Lizards and melancholy

There’s a lizard loose in my house.  His name is Rufus.  He’s Liza’s lizard, Liza who is about to go off to college on Wednesday.  We got Rufus two years ago after she wore me down and convinced me that he’d be good company for her.  She took good care of him, and I got a little attached to his quirky head movements and big eyes.  A few weeks ago, she decided to turn his home on its side so that he’d have more room to run around.  Well, he found more room.

It’s been six days, and the internet tells me he can live without food for up to three weeks.  Plus, the worms we are putting out in his dish are disappearing, but we have a mouse problem, so I am not sure it’s Rufus eating the worms.  He is messing with me.

I am a bit obsessed with finding Rufus.  Whenever I come home, I check the dish to see if the worms are there.  I check the warm spot we made to entice him back.  I look over and over under the heaters and the stove and the fridge to see if he’s hiding there.  I even dream about him.

I realize that focusing on Rufus is a way to avoid thinking about the fact that Liza is leaving in four days.  It’s a problem with a potential solution.  I don’t really want a lizard to starve to death in my house either.  But really, it’s easier to think about Rufus than about life without Liza.

I mean, she’ll only be an hour away.  That helps a little.  Her sister Lena went to college four years ago and I survived.  I see Lena pretty often, it seems.  So I tell myself maybe it won’t be a big deal.

But I find myself feeling very melancholy, and I wonder why, and then I remember.

My baby is leaving.

She’s a thoroughly awesome person.  She is signed up for amazing courses at Wesleyan with titles like “Thinking Animals” and “Social Norms and Social Power.”  She is ready to apply her brain to ideas that matter to her.  She’s going to do great.

But she’s my baby.

Does she know how to do laundry?

If Rufus reappears, he just won’t be enough.

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In a canoe

In a canoe at

night, we crane at the stars till

our necks won’t let us.

 

Lena sterns the canoe

her J-stroke confident.

I rest my paddle.

 

“You can help,” she says.

A hint of irritation.

I dip in my tip

 

and sluice it back like

the Indians did, keeping

it in the water.

 

I try to be silent

let my firstborn boss me

let her be in charge.

 

I am afraid to

comment on the stars, lovely

and too close for June.

 

She lets out air, half

a sigh, and I hear

smiling in her breath.

 

We don’t have to fight

out here, it’s okay to talk,

she seems to tell me.

 

“Look” is all I want

to say, so “Look” I say, “Look.”

I point to a corner of sky

 

and a shooting star

skims a shower down and we

gasp together, and laugh.

 

No one is paddling.

We drift, the canoe rotates

back to the house.

 

Over our shoulders

we still feel the shimmery

fall of a dying star

 

and we paddle home.

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A Little Bird

Leontyne Price is amazing.  Sally feels herself rising out of her seat on the balcony at the Met, her heart lifting, pumping strangely in counterpoint to the sublime crescendo of Price’s song.  Art is physical, Sally thinks, and yet she has not moved, other than the rhythm of her breathing and a strange clutching in her chest.  Rowland smiles and sways next to her, holds her hand, with her, yet pulled towards the robed beauty on the stage below.  Price’s voice fills the entire hall, the story of Aida’s imminent death tearing at the souls of all in attendance, the listeners borne up, then easing down as her soprano fades to a reedy silence.

Sally’s heart keeps skipping wildly, and she clutches the chair in front of her.  The night is over but she can’t get up.  “Let’s sit a minute,” she thinks.  Rowland seems to hear.  He watches with a bemused expression as the operagoers file out.  Their row empties out on either side of them.  She does not have to squinch into her seat, or God forbid, stand up, to let anyone pass.

She feels light again and Rowland leads her to the bar, where they take two martinis to the bench by the long lit windows.  He downs his quickly, then goes for the car, saying some words which Sally nods to.  She sips her martini and distinctly feels she must not have a cigarette.  Her heart has forbidden it.  A little bird in the center of her chest has asked for reprieve.

She does not remember the ride home, finds herself in bed, staring at the ceiling, Rowland breathing softly next to her.  The little bird is breathing too, with barely a flutter.  She does not remember closing her eyes, and in the morning she forgets the night, the flurry, the crescendo.

***

Sally lies facedown in the surf.  That was not a dive.  Sally does not dive.  The water is shallow, the beach is steep, the tide pulls back, she is in sand now, her face—“Sally!” Rowland cries out.  “Dear God, Sally!”  He runs to her, feeling sloppy, and joins some strangers turning her over.  She never wets her hair and here she is, sand and salt water clinging to half her face and head.  Her bad ear stayed dry, thank goodness.  Is she conscious?  Why is he thinking about her ear?  Someone has brought over a lifeguard.  “Sally, Sally, wake up.”  Her head rests on his thigh, he is kneeling in the sand, she opens her eyes and looks up at him.

“My heart—”

***

The next time she opens her eyes, she is in a hospital bed.  Her lungs crave nicotine, but she knows that is all over.  A doctor comes in with Rowland, who looks both sheepish and determined.  She doesn’t like doctors making decisions for her, he knows that.  She isn’t any good at self-treatment, but she already knows the diagnosis.

***

A little box inside her chest, not tin as one might imagine in an old cuckoo clock, but utilitarian plastic, with gears that remind one of elaborate sea creatures.  The little bird of her heart is getting help.  Her father had had a pacemaker, but not until his eighties—she is barely 62.  What a nuisance.  The incision is small and neat and will stop aching soon.  She must cut back on martinis and no more smoking.  She saw it all coming; she was just confused by Leontyne Price.  The heart soars, and nearly breaks, the little bird barely lands upright.  How strange it will be to go to the opera with a well-regulated heart.Sally65th

 

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The magic of time

It is Thursday, my third day of a five and a half day writing retreat.  In the first two days, I revamped the memoir I have been working on for nine years, and I have the draft I have been trying to get to for a long time.  I discovered that I had to start with what I had on page 50, and moving that scene to the front made everything else fall into place (or out of the book–I wish I could keep the anecdote about my uncle’s passive aggressive smoking when my aunt had to quit cold turkey after heart attack, but it just doesn’t fit).

So now I am going to do what I said I would do this summer:  create a social media platform.  I welcome advice, particular advice on Instagram hashtags.  I don’t want to go on Twitter.  Maybe I could be convinced.  A writer I respect swears by it, and she doesn’t seem like what I think of as what seems toxic about Twitter.

I am going to type up some work for this blog.  Ironically, I can’t post excerpts from my book manuscript, but hey, there are plenty of good deleted scenes I could post!  So much chaff!

Four days ago I didn’t think I could budge my memoir into shape.  Now I have the best draft of its long journey.  Just because I got to come here, and focus just on this.  Amazing.

Patchwork Farm Writing Retreat, Westhampton, Massachusetts

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Revival of the blog

It’s been nearly three years since I posted on this blog.  I am reviving it because I want to increase my internet presence and let people know I have a book manuscript.  It’s true!  The new title of the book is Look Her in the Eye, and I am sending it to agents and contests and publishers.  Wish me luck!

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Blog post #2 about my book

As many of you know, I am writing a book about my mother and my aunt, Ellen Matteson Knox and Sally Matteson Mitchell, provisionally titled The Matteson Sisters.  I have a draft of 130ish pages, which is a little shorter than book length.  I also know that it needs more of a frame, more of a throughline, and I’ve gotten feedback several times that it needs more of me, more of my perspective.  I am grappling with finding the approach/voice/metanarrative (I sort of know what that means) to give the story a clear arc.  Or something.  These are all writing terms that are hard to apply to this project, since it isn’t fiction, but needs a shape and a throughline nonetheless.

I am at a writing retreat for the next several days with nothing to do but write.  So, I plug away.  I read new material from files I photographed at Bryn Mawr College, where my mother, aunt and grandmother attended, and where I finally visited in June.  I look through what I have written.  I pick, I pare.  I push at it from different angles, hoping, trusting, that an approach will come to me.

Spending time in these women’s lives, through their own words and through the words of others, is quite an experience.  My mother was happiest in the world of ideas, and she wrote voluminously, letters, newsletters, notes to herself, and of course many published works of scientific and technical writing on which her name often did not appear.  She was deep into the process of paring down her files when she became ill, and I am grateful that she saved so much and left it in some kind of order, but I also wonder what she threw away.  More personal writings?  And I can’t find one copy in her papers of The Waste Paper, the newsletter she produced out of our home in the late sixties and early seventies.  I remember how satisfying it was for her to make, and how she labored over the masthead, changing it slightly between issues, changing the curlicue on the W to be more or less elaborate, depending on her mood, or how her pen slipped, perhaps.  I was thrilled to find one complete copy in her Bryn Mawr files, and I got a little sense of what she was doing, what she wrote so avidly while I went about my business of being a self-absorbed elementary school child with a preoccupied mother.

Do I need to do more of THAT, write about what it was like to be her child?  Sigh.  My siblings had very different experiences from me, I’m quite sure.  I hesitate to spend too much time in my angry child self.  I wasn’t the happiest child, and I wasn’t very nice to my mother.  She was reliably sunny and loving to me, though often in her own world.  I suppose I resented that.  The bigger problem, of course, was our father, angrier than me, alcoholic, fearsome.  Another place I don’t want to spend much time.  I am more interested in how my mother coped with all she had to cope with:  four young children, a difficult husband, all while trying to use her great intellectual gifts in a meaningful way AND earn some money while doing it.

She clearly succeeded.  She became an indispensable force in Great Lakes policy management, widely respected and sought after for her ideas and organizing abilities.  She testified before state and U.S. congress several times, and prepared briefs for others’ testimony as well.  She never went to graduate school, since she graduated from Bryn Mawr just as World War II began, and it seems a waste, until you look at what she DID accomplish in Cleveland.  And in 1985, when she was 66, my father wrenched her away.  This is the true waste, and it still makes me angry.  Did they even discuss her career and how it would be disrupted by his capricious plan to attend graduate school in art history at Brown, a program he didn’t even get through one year of?

But she did.  She always put his needs before her own.  She rallied, found uses for her talents, in several subsequent moves, ending up finally in Amherst, Massachusetts, where they lived for 16 years and once again she made herself indispensable on the town Conservation Committee and in other local environmental organizations.  But she missed the Great Lakes region, and all she had learned, and all she had set in motion to protect this watershed.

I just remembered that my parents took several camping trips on their motor scooter around the Great Lakes.  First they drove around Lake Erie, then they drove around wider expanses in the Great Lakes region.  My mother put up large maps in our breakfast nook with red pen denoting their itineraries.  So even on vacation she was exploring her new passion, the Great Lakes watershed.  And then my father removed her to the east coast.

Well, this is what women of her generation did, right?  That sounds hollow.  Alas, though, it is true, for all but the most iconoclastic and independent women of her time.  One of her greatest gifts, along with her encyclopedic brain (my brother and I joke that before the internet, we had Mom), was her adaptability, as well as her unending optimism.  Oh, she had her dark moments, probably many more than I’ll ever know.  But she took pleasure, I believe, in creating that optimistic face for the world.  Partly still being a good girl under her rather tyrannical mother’s edict to always put a happy face on things (repress, repress).  But I believe her optimism was sincere, as well.  She was endlessly curious about ideas and about people.  She was absolutely beloved by so many of the people she met.  I get it, though as her daughter I was less appreciative.  It wasn’t until she died that I really knew how her enormous love for me was a cushion I had always taken for granted.  If only she had shown that love in less annoying ways (making me talk about IDEAS, raving over details in my life that seemed like the wrong details, etc. etc., oh the ingratitude of the sullen daughter).  Oh Mom.  How to write about you, how to understand the enigma of your brilliant, repressed, adorable brain and heart.

I’ll get to my Aunt Sally in another post.

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Blog post #1 about the book I am writing

Years into writing a memoir of my mother and my aunt, I visited their alma mater, Bryn Mawr College.  The archivist and I had emailed and spoken by phone, and she had helpfully set up Ellen and Sally’s files, as well as files for their mother, Helen, and their good friend Juliana, also Bryn Mawr alums.  I had no clear agenda in looking at their files, other than a vague hope that I might find out something more about Ellen’s “n.b.” (her abbreviation for nervous breakdown) that made her grades plummet in her final semester.  She managed to graduate on time, and cum laude to boot, but I still don’t know exactly how the “n.b.” manifested.  All I found, though, was a note in her own hand on an alumnae survey, that she dropped her honors status “due to illness” in that last semester.

What I did find, though, was certainly interesting.  Not exactly anything new, but more evidence of what I’d already gleaned, and more delightful words in the familiar voices of these women whose words I’ve been living with as I write this memoir.  They are writers, I realize, again, real writers who care about how they use words, though they didn’t aspire to anything beyond using their words for whatever task lay before them to express their ideas just so.

They wrote such beautiful sentences.  There is no question now why I am a writer, and why my siblings also write so beautifully and naturally, publishing, or not, in their various fields.  It’s not that it’s genetic; it’s that we grew up in a whorl of beautiful sentences.  Our home life was many things, not all of them benign, but one thing it was was extraordinarily articulate.  It was not possible to have an unformed thought; all came out in carefully though unconsciously constructed language.

And often, of course, that very language obscured deeper layers of meaning.  Not everything was expressed.  Language served to conceal as well as reveal experience.  Being articulate didn’t translate into great insight, particularly about the inner life, more particularly about anything unpleasant.

More to come.

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