Friday, December 30, 2016

Part Three: Alcohol (A Letter to my Great-Grandmother)

Dear Sunny -

John meets you, pretty young Carolyn May, in a dry cleaners shop. You want to wed him. He wants to wed you, but because of the recent death of his mother, and perhaps because of the start of what will later called The Great Depression, you decide on a small ceremony. I’m sure you’re glad for the intimate wedding. No crowd, no camera flashes and no excessive attention, just you and him, and perhaps a witness or two. When you marry in that little church, does John know about your troubles? About your dreadfully poor childhood? Do you tell him about the man who hurt you? Have you told him about your mother and your father or your sisters and brothers? I imagine John probing you with questions, but that you keep things light and him in the dark. I imagine he likes to talk about big ideas, about humanity and kindness, God, empathy, service and community, while you’d much prefer to discuss the dinner you’re eating or the suit he’s wearing or the birds in the park singing. Maybe you want to remain a mystery. Or perhaps, you’re so lonely and in such need of companionship that all he has to do is tug at the past just gently enough and you can’t help but unravel your history until it is in a heaping heaving pile on some cafĂ© tabletop beside your ashtray and half empty cups. Maybe John thinks that he can help you, save you from yourself. After the wedding, he takes you to New York City for a honeymoon. It is 1926, Prohibition Era, but he seems to know people, possibly old college pals, and he has some money and so he takes you around town to speakeasies and secret parties and it is then that you are introduced to alcohol. 

I have my first real drink, wine coolers, in college. They taste like juice and quickly make me dizzy, giddy and flirty. A drink gives you confidence - doesn't it? Confidence to sit with strangers, to dance with John, to pretend that you aren’t that poor, hungry child from some unmapped coal mining mountain town for which you are. You are clean now and well dressed. You are a lady, a married young lady with a new kind of social life and this is all well and good, but money and pretty dresses and cigarettes and scotch won’t change you, Sunny. You are still the daughter of a drunk. You are still the survivor of pneumonia with a frail frame and punctured, weak lungs and scarred skin . And you are still an orphan. All you know of your past is what you manage to remember. You have no photo albums. No parents to call on to converse with and ask questions. (I want to mention that I don't want to sound as if I am blaming John for giving you your first drink. I hope you don’t blame him either. It would have found the inside of your glass eventually.) Your horoscope tells me that you appreciate simplicity, of experiencing life through the senses. It also tells me that you are shy. I know this already. Just as I understand that a drink feels good in a warm sensory sort of way and a couple drinks can silence most self-conscious worries. Is it here on your honeymoon in New York City when you discover that you have been carrying your daddy’s coal in the soles of your shoes since childhood? Do you drink very much and collapse onto the hotel bed in your evening clothes? Do you then discover in the morning the filth of your daddy’s addiction as if it were a stain beneath your heals? If so, what is this devastation like? Do you wonder if he has damaged your biology? It’s from him, isn’t it? Or has it manifested itself further back, as far back as your great-grandmother? I don’t know how much you and John drink once you return to Philadelphia after your trip, but Prohibition goes on for another seven years. I imagine you find a way, but perhaps you are forced back into seven more years of sobriety. As you age, Sunny, I’m told you crave alcohol when you feel alone or afraid. You won’t ever really quit. Not once you know this warmth, this ease, this softening or rather blurring of lines and memories and feelings.

I wonder how deep this coal dust goes - how much of it is in my blood. Does it reach inside a miner to seep black specks of darkness into his sperm so that future generations can’t escape the sadness, which grows from hopelessness, hunger and years in the dark underground? Why am I not surprised to hear of a Scottish drunkard? Is there something in the soil of the lands of the Scots and the Ires? Something in the water? The sea air maybe? Have the rivers all turned to ale? A drunk father delivers his drunk disease to his baby, a future drunk son or drunk daughter. It is a story as old as famine and rotten potatoes and sheep wool sweaters. Could the stars be to blame? Your stars tell me how you might be. Much of it goes with the stories I’ve been told, but is this just coincidence? How can the moon and the tides and the planets shape us? Guide us? Do our brain cells or souls or cells reach for the heavens like a compass to gather our bearings before we push through our water womb to cold air and breath? If that’s true, then where we are born matters too. And how our mothers and fathers treat us - whether they love us, hate us, hurt us, spoil us- I imagine all these pieces matter. I hear that our genes can be very different from our siblings. We can’t all be made of the exact same matter or we’d all look, sound and act identically. Therefore, to share traits with one’s great-grandparents must be even more unlikely. But still, I wonder, are you in me? You must be here somewhere. Maybe all you give me is this story and your suffering. A story that says, I was born in 1906 in Eleanora, Pennsylvania. I live during this time with these circumstances so that you don’t have to.

Well then, dear Sunny, thank you.

Part Two: Your Mothers (A Letter to my Great-Grandmother)

This is a photo of my own beautiful mother. 

Dear Sunny - 

John Samuel Stephenson Jr. is born June 21, 1906 in Philadelphia to a wealthy Main Street family. He has two sisters and one brother, but his brother dies when John is young. After his brother's death, John’s mother, Sallie, devotes nearly all of her time to charity work, leaving John with his older sisters and father. His sisters are quite a bit older than the two of you (14 and 15 years older).

Sallie herself dies in 1926 when she is just 59 years old. I don’t know why, or rather from what. John is 20 years old at the time, you are 17, and the two of you have just met. John sounds like such a happy chap, a songbird with a kind, reverent soul. Does his gleeful temperament rattle you with guilt? Or does it soothe you like sunshine in early spring? Do you curse at your gloom so that it might hide in the corner of your broken heart or do you sort of invite it in, give it a blanket and a bed inside your bones, as if you deserve nothing better? John’s mother sounds a wreck, leaving him all day. But maybe that’s why he turns out alright. Perhaps she knows that if she is John's primary caretaker, he will grow up to the sound of her constant weeping and that isn’t healthy for a child. I wonder if Sallie can’t stand to even look at baby John for very long; to hold him or kiss his face. He is her other son after all and he is young and also destined, as we all are, toward death. I hope his sisters kiss his face in her absence and blow raspberries on his belly and play him records and nuzzle his neck and cheeks.

When you are a young gal, Sunny, your daddy is off working long dark days and drinking away his nights, while you are left with your mother and your sisters. I'd guess that the boys, your brothers, are breaker boys, working too - sitting beside conveyor belts all day in a dark cloudy building, separating coal from impurities, arriving home coughing filth and blowing black snot from their noses. You probably help clean the house. Maybe you have a large garden in the back, one you weed, till and harvest. Maybe you have a cow and a small flock of hens for eggs. Maybe you help bake bread in an outdoor beehive oven, churn cream into butter, scrub and wring and hang the clothes, make the soap, boil the soup, run to the company store, gather bits of dropped coal from beside the tipple (the structure above the train tracks for filling train cars with coal), clean out the nasty privy, and gather water from the pump. You squish bed bugs and wait for your Christmas orange. Unlike Sallie, your mother, [who's name is now unknown, forgotten, unwritten, lost (a metaphor that is not lost on me)] has no choices really - for poverty is a kind of imprisonment. She can’t leave you with a governess or a grandmother or with your father even. Sure, your sister Jean could care for you. But there isn't much extra scrip (company money) for fine haircuts in a nearby city or for pieces of delicate lace and silk, anyway. She’s stuck there in that house, in a row of other identical houses, sucking down coke oven coal dust, scrubbing out its grease from familial skin and coarse muslin - unable to hide from you the reality of your destitution.

John is shielded from his mother’s tragedy.

You are not.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Part One: Coal and Pneumonia (A Letter to my Great-Grandmother)

Dear Sunny -

Coal dust smudges the skin of sweaty miners, seeps beneath fingernails, and stains trousers, jackets and bootlaces. Is there running water? A bathtub and bars of soap? Is there a proper school, a grocer, baker, butcher? Is there even a doctor? I imagine whitewashed wooden houses with crooked roofs, dense gardens, open cook fires and muck and black dust everywhere. Does the sun shine through the coal dust clouds to the poor mountain town below or does is pass it by to save its rays for the bottom of the mountain where there is grass and a river that carries all the black runoff water away? Eleanora, Pennsylvania --- she can’t be found on maps today. Gram says there was a fire, but history tells me it was abandoned.

When you are a child, great-grandmother, you and all the other children in the patch are given an orange on Christmas day by a wealthy man, probably one of the owners of the coal company or the manager of the company store. One hundred years later, I see grey juice dripping from cold little fingers, down round chins to wet jumpers and jackets and holy wool sweaters. Orange globes in the hands of poor dirty children. I wonder if the coal, ash and soot is still there today with the rest of the remains of that forgotten Pennsylvania town.

In 1909, you are born, the sixth of seven children, to a Scottish drunken mine superintendent and your mother, who dies when you are young, but more on that later. Born, Carolyn May Hammond, later nicknamed “Sunny”, I see you like a little light in that town. Pale and pretty, squashing bed bugs when you’re sent to bed early, wondering if you’ll ever have enough to eat since your papa might be spending his pay at the company store or to bootleggers for bottles of scotch whiskey or wine or ale. But he isn’t all bad, your papa, for when you are a girl of six or seven years, you take off her coat. It is just before the start of spring and you must be warm and so, as all young girls and boys do, you remove her jacket. Someone scolds you for it, your momma or your big sister, Jean. And they are right to do so because a very short time later, maybe a day or two, you, Sunny fall ill with pneumonia and your daddy carries you out of the company town to transportation, to a train I’d guess. And it takes you and your papa to a hospital with doctors and nurses. There he leaves you to be saved. So no, he isn’t all bad. When you are an old lady, you remember the hospital, but you can’t recall where it is, just that it must be far from home since no one in the family goes to visit you, not even Jean. At the hospital, around the year 1915, before antibiotics, a year when a child with pneumonia usually dies, doctors insert tubes beneath your arms to drain the fluid from your small lungs. You rest and recover. The nurses must like you, you think, for they give you a little birthday party at your bed when May 1st arrives. When you are well enough, it is decided that you will go live with your aunt who knows a few things about nursing.

Throughout your life, you contract pneumonia many times, but it never kills you. It weakens you, as illness is prone to do and for the rest of your life, I’m told, you are frail. However, you reach your 80th year. I remember you in your glider, swaying in the Sunday morning sunlight. When I am a small child, we often visit with you after church. You chat with Mom and Dad while we play on your clean beige carpet.

When I am a toddler, I contract pneumonia. There is a Polaroid picture of me in a hospital crib. It must be 1984 or 1985. I don’t know how or why I become so ill, but I spend a week in the hospital. My lungs are not punctured and drained like your 7-year-old body, Sunny. I am given antibiotics, Penicillin probably. They don’t make me weak, you'll, I think, be happy to hear, I’ve always been very strong.

Eventually, you return to your momma and papa in Eleanora. Around this time, the youngest child in your family, Marion, falls from her highchair into the fireplace. She is burned badly. I remember her, a little old woman from my own childhood. She looks like you. I don’t remember any burns, but perhaps that’s because her papery wrinkled skin hides them well. You blame one of your sisters for pushing Marion and for the rest of your life, you never speak to her again (even when Marion begs for a reunion). After her fall, your sister, Marion is sent away. She lives with relatives, sweet people she recalls, who treat her like their own child. A couple years after you are home from the hospital, your mother dies. She is pregnant with her 8th child. No one knows why or how now, but the thought of my great-great-grandmother, bearing a child and taking her last breath, inhaling that dirty air, while her soul slips from her tired malnourished body, a body with a belly that is hoarding water and scavenging nutrients for her newest developing baby, torments me. What is her husband, your father, like when he drinks? Does he see his wife as his property, taking her body whenever he wants? Or are they lovers and life partners pinned to their place in the world by addiction and poverty? I’ll never ever know. But after your momma dies and the babe in her belly dies with her, your papa remarries and when he does, he sends Jean away. Does he marry his second wife because he needs someone home to raise his children and keep house? I’m sure he can’t afford to pay a nanny. Does he decide then to marry one of the town’s known spinsters or a hungry childless widow or an aging prostitute, a flirtatious bootlegger? None of you children like the stepmother, but your pop isn’t married long. He dies a couple years later. Does he drink himself dead? Does he suffocate underground, choking on earth and dark? Does his heart break beneath the weight of his failures? Or does a fire in the mine snuff him out? When he perishes, does he fall ill by an infected wound or by the flu or pneumonia? ….Is his death sudden or foreseen? The young children who are still home are sent away. You are 13 years old and go on to live with a woman, not a relative, in Philadelphia. She isn’t very nice. She makes you go into the city to run errands for her. Years later, you realize that these peculiar jobs she sends you on are to retrieve stolen bottles of perfume, which this woman then illegally re-sells. I imagine you’re told: Go to this address. You will meet this person. Take the box. Bring it home straight away.

Your daughter, my grandmother, Nancy, writes, “These were her teenage years and I faintly remember her mentioning once about being assaulted by a man visiting the house. There are many dark corners in her life that we were never told about.”

You are an orphan living with a strange woman in the city, which is a new city to you. It is a busy city with trolley cars and automobiles and tall buildings and railroads and shops. You wander these wide roads, completely alone. Do you make any friends here? Is there anyone you can talk to or meet with? Who is this man who hurts you? A friend or the husband of the woman with whom you live? Does he sneak into your room at night? Force himself into the apartment when he knows you, a young girl, are home alone? Do you fight him off? Or are you too embarrassed and frightened to scream, kick, bite and claw his entitled skin until he gets off of your body, because it is your body, Sunny, a body you have worked so hard to keep living. Perhaps he presses a knife to your slender throat. Perhaps he has a rope. Perhaps he has the strength to hold you by the wrists and steal from you your dignity as if you were a box of perfume he could take and re-sell in the city. However it happens and whatever it is that does happen, I’m sorry. I wish I could be there. I wish I could slip into the past and protect you.

You start smoking cigarettes in 1924. You are 15 years old. Tobacco smoke blackens your fragile lungs all your life. You never quit. I can’t imagine this helps your health, your proneness for pneumonia. I wonder if you think it’s worth it, this trade. Maybe these nagging urges feel necessary for your sanity: a constant distraction from the real problems that threaten to suffocate and torture you.

Sometimes I make an entire pot of coffee and drink it all day long. Cup after cup. I drink it black now. Once in awhile, I'll drop in a little cream, but usually I take it as it comes.

After you complete your high school education, you enter a program to become a nurse. Do you want to help children who are alone like you? Paint birthday signs, wrap little gifts and blow up balloons for hospital bed birthdays? Tell them they’re going to be all right as you bring them supper or tend to their wounds or hold their bodies as they weep from fear or loneliness or pain? I’m sorry to hear you are unable to complete the training. That the physical labor of scrubbing floors and changing beds and cleaning bedpans and lifting limp bodies is all too much for you.

When you are 17 years old, while working in a dry cleaners shop, a happy handsome young man from a wealthy Main Street family enters. He is charismatic and good-looking with light hair and clear blue eyes. You are charming and pretty. I like to imagine you dancing home from work the day you meet him, your future husband. His name is John. You tell him that your name is Carolyn. I wonder if you blush with excitement and possibly even passion as you feel, maybe for the first time in your life, hope.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

We must make ART.

I must make art. It would be easier to live without this condition for happiness. To spend my free time in mindless monotony. Busy myself with socializing, obligations and passive observations. But the trouble passion to make stuff pokes at the microscopic puddles of my pores like sewing pins; swims like a pod of whales in my piss, blood, spit and soul. It bites at my tissue and bone like termites: MAKE ARTit demands, BEFORE WE SWALLOW YOUR SKIN AND SKELETON AND SHIT YOU OUT INTO A MOUND OF POWDERY GRAY MATTER. 

I thought I didn't want to make theater anymore. Thought I could outrun my infatuation with age, but this thing is more like real love. More complex than lust and far deeper than any crush or fleeting obsession. This is true. Admittedly, it is mean and difficult too. Theater isn't easy. The industry has abused me with disappointments. Starved me and confused me too. But my moments lit by tin can lights or rehearsal bulbs or the midday sun (on some outdoor stone stage) still enthrall me. I feel courageous up there with my lines of text and intention. My words fly / stab / sing / grab from my mouth to kiss the silences that sit on the edges of springy, velvet-sewn seats or metal folding chairs or patchwork quilts stretched over dirt and dry grass.  My body dances to the song, the story, of my characters. I love theater. I love the spit and wind of it. Love the raw unedited magic. Love the magnetic pull of poised, competent actors enunciating sharp poetry for a crowd of engaged onlookers. Oh yes, I love it so.

I've been searching for both distraction and action lately. Theater feels like an old friend who stands at the back of a cold church funeral. As soon as I see her, I weep and run, collapsing into her tight embrace. We laugh as she pulls me across the street to a bright dance party where the music is so loud and the lights and the people are so beautiful in their color and movement that I forget, for a little while, the tragedy I have just left behind. And even though, at this dance party, I must make sure not to embarrass myself and/or drink too much, I am reminded of passion. I am reintroduced to my own neglected joy. And I am served an entire pie of sweet sweet peace.

Since our nation's recent election, I have been feeling as if I were sprawled out across all the steps of grief [denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance], with a skyscraper on my chest and my back pressing jagged cement.  I'm mostly avoiding the news. It frightens me. This country and world appear terminally suicidal. Out in the corn fields, there is a plowed message, a tattoo on the arm of this "super" power, and it reads DO NOT RESUSCITATE.

I am seeking light.

A few weeks after the election, I am invited to perform in the staged reading of a marvelous play.  At night, after baby is in bed, I'd lie on the couch reading and re-reading myself into my character's body and story. [For actors are detectives and we spend much of our preparation gathering evidence so that we can understand the person we are trying to portray.]  This study is an old bliss of mine and I am grateful for the distraction. Even out in the stage lights, standing before the audience on the night of the performance, I feel as if I am catching the end of a long lost breath.

I want people to flee their TVs with me, even for just one night or for a few hours every day. To join me in a search for life. Come, I urge you, and turn off your cell phones. Silence them, and ignore them and your urges and addictions. Briefly or forever, abandon the noise of the Internet and all its false promises of entertainment and information and look with me to people, real people and to the art we make. Get dressed up and shout a song into a microphone or hide in a closet nook and make something. Sing folk songs on your porch / build a quilt / paint a portrait / dance in your living room / write a poem about the cracks in your mother's hands / write a silly novel about peach jam / write a love letter / stitch a dress / crochet a scarf / darn a sock / mix and bake a carrot cake / wallpaper a wall / go to a music shop and touch all the instruments, then take one home with you / sketch with crayons or markers or pencils or coal. Whatever it is, go on and make something.

Personally, my screens are burning me. I feel dry in my deprivation of skin and conversation and social interaction. I need a crowd, a cacophonous cafe. I need to go to town. Soak up the spoken word of strangers and suck in the stink of paint and clay, of wet cement and cigarettes, of candy shops and Indian food and messy book stores. I want to warm myself with body heat. Find friends, fliers and ticket booths. Gather on sidewalks and in bakery lines and libraries. I want us all to rebuild our world with stories / paint / glue / coffee and cake / yarn / ink / wood / tape / voices and voluptuous color.