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.
There we were in the pews again. Where we had been 2 years earlier for the death of the same friend’s mother. The same grandchildren filed in, weeping. The same grand-daughter sang stunningly. The same son stood and spoke so naturally of his love; this time for his father.
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.)
Madonna art photography: Gianluca Costantini