Though I’d already been back once, I could feel the sea tugging at me, calling me home. And then the call came. The one that spoke of loss. Of exodus.
And so, I returned. To the empty house of my childhood friend. Filled with mourners.
The butcher block island in the center of Mrs. O’s kitchen was filled too–with aluminum pans of pasta, which I ignored, because for me it was always ice cream. Cartons greedily opened after school; not one, but two, and sometimes three; especially before or after General Hospital, or in the wee hours of the morning, after a night of drinking. Three of us. Three spoons. Laughter.
“You girls smell like a brewery!” Mrs. O. once said.
“Do you still have the fabric shop?” I asked, attempting to change the subject, exposing my drunkenness.
…Who were we now without these parents?
…Do our childhoods still exist without this landmark of home?
The truth is that our days together in this kitchen eating ice cream around the butcher block were long gone. None of us could tolerate dairy much any more, and didn’t want to. We preferred salt and chardonnay and Italian funeral cookies.
On this day, however, we avoided the kitchen and the butcher block, and gathered on the couch in the narrow slanted sun porch, where we rarely, if ever, sat as young women. We talked with the older sisters who had already been off to college (or to their grown up lives) all those years ago. We worried about the children we left at home. We worried about the children who were grown.
We were 50, or approaching 50, or just past 50, but also 14 and 16 and 18. Time folded onto itself like waves in the sea.
On this morning, I was met in the vestibule by someone who spoke my name. I looked up from my purse and recognized a highschool classmate who I hadn’t seen since… highschool? And two more class of ’81 alumni, beside her. We all whispered too loud, and laughed too hard, and shared contraband (chewing gum) and “You look great,” and then took seats altogether in one pew, so that suddenly I was on a bench in P.E., being chosen (or not) for a team, or running a relay, or hearing them call out, “Be careful or you’ll get a black eye.”
I hadn’t known that my breasts were “large.” Until someone translated the meaning of that cat call. I’d hoped for “real” breasts for so long. (I had forgotten to stop hoping.)
It wasn’t just breasts that were on my mind during the funeral Mass, but vaginas.
Not my 14 year-old vagina, which I rarely thought about, and certainly never spoke about, especially during Mass (even if ( wasn’t Catholic), but my approaching 50 year old private parts, which was all I could think about this summer.
In June I had gotten some type of rash in the folds of my legs, and it had become infected, tenaciously so, so that 6 weeks later, I still couldn’t wear underwear or it would spread from the friction of contact.
Spread. Without underwear. In a skirt. My vagina open to the altar. Like Madonna. (Not that one. The one from the eighties.)
But why not the original Madonna? She had a vagina too.
In fact, Jesus, up there on the cross, was delivered through it.
It suddenly occurs that my altar-facing vagina is less of a sacrilege and more of a blessing, a rightness.
What if every woman exposed her vagina to the altar?
(A scene from Mama Mia II came to mind.)
Vaginas belonged in church.
Why should I feel ashamed or embarrassed or inappropriate?
All of these weeping grandchildren, who once didn’t exist, came to being through the vagina.
Even this priest, in his white robes with the gold embroidery, matching the blanket that covered the coffin in front of him, came into being through the vagina.
In fact, without the Vagina, there would be no “Church.”
Vagina. Vagina. Vagina.
When the Mass was over, we followed the casket out the door to the Hurst, and stood around sharing weak smiles and tears and hugs and renewed promises to visit (beyond funerals.)
Before leaving town, I stopped see my aunt and uncle who offered pastries and fresh brewed ice tea with lemon slices, and lamps–two of them, Tiffany-like, from the garage, where they had been stowed; but only after they told me what they were called, and why they were called what they were called:
“C” and “FC.”
(Cunt and Fucking Cunt)
A tale of marital discord and resolution followed: Name calling by the husband; retail therapy/revenge by the wife.
That’s the one I chose to bring home. I’d never said that word out loud before. Never felt it as something familiar, let alone friendly; but after spending an entire summer staring at my own—assessing the rash, treating it, diagnosing it, worrying about it, icing it, thinking about it, sharing its healing and its regression with my husband–the Tiffany lamp, named “C”, smiled at me, from the back seat of her car, as I left behind the salty sea for the fresh, mountain air.
While driving, I thought of the pews where I kneeled with friends, and of the grief I felt in the loss of this friend’s father; not the kind of grief that came crashing in waves, like it had when I’d lost her own mother, but a steady undertow of sorrow–of loss and change–taking me (and my friends) further and further from the shore of safety, of parents, of home.
I remembered the olive oil in the decanters, the ones in the glass case above the priest’s head, something I’d never noticed before. Three shelves. Three grades. The middle one–a rich, dark green.
I had expected my return to the sea to miraculously heal the rash, but perhaps it was the Virgin* in my vulva which I truly needed most. A homecoming that transcended parents and place. A turning in, a turning toward, a welcome home.
(Kelly Salasin, August 2013)
*The pre-patriarchal goddess, Hera, would return for a ritual bath to the Spring of Kanathus every year to renew her virginity–her quality of belonging to herself.
(The Dance of the Dissident Daughter, Sue Monk Kidd, 1996.)
I feel the headache come on suddenly, at my right temple, soon after the dinner guests leave.
I scan the lovely evening for triggers:
vodka, pizza, massage.
Then realize that my vision had been off for hours, which means the migraine was already on its way.
I no longer fret and tense up in fear when they arrive… unless it’s my birthday or something… which has happened twice in the past decade.
Migraines have been hanging around me for thirty years… so if nothing else, they’re familiar.
They were the worse in my teens and early twenties; and then again in my thirties when I was pregnant; and now, in my forties as the mid-life changes are upon me.
But I don’t fight them anymore… which seems to soften them.
I have some new tricks too. My favorite is a lightweight knit cap that I put over my head as soon as I feel the vascular pressure shifting. This helps stabilize the temperature which lessens the constriction.
Green tea is another soother, and I’m sitting down with a fresh cup right now.
I use Arnica cream on my neck as it often tenses up in response to the pain, and then prolongs or intensifies the headache.
I feel like Migraines and I really know each other now, though I try not to take them personally.
I don’t do so well with menstrual symptoms however. It’s only been in the last decade or so that I’ve really suffered serious cramps or mood swings.
Lately it’s been viscous.
I know this means that the fertility party–inside–is almost over… I’m almost 50… so I try to buck up… even when each bleed comes sooner and sooner; and often leaves a migraine in its wake, just as I start to feel better.
My most recent cycle was particularly fascinating. For days I felt like weeping (which is unlike me), and then on the last day I woke in a rage (also unlike me.) “Isn’t this interesting,” I thought, when I wasn’t terrified.
Fortunately for me, there is little in my life upon which to assign blame for this drama… so I get to see it for what it is:
I challenge myself to stay with my cramps or my sadness or my fury… without trying to add a story to it.
It’s not because the kitchen is a mess or because my husband forgot the bread or because my boss asked me to do one more thing.
It just is.
And if I don’t run from it, or medicate it, or otherwise distract myself from it, I’ll find something in the pain worth finding.
Fortunately, this month’s round of rage is so strong, it doesn’t lend itself to distraction. I’m forced to come face to face with it, despite my fear; and here’s what I find:
Garbage disposal contents.
25+ years old and rotting.
It is excruciating to revisit this time in my life, but I do… only to let it go.
Of course, it’s not that simple. I have kids. I have a husband. I have a job.
But no worries, because this anger is insistent.
I’ve read that at middle age, a woman must resolve her “issues” or enter the second half of life bitter. It’s this pain that gives me the opportunity to shed yet another layer of hardness that I relied upon for protection.
But no 50 year old woman needs that kind of added armor. We are too powerful a force of nature!
What we need (and the world needs of us) is all the tenderness we can muster.