RSS Feed

Tag Archives: memory

Wintergreen

Wintergreen.jpg

Photo credit here.

Feb. 2, 2016

For some time I’ve toyed with writing about my grandparents and the magic of the Island but I haven’t known where to start. I’m not sure I have a cohesive story. It’s more a collection of memories and impressions.

Today, I have been thinking about thimbleberries. I guess I’ll just start here and see where I end up.

My grandmother Luisa grew up in the North, on an island attainable only by water (or ice) until sometime after WWII, when an airstrip was cleared. Luisa went on to teach grades 1-12 in a one-room schoolhouse on the mainland. Harry, who was predestined to become my grandfather, barnstormed his way north with his best friend; and you can guess what happened next.

Luisa and Harry moved to the East Coast and raised their children near Harry’s extended family. Whether Luisa was more intent on moving towards adventure on the East Coast or away from heartache on the Island is not entirely clear to me. An old maid by the standards of the time, she had been ripe for the picking. I believe she loved my grandfather. I also suspect that, rather than fight for what was hers, she had grabbed at her chance to flee.

Death and scandal had left Luisa in the position of family outsider. When it came time to lay claim to her Papa’s possessions and exercise her rights concerning the family home, she chose to withdraw her claim without fanfare. I am certain she felt bitterness at the time, though she later chewed it to softness. I know this because empathy amplified this bitterness in my grandfather and extruded the excess in comments and gestures which caused my grandmother to blush and squirm. I know this because I can taste it in my own mouth. It has the flavor of unripe persimmon.

I can say with confidence that once she determined to do so, Luisa continued, until death, to work at positive relationships with those who had wronged her, and, in time, with those who had innocently benefited from those wrongs. My beautiful grandmother was a gentle woman–and a gentlewoman–who did not want to hold a grudge against her much younger sister. It was not Darlene’s fault that she was cosseted and petted even as Luisa settled into the role of poor relation. Still, I imagine my grandmother’s kind and circumspect behavior provided both the warmth of kinship and a thorny poke to draw a bead of guilt.

I can also say with confidence that tensions remain to this day. As a young child, I felt frustrated and puzzled at our short, well-managed social calls. We kept a polite distance from the family so as not to wear out our welcome while visiting my grandparents at the house they eventually built for themselves on another part of the Island. It was not long before I grew into self consciousness and entered the awkward games myself.

As did her German father before her, my grandmother endured her losses silently. Her reservoir was, nonetheless, full enough to leak into us. My mother; then my sister Gwen and I; and now my daughters Lindy, Bec, and Claire; have received and transmit Luisa’s melancholy and unfinished business in ever diminishing waves and often without benefit of conscious awareness.

I have lost touch with that branch of the family. I do not doubt that they continue to summer in “the Old House,” as it was called, with no thought of us, as they enjoy their little beach and look across the street any time they please to smile at the Church of Christ, which Papa’s capable and calloused brown hands helped build.

I used to grieve. I had grown up with stories of Papa, and they had become as my own memories. I loved him. He was quiet and good and honorable. He worked hard, felt deeply, and suffered without complaint. His presence echoed throughout the Old House, silently beckoning me as a daughter. He whispered that I belonged there, that I should curl up under the eves at night with cookies and Charlotte Brontë.

As I write this, I know that my grandmother never fully recovered from the loss of Papa Karl. He had been lost to her too many times for it to be otherwise.

Young Luisa lost a part of her father when her mother died. She lost Papa again when she was farmed out to an aunt and uncle in another state. A widower with small children had few options in those times. Her relatives had wanted to adopt her but Papa had said no, he would not give up the “cream.”

My grandmother returned home to lose another part of Papa to Anna, the beautiful, sharp, and too-young woman who dazzled Karl at a time when he desperately needed a helpmate. No shrinking violet, Anna made the home her own and raised their daughter Darlene to be a princess.

Luisa lost Papa twice when his final illness took him. She had not been informed that she should come one last time, and she grieved from a distance without any of his belongings for consolation. He would never know his granddaughter Carol, my mother, or her younger brother. As if these injuries were not enough, Luisa lost her brother, Karl Junior, to Anna as well. Having lived under the same roof as mother and son, they wasted little time on their way to the altar to seal their covenant as husband and wife. I try to imagine what this meant for Darlene.

Generations after Papa’s death, I begrudged my relatives the family property and the stilted cheer which held me at arm’s length. By the time I arrived on the scene, the wagons had long circled Anna and, by extension, Darlene, whose emotional fragility and need for protection were understood as fact.

If there were villains, they are no longer. I say these words, and the taste of persimmon lingers. In truth, the high-strung Darlene became a devoted spouse and the loving, capable mother of four. I suspect now that she was without guile. Her childlike heart, so carefully protected by spectator pumps and silk blouses, was revealed the moment she arrived at the Old House each summer. Her first act, always, was to drop everything, put on her swim suit, and baptize herself in the clear and frigid Lake. I witnessed this ritual several times myself. Her face was unguarded.

This (his)story has grown as wavy as an old window pane. It is as true as I can achieve without stirring up old hurts. Though I experience longing, the longing I feel is rooted in a time which can never return. If I possessed the Old House, I would not have money for regular visits and necessary upkeep. And by this time, the family tree has branched so widely that any gain on my end would spell upset to whole families who have grown numb to the degree of privilege they enjoy. If the tables were turned, it would be my cousins telling this tale.

I last visited the Island 20 years ago, and it was much altered. The town beach was fouled, and the naked red mud of fresh driveways marred the untamed perfection. Perhaps my island is no longer haunted. Perhaps my island no longer exists. At the very least, the ghosts are hiding behind a new face.

The Island had long attracted summer regulars, its harsh winters inhospitable to all but the locals. Aspen by aspen, its soul was sold to the well-heeled few, its mystery giving way to a sort of Newport of the North; and I was struggling with the change. This is progress, I remind myself. Time does not stand still. Surely the Native Americans, now warehoused in reservations, have much more to bemoan than I. What was my paradise if not a despoiled version of their own?

So today I will think only of thimbleberries.

My grandparents eventually returned to the Island and built a house near McDaniel’s Point. At length, Harry had convinced Luisa to return to the Island. He loved, loved the Island, it is true. But he also possessed a streak of pride which would not allow him to feel bested.

My grandmother named their home “Wintergreen,” though it also became known as “the Little Big House.” The uncanny two bedroom, one bath cottage and its detached garage cum guestroom, could accommodate any number of bodies without feeling cramped. As long as some of us agreed to bathe in the Lake. And use the Boston bean pot.

Wintergreen was situated deep in the woods, open sky visible only above the winding drive, the garage and double parking spot, the house with its postage-stamp lawn, and the patchwork series of steps to the lake below. Oh yes, and the ravine which descended along the edge of the property. Due to the climate, the deep shade, and a preponderance of creatures, attempts at traditional gardening were doomed. I recall my grandmother’s judicious transplantation of forest ferns to line the pathway to the house.

The sunniest spot on the property was right at the nose of our station wagon Betsy, stopped, as she was, on the brink of disaster. My father had to pull into the parking spot carefully lest he push past the log boundary, plow through the brush, and tumble into the steep ravine which fed into the lake.

Why tell of that wild green patch which bowed to my grandfather’s pampered Bonneville and tickled the chin of our own family car? Because that was where the thimbleberries grew. We competed for the few precious berries. Too tasty to hoard and too delicate to store, we enjoyed them on the spot, their soft flesh melting on our tongues.

Too soon gone.

Hunger

Image credit here.

Image credit here.

Some nights my eyes flutter open just as I am drifting off. Panic rises in my chest. I curl into my hollow, scooped-out belly. Tears quiver and shudder, silent in the darkness, born of feelings which slumber when I am awake.

I need my mother.

I need to touch her and smell her. I need to drink her in for the day she no longer walks the earth.

I don’t understand the urgent messages which bypass my logic and shake my body. Maybe they are not meant to be understood, for to analyze them is to diminish their pull and mystery.

My flesh issues from hers. Our viscera are forever bound, transmitting dispatches almost too subtle to apprehend. Only in the gloaming of sleep can they find their mark.

I am a defenseless child, sniffling in the night: Mommy!

She is blinking back sleep when I arrive around 9 p.m. on Saturday for a two-day stay. I love her for primping, yet it distresses me to see her curling-ironed hair and powdered face. I want Mom au Natural, the mother of my youth, who appears once this old girl stops caring about appearances. I love her naked face and her straight, fly-away hair. I love her mom musk. It’s just a little bit stinky.

We hug, and we can’t let go. Who is clinging to whom? I feel her still-strong back under the thin padding of age, and I am reassured despite her stoop and slowing gait. I breathe into her neck, and I nuzzle her whiskers, which both scratch and soothe. I kiss her cheek, and I kiss her cheek again. I hug her, and I kiss her cheek once more. I cannot release her. Stay with me forever, Mommy!

My mother looks weary and fragile in the bright lights as she moves about the kitchen with intentional steps. Her efforts are redolent of Estee Lauder and longing. And meatloaf, of course. She has my dinner warmed and ready, just in case. Just in case her girl is hungry. Tit for tat. We are both starved.

I eat. Every bite is delicious. I am afraid of taking too many nibbles, of eating her all up. She must be protected, conserved.

I command: Tell me when you want breakfast, and I will make it. Whatever you want. I want to serve you for a change.

She wants to please me. She tolerates my efforts the same way she managed those 8 a.m. Mother’s Day breakfasts in bed. Soon she is up from the table and bustling. She can’t help herself. Her love is palpable. But more than love is involved in these appetites. My mother must feed me so that I can feed her.

She consumes me hesitantly at first, without appearing to do so. Her hunger is gentle and timid, and I can bear it.

Mom was gifted but under-educated, insightful but unaffirmed. She has become opinionated but difficult to confront. She lacks the confidence to mount overt challenges, preferring sidelong jabs instead. She remains independent but lonely. My mother is so proud of me, so pleased to see me, that she has to check herself. Over the next two days, we walk and talk. We eat and talk. She talks and talks and talks, my listening presence both validation and repast.

I listen raptly and study her intently, filling my larder with rations I hope will not have to last for the rest of my life.

I see her crazy eyebrow hairs, her still-beautiful face. I pore over her fingers, which are bent into unnatural shapes by the slow progress of arthritis. I know her secret and take her right hand, needing to touch her palm. The graft from her stomach is brown and baby soft where she reached up and grabbed her mother’s scalding coffee. It comforts me.

I spread my spiritual arms to luxuriate in presence and in memory. Cookies baked, stories told, brows smoothed, books read. Gwen and Mom and I squeezed into a wing chair, one girl nestled on either side, as she reads The Wind in the Willows. I see us at the dining table with our friends as she supervises the annual gingerbread house and cookie decorating event. I can think of no other mother who allowed such prodigious, glorious, mess making! I recall her guided adventures through the wilderness of the forbidden creek. I feel pride in the fact that she was always chosen second—after Mr. Plotnick–for neighborhood baseball. You should haves seen her at bat! I hear her outrageous howl as she watches British television. My father never failed to become apoplectic over her “raucous laughter,” and that was part of the fun. Our walks around the sprawling suburban block with our terrier, Bonnie, were not chores, but events.

I have the best Mom ever! In my softened state, I am a honey-filled sponge.

I stockpile as fast as I can. I jump at every crumb.

My mother is filling as well, although she lags behind me. I wonder if age is responsible. She has regained some of her energy and form and is in touch with her hunger. In fact, she is becoming plucky.

By Monday morning I note signs of my impending saturation.

My mother doesn’t listen. Not really. She loves me beyond measure. This I know. But she has difficulty listening. Viewpoints and choices outside her range of comfort do not register–or they do not register as valid, which is almost the same thing and likely worse.

Mom asks me about myself. I open my mouth, and my responses become convenient segues into her stories. Another time, I feel tender enough to risk the slow wade into grief over the sudden death of our beloved Demont, a friend and brother since college despite infrequent contact in recent years.

My mother makes the attempt to hear me. She does. She tunes in closely when I speak of his daughter. I lament: How will she pay for college now? Aha. The fact that Shereen was born out of wedlock signals to my mother that her suspicions about Demont, whom she had warmly welcomed into her home on several occasions, have been warranted all along.

Oh, look! Mom notices something interesting as we drive the rolling hills. Demont is forgotten. Mom points out the window and begins to narrate passing scenes. She repeats stories I already know. I don’t think she knows how I feel or what has taken place. And I don’t tell her.

In the past, I have gently confronted my mother about her religious and political tirades. I have told her how anxious and trapped I feel when she goes on and on, assuming I am on the same bandwagon or that I need to be instructed about The Ways of the World. My mother is often able to curb her diatribes, at least in the short term, though leakage inevitably occurs.

Last year, she asked me point blank: Do you think I am racially prejudiced? I gave a point-blank answer: Yes. A long walk-and-talk was required. She was Very Hurt and Misunderstood. I used all my counseling skills and let her pick my bones clean. I velveted my paws out of love but I did not recant. What I did do, and this is not necessarily admirable, was spin her around with words which left her unsure of my meaning so that she, none the wiser, took from our talk the apology she needed in order to reassure herself that she is a Good Person.

Arguing back doesn’t hold much promise for change. I am not one to bang my head against the wall repeatedly just to see if the wall is still hard. My mother is doing the best she knows how, and she does work at expanding her views. She has come much farther than her parents and brother. I’ll give her credit for her efforts. And some sighs as well: Has she not noticed that our children have begun to stay away?

By the time I pack my bag, I am close to fed up. Mom’s logic is emotional, squishy. She is sentimental. With dewy eyes, she must touch, squeeze, hug, pat, and rub to better draw out my juices. I have reverted to childhood defenses: I am hard and smooth and logical. I cannot not tolerate this slop.

I feel guilty accepting the half-peck of peaches, the tub of gummi worms, the two bars of Belgian chocolate, the three bags of dog treats, the four jars of jam, and the partridge in the pear tree. I know I am starting to have unkind thoughts. Damn her, anyway. I do not want to see her I’m-trying-to-be-brave smile and martyred gaze as I step into my car. I do not want to know that I am leaving her unsatisfied, the visit an hors d’oeuvre, a down payment. Love has become an intellectual phenomenon, and I need to get the hell out of here.

It’s been just over a week since my return. My stomach is starting to rumble.

On Becoming Invisible

Image credit here.

Image credit here.

Sometime in 2013…

When I realized what was happening to me, I wanted to use elegant-sounding adjectives such as diaphanous or gossamer to describe the process or the outcome. Becoming diaphanous sounds so much more lovely than the reality of feeling myself disappear in dribs and drabs until I look like a moth-eaten cheesecloth or the elbow of my favorite sweater. I might even come to resemble the seat of my daughter’s Speedo after too many seasons of sun and chlorine.

This process had been stealthily underway for a few years before I stood up and took notice. Here, I am primarily referring to the fading and thinning, which is gradual and not, therefore, immediately noticeable. This gentle decline is unlikely to induce trauma.

I don’t care so much about the loss of color—skin lightening, lips fading from pink to beige, hair showing tendrils of white—or the miracle migration of hair from scalp to chin. The loss of skin tone is manageable. And so much for the loss of childbearing potential. I have three wonderful, healthy daughters, and I feel complete.

The loss of muscle has been a little harder to manage. I have always thought of myself as an athlete, a vigorous person, despite the fact that my exercise routine now generally consists of early-morning strolls through suburbia. This is par for the course, I tell myself, as is my diminished visual acuity and what may be the start of hearing loss. Oh, and who cares about that half inch of height? My daughters are thrilled to be taller than I am. They absolutely gloat. So let me be happy for them! It is well and good that they should wax as I wane.

No, I had expected all these developments. It was the disappearance of some of my actual substance that stopped me in my tracks. I went to look in the mirror, and whole chunks were not reflected back.

You know by now that my relationship to Germany, CityX, in particular, holds all kinds of powerful meanings for me. The years I spent there were critical in shaping my identity and my way of viewing life. Present during my formation and beyond, through the constant of our friendship, was Hanna.

As I aged and became further and further removed from those early days, Hanna validated that I had, in fact, existed in that time and place and had lead the life I recalled. The power of this type of shared memory, a kind of witness bearing, is truly a living thing. I think of it almost as blood.

Into my 40’s, this humor kept me firm and supple. I have experienced this phenomenon with other friends as well. My friend Anne, for example, knows my whole life starting with the first day of ninth grade. While our talks always contain new thoughts and happenings, part of what makes the friendship life giving is our holding of each other’s memories. The holding of each other’s substance, I’d say. For only certain people can recall whole swaths of us in this sacred way, keeping us alive and real as the pressure of time bears harshly down upon us.

My oldest friend, Hanna, routinely held up the mirror to me and told me the story of myself. I did the same for her. “Look in the mirror, Jane, look! There you are!”

“Look, Jane!” Yes, young Jane, you are still in this world. Even now, you exist. You are walking to school in your blue Kickers and wearing your green windbreaker. I see your pigtails swinging as you lope into the schoolyard with your red leather Schulranzen (bookbag) on your back. You are planning to collect horse chestnuts on your way home. Oh, there you are, kicking Peter Bachmann in the shin (again!). And remember how happy you always feel in the botanical garden? You are forever wandering the pea-gravel paths and rowing in the lake….

It went on and on, often wordlessly. I saw my story recited in her eyes.

I was unprepared for the blow which severed our friendship. It came in the form of a letter and carried with it the agony of death. The bitterness of Hanna’s denunciation left no room for reconciliation. It was as though she had died at her own hand and left a note saying, “I just want you to know you did this to me.” Terrible, unbearable, waves of shock, grief, self doubt, anger. It is hard to put into words, and trying to do so can still overwhelm me.

In the aftermath of her rejection, I began to notice the deflation. Parts of me began to sag and hurt. More gray in the hair, more hair in the brush. Hanna had withdrawn her holding power and denied a part of my fabric. I am smaller now, diminished. The fading has accelerated, and whole pieces are missing when I look into the mirror.

To a point, the thinning and shrinking is an unavoidable part of growing older. I do wonder, however, if it isn’t easier when friends die naturally or when they gradually move out of one’s life. I imagine the parts of us they hold drift off gently with the ebbing of their presence. I wonder—is this less painful than when they reject us and yank out great clumps of us on their way out the door? When there is grabbing, there is a sort of violence from which one must work hard to recover. At least this is true for me.

The good I have believed about myself and the authenticity of my experience has been ejected from the mirror and thrown down to crack into sharp pieces. My assumptions about myself must be reevaluated, and this will be difficult. A distorted version of events has been cut with a quick jerk of the jigsaw and bolted to the mirror–to the very spot where my eye has always sought perspective. Where do I look for answers now?

I have a lot of work to determine what is true here. I search and try myself.

Oh, I am understanding the aging process better as a result. I understand why I must diminish and become smaller and paler. Fewer and fewer people will know who I was and even who I have become; and key parts of my being will slowly disappear from consciousness altogether. I expect that in time people might stop noticing me in stores, restaurants, professional circles. Perhaps I will become just one more little old lady. Unremarkable. Unremarked. Hardly worth the effort of conversation. Someone whose presence is allowed but not welcomed. Seeing this potential clearly, I know that fear and vulnerability could cause me to shrink myself down further still, until I have withdrawn into a living death.

While I do not intend to lift, tuck, dye, buff, paint or plump myself back into a spectre of youth, I don’t begrudge those who would. It is simply not my style. Rather than deny the truth of my decline, I believe I will choose to welcome it. Yes, I am deciding right this very moment. I can cry over my losses or rejoice at my divestment.

It becomes my choice, then, to send Hanna off with a gift. No one can rip from me what I would freely give. To my children, I give my once-firm breasts and belly. To Henry, I present the lips which seek his and the hands which have issued countless caresses. To Christopher and Jack, my coaches, I offer the legs and feet of my youth. It was worth the bunions and fractures to know you, to run so fast. Hanna, I give you those parts which you have attempted to snatch. I nullify your theft by my consent. I bless you, dear friend….

Please don’t interpret my words as passive or depressive.

Make no mistake, I do not intend to go softly.

I will stubbornly affix myself to these pages so that I can look back and find myself when I feel unsure. And I’ll keep writing myself into new memories and new meanings. Just you wait and see. I ache at the loss of my past. I am unwilling to lose my future.

So I’m killing off the cheesecloth metaphor and sparing myself. I am made for better. That which remains of me after each act of giving will fold upon itself, concentrating my indivisible essence into an ever purer form.

I’m going to become my finest and truest self, a single filament as sinuous as silk and as strong as steel. And when I have divested myself so fully and stretched so thinly as to disappear altogether, I’ll just keep on going.

I am thankful for an eternal perspective.

This is part of The Story of Hanna. For the prior segment, please click here. For the next segment, please click here.

%d bloggers like this: