Monday, December 30, 2019

Goodnight, Moon

The last moments of the year always seem rushed.  They should feel weighted, as though the cumulative burden of 364 days compresses in an inverted hill on some temporal grave.  We are given the post-Christmas week like a winter denouement in which to inventory or regret-- to grieve and mourn or steel ourselves for the coming challenge.  In my image-bank-- probably an illustration from some childhood advent calendar or storybook-- I imagine these days as a chain of painted skaters-- hand in hand, colored hats and scarves flying backward in a joyful procession... waving goodbye eternally as their silvery blades speed them into another chapter.

It seems someone always dies on Christmas-- or just before.  It's a kind of superstitious dread probably left over from early childhood when the death of some relative precluded a family vacation-- death in those days meaning little but a nuisance-- having to forego some pleasure to attend some service and having to whisper around my stern father.  No one bothered to explain anything like it, and except for Bambi, I had little sense of loss-- only obedience and absence.

My son happened to have been born on the brink of a decade, so for him the 2020 demarcation has a certain synchronicitous resonance.  For me, it falls oddly between two strangely marked personal years-- one a prime number which seems wrong, after all this accumulation.  Doesn't anything rhyme with my age anymore?

Nothing, I remember discovering, composing a grade-school poem, actually rhymes with Christmas.  I do remember once trying to write a limerick which began 'You can take the 'Christ' out of Christmas...' but nothing ever seemed complementary enough.  It felt like one of those songs Ezra Pound wrote at some point, and the philosophical and semantic implications were more than I wanted to take on.

I always hated holiday vacations, actually... I longed to be in my room, to linger over my gifts and inventory my toys and closets-- get ready for the coming year in which I would presumably grow and progress.  On trips there was no solitude... and I worried about pets and things which remained at home.  I remember once asking my mother on arrival at some mountain: 'How did the moon know we were here?' And she assured me that it would follow me till the end of time.  It would be there, as she would never leave me.

But she did leave me, my mother... and although I still have my wonderful son to think about, there was no one like my mom for receiving gifts.  She'd sit in an armchair by the fireplace wearing one of her succession of elegant bathrobes (they have all blurred in a vintage fashion-fantasy) and pretend to be completely delighted by whatever awkward article I'd create or buy and wrap up in elaborate boxery to prolong the moments of the opening.  It was as though I'd bestowed some royal honor on her-- she couldn't thank me enough or love it more.  It was everything.

My son just ended a relationship-- at least I think so, and despite the fact I splurged on some fashion faux-pas he craved, I could see there was no joy in his face.  It's fine, he always stoically insists-- or the ubiquitous 'no worries'-- the millennial motto.  I wanted to ask him-- Have you ever missed someone so much you sit and watch the traffic-channel for hours, on the off chance you might see their car or taxi pass in front of one of the street cameras?

But I didn't... and they have their Instagram and GPS...  their thousands of daily messages and I have only my memories and images... a few old letters and photos-- not nearly enough from the days which seem to have grown in importance.  Looking at the calendar, 2020 seems so wide-eyed and innocent... but I am no longer sure that I'll last this one out.  2021 is already winking at me and I have yet to discover its meaning... it now seems unfathomable that twenty years have passed since the millennial timestamp.

This end-of-year interlude of rain has given the moon a chance to rest behind the cover, here.  She has not aged a day since we first met-- her solo act is still the main celestial attraction for me despite what I have learned about the infinite galactic spectaculars.  I've surely tipped the balance of what remains from what has been.  And I've been lucky;  certainly there will be not so many new years ahead.  Most of what I read has been written by dead people, as my teenaged son used to remark; much of what I listen to has been recorded by dead people, and grace to technology, we can still 'see' some version of those we miss the most.

There is a book I used to keep in which I recorded my Christmas lists; besides family, a great number of the names are unfamiliar now-- the fickle trajectory of our life-acquaintances.  I no longer need to list; I am piling up those things I want to 'gift' the world under some imagined tree... it seems unbearable and inevitable that I will leave behind more than I will befriend this year... but the moon has yet to complain... and I will, in her image and the sense of rain, God-willing, walk bravely into the next year with all the rest of you.  Amen.

Labels: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Friday, December 13, 2019

Kitchen Angels

My mother had terrible handwriting.  Apparently in her day every student was forced in middle school to uniformly hold a pen in their right hand, despite the fact she'd always used her left.  And so she was left with a sort of crippled half-hearted scrawl worthy of one of those stressed physicians whose prescription slips are notoriously illegible.  For a time I wrote out her Christmas cards-- especially the addresses... it was both a tradition and a chore, around this time of year; the cards were pre-ordered and inscribed well in advance; the list was a type-written much-handled paper document kept in a cardboard box marked with festive labels.

On the other hand, she was a fantastic typist.  She'd typed an entire difficult manuscript for an uncle who'd written a book on radio repair.  I often leafed through the preface to see her maiden name mentioned in the credits.  At night she occasionally sat in a tiny alcove at the end of the upstairs hallway where a miniature table had been rigged as a desk just large enough for the old Royal machine which vibrated the walls of the old house.  Her hands were long and beautiful and she looked so competent at this task; it made me feel safe-- as though she-- the 'maiden-name' version-- could take care of things should my erratic father fail.

Summers or later when I was away at school, my mom sent letters-- messy, indecipherable scratchy pages torn from her 'telephone' pad which I cherished and read over and over.  I was secretly a mama's girl--  homesick not for her flawed housekeeping, her intellectual insecurities and sillinesses, but for her heart-- the eternal 'girl' in her who was sad but rarely admitted to any unhappiness or disappointment.

Coming upon the third Christmas without her, I miss her handwritten cards, the occasional home crafted scarf or sweater, a confessed intimacy just between women... her cooking.  Her cuisine was basic and unsophisticated; she suffered from an inferiority complex to her own mother who had died young, in her prime, a living legend in the family.  My grandmother was apparently good at everything-- smart, beautiful, gifted, graceful and a masterful cook.  I never met her; she was long gone when I was born, but I grew up in her shadow as worn by her daughter, my mother.

Maybe my older sister watched my parents age with the same sense of nostalgia-- but she was clever and plotted out the practicalities.  Things began to disappear.  As my mother aged, more and more small treasures were removed or bagged up in plastic... there were still the old calendars taped to the refrigerator-- the faded polaroids and baby photos-- but things were changing.  'Get yourself a lawyer', my mother's housekeeper whispered to me often... but I am not wired that way.  I do not have a large house, and could not imagine moving the contents of my childhood home into my city apartment.

Still there were things I craved:  the recipe box.  While my sister inventoried jewelry and trinkets, furs and Chanel bags, I asked for the old maple box that had belonged to my beautiful Grandma.  Her lovely handwriting in ink and pencil with her ingredient lists and formulae... 'a finger of milk', 'a strong pinch of salt', she would say... or 'not too much'.   As a girl I'd lay my face on these and imagine I could smell her hands, her kitchen.  She touched them-- she created them and stood them on the top, against the lid, whenever she made one of those difficult cakes; most of them were clean and obviously just there for archival kitchen reasons; she knew these by heart.

When my mom grew feeble, I grieved prematurely and dreaded the inevitable.  When it came, I remained in a state of inaction, and failed to intervene when my sister, to my horror, not only appropriated all papers and goods, but sold the house and its contents without notice.  My son and I got not one book.  Not one baby photograph, school yearbook, or recipe card.  I was orphaned.

Sometimes at night I lie awake and inventory the old kitchen I grew up in:  the countertops with the vintage mixmasters and deco bowls-- the pre-war muffin tins and baking pans, the pyrex and noisy toasters, the gas stove you had to light with a match,  the way the moonlight came through the jalousie window and streaked the table... the marble fruit bowl... Then I come to the maplewood recipe box and I stop and browse--- leaf through the indexed cards like an old library catalogue drawer.  Some have dog-eared edges and have yellowed with age... I knew, for my own Mom, they were a sacred living souvenir of her mother's kitchen-love, like those angels women hung over their sinks and counter-tops.

On a shelf in my own home, I still hoard a small collection of spice tins-- from the 40's and 50's.  I carry on the recipes-- the banana bread-- the Thanksgiving stuffing and cranberry, the birthday layer-cakes and Christmas cookies.  I use the old baking pans and measuring spoons that are undoubtedly older than I am... all  gifted to me by my Mom for my very first tiny apartment in the 1970's.   Every once in a while I come across some note or gift card in her terrible writing and my eyes sting.  These are the surviving original manuscripts of my make-up-- my history and my back-legacy.  Besides a backstage concert image someone emailed from the 1970's, I have hardly any actual photographs of her... just memories... and I lay my face against these in dreams.

I realize now how I failed to understand how much she missed her own mother-- how that defined her and the way she lived.  She disapproved of my career choices and marriages, but her heart was there, for her daughters and for her grandchildren-- mine in particular she loved in a way that let me know how she'd loved me, too, how she knew my flawed nature and saw her own mother in the cracks of my image... how the old recipes have baked themselves into not only my aging flesh, but my heart and soul.

Labels: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,