soon. If not, she is yours to do with as you wish.” Then he rode away and was seen no more.
Unclaimed, the pilgrim’s child was put to work and village eyes watched as the child became a girl, then maid. As she aged, all agreed she only grew more lovely.
“A gypsy’s child,” some said, “left behind for others to take pity on and care for. See how bold her flashing eyes, how sly her looks and her lips so crimson red.”
“She was born of noble blood,” said others. “Perhaps a princess captured by a Moor who cannot now claim her as kin. See how high she holds her head, her profile, the softness of her skin.”
Many pilgrims took their rest at The Laughing Horse and were doubly refreshed – first by the young girl’s beauty and, in later years, by her dancing, for when the music took her to its heart, she was a flame burning bright in the dark mountain night.
“Let us to Lisbon go,” begged the soldier, “where the sun is always shining and the ocean breezes blow. Pray, let us go.”
“In silk and lace will I dress you in Granada,” the merchant pledged, “and fill your every wish if you but grant a kiss.”
“Seville calls, my sweet,” the bishop whispered. “Courtiers will your praises sing, princes sigh. Come, my dear, let’s fly.”
But the maiden turned them all away saying, “Gold and fame are not my desires. Love is all I claim. Let it consume me in its fire.”
The people in the village laughed at her foolishness. The women watched her behind black lace fans and tapped their feet. The men looked at her from the corners of their eyes as she walked by. They called her Solamente – She Stands Alone.
And so the years went by, gradually, one by one.
One summer night to the inn a young man came and for his dinner played the song upon his guitar some call Yearning for Love. And the young maiden, who was busy at her window counting the stars, heard his song and knew it for her own.
As he played, she danced and as she danced, he sang. His shining song opened her soul like a rose bud in June and her heart was satisfied.
At the morning’s light, the young man donned his cloak, turned to her and said, “Although, my love, your lips are sweet, in Toledo is my fortune’s gate. One day, gold-laden, I shall return and make you my own, if you but wait.”
To which the once-maiden, now woman, replied, “If in Toledo’s heat, you feel against your cheek the cool touch of the north wind, think of me, for I am blowing you a kiss, and it is here I wait.”
The young man pulled on his traveler’s pack and walked off to seek his fortune. The woman stood at the very top of the highest hill and heard the lilting sound of his guitar playing a song some call Love is Sweet.
Some people in the village looked on her with pity; others thought, if she has one lover taken, might she another not. And so they called her Cederer – She Yields.
And so the years went by, slowly, one by one.
As dawn’s rosy fingers lifted the skirts of night, a most delicious fragrance awakened the young woman who used to be a maid from the palace of her dreams. Looking out she saw birds winging northward, and trailing in their wake, the scent of orange blossoms, soft and strong and sweet.
Her heart rejoiced. “My beloved comes!” She opened all the windows, then swept outside the door. She laid fresh linens on the bed and washed her hair. She drew on a dress sewn during moonlit nights, then ran quickly to the highest hill to wait.
He came not that morning, nor at noon, but on the third hour, from afar, the young woman saw approaching a fine knight in silvered armor accompanied by his men.
When he drew nigh her, the knight who used to be a young man said, “On a Prince’s smile have I my fortune built, but in the midst of Toledo’s heart the cool touch of the north wind was upon my cheek, and I hungered for your kiss.”
Then he filled her lap with gifts – sweet oranges and scarlet pomegranates, golden almonds and the dark raisins of the south.
That night the young knight played upon his guitar the song some call Love Returns to Love. And while he played, the young woman danced and her bright eyes flashed and her red skirts swirled in the moonlight like ribbons of blood.
Three days and three nights they spent together and on the morning of the fourth, the young knight said, “Destiny calls, my love, and while sweet, here I must not linger but follow this road of riches to its source and gain the fame for which I long.”
The woman answered, “The praise of princes is a heady brew, but one day, a deeper draught you shall crave. Remember then, this mountain pass and the love that I save.”
The knight put on his silver armor and climbed astride his tall black steed. He called his men around him and rode off to claim his fame. The woman, at the top of the highest hill, saw the sun glinting from his armor and heard him singing the song some called Love Renewed.
The people of the village talked amongst themselves and looked sideways at the woman who had danced in the moonlight for a knight in silver armor. They called her Esperanza – She Waits.
And so the years went by, swiftly, one by one.
The harvest sun was high in the sharp blue sky and the vines swollen with juice. The lush woman, who used to be young, walked through the garden, stopping here, pausing there, touching the fruit, breathing in the fragrance of a scarlet rose.
“He comes,” said the bee, buzzing by her ear. “He comes.”
Her heart leapt within her breast and gathering up her skirts, she rushed to the top of the highest hill. From afar, she could see approaching, many men and many horses and many wagons. And from a golden carriage flew the standard of a king.
A Great Man with medals across his chest and a long golden sword at his side descended. Bowing deeply before the woman, his plumed hat brushing the ground, the Great Man said, “Behold!”
At the snap of his fingers, two young boys shook out a bolt of sheer China silk spun as dark as midnight and shot through with golden stars; brought forth a chest of coins new minted and gleaming; lay before her a cask of the finest wine and tender fruits from distant ports in wicker baskets.
The woman clapped her hands and spun around in delight. She put yellow roses in her hair and smiled.
The Great Man laughed and sent his men away. He played for her the song some have named Answering Love’s Call. As he played, she danced for his pleasure and wore, as her only garment, his desire.
His touch was not as light as once it was, nor was her step as quick. But the spirit was strong within them and came forth as Flowing Generosity. Many nights and many days they spent together until, at last, a messenger from the distant waiting prince arrived, bearing news of a coming war.
The Great Man turned to the woman and said, “My duty calls and my prince awaits within his tower. But one day I shall return with fortune, fame and power.”
The woman replied, “While you plot intrigues and plan strategies behind your castle wall, I will a garden plant, count the stars and listen for the north wind’s call.”
The Great Man and his entourage marched in stately process down the mountain road. The woman stood at the top of the highest hill and the wheels of the carriage sang and the drums beat out a martial air some call Love is Triumphant.
The people of the village, knowing war was near, gathered up all they had and in the dark of night slipped away. When they thought of the woman left behind, they called her Constancia – She is Constant.
And so the years flew by, heedlessly, one by one.
It was the cool touch of the north wind upon her cheek that drew the old woman slowing up from her well of dreams. She looked out the window and the winter stars showed in silhouette the shadow of a man walking alone through the snow-filled valley.
She added wood to the fire, then laid the table with fine linen and lace. She sliced bread and put the soup on to heat. She sat and watched the door until at last it opened. An old man entered, his pockets empty, his name forgotten and his only crown the silver of his hair.
She took his cloak, then led him to the waiting chair where they in silence sat until at last the old woman said, “In spring, we shall plant a garden and keep bees. In summer, sit and count the stars as they wheel overhead. In autumn, we shall press juice from the vines and in winter, spin stories and sing songs of love.”
That night while the mountain winds blew, the old man played on his guitar the song some call Love Endures. The old woman swayed within the chords and first became the spark, and then the flame, and then the fire.
By that holy light, the young boy and the young maiden looked into each other’s eyes and at last their hearts beat as one. The people of the village who had returned to the mountain town saw the light in the old woman’s eyes and they called her Ardiente – She Burns.
And the years flew by silently one by one until the day the southern birds carried the scent of orange blossoms on their wings. The old man in garden drew a deep breath and the old woman by the well sighed. The cool touch of the north wind blew soft upon their cheeks.
That night they closed the door to their little house. They untied the dog. They climbed to the top of the highest hill and listened to the stars sing the song some call Timeless Love. Hand in hand, they followed its melody through the high mountain passes and were seen no more.
When the people of the village tell the story of the two lovers, they called it Canto Viento del Norte, The Song of the North Wind.
August 25, 2012 § 3 Comments
Last words of O. Henry
Her name was Mary but as a small child I could not pronounce it and so I called her Mimi. She and her family were part of the Croatian diaspora of the early 20th century. She was second generation and spoke English fluently but she never learned to read or write. She certainly never drove a car – that skill was carefully guarded by her tall, silent husband whom I always circled warily.
She was of middle height with thin mousy brown hair that only looked good on Saturday when she had a standing appointment at the local beauty shop for her regular wash and set. She had a plain oval face, large ears and a distinctive nose. As a young woman, her body must have been delicious for even in middle age, which are my earliest memories of her, she had fine, heavy breasts and slim hips.
Mimi cleaned houses for a living but her own home was very plain and drab, like a floor that had been washed with Spic and Span so many times that all of the shine was gone and only gray linoleum remained. There were very few decorations or knick knacks in the house except for one I remember well. It was a little figurine of an old peasant with a kerchief, or babushka, on her head and broom in her hands. Mimi told me she was a “stada baba,” a name meaning “old grandmother.” She would say to me, “One day when I’m an old stada baba with a babushka will you come see me at the Poor House?” I would say yes and she would laugh and hug me.
In those days the County Poor House was the terrifying specter and the only option for those who were poor or without children to care for them in their old age. Social Security was still a new-fangled idea and many people like Mimi who worked on a cash basis never even had a number, a regular paycheck and certainly no medical insurance – like many people today.
There were three local radio stations in our valley in those days and every Sunday afternoon one of them would play the music of the ethnic tribes of Europe. There was the Italian Hour, the Polish Hour, the Serbian Hour, the Irish Hour, the German Hour and so on. When the Serbian Hour came on at 1 o’clock I would go over to Mimi’s house and she and I would dance to the wild gypsy music of the chardash. We would twirl and spin around until we were both out of breath and dizzy. Then she’d laugh and say “Let’s have a little nip.” She would pour me a bit of beer in a small jelly glass and say “Now, don’t tell your mother.”
By her forties, the years of scrubbing floors on her knees, of hanging out of second story windows to wash them, of soaking her hands in water that was too hot and full of chemical cleaners, eventually exacted a price on her strong peasant body. Her joints became swollen with rheumatoid arthritis and her thin arms and legs were often dark with bruises from falling. There was always the look of pain behind her eyes.
Sometimes at night I would be watching television and hear the back door open. Mimi would hobble in and say “Don’t be mad at me for bothering you, Marie. My legs hurt so bad and I just didn’t want to be alone anymore” (for her husband worked nights). Always she would apologize for interrupting me, for intruding her pain into my superficial teenage life. Often she would cry. We would watch a few programs together and then at nine o’clock she would go home.
Before I relate my final conversation with Mimi, I have to include another piece of information. As a child I had always slept with a night light on for I was afraid of the dark; that was when I felt most alone. To be in the light meant to be happy and loved.
One night, many years later, when I was in my early 50’s, I woke up within a dream. I was in a cloudy kind of place and, although it had been more than 30 years since her death, I was talking to my dear neighbor. I heard my mind saying to her mind, “How happy you must be now, Mimi. You don’t have any more pain. You can do anything and it doesn’t hurt. You can even smoke as many cigarettes as you want.”
This was really a projection on my part because Mimi never smoked. I was the 30-year, two-pack a day nicotine addict who was one year into abstinence.
I felt Mimi smiling as she replied. “You don’t understand. You only come here when you don’t want anything anymore,” and I instantly understood that she was perfectly right. Heaven is being without compulsions and desires.
As she was leaving me she turned back to add, “You know, Marie, up here the light never goes out.”
A jolt shot through me and I immediately woke up. I remembered that just the year before I had lain in Intensive Care, drifting in and out of consciousness, living in a half-land of darkness and shadows. I had been afraid then that the light might go out for good. Now this kind woman from my childhood had come back to tell me that there was nothing to fear, that a place of safety was waiting, a place where the light was eternal.
I never forgot Mimi’s last visit. I think maybe she is waiting for me. When I arrive the music will start to play and we will both be young and beautiful and we will dance chardash again.
August 5, 2012 § 4 Comments
A cloudy day and misty evening punctuated by fat lazy raindrops has made this morning fresh and clean and fragrant with the scent of pine. The unrelenting August heat has been temporarily suspended and the day is shaking its shoulders to toss off the clenched fist of the parched earth. The neighborhood is stirring, too.
My neighbor, Gina, drops in to recount her first-of-the-month errands that took her from the bank to Walmart to the grocery store to the 99 cents store. “I had to wait to go to Walmart because there was a wedding on my soap opera I didn’t want to miss.”
She has watched the soap for nearly forty years and this day would mark the marriage of a couple who had wed and then divorced, and now many years later would be remarried. In an aside she adds “It’s a long and complicated story so I won’t go into it.”
In a rush of words she relates that the groom came up the aisle in a wheelchair but stood up to say his vows to the astonished delight of his old/new bride. “He had had an accident, you see, because he was texting on the phone while he was driving his car. So now he can’t walk. I learn all kinds of things. These stories are so educational!” she concludes gasping with admiration. I have to love her for her openness and sincerity.
Meanwhile, the lady and terrier who wear matching outfits wheel by rapidly, she on a mission perhaps from God while the aging Siamese cat follows in their wake. The little Japanese lady scampers on by slippered feet, bobbing head murmurs encouragement to the white Shih Tzu who stalls and stretches his neck to sniff at entrancing spots along the sidewalk.
The Russian couple who live upstairs descend, loaded down with pails and trowels and bags to tend their patch in the community garden. Sweetie Pie the cat bows her head with regal condescension to the “Kitty, kitty,” they coo as they stretch out their gnarled hands.
The old man with the baseball cap rides his bicycle swiftly past, his back straight and erect as a heron’s leg, his eyes forward as a new soldier’s gaze. Round and round he circles the drive, white knit chest pumping in and out as his legs piston up and down in time to a cadence heard only in his inner ear. Round and round, a one-horse carousel, he winds up the morning like a clockmaker.
The gentle delta breeze glides inland over ripening fields and drying reservoirs traveling northward after its night in the big city that lies south and west, a painted lady by the sea lapped by pacific shores known for their cosmopolitan tolerance. Turning this way and that the air pirouettes within the cerulean sky like a coquette showering kisses on a generous patron.
What heavy promises lay waiting now in August harvests near bursting from juices made in sun’s sugar rays. Soon, next week, or the week after, a snap will be heard as the sun spears the horizon and autumn signals its imminent arrival. Overhead nine Canadian geese honk on their way to a nearby pond.
July 8, 2012 § 2 Comments
The day started out innocently enough. My neighbor Gina, of the blond wig and tiara fame, phoned me to ask if I was interested in going with her to the local food bank that afternoon. This month’s budget had been crippled by the annual car registration fees, a smog certificate and unexpected medical bills so some extra help in the grocery department would be great. Sure, I blithely replied, and offered to drive.
By the time she knocked on the apartment door an hour later she had picked up another neighbor named John who also wanted to go. We trooped out to my car and I flipped the switch so all the doors were open. I left them to get in and settled while I took a bag of trash to the dumpster.
Twenty-three and one-half seconds later I was back and saw that Gina had made herself comfortable in the back seat. I heard her say to John in her Tweetie Pie voice, “She’ll open your door as soon as she gets back.” John, who had been ineffectually tugging at the handle of the front passenger door, looked at me over the roof of the car.
Hadn’t I already opened all the doors? Oh, well, I thought, then beamed a friendly smile at him. I ambled, which is like strolling only more roly-poly, to the driver’s side. I reached down and gave the handle a tug. Locked. I glanced through the car window and saw my purse and keys lying on the front seat.
“Gina, this door’s locked too. You’ll have to open the car from the inside,” I called.
“How do I do that,” she asked.
“On the driver’s door there are lots of buttons. Push the top one.”
She reached over the front seat and began poking the various buttons on the console. “They’re not working,” she said, a hint of agitation circling her voice.
“Don’t bother with the window buttons,” I explained calmly. ”Push the top button on the left side.”
“It’s not working!” she cried, her Tweetie voice going up to hummingbird level.
“Don’t panic, Gina!” shouted John, who was bobbing and weaving on the other side of the car and periodically tugging at his door.
“It’s getting hot in here!” Gina squealed. “I feel dizzy!”
“Gina, calm down and listen to me.” I thought my voice sounded very self-contained considering my teeth were clenched.
“Help!” cried Gina. “I can’t breathe!”
“Don’t panic!” shouted John. “You’re not going to die!”
I shot John a look that in some countries might be listed under Grievous Bodily Harm. I wondered if I could get away with a plea of self-defense when they found the bodies in the parking lot.
“Quick! Break a window!” Gina gasped, which is like breathing with your stomach.
“Gina,” I said as my hands twitched in choking motions, “do you see all the buttons on the door?”
“Call 911! I can’t breathe,” she said while draped over the seat back.
“Yes, you can. Now press the top button on the left side. It’s a toggle button and goes up and down. Press it up and down,” I said
“Ahhh,” she whimpered and stretched out a shaking finger.
Wiggle, wiggle, pop! I pulled that door handle like a parachute ripcord at 1,000 feet.
“Good going, Gina,” I said, grabbing the car keys in a sweaty hand and collapsing into the front seat.
John got in and as he buckled his seatbelt turned to Gina and said, “Boy, you sure get upset easy!”
Twenty minutes later we were all seated on metal folding chairs at the Baptist Church, the location of the area food bank. Now as fully recovered as she would ever be, Gina chattered about her dietary requirements and how she hoped they would give her lots of vegetables as she was a vegetarian.
“I eat a lot of celery,” she said. “It’s real good for your nerves.”
“Maybe you should carry a few stocks in your purse in case of emergencies,” I offered with some asperity which is like vinegar but more bitter.
While we were waiting, Gina regaled us with the highlights from her recent colonoscopy ending with the statement, “John had one too only his polyps were bigger,” to which John responded, “Thanks a lot for sharing my personal information,” and turned his back on both of us.
I was circling the edges of hysteria when my number was called – which is better than your number being up. An hour later with the adventure over and the time for reflection at hand, I felt grateful, not only for the generosity of the food bank but for the delightful people I continue to meet on this journey.
July 6, 2012 § 3 Comments
Back in the old days, when families were having trouble making ends meet, they might take in boarders who would rent a bedroom, share the bathroom and take meals with the family. I remember when I was a real little girl we had two borders who lived with us. Both of them were Italian, of course, had steady jobs at the local steel mill, were middle-aged bachelors, and didn’t drink, smoke or gamble to excess.
The first was named Rocco. He was a short, boxy, silent man with fair skin, light reddish hair and a huge handlebar moustache. His room was the small one at the top of the stairs; the same room that I would occupy many years later after my divorce. The room was seven feet wide and ten feet long so you felt like you were living in a railroad car. You almost had to walk sideways to get from the door at one end of the room to the closet at the other.
Rocco was a curious sort of guy; he had a retiring disposition and had no inclination towards society. While he slept upstairs in the bedroom, the rest of the time he occupied the cellar. I remember going down those treacherous cellar stairs, past the old coal furnace that sat there like some demon from a Buddha hell, and peeking into the back part of the cellar where Rocco would sit in a wooden rocking chair beside a scarred wooden table illuminated by the light of a metal floor lamp with a stained yellow silk shade.
I don’t remember him ever eating with the family, preferring to use the old gas stove that my mother had in the cellar to use during the Pennsylvania summers when it was too hot to cook upstairs. I seem to remember him frying liver and onions frequently but maybe I am making this up and just think I am remembering. Anyway, when Rocco cooked he always shared his meals with his cat, a big orange tiger that looked very much like him. Except for the fact that the cat was shorter, they could have been brothers.
Rocco revealed an interesting sidelight to his own character by naming the cat Garibaldi who was leader of the nationalist party in the struggle for Italian unification. Why did the short, silent, red-haired laborer name his equally taciturn cat after a firebrand revolutionary, I speculated in later years. What was there about Rocco’s temperament, perhaps his past that was unrevealed? I never found out.
I loved Garibaldi with the passion that little girls reserve for large, orange, furry cats with long whiskers and difficult-to-pronounce names. In fact, I could not call him by his proper name, Garibaldi, and had to resort to calling him Kittybald. He shared his master’s infinite disdain for society, particularly of the feminine kind, but this did not deter me. It lit my fires and I longed to make Kittybald my own.
Since I didn’t have any brothers or sisters and was born in between generations in my family, and because I was too little to leave the block or cross the street, Kittybald, by default, became my best, indeed, my only friend. In those days, my favorite game was playing dress up the dolls. I had my own little baby buggy with the fold down convertible top and after dressing my dolls up in their most beautiful clothes I would take them for rides in the buggy up and down Ridge Avenue. But dolls are boring; they never talk back, they never hug you and they never meow.
So my most favorite game became playing dolls with Kittybald. I would capture that old cat when he was sleeping, dress him up in doll clothes and after tucking him under the covers, take him for rides in my baby buggy. It was quite disappointing to me that he never seemed to share my enthusiasm for this most entertaining pastime. In fact, when he saw me driving up with my buggy, he would often bolt across the yard, dive into the garden, zig through the forest of staked tomatoes, zag between the peppers and zucchini, then wiggle out under the privet hedge.
I remember one day in particular that he zigged when he should have zagged and I caught him by his rear legs just as he was slipping through the hedge. I reeled him back in like a tuna on a line while his claws made furrows in the dirt. But no matter what I did to him, Kittybald never scratched me.
He loved to sleep on the banister of the back porch, particularly on a sunny day. One day I was watching him nap when during one of his cattish dreams he must have been leaping after a bird because his feet wiggled and his whiskers twitched and before you knew it, he had rolled over and fallen off the banister into the bushes four feet below. As I peered over the banister to see if he was all right, he gave me a most indignant stare, apparently blaming me for his fall from grace. How I loved that cat.
When I was about four years old, I was big enough to have my own bedroom and by that time Dad was making more money working as a bartender down at the Sunrise Inn – dining and dancing seven nights a week – and we didn’t need two borders any more. One would do. So it was decided that Rocco would move over to Mrs. Baggiocci’s place. It didn’t take long to pack his two suitcases and I don’t remember saying good-bye to him.
But the same day that Rocco left, Kittybald disappeared. He didn’t go with Rocco because Mrs. Baggocci didn’t like cats. Later on, I saw Kittybald a couples times down the alley but he never came when I called him. I cried so much that mom even phoned Rocco to come over to see if he could coax the cat home. He came and Kittybald let himself be fed that one time but he disappeared again and I never saw him after that. For that matter, I never saw Rocco again either.
June 25, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Her name was Eleanor and our two families had lived next door to each other in a small western Pennsylvania town for as long as I could remember. She was perhaps 15 years older than me and this difference in ages meant that there was little we had in common but she was a cheerful person with a kind heart and I liked her.
In later years I would see a resemblance in her to Ingrid Bergman, with her slightly tilted eyes, proud nose with finely arched nostrils and high Slavic cheekbones but even as a child I could see that she had a wonderful figure with full breasts, trim hips and lovely legs for dancing.
The heady scent of her perfume was wonderful and the soft swish of her chiffon dresses seemed to me the epitome of sophistication. She had wonderful taste in clothes and always saved her money to buy her ‘good’ dresses at the better ladies stores in our town.
Because our houses were so close, it was not unusual for Eleanor to rush over before a Saturday night date or Sunday afternoon drive in the country for some last minute help in dressing – a back zipper that was hard to reach, a bracelet clasp that wouldn’t close, a birthday card that needed signing – for Eleanor could not read or write and often requested my assistance. She was what we then called a little ‘slow.’ She had never finished school; in fact, I don’t think she went beyond the sixth grade.
At age 14 Eleanor had followed in her mother’s footsteps as a daily housemaid for some of the wealthier families in town. During the week she would scrub floors, wash windows, dust, sweep, iron and do a myriad of other tasks for $5 a day. Over the years Eleanor often became part of the extended family of ‘her ladies.’ She learned whose husbands were straying, which ladies drank in the afternoon, what brides had ‘premature’ babies, and what women had to cover bruises with makeup.
One day, after I was an adult with children of my own, we were sharing a beer at the kitchen table and she talked about some of the families she had worked for over the years. In a low voice she told me about a family I knew myself; in fact, the husband was a business owner and former town mayor.
After he retired, he began to get funny, as she put it. She had been mopping the kitchen floor when he came in, pulled down his pants and began to masturbate in front of her. “I told him, ‘Don’t do that! Please, don’t do that!’” she said, starting to cry. “But he didn’t stop and after it was all over, I had to clean it up.” Even I, at 32, found the story shocking and infinitely sad that this happened to this good-hearted, simple girl – for she always seemed a girl to me and not a woman.
Eleanor was very much under the domination of her parents, particularly the forbidding father whose silence and cold demeanor also frightened me – although from a distance. Eleanor’s older sister, Pauline, had been the smart one and favored child. Pauline married a local carpenter, had five children and after his early death worked in the school cafeteria.
Since Pauline had provided grandchildren, Eleanor was told her duty was to stay home and care for her aging parents as long as they lived. Who would want to marry her anyway? But Eleanor longed for love and over the years had been courted by a few men who, for one reason or another, could not marry her, at least not right now.
I best remember a man named Paul who lived in a city 15 miles away. Every Sunday, without fail, he would pull up in front of the gray clapboard house, two cartons of Kent cigarettes and a six pack of beer in brown paper bag and ring the front door bell. This was the time she had waited for all week long. In her pretty dress, high heels and perfume, she and Paul would drive to one of the many private social clubs in the area.
Because Pennsylvania had ‘blue laws’ prohibiting the sale of liquor on Sunday they would visit the Russian Club, the Italian Home, the Slovenian Society, the VFW or in the summer drive to Shady Grove, an outdoor polka dance pavilion in the country. Even though Paul did not dance, he would sit there and watch as various men twirled Eleanor around the floor.
Eleanor and Paul saw each other for many years. Paul had to care for his aged mother and could not marry while she was still alive, Eleanor explained. When the mother finally died it was the sister and her family who needed his help and attention. But Paul had promised Eleanor that he had remembered her in his will. Later, after I had moved away from my small town, Eleanor would learn that Paul died one night of a heart attack. There was no mention of her in his will; in fact, other than the friends they both knew, no one in Paul’s family knew she existed.
In later years, after her mother’s death, Eleanor cared for her father as she was supposed to do. Eventually, she ended up having to bathe him and change his diapers. When he finally died, the older sister arranged for the family house to be sold and Eleanor moved to a senior apartment complex in a nearby town.
It has been more than fifteen years since I have seen Eleanor but the other day when it was so hot and I was sitting on the patio drinking a beer she came to mind. When I did a Google search I learned that the dominating older sister had died of a heart attack two years ago and Eleanor was still alive, living alone in her little apartment. I wish I could see her again. I wish we could sit around my mother’s kitchen table with a tall glass of cold beer and she would tell me all the good gossip about the people in our little western Pennsylvania town.
June 17, 2012 § 4 Comments
“Catch me if I fall,” the child trills from the limb of the cherry tree.
“I’m right here,” replies the father. “I’ll catch you.”
“Catch me if I fall” – that universal prayer to the father who will be always be there under the tree we are climbing, in the car we are driving, in the race we are swimming. And while we thrill to the excitement of independence and self-determination, we are, at the same time, afraid we may go too high, too far, too fast. Catch me! It is this request that lies inherent in all of our prayers as we ask the father to be there as we climb the cherry trees of our relationships, our careers, our ambitions. We ask him to be our safety net, for with this security beneath us we can dare to be brave.
He was nine years old and part of the Italian immigration that arrived in America at the turn of the 20th century. He and his older brother, Dominic, and his younger brother, Louie, arrived with their parents in 1912 and went directly from Ellis Island in New York to a small western Pennsylvania town where other friends and relatives had settled. The family rented an apartment above a bar in the lower end of town where all of the other Italian families lived.
Of the three brothers, Dominic, the oldest, was the most ambitious. He would eventually end up with the largest house in the better section of the town and outlive his two brothers. Louie, the youngest, had striking Italian good looks, and was the most out-going and charming of the trio. He had a quick wit, a ready laugh and a kind heart. He drank more than he should have, lost money playing cards and never amounted to much but everybody liked him.
The second son was named Sante, nicknamed Sandy, and he had neither Louie’s good looks and bon vivant indifference to fate nor his older brother’s canniness and drive. He was the middle of the three brothers and this middle position seemed to color his appearance too, for everything about him was medium – his height, his weight, the color of his brown hair and eyes. Only the space between his two front teeth was unusual and in later years, these teeth would be lost one by one and it would be the jack-o-lantern smile that would be remembered.
He had little patience and a short temper that would be dramatically lost upon occasion accompanied by much door-slamming, Italian swearing and arm waving. He smoked long, skinny black Italian stogies and on the Sunday afternoon drives he took with his family in the car the air would be thick with acrid smoke.
Leaving school after the third grade, he completed his education at the local steel mill and foundry which was named Shenango, an Indian name for the river that ran through the long valley. His lack of a diploma seemed not to interfere with his life for his ambitions were not high. He could do enough math to watch his money and could read well enough to follow the sports in the newspaper every day.
Sports were his great love. His favorite game was baseball and his team was the New York Yankees. But they were far away in New York and he in Pennsylvania so he concentrated his energy on the local high school teams and would follow them to out-of-town games. One year, when the local high school won the state championship in their class, he took the whole team out to a local restaurant for a celebration dinner.
Along with team sports, he loved to hunt and fish and every year he was part of the fall exodus to the mountains where he would try his skill at rabbit and deer hunting. He kept a few hunting dogs over the years but did not seem to have any affection for them, treating them with a careless indifference that edged on cruelty.
More than anything, Sante wanted a son. But he was infertile and believed he was less of a man for it. Because he yearned to have a boy to share his love of sports, he became a big brother to some of the youngsters who were kept at George Junior Republic, a county institution that cared for boys who were delinquent, orphaned or from broken homes. And over the years, these big, gangly boys from across the state would be taken to games, taken hunting and fishing and when they were old enough introduced to the fellows at the neighborhood bars.
In 1945, after nearly twenty years of marriage, a mutual relative told Sandy and his wife about a man who helped people just like themselves – who were too old or too poor or too ethnic – to arrange private adoptions for a consideration. There were a lot of young girls with soldier boyfriends in the 1940’s and a lot of babies without homes. Sandy would have preferred a boy but that summer only girls were available.
Shortly after the baby was adopted, the first signs of Sandy’s future health problems started to manifest. He had to quit working at the steel mill and took a job as a bartender in the neighborhood bar he had once lived above. On the weekend, live hillbilly bands would play in the dining room and everyone would drink too much and dance. Later he would work at the Italian Home, a social club with a bar, restaurant and meeting hall.
But even this work proved to be too much, and in 1953, he and his wife decided to build a small dairy store on the extra lot they owned beside their house. It was open from 7 in the morning to 11 at night, and often later on the weekends when traffic from the local football or basketball games kept everyone hungry and excited. A combination dairy store and luncheonette, the store sold a little bit of everything and could provide anything from coffee and donuts to full dinners.
By 1955, Sandy was diagnosed with diabetes and the next year he had an operation for kidney stones. In 1957 he caught double bronchitis from winter cold but by the time his illness was properly diagnosed, his heart had enlarged and his ability to work was even more restricted. Then one a Friday night in 1960, after attending a local football game, he died of a heart attack on the way home.
They came from Detroit and Buffalo, Pittsburgh and Cleveland, from Youngstown and the Valley, singly and in pairs, the relatives and friends he had made over the years came to say good-bye, for he was a well-liked man. The baskets of flowers accumulated around the casket, fifty-three in all, just four short of each year of his life. On a cold, rainy day in late October he was buried and his obituary was published in the sports column of the local newspaper.
My father died when I was 15 – before I ever had a date, before I graduated from high school, before I finished college, before I married, before I had the two sons he had been waiting for all of his life.
When I think of him, I remember being three years old and laying on his chest as he sat in the easy chair while he sang “Daddy’s Little Girl” to me. I remember walking with him to the news stand every pay day where he would buy me my favorite comic books. I remember the pair of ice skates with black and white pompoms he gave me when I was 11. I remember working in the store the evening he furiously warned off a local boy who was talking to me. I remember him coming home drunk one night and bragging to the friends who brought him that he had enough insurance to send me to college when he was dead.
Although he respected the feminine, it was the masculine he loved and I longed to be the son he wanted. He never took me fishing or to a baseball game; we never had a beer with the boys down the club or stood around at family gatherings out in the yard discussing politics.
Now, when I climb too high or too far or too fast, there is no father beneath to catch me, there is no one to protect me from myself. But the lessons he taught me have served me well in my life’s battleground. I learned how to fight and how to stand alone; how to be strong rather than vulnerable; how to lead and not to follow; that intelligence endures longer than beauty; to watch what a man does, not listen to what he says; and to always sit with my back to the wall and my eye on the door.
Sometimes I think of this man who held me in his lap while my head lay on his chest listening to his heart beat and if I am very quiet I can hear him singing to me again. Thank you, papa, for everything. I wish you could have known my boys, I wish I could kiss you again. And to all the fathers everywhere, I hope we made you proud of us.
“You’re the end of the rainbow, my pot o’ gold
You’re Daddy’s little girl, to have and hold
A precious gem is what you are
You’re Mommy’s bright and shining star
You’re the spirit of Christmas, my star on the tree
You’re the Easter bunny to Mommy and me.
You’re sugar, you’re spice, you’re everything nice
And you’re Daddy’s little girl.”
(Sung by the Mills Brothers, late 40’s)
June 14, 2012 § 3 Comments
It was a hot afternoon and the first day I had been able to sit upright on the couch without a lot of back pain. Gina, my neighbor, had dropped off a few groceries she had kindly gotten for me. Her round face was slightly puffy from the humidity and the blue glass tiara she was wearing in her waist-length blond wig was slightly off center. Long dangling earrings and a necklace and bracelet combination with large multi-color butterflies completed her ensemble. With her substantial bosom and high heels she looks like a 65-year old Barbie doll.
As she bustled around my kitchen putting away the few purchases she again began her litany. How the only thing that really gave her pleasure in life, other than her parrot, was her plants. All she wanted was a little cottage with some room for a garden. Was that too much to ask?
Since circumstances had forced her move to the apartment complex last fall, all of her beautiful succulents were stacked in pots on her patio or boarded out among friends scattered across the city. The apartment manager had already warned her several times to remove the dozens of pots from her entry way as they were a hazard to the fire department.
Ginahas been on tranquilizers since she was in her twenties. She has a social worker who goes with her to various appointments as her level of anxiety is so high it is sometimes difficult for her to drive. She is a kind-hearted person and I have never heard her gossip or talk about the other residents. She is street-smart, rather than educated, and is proud of her 40+-year career as a waitress. But she can no longer work and the money that came so easily before is now hard to come by.
I’ve talked to Gina many times over the last few months and each conversation eventually centers on the same theme – if only I had a little cottage with a yard, I could be happy. It is the same conversation we all have with ourselves. If only … I had a partner, a better job, was better looking, had more money, had a house, better health, a stronger body, had a child, had a car, had some recognition, had a spiritual breakthrough. We each finish the sentence in our own way but we all say it.
We take the unhappiness or dissatisfaction with our lives and give it a specific focus. If only this one desire could be fulfilled, we could be happy. But that fulfillment is always held like a carrot on a stick, somewhere in the future, at some golden time when our hearts will finally be at ease, when the gnawing hunger will finally be satisfied, when our minds will finally be quiet.
For Gina, that hunger is to have a garden again. It is unlikely that desire will be fulfilled for cottages with gardens are now out of reach for someone on social security living in a city. She has been told about the need to accept things as they are, to make allowances, to make compromises, to surrender to the facts of life. But she is not willing to go gently.
Like a child who cannot understand why she is being denied the treat, she cries and worries and prays and begs the faceless energy called Life for a reprieve, to be the loving mother and father who are now gone.
In the same way she cannot put aside the long blond wig or the childish tiaras or the Daisy Mae blouses, Gina is unwilling to be carried along effortlessly in life’s current. Instead of a peaceful acceptance of the way it is, she is fighting for the way things ought to be, and it is a losing battle for her and for all of us.
Meanwhile, I change the subject and ask her what she will make for dinner tonight and what clever thing Zorba her parrot has said today. We tentatively plan to go to the farmer’s market when I can get around again and she relates how the things she was given at the food bank were mostly spoiled. When she leaves I give a hug to her small, sturdy body and some of the long blond hairs rub against my cheek like little plastic wires.
May 16, 2012 § Leave a Comment
The pace is picking up in our march towards summer. The sun is rising by 5:30 and we have already experienced some 90 degree days. The little neighborhood park I often visit has also changed its tempo.
With the warmer weather more people are out walking and the old oak trees that stood in contrast to the brilliant blue skies of winter are now in full leaf and throwing deep shadows on the lawns. Even more children are in the playgrounds and the noontime parking lot is filled with the cars of local workers taking their lunch on the picnic benches.
This morning I parked near the small man-made pond. It was a short walk from the car to the park bench but by the time I got there my left knee was already aching. I sat down with relief and watched about a dozen ducks and geese splashing in the pond, dipping and diving for food.
Then I noticed a movement out of the corner of my eye and when I turned my head I saw a giant gray and white goose standing beside me. He was at least three feet high and had a large knob-like protuberance at the top of his bill. Those webbed feet were silent, I thought with some suspicion, as I looked him up and down.
He tipped his head and eyed me thoughtfully. I looked back at him and had what I sometimes call a “St. Francis” moment. Here we were, I mulled, two species part of the Great Circle of Life and seeking to relate on some intimate level. A beatific smile nudged the corners of my mouth.
That was about the same time said goose stepped closer and began bumping his chest against my left leg. My eyes widened, my mouth formed a silent O. I was about to protest when its big beak pecked experimentally at my leg. “Whoa!” I exclaimed, all thoughts of the interconnectedness of life forgotten as I reached for my cane.
We joined in a silent Vulcan mind meld and wrestled for dominance. Then the connection was broken and tossing its head it gave forth a great “Honk!’ and waddled away its tail feathers twitching in triumph. I slumped against the back of the bench and panted.
After a few moments I nonchalantly pivoted – which is like carefree only less concerned – and threw a backward glance over my left shoulder. The goose had taken up an observatory position about fifteen feet behind me with a heretofore unnoticed companion. Both geese were sitting on the grass, their x-ray eyes fastened on my back.
Feigning unconcern – which is like pretending only not as much fun – I turned back, determined to ignore their basilisk stares. Periodically, a variety of honks and honklettes issued from the pair and broke the peace of the morning. Soon I felt an unexplained burning in the center of my back accompanied by an increased tightness around my head.
I fidgeted, I twitched. I weighed the value of lingering longer. As I rose from the bench I whistled a happy tune under my breath, grasped my cane firmly an with some trepidation which is like being on the look out for a trap, set off down the path. As I rounded the corner the sound of derisive honks echoed in the morning air.