Look for my poem, “The Dying,” in The Irish Review, forthcoming.
Look for my poem, “The Dying,” in The Irish Review, forthcoming.
Look for my poem, “The Dying,” in The Irish Review, forthcoming.
Fortified with espresso and chocolate, we climbed
the limestone mountain, chatting as we went, stopping
twice to pass around the trail mix of salty nuts and raisins,
chased it down with water from our
many times refilled plastic bottles that grew crinkly with each
day we walked the Sicilian countryside. Gorp
Never tasted so fine as on those trails– I confess to being
A bit obsessive about collapsing, then reopening my aluminum
Trekking pole, very confident when the path was, luckily,
smooth, then leaning on the pole hard when becoming a
Three-legged creature worked better than staying a biped.
We walked around sharp bends, through overgrown brush, past asphodel
–I tried in vain to remember the poem Asphodel that Greeny Flower—
We saw the acanthus flower, the blueprint for Corinthian
Columns, an elaborate floral construction supported
By an ambitious green stalk. I remembered them from
art history, those leaf- layered, ornate capitals.
We stopped for our picnic in Piano delle fate,
A name suggesting magic, calm– a peaceful vale.
But instead, we heard the roar of engines as the
Targa Florio rally zoomed past us—we ate three
Succulent salads Martina had prepared, sliced the
Charcuterie and the Sicilian cheeses, poured local wine
Into real glasses, sat on flat cushions on the grass, talked
–when the sounds of race cars accelerating,
squealing to a halt on the road just meters away
didn’t drown out all else. We extended our repast as long
as we could. It was time to retie our hiking books, shoulder
our packs and get on to Cefalu, and to the sea.
But first, we stopped at the sanctuary at Gibilmanna, ducking
out of the hot dry day into the white marble cool of
this holy baroque place, one of Gregory the Great’s monasteries,
then ruins, then hermitages, then a reconstructed church– like
all of Sicily, this edifice survived conquests, invaders, was
reinvented time and time again. Inside it was so cool, I wanted to
stay there all day and ponder all this. Instead, we ventured
out into the arid courtyard, into the hot sun. Three of our members
rode in the van to Cefalu–their bodies craved a respite.
Onward, I thought.
Easy enough, this last walk appeared to be, as we ventured
Away from the sanctuary and its cool white marble
Off the paved road and down a rock-encrusted dusty lane.
Then the grasses were more profuse, taller, fuller, brushing
Against our legs, our forearms. We became quiet then, endeavored
To keep up with our leader, we might glance at the back yard of a villa
At a small garden, mostly flowers. Then more
Lemon trees, olive groves– we walked along a defunct
Game preserve, its fence still standing, opposite villa after
Villa where no one seemed to live, though occasionally a
Dog barking told us some human must be around.
The road disappeared, we were on a path, overgrown, wild, with
Flowers of yellow, pink, white, the path so narrow we must
Trampled the flowers sometimes, the tall grasses ambitious
To take over the narrow path entirely. My legs began to
tell me I would never make the last four or five]kilometers,
but I kept thinking how I’d unlace and pull off my boots and socks,
Immerse my feet in the Tyrrhenian Sea. That was hours
Away, and we walked on, reached the point where we could see the
Roofs of Cefalu, the city I’d seen only in photos, red roofs and
Cream colored houses, thin ribbons of streets leading down
To white beach and the sea. I thought of it as Mediterranean
Blue like the crayon in the 48 Crayola box, the one with
Risers built in so that the new crayons stood like glee club
Singers in ascending rows. No–it’s Tyrrhenian blue, I said,
And walked on. We were sweating now, it must have
been after four, but the heat rose from those
hills of wildflowers and tall grasses. I felt my left instep
tweak a little, decided to ignore it, trying hard
to keep up with Charles and Phil, just ahead of me, single file.
I went into a sort of trance state, looked down to be sure I was
Walking where I should be walking, but no longer thought
About my feet, the heat, the sweat dripping down from
Forehead to chin. We descended this grass-crammed hill
and reached the paved road. Another forty-five minutes,
Stephen said, though Cefalu and the beach were so far away
I hardly believed him. We came onto a street of beach houses,
Backyards, fences, signs — terreno in vendita.
Just when the day was so hot, the sea so distant
that I was near giving up, we came upon a cherry tree,
low branches, every one stuffed, it seemed, with ripe
sweet cherries. We picked them by the handfuls, ate them,
juice running down our chins, we passed them around,
came back for more, swigged the last water from our
battered plastic bottles. One more hill, up, up, then
slowly we began our final descent. I won’t
bore you with how long it took for those with bruised black
toes, blisters, twisted ankles, aching feet to finish
the trek. But I can tell you this—
The waters of the Tyrrhenian sea were the finest I have ever
stepped into. I rolled my pants up above my knees, tread
carefully around the slick rocks, pushed my feet
into wet Tyrrhenian sand. I felt such triumph —
Martina stuck bottles of Prosecco into the water
To keep them cool till all of us had gathered on the sand.
I cupped my hands, scooped up the sea, bathed
My face and arms with the blue water, the same
Sea the Phoenicians, Normans and Carthaginians
had sailed. Martina popped open the Prosecco.
The wine fizzed in my mouth, I held out my glass
for seconds. I hadn’t felt such an endorphin-fueled rush
Since childbirth. Anything after this—the superb dinner
posh hotel, slower pace—was sure to be a letdown.
Di piu, per favore, I said to Martina, and
She refilled my glass to the very brim.
That night we would feast, at an outdoor osteria-–
At long tables, we would delight in the pasta, sea bream, contorni,
And we would toast one another—to fellowship, to reaching Cefalu,
And to the perfect, eternal blue Tyrrhenian sea.
We rise early to start our last day of the walk from Enna to the sea, after a quick breakfast at our Madonie ski lodge. The silent man in the light grey suit–the lodge owner? manager? kitchen boss?–appears once again, pacing along the far wall of the dining room, hands clasped behind his back, overseeing every detail, as he has for both our dinners and breakfasts. We have our suitcases ready at the top of the stairs by 7:45 a.m. for Martina to pack them in the van.
We congregate in the car park. Three of our group will stay behind and ride with Martina to the small town of Isnello, where eight of us will meet them at a small cafe. After an espresso, we will walk 13 kilometers more to the town of Cefalù, on the Tyrrhenian Sea.
Stephen drives eight of us in the van to a spot not far from the lodge. Martina followed in the Skoda station wagon, and then when we climbed out of the van, she climbs into the driver’s seat and leaves the Skoda behind. Martina and Stephen, using a top secret and complicated system that only the understand, will return to move the car later in the day. We climb out of the white van, grab our daypacks, adjust our hats, and follow Stephen down the path off the paved road and into a grove of trees and gorse. We soon found ourselves at the bottom of a steep incline up a rock-strewn path.
Unlike the first few days’ walks, today, we aren’t on a drove road or even a well-used path, so we depend on Stephen to lead us back and forth in a switchback, ascending the mountain. Both on the way up and on the way down the mountain, we encounter wide streams, loose rocks in the water, and slippery mud. I clutch my trekking pole and wish I had two of them. I mentally add “second trekking pole” to the list of must-have items for any future walking tours: trousers with special zippers, so that magically, the long pants become walking shorts; a truly waterproof jacket; more long-sleeved cotton shirts; packing pods.
We move quickly, jumping over the smaller rocks and negotiating the streams. Some of us are caught up in stray barbed wire, a piece of fence that has fallen and been trampled into a booby trap on the trail. I nearly miss landing on my face. Instead, I break my fall with my hands, which just miss the barbs. We see the medieval commune of Isnello in the near distance, and almost before I know it, we are out of the brush, and walking down the hill onto paved road, and into Isnello. We make our way down the paved streets, up narrow passages between houses, around corners, and down more narrow lanes until we come to the meeting place. The sun is shining, the day is warm, and the espresso bar calls to us.
Inside, a twenty-something barista pulls espressos while a few men stand around and appreciate her beauty. She has dyed aubergine-colored hair, and wears a snug t-shirt, a jeans jacket, and iridescent green and yellow paisley tights. A stern older woman dressed in a dark gray dress—presumably the lovely barista’s mama—stands by, watching the scene. She nods to us when we bid her bongiorno, and points to the w.c., reading our minds.
We carry our espressos ten or twelve paces across the narrow street, to the cafe’s small tables. I have a perfect line of vision across the street where three young men stand, sipping white wine from glasses. They position themselves next to the doorway, looking out at whatever action they can find on the street, but occasionally glancing back at the barista.
Not much is happening today in Isnello. A woman walks by with her tiny daughter. The uniformed parking officer, a woman of about forty, stops to scold a man whose truck is blocking traffic. He is slow to move his vehicle. Is he reluctant to follow her instructions immediately because she is younger than him? Or is her authority undercut because she’s a woman? We ponder this as we drain our espresso cups, return them to the young barista, and begin the next leg of our walk to Cefalù. We have miles—or kilometers— to go before we…not sleep, but dip our toes into the sea and toast each other with Prosecco.
We have absolutely no idea how difficult the rest of today will be on our feet, our calves, our quadriceps, our balance, and our endurance skills. We will take many steps and burn many calories over the next hours.
Next: the six-hour walk, via the pilgrim route to Cefalù.
I know what I was doing on this day in 1965, a Sunday. Or I can guess and come pretty close to the facts. I was likely at 12:30 Mass, mostly to please my father, who raised hell with me two months earlier when he found out I’d been skipping Mass and instead picking up the Sunday Times at the Overlea Pharmacy where we had it on order each week, and driving to the McDonald’s on Taylor Avenue for a good long read. But not too long, because I knew just how much time I had to pore over the paper before 12:30 Mass ended.
After the blowup, and the family meeting, and the contrite promises I made to keep attending Mass until September when I was to leave for my first year of college, I returned to Sunday Mass. Often my father went with me, but just as often he had been to church early, leaving me and my younger sister to catch the last one, a gathering of hungover teenagers and twenty-somethings and the graveyard shift workers who caught a nap between returning home and St. Michael’s.
The rest of that Sunday fifty years ago went something like this: After I fulfilled my duty to my father, I would phone one friend after another, until I could scare up a quorum willing to do something fun—a picnic with sandwiches and beer out near Loch Raven Dam, an air conditioned movie and a bite to eat at HoJo’s on Old York Road afterwards, or a swim at Beaver Dam. I was working for the summer at Fort Holabird in Dundalk, and I’d gotten my first paycheck—112 dollars, after taxes, for the past two weeks of work assigning codes. We reviewed dusty old files listing various criminal convictions GIs had committed-from simple assault to homicide—while in uniform, and wrote down the correct code on a key punch card. AGAS, aggravated assault, was the most common. We had low level security clearances, and I refused to discuss the details of my job with anyone in my family, as well as my friends.
We worked in the bowels of a so-called temporary building at the army base. The structure was built during World War II, and had never been modernized. Six-foot tall floor fans kept us from passing out from heat exhaustion, but the summer clerks demanded more air circulation, so the Army provided us with small oscillating table fans as well. We worked at long government-issue tables, constantly shifting our focus from the coding work in front of us to the clock, waiting for the morning coffee break. My new friend Sophie and I would stroll down to the canteen, a small air-conditioned room full of vending machines, and drink diet soda. We were both determined to lose weight before school started. We were a diet support group of two, before Weight Watchers ever came up with the idea.
The hours passed in a slow blur. We had a half hour for lunch, then a long afternoon of coding, a bathroom break around 2 PM and then more coding, more stacking of dusty files, and chatting with one another when our very strict supervisor, Earline, wasn’t bearing down on us. Two young soldiers appeared a month into our summer and joined us in our labor: John claimed to be a surfer from California, but it turned out he was really from Minnesota, a child of divorce shipped off to military school and then sent to live with his grandma for one summer in LA. Curtis was a black kid from Georgia, sweet and innocent. He was engaged to a girl he wrote to twice a week. Both of them knew they were going to be shipped off to Vietnam by the end of summer. The two of them provided diversion, and a couple of the girls developed major crushes on John, whom we called the Beatle soldier because of his hair—as long as a guy in uniform could get away with in 1965.
At the end of the workday, Sophie and I raced out to her green VW Beetle, and tried to beat the traffic out of Dundalk, through Highlandtown, across Eastern Avenue, and back to my street, where we parted company till the next morning. By 7 a.m. ,when Sophie picked me up at the top of my street, it was already steamy. My hair curled in every direction. Sophie’s air-conditioned Beetle was my only escape from the Baltimore summer.
Weekends were all the more delicious. I spent them reading, thumbing through Seventeen and Glamour .planning my college wardrobe, searching the newspaper for specials on fall outfits, and sitting in the kitchens of friends, all of them with jobs just as mind-numbing as mine. We tuned the radio to WCAO and for hour after hour, listened to Sonny and Cher, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, and the Stones.
I tried to ignore what was going on halfway across the world in Vietnam, but the news was everywhere– on the radio, on tv, in the newspaper. President Johnson announced that more troops would be called up. The U.S. mounted more air strikes against the Viet Cong. I argued with my father about the war. He said we should send in flame throwers and burn their whole country down and be done with it. He said if Vietnam fell to the Commies, we could expect all of Asia to follow suit. He had served in the Navy in China during World War II, he considered himself an expert in these things. I was a stubborn, outspoken, intemperate 18 year old, and I didn’t have the sense to walk away from a political argument, with him or anyone else.
That was the summer of the odd, scratchy feel of the material against my knees when I tried on wool skirts in a Hutzler’s department store dressing room; listening to Bob Dylan sing “Like a Rolling Stone” on my stereo; lunching on thin cheese sandwiches on Hollywood diet bread; waiting for a college boy I used to have a crush on, but no longer did, to invite me to go classical record shopping at Korvette’s; driving around in my mother’s red and white Impala and never filling it up with gas; drinking cold beer out of the can; going to the Brehmen Savings and Loan every other Saturday to deposit my paycheck and taking only ten dollars back in cash, half of it for Sophie’s gas money.
Leaving high school behind, I felt triumphant. Nothing that summer felt better than sitting back in Sophie’s green metal pod and listening to the radio, talking of white go-go boots, boys, and black cocktail dresses. Freedom lay just around the corner, I was sure of it. Sophie shifted the car into fourth gear and we drove down Holabird Avenue and westward, to our homes that we couldn’t wait to leave for good.
…the 2015 Allen Ginsberg Poetry Awards, and will appear in the Paterson Literary Review, Issue # 44 (Summer 2016).
Edging is not my favorite garden chore, especially when the ground is as dry as it’s been these past weeks. My Preferred Method: line up the edger, push as hard as I can, and when met with resistance—by the thatch that seems to be everywhere in the back yard—jump on the edger to push through the matted sod. My edging is inferior to my son’s work, but he’s working till 11 PM so I’m on my own. My husband comes behind me and rakes up the pieces of sod, grass, stones that I trail behind me as I work my way around the large circular garden and up the hill.
I get sidetracked by the evening primrose, which each year mount an assault on the other perennials. No matter how many I yank up by their roots, the primrose find all available real estate and spread out around and within the marguerites, the Montauk daisies, the lupine, the iris. The proper roses could take a lesson from these invasive, fuzzy –leaved primroses.
The best part of the afternoon is the mulching. This year I ordered two yards of rich brown pine bark mulch, dumped unceremoniously in the driveway, which means parking our cars on the street for a week while we whittle the pile down. By five o’clock, the pile is a flat circle about four inches high, so I sweep up what’s left and shovel it into plastic tubs and drag it into the garage.
There is more edging to be done in the gardens in front of the house, but not today. I hook up the sprinkler and turn on the water, delighting in the way the dampened mulch looks chocolate-brown against the green of the perennials—daylilies, sedum, lupine, columbine, hosta.
Next step: discouraging the deer and rabbits from lunching on some of this stuff. I start a checklist for tomorrow: deer away, hot sauce, eggs, Great Horned Owl statue, scare tape.
And the choreographer in me starts planning the steps for my rain dance.
Explain to me how the sea
Puts parentheses around the years
Since my father held my waist,
We jumped the waves,
And he sang off key to me.
So much time has stacked up….
You can read the full poem here, in the May 2015 issue of Poetry Pacific !
When we drive up the dirt road to the cottage at noon this Saturday, we can see how taking down the three tall black locust trees at the very front of our property has opened up the sky. The underperforming rugosa that stood just next to the tallest locust can now get the sunlight it needs to grow, instead of sitting there year after year, a four-foot tall stick of a thing, with leaves but never blossoms. Its hairy stems already look more robust. I consider dosing it with rose food, even though I’ve been warned—rugosa are invasive around here.
Spading up earth that is more sand than anything else, excavating a large hole for the pink spirea I’ve dug up from my garden at home, carrying the sand back into the woods and dumping it—I can’t wait to tear open the bag of lobster compost. I mix a generous bucketful of it with dirt I’ve brought from home, and prepare the spirea’s new home. Then I run out of dirt—I always do when I garden on the Cape. So it’s back to the fenced- in vegetable garden to steal some loam for the spirea. “Promise I’ll return it,” I say to –to whom? To what—the spinach and arugula seedlings peeking up through the rich soil ? The garlic I planted in the cold rain last October? The dirt itself, sand, compost– and that expensive loam I bought last spring?
By four o’clock, I’ve raked and re-raked the bumpy terrain that our tree-cutter left when he and his Bobcat left the scene two weeks ago, and have installed the spirea and a small white azalea near the edge of the yard. I scatter some of the wood chips from the enormous pile the tree cutter left after he pruned branches of our neighbor’s large oaks that hung high over the fence, but dangerously near our little cottage.
Mary, our neighbor from up the hill, drives up the lane in her silver convertible. It’s too cold to have the top down today. She stops and calls out, “Looks lovely!”
“Work in progress,” I call back, and pull a trug full of roots and clods of junk grass back towards our woods, where a little valley forms the dumping ground for garden detritus– a huge, open compost pile.
By five, it’s time to put away the rake and shovel, leave my sneakers on the kitchen porch, and stumble inside for two Advil and a big glass of water. Soon the grill will be fired up, and the swordfish we bought earlier will be competing for space with corn on the cob, the first in from Florida this season, and a green pepper we’ll char for the salad.
The temperature falls to 40— a spring night on Cape Cod.
Three of my poems about the “Sixties, just published in Foliate Oak Literary mag–“Preparations,’ “Judgment” and “Diva” –in Foliate Oak Literary Magazine.
It’s been a long day of transplanting monarda I brought from my old community garden plot, picking up small stray branches, and replanting three dozen day lilies that were uprooted when the Bobcat, driven by George, our landscaping guy, pulled up one of three black locust trees, these strange undesirables that send out roots and runners from the front of the property to the house. I’ve heard that black locust roots can penetrate a home’s foundation to do their magic, or their damage. Three of these towering invasives provided almost no shade but dropped ugly pods into the gardens and shot out roots—and seedlings—in all directions. And those roots have the oddest, most unpleasant odor. In between stints digging, removing sand, adding compost to the sandy holes and planting the bee balm and the uprooted lilies, I returned to the cottage and read first drafts of my students’ research essays.
It was more satisfying to transplant the monarda and the daylilies.
After a long drive home, and a tasty skillet meal of leftover bowtie pasta, mushrooms, a handful of frozen peas we almost forgot about, and some red pepper, it’s time for two ibuprofen and a hot shower. The final episode of The Americans is on at 10.
George was still handily picking up logs and brush with the Bobcat, when my Prius and I pulled out of the rocky driveway and headed towards Boston. The garden is starting to come alive, and without the black locusts.
The winter now seems very long ago, and I say, on with the spring.
A friend asked me to send her a photo of the first robin I saw this spring. But the robins have been back for quite awhile, poking their beaks through the slowly melting mountains of snow, now hills of the stuff. Walking towards one of the oldest buildings on campus yesterday, as I climbed up the 40 slate steps to the door, I glanced back and saw a robin. No, two. No, there were three and as I stopped and watched them for awhile, I counted seven. I haven’t yet graduated to a smartphone, so I had no way to snap a picture of them, an extended family of robins.
The white crocuses outnumber the yellow ones emerging in our small front garden, by ten to one. The fingerling potatoes were more sprout than tuber after a week in the pantry. The thermometer says 35, but the sun is strong, and the landscaping trucks have emerged in suburban neighborhoods. Red Sox opening day is around the corner. It won’t be long before students will be lying out on the grass reading, talking, or just wool gathering.
On days like this, when I was an undergraduate, people would gather at the Sundial, in the center of the Columbia campus, for a rousing speech by an antiwar activist, or the reading of poetry by the likes of Allen Ginsberg or Kenneth Koch. By late April of my junior year, students would take over Low Library, the administration building, and then march to Morningside Park to protest the new gym about to be constructed on a popular neighborhood playground. From there, more campus buildings were occupied, and we were all caught up in the political drama, whether activists, fellow travelers or observers. We thought the whole world was watching, and perhaps it was, if only briefly, before people turned back to their spring duties, picking up fallen branches, cigarette butts, and discarded candy wrappers from the parking strip.
You can find my work here.
Spring break for my college began three days ago. In this part of the world, the vernal equinox officially happened yesterday at 6:45 PM. Last night, another inch of snow, perhaps more, fell, freshening up the grey ragged piles of the stuff left over from February’s blizzards. Daffodils’ green shoots have appeared in the small garden that runs along the cement retaining wall in front of the house. The tall Norway pines branches are dusted with white–again.
One of our snow shovels is stuck fast in an ice pile on the deck. Leggy rose bushes, buddleia and spirea are calling me to prune their splayed branches. I have no idea where I’ve stashed my pruning shears, and one of my work gloves is missing. Black plastic trash bags stuffed with miscanthus clippings last November are still buried under the snow, around the back of the house near the arbor vitae. I see the yellow plastic drawstrings peeking out from the snow pile. If the snow ever melts, I will transfer the detritus from plastic to paper bags and put them out on the curb for the recycling truck.
Five or six large dry branches fell during the winter’s storms, so when the snow melts, we’ll make a burn pile and secure a permit to have a little fire before the rock garden comes alive with perennials. We’ll rake up the accumulated piles of sunflower hulls and scat under the bird feeder.
Today we’re feeling trapped inside, reading the news of two ongoing trials in Boston, pondering why our hockey team has been faring so poorly of late–and looking forward to attending a Red Sox home game in April. Today might look and feel like winter, but we’re more than ready to store our wool caps and gloves, and retrieve our baseballs caps from the back of the closet.
A memory from many years ago leaps to mind, a sunny Tuesday afternoon at Mrs. Clement’s kitchen table. It was a warm Baltimore spring. Our Italian grammar books and literature readers were spread out on the table next to half-cups of tea and a large plate that was nearly empty of cookies. On Tuesdays we had Italian lessons after school, and our homework for that day was to memorize a poem, Primavera. One by one, each of us four recited the lines, stumbling here and there. Mrs. Clement gently corrected us, helping us through the exercise. Primavera, una fatina…
And now, I think to myself, Primavera, dove sei?
Three of my poems, “Diva,” ” Preparations,” and “Judgment,” have been accepted for publication in the May 2015 issue of the University of Arkansas’ Foliate Oak Literary Magazine,
This is the day we do that summing up.
Annoying, isn’t it, the way
we tally and sort the year’s days
into the things – or people – we like and those
that caused us pain? …
~You can find the rest of it here.
At 6:30 a.m. on a snowy Thursday, BWI is already buzzing and the security lines are long. A young woman in turquoise sneakers with bright pink laces and a white down coat is right behind me in line. She jostles me as I’m tossing my belongings into three gray bins. I quickly stash my gear: my laptop, out of its case, my toiletries in their quart-sized Ziploc bag, my tiny handbag, and my jacket. I’m not moving fast enough for Ms. Turquoise Sneakers, and she starts to reach around in front of me, swinging her single plastic bin, but I quickly close the gap. I shoot out mental darts at her, warnings that say “Don’t mess with me, girlfriend.” She backs off about four inches and I nudge the bins down the metal table to the rollers, then push the first bin onto the conveyor belt and watch it all disappear into the x-ray machine.
I step quickly into to the X-ray body scanner. I hold my arms over my head. My feet are firmly placed within the painted yellow lines on the rubber pad. I pretend to be George Clooney in “Up in the Air,” intent on speeding through the screening process.
This has been the airport drill since 9/11. I remember what it was like before, when I ran into the airport 10 minutes before my flight, jogged to the gate, and breathless, handed over my ticket—a real paper ticket purchased from a travel agent and sent to me through the U.S. mail. All seats on every flight were reserved. There were always window seats available. Dinner was served, or a sandwich, if it was a short flight. I paid cash for a glass of wine or a cocktail, two or three bucks at most. There were no laptops, no mobile phones. Smokers sat back and lit up cigarettes, exhaling smoke that traveled up and down the aisle. Passengers pored over newspapers or read paperback novels. The flight attendants— model-thin, under thirty, all dolled up in short skirts and full makeup— we called stewardesses, and males in that position were so rare that nobody bothered to call them much of anything.
There were cheap student fares on the New York-Boston or Boston-BWI shuttles, $25 each way, easily affordable even on a student’s budget. No reservations, standby for the cheap fares, and there always seemed to be one seat left, so I never planned my trips far in advance. Either I got on, or I waited for the next shuttle. With a novel to read, or a journal to scribble in, I had plenty of time to hang out at the airport. Long distance calls were expensive, so I would wait until I reached my destination to call a friend from a payphone. If my friend didn’t pick up, I called another one, until I found someone willing to fetch me from the airport.
There were small adventures along the way. When flights were delayed, I might hang out and meet a potential romantic partner. I might finish reading a novel, or The New York Times, all four sections, every column. I might write—using a pen and paper!— a sonnet or a four-page letter to a faraway friend reporting on school, job, roommates, and social life. Days and weeks might pass before I heard back from the letter’s recipient. And in the time between the posting of the letter and the response, there was time to wonder, imagine, fantasize, explore the possibilities. Did she sleep with that married guy from work? Did she go on the Pill? Did he break up with the love-the-one-you’re with girlfriend and choose the one who had gone off to Paris for a year ? Did they move to Vermont to start an organic farm?
At the airport, I might doze, sitting on the floor against a pillar, substituting my coat for a comforter, and trust that the airline personnel would rouse me when it came time to board. Sometimes, I missed my flight, and waited for the next one.
Less scheduled, more serendipitous, less structured, freer. Those who are the same age now as I was then, live in an environment tightly orchestrated by Siri, Tivo, Nest, Instagram.
Oh, what they‘re missing.
I’ve spent the past day in the hospital’s family waiting room or at the bedside of my “loved one,” as the hospital volunteers like to say, doing what one does in these situations—waiting. It begins as soon as I park the car and make my way the fourth floor surgical unit. I wait to be escorted into the surgical unit where my loved one is also waiting—waiting for the nurse to review the medical history, take her blood pressure and check her pulse, waiting to be hooked up to the IV, waiting for the surgeon to see her and explain the procedure, waiting for the anesthesiologist to stop in to go over the conscious sedation protocol, waiting for the nurse to bring the gurney to wheel her into surgery.
We wait for over three hours. Everyone in our entourage is hungry, especially the loved one, who has fasted for 30 hours, with no more than a sip of water to take her morning medication. When she’s finally wheeled down to the operating room, I wander to the coffee stand, grab a 4 PM lunch. I return to the family waiting area, where there is more waiting to be done. Time passes, in a blur of nonstop television news coverage on a flat screen TV, reading a mystery novel on my Kindle, thumbing through a newspaper someone has left on an end table.
At last, the surgeon appears. All has gone well, he says, explaining the details. It will be a couple of hours more until the loved one is ready to be discharged. More waiting. The day slides by in minutes, half hours, hours of waiting, walking, stretching, bathroom visits, sanitizing hands for the twentieth time, more waiting.
At the end of the day it ‘s hard to fall asleep because the waiting has had an odd effect on me: after so much waiting, I am curiously energized. I find it impossible to read myself to sleep. The digital clock says 12:30. I must be up and ready to leave for home by five. “Sleep fast,” my late, wise mother used to advise in such situations. So I do, tossing, awakening every half hour to find the green light of the clock staring at me: 3:30 4:15, 4:45. This time I wait until an hour before dawn, when I can slip on my backpack, zip up my down coat, and head home and back to work.
I will be busy then, back in my teaching orbit, and done with the waiting, at least for the time being.
Blankets, yoga strap and two foam blocks rest on the yoga mat that I’ve stretched out before the fireplace. To make room for our impromptu back-stretching sessions, the rug is rolled up, placed tight against the CD cabinet. Sun pours in through the picture window. In the kitchen, containers line the windowsill, catching to drips from the ceiling, the result of ice dams on the roof. The compost container in the kitchen sink is stuffed with used coffee filters and their grounds, old tea bags, and vegetable parings. The freezer holds more compost, because it would be foolhardy to attempt our way through the five-foot high snowdrifts to reach the composter by the back fence.
Our 21-year-old cat hasn’t been outside for two weeks, and shows no signs of missing her nightly ten–minute strolls from kitchen to back deck and garden.
We’re caught up on laundry, and we’ve sorted through all the old bills, statements and old grocery lists that normally clutter our desks. We have gathered all our tax documents for the annual April ritual with the IRS, weeks away.
We’ve called my husband’s nonagenarian parents every day, even though we know they are safe, warm, and well nourished, tucked in at their senior living residence 22 miles away. Our sons email or text from their apartments in town—we’re fine, we’re digging out, we’re making pizza/chili/tacos tonight.
We have listened to Aretha Franklin singing diva favorites, Bill Evans on the piano—a 57-year-old recording that sounds strikingly contemporary, young Cecile McLorin Savant working her vocal magic on jazz standards, the Senegalese Orchestra Baobab. We have watched The Americans, Downton Abbey, and the Bruins on television—as well as twice daily weather reports on the New England News channel, where the reporters seem to have camped out for days in the studio.
Snow. More snow. And then, after a few days, more snow. Biblical snow, says our friend Elizabeth. We have no need of a gym to work our muscles: instead of using hand weights or fancy exercise machines, we shovel snow and hurl it five, six feet high, over the growing snow hill beside the driveway, or we carry it into the garage and tip the white stuff out the garage window onto a hollow made by the high winds.
Our next-door neighbor walks down the middle of our newly plowed street, walking Lily, his beagle. Lily sniffs the road and pulls at the leash. I lean against my snow shovel for a moment and say, “We are hardy New Englanders.”
“That’s what we need to keep telling ourselves,” Mark replies, and we both laugh. Lily pulls at the leash again, and off they go down the street, stopping at each house where an intrepid shoveller is clearing a walk or driveway. The wind is strong, dusting newly dug-out cars.
For dinner, we roast a chicken and make popovers. Tearing the golden rolls open, we inhale the aromatic steam, and settle in for another winter evening.
The ceiling in my office leaked,
my carpet is a mess.
How long it will remain like this
is anybody’s guess.
Some books are trashed, some DVDs
are bathed in flakes of paint;
The scent of mold, and mildew there’s
enough to make one faint.
My 9th grade Odyssey is fine,
my con law books as well.
But one tenth of my holdings
are really shot to hell.
My car trunk’s packed with cartons
of stuff I want to keep.
I’ll have a Buddhist outlook,
Find the story here.
I grew up in the 1960’s, in a housing development that backed onto a small woods. Until our woods was razed and supplanted by apartment buildings, we used the “forest” to build forts and act out scenes from televisions shows about Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone. We wore coonskin caps, carried toy rifles and used paper percussion caps to simulate gunfire. In summer, we played baseball in our backyards. Sometimes a fly ball would vault into the woods and get lost. Or a loose foul tip broke a basement window behind the makeshift home plate. There were rivalries: the boys against the girls, the bigger kids against the younger ones. But snow was the great equalizer.
More than two inches meant an official Snow Emergency in Baltimore. All cars were ordered off the major thoroughfares, and sometimes even the smaller residential streets like ours in Northeast Baltimore near the county line. Snow tires weren’t unheard of, but more often, people drove to the local gas station and had chains installed on their tires. Riding in a car with chains was a noisy enterprise at best, and sometimes one of the links would come loose and rap at the wheel cover—we called them hubcaps. Soon the ride sounded like a morning in a noisy Lowell textile mill— crash, clatter, crash, clink, bang….
that my short story, “Take Gutman, “has been accepted for publication by the online magazine “Drunk Monkeys.” Stay tuned for publication details, forthcoming!
January cabin fever sets in when the cold that’s been making the rounds comes home with you. I saw a butcher in our local grocery store preparing a package of Angus ground beef while his nose collected a big drip, no doubt the result of his spending too much time in the walk-in meat refrigerator before he came out to the warmer area. Please, don’t drip snot on my hamburger, I thought. I wondered, will cooking kill the germs? I sighed in relief when he finished wrapping the chopped meat in white butcher paper, weighed it, and slapped on the price tag. I tried not to stare at the drip that hung precariously at the end of his large, sharp nose. And I tried not to laugh.
I think back to where I might’ve met this cold virus. There’s a long list of suspects. The manicurist where I got my nails done, at Nail Perfection! Suze’s a warm, funny, kind person who came to the U.S. from Vietnam by way of Thailand two decades ago. The day I dropped into the nail salon, Suze had such a bad case of laryngitis that she couldn’t speak more than a whisper. “Go home!” I said, “Carrie can take care of me, or I can come back tomorrow.” Suze shook her head, took off her coat and said what she always says to me: “Pick your color, Lynne,” The salon, a small space crammed with four manicurist stations, was almost deserted. The salon owner, Carrie, wore a paper medical mask and applied gel to another client’s nails. On the overhead television, the local news reporters covered a bad traffic accident, then a feature on service dogs. Suze finished my manicure in record time, and left before I finished drying my nails under the magic machines that seal the nail lacquer in ten minutes. I may have left with more than dark blue polish on my nails–Suze’s cold and sore throat.
Or perhaps it wasn’t that at all. My cold and laryngitis might have originated with my friend or his partner, who hosted us for dinner that same evening. There were post-holiday hugs all around when we arrived, and more than a few sneezes. The day before I came down with my sore throat, I heard one of our hosts had been laid low by the rhinovirus.
In summer, at least it’s easy to go outside and bake in the sun, even go into the ocean and submerge, to clean out the sinuses. Winter in New England means the humidifier going all night, the heat on 68 during the day, 60 at night, layers of sweaters and heavy socks, lots of herb tea with honey, and a 20 year old house cat who thinks she wants to go outside, but never lingers outside for more than 30 seconds.
This time last week, I was in Miami, riding the eco tour tram around the Everglades, enjoying the egrets, the anhingas, and the alligators. Later that day I sat at a table outside the U of Miami Starbucks, sipping an Americano and reading my novel. I’d shed my boots, temporarily, for sandals. It was a joy to wear a sleeveless cotton shirt and linen pants. I ‘m starting to see why old people flock to Florida for the winter.
Give thanks for the following: over the counter cold medications, Bengal Spice tea, the Britta water filter pitcher, and fat, juicy, sweet red grapefruit piled up on the kitchen counter. Things could be worse.
January is the time to clean up and clean out. People are crushing and discarding old cardboard boxes, leaving the naked Christmas tree by the curb for the special post-holiday trash pickup, and packing themselves into the yoga studio, so that swan diving into Uttanasana won’t do, and everyone has to bend forward with arms stretched straight overhead so that we don’t crash into one another. The lines at TJ Maxx are more for returns than purchases. The mail delivery has fallen off dramatically, from those welcome stacks of Christmas cards from far and around the corner, to clearance catalogs from the few stores that haven’t heeded the request to Stop! Stop sending me catalogs!
Perhaps the days are growing longer, but it doesn’t seem so from where I sit. When I look up after an hour or so of deleting old emails and organizing files on my laptop, it’s dark. Darker than dark. No moon. Fog. And on the street, little piles of slush. The house should be warm and cozy, but not until I’m settled at the counter with a cup of tea do I stop feeling chilled. I’m trying not to think about how nice it would be to crawl under the electric blanket and the down comforter, double comfort, with an Elena Ferrante novel.
Buck up, I say to myself. Tomorrow the sun might come out, and if it doesn’t, who cares? I’m going to take a car to the bus, a bus to the airport, and then a plane to Miami, where I can break out my new walking sandals and warm up my New England bones. Partly cloudy, the forecast says. But partly cloudy and 80 sounds just about all right to me. In my head appear visions of tee shirts, sunscreen and a net bag of tree ripened oranges. An ode to key limes is in the queue.
My old friend Gina will pick me up at the airport and speed us off to dinner. I’ve done the work of de-Christmasing the house, boxing up ornaments we never use—and that no one ever really liked in the first place—and giving them away to an elderly lady who answered my Craigslist posting. The white amaryllis in the kitchen window isn’t close to blooming, so I won’t miss the January flower show.
When I get back in a few days, all freckled and warmed up, the acorn and spaghetti squash I’m up and leaving on the kitchen counter will be waiting for me, and the cubanos of Little Miami will be a pleasant memory.
Just remember to save a spot in the yoga class for me.
© 2015 Lynne Viti. All rights reserved
The people who lived up the lane here have moved away, and the ground around the tiny cottage where they stayed for two or three seasons—has finally frozen, a few weeks after earth moving equipment disrupted everything to install a new septic system. The backhoe left a sizable rut in our dirt road, and one of the neighbors had to write to the absentee landowner, asking her to get the guys back to repair the road. In our absence the woman we hired to blow all our leaves back into the woods behind our cottage has come and gone, job well done. Only a few leathery oak leaves cling to the inside of the deutzia bushes. Everything else looks dead. I know it’s merely dormant, waiting a few months to send out buds and then leaves.
It’s a time to rest. We’re listening to old Bob Dylan on the IPod speakers, and catching up on old issues of Audubon magazine and The New Yorker. At night, I’m still plodding through the fourth volume of Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson, finally realizing that I need not commit the minutia to memory in order to get a sense of the man as he assumed the mantle of power in the Oval Office. (So far he hasn’t even moved into the Oval Office, out of deference to the nation’s shock of losing Kennedy just days before).
The bright sunlight reveals every speck of dust in the kitchen. I try wiping down the cooktop and using the polishing cloth to shine the stainless steel. If I were sticking around this empty shore town for a few more days, I might take on bigger projects—replacing a spent light in the spare bedroom, washing the duvet cover, dusting under all the furniture, pruning the deutzia now that the leaves are gone and I can see the shape of the bush, as my go-to garden expert Carol Stocker recommends.
But isn’t it much better to laze, this New Year’s morning, and listen to Dylan sing “Spanish is the Loving Tongue”?
The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.
Here’s an excerpt:
A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 2,200 times in 2014. If it were a cable car, it would take about 37 trips to carry that many people.
Growing up in Baltimore, I rarely saw a white Christmas. Perhaps once or twice. The closest we came, most years, was a cold, gray Christmas. And every few years, we had a Christmas Day that seemed more like early spring than winter: the Christmas I tried out my new roller skates, making my way up Hilltop Avenue and then cruising down the hill on the sidewalk, trying not to get caught in big cracks, learning to control the speed , sometimes only stopping myself by skating onto someone’s patch of lawn. The Christmas my sister and I walked down to the tennis courts at Burdick Park and played for an hour or so. After a few minutes we peeled off our sweatshirts and continued practicing serves and baseline shots, working up a sweat .
I identified more with the verse of Irving Berln’s song than the chorus: “But it’s December the twenty-fourth/ And I am longing to be up north.” Christmas cards, the lid of Christmas cookie tins, billboards advertising cigarettes or Coca-Cola featured Currier and Ives –like scenes of horses-drawn sleighs making their way through snowy fields. But in Baltimore. Christmas was decidedly somber– or perhaps golden sunny– but not white.
Perhaps this is why I like living in New England. Last night I stood on the deck stringing lights along the railing. Tiny snowflakes had appeared without much warning from the weatherman. The snow was intermittent. After supper, we went upstairs and watched the 1951 “Scrooge,” that old black and white rendition of A Christmas Carol, an essential part of our holiday rituals. By the time we made our rounds to turn off the outside Christmas lights, the flurries had subsided.
But they must have resumed while we slept. This morning we awoke to a light coating of snow in the yard, just enough to coat the buddleia and a few dried, spare perennials outside the bedroom window. “Bleak, but with a nice dusting of snow,” my husband said. Traffic to the bird feeder was heavy, with juncos, sparrows, cardinals, purple martins zooming in and out, until they exhausted the seed supply and decamped for another buffet in a neighbor’s backyard.
From where I sit and write, I can see the pale green lichen that covers the outcropping of ledge along the garden. The last few fallen leaves, the ones that escaped my rake last month, are now disguised by snow. The palette is subtle and neutral—green, brown and white.
Just another inch of snow—enough to preserve this winter garden’s beauty, but not enough to clear from the driveway and front walk—will make our New England Christmas just barely white.
Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Irving Berlin.
You can find it here.
You can find the story on Page 10, here.
You can find the online Star82 Winter 2014, here:
Very happy to report that my short story, “Tony Bennett, Aldous Huxley and Eddie” received an Honorable Mention out of over a thousand entries in the Glimmer Train Very Short Fiction Contest, July 2014. Yowza!
The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.
Here’s an excerpt:
A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 2,700 times in 2013. If it were a cable car, it would take about 45 trips to carry that many people.
Mary Jane and I, just sixteen, wait in the lobby of the old Baltimore Civic Center, waiting for the doors to open so we can be seated for a performance of the Royal Ballet. Suddenly a not-very-tall, muscular young man walks by us and smiles at us. He’s gone around a corner before we realize it ‘s Rudolph Nureyev. Mary Jane and I squeal as we grasp each other’s hands and jump up and down in our high heels and nylon stockings and Sunday best dresses. We’re in heaven.
Rick and I are walking back from a movie, or perhaps a late dinner at Le Potiniere, on West 55th Street, where we always get free drinks because the owner thinks we’re a charming young couple. It is near midnight. A not very tall, very square-looking grey haired man in a burgundy sport coat is staggering around a few yards away from steps down from the sidewalk level to a restaurant or perhaps a bar. He’s with two or three couples, and it seems he’s arguing with them. One of the men takes him by the elbow and says, Ed, come on, it’s time to go home. Rick and I look at each other, amazed. It’s Ed Sullivan. A really big show, right there on West 55th Street. We can’t wait to call our mothers and tell them.
Maureen, Peggy and I are on West 47th Street looking for the Plymouth Theatre. We have tickets to see Runaways. Maureen is driving an enormous maroon four-door sedan her father gave her when he bought a new car. We ‘ve dubbed it the Pimpmobile. We’re running late. Stop and ask someone, Peggy and I tell Maureen, who is stopped in traffic. She lowers the driver’s side window with the fancy automatic button, and calls out to a guy jogging down the block in very short running shorts, “Where’s the Plymouth Theatre?” He stops, catches his breath, and calls over to us.” Two blocks down, 45th Street!” He jogs off. It’s Dustin Hoffman.
The oven bird, seiurus aurocapilla, a variety of warbler, resides in the Northeast U.S. in summer but winters in Florida and Central America. The oven bird likes to be heard, but not seen–rather like a shy child who won’t stop talking but stays in her room. It’s known for its loud and ringing call, “Teacher, teacher, teacher, teacher, ” or alternately, “chur-TEE chur-TEE chur-TEE.” Although birdwatchers reported seeing (or perhaps only hearing) oven birds on Cape Cod near my summer digs as late as last December–our very warm winter in these parts– I’ve haven’t yet seen one this spring. Yet I know his voice, insistent and strong, because it’s in my ears as I plant a summer garden, attempting to transform a sand pile full of weeds into my approximation of an English cottage garden. As oven birds enjoy a diet of terrestrial arthropods and snails, I’m certain some of these warblers will be by sooner or later—I’ve spied dozens of snails in the long-abandoned garden in front of my kitchen.
Here’s what the oven bird sounds like—more a call than a song, but quite attention-getting:
New England’s iconic poet Robert Frost memorialized the oven bird in his sonnet of the same name. The work was published in 1916, in the collection called Mountain Interval, published by Henry Holt and Company. For Frost, the oven bird is not so much a singer as a philosopher who looks ahead to the melancholy of fall even as summer is at its brilliant, sun-drenched best. My grad school professor, the late, brilliant Anne Davidson Ferry, taught me that Frost’s poem was an obvious reworking of Thomas Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush,” part of a conversation between poets across two decades. Still, as bleak as Hardy’s 1900 work seems, Frost’s is even more poignant, and what he teaches us is both disturbing and necessary.
The Oven Bird
First, you’ll need a dishpan
preferably a cobalt blue plastic dishpan that
your mother bought in Poughkeepsie
and a couple squirts of
dish liquid. Green’s the best.
Take a mug with you,
leave the food-encrusted bowls
stacked where they are.
Really, they won’t move.
Walk barefoot to the bathroom
in your favorite pajamas
(or pyjamas if feeling British)
and turn up the faucet
Fill the dishpan two-thirds full
with hot water straight up
from the bowels of the dormitory;
don’t burn your hands.
Placing the mugs and bowls gently
into the now-sudsy pan, carry it,
treading carefully back to your room.
Add the dirty dishes.
Go away for some hours,
come back and remember
they’re still there.
Use the yellow dobie pad
to scrub off bits of
Leave the pad, take the dishpan.
Throw a towel over your arm
like a waiter in a New York bistro.
Pad back to the bathroom.
Rinse off each plate and mug
spoon and knife
Above all, don’t forget the pan.
Lay the folded towel there.
Stack the dishes,
take them home
go about your business.
© 2012 Lynne Viti . All rights reserved. Do not reprint without permission.
When our sons were young, my husband and I began a tradition of taking them to a play or concert on the weekend or two before Christmas. For several years, after Mister Rogers featured two principal dancers on his tv show, both boys were fixated on the Nutcracker Ballet. In those days, we economized by choosing a production by Walnut Hill School . We figured that at age four and seven, the kids wouldn’t notice that the ones executing the pas de deux and the grand jetés were mere high schoolers. We settled on the matinee, and burgers at Friendly’s afterwards. The next year my father-in- law gave us tickets to the Boston Ballet’s Nutcracker. So decked out in reindeer sweaters and corduroy pants, the boys not only enjoyed orchestra seats at the ballet, but were delighted to shake hands with the fully costumed Nutcracker prince and Sugar Plum Fairy as well as one of the mice, at a fancy cocktail reception in the Boston Four Seasons Hotel.
All too soon, the boys became too macho for the ballet, and my husband suggested Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. By this time a “fancy” dinner– any restaurant that did not serve pizza as its specialty dish–became part of the holiday theater experience. We drove to Providence, saw an Angels in America– inspired Christmas Carol (ghosts of Christmas past, whirling overhead on a pulley contraption; female Ebenezer Scrooge), and got soaked clear through our coats walking in a downpour from the parking lot to a snazzy Italian restaurant –wine for the parents, pizza for one boy, and pasta for the other. The next year, we went to Christmas Revels at Harvard’s Sanders Theater, and afterwards, tucked in to TexMex food. Our younger boy loved the Revels—the costumes, the audience participation singing, the period instruments, and most of all, the antler dance. But the older one, by now in his early teens, decidedly did not. He rebelled, the next year staying home in bed with a fever–or perhaps he meddled with the thermometer to escape revelling. We got a last minute babysitter (our church rector’s son, as I recall) took our ten year old and skipped the dinner out that year.
A Child’s Christmas in Wales went over pretty well with the boys the next year, or perhaps what they really liked was dinner at Legal Seafoods on a bustling night in a suburban mall. At the play’s intermission, the kids asked us to buy them nosewarmers-–worn by the actors in A Child’s Christmas, and sold at intermission to benefit the Boston Repertory Theatre. We suggested they spend their own money; they decided to forego the nose warmers.
Over time, the holiday outing metamorphosed–or faded–into dinner and a movie, and once the firstborn went off to college in Maine, the tradition fell off altogether. At first that made me sad: it was another sign that our children were forging their own ways in the world and did not want to adhere to their childish ways. They had plans of their own, and these excluded their parents.
But with the disappearance of our foursome’s family ritual, there came a new one: the empty nesters’ holiday outing. This year at summer’s end, my husband ordered tickets for Stile Antico, an early music group of twenty-something singers from Britain. For two hours last night we sat with a couple hundred others in a grand, marble arched Catholic church in Cambridge. Until a few moments before the concert began, frigid air from the street flew into the narthex and into the back of the church where we sat in straight backed wooden pews, still bundled in our coats and woolen scarves. An enormous advent wreath, at least six feet in diameter, was suspended from the ceiling where the transept and main aisle intersected, its wide purple and pink ribbons stopping just short of the tallest concertgoers’ heads.
“First one to see someone you know gets a prize,” I whispered to my husband, who responded, “Bet we don’t know a soul here.” A striking woman with long white hair gathered back walked by, and I recognized her as a former administrator from the college where I teach, but that didn’t count because I didn’t really know her, nor she me, before she retired a decade ago. Almost immediately after that I spotted a former student from several years ago—long enough that it took me half the concert to remember her name. She didn’t see me, so that didn’t count either.
The singing began. First, the women’s voices, clear, strong, sweet, emanating from a place I could not see from our pew near the back of the church. Then men’s voices joined the women’s, as the singers quietly took their places in the chancel. The women wore fashionable black dresses, the men, black shirts and pants. But the singers were merely the vehicles for the music, and to a lesser extent, the words— Tallis, Byrd and plainchant. The music made by these thirteen young voices swallowed up the Latin prayers. As I looked out over the audience, the music went into my head on the wings of the church Latin I had learned as a child and adolescent before the days of Vatican II, when the great theologians and bishops banished the Latin Mass to a few outlier parishes. Old, familiar phrases— qui tollis peccata mundi, misere nobis, magnificat anima mea Dominum, swirled around my head, and then as the singers repeated and repeated the words, the sound fused with the words, then made its way into my head and my heart. I was no longer sitting in a cold church a stone’s throw from the Harvard yard, with hundreds of strangers in wool or down jackets. I was somewhere else, where human voices were so excruciatingly lovely and moving that it seemed the closest one could ever get to choirs of angels, or whatever you might call otherworldly, near-perfect beings. These voices became pure sound, capturing me, eliminating all distraction, bringing wonder, then calm.
As though jolted from deepest sleep, loud applause brought me back from where the voices had taken me. We ducked out of the church just as Stile Antico finished an encore, a 16th century Spanish motet. Cold and hatless, we walked back to the car, threading our way past pubs overflowing with ebullient young patrons in Santa suits or elf costumes. We were forced us back into the twenty-first century.
Over the next few days my husband and I enacted our own rituals from the years when we first met, the time Before Children: last minute book buying at New England Mobile Book Fair, reviewing our gift list to be sure we didn’t favor one grown son over the other; lugging the Christmas tree up from its bucket of water (usually iced over) in the garage; giving the living room its annual deep cleaning, from under the carpets to the corners and crannies of the sofa.
Today is Boxing Day, and the trick is to stay more than a step ahead of the December blues. The leftovers from Christmas dinner are stowed in the fridge. The cousins from Maine left this morning. Two lone pieces of pie sit covered with plastic wrap on the kitchen counter. Most of the detritus of Christmas–the bows, the gift wrap, the boxes–has been sorted into recycling bins in the garage.
At 5 pm it’s fully dark. I turn on the outside Christmas lights and make myself a cup of tea. The house, so full of laughter and talk of politics and music and jobs this time yesterday, is silent. The days are growing longer, imperceptibly, but confirmed by the daily newspaper’s almanac: ” Sunset, 4:17 pm. Day of year: 360.”
Before we know it, we’ll be cutting forsythia to force its brave yellow blossoms from tall, spare branches, early notes of spring.
I was seventeen, standing in the foyer of Levering Hall at Johns Hopkins. In our ongoing campaign to meet college men, we had come out on a school night to Hopkins, to some sort of political meeting, or perhaps a poetry reading. My best friend MJ was with me, and so was our friend Alma, a year behind us in school. My mother had recently taken up knitting again, and she had turned out some fuzzy mohair sweaters. This night, I wore a pink one, loose and fuzzy, over a short dark skirt.
Whatever event had brought us to the Hopkins campus was finished, and Alma’s very tall, very handsome rosy-cheeked brother was there to take her home. His friend looked short, but only because Bill was so tall, well over six feet. He wore a navy blue shirt black tie, and jeans. Later, after he and I dated for the second half of my senior year, I came to learn that Bill thought this attire made him look vaguely like a Mafioso, but to me he looked like a Baltimore City police, uniformed officer, but without the badge. Nobody dressed this way, at least no college guy I’d ever seen in real life.
Wearing the dark brown skirt and white blouse uniform of Mercy High School meant that I never had to make decisions about buying clothes for school. Coordinated outfits, mostly sweaters and skirts, were absolutely necessary for Sunday Mass, Friday night CYO or going to plays or basketball games at Calvert Hall or Loyola. The styles were dictated by Seventeen Magazine and the junior fashion boards at Hutzler’s or Stewart’s, the local department stores, which in turn probably received their marching orders from Seventeen and Glamour . I had carefully assembled a small but workable out-of-school wardrobe. Though I not yet persuaded my mother to buy me a pair of Weejuns, I had a few Villager skirts and sweaters, the requisite Chesterfield coat with velvet collar, and a shoulder bag that was the envy of my school friends. Even on the coldest winter day, we didn’t wear hats, or hoods. We eschewed scarves. Gloves and the Chesterfield coat were enough for us, no matter how frigid the weather.
But once I started going with Bill, my preppy style didn’t play so well. He was an actor, which is to say he tread the boards at his all – male college, and sometimes, at Mount Saint Agnes, its sister school across town. The theater crowd was sophisticated and cool. They had parties at the apartments of people who were at least twenty-five and sometimes—amazingly, to me—even older. They might gather around a small television to watch a special broadcast of Brando in “On the Waterfront” while they drank scotch and smoked Marlboros or Benson and Hedges. One couple, Ray and his lover, were out of the closet–both in their late twenties, both in college, both army veterans. They, too, were in the college theater group.Ray and Fred lived together in a large studio apartment on Belair Road, in a blue collar neighborhood, where rents were far cheaper than in the student ghetto.
From the time I was fourteen, my mother endured much moaning and crying on my part over my boyfriendless state. “You’re not fat,” she would say. “You’re fine. Not every boy likes a rail thin girl.” By the time I started going out with Bill, she was so relieved to see me with an active social life that she never asked for details on where I was going. And I, in turn was vague. So long as I was home by midnight, I could do as I pleased. She trusted me to make good decisions, she said.
This particular night I wore a wine colored merino wool knot dress because Bill had sent a handwritten note, couriered to me by his sister before homeroom a few mornings earlier. “Kindness of Alma” was written in ornate script in the lower left corner of the envelope, and for the return address F. J. Talma, Francois-Joseph Talma, a nineteenth century French actors whose persona Bill had adopted. In his letter, in florid, formal prose on vellum stationery, he outlined the schedule for the Saturday night. He told me the precise time he would pick me up and directed me to “wear dark, dark colors.” My mother wouldn’ t hear of my wearing black, so the burgundy wool dress — bought the year before for an afternoon tea dance at the Naval Academy– would have to do. I laid out the Chesterfield coat and Bob Dylan boots.
“Oh, we’re just going to a play and a cast party after,” I stold my mother. Indeed, there was a play—Genet’s The Balcony, which I barely understood, and a party afterwards at the home of a couple in their late twenties who lived around the corner from the Northeast Baltimore police headquarters, in the upstairs of a two–family house. Everyone was older than me, and everyone was drinking. I sipped at a glass of white wine, and found myself watching—not really participating—in a conversation between two Mount St Agnes seniors and a Jesuit from Loyola, adviser to the drama club. The girls were tall, blond and sophisticated, and they laughed and chatted and then sang, for the benefit of Father Whatever His Name Was, a parody of a Broadway show tune. I knew the song, “Can Do,” from Guys and Dolls. “Can’t do, can’t do, “ they sang. “The Church says we can’t screw. Can’t do, can’t do.” The priest threw back his head and roared with laughter.
I was shocked. I tried to show no sign of even mild surprise as I half-smiled and backed away. I found a sofa to sink into, and looked around the room for Bill. He stood in a far corner near the kitchen, holding court. “So I said to the professor, “I don’t think it’s a matter of pathetic fallacy. Rather, I think Dylan Thomas was…pathetically phallusy!’” Everyone laughed. I looked at at my watch and saw that it was 11:40, and even though my house was only ten minutes away, I became anxious.
I was quiet on the drive home. Bill lit a cigarette and he, too, was silent. His mother’s car, an older model Dodge Dart, had no radio. I felt I had disappointed him, though I‘d tried my best to be the cool and sophisticated intellectual girlfriend I thought he wanted me to be. He kissed me good night on the front porch. I didn’t ask him in.
My mother was still awake down in the basement family room. watching an old movie on the black and white television, something with Rita Hayworth. Dad was upstairs in bed, long asleep, and Mom was in her pajamas and bathrobe, drinking ginger ale.
” Didn’t we see this once, at the Northway Theatre,when I was in fifth grade? ” I asked her. “Remember, it was a school night. I fell asleep on the ride home, and you had to tell me how it ended.”
“Sit down, sweetie,” she said, patting the sofa next to her. “Wasn’t that Rita Hayworth a beautiful girl?”
My mother was a born dancer. Not a hoofer, nor a chorus girl. For most of her working life she was an elementary school teacher. But at heart she was a child of Terpsichore, muse of the dance. And I’m not referring to classical ballet or modern dance, though she clearly saw the value of these, enrolling my sister and me in the Taylor Avenue School of the Dance so we could learn to plié and arabesque with the other little girls. My mother loved any popular dance. But most of all, she loved the Charleston.
She often told us about the time she won a Charleston contest at St. Rita’s fair, when she was thirteen. The prize was five dollars, and she beat out a dozen other Dundalk girls in the competition. I can only imagine what they danced to—a gramophone with a large horn for sound production? A live band from the local Moose Club or Knights of Columbus, perhaps. And when my grandmother got wind of the news, either from a neighbor or perhaps from the happy prize winning dancer herself, my mother was whipped and punished, and one can only wonder what happened to that cash prize, likely confiscated. Whether it was jealousy or a sense of propriety that made my grandmother react this way, I never figured out. More to the point, this episode did not cure my mother of what my grandmother called “making a spectacle of yourself.”
When my father’s extended family gathered for holiday parties and the topic of dancing came up, my Uncle Bill would talk on about how he and my mother “could really cut up a rug” back when they were young and running with the same crowd. At weddings, my mother would be the first one out on the dance floor, though my father could barely manage a foxtrot because of his bad leg. In the ‘Sixties, she was more than willing to get up and do the Twist with me or my sister. When I was in high school, she would watch Shindig! with me and my sister, rising from her chair to Frug or Hully Gully along with the television dancers. We thought this was hilarious, so long as she did not carry on like this in front of our friends.
But most telling of all was the time my father stayed home with us while my mother went off to one of her state teachers’ conventions, this time at the Alcazar, an old downtown Baltimore ballroom and auditorium. I was ten, and my sister, six. For weeks our mother had regaled us with stories of the comedy skit that she had helped write, highlighting education issues over the previous five decades. To show the changing times, her friend Jessie, one of the principal actors, reached under her chair and selected a new hat, choosing a variety of styles, from broad-brimmed 1915 chapeau to Jackie Kennedy pillbox. On the last night of Mother’s convention, our father told us to change into good dresses because he was taking us somewhere special. We’d already eaten, so we knew we weren’t headed for Howard Johnson’s, our idea of dining out. He was very mysterious, simply mentioning as we headed downtown that we were in for a surprise.
He ushered us up to the balcony of the Alcazar’s auditorium. Onstage, sitting at the head of a conference table was Mother’s friend Jessie Parsons. She bent over to stash the 1915-era hat she had just removed from a large box under her chair and placed a ‘Twenties’ style cloche on her head. Laughter erupted from the audience. Then, she appeared– our mother, in full flapper regalia—a sparkling shift, feather boa, long ropes of beads, high heels, and a feathered headband around her short coiffure. Charleston music blared from the sound system. And dancing next to her, wearing an old raccoon coat and waving a pennant, was Jessie’s ex-husband Lee. My sister and I bounced up and down in our seats and squealed as we watched our mother kick and strut, while Mr. Parsons executed the Bees Knees step perfectly. Teachers from all over the state rose to their feet, clapping in time to the music. And then, as suddenly as it had begun, it was over. Mother and Mr. Parsons took a bow, to loud applause. My father whisked us out of the auditorium, though we pleaded with him to take us backstage to see our mother. “Did she know we were going to be here?” we asked. Our father just laughed and shook his head. “Your mother sure is a wonderful dancer,” he said, and then he became quiet.
Perhaps he was remembering a night many years before, when he was young, able-bodied and athletic. The Great Depression may have hovered in the background of their romance, but that night they put their worries aside for a few hours. That was the night he proposed, while they were dancing slow and close at the Dundalk Post Office Outing, as the little orchestra played on.
Two of my poems, “I Can’t Get No”–about my late friend Marcus W. (“Mike”) Moore, Jr., and “Harp Music,” will appear in the online poetry and music journal, The Song is,” on August 19. I invite you to read these!