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.
Connections Magazine, Winter 2014 is out–read my short story, “Tony, Bennett, Aldous Huxley and Eddie” on
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.
This will appear soon, possibly in an extended or shortened form, on the Patreon page of Drunk Monkeys:
MR: Is “Take Gutman” inspired by a real teacher? If so, what was it about her that stuck with you?
LV: Yes, the story has some parallels to actual events, though I’ve added a lot to it that’s pure fiction. As a college sophomore, I did transfer from a small Catholic women’s college in Baltimore, to Barnard in New York. Pre-Internet, there was no way to find any rating system, to learn who the best teachers were, beyond hearsay. I kept hearing this one professor’s name from student orientation leaders, and even though I had little interest in very early American Literature, I signed up for her course. She was intense, skinny, a little disheveled—and an electric lecturer. I took a second course with her the next term, and it was there that she really captivated me—her lectures were stunning: full of literary theory, biography of the authors, close readings of the texts that I think must have been hers, not something she dug up in scholarly articles by other professors. Her optional weekly discussion sections, subdivisions of the large (80 + students) lecture in that course, were limited to about 12 students per section, and she led each one. She had a remarkable way of welcoming each student, no matter how shy or inexperienced, into the conversation. And she did die quite suddenly, after that year I took two of her classes.
MR: What made you feel that this was a story that you needed to tell?
LV: I wrote a short account of the real-life professor and her influence on me, in response to a call a few years ago, sent out by my college reunion committee, for a Moth project that was planned for reunion. My idea wasn’t accepted, but a booklet of all the submission was circulated after reunion, to class members. The husband of one of my classmates (someone I didn’t know—it was a rather large class, and as a transfer student I probably knew fewer of my classmates than those who began together as freshmen) sent me a short note saying how much he’d liked my remembrance of the teacher. I put it all aside, and found it a couple years ago, and thought it might be a good starting point for a work of fiction.
MR: As a teacher yourself, do you ever wonder what sort of impact you’re having on your students?
LV: Every day. I care about and wonder about how I am affecting each one of them in my courses. And I appreciate it when they tell me, with candor, while they are still in my classes, though it’s also nice to hear back from them years later, when they’ve had some mileage on them and they can view their time in my writing class with a more seasoned perspective.
MR: How would you want your students to remember you in twenty years?
LV: I just saw “Whiplash,” so my first thought is– not like Terence Fletcher!
I hope they would remember me as totally committed to the teaching, wanting very much to guide them in becoming better writers, no matter what their path is after college, and also interested in them as people—where they have come from, what major life questions they are grappling with at college, how their past informs their academic journeys. I hope they would also reflect now and then that my mantra was always, while not everyone can be the next Toni Morrison or F. Scott Fitzgerald, we can all be writers of something we can be proud of—with a lot of thought and even more revision, revision, revision.