Everything old seems imbued with a kind of extraordinary dimension of a silent knowing about the past. My antique mirror saw my great-grandmother brushing her hair, pinning on a brooch, straightening her collar. The music box played for my grandmother's ears, and my father's when he was a child. The cracked tea cup could just have a tiny bit of DNA from my grandfather or a great uncle I never met. I have kept and valued the doorstop my dad made when he was ten, and the handkerchief box he made for his grandmother still holds mine. Sometimes I feel like I could open an Antiques Roadshow of my own.
After several weeks of pragmatic demands and family exigencies, I scheduled a few days of private retreat in the high desert. I have a book I’m working on, and had made no progress at all since before Christmas last year. My body was weary, my spirit was flagging, and my will to write was down to a few drops at the bottom of a deep well. I hoped rest and peace would bring an infusion of energy, and I was looking forward to being in a place that brought me comfort many years ago.
I remembered long, solitary walks in the high desert where I could listen to bird song and marvel at the diversity of nature in that dry, arid place.
It's a rainy day, and feels so cold after all the heat of the summer and fall. Christmas is coming, and I've had holiday music on all morning. There is pea soup simmering in the crockpot for dinner. Lunch by the fire sounds good. Grilled cheese sounds good, so I fill two slices of sourdough with cheddar cheese and put the sandwich in a pan with melted butter. Hot cocoa also sounds good, so I fill a mug with milk and put that in the microwave.. But I am distracted by a phone call, and when I hang up I realize the sandwich is heading towards burnt. I panic to flip it over with the hope I can rescue it.
Clearly it is too late -- but then I remember one of my favorite dinners as a kid.
The collateral damage of emotional or physical abuse cannot be measured. One family member goes off the rails and the whole family train jumps the track. Connections are broken, some without hope of repair.
The summer has not been gentle here in the San Fernando Valley. Has it been gentle anywhere this year? We've had drought and wild fires, broken all records for hottest days, and spent most of our time trying to stay out of the sun and hydrated. Our air conditioner was sighing and dying about three o'clock in the afternoon during one of our hottest weeks. Our tempers were short. And sleep was hard to come by when the nights were not much cooler than the days.
I - ONE AT A TIME
What will you do with this bright sun that glares through the south window
and makes you open your sleep-sanded eyes?
You only get one day at a time.
All night the wind tossed the garden. The air is giddy with it. Dust to dust. See it whirling and sparkling in the light?
Make a space that fits you well. If you
feel hot and scratchy in that one, make another. Cool your skin with shade and scent of blossom.
Gather scattered leaves and petals, knowing absolutely that the
effort is futile, but never wasted. Hold them for a moment before the wind takes them; as, of course, it will.
II - DESIRE
I am not talking about the black cardboard cutout mountains pasted against the apricot-lavender sky showing off two bright stars.
I am not talking about them.
Why do I keep that old thing? Why do I use a tablecloth that is falling to pieces, faded, and stained with years of picnics, breakfasts, and dinners? It has served the family well, for generations, but isn't it time to get rid of it? Probably.
It has to be ironed, for one thing. But the smoothing out of wrinkles can be deeply satisfying. The fabric is so old, so soft, that it yields to the hot iron easily, settling into a relaxed order that I can feel in my bones. Silly, isn't it? To almost feel as if I could submit to such a process and come out all the better for it. Ready to serve again, ready to offer up a clean resting place for dishes and cutlery, bowls of pickles and olives, roast chicken and baked potatoes. Ready to be spattered with savory juices or melting butter. Ready to be anointed with a drop of two of red wine from a glass that's really too full.
Responsibility for family documents is a heavy burden. There is so much. So many receipts, records of transactions, legal documents that won't be denied a place in history. But what really matters?
I have been shifting living space for eight years to accommodate my Dad's paper trail. I've sorted through it countless times, trying to decipher what is necessary to keep. But why? He's dead. My mother is dead. His second wife is dead, as is her daughter and anyone who wants any of the documents that validated her life.
I have birth certificates, death certificates, hard evidence that these people lived and died. And I have the memories of my own connection with all of them that still are warm but also cold with recriminations and self-doubt.
I came across a letter I wrote when I was about twelve. My mother was in the hospital, and I was missing her.My dad wrote a note to my junior high explaining that I had to leave school early every day for two weeks (? I think it was that long) because I was needed at home. I had a brother who was just a toddler. I can't remember who cared for him while I was in school in the mornings, but it was my job to come home and help in the afternoons. I don't remember how I got home, either, because my school was a bus ride away. But I was happy to help.