Sunday Sentence(s): From Mom’s Monday Letters ( A Reprise)

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The “Kitchen Sink” shortie: all the essentials in a hurry and with love.

It’s five o’clock on Monday morning and my mother sits in bed, knees up, a pad against her thighs, her second cup of coffee steaming within easy reach. Her pen flies across the page in front of her leaving behind a trail of thoughts that have been on her mind for days, minutes, or take shape as she writes.

I can reconstruct this because on more than one visit home back in the early days of my adulthood, I found her there, often with my infant son tucked into the pillows next to her after she’d swooped him up so that I could have a rare extra hour of morning sleep.

“Happy Monday. Hope between you and the numerologist you had a good weekend.” Monday, 1980

These were her “Monday Letters.” She wrote her first one when I left home at 17. As the rest of us tumbled out of the nest, one or two a year, she wrote more. She has written over 1,500 Monday letters to me by my estimation. Add my siblings, step siblings, her godchildren, and fellow travelers she adopted along the way, and we are talking serious writer’s cramp and the death of a forest or two before the advent of email and texts.

“Dear Betsy, a day late and dull stationery to boot and oh dear a lousy pen. Not a very good way to start the day. It’s 6:15.”

Not long ago, I was rooting around in the garage and found a battered cardboard carton labeled “Mom” in black marker. The seams of the box were worn; the top barely able to contain the letters jammed inside. The letters, survivors of my mother’s weekly correspondence, seemed to be pushing their way out of the box to find me. I forgot whatever I’d been looking for and hauled the box into my office and for the next few days, I read them all.

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I picked up each letter with the same combination of eagerness and trepidation I used to feel mid-week when her letters usually arrived.

“Our conversation was most unsatisfactory – to be blamed in all fairness on both of us. I for my part am sorry I always flunk pretty badly when I attempt to contain myself and unfortunately I’ve been containing my opinions on this for a very long time.”

They weren’t always written on a Monday. They weren’t always written before dawn. She used whatever paper she had and whatever time she had between jobs, errands, doctor visits, or when she woke in the middle of the night with someone on her mind.

“I’ve been awake since 3 a.m. Thinking of you.”

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They weren’t always fun to read. The letters I found spanned a chunk of late seventies, early eighties when I moved with a man ten years older to the suburbs without getting married and without a job. I went into debt. My son was hospitalized after COBRA ran out. My relationship with my partner slid into a swamp I couldn’t seem to get out off with my self-esteem intact. She called often. We visited when we could. But her letters never stopped coming. Holding one — even the lectures — was like feeling her hand in mine. She couldn’t pull me out but the letters told me she would be there, cheering me on when I finally emerged on my own.

“Don’t beat yourself up.  Whatever you do, we love you.”

Each letter was at least one, but often a combination of the following:  hello, weather report, family news, a verbal finger-prod between the shoulder blades, a long-distance hug, wistful wonderings, a mirror, warning, atta-girl, “to-do” list, food for thought, how-to make everything from chicken l’orange for eight to how to manage money. There were lots of letters about money, how I handled it; how I didn’t.

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These recipes rescued me when I first confronted making dinner for adults

“Thought I’d try to give you a rough outline of how to make a budget.”

And there were plenty in which she wrote about her own fears, her own anxiety about the future, her own struggles to grow.

“Thanks for listening to me. I’m really in a mess. Trying to control what I probably should do with what I want to do. I know that it will work out.”

As I sift through the letters, though, the content of the letters is eclipsed by the fact of them. They are tangible evidence of who I was, who she was, and how we worked our way through the holding on and letting go between a mother whose nest was beginning to empty and a daughter whose start-up nest was a hot mess.

“You have to get a grip on yourself. You will NOT be alone for the rest of your life no matter what. The hardest thing is when you’re really are trying and you really feel that you are contributing and then you get so lonely and are shot down. I’m speaking from the heart. It just doesn’t have to be. You get ahold of yourself and stay hold no matter what and don’t let your stubborn determination get the best of you. Have a good week, Love, Mom.

In them was the determination to forge new relationships not just with me but with each of her offspring and other loved ones, to help us nurture connections with each other. They were her way of reconciling her determination to make us all independent with her desire that we all stay connected. They show that when she had a few minutes to herself, she thought of me, my siblings, all her loved ones, and got out her paper and pen. She started out more than one with “Just wanted you to have some mail.” We all knew that some got longer letters some weeks than others; some weeks were tougher than others. Sometimes, a letter was meant to be shared as was the case with this one to me and my son sometime in 1981:

“Hi, I love you and I hope your respective lives are moving onward and upward. Happily, Hastily, Mom/Gramma”

Over the years, the letters helped to weave the fabric connecting all who received them. We can lob a standard quote, “Have the courage of your own convictions” to a stepbrother or sister and they can laugh and toss back, “And poco a poco” or “Don’t lose perspective.”

We chuckle, but we hear her. Even now, we hear her.

Happy Mother’s Day!

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mom card 2014

A Mother’s Day collage of Monday Letters

Life Happens

“It was amazing how you could get so far from where you’d planned, and yet find it was exactly were you needed to be.” (Sarah Dessen, What Happened to Goodbye)

What we won't remember

What we won’t remember

If things had been going according to plan, I’d be writing this post from Switzerland, on the last leg of a three-week trip that was to begin with a flight into Zurich, take us through the Alps and into Italy before ending in Geneva.

It was a trip planned with love and care by a husband who can stretch airline miles, find the best deals, and uncover the splurges that make for the kind of memories that shine through the years like slivers of gold at the bottom of a creek.

The kind of trip very fortunate people can plan.

Then, as some like to say, life happened, or as others put it, shit happened. Within forty-eight hours of our departure, a stomach virus hit us both, a loved one was in a frightening car accident, and even though we told ourselves we’d be fine and our kids told us they’d be fine, my husband looked at me hours before we were to board the plane and said, “I just don’t think this feels right.”

We canceled. Our Cairn terrier, who had been watching the packing with growing concern, relaxed. So, for a few days, did we.

Then another loved one got some troubling news and we planned a new trip, one that took us to Burbank where we spent time with him in doctor’s waiting rooms, labs, and keeping him company while he waited for the results of scans and biopsies. The results came. They weren’t what any of us wanted to hear.

When we look back at this time, we will probably remember the shock, and the pain that followed, but we will also remember how we all gathered the night of the day we got the bad news. We will see the meal our kids, still recovering from the car accident, prepared for their uncle and us. We will see the loved faces around the table as we passed the food, poured the wine, shared old familiar stories. We will drink in the laughter that bubbled through our uncertainty and both anchored and lifted us. We will remember how grateful we felt to have each other and to be with each other instead of thousands of miles away.

It is the kind of moment, and memory, that truly fortunate people can have.

Limoncello Lessons…Please!

Okay, foodies and mixology mavens. I need your help. I made my first ever batch of limoncello and it looks like this:

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In case it isn’t obvious from the photograph above, my limoncello is not yellow. A sip sometimes yields hints of Pledge cleaner underscored by notes of blecchh. Although I did try it again today and it was, if I closed my eyes, drinkable. Of course, anything, can be swallowed if one is determined enough. I speak as someone who remembers the days of Boone’s Farm apple wine (99 cents!) enjoyed (although rarely sipped) in the fresh mountain air near the Vermont state line.

Back to the limoncello.

A failed batch would be just fine if I were whipping up a batch of cookies that went wrong, or dropped an omelet on the floor. This, however, was so much more.

This was supposed to be a love offering, a celebration of families across two continents and one ocean. I had BIG plans for this limoncello.

Let me explain.

The idea was born during our visit to Italy last fall to see my husband’s family in Pontecorvo, just south of Rome. The centerpiece of our day with them was a meal that started around noon or one and unfolded with love and laughter for the next three hours. At the end, Roberto asked if anyone wanted some limoncello?

Of course. Out came a bottle made by the father of his wife, Maria-Vittoria. Each sip was as perfect as the sunlight that filtered through the windows and blessed the faces of those around the dining table.

I knew I couldn’t recreate the food, or the laughter, or the sweetness of connections regained after many years, but I could, I thought, try to make the limoncello once I got home. I had all the ingredients: my stepdaughter’s lemon tree would provide the lemons. My son would provide the vodka. Maria Vittoria gave me her father’s recipe. This limoncello would be infused with love and family from the West Coast to Pontecorvo.

I waited for the lemons on my stepdaughter’s lemon tree to ripen.

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I put aside a bottle of vodka made by my son’s distillery.

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I peeled each lemon trying very hard (but maybe not hard enough) to get pure lemon strips, no white zest.

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I found an old jar that was big enough and poured the vodka in over the peels.

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Then I waited. Waited some more. I waited two months before opening the jar and draining out the vodka which, alarmingly, was not as yellow as the peels had once been.

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I made the simple syrup and added it.

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I let it steep. I chilled it. And … well, you saw. instead of this:

I got this:

photo 1I know that at least one mistake was using organic sugar, rather then the usual white refined stuff. That could add a caramel tint. But what about the vodka? Some argue only for 100-proof vodka or grain alcohol. Goat vodka is 80 proof. I filtered everything through coffee filters inside strainers but nothing got any clearer. One thing I can say is this: these lemons were untreated. They are so light and fresh, I can eat the peels (before they’ve been soaked in vodka). They are beautiful, always.

I try to tell myself there are lessons in this limoncello, tart reminders:

Nothing is easy as it looks or sounds.

Patience is the essential ingredient (Maybe I should have waited until we had some white sugar in the house).

Failure is part of everything, even labors of love. The only thing we can do is to understand where we went wrong. And begin again.

The lemons should be ripe again in a few more months. In the meantime, I am open to any and all suggestions.

 

 

 

 

 

Monday Letters

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The “Kitchen Sink” shortie: all the essentials in a hurry and with love.

It’s five o’clock on Monday morning and my mother sits in bed, knees up, a pad against her thighs, her second cup of coffee steaming within easy reach. Her pen flies across the page in front of her leaving behind a trail of thoughts that have been on her mind for days, minutes, or take shape as she writes.

I can reconstruct this because on more than one visit home back in the early days of my adulthood, I found her there, often with my infant son tucked into the pillows next to her after she’d swooped him up so that I could have a rare extra hour of morning sleep.

“Happy Monday. Hope between you and the numerologist you had a good weekend.” Monday, 1980

These were her “Monday Letters.” She wrote her first one when I left home at 17. As the rest of us tumbled out of the nest, one or two a year, she wrote more. She has written over 1,500 Monday letters to me by my estimation. Add my siblings, step siblings, her godchildren, and fellow travelers she adopted along the way, and we are talking serious writer’s cramp and the death of a forest or two before the advent of email and texts.

“Dear Betsy, a day late and dull stationery to boot and oh dear a lousy pen. Not a very good way to start the day. It’s 6:15.”

Not long ago, I was rooting around in the garage and found a battered cardboard carton labeled “Mom” in black marker. The seams of the box were worn; the top barely able to contain the letters jammed inside. The letters, survivors of my mother’s weekly correspondence, seemed to be pushing their way out of the box to find me. I forgot whatever I’d been looking for and hauled the box into my office and for the next few days, I read them all.

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I picked up each letter with the same combination of eagerness and trepidation I used to feel mid-week when her letters usually arrived.

“Our conversation was most unsatisfactory – to be blamed in all fairness on both of us. I for my part am sorry I always flunk pretty badly when I attempt to contain myself and unfortunately I’ve been containing my opinions on this for a very long time.”

They weren’t always written on a Monday. They weren’t always written before dawn. She used whatever paper she had and whatever time she had between jobs, errands, doctor visits, or when she woke in the middle of the night with someone on her mind.

“I ‘ve been awake since 3 a.m. Thinking of you.”

IMG_2034

They weren’t always fun to read. The letters I found spanned a chunk of late seventies, early eighties when I moved with a man ten years older to the suburbs without getting married and without a job. I went into debt. My son was hospitalized after COBRA ran out. My relationship with my partner slid into a swamp I couldn’t seem to get out off with my self-esteem intact. She called often. We visited when we could. But her letters never stopped coming. Holding one — even the lectures — was like feeling her hand in mine. She couldn’t pull me out but the letters told me she would be there, cheering me on when I finally emerged on my own.

“Don’t beat yourself up.  Whatever you do, we love you.”

Each letter was at least one, but often a combination of the following:  hello, weather report, family news, a verbal finger-prod between the shoulder blades, a long-distance hug, wistful wonderings, a mirror, warning, atta-girl, “to-do” list, food for thought, how-to make everything from chicken l’orange for eight to how to manage money. There were lots of letters about money, how I handled it; how I didn’t.

IMG_0006

These recipes rescued me when I first confronted making dinner for adults

“Thought I’d try to give you a rough outline of how to make a budget.”

And there were plenty in which she wrote about her own fears, her own anxiety about the future, her own struggles to grow.

“Thanks for listening to me. I’m really in a mess. Trying to control what I probably should do with what I want to do. I know that it will work out.”

As I sift through the letters, though, the content of the letters is eclipsed by the fact of them. They are tangible evidence of who I was, who she was, and how we worked our way through the holding on and letting go between a mother whose nest was beginning to empty and a daughter whose start-up nest was a hot mess.

“You have to get a grip on yourself. You will NOT be alone for the rest of your life no matter what. The hardest thing is when you’re really are trying and you really feel that you are contributing and then you get so lonely and are shot down. I’m speaking from the heart. It just doesn’t have to be. You get ahold of yourself and stay hold no matter what and don’t let your stubborn determination get the best of you. Have a good week, Love, Mom.

In them was the determination to forge new relationships not just with me but with each of her offspring and other loved ones, to help us nurture connections with each other. They were her way of reconciling her determination to make us all independent with her desire that we all stay connected. They show that when she had a few minutes to herself, she thought of me, my siblings, all her loved ones, and got out her paper and pen. She started out more than one with “Just wanted you to have some mail.” We all knew that some got longer letters some weeks than others; some weeks were tougher than others. Sometimes, a letter was meant to be shared as was the case with this one to me and my son sometime in 1981:

“Hi, I love you and I hope your respective lives are moving onward and upward. Happily, Hastily, Mom/Gramma”

Over the years, the letters helped to weave the fabric connecting all who received them. We can lob a standard quote, “Have the courage of your own convictions” to a stepbrother or sister and they can laugh and toss back, “And poco a poco” or “Don’t lose perspective.”

We chuckle, but we hear her. Even now, we hear her.

Happy Monday, Mom. And Happy Birthday.

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mom card 2014

A Mother’s Day collage of Monday Letters

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About A Boy

Today, April 20, is about Easter. It is also about a boy.

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The boy and his frog.

The boy in this picture came into my life on April 20, 1975. He doesn’t look this way any more. He’s taller, his shoulders sometimes hunch when the world gets a little much for him, there are a few lines at the corners of his eyes when he smiles.

He’s probably wondering where all the time went. I can’t help him with that.

I can however, remind him of the day when he, just turned seven, brought his froggy friend home for supper. He wanted to create a habitat for him even though the obvious habitat was the creek bank just down the hill where they’d both been spending some quality time together all afternoon.

Arrangements were made. The boy took a bath (I insisted), and the tub was cleaned and prepared for the frog. We placed a rock inside the bath for that homey touch. The water was shallow and what my son determined was the right temperature. We closed the bathroom door.

Did I mention there was only one bathroom in the entire house?

Flash forward to the middle of the night. I have to pee. I forget about the visitor. The minute I open the door, and nearly lose it right then and there when something launches itself right at me. Frog is on the loose. He’s taking the steps three at a time, heading for the downstairs, the living room, the creek.

The boy sleeps like the dead or like seven-year-old boys who have spent the entire day outside. When I yell “The Frog Is Loose” into his ear, his eyes fly open and he’s off. For the next hour we pursue the amphibian through the house, under steam heaters, under couches, with paper bags, much frantic worry on my son’s part and some exasperation but mostly held-back giggles on mine.

The good news is that we saved Mr. Frog from himself. My son snared him in a paper bag. We marched out into the summer night in our pajamas. I started the car and the boy climbed in clutching the top of the bag. We drove to the bottom of the hill where the creek burbled.

I watched the boy get out, carefully lift the frog out of the bag and look him in the eye.

“Good bye,” said the boy. The rest of what he said was along the lines of “I’ll come back in the morning but I know you might not be here. I really wished I could have kept you but I know that wouldn’t have made you happy.” And then he let him go.

A moment of silence followed and then the boy climbed back into the car. A little while later, after a little talk and a glass of milk, he was once again asleep.

To the boy, on his birthday, I say “Happy Birthday. There were times when I wished I could keep you just like this, all muddy, smiles, and full of plans for a frog who had very different ideas.”

I have kept this picture though. I keep the memory of that night along with so many others. I persist in the idea that this boy still lives inside the man my son has become. There is some evidence for this. He still loves digging in the dirt.  He still loves animals although the donkeys would not fit in the bathtub. He still has the most amazing smile.

Happy Birthday to the boy and the man. Happy Birthday to Stan, the most recent addition to the menagerie, who turns one year old today.

Happy Easter to those who celebrate it and may all find joy and renewal in this day.

 

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Happy Birthday to Stan, one year old today.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Twenty Nine

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When I saw the prompt for an essay contest a while back, I couldn’t get it out of my mind.

The prompt was this: write about a moment you would like to have back, to do differently if you could. Although there are many such moments in my life, it wasn’t hard to come up with the one I needed to write about. It lives beneath the surface of my daily life like a splinter under my skin, teaching a lesson I seem to  need to learn over and over again.

I wrote the essay and am honored to say that it was selected by Literary Mama to run in the Creative Nonfiction section of the December issue.  I share it here. If you are new to Literary Mama, I encourage you check it out. It is rich with beautiful, thought-provoking writing captured in reflections on literature, interviews, fiction, poetry, reviews, essays, and columns.

Without further ado, here is a link to my essay, “Twenty Nine.”

Why can’t I forget this? My son has long since forgiven me. We’ve had many happy days and have successfully navigated others marked by greater trauma or guilt. In fact, he does not remember the incident until I show him the picture. For this, I am grateful. Still, I believe there is a reason I need to remember. – See more at Literary Mana, “Twenty Nine.”

The Gift of Found Time

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“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
― Annie Dillard

A  little over eight years ago my father’s heart stopped. One minute he was clutching his tennis racquet and waiting for the other doubles team to serve. The next, he was on the floor. His wife, an ex-firefighter and an amazing human being, resuscitated him with the help of friends and a defibrillator installed on the wall of the gym.

Some years before that, my husband took me to Paris. We bought a seven-day metro pass and rode all over the city to see sights and eat food we’d been talking about for months. Then, on the seventh day, the pass expired. After dinner, we took our last ride back to our hotel, packed our bags and wistfully said good night.

The next morning my husband looked at our itinerary and then looked at me. A smile lit up his face.

“We don’t leave until tomorrow.”

For my father, a little more than 2,300 “found” days. For us, one.

I learned as a kid about the concept of “found” fortune. It’s that five-dollar bill in the pocket of last winter’s coat, discovered this winter as you reach for a plastic bag to clean up after the dog. It’s a coin glistening on the asphalt parking lot, a check tucked inside a birthday card from a relative. Unearned, unexpected, a gift.

The question of course is what to do with the windfall.

My husband and I danced down to the metro station, bought a one-day pass each and set out on a completely unscripted day. We got off wherever we wanted. We ate deli in the Jewish section, wandered through the Picasso museum, negotiated the return of my husband’s stolen sunglasses, ate ice cream, walked one more time along the Seine at night. No single thing was particularly romantic or dazzling. Each one added up to a day we’ve never forgotten. The thing we remember most is how time moved slowly, like a river in August. Each minute drifted up to us, sank in, and then passed without urgency. We had no expectations or plans.

Then we came home. Our days rushed at us full of tasks, expectations, plans set in motion, worries, people to care for, deadlines, milestones. The “found” day is a story we tell. It is something we try to recapture when we travel and we do a pretty good job of it, although planning an open day is not quite the same as waking up to the surprise of one. We’ve never managed to stumble on a “found” day at home or work. As I write these words, I wonder why this is.

As for my dad?

I asked him recently how he views the “extra innings” he was granted. We chatted over the phone. His voice in my ear was clear, strong and, as always, a little musical. He always sounds decades younger than the eighty-seven he will turn next month.

“I think about it a lot and how lucky I’ve been. I’m still above the daisies. I am grateful for that.”

We don’t talk about how he has spent his days since “the event.” There are the things I know about: staying engaged in the company he founded with my brother, adopting with his wife two lab-doodles from a rescue organization, walking a few miles every day or working out on a rowing machine in his basement, chopping wood, driving to the dump, practicing jazz on his guitar, swearing at his computer, cooking and eating meals that keep him trim, healthy, and the poster image of the healthy, compliant cardiac patient. He spends time with men who have served in the Marines, as he has. He continues to read as he always has. He has attended funerals of friends and acquaintances. I know there is a boat under construction in his shed, unfinished. I know it bothers him. A lot of things, it turns out, bother him about how he is spending his time.

“I have so many things out there that I have started and haven’t been able to finish and I feel pressured by that and I keep asking myself how I’m going to deal with this.”

“I’m having a huge dialog with myself about some of the things i’ve done since then and not totally happy with myself.”

“I’m taking some time now to sit down and go through all of it in my mind. I am going to be trying to make better decisions.”

A few hours after talking with my father, I am talking to K. who is in tears. The past has got her in its grip and is shaking her in its wolf teeth.

“I’ve made so many bad decisions.” The rest of the thought goes unexpressed: so little time left to alter course.

At 52 she is trying to find her way to the kinds of days she imagines other people enjoy. She wants to work, to love and be loved, to be included in a world that seems closed off to her because of mistakes she has made or decisions she is afraid to make.

The woman who can make me weep with laughter, who can both embarrass and enthrall me with her ability to walk up to total strangers and talk to them as though she’s known them all her life, who has been a rock for others in the face of death, is afraid on this day. She copes with chronic illness. Money is scarce. Too many of the people she has loved or passed significant chunks of time with are dead.

She wants time back. She wants it to wait for her to catch up. She wants to find time.

We talk about my father. We talk about the day my husband and I found in Paris. We talk about the trap of believing that we’ve screwed up so badly that we can’t or don’t deserve to live fully in the day that is right here in front of us. There is the maddening idea that by “saving” time, we can squirrel it away for later.

Then we talk about those brief flashes of insight that come to us when some event that happens in the space of time it takes to hit the brakes and avoid an accident, or find out that we’ve tucked an extra day in Paris, or when some arbitrary set of circumstances — marrying the right woman, playing tennis in one of the few gyms with an AED attached to the wall — forces our eyes open. We discover that time is both precious and unremarkable. It is now. We understand, if only for a little while, that it was there all along, waiting for us to find it.

Intervention

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I don’t know what kind of bird this is, I don’t know its sex. All I know is that for five days it occupied my backyard, walking around among my herb pots with a bemused air, as if hoping any minute to find a familiar face or landmark. There was no visible injury, no reason that I could see that it wasn’t flying but there it was, grounded among my pots of parsley, basil, sage, mint.

We came upon one another early the first morning when I went out my back door to empty the kitchen compost pail. The bird scuttled out from beneath my pots and, thinking it was a rat, I almost spilled a few days worth of coffee grounds and veggie peelings all over my pajamas.

When I calmed down I realized that this bird was not even trying to fly away. It moved around like a chicken, keeping its eye on me and edging away if I moved too close but it never flapped its wings. In fact it seemed not to realize it had wings.

I zapped into rescue mode. There was no sign of injury but the bird was clearly young and vulnerable. She (?) would be no match for the cats who patrol my yard, the raccoons, bigger and meaner birds, or the coyotes rumored to be in our area. I would have to keep our terrier out of here. How would she eat?

Resentment reared its head. Why did she have to pick my yard? Where were her parents anyway?

While I stood there trying to figure out my next step, the bird settled on the edge of a pot of cilantro and stayed very still as if hoping I would just go away.

So I did. I confess, I was hoping that she would somehow be gone the next time I wandered through. But there she was that afternoon and, after a long night, the next morning. I called the local wildlife rescue folks and reached a man who sighed into the phone as he explained about adolescent birds. They are sometimes out of the nest before they are sure of their wings. It’s pretty common. When I went online in search of more answers, the folks on a Cornell site explained that adult birds liked to get their kids out of the nest and care for them in nearby locations because they were more vulnerable if they all stayed in one place. The man on the phone and the folks at Cornell said if there were no adults in evidence over the next few days, that the only step I could take would be to throw a towel over the bird, scoop her into a box and take her to the refuge where they would keep her.

I wanted her to be someone else’s problem. But every time I thought of tossing a cloth over her, holding that fragile frightened body in my hands, something inside me resisted. So I gave it one more day. Then another. Every morning it seemed like a miracle that she was still alive. She even took a bath in a little dish of water I set out for her. I got used to her. I looked for her. I kept our dog away from her. I went to bed every night thinking of her. Then on the fifth morning, I walked out, said “Good Morning,” and proceeded to water my herbs as I had done twice during her stay.

A beat of wings and she was suddenly on top of our fence looking down. I was struck dumb by a sense of deliverance. When I checked a little later, she was outside the fence, on a cement retaining wall near the compost. That night, she was gone for good.

What if I had intervened? What if I had chased her all over the yard with a towel, forced her into a box and then into a car? What if I had left her with people with much bigger problems to solve? In other words, what if I had tried to save her and made her suffer or, at the very least, complicated her struggle in ways I could not begin to imagine?

I blush to think how many times I’ve done this. In the name of friendship, motherhood, or trying to be a loving daughter, I have intervened, rushed to the rescue with advice, books, quotes, lectures, analysis, yes, analysis. I love to dig into the facts, research, and present people I love or even some I’ve just met (I cringe as I type these words) with tomes of information about their illness, family dynamic, emotional pain, along with hugs and an intense desire to show them a way out.

Someone else’s problems are irresistible to me. Just ask my husband. Or my son. Both have watched me kill perfectly good plants (even the indestructible mint) with too much attention, too much watering. Both have let me know, gently but firmly, when I cross the line from loving kindness into interference with them.

My bird friend came along just as I was penning a long letter to a loved one who is struggling right now. My chest had been tight for days about what to say, what not say, how to find the words that would somehow fix what I saw as his problem. I sent it but not before backing way off the analysis and advice and just letting him know what I saw and that I cared. In some way, I suppose, the earlier version of the letter was like the towel I was considering throwing over the bird’s head. I would be trying to scoop up my friend, hold him in my arms, fix his problem for him so he would be safe.

That’s not what the bird needed. It’s not what my loved ones need either. It’s not even what I need. The bird reminded me that sometimes the best we can offer each other is a little room to breathe and a friendly place to sit and figure things out on our own.

I’ll keep trying.

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Strangers in a Strange Land

Port Angeles seemed like one of the prettiest and wettest places on earth

Port Angeles seemed like one of the prettiest and wettest places on earth

Michael Valentine Smith may have prevented a murder back in the summer of 1974 when my brother and I were stranded in Port Angeles, Washington for nearly ten days. In a Pinto station wagon. In the rain.

It was day five or six. I remember the relentless drumming of water against the car roof. I remember waiting to take my shower in the campground’s bathroom, hoping someone would leave her soap or shampoo behind because I was out. I remember, in a what-the-hell moment, that we spent our last few dollars in an expensive touristy restaurant where my brother and I inhaled giant roast beef sandwiches that came with crisp pickles, french fries, and one little plastic cup of horseradish. I confess to leaving the ramekin of horseradish untouched and waiting for my brother to do what I knew he would do scoop up the cup of horseradish, ask “what’s this?” then, without waiting for an answer, squeeze the entire contents of the cup into his mouth.

We knew each other well, my brother and I. We should have. He’s less than a year younger than me and I have no childhood memories that don’t include him. And, after three and a half weeks of traveling together in the 80-cubic-foot confines of my mother’s green 1974 Pinto station wagon, we’d absorbed knowledge of each other the way our sleeping bags absorbed the water dripping in through the window. Since our — okay, my — second fender bender we had not been able to close it all the way. I knew he’d eat that horseradish because at that point there wasn’t much we wouldn’t eat.

After that meal, we were officially out of money. We had a few more days paid at the campground, a dozen packets of instant oatmeal, some tea, and a can of beans. That would be it until my mother could send a money order from the savings I’d left behind in New Hampshire. Our plan to pick up odd jobs failed when employers realized we were too young to serve liquor and not likely to stay through the summer into the fall. Besides, we smelled like wet socks left to rot in a gym bag for months.

It was in Port Angeles that two events occurred. We had a huge fight and we met Michael Valentine Smith. The argument cleared the air, metaphorically speaking anyway. Michael V. Smith guided us back to each other.

This looks just like the cover of our copy of "Stranger"

This looks just like the cover of our copy of “Stranger”

Want your own free copy to read or re-read? Scroll to the end of this post.

The argument, in hindsight, was long overdue. Friction began to erode our bravado our fist day on the road when I rammed the Pinto into a car in front of us on the Tappan Zee bridge. Other sources: our rapidly dwindling money supply, the question of whose idea this trip was anyway (mostly mine with an unexpected assist from our mother who urged me to take her car, and my brother), and the tyranny of AM radio which alternated between The Hues’ Corporation’s “Don’t Rock the Boat,” and Diamond Earring’s, “Radar Love” until we were ready to gouge the radio out of the dashboard.

Just a week or so earlier, he had turned 17 and I had turned 18. I was old enough to buy beer legally in Denver, a moment I had thought would stamp me as an adult. It didn’t work. Our inherent shyness, acute self-consciousness, and naive lack of planning exposed us for the kids we were. The country had turned out to be so much bigger than I imagined; a thousand miles on a map was a matter of inches. Driving that same distance on strange highways that took us further and further from the familiar mountains of home thrilled me on the one hand and, on the other, dissolved my vague and romantic notions that all we would have to do is get going and adventure would find us. I was embarrassed by the time we reached Port Angeles. Nothing was more painful than confronting my own incompleteness and there was my brother, every morning, every afternoon, every night, a witness to my failures.

It added up to a combustible combination that seemed powerful enough that day to blow the doors off the Pinto.

When we couldn’t trust ourselves to say another word, we reached for our books. Books were our refuge, our allies, and a source of confidence since we’d been little because we’d both learned young, at four and five, during nightly lessons at my father’s drafting table.

After a while, the air stopped vibrating with tension and I remember being aware of the rain, the turn of pages, and my brother’s breathing. And then he laughed.

“What?” I asked him, seizing this as an olive branch, or at least a sign that the storm had passed.

I don’t remember the page he was on or what made him laugh but I saw that he was reading Stranger in a Strange Land, one of three Heinlein novels in a set he’d been given before we left. I’d already started it and wanted to keep going but it was, after all, his book. We started talking about the parts we had both read and then one of us, I don’t remember who, started reading it out loud. We took turns and kept taking turns until we finished it.

“Love is that condition in which the happiness of another person is essential to your own.” 
― Robert A. HeinleinStranger in a Strange Land

Here was a character who, like us, was thrown into the deep end of an experience without any understanding of the people, history, culture, or landscape. Without preconceived notions and no self-consciousness, this character’s journey offered a few lessons about what it takes to really see, hear, and learn. I’m not sure we absorbed them though. It was enough to have found a way to talk with each other, to provide comfort and connection in the form of a great story and a trusted voice.

Very little evidence of our road trip remains. The Pinto is long gone. So are the photographs of the waves crashing off the cliffs of northern California, the giant Sequoias, Ben and Ricky Sue who picked us up on the two days we hitchhiked around Vancouver Island and showered us with hospitality in the form of beer and a guided tour, icy blue Kootenay Lake in British Columbia, and many, many campgrounds in the US and Canada. The copy of “Stranger” is gone along with the books that followed, “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress,” and “Time Enough for Love.” Along the routes we took, we lost our fear of driving in cities and some of our shyness. We discovered that the world may be smaller than if feels sometimes when we found a car in Lake Louise bearing license plates from our Coos County in New Hampshire. We learned that fender-benders don’t define the success or failure of a journey and neither does running out of money in places like Port Angeles or, later, Medicine Hat, Alberta.

When I think of this trip from a distance of thirty-nine years, I can see more clearly that when we left on our trip, my brother and I were strangers to ourselves and strangers to adulthood. We wanted to grow up, see life outside the White Mountains which had both shielded and imprisoned us. We were teenagers seesawing between seizing life and wanting life to leave us alone. When we came home, we had a lot of road left to travel but more confidence to do it.

Since then, though, we have never had that much time together and we have never read aloud to one another. If I could get one moment of that trip back, I think I would ask for a stretch of highway somewhere out of the rain. I would be driving to the sound of my brother’s still-breaking teenage voice telling me the story of Michael Valentine Smith and taking comfort in being strangers together.

My brother and me long before our road trip began

My brother and me long before our road trip began

Congratulations to http://fatbottomgirlsaidwhat.wordpress.com! FBGSW commented on this post and that put her in a drawing for a copy of “Stranger in a Strange Land.” With this post, I continue a month-long celebration of journeys and books. Each post will focus on a particular journey and the book that either took me or came along for the ride. Because this month also encompasses my birthday, always a milestone in life’s journey, I want to celebrate by sharing the books I mention here. Each post will come with an invitation to leave your own thoughts and, by doing so, enter a drawing to win a copy of the book or books in that post. It’s a way of saying thank you for the wonderful welcome during my first six months of blogging here. I’ve learned so much and look forward to learning more.  My next post focuses on an internal journey with Katrina Kenison as my guide in “Magical Journey.” 

Fences, Fear, and Friendship Park

The border wall that separates the US from Tijuana

There is a fence and beyond it, the wall, that separates the US from Tijuana

I live about 25 miles from the border crossing between California and Mexico and except for a ride to Rosarito Beach back in the eighties, I’ve never been there.

I live about 125 miles from Los Angeles and I go there, or through there, five to ten times a year. In fact, I just returned from my most recent trip to spend Father’s Day with my stepdaughter and her husband, a trip colored by laughs, hugs and a chance to share a few meals together without encountering any obstacle other than a little bit of traffic.

I thought about this a lot more deeply after a field trip I took on Flag Day to Friendship Park in San Ysidro with my friends Mary Anne and Kay. Our goal: to go see Sister Simone Campbell and the other amazing women who crossed the country with her on the “Nuns on the Bus” tour. Their mission was to focus attention on the need for immigration reform. We, it must be said, were motivated in large part to see the nuns who are the equivalent of rock stars in progressive Catholic circles. Sister Simone has been on the Colbert show for goodness’ sake.

You don’t have to be Catholic to admire these women, though. They look the powers-that-be in the eye and they do not back down when it comes to doing the right thing. They lobby Washington for budgets that are humane and, in recent weeks, for the immigration reform bill now moving through the Senate. They’ve been known to politely but steadfastly agree to disagree with the men who profess to lead the Catholic church. They are the kind of people that make me look more deeply at what I’ve been doing lately for anyone who is not me, related to me, or in my direct line of vision. They don’t preach, they act. In doing so, they ask me to act on my faith, not just file it in that stuffed folder within my heart labeled “Good Intentions.”

All of this makes me glad we persisted last Friday, June 14 when all three of us piled into Mary Anne’s Toyota Corolla and headed down to Friendship Park to see and hear the nuns and others speak in front of the wall that divides the US from Mexico, or at least as much as it can before it descends into the Pacific Ocean. It did take persistence. Let’s just say that we were the first to get there but the last to arrive. We were the first to pull into the parking lot in front of a locked chain separating us from our destination. No nuns or bus, just a collection of hardy souls pulling in behind us and emerging from their cars mystified yet hopeful.

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Mary Anne and Kay trek through the morning marine layer to Friendship Park

We walked nearly two miles from the parking lot almost to Friendship Park, our trek through the gentle mists of the marine layer fueled by faith that the nuns would eventually show up even though the park was all but deserted except for hundreds of birds, a lone bicyclist, and a few helicopters that circled above apparently uninterested in why a group of middle-aged women were walking to the border. Just as we neared the final bend, news came: the nuns were on their way but would speak in the parking lot. We doubled back and were approaching our car once again when suddenly a stream of vehicles bearing cheerful determined women, news cameras, and all those who had waited in the lot while we ventured out streamed past us. We ran for our car, or at least moved as quickly as our sandals and trick knees would allow.

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The nuns arrive! They gather at the gate with Dan Watman (red shirt) of Friendship Park and others who shared the stories that take place here at the wall

But in the end, we got there and as we listened to the nuns and the other speakers, we realized that our inconvenience was laughably insignificant compared to what the usual park visitors must go through just to see the faces of those they love for minutes at a time. Here, at the park, on weekends and on holidays, a gate in the wall opens for a few hours and people on both sides of the border may get a chance to share a meal, some news, a few prayers, or simply to hug each other. We heard that very recently, a man had driven down from San Francisco so he could hug his daughter. He had fifteen minutes with her before he had to retreat back to the US side of the wall.

Others, of course, pay a far higher price. A hush fell over the small crowd at the gate when Sister Simone shared an account she’d heard in Tuscon of a mother found curved around the body of her infant in the desert, both dead. The sisters, Dan Watman of Friendship Park, Enriques Morones, founder of Border Angels are well-versed in all the aspects of the immigration issue — business, political, ideological, even the fears generated by the drug wars that cross the border — but they ask us to consider above all the human side.

The entire purpose of Friendship Park itself, Watman explained, was to provide a way for people on opposite sides of the border to meet and learn about each other, to share, to become friends. The wall did not change that mission but it has made it immeasurably more difficult.

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Beyond the fence lies Mexico. Here is where families come to visit sometimes through the bars, other times, briefly, face to face

As I type these words, I am certain that there is a woman my age maybe within a few miles who has has not seen her children since they were babies. I have probably walked past a mother who gave birth to her children in this country and lives in fear of being separated from them. Conversely, I have neighbors whose life companions are immigrants who entered the country legally; an open door and a pathway to citizenship has allowed them to contribute to our community and to fall in love.

The speakers on Friday (Flag Day by the way), listed many reasons to support the immigration reform bill that the Senate has just finished debating. I am sure there are many reasons that those opposed to it can offer or seek amendments rooted in fear. Fear abounds these days. Fear, I realize, is at the heart of my reluctance to venture across the border. Fear is a fence in my heart. People are dying in the desert and families are torn apart because of fear like mine.

I stood at the fence last Friday and imagined Friendship Park as it must be on weekends when people speak through the bars or, for those brief few hours, find an opportunity to embrace. The fence looms now in my memory as a challenge, to come back, at least this far, to look, listen, and learn.

And to act.

To follow the progress of immigration reform and to stay in touch with your Senators or Representatives, here’s a one-stop link: Contact Legislators 

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Kay, Mary Anne, Sister Simone Campbell, and me