“It was fun while it lasted.” I guess I could say that about many periods of my life, especially when it comes to relationships with men.
I am thinking about that as I read Jack’s obituary. Our relationship lasted about three years, back in the 80s, and it was fun while it lasted. One of the legacies of that relationship, oddly enough, is friendships I formed with a couple of the women whom he dated after me. He had a knack for seeking out smart, creative women.
I kept in touch with Jack on and off over the decades. When, after he moved to Portland OR and my pedestrian son needed a ride from the oral surgeon’s office, I called Jack and he took care of it all. He was a good, imperfect guy. I am glad that I knew him and sad that he is gone.
More than ever, these days, I am painfully aware of the relentlessness of time – which really does seem to accelerate as one ages. And, here I am, at age 78, still trying to figure myself out as those relentless sands continue to carry me along.
It is all about the journey. Slogging through the sands of time. It’s all about the metaphors. Baba Bogina. The Raven. The knight with the swan helmet crest.
My Jungian therapist often uses “sand play” to stir and spur our conversations. I find that I intuitively pick out figures for the sand play without consciously knowing why. And then we work on the why.
I am still pondering why I chose the warrior with the swan helmet crest. It is the only figure I chose that was not obviously either male or female. Its face and body are covered with armor. Its stance can be interpreted as aggressive, defensive, or protective. It is blocking my path. Welcoming? Warning? And then there’s that anomalous spread-winged swan sitting on the top of its head.
My therapist did some searching before I had a chance to, and she send me a link that explained: a medieval tale about a mysterious rescuer who comes in a swan-drawn boat to defend a damsel, his only condition being that he must never be asked his name.
Does that help or not. I don’t know. I will need to ponder this a lot more as I wait for some synchronicity to spark an epiphany.
Is there someone on my path waiting? To lead me to the authentic “me”? To accompany me for a while on my journey? Or is it me in there, under the armor, my wings wanting to escape the hold of the protective helmet.
This is what my “journey” looked like in sand play.
This is a film that my late once husband shot with an 8mm camera. B!X was recently contacted by someone who is working on a Netflix documentary on “The Toys That Made Us” to ask about using some clips, but that didn’t happen.
Since we all latched onto the original Star Trek television series with great enthusiasm, it’s not surprising that b!X’s bedroom walls became the Star Trek bridge (drawn with magic marker); a blue-painted foam board and a picture of the universe became the view screen.
There really weren’t any cosplay outfits available yet, so I painted the Star Trek logo on 4-year old b!X’s shirt (we called him “Kit” back then) so that he could play Captain Kirk, armed with laser gun and tricorder. The special effects are totally primitive, but the kids had fun making it and watching it.
As my kids were growing up, I would take a day off from work and let them play hooky from school every time a new Star Trek movie came out so that we could all go to the first showing. That tradition continues with my grandson, as we all go together to see all of the Star Wars, Avengers, and just about every sci-fi/fantasy movie that comes out.
(I started posing this on Mother’s Day ten years ago, and I try to remember to re-post it every year.)
Some women take to mothering naturally. I had to work at it. And so I wasn’t the best mother in the world. I would have worked outside the home whether I had become a single mom or not. And because I did, mine were latchkey kids, with my daughter, beginning at age 12, taking care of her younger brother, age 5, after school. I left them some evenings to go out on dates. Oh, I did cook them healthy meals, and even cookies sometimes. I made their Halloween costumes and went to all parent events at their schools. My daughter took ballet lessons, belonged to 4H (but I got kicked out as Assistant Leader because I wouldn’t salute the flag during the Vietnam War). I made my son a Dr. Who scarf and took him to Dr. Who fan events. I bought him lots of comic books, invited friends over to play, and taught him how to throw a ball.
But most of all, I think/hope I did for them what my mother was never able to do for me, — give them the freedom and encouragement to become who they wanted to be — to explore, make mistakes, and search for their bliss. I think/hope that I always let them know that, as far as I was concerned, I loved them just the way they were/are.
Not having had that affirmation from my mother still affects my relationship with her. I hope that my doing that right for them neutralizes all the wrong things I did as they were growing up.
So, you two (now adult) kids, here’s to you both. You keep me thinking, you keep me informed, you keep me honest, and, in many ways, you keep me vital. I’m so glad that I’m your mother.
So, in memory of those not-always-good ol’ days that you two somehow managed to survive with style, here you are, playing “air guitar and drums” — enjoying each other’s company sometime in the late 70s and bringing so much delight into my life.
I am no longer with my extended family for the holidays. Our life’s lessons have brought us to different places, literally and metaphorically. But there was an important time that we shared, and I celebrate those times of endearing family gatherings, before our realities diverged and they developed a need to pray for me.
And so I post these, remembering my extended family with nostalgia and also with an appreciation for even the tenuous connections that still exist.
They pray. I write.
Vigil Eve (“Wigilia’ 1950)
There was no mistaking this immigrant clan
for anything but a matriarchy,
bringing from its Polish homeland
the fundamentals of family, earthy foods,
a deference to the will of the grayest female.
The men earned hard money, revered their vodka.
as it was on the farms of the old country.
The rest was woman’s right and work.
So, when the magical time of Vigil Eve drew near
the men disappeared into their smokey enclaves
to share storied fatherland memories,
while the women gathered in her kitchen
a determined lineage of daughters,
by birth and marriage, armed with
the culinary legacies of generations.
Her enameled kitchen table, an assembly line
of dough, tools, bowls of rich concoctions,
filled with reflections of final farm harvests.
For days, they rolled floured, filled and pinched,
boiled, browned and layered.
We children sat at the floor, eye level to legs
in a corner of the steamy kitchen,
playing with scraps of pasty dough,
lulled by the soft humming of female voices,
the steady rumble of snowy urban streets.
The night of Vigil Eve flowed with prayers and feasting,
as full families gathered at the gray lady’s call,
reviving ancient rites of pine and light,
to sing the language and history of their people
carried across oceans of fear and hope.
They sang of homeland yearnings for freedom and faith,
of the tears of mountaineers displaced and despaired,
of the battles of heroes to free the heart’s land,
of mystical mothers and magical births.
Generations of voices in harmony
drifted through the lace-curtained windows
opened to the cold winter night, the night
when animals talked, wishes were granted,
and ancient rituals forged the bonds of blood.
Heart of Rom
(an earlier version published in The Berkshire Review, Volume 4, 1996)
Cyganka! My grandmother scolds,
as I bound off the front stoop
onto the wet city street,
propelled by the promise of stolen kisses
and the musky taste of Tangee
still slick on my lips.
Gypsy. Even the word brings blood
blood rushing to the pit of my stomach.
How I wish for the wild hair,
dark eyes, skin like old copper,
for a power ancient as the land,
the sweep of continents
and countless untamed hearts.
She ruled us with her will,
that Polish grandmother –
a small strong-handed woman
with a voice of faith-forged mettle
and a back turned straight against
truths too bold to hold.
Yet, they tell me once, as I lay young and dying,
she revealed her family secrets:
holy candles, crystal cups, vials of spirits, leeches,
while my mother watched from shadows
fighting demons with her eyes.
They tell me, when the priest arrived,
surprised to find the child alive,
he never commented on the faint red circles
following the tender length of spine,
the scattering of blood marks along the back
like ancient glyphs on altar stone.
He was a crowd favorite at urban poetry readings, especially at the former punk club QE2 on Central Avenue, where he screamed his edgy and ironic “White Boy” poems — often completely naked. Occasionally, he wore a baseball catcher’s mask to go with full-frontal nudity.
Such is how my once friend and colleague, Paul Weinman, is described in a tribute posted in the Albany Times Union today. He just died from the complications of Alzheimer’s. He was 75 years old. The newspaper piece celebrates Paul’s delightfully skewed lifestyle and creative pursuits and is an entertaining read even if you never knew him.
I met Paul when I began working at the New York State Museum in 1980. He already was a fixture and a legend in that institution, often annoying the staid administrators with his controversial off-site antics, while, at the same time, becoming a beloved and entertaining teacher in the Museum’s educational program. Parents and kids alike flocked to his workshops based on the Museum’s exhibits, and inner city neighborhood kids would show up in the Museum after school hours just to hang out with Paul and be entertained by his adventurous historical tales and re-enactments of life in the wilderness of the Adirondacks. He treated all kids with respect and affirmation; he dealt with adults with honest response to the way in which they dealt with him; he responded to the hypocrisies of every power structure with naively gutsy irreverence.
My professional path crossed with Paul’s because we were both poets in an institution that shared a building with the New York Sate Library and Archives and that often held literature-related events. Together, Paul and I organized and hosted the Museum’s annual “Banned Book Week” public readings. We held ekphrastic poetry events in conjunction with Museum art exhibits. We worked well together as colleagues supporting the educational mission of the New York State Museum.
Outside of our jobs, as part of the Albany poetry community, we came to know each other as writers, although our styles — in both content in presentation — had very little in common. As a challenge to my more conservative bent, one day Paul suggested that we do a collaborative poetry chapbook that explored male-female sexual tensions. I would write a poem and then he would write a poem in response. We would go back and forth like that until we had enough for a chapbook. Paul would print out and staple copies of the chapbook and then distribute it, for free, around the area, as he did with all of his poetry projects.
The whole idea was way out of my comfort zone, but Paul was pretty much an icon in the local poetry scene, and I was intrigued by both him and the challenge.
This is what the cover and back page our chapbook looked like. “Fruits of the Harvest Press” is just the name Paul gave to his own personal printing and distribution system. There’s no date on the publication, but it probably was in the late 1980s.
It took me a while to figure out how to approach the subject of sexuality, but I found a way to do it my way: through food metaphors. Hence the title: “Eating Disorders and Other Mastications.” My first effort was inspired by a Thanksgiving turkey neck.
something about turkey necks,
gizzards nestled in palm of hand,
stroked with oil,
until firm, juice-laden,
ready for needing,
fine night dining,
And we went on from there, as I branched out from the food metaphors into other expressions of female sensuality and Paul responded with blatant come-ons such as this, which became one of his famous “White Boy” series:
IN QUIVERS OF INAD-
EQUACY, WHITEBOY TRIES
BUCKUP UP HIS IMAGE
AS HE STRUTS FOR ELAINE
A. autographing pens
strapped to hips
B. rakish hat
C. boots tooled
with female in-
WHITE BOY TRIPS…
POLEVAULTS ON THAT
POINT HE’S TRYING 2
GET ACROSS: ARRESTED
4 SEXUAL HARASSMENT
My relationship with Paul never moved beyond friendship, although as a willing participant in Dionysian revelry, he might have taken it in that direction. But as attracted as I often was to “bad boys,” Paul was way out of my league in that arena. Plus I got to know Paul’s wife at the time, Judith Braun , a talented visual artist who really didn’t come into her own until she divorced Paul. I liked Judith, enjoyed the bohemian parties they threw, was energized by the creative energies with which they always were surrounded. Paul caused me to stretch the boundaries of my writing and my perceptions of what is acceptable to me in both words and life.
Paul loved the lore of the Adirondacks, and he spent the last five years of his Alzheimer-ridden life making miniature chairs out of tree branches. As the newspaper tribute reports: He built miniature chairs in the Adirondack twig furniture style and left them anonymously around town with a note: “I’m an orphan chair. Please take me home and put a stuffed animal or plant on me.”
I don’t know his latest wife, but I’m going to try to contact her to see if I can get one of those chairs to hold a plant in my garden and hold his memory in my heart.
I am going to Maine with two friends next week. While there, I am going to put to rest what remains of the guilt and sorrow and regret regarding my relationship with my mother.
The other day I went and spent some time with a good friend, and who is also a healer of souls carrying burdens of regret and guilt. Ed Tick began as my therapist and over these 30 years, that relationship blossomed into a friendship. I still reach out to him when I am troubled, and I visited him earlier this week in his new home not far from where I now live.
The result is that, next week, in Maine, as part of solidifying this new phase of my life on which I have embarked, I will do a ritual to let go of stuff that needs to be freed. I will build a fire, read this last missive to my mom, and then burn the paper. And then burn the triptych with her images — sending her history as a woman to soar with the gulls.
In preparation, I have set up a little altar to honor the good parts of my relationship with my mother, who died five years ago. I have her wedding ring that I put on a chain, and beads from the old red coral necklace (that has been a part of my matriarchal lineage for several generations) that I made into another necklace. I will wear these during the ritual, but, for now, they are a part of the altar. One of the few things I have left of hers is her old statue of Saint Anthony, the heretic converter. I’m sure that she prayed to him all of the time to convert this heretic. It didn’t work, but this icon,one of her favorites, has become mine. Maybe I like him because he holds a lily. And a child. And an open book. In my poetic heresy, I can interpret that any way I like.
So, here is what I will read. And what I will burn. In place of prayer, I write. Here and wherever. Because I can.
If we become the mother
we wanted, our children
grow the roots and wings
of our lost early yearnings,
Our daughters become
the women we wish we were,
our sons the men we dreamed.
But too often we succumb
to the echo of her voice,
caught in the tangle
of a cord never cut.
There is no burying our mothers,
though we lay them deep.
They live in us one way or other,
whether we heed or not.
I am sorry, Mom, that I was not the daughter you wanted. I’m sorry that you were not the mother I wanted. I know that you tried your best to be the best kind of mother that you knew how to be – the kind your mother was. And I did my best to break away from that kind of suffocating tradition.
Yet, despite how I disappointed you over and over, you were always there for me when I needed you. Because that is what the mothers in our family do, And that is how the best parts of you still live on in me – in the kind of mother I have finally become.
I’m sorry that your last years were filled with such turmoil. I wish I had made better choices about how to give you the care you needed. I guess it was my turn to try my best. That was all either of us could ever do.
I’m sorry that your last days were not what you had always hoped they would be – to die at home, in your own bed, with family around you. I did the best I could, Mom. I tried to make sure that you didn’t suffer. Instead, I suffered for you, and that was OK because it meant that in those last days I kept you safe from enduring some unnecessary familial narcissistic tyranny.
There were good times and bad times during the last of the years that we lived together. I like remembering the time we had then to talk and laugh, to dance the polka, to sing all of the old songs, to share our memories of times that were good for us both. I liked that I was finally able to do things for you that you really appreciated, that made you feel good. Because I know there were many other times before that when I made you feel bad.
All of those years as I struggled to grow up, I never really saw you the way that others did. You would have been glad to hear what cousin Cristine wrote to me about you after you died. She said:
I remember the enigmatic smile she always wore, like the one in The Portrait. I never remember her upset or angry. She was always dressed impeccably and I remember her love for Ferragamo shoes. Odd what we remember from our past — the strange minute things that become permanent strong memories and the important things that fade away. I always remember the bathroom at your house on Nepperhan — the l-o-n-g narrow pink bathroom with a door at each end (how cool!) and how it always smelled of green Palmolive soap. I remember your mom cooking and running back and forth to the kitchen and not sitting down and enjoying her own meal.
Someday, I will write a poem about that “enigmatic smile,” which I now think was a biting back of your disappointment and frustration for the parts of your life that you were never allowed to make your own — but I was too wrapped up in my own selfish agendas to realize that.
I don’t know if you were aware of much during your last days, but there was a sea gull who spent most of each day screeching from and pacing on the roof outside the window of your hospital room. This is what I found out about sea gulls:
Sea Gulls are messengers from the gods, especially ancient Celtic deities. They bridge the gap between the living world and the spirit world. Opening yourself to their energy enables you to communicate with the other side. Sea Gull can also give you the ability to soar above your problems and see things from above. Seeing all the different viewpoints.
So tonight I am here at the ocean, communing with the messenger seagulls, sending this message into the wind, into the endless sky: I miss you, mom, I’m glad we had some good last days together, and I wish we had been able to be closer, sooner. I release what is not worth carrying, and I cherish what is left: the comfort that, at the end, we knew how much we loved each other.
I gave my writing circle the prompt “the coat was shabby.” And I gave them a challenge to use strong verbs and specific nouns. As I began to write my response to that prompt, I decided to put it someplace in history and do a little research for details. This is my result, my first ever try at historical fiction:
The Gypsy Coat Tale
The coat was shabby, but its aspect still spoke of nights thrown over a naked shoulder at a smokey Montparnasse cafe, or tossed onto the back of a scarlet sofa at a late night Paris salon. Its stained fabric revealed a careless pattern of absinthe, bathtub gin, and the mascaraed tears of its most passionate devotees.
They say it once belonged to Nina Hamnett, self-proclaimed and notorious “Queen of Bohemia,” who wore its gold satin lining next to her skin while she danced shimmering lights into the weave of the rich silk brocade. On those nights, the coat created its own melody, a mesmerizing harmony of color, texture, and pattern, the timeless echo of a Siren’s song.
Legend has it that the coat was created by the two Japanese weavers and the Gypsy woman whom Hamnett befriended during her brief stay in Paris before the war started, before everyone folded themselves into enclaves of creative ferment or else fled to the safer shores of England and America.
And that, they say is how the coat finally wound up in the window of the Fifth Avenue Parisian boutique on the afternoon that Zelda Fitzgerald walked out of New York City’s Palais Royale Hotel in search of the perfect evening dress.
She did find the perfect dress: a long black beaded silk with a sheer back that dipped down to her tailbone. But is was the coat that took her breath away – the coat and the legend and the fantasy.
The multicolored floral brocade boasted gleaming gold threads that reflected the bright city sunlight. Elaborate scrolls etched its lush black velvet cuffs and ankle-skimming border. A face-framing swath of black fox, added as an afterthought, brought the coat to the level of a work of art.
By the time I rescued the coat from the empty corner of my spinster aunt’s nursing home closet, its shabbiness was well-earned, having been Zelda’s constant companion through her bi-polar adventures played out over two continents and two decades, until both she and the coat began to unravel.
My aunt had been a nurse at the Highland Mental Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina, where Zelda spent her final years capturing on canvas the remaining bright colors of her memories and telling my aunt the elaborate coat-tales that fed her lonely dreams of prodigal nights ablaze in the heart of a drowning Jazz Age.
Just days before the hospital fire that took her life, Zelda gave my aunt the coat to wear to a costume party.
And so the Gypsy Coat was retired to the back of my aunt’s closet, although she always took it with her whenever she moved, unable to dispose of its vibrant history. The Gypsy Coat is mine, now, to ponder on the relic that it is – a remnant of legendary lives lived with creative abandon, dazzling artistry, and deadly excess.
The day after I wrote this, as I was watching a “Friends” rerun with the family, Phoebe appeared wearing the coat I had described the day before.
My cousins in downstate New York are all ready for Christmas with their cookies, posting photos and recipes on Facebook and making me feel inadequate as a grandmother.
My mother started baking after Thanksgiving and didn’t finish until the day before Christmas Eve. Christmas Eve, after all, was always the extended-family gathering at my own grandmother’s for the Polish Wigilia, a meatless night of eating and drinking and singing “Koledy,” Polish Christmas Carols.
When I moved away decades ago, I drifted away from those traditions, and, not really being into housewifery, I didn’t get into the baking, either.
One of my mother’s specialties was “pizzelles,” which are of Italian origin, but that didn’t stop my mother. She got the recipe from her Italian sister-in-law and each year gave everyone in the family a batch of her homemade pizzelles — which are made on a kind of waffle iron and which take an awful lot of time to make. You have to pour each one separately and then stand there while the hot gadget bakes them. Then you have to remove each one separately and set them carefully aside to cool and harden.
One of the few things I took for myself after my mother passed away was her pizzelle maker, and this year I unearthed it from the cellar, cleaned it up, googled a recipe, and made a batch that I will take to my daughter’s in-laws on Christmas Day.
I found that I actually enjoyed making them — something about the meditative calm of the repetitive task, the memory of my mother humming softly while she poured, clamped, waited, opened, and gently removed her perfectly round and patterned pizzelles.
Mine are not so round or so perfectly patterned, but it was my first try.
My mother always bought — rather than made — one kind of pastry for the holidays. She called them “bow ties” and got them especially for my son, who loved them. They are really Jewish “egg kichel,” and this year I ordered some from Etsy and sent them to my son in Portland OR in memory of my mom. He said that they were just as good as he remembered.
I don’t have many Christmas traditions (especially since I don’t really celebrate the religious holiday) but I think I will make making my mom’s pizzelles one of them from now on.
My son-in-law found the box of my poetry that I packed up to move here five years ago. I have enough for a book. They are mostly very dark. I would call the book “Dark Matters.”
In the bottom of the box is a journal where I wrote poems about some of the lovers that moved through my life back in those disco dancing days. I take the journal to bed and read their names, remember their faces, how they danced. I remember them all except one. Brad. My poem remembers him even though I no longer do. Why is he the one I can’t remember?
I think of who I was back then. It was when I discovered Lilith in an article by Lilly Rivlin’s in the first issue of Ms Magazine. That was in 1972. That’s when it all started.
I finally got off my lazy butt and organized a “writing circle” at the public library. It’s held every other Wednesday afternoon and is loosely based on the Amherst Writing Method. I say “loosely” because, while I have participated in the program in the past, I have not been officially trained to lead a group. But we follow the suggested “prompt, write, respond” method, and it is working very well for us, I think.
So, today the folks each brought in an object for someone else to use as a prompt. I chose a pair of very worn women’s shoes from the turn of 19th century. I had posted it here but removed it because I am submitting it to a poetry journal.