Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Wrap Up National Poetry Month By Eating A Poem

Don't be polite.
Bite in.
Pick it up with your fingers and lick the juice
That may run down your chin.

Those are the opening lines of Eve Merriam's "How to Eat a Poem," a work I first heard and read in seventh grade English class and have loved ever since.

I love poetry and I love that invitation. I wish more people knew that poetry was just that accessible: something you can reach right out and eat.

Our community is just completing a month of noontime poetry readings hosted by Beehive Books, our locally owned, independent bookstore in our downtown. Anyone could sign up to read. It was the reader's choice what to read, and why. Most readers picked one poet only; my friend Margo just read Billy Collins last Thursday and had us all laughing. (How can you not laugh when someone is reading Billy Collins?)

I read the day before. Poetry gourmand that I am, I could not limit myself to just one poet, so I started off with Merriam's poem and took it from there. E. B. White, e e cummings, Gary Larson - I read them all and more.

It is not coincidental that April is both National Poetry Month and Jazz Appreciation Month. To me, poetry and jazz are two of the most misunderstood art forms. Many people go out of their way to avoid one or both of them because they're afraid. It's too deep, it's too hard, it's too unapproachable. People hear a poem like "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" by Wallace Stevens and start grumbling. "What is he talking about?" "What do twenty snowy mountains have to do with a blackbird?" The disgruntled listener then throws up his hands and stalks away, muttering words like "boring" and "incomprehensible."

But poetry is so many things. It's a song, it's a chant, it's a nursery rhyme. Nursery rhymes were my first poems, and they were the first poems my children learned as well.

Deedle deedle dumpling, my son John,
Went to bed with his stockings on.
One shoe off and one shoe on,
Deedle deedle dumpling, my son John.

Poetry takes many structures, from the simple to the complex, and many rhythms, including none at all. It is not limited to the young or the mature, either in appreciating it or in writing it. Many of us labored long and hard throughout our younger years writing poem after poem.

I feel embarrassed
(trying to find the chain
of my necklace)
that he should see me fumbling about my neck
like an old woman:
it could have been a lace-
edged handkerchief
or unfastened cameo brooch
on a vast expanse of dotted swiss bosom.

I should be dressed in slender silks and feathers:
not mind-printed into a dowagered old age.

I have it on good authority that the author of that work, if she had to do over, would choose a different phrase than "mind-printed."

Originally, I was going to read Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes in a point-counterpoint between Ariel and Birthday Letters. I got sidetracked because in looking for a certain humorous poem by E. B. White, "I Paint What I See," I rediscovered other poems of a different bent and so felt compelled to read a lot of White instead. And that's the beauty of poetry too: you can return to a poem or a poet time and time again and see and hear new things. (Read White's "Soliloquy at Times Square" and see what I mean.)

Poetry has been greatly reduced and in some cases stripped out of the school curriculum around here, in large part, I suspect, because it is too soft a topic. The powers-that-be at the state and national levels who call for more rigorous standards cannot squeeze the round peg of poetry into the square opening of what they feel our children "need" to be competitive in the world. As curriculum demands get cinched tighter and tighter, poetry, like art and music, often goes out the door. In our rush to measure the merit of a school or a teacher by standardized test numbers, we increasing echo Gradgrind, the notorious teacher in Hard Times, who announced "Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life."

And poetry, like art and music, is never about the Facts. About Life, yes, but not about the Facts.

Poet Mary Oliver wrote that "poems are not words after all, but fires for the cold, ropes to be let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry." Sometimes I worry that we are all increasingly hungry.

Fortunately, the feast is right at hand. The poems are waiting, ripe, warm, inviting.

Pick one up and bite in.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

In Honor of National Poetry Month

Thirteen Ways of Looking at an Overstuffed Garage Closet
With apologies to Wallace Stevens

Among the twenty items in the overstuffed garage closet, not snowy at all,
The only moving thing
Was the rake handle as I tried to disengage its tines from the other tools.

I was of three minds,
Like an overstuffed garage closet
In which there are three shovels.

The tools whirled in the overstuffed garage closet as I tried to remove a trowel.
They were a small part of the pantomime.

A man and a woman
Are one.
A man and a woman and an overstuffed garage closet
Are one too many.

I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The sound of the rake clanging as I try to remove it from the overstuffed garage closet
Or just after.

Icicles filled the long window
With barbaric glass.
The shadow of the hoe in the overstuffed garage closet
Crossed it, to and fro.
The mood
Traced in the shadow
An indecipherable cause.

O thin men of Haddam,
Why do you imagine empty closets?
Do you not see how the overstuffed garage closet
Disgorges garden tools at the feet
Of the women about you?

I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That the overstuffed garage closet is involved
In what I know.

When the door to the overstuffed garage closet would not close, in or out of sight,
It marked the edge
Of one of many circles.

At the sight of overstuffed garage closet
Regardless of the color of the evening light,
Even the bawds of euphony
Would cry out sharply.

He rode over Connecticut
In a glass coach.
Once, a fear pierced him,
In that he mistook
The shadow of his equipage
For an overstuffed garage closet.

The river is moving.
The overstuffed garage closet must be overflowing.

It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The overstuffed garage closet sat
Biding its time, not even needing a cedar limb.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Shakespeare's Farm Report

April 23 is universally acknowledged as Shakespeare's birthday. In the old days (i.e., when I was in school), it was an excuse for our English teachers to suspend the lesson of the day and devote the class to the great man. Thanks to a bevy of truly great English teachers, I learned early on first to appreciate and then to love Shakespeare.

Small wonder that the Bard is weaving his way into my garden report today, the day after his 445th birthday.

He reminds me that there is no ancient gentlemen but gardeners, ditchers, and grave-makers; they hold up Adam's profession. (Although, if anthropologists and archaeologists are right, I am actually holding up Eve's profession.)

I so want to get the plants into the garden. I am giddy, expectation whirls me round. The imaginary relish is so sweet that it enchants my sense. I am in the final stages of moving the seedlings from inside to outside, from pots to dirt. They spent the night in the garage last night to get them used to cooler temperatures. Today they were out on the deck and I am anticipating another night outside. This gradual acclimatization to the outdoors is known as "hardening," and as a newby gardener (an unlesson'd girl, unschool'd, unpractic'd), I feel it necessary to tip my hat to the process.

There have been some seeding casualties along the way. One artichoke, off to a promising start, withered on the vine, as it were, as have a couple of tomatoes and peppers. The sweet peppers from Patricia never did sprout. We cannot all be masters. All the rest have sprouted, leafed, and flourished. At this date, the broccoli are sprawled outside of their paper pots, clearly overdue for transplanting.

As the seedlings have grown, I have coddled them less. The lamps went off weeks ago, I am watering them less frequently. Today, Warren winced to see them out. "It's awfully breezy out there," he said.

Exactly. Time for these guys to get into the real world. Besides, rough winds do shake the darlings buds of May.

It's not May and my seedlings are not buds. But the sentiment is the same.

I will be planting herbs soon. The kitchen garden is edged with cement blocks laid on their sides, so each has two wells made by the mid-block divider. Warren came up with the idea of filling the wells with soil and growing the herbs in the resulting container. I have several types of basil, oregano, sage, cilantro, and thyme. Oh, and rosemary, although whether that's for remembrance, I can't tell you. I do need to remember to plant all the herbs soon, and not just the rosemary.

As the days lengthen, I find myself rising earlier and earlier. Full many a glorious morning have I seen, as I pull the curtains back from the plants so they can soak up the sun. It adds a precious seeing to the eye, starting the day communing with the plants. It adds a smelling to the nose as well, as the tomatoes are big enough to emit that wonderful smell, the one Barbara Kingsolver describes as "yellow-green."

I know that moving from seedling table to garden outside will bring new challenges. Watering, for one. Weeding, for another. Shakespeare reminds me:

Now 'tis the spring, and weeds are shallow-rooted; Suffer them now, and they'll outgrow the garden, And choke the herbs for want of husbandry.

In these most brisk and giddy-paced times, I hope I find time to keep the weeds from the tomatoes and peppers. Not to mention the zucchini and the eggplants. My only desire is to reap what I have sown, eating the bounty of the garden throughout the winter. This runs slightly counter to the admonition:

At Christmas I no more desire a rose Than wish a snow in May's new-fangled mirth; But like of each thing that in season grows.

On the other hand, Shakespeare never experienced the wonders of freezing and canning. O brave new world, indeed!

The first bed has been long ready and I am starting to eye the second and third beds. This weekend or next, those will be turned and tilled, dressed with compost, and the sowed with those vegetables that did not need jumped started inside.

We are ready to try our fortunes
To the last man.

Or plant.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Last Night, We Fed Ourselves

Last night, our local orchestra, the Central Ohio Symphony, held a concert. That in and of itself was not unusual. We are fortunate beyond measure as a community to possess a professional orchestra. Our musicians are talented, our conductor is gifted, and together they are an exciting ensemble. What was unusual about the concert was the reason for holding for it.

Last night, our orchestra practiced what is known as "civic engagement." In orchestral circles, that means that symphonies interact with and serve their communities beyond the playing of music. The emphasis this year is on hunger, with an initiative called "Orchestras Feeding America." Nationwide, over 250 orchestras held events to help combat hunger. Some orchestras reduced ticket prices for a donation or asked subscribers to bring a can of food to a concert. The Cincinnati Symphony, for example, gave a $10 discount on tickets at two concerts and brought in over 1700 pounds of food.

Last night, thanks to the drive and imagination of our orchestra's executive director, who I am blessed beyond words to be married to, our orchestra went far beyond that. Warren planned and brought all the players--musical, institutional, and community--together for "Orchestras Feeding Delaware," a concert where a donated item at the door was the only cost of admission. The donations would go to People in Need (P.I.N.), our local emergency aid agency. Warren championed the event to his Board and the participants because he strongly believes the arts play a role in all aspects of community life, not just in concert halls.

Last night, to make the concert happen, a number of elements had to fall into place. First and foremost, the musicians and the conductor had to donate their services. Ours is a small orchestra with a very tight budget and does not have the means to perform a benefit concert with paid musicians. Jaime, the conductor, agreed as soon as Warren raised the idea with him. The musicians overwhelmingly signed on as well. Some who had prior commitments sent donations in their absence. More than half a dozen area musicians who do not regularly play with the orchestra also donated their time.

Last night, there were two orchestras on the floor of the gymnasium in which the concert was held. (The space was donated by Ohio Wesleyan University, a Symphony community partner.) The first was the Central Ohio Symphony, which numbered over 60 musicians. The second was the expanded Central Ohio Symphony, created by adding string students from high school orchestras in our county and the next one over. By the time the student musicians joined the adults for the last two works, there were over 100 musicians on the floor.

Last night, the audience began arriving early, many of them toting not just a can or two, but a sack of items. Or a box. Or two boxes. The P.I.N. staff and other volunteers were sorting and boxing as fast as they could and still the donations kept coming.

Last night, the audience ranged from toddlers to elders, all eager to be there. From the first downbeat of the Star Spangled Banner to the last note of Beethoven's Ode to Joy, the applause and enthusiasm flowed from the audience to the orchestra, not just once but over and over.

Last night, there were those small moments that make any special event all the more so. Dorothy of P.I.N., thanking the audience and musicians before the concert started, broke down when she announced the weight of the donations. She put her hand to her heart and shook off her tears, finishing her thanks with a breaking voice.

Last night, there were those musical moments that light up the evening: the orchestra rising to its feet to play the Banner, the golden notes pouring from the three trumpets during Bugler's Holiday, the concentration on one student's face as she played away and the pride on her parents' faces as they watched her. In the middle of an arrangement of West Side Story, the percussionists snap their fingers for a lengthy phrase. Cary got a huge grin on his face and swung around to the audience seated nearest to him. With exaggerated gestures, he soon had the entire audience snapping away, not missing a beat.

Last night, when the final note died away in the echoing gymnasium, the audience rose to its feet in a sustained standing ovation. It was the last standing ovation of several during the evening. The student musicians were glowing. The professional musicians were beaming. Jaime was jubilant. Warren was radiant.

Last night, when the last box of food had been taped shut and carried to a waiting vehicle, over 2100 pounds of food and personal items had been donated.

Last night was one of those magical moments where someone takes the community safety net, all the more worn and fragile for the Great Recession we are in, and adds new strands while reinforcing others.

Last night was an amazing and a heartfelt gift to our community by the college, the Symphony, the musicians, and the audience. When you talk about making an impact that changes people's lives, last night was one of those moments.

Last night, we fed ourselves.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Queen of the Geeks

Many years ago, the young next door neighbor was in my living room, despairing over finishing her social studies homework. To demonstrate the impossibility of the assignment, she read off a question. I answered it. She read off another. I answered that too. (Keep in mind this was a 13 year old quizzing a thirty-something history major.) After I answered the third question, Bethany looked at me with insight dawning on her face.

"April, you are the queen of the geeks!"

At about the same time, I was reading a fascinating book about American bridge builders. One afternoon, I stopped by a friend's house. Her husband, a civil engineer who was a bridge designer, was there and I started talking excitedly about this book. Jim stared at me, then said slowly "April, I work with some really geeky people and even they wouldn't read that book."

(The book, if you are wondering, was Engineers of Dreams: Great Bridge Builders and the Spanning of America by Henry Petroski. Great reading.)

Okay, so maybe I was way up there in the Kingdom of Geek.

Being geeky is not necessarily synonymous with being highly intelligent, although I like to think of myself as reasonably bright. Highly intelligent is being great at calculus. (I was good but not great at it.) Being geeky is being enthralled with the mathematical proof through calculus of the circumference of a circle. Highly intelligent is doing really, really well on your SATs. (I did okay.) Being geeky is remembering the definition of "halcyon" from the SAT study guide 35 years later.

("Halcyon" means calm, peaceful, and tranquil for SAT purposes.)

Highly intelligent is knowing and applying the rules of evidence in a trial if you are a lawyer, as I was. (I was never confident about my grasp of the rules of evidence.) Being geeky is being able to answer a judge's question ("what's the name of Barney Google's horse?") while opposing counsel was still trying to make sense of the question.

(Barney Google's horse, incidentally, was named "Spark Plug.")

Geekiness is genetic and cannot be taught. You either are or are not a geek. I got it from my mom's family, the Skatzes. I had two uncles who were fonts of quirky, irrelevant trivia and my beloved Grandmother Skatzes had an amazing store of off the wall facts that would bubble out from time to time. Some of my cousins inherited the trait as well, especially my cousin Brent.

I'm proud to note that my older son Ben inherited the G gene, as it is known. Like his mother before him, he played on the high school In the Know team, an academic quiz team. (Unlike me, as Ben is also highly intelligent, he played varsity team all four years, compared to my one.) Geek that I was, I would attend the matches (not geeky) and sit there whispering the answers under my breath (geeky).

(An interesting but not geeky side note. In the team photo above, circa 1974, I am on the far left swapping a joke with future local lawyer Keith, a Deadhead with a high geek quota himself. My future brother-in-law Brian, not a geek except in the musical sense, anchors the far right.)

Ben ended his final match of his senior year in true geek form. His team went down in flames at the state playoff and were eliminated by noon. For me, it was a bittersweet moment, watching his last competition. We walked out to the car, quietly, then Ben said "well, we went out not with a bang, but a whimper."

T. S. Eliot in the parking lot! (The ending of "The Hollow Men.") My beamish boy!

We chortled in our joy all the way home.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009


As has been the case for the last several years, my husband Warren was hired to play timpani for Easter church services at a Clintonville area Methodist church, Maple Grove. I went along as I try to go along to all of his performances.

I was raised Lutheran, although I veered away from the Lutheran church and formal religious observances early on in college. After some sampling here and there, including converting to and practicing Judaism for a number of years, I drifted back towards a belief system somewhere between Unitarianism and non-defined Christianity. I now consider myself spiritual, not religious, which I acknowledge is waffling of the first degree. All the same, eighteen years of Lutheran liturgy are engrained deeply and I can follow the Methodist liturgy with ease and am still able to quote the Apostles Creed from memory.

The minister at Maple Grove, Bill Croy, is a bright, funny, and thoughtful man of the cloth. I seem none the worse for wear for my annual exposure to his sermons. This year was no exception and the fact that I am now writing about it tells me it was more meaningful than usual.

His theme this year was "The Rest of the Story," and related to the abrupt ending of the Gospel of Mark, where the women who discovered the empty tomb left troubled and afraid. Reverend Croy was interested in, as his title indicated, "the rest of the story." What changed their minds from troubled to joyous? What sparked them and the others into affirming the miracle of the empty tomb?

Croy spoke about resurrections-not just this one, but the small, everyday resurrections that mark people's lives. Any occasion where "new life [is] apparent in the midst of dead reality" is reason enough to celebrate, from the biblical resurrection to the rebirth of hope in the midst of despair.

The sermon has continued to linger in my mind and tug at my thoughts, even though this is now Tuesday afternoon, my 2008 tax picture is not good, and we are in the middle of a double concert week that will take a lot of time and energy from us both.

The pull for me is the topic of resurrections. So when Bill Croy started talking this past Sunday, something more than my ears pricked up.

In 2005, I underwent not one but two stem cell transplants in 90 days as part of my treatment for myeloma (bone marrow cancer). This unusual procedure was to study the possible benefits of tandem transplants. (Researchers have since concluded there are no benefits and so tandem transplants are no longer performed.)

Stem cell transplants are medical wonders, from start to finish. The basic procedure requires destroying the patient's bone marrow with one dose of really strong chemo, and then infusing the stem cells (harvested a few weeks earlier from the patient) intravenously 24 hours later. If all goes well, the stem cells act like seeds in a garden and grow into new bone marrow some ten to fourteen days after the infusion.

When undergoing a transplant, you watch yourself die on paper. It is a startling experience, and one I lived through twice that summer. Every morning, someone would come into my hospital room and post my latest blood work on a wall chart. The white blood count started downward, slowly at first, then faster. At day six or seven after each of my transplants, my white blood count was at zero. My old bone marrow was dead and the stem cells infused into me had not yet matured. Nor did we know yet if they would.

On paper, I was dead. Off paper, if the transplant did not take, I could be kept alive only with blood transfusions until an emergency marrow donor, if one existed, could be found. For those several days between zero and the upward nudge, I found my thoughts all over the place, always coming back to "what if?"

I was fortunate. Each time, my white blood count slowly rose, as marked daily on my wall charts. Stem cells turned into bone marrow and I came back from the dead.

It was my own personal, one-woman resurrection. And having experienced it twice, I am changed forever.

Cancer is something I live with permanently. I am not glad I got cancer; I would rather have passed this opportunity up. But given that it is now a permanent part of me, like my blue eyes, I squeeze it for every positive drop I can. I am grateful not for the disease but for what it has revealed to me: the incredible joys of life, the gifts of family and community, and, during one long and uncertain summer, the miracle of a resurrection.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

The Wheatgrass Juice Chronicles

It really is true. Your whole life changes the moment a physician says "you have cancer." Those of us who have been on the receiving end of that message can tell you the day it happened, what we were doing prior to the news, how the news was delivered, and what we felt immediately afterwards.

While that pronouncement changes your life forever, it also changes the lives of family and friends. Suddenly, they too are caught up in a medical disaster not of their own choosing. As one close friend emailed me upon hearing the news: "I don't know what to say. I'm stunned. Really stunned."

The news can also change the lives of not so close friends, acquaintances, and strangers. Homegrown cancer experts emerge from behind bushes and under rocks, all convinced that they and they alone know the true secret to curing you. While I was able to avoid or shrug off almost all of this misdirected "concern," every now and then someone would score a direct hit.

An acquaintance, upon learning the news that I had been diagnosed with bone marrow cancer (myeloma), called me at my office to talk about a nutritional regimen she wanted me to begin immediately. It was spartan vegan (to libel both Spartans and vegans everywhere), and revolved around my drinking wheatgrass juice on a daily basis, in ever increasing amounts, while subsisting on a limited number of carefully prepared vegetables.

She assured me this would cure my cancer and save my life. Starting that moment, she dramatically emphasized, there were to be "absolutely" no fats in my diet. "Cut them out!"

I interrupted her monologue to point out that I was in a catabolic stage and dropping weight fast. I was in the care of an oncologist. I needed fats.

She immediately enlightened me that my oncologist was keeping the cure from me to keep the medical establishment going and what I really needed was to start the wheatgrass juice immediately, with a daily all-veggie soup following that.

I had no interest in an all-veggie, wheatgrass juice diet and said so.

In the way that only someone who is convinced that they alone hold the one true key to your life is capable of doing, this individual kept going on and on about the diet I had to switch to that moment, ignoring my attempts to end the conversation. I had limited energy as it was and I wasn't about to let her consume any more of it. So I cut in (again) and said "I'm done talking." Even then she rattled on. So I finally hung up abruptly, something I have rarely done before or since.

Three days later, the same severely misguided individual called me back. Her tone was a little strained as she explained that she realized she had to respect my decision not to follow her suggestions and "follow the path" that was right for me. She acknowledged that I was "apparently committed" to following "some medical procedures;" this was said with a faintly disapproving and pitying air, as if I had made a poor choice in a moment of weakness. Then, with a firm edge to her words, she admonished me not to wait until all medical hope was gone before seeking her help as it "would be too late then!"

Well, THAT was a pick-me-up.

My response was swift and to the point. "Rest assured that if I get to the point where all medical hope is gone, I will not be drinking wheatgrass juice. Dom Perignon champagne, maybe, but not wheatgrass juice." And then I gently hung up the phone.

My A list ever since has been composed of friends I know will never ever serve me wheatgrass juice.

For those of you who are chronically ill or otherwise waylaid by one too many individuals practicing medicine without a license, this one is for you.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Don't Touch That Bucket of Water!

One aspect of Facebook is the proliferation of quizzes that you can take. What novelist are you? What philosopher are you? Find Your Perfect Job in the Empire! (Which prompted my friend Dave, targeted as the Grand Moff, to write: "I'll be happy to be Tarkin so long as I'm smart enough to get the heck off the Death Star before Luke comes hurtling at it in that damn X-Wing. You won't catch me saying, "What, evacuate in our hour of triumph?" My line would be, "Why, yes, I think I should get out of here since I can hear John Williams music that sounds sort of rebel-victory-ish.") (Hint: Don't ever read Dave's Facebook page while sipping any beverage as the result is likely to be you spewing the drink all over your monitor while you laugh.)

On the novelist quiz, I was tagged for Virginia Woolf, as was my almost daughter-in-law, Alise. That was a neat piece of symmetry, given that before I met Alise, my younger son Sam said "you'll really like Alise, mom. She's a lot like you!"

This morning I took the "What Wizard of Oz character are you?" quiz. The ten multiple choice questions ranged from favorite color (blue) to favorite movie from a list of several (I chose "What Dreams May Come," although I wavered between that, "Hoosiers," and "Catch Me If You Can," an eclectic viewing choice if ever there was one). I then clicked for results and waited breathlessly, only to find out that the character I am most like is…

…the Wicked Witch.

The quiz summarized my character as follows: You are very misunderstood. You have been different all your life. You have made a few bad choices, but deep down, you just want what everyone else has.

Hmmn. Am I being typecast (which, if I remember, was the fate of Margaret Hamilton after playing that role)?

"The Wizard of Oz," the 1939 Judy Garland version, is my very favorite movie of all time. I grew up watching it on the television, I saw it on the big screen for the first time when I was in college and loved it even more. In law school I owned a pair of pearly pink, Glinda-pink shoes (a little known fact that stumps people every time there is one of those "guess who in the room…?" icebreakers). I know the ending verse (deleted from the movie) to "If I only had a brain." I own most of the Oz books that L. Frank Baum wrote, as well as novels built on Oz themes, from Was to Wicked. I have a copy of the hilarious Bobby McFerrin version of "The Wizard of Oz," as well as the beautiful rendition of "Over the Rainbow" by Israel Kamakawiwo'ole. I have visited the grave of L. Frank Baum (Forest Lawn, Glendale) and among my failed writing attempts is an Oz novel where Dorothy returns to Kansas in modern times as a young adult.

But the Wicked Witch?

In my heart of hearts, I always wanted to be Glinda. Loved the crown, loved the dress, really loved the bubble. I owned a pink wand for a number of years and even took it to one zoning hearing. My second choice would have been Dorothy, but only for those way cool ruby slippers.

But the Wicked Witch?

Okay, she does have some great lines in the movie, including the one about Dorothy's "mangy little dog." The flying monkeys are really nifty. And in recent years, many of us have reevaluated her true character in light of Gregory Maguire, the brilliant author of Wicked, who did a bang-up job in portraying the witch not as a source of evil but as a bright and famously misunderstood activist.

But the Wicked Witch?

I need to think about this. After all, these things must be done delicately...

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

With More Love from Ellen

My mother-in-law Ellen died five years ago this coming Saturday. She died in this house with her oldest child, who is now my husband, present. In one of those random moments of achingly beautiful symmetry in the universe, Ellen departed life with her son close by on the same day that fifty years earlier she had brought him into this world.

My husband and I moved into this house last October. His parents had built it in 1964 and lived in it until their deaths five weeks apart. For him, it was a homecoming after a long and rancorous divorce that had driven him away two years earlier. For me, it was the first time I'd been here 1974. The house was in shambles, but everyone who stepped into it in those early, ugly weeks agreed that it had "good bones," and, more important, a "good feel" to it.

I'd like to ascribe the good feel to us and our close relationship. We are, I hope, a huge part of the positive spirit that now permeates the house. I also know, in my heart of hearts, that Ellen has her hand in the whole matter.

Her touch is everywhere. Many of the household goods came from my husband's parents. The upstairs linen closet holds some of her tablecloths, which I now use; the downstairs one a housedress of hers which my husband cannot bring himself to discard. Her letters, her journals, and decades of photos are stacked in boxes. When I bake, I use some of the same mixing bowls she used for over fifty years.

Her cookbooks are still on the shelf with an earnest cook's notes in the margins. Her 1943 edition of The Joy of Cooking is worn; her 1946 edition of The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book (Fannie Farmer) is not only worn but marked with the dates she tried different recipes as well as her editorial comments. My favorite is her note about the Lemon Meringue Pie on page 644, which she made on August 1, 1956: "a terrible amount of work--result not too good." For good measure, Ellen added "don't repeat."

Shortly after we moved in, I often had a sense of someone being nearby, even when I was the only one in the house. It was a warm presence, not an ominous one. When I finally mentioned it to my husband, he got a curious look on his face.

"How do you mean?"

"I don't know. Just a feeling of someone standing near me. Why?"

It turned out that he too had sensed someone else's presence, but had not yet said anything aloud.

A few weeks later I noticed that the parfait glasses on the top buffet shelf began to be rearranged. Certain glasses were moved forward, others pushed back. I would rearrange them and the next day they would be in a different pattern again. Vibrations of the house as we walked through? They moved even when we were gone for a few days.

I mentioned this to my husband as well. This time he didn't hesitate to respond.

"Do you think it's Mom?"

If Ellen continues to inhabit this house, and I think she does, she is the gentlest of spirits. As we put the house back to rights, both of us have a sense of her being drawn back to the warmth that now fills the rooms. I would like to think she is pleased with the household atmosphere now: the cooperation, the sharing, the love. It is what she always wanted for her older son and was saddened that he never quite found it in his earlier years.

The room in which Ellen died after spending the last months of her life is now a combined study and reading room. I do all of my writing and much of my work on a table in one corner. It is a peaceful room and one to which we often retire at day's end to share a cup of tea and our respective days and thoughts.

I imagine Ellen smiling as she listens in, with much love.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Birthday Thoughts

Yesterday was my 53rd birthday. It passed very quietly in Chicago, where we were spending two days with Elizabeth (my teenage stepdaughter) during her spring break. My birthday was spent largely at the Field Museum, primarily in the stunning Aztec exhibit that is leaving shortly, and on the road as we barreled back to Delaware.

I have never had a problem with growing older. Ever. And ever since being diagnosed with an incurable cancer five years ago and not knowing initially whether I would make it to 50, let alone 53, I have heartily rejoiced in every orbit of the earth that brings April 3 to me again.

Throughout the day, I thought about a birthday piece written by Alise, my almost daughter-in-law, when she was working in an Alzheimer’s care facility:

If questioned, I would be hard pressed to think of a “good thing” about having Alzheimer's disease. Until last week, I wouldn't have an answer. But I think I've found the smallest silver lining in this insidious disease.

Last week was Jan's birthday. Her kids sent her a beautiful bouquet of flowers, which we set up in the living room (we often do this so that everyone can enjoy a little color, and flowers make the residents smile). Every time Jan saw the flowers, she would turn to one of the caregivers and ask, “Who got flowers?”

“Those are yours, Jan. It's your birthday!”

“Well, so it is! Happy Birthday to me!”

We sang “Happy Birthday” at least six times that day, the residents often starting choruses of the song any time Jan's birthday was mentioned. It was kind of a beautiful series of moments.

So, last week, it wasn't just Jan's birthday. For her and for everyone at Russell House, it was her birthday over and over again that day. And the happiness that they felt did not diminish with each new discovery.

All of my days since November 10, 2004, have been a beautiful series of moments. Yesterday was no exception.

Here’s to celebrating birthdays over and over again.