Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Going Home

Yesterday, on our way to a picnic across the city, my husband took a turn that paralleled the street where I grew up. "Don't drive by the house," I said. The last time we'd been on the street, I'd cried for the losses the house and I had suffered.

Seconds later, I'd changed my mind.

Gary turned right onto Stratmore, and I called out the names of now long-lapsed businesses to our sons in the back seat. Another right, and we drove up the narrow lane left between the parked cars on both sides of the street. He slowed the car, stopping midway.

"This isn't it," I said, looking over Gary's head through the window.

"I think it is," he replied.

"What address is it guys? Can you read it?"


I climbed out of the car to get a better look, gaping open-mouthed at the yellow brick house. Everything was different. A large unpainted redwood porch jutted out from the brick, replacing the grey wooden porch and the curlicue lattice work that had fanned out from the steps. The green and white aluminum awning was also gone, a heavy peaked roof awkward in its place. My mother would have cried to see the state of the front bank, once covered in ivy and dotted with delicate clumps of phlox--swells of pink, purple, blue, and white. The hedges that stood at the top of the bank had been glossy green and evenly trimmed. All that remains are straggly sticks, green leaves sprouting randomly across the front. The bank itself seems to have crumbled, turning in upon itself. Now dissected with broken railroad ties, dirt patches show between straggling ivy. Nothing blooms.

I recognize only four things about the house. The yellow brick, of course, is the same. There remains an odd aluminum railing along the steps from the street. The connectors at the railing's top and bottom always reminded me of the goose-necked curve of a kitchen sink faucet. My bedroom window continues to look out onto the porch, and I can glimpse a bit of stained glass on the side, if I stand on my tiptoes and strain my eyes to the left.

I wonder what the house remembers of me, of us. Does it feel me in the front street, my heart yearning toward it? Does it still wait for Jay's long steps up the street, bounding around the side of the house after a long absence? Does a shadow of my father sit waiting in the kitchen chair near the door? If I peer into the window on the porch, will I be sitting on my pale chenille bedspread, dropping the phone, wailing in grief for my lost brother?

Do our rumblings disturb the sleep of those who live there now? Do they come upon us as we sit around the table, all of us still together in this mirage? Do they hear us in the creaks of the house, wondering if the plumbing is going or if the stairs could use an extra nail or two?

If I had enough courage, I'd climb up those steps I haven't climbed for 35 years, running my hand along the familiar rail. I'd walk around the bend of the house, checking for wild violets and buttercups in the grass, touching the roses that used to border the walkway. I might sit on the wall a while before I knock on the door, asking for entrance. I don't have enough courage to go back, though.

My sister says the house doesn't look as bad from the alley. She drove up the narrow gravel road to look down at the yard we once had. Perhaps the tiger lilies have taken over, blanketing the grass in striped orange petals. Maybe the forsythia have grown together, building a dense canopy of tiny yellow stars, protecting us all.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Cutting Lilacs

Today I cut the first lilacs from bushes I've grown. They fluttered in the crook of my elbow, a haphazard lavendar bouquet, their movement matching my steps as I pocketed the pruning shears and walked back from the side yard.

I'd been smelling the promise of these delicate starbursts since last evening. The night air carried the heaviness of sweet scent to me, a scent belying the prim line of pale blossoms on green-leafed stems. The smell of lilacs and honeysuckle bewitch me on languid summer evenings, allowing me to float in time. Late at night, honeysuckle invades my nostrils, pushing its dank sugar into my mind. I fear I could get lost in these scents.

We planted three lilac bushes a few years ago as part of the frenzied preparation for Laura's graduation party. Two of the plants sat in black plastic containers outside of the garage door for about five years before their planting. One bush came from my sister's yard, a puny offshoot jutting at a sharp angle from its pot. The second came from my friend Karen's yard; there she tends a heady swirl of growth--drooping wisteria, lush petals, riotous leaves. Both dug and potted a young plant for me after they'd heard me remember my mother's garden, their offering of scrawny-leaved sticks a gift of comfort between women.

We lived in a red brick duplex on a city street, my mother moving us as close to a suburb as she could while complying with rules that police officers live within Pittsburgh's boundaries. They bought the duplex, my father advising "As long as we have a tenant, we'll never have to worry about the mortgage," and so we grew up with the sound of other people's feet above our heads. Our house would have been huge, a rambling two-story with stained-glass windows on staircase landings and spacious bedrooms, but cut in half and left with one floor, our house shrunk, losing airiness and light. Sometimes, when the tenants weren't home, I'd creep up the wide steps past the beautiful windows and wander through their rooms, no sense of ownership in my trespassing. Once I took two potatoes from their refrigerator, using them to make homefries while my mother was at work.

Our yard, however, was all ours. The tenants had use of the wide front porch that my bedroom window opened onto, the window long and wide, running the length of my bed. A green and white aluminum awning offered cover, making for perfect porch sitting during summer storms. None of the tenants ever set up their lawn chairs there, but I still sleep easier when I hear rain spattering against our skylight, lulled to sleep by girlish dreams.

My mother didn't seem like the kind of woman who gardened. I can't picture her at work, on her knees, tending to the flowers. Does my memory fail me here? I wonder if the lush yard of my childhood was already planted when my parents bought the house. Surely she must have been responsible for some of what I carry with me. The garden was a compass to the seasons: furry gray pussy willows, wild yellow shoots of forsythia, heavy lilac bushes, tiny sprigged lily of the valley. In the Giant Eagle each spring, I stop to stroke the soft pads on bundles of pussy willow branches plunked in a white bucket of water. Take me back, my fingers say.

The backyard sloped gently uphill. On the right sat a swingset, but the left top held a massive rock garden, grey stones broken by bursts of tulips, hyacinths, and daffodils. Behind the rock garden, a tangled group of rose of sharon grew together forming a natural fence. We sometimes pulled the curled pink flowers from their stems, imagining them to be hot dogs that we served our dolls lined up in a row on the grass. Later hens and chicks lay close to the rocks, while brilliant tiger lilies swayed above them, a mass of orange and yellow. When my mother died, my sister and I chose pink stargazer lilies to blanket her casket. Would she remember, if she could?

At the bottom of the yard, bordering the sidewalk to our house, a series of roses bloomed. Most luscious were the deep red velvet, large buds opening to reveal the kind of flowers sold by florists. My mother's favorites were the yellow roses, "for remembrance," she said. Along the side of the house were the peonies. I was fascinated with the ants that worked to open the blossoms. No matter how hard I shook the deep pink cabbagey petals, an ant or two still remained, causing my mother to fret, returning the bouquet outdoors.

Bordering our neighbor's house on the left were the lilacs and the forsythia. My mother would cut armfuls of the lilacs, filling vases and jars in every room of our house. One vase, a blue piece of depression glass ringed by a thin scalloped collar, held them best. In the shade of the lilacs and forsythia grew a low forest of lilies of the valley, their bell-shaped blossoms rising from leafy pod-like curls. I'd lie on my stomach and pluck them, one by one, surprised at the strength of their resistance to my pulling, until I had enough to fill the tiniest of my mother's vases.

The front yard was a treacherous slope, that made weeding a difficult proposition. An angry teenager, I argued with my mother about that chore. "You want me to do what?" I'd chided, as if she were risking my life. The front garden was so large that I'd sit moodily in sections, pulling random leaves of grass and clover that managed to survive in spite of the dense leaves of ivy. Still, there, amidst the ivy and soft patches of creeping phlox, tender, frilly dianthus bloomed. Even our side yard bore flowers, buttercups and violets rising triumphantly from the green.

My own lilacs are on my kitchen table as I write, their fragrant presence changing my patterns of thought. One of my three bushes burst this year, but still I don't have enough blossoms to fill my house. I left enough there to scent my yard while I drink cups of coffee on the deck, while I sit collecting my thoughts in the dark. After I'd arranged my lilacs in a clear glass vase, I went back out to the shady section of my yard, where a small group of green leaves curved protectively around stems of bell-shaped flowers. I should have planted them when we first bought our house, but, even so, five lily of the valley shoots sit in a tiny vase on my kitchen sink helping me while I remember my mother.

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Road Most Traveled

I know now I'm never going to live in Spain.

Please don't think I'm an aging malcontent, complaining, whining away the evening hours. Don't worry about me, either; I'm not climbing out of my second-floor bedroom window, legs dangling weightlessly before the heavy leap. I have simply reconciled myself to the truth; I won't be going back.

Darn you, Robert Frost, you and your road less traveled. I believed in your words once. At 20, I stood on a hilltop in Segovia, feet buried in virgin snow, eyes locked on the clock set into the ancient stones of the Roman aquaduct. I swore then that I wouldn't live a normal life. Mine was an oath sealed by warm breath rising in the cold air.

It's been 10:10 a.m. in one of my heart's chambers for a long time.

Like most good stories go, he changed my mind. Blue eyes, broad chest, desire sparking from his fingertips, he carried me forward. Does passion count as ordinary? Surely I haven't betrayed myself. Don't turn your eyes from me, Robert Frost!

Small wrinkled fingers caught in my hair, tiny tooth pearls showing in lopsided smiles, milky mouths gaping in soft sleep against my neck. Are these anything less than extraordinary? When they were babies, I might have thought so, bonetired from the day, countless trips up and down the stairs, my husband traveling for days and nights and days and nights again. It was survival for me then, tummies fed, tears wiped, all four clean and sleeping. Now, though, in a quiet house, those moments are strung together like tiny white fairy lights across my life.

And, really, I suppose it was enough that I lived there once, that I walked in the pinar, sitting cross-legged on broken needles, slaking my thirst with a bota full of cold red wine. A strong sun overhead watched us as we spoke haltingly, the language new and exotic on our tongues.

Pictures bombard me when I let my head go back to Spain, the sharp crease of pressed trousers, the white-haired viudas wrapped in black, the sizzle of olive oil in a pan. I opened a building door in Ciudad Rodrigo, pulling a foot back just in time from stepping into a tornado of men chased by massively-horned bulls. I stood on the edge of the world, or so it seemed. In Santander the rolling emerald green meadows stop abruptly, morphing into treacherous cliffs dropping straight to the sea. Enough for a lifetime, Mr. Frost.

It may have been more than enough to walk by the house where Cervantes wrote El Quijote, my hand dragging daily along the black iron rail, rising and falling over the small connecting spikes. Tilting at windmills, I too walked the streets of Valladolid.

If I stand completely still, breathe to the bottom of my lungs, I can conjure that cold 10:10 a.m., its thin memory shimmering with silver frost. I didn't know then what I know now, Robert Frost. I made promises I couldn't keep. I took the road most traveled, but, oh, that has made all the difference.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Happy Mother's Day

Lemon Meringue Pie is the post I wrote for Mother's Day, but it is dated April 7th since that's when I started writing the piece. If you'd like to read about my mother's lemon meringue pie, click on the link to April's blogs on the right.

Happy Mother's Day, all!

Enjoy your pie.