Friday, October 29, 2010

My Mother, My Hair, And I

I was sitting next to my 92-year-old mother while she ate lunch in the dining room of her assisted living facility.  She sat in her wheelchair smiling, pleased that I was there, while I made conversation with the three other ladies at the table.

Since her recent health troubles, my mother's English has all but deserted her, but that doesn't keep her from addressing those around her in a hybrid of English, Spanish and Catalan.  The ladies at her lunch table find her mysterious, to say the least, so they were taking advantage of my presence to get some context that would help them make sense of my mother.

I was doing my best, enunciating in case they were hard of hearing, making eye contact with each lady in turn, explaining how things were, when my mother put her hand to my hair and brushed it away from my face.

I pushed her hand away.

My mother has been pushing my hair off my face for as long as I can remember.  She has pushed the hair off her grandchildren's face.  And, if she had access to them, she would do the same to her great-grandchildren.

For this, she offers vaguely phrenological explanations about the significance of a "wide forehead," which supposedly bespeaks intelligence, nobility of character, and beauty as Aristotle conceived it.  She never did accept my protestations that intelligence and nobility of character aren't necessarily cute or sexy.  She remained adamant on the virtues of the "frente despejada," the unencumbered brow.

The only explanation I can find for this is that the movie stars of her adolescence, Marlene Dietrich and Ava Gardner, boldly bared their desert-like expanses of forehead to the world.  But I belong to the school of Colette, who said that a face, like a fruit, needs foliage around it to set it off to advantage.

But still.  Here was my mother, 92.  Here was I, not all that much younger.  Furthermore, I was on an errand of kindness and mercy, determined to be utterly sweet and compliant and non-confrontational for the 48-hours I would spend in her presence.  And the minute her hand touched my hair--well, I didn't exactly swat it away, but the swatting feeling was there.

Why didn't I let her brush back my hair?  Why didn't I let her dazzle her tablemates with the sight of my broad and noble forehead?  Why did I deny her that microgram of happiness?

I learned in Catholic school that a sin requires an act of the will.  So I can hardly call that quasi-swat a sin--it was more a spinal reflex.  But it was a reflex born of a lifetime of daughterly opposition, rebellion, resentment.
I don't even blame myself for those, really, for without them I would never have become a person.  
But I am disappointed that, despite the years and experience that I drag behind me like those carry-on bags on wheels, I saw my mother's liver-spotted, knobby, blue-veined hand reach towards my hair, and I pushed it away.

Friday, October 22, 2010


Tomorrow I'm leaving for Mobile to see my mother (who was seriously ill a few months ago but is now recovering) and will not be posting for a couple of days.  During my absence, I will also miss the fall rummage sale at the church in the nearby village of X.

I had never been to a rummage sale in my life until I moved to Vermont and was told by friends and neighbors, "You have to go the X church rummage sale.  Everybody does."  So I did, and there, hands deep in the mountains of separates, making their way along the racks of dresses, coming out of the "designer room," or entering the "outerwear" tent, I did in fact see most of the people I knew.

I have attended the twice-a-year X rummage sales faithfully since that first time.  I have gone on splendid fall Saturdays, when the church steeple is silhouetted against a background of red, gold and green hills.  And I have optimistically purchased armloads of sleeveless dresses and gardening clothes in the full blast of a spring blizzard.

The sale at X is so well attended that it's a testimony to the upward march of civilization that riots don't break out.  Maybe it's the calming presence of the church ladies that keeps things in check.  These women, who have worked the week leading up to the sale collecting and sorting donations, stand for hours behind the tables where the goods are piled, making change, bagging purchases, running out to look for more coins.  They all, without exception, look weary, but also without exception they are cordial and helpful.  In the face of such stoicism, the rummaging throngs put on their best behavior.

Like a gambler playing for low stakes, at the X rummage sale I allow myself to shop irresponsibly.  There is no way to try things on, no possibility of comparing prices, no time to talk yourself out of foolish choices.  You have to grab first, and think later.  So I do.

When I arrive home lugging a trash bag full of clothes, having spent all of twenty dollars, I have only the vaguest idea of what I have bought.  Usually there are pleasant surprises:  a designer top, a cashmere sweater, a pair of faded jeans just right for the garden.  There is also the dress that doesn't fit, and the bizarre and useless item that I could swear someone else must have put in my bag.

As I have mentioned before, shopping in Vermont is a delicate subject.  On the one hand, we complain about the absence of opportunities--there just aren't many stores around here.  On the other hand, we know that we owe our clean air, uncluttered roads and serene landscape to this very dearth of shopping.

So we are grateful to the urban souls who own summer homes near the idyllic village of X and who graciously do our shopping for us in the bustling burgs of New York and New Jersey, and who, after wearing the results of their labors a couple of times, kindly donate them to the X church rummage sale, where we buy them for two dollars a piece.

Like the recipient of a transplanted heart, I vaguely sense the frustration of the executive woman fretting in rush-hour traffic as I head out the door in her--now my--Eileen Fisher sweater, to feed the hens.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

My Mother And The Shrunken Head

The head-shrinking (or tzantza) tradition among the Jivaro tribes of the Amazon was alive and well when my parents and I arrived in Ecuador in the 1950s.

We first saw a couple of tzantzas inside a glass case in Quito's folk-art museum.  They were fist-size, the eyes and the grotesquely large lips sewn shut, the skin black and leathery, the hair--which had retained its length--streaming down the non-existent back.  

They were like puppets out of a nightmare, and I could barely stand to look at them, especially after reading the description of how they were made. The captured enemy's head was cut off, its contents were removed and replaced with a small wooden sphere, the skin was tanned, and the resulting object was dried and shrunk by covering it with hot rocks and sand.

My mother badly wanted a tzantza.  She admired all things Indian, and had a number of pots of various shapes and sizes, a chief's regalia made of pounded tree bark covered with tropical bird feathers, a nine-foot blowgun with its quiver full of curare-tipped arrows.  A tzantza would have made an exciting contribution to her collection.

But there was a problem:  real shrunken heads were not only expensive, but the Catholic Church forbade the faithful to own them.  Fortunately, there was a lively trade in fake tzantzas, made from monkey heads, or goat skin, or who knows what else.

When we moved to the U.S., my mother's Indian artifacts came with us.  (Those were the days when you could travel on a plane with a nine-foot blowgun and a supply of paralyzing arrows and nobody asked any questions.)

The first thing my mother did in our new house was to mount her collection.  The delicate, earth-colored pots went on a shelf.  The blowgun and the arrows--whose tips she had snapped off to prevent mishaps while dusting--hung on the living room wall, with the chief's ceremonial garb arranged below.  The tzantza, however, lived inside a brown paper bag in the hall closet.

This was Birmingham, Alabama, and I was fourteen years old.  When guests walked into our living room, their mouths would fall open.  My mother loved this, and would proceed, in sketchy English, to relate the origins and uses of each object.

Meanwhile, in a corner of the room, I would wither with embarrassment.  Why, I wondered, did she have to make us seem even more weird than we already were?  My survival strategy among my peers in those days was to try to blend in as best I could, but my mother seemed to delight in being different.  

As she neared the end of her lecture, I would begin to pray--God please, don't let her bring out the tzantza!  But usually she did.  She would fetch the brown paper bag from the closet, thrust in her hand and bring out the head with a flourish.

The guests would gasp and step back as she stood there triumphant, holding the thing by the hair, like Judith with the head of Holophernes.  Only after she had given a detailed description of the shrinking process and let the company sweat a while would she disclose that this particular head was a fake.

Where, I wonder, is that brown paper bag with its grisly contents after all these years?  Where are the blowgun, the quiver, the chief's outfit?  I don't want to know.  But I do have one of my mother's beautiful Indian pots in my living room.  It doesn't scare the guests.

Friday, October 15, 2010

First Fire

Is there anything messier than a wood stove, or a fireplace?  Wet, dirt-bearing wood gets carted in from outside, ashes are carted out from inside.  There are newspapers, spent matches, smoke.

On the other hand, is there anything sweeter, cozier, more comforting than a wood fire?  Anything--short of the smell of cooking--that more powerfully evokes the feeling of home and, well, hearth?

We used to live in a house with two gas fireplaces, one in the kitchen/family room and one in the bedroom.  They were the kind that simulates a wood fire, with the blue gas flames shooting up behind some fake logs.  My husband rigged the bedroom fireplace with a thermostat, and on extra-cold nights we would awaken to a whoosh, and the eerie blue light of the gas spontaneously combusting beyond our bed.   

Those gas fireplaces warmed up the room in seconds.  They were clean, cheap, ecological...and every time I lit one I longed for a good, messy, real wood fire.

Today has been rainy and windy and what Vermont meteorologists call "raw"--the first inkling of what awaits us in the coming months.  I've had to make extra sure that, soaking grass underfoot and rain pouring from above notwithstanding, Bisou remembers what the command "do your business!" means.  Back in the house from their necessary excursions, the three dogs have been grateful for the extra-large towel I keep to rub them down.

Now Lexi and Wolfie are blissed out in front of the stove.  Bisou is at her usual post, scrunched up against my elbow so I can barely type.  I closed the hens in early this evening, threw them some extra sunflower seeds, and turned on their light for cheer.

I know how glad I'll be next spring to be done with the woodstove, to put the ashes on the garden and cart the kindling box and log carrier down to the basement.  But for now there's nowhere I'd rather be than staring into the flames, with the snoring dogs and the snapping logs, and the rain beating hard against the window panes. 

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Power And The Glory, Or, Bzzzt!

For my birthday, my daughter decided to bring my kitchen up to modern standards, and gave me a food processor.

Having on my conscience the bread machine and the juicer that I bought, grew weary of, and subsequently gave away, I was leery of food processors.  In my experience, most counter-top conveniences took up more space than their convenience warranted.

Besides, I had my faithful Chinese chopper, a gift from my mother-in-law on Christmas, 1969.  With that fearsome implement I had over the years chopped hills of onions, mountains of zucchini, and entire sierras of rhubarb, and I still had all my fingers.  I thought I was keeping things simple, by staying away from food processors.

The spanking-new birthday present was sitting untouched and reproachful on my counter when I brought in the last couple of eggplants and the final crop of banana peppers yesterday.  Intending to make a version of samfaina, I fished an onion out of the fridge and then, looking at the pile of veggies waiting to be sliced, decided to get started on the food-processor chapter of my life.

I peeled the onion, sliced it in half with the Chinese chopper, put it in the food processor, pushed the "pulse" button, and bzzzt! it was reduced to shreds in the twinkling of an eye.  While the onion was sauteeing, I put in the two eggplants--they were small, so I didn't halve them--and bzzt! in a nanosecond they were turned into pulp.  The good old Chinese chopper came in handy for seeding the peppers, but when I threw the whole mess of them into the processor, bzzt! they were cut into teensy bits. 

Thanks to those whizzing blades, everything--onions, eggplants, peppers--sauteed with an unaccustomed evenness, which gave the contents of the frying pan a pointillist look, where my old  hand-chopped samfainas had been more cubist in style.  It looked neat and orderly.  It looked professional.

And it was finished and ready to eat half an hour before the main dish was done.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Bisou's Play Date

Yesterday Bisou had a play date with her brother, Bear.

She and Bear were the largest puppies in the litter, and because Bear's owner Joanne (see her website here) and I are friends, we arranged lots of get-togethers for B&B when they were puppies, and they developed a strong bond.

In Bear's case this bond is made even stronger by the fact that he would like to have many, many puppies with Bisou.  He doesn't care that if they did, the puppies would each have at least two heads.  He doesn't care that Bisou was spayed three months ago.  He firmly believes that, if he applies himself and stays focused, a miracle will happen and Bisou will conceive.

Thus, their play revolves around Bear's ceaseless attempts to mount his sister.  This doesn't bother Bisou, who slithers out of his grasp and runs off as fast as she can, ears streaming in the wind.  Eventually he catches her, maneuvers himself on top of her, she slides away and the chase begins all over again.

This goes on for--I have timed it--two solid hours, while we walk through the woods, stop by the stream, and drink iced tea, the dogs chasing, mounting and rushing in circles around our feet the entire time.

Eventually, the last quarter-hour or so, they slow down a bit, stand up on their hind legs, and wrestle as hard as they can (this is the interaction I have chosen to depict, below).  Then Bear remembers, and the chase begins once more.

Bear is scheduled for neutering in the next few days.   When he recovers, we'll get him and Bisou together again.  I wonder how things will go then.  I suspect that they may not change too radically--this kind of play has become part of B&B's history, and mounting behavior is not always sexually inspired.

What I hope will never change is the exuberance and good humor of their encounters--for their sake because they get such fun out of them, and for mine because they allow me to imagine, for a while, what a blast my life would be,  if only I were a dog.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Slouching Towards Winter

There was frost on the grass this morning, and Wolfie, stimulated by the chill, raced around and skidded and slipped and almost fell.  Good practice for icy mornings to come.

I thought the cold night might have done in the beans, but no such luck.  By noon they were looking as perky as they did in August.  The eggplants and banana peppers are still bearing, and the chard and kale, needless to say, are chugging along as if The Killing Frost weren't around the corner.

Because it was a nice day in which to do the job, I brought in my two zonal geraniums and put them by a south-facing window.  They will stop blooming for a while, but when the snow covers the ground outside, the reflected light will stimulate them to bloom again.

I gave the scented geraniums in their heavy pots a good pruning and dragged them inside for the winter.  I did the same for the big rosemary bush.  Please understand that I mean "big" by Vermont standards.  Rosemary cannot survive our winters and has to be brought indoors, which means it has to be kept in a pot, which keeps it from reaching its full splendor.

Still, I'm quite pleased with my rosemary, which made it through last winter and is the first rosemary plant that hasn't given up the ghost within two weeks of being brought into my house.  I owe this success to my herbalist friend Dona, who told me that rosemary hates to be moved.  I paid attention to her advice and kept the pot anchored next to a south-facing window, refusing to move it even to make room for the Christmas tree.

Also, remembering that the name "rosemary" comes from the Latin ros marinus, meaning sea-dew, and that it grows in the semi-arid hills near the Mediterranean, I kept the soil fairly dry but misted the needles after feeding the dogs every morning.  The plant rewarded me by covering itself with lavender-colored blooms and hanging on until late spring, when it could go back outside.

The rosemary and scented geranium clippings are now drying on woven-straw trays in the dining room.  Does this herb business never stop?  I had finally finished stripping the oregano, thyme and lavender (three whole cups of lavender blossoms, of which I am inordinately proud), and now here are these handfuls of heavenly-smelling leaves that I cannot possibly throw away....

Meanwhile Bisou is mourning the disappearance of her frogs, which have abandoned the warm stones of the patio and dived into the depths of the pond, there to slumber cozily until the spring frenzy wakes them up, a long, long time from now.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Sun Squirreling

These days I'm storing up sunshine like a squirrel stores nuts.  I don't know that I can really store sunshine (maybe in the form of Vitamin D?), but at least I can store up the memory of it.  On second thought, forget that.  I know that it is impossible, on a sleety January day, to recall how it feels to sit in the warm sun.

Regardless, I sat outside on the sunny patio stripping lavender for a while this morning.  I have quite a harvest this year.  My plants, which I placed up against the stone wall in front of the house, made it through their first Vermont winter, thanks no doubt to being snuggled under a thick duvet of snow, their backs against the sun-warmed stones.

Normally, I don't strip lavender, but roughly chop the stems and throw the whole thing into potpourri.  This year, however, I want to make lavender-filled eye pillows, and the stems might feel a little rough against the eyelids of my loved ones--not to mention my own eyelids--so I'm having to separate the blossoms from the stems.  It's a slow, repetitive task, but if you're olfactorily fixated like me, you don't mind it.

While I worked, Wolfie and Bisou passed the stick du jour back and forth to each other.  The bird feeder was right behind me, so I could hear the flutterings of the chickadees as they landed and took off, and also the bulletins they sent out (i.e., tweets) as to their location and activities.  "Just arrived at feeder for lunch," "Dropped a seed!" "Stopped on chicken-house roof to check dog locations," and on and on. 

Replace the flaming maples with gnarled olive trees and the chickadees with hoopoes  (you can see them here) but keep the sun, the cobalt sky and the scent of lavender, and I could have been somewhere on the foothills of the Pyrenees. 
Then a chilly breeze came up, and I came back to Vermont.  I gathered up my lavender, called the dogs, and went inside.

Friday, October 8, 2010

A Few Dog Issues

What's with dogs and yoga mats?  The minute I unroll mine,  Wolfie and Bisou fling themselves down on it.  

This morning I was sitting cross-legged at one end of the mat when Wolfie stretched himself out full length on it, put his big head on my lap, took a deep breath and, as the yoga teachers say, focused inward.  There was no room for Bisou, who contented herself with licking my hands, which I had placed palm up on my knees, index- and thumb-tips touching, in whatever mudra that is.

God knows I've done some sweating on that mat--is that what attracts them?  Or is it something more ineffable, having to do with energies and such?

Here's another thing:  have you ever bent to straighten a rug that your dog has wrinkled without the dog instantly leaping onto the rug, making it impossible for you to fix it?  This happens to me at least seven times a day, every day.  

I think that this has to do with the dog's instinct to look in whatever direction we're looking.  Some people believe that this ability--which non-human primates lack--is the reason that the dog's ancestors became people's hunting partners and were domesticated.

And lastly, why does everything a dog plays with infallibly end up under a piece of furniture?  I'm not just talking about balls here, but bones, tug-of-war toys, whatever.  It seems that whenever I'm not straightening rugs I'm flat on the floor, reaching among the dust bunnies for something Bisou has lost and desperately needs.

My friend Alix, Bisou's breeder and dog woman par excellence, runs a bed-and-breakfast for dogs in her house.  If you have a dog that might need a place to stay, or just want to see beautiful dogs  (inluding Cavaliers) romping in idyllic surroundings, check out Alix's website:

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Longfellow To The Rescue

I'd been feeling discontented with my lot recently, resenting the limitations imposed by my condition (chronic fatigue syndrome), watching friends my age and older rush around accomplishing goals, crossing items off their to-do lists, and keeping up a pace that I cannot even dream of matching. Then by chance I came across these words of Longfellow:
"If we could read the secret history of our enemies we should find in each man's life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility."
I don't believe I have enemies, or hostility that needs disarming.  But often I look at the lives of people around me and think, "what would it be like to feel the way she must feel, able to count on a reliable supply of energy from day to day, to take on projects knowing that her body will see her through them?"

Envy has a nastier edge than what I feel, which is more a longing for other people's seemingly endless supply of energy, and a dissatisfaction with my own wavering limitations. 

I know that I am not the only one to feel this way.  I can imagine that some people might look at my life from the outside, and feel something akin to envy.  But that is because they wouldn't know my "secret history."

We all mostly keep our secret histories to ourselves.  It is what social norms demand.  People who disclose their "sorrow and suffering" at inappropriate times are rightly shunned as bores.  We are much more likely to make friends and have a good time if we put on a brave face and talk about cheerful things.

These social norms are especially stringent on the internet.  I don't follow many blogs, but on the ones I have seen writers mostly abstain from whingeing and project a positive, upbeat image. There may be some who do whinge, but I suspect they have few readers. 

As for Facebook, could there be a perkier medium?  People  communicate their dissatisfaction with politics, contemporary culture, and environmental disasters mostly by linking to relevant sites, but these are public issues, not personal sorrow and suffering.  

These, as far as I can see, are banished from Facebook, where acceptable topics include parties you've been to, food you've eaten or are about to eat, drinks ditto, trips you've taken, and cute things your children/grandchildren/pets have said or done.  The skies over the land of Facebook are singularly unclouded.  As for Twitter, everybody knows that birds don't tweet when they're feeling sad.

This is probably just as well.  Who wants to read bulletins about  people's unrequited loves or career frustrations?  But the cumulative effect of Twitter, Facebook and many blogs is to give a false impression that the population consists mostly of people who careen merrily from one fun thing to another.

In all this cheerfulness, there is no room for secret histories, no way for us to sense each other's sorrow and suffering.  The only sorrow and suffering we sense is our own, and this increases our feelings of isolation and dissatisfaction.

There are tragedies in people's lives that become apparent on short acquaintance:  the death of a child, disabling or disfiguring disease, financial ruin.  But we all know plenty of people who have experienced none of this, people whose emotional weather appears to be mostly sunny, with only scattered clouds.  People whom we envy.

These are the people that Longfellow is talking about.  Because if you probe deep enough, there is in every human life a secret sorrow that is no less piercing for being hidden.  We will never know what load of unfulfilled longings and devastating defeats other people carry.  We will never glimpse, inside our fellow cocktail-party goers, the weeping child, the cowed teenager, the betrayed spouse.  

No matter what we look like, we are all vessels full of unshed tears.  This should make us feel less alone in our miseries, but also open our hearts to compassion, and disarm hostility.

Bisou, who has no secret history

Friday, October 1, 2010

Meditation On Tony Curtis

The day Tony Curtis died, I heard Bob Mondello on NPR speak about him.  He talked about his talent, his struggle to be taken seriously despite his good looks (he was too spectacularly handsome for my taste), his abilities as a comic actor and a mimic, his many movies.  But, he said at the end, Tony Curtis never got the Oscar he craved.

I was driving to yoga down one of those Vermont roads that are so beautiful in this season you just want to die, when I heard this.  And it occurred to me that Tony Curtis, who was so famous that even I knew who he was, probably felt sad and frustrated during his life because he had never won an Oscar.  That he probably didn't think he was famous, or at least, not famous enough.

And in a pre-yoga moment of enlightenment I saw the futility of striving after fame, recognition, and admiration, because we humans are so made that the minute we get some, we want more.

Maybe it was the woods in their glory, maybe it was the wisps of cloud floating low among the trees as the road wound along the valley floor, but for once I felt--really felt instead of recognized or understood or intellectually grasped--the uselessness of wanting stuff.  And the importance of looking at the trees and the clouds and saying, "This is enough."

Then I said what my friend Indigo calls a "prayer equivalent" for Tony.