Monday, January 4, 2016

A Christmas Story

December 22,  2015

Last night I teared up when I read A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote to my kids.  God, I love this story.  Why does my family roll their eyes and shake their heads when I cry?  They think I’m weird.  I think they’re weird for not crying.  The images are so poignant, the writing so beautiful.  I try to explain that mine are not the tragic kind of tears. The story does not necessarily end badly.  Buddy, the boy, gets older and leaves home and his cousin stays where she is.  As old people do she gets older.  But when he was young she gave him love and fun and Christmas.   Capote gives us more than a glimpse into a nostalgic window. He invites us into the very room to sit unobtrusively at a table in the corner while he serves up a delicious slice of the past.

I didn’t want to cry. I tried not to. I was afraid if I did this story would be added to the list of Christmas books my kids deem “sad” and don’t like me to read. I steeled myself for the speech where Buddy’s cousin talks about how things are perfect right here and now and her being so perfectly happy that ‘I could leave this world with today in my eyes.” I made it through that. But I had forgotten about the image at the very end of the two kites flying up to heaven.  That got me. Oh well. I dabbed my eyes with the collar of my turtleneck.

But the books that make me cry are my favorites, you see.  Holly and Ivy by Rumer Godden is another one.  I love this story. Again, the writing is wonderful and augmented by Barbara Cooney’s warm illustrations. Toys talk and scheme, wishes are taken seriously and physically felt. A little orphan girl finds a home and a childless couple finds a family.  Heartwarming, that’s what it is, not sad.  Unfortunately, this is also on the banned list.

Hey, I love The Grinch as much as anybody. Rudolph?  The Night Before Christmas?  Sign me up. The Little Fir Tree?  -Waaaiit a minute. Talk about depressing. A little evergreen aspires to be a beautiful Christmas tree only to be left dried up and forsaken in the attic after the holidays. It is then cut up and burned.  As he goes up in flames he has the presence of mind to regret all his former hopes.  Now THAT story is a bummer.  Heartwarming?  Not by a long shot. 

And for the love of God, don’t even get me started on The Little Match Girl.  I’m not going there either-and not because it or The Little Fir Tree makes me cry.  It doesn’t. Those particular stories simply trigger seasonal depression; a state of dry-eyed, weary holiday hopelessness that I suspect Northern Europe-dwelling Hans Christian Andersen was mired in when he penned them. (Dude needed a full-spectrum sun lamp.) The feelings these stories provoke are much different than those that produce a couple happy tears. My family could have it worse- I could add these to the rotation. 

My kids just need to learn to differentiate between different kinds of tears. "Poignant" does not necessarily mean "sad".  Which is why I’m making them listen to me read these great stories again next year. And the year after that. Yes, even if I have to occasionally pause and wipe my eyes while I do it.

And maybe when they’re all grown up and have children of their own they’ll look back on the memory of their dear mother taking the time to read good stories to them. Maybe they'll even get a little misty-eyed themselves. And when that happens I'll look lovingly over the top off my glasses at my beloved family and say

HA! Gotcha! Full circle!

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Done With Sun

It’s late August. I’m on vacation at the Washington coast. The sun is out and it’s a beautiful day at a place that historically doesn’t sport too many beautiful days, even in summer. In spite of this I’m sitting in the shade of a large shrub where I can’t even see the ocean. I am quite comfortable here, thank you.

As a native Washingtonian who usually relishes the few sunny days we get every year I should be reveling in this weather.  It’s always been my contention that Seattleites are especially appreciative of sunny days because we experience so few of them. They’re special. A bright day makes our trees more green, our water more blue. But this year I’m not savoring the sun. I'm not enjoying my lightly sunburned legs and the feeling of radiant warmth soaking down to my bones.

The sun?  I’m over it.  Too many hot, sunny days in the last few months have rendered me unappreciative of cloudless skies. Like that eternally optimistic acquaintance whose sunny disposition eventually rides your last nerve so has this hot, dry weather overstayed its welcome with me.  Let’s get real. Let’s get misty.  

I long for the radiant warmth of the wood stove, not the sun. I have an itch for my wool sweaters. I’m sure they miss me as I miss them.  It’s been too long.

This summer has been the hottest our state has seen since people started keeping records.  We are the Evergreen State no more. Everything is brown. Brown grass, brown shrubs, brown native vegetation. The rhodies need water, for heaven’s sake. Young trees are dead on the side of the highway, ready kindling for any stray cigarette. The Olympics have been free of snow since June.  And I won't even get into how the lack of snow pack will affect the salmon for years to come.  

The garden requires more attention than I like to give. Some vegetables we water on a drip irrigation system, some are on their own. This usually works out fine. This year, however, the crops that are on their own aren’t faring so well. And do I want to do a bunch of extra watering in this heat?  No thank you. I'm a lazy gardener, remember? (If not, see post from 10/13). My gardening style is much like my parenting style: benign neglect.  Works for the kids. Not so much for the garden.

Speaking of brown, Eastern Washington only wishes it were brown. Instead, it’s glowing orange with the most viscous wildfires the state has ever seen, grey with ash and choking smoke that’s blowing west to Puget Sound, and black with the charred remains of houses, forests and lives.  The only moisture falling in that part of the state is from the eyes of those who have lost everything, including loved ones who died fighting the inferno.

So you see, I’m done with all of it, as I’m sure a lot of people are. I'm done with dust and shorts and sweating and fires and a landscape that doesn't look or feel like my home.  So yes, I’m very happy to sit here in the shade at the beach,  thank you very much.  Hey!  The sun ducked behind a cloud and the wind kicked up.  What’s that on my skin?  Goosebumps?  Oh, my little pimples of poultry, how I’ve missed you! Long time no see!

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Notes from the Nursing Home

The other morning I walked into the dining room at the nursing home and saw Ella sitting at Nasreen's table. 

Ella is a spunky 90 year old originally from Latvia. She always has a smile on her face and a glow about her I can't quite describe. Years ago as a missionary she ventured into Stalinist Russia at her own peril. Nasreen is an elderly Iranian stroke survivor who was raised much like a princess in the old country. Listening to her boss the aides around it's obvious Nasreen is used to having people wait on her. No matter.  She is a generous and affectionate lady.  I like her a lot. The aides do too.

It was clear that these two, with their hearing issues and very different accents, had managed to discuss something important over breakfast.
I caught the last thing Ella said before she left the table. 

“Always remember” she said pointedly to Nasreen, her face serious and close, “You are a precious child of God!”

“Thank you.” Nasreen bobbed her head of dyed hair and smiled broadly with her new dentures. As Ella wheeled herself away she thanked her again. 

After breakfast I helped  Grandma back to bed,  put the amplifying headphones over her ears and read to her. Lately we've been reading poems but I like to start with a Bible story and a psalm or two.  About halfway through the first book of Mark Grandma’s eyes closed and she drifted off to sleep.  I finished the chapter anyway then sat in silence, thinking I’d pick up my knitting and quietly work on it for the remainder of my visit.

Her sudden outburst surprised me both in its authoritative tone and volume. I stared with a stupid smile on my face as she broke the silence by reciting:

“Thank you God for all I care
For things to eat and things to wear
For Mother, Father, good and kind
Please help me always to mind
Like Jesus, in whose name I pray.”

“What a sweet prayer!” I said. “Where did you learn that?” 

“I used to say it when I was a little girl." she said, eyes still closed. "My mother must have taught it to me.” Then she drifted off to sleep.

I wanted to write down what she had said but I didn’t have a pen and my  startled brain wouldn’t wrap around all the words.  I assumed it was a common old prayer I could find online but the snippets I later googled yielded nothing.  I called my sister but the phrases I related to her didn’t sound familiar.  I worried Grandma might die -or worse- that the words might disappear into the recesses of her mind during the night and remain hidden forever before I had a chance to get them down on paper.
In the morning I was prepared and she was alert.  I asked her about the prayer and as she recited it I wrote it down.

“My, that was a long time ago.” Grandma said.  ‘I remember a lot from when I was a little girl.”

“That’s because you still are that little girl.” I told her.  “A few years have passed between then and now, that’s all.”

“Nearly 100 years! I'm almost 104, you know." and Grandma shook her head, amazed again at her own longevity.

When it was time to go I left her sleeping in her bed by the window like I always do but today my departure felt different. Today I walked out with something I didn’t have when I walked in-something my grandma had had since she was a little girl.  I secured the prayer in my purse like a piece of jewelry and carried it with me out the door.

On my way down the hall I said good bye to Nasreen and Ella. These ladies are still the little girls they were, too-  Nasreen waited upon by her father’s servants, splendidly dressed in Persian finery; Ella playing in the dust in the doorway of her Latvian home,  her parents telling her the same Bible stories I read to my grandmother. 

Children, all of them. Old, wrinkled children. Precious children of God.