Pet cemetery. No horror.

 

Gypsy entered our lives in the early 1970s, showing up in the backyard with a waddle in her walk and a defiant look in her yellow eyes. We voted on what to name her, with my father scrawling Owl on the paper I passed out to him, and it wasn’t inappropriate, given that steady, appraising gaze, but Gypsy prevailed – fitting for the tortoiseshell cat who roamed into the yard carrying nothing but her prenatal baggage, clearly the reason someone had dumped her on the road next to our house.

The kittens came a few weeks later, five of them, two orange, two black, and one multi-colored like her mother. Andi and I named them: OJ and Pumpkin, for obvious reasons, JT and Panda for the tuxedo-clad urchins and Crackers for the tortoiseshell. They would be only the first in a feline clan that would multiply exponentially over the next few years.

She wasn’t our first cat. We’d had many over the years, including Smoky, who can be seen in my first birthday photos, swishing a tail away from my clumsy baby fists. His name had something to do with the floor furnace in our first house and a singed tail. Then came Jimmy Durante, a rather ugly looking white cat whose appearance degenerated when he contracted a mouth tumor. We were in the Shannock house by then, and my father called Ray Richards, the police chief, who pulled out his service revolver and smoked a hole in Jimmy Durante’s peach-pit-sized head.

I don’t know who named him after the Cyrano de Bergerac of vaudeville, but Blackjack got his name from Andi, a reference to Jackie Kennedy Onassis’s father, John V. “Black Jack” Bouvier, a socialite and rake so called because of his perpetual tan. Andi was fascinated with celebrities and kept a scrapbook of Marilyn Monroe, Jackie O, and Natalie Wood, who she claimed I resembled. In the era before Wikipedia, she had a deep knowledge of the most arcane cultural references, gathered from reading Photoplay magazine and movie-star biographies.

In a similar way she came up with an outrageous name for the deformed little kitten who showed up at my grandmother’s house in Tug Hollow one day. This little girl also had been dumped and had spent some time in the wild. One eye was crusted over and infected, and she walked with a hitch in her gait, as though she’d never recovered from a kick. We took her in, of course, and as she bumped into table legs and walls we realized she was at least partially blind.

In a moment of perversity, Andi named her Nadia Comaneci, after the graceful athletic powerhouse from Romania dominating the Olympics that summer of 1976. “Nadia” stuck, but the kitten lived only a year or two before succumbing to her various handicaps.

When it came to pet naming, I had neither the imagination nor the sly humor of my sister. When my sister Mary Jane produced a white rabbit for me one Easter, I promptly named her Mary. I had also named my favorite teddy bear after my glamorous older sister.

Grown up, I would have many felines of my own – Swifty, named by someone else; Perry, a name put to a later and much more important use; Gloria, for the 1985 hurricane; and, perhaps the finest of all, Dauber, who came with that awkward name from the animal shelter, where he stuck his head out of a cage and demanded to be rescued.

My mother, after years of Andi’s wicked humor, rebelled after we left home by naming every cat she ever had Kitty. Going to the vet and having to explain that Kitty was the particular, not the general, name grew tiresome, but my mother would not budge. When she passed away we took in the last Kitty and renamed her Misty, but it never stuck; my mother was right, she was Kitty, and now at the vet I would have to rack my brain for the name I’d told them was hers but never used.

Our late cats reside now in eternal rest in the northwest corner of the Shannock property, in a cemetery my father created under the pines, without the frightening connotations of a Stephen King novel. Each one grew into its name and left behind an indelible impression, and if I close my eyes I can remember their particular faces, their warm fur, and their stubborn determination to survive.

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Your party is on the line

 

In the old farmhouse where I grew up, our most sophisticated form of communication was a black rotary telephone. For a while, it was on a party line, meaning that one ring (say, three short notes) meant the call was for us, and another (two long) denoted one for our neighbors across the street. This could not have been the most efficient arrangement, given that the phone was vital to my father’s sawmill business and at any one time teenage girls lived in the house.

My mother served as my father’s bookkeeper and secretary, which meant that she fielded most of the calls. If an incoming call was deemed of low import, she would take a message, but if it were vital, she would put the phone down (no ability to put someone on hold, so the receiver would pick up the various sounds of the kitchen – the washing machine rumbling, the iron hissing), walk to the back door, and bellow, “YOO-HOO! Armstrong’s on the phone!”

The sound would travel across the septic tank, over her garden, into the maelstrom of activity at the mill, where it had to compete with the whining saw, the flap-flap of the shingle mill, the roar of the motor, the thud of logs rolling off a truck. From there it would reach into my father’s broad but not especially keen ears. He would raise his hand to signal a halt to activity, then begin his long stride back to the house.

“Yoo-hoo” never failed. Though not an especially loud person, my mother had taught first grade, and she knew how to get attention when she needed to. “Yoo-hoo” also was employed on the rare occasions when my father didn’t arrive for supper at the appointed time of 5 o’clock sharp. Usually this was because a visitor out at the mill was chewing his ear, as he would say. Then she would walk to the back door and yell, “YOO-HOO! Your supper’s getting cold!”

If, on the other hand, some urgent piece of business required an outgoing call, my father would lope into the kitchen, sawdust and diesel fumes trailing in his wake, and say to my mother, “Get Baker on the phone.” (He referred to most of his friends by their last names.) My mother would immediately drop whatever she’d been doing, sit down at the hulking metal desk in the kitchen corner, and pop open the metal address book looking for Dick Baker’s number. She would dial the appointed digits and, when Baker or whoever it was answered, say in an apologetic rush, “Oh, oh, hold a minute, here’s Warren,” and my father would pick up the receiver.

He never said hello, but always started with “Yeah,” as though returning to an interrupted conversation. “Yeah,” he would say, “I got those oak planks you wanted.” (When I was a grown, married woman, he would occasionally call me up himself and start with, “Yeah, this is the old man.”)

All of these phone calls, whether incoming or outgoing, he took standing up, receiver to his left ear, his voice projecting toward the window, as though the listener hovered there on the porch. Although he, too, was not an especially loud person, on the phone his voice boomed, until the conversation wound down and he mumbled a sign-off like “All right, see you later.” Then he would leave the house, through the sinkroom and backroom, putting his hat back on his head.

For now, the phone line was dead, until one of our friends called to “tie it up,” as my mother would say (turning on the kitchen timer), or until it my father returned with another urgent request for his wife.

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Houses’ mysterious (writing) allure

 

It was a house that drew me to Nathaniel Hawthorne, and a house that brought me back to him.

I was probably 10, browsing through the Book of Knowledge, when I first came across a condensed version of The House of the Seven Gables. Who could resist the title? Never mind the pen-and-ink sketches of the house with all its twists and turns, the gaunt Clifford, the dusty shop opened by Hepzibah. I barely understood the story, but its gothic ambience was irresistible.

Years later, my husband and I visited the house that inspired the novel, in Salem, Mass., on a brutally hot day in the summer of 1986. I don’t remember much about it, except for the steep stairs and the nooks and crannies. At some point I read the book entire. I moved on to other writers.

Since then, we have toured dozens of New England houses; some sheltered writers, others merely inspired them. Last week we found another – the Old Manse in Concord, Mass., where Hawthorne brought his bride, Sophia Peabody, after their marriage in 1842. As he recounts in Mosses from an Old Manse, this house that had sheltered many a minister – and witnessed the first shots of the Revolution, literally in its backyard – drew in the couple with a warm embrace of old timbers and the shade of black ash trees.

Set back from the road, the house was fronted by a tree-lined path; in the back, the Concord River slipped peacefully past, near where the old North Bridge had stood on that first day of the Revolution. The interior was rambling and drafty, although its front and back doors afforded a nice cross-breeze in the summer.

In her book about the Concord renaissance, American Bloomsbury, Susan Cheever senses a barely disguised sexual energy in both Hawthorne and Sophia’s writings at the time. Though their stay would be tinged by sadness – Sophia lost her first baby – they used her diamond to etch messages of hope into the window glass in Hawthorne’s study: “Man’s accidents are God’s purposes.”

Standing in that study last week, where Hawthorne wrote the classic short story “The Birth-mark” and Emerson composed the essay “Nature,” I felt the pulse of both men’s creativity beating in the air. I sat in a reproduction of the wide-armed chair Emerson used for writing, feeling a little like I was about to give blood. Hawthorne’s desk, cleverly notched into the wall, is original, as are the books throughout the house.

Notes Brenda Wineapple, author of Hawthorne: A Life: “The Manse is another of Hawthorne’s old houses, fragrant with the spirit of former tenants and, perched on the banks of the past, fit emblem of his imagination.”

The houses, always the houses. After “The House of the Seven Gables,” I was drawn to a series of books in which the house is a dominant character. Just as with Hawthorne, I discovered the Brontes in the Book of Knowledge, where Thornfield Hall looms over Jane Eyre, especially in that pivotal scene when the first Mrs. Rochester stands behind the flaming curtains of the burning hall. I read the entire novel at 12, again not completely comprehending it, but drawn in by those drafty halls and stone-lined corridors.

Later came Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and a host of gothic imitators, including Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, with its doomed Manderley. Louisa May Alcott wrote captivatingly of four sisters in Little Women, but where would the book be without Jo’s garrett, the private escape of which every young (writing) girl dreams?

No coincidence, then, that my first two novels feature houses on their covers, or that the early stories I scribbled always seemed to revolve around intriguing real estate: Tug Hollow, the old Cape Cod house where my father grew up, and what we called Howard’s House, the 1728 Cape in Escoheag that belonged to his stepfather. It didn’t take much imagination to conjure their early residents. Old ancestors’ portraits were piled upstairs in Tug Hollow, and  Howard’s mother had kept a boarding house, with the registers of their guests still extant for my fervent examination. Was it true that my grandmother had made booze in the cellar of Tug Hollow, during Prohibition? (Yes.) And that a guest had died in a mysterious hunting accident at Howard’s? (Probably not.) Already I was learning that authors didn’t write history, they just used it to spark their imaginations.

Hawthorne, Wineapple writes, needed the tangible to kick-start his tales – the red A of The Scarlet Letter, the house that (once) had seven gables, the dusty records in the Custom House where he earned his bread. It’s the past he’s sifting through, and houses are the largest embodiment of it, their rooms so metaphorically akin to our own bodies: the windows as eyes, the rooms our heart and mind, the shutters the masks we hide behind.

Not only did other residents walk the halls of the Old Manse, and peer through this wavy glass, but other writers did the same, imagining the original dwellers’ presence, a tantalizing layer of observers and observed.

Rare, however, is the house that bestows inspiration on its occupant while the writer lives there. Houses achieve their highest magnetism after we leave, and we are forced to bang together their rooms from memory. Hawthorne wrote the introduction to Mosses from an Old Manse while back in Salem, working at the Custom House. The House of the Seven Gables came to him while he and Sophia lived in a cramped rented house in the Berkshires. Alcott was living in Orchard House in Concord when she wrote Little Women, but the house she fondly remembered was the Wayside (so named by Hawthorne, when he later lived there), and the March girls’ garrett came from another house altogether – Fruitlands, the ill-conceived experimental community where Alcott and her sisters nearly starved to death.

Now, staying in a modern apartment while we await the renovation of the house where I grew up, I wonder if I will be able to write once I get there. But all that will remain is a shell, the walls, roof, and floors, for the old house only exists in my mind, the best place for writing inspiration to begin.

 

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Advice from an artist

 

Some of the best writing advice I’ve ever received came not from fellow writers, or teachers, but visual artists.

Such was the case this afternoon as I watched Antonia Tyz-Peeples lead a workshop on painting technique at Rhode Island’s Charlestown Gallery.

The Connecticut artist specializes in large-format wave paintings. I met her six years ago and feel lucky to count her as a friend. Yet no matter how many times we chat, I always learn something new.

Working on a small canvas this afternoon, she gave the audience step-by-step directions on brush technique, color mixing, and proportion. None of that may seem applicable to those of us who deal in ink and paper, but consider some of her advice:

  1. “People can use their imaginations. They see something, they know there’s more.” How many of us are guilty of spelling it out for the reader? You don’t have to describe every step down a corridor or every article of clothing. Leave something for the reader to do.
  2. “It’s what you see, not what you think.” She said this while holding a brush tip to the photograph she was painting. In other words, your brain might think your painting needs bright ochre, but if you hold the brush up to the color you’re copying you may find it’s another mix altogether. As writers, we tend to have a vision in our mind of our characters and place details. But just because “egg-yolk sun” sounds good doesn’t mean the sun really looks your breakfast.
  3. “It’s not magical. I’ve practiced a lot. I paint every day.” Tyz-Peeples is not blowing smoke here – she’s the hardest working artist I know. She’s honed her craft over many years, and she is in her studio by 9 a.m. every day. Writers must practice a similar discipline. Sit at the desk, open up the laptop or notebook and do it regularly. Inspiration will land on your shoulder when you keep your appointment with the work.
  4. “I find it very important to have multiple things going on.” Maybe this technique isn’t for everyone, but for me a variety of writing projects – as dissimilar as possible – keeps me focused and energized. The quick stuff, like blogs, letters, and essays, give you a sense of achievement for very little time invested. Analytical writing, such as play or book reviews, keeps my critical faculties honed. And for the long haul, I need at least one book-length manuscript that will require years of work. You wouldn’t want to spend all your writing time on quick-hit pieces with a short life span, but you also need relief from the intensive immersion a novel or memoir requires.
  5. “I can see it with new eyes.” She was talking about letting a canvas sit overnight. For writers, that fallow period might be much longer, days, weeks, or months. I recently returned to my novel after six months of querying to tidy up some loose ends. Its flaws jumped out at me.
  6. “I’m not going to overthink it.” The visual artist knows when a touch-up here or there has the potential to ruin a painting that’s done; so, too, must writers let the work go eventually.
  7. Tyz-Peeples had a practical piece of advice that might at first seem unique to painting: Turn the canvas. Making her horizontal painting vertical, she saw not the finished product but the abstract section she was trying to focus on. Plus, she wasn’t bumping her hand on the easel. In journalism school, our professors taught us to squint at the copy we were editing, or mumble it aloud to ourselves. Whatever the tactic, it disrupts the brain’s visual expectations, helping both focus and concentration.
  8. “I know what the surf looks like. I’ve studied it.” Don’t forget that you, too, know a lot more than you give yourself credit for. You’ve got a lifetime of memories and experiences, good and bad, to draw from. It’s never too late to learn more, but don’t forget just how much you bring to the page.

For further inspiration, check out some of Antonia Tyz-Peeples’s work at www.antoniatyzpeeples.com or follow her on Instagram: antoniatyzpeeples.

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Days that persist in invisible ink

 

These are the ghost days.

You know them, if you don’t call them that. They are the days that are so layered with the past it’s hard to see that you’re living in the present. But they aren’t national holidays or official anniversaries.

They are personal. We call them ghosts because the people they honor are gone.

My parents’ anniversary was last week, for example. They were married on July 12, 1947. In a black and white snapshot, there’s my father, in his fedora hat and suit, and my mother in a blue suit and a hat with a floppy flower. Seventy-one years ago – of course, they are both dead, so there’s no one to send an anniversary card to.

July is full of these dates. My father’s birthday was July 16 – he would be 95. My sister Mary Jane, and my father-in-law, were both born on July 2. Their birthdays pass with a Facebook post of remembrance, maybe. But there are no gifts to purchase, no candles to blow out, no song to sing.

It’s nice that we can mark these days on social media, but Facebook also makes no distinction between the trivial and the elemental. Its algorithms ask me to celebrate friendships with casual acquaintances, while making no note of other, deeper days to remember.

I imagine ghost dates written on a calendar in fading pencil, so only those who know their significance can read them. And when the last person who remembers is gone, the ink will fade away forever.

The one place we can visualize this impermancy is the beach. No sooner do we make footprints in the sand than a wave comes along – first, to soften the impression, then to erase it altogether.

Yet as we walk along the shore, we still look back reflexively, as though to make sure our footprints are still there. Some even make grand castles in the sand, a universal human metaphor for the folly of big dreams.

These dates are like that: long-ago footprints on the palimpsest of sand. From the Latin palimpsestos, “rubbed again,” palimpsest means a medium on which original text has been erased to make way for new.

I like that “rubbed again” (some dictionaries have it as  “scraped”), because it evokes not only the vigorous action of an eraser turning marks into dust, but the irritation it causes to the paper. Think of a child erasing a test answer until a hole appears on the page. Now imagine such a vigorous erasure on our skin, and the pain each time a date has to be scrubbed off forever.

The “again” also implies the repetitive nature of change and grief. How many times do occasions vanish from our lives, and how long does it take our mind to forget them? The answer, of course, is that dates may be erased but the mind imagines them still there. So we rub, and rub again, trying to retrain the heart, to stop squinting at our emotional calendars, to cease looking back at our own footprints.

Ultimately, ghost dates may make us sad, but they are also testimony to the human spirit. Each June 30 I remember my grandmother. Born in 1903, died in 1994, she was a woman of another century, gone 24 years now. Yet in my heart her boundless affection lives on. Written in permanent marker, my memories of her attest to the power of love, to the persistence of the intangible.

 

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A reader’s guide to convalescence

I am convalescing. That’s a word we don’t use too much any more; from the Latin, con +  valescere, to grow strong, from valere, to be strong. Maybe because convalescence takes time, and we have so little of it. We might speak of being “laid up” a couple of days or “on the couch,” but most of the time we fight our illnesses and push to get back to normal as soon as possible.

But convalescence is a wonderful concept; it’s about giving your body time to repair, heal, “grow stronger.” Doctors don’t prescribe it, because it doesn’t come in a pill bottle, profit anyone, or require a medical degree to understand. Maybe you could see the results of it through some sort of electronic imaging, but then again maybe you couldn’t. My doctor came the closest to prescribing it when he said the cure for my malady was colon rest, which is about as disagreeable prognosis as I can think of. Note he didn’t say that the patient needed rest, only one of her organs, a prescription that involves a liquid, then soft, diet.

But I am prescribing convalescence for myself. Although I can’t really stop working, this time of year I teach one morning class, that’s all, so I can spend the afternoons on the couch if I want.

We have stopped going out for breakfast and instead I sit outside here on our apartment deck, sipping tea and watching the cardinals flit from branch to branch. I’ve stopped drinking, so no more glasses of wine when we go out to eat – which we do seldom now. I’m not in the car as much, so going somewhere as become a treat, a time to take in the shades of the night sky, spot wild tiger lilies on the roadside, appreciate the fine combings of raked hay.

Mostly, I read. Since my childhood, books and convalescence have been intertwined. One winter week in 1972, my mother, sister and I – recovering from the flu – read Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’s Cross Creek. Home from school with a cold, I would thumb through the ancient volumes in my mother’s bookcase – Dr. Chase’s medical book, which convinced me on more than one occasion that I was dying; Mrs. Beecher’s guide to housework, which mostly involved managing her servants; and the Book of Knowledge, with its condensed versions of classics like The House of the Seven Gables and Jane Eyre.

Convalescence and reading are both slow activities. Reading helps our bodies rest while our minds stay active; I could skip across the fields with Jo March even though I was too sick to cross the street. There’s something soporific about words on the page that allows us to drift easily into a slumber we might otherwise resist. I’ve been doing a lot of napping, too. Whether curled up on a rattan chair on the deck or under a blanket on the sofa, I move easily between the page and my dreams.

I’ve read contemporary novels (Gail Godwin’s Grief Cottage, the marvelous The Map of Salt and Stars by Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar), travelogues (Adirondack Passage by Christine Jerome), and American history (George R. Stewart’s guide to how everything here got its name, Names on the Land). There’s no limitation of genre; the point is to be transported.

Jerome’s account of her canoe trip through the Adirondacks, which traces the route that George Washington Sears took in 1883, is just the sort of tale for the laid-up. I might not feel like straying off the couch, but in my mind I’ve paddled Raquette Lake, Blue Mountain Lake, and the Saint Regis lakes, thrilling to the queer laugh of the loon, dodging stomach-twisting rollers, and marveling at the sky-splitting pines of the wilderness.

In a similar way, Cross Creek took us out of our tissue-sodden misery that long-ago February. We took turns lolling in my mother’s bed, literally passing the book to one another, enjoying this rare indulgence of leisure. The orange groves of Florida in the 1930s could not have been farther from my provincial existence in rocky New England. The smudge pots that Rawlings lit to ward off frost, the stray breeze that cooled her porch, the lap of a paddle as she canoed from house to house – it seemed a magical, upside-down world, where creeks became highways, where winter could be spring, where oranges actually grew on trees.

Ultimately, no matter what organ our doctors seem intent on fixing, it is our minds that control our bodies, and our minds that need these oases of quiet. So I rifle through my bookcase, looking for the next journey of my convalescence. Will it be Steinbeck’s California, Wordsworth’s Lake District, Nin’s Paris? Maybe it will be all three. After all, a proper convalescence should last a good long while.

 

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All the springs that came before

 

I bought four peonies last weekend. I had forgotten how they smelled: rich, aromatic, but not as cloying as a rose.

When my mother was in her 90s, I brought her outside one day. We were headed to the doctor’s. Before she would get in the car she thrust her head into the lilac bush and breathed deeply.

She couldn’t really see those lavender blooms, but she could smell them, and they must have carried for her the rich association of all the springs she had lived before.  

Peonies, of course, remind me of her, because she grew them – pink and white – in the perennial garden outside the kitchen windows. Peonies bloomed first, then the phlox. I loved all of her flowers, the day lilies next to the clothesline, the borders of jonquils and tulips, the garden full of dahlias, gladiolus, and zinnias.

There were few weeks in the spring and summer when we didn’t have flowers for cutting.

The forsythia came first, clipped and brought inside to force into bloom. Then the daffodils bobbing their happy faces. May was lilac time, which always carried with it a twinge of melancholy, because they always flowered the weekend we visited the graves for Memorial Day.

By June, the stone wall was covered in rambling red roses, ready for one of my mother’s milk glass vases. She had a container for every bouquet: Small brown baked-bean jars for the short stems of marigolds; a tall glass covered in a wheat design for taller stalks like pussywillows or the leggy glads; narrow bud vases for a single rose.

Not all of her flowers were for picking. ‘Heavenly blue’ morning glories climbed the trellis on the side porch. Petunias, bought as seedlings, filled out the corner by the propane gas tank. The ubiquitous yucca – that native Western flower that dug into our sandy soil and refused to let go – sent up white spikes that would prick you if you weren’t careful.

By late summer her cutting garden would be a riot of oranges, reds, and yellows. I loved the zinnias best, and kept a vase of them on the desk in my bedroom. On the years when she grew dahlias, we enjoyed them through September, their floppy stems tied to stakes by strips of old pantyhose.

Each season is stamped with the memories of the years that came before. Not matter how old you are, there is really only one spring, one summer, one winter, and one fall. Each time a season returns, we experience our memories of what it means. This is what T.S. Eliot meant when he called April the “cruelest month.”

When my mother inhaled the lilac’s scent, what associations did it evoke for her? Did she remember growing up on the Crandall Homestead, where lilacs abundant with blooms can be seen in old snapshots? Or did she inhale the same melancholy memories as I did?

Few of my mother’s flowers have survived. The yard of the Shannock house is overgrown with Japanese knotweed, briars, and wildflowers. Only the stubborn yucca continues to send up its white spikes, impervious to the construction around it.

But the landscape survives in my memory. I know where the peonies once bloomed, the roses rambled, the morning glories climbed. I can still see the shapes of my mother’s gardens – the circle of phlox, the hill where the lilies lived, the rectangular plot that held annuals and vegetables.

When I take in all those scents again, it will be memory I’m breathing in, memory of the seasons that came before.

 

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