Thursday, April 22, 2010

RELIQUARY I: I'm in a museum?

My mother saved a lot of toys from her childhood.  They were tenderly kept in boxes, sometimes in boxes within boxes.   As kids, we played with many of the old things: I remember a Shirley Temple doll with real, flossy hair and pearl teeth.

I loved the school set.  It was an old-fashioned one-room-schoolroom-in-a-box. There were slates, slate pencils, doll-size lined notebooks, a brass bell, the teacher's spectacles.  A small blackboard, handwriting exercises.  

The last time I played with this set, I was thirteen.  Breaking out all over, asking big questions, slightly mad at the toys because they didn't satisfy me as they once had.  They reminded me that I was being pushed out of childhood.  I abandoned the set for my mother to put away, which was not part of the deal, and probably she scolded me for this.

A few years ago now, my mother donated some old toys to the Germantown Historical Society.  She grew up there, so it made sense.  I went with her to see an exhibit: Toys of Old Germantown, in a historic house at the center of what in Colonial times had been the town square, now absorbed and diminished into Philadelphia.  It was strange to see some things that had belonged to me and my brother out for public view--a bubble-blowing monkey, for one, battery operated, which had ceased to work when I was about ten.  

On the other side of a barrier was the school set. I stared at it. There was writing on the blackboard.  The handwriting looked familiar.  It took a moment, until I turned to look at something else. I had left that writing when I abandoned the school set at thirteen, never to touch it again.  There they were, my four questions; which meant that my mother chose not to erase them when she wrapped the whole set up to give to the museum.  

Who is God?
Is he good or bad?
Does he hear us when we pray?
Does he answer us if he hears? 

I remembered.  Raised in a devout Quaker home where questions were not encouraged, I had felt subversive, slightly law-breaking, when I wrote them down.   My mother, with her eye for the quirky detail, must have felt pleased by them in some way.  She not only left them years ago when she cleaned up after me, she brought them to the museum. I said how strange it was to see these casual chalk marks on display, public and arranged.

The museum curator, who had casually shown us around, commented: "What you wrote is part of our collection.  No one's allowed to erase it now." 

Later, in the car, I asked my mother why she didn’t erase what I’d written. I knew how she’d respond. “Oh, I don’t know. I suppose they were interesting.” I didn’t pursue it. Never ask my mother to reveal her feelings. For a sense of those, you have to look at her carefully preserved things.

Monday, April 12, 2010

"In My Secret Life"

The title is a line from a song by Leonard Cohen.  I have a headful of masters.  Another one is Micheal Ondaatje, who wrote The English Patient. One of the most beautiful books I have ever read.  (The last 3 sentences, one a fragment, are pure Ondaatje.)  TEP won the Booker Prize, and there’s a movie I haven’t seen.

Perhaps there is no original craft—there is only right homage.

(Damn, another Ondaatje sentence!  Only he would (probably) take out the word “perhaps.”)

I digress. 

“Quite early on I had discovered the overlooked space open to those of us with a silent life.” This is from The English Patient.

The man speaking is an Indian Sikh who endures racism in the English army during World War II.  He doesn’t argue with a policeman about the barriers set against him because of his race.  He is silent, he waits, and he slips through— “Like a cricket.  Like a hidden cup of water.”

This phrase about a silent life got me thinking about a song my mother sang to me at bedtime. I was about 7 years old.  Did she sing it more than once?  I must have begged to hear it again, but it never became a tradition, because now she doesn’t remember anything about it.

It’s a real folk song…Until it dawned on me to do a Google Search to find out if I’d dreamed it up, years of life and preoccupation had left it detached from my memory, and I started thinking and wondering about the song again only after I became a writer.  Not given to song and expressing outright dislike for much of music, my mother found it somewhere and brought it to me once before sleep.  She knew it well enough not to require a songbook. 

That in itself is a mystery, but she is a locked drawer.

It’s an English folk song from the mid-nineteenth century.

As sweet Polly Oliver lay musing in bed,
A sudden strange fancy came into her head.
"Nor father nor mother shall make me false prove,
I'll 'list as a soldier, and follow my love."
So early next morning she softly arose,
And dressed herself up in her dead brother's clothes.
She cut her hair close, and she stained her face brown,
And went for a soldier to fair London Town.

I didn’t particularly care that she found her wounded boyfriend, who the doctors had given up on, and nursed him back to life.

What delighted me was that Polly ‘passed’ in the same sense that light-skinned brown people may pass as white.  I saw no injustice in the fact that a woman was not allowed to fight alongside her brothers.   No, the delight lay in her ballsy disguise. The tanning of her skin seemed especially clever, and using her dead brother’s clothes was shocking and wonderful.  Polly had everyone fooled, which made her far more powerful in my 7-year-old mind than if she had struggled for and obtained her rights.  That would only have meant she was like everyone else.

Of course I didn’t know then that disparate elements in Polly’s story were in any way political.  My mother certainly wouldn’t have wanted to see it that way.

For me, it was about secrets.  How someone could slip into a no-man's-land and emerge in the glare of noon to join the ranks of those who have no idea what she is.

Secrets can allow you to be two things at once.
Secrets can keep you safe.
Everyone has a secret life.
Everyone is a universe.