Saturday, April 27, 2013

Of Pain and Longing at the 1970's Shoe Store

They were always Excursions, these solemn trips to buy new shoes. I can't say why, or even whether it was my mother's own idiosyncracy or a quirk of her entire generation, but the fitting of shoes to children's feet was serious business. Dire consequences would accrue to the waif wearing ill-fitting footwear with rounded, not squared, toe boxes. Heaven forfend!

The employees at Tru-Form, located at 86th Street and Third Avenue, adjacent to the McDonald's that we were never allowed to frequent, were of a piece: older, bespectacled men in poorly made suits who gave off an acrid smell of cigarettes and sweat and wore expressions of beleaguered disappointment in their stations. I found them vaguely sinister and ran off as soon as I could, my stubby, chubby toddler legs carrying me up three steps on scratchy orange carpeting to a corner aquarium, where I pressed fingers on the glass separating me from sluggish, pale, overfed goldfish.

After a time I was called back from the aquarium by my mother (our number had been announced many minutes after she had sat clutching her little paper slip with a sort of grim resolve - I'd never seen her as powerless as she seemed in the shoe store). I sat beside her on a bench and stayed silent while a balding shoe salesman pushed my foot roughly into a shoe sizer, a frightening metal contraption, a ruler gone wild with letter widths and number lengths, so many permutations of numbers and letters that it gave me a headache. When the man, scowling with effort, was satisfied with my measurement, he went into the back, a dark, mysterious place where children were expressly forbidden to venture. 

He returned carrying boxes of shoes, each pair uglier than the last, until I was convinced that these were in fact orthopedic shoes and that my feet must be well and truly deformed. I had no say as to which pair of shoes was ultimately purchased and knew in any event to keep my mouth shut, because the one time I had expressed a preference my mother had deviated so far from it that I'd wised up, deciding that if I said nothing at all I might by chance take home the least objectionable shoes.

Finally it was over, perhaps an hour later, and my brother and I selected lollipops, the candy slight but acceptable reward for our wasted time. The shoe salesman patted us awkwardly on the tops of our heads, and gratefully we opened the doors to sunshine, fresh air, and the thrum of the city before us. I wish I could say that I spared a thought for the bloated goldfish in their stale water, or for the sad old men I was so anxious to leave behind, but I never once did.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Gazing In, Gazing Out

In 1989, I lived in Watertown, Massachusetts for a summer. Later I lived in Boston for a year.

Am I narcissistic and self-absorbed because that time in my life is what came to mind as I watched police officers swarm Watertown yesterday, or when I saw footage on Monday of the Boston Marathon's finish line across the street from the public library where I spent hours and days as a newly minted college graduate searching through newspapers and magazines in an ultimately fruitless search for a job? Am I somehow trying to coopt the bombings so that people end up feeling sorry for me?

No. Here's why: having lived in the Boston area, I was able to insert myself into those streets and communities, and the ability to do so broadened and deepened my empathy, outrage, and sorrow as events played out this week.

We teach the first and second graders in our classroom to make connections between the texts they read and themselves, and between the same texts and the larger world. We do that to make their comprehension of written material richer. The human brain benefits from more intricate and elaborate pathways between and among neurons (brain cells). This is only intuitive.

I grow weary of the accusations leveled at social media users - bloggers included - that we are navel-gazing. Who navel-gazes? Philosophers, novelists, thinkers of all stripes.

Linking our experiences to the world stamps us as citizens of Earth. It is how we learn to care about people other than those in our immediate families, and it is how we continue to care, once we are living independently. Translate caring into action, and communities of helpers are born. We can't all be police officers, detectives, mayors, governors, or presidents. But there are other ways of catching the bad guys. Some of us write. I like to think that the writers among us not only document the wrongs that exist locally, nationally, and globally, but also help others feel those wrongs so viscerally that they cannot help but be moved to right them.

And that's about as far from narcissism as it gets, isn't it?

Saturday, April 13, 2013

In the Fifteenth Year of Motherhood

I had just driven my eleven-year-old to and from his piano lesson, and now it was 5:45pm, and I was cresting the hill beyond which sat my house. Hoping, needing, despairing, I held my breath as I pushed the remote garage door opener. "Daddy's not home yet," observed my son, without understanding that his father's car was exactly the object on which I'd lined up all my ducks in one neat row, the presence of that car signifying that someone else (please, God, anyone else?) might be handling the care and feeding of all the living creatures within. I pulled into the garage (far more slowly than necessary) and turned off the Subaru's ignition. My son, clutching an unruly pile of sheet music and lesson books, leaped out of the car. "Aren't you coming?," he called. I shook my head no. "Not feeling well?," he yelled. I shook my head yes, and waved him on into the house, whereupon a piano book and some papers tumbled out of his grasp and onto the garage's filthy subfloor. He shrugged, unconcerned, picked them up, and bounded inside. I rested my head on the steering column. I could hear the cat even through the door that had just swallowed up my kid.  The cat was whining indignantly for his dinner. The kids, too, would need dinner. Chores upon chores lay in wait for me on the other side of that door. And I couldn't move. Idly I wondered if I were having a nervous breakdown. I dismissed the thought after deciding that people suffering nervous breakdowns would likely lack the wherewithal to attempt to label their states of being. I stayed slumped in the car for perhaps twenty minutes. The cat's cries grew ever more frantic while I sat, rooted by misery, rebelling against drudgery and its damnable way of cropping up over and over again like dandelions in spring. Finally I sighed, collected my belongings, got out of the car, shook myself as would a dog freeing its coat of accumulated raindrops, picked up a stray sheet of music, and went inside to feed the hysterical cat and my two blithely affable boys.

Friday, April 12, 2013

The Twin Arts of Crocheting and Reserve

It was the last blanket she would ever make, or so she wrote in the note accompanying it.  Some months before she'd asked me my favorite colors, and I'd answered, "Pinks and purples."  One day in late fall, a time when I was alternately more exhilarated and lonelier than I'd ever been, a yellow slip showed up in my university mail slot.  Oh, for a freshman to receive mail!  That tiny rectangular mail slot was the last link to my childhood, and I was lucky indeed that my much older brother and sister wrote to me quite often, sensing (or remembering) how unmoored the beginning college student can feel.

Eagerly I brought the mail slip to the university's post office clerk.  The package was assembled from brown grocery bags taped together, evidence, if I'd needed it, of my grandmother's essentially thrifty nature.  She'd handwritten my address.  The handwriting was both familiar and not.  It was shakier than I was used to.  I had to do the math in my head before coming up with her current age: seventy-eight years old.  I pulled off the brown paper and found a crocheted blanket, white with purples, pinks, blues, and yellows.  I grinned and tore back to my dorm room to place the blanket at the foot of my bed.


I still own that blanket.  As infants my boys first lay on it, then rolled over and sat up on it.

The blanket is the most direct link between me and my grandmother, a gruff, brisk, hardworking woman who was never keen on public displays of affection.  Still, we grandchildren knew how much she loved us.  Her love was in the blankets she made for us, in the food she cooked for us, in the feel of her gnarled, weathered hands as she worked rubbing alcohol into our skin to bring down our childhood fevers.  It was in her gift to us of the bowl with little strips and blobs of dough that hadn't made it onto cookie sheets (salmonella a threat not yet in the lexicon).

We knew that my grandmother cared about us based on these things, things that sufficiently conveyed to us the strength of her feeling.  It was only in the last five years of her life that she chose to end phone conversations with a faintly embarrassed, soft-spoken "Love you."  By that point, I suspect, she wasn't sure that she'd ever get another chance to say those words, so she offered them up as a kind of insurance.

Her generation was not nearly as expressive as ours, or the generation that has followed it.  So a warm gesture, or a word or two of praise, when it came, meant so much.  Words are cheaper these days.  We use them more often and less thoughtfully.  We take far less on faith than we used to.  We insist on proof of this or that, and if we don't get it, we object - strenuously.  Computers have expanded our social circles, so that there are not only more words being bandied about but more people receiving them, people who might take offense, or misconstrue intent.  And with everyone talking, who is left to listen?

I miss my grandmother and her generation.  I want my words to matter, to be taken as if they are things of some value, instead of yet more junk polluting the atmosphere.  I sit in silence as I finger the edges of my grandmother's blanket, and I wish -- that more of us could take love, friendship, and good intentions on faith, that more of us would as a matter of course accept responsibility for our own actions and work hard for work's sake, that more of us might make beautiful blankets out of skeins of yarn.

What I really wish is that more of us were like my grandmother.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Dear Frank

February 5, 1904
951 Chicago Avenue, Oak Park

Dear Frank,

I asked for a chair in which I might feed our littlest ones. I cannot fault you for the promptness with which you obliged me, at least in this regard. I cannot fault its wood, for it is of course cypress, as you prefer. Nor can I fault the silk you chose to cover the chair's cushion. It is an elegant fabric indeed, and if I believed fern perhaps a color better suited to adults than to babies, I would not presume to voice such a trivial complaint.

But Frank, the chair, while a beautiful object, is something of a jail sentence. I can sit in it only by pushing my back forward and raising up my knees so that they make to touch the nursling, who would surely rather brush against something softer and more pliable than my knees. I have always thought that form should follow function, even as I understand this maxim to be anathema to you - you, of all people.

Still, this nursing chair... I fear that it has become my own yellow wallpaper, designed for no higher purpose than to drive me mad. Do you remember the story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman that I once read to you?

You might wonder why I write these words instead of speaking them to you. It is because of how you tend to stare at me, with such bemused puzzlement, as if to say, "Catherine, how did we get here, with six children to manage?"

Frank, were you not present at each of those blessed unions? I shall repeat myself now by invoking nature's promise that form shall follow function. Indeed it has, in the persons of Lloyd, John, Catherine, David, Frances, and lately Robert Llewellyn.

Ever yours,

inspired by a long-ago visit to Frank Lloyd Wright's home in Oak Park, Illinois

Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Thing About Dawn

The thing about my friend Dawn, who died on Tuesday of malignant melanoma at only thirty-nine years old, leaving behind her husband and two boys under ten, is that when she asked you how you were, she wanted to know how you really were instead of how you were pretending to be.

The thing about Dawn is that she never complained, even when she was in extraordinary pain. I believe that's why the news of her death shocked so many of us who counted ourselves her friends. We didn't understand how critically ill she was, because she didn't tell us. It just wasn't in her nature to dwell on herself.

The thing about Dawn is her grace, her humility, her wit, the joy she took in life with her husband and boys, and her unwavering cheerleading of so many, many people through their own struggles and losses.

The thing about Dawn and her husband Mike is how much they loved each other. Once I dubbed them the best couple on Twitter. Because they were.

The thing about me is how deeply sorry I am that I never told Dawn what I've written here.

The thing about the world is that it is now missing one of its kindest and most compassionate inhabitants.

And the thing about the stars is that they're shining yet more brightly now that Dawn is among them.

Please consider donating what you can in support of melanoma research to honor a woman taken from us far too soon. Thank you.