Monday, August 26, 2019

Mrs. Jones


Sunday marked the second anniversary of my poor Mom's passing.  My son and I went to visit the gravesite, to pay our respects.  I dread these visits; they are unbearably sad for me and I am reminded by the military footstone which marks my father's adjacent resting place of her lifelong uncomplaining 'curtsey' to his rigidity.  We walked over the grassy hillside where she had been laid to rest presumably for eternity, where she has already endured eight seasons' passing in the loneliness of the deceased.

The cemetery upstate is like a city of tombs; it reminds us how the dead far outnumber the living in this world.  On the day we visited it was late afternoon and quiet-- no funerals, no steam shovels, no cement-laying, stonecutters or even gardeners.  We brought a bluetooth speaker and played some Frank Sinatra for my poor old Mom who'd begged to be cremated, because she couldn't bear the thought of being in a box.  While I tried my best to fight for her final wish, I was overruled by petty family tyranny.  After Frank, we played Billy Paul's 'Me and Mrs. Jones'...

In 1972 my Mom was still elegant and beautiful.  I'd come home from college and she'd be baking a pie or pulling some magical concoction of cakey lightness from her old 1940's oven.  The gardeners and workmen would hang around hoping for a slice... they loved her, and she flirted in a tiny way with their reverence for her kitchen skills.  When she was alone upstairs she'd sing along to the radio-- 'we've got a thing going on'... the song seemed to be in extra-heavy rotation that summer-- and she'd blush when I caught her.  She even bought the sheet music and tried to play it on the piano.  My Dad was always darkly burdened and serious.  They didn't use the word depression lightly in those days, but he suffered and she never complained.  That summer she was still young enough to understand longing, and passion.  She was a wonderful wife-- an enabler and a team-player... but the Billy Paul song, and the daily workmen's coffee breaks were her little window onto some kind of womanly heaven.

For some reason the bluetooth got stuck and kept repeating the song over and over--- loud and resonant over the hills.  No one came out to scold... and after three or four plays even my son's mood lightened.  I buried a few small trinkets, as I do-- an old Egyptian scarab I bought as a child from the Smithsonian Museum, a button from my son's prep-school blazer-- things to comfort her.  'Is Grandma a skeleton?' my son asked, as though he were in grade school.  It made me shiver.  I'm not sure how they dressed her when she was buried; my sister had the purse and called the shots.  I wish I could have had the closure of spreading her ashes in the places she'd loved, and not the deep remorse of being unable to carry out her final private wish.   Such is life--  and the relentless tide of death which carries us all out to the darkest depths of some universal sea where we are all theoretically 'one'-- infinite grist for some cosmic mill.

I remember my mother assuring me as a young child: God takes care of things in your mouth.  I’d fallen and split my lip open… a few days later a teacher sent me to the nurse—it seemed my bottom teeth had poked through the gash… no, I did not blame God… but maybe that was the first broken promise.  What are promises anyway?  A marriage vow?  A prenup? Like my college honor code agreement-- a kind of contract which by its very existence assumes it will be challenged or violated?

This has obsessed me lately-- walking the streets,  relentless monologue in my head, the confessions and titles-- a hurdy-gurdy monkey cranking out lyrics, pulling on my ear... filling in the spaces.  Jesus-- give me structure--a blank-line stability-- a simple page.  On what can we rely? In my Mom's case not even her last request was honored-- or, more likely, she lacked the strength to demand such a thing in the context of her old-fashioned view of male-dominated decisions and one-way unconditional love.  I was her daughter; it was not filial love she really craved and I only wish I could have witnessed her in that cafe being indulged as Mrs. Jones. 

We are growing old now, my friends and I.  No one is going to kneel down and cup our face in their hands and reassure us that anything is going to be okay.  We ricochet from day to day, from narrow escape to close call-- entering medical offices to be handed a grim prognosis no matter how hard we have worked, how we have either abused or cared for our bodies.  My facebook friends post and celebrate-- and suddenly there is some ominous news or shock.  First it was our parents; now we ourselves.  A few have moved from the city-- retired, escaped, become sustainable farmers and nature-worshippers in some enviably remote agrarian paradise-- and suddenly they, too, are asking for help, for donations.  Nature  has no favorites; we are all at her mercy when she stretches her limbs or opens her global mouth and lets us have it.

The denouement is not nearly as interesting as the build-up; life gets thin and brittle as we age as do our longings and desire.  In the end it is 'missing' that so often replaces love.  I miss my young Mom-- the one who baked and sang and dreamed.  It is that version I choose to imagine buried with her passions and memories on that hill waiting patiently for her daily romantic rendezvous long after her great grandchildren are gone.

Friday, August 9, 2019

Nine (nein)

For me there has always been something about the number '9' that brings a kind of recognition.  Yes, it is my birthday 'number', but that always felt more like a synchronicity than a reason for numeral kinship.  I liked the way it looked, the way it mimicked the six, the way it embraced the perfect three threes...  To turn nine years old on the ninth was childhood-sacred (I remember when my little boy turned seven on the seventh).  I was a winter baby and my parties, in those rougher weather-years, were often cancelled because of snow, or flu or chickenpox epidemics.  My Mom made a funny tradition of celebrating my 'half-birthday' on August 9ths.  She'd give me a half-cupcake, half of a card, one bookend-- things like that.

On this day in 1962 I turned 9 1/2... it was a poignant time: the Beatles were getting ready to change pop music.... Kennedy our president.  I was away at summer camp-- a time for reflection, nostalgia, some suppressed homesickness-- and a realization that I 'needed' the city.  I was urban-anemic.   Marilyn Monroe had just suicided which touched me;  Arthur Miller was my great uncle on a side neither of us cared to own, but it made the drama 'real'.   I was already touched with pre-teen 'noir' and heard melodies in my head: Soldier Boy... Johnny Angel... She Cried.  At home, my Mom was listening to Moon River and realizing her housewife dreams were going to have to be supplemented with other things.

At camp we put on an elaborate production of the Wizard of Oz.  I had won the part of Dorothy... we spent long weeks rehearsing and my parents were allowed to visit for the performances.  They filmed everything, although the soundtrack somehow is missing.  The video footage that remains is shocking for me-- I remember being inside that person, but to look that innocent-- with the braids and the little sailor dress-- seems unlikely.  There is a shot of my sister in the front row-- weeping, as I sang Somewhere Over the Rainbow.  It is the last incident I can recall of my sister showing any heartfelt emotion.  For years I tried to process this as evidence of love, or at least a kind of soul.... but it sits there, like an old tin can in a puddle.

I thought about my half-birthday today--- the way time is telescoping and tumbling forward.   Despite the marks we make, like bent pages in a book, it doesn't much change things.  August was a sad month as a child-- it was full of moons and drifting rainclouds-- drawn-out sunsets and lonely nights at a lake or a beach where I didn't really belong.  I craved library bookshelves and museum walls and subway noise... I missed phantom and real boyfriends... my turntable, solitude.  My Mother died two Augusts ago with little understanding of the world, toward the end.  It is a loss I will never overcome.

The events of this week have tainted August forever for so many families.  On a day when even global warming seems to have taken a breath to let us fathom sorrow... I find it harder to process the relentless juggernaut of violent hatred that seems to breed from the selfish nature of this political climate.  It is as though every senseless act of cruelty and killing has numbed some of us rather than incited reaction.  As a human here-- an aging human-- I feel small and unimportant.  All around me, daily-- and certainly on our screens, in conjunction with these shootings-- there are acts of heroism-- human instincts that are pure and good-- and yet the screenshot remains...

There was yet another story this morning of an 'unknown' songwriter suing a rockstar for copyright infringement.  Three notes, it is, this time... as though the clich├ęs and dumbing down of pop music is not enough,  there is competition to own this lack of originality.  I've written songs and had several of them 'pirated'.... but what is the point, really?  There will be lawyers-- money, youtube comparisons and mash-ups.  And which one is better?  Both of them seem equally derivative and weak... just one is well produced, with all the bells and whistles, the make-up and fashion and the machine of publicity and social media.  So some poor unsuccessful singer wants a small piece.  Let him eat cake, I say-- a piece of the half-cake I used to get on this day when I was small.

During the brief moments I made it outdoors today, the Somewhere Over the Rainbow melody came to me, walking along the park after a quick storm-- my August souvenir.  Like it or not, it was a song-- written for a story which I knew well from bedtime readings... but with a silhouette-- an identity.  Things had some identity then-- a core-- a reason, a unique 'shape'.  There was no cutting and pasting-- you had to stand up and sing-- live.  You had to type letters and schoolwork and page through books and run and jump rope and learn how to save people in the water.

My son's basketball team won the championship.  Yes-- in the park in Brooklyn, on the asphalt, with hoops and balls and their brave sportsmanship... they fought and won.  Aside from the on-court soundtrack of Hip Hop, and the sneakers, it could have been anytime, USA.  What I felt was their breathtaking heart, their body and soul and drive all at once, jumping and leaping and catching and passing and dunking... the '9' of them, I call it... no tricks, no twitter-- just sweat and flesh and talent-- real talent that will ultimately dissolve into the tough universe of athletic anonymity.  I see men every day-- tall men sitting out in their collapsible chairs along Lenox Ave... with their canes and their injuries.   They, too, once ruled the courts, briefly... never reaped enough to get them out of the projects... and I sense the shadow of the power of '9' in them, too-- maybe for them a 5 or an 8... but they had it.

The half year until my next number will pass as quickly as a galactic second.  What I will manage to do with this is a mystery.  I can almost guarantee I will witness violence, will lose someone dear-- something dear.  I can only promise I will try to stand on my 'core', I will try to create my own templates and support the good of others.  I will be the 'ninest' I can be; it seems so simple-- if only it were... if only we could find some common starting line-- some core, some championship...  to take our individual pulse at the half... and make the rest count.