Ah, the neck muscles of youth. Was that really me?
Around the time of these antics, my Father died suddenly of a heart attack.
Life was irrevocably changed. My sisters, new mothers at the time, were gone from the house. It was just me and Mom.
I felt like a lone confused wolf. The breadwinner who provided for us was no longer at the dinner table. Shouldn’t I be sad?
I confess that one part of me was relieved. No more fights between him and Mother, the worst being a particular Christmas Eve — finding him slumped over the steering wheel of the car in the driveway after his visit to a local tavern.
I did not want to be a grieving 16-year old.
I wanted fun, to make people laugh. And so I sought surrogate sisters vis-a-vis my “friends.”
But Mother told me my friends were sophomoric.
Sure. We were sophomores in high school.
Then Mother told me I had to find a job. After Dad’s death, our social security checks were not enough. If I wanted to go to college, I’d better start saving.
The florist in town hired me part-time. She had a heavy German accent. Wass ist los? she’d ask, hovering close. My reply: “Eh?”
I found myself emptying containers of stinky flower water and making corsages for the prom I did not attend.
The jewel in the crown: helping the florist set up funeral wreaths in churches. My Father’s spirit seemed to hover at every turn. I felt lots of heaviness and guilt in my heart over him. What had I not expressed to him that he needed to hear from me before he crossed over?
I showed up erratically at the flower shop. The florist dismissed me — I was no longer needed.
Meanwhile, my friends seemed like they were having a ball. They worked at Turnstyle, a discount department store. They bought hip-looking clothes on the layaway plan. They formed a clique, but I was not in their sisterhood.
The lone wolf once again.
To everything turn, turn, turn …
I started dating a guy down the street. He was Edward Scissorhands minus the scissors. We talked about our plans once we graduated from high school.
What were his plans? He looked forward to joining the circus.
When my “friends” learned I was seeing “circus boy” (as they called him), they laughed. Then they spray-painted an expletive on ES’s driveway.
ES did not deserve this disrespect.
Lightbulb: my friends were sophomoric. Could Mother possibly be correct?
Though I severed from my friends, I did not stay with ES. Barnum & Bailey claimed him and I needed to move on.
And so, to supplement college savings, my Aunt found me a summer job at the factory where she worked. I found myself bagging cotton and polyester fabrics alongside a tall, dark hippie sporting a handlebar mustache.
Here’s where the rubber meets the road …
Name a maiden who does not want to be looked upon as eye candy. Especially by a hippie who sports a handlebar ‘stache and rides a Harley-Davidson.
My Aunt, much to her dismay, spotted me on the back of Easy Rider’smotorcycle as we fled the factory and sped down Cuba Road on our lunch hour.
A short-lived tale. ‘Stache and the factory did not last beyond summer.
Fast forward. I am in college. Headstands are a long-gone thing of the past.
I trudge across campus, pre-Kindle and pre-computer days, backpack laden with classics: Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, and James Joyce’s Dubliners.
It is in Dubliners where I learned that “Mr. Duffy lived a short distance from his body.”
I could relate to Mr. Duffy. I was largely living in my head, an English Lit major, enthralled by the classics.
I was in heaven, curled up in my apartment with its old, hissing radiator, sipping Constant Comment tea. Books became my BFF’s. I was feeding my mind.
Was it around the time I was reading Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis that my neck and shoulders started aching? Relieved that I did not wake up in bed transformed to a vermin like Gregor Samsa, I phoned a chiropractor.
“Lose the backpack,” he said, after examining and noting the Atlas bone in my neck was out of alignment.
Was it the backpack? Maybe it was the headstands of the “sophomoric” years. Or reading so much and living a short distance from my body, like Mr. Duffy.
No. I would never give up reading.
I feel I personally know Mr. Duffy.
Now, my book choices are more of a buffet. The entrees include Zen meditation and mindfulness books, creative non-fiction, poetry and contemporary literature. And when my eyes are tired, podcasts. (Some fave podcasts: Ten Percent Happier with Dan Harris, Clear & Vivid with Alan Alda, The New Yorker Fiction, and On Being with Krista Tippett).
My body is becoming a portal for the breath. I “train the puppy” as the mindfulness facilitator leads our weekly meditation group. Why is it so difficult to sit still? “Don’t just do something, sit there!” my brain scolds my squirming body. I embrace that voice too and listen for waves of breath, to let go.
I am not the only Boomer who has lived a short distance from her body.
We are at the end of 2020 and approaching the hopes of 2021.
Turn, turn, turn.
Is it a cosmic coincidence that 1/21/21 is a palindrome? Read backwards and forwards it is the same — and it is the day our new President is sworn into office.
Skeletons love nothing more than to wave at us as we take walks, drive by, or ride bikes. Skeletons wave from Adirondack chairs, Barcaloungers, hammocks.
Skeleton families group together in rockeries. Mama Skeleton holds Baby Skeleton on her lap. Papa Skeleton digs out skeleton hands from the earth. Junior Skeleton hangs out with Doggie Skeleton who holds a bone in his mouth.
Skeleton sporting shades leans back in a chair holding a red drink. Kool-Aid? Somehow, I don’t think so. I sense this is Alcoholic Skeleton. Perhaps family life got to him? Maybe he needed Al-Anon?
Solo Skeleton swings from a tree swing wearing an Audubon cap.
Skeleton on porch holds a pair of binoculars: “The better to see you with, My Dear.”
Skeletons hang from rooftops, climb trees, drape themselves around lamp posts. Skeletons pirate a ship on a lawn. Skeletons dance on porches.
Skeletons, skeletons, skeletons.
Where do all these skeletons come from? Are people buying them on Amazon or do they have skeletons in the closet?
I try to hop on the skeleton bandwagon, but brick and mortar stores are sold out.
Clearly, a case of skulduggery.
Witches, ghosts, and vampires? Sorry, guys, but you are passe this year. Skeletons rule in Halloween 2020.
And rightly so: it seems the Grim Reaper has never shadowed our world so close with COVID, race riots, environmental meltdowns, United States presidential election turmoil.
My 2019 encounter in the grocery store with a young man wearing a Venetian plague mask is so uncanny. Here we are in 2020 and I shop for groceries wearing a plague mask. Hand-sewn, for COVID19. It’s all funny in 2020. I wonder if Venetian plague masks are on-line for ordering? Here’s my sketch of the incident last year:
It is a lovely spring day. As I approach Metropolitan Market, I spot girl students wearing sandwich board signs to Save the Wolves. They want to add me to a list to endorse their cause. I smile, desist from lecturing that wolves like to deceive girls such as them and belong in fairy tales.
A tall, slender youth strides by. He wears a long, black leather coat, black boots with spurs. His face is hidden by a Venetian Plague Mask. It covers his entire head.
Why the mask? What or who is he hiding from?
This is West Seattle, not Venice. The 21st century, not the Dark Ages.
Oh wait: maybe I’ve got that wrong.
He walks past the Save The Wolves girls into Met Market.
“Unusual, eh?” I call out to the girls.
“Maybe he is in a school play or something,” one of them says.
“Hadn’t thought of that.”
I had not thought of that.
No. My first thought, as I enter Met Market: is this guy packin’?
We live in strange times and what is this guy trying to say or prove with the Venetian Plague Mask, the dark leather coat, the boots? It’s not Halloween. Does he have a concealed weapon underneath the costume? Should I even go into the store?
Maybe I need to lighten up.
I grab a grocery cart, brave going into the store.
Plague Mask peers at me from over a pile of fruit as I squeeze an avocodo. He turns and walks down another aisle. The echo of his boots rings in my ears.
Now I have been to Venice but have never been to their carnivals where 16th century Plague Masks are part of the festivities. To my knowledge, Venetians would not be wearing them to grocery stores.
Again, I wonder: is this guy packin’? Will he pull out an AK47 and start shooting?
I better find the store manager.
“There’s a guy walking around here wearing a long, leather coat and a Plague Mask.”
The manager looks at me like I am daft. “A plague mask?”
“You know. Venice. Plague masks. Carnivals.”
“Well, it’s weird. Kind of wonder about him. Hiding behind a mask. And his long coat. Maybe he has a concealed weapon. Just thinking about safety, community.”
“Maybe he’s an actor.”
“That’s what the wolf girls think.”
“The wolf girls?”
“Yeah. The ones that are outside the store.”
The manager shakes his head. “Lady. Is that the guy?” He points to the espresso stand.
The young man has removed the Plague Mask. He holds it in his hand as he chats with the barrista.
“Huh. OK. Just another day in West Seattle.” I smile at the manager and exit.
“Fairy tales,” I declare to the Save the Wolves girls. “That’s where wolves belong.”
In 1908 in Seattle, a ship called “Corona” launched from downtown Seattle to West Seattle with a full deck of passengers. You can faintly make out “Corona” on the front of this ship which was one among others in the Mosquito Fleet.
The Mosquito Fleet ships were so nicknamed because they were small and quick, flitting from one side of the sound to the other.
While I never sailed on this ghost of the past, I did have a mosquito commute to work on the Sightseer which was pleasant.
It took only 12 minutes to cross to downtown Seattle and was far preferable to 40-minute bus and car commutes on the West Seattle Bridge. Less gridlock, less carbon footprints.
Before the Sightseer, I commuted on the Admiral Pete. Pete was much smaller than the Sightseer. He was the first water taxi when Seattle re-launched service in 1999. I used to sit on an open seat in the back and feel the water’s spray against my skin.
But in 2020, things aren’t funny. We are in lockdown now, with cities across the world in the same situation.
The haunting image of the Italian balcony singers of our Corona days presses me to get outdoors as often as possible.
My husband and I ventured out for a walk to Elliott Bay. With Purell in our pockets and donning our disposable gloves, we visited the dock where the water taxis moor.
A water taxi was pulling in. I was curious as to ridership these days, and so I spoke to the ticket taker. Ridership is down 90%, he said, even though King County is offering rides for free.
Social distancing on the water taxi? Of course, what was I thinking? This is the new normal. It just takes so dang long for me to wrap my mind around it all.
But wait, there’s more! A few weeks ago, the City of Seattle decided to shut down the West Seattle Bridge for repairs. There is no timeline for even temporary repairs. We are in a pandemic and the most heavily trafficked bridge in Seattle is closed? People are finding alternate routes, adding more time and requiring more patience, as they attempt to get to appointments, buy essentials.
I’d like to say things are funny in 2020. I’d like to say “bring on the mosquito fleet” so we could all feel salt breezes and avoid gridlock on bridges.
Though I will never feel nostalgic for gridlock, I am nostalgic for mosquito fleets. But also for bridges — which, after all, were first developed by the ancient Romans.
Ah, the human spirit! Witness the West Seattle rooftop dancer at sunset. Who knows. Maybe she will start a trend of rooftop dancers just as Italy has its balcony singers to alleviate the loneliness of COVID-19 social distancing.
Let’s hope that it does not get as bad here as in Italy. Il mio povero paesani!
In WA State, Governor Inslee and the State Department of Health declared that outdoor activities are recommended, as long as you follow the “social distancing” guidelines.
But how do entire populations stick to guidelines?
In West Seattle, spring fever hit Alki Beach and stirred up controversy. Social distancing seemed not to be given a thought on March 19. There were people everywhere, riding bikes, skateboarding, and playing on the beach. Despite state-wide closures of entertainment, leisure, and “non-essential” services, bike rentals and Alki’s Wheel Fun rentals were still open.
I love bicycling. I “get it” that all work and no play make Jack and Jill a dull boy and girl. But COVID-19 is our new normal for awhile. If we don’t want martial law, we need to behave.
The scene is better at Lincoln Park. No businesses there, just Nature writ large with its old growth forest and Puget Sound. Parents, kids on scooters, singles, dog-walkers. There is a palpable feel of enjoyment, of slowing down and using our senses, smiling at our neighbors (from a safe distance). Less attention to cell phones, more eye contact.
Wouldn’t it be nice if this became the new normal?
It touches my heart. Kids are making chalk drawings, writing words such as “Be excellent to each other.” This is Lincoln Park’s Love Rock:
Yes. Love rocks! Let’s be excellent to each other. We are all in this together. We are all struggling to find a new normal.
When I was 54 years old my Mother died. She who read to me from Mother Goose, The Elves & Fairies, The Little Engine That Could, Hans Christian Andersen; she who encouraged education and reading books was gone.
The world still feels parched without her. But my feelings about her have been and will always be confusing. Her stubborn, Taurus nature was crazy-making.
When I summon her, the words of Dylan Thomas’ poem Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night surface:
Do not go gentle into that good night,
old age should burn and rave at close of day;
rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Did he know Mother personally? Her death at age ninety-three after soldiering on in a nursing home for eight years was combative, to say the least. She wandered into the rooms of comatose residents and unplugged television cords. My sister had to move her to a different nursing home.
We joked that that at least Mother’s cord-pulling was not someone’s life support.
There were other incidents: She bit a nurse trying to give her a pill. She hurled bottles of nail polish across the room, set off Emergency Door Alarms. Once, I found her gripping her roommate’s Infant of Prague statue in her bony hand. The roommate was blind and Mother had pocketed it. How not to laugh at that irony?
Was the Infant of Prague caper Mother’s attempt to find spirituality?
Having lived her youth in the 1920’s Prohibition era with its gangsters and flappers, she refused to be defined by any institution or person other than herself.
Was she a narcissist? I think so.
Prohibition did not stop her from getting sick on uncut grain alcohol one night when a shadowy man offered whiskey to her and her sister. They had been frolicking at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1932. Luckily, they both made it home to my grandmother’s flat in the morning, grandmother not at all happy to nurse their hangovers.
Later, in the 1960’s, her soapbox deliveries of opinions and stories not only reverberated in my echo chamber but those of the small town of Mundelein, Illinois. She wrote a newspaper column, Brickbats and Bouquets, for the local newspaper. Her subjects ranged from her opinions on suburban strip malls, to the divorce of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnez, to her praise of bird-watchers.
She encouraged me to write with her when I was a girl. This snip still rattles in my head:
Hair in curlers, cream on face;
no resemblance, human race.
I picture her slathered in Ponds cold crème, her black hair woven into an antennae of curlers looking like a martian.
It is over a decade since her passing. I have seen her rage against the dying of the light at an institution that tried to contain her spirit. I have seen her rage at me and my sister.
She has shown up only a few times in my dreams, but I believe that instead of curses, she blesses me now with fierce tears.
I aim peanuts at the moon. She would be happy to know just how unforgettable she is.
I snapped this photo in 1980. Back then, Angela’s Ashes hadn’t been written. Little did I ponder the poverty that my ancestors may have encountered, much as the characters of Frank McCourt’s novel.
When I snapped this photo, I did not give a thought to visiting the ancestors’ graves in the old sod. Nor did I know that I had relatives still living there.
Thanks to Ancestry.com and a cousin’s research and visits to Ireland, we now have records which show that our great-great grandfather was an expert stone mason who had built his house of stone.
But the property itself was owned by the British Crown. He was a tenant who built and farmed the land but did not own it. And so he sailed to America with his wife and children on The Brilliant in 1850.
Flash forward to 1980. I am a young lass. In college, I’d read James Joyce, William Butler Yeats and I had this romantic idea that I would find myself in Ireland.
Who was I fooling? What I really wanted was to sit in a cozy pub and people-watch. Perhaps I’d meet a handsome Irish lad, maybe even a Leprechaun.
I visited Glendalough, the Ring of Kerry, Wexford, Dublin. Road on country roads past patchwork quilt pastures dotted with gorse and cozy cottages. I viewed the magnificent Book of Kells. Tippled Guinness.
But I did not tipple with an Irish lad nor a Leprechaun.
Nor did I meet my Irish relatives nor see my ancestors’ graves.
Let’s face it, anyone can overthink things. Especially when it comes to de-cluttering.
How about going with the heart instead? Finding the things in your house that spark joy?
That’s right. Joy. Pull out all the stops. Open your dresser drawers, your closets. Pull out all your clothes. Pile them on your bed.
You could start with t-shirts. Does this one spark joy? Or is it crammed in a drawer that wants to spill out like the Pillsbury Doughboy’s waistline?
And what about the t-shirt you did not know you even had? The one a friend gave you — I Heart NY. Yes, a Keeper.
Can you tell that I have read Marie Kondo’s book, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up?
Not only that. I recently invited a young woman who is working to obtain her Marie Kondo certification over to my house. That’s right. A Marie Kondo certification. Who knew?
I invited the YW to our house, and then told my husband he needed to disappear for the initial consult.
He scratched his head. Did as he was told. Wise man.
The YW was prompt, well-organized, neat and sparkly. She is a former urban planner who used to work with my niece. Ah, family connections. So important.
We chatted, discussed my goals. “What are your Touchstones,” the YW asked me.
Simple — fun, blogging, writing, book club, creating vintage greeting cards, Fairy Tale Theater, travel, photography, collage. “These are a few of my favorite things,” I said, channeling Julie Andrews.
We laughed at the vintage cards created from my family’s photographs:
The super-focused YW explained the Kondo process. We started (and have not finished) with clothes, then move on to books, papers and sentimental items. We agreed to meet every three weeks.
And the husband? I asked her.
I was hoping to lock him in a closet from the get-go.
Let me ‘splain: I do not relish the idea of his dominating the conversation with logic and problem-solving. I want a deep dive into the heart and intuition of the house and in my opinion women are better at this.
Then I realized: Whoa, sister.We are both the hearth and home. He is part of this too. After twenty-five years together, you could say we both fall into the sentimental items category.
I asked the YW about her home and family. Turns out that she and her husband have two children, six and nine years old. And they live in a tiny coach house.
A coach house! When I was single, I dreamed of living in one. Forget McMansions. Give me the garret, the small space.
But this is a family of four and their coach house is only 750 square feet! She and her husband roll out a Japanese-style mattress every night and pack it up in the morning. The kids have bunk beds.
They are living the Kondo dream. Sure hope it works.
I know that me and my sentimental item will never attain such a spartan lifestyle. Still, it is fun to dream about a coach house.
Awhile back I attended a conference on how to make hand-made books. Focus on Book Arts (https://focusonbookarts.org/) offered many classes on hand-made books — how to fold, structure, stitch, and bind, as well as exotic techniques for the more advanced attendees (Chinese Thread Books, Pop-Up structures for miniature books, Jacob’s Ladder book structure, etc.).
FOBA was a great environment for learning and sharing skills and experience with like-minded “arteests.” I am still in touch with a few of them.
Thanks to FOBA (and my independent urge to try new things) I have a formidable stash of content for the inside pages of a hand-made book. My grandfather the Trainman seems to admonish me for not memorializing him yet in a bound book. He, along with my poems and other family vintage photos that I transferred onto fabric, remain buried in shoe boxes and plastic bins.
I feel some angst over all of this material. Why, out of all the FOBA classes that were available to me, did I avoid learning to structure a book to incorporate these scraps from the past? I have toyed with the idea of rendering them in PhotoShop and Lightroom and digitizing them into a book via blurb.com.
At some point, I may try that. But at present, I have fancy ideas that conflict with the idea of using an on-line service to build this book.
Me and my fancy brain.
My mind wanders back to 1970 and Mrs. Kane’s Home Economics sewing class. Ah, if it weren’t for those memories, I might have happily enrolled in FOBA’s book stitching classes and by now would have a more permanent memorial to the ancestors.
No … wait. It wasn’t Mrs. Kane’s class. It was the sewing machine that my Father won at a Knights of Columbus raffle, the machine with the bobbin from hell. It tangled incessantly and I never finished making a basic shift dress.
Oh what a web I weave … it was Mrs. Kane and my Father.
I now have a workable Pfaff sewing machine and make things like curtain valances and pillows. But I still have a love-hate relationship with sewing.
So recently I reached out to a friend I made at FOBA, Jackie, who in my eyes is the Queen of Book Structure and Stitchery. Jackie covers books in cloth and paper and knows accordion folds, Coptic and long stitches, and even Japanese book binding. She is a marvel.
“Sure, come over,” she said. “We’ll each make a long-stitch book.”
I was successful — if you consider six hours of intense neocortex work (“first you fold the paper in half, then you fold it in quarters…after that you create five signature pages…we put them in the bookbinding cradle…watch out for the thread catching in the wrong hole”) to be worth it compared to a few hours of PhotoShop,
Let me get back to you on that.
Though the feather-papered book is very pretty and I want to write poems in its pages, I envision the ancestors in more of a parchment/sepia design.
I’ll probably stitch n’ bitch till the cows come home.