Posts Tagged 'memory'

Sailing

I was alone for 15 years or so, alone the way we are when we are not children. How is alone now, what is the shape of alone, do you know? I shook a stick once at alone and it hissed back at me, a snake, a goose, a small cat with big green eyes. I have shaken my solitude so hard that all of its fruit fell to the ground and lay there fallow, lay there unseen for year after year. Little nuggets of solitude, little nuggets of loneliness, they lie there in an orchard, an orchard of past stories, stories from before the travels that took me away, away from hearth, from home.

I left in the winter of my 15th year, as is traditional. I rode a small horse with a fine Arabian head. Not the horse of the nobility, nonetheless a horse that suggested connections. I might be an important bastard, said the horse, I might be a well placed clerk in a prosperous, powerful and dangerous religion. Religion being, then as now, a dangerous and dishonest pursuit, was very appealing to second sons. I might have been a second son, that was generally agreed upon, or a bastard, again, that also was agreed upon. 

I left in the winter of my 15th year, leaving my lady and my lord in disguise, to travel and claim a kingdom for my own in lands far away. Once taken, I would return to tell the king and queen, my mother and father, about my acquisition, and then they would name me heir and bond me and mine forever to them, in spite of my bastard status, in spite of my feminine nature, in spite of my brother, the king’s first son, who was more of a bastard than I was ever likely to be. In spite of his mother and father’s marital status.

I left in the winter of my 15th year, as is traditional, riding my horse with my man to the edge of the sea, where I left both and boarded a ship with an uncle, who agreed to allow me on board as long as the secret was kept, but who could not guarantee my safety if ever all was discovered. This uncle was a first cousin to my mother, a man named Thomas Wilcomb, and he let me onboard at some personal risk. I came aboard as first boy, and looked after his parrot, kept his books, and ran away as soon as ever  I could, so that I might seek my own fortune, and not simply add to his.

Thanksgiving prayer

 

Mama put granny in front of the fireplace with a bowl of black-eyed peas to shuck. Shuck shuck, shucking peas is good luck, I hear gramma singing to herself. I myself don’t care much for black-eyed peas. Too much work, and they taste like dirt, don’t you think?

 Well, coming as we did from both pilgrims and Indians, this branch of the family is steeped in traditions. Gravy boats, tureens, peace pipes, feather head-dresses, whisky and tantrums. Remember old grand-dad’s granddad? Well, not exactly, but remember the stories of old granddad’s granddad? One-legged Indian, hand-rolled cigarettes. Remember the feel of tobacco sticking on your lip when you roll your own? Remember the match scorching the ends of your fingertips? Remember the big mixed-up feasts, with corn and store-bought pies and Tofurky for the half-dozen vegans every generation has produced since Tofurky was invented by scientists in the cold-war time, developed for astronauts, for up in the night sky where who knew what principles might apply to the decomposition of meat products in a zero gravity environment for the edification of star-traveling carnivores. Tofurkey was originally packaged in a tube like toothpaste or hiker’s peanut butter, but was created to be served for Thanksgiving in orbit.

Forty years ago today, I squeezed a bit of gravy onto my Tofurkey, sitting like a log on my melamine plate, which was latched securely to my armrest. It was the first time in 30 days I had raised food to my mouth using a utensil, a fork-like device that clamped over the bolus and delivered it to my mouth in a more natural way than the tube-to-mouth suck we’d all been doing since leaving earth’s gravity. Our first Thanksgiving in outer space. Cranberry lozenges. Pumpkin pie patches – these leave a taste without ever touching the mouth. A weightless burp. These are real-life stories from the astronauts and the cosmonauts – we were a peace delegation, we were cold war campers, with whipped cream and hope and toilets with seat belts – and we shared this ritual. Thanks-Giving.

I give thanks for the long-ago realization of my Mayberry dreams, my red-headed childhood, my belief, fostered by the irritable but non-toxic dreams of my grandparents, who suffered as all working people have suffered since before we had lift-off, since before Houston had a problem, since before the giant step was taken. The belief in transcendence, the transcendentalists of early American thought. The uppity belief in the power of belief. Beyond gravity, space, time, history. I give thanks for marshmallows, whatever they are, for relatives, for strangers, for the dancing cosmos that do not know whether we celebrate in darkness or in light, on earth or in the heavens. Amen.

In the middle of everything

golden retrieverThis is a common scene in my home, most or many of those autumn days: me, pushing the dog bed against the wall, in spite of her strong preference for keeping the bed in the middle of the room, where I had to step over her repeatedly while I bake.

This dog does not want a den, she wants a stage. She’s been through many remodelings in a relatively short period of time, for a number of reasons. Sitting quietly in a corner does not guarantee love, attention or food, in her experience. When we upgraded our windows, single to double pane, she tripped the Pella man, whose ankle was twisted, but he forgave her anyway because of her strawberry blonde hair and her wish to play tennis ball with him before he leaves. The plumber is less forgiving, and charges me for his x-rays.

At some point in the remodel I am finally able to remove the vintage 70s Elvis posters that have been tormenting me through ex-husbands, sentimental children and unsightly holes in the wall that I have not ever gotten around to patching or painting.

Really, don’t we all know that remodeling is most manageable following a huge natural disaster? A flood, an earthquake, even a fire? Although fire is so absolute that it has almost a religious significance. This fire would not have happened without your sin. Or mine.

So I found myself dragged through our history: the beaded shell door hangings, the various sound systems, lost technologies, the aging spices from vegan experiments, the nasty industrial air fresheners of the nineties, the assorted snugglies and noise cancelling devices of the early 2nd millenium. We washed our feet like Jesus at one phase in our nesting. We lit sage to cleanse in another. We accumulated in the next decade, more and more and more and more and more and came suddenly to a painful and choking halt, with duct tape and orange alerts and one ounce bottles to carry on our big adventures somewhere else.

Now it is time to upgrade the house with security systems and timers, cameras and automated gates. My gardeners begin to worry, begin to believe there are terrorists everywhere and now my baking is for reassurance. No worries, I tell them, Randy and Julian and John and Jorge, take this apple spice cake and this bag of little things we did not use in the remodeling. They are looking for re-usable wiring so they can protect the perimeter of their empty lots, where they will someday build the house they’ve always wanted for their wives and children, who are for the time being living in little thin-walled apartments in Rio Rancho, which are incredibly expensive and yet close. Being close is important. Being close is more important than double pane windows, which is something even my red-haired dog, who is no rocket scientist, knows, and I have come to agree with her, and leave her bed in the middle of everything, because that is where we all belong.

Mothers, daughters, sisters – a Christmas story

xmas-rooster

I had a happy rooster once. He was bright and loud and disappeared one mid-winter day just before Christmas. This was long enough ago that when I look at my legs in my memory they are thin, with pale fine hair on light brown skin. Kid legs. I can see my kid legs and they are not here any more. I still have the tin tree ornament nena gave me to replace the happy rooster, though.

The vatos who inhabited my sister’s dreams in seventh grade dressed better than I did. Their hair was shiny, remember that, hita? My sister (who is actually my daughter but we didn’t tell her yet) kept pictures of all the boys she loved for about a year, and then she stopped. When you marry a bad boy, it’s better not to look back, is the way I always heard it. But later, when we are all comfortable again and certain things have been forgotten, we can get out the box of pictures. For years, she kept them in a cigar box, but she moved them into a metal dental tool box she got when she was dating that crazy periodontist. Hector Altamirano, moved here with his family from Mexico City when Hector was 6; his mom cleaned houses in a damn good neighborhood, got Hector the grades to get into the right schools, and next thing you know it’s rinse and spit and a piece of prime real estate in the Silver Lace neighborhood. When Hector and Zola broke up, she moved to San Antonio and opened an office as an investment banker. She knew as much as anyone else, was how she figured it.

One day when Zola was still too little to talk about family, she and I were lying together on the porch in front of my mother’s house. We had our heads together and we were looking inside of a wooden box with metal hinges. Inside the box was a mouse. The mouse was small, probably immature, with tiny white paws and smooth brown fur. We were lying on our stomachs, cracking the box open enough to let some light in. The mouse inside looked out, sneezed and trembled, wrung his mouse hands together. I think he’s praying, said Zola. No, I said, too logical and mature at 19 to let even a mouse have prayers. Is too, said Zola, and then she started to cry. Big baby tears. The hinged door fell open, baby Zola ran screaming and crying into the house. I followed her, and the mouse’s prayers were immediately answered.

At Christmas time, we alternated between Christmas trees, glitter, chunks of coal and runaway hysteria. Nena knew the importance of light in wintertime, especially in cold winters when nothing is enough. Especially in winters when we are moving from one secret place to another, and there is never enough to put deposits on all the utilities. Moving is damn expensive, really hard on the poor, but we are the ones who have to do it most often. Sometimes we played the midnight mover, packed our bags and left with rent owing. I can’t say I knew what else to do.

If you take a cold five year old, dress her in yellow pajamas, the kind with the feet in and printed ducks and geese all over, then wrap her in a sleeping bag in a cold room with an unlit fire, then you sneak out while she is sleeping and buy a fire log at the mini mart with the three dollars in change that you had been saving in a pickle jar, then you light the fire and wake the little girl up and she sees the old artificial tree with the scrubby plastic ornaments in the firelight at midnight and you tell her santa has come at last, she believes you, and you believe too, for a little while, until the child is asleep again, and you are holding her against your chest for warmth. For her, for you, for Christmas.

mouse

Zuzu

 

“Behold, anonymous omelet goddess,” Dmitri smirks and brushes the hair off her neck, giving her a friendly post-coital kiss. Goddamit, she thinks, shouldn’t he remember my name? He hands her a plate of sliced orange. Civilized gesture, she thinks.

Respectable women do not do this tightrope dance, do they, this retrograde zipless fuck – do they? Does anyone still do this? Dmitri puts a slice of orange in her mouth and slides his juicy hand netherward. She jumps up and writes her name on the white board magnetically attached to her fridge.

Zuzu DeGraib, she writes in red dry-erase marker. That is my name. She cuts the omelet in half and takes hers outside, shutting and locking the door behind her. She smokes a cigarette, without any coffee, picks at her toenails, listens to the whining buzzsaw of her neighbor’s conservative talk radio, and eventually goes back inside. Dmitri is gone. There is a smell in the room, of unfamiliar sex, eucalyptus oil, a lingering scent of orange. There are seeds neatly piled in one corner of his breakfast plate.

Later that day, Zuzu leaves the house, wearing her waterproof khaki jacket with the boy scout patches, and her favorite shoes, with the rhinestone horseshoe buckles she’d affixed with gorilla glue. Zuzu is deeply afraid. She reads the dictionary every day, looking for words to help her describe how she feels. Desperate. Delirious. Repetitive. Like someone who eats zeroes and ones for a living. Like someone who lies, and lies down with dogs. She looks up words for history, for memory, for moments of change. The Smithsonion. She looks it up. How much money does it take to go to the Smithsonian? How far is the Smithsonian from this town, this old Lithuanian town tucked into the northern woods near the Canadian border? Why isn’t there a fence between us and the Canadians? She asks her imaginary mother, who is long gone into a macabre alzheimer’s fog, from which she periodically yodels out Zuzu, Zuuuuuu Zuuuuu, raising Zuzu from the dead, from the heavy short sleep she sleeps when she sleeps at all.

She sits on the stairwell on her back porch, pictures her toenails decorated and painted in tiny pointillated miniatures. She sees starry starry night on her left big toe, a little Matisse with lady and umbrella on her right big toe. She thinks about DaVinci. She thinks about cutting off her own ear. DeGraib, you are pathetic, she writes on the white board. She uses a Sharpie, permanent, to remind herself.

Rules: These are the strict and unbending rules of Zuzu DeGraib, starting today, she writes:

  1. No gratuitous sex.
  2. No breakfast with strangers.
  3. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.
  4. Clean your blender after each use.
  5. Donate to the Save the Lemur foundation.
  6. Change lip gloss every 30 days to prevent bacterial growth.
  7. Character counts.
  8. Answer your mother when she hoots at you, whether you like it or not.
  9. Stop smoking.
  10. Spend money instead of groveling around begging for attention from people you don’t care about anyway.

Later that day, she throws the magnetic white board away. She orders a new one online.

Lemurs are only one of thousands of animals facing extinction. It is hard to know which dying species to save on any given day, so her method has been to work alphabetically through the endangered lists. Anteaters, buffalo, koala, orangutan, zebra. She dreams in Noah’s arks, she dreams two by twos, she dreams four by fours, she dreams that nothing is meaningless and that all things are possible. When she sleeps her heavy short sleeps.

The spotted owl and the brown trout are also on the endangered species list. Brown trout taste especially fine grilled outdoors and served shortly after death, with friends and fruit salad. Zuzu is very fond of fruit, but less fond of strangers eating omelets with her without remembering her name. She is sensitive that way, she supposes.

At work, she catalogs and sorts, sorts and catalogs. There are amazing numbers of categories to be found in books, CDs and games. Even more when seasonal variations are considered. Like most book sellers, she is willing and in fact eager to answer questions about books: reference books, fiction, history, books of endangered species, self-help books, books on sex, books that reference obscure saints and books about the Smithsonian.  Books about religion have recently started getting on her last nerve, although when the trend first started she nibbled at each of the major religions in turn, some sweet, some sour, some bitter and some strictly rancid. She spit them out, but couldn’t help hearing the nastiness continue in the trash talking god on her neighbor’s radio. Too bad he was deaf. Maybe she should cut her ear off.

ear

All I remember

All I remember is how I forgot my keys that morning at least three times and had to go back in the house to look for them. And your eyes, how they rolled, and your sighs. Three sighs.

All I remember is how I got a cup of coffee at Java Jill’s on the way to work, and they put a chocolate covered espresso bean on the lid and said nice to see you again.

All I remember is getting to work and parking next to Maria, who usually gets there after me and I was surprised. Today is different, I remember thinking. I looked at my watch.

All I remember is working all day, stacks of paper, reams of e-mails, phone calls, a little lazy surfing, a little unnecessary texting from my children who don’t say much unless I can’t see their faces, their eyes. Even in person, their hair, hanging down, hides their eyes, their thoughts covered by a curtain that reminds me of something, I’m not sure what. Texting their truncated personal dramas to me during meetings. There is a code that says what starts texted stays texted. No discussion. That code is broken now.

All I remember is dreaming that night of the sun shining through my hair, my hair, hanging in my eyes, swinging a silky curtain over my secrets. In the dream I am looking through that curtain, and I can see my mother, looking out the kitchen window, calling me to dinner, and my son, lying still and quiet with his hair brushed back out of his face, except for where it’s been neatly shaved off around the stitches.

All I remember is his pale forehead, and how unfamiliar it looks, like something I’ve never seen before, or like something I’ve unexpectedly forgotten.

Strawberry desert

We sat at brunch, Molly, Sanja, Amy and I, and ate strawberries.  Amy pretended her strawberries were floating in champagne, but this time it was 7-Up, with some mint thrown in for the smell.  It was spring, but not the weekend of Easter.  I’m trying to remember, because things changed so suddenly after that.  Sometimes when I think about it, I seem to see ribbons and Easter grass, hidden eggs and baby girls in shiny pastel shoes like Jordan almonds, toddling along, baskets in hand. Here’s one, here’s one, says Aunt Jocelyn or Aunt Kathy or even young Eric, who has not yet noticed that it’s not manly to help the babies find their eggs on Easter.

But then, realistically (because realistic is what we are trying to achieve, right?), there was no park, no bunny, no pastels, no champagne. There was the sound of prayers hovering with the smoke at sunrise. There was the incense. There was that confused dream/nightmare feeling that mixes fireworks, celebration and death – even now I catch my breath when I see them go off and think about the ancient Chinese, who were artists of the exploding rose-winged dragon, and of the actual impact that blows off arms, noses, and acres of land that moments ago held what?  Sand, scarred roads, barbed wire, desert crops: almonds, sapote, dates, maybe a couple of straggling patches of naive cotton, cotton for ragdolls and memories?

Ragdolls and memories are wrapped bandages, wrapped bandages. There is a smell like saints. Why are saints all about suffering and death, I wonder as I eat strawberries with Molly, Sanja and Amy. They have forgotten – have they forgotten? – I don’t know and it is not Easter and I’ve been thinking about my old uncle Sam, who I haven’t seen since I was 7, when he was still alive and keeping peppermints in the pockets of his overalls. peppermintFunny to think of me and some old stoic Maine uncle – whose uncle was he, anyway? – sitting together on a wooden bench in front of a store where he knows everyone and I know only him and how did I get there?

Sometimes I have conspiracy theories, and sometimes I am calm and whistle songs I can’t name. Sometimes I wake up and know where I am. My uncle Sam, the one who must have been someone else’s uncle, my grandmother’s lover, my funny uncle, I just don’t know, only the feel of his comfortable belly and the smell of peppermint and sawdust. I remember he whistled old songs with that younger me.

 

In the back room, there was sawdust and the light was thick, heavy, coming through a window that hadn’t been cleaned since sometime before some war I’d heard about but was not yet born for, and the old guys played poker back there while I looked for bugs out on the front porch. But this is this war now and I’m a girl in overalls, I’m a girl who smells like peppermint and I try to raise goats with these brown kids in this dusty compound, and I give them candy like my old uncle Sam, whoever the hell he was.

Then again back before that, before the old uncle, there was the confession of old lady saints in my grandmother’s Nova Scotia. Whatever-all did the old martyrs of Nova Scotia come up against? Nessie? Old filthy crazy-assed fishermen with one leg and scurvy? Sounds like a movie now and that makes me want to shoot something.  A can or a dove or dovethat star over there, the one that rises first and can easily be overlooked. The incidental light of a small star that probably died gazillions of years ago and someone is crying at the sight of it, crying into it like that moment really matters and the blood that was in the sawdust or the sand could be fresh and could be hundreds of years old, really, because sacrifice in the name of whatever has always been a part of us – like hardwired really – like lust, like wandering in the desert hasn’t always been there, and justice.

Amy and Sanja and Molly and I decided back then that we would stop every morning at sunrise and sunset and press our heads against the dry earth or into the cool mud of wherever our memories might take us and let the images rise. Who can live without memory, I would like to know? Who can live without memory to build and destroy those walls?  Who can live without water and blood?

Sanja and Molly and Amy and I have brunch together at least once every three months, usually at the changing of the season. I got a tattoo after I got home. Molly says her head is tattoo enough; Sanja strokes the fading marks trailing down her neck. Amy laughs more than all of us and brings strawberries every time, in case the brunch menu has somehow left them off. Strawberries bursting with juice, falling through the effervescence, held momentarily in space with fresh mint leaves. We make our toast – to memory – and talk for an hour, 90 minutes, about our here and now. Kisses, girls, to love, to loss, to forgetfulness, to the great deadly desert between us.


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