You have nothing to worry about, you are doing everything right, you will live a long and healthy life surrounded by those you love who will also be healthy and everyone will be happy and the earth will thrive and hunger and despair will be erased from the planet and the sun will shine but not so brightly that anyone’s skin will be hurt and the animals will be left to flourish in just the right numbers for their joy and survival and the trees will be free of blight and will sway serenely in the gentle breezes and winters will be mild and so will summers and heads of governments will sit around in a circle and tell jokes and eat knishes and dumplings and promise to respect and cherish the people of their own countries as well as all other countries and children will grow up secure and delighted in themselves and when offered a fortune cookie they will break it open and pop both halves into their mouths and enjoy the sweetness and the crunchiness and then they’ll laugh at the messages they have received like “Hello Sweet Pumpkin” and “Give Your Friend a Big Hug” and “Have Fun in the Tub Tonight...Don’t Forget to Add Bubbles.”
Friday, December 30, 2011
For some reason ever since I was a little girl I’ve had this fascination with celebrity people. I remember in third grade, Maudie Gleason’s mother won the blue ribbon at the county fair for her prune jelly and after that I just had to be Maudie’s best friend. I wouldn’t take no for an answer, even though she always called me Julie and my name is July, but I didn’t hold it against her.
And when I was in high school the girl who sat right behind me in algebra, her name was Serena Eden. Yes, she had the same last name as that actress, Barbara Eden, the one who was a genie, she came out of a bottle. So I told Serena she could copy off my paper anytime she wanted, though of course she never did. I wasn’t exactly mathematical. But still, I did offer. Because she was practically like a movie star herself, you see?
And once, back when I was waitressing at Bucky’s, out on Rt. 6, you know it?, this really famous country singer came in. I shouldn’t say who it was on account of her privacy but I can tell you this much: it was not Dolly Parton. Though if it had been her I would have felt so proud. But anyway this other lady, she was all by herself and it was late at night and I gave her an extra squirt of cherry syrup in her coke. She has such a pretty singing voice, I wish she would have sung something but she just drank her cherry coke and ate her cheeseburger, and I noticed that her hair was every bit as long as you’d expect and she was wearing real fancy pointy-toe boots like they all do. The thing is, she only did leave me a quarter tip so she might not have been that famous country singer after all. But I heard the richer you are the cheaper you are, so who knows?
Hey I never did ask: are you a celebrity by any chance? I didn’t really think you were judging by the way you’re dressed. No offense, it’s just that celebrities on the whole wear makeup and jewelry and sunglasses, day and night. And I guess they don’t take the Greyhound much. But still, no harm in asking, right?
You want to hear a dream I had? You might find this kind of interesting seeing as you’re reading a book. I dreamed I was going to go to Yesterday University. That’s what they called it because it’s a place you go to learn about the past. I was ready to sign up on the dotted line but all of a sudden I had a terrible feeling like maybe there was going to be a gas leak. So I shook myself out of that dream and got up off the bed and went into my kitchen to sniff around, just to be on the safe side, and luckily everything was okay. But anyway that was funny about the college, wasn’t it?
I heard a dream can be a warning of something about to happen, usually something bad.You ever hear that? Yeah, it is scary to think like that. My Aunt Irma, she had a dream that a spider got up on top of her TV set and you’ll never believe it but just two weeks after that dream there was a big mud slide and her whole house caved in. It was simply awful. She lost everything. She lost all of her clothes and her photography albums and her dog Henry and of course she lost that TV. If only she’d have known what the dream was trying to tell her, right?
And speaking of spiders, I know this man whose friend went on this trip where they told everybody “Stay on the path, whatever you do don’t take one single step off the path.” So this fella, for some reason, nobody knows why, he walked off the path and he steps right on a butterfly and he kills it. Squashes it on the ground. Dead. So when he gets back home from his trip everything is different. Absolutely everything. The people are all dressed different and they talk in a different language and the government’s gone all bad, you know, it’s gotten real mean. And it’s all because of the dead butterfly. Which isn't the same as a spider but, you know, it made me think.
What are you telling me, that’s a story from a book? With the man and the butterfly and all? Are you sure about that? I could have sworn someone told me it was a true story. I never heard of no one named Ray Bradbury, he sure wasn’t the one who told me. Could it be King? I knew a Raymond King once, but that was a long time ago and he wasn’t any relation to the royal family, and they don't even a king now, do they? But anyway, he’s not the one who told me about the butterfly. That’s kind of disappointing, it being made up and all, but if you say it’s in a book then I know it can’t be a true story.
You sure are a big reader, aren’t you. Okay, no hard feelings, you just go right ahead and finish reading then. I’ve got the window seat, I’ll be fine. I was just about done talking anyway. It’s not like you’re some sort of a celebrity. Right?
Tuesday, December 27, 2011
My cousin Rydella Hopper was a compulsive liar and she cheated at gin rummy but I loved her all the same, I did, it was that crooked little smile of hers, who wouldn’t love a gal with a smile like that? Every year now when her birthday comes around I crochet her a floppy red rose and I bring it on over to the cemetery, lay it right on her tombstone just so, Rydella always did like her roses, and then I sit down on the bench they have there and I sing her a song or two, one of her favorites, like “Bye Bye Blackbird” or “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” I want Rydella to feel right at home up there on Sycamore Hill.
Now her younger sister, Happy, she’s another story altogether. Can't go putting crocheted nothing on Happy’s grave. My brother Hinckly always said she was too mean to die but Happy proved him wrong. She’s dead alright, has been for nearly 30 years. Sad story, really, she fell into the Atlantic Ocean. The way it come out at the inquest was, one minute she was up there on the deck of that ocean liner, snuggling with her husband Beetle Cadbury — his people had something to do with money but none of us knew him well, this being their honeymoon trip, and after Happy’s demise we never saw hide nor hair of Beetle again.
Anyway, the story goes that the two of them were up there on the ship's deck, arm in arm, hunky dory, when all of a sudden a wave just up and washed her away. Beetle Cadbury swore it happened just that way and there wasn’t a soul who could contradict the man with provable facts. Innuendo doesn’t count for much in a court of law, you see.
I can’t bring crocheted flowers all the way to the Atlantic Ocean every year so I just kind of let Cousin Happy’s birthday pass me by, she being one of my least favorite people when she was alive.
For Hinckly, I go all out, he was my baby brother after all and not a nasty bone in his body. He wasn’t what you’d call a thinker, that Hinckly, but he was a kind soul, and every December 27th I make it my business to do him proud. Bake him one of my blue-ribbon chocolate-chocolate pies, nothing but chocolate, oh how that man loved his chocolate, and after I bake it, I eat it because that’s just what Hinckly would do if he were still here, only seeing as he’s gone I have to do the eating for him. Then I go to bed. Chocolate always has that effect on me.
My very best girlfriend, Adelaide Pinch, the one who grew up to be so famous and write all those books — you know who I mean, she wrote “Bright September Morn” and “April Afternoon” and “That Cold Night in December” — you never heard of them? Oh my, they are very good, you can take my word for it, Adelaide had a real flair with the English language. Now her birthday was the day after New Years, that’s right, January second she was born, I never have any trouble remembering that. For Adelaide Pinch I always save back a glass of my raspberry cordial from New Year’s Eve and I drink her a little toast on her birthday. Sometimes I recite some poetry, too, because of Adelaide’s fondness for a good rhyme. This year I think I might read out one of Mr. John Wesley Fishwhistle’s poems, seeing as how Adelaide was so fond of Mr. Fishwhistle.
For my Mama and Papa I take particular care, as you can imagine. I get all dressed up on their special days and go up there on Sycamore Hill early in the morning. I’m lucky they both have June birthdays since the weather’s almost always fine. I like to spend the whole day up on the Hill visiting Mama and then just eleven days after, I go back up and spend the day with Papa. I make them little bouquets from all the wildflowers growing up there and I bring me a picnic lunch and just sit and gossip ‘til the cows come home.
Of course, they don’t know who I’m gossiping about half the time, seeing as how many people are new-comers since their time, but I believe they like to keep up, they were always that way, Papa with his newspapers and reading the stories out to Mama like he did. Now I’m the only newspaper they’ve got and it’s a good thing my memory is still holding up.
I’ll tell you something not everybody knows. I hold special birthday celebrations for my animal friends, too. Can’t do it for all of them, there having been so many rabbits and frogs and grasshoppers when I was a little girl, and who knows the day they were born anyway, but I always make a little fuss on Flossie Mae’s birthday because I was there at her calving and my old dear tabby, Emily Jane Charlotte, well, of course I mark her birth in a very special way. Hush now, don’t you be so personal, I am not about to tell you all my secrets.
Saturday, December 24, 2011
It was the summer when every pink transistor radio was playing beach party music, and every girl every place wanted to be Annette Funicello. It was the summer of skimpy two-piece bathing suits that were not quite bikinis, and teased hair; of smoking candy cigarettes like they were the real thing; of begging to be allowed to shave your legs.
We were in Far Rockaway — my parents, my grandparents, my sister and me — staying in a little yellow rented bungalow with a screen door. It was the screen door that impressed us the most, even more than the ocean a block away. We were from the Bronx. In the Bronx you don’t have screen doors.
In Rockaway we lived like regular Americans, walking around in halter tops and short-shorts, with cheap rubber flip-flops on our feet. We ate on paper plates with plastic knives and forks. There was watermelon every night, and corn on the cob, not corn out of a can.
Late on Friday afternoons my father and grandfather would show up at the bungalow, pale from their weekday city lives, ready to transform themselves into beach bums. After my father changed into a sports shirt and a pair of plaid Bermuda shorts, and my grandfather substituted a short sleeved white shirt for his usual long sleeved white shirt, we’d walk half a dozen blocks to the China Palace. This was our ritual. I thought all Jewish families celebrated Shabbos with eggrolls and wonton soup. Sure, spareribs, why not?
But this one night I want to tell you about, this night that was different from all other nights, my father stopped, right there outside the restaurant, and inhaled.
“Eve,” he said to my mother, “I smell something.”
“You’re standing next to the vent, Morty, of course you smell something.”
“I’ve got a headache, Eve. Just from smelling, I’ve got a headache.”
“Stop it, Morty.” My mother wasn’t having it. “If you’re so concerned, we can tell the waiter to leave it out.”
At that, my grandfather jumped in. “If you have to tell the waiter, already it’s not good. What guarantee do you have that he’ll remember?”
My father and grandfather were worried. They’d heard rumors. This is what men thought about, alone in the city, in the heat, with their families far away by the cool, wet, ocean. On the long Friday afternoon subway rides, the men worked themselves up with worry.
The women, made of tougher stuff, wanted egg foo young.
“Come in,” my grandmother said, ushering us toward the front door. “If we feel sleepy, we’ll take a nap later. A headache? A headache won’t kill us.”
Who knows if it would have killed us. We never found out because before we could even order, while we were still dipping our crispy noodles into the duck sauce — ”Duck sauce, Morty? You think they put it in the duck sauce? Eat it. You love your duck sauce" — the woman at the table next to ours keeled over. Keeled right over onto the floor. Her chair fell back and she was O - U - T, out. Out like a light. Fainted.
She’s fainted. Fainted. Fainted. Fainted.
It buzzed around the restaurant like a gust of stinky hot air.
Then: MSG. It must have been the MSG. Sure, what else could it be? MSG. MSG. MSG.
The place emptied out in three minutes flat. My family made an instant conversion from China Palace Shabbos to White Castle Hamburgers Shabbos.
A couple days later, there was talk in the sandy alleyway where the women spent late afternoons hanging up wet bathing suits and towels.
Maybe that lady, you know the one, the one that fainted in the Chinese restaurant, maybe she was just a little bit pregnant.
Sure, have you seen her stomach lately? Did you see it in that orange bathing suit?
Could be she had a little indiscretion, a little accident, even.
I see the way she is with Feingold, the pharmacist. How many people get shmutz in their eye every day, she needs him to take it out with a Q-tip?
And always with the smile, always making with her tushy.
Fainting, that’s a sign, don’t you think?
Could be. Could be.
That woman at the table next to ours, maybe she was pregnant. Or maybe she wasn’t. But as far as my father was concerned, the vote was in. The verdict was guilty. And the blame was placed firmly on the MSG. He didn’t even know what the initials stood for. All he knew was: stay away from it.
Everything changed for the worse after that. My mother and grandmother, bored by the predictability of White Castle hamburgers, turned their attention to cleaning. God forbid a speck of sand should make its way into our little bungalow. My grandfather spent Friday nights with other weekend men, playing pinochle. He never won anything and it aggravated his ulcer.
My father started in with crossword puzzles, which in his case was not an individualized sport. “What’s a five-letter word for a wooden shoe, Eve?” Or:“T-blank-blank-K; what does that spell, kids?”
Somehow, in extreme misery, my family managed to drag itself through the rest of that Rockaway summer. Then we returned to the Bronx and staggered into the fall. Friday nights were long, sad expanses of unrelieved deprivation.
And then, before we knew it, it was late December. Christmas Eve. The loneliest night of the year for Jews. Let’s face it, what’s Christmas Eve without a pu-pu platter? Something inside my mother cracked.
“Listen to me, Morty,” she said, through clenched teeth, “no one is trying to poison you. It’s Christmas Eve! For God’s sake, we’re going.”
We bundled into our hats and scarves and walked around the corner to meet up with my grandparents. They were standing outside of their apartment building, waiting for us with nervous smiles on their faces.
Together we made our way toward the Grand Concourse, and that night, in the dark recesses of the Pink Pagoda, we gorged ourselves on moo shu pork, shrimp in lobster sauce, and sweet and sour everything.
Life was back to normal. Somehow, we’d learned to live with the threat of MSG. We were survivors.
Wednesday, December 21, 2011
wrapped in snow
wearing eight shades
holds its breath —
waking from a deep sleep
nothing is the same —
the frozen river —
coming or going?
after the snow
100 paper cranes
cling to the evergreen
up to our knees in snow
taking the long way
do you wish you were
in Paris this morning?
climbing this mountain
around a chatty neighbor —
snow piles up
disguised as a crow
far from the storm —
watching the weather channel —
my father shivers
child’s first snowball fight
lazy afternoon —
the slow drip
in the meantime
a year passes
her blue shawl unravels
the cat sleeps
New Year’s day
waking the frozen
Saturday, December 17, 2011
The family is becoming increasingly concerned about Aunt Willow, my mother's oldest sister, the one who has adopted an environmental stance more radical than you might expect from a woman who, until recently, proclaimed as her personal motto: "More More More!"
But now it's "less less less" and she is vigorously pruning — her closets, her cupboards — which is all well and good, but for some reason the concept of anonymous re-giving holds no appeal for Willow. She has turned her back on the Salvation Army Thrift Store, as well as numerous consignment shops in her neighborhood, and has chosen to recycle her old garbage in the direction of her relatives, whether we like it or not. And we don't like it.
It began last year when she sent everyone a tuna can for Hanukkah. The cans were empty — either a plus or a minus, depending on your opinion of tuna fish — and haphazardly adorned. Some were lined with cotton balls, some with felt; some with what appeared to be bits of old socks. You either got a tuna can with used gift-wrapping paper taped around the outside, or one that was entirely undisguised and looked exactly like what it was: albacore or light, solid or chunky, packed in water or in oil. Nothing was left to the imagination.
Aunt Willow enclosed notes, written on the back of used envelopes, instructing us that the tuna cans could now be used to store our tchochkes and what-nots. But in typical Willow fashion she admonished us. "Why do you continue to accumulate tchotchkes?" she demanded, in her large loopy handwriting. "Down with tchotchkes! Go Green!" she added.
We all disposed of the tuna cans immediately. I know this because we have a cousins list-serve and some of us (naming no names) did not actually recycle the cans, but tossed them directly in the trash. (I know, I know: shame on me.) And since none of us are inclined to accumulate tchochkes and what-nots in the first place, Aunt Willow's Hanukkah gift was appreciated by not a single soul.
For my birthday last spring, Willow sent me a paperback copy of Crime and Punishment. It was the very copy she'd read in college, copiously annotated, margin notes on nearly every page. It came as no surprise to discover that Aunt Willow had an opinion about everything. "Raskolnikov!" she scribbled on page two, "get a new hat already! Where are your brains?"
I consulted with my cousin Lilian. She received a book for her birthday as well, a tattered volume of Hamlet. "Zee, it was horrifying," she told me. "The things our aunt wrote, nobody should have to read that. There were curses in 4 different languages, including Danish. She's totally ruined Shakespeare for me."
Over the course of a year the entire family has been subjected to similar assaults, as Willow ruthlessly clears her bookshelves. Cousin Harry, who's always been a little twitchy, is worried that the Peter Pan she foisted off on him could land him on the "dangerous persons" list with homeland security. He buried the book in his backyard, which is something Harry could do because he lives in Tenafly; anyone else would have thrown it down the incinerator chute in their apartment building and been done with it. Now his sister, Rosalie, who is even twitchier than Harry, is afraid some dog will dig up the book and Harry will be hauled off and never seen again. His fingerprints are all over that Peter Pan.
My own father became apoplectic when he saw Willow's margin notes in her old copy of Portnoy's Complaint.
"Why didn't he stop reading it?" I asked my mother. "Oh you know how it is," she said, "it was just like watching the Jerry Springer show, you can't stop yourself. He had to read to the very end, even though he hated every second of it."
I'm worried about what this Hanukkah will bring. Mom's already warned me that Aunt Willow's been going through the letters she received, and saved, over the last seven decades, reading each one over and over again. We suspect she will now return them to those senders who are still alive.
Who wants to be reminded of what you wrote to your aunt from summer camp in 1961? "Made three laniards today. Went swimming. Stepped on a worm."
And knowing Aunt Willow, she won't merely return our letters to us, she'll persecute us. "What do you mean, 'stepped on a worm?' What kind of maniac murderer are you? You're no niece of mine, Zee Zahava, you're a regular Raskolnikov."
I've never dreaded a holiday as much as I'm dreading this one.
Perhaps I should strike first. I could always send Aunt Willow an empty tube of toothpaste: "For storing your long skinny tchochkes and what-nots," I'd tell her.
But I won't. Why start a war you know you can't win?
Monday, December 12, 2011
This list was started on Wednesday afternoon, December 7, 2011, in the periodicals room at the New York Public Library, 5th Avenue at 42nd Street. I finished it on Saturday morning, December 10, at Emma's Writing Center in Ithaca, New York. My inspiration was Lynne Tillman's poem, "Flowers," which was part of the Library's exhibit "Celebrating 100 Years."
Rain is not curious, romantic, mischievous, insolent. Rain is not a locked door. Rain is not worried, twitchy, literate, bossy, funny. Rain is not a good correspondent. Rain is not tiresome, egotistical, hungry, itchy, bored. Rain is not a cheerleader. Rain is not abusive, late, cheeky, polite, intolerant. Rain is not a gift giver. Rain is not impatient, neat, over caffeinated, artsy fartsy, giggly. Rain is not a picky eater. Rain is not frugal, discouraged, cramped, whistling, whispering. Rain is not running away from home. Rain is not doodling, dreaming, reliable, paranoid, grumpy. Rain is not a fan of garden gnomes. Rain is not blameless, dishonest, indiscreet, thirsty, forgiving. Rain is not a Scrabble player. Rain is not chocolatey, smarmy, chatty, vague, particular. Rain is not holding on by a thread. Rain is not surprised, near-sighted, calm, confused, lost. Rain is not taking violin lessons. Rain is not ambidextrous, rich, embroidering, zany, accessorizing. Rain is not concerned with moral ambiguity. Rain is not sloppy, arrogant, wasteful, alphabetical, licorice. Rain is not ignoring library overdue notices. Rain is not gossipy, absent-minded, tap dancing, accident prone, rude. Rain is not blowing out the candles. Rain is not well-coiffed, clumsy, sneaky, childish, fidgety. Rain is not able to count backwards by seven. Rain is not nosey, anonymous, self-conscious, coughing, warmongering. Rain is not the next Fred Astaire (or Ginger Rogers, either). Rain is not shy, cuddly, old fashioned, tantrumy, irrelevant. Rain is not a role model. Rain is not sleepy, entertaining, disappointing, clingy, stubborn. Rain is not living in the past. Rain is not superstitious, proud, pushy, verbose, jumpy. Rain is not a team player. Rain is not grammatical, political, phony, laced up, vain. Rain is not saving up to buy anything. Rain is not solitary, cluttered, forever, melodramatic, docile. Rain is not afraid to mix plaids and polka dots. Rain is not photogenic, permissive, trendy, embarrassed, confiding. Rain is not listening to a word you say. Rain is not lonely, social climbing, dieting, regretful, spiteful. Rain is not good at meeting deadlines. Rain is not vacuuming, preaching, cheating, pregnant, butterscotch. Rain is not looking to start a revolution. Rain is not fantasizing, plotting, star gazing, anticipating, sentimental. Rain is not searching for the final piece of the jig-saw puzzle. Rain is not cranky, nervous, mealy-mouthed, broken, knotted. Rain is not refusing to ask for directions. Rain is not dithering, queasy, undernourished, victorious, distracted. Rain is not teetering around in high-heeled shoes. Rain is not introspective, brassy, lazy, plastic, married. Rain is not a rock star. Rain is not mathematical, grieving, bruised, constipated, matchy-matchy. Rain is not a bargain hunter. Rain is not innocent, moody, telepathic, bleeding, breathless. Rain is not trying to make a good impression. Rain is not religious, crafty, shedding, fashionable, careful. Rain is not a floozy. Rain is not athletic, multi-lingual, stoical, rebellious. Rain is not tall or short. Rain is not lipsticky, squinty, observant, secretive, studious. Rain is not hiding from anything. Rain is not waffly, conforming, attentive, paisley, gnarled. Rain is not a good luck charm. Rain is not envious, reactionary, fickle, complaining, higgledy-piggledy. Rain is not a distant cousin. Rain is not timid, quarrelsome, allergic, young, apologetic. Rain is not the one who walks off in a huff. Rain is not polyester, tomorrow, finger paint, quotable, Xeroxed. Rain is not always losing a mitten. Rain is not inappropriate, hypnotized, zaftig, stalking, undressed. Rain is not a gargoyle. Rain is not diplomatic, gambling, pierced, disappearing, calligraphy. Rain is not trying to make a good impression. Rain is not masquerading, punctuated, poetic, grateful, over. Rain is not another way of saying something else.
Sunday, December 11, 2011
I was just pulling myself out of bed when Garrison Keillor’s voice floated by. “And now a poem by Grace Paley,” he crooned, in that overly familiar tone of his. But still, I sank back into the mattress, my ears stretching closer to the radio, and the man I sometimes call “Mr. Smarmy” (though, to be fair, who else reads us poetry in the morning ) began to recite the poem “Here.” Of course I’d rather have heard it in Grace’s voice, the opening words, “Here I am,” spoken around a white sugared square of Chicklet, or a smooth mentholated cough drop. She doesn’t stand on ceremony, I’ve been told.
“Here I am in the garden laughing...” the poem begins, and then goes on, how she sits there with her “heavy breasts” and her “nicely mapped face,” with her “stout thighs,” and her little grandson sliding on/off her lap. Not “on and off” but “on/off” — and I see that squirming boy in my sleep-fogged brain, wriggling all over his grandmother.
She tells us more, this aging woman, this poet gardener, about her husband, over there, on the other side of the yard, talking with the meter reader, explaining how it’s not a good thing, our dependency on oil, talking and teaching, while the poet watches, listens, patient and bemused.
She says to her grandson, “Run over to the fence and get Grandpa, tell him I’m too tired to come myself, tell him I’m tired but still I long to kiss his sweet explaining lips.” Not in those exact words, but something very similar.
And then it’s over, there is no more poem, and while the words are still lingering in my ears I begin to cry. I lie against my warm pillow and let the tears come, not so much for the last words as for the first: “Here I am.” It is a perfect opening, isn’t it? Three words that are themselves a prayer, an invocation. “Here I am” she says, “Here I am — in the garden — laughing.”
She is so clear in my mind, in her loose, generous skirt. I imagine her not-quite-clean feet pushed into worn-down sandals. A white cotton peasant blouse, or some other nice blouse, definitely not a T-shirt. This is before her grandson comes to join her, before her husband sees the meter reader and calls out “Wait, I have something to tell you.” This is earlier in the morning, while there is still some trace of a breeze, while the dew dampens the tomato vine, and she is up to her wrists in dirt, the dirt working its way under her fingernails.
A smudge settles on the bridge of her nose where she rubs her finger against her slipping-down glasses, the same finger that has pressed down on so many pens and pencils over the years, the finger that hits the “H” key on the keyboard. (Years ago, she might have used a Smith Corona Selectric. Today, the “H” of her iMac, the “H” of “Here I am.”)
She is in the garden, making things right, and later, when her son calls on the phone to ask after the boy, perhaps she’ll tell him “I was out puttering today, I was laughing, it was good.”
And I’m crying because I know that even if some day I grow up to be a woman who can say “I’m happy with my heavy breasts and my stout thighs and my nicely mapped face,” I will never be able to begin a poem “Here I am, in the garden, laughing.” I see no gardens in my future. I can picture Grace, patting a seed into place, pulling up handfuls of weeds. But not me.
My poem would start like this: “Here I am, in the window, watching.” That is where I place myself, an old woman framed by a rectangle of dark wood.
Like my great-grandmother, Ethel. Every day, all day, she sat at her window, pillows propped behind and under her. Her thin, tired old face breaking into a smile as my mother and grandmother approach, waving, calling out “hello, hello” while lifting me from my carriage.
“Make a kiss for Great-Grandma,” they coo at me. And I make a kiss, the first actual bit of body coordination I learn. A slight puckering of my lips, fingers lifted to mouth, then pulled away in a reckless arc. And that sound, like the ocean separating from sand, “mmmmmwhaaaaaa,” so that every one laughs, even the shrunken old woman in the window. A silent laugh, her yawning, toothless mouth cavernous as any baby’s.
That’s what I picture for myself: “Here I am, in the window, watching.” Watching it all pass by— cars, bicycles, skateboards, young mothers pushing baby carriages, young fathers hoisting their infants onto their hips, carrying them around like big fat footballs. Teenagers, in packs, laughing and cursing, exhaling smoke. The boys trying to keep their pants from slipping down their narrow hips, acting like they don’t care, either way. The girls, skinny or plump, a bit on edge, nervous, just that much louder than they really want to be, putting on a brave front. And all the while there I am, invisible, in my window.
My great-grandmother was not invisible. The whole neighborhood saw her — strangers and friends alike — they’d wave and call “good morning,” “good evening.” An Italian neighbor had a special greeting; one day she told my mother it meant “old grandmother, who sits all day in the window.” There isn’t a pretty phrase for that these days. More likely I’d be called “snoop,” “busy body,” “bitch.” So I’ll hang back, won’t lean over the ledge, won’t catch the sun’s rays on my upturned wrinkled face.
But still, I can see myself there, in the shadows, giving a silent “right on” to the loud-mouthed girls, blowing kisses to their big-eyed babies from behind the half-opened shades, sinking back into the embracing darkness.
I’m waiting for that day. I’ll be older, grayer, sagging in even more places. And if I’m lucky I’ll be able to begin my poem: “Here I am, in the window . . . laughing.”