I can’t sleep, so I turn on the sprinkler in the garden and rock on the porch swing with my coffee. I usually multitask while I water but something about this blue-sky morning, my kids still in bed, it’s easy to sit and watch the world go by on 17th Avenue. There is the man with the spiderweb face tattoo riding his bike in black nylons and a cape, another man on a recumbent bike blasting classic rock while his dog rides in a box on the back, a white-haired couple power-walking in sensible clothes, our neighbor John Walker shuffling by in his walker on his daily trip to breakfast at the corner pub and restaurant.
I’m searching for a poem to read at a party a friend is hosting to observe and ritualize a bad break-up. “I am heartbroken,” she half-yelled at a dinner party recently to my friend Mary, who doesn’t hear well. “I AM SAD.” I scan a poetry book trying to find a balm for her sorrow. And then, re-reading a poem by Marie Howe, I am caught “by a cherishing so deep” for my teary friend and my hearing-impaired friend, my cobwebby porch and the guy with the cobweb face tattoo, my droopy basil, my summer children with their tousled hair and grubby feet sleeping so soundly.
I can’t remember when my poet niece introduced me to Marie Howe’s “What the Living Do.” Was it after my mom died in 2009 or was it before? I know I have returned to it again and again since Mom died, probably more than any other poem in my life. Howe wrote it after her brother John died from AIDS-related complications in 1989. It’s like a letter to him, first just reporting day-to-day mundanities, then building up to a kind of awe of it all. Her opening line echoes in my head sometimes: “Johnny, the kitchen sink has been clogged for days, some utensil probably fell down there.”
Mom, this is it, I think. The thick of it. Of parenting, of life, of middle age, of meetings and checking the weather and eating leftover salad for lunch, of endless texts and emails about playdates, birthday parties, field trips, lice. All to the tune of “Heart and Soul” plinked out on the piano. Maybe this is what we’ll remember when we’re old, if we’re lucky to be old someday. The countertop that was never finished, that grease-stained, doodled-on plywood in its place. The library books unreturned, the homework undone, a dusty disco ball hanging from the raw beam between the kitchen and living room.
What do I do? I mostly don’t have a job. I say mostly because I write (a little), take on some editing projects, and have a small business that I’m developing. But I mostly don’t work, if you don’t count my housekeeping and mothering and taxiing of two small people to and fro, which you should. And yet I still feel a pressure, nearly constant, to do something that better uses my time and brings in more money to our household. It conflicts with a simultaneous feeling that my life is already full.
This is embarrassing to admit, but I sometimes have a lot of luxurious alone time on my hands. Like, hours. When my daughters are at school or at a camp and my husband is at work and I’m not working. Consecutive hours when I’m not cooking dinner or doing the laundry or the dishes. When nothing is expected of me.
If it sounds boring, it is not. I love this time, relish it, protect it, don’t tell anyone I have it. I never recount it when we’re talking about our days at the dinner table.
Just now I watched someone hop over the waist-high fence in our front yard and pluck a ripe strawberry from the vine. Not a squirrel, not a child, but a real live grown-up person, who then went along walking in front of my house taking bites from the strawberry. That’s how big a strawberry it was, big enough to take multiple bites from. Like an apple! And what did I do? I sat looking out the window and clucking my tongue. We don’t get a high yield from our little patch, so each strawberry is like a little seeded gift from the soil that I have painstakingly tended, wheelbarrowing compost from my chicken-tending neighbor’s compost heap. I wanted to yell, like I yell at the cars that don’t come to a full stop at the stop sign outside our house, but I didn’t.
Our days are cinematically bookended by the trips John Walker takes in to the corner pub and restaurant. Once at 8:00 a.m. and back again at 4:30 p.m. each day, except Monday evenings because the Sunday meatloaf special provides enough food for a leftover dinner. He stops and talks with me sometimes when I’m in the garden. I have to yell because he doesn’t hear so well, either, but he is charming and pretends to be attacked by the grapevines on our low fence and once I heard him singing “You Are My Sunshine” to himself. And he’s always talking about how my tomatoes are the best in the neighborhood, which I doubt because South Central Eugene is home to some real gardening pros but it fills my fragile gardener’s heart with pride.
In the last thirty-six hours, my daughters have had a fig sale in our front yard (NOT A PIG SALE! NOT A JIG SALE! A FIG SALE! they yelled to passersby) and made $15. Our neighbor Gail brought us three pounds of albacore tuna she and her husband couldn’t eat after canning tuna all day. And my neighbor Mina’s mom was in town and left us two jars of homemade strawberry jam on our front porch. The abundance this time of year makes up for the months and months of gray when we don’t even see our neighbors. “I really think you should write about our neighborhood,” Gail tells me as she drops off the tuna. I am in my bathrobe from a late-afternoon shower and she is in my hoarder’s kitchen pretending not to notice the mess. “Mmmm,” I nod. “But I am worried, isn’t this all a little too Mayberry, a little too saccharine?”
Others tell me I should start a cafe or an ice cream shop or a mobile bookstore or write a book about my mom. It all sounds good to me but not quite good enough to give up the other things I do, which are hard to describe. Just what is it that I do? I dread that question at parties, change the subject, tell them about the mundane stories we tell at the dinner table.
What do I do? Recently, one sweaty night after the girls’ bedtime, I took an old white spray paint can from the garden shed, walked into the intersection in front of our house, checked to make sure no one was watching, and sprayed “SLOW” in letters almost as tall as me. I went to bed satisfied, the faint chemical smell still on my fingers.
I didn’t think of it then or even the next morning when the letters shone stark and bright in the sunlight, even bigger than I’d remembered. But SLOW was not just for the traffic. Of course not. I want it all to slow down, this big orb spinning around the sun, the seasons, my daughters growing up. The time between back-to-school and the holidays shortens every year. Soon enough, our kids will be out of this house and we will be shuffling ourselves to the corner pub.
The city pressure-washed my SLOW away about six weeks after my act of civil disobedience. I watched them do it. I did not talk about it at the dinner table that night because I hadn’t told my younger daughter that I was the graffiti artist. She had been stunned by the letters so big and I didn’t want to mess with her idea of right and wrong just then.
The business I have been working on is an obituary writing business. Talking to grieving loved ones during what is almost always an incredibly shitty time is sad and gratifying and sometimes beautiful work that I am grateful for when it comes. Some people react with discomfort when I tell them about my business but I believe what I’ve heard other obit writers say, that obits are much more about life than about death.
I am learning that the longer I am on the phone with people, the better stories I get about their dead loved ones. At first it is mostly resume stuff and hobbies. And then there is a point when the conversation turns, when we relax into it and they start remembering the little things, that time when they were dating and he plowed through a snowstorm to deliver a delicious meal or the way her bony fingers worked so gracefully as she knit a scarf. A family member of someone whose obit I was writing once wrote this to me: “If you told him about something new you were interested in or something new about your life, Granddad would thoroughly research whatever it was and discuss it with you the next time you saw him. Or he would present you with an incredibly thoughtful gift or thought pertaining to whatever you had told him about.”
I love this anecdote so much it makes me want to be like this granddad. My mom was thoughtful like that, too. She’d watch me when we were clothes shopping together, and she’d often sneak something I’d paused over to the sales counter and surprise me with it later.
When Mom died, I kept thinking that week about how she was at her best during a crisis. She knew how to comfort and she knew what to bring and who to call and what to say. I tried to channel her energy and grace and that certain can-do fierceness she had when she put her mind to doing something. And she would have baked cookies. Mom’s chocolate chip cookies. No one baked a cookie like Mom. I have the recipe and she actually put heavy cream in the fucking things. I can never make them like she did. How strange it was for her house not to smell like cookies. There’s nothing like a care package from my Mom—with a cheery card and some stickers for my first daughter and a Ziploc bag full of cookies and, inexplicably, some really expensive lingerie for me.
I wrote my mom’s obituary. It was fine, but I think I could probably do better now. Not because I write obits professionally but because I’m not in the midst of those first days of grieving. I wish I had shared with others her love of new clothes, how quickly she could pop off the tags; they’d be in the garbage before you could grab a pair of scissors. Her palpable joy when we were at a restaurant and they brought a basket of fresh-baked bread. That ringtone on her phone: “Cause you had a bad day, you’re taking one down, you sing a sad song just to turn it around.” Her devotion to me when I was sick with depression and couldn’t get out of bed. How she brought me chocolate truffles, the only thing I would eat. She knew exactly how I was feeling, how to talk to me, what I needed. She had been there.
One of the best obits I’ve ever read was self-written by a Seattle woman named Jane Catherine Lotter, who died with the help of Washington’s Death with Dignity Act after a battle with cancer in 2013. She wrote:
I was given the gift of life, and now I have to give it back. This is hard. But I was a lucky woman, who led a lucky existence, and for this I am grateful. I first got sick in January 2010. When the cancer recurred last year and was terminal, I decided to be joyful about having had a full life, rather than sad about having to die. Amazingly, this outlook worked for me. (Well, you know, most of the time.) Meditation and the study of Buddhist philosophy also helped me accept what I could not change. At any rate, I am at peace. And on that upbeat note, I take my mortal leave of this rollicking, revolving world-this sun, that moon, that walk around Green Lake, that stroll through the Pike Place Market, the memory of a child’s hand in mine.
Could anyone ever say it any better than that?
This business of remembering, at its best, is about being caught “by a cherishing so deep.” By saying, she was here; we go on but she lives here in this feeling, this memory, this ache.
I like the challenge of curating someone’s stories, trying to capture their essence. I do it for loved ones, of course, but I’m also working for myself. Making my own mark, somehow. Look here, I wrote these words. I was here. I remember too.
1 comments have been posted.
I, too, have mapped much of my life from Marie Howe's poem. This is an honest and beautiful essay in its detail, but as much in its sense of how to live a full life. Before I got to the word "SLOW" written under cover, I thought the author was going to write "I live," which would have also been an accurate statement, showing readers a way to notice, to stop, and to write about it. Thanks for this.
Melissa Madenski | March 2019 |