Tidal pools of rage and grief release into composition as my husband hangs the first load of the season out on the line.
He came to me like this.
33 summers ago, I hired him as a waiter because I had been obliged to do so (his mother sold us ad time), but I soon came to recognize, not only the fullness of his pleasure/presence ((oh, the gifts of a second son)), but his ability–to be male, and to be aware, of the world around him.
You’ve heard the joke, right?
How many men does it take to screw in a lightbulb?
Because my husband likes routine and the physical world, and because I like systems and the world of contemplation, we complement one another, which, as we were once told, is the hardest relationship to thrive.
(Perhaps that first therapist had been wrong, but there’s still time.)
Because I did not marry my first love who adored me and “placed me on a shelf,” I was not only lucky in second loving, but wise.
If not for the man my husband is, I would not have space to be who I am ((rediscover who I am)) alongside being a wife and mother; though my mother found ways didn’t she–abandoning everything and starting over again, and then abandoning herself for that crime, almost entirely, until she arrived, near death, closer toward the center of her own life, where the men we love reside, with permission implied, just about everywhere…
How many men does it take to screw in a lightbulb?
Just one. While he waits for the whole world to revolve around Him.
Which is to say that the mother I am, the writer I am, the thinker and teacher I am, is in large part because of the man in the yard hanging the laundry, and because of that, I am fortunate and grateful and angry, hoping my granddaughter won’t need to rely upon the good nature of yet another man to carve out a center of her own.
I was a girl. There was a party. My grandfather sat down at the piano, already our hero. Who knew he could play! Who knew Heart & Soul had two parts! I sat down beside him on the bench and he showed me how. We played together, grandfather and granddaughter.
Didn’t this song stream over the radio just as I was writing about him today.
“Hi, Poppop!” I call out.
Those twinkling eyes. His height. His kindness. The way everybody loved him. EVERYBODY, except perhaps my grandmother at times. How he’d hurt her. How being female hurt her. How his life and light blossomed. How hers dimmed. How I adored them both. But saw in her, despite the increasing slurring, and the absence of societal mark, the greater power, the indomitable strength, the wind, the water, the earth, beneath his feet, our feet, as he smiled and wooed and flipped our pancakes into silver dollars, while she, who once held so much promise–French & Chinese at Rutgers–grew bitter with neglect.
A leading role came at 55, a tragedy, her dramatic exit.
And although his eyes did twinkle from time to time, he never stood as tall.
I was 18 when I began keeping vigil with all that was lost; which is to say, I began writing.
My youngest is 18 now.
His older brother was home this afternoon for a quick half-hour, just in time to hop in the car with his father and head south to my husband’s family home 300 miles away.
I waved from the mudroom as they pulled down the driveway and then Aidan and I turned to empty the dishwasher. As I was bent over the silverware it hit me. “All three of you share something I don’t,” I said.
Turns out, it’s hard to give your kids something you never had, and not for the obvious reasons.
While it’s been healing to offer the kind of upbringing I needed, it’s also surprisingly painful, especially now that they’re the age I was when there was hardly a home or parents to turn toward.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about moving. Far away. By myself. Like the time I lived in London or the time I backpacked through Europe or the time I went out to the Rockies. At 18 and 23, my boys are like bookends of the age I was then. It must be time.
Integrity is one of several paths. It distinguishes itself from the others because it is the right path, and the only one upon which you will never get lost.
I came across this passage in a framed print at the second-hand store years ago, and slowly it wove itself into our family fabric, especially as my boys entered adolecence and I asked them to recite it again and again.
I leaned into that instruction myself, intuitively, 30 years earlier, after a miscarriage, as I prepared to leave my first teaching position. A colleague remarked on my diligence with the end of the year paperwork. “Why bother,” she said. “You’re leaving for Vermont.”
It was something I would hear echoed, again and again, each time I left a job, a rental, a relationship.
Tonight I looked for jobs across the ocean.
What must it be like to have a home to which you can return? I wondered this as my older son sat beside me on the stairs before he left with his father. “I’ll be leaving right away when we get back on Sunday,” he said.
I marveled at how he could “drop-in” to the familiar sights and sounds and smells of a lifetime, and then be on his way again, securely rooted and released, without any need to grasp or hold on or catalogue the memories before they vanished.
The restlessness I feel inside is almost unbearable. UPROOT, it says, UPROOT!
I don’t want a house or a husband or a community.
But I’ve cultivated a lifetime of tools that enable me to stay with what hurts and what is uncomfortable and what makes me want to run.
If not the sobriety of Menopause (2 years this past Thanksgiving), then the house guest for whom the holiday was a foreigner, or perhaps the alchemy of both together accounted for the way Christmas was tilted, like a snow globe, and shook loose of all of its accoutrements–gifts & food & music & ritual–until it was seen, if not for the first time, then at least anew.
One could say, as many do, that it’s the absence of the Christ Child that hollows out the holiday like a cheap, chocolate Easter Bunny.
But what of our rich personal traditions, steeped in soul and meaning?
Each Christmas Eve we read aloud the Nativity story, and each Christmas Morning, we read this stunning excerpt from Little Women:
Jo was the first to wake in the gray dawn of Christmas morning. No stockings hung at the fireplace, and for a moment she felt as much disappointed as she did long ago, when her little sock fell down because it was crammed so full of goodies. Then she remembered her mother’s promise and, slipping her hand under her pillow, drew out a little crimson-covered book. She knew it very well, for it was that beautiful old story of the best life ever lived, and Jo felt that it was a true guidebook for any pilgrim going on a long journey. She woke Meg with a Merry Christmas, and bade her see what was under her pillow. A green-covered book appeared, with the same picture inside, and a few words written by their mother, which made their one present very precious in their eyes. Presently Beth and Amy woke to rummage and find their little books also, one dove-colored, the other blue, and all sat looking at and talking about them, while the east grew rosy with the coming day.
“While the east grew rosy with the coming day!” Gush!!! And each and every Day in December we read from the National WIldlife Treasury…
December may be the last page on our calendar, but it belongs to no single year… ruled less by time than by age-old traditions…
But is reading meaning?
What of the heart?
My late mother’s birthday is Christmas Day, as was my great Aunt Doll’s.
Certainly, that’s enough heart for a single day.
Let your heart be light…
My youngest, and his maternal and paternal grandfathers before him, dismiss the traditions of faith as if religion is a personal affront to their God-given, white-male sovereignty, and at least in my son’s defense, this is accompanied by an abiding passion for all things scientific.
Lesser beings, like myself, of smaller minds and opportunity, oftentimes rely upon magic and soul. Alas, my capacity for the former, carefully attended since childhood, is almost extinguished, for which I can barely muster concern which in itself is alarming.
At one time, most of my friends could hear the bell, but as years passed, it fell silent for all of them…(Chris Van Allsburg, The Polar Express)
First thing Christmas morning, my youngest led his older brother in a brief yoga practice, sounding through the chakras, the two of them flanking me on my mat in front of my bedroom balcony doors as the sun rose above the trees in the East–their Warrior Threes on each side of my Balanced Tree–a morning practice to better prepare ourselves for the extraordinary self-connection required of the day’s togetherness; which on sons’ part was no doubt an effort to humor their mother so that the gift-giving could commence sooner.
Having sped through the chakras with a pose for each one, they left the room, encouraging me along, while moments later my youngest returned with his old, golden & gem clad, Egyptology book in hand.
“Eylem pulled this off the shelf,” he explained, “Look at this,” he said, pointing to an excerpt from the Book of the Dead, beneath an illustration of Horus which read:
My heart, my mother, my heart, my mother, my heart, my coming into being! May there be nothing to resist me at my judgment… may there be no parting of thee from me in the presence of him who keeps the scales!
He went on to explain that at death the heart is weighed. And only if it is lighter than a feather may the dead pass on to “heaven.”
Let your heart be light…
It’s not just the heartbreak of my mother’s absence, or the Christmas Eve fire that destroyed a neighbor’s home, or the tsunami on the Sundra Straits of Indonesia sweeping away a pop band while it performed for concert goers on the beach, or even the impending separation between two lovers in my livingroom, star-crossed by timing and culture and place of birth (not to mention visas) or the heartbreak of disappointing yourself, like my youngest, in your first semester away at school, it was the revelation that came with the lightening of my own heart as we sat around the fire on Christmas Eve, while the Gospel of Luke was read aloud with a Turkish accent, followed by the spontaneous singing of carols, giving rise to bouts of laughter, particularly my own, which led my oldest to posit that his mother must be very, very tired, or the moment earlier in the day just before we left to skate on the Retreat Meadows when I stepped toward my husband’s in an embrace, not weary, but full of love, which is how I realized how very tight and parsimonious I’ve let my heart become.
ps: best ever illustrated book of the Gospel of Luke/nativity story, Julie Vivas (of Australia):
I became a mother this week on a rainy day much like today, but I don’t remember getting wet. What I do remember is my acute embarrassment.
“Please don’t use the sirens,” I said to the ambulance driver.
(Doctor’s daughters don’t do emergencies.)
I don’t remember if Casey rode up front, but I do remember asking if Mary could join me in back. It turns out they were relieved to have a midwife on board.
I watched as the farmhouse and the barn and the Deerfield River feathered from view and we approached the village where I’d moved to teach school two years earlier; but I don’t remember much else except for the mountaintop that we climbed on our way to the nearest hospital, thirty-some minutes away.
As we bounced over Hogback Mountain, I looked out at its three-state view, while the young EMT, fearing a delivery, attempted an IV into my right hand. But she needn’t have worried. I had already told the baby to wait, and although my contractions had been steady and strong since my water broke just before dawn (a good thing since my husband was heading out the door to go fishing for the day… before cell phones), I hadn’t experienced a single contraction after stepping inside the ambulance.
“How far along are you,” my sister asked when I called that morning to apologize. She’d sent her 9-year-old on a plane from Florida to visit us for two weeks and I had promised not to go into labor during his stay. “First babies always come late,” I reminded this mother of three, so eager was I to see my nephew.
“Well, it must be early labor,” she said, “You’re too calm.”
When Mary arrived shortly after that call, I asked if she’d would mind waiting to examine me, so consumed was I by contractions.
She made the same assumption about the progress of my labor given my steadiness.
When she finally did check my cervix, there were three surprises.
“You’re 8 centimeters already,” she said, astounded. “And something else.”
The something else was what resulted in several phone calls to area hospitals and then an ambulance ride down the river through the village and over the mountain toward the big town.
“I am not going out on that stretcher,” I told the EMTs when they arrived in my kitchen. “I don’t want to upset the neighbors.”
Casey had just come in from hanging the diapers on the line, and before we all left out the back door, I pointed to the doughs on the counter. “Will you put those back in the freezer,” I said to him, feeling a pang for the meal we would never share with our home birthing team.
“I bet this is a boy,” I’d joked to Mary in the ambulance, given that I had been told by more than one intuitive that this baby would arrive “after” my due date (not almost two weeks before it) and that the baby would be a girl.
Mary later told me of the third surprise, that instead of a head, she’d felt testicles.
And although I hadn’t experienced any contractions on the ambulance ride, coaxing the baby to wait, she later told me that my labor had indeed progressed. I was fully dilated by the time we arrived in the emergency room.
“She’s in labor?” the front desk nurses said, as I was wheeled past them.
“She’s still in her street clothes,” two others said, as they looked into the examining room where I was lifted onto a bed.
I looked these women up and down too and had thought them orderlies, but one would turn out to be the surgeon, who did her own examination.
“Small,” she pronounced.
“Adequate,” Mary countered.
“Unproven,” she said.
They stood at the foot of my stretcher disputing the capacity of my pelvis.
“Calm,” Mary offered, of my demeanor.
“I’ll give it two hours,” the doctor said. “But the results could be tragic.”
They looked from each other toward me.
“Can I have a minute?” I said.
I motioned to Casey to join me in the bathroom. I closed the door. I kept the lights off.
I had miscarried twice before. Bled through the early months of this pregnancy too. Had Braxton-Hicks beginning at 5 months. Had planned a home birth because I’d fallen in love with a midwife named Mary who told me that she took my little baby home with her each night in her third eye, each and every night.
I had felt so peaceful there in our little farmhouse beside the mountain. The morning’s cloud cover created a cocoon as I labored at the edge of our bed, the skylight overhead where we watched the stars at night a comfort too, the door to the balcony over the brook open to the air, and this blissful feeling between contractions that my mother told me I’d find if I paid attention to the spaces in between enveloped me.
“Remember, you and the baby want the same thing,” my mother said, having birthed 9 children without a single miscarriage or epidural.
She was a Christmas baby like my great aunt, while I followed on the Immaculate Conception of Mary, and her grandson was apparently arriving on the Assumption of Mary, coming early to do so.
I opened the bathroom door to bright lights and urgent faces, remembering my bare feet on our soft pine floors, Mary kneeling in front of me, pressing her thumbs into my shin, lending exquisite relief during a strong contraction.
“We’ll take the c-section,” I said.
And then I remember the very last contraction I experienced.
“This will sting,” said the anesthesiologist who arrived in the operating room with a nurse and his long needle while the surgical team scrubbed like I had once done with my father and to whom I had just recently said, just as he had said to me: I never want surgery. (We would each have surgery within 48 hours of each other this very week.)
“Can you wait a minute,” I said to the anesthesiologist, laughing at the absurdity of his warning about the epidural. “I’m having a contraction.”
In the end, they had to yank the baby out of the birth canal so ready was he to be born through me instead of removed by them.
Protocol would not let me view the delivery, but they did let me see him for a flash before they whisked him to the examining table under the bright lights where they pronounced him healthy. Protocol also prevented me from him until the anesthesia wore off.
I’d only had anesthesia once before. Wisdom teeth. The same-day surgery room was set to close and I still couldn’t wake. My roommate, a nurse, in fact, arrived to drive me home while I continued to doze, and she cared for me through the night, ice on, ice off, so unable was I to rebound from the drugs. I was managing a seaside restaurant then, and a guy called the next day for a job. The restaurant had given him my home number. I was furious. Now that same guy accompanied our baby to the nursery while I was sewn up on the table and sent alone to recovery where I strived to wake and feel my legs so that I would be taken to the 4th floor to be with my baby.
I woke this morning feeling similarly drugged, to the sound of rain and a heavy cover of clouds, and although I wanted to rise and write before walking up to Sunday scones at Whetstone Ledges Farm, the absence of light made it difficult to stay afloat, and so I slipped back down under the surface of consciousness again and again.
“Do you feel your legs yet,” the nurse asked, as she covered my shivering body with more and more blankets. To this day the last two toes on my left foot are numb.
When I finally did meet my son, he was tightly wrapped in a blanket with a knit cap on his head as if we had never been one. I put up my hand as the midwife approached with him in her arms. I wanted to see Casey first. We had become parents, apart from one another, instead of at home in on our own bed. He held our baby first, for more than an hour, after I had carried him inside for 8 months.
I don’t remember if the rain lifted that afternoon when I held my son.
I remember feeling that this was Everything.
I remember knowing that nothing would ever be the same.
When I fell back to sleep this morning, I dreamt that most of the tomatoes on the vine in our garden had ripened, just in time for son’s return to celebrate his twenty-third birthday.
His name was meant to be Lila, after my grandmother, who died tragically at the age I am now.
I don’t know when it occurred to me that Lila and Lloyd share two L’s.
Twenty-three years old.
The twenty-third psalm was her favorite and read at her graveside. I think of it every time I walk the road past the silent repose of the Whetstone.
I like the version Bobby McFerrin sings.
“Beside the still waters, She will lead.”
Lloyd has surprised us lately, wanting to be home each year for his birthday after a couple that he spent away with girlfriends.
It’s unfathomable to me that he doesn’t live with us anymore. That the flesh of my flesh is not mine forever. That neither of us would want it to be so.
He was here last Christmas too, for an extended stay, during which we joined with old friends around a fire overlooking the Retreat Meadows as the sun set over the water.
We were deep in conversation with friends when I felt a swoosh past our circle of chairs, and my eyes followed a woman who, with a flourish, removed a dark cloak.
I lifted my phone and zoomed in to capture the beautiful blues and creamy whites of her wimple and habit but I couldn’t make out what hung from her neck and around her waist.
Her presence seemed to rivet me alone, and I’d lost the conversation, despite the company of my son and my oldest, dearest friend.
Instead, I stood up and crossed the space from the fire to her table beside the waters.
“The Marian Sisters of Santa Rosa,” she explained, pointing to the medallion that hung from her neck.
“My sword,” she said standing, of the beaded rosary that dangled from her hip down her left side, “To fight Evil.”
I shared my family’s Mary connection with her, my mother’s Christmas birth, mine on the Immaculate Conception, my son’s on the Assumption of Mary, and even my husband’s on the Feast Day, upon which my mother died.
“You are a Marian family,” she pronounced, and I smiled, thinking how some people enjoy certainty and others questions.
I returned to the fire, taking a seat across from from my friend with whom I attended the same Catholic Highschool. She had recently given me a nightlight that had belonged to her dear mother, and I almost thought to discard this plastic statue of Mary when after plugging it in, the bulb sparked and went black.
But upon removing the plug from the statue, I saw three small words under its base:
House of Lloyd.
Later, as the light faded in the sky over the water, the woman in the dark cloak stopped by our circle on her way out, asking:
“Is this the one born on Assumption of Mary?”
She looked directly at my son Lloyd and said:
“You are consecrated to Our Lady.”
It was he who once saw the blue light shimmering on the land alongside the Whetstone Brook upon which we would later build our home. He was just a boy then.
“It’s blue like the light over Uncle Lenny’s bar in the barn,” my son said, not knowing the word fluorescent, and referencing his first home, the place where he was conceived and practically born and where he watched his little brother come into the world upstairs in the little farmhouse beside the brook just weeks before his grandmother died on the Feast Day of Mary.
“The Blue Lady is here to help you,” my new therapist said, when I came to her grieving the loss of my mother.
I hadn’t been sure about the purchase of the land upon which I stood with my son until that day when I was told to whom the land just across the pond belonged.