Thursday, July 6, 2017

My Climber

Amelia wobbles at the wall with one little toddler foot pressing onto my bedroom's baseboard. She stumbles back before turning to say, "It's hard to do."
"What is?" I ask.
"It's hard to do, Mommy."
"It's hard to climb the wall?"
"Yeah. Hard to climb wall."

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Be Where You Are

While I walk in the woods, I look up and around to mark my progress and to find and follow the trail ribbons tied to the trees, but mostly I stare down, watching the dirt as it passes beneath my swinging feet. For when I notice and really see the place where my body is, I don't trip on raised roots or fallen trees or moss covered rocks or into mud puddles. Instead, I step on or over or around them. I want to let this be a reminder to me - perhaps a way I can try to live. For when I dwell or worry about where I've been or where I'm going, what stupid thing I said or how dorky I look, I trip into misery and anxiety, unhappiness and regret as if they were all roots, trees, rocks or puddles set in the earth to knock me to my palms and knees. So look where you are going and look where you've been, dear, but mostly, watch your feet and be where you are. 

Sunday, June 25, 2017


In two months, she will be two years old.

"My girl! Lie t'me." She sings our Lead Belly lullaby out of tune and without most of the words. She sings, "tinkle tinkle little 'tar, how I wonder what you aaaare!", as well as an abridged version of the alphabet, "ABCB...H....I...Penny Doggy!" and Raffi's "baby baloooooga. Baby balooooga!" And when she dances, she twirls in slow circles.

One morning, while reading the newspaper, she wanted my attention and so she stood on her table and belted out, "PAPA GONNA BUY YOU MOCKING BIRD! Don't sing!" from the old folk song, Hush Little Baby. She also climbs the stairs, while letting out short exaggerated exhales: try. to. catch. ME., every breath, stomp and stair slap implies. 

"You need to wait for Mumma!" I holler, running after her, which only makes her climb faster and breathe louder.

She also squeals and screams when she wants me to look at her.

"Ouch! That hurts my ears, Amelia." I say. 

Sometimes, while sitting beside me, she'll press her teeth to my bare arm and through a sly smile threaten to bite my flesh. When I pull my arm away, she rattles off a list of people she isn't supposed to bite. "Don't bite Mummy. Don't bite Daddy. Don't bite Lily..." It is a long list.

"What can you bite?" I ask.

"Cheese!" Cheese is her first response. I don't know why. I ask her about bananas, blueberries and bread and she agrees - they too are appropriate things to place between her teeth. Some of the time, she lifts her mouth from my wet skin and skips right to: "Don't bite people! Don't bite animals! Bite FOOD!"  

Last month, at a birthday party, under a silky red parachute, she just about lost her mind. The grownups were holding the outside edges, making the parachute wave, flutter and billow. She was so excited, she made all the other jumping jubilant children appear ungrateful and bored. She sprinted barefoot back and forth and in circles, jacked up on joy, squealing, while looking into the eyes of all the other children as if she say, "Can you EVEN believe this?!" Her enthusiasm was contagious. I was so happy I let her have a scoop of vanilla ice cream. We even stayed past nap time, leaving mid-afternoon. She fell asleep in the car on our way home. Parked in the driveway, I sat with the windows open, reading my newspaper, while she slept behind me in silence.

She still goes on long unintelligible ramblings, but most of what she says, I understand.

"Na night, Daddy. I la' you. Daddy washin' dishes." She says, climbing the stairs at bedtime.

Last week, she weaned herself from nursing. I wasn't expecting it. I assumed we would get to it eventually this summer, but I was dreading it. Nursing had always been one of her most favorite things. She'd practically clap her hands and dance whenever I'd reach to unbutton, unzip or pull down my top. Then one night last week, she simply forgot. Our bed time routine had been: Nursing in the rocking chair. Books in bed. Lights out. Then one night, she didn't to mention it. So I didn't mention it.  We dressed her in pajamas and climbed into bed, read a pile of picture books and turned out the light. "Mumma lie down. Mumma, lie down." She fell asleep with a hand on my hair. The following night, she asked to nurse, but I distracted her with books. In the middle of the night, she asked again, so I sang her to sleep. A week later, she still mentions it occasionally, but it sounds more out of habit. 

She says, "nurse?" 

And I reply, "Amelia doesn't nurse anymore." 

Then we discuss all the people she knows who no longer breastfeed. It is a long list, one that includes her cousins, myself and her father.

In the fall, she will attend school for the first time. I've been offered a job as a toddler teacher in a Montessori school on the other side of the river. I'll be teaching children her age, but she'll be next door in the other toddler classroom. I'm excited. It feels right for us. I think it will be interesting, challenging, exhausting, rewarding, fun, stressful, beautiful, busy.... all the descriptors that make life life. For now, at the end of June, she and I are wrapped up in summer's slowness, in searching for libraries, gardens, raspberry muffins, sandboxes, strawberries, playground slides, sprinklers, worms, woodpeckers and sweet drippy popsicles.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017


In the basement, we sit on the couch and share two berry rhubarb popsicles and half a bag of pretzels. It's cooler down here. Upstairs, the temperature reaches the mid-nineties before mid-morning. After our walk with the furry dog and the mosquitoes and the sharp sun rays, we retreat to the cool dark basement to play and read. It isn't a scary basement, but a walk out with windows and second hand furniture, cream colored walls and closets full of coats and old baby clothes. With us, we have the basket with the swinging handle. It holds my unread newspaper, our bottles of water, a magazine, a few toys and picture books. My pale pudgy daughter sits beside me. She is covered in pink bug bites. They love her fresh flesh. They bite her through her pants and long sleeves and cap. They even bite her skin when it's still wet with bug spray. We grownups talk about how the mosquitoes must be from all this rain and from the pine tree that fell this past winter and was cut into pieces and put into a pile down the path. It wasn't this bad last year. Right? Weren't we outside playing all the time? And it wasn't this hot. Was it? We can't quite remember. 

"What if this is our climate change? A massive amount of ticks and mosquitoes and 90 degree heat waves."  I say.

My husband shrugs. 
We let most of the spiders live in our ceiling corners, though I confess to carrying three to the porch banister the other night and watching them skitter away into the dark. It's because they all looked to be cradling egg sacks. 

The other day we hiked through the forest to the dam in the rain. I wore my daughter on my back and held our umbrella and the dog's leash in my hands. I saw only one mosquito the entire time. Of course, if there were drops of water falling from the sky that were the same size as me, I'd be hiding too. 

Little black ants claimed the coffee maker last week. I kept finding them gathering at the base. I'd wipe them away with white vinegar and then see more soon after. It took me awhile before I realized that an entire colony had claimed the inside of the machine. Out of sight, beneath the plastic dish for the grounds, a queen ant was hatching little white eggs while all her fathers carried them with their legs. I nearly screamed. At first glance, I thought they were maggots. Why are those ants carrying maggots? I thought. Oh. Eggs. I hate to say it, but I threw the machine onto the porch and sprayed it with bleach. What a terrible person I am. You'd think a mother would have a bit more sympathy for other mothers, even insect mothers, but no. Unfortunately my imagination makes me itchy. I'm happy to co-habitat up to a point, but the eggs just feel like an invasion. I worry they'll cover my kitchen counters and walls and my skin while I'm sleeping.  So sometimes I spray them with bleach until they stop moving. 

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

"Come on guys!"

She says, cracking herself up in her car seat in the backseat, while her dadda drives and I hand her pieces of blueberry muffin. A berry, banana and yogurt smoothie sits wedged between her legs. "Come on guys!" she says again, laughing so hard it sounds as if she's being tickled. I said the phrase a couple days ago. It was my impression of our dog, who was sitting at the top of our basement stairs, looking down at us, waiting for us to follow and open the door so that she could get to her bowl of water. "Come on guys." I said in my best, most gruff doggy impression. She repeated me then, but we haven't said it since. Then this morning, out of nowhere, while sitting backwards and munching on muffin and sipping her smoothie, my 21-month-old daughter recalls my joke that made her laugh the first time she heard it and she says it again and again. "Come on guys! Penny. 'Stairs! COME ON GUYS!" Her squeals work like high-pitched punctuation marks as we all laugh and laugh in this forgettable moment I so badly don't want to forget.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

My Fictional Amusements

For months now, I have been hiding inside my own inventions; stories I've created out of adjectives and actions. In my spare seconds, I rush to the computer or to a pencil and paper and write my tales from the depths of my wandering/troubling/vigorous imagination. I've been now on several journeys. After I surface from a story, I worry whether my work of words is embarrassingly trite, but I keep writing because I feel compelled to keep writing and because I know that if every creator quit because she couldn't overcome her fear of failure, we'd all live in societies where only the narcissists and the lunatics felt bold enough to speak. So if you've been looking for me here, I apologize for my absence.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

More! More! More.

Crawling and babbling to toddling, then walking, running and dancing, climbing, laughing, and talking. I ask her questions and she answers me. I ask her to do things and she does them...some of the time. She's nearly 19-months-old now.

"Mumma gasses" she says, reaching for my black frames on the bathroom sink.

"DaDA!" she hollers toward the ceiling when she knows her father is upstairs working, to which he replies, "AMELIA!"

"Hup pease" (help please), She says when she wants to get into the storage closet (where all the battery operated toys are kept). Or "Hup pease! HupPEASE! HUP PEASE! When she wants to get into the storage closet several seconds before she realizes that she wants to get into the storage closet.

She pokes me in the eye, saying, "eye...Momma eye", then "no" (nose), "mout" (mouth), and with the most enthusiasm, "Mumma 'AIR!" (hair) with a slap to the top of my head, followed by a firm grasp of my bangs.

She's learning the difference between "Nice" and "Not nice." Sometimes she hurts me: drops things on my head or feet, sits on my stomach and jumps, squeezes my skin or slaps me. Most of the time, it's because she can't yet articulate her feelings (we're working on it), but sometimes, I think, she's just curious to see my reaction.

"Ouch!" I often exclaim because it hurts and her attacks can be startling and strong. "That was not nice, Amelia. Be nice to Mumma."

"Not Nie." She repeats. "Nie Mumma." She might say, petting me.

I watch my friends' baby a few mornings a week. She's tall, slender and sweet with glassy doll blue eyes and a love of throwing things, clearing surfaces and emptying containers. She's 13 months old. When she thinks I'm not looking, she reaches for rocks and licks them or grabs fistfuls of dry dirt from my houseplants. Her name is Sedona. Amelia loves her.... most of the time. And she has discovered that if she wants Sedona to crawl toward her in a game of chase, the best way to get her to do this is to let out several terribly shrill trilling screams. (We're working on a quieter version for the library and larger group gatherings.) When Sedona begins learning to walk, I catch Amelia holding her doll by the head, saying, "Walk baby, walk baby, walk!" Both girls find my homemade tents exceptionally thrilling and stand inside the tablecloth walls, screaming.

Some days, Amelia sneaks up behind Sedona to hug and kiss her ("ooowah!") Other days, she isn't so kind.

"Not nice, Amelia. You have to be nice to baby Sedona."

"Not nie. Nie baby. Nie."

Sedona and her parents, Mark and Amy, come over for supper recently. Amy is very important to us all, but to Amelia, she's the person always at the other end of her imaginary phone calls and at the other end of my real phone calls. Her name is often on the tip of Amelia's tongue. Mark is here a little less often, but she loves him just the same. Tall, goofy, fun, he's always up for spontaneous play and whenever he's here, Amelia is often raising her hands toward him, breathlessly pleading for "more! more! more!" More flying! More spinning! More galloping! The other night Mark and the girls play with this alligator vest we have. Amelia wears the toothy, big-eyed-gator hood, raises her hands toward Mark and lets out a roar. Mark plays along, because Mark always plays along. She roars and he cowers and hollers in a fit of silly fake fright. It's hilarious. Amelia reacts as if she's watching magic. Her eyes go wide then small as she laughs. MORE! Again, she raises her hands and roars. He screams. More! Roar! Scream!

She plays this game with everyone now. First, she finds something to put on: a piece of clothing like an oven mitt, or her plastic polka dot glasses, or her hand-knit chicken hat. Then the hands go up and ROAR! Most people participate and scream, which makes her giggle and roar again.

Today she lounges alone on the couch with Eric Carle's Polar Bear Polar Bear What Do You Hear?, naming nearly every animal. This includes her own inventive ways of pronouncing, "hippopotamus", "boa constrictor", "flamingo" and "peacock." I'm tickled and floored.

I do a short yoga class on my computer, pausing it only twice, while she sits at the table, bluing her teeth with blackberries. When I get her down from her seat (with 10 minutes left of the class), she stands on my mat and crawls between my legs and sits and smiles, grasping her toes, mimicking me. This makes laugh. Later, she's restless at nap time so I bundle her up in gloves, boots, hat and coat and strap her to my back. Then my dog and I climb the hill behind our house and wander through the deep soft snow, while she sleeps at my shoulder and the wind hushes the rumbling hum of the machines on the highway below.

This walk in the woods is how my whole life sometimes feels - like I've wandered away from the road and I'm lost in the thickets and weeds, tangled up in the prettiest wildflowers and dry fallen leaves, wondering why I am wandering and staring up at the tops of trees instead of forward toward the noise of the future. But then I try to tell myself that this quiet path I am building, trampling and dancing upon is not nowhere. It is here - my here with her.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Grampa and the Iranian Revolution

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Dear Grampa Lou,

February 28, 1930, you are born in Sagamore, Massachusetts in the house you grow up in. Where, when you are real small, there is an outhouse attached to the garage and a bathtub in the kitchen by the kerosene stove. Your Italian-American mother makes all of your clothing and darns your socks and mends your slacks. She has a “wringer” washer and hangs the wet laundry outside to dry, even in winter. Your father is from Nova Scotia, Canada. He never has much of an education. Mom says he only completes the sixth grade, but he goes on to become the Supervisor of Maintenance for the entire Bourne Public School system (which means he knows how to fix just about everything). He's also an air-raid warden and a member of the State Guard. World War II is happening throughout your childhood (1939 - 1945). In high school, you and a buddy work an outpost near Sagamore Bridge, reporting by telephone, every passing airplane.

After high school, you enter The Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh to study engineering. Your girlfriend, Nancy (Grandma) goes to college for elementary education, but hates it and soon returns home to work her old job at the Western Union. The following fall, she enters The Massachusetts Memorial Hospital School of Nursing, where she is class president all three years and seen as a very promising future nurse. You, Gramp, have a scholarship for your first year of college, but you need another so you go out for the football team. Not only do you get onto the team, but you also receive a full football scholarship. You love these days, playing college ball, studying engineering and writing daily letters to Nancy.

Grandma Nancy writes:
In June 1951, I went by car with Lou's parents, his sister and brother to Pittsburgh for his graduation. ...On that trip home, Lou and I decided that we wanted to get married. ...I think his parents were stunned but did not say much. He was marrying the minister's daughter! My parents accepted our decision but we knew it would be impossible to have a church wedding. Many years later, my father co-officiated at Steve and Mary's wedding at Buzzards Bay Catholic Church. Times have changed for the better.... My Mom got me a suit and hat and shoes. I took off and, after staying with friends 2 nights, I met Lou and Lennie and Dot at the nurses home on Harrison Ave. We went to the church where a priest I knew would perform the ceremony. ...The four of us went into Boston and had lunch and then took off for Lake Winnipesaukee, we had a little cabin on a hill for a whole whopping weekend honeymoon. Then back to Lynn where we had rented an apartment, I drove into Boston to work and Lou started at GE. When I graduated officially, I got a job in the maternity nursery at Lynn Hospital.
In 1967, pining for Cape Cod, you purchase your own gas turbine consulting firm, Fern, and a couple years later, you move to Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts.

Years later, in 1978, Fern's number one client is Amerada Hess Oil Corp and in October of that year, you take a trip. Then you write about it.

This is a true story that, in the interest of historical accuracy, must be told for the record. There are already several versions that have been told in the same manner as a folk tale...each one embellishes the previous one. Since I am the one who precipitated the whole incident, I am taking it upon myself to set the record straight. (Also, I have to rescue whatever is left of my reputation.) 
My name is Lou Fougere. At the time this story unfolds, I was the President of Fern Engineering, a consulting engineering firm specializing in gas turbine machinery. Our main client (actually, Client #1)  was Amerada Hess Oil Corp.  One of Hess’ ventures was an offshore oil concession and oil stabilization facility on Arzanah Island in the Arabian Gulf. This facility was powered by Ruston gas turbine generators, and that is why Fern Engineering was involved.
You go to Arzanah Island for the initial construction with Mr. Hess himself, along with his Senior VP, Mr. Hank Wright. There is a problem with the buried electrical conduit and you take photographs with your 35mm camera to document. Two Hess airplanes fly staff from America to the island. One plane returns to the U.S with most of the crew, but you stay with Mr. Hess and Mr. Wright to do more work. Before flying home, you tag along for a quick trip to Iran.
Hess had to go to Tehran in order to negotiate an oil purchase with the Shah of Iran.
The Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, has ruled since 1941, inheriting the throne from his father who flees to South Africa in exile.  At the time of Hess's meeting with the Shah in October of 1978, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi is dying of cancer and a revolution is erupting in the streets of his country. Martial Law is declared.

On September 8, 1978, approximately one month before you arrive, there are protests and a religious demonstration in Jaleh Square, Tehran. The military tries to stop the rally by blocking the route. The crowd refuses to disperse, moving toward the military. Soldiers open fire on the crowd. Some sources say dozens of unarmed citizens are shot down dead in the street, while other sources say hundreds perish. This day now wears the name, Black Friday in Iran, and is considered the moment of no return in the rising conflict between the Shah and the rebels.

You stay at the Royal Tehran Hilton. On the morning of your arrival, Mr. Hess has a meeting with the Shah. You and Mr. Wright think it might be interesting to go into the city - to see what it's like. So Mr. Hess arranges a big black Cadillac (owned by the Iranian Oil Company) to pick you up.
When the limousine arrived we discovered two disturbing things: (1). The driver couldn’t speak English (and we couldn’t speak Farsi) and (2) a strike had been called in support of Khomeni and the revolution. You may not recall (I will never forget) but in October, 1978, Khomeni was in exile in Paris and a revolution was brewing in Iran prior to the overthrow of the Shah. Being a worldly bunch, with no shortage of self-confidence, what the hell….we decided that we’d take a tour anyhow. Maybe the large department store would be open even if the Souk (the open air market) was shut down.
Ruhollah Khomeni is considered the 1st Supreme Leader of Iran (the highest ranking religious and political leader), but long before he takes this position, he is imprisoned in Iran and then exiled in the 1960s for speaking out against the government's push toward westernization. In exile, Khomeni lives in Iraq for 12 years before Saddam Hussein forces him to leave. Then he goes to live near Paris where he records sermons on tape, which then spread throughout Iran, building support and unrest. When you, Grampa, are there in October of 1978, there is a widespread strike because many Iranians want Khomeni to replace the Shah.

In December…just a couple months after you leave, the army mutinies and in mid-January, the American-supported Shah flees Iran with his family. Khomena is appointed Supreme Leader in February of 1979.

On your ride into Tehran from the hotel, Mr. Wright sits in the front seat. You, along with the jet’s co-pilot and the project manager, Dick Palmer, sit in the back.
Oh yes, being two experienced tourists, Hank and I had our 35mm cameras…his was a Minolta and mine was the same one that I had on Arzanah...With pidgin English, which neither the driver nor we could understand, and a generous dose of sign language, we managed to get the limo headed downtown. ….The Hilton is on a hill above Tehran, and we had a long ride down a beautiful boulevard with flowers in the middle and every ¼ mile or so a good-sized traffic circle...
The closer the Cadillac gets to the center of the city, the more crowded the streets become with people, cars and army vehicles. All the shops are closed, but you get the driver to pull over and let you out so that you can walk a bit and see if the big department store is open. When you discover that it too is closed, you return to the car and motion for the driver to take you back to the hotel.
We had gone only a few blocks when I noticed a small convoy parked along the curb, consisting of several troop carriers (complete with rifle-toting troops), a large water canon resembling a Coke truck with a long pipe (the canon) on the roof, and a jeep with a mounted 50 caliber machine gun just like in the TV show called “Rat Patrol”. Troopers with their rifles at ready (and their fingers on the trigger) stood between the convoy and the slow-moving traffic and the milling crowd. As we approached the convoy, my war-correspondent instincts took over…I pulled out my trusty camera and clicked off several shots that were sure to get me a Pulitzer Prize. The last shot was a picture of a trooper so close that I could only see his hands holding the rifle. At that time, all hell broke loose.
Oh my goodness, Gramp! WHAT are you DOING!?
As I put my camera down, the limo stopped short and I looked up to see the face of the soldier behind the rifle which by this time was pointed at me. His finger was nervously on the trigger (it was twitching) and I swear to God his eyes were bearing through me as if to make way for the bullet that was sure to follow. He looked like he had just come off of a camel. I’ve never been so damn scared in my life. Thank God he had enough savvy to realize that he was way over his head, and he called his sergeant, who arrived within seconds and took up the same position including the rifle pointing at me.
Later you ask Hank Wright what it's like to turn around and see “the business end of a 30 caliber rifle” and he says it's like a “damned howitzer" …. He turns around and quietly sits on his camera. Smart move, Hank.
Meanwhile the limo was completely surrounded with nervous, jabbering troopers pointing their rifles at the big black Cadillac owned by the Iranian Oil Company driven by a man who, by this time, had turned a pasty white….The sergeant, whose eyes looked disturbingly like the soldier’s who had preceded him, realized that he also was over his head, and he summoned his lieutenant. That young man moved the sergeant aside and thrust his head through the open window, stared at my camera and said something like ‘filma, filma’; Dick Palmer mumbled that the lieutenant wanted the film. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that, but, by this time, I had grown ten thumbs. I couldn’t have opened the camera if my life depended on it…which, of course, it really did. Finally, I remembered the combination and popped open the film compartment…only to find the compartment was empty!
Then you remember the new roll in your pocket. You take it out, open the foil and give the lieutenant the new roll of film, before saying with a nervous smile, “heh, heh, no film.”

 This, I think, blew him away. He turned to the rapidly fainting driver, yelled something in Farsi which probably translated to "get to the hell out of here before you get killed", and stepped back out of the car window. 
During this episode, the street ahead of us had cleared of traffic, since no cars could get beyond our limo which had been stopped by the Iranian army. The street behind us however, was at a complete standstill, backing up at least to the Turkish border. The almost comatose driver slapped his foot down on the accelerator, and the big black Cadillac pealed rubber for blocks, putting distance between us and the Iranian army.  
The ride back to the hotel was quiet, each man reflecting on the last 30 minutes and thanking his benevolent God, whomever He may be.
Five years later, in April of 1983, your eldest child, Stevie dies. Steve is an engineer. He's a really smart guy, an incredible, natural musician and usually very laid back - my mom tells me now. In 1983, he's on a ship in Brazil, working as an engineer - apparently, he often goes down to the docks to get work. In the South Atlantic Ocean, he discovers a problem with the ship he's on so he starts running and running, up and down and all around the vessel, trying to fix the damn problem, which must be a tremendously dangerous issue, because in an effort to solve it, he runs until he collapses.

His widow, Mary, writes,

Rach....I've got to set the record straight and correct any faulty memories. Steve was 30 years old when he died. He died in a hospital in Cali, Columbia after being driven overnight in an ambulance through the mountains of Columbia. It might have been heat exhaustion or CO2 poisoning....we'll never know. He left behind 3 babies....Dan 4 years old, Sarah 3 years old and Tom 1 year old....and a very heartbroken wife who was 28 years old. This all happened the last day of April of 1983.
Mom says that when you tell her Stevie is dead, she calls you a liar. The morning you must begin mourning, you go from house to house, telling your children of the death of their brother, father, husband, uncle, son - a tragedy you yourself are still trying to comprehend.

Gram goes to church every morning after Stevie's sudden death, walking miles and miles to and from the church. He leaves three little children at home. He’d be so proud of them now.

There’s this photograph of Stevie. You and all of your children have copies of it in your houses. I love this close up portrait: his strong bare shoulders, shaggy dark hair, a generous happy smile, a big black mustache and squinting eyes behind gold framed glasses.

I hope that when you tell Stevie about your trip to Iran, laughter falls out of both of you, while relief makes you feel lightheaded and giddy. Are you the one who takes this photograph, this portrait? (I don't think I have ever seen you with a camera, so perhaps you abandon photography after you're nearly shot dead for it.) But maybe not, maybe you take this picture with that same 35mm and that's why he's smiling so big, because you've just told him your adventure story.

I love that you always end your notes with God bless you so...God bless YOU, Gramp...and HAPPY HAPPY BIRTHDAY!

I LOVE you so,


Saturday, February 11, 2017

Paper Newspaper

Image result for newspaper coffee toast

I ordered a subscription to the Sunday New York Times.

Tomorrow morning, an ink pressed paper bundled and rolled inside a plastic bag will lie on my doorstep. They emailed to say that they received my postcard and payment, and that I now have unlimited access to online news stories. I don't want unlimited access to online news stories. That's why I decided on a paper newspaper in the first place - for this national election and our current political climate has left me with a new addiction and it is the scrolling of news headlines on glowing screens. An act that subsequently spins stress around my heart like frayed, knotted twine wrapping a ripe mango, binding my soft ticker until it swells and throbs every vein (from my temples to my toes) making me mad, miserable and without hope (without even any hope of hope).

A little while back, I got so worked up about the president's regressive executive orders that I couldn't stop talking about it. My brother called to say 'hello' and my mouth became a fire hose of fury. I couldn't calm myself. My friend was here and we talked (or rather, spewed all the bile our eyes and minds had choked down that day), while our babies played on the floor. Then my husband came home. Then everyone left. My friends went home and my husband went to teach his evening class. My body felt stiff and my mouth tasted of metal. I had to relax. So after supper and before bath; before teeth brushing and before selecting a pile of bedtime books; I turned on music and my toddler and I danced. She stomped her bare feet and raised her hands and turned in circles, while I jumped and jutted my arms and shook my head and shoulders and hips. I grabbed her by the hands and moved us both to the quick drum beat. Then I picked her up and spun her around and around until we were both wide with smiles and glowing, our spirits yellow with bliss. It worked. I felt so much better. That's when I realized: I can't keep on clicking. Our president is turning our government into a reality show and I don't want to watch anymore. So I've decided to pay for the press he so often attacks, the press he fears.  

Internet news is like a river during a deep white winter melt. Some people can ride the rapids - in fact, they appear invigorated by them, bending into every unexpected turn and flying from every bump. But I can't seem to stay in the damn boat. I constantly get pulled into the cold water and before I know it, I am drowning. I am pinned between boulders, dragged down dams or washed up on rocky river beds. However for me, a paper newspaper is more like a puddle or pond. It can be surprisingly deep and frigid, but it is quiet and calm and shallow at the edges so that I can step into it with caution. It has advertisements, but they aren't blinking or speaking and there isn't a box that will suddenly appear in front of my glasses to block my view of the page. Above all, when I hold a paper newspaper in my hands, no one else knows (except, of course, me), which articles I choose to read, the ones I remember, the pieces I cut out with scissors, the stories I skim and the columns I ignore.

During these times, it is important that we remain informed and vocal, but we'll help no one if we don't first help ourselves. Stress will squeeze us all dead if we let it. So find your way of coping. I'm starting with a paper newspaper... and daily dance parties with my daughter.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Part Six: A Maker (The Last of the Letter to my Great-Grandmother)

Dear Sunny -

John gives you a bible and inscribes it with these words: July, 1927, Philippians 1:3, which is, I thank my God upon every remembrance of you. In her notes, Grandma Nancy then writes, “thus began a marriage of devotion and pain."

When the summer of 1942 arrives, the relief of heat is a tease, for with it, humidity settles, sticks and sweats. So you pack the station wagon with swimsuits and drive north to be with Baba by the sea. She has a house in Buzzards Bay, Cape Cod - a whole house all to herself.

For years,  you and John and the children escape to Baba’s in Buzzards Bay often. And when the house next door goes on the market, you buy it for real cheap and stay there during your retreats north. John is asked to lead a new mission church in Bourne. He takes the job. It won't pay very much, but you are all more than ready to leave Pennsylvania for the country by the sea.

In the fall of 1944, you and the children set off for Buzzards Bay without much of anything. The house is partially furnished from your summer stays. John cannot join you yet - he has work to finish in Philadelphia. Soon after you arrive in Massachusetts, however, The Great Atlantic Hurricane, a category-four major tropical cyclone, flies up the eastern coast of North America. They cannot predict storms in 1944 like meteorologists can today. No one sees it coming until it’s too late. Many ships are out at sea when the strong storm - as wide as 600 miles - hits. 70 years later, it is still considered one of the most destructive hurricanes in New England history.

That night, while the wind whips the water and whistles through the windows and walls, you and the children huddle inside with neighbors. Nancy hardly sleeps at all that night as she lies listening to the trees creak, crack and collapse. What do you do, Sunny? Curse? Weep? Drink? Smoke? Stalk the windows with your bags by the door - ready to run? Holler prayers in hoarse whispers: Really God? Really? After all this, after all these difficult years, I finally make it to a place I love and you send down the storm of a century to wash me and my children away? The storm passes and in the morning, you see the damage. The small sailboat is gone and the boathouse by the beach has been swept away. The bank on the bay is never the same and the power is out and remains off for days. When the lines are finally mended and the electricity is turned back on, the children go off to their new schools. Eventually, John makes it past all the downed trees to reach you.

In the fall of 1944, Nancy is 15 years old. She attends Bourne High School and soon meets Louis Fougere while on a bus ride to a football game. Lou asks Nancy if she'd like to go with him to the movies. The two teenagers start dating and 72 years later (after many wedding anniversaries, birthdays, houses, boats, babies and travels) my grandparents are back in Buzzards Bay, living in a beautiful, bright condominium.

The mission church where John begins preaching is called St. Peter’s Episcopal Church on the Canal. It's established in 1938 with services in an empty hall. In 1944, when you all come to town, John begins leading the growing congregation, which wants a permanent home. You get the idea to write a letter to the popular national radio show, Vox Pop - to see if they'd be interested in doing a piece about the church. They contact you and John, tell you that they'd like to do an entire live show about St. Peter's. After it airs, inspired listeners across the country send you donations. These gifts (along with money from church fundraisers), make the purchase of a church possible. John finds a vacant chapel 60 miles away in the town of Hull, Massachusetts. It is far too expensive to move by truck, but by water, on a big flat barge, is possible. The year is 1947 and this little white church floating down the Cape Cod Canal makes the front page of the local newspaper and settles into our family history as one of our most cherished stories.

The old church is in poor shape when it arrives, but the parishioners and you and John, beautify the building with nautical symbols, light gray shingles and white trim. The doors are painted a bold red. Mounted above the front double doors, the bow of a small shiny green fishing boat floats. In the boat, there is a man in a yellow slicker with a matching brimmed hat. He holds a net. He must be Saint Peter. With his white beard and old face, he looks out and up. Behind him, the mast of his boat is the shape of a cross.

"When you think of Sunny, do you think of someone who was frail?” I ask my mother.  
“No. Not at all.” Mom says. She tells me how capable a person you are. She says you probably just don’t have a lot of physical stamina because of all the cigarettes you smoke. "Grand smokes like a chimney too." ("Grand" is our name for John). She says.

 "Pipe or cigarettes?”
In the papers Grandma gives me, there is the copy of a newspaper article written about you entitled, Ceramics Grows From Hobby Into Profitable Business- Buzzards Bay Woman Gets Many Orders. It tells of a Christmas when John gives you a book about ceramics, a small hobby kiln and the materials needed to craft clay. The article reads,
She has converted a former bedroom into her own studio workshop. It is beside the garage and has an excellent view of the water. There she is able to work undisturbed. A small heater that her husband has placed there keeps the studio warm regardless of the outside temperature. She does all her modeling, firing and decorating in her workshop. There are many of her designs pinned on the wall and her work bench is mute evidence of her industry.
Gram writes,
My parents had a great relationship in their younger years. When they got to be late seventies, things fell apart a bit, not really sure why except for ill health and the weight of years. My father did not counsel Mom as you think. We were all exposed to his beliefs and teachings all the time in church. My dad was a people person, my mom more a private person.
He may not council you in the traditional sense, with advice, but maybe he helps you in other wordless ways. 

Gram writes:
….My father was very handsome and always had ladies eyeing him. I remember one Sunday in Buzzards Bay, he got up in the pulpit, with his family in the front pew, and declared he had nothing to do with a rumor about him and a local female.
In your old age, you and John go off to live in Florida - for a few winters, I think. He is a pastor. You are a painter. You love the obscurity there. You can hide out in the sunshine with all the other old ladies and gentlemen - for hardly anyone knows you. But when you're away for too long. Grand misses the gossip of the cape. So you return to Buzzards Bay where Grand writes a column for the local newspaper, preaches at St. Peter's and rides his scooter around town, visiting old pals. In Buzzards Bay, you are the pastor's wife. You help run the church, organizing social events and fundraisers, as well as hosting dinner parties and gatherings. 

I am a child when you die, but I remember your funeral. Mostly, I remember my mother weeping. We sit on the left side of St. Peter's. Grand dies in 1986 when I am three. You die in 1990 when I am seven. Before the ceremony, while everyone is slowly walking in, I sit beside my mother while she cries harder than I have ever heard a grown-up cry before. (I am still in her belly when her big brother, Steven, dies in 1983). As people pass us, many place their hands on her shoulder, pausing to squeeze. You are very special to her. Perhaps your funeral is the moment my fascination with you begins.

I have written some of your story here. There is far more that is missing, but I'm sure, you prefer it that way.

I hope that your life is full of pretty little pleasures, of purpose and wet paint and stretched white canvases, of butterscotch candies, music, books, solitude and warm conversation. I'd like to, but I can't, watch you paint portraits or landscapes or porcelain. I can't sit with you in the bedroom of your childhood helping you to squish the bedbugs on your wall. Nor can I hold your hand in the hospital, while doctors poke you with needles and tubes to drain the pneumonia from your little child lungs. I won't ever watch you stroll down the streets of Philadelphia alone in 1925 or drink with you in a smoky New York City speakeasy in 1926. That's because you live then so that I can live now. 

Here I take in your story and spit it back out as best I can - simply to know you better and to appreciate my own life better. There is one conclusion I feel I can make and that is this: you cannot possibly be sad and ill with alcoholism and depression all day every day, for you are also, for many hours of your life, busy building lovely little things, which to me is proof that you're alright. You escape poverty, the death of your parents, addiction and the suffocation of sorrow, partially, I firmly believe, because you are a maker. I want to be a maker like you. I make bread and supper and scones. I make my baby with my body and now I make her laugh and I make her fruit and yogurt smoothies, pasta and popcorn. I make pots of coffee so dark it muddies the bottom of my mug and I make letters and cards and lists and joy. And I make up songs and stories and sentences. But I want to make more. I want to sketch drawings again. I want to learn how to knit. I want to lose myself to the unlimited possibility of paper and a pallet of paint. 

This small study of your life reminds me that it is the making, the process of building something new, that is most valuable to a soul. So thank you, Sunny. 

With tremendous love and gratitude, 
Your great-granddaughter,