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where wisdom gathers, poetry unfolds and divine light is sparked…

Month: July, 2008

long summer’s eve with my long-legged, long-travelin’ friend

she rang the bell last night for the first time in weeks. but that’s because she’s been gone all summer. putting up walls, pounding down roofs in mexico. trekking canoes practically in canada. cooking for a camp filled with kids from deep in the heart of poverty, kids on holiday far from the inner city, up in the woods way north in michigan’s upper peninsula.

she came because i asked her to. she came because i missed her, missed the moments we steal to bridge the years and the lives that keep us apart sometimes.

she’s 17. i’m three times that, pretty much on the nose, at 51 and change, now that the year’s more than half over. she’ll be going off to college a year from now; i left college a hundred years ago.

she’s not my daughter, i don’t have one of those. but she is my very good friend. and i have loved growing up right beside her, these last five-plus years since we moved here and she was the girl next to next door.

she came to my door last night with a tub filled with cookies. oatmeal-chocolate-chip, two dozen or more. she’d baked them, brought them along because she’s the sort of kid who understands not showing up empty-handed.

she had her backpack slung over her shoulder, and beads wrapping her ankle. and, so she could show me her pictures, she had her dad’s laptop, too. he made her swear on her life she wouldn’t leave it alone for a second, so we hauled it along when we ran out on a quick errand.

but once home, we settled into the room with the screens, the room where the garden grows all around, and the night sounds creep in, louder and louder, till finally, suddenly, you notice it’s quiet. so quiet you could hear a lightning bug blink. or at least you think so.

she showed me her whole summer, my friend did. and we washed it down with lemonade and lemony water, both drinks doused with mint we plucked from the garden on the way into the screened-in room we still call the summer house, but only because the realtors did, and we haven’t quite shaken the label despite its overwrought pretensions, despite the fact that it’s a room with cracks in the concrete floor and a tear in the screen and paint that flakes off the old hutch that holds the flower pots, and the supper when we bring it outside on nights when inside is missing the whole point of summer.

we only started to catch up in the few hours we had, before her dad called, beckoned her and the laptop home.

heck, her whole life had changed, she told me, though she wasn’t sure quite where it happened. might have been in mexico, she thought, where she’s been going for years, because she’s the kind of kid who falls in love with a dream, and won’t let it go, not till every man, woman and child in a poor mountain village has a roof to sleep under, and running water besides.

maybe it was up at the camp where the kids from the inner city couldn’t get over the trees and the more trees.

or maybe, she thought, it was being the only girl on a canoe trip through the boundary waters, where she found out just how far she could keep a canoe up over her head, while not stumbling on rocks and tree roots.

it’s a beautiful thing being friends with a kid who’s not your own. i never worry about the fact that her room can sometimes look like a war zone (and a bloody messy one at that). i’m not there at the end of the day, when she comes home cranky and stressed from saying yes to too many folks who expect that’s what she’ll say, being a girl who always digs deep, never wants to disappoint.

i just get to be her friend. i don’t have to be her mama. with me, she doesn’t have to explain or defend. she can gush with the sort of excitement that makes her cheeks all flushed, and her voice nearly squeal. i don’t have to ask how the heck she’s going to find the money to fly back to mexico for her dear friend’s quincinerra at the end of the summer. i just get to love her for wanting to be there.

in the world i inhabit, one that’s decidedly two parts wishful thinking and one part cockeyed dreamer, people make a point of seeking out friends who share few to no demographics. we aren’t the same age, not even close. we check off different boxes when asked to declare race and/or ethnicity. we aren’t the same occupation. don’t even dwell in the same sort of surroundings.

in my version of heaven on earth, i’m friends with a midwest farmer who bounds down the lane in her old green pickup, and an octogenarian gardener who can’t get down on her knees anymore but has a thing or 10 to teach me. and i count among my nearest and dearest a fancy-pants new yorker who sends me dispatches from the front, there where fifth ave. bumps into the park.

i swap tales with an acupuncturist who learned all about herbs back in china, and i rock in a creaky old chair on the porch of the a.m.e. baptist church, keeping time with my friend the ever-wise preacher.

and on a long summer’s eve, i sip holy waters with a long-legged teen who’s learning the ways of the faraway world.

it’s one thing, i think, to tell the mama of the girl down the block how charming her child is. it’s a whole other thing, maybe, to invite said child to dinner, to venture downtown to the symphony, bumping along side-by-side in the same “el” car.

it’s the difference between a pat on the head, and a real true journey to the core of each other. it is teaching her she’s worth my time, and my heart.

the journey, like all the best, runs two ways. my friend with the long, long legs reminds me there’s a world far beyond my screened-in porch, where children can’t afford no. 2 pencils for school, and their mamas and papas would give anything for a shower at home, even one with unheated water.

she quells the parts of me, too, that worry about the way this planet is wobbling. she makes me breathe easier knowing she’s in line to inherit her piece of it.

she’ll take very good care of what’s handed to her. but that’s only part of why i so love her.

mostly, she is, like any one of my friends, someone who sees and hears and seeks the beautiful. and that’s why, on a long summer’s eve, she and i sat side-by-side in a screened-in room in a slumbering garden, sipping lemon-charged waters, as the off-year cicadas hummed in the darkness their scritch-scratchety lullabyes.

do you find friends far beyond your own personal demographics? do you have a friend far younger or older who teaches you how to see the world, how to sing a new tune, or a trick to planting your petunias?


obsessed and, egad, a tad bit compulsive

confession: the scatterings up above–plastic shoes, rubber gloves, old tin bucket and watering can, satchel for twine, trowel, assorted whatchamabobs–they are the first things i pick up in the morn, the last things i drop after dark.

i am, for not the first time in my little old life, a woman obsessed. and when no one’s looking, i might tend toward the must-snatch-that-deal-on-perennials-even-if-it’s-10-miles-away, must-water-the-wilted-now, egad, why-sleep-when-there’s-baby-fleurs-that-need-to-be-tucked-in-the-dirt.

so what if my knee swells and throbs, and my spine scolds me to sit down and haul out the ice pack.

i tell you, people, there are worse things than spending your day (and a part of the night–if the whole truth must be told here) with your wrists buried in mud.

i am fully, completely stricken. i am forgetting to make dinner for my children. i am the last one out of the garden center, finding my wagon by the light of the moon. i am up with the birds, headed out to shuffle around, for the third time this week, the cone flowers and the black-eyed susans. and i couldn’t sleep one wink the night i lay there worrying if the japanese beetles were out in the beds making batches and batches of babies.

ah, but i’ve not dialed for help of the emotional kind. i’ve not even tried to pretend that i’m behaving remotely normally.

oh, no. i am old enough and plenty used to myself and my, er, criss-crossed wirings. so much so that i can, mostly, slap that ol’ swollen knee and get a good guffaw outa myself. at myself, actually.

now, there’ve been times in my life, whole years and years in fact, when i woulda run for the hills should anyone point anywhere in my vicinity with those two old adjectives that loosely defined might suggest “gone overboard,” as in, she has…

obsessed? i shrieked, mais non! i dared to protest if anyone whispered the name of its cousin; you know, the c word, and i am not talking vulgar, merely compulsive.

ah, but that was then, and now i am a wild-haired garden chick who finds the earth my holy balm. it soothes me in these july days of much uncertainty and angst elsewhere in my life.

i am, i think, staking out my claim on my eensy-weensy corner of the planet. i am keeping the big bad world at bay, zeroing in on the few fine friends i find lurking in my yard.

i am making sure a climbing vine gets all the drink it needs to reach toward the sunshine and the clouds. i am sighing with delight as i watch the fairy rose ramble over to where the russian sage is stretching out her lanky arms, her sleeves awash in periwinkle ruffles.

i let the birdsong seep deep down in my soul. i revel in the knowing that she’s so used to me, she doesn’t even mind settling on the branch just inches from my head.

there is a sacred pact in the garden. the citizens of the earth and sky are at peace with those who keep their place in order.

and so, right here in the thick of summer’s bloom, i can think of nowhere i’d rather be, and nothing i’d rather be doing than finding my religion where the hydrangea nod their heavy heads and the black-eyed susans wink at me.

go ahead, laugh at me, trudging up to bed in my mud-caked plastic shoes.

but know that, achy bones be damned, my dreams are sweet and, like my climbing vine, inching toward the heavens.

are you, like me, obsessed? with any thing? is there some pursuit that so fills your soul you could do it every day and every night, round the clock if you had such steam in your pufferbelly? have you, after years and years, come to love the softspots in your soul or psyche? stopped trying to change the odd ways you are? or do you simply like the smell of dirt, and love to dig in your garden?

editing cookbooks

not for a minute did i realize it was a move in pure self-preservation. nope, i thought at the time, it was merely, er, cute.

yes, a word we avoid here (since we verge so close to the treacly anyway, now and again), it was–linguistic misgivings aside–that very thing, c-u-t-e.

cozy, might be apt. clever, another way of saying much the same thing. the arch of a doorway, the place from one room to the next, carved out for books. a book nook, floor to ceiling, instead of a plain old pass-through from one place to another.

and not just any books. the books we drool over, yes, we do. the ones we splatter, and don’t ever mind. proudly, we point to the tomato paste puddle on page 256. flipping along, we stumble upon the chocolate smudge, the thumbprint of a 5-year-old at the time, pulled up close to the counter, making a tollhouse pie for his papa. oh, yes, the once-lickable souvenirs now caked, dried and pressed to the pages.

yes, up the walls of the archway that spills from our cooking room into the lying-on-the-floor-watching-the-cubs room, climb two vertical libraries for what amounts to my culinary history.

there are the standards from back in the ’70s, when my cooking awakened: molly katzen’s “enchanted broccoli forest,” and frances moore lappe’s “diet for a small planet,” from back when i dabbled in all things lacto-ovo-vegetarian, and hoped to personally wipe out world hunger.

there’s a whole shelf of molly o’neill, once the new york times’ food writer, and the only such times writer i ever mustered the courage to write. (she wrote me back, pithy, punchy, managed to escape bursting my bubble by scribbling a few sweet short sentences.)

there is a whole shelf for baking–something i don’t often do, though i do like to think someday i will. and one for children’s cookery books, from back in the day when my wee ones stirred by my side (complete with eensy-weensy rolling pin and cookie cutters used, oh, maybe, twice a year, tops).

there is a grilling shelf, and mostly it belongs to my mate who’s afraid to light up the flames. and a literary shelf, because of course some of the droolingest writing in the world is on the subject of what’s for lunch, or midnight supper, or trekking through france in search of the perfect langoustine.

but each of these disparate shelves has one thing in common: the 11.25 inches from one end to the other.

and therein lies my salvation, or my penance, depending as always on inclination and perspective.

let’s start with salvation. were it not for the end of the shelf, i do believe i might string cookbooks from now till the dining room, which is around the corner and 20 some feet away.

i would forever cling to irma rombauer who’s insisted since 1931 that there’s joy in all cooking. and i might shove her up against the silver palate twins, sheila and julee (who despite their defections of each other, forever are paired between covers, at least on my shelf).

heck, i might integrate the neighborhood with the settlement cookbook spine-to-spine with beatrix potter’s country cookery book. who knew that gefilte fish balls could so seamlessly swim with fried minnows?

ah, but shelves are not endless. they come to an abrupt and unflinching end. it is known as the wall.

and so, i am saved.

yes, frankly, and structurally.

my house might cave in, what with my delight in plucking a fine cooking book off a quaint little shop’s shelf. why sometimes i have no intention at all, not a one, of stopping and browsing, but then in the winds of some shop, startled by the look of a cover, or maybe merely a title, i hear my name called, in whispers and taunting.

and thus, due to my occasional giving in to the sin of temptation, i am required to partake of the puritan art of decision. yes, i edit. i cull and i toss.

when one new cookery tome somehow makes its way under my transom, i weigh and i think. i meander my way through the books of my life and i make a ruling. if alice waters is to move in, someone else must pack up and leave.

and so it is that the other morning i found myself deciding which pages of my past i would expunge, to make way for the ones that had been piled high on the coffee table since, oh, my january birthday, and perhaps, truth be told, the christmas or two before that.

after much mulling, and pulling, i at last ditched a mere four. their titles don’t matter so much,
(though because maybe you’re nosey–no, i mean insatiably curious–the expired were these: healthy ways with poultry, healthy ways with vegetables, two from my skinny-obsessed days. two from which i’ve not once made a single anything ever, healthy or otherwise.

i waved goodbye, too, to a grilling book that once came, i think, with my first weber grill. i’ve not once followed a grilling recipe, and i don’t think the folks who make grills ought to stray from the bending of metal. luau ribs that call for a can of chopped pineapple, and a splash of cooking sherry just hasn’t lured me since i got the book back in the twentieth century.

last to go was the collection of recipes from my firstborn’s laboratory school, where the global pot of professors’ kids made for a rumbly tummy if ever there was one. asparagus in cream, for instance, followed by porc aux pruneaux, which i take it translates to pork with prunes, though pruneaux does have a classier ring to it than that shriveled fruit my grandpa downed every morn to “keep regular,” as my grandma so instructed while steeping said lumps in lemon and water.)

ahem, as i was saying, it doesn’t much matter which titles are now in a pile to give to the library, the point is that–at least for me, who’s been so, um, ensnared with food for such a very long time–fingering my way through my cookbook shelves is very much a long winding road through my psycho-gustatory past.

and were it not for the need to make room on the shelves, i might never be forced to face, and get rid of, the pages i’ve no room deep inside to any longer remember.

once upon a time all my cooking guides were strict marms who played into my peculiarities–not a scant drop of fat and gallons of vegetables, many a page tucked with my scribblings as i counted and calculated my way to safe moorings.

now, at long last, i push aside such strictures to make way for ms. waters, she who celebrates all that comes from the earth, and our blessings to taste it and wholly partake of it.

at long last what lurks on my cookbook shelves is not tucked away for no one to see. but rather, it’s proud enough, and whole enough, to make for a wide-open arch that anyone can pass through.

it’s taken some time, but at last, the last of my odd cooking tomes is scratched of my name.

it is the deep secret of growing older: we learn to edit the chapters that once held us back, to make room for the pages that, now, finally, lay out the recipe for being deeply, delectably alive.

does your cookbook collection tell a story of you? are there chapters you too would prefer to expunge? are there ones that bring you right back to someone you once learned to cook with?

long way home

it’s been seven summers. seven summers since i potzed around my rambly little garden, the one i couldn’t wait to tiptoe into every morning at the dawn, the one whose curves and inclines and meandering walks i knew by heart, by the tips of my toes and the nubs of my fingers, poking there under the leaves into rootballs and crannies i couldn’t quite see. but i knew them. oh, yes, i knew.

i could still walk you, eyes closed, through my little garden, my garden that grows in the city.

only it’s not mine anymore.

i left it. achingly. reluctantly. with half my heart planted there, most likely under the gnarled little tree with the branches that wound-about and wept.

was like i was leaving behind a part of me. something i’d dreamed, birthed, tilled, worried over, watered, watched through the seasons. something i’d memorized in that way that your mind absorbs, imprints, every plane and surface, every whorl and whatchamabob, of any something that seeps deep in your soul. like a newborn. or a patch of the earth you happen to love.

but then we up and sold the house that lived with my garden. and i had no choice, really, but to leave it behind. although not altogether, not wholly.

i brought one or two things with me, a woodland forget-me-not i couldn’t forget, its leaves all heart-shaped and dappled, its teeny blue flowers floating like mist in the spring when they bloom. and the fairy rock, the one my then-little boy was certain the fairies bathed in during the night, what with its carved-out dip in the middle, where the rain pooled and the dew at the dawn collected, just deep enough for the toes of a wee romping thing to splash in.

i moved north, not so many miles really, but a long long way from my garden. i moved to a house that was old, that felt like my grandmother’s, and that had quite a fine garden. a garden that once had been very much loved. but not in a while. and not by me.

a garden is, oddly, like an old pair of underwear. it is yours and yours alone. you know how it fits, and it knows where your bumps are, where maybe you’ve worn out your elastic.

the garden i inherited with this old house was, well, not one that belonged in my underwear drawer. it was all fuchsia and red, blood red. i like my underwear, and my gardens, a little softer on the eye. more white maybe, with great ribbons of blue, touches of yellow, here and there a french knot of pink. i don’t like plants that are brown–brown on purpose, not because they weren’t watered. and i don’t like spiky things so very much.

but apparently, the same woman who liked her bathrooms in brown, and her odd-colored tile running over the floor and straight up the walls of her kitchen, liked gardens in dark, deep colors too.

the other thing was that my old garden, as i said, was little. this one spread over a whole leafy yard, twice the size of my old city lot, and, by the time i got to it, it was unbearably overgrown. i could see through the weeds in plenty of parts. knew hard work had been done.

but it wasn’t mine. and it overwhelmed me.

i nearly broke out in itches when i walked out the door and saw all the weeds, towering, climbing, trying to swallow me, i was often convinced.

i couldn’t for the life of me find where the starting line was. mostly, i pretended the weeds were there on purpose. for shade. and shadow. occasionally, one of the weeds sprouted some color. purple. or pink. or great masses of gold. except for the sneezing, no one minded when i brought them into the house.

and for the last few years, i’ve been a little preoccupied anyway. by the sound of hammers and buzzsaws. not much point in trying to dig out from under the sawdust, was how i saw it all.

but then this year came. this was the year, i’d been telling myself. and my very dear friend, who long long ago got me started, back in my little garden.

her name’s marguerite, and i call her my fairy gardenmother. last time, after we finished digging, and tucking wee things here and there in my old city garden, we decided the very last thing it needed was a blessing.

so, we called up her mate, who happens to be a rabbi (though now he’s mostly a deep thinker and therapist) and who, along with my fairy gardenmama, lived just down the block.

he, along with marguerite, came one late summer’s night, with candles and prayers. we blessed that old garden. asked it to be fruitful and multiply. funny thing is, after years and years of hoping and trying and plain giving up, i turned out to be the one who got fruitful and multiplied. my little one, i always laugh, came from that old garden blessing.

anyway, ever since i moved here, my old friend marguerite wasn’t so keen on crossing the city line. didn’t want to come north where it’s leafy. said she’d need shots and a passport.

but finally, she came. with her truck loaded down with all sorts of grasses and ferns and flowers in white and all shades of blue. she came with a tree that weeps, and another one that is bent, like an old lady’s backbone, all crooked and twisted.

once again, she waved her magic wand, and next thing i knew i was finally home. i have my old garden again. only it’s new, and it’s here in the north. it’s only a swatch of the yard. but it’s stitched like a tapestry with textures and smells, and already my toes know the way to meander from the stepping-stone path up the slope to the sweet little tree at the top. and off near the pines, we moved all the birdhouses into what i now refer to as the subdivision.

i can’t much sleep these days so i tiptoe out at the dawn. i see who’s standing and who’s fallen down. i haul out the hose. i water and water. i find my cat curled, trying out plants, apparently. trying to decide which is the best fit. or the one that least scratches his bottom, perhaps.

it’s all rushing back. like a river inside. the whole link to the earth. how it soothes me to tuck little things in the mounds of fine loam. how it startles me, makes me stand at attention. how working down low to the ground, i hear a flutter of wind, look up, and there’s mama robin plucking a berry. or i dig, and find a fat worm.

suddenly, i seem to have discovered the starting line here in my garden. i’m heaving rocks, cutting back limbs. i am weeding and cutting, and transplanting here, there and everywhere. i am imagining white picket fences and wind chimes, and rambling roses. i am covered in mud. and i like mud.

but the very best part is what it’s all doing to my soul. i feel it rustling awake. i find myself dreaming again. i’m plotting a land of enchantment. of where to tuck what. and who will bloom next. i wonder, if i was a butterfly, where i would land.

the thing i love most about every garden is how each is a story waiting to be told. it will take years to turn all the pages, to find out who blooms and who dies. who will climb walls, sink into the mortar of this old place that is ours now, utterly ours. and, come springtime, which crook in the limbs will be home to the robin’s nest.

i know–because a garden is equal parts breath-taker and heart-stomper–that winters will take their toll. and stormy nights. and soccer balls, too.

but there is wisdom deep in a garden, and lessons waiting their turn.

for now, though, the lesson is this: when the road home is a long one, the welcome is sweet, all right. succulent, really. so fine, the juice drips down your chin. and you lick it. and the taste comes tumbling back at you, a taste you remember all over again. and now, this time, you won’t give it up.

not ever.

seven summers without it, is far, far too long. you realize, at once and at last, just how famished you were.

oh, and one other thing: when yours is a garden not in the city, buy an extra long hose.

do you find yourself enchanted by what grows in your garden? have you moved from one plot to the next, but found it took some time till your heart found its place in the new place? if a garden isn’t the thing that stirs you to dreaming, what is? if you had to pick one plant from your garden to pack up and tuck onto the moving truck, which one would it be?


top drawer

i had no idea it was there. waiting for me, maybe. wondering when in the world i’d discover it, lying there in the shadow of the drawer i’d not opened in a very long time.

oh, my mama had urged me up there. not to slide open the drawer, but to look at the boxes at the back of the closet. boxes i’d tucked there long long ago. baby clothes, all of the boxes, doll-sized mittens and onesies and little gap overalls. somethings i’d sifted through, tucked off to the side, hoping, waiting. maybe someday there’d be a reason, a brother with reason to lug home the boxes. maybe a new baby would come, would finally come.

and so, this past long slow weekend, puttering about my mama’s old house, the house i grew up in, i somehow found myself pulled back to my room. maybe at first it was that ol’ twinge of guilt, oh, geez, those boxes, might as well get to the boxes, see if it’s time yet to part with those wee tiny treasures.

but then, for no reason, i swear, just an urge, a wisp of a whisper calling me maybe, i slid open the very top drawer.
and there, for the very first time, i saw a whole stash of papers, yellowed a bit, worn at the edges, stacked, one after another.

i started to read. my heart quickened, then pounded. suddenly, certainly, i knew i had found lost pieces of a puzzle i’d put off to the side.

these were essentials. turning points, each of them, in the life of my father. only i’d not ever seen them, not known, really, they existed. it was as if history, over the years, had done all the work there in the dark while i wasn’t looking.

it was sifted, condensed, it told whole threads of the story. threads in my mind, over time, over decades, that had started to blur.

there is that fine line in every unfurling of a family’s story, where truth drops off and myth takes over. fills in the lapses, bridges the gaps. i’d long ago lost track of which was which, and figured some chunks of the story had slipped into the warp of what happens when the sharp pierce of too-early death loses its sting, and in its place, story is laid, etched in the sands of family telling.

you simply stop looking for truth. you take the story as it’s handed to you. there is a balm in believing. you like a dash of amplification–glorified truth, perhaps–tossed in your old family tale.

yes, yes, your grandmother was the first woman in the state of kentucky to graduate college. yes, you like that. like the ring of that tale. yes, yes, your papa turned down harvard law school. had work to be done, and children to raise.

what woulda been, coulda been, doesn’t much matter. if, in telling the story, you can cling to the posts of what might or might not inflate a key player, provide something more to hold onto, there in the dark and the murk of a life’s fading twilight.

and so, after all those years of not really knowing any more, of occasionally feeling the itch of is-that-quite-true-or-is-it-a-bit-of-a-fib, i’d come to not count quite so much on a firm underpinning of fact. it all blurred. simply became the story we told.

but deep down, i am–as my father told me his very last christmas–a girl with a deep sense of history. i like my stories to line up, the facts to fall into place, because they belong there.

i am, after years of writing in medical charts, and even more years of writing everyday history in the pages of news, best suited–most settled–when the timbers of my story are nailed down in truth.

and so, there in my hands, my hands that were feeling the rush of discovery, of having stumbled on something that told the crux of the story, i moved from standing there, quivering, to dropping and curling my legs on the quilt of the bed that so many nights had shipped me to dreams.

and there it was, on harvard business school letterhead. a note, penned in the summer of 1953, acknowledging that my papa would not, for choices all his own, be attending in the fall. the place would be held, the admissions deputy wrote, should he ever change his mind.

i sat there beholding this new, never-known, or could-it-be-merely-forgotten, thread to my father’s story. i couldn’t help, later that night, poking around the keys on my keyboard, looking up the HBS class of 1955, to see what titans of industry mighta been classmates, mighta known and loved my gregarious–and dare i say, brilliant–father.

but before i got to that, i sat there, feeling the great granite slab of foundation settle into its lasting place.

what might have been myth, blurry, unfounded, was, with a slip of thick ivory paper, turned into fact. a crisp edge of history–my papa’s history, my sense of the man who’d always been my bright light and hero–was sealed. the fingers of time, run down the fold, neatly tucked it away, filed at last under t as in truth.

never again as i told of my father would i feel the ground quake under my story, as, behind the occasional passage, i wondered if i’d trespassed the truth, tiptoed to fiction.

and that wasn’t the only piece of the past that came to me, there on the bed, as the sun slipped away over the treetops that circle the pond out my long-ago window.

layer after layer, memo after letter after letter after old crinkled black-and-white photo. some of the layers typed on tissuey paper, the sort that looped like a sticking-out tongue through a key-sticking typewriter. some scrawled in the handprint of long-muffled heroes, the ones who loomed large in their day and their time and their page of the story.

by the end of an hour or so, my face wet with tears, with joy, with pride, with unbearable sorrow, with feeling again the scab of my heart ripped off and bleeding, i clutched the thick stack, the marvel of all of it.

there in the drawer at the top of the dresser, there where growing up i’d always tucked all my treasures, my things i wanted no one else to see–my eyeshadow snuck in the house, my love notes to boys i had crushes on, my rosary from first holy communion–there in the shadows of the one place where i’d kept what mattered the most, i discovered that history had done all the work.

lined up the truth, one after another. gave me the gift of a verifiable version of who was my papa–not only to me, but to all of the world.

more than ever that night, or maybe only more than in a very long time, i ached for the man whose story i’d only just more deeply discovered.

it all–and more–came flooding back to me. how i stood there in the kitchen, right after my papa’s funeral, and how my uncle, a wise man, spoke to me the words that for years were my solace: the depth of the pain equals the depth of the love.

so many nights, and again just the other one, i clung to the cramp in my heart, and named it the love of my papa.

only this night, as i remembered the feel of his arms wrapped around me, felt once again the breadth of his chest as i leaned in my head, i cried out for the papa i’d not wholly known for years and for years.

but who now–because, at last, i tugged open the very top drawer–i knew more than ever, and missed all the more gapingly.

have you discovered bits of the story of those who came, and maybe left, before you? have you stumbled upon history, only to be shaken by what you found? that you’d known it all wrong, or tripped upon the missing pieces to puzzles? have you wondered where the outlines of history blurred, and where myth had filled in for lapses in the telling of your family story? did you find solace in finally getting it straight?

beyond the double doors

maybe you’ve been to that place. the invisible line, where someone you love is in the hands of strangers you’ve not before seen. and, at the very last instant, the strangers turn to you, just barely, more like over their shoulder they remember you’re there, call out, almost a bark, “this is it.”

so you, quick, grab a kiss. you gulp, and you stand there, just this side of the big swinging doors. with barely a whoosh then a clunk, the doors open. then swallow the someone you love.

and you are left standing there. trying not to worry. trying to chase all the thoughts from your head. the ones that sometimes bang around in your brain. sometimes make you afraid.

or, not quite so dreadfully, there are the gallumps in your heart. the ones that remind you that forever–even though you are now gray, and drive your own car–the someone they just took from you, she is the one who long long ago kissed your knees when you banged them. she alone knew how to scramble your eggs the way you liked them the best. she, too, was the one who, that hot summer night when you were nine, maybe 10, sat in the dark with you, your backs against the door of the fridge. and together you nibbled away at the pan of fudge she’d slipped from the shelf where it set for an hour or so, after she’d poured in the cream and followed the steps on the little blue box.

you don’t quite line up those thoughts, one after the other. more like it all comes at you in a wadded-up ball. and as you watch the back of the big double door swing finally shut, sealed, you turn, all alone, and you realize how much you really are helpless.

there’s only so much we can do for the ones who we love. we are, in the end, passersby in this play. there are times, and there are places, where we can’t be and can’t go.

so we wad up our worries and prayers, and we get through the hours till we can be there again. can be the one to put cool washcloths to heads. can hold onto an arm. can dial the brothers–far, far away–give them the word: she’s out from the OR. i’ve talked to the surgeon. she’s resting. she’ll be all right soon.

and again, you sit by her side. you wait for the flutter of eyes. you wince as you see the arm you’ve long known and long held, now puffy and bruised, all sorts of tubes running under a gown that’s starchy and doesn’t stay closed.

you remember, your mother–who to you is so much a part of your story, your ups and your downs, your wings and your clodhopper feet–you remember she is, like all the rest of us, bones and flesh, veins and lumps that need to be cut and removed.

if you’re like me, most of the time we prefer to think of our mothers–and all those we love–as well beyond bones. we are not so much accumulations of tissues and cells, we like to pretend, as we are long spinning spools of story and myth.

we are narrative arc. we are themes that recur. we are denouement, and climax. we are character, deeply nuanced, and, more often than not, rather predictable. we stick to our lines. some of us work hard at refining, and raising our sights. some of us get stuck in a rut.

but always, we are eager to turn over each page. to see where this story is headed. to find out if, ever, we say what we mean, and we get at the truth.

sometimes, it’s sitting there at a hospital bedside that we are most keenly aware of just how deeply we’re tied. and how tender our hearts are for the one who is lying there, listless, and dopey on drugs.

sometimes what they do beyond the double doors is stir up our souls. re-jiggle the plot. lay out the players, starker than ever.

the one they return to us, we remember, is not and will not be here forever. and so we move with more care, and more purpose, as we tend to their wounds, put cool sips to their lips. and kiss them goodnight in the tenderest way.

my mama is all right, now. a little bit bumpy there, but now home in her very own bed. hospitals have a way of wrenching open your heart. whether it’s your story, or one you happen to catch unfolding down the long lonely corridor. home looks sweeter and finer than ever, once you’re back to stay. have you left someone at the double doors, marked “restricted area”? what thoughts have you thought while the clock ticked the hours away? how sweet, the reunion?