Saturday, July 13, 2013

through water like embodied thought

Four years ago I lost (I thought) daughter and garden in one week.

Not quite a tragedy (of the dust, dusty), of course.  Not really.

And not really lost.

And not forever (what have you lost?).

But it seemed real and it seemed forever.  It seemed something had been lost that would never now be found (this was not a garden).  It seemed the only possible now would be a lesser restitution (another new premise) and stunted restoration (fitting stone).   

Of course this wasn't just about the garden (a fiction: Not about the Garden).

I had been left, in place of roses bordering a circle of clover and tiny pink daisies and soft grass, with dust and dust and more dust.  There was also a shallow pit dug by tractor in the middle.  Rain turned it all to clay.  More rain filled the pit.  The pit never drained away.  It was ugly and dispiriting.  I closed the door and found other ways to work.  Avoided the garden that was no garden anymore.  The next summer we had a muddy square pond in the middle of weeds.  Algae grew.  Mosquitoes bred. 

Then someone threw their extra goldfish (8 for $1) in.  Some died. Winter came.  The pond froze over.  But the next spring there were three fish still alive.
A sprinkling of crushed limestone settled the suspended clay.  The goldfish ate the algae, ate the mosquito spawn.  The clover grew back. 

This spring, YoungSon in a sudden frenzy of self-inspired
aesthetic industry re-dug the pit and rounded its edges, lined it with river rock.  Now when I walk up the re-built rock walkway -- a sudden red-gold flicker and watery movement. 
What is lost is gone.  That hasn't changed.  

And no matter what I do, it won't ever be the same.  The soil is hard and stubborn to my shovel.  So many plants never pushed themselves back up out of burial and I'm still unearthing flagstones scattered everywhere.  The work of repair moves discouragingly slow.  There are so many others things to do.  But native red-flowering currant has seeded itself in one shady spot.  Blue elderberry volunteers just beyond.  Wild strawberries spread.

I never planned this pond.  But I find myself going out to sit beside it, to watch the flicker and flow.  A heavy peace settles in on me watching the fish move through their water like embodied thought.  Slow fluttering of fins, suspended, and then a tail-flick and darting disappearance.

Better than flowers?  

Who can compare the best before to what's best now?

Sunday, July 7, 2013

in-laws, outlaws and other dangers

On the other hand, my mother's parents were none too eager to see their daughter wed my father.

And they let it be known.

My mother was young and, she says, foolish often in their eyes: a tomboy and helter-skelter young hellion who was always in trouble.  Always doing stupid things, naughty things, awkward things. Who had only recently succumbed to the  efforts of my grandmother to polish her up into young ladyhood.

My grandparents had grown up poor in a poor time, dirt poor, from the wrong side of the tracks of towns with little glamor already to boast of.  But they had left the dust of their childhoods behind them.  They prided themselves on their immigration into a higher class, sailing to those golden shores by way of hard work and education.

Which they were not going to let their children forget.

Though of course Americans don't believe in classes in society.

But just in case they did, my grandparents were going to make it very clear exactly where they now belonged.

In the first scrimping years, while my grandfather was getting his doctorate, working at night as a glass-blower, while my grandmother worked as a hairdresser by day, even then they made a point to present themselves as people of refinement.

And they were, as far as I can tell, the picture of gentility.  Coiffed and groomed, slim and stylish in my memory and in all the pictures I have of them.

The many pictures I have of them.
 For my grandfather documented the progress of his family with countless photographs focused on a life of intelligent, well-behaved pursuits. Dance lessons, marimba recitals, sightseeing trips.  The home life of the upwardly mobile professional class.

From the pictures I've seen, it would appear my mother slept with curlers nearly every night.  I look at these pictures imagining  my grandmother combing out ringlets and buttoning her daughters up in freshly ironed dresses.  I know she often stayed up late stitching new clothes for her daughters and herself so they'd be every bit as elegant as any wealthier girl.

My grandparents prized intelligence and good manners.  And appearances were not to be sneezed at, either.   "Stand up straight," my grandmother told my mother.  "Hold your stomach in," she said patting a ribbon into place.  "Walk in like a queen," she whispered in her ear.  "You can be anything you want to be," she kept telling her daughters.

And now her daughters had become nearly everything their parents had hoped they would. Their oldest daughter, my Aunt Jan, was already in medical school.  Their second girl, my mother, smart and lovely, was off to college.

"You can be anything you want to be," her father told her, "as long as it starts with Dr."

And then, all at once, their beautiful daughter wanted to marry my dad, a farm-boy with a stutter which my grandfather, a chemist but no expert in psychology, believed was a marker for mental instability.

My grandparents' resistance to my parents' marriage was the drama of my young childhood, a story I never tired of hearing.  The fairytale of my coming into existence depended on the princess and the prince-in-disguise overcoming the glass hill of my grandparents' displeasure.

I loved my grandparents, loved their voices and their hands, loved the good-smelling clothes they wore and all the curious corners of their house.  And they rejoiced in me so obviously that I never understood why they wouldn't have wanted my young mother to marry my dad who was so obviously the only dad I could have ever had.

My grandfather forbade the marriage.  My grandmother offered a trip to Europe if my mom would only reconsider.  My grandfather said, in any event, he for one wouldn't show up at the wedding.

He was wrong about that, too.

I think it was only with my birth, their first grandchild, that there began to be a thaw.  I do remember in the first years of my childhood the smoldering civility between my dad and my grandfather.

And I remember dancing out of the room with glee when one day they finally laughed, my dad and my grandfather, talking together with real liking. In the years to come that relationship mellowed into mutual respect and a certain measure of affection.  But it never became what it could have been.

Always there was a little hitch somewhere, a favoring of some tender healed place always in their stride together.

"The outlaws," my dad would call them, when they weren't around, grinning at my mother over us kids' heads.  "Your grandmother," he always called them to us, "your grandfather." And he said it with a kind of leprechaun grimace.  Unlike the fond way both my parents said "Gramma and Grampa" for the grandparents on the other side.

My mother has told me she remembers she felt a little sad for her parents that they felt so badly. But for once she felt right and not wrong, certain where she had been so awkward so often before.  Just like her mother always promised, she stood up straight and walked into the rest of her life like a queen. 

Became just what she  wanted.

Which my grandparents ought to have known is always the danger of good parenting. Because if you've done your job right, the time will come when your child must become someone more than just your child, someone more than you've ever known before.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

the secret to being a good mother-in-law

My Gramma has been dead for almost twenty years.  That sounds unbelievably long ago: the day she died is still so fresh for me.  The phone call that woke me still jangling in my ears.  It was the day after the day I'd found out my Middlest was on her way here.

I wasn't ready for my grandma to go, my grandma who was always Gramma, not Grandmother.  I comforted myself imagining she had somehow known there was a grandbaby in the offing and decided cancer had had enough of her and slipped away to sneak a visit before anyone else.  It would have been like her.

And I liked thinking of her spirit walking with Middlest's through the neither-here-nor-there garden of mortal transition. 

Surely there's a garden there? My Gramma had loved her garden here in this world: Golden Delicious apple tree, iris, peony, pink-and-yellow columbine, buttercups, snowball bush, lilac.  It was impossible not to picture her somewhere in dappled sun-and-shadow where the breeze was warm and fragrant, a place where two passing spirits, neither (anymore/yet) entirely tethered to this world, could walk together.  And then too, shortly after her death, my dad dreamed his mom came walking towards him through a field of flowers, walking over to where he stood just to tell him she was well and happy.

So I think it's as likely as anything else that Gramma walked there with my Middlest whose mortal body was just starting to take shape inside of me, telling her how pleased she was, how tickled pink, in fact, she was to see her and letting her know everything she would need to know for life here on earth with me.

I missed my Gramma for years after she was gone.  And miss her still.  Her crinkly voice, her letters that always ended by calling down blessings on my head, the softness of her cheek, her way of reading stories all in one breath, the way she licked her fingers to turn the pages, her hands stirring butter and a little sugar into peas and carrots, crimping the edge of a piecrust, leading the music at church.

Sometimes when I would go to wake Middlest from her nap, her breath would be floury and yeasty like Grandma's breath and her yellow green eyes would be Grandma's eyes until they focused and became her own again.  I wondered sometimes if somehow my baby and Gramma had been walking again together and it made me glad.

Gramma's great gift was to make other people feel doted upon.  All her grandchildren have said how treasured they felt by her.  At her funeral so many people came up to tell us how much they loved her, how much  loved by her they felt.  So many with a story of her arms embracing them, her voice encouraging her.  I know my mother felt that way.  She adored her mother-in-law (who was, to her -- Mom -- always).  Gramma had thrown her arms around my mother from the first moment she saw her.  Which seemed entirely reasonable to me, because who wouldn't have loved my mother?

I remember them conspiring together over bottles of Fresca and tuna salad.

I remember them sitting together in the front room, each talking and rocking in the old-fashioned upholstered rockers, their heads tossing back in laughter so their hair brushed against the doilies Gramma had crocheted.

I remember them side-by-side washing up the dishes in the kitchen, full of jokes and stories.

I remember them both telling me at different times about the first time they met.  My mom and dad had driven down to meet his parents, arriving a little early and surprising my Gramma on her knees scrubbing the floor getting ready for their visit, like a Danish maid, said my Gramma, all rosy cheeked, said my mother.  Gramma had laughed and scrambled up to her feet to hug my dad and his sweetie and welcome them in.  And from that moment my mom felt she was at home.

I asked my Gramma once how it was she'd been able to love my mom from the first, unlike the stories of mothers-in-law you usually hear.  I thought maybe she'd say she could just see my mother's excellences shining from her eyes.  But she said, "I'd raised my son and I trusted him.  I knew whoever he brought home would be wonderful."

And that was that.

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