family

June

This June marked the 70th anniversary of D-Day. Seventy years and the blood of those young men is still fresh in our collective memories.

Most of those men were younger than my sons are now--my youngest on the verge of his 24th birthday, later this month.

My mother would have turned 91 last week. My father died, after a long, long struggle, the day after my son's birthday. He was 94.

When I was young, I assumed the rather practical mindset that when people get old you must expect them to die. Well, of course. We will all die. The more days we have lived past say, eighty or ninety, every day is a grace, unearned, after all, because in the history of humanity, the odds were not in favor of such extended years. Both my grandmothers died when I was in elementary school, each of them    around 79 years old. Sad, of course, but I didn't know them very well. One, because I'm not sure she even knew my name and seemed to focus all of her attention on my oldest brother, something I accepted without fuss.
My other grandmother had been in some degree of senility as long as I could remember, and I am pretty sure she had no idea what my name was, either. Again, I didn't take it personally.

After all, I was in the middle numbers of their grandchildren, my parents and aunts and uncles contributed their fair share of babies to the post-war boom. When you are a middle child in such a crowd, you learn to not take much personally.

And, of course, there was the news. I was in the first grade when JFK was killed. In some ways, the years telescoped with the assassinations of Martin Luther King and then Bobby Kennedy. We were a news family, so our background noise was the rolling list of casualties every night peppered with a Walter Cronkite reporting from the jungle and young men my brothers age coming home in body bags. And, of course, the Civil Rights movement and the violence that accompanied that moved closer and closer to home.

I grew up in the bounds of New York City and we learned, as a matter of course, as part of the culture, that as carefree as our childhoods were, and we were very blessed, there was always danger, always, at any moment, something could erupt, and often did. We each had our armor, invisible, perhaps, but I know mine would be activated at any hint of danger. How else could one survive?

Last year I gave a eulogy at my father's funeral. He had been in WWII like almost every man of his generation. He landed in Marseilles in December of 1944, then sent north on a cattle car to the Ardennes, a group of virgin warriors pitted against a seasoned set of SS Troops who grew up in mountains and handled the depths of snow with ease. Most of the GIs were killed. My father survived, was promoted for heroism, then sent to Les Vosges, where his history would be marked, degrees deeper than it had already been witnessing the deaths of his friends.  

In March of 1945, just weeks before the war was to finally end, Dad was shot, several times. Life threatening, life changing. It is amazing he survived. Head, shoulder, back. 

His men said, 'we saw who shot you. We're going to get him.'  Now, there he was, bleeding out, probably dying and he forbade them to kill the young German. "Don't, do it", he commanded.

Later, when we asked about this, six children around the dinner table, after my mother told us this story (he did not talk of war, unless asked directly, and that was rare) his reply struck me, has stayed with me. "I thought of my own mother, home, worrying, praying the Rosary for me. I knew this kid's mother was doing the same."

Well, of course.

Watching the coverage of D-Day last week, of course my heart ached for the soldiers, some still teens, jumping out of planes, charging off boats, the water red with young blood. I watched out of respect and awe. I watched, mostly, as a mother.

Soon after my fathers stroke, the news again, always, was filled with soldiers deaths. I said to him, 'I feel like everyone's mother,' watching as another young life was blown up. His response, 'that's good'. I didn't argue my point that it hurts, it hurts to feel like everyone's mother when young soldiers, or street thugs, or kids in a car, or cancer victims, or any of the other heart breaking, everyone's mother detail of duty, entailed. 

But, he knew that it cost me. And it is good, in its way, that it does cost. It is the price of our humanity to enter into the suffering of each other. If every hurt is a prayer, then maybe, maybe, like my grandmother's prayers for her son kept him alive, the prayers and pains of all the mothers, and fathers, will save one soldier, one child, one struggling person another moment, another chance at grace to spare a life.

Happy Birthday Mom, Happy Father's Day, Dad.

 

 

Worth doing

If you say 'worth doing' I venture that most of us will fill in the the missing words for that phrase. 'Worth doing' is shorthand for ' Whatever is worth doing is worth doing well"---- the battle cry of the perfectionists. Some time ago I came across a variation on that phrase----'whatever is worth doing is worth doing poorly'---- a ray of hope for those of us who rarely achieve, or wait for, perfection.  The point, I think, was that if we have something to do, go ahead and do it, even if it means we will most likely miss the mark of perfection, or even of 'well'. After a few decades of stretching, thinking, doing, being and all that other stuff that goes into a life  I'd like to offer another alternative to the phrase: Whatever is worth doing is worth doing.  Leave off the qualifier, it's besides the point.  So would that philosophy leave us all off the hook to put no more than minimum effort into our work, our projects, our life?  Perhaps.  But that's a chance we take every day when we get out of bed.  Very few of us hit the marks of perfection in all or even most of our endeavors.

Today I read in the e-newpaper about a 94 year old Navajo woman who gets up every morning and makes pottery.  Making pottery is the way she made her living which fed her children and continues to be a valuable work-- even if her family thinks she should rest and take some time for herself after all these years.  I gatther from the article that she likes doing this 'work' which she doesn't even consider work-- it is just what she does, so why should she stop? It would be like retiring from brushing her teeth or eating lunch or putting a sweater on when it gets chilly.  It is worth doing.  The fact that this woman's work has been selling quite well for many years is beside the point.  She is doing what is worth while to her.

If we wait to perform "well" all the time, how many of us would ever try anything?  How many meals would not get cooked, or beds made, or children tucked in, or laundry cleaned?  All the good we do, all the little things that make up a life are worth doing.  If it turns out we do things 'well' once in a while, great.  But in the meantime let's keep doing all the things that are worth it.

Since this vehicle (this blog-business) is about writing and the ups and downs of ever getting any words out there---- wherever there is----share with me some of the things you think are 'worth doing' when it comes to writing or music or art or any of the bits of creativity we get to take part in every day.  Anyone want to share?  Drop me a line.  I'm told the comment box is easy to fill out.

Threads

Grandma used to pick up threads. And hairpins.  And safety pins.  She fastened the safety pins down the front of her cardigan near the button holes.  There were buttons on her sweater, Aunt Jule would make sure of that. I think she picked up bits of thread and pins because she was raised to be thrifty, to save, to never waste.  Grandma seemed so very old to me.  The big blue veins that sat on the back of her hands were covered by thin loose skin, her wedding rings held on more by her bony knuckle than by any plumpness of her fingers.  There was thread wrapped around the rings to keep them safe below her knuckle.  In their steel grey hair these sisters used hairpins, not bobby pins.  In old family pictures  I saw they once had thick plentiful hair, like I had.  Now there scalps were visible and those wide wire hairpins had so little to hold on to that they fell, into the carpet, on to the linoleum, and stayed behind when they arose from a chair. And so they had to be picked up. When I was with them, I could feel my youth--- strong, vibrant, smooth skin, fresh faced youth. 'Bursting with life' would not have been an exaggeration from these days.   I could move freely, run and jump and play all day, ride my bike with no hands, just steering with my will and the strength of my body.  I'd get up to such a speed and then glide, the air rushing through my thick hair, the breeze on my smooth skin, the muscles in my legs strong after the exertion. Sometimes Grandma would sit next to me and take my hand in hers, my hand covered in smooth pink skin, and she would just rub the back of it.  She would hold my young hand and look at our two hands together and sigh, sometimes a tear in her eye as she patted my arm.  "So nice and round you are."

Not so many years ago, I was brushing my own mother's hair, this grandmother's daughter.  My mother had more than abundant hair--- so thick and dark all my growing up years, now silver with a lovely sheen.  She kept more hair than her own mother did, but when I brushed it, I saw the patches, her scalp exposed just in places.  She grew into a similar old age to her mother, forgetful, confused, softer.  Not as formidable as the mother of my youth, but still herself.  And, as with my grandmother, I think this condition, this senility, Alzheimer's, opened a door on her life that might have stayed closed otherwise.  As with her mother, she spoke of the past, her childhood, her youth, the events of yesterday much fresher than what she just had for lunch or the names of her family who sat at the table with her.  This doorway, the defenses crumbled, brought its own gifts along with the heartache.  She would speak of things from years before, looking to find people long dead, but not to her.  They were just there, waiting for her.  And so she had to find them.

Now I am a grandmother.  My daughter has a child, a little boy.  To hold his plump little hand, his round toes, rub his soft soft cheek against my own is more than a delight.  It is a renewal of life, and yes, of course, a reminder.  Now I am the grandmother.  The one with the stories of long ago, that seem not so long ago for me--- no, long ago was for my grandmother, but of course that is ancient history to my grandson.  My youth will be the 'good old days', my daughter's youth just parts of stories we will tell.  And we will show him pictures and tell him about his Mommy when she was a little girl and his uncles will give him piggy back rides and tell him things I didnt know about his mother, things only brothers would know.  His grandfather and I will tell him stories of growing up in New York-  in that far away place he will  see on TV in any number of cop  and lawyer shows.

I have spent my life collecting stories, listening for the history and characters of grandparents and aunts and uncles I never would meet otherwise.  I have collected these treasures by asking questions, studying photographs, listening at Christmas and Thanksgiving when the older people would join us.  I suppose I am something like my Grandmother, picking up threads so as not to waste the legacy of all those we come from.

Going Green

Writers are pretty good at the whole re-cycling thing.  Memories of people, places, things, of smells and touch, impressions and observations made over the years are used again and again in the stories we create and the characters we "invent". Nothing is wasted.  Our whole lives feed our work. Our way of being in this world, I think, is different than people who don't write.  Of course, that's just my theory, a theory that has been tested on anecdotes and observations I have accumulated these many years. Kind of a self proving theory, but never the less, there it is. I'm pretty darn sure musicians and visual artists approach and absorb life in similar ways, molding and shaping bits and pieces of history and flashes of cinema that run through our heads, whether awake or asleep.  I have my own laboratory for developing this theory.  Each one of my children is an artist of some kind;  they draw, paint, write and perform music, craft inert material into something beautiful and make movies.  I have learned so much from them over the years on how to "do" this writing thing.  They are wonderful converters of the energy that has been expended on life experiences.  They recall, re-use, recycle.

When I was young--- about 8 or 9 years old--- I loved spending a few days in the summer with my Grandmother and Aunt Jule.  Everything in their house was old.  Everything was neat and orderly.  And delicate.  Or so it seemed.  Most of the furniture dated to the late teens to the early thirties (that is from World War I through the Depression).  Each chair, table, china cabinet, all the silverware, the chipped kitchen plates and the lovely china in the glass cabinet in the dining room, seemed to me to be full of stories.  These two elderly sisters lived with no clutter, no waste.  They carefully put away linens and mended all the ancient items they owned.  They had little use for the new while the old still had use and life.  Aunt Jule would make the little girls of the family summer dresses, or 'shifts', on the black enamel Singer sewing machine that she used for making clothes for my mother when she was a girl.

Because the houses were so close together-- two attached houses with an alley between the next set-- the house always was in shadow. This added to the allure of stories to be uncovered and listened for in my young imagination.  I would play on the little stairs of the side door of the alley just outside the alcove that once upon a time housed the "icebox".  The ice man would come around on a regular basis in his truck, park at the curb and heave a block of ice through the alley doors to the alcoves of the identical houses.  For some reason this bit of domestic life of the 1920's seemed so romantic, so other.

I would listen as my Grandmother and Aunt spoke to each other.  I was hungry for names and events of times past, of people who died before I was born, but who were part of who I am.  I was hungry for history.  Hungry for story.  When my grandmother's Alzheimer's progressed she would often ask for people from her childhood.  I would not correct her and try to focus her in on the here  --- her here and now was better spent in reminiscence.  She would speak of the house where she was raised, speak of my great-grandparents and assorted aunt and uncles whose faces I would look at in old sepia photos, looking for some traits, some characterictics that maybe I inherited or that I recognized in one of my brothers or sisters.  These stories made me part of that history, giving me roots in a world of the immediate. I still gather the threads of all that came before me--- all that is within the grasp of  my imagination that is--- to re-tell old tales or take those threads and weave something new.  My own recycling program.  Now if I could just remember to put the plastic bottles in the blue bin.......

So this is what creativity looks like

Sunday morning.  Gene usually gets up earlier than I do and he usually does something useful or educational with that time.  Me, I like to get back to whatever dream I was in the middle of and see where the story is going.  This morning, though, I grew tired of the dream I was having, got up and left our room to get my morning coffee.  First thing I see is a young man that I met yesterday asleep on one of the couches in the family room.  Gene is over at his desk, writing an article or researching something I cannot begin to understand, and there are two more sleeping bodies on the couches in the living room.  Since none of these lanky young men are John, our 19 year old son, we can only assume that upstairs in the bedrooms and game room there is a simliar scene. The thermometer hit 102 yesterday, with who know what heat index.  John and his crew have been filming in the garage, coming in from time to time to cool down, get some water, melt into the couches.  The numbers of the crew keep changing and we are introduced occasionally to someone new, but trying to keep their names straight is a losing proposition.  Our kitchen has leftovers of their movie makeup---- bloodshot wounds in shades of red, plastic ware filled with fake blood, pizza and donut boxes and empty glasses.  I filled the dishwasher with what seemed like all the mugs we own.  Coffee and energy drinks apparently fuel the creative process, especially when the creative process is in action  from 2 in the afternoon til 6 the next morning.

This is what we do.  Gene and I consider ourselves patrons of the arts in our small contribution of encouragement, permission to overrun our house and bowls of spaghetti and meatballs to nourish the hungry artists.  They all seem to be genuinely excited, despite the heat and the long hours, to get this movie made.  There is no money involved, but there certainly is investment.  They have all brought equipment, enthusiasm, artistry and much sweat equity to get this project completed.

Their goal is to get this movie viewed in Film Festivals around the country, with the hope of launching their various careers.  I believe someday I'll be able to say I knew them when: when they were exhausted and sweaty and slept the sleep of the wrung out on our couches.

Creativity is often messy, but there is no doubt that this crew will work just as hard in post-production to make this movie tight and as perfect as their considerable skills can make it.  Ars gratia artis?  Yeah, and hopefully for careers being born.