Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Dear Grandma,



January 20, 2016

Before you send me a box with one of your bibles in it, you write and ask for my permission.

"I would be honored... This makes me feel very sad though, the idea of you not needing one of your bibles. It still seems possible to me that you and Grampa will live forever. And you will, in other ways…" I write back.

My body built a person with a soul inside her and a heart with blood-filled veins and valves and breath that blows in and out of her little lungs like the breeze through summer trees, and since then I have felt a desire for the Divine, for prayer again. I’d also like for my children to have a foundation of faith, a precious place where they can explore peace and prayer. And I told you all this in my letters. -You raised nine children: eight your body made from scratch and one you had flown to you in a white steel stork of propellers, peanuts and smiling, skirted stewardesses.

Thirty-two years ago, your eldest died at sea, widowing his wife, Mary and leaving behind my cousins, young Sarah, Daniel and Tommy. I was in my mother’s womb then, due to be born five months later in early November. In high school, I wrote a paper about your mother. I interviewed you, you probably don’t remember. The title of my essay was "Sunny wasn't always..." I wrote mostly about the poverty of her upbringing and her depression, which we discussed in your sunlit living room, but I think I also wrote about her flower paintings and Cape Cod landscapes, the eggs she'd hollow out and paint as ornaments with teeny Christmas scenes inside their fragile eggshell walls and the crèches she'd mold out of clay. I probably confessed to you then how whenever we’d visit Sunny’s home after church on Sundays when we were kids ---after playing with Monkeys in a Barrel and staring at Grand’s bed, trying to see if we could see his ghost hovering above it, I’d fill my corduroy jumper pockets with those thick chalky mints, popping them into my mouth one after another during the short drive home, giving me the breathe of a secret cigarette smoker or a teenager on a date at the movies. I can't recall how it came up, but you spoke of Steve. You told me how after he died you began attending mass every morning. Today, between the soft thin pages of the bible you mail me, there is a prayer card and on it in blue ink you've written, Steve’s Prayer.

I am home in Heaven, dear ones;
Oh, so happy and so bright!
There is perfect joy and beauty
In this everlasting light.

On the front of the card is a picture of Jesus. He is in a long white robe with shadowed creases and his hair is long and dark. He stands amidst clouds, looking toward a magnificent light above him.

There is work still waiting for you,
So you must not idly stand;
Do it now, while life remaineth-
You shall rest in Jesus' land.

Grandma, you are a worker, and you are a maker, a terrific baker, a skilled knitter, an incredible cook, a trained nurse and you’re a wise ol’ woman with incredible wit and New England charm. You've made me mittens and cookie crisps, a wool hat, and a turquoise table runner, you’ve boiled me creamy clam chowder, built me a wreath out of beach shells, you’ve baked me baskets of dinner rolls, grilled me fish, served me salad from your vegetable gardens and simmered left over Thanksgiving supper in your famous "Garbage Soup." You made my daughter a quilt out of colored cotton elephants and flowers and giraffes, a yellow blanket of yarn and a royal blue knit sweater with a row of white hearts. And in 1954, you made me my mother and in 1983, my mother made me. In 2015, I made my own little girl, and so, in a way, it’s like you made us all three.
Remember when you had the farm in Vermont with all those sheep and hens and the pond where we'd ice skate and the long slope where we'd sled? Of course you remember. We never do let you forget, do we? I remember my big slip-on rubber boots with velcro that I’d fold over puffy snow pants and a long red/pink/purple/lime-green/yellow polyester coat. I remember shoving my feet beneath the curled wood of the toboggan with a frozen rope between my mitten hands. I remember sitting on hay barrels watching that guy with orange hair sheer all your sheep. I remember your loom at the top of the iron spiral staircase with thread poised like colored harp strings. I remember spools and spools of fuzzy thread. I remember the enormous kitchen table and the woodstove where we’d hang our icy mittens, hats, scarves and socks. I remember standing beside you in that kitchen one afternoon, sneezing, then immediately vomiting all over the counter. I remember carrying unfertilized eggs from the henhouse to the refrigerator and standing alone in the cold light, while I considered keeping one of them. I could warm it and wait for it to hatch, I plotted. …But how would I keep a chick secret on the four-hour drive home? Impossible. So I placed them all in the cold box to complete a half dozen bird abortions...or so I thought. I remember driving your red lawn mower around the yard and dropping from the rope swing into the cold river. I remember camping out in the sheep fields for a weekend family reunion some summer. Everyone else brought tents, while my parents towed a rented pop-up camper behind our blue mini-van and everyone laughed at us, especially when we showed them our nose and mouth masks for trips to the stinky porter potties. We fished in the packed pond with stick poles and during the brisk north New England mornings the great-uncles would build up the bonfire and cook breakfast. There was a torrential rainstorm that weekend and Nettie ran through it with her girls, their blond wet hair sticking to their smiles and foreheads. During your quietest evenings you'd make wool into yarn and yarn into sweaters and blankets and mittens and scarves and hats. I remember your golden retriever, your woodpile, your albums of old photographs in pages of plastic pockets. I remember you treading water in your navy blue bathing suit off the back of the boat in a bay off a beach, while we cannon balled and dove in beside you, splashing your sunglasses.
A couple months ago at Christina and Andrew's wedding I hid in the bathroom because my baby wouldn’t stop crying. You came in and sat with me, offering your calm presence. Later in a letter, I wrote that the reason she was crying was because I had forgotten to change her all day. I had worried so much about her sleep and milk that I forgot entirely about the third most constant baby need -diapering! My generation is so proud of our progress. Our red WARNING labels and the hospital nurse DO and DO NOT lists: "back is best but remember tummy time and don't sleep with your baby! and remember Skin-to-Skin and, whatever you do... DO NOT LET YOUR NIPPLE BECOME A PACIFIER!”, ---we have followed these as best we can, but I like to ask you. For your wisdom could fill textbooks and diaper bags and bottles and booties, but instead they live inside your memories and spoken stories, kept in something like an antique thread cabinet with glass doors and brass knobs, every thought twined around spools, placed in rows and organized by hue.

Years ago you started telling your children that if there was something of yours that they'd like one day, they should put a sticky note under it with their name on it. This made some laugh and some so anxious and sad that they scolded you for being so morbid. But, you have lots of lovely things and so the inheritance-claiming-via-sticky-notes commenced! But I say we put a sticky note on the sole of your soul!, -ask you to stitch it on there with twine and super glue and a few Hail Mary’s. I want you to visit me with your golden-white crocheted wings and gown of dark blue that shimmers like the Atlantic, pink cheeks, bright eyes, Keds with folded white socks and a string of the prettiest little pearls. Grampa too, he with his wings of varnished maple wood, his olive green captain cap, gold wristwatch and a robe made of beach sand that reaches his boat shoes and sprinkles sea salt wherever he walks. Of course, I understand you both will be quite busy in your blessed bliss. But whenever the moment arrives when the hem of your heartbeats frays and tears into an unmendable wound and your sweet soul slips out and soars for the heavens, know that those you leave living will all be clutching the wool you have so carefully stitched around our skin and spirits, feeling forever the work and warmth of your tightly woven love.

When that work is all completed,
He will gently call you Home;
Oh, the rapture of that meeting,
Oh, the joy to see you come!

Love to you and Grampa,

Rachel











*Safely Home by: Priests of the Sacred Heart, Sacred Heart Monastery, www.poshusa.org *

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Mother



She might wake me at 2a.m., then 5a.m., then again at 8a.m. If she wants to talk and I'm too tired, I push aside my pillow and plop her between her sleeping daddy and me, a burp cloth beneath her head. "Baby in the bed." I warn. We push down the blanket and sheet and nose her cheeks until we three again meet sleep. When we wake later, he has disappeared, gone off to work, but the dog's ears appear, her tail all a' waggin', as soon as we start our morning babblin'. If I wake first, I read. If she wakes first, she tells the plant above our heads that she's very happy to be alive and if sweet sunlight gushes in, then she kicks her feet in jubilation. When we discover that the other is awake, we smile a lot: she with her one stub of a first tooth, me with my mouth full of flat pearls. We coo and cuddle and chew the baby fat. I kiss her pink cheeks and beneath her ears because I am also happy to be alive and because I have the urge to taste her as soon as I smell her perfect pungent skin. If I could inhale harder, I would. I pull down my top, unfurling my fullness and she lunges, latches, and suckles a morning meal of milk. Once she's done and it's late enough, I grab my glasses, roll out of bed and head for the bathroom. I pee, turn on the tap, then water and lotion my face. I go to the kitchen, drink water, eat a little breakfast or carry one back to bed where she's thrilled to see me, showing me her tooth once again. I lift her from beneath the arms, kiss her three or four more times, then carry her to the changing table where I strip, clean and dress her, all the while singing something like, "This little light of mine, I'm gonna let her shine..." I lay her back down on the bed and dress myself in soft stretchy pants, a clean tank top and a sweater. I retrieve the baby carrier, my boots and wool hat. I wrap her for winter: layer upon absurd layer of fleece, wool and cotton polyester. She fusses and so I put a pacifier in because she can't get her hands into her mouth once I have put mittens on her fragile fingers, and if she can't get at least four fingers into her mouth and she wants to, she becomes very upset. Soon, the combination of warm clothes and suckling causes her eyes to swivel sleepily left and right as if she were reading books on the wall. I put on my socks and boots. I strap her into the carrier. I clasp the harness and leash onto the excited dog (who can hardly sit still). And finally, we are out on the river road, bike path, sidewalks, fields, farms and in the woods. We wander, saunter and stride. I sing songs, say prayers, talk to the baby, scold/praise the dog, or I might just mute myself so that I can hear the breath of the earth beneath my boots and the music above my hat. Baby usually sleeps, though sometimes she stares up at me and the trees.

Later at home, I make coffee, while she lies on the rug beside the kitchen, practicing her growls, screams, trills and vowels. Or she'll find a sleeve or toy to gum with her dripping mouth of drool.

I've wanted to be a mother for so long and now that I am I can't help but feel a strange sort of guilt for being home, for not working. It feels as if the eyes of feminism are frowning upon me, but I'm happy and so I think the whole fear of a feminist trying to fight me is silly. Besides I've never felt more empowered by my womanhood than after birthing my baby, and that's what I'd tell her. That and: my beautiful body made another beautiful body! Yes, I wear aprons and burp cloths, seeped spots of breast milk, strings of bubbled drool and splashes of spit up. I write grocery lists, letters, cards and stories. I draw baths and little penciled pictures. I fold laundry and damp risen dough. I wash dishes and the ledges of windows. I read paper pages and digital recipes. But this is my choice. I want to be home. I like it here. I get all the fresh air I want. And time, so much time. Time to lay on the floor reading cardboard books, shaking rattles, playing Raffi's Baby Beluga on my guitar, dancing. Time to listen to birds in the bushes, the Winter wind and the near silence of my infant's sleep. Time to stop in a sunbeam while light pricks the centers of my pores, sprouting gratitude. We don't have an excess of money, but we don't really mind. We are not hungry or cold, but happy and generously clothed. We possess a beautiful wealth: one fuller than any billionaire's bank vault. It can't buy lavish gifts in boutique boxes or clothing from foreign factories folded into large paper bags, but I have the present as if it were wrapped around me like an invisible flower bow tied around my middle. I'll catch my career later. There's time enough for that too. I've wanted to be a mother for so long and now that I am, it's important that I ignore the supposed/invented thoughts of others. This is what I've decided anyways.

I am no longer a traveler, a reveler or social mixer. Right now, I am mostly just Mother and I don't mind that title at all.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Gavadallies!

Flour, ricotta, eggs and water. Whisk the wet. Add the dry. Squish and squeeze. Knead, knead, knead. Cover with a damp dish towel and leave. Give it time to rise like a soft beige sun...  

While I work, I think of her, the recipe writer. 

Flour the board. Flour the pin. Press. Roll. Roll. Press. Roll. Roll. Slice it into one inch squares. Pinch it into tiny pockets, doll house baguettes, purses and scrolls. Lay them in lines on crinkly parchment paper. Then place the sheet of pasta into the ol' freezer.

Concetta, Connie, Ma, Nana, -she made her cookies with Crisco, red raisins and molasses, her chicken soup with lard and her "gavadallies" with 

  • 5 pounds of all purpose flour 
  • 6 eggs
  • 1 ¼ pounds of ricotta cheese
  • 1 ½ cups of warm water
  • a pinch of salt


Fill your biggest pasta pot with tap water, a pinch a' salt and all the love of a wistful granddaughter. Wait for a rolling boil, then place the frozen gavadillies in. Careful! You don't want to splash your skin! Now, wait until they float like little row boats on the storming sea. Then, with a long wooden spoon, retrieve, retrieve, retrieve!  

I didn't boil the first two batches long enough. They are stiff and my tomato sauce tastes tangy. I sauté garlic, rosemary and olive oil and add it in. This helps a little. I fill my belly with taste test bites before giving up and falling into bed.

The next day, Mom helps me put the pasta into the oven. Low heat. Let them simmer and soften. “The sauce tastes fine.” She says and I decide to believe her. Hours later, I take a bite. It's not bad. They aren't perfect and would be better with Nana's marinara sauce and meatballs. They would be better in her basement with the red and white plastic poinsettia table cloths, her Christmas tree with the silver tinsel and her at the head of the table. They would be right if they were made by her, my beautiful Italian grandmother -with her puff of white curled hair, her big brown eyes, a bottle of Bud at her side and that voice, which was like Parmesan cheese (tough, coarse, rich) sprinkled over a Boston accent, which stretched her sentences like the dough in her mixing bowls. 

Making Nana's gavadallies is like prayer, like the deepest and happiest of meditations, like singing psalms and Christmas songs. 

Flour, ricotta, eggs and water. 
Whisk the wet. Add the dry. 
Squish and squeeze. 
Knead, knead, knead! 


It can't bring her back to the table, but it certainly helps bring me back to hers.