60 years of connections

Last night, this old house rang with laughter, story-telling, and not a few choked-up speeches. For my 60th birthday, at my request, my husband invited friends and family from every decade of my life to celebrate. And what a celebration it was.

Since we moved back into my childhood home, we’ve had a few parties. My parents were not party-giving people – the most they could muster would be cake and coffee with my grandmother, and she would bring the birthday cake. But my engagement with all these people – friends and family – must have come from somewhere. But where?

Certainly not from my mother, who was always delighted when her far-flung siblings came to call, but was otherwise introverted – her only friend was my father. (When I was in junior high I overheard her say to him, “She has so many friends,” derisively, as if it were a character  flaw.) Certainly not from my sister Andi, who could be similarly awkward in a crowd. That left my father, and suddenly it all made sense.

Many a winter night a knock would come upon the door, and there would be one of his friends – an old-timer like Herman Whitford or Wallace Burdick, or a new pal like the builder John Gaccione of Westerly. They came after supper for a cup of coffee and a leisurely hour at our formica table in the kitchen, hashing over everything from the price of two-by-fours to the proper way to dig a well. Sometimes I eavesdropped (particularly when Gaccione brought his teenage son, who was hotter than a kerosene stove but literally never said one word), but mostly we women folks stayed in the living room and watched TV.

My father always had people around him. His business, sawing lumber, brought a steady stream of customers – friends and strangers – to our backyard. He befriended men and women alike, from the old Swamp Yankee Ben James of Woodville, a potato farmer with a hooked nose and a big heart, to the colorful Marguerite Kamp, a bleached blonde in bluejeans who brought us homemade butter and bacon.

He was particularly close to the former Police Chief Dudley Wheeler of Stonington, and in the 1970s they would travel regularly to Vermont to visit their mutual friend, Frank Clark, who owned a sweeping farm in the hills of Peacham. There, under the guise of helping Frank run his sawmill, my father had a ready getaway from the cares of home life. The real attraction was not Frank’s mill, which had its charms, but the hours they spent around the woodstove trading stories or out and about in the Vermont hills, visiting old timers like Ben Berwick.

The friends who gathered with us last night entered my life in different ways, but they have enriched it just as my father’s circle enriched his. The oldest friend was Karen, whom I met on the first day we moved into this house in 1965, when she strode up the lane that connected our houses to see what was going on and found me sitting on the stone wall with a bowl of canned pears. Although she and neighbor Deb were three years older than I, they immediately took me under their wing and what followed was years of playing Barbie dolls, Yahtzee and Monopoly. When she walked through the door last night, all those years slipped away, and I felt that stab of connection that comes between people who have shared a childhood.

Then there was Andrea, whom I met in ninth grade. I was immediately drawn to her wit, intelligence, and high spirits. Although we drifted apart, five years ago we reconnected, and the renewed friendship has been a blessing for both of us. When she read a poem in my honor, I cried.

Not far after that came Cheryl, another high school friend, but one four years younger. When I went away to college, Cheryl wrote to me every week, with care and concern way beyond her years. Since our days of listening to Dire Straits in her bedroom and sunbathing at Scarborough, she has never wavered in her wisdom, caring and loyalty. 

Like my father, I met some friends through work. Laura spoke movingly of the years we had spent at two newspapers, working full time and raising our families, our “lives intertwined,” as she put it. Long after we left the newspaper world, our friendship continued to blossom, and we have laughed and cried together on many an occasion. Kristen worked by my side for years, but in the post-newspaper world we have found a renewed bond in our college teaching. She understands things no one could who has not faced down 20 college students on a regular basis, and her sharp humor puts it all into perspective. Arline, an admired colleague for years, has grown into a dear friend with whom I share an oddly similar childhood and a taste in reading. When we get together, the talk is nonstop.

Marc is another friend who has listened to my travails through thick and thin, and with him I have served on a historical board and started an authors series that lasted 10 years. But mostly Marc is a generous and intelligent companion who always has something interesting to say. Through him I have gotten to know Joanne, with her sly wit and deep caring for her fellow man. 

Then there was treasured family. The oldest, my uncle Tene, will turn 98 in a few days. He looks 20 years younger and with his son, my cousin Frank, held lively and engaging conversations. My sister-in-law Jane said we are “sister friends,” and nothing could be truer. My brothers-in-law David, Paul, and Jack were on hand, the brothers I never had. 

My three children attended, of course, along with my daughter-in-law Cassie and my daughter’s boyfriend, Ryan, and their tributes also made me cry. Colby reflected on the time a local reporter had pegged me as “the town historian,” and I was furious. Why? He wondered. Because, he concluded after much reflection, I was so much more than that, and the label was reductive. (How insightful of him, and how characteristic of him to be that insightful.) Mary said that everyone always asks her if she’s my daughter, and, bless her, she does not resent that in the least. Perry remembered my efforts to keep in touch with him when he was at Keene State, even writing him letters. 

And how can one not love a daughter-in-law who calls you an “intelligent, caring, down-to-earth, easy-to-talk-to, bad-ass mother-in-law”? And a future-son-in-law-we-hope who is your new go-to always-win trivia partner?

Last but not least was my best friend, the hub around which my world spins, my husband Tim, who had put together this party, and who makes every day into an occasion. When he spoke of how we can have fun just driving around on the weekend, he captured the essence of our life together.

Some good friends live too far away for a party like this, or could not make it because of other commitments, but I still feel their love from afar.

What do these people have in common? What makes a friend? Who was my father drawn to, and what people engage me? I could only say, looking around at the beaming faces in our dining room, that all of these people are open, not closed. By that I mean they come to me as friends and family in a spirit of openness and truth. They are all creative in one way or another, and creativity and openness cannot be separated. They are not posers. They are not trying to one-up me, or hide their vulnerabilities, or retreat when I try to connect. They are not jealous, or petty, or back-stabbing. I try to live up to that. It is an honor when someone shares their inner world with you, and that cannot be taken lightly. But for those who would make the effort to reach out, to be open, the rewards are deep. I felt the rewards of these connections last night, and it made 60 seem like an age to be celebrated, not a number to be dreaded.

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The year in culture

 

It was a star-studded year for culture. We saw Uma Thurman in Ibsen’s Ghosts, J.M.W. Turner’s paintings at Mystic Seaport Museum and Ansel Adams’s photographs at the MFA in Boston.

But the real story in our wanderings this year was the secondary. At the Clark in Williamstown, Mass., Renoir was the headliner, but we got much more out of the sideshow of Ida Ten Eyck O’Keeffe’s small works. The Turner exhibit was certainly thrilling – 92 watercolors and four oils in their only North American stop – but a companion exhibit of Turner’s influence on the impressionists and tonalists, at the Mystic Museum of Art, made for a charming coda. 

And the Ansel Adams exhibit was so crowded – three people deep – that we eventually departed for the MFA’s permanent exhibits.

The lesson here is that you never know what will wow you and what won’t, so you might as well keep an open mind.

Thurman certainly wowed us in the role of Helene in Ghosts. From our front-row seats, all the performances were powerful in this tale of a family disintegrating amid lies and blackmail in 19th-century Norway. Less impressive were the special effects, with a musician eerily lit but visible behind a glass partition at stage rear. The characters walked in and out of this space, challenging our suspension of disbelief and giving the play a gimmicky feel.

Up the road at the Clark, Renoir’s nudes took center stage in the main gallery space, while Ida O’Keeffe was relegated to the Manton Research Center. How fitting for someone who languished next to her sister Georgia – and lending irony to the show’s title, “Ida O’Keeffe, Escaping Georgia’s Shadow.” 

Ida’s talents were as varied as her subject matter, and in this small show you could see her struggle to reconcile her need to make a living with her need to make art. From illustrating school materials to teaching as an adjunct at various colleges, she had to fit art into her life in a way that her more successful sister did not. Art was Georgia’s life, and financial success gave her the freedom to escape her philandering husband and make New Mexico her adopted home.

The Turner show is breathtaking – it remains up through Feb. 23 – and easily was the artistic highlight of the year. Curated by Tate and brought to Mystic Seaport Museum by former senior vice president Nicholas Bell, “J.M.W. Turner: Watercolors from Tate” brings together a sweeping series of works from 1790 to 1850. Here you can see the artist’s development of technique and how his travels widened his outlook. As a bonus, Tate included “Turner and the Sea,” 17 watercolors, oils and sketchbook scenes of whaling and the coast that speak to the museum’s main mission.

Having viewed the show during a preview for reporters, we headed to the Mystic Museum of Art a few months later to catch “Oil and Water: Mystic Art Colony Artists Respond to Turner.” The show was underplayed in a back gallery and on display for far too short a time (Oct. 11 to Nov. 16), but it provided striking evidence of Turner’s influence. Many of his techniques, including foregrounding trees, could be seen in these works from the museum’s permanent collection.

Not every show wowed us.

At the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, Conn., the former artist colony was occupied by Jennifer Angus’s explosion of insects as part of “Fragile Earth: The Naturalist Impulse in Contemporary Art.” Some of this – insects in amber, insects pinned, insects in diorama – was inspired, but taken together the displays were overdone and, well, a little creepy. We can’t help imagining Miss Florence herself, who was so tolerant of her impressionist boarders’ impulses to paint her door panels, sweeping half of these insects off their perches in one decisive gesture. 

As for the MFA, I suppose no one can expect to drop in on a Saturday and have an Ansel Adams exhibit all to themselves. Still, it makes an argument for limiting access during times of high demand. It’s impossible to take in the majesty of his prints when you have to jostle a crowd of people just to read the title of the photograph.

Overall, it was a great year of cultural and artistic adventure. You’ll notice I discuss only visual art and theater, not music, film, or TV, and that’s intentional. Painting and, to a lesser extent, theater feed my writing much more than popular culture does. It’s the rare art show that doesn’t send me off with a new way of looking at something. A visual artist’s struggles with creativity, while not completely parallel to a writer’s, give us new ways of creating as well. Theater may inspire dialogue, music mood, and film a story arc, but art speaks to the visual nature of good writing. As 2019 winds down, I’m still thinking about Turner’s landscapes, Ida O’Keeffe’s abstract lighthouses, even those preserved beetles camped out on Miss Florence Griswold’s windowsills.

 

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A year of magical reading

Although I mostly review fiction, nonfiction dominated my personal reading list this year. Here’s a look back.

 

The year 2019 began, and is ending, with Colm Toibin, and there is a reckoning in the Irish author’s novels and nonfiction that makes him an appropriate literary god to bookend the year. In Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know: The fathers of Wilde, Yeats and Joyce (Scribner, 2018), the literary fathers are more interesting than their sons. Yeats’s father, in particular, was a dynamic letter-writer and “failed” painter who had an undeniable creative fire. Here is the senior Yeats expounding on what it means to be an artist in a world that values only rational thought:

 

The men of science hate us and revile us … They always work in gangs, many minds engaged on one task, whereas we live and work singly, each man building for himself accepting no fellowship – for we say it is only thus we can build our habitations.

 

  In a way, Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know picks up where Toibin’s 2004 novel of Henry James, The Master, leaves off, although I read them in the opposite order. In the novel Wilde appears as both a hated rival and an object lesson in what might happen if the tightly wound James acted on his homoerotic nature. The Master is, well, masterful, in both its insight into James and its immersion into his style and tone. It is not mimicry so much as a complete synthesis of the writer’s inner life. All is told through hint and suggestion, every gesture and silence burdened with the unexpressed and unspoken. Like T.S. Eliot after him, James sloughed off his American self to become a British subject, and there is something of J. Alfred Prufrock in his mannered regrets.

I did not stay on the periphery of Bloomsbury but dove into it, first with Katharine Smyth’s memoir, All the Lives We Ever Lived: Seeking Solace in Virginia Woolf (Crown, 2019) about the author’s attempts to recover from her father’s death by reading Woolf and visiting her haunts; then with Woolf’s letters, anthologized in Congenial Spirits: The Selected Letters of Virginia Woolf, edited by Joanne Trautman Banks (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1989) and then finally with an excellent new biography, Virginia Woolf and the Women Who Shaped Her World, by Gillian Gill (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019). I even got halfway through The Voyage Out, Woolf’s early allegorical novel, written in the wake of the Titanic sinking, a fact I discovered in The Age of Titanic: Cross-Currents of Anglo-American Culture, by John Wilson Foster (Merlin Publishing, Ireland, 2002).

But the truth is, I’ve always enjoyed reading Woolf’s diaries and letters, and biographies of her, more than her fiction, which can be dense, mannered, and arch. I know this is probably a personal failing (I did love To the Lighthouse), and I would not go so far as one critic did this year in trying to kick her out of the literary canon, but her fiction seems to operate at a frequency slighter higher than my own. Which is a way of saying that if only I were smarter, I might get it.

Yet we remain fascinated with Woolf for her feminist ideals, her gender fluidity and her lifelong struggle with mental illness. I even got to ask Gillian Gill about this in an interview earlier this month, and she maintains you cannot separate an author from their lives, as much as critical theorists want us to. And that feels right to me: the fiction has to be taken in totality with the life in order to be understood.

Another author’s life I continue to study is Emerson’s. I discovered Emerson and his Eccentrics by Carlos Baker (Viking, 1996) at the Kingston Hill (R.I.) Bookstore, a treasure of rare and slightly used books curated by the knowledgeable Allison Goodsell. Baker, who died before the book was published, was a Princeton scholar who delves deeply into the usual subjects – Margaret Fuller, Thoreau, Bronson Alcott – while also concentrating on Emeron’s lesser known contemporaries, such as Jones Very and Theodore Parker. Thus it becomes a biography not just of friendship but ideas, one I can imagine rereading some day.

I also read biographies of Pearl Buck and H.P. Lovecraft, memoirs by Patti Smith, Howard Norman and Amy Tan, and Casey Cep’s excellent account of the book Harper Lee couldn’t write – Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee (Knopf, 2019). But literary nonfiction shared the shelf with another genre, a combination of nature writing and adventure and history for which I have no name.

Stumbling upon a nature writer always opens new doors of thought. Bernd Heinrich is the author of more than a dozen books about birds, insects and habitats. Like my idol Edwin Way Teale, whose book Wandering into Winter won the Pulitzer Prize in 1966, Heinrich also has written books centered on the seasons. But it was the audiobook One Wild Bird at a Time (narrated by Rick Adamson, Dreamscape Media, 2016) that introduced me to the New England writer and scientist. Through his ingenious experiments and statute-like patience, Heinrich shows us not just how wild creatures behave, but why, and his curiosity is infectious. I followed up with Summer World (narrated by Mel Foster, Tantor Audio, 2009) and then bought a print edition of his latest, A Naturalist at Large: The Best Essays of Bernd Heinrich (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018).

A good nature book is never far from my hands. Another discovery was Wyman Richardson, a Boston doctor whose The House on Nauset Marsh (Chatham Press, 1972; originally published in 1947) painted an evocative picture of the Cape Cod house where his family summered (Richardson died in 1953). I journeyed west with David Gessner (All the Wild that Remains: Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner, and the American West; W.W. Norton, 2015) and Cecil Kuhne (River Master: John Wesley Powell’s Legendary Exploration of the Colorado River and Grand Canyon, Countryman Press/Norton, 2017) and  a wonderful copy of Oscar Lewis’s High Sierra Country (Duell, Sloan and Pearce/Little Brown, 1955), part of the American Folkways Series. These books, besides transporting us to a different world, talk to each other, and threads stretch from one to another, weaving new ideas.

What, after all, is the point of reading? Although all of these books were read “for pleasure,”  they seeped into my writing in complicated ways. All year I also read books intentionally for research, into the life of Caroline Hazard (president of Wellesley, 1899 to 1910), for a biography, as well as into moonshining, for a novel in progress. All of these books informed my thinking, leading me from one place to the next, from one nascent idea to another. 

Stegner, quoted in Gessner’s book, defined biography as “transformation of fact by the imagination” as long as “imagination [works] with the real.” I jotted this down in my journal. Two days later, while reading something in the New York Times, I thought, “biography is the attempt to find meaning – contemporary meaning – in a former life,” and wrote, “I don’t know what made me think this.” Of course, that Stegner quote had been percolating in my mind for two days, waiting to merge with my own thoughts. 

Thus all of these readings remain just below the surface, pinging off this and that neuron for new insight. Emerson’s intellectual circle, Stegner’s fascination with the West, Heinrich’s detailed observation of the natural world, Woolf’s ability to transcend her 19th-century upbringing – all of this seemingly unrelated material is connected to this biography I’m researching, of a woman who could not transcend her 19th-century roots, who saw the West – Santa Barbara – as her escape, who surrounded herself with strong women, who will need to be observed with incredible patience and ingenuity if I am to understand her at all. Just as the subtext of Toibin’s books is the literary influence on him of Henry James, Oscar Wilde, William Butler Yeats and James Joyce, so too we are all products of what we read and where those books lead us.

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The witness tree

 

The Christmas tree came to us the year there was no Christmas – at least, not a Christmas anyone remembered. This fir was supposed to be high-end, and I suppose for the 1960s it was: a conical shape, like a balsam or a spruce, with lush up-curving branches. Artificial, of course, but a step above the typical tinsel-strewn or aluminum tree that resembled a retractable clothesline. It came from Grants.

For 11 months of the year that fake evergreen lived in a cardboard box in the spare room. In early December my father would haul it and the boxes of ornaments downstairs, and for hours my sister Andi and I would puzzle out how to put it together. Each wire branch was color-coded, red, yellow, blue, according to how it fit into the green wooden pole that made up its trunk. 

My mother mostly sat by and watched, and my father retreated to his sawmill in the backyard. They had grown up with real but scraggly trees that would be adorned with a few presents: an orange, hand-knit stockings, a metal toy.

After getting pricked by the spiky metal branches and removing and replacing those that seemed out of place, we would pronounce ourselves satisfied and hang the ornaments. They were glittery Shiny Brites, green and red bells, and faded balls, most from Woolworth’s. We had one strand of garland that did not quite reach to the fir’s wide bottom, and some colored lights. The bare pole could be camouflaged by bendable wire greenery; a piece of white felt was then bunched around the base to approximate snow.

My parents would never have bought themselves an artificial tree, least of all one this elaborate. It arrived in the fall of 1967 with my older sister, one of the remnants of her brief disastrous marriage. Mary Jane came home with that tree and a few wrapped presents to put under it, though that had never been our custom. My mother always waited until Christmas morning to bring out the gifts.

I don’t remember anything about that Christmas. I can’t recall one item pulled from our stockings, a set of three embroidered by my Aunt Leona, mine with my name misspelled, perhaps because she had run out of room: Mary Jane, Andrea, Betty Jean. Not one gift tag scrawled “from Santa” in my mother’s cursive. Not one pair of socks, Barbie doll, or Milton Bradley game.

I remember Christmases before and after; I can even conjure memories of the days before that holiday and days after. But Christmas itself has been vacuumed into a black hole from which it can never be retrieved. Each time I try to recall it, I know my generalities are mere inventions, the mind taking snippets from Christmases before and after and trying to knit them into a new memory of what must have happened the year I was 7. 

Of course, we had Christmas the year Mary Jane died, though 11 days before she had walked out into the night to meet two men in the Chevy Corvair that would send her to her death.

Everything went on as before. The presents she had left beneath the tree – a blue or black pocketbook for my mother is all I recall – must have been opened. Someone filled two stockings instead of three, wrote Santa’s name dutifully on the gift tags, boxed and taped and wrapped our gifts. For me, especially, they must have made an effort. For what does a child know of grief when Santa has pulled up in his sleigh and dropped off boxes swathed in red and green paper?

Yet, the memory of the day has been wiped clean. A sensitive child, I could not have been immune to the struggles of my mother, my father, and my sister Andi that Christmas morning. And so something in my mind flipped a switch and opened the black hole, extracting that day forever from the clutches of memory. Even a child knows what it can’t handle.

Each year after Mary Jane’s death, we continued to unbox the artificial tree and assemble its metal branches. It stood in the same corner of the living room, a talisman of continuity against the gaudy floral drapes and flesh-colored walls. No one suggested getting rid of it, or returning to my father’s practice of cutting down the spindliest scrub pine he could find. Like everything else in our old farmhouse, from hand-me-down furniture to faded rugs, once that tree arrived, it was assured of living out its days with us.

When my mother died, the tree was still upstairs in its over-sized box, a jumble of spiky green metal branches, though my mother had long ago stopped using it. As we cleaned out the house, I might have picked up one or two of its curving arms. Perhaps I daydreamed for a moment about that first step of laying them out on the floor, painted tip to painted tip. I might have flashed back to all those Christmases it had served us, long after its original owner had vanished into the cold December air.

But one Christmas would remain elusive, a TV screen gone black. I lifted up the box. In the triage of sentimental objects, this one was too big, too sharp, too overwhelming to stay.

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Beat on loudly, heart

I’ve had many echocardiograms over the years. When you have what one doctor described as “the second loudest heart murmur” he’s ever heard, you’re going to get some attention.

The first test was in 1978, before I was due for wisdom teeth extraction. The doctors were so nervous about my heart murmur that they put me in the hospital over night and gave me general anesthesia.

Back then the technology was so primitive I couldn’t make out what the technician was looking at. All I saw on the monitor were a lot of scraggly black and gray lines, like a half-erased chalkboard.

But just as whiteboards (and smartboards) have replaced slate, so too has the echocardiogram blossomed into full-color doppler splendor. 

Thus it was that the other day I decided to watch my echocardiogram in progress. And lo and behold, I could really see my heart.

There was the mitral valve, open and closing like a little gate. It didn’t look floppy to me, or seem to be letting much blood back into the chamber. In fact, it looked tight as a drum. Beat, it opened, letting out a rush of blood like so much cattle heading to a field. Beat, it closed, letting nothing back in.

And so the mystery of my loud heart murmur remains a mystery. My cardiologist said, as he does every time I have this test, that I’m fine. Despite the loud murmur, there’s little evidence of regurgitation.

“You always were loud,” was my husband’s only comment.

Watching that computer monitor, I pondered what an odd thing the heart is. We never see it or touch it; we can’t hold it in our hand or even feel it beneath our skin, beyond the flutter of its beating. It never rests. Whether we are sleeping or eating or briskly walking, it continues its work behind a wall of ribs, indefatigable, steadfast.

Unique among our organs, the heart has been endowed with meaning. It, not the brain, is supposed to be where our emotions lie. Politicians try to win both “hearts and minds.” Our heart is “broken” when we lose a loved one; if a person lacks enthusiasm, we say, “His heart wasn’t in it.” We get to the “heart of the matter” in boardrooms and “heart” someone in our Facebook feed.

Meanwhile, our heart keeps on beating, oblivious to the symbolic weight we’ve placed upon it. Speaking of which, our “hearts grow heavy” in times of tragedy or sadness, while we are “light-hearted” when we feel happy or playful.

The writer Gail Godwin wrote an entire book meditating on the heart in literature, religion, philosophy and history, all while grieving for her half-brother. Curiously, the idea for the book came from someone else, and she resisted it at first; but once started on the subject, she – really put her heart into it, you might say.

Since watching my heart in action, I’ve felt a new awe for the work it does every day. Despite being taken for granted, and blamed for both grief and joy, it has never faltered, and it actually does a fine job, despite the murmuring sound.

So what am I to make of that noise? Medically misleading and benign, maybe that loud murmur is just a quirk of the self, no different than my off-key singing or thunderous sneezes or riotous laughter. Maybe, as the man said, I am just loud.

 

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A brush with cosmic irony

 

There’s a reason they call it caterwaul (a simple English word combining cat and wrawl, to cry out or howl). It means only one thing: Kitty is mousing again.

I climb out of bed, turn on the light, and sure enough, there she is in the middle of the living room, making the sound that wakes the dead, all while dangling a mouse from her jaws. When she sees me she drops him with a tiny thud onto the living room carpet. She’s done her job – presented me with the evidence of her hunting prowess.

There’s only one problem: the mouse is still alive, although barely.

I formulate a vague plan to get him outside, and make for the kitchen for tools. Kitty, watching me head in that direction (and her bag of Friskies), turns on her paws and follows. “Here, eat this,” I say, after filling up her bowl and wetting it under the faucet, the way she likes it. 

She tucks into the food like an alley-cat who has been living on fish bones, although this is probably the tenth time she’s eaten today. 

In the recycling bin I find a cereal carton and a small paper bag. When I return to the living room, the mouse is lying on his side. He has one back leg stretched out farther than the other, and I think of myself lying on the chiropractor’s table just before she rolls me over and snaps my spine back into place. 

He’s still twitching. He regards me with two lidless black eyes that glitter like the buttons on a doll’s coat. 

For a moment I imagine myself into his tiny brain. He has just escaped from the jaws of a giant furry monster whose incisors have bloodied his fur. Now an even larger behemoth is looming over him, ready to pounce. 

When I teach Oedipus the King, I tell my students about cosmic irony, the idea that the gods are playing with us, “amused to manipulate human beings as a puppeteer manipulates his puppets,” as my Dictionary of Literary Terms puts it. Mousie has had a brush with cosmic irony, but only a brush. Right now the god in question has her nose stuck in a bowl of Friskies.

If I could, I would pick up Mousie, gently pet his coarse fur, and tell him everything is going to be all right. I would nestle him against my chest, where my beating heart would sound to him like the ticking of an enormous clock, or the roarings of some dark and mythical machine. At last, perhaps, he would be comforted, his breathing would slow, and the blood on his fur would begin to coagulate.

Sometimes I force Kitty into this position, but she is not a cuddler. The most she will sometimes manage is to lie on my legs, head facing away, a posture from which she can bolt at any moment. She was a stray, lost on the streets of Hartford, Conn., and despite years of living first with my mother and then with us, she has not warmed to being held. My son Colby sometimes manages to get her to freeze in his arms, where she makes little peeps of protest as he pets her.

For three years, an even more terrifying beast roamed these halls: my daughter’s Maine Coon cat, Rufus, who is the size of a small dog and likes to bite pieces off his victims and then regurgitate them  all over the house.

But of course none of this means anything to this terrified mouse. I prepare to nudge the paper bag under him like a spatula, so I can slip him into the cereal box and out the door to freedom.

Suddenly he jumps up, bolts across the room, and zips under the cellar door.

I can’t help giving a little laugh, although I’m the only one up at this hour. Mousie has lived to see another day, to go back to his cozy nest and, one would hope, stay away from the jaws of Fate upstairs.

He won’t soon forget the feline god’s rancid breath or her sharp incisors. I imagine him trembling even after safety is gained, reliving the horror of being captured and flung and toyed with.

Kitty, however, is reliving nothing. She has forgotten completely about her adventure earlier in the evening. Now it’s time to lick her whiskers and clean between her toes and, of course, take a long god-like nap.

 

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No, November

 

In November my mother recited Thomas Hood. “No sun – no moon!/ no morn – no noon – /no dawn – no dusk – no proper time of day …” Sometimes it seemed she had a poem for every circumstance, and years later, when she could no longer read or watch television, unspooling those remembered verses kept her entertained.

I can’t help hearing her voice this time of year, the studied way she recited poetry, probably learned from grammar-school recitations. And I can see her, too, outdoors with a kerchief tied around her head, ripping dead tomato plants from the garden or filling the bird feeders or hanging towels out to dry, hoping they wouldn’t turn to cardboard by day’s end.

She was born in November, and this year marks the centennial of her birth. In a bit of irony, the Fates decreed I should spend the past year immersed in 1919, as I wrote the centennial history of our local hospital. I have read 1919 newspapers and pored over 1919 documents and imagined myself into the head of a woman of that time, Caroline Hazard, the philanthropist who started the hospital.

Yet it was only recently I made the connection.

My mother was born at home, on Nov. 25, 1919, in a house on Franklin Street in Westerly that no longer exists, taken up over the years by a day care center and various other businesses. There was no Westerly Hospital yet, and South County had just opened its Cottage Hospital.

I thought I should do something to mark my mother’s 100th birthday – maybe post one of her poems every day on Facebook. I pulled out her notebooks and leafed through them, trying to decipher the crossouts and revisions, the notes about which ones had been published, which rejected. 

There were nature poems and children’s poems, sonnets and lyrics, all carefully indexed on the back pages. I found odes to Thoreau and to Emerson and to Emily Dickinson, dramatic adolescent poems, adult poems so restrained only the dates hint at what was really on her mind. 

But after a while I piled the notebooks up and returned them to their box in the closet, not really sure why I couldn’t seem to choose anything from their browned pages. Afterwards, I felt vaguely disturbed. Maybe she was trying to tell me she didn’t want her work plastered all over social media.

 

No recognitions of familiar people – 

No courtesies for showing ’em – 

No knowing ’em –

 

What a bleak month in which to be born. Her mother’s fifth child, my mother never felt she had much of a childhood. Her younger brother came along two years later, on her father’s birthday, and he was the apple of everyone’s eye. She was the fourth daughter of six children, sensitive and quiet and a little awkward, a perpetual misfit. No wonder she loved poetry: It was a way to say what she couldn’t in ordinary conversation. It was a language she alone spoke in that boisterous Yankee family.

I knew what it was like to come along late, but thanks to her I did not feel like a misfit. In our house writing was in the air. It was on the coffee table (The Writer magazine, with its covers of weird abstract art) and it was on her desk (with its black Royal typewriter and onion-skin paper). It was on the book shelves. It was in the talk at the dinner table.

My journal never sugar-coated November. “The sky cracked open.” “Winter … descended, strangling me with her icy clutching hands.” “Winter has pounced on our summer-spoiled bodies early.” I was a hedonist confined to a drafty house with little to look forward to. I sat at the desk in my bedroom, looking out over the roof to where the trees blackened after sunset, hearing “a faint and distant music of another time.” I was 17.

November means ninth month, the period of human gestation, an odd time to be thinking about birth in the natural order of things. It literally was ninth in the old Roman calendar, before Julius Caesar inserted July and August. Does this mean November was once a summery month, more along the lines of September? Maybe November, too, was once summer-spoiled, and resents those Julian late-comers. But November, like my mother, was always next to last.

 

No warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease

No comfortable feel in any member – 

 

Mother’s birthday was overshadowed by Thanksgiving, a holiday upon which it occasionally fell. At the five-and-dime called Fleming’s we bought her trinkets with our babysitting money – dish towels or fancy soaps or stationery for writing to her sisters. My father would tell her to order herself something from the Sears catalog or Lillian Vernon. My grandmother, her mother-in-law, made the cake, one layer with sugary white icing, and brought her an apron she’d sewed or a scarf she’d knitted.

After that, we could turn our attention to Christmas. My birthday followed quickly, in January, and I probably already had a list working. Mother’s was swiftly forgotten.  

By now November has undressed. I can see phoebes flitting in the trees, and one cardinal suns himself, barely camouflaged by the last of the oak leaves. The bare landscape brings a certain clarity. Parts of the world hiding since May are now open for inspection. But November’s transparency is a ruse. Whatever we think we know at the beginning of the month can be swiftly upended at the end. December brings cold, and change, and sometimes death.

Hood ended his poem with “no fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds,” a bit of an exaggeration. The poem is called “No!” – not “November,” an important distinction. Who is saying “no,” and to what? Is he railing against the very bleakness he describes? 

Now I can only think of my own sorrows – “no sisters,” one long dead and one recently gone. “No father,” for 13 years now. And, perhaps saddest of all in her birth month, “no mother.”

But just as Hood equivocated about the birds – if anything, they seem ever-present now – so too I exaggerate her absence. She is all around me, in the woods and brush of this old yard. She is in my head whenever I sit to write. She is there in the books I read, the audiobooks I listen to, sometimes the very ones she borrowed. Her voice comes out of my mouth, all those proverbs and strange Yankee expressions and, yes, poems.

So this November, I will say yes: to the cardinal flashing red, to the notebook with its blank pages, to the husband who tarries with me, to the grown children who make me proud, to the friends who never fail to buoy my mood, to the students who surprise me every day with their insights, to the whole world, really, which is endlessly fascinating. And to the memory of Mother, who should never have been next to last in anything.

 

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