Sunday, May 30, 2010

RELIQUARY: HOW FAR WILL YOU RUN (REALLY?)

Yeah, I have dreams of a different life. Once in a while.  I'd live in a place where I don't have to hop in the car to buy a coffee or go to the gym.  I'd live in a city...There'd be trees nearby and great views from the bedroom.  I'd be responsible for...me.  I'd  only cook when I felt like it.  I'd write till my eyeballs fell out.

Whether I'd be happy without husband and children to fuss over, is another question.

This weekend, I got my wish.  I'm dog sitting for my old friend M.. in a really cool apartment with huge windows in Center City Philadelphia.  The building was built by the Board of Public Education, and the pup and I can play ball in the august granite hall outside the apartment.  This morning I spent tourist dollars at Whole Foods--candles, CDs.  I go there all the time, but never with such abandon.

I think it was M. who first put the notion in my head that running away from home might be a cool thing to do.  We were in third grade, and naughty was the way to go.  Not that there was much to run away FROM.  Rather,  the notion of escape whispered an exotic, no-holds-barred siren call.

Did she ever take off? I'm not sure.  We'd made a plan, but it was never carried out. There was no available stick in my house to carry my hobo bundle; I worried over this, but I gathered the essentials anyway.  A hairbrush.  Socks.  A very old, very fragile porcelain doll.  Dried apricots and slices of lebanon bologna., all wrapped in a bandanna and stowed in my bottom bureau drawer. 

There they sat.  I forgot about my plan to escape.  There were spelling tests to take, there was TV to watch. A month or so later, caught by my mother in either A) belligerance B) impertinence (these words entered my vocabulary at a very young age) I was sent to my room without any dinner.  The lebanon bologna--no.  Quite smelly. I'm surprised my mother hadn't found it herself.  I peeled an apricot off the face of the porcelain doll and enjoyed my light dinner; enjoying even more the victory of undoing my punishment. 

I did run away, much later. Twice, actually. 

I've got it out of my system.  The thing is, running away doesn't mean the same if you don't have a home to return to.  I'm one of the lucky ones, it turns out. 

(Thanks to Ryoma Collia-Suzuki for inspiring this post!)

Saturday, May 22, 2010

RELIQUARY: THE HARD, PERSONAL WORK OF DYING

THIS ESSAY APPEARED ON THE PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER'S OP-ED PAGE ON APRIL 28, 2003. UNFORTUNATELY, IT'S JUST AS RELEVANT TODAY.
 
It’s a simple gesture. In the newspaper photo, an Iraqi man squats between two rough wooden coffins, his arms spread wide.  In each box a small body is loosely wrapped in a coarse blanket. A shiny knob, perhaps a charred anklebone, protrudes from one. Each of the man’s palms bears a planet of grief. I do not need the caption to tell me these are the bodies of his children.
Why does his posture disturb me?  In the past weeks, there have been so many available images of war on TV, on the Internet: artillery shells streaking like apocalyptic UFO’s into the burning desert. Images of survivors; a four-year-old shot in the head clings to her father’s hand, her sweet face crumpled like a piece of cast-off fruit. Americans weep in Wyoming, in Kansas, New Jersey.  In a close-up photo, a young woman in Kirkuk washes her husband’s marble-colored face with small hard tears. 
The Iraqi father extends his arms as if to opposing points of the globe.  His grief invokes my private tears.  Before the US declared war on Iraq, my own father lived in a nursing home in Germantown.  He received first-rate care, but no one could do his job for him. He was engaged in the hard work of dying.
He was also a man whom words had failed.  They said it was caused by the Parkinson’s; they said it was the Alzheimer’s, but a few months before his death he spoke no more than whispered, unfinished phrases. No more conversation with this voracious reader, a man who had studied journalism in college and later crafted words for advertising.


From my father I tried to learn the eloquence of gesture and mute blue eyes.  I’d stand by his hospital bed.  While I untangled his sand-colored blanket, the machine for his 24-hour tube feeding clicked, clicked, fell silent, clicked. His palms up, his arms extended, he tried to revive his familiar and decorous greeting.  Or perhaps he was trying to tell me what it was like: How it is for a man to regress into infancy.  Maybe a boyhood memory of cabin-building in Colorado had popped open in his head.  Or maybe he was just thirsty.  I looked for the pink swabs. 
“It’s okay, Dad,” I’d say.  “I understand.” But how could I?  We no longer spoke the same language.  A television flickered in his room, which was warm as a desert.  I was glad for the distraction of TV, for it’s hard to rivet attention on someone who does not speak.  I kept the set tuned to the forced happiness of game shows, avoiding the buildup to war.  His hands were full enough already.
He became agitated.  He plucked doggedly at the blanket. I felt helpless, as if he wanted me to change its color.  He liked to be read to; I pawed through my handbag. Wanting to offer him control over something, I asked him if the Bible would be okay.  Yes, He growled. 
Psalm 102 was a random choice.  Hear my prayer, O Lord¼Incline thine ear to me¼for my days have been consumed in smoke, and my bones are scorched like a hearth.  My heart has been smitten like grass and withered away, I forget to eat my bread¼


I stopped reading. “Do you ever feel that way, Dad?” Suddenly I saw a blue flare of understanding, even relief, in his eyes.   He spread his arms again. His hands indicated the railing of his bed, his roommate dozing in his wheelchair with his back to us, the thin sunlight that hesitated through slanted blinds. 
I took his bony hand.  I wanted my touch to say that someone was in it with him.  He pulled away; he’d been sensitive about touch recently.  Again, he showed me how his life had collapsed around him like a tent, his palms indicating the points of his remembered world.  The Iraqi man in the photograph had tilted his hands in just that way.              “I understand,” I said, and this time I meant it. 
Now, with so many images of war spreading open in our minds, there are more of us who understand.








Sunday, May 16, 2010

RELIQUARY III: WHY CAN'T I CALL YOU MOMMY?

When I was five, I asked my mother if I could call her 'Mommy.'  That was the name my friends all had for their mothers.  "No," she told me. "If you call me that, I won't answer you."

She's 86, and she's still Mummy.  You could say that certain aspects of my childhood were bracing: like giving the kiddos a shot of black coffee before they tumble out the door on a frigid schoolday morning with their itchy woolen scarves and oversize coats.  The parameters were nothing if not clear; affection-wise, you knew where you stood. 

Sometimes I think that early training served me well.  I can be tough.  But then, sometimes, I worry.  Am I Helen the Lizard Hearted?  When my father died several years ago, I thought there was something wrong with me.  I wasn't broken up.  I wasn't even very sad.  Insensitive types might comfort someone in the claws of grief with:  Death isn't a big deal. It's in the order of things. The problem is, to me my father’s death wasn’t a big deal. 

Was I that callous?

Several months after he died, I was alone at night in my dorm room at my 10-day graduate school residency, and I couldn't stop worrying about my daughter, who was pretty young then and several states away. Lying awake, my mind ranged into conversations my father and I could never have, conversations I'd probably never have had the courage to initiate with him, even if he were still around.  I cried as much for the father I never had as the one I’d lost.  

There had been other tears.  My father had always had a talent for contentment—complacence, even—and he'd been reasonably content in the 'memory unit' of an assisted living place.  Then he landed in the hospital, and we knew he wasn’t going to get better. One Sunday, my mother and I were visiting him. When it was time to leave, I embraced him, sobbing so quickly I took myself by surprise. 

"Helen, really," Mummy scolded. "Don't you think that's a little premature?"

I didn’t say it, but grief could only come in increments.  In our family, affection had been meted out in small gestures: When we were little, every morning when he left for work, my dad would 'bonk' my brother and me on the head with his rolled-up New Yorker.  I have no memory of bear hugs; his quick embraces involved a nervous pat on the back. 

I did have a moment of farewell.  The last time I saw him, he kissed me goodbye, which he hadn't done in weeks. In a family that never discussed potentially risky topics, this is a significant intimacy, and I think about it often. 

After his death, when my lack of grief worried me, someone whose family had been similarly frosty told me that her reaction to her own father's death had been like mine: We were trained, above all, to be polite. 

In truth, both my parents looked the other way, twice, when I was a child and in serious trouble.  I learned to armor myself in more ways than one.

But the small tears I shed were, if nothing else, genuine. I loved my father, and I felt no bitterness toward him when he died.   That’s enough.

Monday, May 3, 2010

RELIQUARY II:I LOVE YOU AND OH YES ABOUT THAT MISSING BOOK

Generally, when my mother calls me up these days it's to ask something like: "Do you have my college yearbook?"  or "Were my grandfather's diaries not included in the move to my new apartment?"

Once we settle on the whereabouts of the book or object, or even if we don't, it's goodbye until next time.

I guess it's normal when you come from a family of reliquists.  (You're right--that wasn't a word until I invented it just now.) She really means, "I've always wanted to tell you how much I respect your intelligence and perspective, but never got around to it."  Or maybe she means, "I'd invite you for a tete a tete in the shade of memory lane, but I've got something that needs dusting."

Objects, by which I mean THINGS, aren't very reliable. (My great-grandfather's diaries were smiling in a box in my mother's basement, the whole several months we thought they'd been lost)--but people are even less reliable.  Years ago, when my parents' home insurance company insisted that they install a burglar alarm, she was convinced that an alarm made them LESS safe: Now the burglars would know they'd got stuff worth stealing.  It makes sense. If you're my mother.

In a way, her choice of objects of affection make sense, too. Why invest emotion in high-risk assets, such as your own children? Of course, one must do right by one's offspring: duty above all !  As kids, we were made to sit under sun lamps in the winter to assure against Vitamin D deficiency, and we wore orthopedic shoes until fifth grade for reasons I've never understood.

Hey, the British built an empire on such wisdom.  And when I broke my parents's hearts at 18 by marrying a psycho, they did not disown me as I'd expected.  Was it duty or love that moved them to pay for my college education though I hardly ever saw them?  In my mother's world, love and duty are inseparable.  Perhaps even indistinguishable.

I can be thankful for that.

--Helen W. Mallon