Wednesday, April 27, 2011

For My Students Upon Their Graduation

You should know this.

There's just a moment before I enter the room when I'm almost heady with anticipation. I jump in with both feet, ready to do it all again this morning, this afternoon, tomorrow, next week, another lifetime perhaps-- to chase ideas around the room with you, to bat translucent, jewel-toned orbs down from the ceiling, to drink deeply of the intellectual helium we discover inside.

When I drive the 50-odd miles to and from work each day, my battered grey Pontiac nearly automatic in rounding the curves of 79, I say prayers of gratitude. I move through my children, touching their heads in my mind...jet black hair, red curls, blonde crimps, brunette layers, then on to my faithful strong man. I count God's metaphors, the blood-red cardinal sitting on my windowsill, my friends who visit in my office chair--one with a guitar across her lap, another with a poem in his throat, one with a listening heart, and another with some old-fashioned southern comfort. Others bring me jokes on silver platters, bartering them for my laughter. On some days, when I turn the key to start my journey, my heart hurts, abraded by the roughness of worry. By the time I stop the car, I am more at peace, having chanted my rosary of gratitude, rubbing my life's gifts between my fingers as I pray.

Regardless of how long my list, I always end with this:


The truth is that aren't any earthbound words to sum up the gratitude that rolls through me like waves, the rush of water roaring in my ears. The standard 26 black letters just don't have the power.

So...the substandard version goes like this:

"Oh, my dear God, thank you for allowing me to teach, for making a place for me in the classroom, for sending students my way, for the generosity with which they share their stories layered in bell-shaped words. I am most deeply greatful for your gift of words, for the paper armor they form around me, for the beautiful mosaic they create in my mind, for the bandages they place on my heart."

My prayers are answered every day.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011


I'll come for tea,
she said to the queen,
but no hydrangeas for me,
no mottled blue and purple
bursts of passion.
Instead, please, dandelions
in a jelly jar, some Earl Grey
from your chipped cup,
and toasty word crumpets
for a little snack.
Later, perhaps, we'll dance
under the old moon, our
garden alchemy beating
my spikey yellow petals
into seeded white puffs.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Blue Hydrangeas

My friends are writing poetry,

seated at polished teak desks

in gardens swollen with blue hydrangeas.

There, words drop from their fingers

sculpting tributaries to the sea.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Sea Change

Yesterday I saw a tiny golden spark shoot from the tip of my index finger. I've been expecting another sign.

Several years ago, I opened my eyes to find a small black oval hovering near the bottom of my vision. I did my best to blink it away, but instead of moving around my eyeball like a gnatty floater, the spot expanded. In three days, I would be blind in my right eye, a rather ornate antique gray lace curtain shielding my sight.

"Can you see the light?" the doctor asked me. My good left eye was covered, and I was awash in darkness.

"No. I don't see anything."

"How about now?" I could feel his hand moving the air in front of my face.

"Is there supposed to be light?" I whispered, my heart keeping pace with the beat of my worry.

The first treatment involved the injection of gas bubbles into my eye, which sometimes forced torn retinas back into place. I'd have to keep my head lowered for the next 24 hours, and we'd know in less than two days if my sight would return.

That afternoon, another dimension opened. A wild laser show danced across my eyelid, an unexpected gift from my damaged eye. Intense colors drew intricate patterns that continued to morph, bisecting and imploding, leaving firework trailers in my line of vision. I watched through a gassy kaleidescope, thrilled at each twist of the tube.

"You should see this, you guys!" I called out to my family. My play-by-play of colors and movement was met with puzzlement, and I understood that it was for me alone.

Two days later, I had emergency surgery, which did restore my vision. Heavily sedated, but not asleep, I fell into a warm, euphoric dream vision. I swear I saw my doctor bounce my blind eyeball off of the wall, while he chatted about his daughter's soccer game. Whatever he did, it worked, and he nodded when I told him about the lights.

"Some patients do see things. I hear they are quite beautiful."

Yesterday, while I sat at Panera with my friend Karen, a tingling sensation started in my toes and moved upward through my body. We sat across from each other, our hands wrapped around ridged cardboard cups, talking about our children. When the tingles reached my head, I could no longer hear her, her mouth moving clearly in front of me, but her words arriving slowly through layers of air. I thought for a moment that I was going to slide from my chair, like a cartoon character that flattens into a single dimension.

"Karen...I don't know what's happening to me," I wanted to tell her, raising the alarm, imagining spinning red and blue ambulance lights. I couldn't get the words out. The electricity soon began to run again in my body, slowly clicking on the circuits until I felt whole again.

I could think of a lot of medical explanations, and I should probably see the doctor, as I have been advised by those who love me. But I think I know what it is.

There's been a shifting of my tectonic plates, a movement in my consciousness, a shaking of my core. The short in my system I felt yesterday signaled the switch, just as my private light show allowed me a second sight. I wasn't surprised to see the tiny golden spark shoot from my finger.

Recently, I feel like someone turned on my the faucet in my brain, ideas rushing freely from me, threatening to clog the drain. "I have so many ideas," I tell my husband. "Something's happened to me. Something's different. They are threatening to drown me."

"Write them down. Outline them," he offers helpfully.

But that's the shift that's occurred. I don't want to outline. I don't want to slice my writing time into neat wedges. The words are dripping from my pores, the water rising over my ankles. Soon I'll be able to splash in the well of words swirling around my legs. I want to live in that watery world, coming up when I'm gasping for breath, shaking the word droplets from my hair. Soon I'll be caught in the tide, and I may not be back for a while.

A writer friend of mine reported that she woke up from an afternoon nap to find that she was not herself.

"Well, who were you?" I asked.

"I was a Spanish writer."

"Wow," I said. "You must have been very disappointed when you really did wake up."

"That's just it," she said. "I wasn't asleep."

I'll have to remember to ask her if she's seen any sparks.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Lemon Meringue Pie

My mother's lemon meringue pie should have been in the revolving glass case at Minnie's House of Pies, its sweetly-stacked white and yellow layers calling like sirens to unsuspecting diners. Patrons would have been hypnotized by the spinning lemony wheel, their plates soon licked clean, sunshiney smiles playing on their lips.

The pie was a beauty--unevenly peaked with wisps of pale meringue, golden tips whisked under the broiler, the topping hiding the translucent citron promise of a center. When my mother took the pie from the refrigerator, I'd gently pop the tiny pearls of moisture beading the surface with my little finger. The meringue stood stiffly on the wedge of cut pie, but the clear yellow filling shook a little, still feeling the movement of the knife. Each bite was a wafer-thin slice of meringue, quivering lemon, and crust, the sugary citrus creaminess coating my tongue.

I know my mother cooked dinner for us most nights, but I can only see my father stirring pots at the stove, suspenders crossing the back of his plaid shirts. Navy cook style, he served up plates of chicken and dumplings, stuffed peppers, and spaghetti. In my mind, though, I see my mother's finely-boned fingers coated with flour, the result of her mixing and rolling always delicate sweetness. An expert turn of the spritz cookie tube, plopped doughy shapes on the sheet underneath. Her cookies were finished with pale blue, pink, and yellow icings--dotted sometimes with little silver balls.

During Christmas, holiday tins were stacked in our fruit cellar, each one holding cookie layers separated by rounds of wax paper, carefully cut after tracing the lid for size. Long after my father died, we continued the tradition, even taking a cookie class together at the local high school where we learned how to roll ladylock dough around metal forms and crush almonds into batter that would be topped with raspberry jam and powdered sugar. In late November, my mother would arrive early one weekend morning, and we'd begin to mix dough, placing each plastic-wrapped log into the refrigerator to wait for its turn in the oven. My husband would watch our boys while my mother and I rolled, cut, and sugared. At the end, we'd divide our cookies into my mother's tins, sitting together for a cup of tea at the table finally wiped clean.

When I was around ten or so, my father took me along on a visit to his brother's home. I wanted my mother to come along, as I hated to think of spending a long day sitting quietly on my uncle's front porch. So many years later, it's easy to understand why she stayed at home. My uncle's remarriage to a straight-backed woman named Vera had changed the tone of our family visits. I remember Vera's face the most, colorless lips pulled naturally downward, hair pulled up into a relentless bun. On this visit, Aunt Vera seemed delighted to have me to herself, as she pulled me into the kitchen where she'd laid out the ingredients for a pie--a lemon meringue pie.

"Oh! Lemon meringue is my favorite," I told her. "My mother makes the best!"

"We'll see, won't we?"

Of course, she went around it all the wrong way. She planned on using lemon pudding for the filling, and a box mix for the crust sat on the counter. I knew that my mother's crust involved leveling cups of flour with a knife and her secret ingredient--a creamy oil called Whirl. The part of the pie I loved the most, though, was the filling. A milky pudding center just wouldn't do.

I tried to help Aunt Vera by instructing her on my mother's recipe, including a vivid description of the tiny beads of moisture on the meringue. "It's just perfect," I summed up.

"Well, I'll tell you something that's not perfect about your mother," Vera responded. "She wears too much lipstick, and she's going to lose all the color in her lips because of it."

"I wear lipstick sometimes," I retorted, lying in solidarity with my mother.

"Only cheap women wear lipstick."

I had a vision of my mother's face, red hair bobbed to her shoulders, pink lipstick framing her lips. My face felt hot, and I moved to the doorway. "My mother isn't cheap," I told her, "and your lemon pie will never be as good as hers."

Finding my father on the porch, I sat next to him on the old green striped glider. I waited for Vera to come after me, but she didn't. My dad and I kept perfect rhythm, our heels pushing off in tandem. It never occurred to me that Vera might have been just as afraid as I to share our conversation with my father.

In the last years of her life, my mother didn't cook much of anything. While she was still able to get out on her own, she ate out for as many meals as she could, even when she had to eat alone.

"I stopped for a bite," she'd tell me when I asked what she'd had for dinner. She carried coupons in her purse just in case.

I'm not sure when things shifted, and my mother began spending most of her time in the blue corduroy chair in her den, seated next to the large humming oxygen concentrator. Going out meant hours of preparation: a bath the night before since the exertion was too much on the day of the outing, laying out an outfit on the wicker chair next to her bed--many trips in socked feet between the closet and the dresser drawers, getting up three hours before we'd leave so she could have a little orange juice with her pills and sit down between all the parts of getting dressed. Mostly, that last year, I'd take her to the Giant Eagle. If we had time, we'd stop for a late breakfast at Bob Evans, "where they knew how to cook eggs."

Going to the Giant Eagle wore me out, too. After I helped my mother down the four steps from her hallway and across the lobby, I'd dash across the parking lot to the car. I'd pull up in front of her building, jump out of the car, help her get settled, then slide back into my seat. I'd follow the same routine at the restaurant, and again at the Giant Eagle. After I loaded my trunk with her groceries, I'd retrieve her in front of the store and buckle her into the front seat. Back again in front of her apartment building, I'd unload her and the groceries. We'd struggle up the four steps with our respective baggage--her oxygen tank on her shoulder, my knuckles creased white from the handles of plastic bags. Opening the door with a shaky hand, she'd lurch into the blue velvet chair closest to the door. I'd lug the remaining bags up the steps, divide the groceries between the cupboards, refrigerator, and freezer, and sit for a few minutes chatting. Later, I'd complain about the drawn-out process to my sister, my husband, my children.

"Mom, why don't you let me run to the store for you?" I'd ask, promising how quickly I'd be there and back with all the items on her list.

"I'll think about it," she'd always say. "Next week, maybe."

The next week would find us back in the Giant Eagle, her knobbed fingers fumbling with her carefully clipped coupons. Most weeks, she needed something from every aisle. I ran interference for her, matching coupons with cans and boxes. Her cart was stocked with convenience foods.

Our last stop was always the frozen dessert cases. She'd pull six or seven coupons from her envelope for waffles, ice cream sandwiches, slices of pie. The last week we shopped together, just four days before she went to the hospital, just seven days before she died alone in a single room, she chose a pie-shaped box containing a single slice of frozen lemon meringue pie. When my sister and I cleaned out her refrigerator after the funeral, most of the groceries we'd purchased during that trip were uneaten. There was no pie-shaped box of lemon meringue pie in the freezer. I hope she enjoyed it; I hope it had a lovely clear lemon filling.

Recently I made a pie for a Sunday dinner with my son and his girlfriend. I layered apples and dried cranberries with sugar inside of a refrigerated pie crust. Andy said it was the best pie he's had in a while. My father-in-law says I make the best pumpkin pie he's ever tasted.

I've never made a lemon meringue pie.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

When I Grow Up

Part of me aches for her all the time: my mother hands yearning to smooth back silky hair, my arms twitching to enfold her, even against her struggle. My body does not forget.

I have the following conversation at least once a week, most often in the grocery store, the place I am likely to encounter people who know us. The exchange of pleasantries varies, but the rest goes like this:

"Is Laura still out"

"California? Yes, yes she is."

"Is she still playing..."

"Lacrosse? Well, yes she is."

"Gee, I really have to hand it to you. I could never let my daughter go so far away." The translation of this last line reads "I love my daughter too much to send her 3,000 miles away."

Part of me agrees with the grocery store crowd. How could I give up those weekend visits, basking physically in her space, brunching at the local eggery with her roommates? The other part of me asks "How could I not?" This is my daughter's life, I remind myself, not mine to be measured out in coffee spoons, to be lived cautiously within the rigid boundaries I've set for myself.

The calm way I go about my life, teaching my classes, reading, deciding what to eat for dinner, camoflauges the void that used to be Laura-filled. When Rachel, her younger sister, completed a second-grade project about the family, she drew a picture of a tornado next to Laura's name. It happens like this: Laura walks in, and the lights dim. The air is full of static, crackling with her presence. At the camp in Japan where she worked last summer, the others dubbed her "genki," meaning crazy, full of life.

The way it works when you sign your child over to a Division 1 sports team is that everything else now comes first, before you, even before her. Workouts, practices, games, team meetings, study time fill up every little blue line in her planner. This past weekend, we were fortunate to have a little time at breakfast, three hours one afternoon, and a half hour at the after-game tailgate. We drove 500 miles to see her, leaving after work, both of us bleary-eyed already, arriving in Connecticut just after three a.m. For the last 50 miles of the trip, I drove lurchingly in the right lane over curving roads nearly covered by a canopy of ghostly tree branches arching from both sides. At the exit, I turned left into the hotel driveway, nearly hitting a barrier there.

Nothing mattered, though, except that we would be sleeping in the same hotel as she, that when my alarm went off at 8:00 a.m., I would fling open the door, pound down the steps into the breakfast room, where she would be, miraculously, my daughter, mine.

That first day I was lucky. Laura had the afternoon off--the promise of three unclaimed hours!, and we spent it in our hotel room, seeking some semblance of home life, she and I sitting hip to hip on the sofa--me ursurping the spot next to her. We watched television, flipping channels to find a show we'd once watched routinely together, creating a false scene of familiarity. Shortly before she had to leave, we woke up, her head heavy against my shoulder.

I don't know how to explain what happens between us. Perhaps my voice loses its precarious balance, the slipping of an octave indicating disapproval. Maybe I am just too much up close and in person, pressing Laura to remember that I'm really not an everyday force in her life. As a baby, she fought against the highchair, kicking and drumming until she was released, the rest of us bouncing her on our laps while we finished dinner one handed.

At school sometimes, I have to close my office door, so I can work, although I'd really rather not. Perhaps my leopard rug extends an invitation, and students and faculty alike wander in, drifting to the chair in the corner, telling me about their days, inviting me into their lives. We laugh everyday while my children look down from their pictures on the shelves. A photograph taped directly in my line of vision shows three hands piled on top of each other, each wearing the beaded beach bracelet Rachel buys for us. We wear them until they fall off, and we compare stories of longevity. I've worn them on my ankle some years, giving presentations before the faculty in slacks just long enough to cover Rachel's bohemian gift. All for one, and one for all our picture promises, a solidarity of Sunday women, a trio who once sat in wet bathing suits on sandy picnic benches at Le Bec Rouge.

By the next morning of our visit, I was an irritant, so much sand under her tongue. Chatting about her Chicago internship this summer, I wished aloud about a weekend visit, one for me that promised a sunny city adventure in a place that we could reach by car. Ever since I heard about her acceptance, a comforting mantra ran through my head...she'll be closer...she'll be closer, the Chicago location making real the possibility that if I had to, I could get in the car and find her, fall out of the car into her world, nothing between us but a day's drive.

"I want to have time for my friends," she said. "When I was in Japan, I had so much fun with the people I met there...I just want to have time. It will all go so fast."

Blinking, I look away, but Laura's words throw me back 30 years to when I was her age, packing for a semester abroad in Spain. My mother paced the room, making me nervous as I tried to calculate what I might need for a new life.

"Maybe I'll come visit you in March," she began hopefully. "I've been looking at some brochures about Marbella."

"Can't you just leave me alone?" I sputtered, physically recoiling, gasping for breathing space. "This is my life, not yours. You've already lived your life. Now it's my turn!"

My words were full of such an obvious desire to be free from her, from the small life I thought she lived, that I don't know how she survived them. I can do nothing now to change that day--no matter how many times I revisit it desiring to sponge those words from her brow. Instead I carry the words with me like the polished stones Jews leave in the cemetery for remembrance.

That afternoon, we sat in the stands watching Laura on the field, the cold sun picking up lines of gold and copper in her hair. My heart wants to burst when I think of her sweet and open approach to the world. She is so good, so good. I want to be just like her when I grow up.

Missing her wells in me, rough waters threatening to pull me under. At the sound of my morning alarm, I imagine her still asleep, curled on her side, three hours behind me. We are connected by phone lines, divided by time differences. She calls me while riding her bike home, my mind tangled in the three lanes of traffic she has to cross with a phone held to one ear. Sometimes she calls me while in line at Starbucks, saying " you" as she reaches the register.

When we talk, I tamp down the gray froth of worry that skirts our conversation. I make an effort to brighten my tone, sometimes patting myself on the back for how well I conceal the sum of her absence, hiding my sorrow that she's not closer so we could sit over lunch. I lock away the vision of our heads bending toward the steam rising from our coffee.

"Be happy, Mom," she tells me. "Are you happy?"

After the game, I waited with her father and brother, leaning against our car, chatting with other parents about all that is our daughters. Arriving at a trot, with a quick embrace for her men, she caught the eye of another mother, one she sees far more often. Heads together, arms around waists, they nodded knowingly at each other's words, walking easily together toward the food table.

Where did I belong then? I stood conspiciously alone, the miserable figure on the fringe of a movie set, my red coat too bright. It's how she survives, I tell myself, a strong young woman so far from home in a world that asks so much from her.

But how do I?