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.

Just waiting

Too busy. Zeke is taking driver’s ed. Her friends are in and out of the house all day, sacked out on the couch or on mats in her bedroom at night. I drive an average of 60 miles a day, I realize. In less than five years I have put 100,000 miles on my car. And those miles are costing me. I get about 22 miles to the gallon with city driving. A drive out to the canyon and back is about 20 miles. So at $4.24 a gallon at the cheap stations, using the lowest quality unleaded, my trip to the canyon to walk the dogs costs close enough to $4 to make it untenable. I have begun cutting back. “I’ll go to the canyon,” I think, seeking solitude and sacred ground. And then I don’t go, but put leashes on the dogs and walk them out my door to the city walkway, which is a disappointing compromise for all of us.

Yesterday, when I drove Zeke across town to meet a friend of hers on his work break, I reminded her that the trip was costing three dollars in gas. I’m so used to just getting in my car to pick up her friends and bring them home, or to drop them off, or to take them to the mall or a matinee, that this new stinginess sits on me awkwardly. But I have no choice. And really it’s a necessary shift in attitude. Despite my environmentally conscious tendencies, my recycling, refusal to buy over-packaged products, and attempt to buy a compact car with decent gas mileage (why is it that the promised MPG is never the actual MPG? No, don’t answer that question. I know!), I have tended to be willing to drive Zeke where she’s wanted to go — and her retinue of friends, too, whose parents wouldn’t or couldn’t take the time or the gas to do so.

But things are changing. I can’t afford it. And the carbon footprint my indiscriminate driving of the past has left hovering over me troubles me. I am more willing to tell Zeke no, when she asks for a ride for her friends now. Luckily, more and more of them are driving, so she asks less and less often!

A harder cutback is the need to tell my father I can’t come see him every two weeks as I used to. For four years after Mum died, I made the trek over the mountains every couple of weeks. In the winter, it was sometimes less often, depending on pass conditions. But in the summer, it was often every weekend. Last winter, the poor weather and frequent pass closures made winter travel less appealing. I begged off more often than not, and now, with gas prices soaring, I find myself hesitating. Even Fourth of July has lost its appeal. I don’t really want to go, though it has been a tradition for 13 years. I tried to tempt my father and sister to come over here instead, as they almost never come to visit (it’s been two or three years since Ruth May has come over this direction, and my father makes it maybe once a year), but they declined. I suppose I will go, but I’d rather stay home, and work on my little garden, and try to resurrect my retrospective, which simmers in the back of my head, flashing quick images at me at unexpected moments.

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?

Blocked

The sun shines on the water and the mountains. I’m sitting in Dad’s house, waiting for Zeke to get up, and wondering about the rhythms of my life, the way the summer, which always stretches forward with such long, irresistible beauty as it approaches, jolts into a period of half-time jerky rushing here-and-there timelessness the moment it actually starts. I’ve been on break for the past week, but have worked every day — moving my office, filing stacks of papers, prepping for classes, which start next week. I’m teaching two classes, partly to pay the mortgage, and partly in my efforts to save for Zeke’s college days, which are rapidly approaching.

And I just wrote a whole long piece that vanished….. So that’s that…

More snippets

Spent the weekend chopping wood at my dad’s. I really like chopping wood. I drove over there yesterday to give my baby sister a book on the urging of my other sisters, who are worried about her. “You’re the closest,” they said. “You have to do something.”

I’m worried too, but what can I do? I can’t live her life for her. We argued, when I tried to tell her why I was (why we were) worried. In the end I just gave her the book and left. I’d never make a counselor.

Dad appreciated the help with the log, anyway. Now I’m home, and tired, and tomorrow I have a workshop at work, then need to spend the rest of my break moving offices and preparing to teach summer school. Yes. I’m teaching. Got to pay the mortgage somehow!

Zeke is better. She has to see a rheumatologist in a couple of months (takes forever to get a referral), but it’s not critical. May be immune system related. More likely to be a ruling out of something or other. In the meantime, the PA was very happy with the results. And she passed her state exams for Bush’s inane No Child Left Behind act, so now she gets to twiddle her thumbs for two years and take classes just because that’s what she has to do to graduate. It’s an absurd system.

Nada quit smoking a week and a day ago. He quit coffee too, and is drinking green tea instead. He’s playing soccer with his nephew when the craving hits, and it seems to be working. Former smoker friends of mine say it’s hard to quit, and I believe it. Nada used to smoke two packs a day but had cut down to one pack over the last few years, but still — it was hard for him to decide to take the leap. He was grumpy for a few days, but on Friday he got silly when we went to the bookstore and laughed for the first time since quitting. I bought him a book on meditation and therapy (he wants to write his thesis on it when the time comes), and that pleased him.

And I’m tired. I can’t even think. G’night.

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Antique linens and the smell of steam

With Leah and Dad here the other night we made dinner, and I set the table and pulled out the beautiful antique handmade linen that I inherited from Mum when she died. I use it only rarely, and every time I spread it over the table I see the careful embroidery unraveling, or watch as the act of eating a meal causes small stains that will take bleach for removal, and I know its time is limited. But I use it anyway. It reminds me of Sunday dinners in Ireland, of Easter and Christmas, of the formality and complexity of my past.

Today I ironed the tablecloth and matching napkins. I don’t usually iron, but these, pure cotton, needed it. The heat, the steam, and the smell of the two combined evoked the hours I spent ironing my grandfather’s cotton handkerchiefs as a child. I actually enjoyed the handkerchiefs, the way the spray of water darkened the white cloth, and the way the iron lifted the dark water, and smoothed all the creases till the square of thin monogrammed cotton was as smooth as cream. I hated shirts, still do, but the linens, those were easy, and satisfying, and calming. And today, ironing those 70-year-old linens, I felt calm.

Goreth and Odette

My father and sister just left. It’s been busy at work, at home. The wind blows on the first sunny day in a while, in maybe a week. I don’t know. I lose track, these frantic days at the end of the term. There is much to do, and what I really want is to sit an breathe.

I read blogs for a little while. One blog leads to another. I rarely have the luxury to move beyond the blogs I read regularly, but today I find this one. I buy a book, donate some money, and think of my Rwandan student. Yesterday was the last day of class. I wonder if she’ll stay in touch, or if she’ll disappear. I’ll never forget her. She wrote of surviving the genocide. She is serious, kind, and when she smiles, we all smile back. “Yes,” she says, and the word is a resounding testimony to her spirit, to the spirit of all those who have survived.

Snippets from the weekend

“If we’d grown up now instead of 30 years ago,” Leah said, “We’d probably have been put in foster care.”

“You think so?”

“Yeah. With all her food allergies she acted crazy sometimes. She was out of control.”

“I always thought she was really controlled. She was almost cold when she spanked us.”

“She dragged you by your hair down the hall.”

“I suppose. But that kind of thing didn’t happen very often.” I look at her. “Thank God we grew up 30 years ago!”

“Yeah. Thank God.”

______

The logs were still there. And I like chopping wood. My dad wielded the chain saw, and Leah stacked the triangles I split off from the rounds Dad made. The ax was heavy, and sometimes the wood was balky, but most of the time it split cleanly, and this time I didn’t get sore afterwards, even though I chopped a lot more. It’s amazing how the body adapts to physical activity. The last time, my left hand ached for three days afterwards, and my back and arms were stiff. This time, nothing.

______

On the way home, I looked out the window at the unfolding scenery. I thought of how I hadn’t seen the heron in too long, and how I missed it. Leah, Ruth May and I all bought heron prints at a gift store on a tourist trip we took on Sunday. We’ll frame them, a reminder of Mum, but the living heron didn’t come to visit.

“Show yourself, Mum,” I said to myself as I sped down the freeway. Then I looked left, without any real reason to look left, and there was a heron, flying over the car.

May be coincidence. May be the spirit of my mother flying overhead. It doesn’t matter. I know it made me happy.