Friday, February 26, 2010

Sometimes, a Half-Life

I took this picture from the plane as it approached the airport in north Alabama two weeks ago. I was flying home to the Tennessee River Valley to help give Mother a 90th birthday party. Mother is the healthiest 90-year-old I've ever known. She is a bit hard of hearing. Otherwise, she is amazingly strong. People ask me, "Is she with it? Does she still have her mind?" I laugh. She has her mind and more.

It was cold for Alabama, but good to be home. I can't wait to go back in the summer. To sit under a shade tree. To claim my spot on the front porch swing and drink iced tea.

When I got back here in Virginia, I did what I always do. I fell into an uncharacteristic silence for a while. I seem to live a half-life for a bit. Alabama is back so thick in my blood that it  takes over again, singing, talking, whispering. In Virginia, people are speaking to me and I am responding, but the truth is I'm not really here.

I probably shouldn't have driven by the old haunted house site, pulling off the road and watching. Looking for what? The place where a mansion rose from an old Indian burial mound. Where a beautiful woman was said to have married seven men. And then, the whispers go, they were murdered and buried on the property. The house where my sister and I played as children because the twins lived there and babysat us. The house burned to the ground years ago. But there are graves still on the property. And the old Indian burial mound still rises gently in the stand of trees off the road.

So, we gave Mother a very successful party. Then, afterwards, I had nearly fallen asleep in the rocking chair when a knock at the door broke the early evening quiet. People from her church filed in with song books in hand. They filled the living room, young and old, too many to count. Little boys not sure what to do with themselves wedged onto the sofa.

I had forgotten about this. The people of this tiny church, hidden away on country roads, avidly reach out to not only the sick and the shut-ins, but to the widows. And they included Mother, even though she drives herself to church (AND the hairdresser) in her own car. I suppose they don't want to discriminate against her on the basis of her good fortune. Or something.
So, they raised song books and began to sing. Someone handed me one. After a couple of songs, a voice said, "Carole, what's your favorite hymn?" I answered, without having to think, "The Lily of the Valley." And then I heard my mother's small voice behind someone say, "That was the song they sang at my father's funeral." And I remembered. It was his favorite too. My grandfather, who died before I was born. When Mother was just 12.

And the truth was my head was bowed because I had been hiding tears the entire time. Because I was so moved by these people spending their Saturdays this way. And then, when they began "Lily," it was as though they had been holding back, or had been unsure, or shy. Because their words and the notes were so strong and sure and true. I wasn't even sure the young people, and the children, would know this song.

But they did know this very old song. Maybe they were relieved it was the last one on the last stop of the night and were within striking distance of the hot chocolate and sweets waiting for them back at the church. And they asked me to go with them and really did want me to, even though I've been gone so long most of them barely know me.

And then they sang with vigor and strength and feeling.

"In sorrow He's my comfort, in trouble He's my stay;
He tells me every care on Him to roll.

"He's the Lily of the Valley, the Bright and Morning Star,
He's the fairest of ten thousand to my soul."

And my mother listened. Imagine. You're a little girl, the father you adore has died after being sick for years. But Mother had many siblings. After two of them died in babyhood, the rest of them lived long, relatively healthy lives. Mother doesn't have a single possession left from her father's short life. But she has memories. She has that song. She has had amazing health.

She also has two grown children who live near her. And she keeps in her mind a third who lives hundreds of miles away. Dreaming of a small house on the edge of a magic woods in the deepest South, where a rushing wind roaring through masses of leaves carried whispers from other worlds that drew that child from bed in strange sleepwalking episodes.

So, like her, I am grateful for many blessings. I have a wonderful life in Virginia. But I have another one too, one that keeps me watching, poised, really, about to spring. Back to the red clay and the porches and swings and the people who always want me because of who I was back when and am down deep and not anything else.

So the half-life always gets put away, eventually. But it is always, always there.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

I Am Listening

I've been straining to hear since Cyn died. My wild tomboy friend whose heart gave way two months ago after grappling for two years with illness, trying to stay here with us. Because we could not bear to lose her.

Maybe that's why I haven't been sleeping so well. Am I listening in my dreams for something? A few months after my father died, I had a dream about him. He called me, from a payphone of all things. He was dressed in his summer seersucker suit. I told him, "We have been looking for you all over. Where have you been?" He told me everything was fine, not to worry, he was doing well.

I loved that dream.

I'm not really waiting for that from Cyn. It's not the kind of thing she would do. This girl who told off boys, for reason and for no reason. Who came up with the best games to play at her house -- hubcap was one. We got a can, hid in the ditch and when a car drove by one of us threw it in the road, hoping the rattling metal would convince the driver a hubcap had fallen off. Especially since we shouted "Hubcap!" from the ditch, in unison.

It never worked. Except for the time her little brother hit the car with the can. The driver stopped then, furious, scattering us in all directions, running fast through the dark night of the rural deep south with only stars and the moon lighting our way.

I always spelled her name with a "y." She directed me to do that, years ago. "My name is Cynthia. So don't spell it Cindy. Spell it Cyndy."  So to this day I will not cross her in this. Because if she does decide to give a sign, maybe it will be me she gives it too. Because I'm not spelling her name with an "i."

Because I'm remembering her. Because I'm telling her stories, the ones she always told.

Our fishing trip, for instance. She loved telling about that.

She told me we would never catch a fish in the pond behind my house using safety pins and bacon, something Mother gave us. But I insisted. So, I tied my black satin cape around my neck and off we went, jumping over the grassy ditch spanned by my father's wooden footbridges, running past the huge oak with the rope swings and the barking bird dogs. We ran past their pens with bamboo poles flailing, a black-haired girl and a blonde, and one satin cape floating in our loud, laughing wake.

I will never forget the path to that pond. Through the clearing with the old tree houses, we moved past the gnarled tree where we stole honeycomb when the bees were quiet. Then a quick bounding run through the strange bright light and eerie quiet in the middle of the woods. The spooky place that didn't make sense because the leaves were so thick overhead that I never understood where that light was coming from. But soon we were out of the ghostly light, climbing the old fence, careful of the rusting barbed wire with traces of old blood left by the careless, the unsuspecting, the clumsy.

And then we were at the pond. We climbed our favorite tree and threw in our lines. I stretched out on a limb, the black cape fluttering in the breeze. Cyn was irritated, argumentative. She made fun of the safety pins. I defended them. Then she started in on the pond. She didn't see any fish. I dismissed her claims. Cyn and I were not easy-going children. But she got me, finally, on one point. I was lying on the tree limb with the black cape tied tightly around my neck. It was flowing down toward the ground. The sun was beating down. She kept talking to me, but I acted like I was about to fall asleep.

"You are going to fall off that tree limb and that cape is going to break your neck." I remember her words, clearly, to this day.

She was afraid. It took me years to comprehend that. But I remember taking the cape off and dropping from the limb. She was uncomfortable. So, forget the cape.

For the rest of the day, we played in and around the pond like the children we were, little wiggling snakes and all. Cyn's unease dissolved in the sun and the water. Because she had been an ordinary girl, like me, just one year before. Then catastrophe struck. Her father took her brothers to a football game and never came home. His heart failed him.

Cyn understood, in a way I did not, that disaster unspools in the blink of an eye. That even a child must watch and be careful. Or bad things will happen to those you love. So Cyn watched and controlled and fretted. Because she could not bear another hard loss.

But her good nature won out over the years. She turned the hard and the fanciful into stories. She worked with flowers and lightened her tales with laughter, drawing people to her along the way, so many people. Through her illness, we returned to the stories time and time again. About all the time we spent at her house, about the fishing, about a monster called "Tromper" in the woods. About the boats we made out of old shoeboxes and newspapers, which we lit and launched into the creek beside her house, sending them flaming into the luminous southern night.

So what am I listening for since she passed away? Why am I not hearing what I need to hear?

Because I think about the grief so many of us shared after Cyn died. And then something Victor Hugo wrote.

"A ship sails and I stand watching till she fades on the horizon, and someone says, 'she is gone.'
Gone where?
Gone from my sight, that is all; she is just as large as when I saw her...
The diminished size and total loss of sight is in me, not in her, and just at the moment when someone says 'she is gone,' there are others who are watching her coming, and other voices take up a glad shout, 'there she comes!'...

And that is dying."

So I wake up in the night and think "was that fire" but there is no fire. I see the creek and feel the mud under my bare feet and watch in my mind's eye the burning cardboard boats floating into the night. And I listen in the dark. I can almost hear it. I know the voices are there. They are shouting. Because they see Cyn coming to them, away from us, but heading for them. "'There she comes!'..."

I am still listening.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Snow's Gift

The snow unspooled like giant sheets, draping everything in sight. I thought we were prepared. But we weren't, not for what came. Which pushed us out into the cold, icy world. And gave us back something a rare appearance by my temper chased away several years ago.

It was a storm of biblical proportions, two feet in some places. Snow plows tried to keep up for a while, then disappeared. Friends called, voices quavering, reporting seeing explosions at utility stations in the distance. Then it happened, the power went off in the night.

We couldn't even make our way to the propane grill in the back yard, which sustained us during power cuts in warm weather. My husband and teenage son prowled the house like big cats newly captured and stuck in zoo cages. I  huddled under the thick comforter my sister had given me and read cook books.

I was ill-tempered until my husband dug out the car and found, finally, a store open that sold coffee. Then I was happy. I need that one cup a day. I settled down, reading. That I know how to do, be still and quiet, content with my own company.

Later, J. found a new restaurant open a few blocks away. So, we bundled up and walked, inched really, slowly, carefully, into the cold, dark, icy  night.

The cold took away my breath. But the white world was beautiful. Deserted.


We made it to Pizziola, a new neighborhood carryout/takeout/sit down cafe. Following a new trend in the neighborhood of providing excellent food for great prices, a standard set by my beloved May Island's opening last year on Quaker Lane not far from I-395. The food at Pizziola was comforting, especially after being deprived. I am usually a salad type, but ordered a cup of the luscious minestrone, big fat pieces of vegetables and pasta. No scrimping on ingredients

And because I had been cold for too long, I shared a pizza with my husband, mozzarella and ribbons of basil strewn on a delicious dough made in the kitchen by chefs we could watch from the front. Our boy had a burger and fries. A huge plate of fries bursting from the plate. He pronounced the burger "absolutely delicious."

While we waited, we played Scrabble. I had never played this game before. I had to repeat this several times. But we did not play games in my family. My parents played Rook very briefly. I remember them setting up card tables and inviting people over. This was very unusual in my household, entertaining people who were not relatives. But even the Rook did not last, I don't know why. In college, I was the only girl on my dorm floor who could not join in the marathon card games. I just didn't know how to play.

So my son and husband taught me how to play Scrabble. From the beginning I lectured myself in my mind: This is a game, take it easy, it does not matter who wins or gets ahead or whether someone gets "aggressive."

Because a few years ago we were playing Monopoly quite often at home. This was something I did play with other children growing up. My husband grew up in a games-playing family. They were/are fanatics in fact. Maybe the long, cold winters in Iowa contributed to this. But my husband, the youngest of a large family, is very competitive and that personality emerges sometimes still even when the game is "just for fun."

It took over during one of our Monopoly games. I don't even remember what happened. I do remember it was the last day of the Christmas break and we'd been together, close quarters, for 10 or 11 days with no break. Then, my husband talked my son into some deal that benefited him at the expense of my son and me, but told my son it was "the best deal for him" or something along those lines. My son was just a little boy. It infuriated me that his zeal to win would send him over a line during a monopoly game. Or it seemed that way to me. But my husband didn't see it. I threw down my cards. I was just so angry.

I ruined the game for my son. He never wanted to play Monopoly with us again. I was the one who had crossed the line. I am the calm presence in the family. What I did is out of character. So I've not been able to forgive myself.

But then, during the weekend of the big snow, we were imprisoned by the cold, freezing night, unable to go our separate ways. We were together again as a family, with a board game sitting beside the cafe table, provided by the restaurant to keep customers happy while they waited for their food. And my son, 16, with a teenager's short memory, said, "Want to play?"

And we did. And I didn't care who won, or even what the score was, or who took a long time or had the iffy word. I just enjoyed being with my family, being warm, eating good food. And playing a board game in peace and happiness with a teenage son who said, "Hey, this is fun, we should play this at home."

And he didn't even remember.  But I did. And I will never, ever forget myself again.