Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Home Alone

“I don’t know why, but I love it when he’s out of the house,” she says with a sigh.

“And what do you do while he’s gone?” I ask.

“Nothing special. Nothing I wouldn’t do if he was around. I just enjoy having the house to myself,” she shrugs.

Ever since I reached a certain age, I’ve had some version of this conversation with a number of women friends. It often includes expressions of guilt (“I feel bad about wanting to be alone …”) accompanied by reassurances of the otherwise healthy status of the relationship (“It’s not as if we don’t get along...”).

I  haven’t questioned friends in same-sex relationships, or long-married heterosexual men, so I don’t know whether this sort of thing happens to them as well. But I suspect that women with male partners are the most acutely afflicted.

Usually the situation doesn’t arise until the couple retires, when, after years of spending the days in their respective workplaces, they suddenly find themselves sharing a living space 24/7. All kinds of revelations ensue. I, for instance, learned that my spouse liked to listen to NPR all day long. After intense negotiations, we arrived at an arrangement involving closed doors and earphones after Morning Edition goes off the air.

When couples downsize, space becomes an issue. Getting rid of things seems to come more easily to women than to men. “You wouldn’t believe all his stuff,” my friends complain. By stuff they mean aircraft carrier-sized desks covered in tilting piles of papers, outdated electronics in various states of disrepair, and slithering tangles of neckties that once enhanced his business attire.

And then there is Order and Neatness, another mostly female fixation. “When I used to come home from work,” one woman explains, “I was too tired to care if the newspaper was on the dining room table, or the closet doors were left open, but now…” Now the parka draped casually over a chair instead of hung in the closet, the rug left askew, and the imperfectly-shut dresser drawer become a major irritant, especially since the culprit is right there, all the time, doing nothing about it.  It’s possible that there are obsessively orderly men out there who suffer from their wives’ slatternly habits, but if so I wish they’d speak up.

Nevertheless, putting aside Noise, Stuff, and Neatness (too much of the first two, and not enough of the latter), there remains something about a male presence in the house that makes women long for regular doses of solitude. For one thing men, even less-than-king-sized ones, seem to occupy a lot of space. I first noticed this when I entered a co-ed high school. I couldn’t believe how much room boys took up, and how much noise they made. Whooping in voices that swooped unpredictably from bass to soprano, they loped through the halls, dropping books, slamming locker doors, jostling each other at the water fountain, stretching out their long legs under desks, and generally wreaking havoc.

True, by the time they reach their sunset years, most men have tamed that adolescent turbulence, but they still dash around more forcefully than women. In my half century of marriage, I have learned to keep well away from a closed door, in case my spouse should suddenly burst in. Even with gentle, slipper-wearing husbands who creep silently around the house, male energy has a peculiar quality that makes periodic breaks from it essential for the wife.

I suspect, however, that the need for conjugal respite has mostly to do with the heart’s propensity to grow fonder in absence. When the beloved’s presence adorns each day from dawn to dusk, it’s a necessary luxury to miss him for a while, in full knowledge that the pleasure of an empty house will soon be matched by that of hearing the key in the door, and the door shake in its hinges as the wanderer crashes in.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

The Prime of My Cat Telemann

My gray cat, Telemann, will be three years old next week. He has reached his prime, his peak, his zenith, his apogee.
I should have known, when I was signing his adoption papers and he jumped up and tried to grab my pen, that I was about to take home a certain kind of cat. But at the time, all I saw was kitten adorableness.

I was going to have a gray cat, just like the writer Colette,
whose last cat, la Chatte Dernière, was also gray. Maybe
it would help me write better! It would be glorious!

And in many ways, it has been.

In others, not so much. The last three years have been a continuous struggle to anticipate, outsmart, and outmaneuver Telemann. Every drawer in the house must be completely closed at all times, or he will pull out its contents. If I leave my laptop to get more coffee, I have to remember to put down the lid, or he will edit what I’ve written. And if you come to visit, do not, whatever you do, leave your purse where you can’t watch it, or he will scatter your belongings all over the floor.

But my main struggle with Telemann has been over houseplantsNow that I no longer have a vegetable garden, and the area around our cottage is too shady for anything more colorful than hostas, I depend on houseplants for my ration of botanical pleasure. The problem is, so does Telemann.

No matter what strategies I dream up, he defeats them. He is only a medium-sized cat, but when sufficiently motivated he can stretch his lean body like taffy and reach almost any spot in the house. And what he can’t reach by stretching he reaches by jumping, aided by the powerful muscles in his hind legs and fueled by the expensive diet of raw turkey prescribed by his vet.

When I brought a tall Dracaena home from Lowe’s a couple of weeks ago, Telemann set to shredding it at once. I surrounded the pot with a scat mat (a contraption that delivers a mild electric shock when touched) and for a few hours the Dracaena made itself at home undisturbed until Telemann figured out the angle of approach that would allow him to nibble the leaves without getting zapped. I sprayed the plant with a special herbal cat deterrent, and when that didn’t work, I swabbed it with undiluted peppermint essential oil. But Telemann nibbled on.

The thing is, the Dracaena, and the blood-red, sword-shaped Cordyline, and the gigantic Peace Lily I adopted at Walmart are all, according to the ASPCA, poisonous. I have watched Telemann closely for the slightest hint of drooling, gagging, nausea, vomiting, intestinal distress, and loss of appetite. But, in this endless war, if anyone is losing appetite it’s me.

I have lain awake nights trying to figure out ways to have both a cat and a few measly houseplants (is that really too much to ask?). And the only solution I have come up with is an exquisitely precise arrangement of each plant, at a specific height and distance from the furniture, that keeps it barely out of his reach, even at his most taffy-like. But if a table or chair is moved even a millimeter from its ideal placement, he’s on the plant like a vampire in the full moon.

Speaking of sleepless nights, I have, for various reasons, had more than my share of them lately. And that is when Telemann redeems himself. When I tiptoe out of the bedroom, he rushes miaowing to greet me as if he hadn’t seen me in a month.  He throws himself on his back and wiggles ecstatically in a kind of horizontal belly dance. If I stoop and tickle his stomach he seizes my hand with his teeth, but charmingly inhibits his bite.

He follows me as I head to my study, arrange my afghan on the cot, and stretch out with my book. When everything is in place, he leaps up and, tail held high, circles seven times before he settles on my sternum with his nose against mine. Then he purrs and kneads, purrs and kneads, spreading out his white toes and digging his nails into my skin.

With all this going on, I don’t get much reading done. But there is something about that rhythmic thrumming against my rib cage that soothes and relaxes me like nothing else can, and I soon put aside the book, turn off the light, and go to sleep.

Because of this and other charms (the way he comes when called, the killer way he stares at birds, his sudden yowling gallops through the house) I forgive Telemann for his plant depredations. I wish him a long, long life, and if he’s still with me at the end of mine, I hope for the comfort of his weight on my chest and his purrs in my ear, as I say goodbye.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

First Communion

“Don’t disturb your mother! She’s embroidering your veil.” It’s August, 1951.There is an old sheet spread on the terrace of my grandparents’ farm house, and my mother sits on a low chair in the center, a billow of white tulle on her lap. She is embroidering a wide border of leaves, tendrils, and flowers around the edge of my First Communion veil, which reaches from my head to my feet. I have been told that in the coming years she will embroider the center, and I will wear this same veil at my wedding.

“Somebody wash this child’s neck, and her feet too. The dressmaker is almost here. She can’t see her like this!” The dressmaker is coming for the final fitting of my white organdy First Communion dress: long sleeves, tiny tucks across the bodice, full gathered skirt all the way to the floor. And, underneath, a long white slip to match.

“Let’s review the Commandments,” my aunt Xin says. “You have your test with Mossèn Ignaci this afternoon.” Mossèn Ignaci, the kindly old priest who married my parents, has acceded to let me make my First Communion early. He has been assured by the family that I am an unusually well-behaved, compliant child, and that I already know my prayers and most of the Catechism, so there is no need to wait for my seventh birthday, which is when, according to the Church, I will attain the age of reason.

In the sacristy, Mossèn Ignaci tests me on the Hail Mary and the Our Father, and also on the commandments about honoring my father and mother, skipping the ones about adultery and coveting my neighbor’s wife. And then we practice the communion itself. He takes an unconsecrated host from a box and puts it on my tongue, explaining that I must let it dissolve instead of chewing it. The little wafer tastes sweet, and before I can swallow it he feeds me another one, and another, as if they were candy, so that I have no choice but to chew them a little bit. 

The day before the ceremony, my father takes me to make my first confession.  I have scoured my brain for sins ahead of time, and have come up with “I have forgotten to say my prayers,” and “I have been distracted at Mass”—sins that will come in handy for something to say during my next fourteen years of weekly confessions.

Mossèn Ignaci is hidden inside the confessional, but I can hear him breathing.  After I finish listing my sins he gives me a penance (three Hail Marys), and absolution. But it’s dark in the confessional, and I can’t tell whether the little door behind the grille is now closed, or still open. Should I leave? I wait patiently until my father, wondering what on earth I could be confessing for such a long while, comes to rescue me.

The next morning, standing in my pristine white shoes, socks, and underpants, I hold up my arms as my aunts slide the chilly, silky long slip over my torso, followed by the crisp white dress which fastens down the back in a row of tiny cloth-covered buttons that look like the mushrooms that come up in the fall after a rain. My hair is arranged in untidy corkscrew curls (“Too much hair!” my aunts exclaim before giving up). Then the magnificently embroidered veil is placed over my head (“It almost cost your mother her eyesight!” they remind me) and secured with a crown of white silk flowers.

My mother’s mother comes in, holding the all-important First Communion medal, a bas-relief ivory Madonna set in gold, hanging from a gold chain which she fastens around my neck. My tiny paternal grandmother totters in on her high heels and gives me my First Communion ring (“a bracelet for your finger”).

Somebody puts white gloves on my hands (“Don’t touch anything!”) and hangs my First Communion bag, filled with little cards commemorating the occasion, from my left wrist. I pick up my First Communion missal, which has mother of pearl covers and a gold-colored clasp, and we are ready to go.

It is a brilliant summer morning, the sun not yet hot. I set out from my grandparents’ house with my parents, my mother’s parents, her two sisters and her brother, my maternal great-aunt and -uncle, and, all the way from Barcelona, my father’s mother and father and his two sisters. We walk solemnly down the dusty road, into the village, past the parish church and the fountain with the seven spigots, then out of the village, past vineyards and wheat fields and garden allotments to the hermitage of Our Lady of the Orchard, where Mossèn Ignaci is waiting.

During Mass, I glance up at the statue of Our Lady of the Orchard, enthroned above the altar. It is a reproduction of the Romanesque original (the one supposedly found up in the elm tree by a shepherd), which was burned during the Spanish Civil War. She sits grave and impassive, her robes arranged in weirdly symmetrical folds, one hand on her Baby and, in the other, the sphere of the world.

I have some trouble managing my outfit: my long skirt catches under my shins when I kneel, and my First Communion bag gets tangled with my veil. At one point, I drop my missal with a clatter onto the stone flags. But the communion itself goes smoothly. I remember not to chew the host and, back in my pew, put my head in my hands as I’ve been taught and try to think about God.

Afterwards we march back to the house, the sun hotter now and everybody hungry because of the pre-communion fast. In the afternoon, the village children arrive and I, still in my long dress, distribute sugar-coated almonds in pale shades of pink, yellow, and blue.

Then comes a special treat: my father’s father, who is part owner of a magic shop in Barcelona, puts on a magic show. The other kids are transfixed as he manipulates playing cards, draws peseta coins out of their ears, and does odd things involving handkerchiefs and red cups and yellow balls. But magic tricks always leave me cold. They remind me of fabric flowers, which only look like the real thing. I’m after genuine magic--the mystery for which there are no words.

At the end of the day, after the children go home and I’m back in my short summer dress and espadrilles, the family sits under the apple tree by the well. I am still high on adrenaline and divine grace, racing around and begging the grownups to play with me. My father’s younger sister, Montserrat, plays hide-and-seek for a while, but then it’s bedtime, and as my mother tucks me in I burst into tears. “What’s the matter? Didn’t you have a wonderful First Communion?” she asks.

“Yes, yes, I did,” I answer.

“Then why are you crying?”

“It’s because I’ll never be able to look forward to making my First Communion, ever again,” I sob.

Which proves that it’s never too soon to learn that the happiest times are those we spend awaiting happiness.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

The Madonna in the Tree

That magical summer of 1951 culminated in late August, when I made my first communion in the hermitage dedicated to Our Lady of the Orchards, Nostra Senyora de l’Horta--or, as I thought of her, the Madonna in the Tree. Surrounded by fields, gardens, and fruit trees, the tiny church still stands outside the village where my mother was born.

According to legend, the Madonna was discovered by a shepherd who had been napping under an elm in the middle of the orchard. He woke up and there she was, perched high among the branches. Leaving his sheep behind, the shepherd ran into the village and fetched the priest and the verger who, followed by a crowd of the devout, sped to the orchard, carefully cut down some branches, got the statue down, and carried her in solemn procession to the parish church that presides over the village square.

But the next morning, when the verger went to light the altar candles in preparation for Mass, the statue wasn’t there. Panic ensued. Who had made off with the Madonna—thieves, heretics, the devil himself? The village was searched high and low, from the mansion of the wealthy mule breeder to the hovel of the poorest laborer.

The frantic search continued until, once more, the shepherd arrived panting from the orchard.  “She’s in the tree again, right where I found her yesterday!” he gasped. The priest, the verger, and the congregants hurried to the elm, got the statue down, and returned her to what they believed was the more dignified environment of the village church. But the following morning she was back in her tree.

Worn down by the persistent Madonna, the villagers eventually gave up, and built her a little hermitage in the middle of the orchard, where she has remained ever since.

The orchard stands on ancient Roman soil, and the Romans had inherited from the Greeks the enchanting notion that every aspect of nature—trees, springs, the very air—was inhabited and protected by benevolent deities. Dryads lived in trees, and were said to bleed when the trees were cut down. Oreads haunted the breezes, and naiads swam like minnows in every stream. Even the bees had their special nymphs, the meliae. The earth’s fertility, being especially important, was attended by, among others, Artemis, Cybele, Demeter, Rhea and Hegemone.

I believe that my Madonna too is a member of that committee of goddesses. She is in charge of fruits and flowers but, in that arid climate, she is especially in charge of water. “Have mercy on us and give us rain, since you have the power,” pleads the old hymn that villagers sing on her feast day.

Compared to her naked pagan predecessors, she appears outwardly tamed and Christianized, but my Madonna, and the many like her who dot the Catalan landscape, is a recurrent manifestation of the eternal Mother, the Old Goddess whose fertility even today keeps the universe going. Our Lady of the Orchard bears witness to the human instinct to regard all of nature as animate, and to revere those aspects—air, water, plants—which give us life.

Today, with our eyes fixed on various screens, our ears connected to disembodied voices, and our skin sheltered from contact with the seasons, we need neither walk nor grow our food. We are in danger of forgetting our physical and spiritual dependence on Nature.

 Like the rest of the developed world, Catalonia is overrun with supermarkets and four-lane highways. But out in the countryside, next to a spring or on the side of a mountain, you can still find stone hermitages housing the local version of the Madonna. The ancient polichromed statues, some with dark faces and hands, look solemn and forbidding. Farmers and shepherds once entrusted them with the fertility of fields and ewes, and couples hoping for children still visit them sometimes. But the churches stand mostly empty now, and the old madonnas stare out at the shrinking fields and listen to the hum of distant traffic. Who heeds their message now?

I didn’t know any of this the summer of my first communion. All I knew was that I felt a kinship with the Madonna in the Tree. Like me, who dreaded the return to Barcelona at the end of every summer, she preferred the orchard and the spring, the sheep and the honeybee to the civilized comforts of the village. In the dark, gray days of winter, as I tunneled by metro between my parents’ apartment and my school, I would think of my Madonna in her silent orchard hermitage, listening to the wind and waiting for summer, like me.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Last Car, Etc.

In our fifty-some years together, my spouse and I have owned more houses than cars. But recently I’ve been thinking that, since we probably have another ten years before we hand in our licenses, we should drive a car that is less likely to leave us stranded on some dirt road in mud season. Last week, with a mixture of apprehension and regret--giving up our 2008 Subaru felt a bit like euthanizing a pet that wasn’t sick, just old--we exchanged it for a new hybrid of the same make.

In the past, when we traded one car for a newer model, there were always a couple of new things to learn, such as opening the windows with the push of a button instead of a rotating handle (which saves roughly twenty calories per day, thus contributing to the obesity epidemic). Other changes, such as heated seats and CD players, were pleasant additions that did not interfere with my driving.

This time, however, it’s different. The only things the new car has in common with its predecessor are the turn signal and the windshield wipers. Everything else is new. Everything else will require learning, and practice.

“Just play around with it,” the salesman said, handing us the keys (which, oddly, don’t actually start the car). “Then make a list of questions and come see me.” These were the exact words that the AT&T salesman said to me six months ago when I bought my smart phone. Since then, I have barely scratched the surface of the little gizmo’s potential.

The first morning, it took me twenty-five minutes to get the new car out of the garage. Nothing was where I expected it. Nothing did what I wanted. Instead, many attractive screens and displays lit up, giving me information I didn’t need. What I needed was to release the parking brake. As I tried various combinations of buttons and pedals, the car’s bells and whistles tolled and whistled, admonishing me that, although “love is what makes a Subaru a Subaru,” it’s not unconditional love, and I had better get to work on the three-inch stack of manuals that came with the car.

This is not a car, but a computer on wheels with a mind of its own, which sends me emails from the garage keeping me informed of its charging status. I miss my old car, with its plain and unassuming airs. Like an old-fashioned servant, it would no more have presumed to send me emails than it would have thought of leaving the garage and joining us in the living room.

It isn’t easy being green, as Kermit used to say, and the only consolation for the learning curve that lies before me is in knowing that by driving a hybrid I’m helping the planet more than by taking reusable shopping bags into the market or composting my banana peels. Also, the car’s umpteen safety features may lengthen my driving career (lately I’d been parking great distances from my destination just to avoid backing out of a parking slot). Just now, when I arrived home and opened the driver’s door, a little screen popped up reminding me to check the back seat, where I had put my purse. This feature is bound to become more handy, even essential, in the coming years.

My first car, an adorable tea-cup sized blue Renault Dauphine, felt like it was made of nothing more substantial than paper mache. It had a straight shift, roll-up windows (the handle used to come off in your hand if you weren’t careful), and no radio, so I could concentrate on the driving. My brand-new hybrid will in all likelihood be my last car, and it behooves me to make friends with it before I get a minute older.

The new car is one in an increasing series of lasts.These days I’m also living in what will almost certainly be my last house. And Bisou is surely my last dog. If she lives to age fifteen, I will be eighty when she dies. Even if I’m physically and mentally up for it, will it be responsible of me to get another dog, even if it is not a puppy? As for the cat Telemann, who will be three next month, if he lives into his late teens, as many indoor cats do, I will be unimaginably ancient when he expires, so he is likely my last cat as well.

I remember when life was a string of firsts: first pair of heels, first graduation, first (and so far, only) marriage, first baby, job, house…. I don’t mean to be morbid with this list of lasts, but it’s healthy at my age to get used to letting go, to practice with the smaller things so that when the big Last arrives, I will be able to greet it, if not gaily, at least serenely.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Fetching Water

The summer of 1951, before I turned seven, was the best one ever. The sun shone brighter, the melons were bigger, and the four o’clocks massed against the side of my grandparents’ farm house breathed out clouds of scent during the endless evenings when, after supper, the family congregated under the apple tree by the well.

The well, the apple tree, my father, and me in 1946
 My parents, my grandparents, my mother’s two sisters and her brother, my grandmother’s sister and her husband, and three older cousins sat on the stone benches or on the brittle grass and talked while the stars came out and the frogs croaked by the stream.  When my father took out his pocket watch and said, “It’s time to go to the fountain, don’t you think?” the family, still talking, would process into the silent village, greeting the occasional black-clad woman sitting on the stoop (“bona nit!”).

In the empty square, they filled two enormous càntirs at the fountain that, day and night, disgorged water from an underground spring. The càntirs were large clay vessels shaped roughly like beehives and closed except for two openings at the top, one for filling and another smaller one for drinking. In the dry Mediterranean climate, and thanks to the complex physics of evaporation, càntirs have been used to keep water cold for over four thousand years.

Although the water that came out of the kitchen and bathroom spigots was perfectly drinkable, once you had tasted water from the village fountain you never wanted to drink anything else. The entire family drank out of the same càntir. This was possible because, unlike me, the adults had mastered the skill of lifting the vessel high and tilting the head just right so that the water poured into the mouth without the lips ever touching the càntir. But the càntir was too heavy for me to lift, so when I wanted a drink someone would hold it above my open mouth and trickle the delicious, cold water onto my tongue.

 That summer, I was occasionally allowed to accompany the family on their nightly errand to the fountain. Proud and thrilled to be up so late, I walked along, scuffing my espadrilles on the dusty road, engulfed in the endless stream of talk.

On the way back to the house, the men would carry the full, heavy càntirs on their shoulders while the women entreated them not to spill a single drop. My aunt Xin would show me the Milky Way, known in Catalan as el camí de Sant Jaume (the road of Saint James), because in medieval times it was said to point pilgrims to the shrine in faraway Compostela, on the northwest coast of Spain.

“Look at all those stars!” Xin would say. “They look like clouds, don’t they? But do you know what they really are? They are the dust that Saint James’s white horse kicked up as it galloped towards Compostela.”

I was well acquainted with dust. Every day as I wandered on the dry summer roads, passing flocks of sheep or the occasional motorcycle would leave me dust-covered in their wake. Saint James, I reflected, must have had an enormous horse to kick up an entire galaxy of dust. And, I wondered, did the horse really gallop because it was in a hurry to get to Compostela? It seemed more likely to me, knowing the skittish nature of the species, that it had been frightened by those two bears grazing nearby, Ursa Major and her smaller friend, Ursa Minor.

Back at the house, I would beg someone to give me one last drink from the càntir before I was sent to bed. And I would fall asleep with the feel of dust between my toes, the cool earthiness of the water in my mouth, and the image of Saint James’s great horse cantering and curvetting in the sky.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020


The last time I saw her I was in my sixties, and she in her eighties. “I’m the one who taught you to read, remember?”she said. “It was the summer when you were three years old. Your mother didn’t think I could do it.”

She was the older of my mother’s two younger sisters, and we called her Xin. That long-ago summer she and I sat on the sun-warmed roof terrace of my grandparents’ farm house, looking at an alphabet book. The next thing I remember is the two of us again sitting on the terrace, but this time she is holding the newspaper. She points to a paragraph, and somehow the letters suddenly cohere into words that I can say out loud. “See?” she says, “I told you it would be easy.”

In the summers that followed she regaled me with the best in children’s literature, translated into Spanish: The Wind in the Willows, The Jungle Book, Mary Poppins, Little Women. I didn’t much like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, because I found Evangeline, the plantation owner’s daughter, too virtuous. My favorite was a series of books by a Spanish author about Matonkikí, a little girl with crossed eyes like me. Unlike me, Matonkikí felt free to do whatever came into her head, regardless of consequences. I found this fascinating, and I envied her with all my heart.

Long before Xin taught me to read, she recited poems until I memorized them. The earliest one was in Catalan, about an old shepherd who lay dying on a bed of dry moss. When she got to the part where his sheep wept because he could no longer take care of them, I would shriek for her to stop before I too burst into tears. Together we declaimed poems by nineteenth-century Spanish romantics, and a lot of Lorca which I didn’t quite understand, about the moon, gypsies, and the color green. 

But her stories were best. Some she adapted for my age and powers of concentration—I heard about Gulliver and the Lilliputians before I could walk--and others she made up. One was triggered by the buzz that her bedside radio made as she tried to tune to a distant station. She said that there was a mosquito living inside the set, and whenever I was allowed to take a nap with her, she would turn on the radio and tell me about the mosquito’s adventures.

She taught Spanish history and literature in my school, in the upper grades, and one of my few regrets when we left for South America was that I would never have her as a teacher. When, five years later, we returned to Spain for the  summer, I was plump, pimply, and self-conscious. She took me to a fabric store, selected a cheerful cotton print and sewed me a sleeveless dress, cinched at the waist and with a full skirt, in which I felt less awkward. One day, as I was on my way to a dance wearing the dress, she called me into her room and secretly applied an almost invisible smear of pink on my lips. But it wasn’t invisible enough for the watchful eyes of my mother, who made me wipe it off.
Xin's dress, and some residual awkwardness

It took me a long time to realize that, from birth, Xin was engaged in a struggle with my mother for the alpha spot among the siblings. Of course she loved me for myself, but in her sustained efforts to make sure that I adored her, to teach me to read, and to broaden my horizons, there was also a tinge of rivalry with her dominant older sister. I imagine that when we took off for the New World she must have heaved a sigh of relief.
My parents and Xin (and me in the pram) in Barcelona. Note that both my mother and Xin have their hands on the handle.
Xin wasn’t her real name. When she would come home from school and find me in my crib, I was so delighted to see her that my cheeks would bunch up and my eyes almost disappear as I laughed, giving me a supposedly Asian look. “Xineta! Xineta!”(“little Chinese!”) she would coo, and one of my first words was Xin, which then became her nickname.

She died last week, just short of a century old, on the feast of the Epiphany. I imagine the three Magi, Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, hoisting her onto one of their camels and carrying her off to their kingdom among the stars.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

New Gloves, Etc.

My old black leather gloves were falling apart, so when the sun came out for a couple of hours the other day I drove to T.J. Maxx, which is not too far from where I now live.

Lined with car dealerships and fast-food restaurants, the road between my house and TJM is not what I think of as the real Vermont, but I reminded myself that in the decade I spent in my beloved, store-free village, I had to shop for most of my clothes at the church rummage sale.

None of the leather gloves at TJM fit me. When had women evolved five-inch-long fingers?  Might this be a sign from the universe that I should forego leather in favor of artificial fabric? After all, if I refuse to eat a dead cow, it makes no sense to clothe my fingers with the skin of one.

Luckily, the non-leather gloves on the rack weren’t all fuzzy and bulky. I found a sleek pair that fit perfectly. It even had a frivolous little strip of black faux fur (no rabbits harmed) around the wrist.

At home, I got scissors and went to separate the gloves, which were tightly bound together with those annoying bits of plastic filament. (One end is always easy to grasp, cut, and throw in the trash--you can’t recycle the things--but the shorter end invariably springs out of my hands and disappears into the carpet.)

Attached to the gloves by more plastic ties were four labels of various thicknesses. One announced, in gold-embossed letters on stiff black cardboard, that the gloves were weatherproof. Another assured me that the strip of fur around the wrist was faux. (Wouldn’t it be great if the manufacturers of faux news felt equally obliged to describe it as such?)

The third label stated the price, $14.99 (compare at $20). And the fourth explained that those reinforcing bits on the tips of the index and thumb made the gloves “touch screen compatible,” so that, should I need to check my Facebook page while standing in the middle of a blizzard, I won’t have to take them off.

By the time I had disposed of the four labels, I was feeling less sanguine about my purchase. Sure, neither cows nor rabbits had perished for the sake of the gloves, but some tree somewhere had been amputated to make those tags.

That wasn’t the only reason I felt guilty, however: I had bought more than gloves on my shopping trip.

We all know about the environmental cost of the clothing trade. I once heard a researcher describe the rivers near the manufacturing centers in China, which run all the colors of the rainbow with the dyes used on the fabrics.  Every time I walk into a clothing store, I think about those rivers.

But as I pushed my cart along the aisles of TJM, the profusion of colors, textures, and shapes made my head spin. And the prices! When did clothes get so cheap? When I was a teenager, getting a new sweater was a memorable occasion, but now sweaters, unaffected by trumpian sanctions, are practically a dime a dozen.

Outside, there was snow on the ground and the wind was blowing. The old sweaters in my closet had all sprouted a crop of pills, while here in the store, at easy reach of my hand and wallet, hung hundreds of sweaters, unpilled, just my size, just my colors, fresh all the way from China.

Reader, I caved. I bought not one, not two, but three.

At the checkout, I handed the clerk the sweaters and gloves, and my canvas New Yorker bag.

“What is this?” the clerk asked, pointing to the bag.

“It’s my bag,” I said.

“You want me to put your things in there?”

“Yes, please.”

She sighed. She folded the sweaters and began stuffing them and the cruelty-free gloves into the bag. “It’s hard to get it all in,” she said, as the line of customers behind me grew.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

But I really wasn’t. I felt guilty about the sweaters, but at least I’d saved a plastic bag.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020


For years I laughed at people who insisted on having their emotional support animals with them on the plane. I’m not laughing any longer. 

I have come to admit that I too have animal-related attachment issues. As a child, I had a teddy bear that kept me company; now, a couple of centuries later, I have two living beings, a red dog and a gray cat, that sustain my mental health.

I find it reassuring to have my steps dogged by Bisou and catted by Telemann as I move around the house. It feels disorienting to go for a walk without a leash in my left hand, a poop bag at the ready, and Bisou stopping at every sacred sniffing spot on the way. At night, watching cataclysms unfold on TV, I keep one hand on short gray fur and the other on long red fur, and life on this mournful planet seems more bearable.

In December, as we prepared to go on our Christmas travels, I lived in a state of anxiety. I had all the usual worries—packing, parking, getting on the right train. But most of my fretting was focused on the animals. Would there be a snow storm on the day when I was supposed to drive Bisou to her B&B in southern Vermont? (There wasn’t.) Would Telemann, alone except for twice-daily visits from a cat sitter, stop using the litter box in the quintessential mode of feline revenge? (He didn’t.) Would he tear up the house? (He tried.)

Day after day I told myself that, really, there was nothing for a rational person to worry about. Of course, this sort of thought never helps. It simply makes the worrier feel stupid, which gives her one more thing to worry about.

I tried to comfort myself by imagining the peace and contentment that would descend upon me once the trip was over and I could again take naps with Bisou against my right leg and Telemann on my stomach. Surely the happiness of having them with me again would match in strength and duration the anxiety that now had me so cruelly by the throat.

But for me, and I suspect for many others, our joys never feel commensurate with our sorrows. I knew from experience that the anxiety that had haunted me for weeks would not be replaced by an equivalent period of happiness after the trip. We somehow manage to sustain negative emotional states much longer than positive ones.

And that’s how it happened. After the ecstatic reunion (I spent the first night sleeping on the love seat, so Telemann could knead and purr to his heart’s content) things became, if not exactly humdrum, less than constantly joyous. Tiny worries—about laundry, groceries, the meaning of life--began to cloud my emotional skies.

But this time, with my former anxieties well fixed in my memory, I am attempting to hang onto a proportional level of happiness. As I go about my routines I occasionally stop and say to myself, wow, what gorgeous long ears Bisou has. Or I watch Telemann watching the winter-drab (but still adorable) finches at the feeder, and give thanks that his litter box habits have remained intact.

I was mistaken when I hoped that my happiness at being back would go on and on of its own accord. Spontaneous joy is something that we humans evolved to experience only in short bursts, lest we become complacent and stop scanning the horizon for lions on the prowl. Maybe happiness has to be cultivated, in the full botanical sense. The seed needs the right soil, water, and light. Above all, it needs attention.

And then it may, with luck, take root and flourish.