This Life

I haven’t written much here, in this space, for quite a while.

My problem on the page, one I don’t share conversationally, is I don’t like to write if I have nothing to say. Don’t be fooled into thinking nothing has been happening. So much has been happening, in the world outside of myself, and within.

But every time I feel the prickling of interest, something I want to share about a feeling, a phrase, a book, a moment, before I can get it down in words, it takes flight, like a flock of birds when a wave approaches, and I’m left with nothing but a glimmer, a smoothed out stretch of gleaming sand. I can’t write about such flatness, I can’t capture something without edges, and so I take note, for myself, and walk away.

beach at dusk

Today is Thanksgiving, but I woke up, for the second morning in a row, feeling irritable. I don’t want to be woken up the way I am nearly every day, by my daughter’s thumping gait as she drags herself and her broken foot to the bathroom and back, and then the inevitable creak of my door as she opens it to ask me to help her get dressed, to find her a pair of socks, her iPod, a book.

And yet, of course this is exactly how I want to wake up, if the alternative is not waking up, or not having her in a room adjacent to mine. If something terrible or tragic were to happen to one of us, to her, I would fall apart, disintegrate.

This reasoning should invoke some gratitude, grudgingly, or otherwise, and usually it does. Today I stumbled into her room, bleary eyed and annoyed, and tossed her a pair of socks, which she rejected for dirty ones pulled from the pile next to her bed. I am needed and not needed. She is more than halfway to eleven years old. I try to remind myself that soon I will be needed less, or needed differently, and these thoughts fill me with despair.

Despair! Even though so much of what runs through my mind on a given day is LEAVE ME ALONE, like the title of one of my son’s favorite picture books. Every time I open it up, I laugh in recognition. A frowning grandmother in an old fashioned dress with a babushka on her head surrounded by dozens of grandchildren. Most days I feel like that grandma, frowning in my pajama pants and tank top, trudging up and down the stairs, to and from the kitchen, feeling bombarded by the never ending litany of requests.

But it only takes a moment, a flash of understanding about the fleetingness of time, for the ground to disappear beneath my feet, for longing and regret and sadness to compete with my need for solitude.

I just finished reading Abigail Thomas’s Safekeeping: Some True Stories From a Life on recommendation from a writer I admire and like very much, Beth Kephart. She wrote an article about her in The Millions and shared it on Facebook, a medium that offers me so much solace, and also wastes so much of my time. In this case, it was precisely the life preserver I needed.

safekeeping

The book didn’t come from my local library because for some reason they don’t own it. They couldn’t even request it via inter-library loan, because not one copy exists in the entire county, which now I realize is an absolute crime. But the librarian told me he would request it elsewhere, and when the book arrived just a couple weeks later, I was pleased to discover it came from Pittsburgh, my mother’s hometown. I love the idea that this book traveled all the way across the state to find me on the other side.

I didn’t intend to read it so quickly. It’s an ideal sipping book, each chapter is perfectly named and comprised anywhere from a single paragraph upward to several pages. There are no cliffhangers, per say, since the book is not linear, and each chapter feels utterly self-contained, and yet, I couldn’t stop. It was one of those wonderful inhalations where the insights and language feel as nourishing as food. I just wanted to eat and eat and eat.

In the morning after a particularly late night, I read several passages aloud to my daughter over breakfast, interrupting her own reading. She finished her paragraph in Harry Potter and looked up, waiting. I read quickly, not wanting to lose her attention.

“They had a big window installed in the kitchen that looked into the woods. In the fall afternoons she used to watch them empty of their light like a glass of bourbon slowly being filled to the brim.”

I wondered if she understood the word bourbon meant amber liquid, but even before I started to explain, her eyes lit up, a mirror of my own. Oh mom, that is so good, too good, and I nodded, grinning, delighted to have captured her interest and understanding. Without a prompt, I read her another brief passage:

“Some things are so sad you think they can’t get better, and nothing will be okay. She didn’t make it better, although she tried, later. It got better by itself. He has a wife and a baby girl now. They sleep in the same bed. He lives on an island.”

Stop, she said, it’s too good, I’m jealous. 

I knew exactly what she meant, but I shook my head, no no, don’t be jealous, just drink it up, soak it in, writing like this can teach you so much. 

I let her return to her own book then, and I returned to mine, both of us satisfied.

Days later, here I am, alone in my office, shut up after my irritable morning, finishing a cup of coffee and this precious book. In the span of an hour, the foggy dawn has transformed into a bright and crystalline morning. The birds have come and gone from the feeder outside my window. I now feel sated and calm, having shucked off my anger with solitude and words.

I’ll leave you with this passage toward the end of the book, and maybe one day, I’ll read it to my daughter, when she’s old enough to understand, when and if she has a child of her own, and a need to be alone, to shut a door, with herself and a book.

“What is this longing, she will want to ask. This troubling feeling of more to come. You can make something out of it, I want to tell her. But that’s what her life is for.”

I hope your Thanksgiving is filled with ebbs and flows of sensation and memory, of good food and laughter, and maybe a special book you can share with someone you love.

 

 

 

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Edible Memories: Laughter

Sometimes I leap first.

When my online writing friend Stacey asked me to consider signing up for a 14-day writing group via the Inky Path, my first instinct was to say no. I barely have enough time to work on my novel, not to mention the grief course I’m creating, let alone the safety skills class I’m organizing – oh, and then there’s that whole mother/wife gig, plus my nemesis, the bottomless laundry basket.

But I couldn’t get it out of my mind. A tell-tale sign. As I kept tabs on the rising enrollment, I felt an itch, a twinge, but couldn’t tell if it was a competitive-fear-of-missing-out or the I-need-to-do-this kind of feeling. Looking back, it was probably a little of both.

One week into the Winter Joy Retreat: Edible Memories, and I’m fully immersed. It’s pretty impossible to keep up with the group’s Facebook posts (over 100 people registered, though not all post daily) but I’m trying to hold fast to my own commitment, one writing prompt each day. This isn’t easy – my kids are young and life is full, but I’m delighted to say that – so far at least – I’m making it happen. I’ve always felt like my memory is kind of bad, but each prompt seems to unlock one, two, more scenes in my mind, and I’m taking notes like mad, for both the prompts and the possibility of memoir.

I’d like to share with you my most recent prompt. The theme was Laughter (with an emphasis always on food) yet somehow I managed to turn it around to sadness (just like the character on Inside Out!). But that’s how I’ve always been. Drawn to the bittersweet, both in food and life.

Winter Joy Retreat: Edible Memories

Laughter

Thanksgiving has long been my favorite holiday. As a kid we took turns having it at our house, but after my mother’s MS diagnosis, we always hosted. My uncle, king of turkey and CEO of stuffing, would come to our house in the morning with bags of supplies, plus a bonus bag filled with appetizers from Zabar’s: salami, cheeses, crackers, olives, lox spread, and bagels.

He’d pop the prepared turkey in the oven and it would cook all day while we snacked and cracked jokes. When it came time to eat, my father would hoist my mother into her scooter and drive her into the dining room after she could no longer do so herself. We’d eat and laugh, and when all us kids were of legal age, or close enough, drink some wine.

My memories of Thanksgiving were almost always punctuated by laughter. Especially in the earlier years, before my mother’s pain became unbearable.

This was from Passover, but same crew, without the matzoh.

This was from Passover, but the same characters.

The house was always filled with warmth and smelled of roasting turkey and marshmallow topped yams. My uncle would always cook the main meal. My cousin Pia would always bring dessert. My mom always insisted on making, or instructing me how to make, her favorite side dish, green bean casserole. And I always had to have a slice (or two, three) of pumpkin pie topped with Cool Whip.

Maybe that’s what I loved most about Thanksgiving – the “always’s,” the traditions we had curated and nurtured over the years. We were Jewish and didn’t have the show stopper of Christmas to look forward to, so I banked all my love and hope on Thanksgiving.

Things weren’t always so rosy, of course. There were fights and tantrums, angry words and slammed doors, more so as the years edged on to darker times, but mostly I remember the laughter.

The time when my cousin Ari and I stumbled upon a very strange AOL chat room in the late 90s. Don’t ask me why or how this happened, but let’s just say we were beside ourselves with hilarity when we ended up in a conversation about fruit fetishes, among other things.

Then there was the time my grandmother got drunk. Alcohol was pretty minimal at our house, even on the holidays, but somehow she had gotten her glass refilled one time too many and ended up divulging a bizarre genetic glitch afflicting several relatives. I’m almost positive somebody spit out their mashed potatoes, or at least choked on their soda.

Laughter filled the rooms and rang through the kitchen and seeped into the walls, so that when it ended, I could feel its echo.

My mother’s last Thanksgiving was hard. There was little laughter. The mood was dour, tense. My husband and I thought it might be helpful to order dinner from Fresh Direct and bring it from Brooklyn, rather than have my uncle cook in the house since my mom was feeling worse. The king of turkey did not take kindly to what felt like a personal affront. He sulked in the kitchen eating his “take-out” meal while the rest of us sat in the family room with my mother, who was too uncomfortable to transfer from her reclining chair.

I remember feeling desperate for some levity, anything to lighten the mood, to coax my uncle out of the kitchen, to ease the tension with my brother, to make my mother laugh. But nothing worked. We sat on the couch for what felt like an uncomfortable amount of time, and I rolled my eyes at my cousin Pia when our brothers began talking of sports, not with any vigor or enthusiasm, but dully, as if they had nothing else to say. Perhaps because they didn’t.

When everyone finally left, I felt a heavy weight settle around my shoulders as I dumped the leftovers in the trash. Looking back, I wonder if my sadness was actually a sign, a warning. It left me uncomfortable. A sense of foreboding prickled up my spine.

I thought, next year will be better. Next year has to be better.

But it wasn’t, because my mother was dead.

 

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Thank you to Maddy over at Writing Bubble for hosting her What I’m Writing link-up. Check it out for more wonderful words.