Archive for ‘Way Back Machine’

My Happy Hour

September 7th, 2009

When I had lung surgery in 1996, I went right back to work after a couple of weeks even though though my body felt invaded and wounded. My one-woman office and apartment were both located on a little SC barrier island, and at lunch I would take a chair down to the beach and sit in the sun. My body needed to be kneaded by the sun and lathered with light. Between then and now, I’ve been back to the beach so many times, even after I moved off the island–spending Sunday afternoons with my friends, going skinny dipping with my book club, taking off my clothes and lying in the moonlight late at night. Recently, though, I’ve put the beach in my back pocket, shoved it to the back of the closet along with my old bathing suits, ignored the mute message of the beach chairs beached against the picket fence in my suburban yard. But this weekend, I packed a tiny bag with the NY Times crossword puzzle, a magazine, a zip lock with my iPhone and spf Fresh lip balm, a journal and pen, a lime green beach chair and drove to the beach. The first day I only stayed an hour, didn’t read, just sat and stared at the water. Maybe I had a tiny inkling of a panic attack at so little to do, nothing needed of me, only just sitting still with my thoughts. Today, I packed the same tiny bag, Vogue Living Australia, a bottle of water and headed back to Station 19, my favorite path to the water. Again, I sat, did nothing, opened my arms to embrace Vitamin D. Scraps of words torn from nearby conversations blew past me on the breeze. Voices were drowsy–bodies were slack, lazy, sun swollen.. I closed my eyes and saw a yellow bowl against my eyelids and wished I could make one on a wheel. A bird sang on the edge of my consciousness. A giant gray container ship rose over the horizon, massive as the heavy rain clouds coming in off the ocean. The scouring sand blew down the beach, reminding us that Tuesday comes. But until then, Unlabor Day is now and now and now.

The Way Back Machine

July 28th, 2009

My grandparents lived in a tenant house in rural Kentucky on a bare hill that was brutally, baking hot in summer. No A/C of course, maybe a fan (although I don’t remember one) and a tiny kitchen that almost shimmered from the heat coming off the cooking stove. Here’s my poor mother, suffering through an August due date, several years away from my father (standing next to her) leaving her for another woman. My beloved grandmother is sitting down for a change, but usually she was toiling like a mule — cooking and serving food to family and hired hands, teaching Sunday School, weeding and watering her huge vegetable garden, wrestling ewes ready to lamb, killing chickens, putting her shoulder to a metaphorical plow every single morning of her life. My dear cousin sitting on my grandmother’s lap would eventually die too young from breast cancer that might have been cured if she hadn’t ignored it. My grandfather in his hat with his Indian-ancestor cheekbones and aloof surliness. All of us caught by the camera in the blazing afternoon sun standing on an almost-dirt yard in the middle of nowhere. There together for one moment before we moved on to meet our future selves.

My Old Kentucky Home

July 11th, 2009

When I was wandering around my hometown on a recent visit, I chanced upon folk artist Marvin Finn’s crazy, colorful chicken sculptures in the waterfront park. They remind me so vividly of my long-dead grandmother and her ongoing battle with her hens. She had a cantankerous relationship with them, because they were usually ornery and unmanageable and hid their eggs in the highest bales of hay stored in the barn. My grandmother was a devout and gentle Methodist, but she waged a lifelong war for her flock’s eggs and souls, all the while reproaching them for being a stubborn bunch of heathens and hussies. I hated reaching under an old biddy for an egg and getting pecked on the arms and hands, but even more I dreaded watching my grandmother chop off their heads for Sunday dinner. I still find it difficult to eat chicken without remembering the real blood and guts involved in getting it to the table. But these cheery sculptures also brought back the memories of fragile chicks keeping warm in a box by the kitchen stove, of the comforting cluck and shuffle of the hens as they went about their daily business, and of the ordinary beauty of their color and shapes. Returning “home” is always a similar mixture of warring elements for me–the blood and guts of the painful episodes in my life that took place there mixed in with the beauty of the landscape and the memories of people I once loved. I’ve finally given up trying to reconcile those two feuding family ties that bind. Like the chicken and the egg, the sweetness and the sadness are all part of the same dish.

Slow Food

April 25th, 2009

When I was a child growing up in Kentucky, I ate tomatoes almost straight from the vine, and “love apples” are still my favorite fruit/vegetable. My grandparents had a wooden cistern top where they put all the tomatoes they picked to ripen. They were every permutation of pink, red and yellow, and the sweet citrusy taste of  their sunlit flesh was summer incarnate to me. We ate them with every meal, and even now scrambled eggs seem naked without a tomato slice. This year I’m growing my own with great trepidation, because I kill everything I plant except bamboo trees. I ordered a Tomato Success Kit which comes with everything but the plants, followed all the instructions and have been tiptoeing around them as they shoot up like the plant in the Little Shop of Horrors. It was all so Whole Foodishly perfect looking. But today I tackled the double-decker cages, put them together backwards, cursed, took them apart, put them back together wrong again, got out the wine, read the directions, counted the parts, tried again. No luck. Finally I found some red and yellow plastic ties mean to bundle computer cables together, jammed the cages into the planters, bootstrapped them with the ties and poured a big glass of wine to celebrate even though they are decidedly cobbled together. They look like hillbilly tomatoes growing in my front yard–all I need is a refrigerator on my front porch to complete the picture–but I like to think I’m returning to my roots in more ways than one. 

Savoring Italy

March 7th, 2009

This photo was taken in a house in Siena, late lazy afternoon. I think I slowed down in some fundamental way in Italy–yes, I was writing furiously every day, drinking in new experiences and landscapes, feeling the usual unsettledness that comes over me when I travel, but I also tasted things deeply, lingered over aromas (the smell of crushed herbs — chamomile? — in the lawn will stay with me forever), felt the lens of my eye opening wider. Today I went to a wine tasting at noon–unholy hour for wine–but it was so dramatically different from  gulping a glass at a party for the fortitude to face strangers or mindlessly pouring a glass when I get home from work. Because we were sipping, I could take time to smell the ocean in the white wine from Italy, feel the sun and wind and earth of Tuscany. As one of  the American wines opened up, its aroma shifted from a strong goatish whiff to subtle (sweat on the skin of someone you love) to sublime (an orchard of ripe fruit with drunken wasps reeling about in the summer sun). I’m sure that’s not how the winemakers would describe their bottles, but slowing down to savor stirred my sense memories on this ordinary Saturday afternoon and took me to so many places in my past and my dreams.

Behind the Scene

January 28th, 2009


I don’t know when this was taken of my grandfather, my father and one of my brothers. The ’50s, judging by the car and natty suit my father is wearing. Our family portrait shattered soon after like a mirror that couldn’t hold any more lies. Years passed when I didn’t speak to my father or see him. Years when we ignored each other’s existence, because he was never father material and my mother was bitter about that for as long as she lived. A bitterness she passed on as part of our inheritance. She hated him and obsessed about him, and our loyalty to her demanded no less of us. So many years passed without him in my life that eventually I stopped missing him, lamenting only the loss of  an idea of a father. And then my mother died and my father’s second wife died and he became a born-again parent. Eventually it became too much trouble to go on carrying the torch of my mother’s anger, to be pissed off about missing something that was just a shadow memory. My father was just a lonely old guy who happened to share my DNA, and it cost me so little to be kind. So why do I still feel like I’m betraying my mother whenever I call him “Dad,” or send him a card or check in to see how he’s doing? It has caused a schism in our little leftover family, with the brother in the photo refusing to speak to anyone who has dealings with our father. This small personal dilemma makes me realize how easy it is for nations, races and religions to hand on a legacy of hatred from one generation to the next.  If my brothers and I can’t make peace, can’t separate our love for our mother from the tragedy that was her marriage, can’t lay down our arms, how much harder is it for countries to let go of ancient feuds and resentments?

Messages from Another Planet

October 25th, 2008

Funny how I can remember the yellow tulips on this dress my mother made and I can barely recall what I had for dinner yesterday. This photo was taken at my grandmother’s house–see the clover in the grass? And just across the street behind those trees is an old cemetery where many of my family are buried and where I loved to play as a kid. I went back there this summer and it was actually much the same, not smaller as so often happens to places that we loved in childhood. The thing that was diminished was my capacity for wonder, awe and imagination. My sense that right around the bend in the road, where it turned from tarmac to dirt, an alternate universe would open up. Just over that next hill. Just on the other side of that high stone wall. As a child, I lived in an enchanted world that lay just under the “real” one. If I made a map of that wonder land, I’d include the bank of violets down the road–a pool of inky blue that made me want to lie down on it and become the essense of violets–only I didn’t understand that was what I longed for. I’d draw myself by the the lake in the cemetery whose dark waters were occasionally pierced by the dart of a red carp/koi–like a message about death, grief, foreverness seen for a moment, almost grasped by my little heart and then lost. I’d put an X on the grainy cement cistern top covered with tomatoes set there to ripen in the sun and make wavy green and red lines to indicate the mingled smells of fresh cut grass and fresh cut watermelon–so similar and so distinct. I’d show my grandfather always walking away toward toward a row of rhubarb by the fence. I’d leave space for the silences between adults that I never understood and the closed doors and raised voices. The shoals of mystery. The places on the map where a child can get lost for long years. I was reading Twitter messages on a friend’s blog today–minute by minute minutiae of what she was doing, cooking, eating, watching and thinking–and I thought how sad that we know everything now and it has turned out to be so little.

Birthday Wish

September 25th, 2008

I look at myself in this photo and wish the adult me could be standing just out of camera range observing the girl that I was. The shadows cast by my parents across that lawn stretch across the years into my life today, a portent of the unhappiness that would darken their marriage and cast a chill on my growing-up years. And now there is no one left who can tell me stories about myself before that. My mother is gone, and my father is almost a stranger–a kindly older gentleman who likes to pretend he wasn’t absent from my life for decades. When this photo was taken, they had no idea of what lay ahead of them. Their real life together was just beginning after my father’s years away during the war. Maybe this was our last happy time together, but on my birthday, I’m just grateful they gave me life.  And a sense of style–look how I’m rocking that beret!

Oh Kentucky

June 10th, 2008

This is a photo of me with my grandfather in the tobacco field he sharecropped in Kentucky. He was indifferent and often callous to his 6 daughters,  but I adored him and I think the feeling was mutual. I was a “town” girl who traveled 100 miles to the country every summer to stay with my grandparents in their house with no indoor plumbing, air conditioning or television. I loved every minute. Once when I was homesick, my stern, unemotional grandfather drove into the nearest town on his tractor to buy me fresh oranges. When I was a toddler, he carried me to the barn one night to listen to an owl. He convinced me it was talking to me and I still believe it. Can you say “princess”? My father was on a ship in the Pacific in WWII for my first two years so we never really bonded, and my grandfathers and my uncle were the only men in my life. When I was a baby, my uncle would come home from a night of carousing, wake me up, put “Brazil” on the record player and dance me around the room. I had a mostly absent and distant father all my life, but I had fresh orange juice, midnight dances and owls who knew my name.

1961 Revisited

February 6th, 2008
In 1961, I was 17, young and dumb. In June of that year, I ran away from home in Kentucky with my high school boyfriend and eloped to Memphis on a Greyhound bus. Yesterday, I was back in Memphis 47 years later and discovered that the Greyhound Bus station, where we had our wedding dinner, is still standing, still in operation. Next door was a new Doubletree Inn replacing the hotel where we spent the night before we were married, so afraid the desk clerk would ask us for i.d.s, so afraid the police would call my mother. Yesterday, a friend took my picture in front of the bus station, and I thought, dear god who was that clueless 17 year old who wore her virginal-white high school graduation dress to her runaway wedding in front of a judge in some little Tennessee town whose name I no longer remember? I felt so tender toward that other me, and I thought how 11 years spent at the hands of a brutal guy can leave scars that still have numb edges after all this time. How, despite years of therapy, I’ve never lost my hunger for happy endings. (Don’t we all want Elvis to wake up in Graceland, drug-free, reunited with Priscilla and fit as a fiddle?) Little did I know that the long ride back home as “wife” took me farther and farther away from the girl whose tender spots could have been stroked and encouraged to grow instead of beaten and calloused over. And now all these years later, I have a big full-of-friends life and a wonderful job and creative work I love…but when I flew home tonight, there was a reunited couple at the airport who couldn’t keep their hands off each other — their attraction was electric–and I realized there was no significant other who missed me while I was gone, that years ago I bought a ticket to ride and it took me to some fantastic places but it also included a stop at heartbreak hotel and maybe part of me is still there, wandering the halls of the Doubletree Inn, wondering how to turn back time.