Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Pursuit of Happiness

"But, are you happy, mom?" she asks, her blue eyes peering up at me through her newly cut and very chic bangs. The serious tone of her voice and the careful measurement of her words indicate that she is not asking me about my immediate state, but instead, she's asking the big question about my life.

How did she arrive at this question? I can't remember. Were we in the midst of one of our more and more common newly-mature daughter and amazed-mother life discussions? Or had she honed in on the deepening lines around my eyes and heard another one of my now legendary loud sighs? How unkempt my life of crossed and burning bridges must appear to her as she begins her own journey.

And how could I answer her? Should I tell her about where I intended to go when I was her age? I can still feel the coldness of the packed snow through my boots on the long climb across the field and up to the top of the steep hill in Segovia. All around us the virgin snow sparkled, except for the deep holes our footprints made. I stood then, newly turned 20, on that seemingly momentous morning, and I breathed the icy Spanish air fully until it burned my lungs. On the Roman aqueduct in front of us ticked a clock, and I closed my eyes tightly to memorize the position of the iron hands--fixed forever at ten, to seal this moment in my heart. I thought then that I would never live the average life.

Should I tell her how my heart jumped when my name was called aloud as the winner of my first Golden Quill? I can still feel the power I had then when my name was on the lips of the city's readers, how my name commanded a better table, how my name produced answers. Holding a freshly printed magazine was a heady act for me, and next month there would be more stories bearing my byline, as Pittsburgh lay before me ripe for my plucking.

Should I tell her about the grand offices I had, stained-glass windows lining the walls? Or about the string of characters whose compelling lives may be forever locked within my brain? Should I tell her about who I planned to be?

I think not. If I tell her these things, those blue eyes will turn dark with grief for what I was, what I left behind, what I never would be.

Instead, I tell her this. "Yes, honey, I am happy." She might think otherwise, noting the lines around my eyes and my deep repetitive sighs, but she has much to learn. Instead, I'll take her hand and tell her about how it feels to love her, her brothers, and her sister. I'll tell her stories about the four of them wearing footed jammies, fighting for the two spots closest to me on the bed. I'll tell her what it feels like to fall into sleep next to the man who has loved me since I wore newly cut chic bangs. I'll tell her that love, after all, is all.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Ghosts of Christmas Past

For my children and my husband, there are ghosts of Christmas past at every turn. At the top landing as we turn left and right to our bedrooms, there is the large Italianate navity which once sat on my mother-in-law's hearth. Not one lamb has all four legs, thus necessitating a clumsy propping of sorts around the manger. Joseph has lost an entire arm, and a type of plaster gangrene has set in. Even the baby Jesus has a glued arm. This nativity surely should be discarded, but I can't wipe away the image of the women in my husband's life carefully arranging the figures each year, as I do now.

Our Christmas dishes also once belonged to my mother-in-law. Early in my married years, she told me how much she loved the Spode Christmas dishes, featuring a rich green tree on a creamy eggshell plate. My husband and I couldn't afford Spode, so we bought her the knock-off set, stamped with an imitation of the tree design on a flat white background. Each year, we contributed to the set, a cookie plate one year, candleholders the next, and when she died, I asked my father-in-law for them. I wonder now, as I unpack them each year, did she ever even want them, a poor substitute for her heart's desires.

As we readied our house this year for the holidays, I pointed out Christmas treasures to my children. Remember this: There are the needlepoint ornaments my husband's grandmother made to help us decorate our nearly empty first Christmas tree, plastic rocking horses, bells, and trees covered with green and red yarn. Ornate stockings painstakingly sewn by my children's great grandmother as her vision began to fail her hang empty in our living room. The now dilapidated oldest nutcracker, missing both sword and one foot, his arms glued firmly to his sides, was a gift from my in-laws our first married Christmas. The trio of musical angels that had been gifts from my mother-in-law to me, my mother, and herself. I own all three of them now.

Loss nudges in around the edges of our merry Christmas Eves. There are fewer people, for one, although the love between cousins goes a long way toward filling the empty spaces. The sacks of gifts distributed by my mother-in-law are gone. An innocent comment by my then very young daughter about missing those gifts sent her grandfather into a snit about "my ungrateful, materialistic child." He missed the truth within her small voice, however, as he missed so many other truths about my children. In my children's eyes, a paper check was no match for their grandmother's list making, wrapping, and sweet smell as she handed out each carefully selected gift.

Of course, I feel all of this, as it hangs heavily over my Christmases present and future, but it is the sight of the relatively new gold and white Christmas angel that brings me to my knees. Golden haired and winged, she stands about 15 inches tall on top of the living room cabinet. Her white fur-trimmed brocade skirt is wide, although her gold feather wings span wider. She is beautiful in that drugstore angel way, which is where another version of her can be found each year. That's not, however, where I found her. A week before my mother died, I opened her den closet to look for some new oxygen tubing. "Stop!" she shouted. "There's something in there for you I picked up during the Christmas sales--I got something for you and your sister." She struggled over to hide her purchases before I was allowed to look for the tubing.

It was July before my sister and I could face my mother's empty apartment. By the time we got to the den, we'd folded my mother's clothes into bags and portioned out her jewelry. When I wearily opened the den closet, I found the angel, hurriedly wrapped in tissue paper, the last Christmas gift my mother would wrap.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Talking to Truman, Again

Written after listening to a student read from "A Christmas Memory," a prompt used in a creative writing workshop for high school students.

Dear Truman,

I am always so happy to reread, or listen to, or see the Hallmark Classic version of “A Christmas Memory.” Each time, I hungrily consume your magical words, words that taste like the gems of candied fruit and the “daisy yellow” whiskey in the fruitcakes you and your cousin made, but there is more for me in this story than the sumptuous words. I love knowing that once upon a time, a boy like you, an outcast in his home then and in the world later, was once wrapped in the comfort of a woman like Sook. Even though biographers tell us of your precocious intelligence, penning stories, reading difficult books, I like to picture you pushing the buggy to collect the fruitcake walnuts and decorating a paper kite for your buddy. Was it your best time then, Truman? Even after the Black and White Ball, after the reviews, after the literary world fell at your feet, would you trade it all for another day spent with Sook pasting stars on paper kites?

On Looking at a Jellyfish

A response to a photograph of a jellyfish, written
while leading a creative writing
workshop for high school students.

The depth of the dark blue, almost purple, water beckons to me, for there float the most fragile of creatures, their thin white threads swaying with the unseen current. Their transparency is so lovely, globs of clear white jell bobbing aimlessly before my eyes. At the aquariums I’ve visited, I can routinely pass by the coral reef exhibits, though the electric colors found there do call for a second glance. Lost to me are the lake exhibits offering heavy brown fish suspended in murky water.

But the jellyfish! I stand in front of those exhibits too long, most likely annoying the mothers of small children who crowd in behind me. Often the jellyfish exhibits are showcased behind floor to ceiling glass, and the feathery transparent bodies perform a slow motion ricochet dance. I am jealous of those jellied bodies buoyed by the liquid that surrounds them, submerges them, rocks them. What worries can a jellyfish have? What distractions? What obligations?

Watching them, a calm moves over me. I yearn for the quiet I imagine exists behind the glass, as I drift reluctantly away from the exhibit and then on to the exit where I shake off the cool blue water and my noisy, turbulent life engulfs me once more.