FIRES

 

FIRES

My Aunt told us about a fire, speaking slowly to shake out the memory. I could see the row of newly built wooden houses, the smoke billowing while men struggled with hoses. She could see it too, the details stronger in each retelling, she having been a child, wrapped in a blanket, pushed in a stroller. My Aunt didn’t comment that it was wrong for her to see such destruction. But I knew. Now she feared fires. 

All became quiet at the table as I focussed on the swirl of flower petals in the tablecloth, glad of the arrival of cheese and fruit, though fires flickered right there in the candles inches from my hands. 

THE THINGS KIDS DO

When we were kids, we burned leaves in dusty piles in the driveway turnaround under our apple tree. We waited all week to do the raking, smell the fire, watch the smoke going up into the branches, the wind kicking the flames around. And we were kids doing this! There was a fire station on 95th Street, fire hydrants down the block. We had plastic fire hats when we ran around the yard with the garden hose, pretending. And there was that door on the furnace in our basement where you could watch the gas flames leap around, hear the motor humming heat slowly up through the registers.

Our house was grey frame, large front porch, scraggly lawn, western windows catching sunlight. It was a place of cut knees, birthday parties, fights with my brothers and my father’s death—a heart attack, he slumping over, dying in a red fabric chair that was still in our living room as I grew–my childhood fused in wood and plaster, mingling with the slope of the ceilings, the creak of floors, the air of that spiritual space.

ANNA 

That was the time Anna came to clean for us. She came early, clumping up the back steps in shoes that never fit. I didn’t wonder about this, it was Anna—her clothes hung on her, and she always wore three black plastic bracelets that clicked together along her thin brown arm. She wore an an old stocking over her hair, her wrinkled face warm, brown eyes full of something like child’s mischief or secrets she couldn’t tell us. She moved furniture, swept stairs, burned the trash in the backyard, her body bowed to work, so that year after year she seemed to shrink while we grew.

Mother worked in the dining room typing insurance policies. When we came in from school she’d stop to ask what we wanted for a snack or to see our school papers. Eating bananas, cookies, we watched Anna working in the kitchen, spreading old newspapers over the newly washed floor. She’d smile at us, talk to us, tell us what good children we were. On rare occasions we heard stories about her own children, her face opening as she spoke. And Anna always brought us Chuckles, five pieces of sugar-coated candy, surely a gift she couldn’t afford. Did we remember to thank her? 

As we grew, became more aware of the distance between us and Anna; we began to understand. Our father was dead; our mother typed insurance policies in our dining room to care for and protect us. But Anna was Black. Anna was poor. She did not have what we had. 

THE PHONE CALL

Then one autumn our phone rang, a Friday. I heard my mother say “fire.” I always listened when my mother was on the phone, worrying someone would give her news that would hurt her. But fire. Where was this fire? Could I see it? My mother was saying: “Are the fire trucks there, is everyone out?” And then she was telling me to go and find Anna. 

I don’t remember where I found her—arranging my mother’s perfume bottles on a mirrored tray, cleansing our bathtub, wandering back from the trash burner, her bent body preventing her from seeing the hunks of my mother’s carbon paper sailing around the yard like curling black birds.

I told Anna she had a phone call, and then ran ahead. I could only hover at the edge of her life, watch her take the phone from my mother there in the dining room, dusk pulling away all light, her small head shaking as she talked awkwardly into the phone.

When she hung up, she had to sit down. My mother brought her a glass of water, touched her shoulder, the room transformed, Anna’s head sinking lower and lower. I could picture her things burning up, things she had told us were in her house—the picture of Abraham Lincoln, a quilt my mother had given her along with dresses, linens, dishes—things we didn’t use any more. Things Anna always accepted.   

A man was coming to pick Anna up. She thought he lived in her neighborhood. We stood around the dining room table waiting while Anna trembled. It got dark against the dining room windows, my brothers running to the front door when the bell sounded. Anna had to push her hand on the top of that table to get out of that chair.

Two white men stood on the front porch. I could see behind them a long white Cadillac, gleaming under the street light. I watched them take Anna down the front walk, opening that car door for her, a door so large it swung into the street. The car swallowed her. They drove away. 

LATER THAT NIGHT…

But I was glad they were gone. I was the one to slam the front door against the cold air. I was always worried about my mother. She had argued with the men about Anna, raised her voice while Anna stood frail, alone on our porch. The men had said something like “everything is under control.” But nothing felt right. Our Anna between those two white men in their heavy winter coats, my mother talking, fatherless me cowering behind her, thinking those two men might come into our house and stay.

But they were gone. I didn’t have to watch Anna sitting at the table, not moving about like she always did. I must have thought Anna liked to be always shuffling around our house. I didn’t yet know the strong desire to sit after working all day. I didn’t understand about long walks to a bus carrying other people’s cast-off things while yearning for your own four walls. Then…

Later, we were in the kitchen making dinner, pulling the shades, holding the light inside for just the four of us—and the doorbell rang. A man on our porch, a Black man, saying that he had come for Anna. He had a little blue truck parked in our driveway.

I don’t think any of us ate much that night. Anna signed some paper in that white car and lost even more money than she lost in the fire. At least that’s what my mother told me, and I think she knew what really happened.

Anna came back to work a few weeks later. She looked the same. She probably brought us Chuckles. We asked her about the fire, but she just shook her head, smiled that secret smile. We had often asked her how old she was, but she didn’t answer, except once, telling us old enough to have family who had been slaves. And because she had once showed us, we asked her why she always carried a knife in her purse. She smiled, said we didn’t need to know. And then we just forgot, forgot it all, moved back into our child-world, unable to see what Anna could show us—what it really meant to survive, to live, to endure.

Anna had also worked for my grandmother. She cared for us and we for her in a pattern that was structured by the times. Later I realized my mother should have driven Anna home the night her house was on fire. But it was dark, my mother was a widow with three children, and Anna didn’t live in our neighborhood. And I certainly didn’t understand about other neighborhoods.

Safe and secure, we were frozen behind cultural boundaries and borders. And though I didn’t have a father, I did have a mother whose strength and love allowed me and my brothers to live a childhood that danger didn’t penetrate. Mom protected us, we fearing nothing in our time of innocence. Yes, we knew that people got sick and died, like our father, like our neighbor, Mr. Carl. It was natural for us to blot out things that made us fear losing another. 

FINAL THOUGHTS…

Anna came to us, even when she really could not do a proper job, my mother wanting her to have work, dignity. But as Anna faded from our lives, we learned to take risks, to not hold on so tightly to a certain way of life. We saw there was room for sorrows and joy. Anna could have taught us many important lessons if we had been able to ask her, to break down barriers, talk openly of the lessons her courage and love were quietly teaching us.

But we were children, waiting for those hot summer nights when we ran through the dry grass, argued about whose peanut butter jar held the most fireflies. And waiting for winter, when dressed against the cold, we warmed our faces in the heat of fire, watching our six-foot evergreen, now dry and brittle, signal the brilliant end of our full and blessed Christmas.

 

Six Sentences I Can’t Forget

Six Sentences I Can't Forget

Last Monday, people working at THE NEW YORK TIMES were reading an amazing essay by John Paul Brammer entitled: Six sentences I can’t forget. The sentences were intriguing. Examples: “I like the saints that started out bad.”  And: “Ain’t you the bitch that got run over at Braum’s?” And when you read each one, Brammer told you a story that he clings to via that sentence. Some had more lasting effect than others. All were intriguing. So I decided to give the exercise a try…

1.Someone in this room lied to me. Spoken by my 8th grade teacher, Sister Doreen. The class will not be dismissed until that person comes forward. Wow, I thought, that person’s in deep trouble. But no one moved. Then I remembered: Doreen had asked those who talked in church to confess. I had said THANK YOU, when a popular girl in class said she liked my hat. Two words. But I followed Doreen and apologized. Humiliation for a THANK YOU seemed wrong. But I did remember.

2. Why major in English, everyone does that. You should major in biology, go into medicine. I was a sophomore in college–this from my biology teacher, a woman who saw a different trajectory for me. But I didn’t see it. I graduated with a degree in English, taught at the secondary level, now consider myself a writer. But at the age of 42, I went back to school, earned my RN, one of the best decisions I ever made.

3. You would just be able to fly farther. I had two young children and back pain. I finally started physical therapy, another of the best decisions I ever made. Over the years, my skeletal system gave me pain in my lower back, my neck and my upper back. During a bout of the upper back pain, my therapist explained that evolution always has a part in our bone structure, that I had large scapulary bones. “The scapulary bones are your wings,” he said. To which I replied, because guilt sometimes accompanies a lack of wellness: “I guess I’m a bird in some ways.” But he replied: “No, you’d just be able to fly, fly farther than most of us.”

4. “I have to go now.” My younger brother and I had flown to Chicago to see our mother. She was in her late nineties, suffering from dementia, now mostly confined to her bed. We had meetings set up to discuss her future, her finances. But as we entered her room, she immediately looked up, said our names, knew us. And her face was radiant with a smile. We moved to stand, one on each side of her bed, as she told us “I have to go now, but I’m afraid.” There were blessings in that room the three of us will never forget. This was a Saturday, late afternoon. Our mother was in a coma by Sunday morning and died early on Tuesday. It was her time and she blessed us with her love even in death. 

5. “You just have to let that go by...” It doesn’t matter who said this to me. The timing is what matters. I had entered a neighbor’s home to ask for a favor or apologize for some minor offense. I remember my hands were out in front of me, my body in a kind of supplication stance. Because after the favor, I apologized for seeming not in full control. “It’s just because of what is going on right now,” I said and made reference to the children in cages at the border or maybe because he had just mocked Christine Blasey Ford. Something! And she stood there and smiled and said: “You just have to let that go by.”   NO!! I won’t let any of it go by and I will never forget her words.

6. For sentence six, I defer to my readers. Is there a sentence you can’t forget? We all have them. I made a list and only chose the five. It’s an interesting exercise and I tried to scan my entire life. So now it’s your turn. THANKS FOR READING and thanks to John Paul Brammar for this intriguing exercise. 

artwork by: Google Images

SOME THINGS ARE JUST SACRED

SOME THINGS ARE JUST SACRED

I’ve been writing this blog for a long time and have shared many of my peculiar penchants and ideas. Each one of us walks around with memories that cause us to react a certain way, to possibly empathize, reject or accept something. And it happens in a nano-second. So I think you’ll understand when I rejected the above cartoon which is “playing with the iconic.” I reject it because the original represents something important to me.

MY MEMORIES 

And just this past week I unearthed the pages of a memoir that I wrote when my mother was still alive. The timing was right as I had so many questions for her–she being the central figure of this remembrance that focuses on my childhood–that my father died leaving her with three young children.

BUT LIKE ME, EVERY ONE OF US has something in our past that colors our reactions throughout our lives. It’s deeply planted in our psyches and arises at the oddest times, pulling on that memory or memories and often determining our choices. SOME OF IT is recognizable and can be labeled. Some of it is buried so deeply that we are unaware of its affect on our actions and reactions.

WHY WRITE ABOUT THE PAST? 

Have you read any of these famous memoirs?

EAT, PRAY, LOVE  Elizabeth Gilbert, DREAMS OF MY FATHER, Barack Obama, THE GLASS CASTLE, Jeannette Walls, THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING, Joan Didion, KITCHEN CONFIDENTIAL, Anthony Bourdain, TUESDAYS WITH MORRIE, Mitch Album

Meghan Daum writes:

  • a memoir that reads like a confession is asking the reader for something;
  • a memoir that is an honest relating of one’s life is a generous gift, a sharing of a life so the reader will feel less alone.

Yes! Why do we read novels and stories, watch films and elongated series? For entertainment yes. But more deeply, we read and watch to help us understand our own lives, to slip into another’s life and find a human connection, something to help us keep breathing. Again as Daum states, to share in another’s life so we will feel less alone. That’s the key on this big and often frightening planet.

SNOW WHITE HELPED ME 

FAMILY TIES modern mother, Elise Keaton, said NO to Snow White, claimed she was too passive, always hanging around waiting for her prince. In the light (thank God) of our age today, a woman’s consciousness has been raised. We are more understanding of empathy and reaching out to people of all shapes, colors and experiences. But when I go back to my childhood, it wasn’t always like that. Snow White may have been passive, but she was what was available to me–in that time period. And I needed her.

When I wanted to be Snow White, I wore a white cotton dishtowel tied around my neck that fell not so gracefully over my corduroys, tee-shirt, and saddle shoes. But in my mind I was dealing with the Wicked Queen and hanging out with the Seven Dwarfs. What I saw in the mirror was filtered through my amazing childhood imagination.

But here is where the photo above just will never work for me. THIS, FROM MY MEMOIR:

One day, before I’m in school, I’m doing a puzzle. It’s just a simple cardboard one, a picture of Snow White in her glass coffin with the seven dwarves gathered around her. I show her (my mother) the puzzle when I’m finished and she smiles, tells me that my daddy is buried in a coffin in a cemetery. This is a concept that slowly becomes real to me, as she drives me there that very afternoon, and shows me his grave. There’s a little gazebo twenty skips away. You can climb on it. Play in it. I go there. She stands by the grave, staring down.

AS a child, I had several picture books about SNOW WHITE. My mother read me the story, that’s what kids my age wanted: fairy tales, princesses. So when she used Snow White in her coffin to try to help me understand where my father was, what death meant–all those difficult concepts for a child between the ages of 3 and 5–she did an amazing thing. And my vision of Snow White in her coffin will always be sacred to me, connected to that memory–despite the rise of feminist thinking.

I must confess that once when I was at Disney Land, I tried on the Snow White costume.  Truly, you can purchase an adult costume and live out your childhood dreams. But as I stood looking at myself in the mirror, I wasn’t Snow White. The really powerful part was the memory. Yes, that kid buried inside me would have leapt for joy if such a costume had been offered to her, but she did just fine without it, the image filtered through my amazing childhood imagination.

WHAT CAN YOU OFFER?

I am sure that one of you reading this had a similar love for a character, a book. And though you might laugh if some artist riffed off that character, you would prefer to keep your memory pure and simple. After all, they didn’t even have cream pies in Snow White’s day. And maybe Prince Charming would decide to encourage Snow White to follow her princess duties so he could stay home, take care of the kids.

THANKS TO: shusaku takaoka art

My Snow White Costume: More Imagination Than Reality

Snow White wasn’t loved by FAMILY TIES modern mother, Elise Keaton.  No, to Keaton Snow White was passive, just hanging around waiting for a prince.  But I will always love Snow White.  She’s integral to my childhood.  Then, I wanted to be Snow White, had no idea that I was denying my feminist side as I waited for my prince to arrive on a white horse.  I poured over books and puzzles carrying her image, longed for her ebony-black hair and red bow, the flowing yellow skirt, and dark blue cape.  So when my granddaughter said she wanted to be Cinderella this Halloween, I gladly bought her the costume.   Was I living out my childhood dream through her? (well I didn’t try to convince her to be Snow White instead!)  In fact before my granddaughter was born, while at Disney Land, I tried on the Snow White costume.  Truly, you can purchase an adult costume for not a small amount and live out your childhood dreams.

But as I stood looking at myself in the mirror, I wasn’t Snow White.   The really powerful part was the memory.  Surely that kid buried inside me would have leapt for joy if such a costume had been offered to her.  But she did okay without it.  I wore a white cotton dishtowel tied around my neck.  It fell not so gracefully over my corduroys, tee-shirt, and saddle shoes.  And in my mind I was dealing with the Wicked Queen and hanging out with the Seven Dwarfs.  The image in the mirror was different then.  The image was filtered through my amazing childhood imagination.

My granddaughter and other modern children don’t have to leap very far to fall into other worlds and live out their story-dreams.  The Cinderella costume is an exact replica of the Disney image.  Television and video games also provide exact visual images and do a lot of the creative work for young minds.  That’s a worry, though at the same time the games are challenging, combining fine motor skills with brain skills at a speed I could never attain.

Thankfully books still provide only the printed word as a pathway to fantasy and mind-dreams.  And on Halloween it always happens—some parents and their creative kids let their imaginations run wild, producing a child at my door dressed as a sausage, or a stack of books, or an amazing vampire that sprang from a crazy, wild vision.

I realize now that my dishtowel wasn’t very imaginative. But it didn’t need to be.  In childhood, reality provided constant discovery.  The imagination created Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy who were wildly exciting and so very real.  All you had to do was live inside your head.  When you put on a pirate cape (towel)—you were a pirate.  When you rode off on your bike around the block to escape your parents, you rode a beautiful horse far off into the desert.  It was fantasy, it was incredible.

Children will always need their own imagination turf—those places of solitude that we found in our youth: a tree fort (a fancy parent-built one or a plank in a tree); a tent (the real thing or a sheet draped over chairs); or a clubhouse (the corner of the garage, a closet, or the old shed out back, works just as well.)  It’s all in the mind’s eye, as that corner becomes a place where children’s games shed any reminders of parents and home.  Another life exists.  It’s the cardboard box and string thing.  Or it can be where the video game gets solved without using all the gold coins.  Because it’s always been true, imaginations need exercise as much as arms and legs do.  So on a recent visit, my two older grandchildren and I built a tent using chairs and stools.  We made so much noise and had so much fun we woke up the baby.  They loved it.

And when my granddaughter put on her Cinderella costume, I was entranced.  No dish towels for her.  And the Snow White adult costume?  I didn’t buy it.  Instead I bought a plastic statue of Snow White that day.  Later, I discovered it’s really a bank, a nice metaphor for holding my memories, and reminding me that the human imagination is still alive and kicking.

Thanks to Moppet 65535 photostream

This is an enhanced version of an earlier post

A Chicago Kitchen in the 1950s

A Chicago Kitchen in the 1950s

Mom was there. That’s the biggest likeness to this picture.

It didn’t work out.  I made my children liver sausage sandwiches with mayonnaise, garnished the top with circles of dill pickle, and they squished up their faces and asked that I NEVER serve that again. They did eat these:

Mom’s Raisin Cookies

Raisin Cookies: Preheat oven to 375 degrees F (190 degrees C) and place the oven rack in the center of the oven. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. 

In the bowl of your electric mixer, beat together the flour, baking powder, salt, and ground cinnamon. Add the brown sugar, softened butter, egg, milk, and vanilla extract and beat for one minute. Add the raisins and beat until incorporated.

Drop the batter by heaping teaspoonfuls onto the prepared baking sheet, spacing the cookies a couple of inches apart. Bake the cookies for about 8 – 10 minutes, or until the tops of the cookies are just barely touched with color yet the edges are golden brown. Remove from oven and transfer the cookies to a wire rack to cool.

Makes about 4 dozen cookies.

Raisin Cookies:

2 cups (260 grams) all purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 cup (210 grams) light brown sugar

12 tablespoons (170 grams) unsaltedbutter, softened

1 large egg

1/4 cup (60 ml) milk

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1 cup (125 grams) dark raisins

Well, okay.  I was in a nostalgic mood.  I was just remembering the lunches my mother prepared for us in our old kitchen.  Then kids came home for lunch.  My brothers and I ate grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup (and, Mom, please make it with milk!!).  We nibbled warm chocolate chip cookies while my mother read to us right in the middle of the day—JANE EYRE, THE RED PONY.  We’d close our eyes and picture other worlds, strain for the sound of carriages and horses’ hooves or the smells of hot sand and desert flowers.  And then the stomach churning sound—my mother slapping the covers of the book together.  We’d trudge back to school.

I can still vividly see my mother’s kitchen table, a scarred mahogany library table which she had covered with red gingham oilcloth.  It was perfect for rolling out dough, playing with finger paints, doing homework, or just sitting mesmerized by the red, blue, and yellow roosters strutting the wallpaper above the green plaster dado.  There were way too many moments in my life when I escaped the memory of my math teacher’s face or avoided my mother’s admonishment to read the newspaper, and just sat, lost in the festive feathers of those bantams.  Ah, moments in the old kitchen.

For that’s where we gathered.  It was the kitchen we stumbled into as toddlers clutching a baby bottle; the kitchen we ran into as children eager for Sugar Pops or the face of the hero on the Wheatie’s box.  We ambled there as teenagers bringing our friends and perusing the contents of the refrigerator.  It was the rule to complain about what was found, the rule to combine foods in taboo ways—peanut butter and egg salad—and then shriek with laugher.

There were many moments when my mother stood at the enamel kitchen sink, her back to us, struggling for a stern posture, stifling a laugh.  We knew what would come next—a penalty of sorts, a dictum from on high.  She’d point to the blackboard she had nailed up over the sink where chores were marked off for each of us, the penetrating words—wash, dry, put away.   She’d add something punishing for the child of the moment—clean the hated greasy meat grinder used for making hash or the wooden rolling pin sticky with dough.

But truly, the kitchen was my mother’s room.  She filled the small space with her warm gestures and words, conducted those important talks around the dinner table, and was always there to kiss us goodbye or hug us hello.

But any kitchen worth its salt could also become the center of the storm.

My older brother had fallen asleep over his Greek or Latin translation and now blamed my mother for sending him to a school that worked him to death.

I burned the toast.  Three times.

My younger brother appeared crying—the newly assigned patrol boy was the neighborhood bully.

On those forever mornings chaos blocked out kind words, if any words at all.  We forgot to help one another as we raced around the kitchen, bumping into things with that “mother threat” hanging over us—things would not go well for us if we dropped the half-gallon glass milk bottle on the floor.  Of course one day we did.  Milk, laced with shards of glass, spread its long, white fingers everywhere while we scrambled for dish towels and cloths.  To our collective surprise, my mother kept us; she did not send us to the dogs that fateful day—instead she frantically looked over our hands for cuts from the glass.

Often my mother turned on the static-laden radio to let in the real world.  But we children didn’t hear a thing.  To us sitting sleepily at the kitchen table, life was idyllic.  We heard only the rasp of the milkman’s brakes, the jangle of bottles inside his metal basket as he came up the walk, the eggs chirping in the pan, and the bacon snapping and sizzling—breakfast sounds that broke through the constant braiding of bird song.

My mother was a widow and earned our keep by typing insurance policies in the dining room.  We took for granted her gift of security, as if in a fairy tale an enchanted rose thicket kept us safe.  Magic wasn’t my mother cracking open an egg and finding a double yolk.  Magic was being there in that sheltering kitchen.

I load the dishwasher.  Despite the fact that my family often eats exotic takeout foods with nomenclature that didn’t exist in my childhood, or we prepare meals with blenders and food processors in our gadget heaven—the kitchen is still where we gather.  And it’s there, like in my mother’s time, where I try to make my children’s empty full again, providing encouraging words before a test, comforting advice about a friendship, and those same hugs and kisses—all food for the journey.

I think of the wonderful kitchen afternoons my children and I have had, afternoons when there were no lessons or errands to run, no games—absolutely nothing on the calendar.  The kids would sit around the counter on the stools, attempting homework, tapping pencils, moving papers, producing occasional squeals and arguments as the phone rang, the microwave beeped, and a Game Boy hummed intermittently.  Oh, they weren’t playing jacks or pick-up sticks, they weren’t creating a new world out of Lincoln Logs, but it was wonderful, a wisp of the old kitchen.

The back door bangs.  The kids are back.  They each choose a stool and rattle around, giggling and smiling at me.  The sky is still full of sunlit clouds and we can all hear a basketball thumping in the distance.  I wipe the stove thinking any minute they’ll shriek and run off.  But instead, they stay, asking me questions, laughing, joshing me about my memories.  Yet as I begin to talk, I know they are eager to take in every word.  I smile at each of them and then turn away suddenly, blinking.  I see the bookshelf in the corner of this kitchen, full of cookbooks.  I focus on it—I’m sure there’s space for a copy of the RED PONY, maybe even JANE EYRE.  They’d go well with foods of great comfort—steaming tomato soup made with milk and runny grilled cheese sandwiches.

A Chicago Kitchen in the 1950s

Thanks to Google Images