What We Treasure

This delicate beauty was made for me by the mother of a dear friend decades ago.  Back when I still collected dolls. I no longer do, but Rebecca here (the name she whispered to me when I took her from her box the first time) still holds an honored spot in my home. For eleven months of the year she sits in view in a shadow box on my living room wall. The twelfth month she hangs in a prominent spot on my Christmas tree.

Hanging to the top right of her is a glass egg from a set of four, made in Egypt, purchased as an extravagance at a time when we hadn’t much money.

Next to the egg, a sweet-faced clown rides a unicycle with a monkey on his arm. I discovered him in a small shop on a trip to Montreal seventeen years ago with my mother, my brother, and my son. We drove there from Rhode Island in search of a warm wool coat for me. I came home with the clown, instead.

Every ornament on our tree has a story behind it; every story attached to a memory of a friend or family member, some of them no longer here. It takes a long time to decorate our tree.

The world is full of seemingly unrelenting misery right now, but–oh, my–in the small space that we can control, isn’t it an act of self-kindness to fill it with the things in our lives that give us such pleasure?

This is my wish for all of us this holiday season. That we make space wherever, whenever we can, and fill it with goodness, laughter….and most of all, love.

May it be enough to sustain us.

 

 

Family Recipe


First, you will need a lake:
Preferably one in which you once flapped fish-like, laughter lifting in iridescent bubbles from your lips.
Best results are achieved mid-summer, when days feel like new clothes you are trying on.

You will also need:
An infant whose buoyancy is limitless.
A father with a never-ending capacity for love.
A mother who adores them both.

Dip the baby in the lake —
that baptismal font of past generations whose sloughed-off atoms may yet be felt.
The sun will bless you with its warmth.

Swirl the baby through the water; kiss and love him well. Hold him
with tender hands. Do not let go. Dip and swirl until
laughter lifts in iridescent bubbles from his lips.
Memory is made from molecules like this.

Repeat as often as you like.
Calorie count is negligible.

About the ingredients:
This is my personal recipe. Your infant/s can be any number, any gender; likewise  parental combination. You can add a village. Water can be an ocean.
Love and Laughter should NOT be omitted under any circumstance.

Cause to Celebrate

mouth full of frosting = bliss

mouth full of frosting = bliss

 

Today is momentous for many reasons, not the least of which is that the Boy was born  on this day twenty-eight years ago. The ensuing years have been filled with magic, joy, an occasional fit of exasperation, and a dollop of mystifying mayhem to keep us on our toes. This is how we learn and grow stronger and better.*

As parents we keep trying to teach our children what we think they need to know to navigate their future. Our children keep learning about these people who claim to be their parents. They keep looking for answers to the questions we couldn’t or didn’t know how to answer. The point is we all hope for more. We strive for better. For safer. For ever more children willing to keep moving the world ahead in a way that safeguards humanity and our planet.

Tomorrow I am taking my commitment to that pig-tailed Boy in the picture (pretending to be his favorite literary character of the moment) to the streets of Boston. So that I can raise my voice with others who wish that tolerance, love, and kindness may one day be the true law of the land.

Reason enough to celebrate, I think. Let’s make some noise.

 

*Or not. Not all humans feel compelled to heed the lessons inherent in life.

 

 

A Love Song

bob & jordan France 2

Just an old-fashioned love song,
One I’m sure they wrote for you and me.
Just an old-fashioned love song,
Comin’ down in three-part harmony . . .

~~~  Three Dog Night

 

Of all the photos I have ever taken, this one is my favorite:  My husband and our son walking down the street in a French village twenty-two years ago.  They are walking away from me not to go anywhere in particular, but to allow me to record how astonishingly narrow the street is, using them as a measure.

I don’t remember where this was specifically.  Somewhere in the Provence area.  We had rented a car and were driving around to various places we’d pinpointed on a map.  A guide book I read mentioned a villa outside this village that Picasso may (or may not) have lived in for a short time.  We thought it would be fun to say we saw where Picasso may (or may not) have lived.  It was the first trip we’d taken where we needed passports.  We were giddy with excitement.

Thanks to the digital services of online places like Zazzle, this photo now adorns the case on my cell phone, as well as cheering me from a mug as I enjoy a cup of tea.  I bought three mugs bearing this photo, one for each of us.  To remind us.

We are a love song.  The three-part harmony.  The Boy and his Dad striding step by step along side of one another, me capturing the joy of a free and easy moment to carry us through life’s rough patches.  For me, the thought of that is all the Valentine I will ever need.

 

A Stupid Place

Gram at 70.

Gram at 70.

A Stupid Place

A stupid place to put it,
she says, winding into another rant
about a ceiling fan at the wrong end of the room.
She sits and twists the ring on her finger,
and wonders why she is here.

Because she used to have a house.
Now she has too much furniture,
and a life packed in cardboard boxes,
honey-combed walls wilted by
the heat of how many summers?

Moments flicker and play out
in silent testimony to what came before
this place, this stupid place.
At the window, a curtain lifts like an apparition
in a breeze too flabby to last.

She turns her head and waits for
the next riffle of wind,
for the days that gather and roll
like dust bunnies beneath her bed,
while she sits and twists the ring on her finger

and her mind meanders in a space
too narrow for contentment,
a labyrinth of thoughts
that twists and turns upon itself
crossing the same trail, the same words,

A stupid place to put it, she says.
I don’t know why I’m here.

~~  Mary Pierce, 1995


The woman in the photo is my grandmother, Pearl Crawford Pierce.  She was seventy when the photo was taken, her hair color still hers and not from a box.  She cut her hair herself.  My grandfather had been dead for more than twenty years by then.  In those years, she had learned to drive a car and shop for herself, two things that my grandfather had always done.  She also got a job at the local paper mill, worked for a while, retired, and found a sense of satisfaction selling Avon products because it got her out of her house.  She had style and a snazzy Mustang by then.

A few years after this photo was taken she was mugged on her own front porch.  She stopped selling Avon and was reluctant to go outside.  A couple of years after that, in one of the infrequent times she did leave her house, her car skidded on an icy road and she hit a bank.  The kind you keep your money in.  She broke her jaw and her hip and cracked some ribs.  Eventually, she healed.  Physically.

By the time I wrote the poem, she had given up her house to a daughter and moved to a small one-bedroom apartment in a subsidized development.  Her short-term memory had moved somewhere else.  It clearly was no longer residing with her.  I wrote the poem after a visit.  That year I made many visits, driving from my home in Rhode Island to her stupid place in northern New York with a six-year-old in tow, trying desperately to find a way to keep her in her apartment and out of a nursing home.  Physically, in spite of her run-in with the bank, she was strong and relatively healthy, the one glitch being that she had developed high enough blood pressure to necessitate her taking daily medication.  Which, of course, she could never remember to do.

Twenty years and five months after the photo was taken Gram died in a nursing home after she fell out of bed in the middle of the night.  Had she known what was happening, she would have laughed at what a ridiculous way to go that was.  A few years before that, on one of my visits, she asked me to take her to the area she had been born.  We ended up at the cemetery where her parents and her baby brother, Rosco were all buried.  It was one of those lovely large cemeteries with mature trees and undulating hills, a place with a good view, she said.  We didn’t make it to the Crawford family plot because in our traipsing about, she lost her balance on the spongy ground and rolled down a hill before I could grab her.  When I caught up to her, she was unhurt and doubled over in laughter.  “Well, if I died here, at least I wouldn’t have far to go,” she managed to choke out.  And we both laughed like hell because the whole thing was hilarious, and what else was there to do?  Life is hard.  Sometimes, we end up in a stupid place.

I chart my grandmother’s journey in words and pictures because that is the best way I know to remember who she was.  To me, at any rate.  Others may remember someone else.  Despite the poem, despite the place she ultimately found herself in, it wasn’t the whole story.  I knew her as a woman of passion, of strength and the courage to guide me past a bear.  (Yes, a real bear.  A story for another time.)  But, she was also something more.  Scroll back up to that photo and you’ll see what I mean.  It’s there in her eyes.  Those are the eyes of someone who has always known how to dream.  An asset, because dreams will get you where you need to go.

No matter what place you happen to be.

Fragile

 

one day they will fly

One day soon they will learn to fly.

 

Reflections: 07/08/1990

A night
in the life of us.
Kathy says
she wants credit
for the title.
Okay
I say.
I am easy.
Tommy has always been
easy
or so he thinks.
I think
we are all too
fragile
for real life.


Several days ago my husband discovered a nest containing newly hatched baby robins in our rhododendron bush.  I took a photo with my phone.  I keep looking at the picture, amazed that such tiny creatures are able to survive at all.  How is that even possible?  I mean, look at them.  They have scant feathers and see-through skin.  Their spines are a yellow dotted line down their backs.  They cannot hold their heads upright.

Something in the fragility of these babies made me think of a night long ago. My sister was visiting from Virgina, about to move to California.  My brother was still alive.  I convinced them to go with me to see the movie, Cinema Paradiso — a magical film about childhood and how it shapes who we become. Afterwards, we went to a bar where we drank wine and wrote poetry on paper napkins.  Then we sat in a park, talking into the night until one of us was sober enough to drive home.  I kept all of my napkin poems from that night twenty-four years ago.  Dated and numbered, yellowing and stained; seven of them in all.  I don’t know if my sister still has hers.  I wish I had my brother’s.

I don’t remember what started it, the writing poetry on napkins.  Most likely the wine and the movie, the looking backwards to the past.  Wondering how any of us survive the chaos that comes with growing up?  We were so fragile then, our dreams as transparent as glass.  Our poetry so self-confessional.

But survive, we do, for a time.  Some of us longer than others.

The baby robins are thriving.  Which is a miracle to me.  In five days they have doubled in size.  Their feathers are coming in and there are the shadowy buds of wings that will eventually lift them from their nest.

I hope to bear witness when they do.

Five days old.  A crowded house.

Five days old. A crowded house.

How I won the Super Bowl* (or a Happy Birthday to the Boy)

January 20, 1989, roughly 10:30 am.  Picture me sitting in a room, utterly slobberknocked.  My husband has just kissed me on the forehead and gone off to “get some sleep” he said.  Get some sleep?  What about me?  I’ve been awake for twenty-six hours and this is all I get?

Actually, what I got was a 5 pound, 14 ounce package of energy and sweetness that would change my life forever.

The Boy arrived at 10:14 am.  I remember seeing his little face for the first time–his eyes wide open, looking right at me.  I was shocked by the intensity.  A few minutes later a nurse whisked him away, my husband left, and I was alone in an empty room with all this discarded equipment, feeling like I’d just played ten hours of pro football.

Best day of my life.

Fast forward twenty-five years.  Zip past the infancy, the toddler-hood, the childhood that flowed into early adolescence without a hiccup.  The teen years, years of homeschooling, learning to drive, part-time jobs.  Then college, then a first real job.  You could pack it all into a two-hour movie.  Piece of cake.

Last week my husband and I attended an open house at the place where the Boy works.  Throughout the evening, several of his co-workers, including his bosses, took the time to tell us how much they thought of him, how creative he was, what a nice guy he was.  All very gratifying, as well as reassuring in today’s job market. Exactly what every parent hopes to hear.  At one point, the founder of the company jokingly asked me what I had fed him for breakfast, as though how the Boy turned out had anything to do with me.

And that’s the point.  Beyond the love we offered unconditionally, beyond the boundaries we set (and constantly negotiated), who the Boy is now has more to do with who he was when he arrived:  eyes wide open, curious, imaginative, tenacious, persistent, and with a sense of humor.  He loved music and words and laughing, right from the start.

And we are the better for him, his father and I.  He has taught us far more than we ever thought possible to learn.

The Boy leaving for Africa, wearing all his cool clothes

His bags are packed, he’s leaving for Africa, wearing all his cool clothes.

The music that inspired a wish to go to Africa in the photo above.

*NOTE:  I didn’t really.  It’s a metaphor.  The Super Bowl took place two days later.  The 49ers won.  But there was much rejoicing in our house, all the same.

Shine a light

Tom with fire.jpg

My brother and his trusty Bic lighter.

The boy in the photo above is my brother Tom.  My mother named him Thomas, but we all called him Tommy.  At seventeen he dubbed himself Tomas (pronounced toe-mas, accent on the second syllable).  He took to wearing sunglasses and being quietly mysterious.  It was the first of many personas he would try on for size while looking for how he fit in the world.

It wasn’t easy for him, figuring it out.  He had a handicap from the start: Youngest of seven; born colicky, and needing a lot of soothing in a busy, boisterous family. He was often lost in the fray.

At two he fell through the heating vent in the bedroom floor, bumped accidentally by another brother as they jumped on my parents’ bed.  He landed in the dining room below, barely missing the table. Astonishingly, other than scaring the hell out of us, and knocking the wind out of himself, he was fine.

When he was three, I dumped scalding hot food on him.  Also an accident.  A pressure cooker containing what was meant to be our dinner exploded when I tried to lift the lid.  Tommy was standing by my side.  I was blown backwards, while lava-hot meat and potatoes shot straight up from the pot and rained down on his back.  I can’t remember how long he was in the hospital, but I do remember feeding him ice cream there.  The scars never went away.

After that he managed to make it through the rest of his childhood and adolescence with only the usual bumps and scrapes.  But he was always kind of quiet and a little aloof.  He liked to climb trees where he would sit for hours looking out at the world.  I asked him a few times what he thought about up there, but he wouldn’t tell me.  I think he was dreaming what life could be.

Tommy lived with me three times in my life, beginning when he was Tomas at seventeen.  I lived in Colorado then.  He wanted to finish his last year in high school somewhere other than where he was born.  We joined the local Y and worked out together, ran around the indoor track together, then went for donuts afterwards.  He wore his sunglasses and skipped classes and shared falafel with the homeless guys who hung out in the park.  At the end of the year he went back to my mother.

The next time he came to live with me I had just moved to Rhode Island.  He slept in my basement and got a job as a cook in a nursing home within walking distance of my apartment.  Eventually he met someone, and moved in with her.  He got a job at Electric Boat and learned how to weld the seams of atomic submarines.  In his down time he helped my husband and I build our house.

He had a baby with the woman he lived with, a boy who looked a lot like him.  He took photos and put them in an album where he wrote things like from father to son and, a man with song and dance not to mention poise across the pages. Then the woman took the baby out of state and had Tom sign a paper relinquishing his paternal rights.  He signed it because “it was what she wanted”, but it broke his heart to do so.  He never saw his son again.

He tried to fill the hole by being a fabulous uncle to his nephews.  He took them for walks and held their hands and watched cartoons with them.  He listened to their dreams and understood.

The last time Tom lived with me his life had begun to unravel.  By then he’d been diagnosed with a disease that would increasingly stiffen his spine and cause him pain.  A few days after he moved in with us, he simply stopped going to work.  He was tired of smacking his head on the insides of the submarines he was welding.

When I turned 35 Tom told me that I was old, being just 5 years from 40, as though 40 was near to the end of it all.  He must have believed that, since he took himself out of the equation at 33.  I’ve written about that choice in a more oblique form elsewhere on this blog.

Today is Tommy’s birthday.  By his thinking he would be old.  To the rest of my siblings–Amy, Kathy, Jaime, S.K.–and myself, he is still and will always be the youngest, the most fragile of us all who, nevertheless, keeps us buoyed and connected to one another by the memory of his life.

Happy Birthday, little brother.  Tonight the light in my window shines for you.

Uncle Tommy with my the Boy, taken two weeks before he left us on our own.

Uncle Tommy with my Boy, taken two weeks before he died.

“Kill the Indian, and save the man.”

My Mohawk grandmother.  This is the cover of the book my mother wrote about her adolescence growing up on the Mohawk reserve.

My Mohawk grandmother, Mary Sawatis Jacobs. This is the cover of the book that my mother wrote about growing up on the Mohawk reserve.

“History is a relentless master.  It has no present, only the past rushing into the future. To try to hold fast is to be swept aside.   — John F. Kennedy

When I was a kid, we’d pile into the station wagon and head to the reservation to visit my mother’s Mohawk side of the family.  My father liked to go there because the men drank beer, fished, and told stories.  My mother liked it, because it was where she felt truly at home.  We kids liked to go because we had lots of cousins, the adults got busy talking, and we were left to look after ourselves. In the summer we swam in the river, and traversed the shoreline, weaving through sweetgrass that smelled like fresh rain.  The cousins taught us how to swear in Mohawk.

There was one church on the entire reservation and it was Catholic.  Father Jacobs was the priest.  He was Mohawk, but also a Catholic priest.  I never questioned this.  The church had a bell tower and a bell rope that hung in the entry.  You could pull that rope down and ride half-way to the ceiling when it was time to ring the bell.

Other than hearing the odd word or phrase spoken in the Mohawk language, or the fact that my male cousins all played Lacrosse, there was not a lot to make the reservation seem much different than the town I was from.  Except that on the reservation, nothing was paved.  There was only dirt and stubby patches of grass. When it rained, people set down planks of wood between their driveway and the door in an effort to keep mud out of the house.  Meals were simple, but hearty.  The items served most often were corn soup and beef hash. Both of which were lovely and delicious and always homemade.  (I guess they also ate a lot of fish, because it was there for the taking, being that the St. Lawrence river wrapped around one side of the reservation, while the St. Regis river cut a swath through the other end.  But I don’t like fish so the recollection of it tends be hazy for me.)

What was missing at that time was festival, ritual, and feathers.  I don’t remember any Native ceremonies or regalia.  There were no sweat lodges.  No pow wows. No moccasin-ed dancing for rain or peace or any other thing.  If we attended church there, it was the same Catholic mass as the one we experienced at home.

The point is, that my comprehension then of what it was like to be Mohawk, to be a Native American living on a reservation, was lacking cultural context.  It was years before I understood why.  I knew that when my mother was growing up, many of her cousins were taken from their homes and placed in an Industrial boarding school in Canada. They were forbidden to speak their native language or participate in native ceremony.  They were there, boys and girls (in separate schools), to be “educated”, which actually meant, to learn to be “white.”

That those schools were often brutal, the quality of education poor, and the food even worse, is well documented.  But Indian schools did more than decimate native cultures, they robbed those children of any value they previously may have thought they had.

Without a culture or a sense of worth, what is left?

My mother’s reservation has come back to their culture slowly, like a long forgotten memory drifting into consciousness once again.  It is not called St. Regis anymore.  We use the Mohawk word instead, Akwesasne.  I love the sound of that.

I began this post on Monday, which was Columbus Day.  In part because of the Daily Post Weekly Writing Challenge, which had as a topic:  Living History.  But mostly because of the day, which my mother cannot let go by without muttering at least once — Columbus, that murdering bastard!

And then I read a piece in the Washington Post which made me wonder again, why do we keep a holiday in honor of a man we now know dealt a brutal hand against the natives of the lands he explored (which wasn’t even America)?  In one of the reader comments, a man asked if there actually were any Indian reservations around these days?  I was about to reply that why, yes, in fact there were many reservations still around, but then I spied another comment a few lines down that wisely pointed out – Do not feed the trolls.  And I realized, of course, it does no good.  You can lead a person to information, but you cannot make him think.

Still.  Can we agree to not honor mean men?  I’d like to believe that history can teach us how to live better.  Kinder.

Maybe one day, we could even get it right.

n.b. The title of this post is a quote taken from a paper read at a convention in 1892 by Richard Henry Pratt, the U.S. Army officer whose brainchild it was to assimilate Indians into a white society.

Who do I think I am?

Like my Family Tree - old, propped up, but still growing strong.

Like my Family Tree – old, propped up, but still growing strong.

My maternal grandmother was full-blooded Mohawk and a devout Catholic.  She wanted to be a nun.  On her way to that vocation she met my grandfather, a tall, handsome white man who was also a state trooper trying to catch her mother in the act of selling whiskey.  It was Prohibition, and Agnes, my great-grandmother owned a speakeasy.  My grandparents fell in love, got married, and my grandfather gave up being a trooper to join his new mother-in-law’s business.  Not exactly a propitious union.  Nevertheless, it produced three daughters.  Only my mother, the youngest, survived childhood.  I was named Mary for that grandmother, though I never got to meet her.  She died when my mother was three.

My paternal grandmother went without a name for weeks after she was born.  My great-grandmother, having recently lost an infant son, wanted to wait and see if this baby survived before handing out a name.  Finally, one of great-grandma’s sisters looked down at my poor, swaddled grandmother and said she looked like a little pearl.  And that’s the name they slapped on the birth certificate.  No middle name, just Pearl and her surname, which was Crawford.  It embarrassed my grandmother, not having a middle name.  When she married she began using the initial from her surname as part of her signature, to legitimize the oddball she always felt she was, as though just the initial of a pretend middle name would make her just like everyone else.  It didn’t, and she wasn’t.  And that was okay by me.

I’ve never looked farther than three generations behind me.  I know nothing besides a handful of family stories that may or may not be true.  I might be related to Franklin Pierce, 14th President of the United Sates.  I might be related to Daniel Webster, statesman and Massachusetts senator.  There might still be a castle in England somewhere with a Stanfield still living in it.  I don’t have a pedigree to tout.  I know that among the generations whose lives I’ve been told something about, most came from England, Scotland, Ireland, and one at least, from France.  Or, like my namesake grandmother’s side of the family, they were already here.

I think a lot about family, about where I come from, and who I am.  When I was about seven or eight, I would stare in a mirror and experience a complete disconnect with the image looking back at me.  Who was that person, I used to wonder?  The face, the stuff behind the face?  Was I real?  I had no clue. (What a strange child I must have been.) When I got a little older I searched the faces of my parents and siblings for  family resemblances, something that would make me feel like I belonged, but  there was such a grab-bag selection of this nose with that jaw and those teeth or eyes, hairlines, cheekbones, hand and foot size that not one of us looked much like the other.  (Later my siblings and I would joke about the possibility of a milkman or two being thrown into the mix.  Except that we bought our milk at the store.)  It still amazes me when I run across families whose members look so remarkably alike that there’s never any question of relatedness.

Like my grandmother, I have also felt like an oddball.  Within my immediate family I used to think I could have been a changeling left on the doorstep by trolls. The feeling has abated somewhat in recent years.  But, sometimes I still feel a little out of sync with the people around me.  What I’m passionate about, what I think about, what I like and don’t like, what I dream.

And I think about the list of ingredients that went into the soup that made me:

A grandmother who thought she’d be wedded to Christ, but chose marriage to another man instead.  She left behind a daughter who was raised by so many other people it took her eighty years to find a place where she feels like she belongs.

Another grandmother who, for want of a middle name, thought herself so much less than she actually was.

Bootleggers, gamblers, drinkers, farmers, a failed blacksmith who played the fiddle, house painters, steel workers, bookworms, librarians – dreamers, all.

And something else.  I look back and see more than just the sum of what they did with their lives.  I look back and see qualities like tenacity, hope, and a desire to be better and farther than from where they began.  All those things are good in soup.

DNA is like a magic show.  I know that sleight of hand is involved, that the trick isn’t really magic, and sometimes I even know how the trick is done.  But it’s still strange and thrilling to observe.  How do geese know to fly south?  How did they know that there was a “south” in the first place?  There are all these questions I have.  In my next life, I think that I’ll study genetics.

Or maybe I’ll just learn to sing.

This post brought to you by the DP Weekly Writing Challenge.