Category Archives: Miscellaneous

The day my car died

The last entry brought me back to the time of my mother’s death, for a moment. I can be so dispassionate these days. “My old car died the same day my mother did,” I said rather flippantly the other day to someone who had asked me how I had come to buy car I now have. Because I had no car and I had to help arrange my mother’s wake, and I lived three hours from her house and Dad’s, and because all I could remember was the way her eyes wouldn’t stay closed after she died. Pennies don’t work, movies be damned. You can’t close dead eyes by a brush of your hand.

She looked at us from those milky sightless orbs, blinded even before her last breath, and SAW.

I needed a car. I wanted to resurrect my old Toyota, with its 307,000 miles, but it wouldn’t run. I couldn’t bring my mother back, either.

So I bought the first car I really looked at, although the salesman was a crook and I’d always sworn I’d never buy a brand-new car. At least it was a Toyota. It’s been good and reliable for the past five years, run its 100,000 miles without complaint. It should go half a million miles, the salesman told me. If it runs that long, and it marks the days of my dad’s life the way my old car marked my Mum’s, he’ll be almost 100 when it goes. Ha.

Clearly, I’m in a flippant mood. The gods laugh, and I laugh with them.

Retrospective revisited — B*stard children

I’ve reached 1982, and that’s the year I graduated from high school, and so, I suppose, that will have to be my focus. But it leaves out some things that I fear need to be spoken. If I leave them out, I have left out half of what I am, what I remember. I have left out, too, those things that shaped Leah and Rachel, Ruth May, my mother too.

My cousin has been in touch with me through Facebook, another strange synchronicity, because it is his mother who triggered a dark time in our lives. Not her fault, certainly. She was only speaking what she saw, what was suspected.

“You’re really Nathan’s daughter,” she told Rachel. “It’s pretty obvious. He just won’t admit it.”

She had been married to and was now divorced from Dad’s brother. She and her two children had made a life for themselves in a country house owned by a retired doctor who was quite a bit older than she was. She started off as his housekeeper, and later married him. I remember spending summers there, in the oversized house, in the scattered outbuildings, in the sloping fields where it never rained. (This is Ireland. It always rains. Not there. Not in Shillelagh in the summer that Elvis Presley died.) My cousin saw a ghost on the lane when we were fetching in the post. He was a farmer. He was there and he was gone. “I saw him,” she said. Where was her brother, who today sends me Facebook messages from Taiwan?

In my memory, everything is sun and dappled shadow and puffs of dust and the smell of hay. Maureen was my fun aunt, younger than the others. She liked us, and came outside to sit on the river wall with us. It must have been Sunday, one of those Sunday visits that punctuated those years. Maybe we were playing hide-and-seek, and had taken a break. “Anyway,” she said, “I’m sure you figured it out. Sure, you’re the spitting image of each other.”

What is is like to be 12 or 13 and to be told as Rachel was that the man you have thought is your stepfather is actually your father, but won’t acknowledge it? She had no reason, as I did, to be grateful that Dad wasn’t her father. He liked underdogs, and as a small child she had been somewhat of an underdog. Anyway, Maureen’s secret-spilling explained why he was more tolerant of her than of me. She was his blood, after all, as I was not.

Shortly afterwards, we found the letters. They were hidden in the guest room, in a closet with a secret compartment. They documented Mum’s relationship with Dad. They were love letters that smelled of dust and chagrin. How fanciful of me to say so; after all, they were just dry, fading pages in a manila envelope, artifacts that map a time that is swathed in mystery. I was already born then, a babe in arms, but there was no mention of Mum being pregnant with Rachel. That strange lacuna lent Maureen’s terrible confession a truth that we could not deny. And if that confession was true, then surely her contention that Mum and Dad were not married, that they had never been married, must also be true. We were bastards.

To be continued

Courage and love

For B —

I’ve been thinking about family. I’ve been thinking about what happens when family members turn on you in unforgivable ways. I’ve been thinking about the worlds I see through my students’ eyes, through the papers they write.

I learn from my students. I learn how to appreciate what I have now, and the privilege that was my childhood. When I’m tempted to whine about whatever indignity I might have suffered once or might be suffering now, I remember the paper written by a student a couple of quarters ago. He was a gang member, and his family’s house was burned down by a rival gang. He left the gang then, thankful that nobody in his family had died in the fire.

I remember the student who wrote about the scar in his leg, a gunshot memento from running drugs and a gang skirmish. I remember the woman with the three little dots on her cheek, a tattoo that centered her in the sub-culture that was her world. There are men and women here who are recovering from addictions: alcohol, crack, meth. So many meth addicts, trying day-by-day to turn their lives around.

There are stories from girls who cut themselves because that’s the only power they know. There was the student who was molested by his babysitter for years as a prepubescent boy. And every quarter, somehow, someway, there are the stories of girls who have been raped, or sexually abused, or beaten by controlling boyfriends. There are those who were molested once, and who told parents who believed them, and who saw justice done. And there are those whose parents either were the molesters, or who allowed the molestation to happen.

I can’t imagine it. Can’t imagine standing by and letting anyone hurt Zeke. I can’t imagine not believing her, or seeing abuse and turning away. I can’t imagine how a mother could do that to a kid, what kind of dark and twisted world that mother grew up in to think it’s OK to turn her back on abuse to a child.

I think of the extraordinary courage of students who stand up in the face of family hostility and say, “This isn’t right” about the years they withstood abuse that went unchallenged. We’re not “supposed” to be molested by close relatives, but if we are, we’re not “supposed” to send those relatives to jail. Charging a father or a brother or a mother or a sister goes against some terrible instinct that says family cohesion is more important than individual rights. And yet some people have the courage to walk away from family, to recognize that family cycles can’t continue. They break away, at terrible cost to themselves, for something that is ultimately for the greater good.

A few of those brave women (and sometimes men), are able to do so and yet somehow maintain their ability to love, to hold compassion in mind with every action. They love those who have hurt them, and while they take the brave and isolated stance that destroys the family cycle of hate and destruction, they never lose sight of love.

For those rare and precious people, for those few I know personally and others all around the world who also walk such lonely paths, I pray.

Vacancies and Writing and Buddhism and my favorite Sister

“What are your vacancies?” Bethany wrote in her blog, after writing about the voids she feels in her life sometimes. I don’t like thinking about mine. Most of the time I ignore them. If I’m to be honest, I realize my actions have disqualified me from karmic goodness. I abandoned my horse, essentially. Something has shifted in me, over the years, to feel a personal distaste at the idea of buying and selling horses. They connect with us humans, and then we sell them. They move into a life absent from us, and they could be abused or neglected, starved or overworked, and we don’t know.

Sometimes I wake to find I have been dreaming of my horse, and I wonder if he ever misses me. Does he wonder why I just disappeared? I know where he is, but I can’t bear to go visit him, although I know he is well treated. I didn’t sell him, either, though perhaps I could have made some money doing so. I just couldn’t do it. I gave him away to someone who loved him, and then turned away.

Another absence: I shared some writing with a writer friend who has been increasingly successful over the years. She gave me excellent advice, the kind that is at once helpful but also leaves one feeling somewhat down: “Why didn’t I see that? I should have known that.” But the advice was doable, reasonable, well framed. What silenced me was her comment about not really liking my style, although I have suspected for years that she would not choose to read anything I write if we weren’t friends. She has encouraged me as a writer, but she and I write differently. She doesn’t like my “Latinate” word choices, prefers simplicity and straightforward sentences composed with Orwellian transparency.

After her review, I couldn’t write. I sat down to do so and found myself silenced. No matter how much I understand intellectually that writers differ in their styles, and that one can appreciate a writer’s ability without particularly liking the style, I can’t emotionally move past the disappointment of my friend’s comment. And I can’t help but think of my mother, who didn’t like my style either. “It’s too flowery,” she said, every time she read something I wrote, and then inevitably turned to grammar. “You’ve ended this sentence with a preposition. You can’t do that.” Grammar and style. I could never get either one of them right.

I suppose there are other absences, but right now I don’t have time to think of them. I’ve been trying to write this for three days. Every time I start, someone interrupts me. It’s summer. I should have time, but I realize I’m busier than ever. I’m teaching two classes, and Zeke has driver’s ed, and her friends spend as much time here as at their houses, and the dogs need walking, and no matter how much I want to write, something holds me back.

And now, hours later, I return from an evening at Sister A’s house, where we talked about “I am the way and the truth and the light” and about Buddhism and Hinduism and her neighbors in the shelter house next door who bring her the raspberries they grow in their garden between bouts with alcohol. A homeless man stopped by for a sandwich, and the breeze blew the heat of the day away. “OK, I’m going to do my Buddha thing,” I said once, to prepare her and the others for another off-the-wall connection with Eastern religion — Buddha nature in this case. And she laughed and recommended a book by Diana Eck, and said, “You’ll like her, Adah.” This Saturday is her 60th Jubilee, and I’m going.

Right now, right this moment–long may it last–I feel no absence at all.

Retrospective 17: 1979 — Catching up with memories

I have forgotten so much, or filtered it. Chosen this rather than that to write about. How could I forget that when I was almost 12 — was that 1976? — I got my first pony. How could I forget that at eight I rode a “tinker’s” horse, which was staked by the side of the road near our house. I clambered onto his back, and brushed his tangled mane with my hairbrush. My mother found me and finally allowed me to enroll in riding lessons at a local riding school. I loved the owners: the tall lean man who trained jumpers and who moved about in the background with a quiet confidence; his wife, a short woman with a kind face and faded blue eyes; the four children, two of whom were close in age to me. I got home from school, changed and ran down the road to spend the afternoon and evening with them. I cleaned tack and mucked out stables and groomed horses for the chance to ride Rainbow, or one day, that equine goddess, Pearl. Weekends, holidays, for four years I spent every spare minute there. I remember cleaning tack and eating fresh-baked brown scores dripping with homechurned butter from the cow, Polly, from whom we got our fresh milk every day. I’d walk home at night with a bucket of steaming creamy milk, which my mother used for icecream and cheese, butter and everything else one needed milk for. Polly was tested for brucellosis and tuberculosis. She was clean and gentle, and her milk tasted of buttercups or wild garlic or whatever she had been eating. I have never loved milk since I left Ireland.

When Cathy was 14 and Jody and I about 12, the tall, lean horse-trainer with the dark eyes stopped his car one day by the side of the road and  died. A heart-attack. Cathy fainted in school when the nuns told her. Jody stood at my side, with wide, horrified eyes, as her older sister cried and cried. Afterwards they had to move into town, sell the farm and the jumpers, and get a smaller place. I saw them less and less often, though I always visit Mrs. R when I’m home in Ireland, in her house at the foot of Br*y Head. She has survived the years by making custom chaps and other leather work, and her eyes are the same as ever.

Sometime in those years my grandparents moved from Derry to our house. They were older, and my grandmother in a wheelchair. We had visited them frequently in the North since we’d moved to Ireland, but the massive old house in which they were living was too big for them to keep up, and we had a perfect setup in our home, with a spare bedroom, small kitchen, and living room upstairs that would accomodate Granny’s wheelchair. (Our house was built on a hill, so the front door went straight to the more luxurious upstairs rooms, while the back door entered the basement, which contained the children’s bedrooms and playroom, and the main kitchen with its large wooden table and benches for everyday meals.)

After Cathy and Jody’s father died, after Granny and Granddad came to live with us, I got my first pony, a 13.2 bay  “mutt” with a shaggy black mane and a habit of deliberately stepping on people’s toes. I loved her, tough. She was good to me. I began babysitting to make money for the blacksmith, for grain for her, for show entries. So I split my life between the world inside the house, with my mother and father and sisters, and the world outside, on my pony’s back, where I could be free and unencumbered.

Seeing the crows

The cliff reminds me. It always does. I pass it, and I remember. It is the shape of the rocks, the way they hold up the sky. There is a plateau there, above which the eagle rides the currents. I imagine the view, the river winding through the canyon, the hills stretching away, light-saturated. I imagine the wind soughing at night, and the cool black distance of the sky. I can’t imagine not being awed, not reaching towards it all.

The awe it inspires must be why it reminds me of what I saw.

I remember. It was the end of my marriage, and I thought it was the beginning of a new way of being married. I was writing a book about it all, with Nada in it, and me, and my ex. It was really about my mother, about the dragon bowl and missionaries in China and carved wooden Buddhas. But it was about me too, about Nada. I wrote the ending before I finished the book. It was a good ending, one I believed in. In it, my ex was going to be what I needed him to be. He was going to be like my father, patient with my young and restless mother, loving her enough to trust. He was going to be the man I married, who trusted me as I trusted him. But he was already crumbling. The more I begged him to trust me (and I was trustworthy still, then), the more he accused me. Nada, then still only a friend, was so gentle in contrast.

We went on a trip, my ex and I, trying to recover what was slipping away. We drove through the hills to my alma mater, walked through the woods to the beach. I got lost, in my mind, in memories, and wrote the ending of the story of my mother, which was wrapped up in my own story. In the end, my mother went back. She came into a clearing, and her husband was there, waiting. So was the light.

I thought it would be so. But only a few hours later, we drove to the ocean and booked into a lodge hotel. We threw our duffle bags on the bed and went for dinner. Back in our room, later, we slept, and I woke to thunder. When I got up, everything held still. I know what I saw.

I pulled back the curtains. There was thunder, yes, and lightning, in a place that was more like dream than now. There must have been water sleeting down the window pane. There must have been. But there wasn’t. I looked out onto a spit of land, grassy. A fire in the center. Wooden logs laid down like benches. People dancing, drumming, chanting. The wind blew, but it blew inside them. It held them. They sang to it.

“Look,” I said. “Look out the window. There’s people dancing.”

“Come to bed,” he said. “You’re dreaming. It’s pouring rain.”

In the rain, in the storm, in the very still heart of it, people danced around the fire outside the window. I saw them. I heard them. The chanting held me in thrall, winding as it was around the distant call of the storm. I smelled the smoke from the fire, felt its heat. I saw their eyes, the swirl of their hair, their sleek lean bodies dancing beneath the great black sky.

“Come look,” I said.

“Don’t be silly,” he said.

In the bathroom, I sat on the toilet with my head in my hands. I could hear them still. I could hear the rain sluicing down the window, and I could hear the dancers dancing. I looked at my face in the mirror and I was pale and my eyes were blackbright and horrified. I saw them. They were as real as my hands on the keyboard in front of me now. They were real.

In the morning, I got up and went to the window. I thought I’d find proof. A fire still smoldering, or at least a circle of rocks with dead gray ashes in the center. Logs laid around a circle, waiting for the next dance. I opened the curtains, looked out, and saw air and clouds and birds. The hotel was on a cliff. Beyond the window the land plunged down to water far below. The dancers had been dancing on air, on clouds, on what did not exist. Gulls swooped and soared where people had sat and drummed. What I saw had not been.

But it was. I am reminded of it every time — every time — I pass that certain rock formation in the canyon. The same spirit that breathed in the roiling air outside the window, in the clean, rain-washed space of my vision, soars with the eagle above the rock plateau. I don’t know what I saw. It was not real in my time. But there was something there, that night, that bridged time and space. Something of imagination and history brought together, of memory and projection. When I think, “What is real?” I know that what I saw that night was as real as what I see before me now.

In the morning, the wintry washed air breathed over me. I sat on a wall and watched three crows on an overhead line. Two sat together, rubbing heads. Another sat at a distance, watching them. I couldn’t figure out which crow I was. The one in the partnership, with Nada watching from a distance? Or maybe my ex was the distant crow, and I was with Nada. Or maybe I was the lonely one, and the two sitting so close, so lovingly together, were my husband and ….? Nada and …..? I didn’t know. I couldn’t tell which crow I was.

I was all of them. We all are. The dancers dance, and the rocks in the canyon are sacred. I saw what I saw. I saw the crows.

Nobody’s smoking

“Nobody’s smoking,” N said. Then he added by way of explanation, “Adah’s allergic to smoke.”

“Something’s setting me off.” I stood up. My chest hurt, I was coughing, and even if I couldn’t smell smoke and nobody around appeared to be smoking, my body was telling me something was in the air. I hate it. I hate having asthma, of being sensitive to chemicals like smoke and perfume and solvent. I hate that my asthma is cough-variant, so it always begins with coughing, which is so obvious and which people don’t quite believe in. I hate that on a lovely warm evening in June I can be sitting outside a coffee shop, watching my friends play chess, and suddenly start coughing, and have to leave.

“Nobody’s smoking,” is one sentence I despise. I’ve heard it so often I’d be rich if I had the copyright on it. But when I stood up and walked away from our table and looked around, I saw a man smoking about 30 yards away, behind a sort of divider, and the wind was blowing in the direction of the chess table. Even if none of us could smell the smoke, my body knew it was there. That’s always the case. Once I walked into N’s house and started coughing. “Nobody’s smoking,” his mother hurried to reassure me. I still coughed and eventually went outside. Then his brother came out, shame-faced, from behind the office door, at the end of the hallway at the far end of the house. “Sorry,” he said. “I was smoking in there a few minutes ago. I didn’t know you were coming over.”

Another time I was sitting on the porch, chatting with N’s parents and aunt, and I started coughing. “Hey,” N’s brother said as he walked around the corner. “I’m not smoking. Don’t look at me!” Nobody was smoking, but I was coughing. A moment later, N’s nephew came from next door. “Sorry,” he said, when he saw me using my inhaler. “My friends are smoking back there.” Then he stopped, looking puzzled. “Wait,” he said. “You can’t smell it from all the way over there, can you?”

“What direction is the wind blowing?” I asked. “I don’t have to be able to smell it to react it. If the wind is blowing it over here, it’ll trigger an attack even if I can’t smell it.” Sure enough, the wind was blowing from the back of the neighbor’s house to the porch where we were sitting.

“That’s amazing,” N’s aunt said. “You mean you’ll start coughing even if the smoke is behind the house and no one can smell it?”

“If it’s in the air and I breathe it, my lungs seem to know,” I said. “It’s a bit absurd.”

What it is is bloody irritating. I was enjoying watching N and J slaughter each other in chess. Actually I love the intricacy of their games. J is rated 1900, so is quite good, and N’s been getting steadily better, so that he plays some quite close games against J, though he usually gets mated in the end game when they’re down to pawns, maybe a piece each, and their kings. This evening we were attended by a couple of young boys who were fascinated with the game. “Can I play one of you guys?” one of the boys asked. “I love chess.” He elbowed his friend. “Watch this,” he said, winking as he sat down opposite J.

J played as he always does, carefully, systematically, as though he were playing a seasoned opponent. Within about two moves it was obvious the boy had no idea how to play against someone with J’s experience. The kid was still gleefully throwing pieces away in anticipation of a grand mate somewhere down the line when J maneuvered him into a trap and mated him. “Oh,” the boy said, looking crestfallen. “You’re good.”

Half an hour later I started coughing as the boy and his friend were playing a game of speed chess under the tutelage of N and J. “Nobody’s smoking,” N said, after a cursory look around. I stood up and walked away from the table, then noticed the smoker some 30 yards away. My inhaler will stop the attacks from progressing into full scale asthma with wheezing and airway shutdown, but it doesn’t really stop the coughing if I’m still being exposed to the trigger, and I couldn’t exactly go up to the man who was smoking and ask him to stop. I did point him out to N, though, in a reflexive attempt to validate my coughing, as I said my goodbyes and left.

I have to admit I’m feeling a bit grumpy, and positively sick and tired of “Nobody’s smoking.” At this point, if I’m coughing, isn’t it obvious that someone, somewhere, must be?