November 30, 2012 § 3 Comments
We are driving to South Carolina for Thanksgiving and as I scan through the radio stations, we hear jingle bells. Jack Henry pipes up from the back seat, “Let’s not listen to Christmas music until December 1st.”
“Ok,” I say. This is fine with me. Jack Henry and I have what some would call OCD tendencies. I would say we like clean edges on the world, lines of demarcation, mental, if not physical, order.
Also, truth be told, I’m not a huge fan of Christmas. It is not an introvert’s holiday. Thanksgiving is more my style. The only pressure is to cook and eat. I like both of those. In South Carolina, I know, I can also slip off for an afternoon or two and read. There will be so much commotion in the house, so many people, that I won’t be missed. This evokes the best parts of my childhood. I love the familiarity of a din of people moving through the house, the TV faint in the background, while I hide in my bed and read.
The first day is full of cooking. Jeff roasts the meat; I cook the sides. Everybody pitches in on something. We feast. Paul is the dishwasher. He likes clean surfaces and order too. This earns him a special place in my heart.
I slip off to read and find a shelf full of a Faulkner novels printed in the 50s. They’ve been in the house since then, with pages that smell like a library: heaven. I sink down into one, but in the background, I hear music.
Jeff, Art, Paul, and Jack Henry start to play on the piano, guitar, sax, and harmonica. Cole, like me, slips away. Then I hear voices: Emily’s sweet harmony and Sue, singing about Jesus. Sue has begun singing spontaneously these days. Music is something she does not forget; in fact, it seems she has rediscovered it. Often, it’s a warbly hymn, other times, it’s a little avant garde. Sometimes, it would do Johnny Rotten proud. The music picks up tempo and they follow Sue. She is singing from the heart, then from deep in the gut, loud, without a hint of self-consciousness. Every time I see her these days, it seems a layer has been shed. She’s uncovered. There is music at her core, full of pure emotion. It is Thanksgiving.
November 19, 2012 § 6 Comments
I am out of sorts all day and I can’t figure out why, until I realize this day would have been my parent’s 51st wedding anniversary. It snuck up on me. I hate when that happens. It’s like certain days are marked in my brain, like when you can feel Christmas coming on, or your birthday. Certain days make their presence known, whether you want them to or not. I decide it’s as good a time as any to open one of the Rubbermaid boxes full of papers and photos my sister has brought from my parents’ storage unit. Why not, I think. I won’t feel worse, and who knows what could be in there? Maybe it is a receipt from some old lunch put on the credit card in a long line of debts. Maybe it is my mother’s birth certificate. Her filing system defies logic. Most of her life defied logic. All the seven or eight blue plastic boxes have equal stature. Come to think of it, every person or event in her life did too.
When I lift the lid, there is a smaller box inside. It holds a Christmas ornament, a brass cut out circle with an airplane inside, from the International Women’s Air and Space Museum. I didn’t know such a thing existed either. Turns out, according to the box, this place is in Cleveland, and strange enough, for the first time in his life, so is Jeff.
I ask him to go to the museum—it’s probably tiny and maybe hard to find—to get me a commemorative ornament for this year. Mom would like that, I think. That would be a good present, something to brighten the tree—the holidays are so full of memories, good and bad. This one will reflect the light.
Jeff goes, and since he has no shy bones, he talks to the women at the counter. Sheilagh Wagner, he says.
Oh yeah, the lady says, I know her.
From Cincinnati? No, Kentucky!
Yes, Jeff says. From Kentucky. He is blown away. They adored each other, Jeff and my mom. Wild energy kindles itself.
Turns out, the woman knows that my mom won an air race, that she was a 99, that she was.
Jeff texts me this and I am stunned. They want a photo, a bio, any memorabilia we’d like to share. They want to remember my mom. They want strangers to know about her.
I am convinced that all we leave in this world are stories. We leave people who know us, and markers to tell stories, so we can live and live. Otherwise, we evaporate, even if we were rich, or briefly famous, or very kind. You think about these things when people close to you die. I thought about whether what I want most to do with my life, to tell stories, mattered and I decided it did. Doctors may save the body, but writers and artists bring people back from the dead, even after they are nothing but dust. We give them back to people who might have never known they were gone.
November 10, 2012 § 2 Comments
I am sitting outside Shaw’s Karate in my car, grading papers and waiting for my son to finish class. He runs out to me excited, but he doesn’t get in the car. I roll down the window. “Julia’s breaking a brick!” he says. I put my papers down, get out of the car. This is serious. Parents stream out of cars and into the building. We gather around Julia, a red headed girl, maybe fourteen years old.
I should mention that I have been converted to the cult of Shaw. When Jack Henry begged to take karate, I resisted, thinking it would pass, but it didn’t. When I caved, he was about seven. Now, he is eleven. The mantra he learned the first day was: Do our best! I stole it, of course. I also stole Mr. Shaw’s parenting skills. He has no children of his own, but he knows way more than I do. I found myself saying, “What would Mr. Shaw say?” when Jack Henry did something I didn’t like, or when he did something I was proud of. It is the magic of quiet and steady personal responsibility. I forget this when I lose it and yell at my kids for the forty-ninth time to take the trash out. Most days, I am as steady and consistent as a moth.
There is a balance of boys and girls here, at least until you get to twelve. You remember twelve—when the world divides and all you owned at ten years old, held onto at eleven, starts to slip away. Julia is the alpha girl, a brown belt, with stripes toward her black. She’s the gentlest bad ass I’ve ever seen.
In karate, there’s a sound you make, a ki-ya! Whenever you really want to add power. Some translate it as the “spirit sound.” Julia’s ki-ya is wimpy. Mr. Shaw is constantly telling her to put more power into her voice. But today she is breaking the brick. We gather around her, Mr. Shaw coaches, she tries. “Use your arms,” he says. Your arms? I realize I know nothing about where the power lies in my own body. Julia raises her arms then pulls them sharply into her body as the heel of her foot hits the brick. The brick does not break, and Julia cries. Mr. Shaw asks us all to move away for a while. “It’s not in the foot,” he says. We scatter politely.
I know that brick. It is one of the tests for a black belt. I have seen other kids and grown people unable to break the brick. I have seen a strong man crack it like a peanut shell–with his hand then with his head. It is the reason I am so inspired by Jack Henry and his karate. It is the reason parents crane their heads in from the waiting area whenever a kid does something powerful. It is everything we thought we could never do. It’s in the arms and in the voice. Break the brick.
November 3, 2012 § 3 Comments
I wake up from a deep dreamless sleep with a strong urge to make molé–you know, the Mexican dish that drowns chicken in chocolate and smoky peppers. This is odd because I’ve never made it before, but the urge comes before breakfast and is so intense that I get out the Joy of Cooking and make a list of what I’ll need. I am not pregnant, in case you’re wondering, and it’s not just a craving, but a single-minded desire to make the stuff. I realize this will not be the best or most authentic mole’, but it will do. I don’t have time to search for a more authentic recipe.
Later, mission accomplished and molé in my belly, I find out what is going on. It is the Day of the Dead, El Dia de los Muertos. My friend, Swooze, (I can never call her by her real name) who has family in Mexico, reminds me of this. She has made molé today too. So, I am celebrating the lives of my dearly departed (I suppose chocolate was my mom’s favorite food), but I am also holding on to my living.
Swooze and several other college friends, mostly women, have been my family since freshman year. We dubbed ourselves the Commune, and we have remained remarkably connected. Some husbands have been voted out of the commune, and plenty of children and other husbands have been added in. We’ve made up words, as any family does. We’ve cooked hundreds of meals together. Also, we are perpetually twenty-eight years old. It was a group decision, and what is “reality” but a group decision?
We keep up and share a group calendar thanks to the organizational and computer genius of Loretta (also not her real name). It reminds us of each other’s birthdays, the birthdays of our children, and of course, the Day of the Dead.
Together, we have lost almost a dozen parents. The losses began in college and seem to be picking up speed. The Commune, however, has remained constant. Those who still have parents are generous enough to share. We’ve grown up with each other’s families, after all. We’ve spread the children and grandchildren around too.
I worry sometimes that I have so few blood relatives, so few people to help explain and remember my life. It’s disorienting sometimes. Before a recent flight, I got jealous overhearing a woman in the airport calling her dad on the phone for reassurance. But the Day of the Dead reminds me that my dead and my living all still belong to me. This is my new favorite holiday: I’ll make molé every year and celebrate all of them, los muertos y los vivos, with food and stories that all end in yeep!