chocolate is a verb

colors, flavors, whims and other growing things

Monthly Archives: February 2011

fragment…

She weighed snowflakes, measured the wind, listened to the ringing of the seasons. Imperfectly, she re-stitched parsed sentences, quilted a patchwork of small stories into a life.

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words…

fragments…Edward ~ 3

“I guess, except for the biting, I was pretty lucky where the birds were concerned,” Edward told me. “Carla was in charge of food and water, and Gail and Ray alternated cage cleaning duties with Mom. Gail was almost as crazy for those birds as Mom, so it wasn’t too bad for her, but Raymond resented what he called ‘bird crap patrol’ and never did it without a bunch of grumbling. He usually managed to drop a lot of seed husks and shredded paper while he was changing the cages, making a much bigger mess than the birds, and they were plenty messy.”

Raymond, who carried his resentment into his teens and managed a very successful side business as a hashish dealer during his college years, settled into the study of botany, dividing his time between his lab and the jungles of Costa Rica. In his 30s, he met and married Patricia (known to one and all as Peach). She worked as a travel agent because it was as close as she could get to traveling full time, and was, perhaps somewhat ironically for Ray, a passionate birdwatcher. By the time they had been together for a few years, Ray had his own backpack full of bird books, binoculars and spotting scopes, and they became well known for their day-long birding hikes and floats and sails in search of avian life.

Edward became a mediator. He had studied law, clerked for a senator in Washington, DC, and spent several years in a coveted job at a huge criminal law practice in San Francisco, which he hated. He liked the sense of the law, the its orderly structure, but was continually disheartened by the greed and mendacity of his clients and colleagues. He went back to school and got a master’s degree in education, then a teaching credential, and spent several years teaching high school social studies, then college classes in ethics for pre-law and pre-med students…

morning light…

Snowdrift swirls across the road, off the roof in a swift cloud. Last night’s dusting dry and scant, lifted by the icy wind to vanish into the morning sun. Rhododendron leaves darkened and folded tight against the cold, spring held off for yet another day.

morning light…

plum buds
The gray persists, low sky, clinging to the hillsides, settling on my eyelids, pressing slightly at my temples. But the south wall is brighter, the possibility of spring, later. Plum buds now so fat, so ripe, so full of life they look yellow in this brightening glow, ready, ready, calling to the sleeping bees, to the dawdling sun: come now, open me.

plum buds photo

Dorothy…

She wanted a sister, a best friend, but instead she got a daughter and she didn’t understand the difference, or the boundaries. She wanted my confessions, my devotion, my attention, my adulation. But she didn’t know how to bring me in, how to share, except in the uncensored gushing of her words.

She so much wanted everyone to love her, to be charmed by her, to find her zany and engaging and artistic. But on the chance that they might not, she judged them first, harshly, meting out all the ways they didn’t measure up to her lofty standards. They never had a chance. Or sometimes they’d get a chance, or even two, before she turned bitterly critical, changed her mind, saw the many ways they had slighted her or violated some rule only she had known. Friends, even good friends, disappeared from their lives, excised. My father, credulous, devoted, loyal to a fault, supported her.

She was a snob. But mostly, I believe, she was afraid.

the Dorothy years…

baked bread

Once we argued about baking bread.

My parents had come to visit me in Seattle. I was driving them around, Daddy tucked into the back seat of the VW with my friend Mary. We’re driving along Lake Washington coming back from Seward Park, when I hear my mother painting this bucolic picture of us baking bread together. She makes it sound like we’re the country elves, the fragrance of fresh-baked bread billowing out of the kitchen every weekend.

She asks me something and I say I only remember us baking bread a couple of times, which is true. Her little bread-baking booklet taken from the kitchen drawer, the big bowls brought up from under the counter. Even if my memory is faulty and it was five times, it was nothing like her story.

She is furious. She accuses me of always being against her, of being angry, which is also true, though I don’t know how to recognize it or admit it. Of always ruining her good time. I can feel my father’s frustration penned into the confines of the back seat. Mary disappears, silent witness.

I keep driving. Mother is enraged. I have dared to speak my own truth, to put my dirty footsteps on the beautiful painting she was creating to show my friend what a blissful childhood I had had thanks to her gracious and loving motherhood – for this is what it is about: my mother showing off for my friend.

She expects me to apologize – I always had to apologize. But I believe my own story, not hers. Their visit is ruined. They never visit me in Seattle again. I become one of the friends she crosses off her list. But she’s stuck with me, still expects me to come to her, to listen to her, to affirm her, to be her sponge.

In her need for exposure, she forgets my violations; in my need for a mother, I forgive hers.

Bread photo

fragments…Edward ~ 2

Mediation had come slowly but naturally to Edward. At school—in the classroom and on the playground—he seemed to inspire team spirit among declared enemies. It wasn’t that what he said was so brilliant, but more that it was so simple and ordinary—and that it always preserved the dignity of both sides. Strolling into the fuming midst of a 5th-graders’ fight about to erupt, he would recruit the fighters to aid in some greater good—to help the janitor hang a banner for the March of Dimes, or to help the shop teacher move equipment for his outdoor boatbuilding demonstration. One minute they were angry, the next minute they were walking side by side toward this new responsibility, their enmity forgotten.

In conversation, Edward was quiet, prone to let the aggressive talkers have their say. But when he spoke, inserting his voice into a moment of breath, heads would turn to listen and his words would offer a small, essential part of the argument that had not been considered by either side, or an eclectic fact of science or history that shed new light on the discussion. He was able to go straight to the core of the matter—friendship or community or loss—neither tempted nor distracted by the verbal (or literal) flashing of swords.

memory…

In the morning, my father would open my bedroom door a crack, stick his head into my room and in a quiet sing-song voice wake me for school. He’d make up a name-rhyme — ‘Schnutzie-Putzie’ or ‘Schnoodle-Doodle’ — and weave it into a little wake-up tune. Just a moment, then he’d be gone, to make breakfast, to read the morning paper, to work. Every day. For years and years…

memory…

The descending forest trail had little understory. Gnarled oaks spread overhead, filtering the sun. The ground was dusty, marbley gravel underfoot, a thick layer of oak leaves banked at the edges of the path. Where the trees parted to reveal a particularly agreeable vista, log seats invited contemplation.

And in between the trees, here and there, just random enough to offer a very slight jolt of fear before the pleasure of surprise, were life-size animals created from twigs: boar, deer, roosters, even a porcupine. The lashed twigs captured the essence of the creatures, the familiar stance. They seemed to be foraging among the acorns, about to move, about to disappear as the light filtered through their twiggy bodies.

fragments…Gerry

When Gerry was 14, his 15-year-old brother, Bobby, hitched a ride home from band practice on the back of a friend’s motor scooter, got sideswiped by a car and lay in a coma for 106 days before finally dying. Four bleak, lonely, enraged years later, Gerry graduated from high school near the bottom of his class just as his mother gave birth to a baby girl, Terrie Ann.

After a semester in junior college, Gerry enlisted in the Army and went off to Vietnam, where he spent five years crewing and eventually piloting helicopters through the dense, saturated layers of rising jungle heat. By the time he returned home, Gerry’s boyish face had turned square and handsome and his anger had consolidated into a dark streak of recklessness and a wicked sense of humor.

He moved to Alaska, where he flew search and rescue, enrolled in college, studied philosophy, and acted in community theatre. Continuing a habit he had started in Vietnam, he read voraciously.

Although he was well liked by men and attractive to women, he had few close friends. He dated often but never seriously, and in general seemed to prefer the company of a large brown dog named Toast, who had been riding along in a milk crate on the back of Gerry’s Indian motorcycle since he was a puppy…

fragments…Edward ~ 1

cockatiel

Edward was sweeping the back patio, lost in his thoughts. Sometimes he’d be sweeping and I’d call him to the phone or something, and he’d be so far away that I’d have to walk over and touch him on the arm to bring him back. His “sweeping meditation” he called it. He’d brought it along from his childhood.

“Mom had cockatiels,” he had told me when we were first talking about living together. “They were noisy, messy characters, always screeching and flapping in their big old cages. She usually had at least three of them, sometimes in one cage all together, sometimes separate. I think the most she ever had was five at one time. She loved those birds, talked baby talk to them. They’d hop on her finger and walk up and down her arms and sit on top of her head and comb her hair with their beaks. She had this pair of earrings with a tiny little bell on it, and a bird would sit on her shoulder and knock the bell with its beak to make it ring, over and over and over again. I never could understand how she could bear having that sound right in her ear, but she loved it.

“The cockatiels hated me. I’m lucky to have all my fingers for all the times those birds chomped down on them. Mom would have one of the birds sitting on her lap in some kind of blissed-out trance, its eyes closed, and she’d be stroking its feathers, and she’d say, ‘Come on, Eddie, it’s okay. Feel how soft he is.’ And I’d stick out one of my fat little fingers and carefully set it right next to hers on the bird’s back, and in a flash that bird would wake up, whip around and chomp on my finger. Happened a bunch of times. It really hurt. She’d always promise me that this bird was different, she’d croon, ‘She’s my sweet girl, with such good manners, aren’t you, Pookie?’ holding the bird right up to her lips, and I’d always fall for it. I never felt any animosity toward the birds, but it must have been something about the way I smelled, or my voice. They put up with Gail and Raymond and Carla, but they just wouldn’t have anything to do with me…”

Cockatiel photo

slide rule…

slide rule

My father’s slide rule hangs on the bulletin board, a relic. It’s a handsome tool, wood and metal, the ivory scales, made perhaps of some very new plastic material, darkened with time and touch, the tiny black score lines neat and varied along its length. Made in U.S.A., it says, Keuffel & Esser Co. N.Y. Pat. June 5, ’00, Dec. 22, ’08. More than a hundred years ago. 65713 is etched onto the edge of the instrument and on the end of the slide, which also has 4095-3 on its opposite side.

At each end, an L-shaped metal plate with three screws holds the outer bars in steady parallel so the slide can move between them easily, smoothly, but without slipping. Embracing the three rules, a sliding hairline is embedded in a rectangle of glass with rounded corners and a metal bezel that anchors it to the slide, again with small screws. This sliding piece is two-sided, though the rule has fewer measures on the reverse.

On the rule, my father has scratched his initials – L R K – slender Deco letters that hug the circumference of a circle etched on its surface. At each end of the slide, he has scratched notes: on one scale D- and D-+1, on the other M+ and M+-1. His code, his reminder, something that a calculator or computer would know and do automatically today.

Once, for a while, I knew how to use this tool; now its calculus is as obscure and mysterious as an abacus. It is a capsule of time and memory that I cannot look at without seeing my father, his broad hands busy with tools, his kind eyes and warm hugs the way he showed the world that he was more than a man who understood how to measure.

indelible…

Indelible. Inscribed to last. Lasting. Forever. Memorable. We used to say indelible ink but somehow that expression is gone — not, apparently, indelible. Those laundry pens our mothers used to print our names on the labels of our camp clothes were indelible. Permanent.

But now, nothing is permanent. Perms unfurled. Hair color replaced. Tattoos removed. Dreams forgotten. Borders redrawn. Files deleted. Relationships abandoned. Memories vanished. Indelible no more.

Even the mountain, invisible this morning behind blowing clouds, might someday erase itself in a plume of ash and a molten flood.

We are all delible now.

fragments…Martin ~ 2

Martin examined the contents of the closet. Fibber McGee lives on, he thought. Ski poles, a baseball bat, umbrellas and a couple of large cardboard tubes leaned in one corner. Two enormous down jackets looked like they were holding their breath. The rest of the space was a crush of raincoats, wool and denim jackets, Lynette’s grandmother’s beaded dress and a red windbreaker someone had left at their house. Tablecloths and a patchwork quilt were folded over hangers, wrapped in plastic as they had come from the dry cleaner.

The floor was covered with shoes, two of Lynette’s purses that had fallen from the shelf, the vacuum’s various awkward parts, and a large paper grocery sack that turned out to contain an elaborate bird feeder and a five-pound bag of bird seed. Martin shook his head and wondered what he was doing in the closet. Oh yeah, the vacuum cleaner.

He walked to the hall phone and dialed Lynette’s office number.
“Good morning, this is Lynette,” she answered.
“Hey, Lynnie, it’s me. How’s it going?”
“Hey, Mar,” she said.
“So I was thinking about vacuuming and I got sucked up in the vortex of the hall closet…”
“Sort of like Dorothy and Toto?”
“Yeah, something like that. So while I was caught in the storm I had this idea: what if we moved the junk we never use out of the closet and put a shoe rack in there for you? Just move your shoes out of the bedroom completely.”
“Oh my god, Marty, you’re a genius.”
“Yeah, but you knew that. That’s why you asked me to dance.”
“That and the green shoes. How could I resist?”
“Okay, get back to work and we’ll talk about the closet when you get home.”
“Love you, Mar.”
“Love you too, Lynnie.”

memory…Dorothy

Though she lived to almost 92, my mother had few days of undisturbed good health. Her ailments were debilitating but not deadly — scoliosis and rosacea, prolapsed uterus and diverticulitis, varicose veins and macular degeneration. She — well, we all — suffered through more than ten torturous years of menopause, one of whose symptoms was a persistent phantom odor.

In her 70s, after assorted unpleasant and unsuccessful efforts to regulate her bowels, my mother underwent surgery for the removal of a benign obstruction. It was some months later that my father and I began to receive discreet, sympathetic inquiries from friends on the current state of my mother’s cancer.

Although she knew she did not have, had never had, cancer, she had surreptitiously joined a cancer support group and so relished the embracing warmth of its members that she became fully identified with them, accepting their diagnosis as her own. She began to make casual references to “my cancer.”

When we confronted her, reminded her that she didn’t have cancer, suggested that there were others more rightfully due the care and attention she was drawing, she seemed surprised, and hurt, and stopped attending the group. She commented later, with a note of satisfaction, that the group members would probably assume she had died.

signs of spring…

umbrella

  • chickadee love songs
  • a tightly-furled inch of tulip greens poking through the soil
  • vanilla scent of sarcacoca
  • purple hellebore clumped in hanging bells
  • tiny striped leaf swirling up from its cocoon on the brown stick of winter hydrangea
  • the bright sun swung round in its long journey to peer again into my morning window
  • windfall umbrella, blown out of someone’s hand into the driveway, where it collects leaves
  • dirt lust

fragments…Joey

I leaned over and brushed the crumbs off the red vinyl seat before sliding into the booth. The window was steamed up and next to the painted flower pot on the sill there were a few clear squiggles where a child had trailed a finger through the moisture.

The rasp of Henry’s radio news was overlaid with the crackling of grease on the griddle and the clinking of silverware on heavy china plates. Behind me, in a dry flutter of pages, a newspaper was shaken open and shut, open and shut, and then wrestled inside out, folded down and flattened onto the table with a couple of quick slaps.

Pattie set a cup of coffee on my table as she walked past with a family’s worth of breakfast plates fanned up her arm. At the corner booth, she set them in front of a trio of eager-eyed children and their tired looking parents.

The tiny bell on the outside door tinked its friendly warning and Joey’s arm appeared, pushing open the screen door, followed by his watch-hatted and pea-coated body. He turned in my direction without looking up. His heels thudded on the wood floor and then the vinyl banquette gave a gasping sigh as he settled himself across the table…

memory…Dolly

doll collage by Gracen Hamilton

The others, mementos of my grandmother’s travels, sit untouched on the shelf — painted and kimono’d geisha, straw man from Indonesia, wind-up ballerina twirling under a glass dome, wooden elephant puppet from India.

She is the one I play with. Her eye stuck sometimes in its socket, unable to roll with its mate. Her once-silky hair, matted and wispy where it’s been pulled and combed and brushed so many times. The little bed, made from a shoebox, layers of cut-up flannel shirts imagined as brocaded comforters, wads of folded Kleenex as a pillow.

I dress her, undress her, dress her again in clothes I sew or Grandma sews. Our shopping spree a paper grocery sack filled with fabric scraps from a dressmaker — silk, velvet, wool — dumped onto the floor, a deluge of color. Diminutive sweaters and skirts, lace-edged pantaloons, bracelet. A tweed coat for a girl from Milwaukee. A jaunty tam for a college coed from another era.

Painted-on shoes, flat-soled feet, stiff hard legs, splayed dimpled fingers. Dolly.

On her good days, my mother calls me Dolly.

– – –
image: Gracen Hamilton

fragments…Howard ~ 6

There was something about his face that wasn’t right, Howard thought. But he so seldom really studied himself in the mirror, how could he be sure? During his morning meetings with the razor, he rarely looked into his own eyes, focused instead on unmasking the patchwork of cheek, jaw, lip.

But now it was his grandfather’s face gazing back at him — Big Dad’s deep crease crossing his forehead, the long nose, the softness under his chin that would turn into jowls. Even the glasses, square dark frames, and the gray-blue eyes, seemed those of the old man. Is this what his mother had seen every time she looked at him — the father whom she had loved and hated, the father who had resented and respected her in equal measure?

Howard pulled off his glasses, put them back on, leaned closer to the mirror. No, it was not his grandfather; it was his own familiar, ordinary face, neither handsome nor ugly. There was a tiny drop of darkening blood right below his ear where the razor had nicked him. As he dabbed it away, he saw what was different: it was the mustache. In his mind’s eye, he saw himself as a man with a mustache. But after Moira had gone he had shaved it. How many months ago? Was it nearly a year already? All those mornings, shaving without thought, without seeing, without recognizing himself.

Turning away from the memory and the mirror, Howard walked slowly out of the bathroom.

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