Monthly Archives: February 2013

A Haunted House

A haunted house. I stop the car because I grew up with such a house across the street from my home. As a curious kid I peeked into the clouded windows to find traces of the house’s history, its inhabitants. Even empty, there was a vague residue of the lives that came and went, tiptoed and stomped, opened and closed its doors. Today, only a few miles from my current home, this haunted house captivates my imagination as I open and close the endless doors on my grief. It takes me back to March 2011, when my daughter died. In my book I write:

HAUNTEDHOUSE            On Wednesday, the second of March, I have only a couple of days to make friends with death. Only days to accept and adopt my new reality. But once you’re resigned to the idea that your loved one is dying, you can see death’s beauty, its absolute magnificence. There are many who will rave about watching a birth, welcoming incoming life that blooms forth from womb to world. But far more awesome is the parting of life, witnessing its end. For we can trace the path life takes when it enters the world, way back, to the source of the seed. But life departing is shrouded in mystery. Try to watch it evaporate from the still form of your beloved into nowhere, and you will stare, transfixed, on an invisible anticlimactic drama, waiting for only the signs of a soul already taken flight. The just-stopped pulse; the shutting down of organs; the empty lifeless eyes of the container that once carried the brilliant smile, the knowledge and experience, the song, the passions, the promise. The presence. The astoundingly beautiful mystery of where life goes in the time it takes for a heart to stop beating makes death such intriguing company to sit with and try to contemplate. Is the life locked dormant inside or does it dissipate into the negative space between the grieving parents? Does it escape into countless particles of dust waiting to capture infinitesimally tiny sparks of light? Or are there a gazillion invisible, homeless, sperm-like souls freed from their earthly shells, swimming upwards, forever crammed invisibly around us, that hover around the ones they loved and left behind, hoping to be reborn? But it is past the time for hope. Empty is empty. By Friday my daughter’s body is vacant. A vacant well-loved house, that now stands abandoned, whose scuffed walls record stories of joy and sorrow, whose windows once expelled sounds of laughter, sweet songs and sometimes thunder. Vacancy. Gone.

Two years have passed since my daughter died. The abandoned house that stands before me now has a peaceful worn-in charm. Respectfully I approach the threshold to snap pictures and consider how I could photo-shop a ghost of Marika’s image onto its porch. I’d put her sitting on the stairs watching the world on Route 96 rush by out of Ithaca. Maybe I’d put my own face in a window or peering out the door, beckoning her to come inside.

But this house is hauntingly beautiful by itself. It wears its own stories and songs in the chipped paint that reveals familiar patterns in weathered wood. There’s no need to imprint my longings on it. I’m filled with a deeper regard for others’ hearts and homes that house the memories of lost loved ones.

How do you house your memories? Is there a haunted house in your life? Is your own home haunted?

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To Make One Billion Rising Memories

I love tomorrow but I need to live bigger today. Live big, like the lights could go out at any time. That’s what I told myself as I kicked myself out of the house and down to the Ithaca Commons where, at noon on this Valentines Day, One Billion Rising dance to end violence against women. On the Ithaca Commons on Valentines DayOne Billion Rising people around the world were to dance in a demand to end violence against women.

BILLIONRISINGOn the way down, I forgot to take my new camera and my friend Barb had to turn the car around. Still, we got there early and watched as the crowd outside Center Ithaca thickened. I climbed onto a small statue to get a better view. Standing three feet above everyone else I felt too conspicuous but soon two men with serious cameras hopped up and I was sandwiched in. There was plenty of time to reflect on where I was. But I was feeling self-conscious and worried about this first time out with the camera. So I did not consider the words:

“I was fragile, yet strong, among all of the smiling faces around me making a pool with me in the center of all the surrounding energy.” Marika had written this who knows how long ago. They were the last written words of hers that I found. Scrawled at the top of a new page, there was nothing written related to it on the page before, and nothing after. It was like she was just beginning a new story. When I first read it, it seemed a sweet place to “leave her,” a fresh strength in the midst of smiles and good energy. I can put the memory of my daughter anywhere; I have the power to link her to anything. So last year when I discovered these words, I decided to look for her, to plant her, whenever I’m at a gathering like a concert or a festival. In my mind I would put her bright beaming face among the masses of cheerful engaged people.

Suddenly, out of the crowd comes Marika’s friend, Florence. She stands at my feet, looking up at me, sparkling and grinning. She could have ignored me, easily pretended I wasn’t there and just gone on with whoever she was with. But she came over to say hello and share a few words. My insides melted. She disappeared back into the crowd just before everyone snapped to attention. The dance began and I buried myself into my camera.

There was a moment of silent stillness as mittened and gloved hands hovered overhead pointing to the sky. Then waves of crimson and scarlet, magenta and deep maroon peaked and plummeted. I fumbled, mistaking the shutterspeed dial for the focus button. Wool and quilted-nylon-wrapped bodies twisted and swirled. Highlighted faces flashed in the shadows of buildings. I zoomed my focus in and out and back as people swayed and swooped right and left. For four and a half frenzied minutes I squinted over my camera trying to capture the whole dizzying scene. Then it was over. The music quieted and the crowd crept away. I slid my face from the camera and stepped back down to the cold colorless concrete. Barb and friends hustled me off to have lunch. But I finally looked back at the emptied Commons and realized this was exactly where Marika would have been. Marika, the protester of all injustices since she was a toddler, would have been right in the middle of it all, wearing her red scarf. And I missed my opportunity to search the masses and imagine her there.

But I still had the tiny plastic chip in the camera. The chip that captures and contains so much of what I miss. The chip that can reproduce a billion rising memories in tiny thumbnail scenes that I can erase or enlarge, copy or print out.

I need to push myself out more. Zoom in on the here-and-now. So I can live bigger and see more of life as it rises around me.

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To Get Through a Storm

From the moment my daughter stopped living, I started to live For Her.

I dragged myself up and out in the mornings, took care of her dog, dressed myself in her clothes and ate breakfast For Her. In a daze, I lumbered through every empty inch and hour of the day. I breathed For Her and put one foot in front if the other, one foot in front of the other, one foot in front of the other For Her. Because life was too painful to keep up just for myself.

Back then, being stuck at home alone in a snowstorm would have been the end of me altogether.

But I’d planned for this storm; shopped at Wegmans, bought a new book, borrowed a DVD. And today I shoveled a path in the foot-high snow for the dogs, after 3 walks (plods) in the deep snow, before the plow showed up. I re-wrote chapter 1 and composed a prologue. I cooked 3 entire meals for myself, paid the bills, and started to read a brand new memoir, Lucky Me, by Sachi Parker, about her life with and without her mother, Shirley MacLaine.

DOGS-DESSERT            The dizzying aroma of pears cooking in wine syrup filled the house like wild Cajun dance music. So dogs in a storm sit in the snow around Party in your Mouth Poached Pears with ice cream and pistachio nutsthe dogs and I danced around each other in the kitchen as I scurried from fridge to sink to stove.

“I can’t believe I’m doing this just for me,” I say to them, only mildly sorry no one will drop by to share this simple but decadent dish. “More for me.” But I can share the recipe with my readers. Try it if you want to pamper yourself.

PARTY-IN-YOUR-MOUTH POACHED PEARS

Combine in a 2-quart pot and bring to a boil:
·      1 ½ cups of some old already-opened red or white wine a friend gives you when she leaves her dog off with you for a month (this was a rioja)
·      ¾ cup sugar
·      2T lemon juice
·      2t vanilla
·      ¼ t cinnamon (up to ¾ more if you love cinnamon but omit if using white wine)
Add:    4 to 6 small-medium Bosc or Bartlett pears, skinned
Simmer pears uncovered for 10 – 12 minutes. Turn them over and simmer 8 – 10 minutes more. Remove pears and gently boil the sauce 10 minutes more.

Place pears in bowl, drizzle a puddle of sauce. Add a scoop of ice cream if you dare.

Sprinkle with pistachio nuts to add party and contrast.

Light a candle and enjoy.

If you can control yourself, there’ll be leftovers for three friends who might show up at your door just when you think you can wear your jammies all day.

What do you do to get through a storm?

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Anger?

ANGRYGRANDMAA note from my editor says, “Give more attention to your anger. Lay yourself bare in your manuscript.” So in a slow but steady climb up out of my ocean of grief, I am now trying to reconnect with my anger. Where did my anger go? And where did it come from?

As far back as my mind dares to allow me to cower, I remember there was anger at home. Wherever and whatever I called home. I was attracted to it and it followed me everywhere. My childhood ranch house on Long Island, the palace on Ithaca’s West Hill, the homes by the ponds. Anger lurked in the walls, in the woodwork, in the carpets and closets and in every corner. Anger heated the seething spaces between the inhabitants. It was inherited; it was contagious. It could boil and bubble for months. It only rarely erupted violently. But it hissed and sizzled, spat out and spilled over regularly. As my family grew, my own small blaze was suffocated; not enough oxygen to support one more flame among all that smoldering. When I should have been most angry, I lost my fire completely. It was somewhere in the few sad miles and years shuffling my children back and forth between two simmering households. For years I sadly watched the anger grow in my children’s faces. It made my heart sink. My son eventually found it was useful for survival in combat. In Marika, it came out in fierce tantrums or stifled fits of passion. By the time cancer hit home, my anger was already sapped out, dissipated in the raging storms around me. Who or what could I be angry at? Cancer?

The assignment in my Photoshop class at Tompkins Cortland Community College was to restore a damaged, faded historical photo and then add color. So I photographed a favorite picture of my grandmother. In the original photo she smiles faintly at her roses. She exudes peace, grace, and contentment. In her later photos, she never smiles, even as she bounces her grandchildren on her lap.

“Was she angry?” I ask my mother.

“She had a hard life,” my mother says. “They were poor and she worried a lot about my father.” At nineteen, my grandmother sailed away from her family in Poland to have a better life in America. In Brooklyn, in the depression, she was a cabinet-maker’s wife with three daughters. She lost her only son shortly after his birth. My grandfather spent long hours away from home, looking for work. My grandmother could barely speak English.

“Grandma, what did you do with your anger?” I ask her picture. I love the memory of the strong quiet lady who offered me chocolate “lulla-pops” on my Saturday visits. But her life wasn’t a bed of roses. And if I’m to explore my own anger, I’m going to trace it back as far as I can imagine.

I photoshop anger in red all around my grandmother. A fiery red that does not allow the eye to rest. It used to be my favorite color to wear. Glowing red. Three years ago I bought a pair of bright red shoes, little pumps to wear with jeans and dresses. I still try them on every so often and consider, turning side to side before a full-length mirror. But I can never bring myself to wear them.

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