Pausacaco

Named for a Narragansett word meaning “abounding in bats,” Pausacaco (pronounced paw-sah-KAW-ko) is a wooden lodge with a wide, inviting porch overlooking a small lake.  My grandfather’s two brothers and five other men built the lodge in 1906.  In the early twentieth century, Rhode Island was dotted with dozens of lodges like Pausacaco, built and maintained by professional men from Providence.  The lodge had no electricity and no running water, relying on a well system accessed by an old hand pump in the kitchen.

1922.  My mother’s earliest memory—a blackened chimney over smoking embers. She and her father step out of their Model A to see the wreckage of the house his family built, the house where she was conceived, the place where he poured all his spare energy.  The chimney rises against the sky, pale in early morning, and beyond it the lake laps blue, oblivious.  All that water, just feet from the lodge, useless in the face of a raging oil stove.  No one got hurt, but Paul is responsible—his guests lit the stove.

Ellen, at 3, knows only that Pausacaco, the place where she and Sally play, where her family retreats from the hubbub of Cambridge, lies before her, a pile of smoking timbers.  The woods look the same, with their two paths in opposite directions from the house, and she wonders if the outhouses have burned at the end of each path.  The lake looks the same, inviting her, though it is too cold to swim.  But the house is simply gone.

The morning of the fire, Paul had risen early with some departing guests.  He had let someone else start up the stove, and with the guests on their way, he and another friend take a canoe out onto the lake.  When they get to the middle of the lake, they hear odd crackling sounds.  They turn back to the lodge and see leaping flames.  In seconds, the outlines of the house disappear.  By the time they paddle back, furiously, futilely, most of the house has fallen in on itself.  Guests in their pajamas stand far back from the flames.  Someone has driven to town to summon the fire department, but when the engines arrive, there is nothing to save, just a few large beams, which the firemen don’t bother with, the same beams Ellen sees smoking the next day when her father brings her down from Cambridge in the Model A.

Paul, frantic with guilt, throws himself into remaking the lodge in every loving detail.  The Pausacaco founders raise the money to rebuild in short order, appealing to the lodge’s many loyal visitors.  Expert craftsmen donate their time to recreate beveled cabinet doors and locking window frames.  In a little over four months, a new structure rises up, identical to the one that disappeared.  Ellen sometimes doubts her memory of that moment with her father, driving down to the lodge at first daylight.  But someone took a photograph, and there it is:  the charred chimney, alone against a blank space of sky.  The photo hangs on the landing of the rebuilt house, next to the framed 1922 newspaper story with photos of the familiar fireplace, and the headline, “The Fire That Built a House.”  She cannot tell which of her memories of the house come from before the fire and which after, so she chooses the dividing line of the black chimney as her first one.

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O is for SpirOgraph

The gears are shaped like jagged O’s.

We lost one of our Spirograph wheels, the third one from the corner, the best size.  Spirograph engrossed me for hours at a time, and losing a wheel was a deep disappointment.

I must have been a dastardly child.  One day at my friend Amy’s house, we were playing with her Spirograph set, and I snagged her wheel in the size I lost.  When we were putting it away, she accused me and I smugly denied the theft.  She said that’s the same one that you’re missing.  You took it.  I said, no, it’s that other size, pointing to the size just below.  But she knew.  I was aware of the wheel poking into my stomach through my pants pocket.

I felt satisfied at home with my now complete Spirograph set.  But after that first flurry of play, one season perhaps, I don’t recall returning to Spirograph much.

I found an old Spirograph at a tag sale decades later, and brought it home for my kids.  It was a hit, but I was haunted by my theft of Amy’s wheel.  I thought of it every time I played.

Recently, on Facebook, Amy and I had a short exchange that led her to reminisce about playing Spirograph with me for hours.  I immediately private messaged her with my true confession.  She had no memory of it.  I wasn’t always that nice to Amy, but she doesn’t seem to remember that either.  The little crimes of childhood haunt only selectively.

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N is for Nosie Nellie

When I was eight or nine, I wrote and illustrated a full-color, stapled-bound book entitled Nosie Nellie.  Nosie Nellie and her friend Naughty Nancy, drawn wearing skirts and large bows in their hair, are confident, opinionated girls—empowered, one might say.  In Chapter 1, they visit a woman’s house and destroy her doll collection.  My illustration of the hacked-up dolls emanates the glee of destruction, and the horror of a hapless adult.  I do not dwell on the consequences of this act.  In Chapter 2, Nellie and Nancy encounter two boys, whom they dismiss as “show-offs.”  Fittingly, the boys are hypermasculine in their appearance, wearing football uniforms, complete with padded shoulders and helmets.  The boys take chase, but the girls outwit them by hiding in a bush.

I love this book, and the eight-year-old Alice who wrote it, listing her other book titles inside the front cover—Lazy Linda, Pete the Pig, Cat and Mouse.  (I never wrote those books.)  I love the vision I had for myself as an author.  I do not recall showing the book to my mother or to anyone, but I do recall the pleasure of its making.

My first feminist manifesto.

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Lena and Mama and cigarettes and beer

L and M

It’s hard to write during a pandemic.  I am skipping days.  The deaths are getting closer.  A student’s grandmother.  A scholar I met last fall at a conference and have known in an online forum for years.  A lovely, generous, compassionate and learned man.

But I will try L and M.

Lena and Mama.  Lena is stuck here during the pandemic.  She came to help us move and her employer, who provides her housing, is making it difficult for her to return.  So we both zoom and work from home.  I like having her here; my apocalyptic visions as I raised my two children always involved scenarios in which I was separated from my children and had to find my way back to them.  They were little in these visions and I worried, but how they are grown and I know where they are.  Liza is with a wonderful family who are taking good care of her (even today, her 20th birthday).  And Lena and Scott and I are settling into our new smaller space.  It’s also cleaner and newer and we got rid of a lot of junk, so it feels nice.  I like hanging out at home, so I can forget about the pandemic from time to time.  But I don’t like working from home, zoom meetings, zoom classes, grading online.  I am at the computer far too much every day.  It’s making me more committed to reading physical books, but still.  It’s hard.  As it is for all of us, and I remember to be grateful that I have a steady paycheck.  I got my contract for next year in the mail yesterday.  More security.  We are lucky.

During these weeks, Lena has told a story, twice, once to me and once to Scott in my earshot, that I find peculiar.  She says she remembers the exact moment she switched from calling us Mommy and Daddy to Mama and Dada.  In her mind, at 7 or 8, Mommy and Daddy were babyish and Mama and Dada were not.  She says she was in the hammock and she called me Mama, and then she said, “Did you hear that?  I called you Mama instead of Mommy,” and I said, “Okay.”  I vaguely remember such a thing, and I remember fleetingly wondering why she had switched.  To me, Dada is something toddlers say before they can put together more varied syllables.  But to Lena, it was a moment of being more of a big kid.

Kids’ minds are so peculiar.

Another riff on L&M’s.

My dad smoked L&M’s, and my mom and I would buy them by the carton at Heinen’s, our local grocery store in Shaker Heights.  My mom would ask me to retrieve them from a low shelf in the checkout line.  I liked the sleek packaging, the simple red and white with a hint of gold, the long lines of the L and the M.  I must have absorbed some TV commercial telling me that smoking was sophisticated, back when TV aired cigarette commercials.

I only have one other specific memory of shopping inside Heinen’s.  (I remember the outside, with the numbered tags on our car window and on the cart we left for a grocery boy to wheel to our car and unload—and picking the number tags on the way out of the store.  Childhood wonder imbues the most mundane of items with magic—the large oval tag that hooked onto the cart, the smaller round tag for our window, both dark red with white numbers concave in the nubby rubber covering on the plastic tags.)  That other memory is shopping with my father, his first time after the motor scooter accident he and my mother were in that nearly killed them both.  She was still stuck on the couch in a cast, but he was able to walk again after three weeks in traction.  And he bought a 12-pack of beer.  I can see the red and white packaging over the stout brown bottles, shoddy cardboard and rough design, nothing like the sleek L&M’s.  I don’t remember the brand, but I remember the sudden sick feeling in my stomach that spread throughout my body, knowing he was going to drink again.  And I remember his encouraging smile, trying to get me to go along.  That feeling of powerlessness.

L and M for Lena and Mama is a much nicer story, for me, and I hope I’ve given that to her.  Oh, I know I have.

L&M

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K is for Knoxes

Kerro and I grew up playing cards, board games, pick up sticks, barrel of monkeys, you name it.  We are the two youngest siblings of four, and our older sisters weren’t that interested.  We were intensely competitive, which sucked for me, since I am younger.  A favorite story is the day Kerro punched me in the mouth while we were playing Junior Executive, and I ripped his fist open with my braces.  We don’t come to blows anymore, and he found Junior Executive on eBay and sent it to me, early enough that I could enjoy it with my own children.

He is about to call me for a game of Settlers of Catan.  He is setting up the board and his laptop focused on the board, my cards in a holder so he can’t see them.  We will play via Google Meet (Google Meat, as we prefer to dub it).  I will roll my own dice, but he has to do all the other work.

We are over 60, but we are kids.  Whatever.  It’s a pandemic.

an hour or so later

We split two games of Settlers. My neck started to hurt from craning at the screen, but my neck hurts when we play in person too.

Along with my sister Fanny, Kerro is a middle child, sandwiched between youngest me and oldest Isabella.  Fanny and Kerro don’t make waves.  They adapt.  They conciliate.  They leave the drama for me and Isabella.  Mostly me.

That’s in the present tense, but I have tired of hogging the drama, so sometimes I delegate it to others.  Not to Kerro and Fanny though.

It’s Fanny’s birthday today.  She is a senior citizen, 65, and I am sure that I am lying when I write that.  Now I am living that cliché of being a young person in an older person’s body.  I hang onto the young feisty me, even though I love naps.  Well, I have always loved naps, but I need them more now.

Fanny, like Isabella, recently became a grandmother.  She lives across town from her new granddaughter Rei, but of course she cannot go see her.  She facetimes with her every day though.

Everything is surreal, getting older, the pandemic, facetiming like the Jetsons.

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Christmas 1961.

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J is for June and July

My birthday is the first day of June, the first day of what you might as well call summer, so what if it’s technically late spring, school is out or almost out, everything is green, you can wear shorts and a t-shirt, and summer stretches out ahead like eternity.  Irises peak, sure they started in May, but every year on my birthday they’re all in bloom, showing off, purple yellow mauve blue pink peach bearded crested dutch they’re everywhere.

And school’s over and things slow down and soon it’ll be warm enough to swim and lie in the sun and swim again.  Everyone smiles because winter is over and we have time off and we relax, maybe travel a little, to the mountains, to the ocean, and it gets hotter and then it’s July.

And summer is in full force but still plenty of time left of warm, July is right in the middle and we’re swimming every day and stretching out on the grass and the hum of crickets and the purr of lawnmowers and the smell of clean and plants and warm porch wood.  The air might sit for a bit but then a breeze comes and swirls away the mosquitoes and the crickets and the peepers keep up their endless song and July, yes, that’s when summer really sets in and we relax and take it in.

Right now it’s April and the buds haven’t popped yet but soon they will and an explosion of color in May and I hold my breath for June and endless July.

This year might be different.  We may need to stay in, or go out gingerly, six feet apart, faces covered.  What will July be like with a mask.  What will June be like inside.  We don’t know anything.  We only know that today we stayed inside, tomorrow we will too, and news will trickle in, wear a mask, don’t, go shopping infrequently, get delivery, wash your hands wash your hands wash your hands and stay home.

In June?  In July?  While the trees get green and lush and the crickets sing and the irises burst and fade?  Stay indoors?

Sit on the porch and sing to the neighbors.  We can at least do that, if we have a porch.

And we can wash our hands, but we can’t wash our hands of this.  We can wash our hands and keep washing our hands in June and July and this, this pandemic, makes prediction impossible, except there will be green and heat and irises, maybe not swimming.  There will be dying amid the green and the crickets and the mosquitoes.  And we will wash our hands.

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I is for Isabella

(appropriate because today is sibling day, according to Facebook)

Isabella had me in her thrall for the first six years of my life, maybe longer.  I was honored when she allowed me in her presence.  My vision of us as kids is her sitting on her red flowered bedspread, her long legs crossed, and me running to get her a book, a snack, a cat.  I was thrilled to be of use.

One day, though, the magic ended.  For her.  She opened with her usual, “Alice, will you do me a favor?” and instead of my usual eager yes, I said, with a hint of suspicion in my voice, “What is it?”  The jig was up.  I was no longer her handmaiden.

I don’t know what made me suddenly decide to question her requests.  Maybe our brother, two years older than me, teased me for being at her beck and call.  Or maybe my days of needing to run for the majority of my waking hours were waning.  Maybe I wanted to lie languid on her other twin bed, in her pink room, reading Betty and Veronica.

Isabella still has me in her thrall.  She is tall and beautiful, one of the smartest people I know.  She recently came out of retirement to work part-time again as a neonatologist, just before the pandemic.  So here she is, not far from the front lines, working in a hospital again.  She keeps tiny babies alive.  Our sister Fanny met someone on a plane once whose child Isabella had saved, and the woman showered Fanny with gratitude just for being Isabella’s sister.

She is the oldest child, and she worried about us, maybe especially me, as the youngest.  I didn’t know this as a small child, only that I could count on her.

Our parents had another child before Isabella, Elizabeth, or Lizzie.  Lizzie died when she was three months old in her crib.  I didn’t realize until a friend told me that Isabella is the Spanish version of Elizabeth.  I don’t know if my parents did that on purpose; my father’s Argentinian grandmother was named Isabella.  Lizzie’s ghost has haunted Isabella, and seems to have pushed her into the business of saving babies.

But to me, Isabella is her own person, separate from Lizzie.  She is a gifted doctor, singer, mother, and just recently, a grandmother.  She is my big sister who let me play with her, even when I must have been a bit of a bore.  She is my first hero.

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FGH Pandemic

F is for Fuck it

G is for God make it stop

H is for when the Hell will this be over?

Early in the shelter at home phase I had two homes and was busily packing up one and moving to the other.  I went out and was very busy every day, though I was “home” most of the time (our two places were ten minutes apart).  Now we are fully in the new place, and sure, I could unpack more, but I’m exhausted, and I’m back at work having multiple Zoom meetings a day, prepping for online instruction, responding to students, and realizing I have jowels and a much looser neck than I ever noticed before.  Sure, I could spend time on better lighting or wear turtlenecks, but I can’t be bothered.  I don’t love looking at myself talk, but whatever.

Pandemic times are getting real, so fuck it.  I’ve had a hard few days.

G is for fucking Gratitude also.

Glad I have a dog that needs a walk every day.

Glad I found a cool dingy little park on the site of a canal built in 1795.  Canal Park, South Hadley.

Glad it’s spring though it’s fucking cold.

Glad my parents don’t have to see the shitshow our country has become, though I would also love to hear my mother’s insights.  She would be able to take an intellectual interest in it all and give me a lens I hadn’t thought of to see it through.

Glad for Zoom even though it’s driving home how old I look/am.

Glad my family is not sick.

Glad I do not have small children.  Props to all who are coping with this.

Glad my grandniece and grandnephew have such fabulous parents to stay home with them and glad I get photo and video updates on the regular.

Glad for social media and feeling connected virtually.

Glad for cursing.  It helps.

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E is for Eliza

My inveterate journal keeping seems to have been passed down to my younger daughter.  In our recent move, I sorted through lots of stuff (SO MUCH STUFF) and found many pieces of art and writing by my children.  My favorite is Eliza (now Liza)’s journal from first grade.  She had a fabulous and inspiring teacher that year named Miss Mackenzie.  In this journal, Liza chronicles events of the year that she may not remember now, but I am pleased to have my memory jogged, since my own journal keeping has become erratic.  Every entry comes complete with illustrations.  The spelling is insane, in a delightful way:  icsitid is excited, bab is dad, rilly is really, osme is awesome—you get the idea.  But damn, that girl is expressive.  What strikes me is the dedication to record, which I had and have myself.  Maybe the journal is not as compelling to readers not her mother.  But I will transcribe one entry anyway.  Perfect punctuation, I note.

Last nite I wact my Dog in the felld. Thar was SO many clovrs. I junpt in them and from far awal it lookt like wite grass!  OR some peple spillt a lot of Pant Bakits on the grass.

Translation:  Last night I walked my dog in the field.  There were SO many clovers.  I jumped in them and from far away it looked like white grass!  Or some people spilled a lot of paint buckets on the grass.

Liza will be 20 in less than two weeks.  I see the little girl in the young woman, kaleidoscoping back through all the girls she has been.  She is a terrific writer, and now an almost perfect speller.  She is busy tonight writing a paper that’s due at midnight, so couldn’t talk when I called her.  She has been pandemicking with a college friend in upstate New York.  We miss her, but rereading her first grade journal keeps her close.

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D is for Damn it

I have been a slave to Facebook for a decade now, and have often thought I should pull back, but I never actually do.  I check it multiple times a day.  At first it was kittens and babies and reuniting with elementary school friends, but it didn’t take long for Facebook to become my repository for political news.  My like-minded friends would lead me to articles about whatever was in the news at the time—binders full of women, Bernie, Hillary, and now coronavirus.

I get nervous when I see pictures of famous people I admire on Facebook, especially if they’re older, because Facebook is where I seem to find out about deaths:  David Bowie, Prince, and now victims of SARS-CoV-2.  One particular friend captions the deaths he announces with “Damn it” or sometimes, “Damn it.  Just damn it.”

D is also for death.

I dearly hope that we are truly in late capitalism, and it is in its death throes.  I don’t know enough about political science to predict or even understand other people’s predictions, but has inequality ever been so obvious?  Can we ever really go back to a society that privileges business interests over human lives?  I mean, go back—we are still there, but more and more people are seeing that it just ain’t working.

I am very glad for Facebook now, despite its problems and culpability in getting us to this place.  I feel so fond of my network of friends.  I love when the posts of my bird-loving and -posting friends who have never met end up following each other in my feed.  (OK, it’s not all politics.)  I am so grateful to have this network in place.  And truth to tell, I like sitting around in my pajamas or pajama-like clothes all day.

It’s gonna get scary.  The deaths are going to get closer.  Someone we love is going to get sick.  Some will die.  I wonder how naïve I will feel at the end of April, when this blogging challenge ends.  Things will look very different, no matter what.

Damn it.

rarebird

Resplendent quetzal (Pharomachrus mocinno) from Costa Rica.

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