It is 1957. My grandmother, Julia, sits at the kitchen table. She has filled the pot-belly with a bucket of coal and let me make a “house” on a quilt and pillows that I’ve set up in front of the stove, pulling the warmth into myself. I don’t know if today is the day that my mother will come back from wherever it is she goes. She always tells me that it’s work. I don’t believe her, and I still miss her in the aching place that owns my heart.
The morning is black and the days are slow to gather light. Winter hovers over us with piercing silence and the language of snow. A chipped ceramic statue of Mary lives on the dining room table and watches me play. I pray to her, asking her to bring my mother back.
The sound of a chair scrapping against the worn linoleum, and the creak of the floor against Julia’s shoes break the spell. I can smell biscuits and coffee and I get up from my warm place by the stove and sit down at the table, where I’m given a biscuit that steams when it is pulled apart. Julia’s shaking hands adds butter to the smooth open surface, along with a tablespoon of preserves made from summer berries. She pours me a cup of coffee, half of it milk. For a moment, I don’t think about being dropped off here again, content with the tastes of her winter kitchen.
Years later, when I remember her, her love still speaks to me in the small gestures of melting butter and coffee that is half milk, and in fires that are kept going so we won’t be cold. She was never someone who cuddled me or talked to me, but she smiled when she carefully stepped over the house I’d made in front of the pot-bellied stove and softly said “yes, yes, yes,” as if I’d somehow delighted her.
I dig and rut through these memory places sometimes, embracing the sorrow and its meaning; savoring the sweetness of love in her yes’s and my grief. I used to fear these recollections, but now I count them as blessings. All that changed was an understanding of what it took for cold hands to roll out dough on a floured sink board in the early, dark of day. Life has always been this good.
The shadow that invited me back here loosens its grip on the ghost of confusing emotions: a small child left in farmhouse that sits in the vastness of prairie and sky. I taste again the feeling tone of the time, so grateful to have remembered. Rip it right from the heart of the matter, and keep it close by. This, I tell myself, is the light and darkness, which define you.
When the plates and cups sat empty upon her table, I saw through the window, light creeping into the day. Snow fell gently on fence posts and dried grasses and I jumped when I heard the sound of a car crunching gravel under its tires as it slowly made its way up to the farmhouse.
This is an older post, but one that I had a lot of fun remembering and writing. I’m sharing it here again in the spirit of the season. Happy Holidays, friends. Thanks for being a part of my world. All good wishes and good will for the new year!
It wasn’t fair! For two years in a row, Cheryl McAdams got to be Mary and wear the blue veil and hold the baby Jesus doll in the Christmas Pageant. Cheryl McAdams stepped on my feet whenever she could, leaving black marks on my white socks and scuffs on my Mary Janes. When we were lined up, waiting to go into assembly, she would turn around stomp on my one of my feet, laugh, and then turn to the front of the line again like she hadn’t done anything. No way she should have been Mary two years in a row!
I sang in the choir, directed by Mrs. Luella Pearson. Mrs. Pearson had bluish grey hair that she sprayed into a helmet on her head. Her face was heavily powdered. “Like a porcelain doll” my mother said, but I thought she looked more like a powdered donut.
Each year our school, which was a private school, a fact that my mother liked to share with relatives in a way that didn’t make it private at all, put on a Christmas Pageant. The local television station invited the school to the studio and filmed the entire thing. It was the big event leading up to our winter break.
In parkas and scarves, boots and mittens we marched off of the school bus by grade, so bundled against the snow and cold that we looked like a little troop of Michelin men. Volunteer parents and teachers took us to dressing rooms where we were greeted by rows of freshly pressed, neatly hung choir robes. Sizes were found, parkas and boots were stashed and soon each kid had on a black robe with a white collar and a big red bow that tied under the collar.
Mrs. Pearson inspected us, standing in lines just that way that we would when we sang. She walked up and down, heels clicking on the concrete floor and gave us instruction.
“Be like angels,” she said. “Look directly into the camera and smile your best smiles while you are singing. Remember that smiling helps to raise the note so that you do not sing flat.”
Hearing these instructions, I vowed to hold them dear in the hopes that Mrs. Pearson might notice and cast me as Mary next year.
It cannot be easy for mere mortals to deal with 70 first through sixth graders. Our excitement was ramped up by the robust supply of cookies and candy, supplied by the television station. Like fat little puppies at the trough, we practically licked the floor when the sugary treats were gone.
The thing about so much sugar is that it makes kids think of doing things that they normally wouldn’t do. Leonard, a boy from my class, had already eaten several cookies and quite a bit of candy. He regularly got in trouble at school. Leonard could bring class to a raucous stand still. He liked to put his hand in his armpit and then flap it like a wing in such a way as to make loud farting noises, bringing bouts of laughter. Girls were not supposed to laugh, but secretly I thought Leonard was a very funny kid.
Leonard was running around the television studio with the baby Jesus doll that he’d taken from the manger, and using it as a machine gun.
“Leonard, I told you last week, none of this nonsense! Stop all this fussing now. Do you want to do sit in the dressing room by yourself? Do you,” she repeated, bending down and placing her hands on his shoulders. She straightened the large white collar on his choir robe, and fluffed the big red bow.
I was standing right next to them, so I saw all of it happen. Leonard listened to Mrs. Pearson with an intense look on his face and then a little smile. Mrs. Pearson straightened up and smiled back just as Leonard let rip a real fart. Loud, rolling and fragrant. Leonard started to laugh. All of the kids around him started to laugh. Mrs. Pearson turned whiter than the powder on her face and grabbed a handful of her helmet hair so hard that you could hear it crunch in her grip. For the rest of the day she had a dent on one side of her head.
Now Mrs. Pearson had to avoid Leonard because whenever he saw her, he started to laugh uncontrollably which brought on more laughter from other kids, except from the group of girls that included Cheryl McAdams, in her stupid looking blue Mary veil. They stood in their little pod and glared at Leonard.
“He is so rude,” I heard one of them say.
“My mother would never let me play with him,” said another
“Why would you want to?” chimed in Cheryl McAdams.
Finally it was time for the choir to line up and sing. The adults herded us to our places and we stood in two neat rows, kids in the back on risers so that everyone could be seen. Excitement bubbled over as bright lights shined down and a big camera focused on us. Mrs. Pearson stood behind the camera and raised her arms to direct our singing. I remembered what she had said about looking right into the camera and singing with a smile on your face.
We sang the Reader’s Digest condensed version of the Hallelujah Chorus first. Then we sang Away in a Manger. Each time the camera went by I looked right into the lens, and without really meaning to, leaned slightly forward, as I smiled my best smile. What I didn’t know at the time is that none of the other kids followed Mrs. Pearson’s instructions, so they didn’t look right into the camera. They didn’t smile and none of them leaned forward as the camera went by.
As we came to the end of Silent Night, Holy Night, I leaned forward a little too far and fell onto my face taking three other kids out with me. It is to the cameraman’s credit that he did not follow my descent with his lens– and to Mrs. Pearson’s credit that she didn’t put another dent in her helmet hair. As I went down I could hear Leonard laughing uncontrollably.
On Christmas Eve my mother, my aunts, some cousins sat in our living room and watched the Christmas Pageant on television. My aunts were laughing and calling me a little ham. I scowled my best eight-year-old scowl and said, “I did exactly what Mrs. Pearson told us to do and I was the only one.”
“You were definitely the only one sweetheart,” said one of the aunts. With arms folded across my chest I continued to watch as I tumbled over the three kids that became part of the great Silent Night fall. Leonard could be heard laughing in the background. The screen faded to black and then to our principal, with a sick look on her face wished everyone a “Very Merry Christmas and a Good Night.”
Somewhere in another part of the city, a powdered Luella Pearson, replete with helmet hair was watching the Christmas Pageant too, and she was on her third martini.
November. I novel write in November. I use the excuse of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) to bang out as much of a draft on a new project as I can. It’s demanding. I’m not one of those writers who will tell you how much I love the process, I’m one of those writers who fights with herself every day about word count, plot points, scenes that work or don’t work. Truthfully, I’m a train wreck to be around. I don’t care what’s going on in your life, I only care about cranking out a couple of thousand words every day. But here I am, with something so important burning inside of me, that I am breaking away from my work to tell a different story, a story that is bigger than me and begging me to write it down. This one’s for you, Kitty.
Kitty and I met when we were twenty. I can’t tell you exactly how–something to do with a party at the naked lady magazine she worked for, a joint we smoked on the fire escape, and the chocolate cake that kept calling our names. In youth you can meet someone and recognize them immediately, and then you are friends forever. I recognized her. We became roommates within months of that first meeting and lived a rich 1970’s experience. Our twenties were replete with a house in Laurel Canyon where you could often find a stray musician who stopped by to play us a new song and a box of grass and rolling papers sitting on the coffee table. Our friends were runners at the music publishing houses and record companies who worked hard and would grow up to become executives one day, wielding power, arrogance and self importance with the best of them. Then, in the 1970’s we were all just a bunch of kids trying to figure out how to do life.
Dancing until the bars closed. Smoking pot. Listening to music. Working on less than four hours sleep and waking up excited about every day. In some ways it was a shallow, but terribly fun existence that can only looks good on a twenty-something. And Kitty, well Kitty was the one I recognized, and she recognized me. So we took time with each other that we didn’t take with other people. We took time to learn each other’s story and fairly early on, I knew that Kitty was adopted and that she was on a search. Who was her mother? Her father? Why was she given up for adoption? It was a silently painful and unfilled longing that would be somewhat abated by age, marriage and a child of her own, but a longing nonetheless that was never far from her, the background noise of life that just couldn’t be tuned out.
Life happened to us and we happened to life and here at the ripe old age of 63, when everything fast-forwarded so much quicker than I ever thought it would, Kitty found her mother. I would betray her by offering the details of who the woman is or the ‘why’ of all of it, but I will tell you that Kitty went to visit her. And she emailed me a short clip from a video that her husband took of the reunion. A gentle southern woman holding onto her daughter while crying, “you are mine.” Kitty’s hand caressing the cheek of her mother, the laughter that escapes from them as a rush of thoughts showed on their faces– grief for what had never been, and a gratitude for what now was.
This is what was more important than today’s word count on my damn novel. More important than my self-involved surrender to the latest love/hate writing project. This is the happy resolve to my friend’s lifetime longing, a story that demonstrates that the power of love is a stronger force in life than we ever really understand. The rest of the story? Well, that’s for Kitty to tell. And I do believe that she will write it one day and that will be the real conclusion.
To my dear friend, the one who inspired me to write, who is far from home, meeting her birth mother with hugs and kisses deep understanding and few regrets–you rock my world Kitty, and I am so happy for your reunion.