Things that she used to believe, including a few that she still might believe


That a person could spontaneously combust. That the word “absurd” was spelled and pronounced “absurb.” That the circular file referred to an actual file that went around and around, similar to the revolving spice rack in her sister Oatie’s cupboard. That she could write the beautiful book she dreamed of writing. That she could one day repeat that once-in-a-lifetime night in her childhood, when she closed her eyes at bedtime and opened them again to morning. That Phoebe was pronounced Foe-Eeb. That she would take her children on long road trips and they would all sing rounds in the car. That she would one day encounter Cindy S., magnificent companion of her childhood, in an airport. That she would have a 50-year marriage. That she would one day iron the green and brown shirt that for many years she had been meaning to iron. That she would overcome her fear of headstands.  That she would host a potluck gathering on the second Sunday of every month. That she would live in the country. That she would live among mountains. That she would live on the ocean. That she would never yell at her children. That she would buy an around-the-globe plane ticket good for an entire year. That she would have a signature dish or three. That she would speak fluent Spanish. That she could get over it. That she could get through it. That she could get past it. That heavy cream with her coffee was bad for her. That her sisters would remember the time all that water spilled down from the maple tree onto David C. That the piece of broken-off lead in the palm of her hand would fade away and disappear. That she would someday be good enough. That she would learn to appreciate wine. That she could live across the street from her best friend. That the next time she traveled alone, she would take photos of her shadow wherever she went. That she would always be able to comfort her children. That she would always be able to cheer them up. That the squirrels living in her eaves would move away of their own volition. That she would have a car with heated seats. That she could make others happy. That if only she tried hard enough.

It's Pick a Photo Day

06_slides_097 And so we come again to our regularly scheduled Pick a Photo, Any Photo day. Who knows when a Pick a Photo day will occur? Not me. Pick a Photo days just happen, like squirrels invading your eaves will just happen, if you, like me, are not ever vigilant.

The rules of the pick a photo day are very simple: open up the old slides-transferred-to-digital file, choose a numbered slide at random, insert it into the post, and write.

So very simple. And yet some of us, some of us meaning me, can’t seem to follow such simple rules. Some of us, meaning me, descend upon slide #49, open it up, gaze at it and think, Nah, and close it down following only the briefest of soul wrestling matches. Flagrant disobeyal of rules.

Back to the slide file. I shall descend upon the number that reflects the age to which I hope to live without infirmity of any kind and with everyone I love still alive – laugh if you must, but why not dream large? – and here we go.

The problem, if it can be termed a problem, is that this slide is so very, very tiny that I can’t tell who it is. It may well be Oatie on the left, and me on the right. (Oatie? Hello through these many years – is that you?)

At any rate, these children are swinging in their little wooden swings. Sand beneath their feet. Trees surrounding. Cool air blowing past them when they lean back and get going again.

Outside the frame of the slide, their parents and grandparents are setting out a picnic. This is the annual Transfer Day, when the children go to stay with their grandparents for a week while their parents go. . . where? do. . . what? The children have no idea. So far as they know, their parents are placed on Pause during the seven days that their children are not with them, in that creaky old house in the foothills upstate.

Swing, children, whoever you may actually be, because you’re too young to have to do anything other than be children. Potato salad awaits you, along with already-prepared sandwiches from the downstate kitchen of the grandmother. Fruit salad and iced tea with lemon and Sweet ‘n Low. A cake, perhaps. Watermelon.

After the picnic has been eaten, you will get into the backseat of your grandparents’ car. You will travel another hour and a half to their house, while your parents are either on Pause, remaining frozen in time at this state park until seven days have passed, or off on an adventure of which you know nothing.

Nightly visits to Dairy Queen await you at your grandparents’ house, along with scrambled eggs every morning, should you wish them, and you do wish them. Jody the dog. A blue glass bowl full of wrapped butterscotch candies. Lessons in the correct folding of towels. Visits to the summer-house-neighbors, who are never there, but whose pool always is, and which you are allowed to swim in. Visits to your great-aunt’s house, the one attached to the lawnmower repair shop, so that the smells of motor oil and baking cookies intertwine. The closet with its stacks of board games, including Mousetrap, your favorite. Back to your grandmother’s house, and the cool green pleather chair in the basement, where you are allowed to read as long as you want.

Swing high, swing low, swing as long as you like and don’t worry for a moment about swinging too high and falling out, because that wooden bar will keep you safe. Yes, how lucky you are, you children who may or may not be me and Oatie.

Rain on a river that runs to the sea

RainA long time ago she lived in a fourth-floor walkup on a steep hill in the middle of a city on the ocean.

The city was bisected from another, smaller city by a river. The river was a few blocks steeply downhill from her steeply staircased apartment building.

She got up before dawn every day, not out of a sense of moral obligation but because she always woke up before dawn.  To pay the rent on the steep apartment, which she shared with her sister and thousands of cockroaches, she typed papers for college students.

The college students took the subway to her steep apartment and dropped off their penned or penciled papers, and she called them when the papers were neatly typed. She was only a year out of college herself.

This was a long time ago, when she was trying so hard to be what she wanted to be.

She had a part-time job a few miles away, in the city across the river. Instead  of taking the subway she liked to walk to the faraway job, and she started walking at dawn, down the steep hill and across the river on an arched bridge.

The bridge was old, with old stone turrets built onto the sides. She liked to stop at the turrets and look down on the river below. The turrets reeked of urine and fish and the salt breeze off the ocean.

After she crossed the bridge she made her way along the other side of the river, two, three, four, five miles to the busy square where her part-time job was.

It was quiet at dawn – it usually is, no matter where you are in the world. Even the birds cease their singing, if only for a little while. She was usually alone at dawn, green paths to her left and a highway to her right. Scullers stroked by her on the river, their long boats silent and swift.

At some point the geese appeared. They lived by the river, and they disliked her. Fowl of all kinds had always disliked her, beginning with the chickens she had raised at age nine.

These geese would hiss at her and even chase her. Lest you accuse her of poultry savagery, rest assured that she was innocent of all crimes when it came to the geese. Yet still, she knew in her heart that had they managed to corner her – against one of the turrets on the bridge, say – they would have gladly killed her.

She was tired by the time she turned from the river and onto the busy streets that surrounded the bustling square. It was a good tired, though, a stretched-out-muscle-beating-blood kind of tired.

She was young, and trying hard, and full of questions, and sometimes she felt lost, and walking was something that wasn’t lost and wasn’t full of questions. Walking was always good. Walking was what she depended on.

When she got hungry in the busy square she walked to a sandwich shop a few blocks away: curried tuna salad, or tomato and cheese on heavy wheat bread. They were the best sandwiches she’d ever eaten.

Some afternoons, before the took the subway back to the steep hill where she lived, she went to the old bookstore a few blocks away.  Straight downstairs she went, to the many tables and wooden shelves of discounted books. Novels and poetry and essays and scholarly treatises on subjects she’d never heard of, in languages unknown to her. She could spend hours there, in that bookstore, the best she’d ever been in.

Once, she had an errand to run on the busy streets of the busy square. She was looking for the address, which she couldn’t find, when the skies opened up. She skittered from doorway to doorway, peering up at the numbers, huddling against the sides of buildings, trying to avoid the deluge.

“Are you lost?”

It was her friend, materializing off the cobblestones, holding an umbrella and laughing, which made her laugh too. She gave up on the errand and took shelter under the umbrella.

Together they walked in that awkward sharing-an-umbrella way to the nearby bakery, the one where the old men played chess by the clock. She, the non-chess player, watched them and marveled at their intensity, and how they seemed to know exactly what to do.


good-directionsThey were  driving south, keeping to the river as it made  its way to the Gulf of Mexico. They had the dog with them. They had fled the bitter temperatures and ever-gray skies and were driving south until they hit 60 degrees, his personal number of temperature happiness. It took them a few days, and when the magic number appeared, he did a little dance  in his seat and she laughed.

Sometimes they opened the window for the dog so that he could stick his head out. There was little he liked more than a road trip. He liked snuffing in the air of a new place, and all the places they drove through were new.

They stayed at dog-friendly motels at  night, and they checked in late, so that they didn’t know what the surroundings were. She was  the early riser and she took the dog for a morning walk and then partook of the free continental breakfasts.

Just as he had waited for 60 degrees, she was waiting for grits, her personal barometer of southernness, to appear on the continental breakfast buffet. When they did, she ate two bowls of them, buttered and salted. But not cheesed.

They had a trucker’s atlas with them. They were hugging the river, that was the plan, so they didn’t consult it much except when night came and they had driven their limit. Where was the next small town, and would it have a pet-friendly motel?

They knew they’d consult it more when they reached the Gulf and began the eastward trek to their destination, but for now, they didn’t have directions. The trucker’s atlas had all kinds of useful information, some they didn’t need but read aloud anyway, such as the weight limits for various roadways in various states.

It was dark when they approached Mobile and they fake-argued about the way Mobile was really pronounced and if the accent lay on the first or second syllable: Mo-beel. Mo-beel. Mo-bye-ull. Mo-bull. They came to no consensus.

The city lay before them, shining. Two onion-domed buildings made her feel she was in a new and strange place.

Traffic slowed to a crawl. Police were everywhere. Barricades blocked streets. People everywhere were walking steadily toward an unknown destination.

Far off they heard music, brass bands and zydeco. The highway ahead of them was now blocked off. Their small car had joined a car river, threading its way who knew where. And then all the cars began pulling off the road, parking wherever there was space. Ahead, the music grew louder.

Ways in and out of the city had closed down. The stream of people grew bigger.

“What’s going on?” she said to him.

She was nervous. There were many, many miles to go before they reached their destination, and it was already late, and she was already very tired.

“I don’t know,” he said, “but we’re about to find out.”

He opened the door and got out. The dog leaped after him. She followed. The  three of them joined the stream of walkers, past the police roaming in pairs, the barricades, past trailers hooked up to thrumming generators, toward the steadily louder music, the lights.

“It’s Mardi Gras,” he said in wonderment. “Look.”

It was Mardi Gras. They were in Mobile, the city that they would later find out was the city of the original U.S. Mardi Gras celebration.

They joined the throngs of people standing on the sidewalks, small children on shoulders, big men brandishing beer, women swaying to the music.

Parades threaded their way through the streets of Mobile, outlandish floats and outlandish costumes and music everywhere. Was everyone they saw smiling? Everyone they saw was smiling.

Beads snaked through the air and they jumped up to catch them. Dolls and moon pies and all manner of candies came sailing through the dark air and they caught those too.

A big man standing next to her caught an enormous rag doll and looked about the crowd: “Where’s a little girl?” She pointed to one with dark hair, sitting on her father’s shoulders. The big man offered her the doll, and she took it without smiling, and then she smiled.

“Happy Mardi Gras, little girl,” the big man said, and took another swig of his beer.

The dog stood patiently between them, watching the floats as they passed by. She draped some shiny purple beads around his neck and he graciously accepted them. She draped some shiny green beads around her companion’s neck.

“This is what happens when you don’t have a big plan,” he said to her. “This is what happens when you wander your way.”

Parades. Big, strange, beautiful floats carrying dancing costumed people. Beads and moon pies and dolls flying through the air. Music rising high in the dark southern sky. Magic.

Slow, like it used to be

double-boilerThat right there to the left  is a double boiler, in case you’ve never seen such a thing. It’s made of Pyrex, which the lady at the Annunciation Church Rummage Sale told me was a very good thing.

I saw it sitting on the kitchenware table along with stacks of muffin tins and sets of china and many assorted plastic containers, and I picked it up.

“Is this a double boiler?” I said.

“Why yes,” she said, and then she went on to tell me of its Pyrex-ness, and of the many things it could be used for, such as custards and puddings.

It was $6, pricey for a rummage sale and against my rummage sale instincts, which are to drop in on a rummage sale the afternoon of its second day, which – as anyone in the rummage sale know knows – is when prices are slashed by 50%.

But I’ve wanted a double boiler for years now, so I ponied up the $6 and left with it clutched to my chest, and the next morning I made oatmeal in it.

I did it by feel. Filled the bottom pot with water and the smaller top pot with oatmeal and more water, and set it on the front burner turned to a medium flame, and then I went away and did a bunch of other things, such as weed the flower bed and fold laundry and stare nervously at the legs of the piano, which have come entirely unscrewed from the piano itself, so that at any moment the entire soundboard could come toppling onto the legs of someone sitting there innocently, practicing a pleasant tune.

Came back a long time later and the oatmeal was thick and creamy, as unlike instant microwaved oatmeal as it could be.

A long time ago, I used to take my little kids to the Lincoln Del for breakfast. We went on weekdays to take advantage of the Early Bird Breakfast Special, available from 6-8 a.m.

I can still see the laminated tabletop Early Bird Breakfast Special menu. Everything was absurdly cheap, so cheap that I felt guilty going there so often with my three little kids. But I went anyway.

Blueberry pancakes: $2.25. So thick with blueberries that they were a dark purple.

Cheese omelet: $3.25. This was unlike any cheese omelet I’ve ever had – baked in a small oval tin high-sided pan, more like a cheese-and-egg souffle than an omelet. It was indescribably delicious, so buttery and salty.

Oatmeal: $1.25. Brown sugar and raisins upon request, and we always requested.

We used to order three or four breakfasts and share them amongst us – the kids were very small and I would finish whatever was left from anyone’s plate – but we always ordered two bowls of oatmeal. Like everything they served at breakfast, the oatmeal was better than anyone else’s.

“Why is this oatmeal so good?” I asked the elderly waitress one day. (All the waitresses were elderly.) “What does he do?”

“Oh honey,” she said, “everyone loves the oatmeal here. All he does is cook it long and slow in a double-boiler. That’s the only secret.”

The Lincoln Del closed and was torn down a long time ago, but we – the kids and I – still mourn it. We still remember the oatmeal, and the blueberry pancakes, and the cheese omelets. The red vinyl booths. The chrome sugar shakers and napkin holders.

If there are degrees of separation between restaurants and food and cookware, then there is one degree of separation between the Lincoln Del and my new/old double boiler.

One degree of separation between those mornings long ago, before any of the kids were in school and we could sit together in a booth for a long time, spilling syrup and buttering toast, and mornings now, when a double boiler sits on the stove, slow-cooked oatmeal there for the taking.

One degree of separation between fast, like now, and slow, like it used to be.