Thursday, October 29, 2009

Why swans?

We went to see the botanical collages created by Mrs. Delany in the 18th century. (The twice-widowed Mrs. Delany was, I think, a stealth artist. By this I mean that she camouflaged her artistic projects as womanly pursuits. But there is nothing uxorial about her collages. They are sublime.) Her favorite flower, by far, was the lily-of the valley, Convallaria majalis, mentioned in these cyber pages not so many days ago. And I am sure she knew the leaves are poisonous.
But what I came home with was a notebook page full of Swan Marks.

Upstairs from Mrs. Delany’s flora we found Horace Walpole’s random collections, including a book containing over 900 representations of ‘swan marks’. It seems that while the British crown has traditionally owned all the swans on the Thames (good to eat) certain favored individuals can also own swans, and these swans are so designated by these marks cut into the beak.

My delightful daughter once glued fake diamonds and jewels onto the carapace of a box turtle she found in the woods, but it had never before occurred to me to mark a bird’s beak. Do beaks have nerve endings? Did this marking of the swan hurt? More or less than branding a cow? Than circumcising a boy? Than getting a tattoo?
Swans interest me for a variety of reasons.
CSB’s middle name is Swan, but it is not the Swan side whose genealogy is diligently traced back far enough to grant membership to the DAR for the females of the family.

And my granddaughter is named for the Greek heroine who was raped by Zeus. (Have I commented on this? When have I not?) In the shape of a swan, Zeus pretended to be pursued by an eagle and so fell into kindhearted Leda’s arms and proceeded to have his way with her. For obvious reasons, painters love to portray this scene.
As it happens that very same night Leda also had sex with her husband Tyndarus, and so became pregnant with two eggs. One egg produced Helen (Launched a thousand ships) and Clytemnestra (killed her husband Agamemnon because he killed their daughter Iphigenia); the other produced Castor and Pollux, best known as the Gemini constellation.
(The woman giving birth to eggs has always troubled me, but not much.)

And just last week at the parental home, each morning my father pointed out the lone swan on the pond just outside their kitchen window. Where was his mate? He wondered every morning. Where indeed? And how did we know the lone swan was a male?

As distinct from toes and toe fungus, swans do have a patron saint. Saint Hugh of Lincoln.

There is much of interest in the life of Saint Hugh, even for those of you (all of you?) who skip the hagiographic bits in this blog. For one thing, unlike many of the saints mentioned on account of their bizarre characteristics and gruesome deaths, Hugh, by all accounts, was a genuinely good and amusing person, untroubled by gifts such as bilocation, levitation, hallucination or defenestration. Instead, he favored puns, children, lepers, and defending the persecuted Jews. He is generally pictured with a large white swan (with no visible markings on the beak) because there was a swan with which Hugh was very friendly and this swan guarded him while he slept.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Toes as an aide-mémoire

Because my father has always had toe fungus – affectionately referred to as Lehner Toe Crud by all his children, before we were acquainted the finer points of onychomycosis – and also because his mother grew her toenails to rather exceptional lengths (How long? In India, she would have been venerated as a sadhu.) and also because my son once dropped a pool table on his big toe (hallex) and smashed it beyond recognition, but then miraculously recovered, I am interested in toes. Also, I obsess about my toes.

I look at my toes and what do I see? Stubby toes. And why is that? Because once, 30 odd years ago, a woman told me I had short stubby toes – in contrast with her long elegant toes – and I have never gotten over it.
Memory is elastic. Just in the minutes of writing the above about toes, I have recalled all sorts of things about the woman who said that.
Her name was Dorothy. I was a grad student at Brown & she was an older student in a creative writing class taught by my friend BH. That had to be our second year at Brown, because I remember that BH and his first wife came to my wedding, which occurred between my first and second year. Anyway, Dorothy was in her late 30’s and had children in high school, which at the time seemed incredibly older and more experienced. I have some weird memory (possibly elastic) of her jealous husband doing something wicked with a burning cigarette, but that may be transposed from a non-personal memory of Buddy Cianci (former mayor of Providence, admitted rapist, later imprisoned, later re-elected) who caused his estranged wife’s boyfriend to be burned with cigarettes.(And that's in the record.)
But back to the memories I am certain of. BH and Dorothy fell madly in love. She left her husband. He left his wife. They married. As I recall, Dorothy was tall, blonde, statuesque and – need I add? – had long thin feet and toes.
The occasion of the unfortunate reference to my shorter toes occurred after our graduation from Brown, and before my daughter was born. It took place in the kitchen of the house we were staying in, which is now my x-husband’s summer house. Back then the house still belonged to his parents, though they no longer stayed there, and every cabinet and drawer still contained the random and ancient assortment of kitchen and tableware his mother had gathered or found or inherited.
It pains me how well I remember everything there: the anchor motif bowls with blue rims in the narrow cabinet to the left of the sink; the cans of S.S. Pierce soups originally from my mother-in-law’s late mother’s house; the enormous black speckled pot for executing and boiling lobsters; the yellowed plastic placemats featuring nautical maps of local harbors.
I don’t remember anything else about Dorothy, I am sorry to say. I don’t recall whether we saw them any other time between the time of the toe comment in the kitchen and the last time.

The last time we saw them they were visiting us in our first house in Hastings, by which time I had two children. At some point while watching a football game (and because it was football I feel confident I was not in the room) my ex-husband and BH got into an argument that either ended or began with BH castigating my ex for having tried to seduce his Dorothy. It was a serious fight, and that was the end of the friendship. Which saddened me, because BH and I had many good times in graduate school. And I probably didn’t realize how scarred I would still be, decades later, by the stubby toe remark.

Had my ex in fact put the moves on this older, other woman who scorned my toes? He certainly denied it at the time, and I wanted to believe him; I feel certain that I will never know for sure one way or the other.

I would like to be able to write that having dredged up this pathetic toe story I could at least call on the patron saint of toes to reconcile me to my toes, if not to actually elongate them. But there is no patron saint of toes. This seems remarkably remiss, given that there are patron saints for kidney stones, hemorrhoids, and hangovers (Alban of Mainz, Fiacre, and Bibiana), not to mention breasts, ear, teeth and many other body parts.

Not that this has anything to do with toes or friendships gone awry, but I do want to mention two saints whose feasts are celebrated today, in honor of Marilyn Johnson, who not only gave a brilliant and hilarious introduction at yesterday’s reading (at the HVWC) but also was kind enough to ask a question about hagiography which allowed me to go on at some length about cephalophores and the beautiful prose inside the covers of Butler’s Lives of the Saints, subjects upon which I love to expatiate but which I am rarely asked about. I wonder why.
So here they are, in brief:
The infant Blessed Damian of Finario was stolen from his rocking cradle by the local lunatic. His parents searched everywhere in vain and then were led to the hiding spot by a miraculous beam of light. Not surprisingly, the rest of Damien’s life was relatively uneventful.
Blessed Bonaventura did some strange things when he was alive (mostly having to do with immaculate conception) but the strangest thing he did occurred when he was dead. Long after he’d been in his casket, the local bishop ordered the corpse to give up his arm as a sign of his obedience after death. Bonaventura raised his right arm and the surgeon drew blood.

*So that you may draw your own conclusions, above is a photo of my toes this past summer at Cuttyhunk. Or possibly the previous summer when the sun was shining.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Hagiographic costume excesses

I like to think that CSB is not, in the normal course of events, happy when I leave town for a few days.
But this is clearly not the normal course of events. We heard this morning that our church is encouraging children and adults if they so desire, to dress up as their favorite saint for next Sunday, November 1st, which is of course All Saints Day.
Naturally I thought this was an excellent idea. In no time at all I was mentally outfitting myself and debating the stylistic merits of Saint Agnes bearing her breasts on a salver versus Joan of Arc in drag and full armor. What about Pelagia the Penitent as a bejeweled first century stripper? Or Saint Apollonia brandishing pincers for tooth extraction?
And just as naturally, poor CSB was imagining how mortally embarrassed he would be by my hagiographic costume excesses.
But, sadly, I will be in Boston next Sunday and so CSB will be spared his role as escort to a virgin-saint. Until next year.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Battling the Earworm

I am just now returned from a walk on the Old Croton Aqueduct featuring a newly dead garter snake and a possibly, but not very likely, missing girl. As I came down my usual shortcut, I noticed the girl leave her backpack in the foliage just in front of the quarry gate, and then go off on a run. Later, past Pinecrest drive, I saw a couple standing to the side of the path, looking at the ground in the oddest way – for a moment I thought the man was retarded and the woman was taking him for an outing and humoring him. But no, they were looking at the garter snake. The man said that a bicyclist had just run over the garter snake – and indeed I could see the tire tracks right across his middle – but the couple weren’t sure if the snake was dead or not. Noting the ruby-like beads of blood around its mouth and head, I said I was pretty sure it was very dead. The man said they hadn’t seen the blood. The woman stood back with her hands over her mouth, looking as if she was either afraid of snakes or distressed by the death of a snake. Or perhaps both. As garter snakes go, it was a good size.

Half a mile later, just before I was about to go back up the hill and take my shortcut home, I saw a police car parked on the aqueduct. There are no vehicles allowed on the aqueduct and I always take it amiss when public officials consider themselves above this rule. Then I saw on top of the police car’s hood were a jacket and a backpack. They looked like the backpack the girl had earlier left in the foliage. Why was it on the police car’s hood? Apparently another aqueduct walker had noticed the backpack and called the police, and now he was looking for the girl. I told him I had seen her go running and she looked just fine.
I did not mention to the officer that I am just now reading 2666 and am smack in the middle of the fourth part which is all about the murders of young women in the Mexican border town Bolaño calls Santa Teresa, and which are based on a real string of murders, because it would have been very morbid and not at all helpful.
(I loved the first section of the book about Archimboldi and the literary critics, and at first I wasn’t sure about this section about the murders, but now – have I mentioned it is a very long book? 900 pages long? – I am completely sucked in.)

My intention in going for a walk, other than enjoying the weather and checking to see if the bees were bringing in pollen (they are), was to clear my head of the Beatles’ song, Paperback Writer, which was been my constant earworm since a couple of days ago when I played the answering machine and heard this from CSB’s ex-wife: “I know you’re really busy with the pornographic writer and the bees – O God, wouldn’t your father be horrified – but you call me back or you will see me in 40 minutes.”

At first I had no clue why Paperback Writer showed up in my brain. It wasn’t even one of my favorite Beatles songs. Then I realized that the song playing in my head had become Pornographic Writer, and - finally - I made the connection with the message on the machine.
What I had forgotten was this lyric:
It's the dirty story of a dirty man
And his clinging wife doesn't understand.

The whole point of clearing my brain of the Pornographic Writer earworm was to move forward and be able to describe in all its autumnal glory our walk last week around the former ammunition depot as I tried to explain to Dad that the Trojan War really was started because Paris stole the oh-so-beautiful Helen from Menelaus. But now it’s time to beg a poor bee to sting my little finger and give up her life in the process.

Friday, October 16, 2009


One of SQD’s readers has privately objected to yesterday’s allusion to the tragic death of Jeanne de Couville, sister of our French maiden aunt who was not technically an aunt, but some kind of rather removed (in so many ways) cousin. I think she was the daughter of a half-brother of my paternal grandmother.
(Said reader also wonders: What exactly does one do with an long silk nightgown sewn by Syrian nuns dating from 1951 when Mom no longer needs it? What does one do with the lingerie of Bonne Maman, who, after all, has not needed clean underwear for 11 years?)
As for Jeanne, the story as I know it is that she had an unfortunate attachment to an older man, much older and not of the savory-est character. Though such things are never said aloud we were led to understand he became enormously rich dealing on the black market during the war. (Which war? Good question.) Unlike the rest of her largely celibate family, Jeanne had a predilection for attachments to older men, on account of her very early devotion to her Oncle Alphonse.
Alphonse was a failed poet but a very successful shipbuilder. When his wife, Delphine, learned of Alphonse’s quasi-incestuous relations with his beautiful niece, she took out her jealous rage on his portrait (see above) thus allowing her husband and her marriage to stay intact.
We keep Alphonse (exact relationship to me unplumbed) hanging in our dining room, as a prandial reminder that it is better to inflict one’s rage on a portrait than a person. Alphonse died at sea, but that was much later.
As for Jeanne, she and her older lover, the black marketer, both died in a motor accident on the corniche outside Nice. They were practically incinerated. The part that always appealed to me, as a child with a taste for gruesome details, was about the brooch. Our Aunt Madeleine always wore a large gold brooch in the shape of a bouquet of lilies of the valley. Each flower was a diamond, and there were several. Jeanne was wearing the brooch when she and her lover and their car burst into flames overlooking the Mediterranean. But the brooch was saved, cleaned of smoke, soot and gore, and went on to adorn my aunt’s chest for every Sunday dinner of my childhood.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

On not running out

The second day I really wanted to write, if only briefly, of the feast of St Denis of Paris, the proto-cephalophore, the cephalophore referred to when it becomes incumbent in conversation to explain the cephalophoric phenomenon. Unlike my mother (see below) I have favorites, and St Denis is my favorite cephalophore.

Then my mother gave me her shopping list, which included 2 jars of Major Grey’s Chutney. (Have I mentioned my recent sojourn at the parental home to spend some quality time with the Aged P’s?) And she underscored that it must be the traditional Major Gray’s chutney and not any of the newfangled chutneys now available. Got the point. She bemoaned the quart bottles that she used to get, back in day, bottles so large and specific that they required a special long handled spoon always referred to reverentially as The Chutney Spoon. At the market I looked and looked but could not find the MGC. Finally I asked someone and he pointed to the bottles directly in front of me. He said, “Now it’s called Colonel Grey’s - he got a promotion.” I looked blankly at him and back at the bottle, which still said Major Grey. “That was a joke,” he explained to the halfwit in the aisle.
Back at the house I was putting the groceries away. In the big cabinet I saw two bottles of the exact same Major Gray’s chutney. And behind them I saw 8 more bottles.

Later, Mom told me that this was a European trait, this hoarding, this fear of running out. I don’t exactly follow since 1. Her European mother didn’t hoard anything, and 2. Mom never actually lived in Europe (Egypt is NOT Europe).

Another trait she has attributed to Europeans – but this is one she strenuously asserts she does not share – is parental favoritism. She often tells of a trip they took in the early 60’s when Theo Herbert’s wife, of Courtrai, Belgium, upon learning that my mother had 5 children, asked which was her favorite. My mother expressed Horreur!! Shock! Of course she didn’t have favorites! She loved them all equally and the same. She couldn’t imagine favoring one child over another. And so on.

While explaining why all this chutney soothes her anxious heart, she mentions that all her mustards are in the cellar. ALL her mustards.

Aside from the fact that she occasionally forgets just how many chutneys she has stashed away, my mother is the world’s most organized human being. She is also the planet’s premier labeler.

The bottom drawer of a chest upstairs is neatly labeled “Lingerie de RMB/MBL” and inside are perfectly folded slips and negligees. Attached to a long silk nightgown is a square piece of paper reading: “Nightgown RB had made by Syrian nuns for use on my honeymoon -1951”.

An even more remarkable gown bears the label: “Nightgown! Belonged to Madeleine de Couville or her sister Jeanne, the one who died tragically.
(It is the exclamation point I love.)

But it is no longer the feast of St Denis or Dionysus of Paris, who was cruelly beheaded in AD 258 at Montmartre (hence its name, Hill of Martyrs), and then retrieved his severed head from the Seine and carried it to his place of burial. So – having been sidetracked by the wonders of maternal executive functions - I will not be mentioning him and his many iconic images in art, bearing his head.

Tomorrow’s highlights will include bucolic descriptions of the former ammunition depot, home to the Navy’s first nuclear depth charge; a relating of my pathetic attempt to explain the Trojan War to Dad; and a partial list of excellent books discovered in the cellar ( with allusions to a discussion of the difference between a cellar and a basement), one of which was The World’s Best Jokes – from 1936, which can only lead one to believe that the state of humor has improved in the intervening 73 years.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose

From yesterday's Times: 'Artificial Virginity' Kit Opposed
Published: October 5, 2009
Conservative lawmakers have called for a ban on imports of a Chinese-made kit meant to help women fake their virginity. The Artificial Virginity Hymen kit, which is distributed by the Chinese company Gigimo and costs about $30, is intended to help newly married women fool their husbands into believing they are virgins, an essential marriage requirement for women in much of the Middle East, by leaking a blood-like substance when inserted and broken. Sheik Sayed Askar, a member of the parliamentary committee on religious affairs, demanded the government take responsibility for fighting the product, which he said would make it easier for women to give in to temptation. (Italics mine)

The Vatican and the imams may be tweeting and twittering, but some things just haven’t changed. Who would have imagined that, centuries after moveable type, penicillin, lycra & space travel, virginity would still be the fulcrum upon which a woman’s life rests.
Thousands of years ago, young women were often killed as they tried to defend their virginity; and for this they entered the annals as “Saint, Virgin and Martyr.”
Today, for instance, we honor Saint Osyth of Mercia (AD 675). Against her wishes, her parents married her off to Sighere, king of the Saxons. His real passion was hunting, so much so that on their wedding night he was distracted from his connubial duties by a roaming stag. Off he went to slaughter the antlered beast, and when he got home Osyth had decamped. She took up residence in a convent where she lived happily until a pirate raid. Osyth resisted the piratical marauders wishing to take her away for their nefarious purposes, and for that her head was separated from her body.
About Saint Justina little is known except that she was devoted to her virginity and to God. In that order. She is generally portrayed with a unicorn to underscore that virginity, unicorns being symbols of virginity, presumably on account of their whiteness, and not the single (and frankly, phallic) horn.
I could go on, citing Saints Reparata and Faith, virgins martyred when only 12 years old. And the catatonic/ecstatic Saint Flora. And Saint Dymphna fleeing her incestuous father’s lust. But I will resist.
As for the Artificial Virginity Kit, I ask myself, which is worse: That there is a need for such a clever device? Or that it is banned?

Monday, October 5, 2009

The Cairns of Block Island

More than 25 years ago we lived for a short while up-county and my friend Lilla and I put ads in the PennySaver and the Ridgefield Press: Looking to Start a Writers Group. Because Lilla, with her Monty-Pythonesque British accent, called in the ad, the person on the other end of the telephone mistook ‘support’ for ‘sport’ and that confused not a few of the intrepid respondents. But amazingly enough, there were respondents, wonderful ones, some who have become lifelong friends.

It was in the spirit of both support and sport that last week four of us from that original writers’ group crossed the waters and landed on Block Island. Mary-Ann’s agent graciously loaned us her house overlooking Rodman’s Hollow, where it just so happens a dead body is discovered in Mary-Ann’s mystery She’s Not There. (Mary-Ann writes sharp & witty mysteries. Also contemporary and historical fiction. Also a wonderful memoir, Girls of Tender Age. Sarah, a writer of romances and travel pieces and restorer of old houses, was our Athletic Director. And when we didn’t take direction, she rode off on her bicycle for an extra 10 miles just to get some exercise. Becky, who writes the highly acclaimed blog about midlife depression, The Blue Hours of Middle Life, provided comic relief.
But I would like to talk of rocks.
It seems that in the 17th and 18th centuries the rocks (called ‘pebbles’, rather in the same way that mansions in Newport are called ‘cottages’) of Block Island were taken across the water and used as cobblestones to pave the streets of the coastal towns of Connecticut. When Becky first informed me of this fact I said, What? You mean they didn’t have their own rocks?
Then I saw the ‘pebbles’ of Block Island and understood.
One day, according to Sarah’s brilliant plan, we left our car at Dorie’s Cove and then rode our bikes over to Mohegan Bluffs, because at low tide it is possible to walk all the way around the southern end of the island, from the bluffs to the cove. And there are rocks all the way, some of the finest you will ever see. There are over 100 stairs leading down from the bluff to the beach, which is to say it is a long way down.
When we arrived at sea level, we discovered to our amazement and wonder that the druids, the stonemasons, Saints Antoninus and Marinus, had all been there before is. The rocky beach was full of cairns, some more vertical than others, some petite and understated, some large and brazen; some were perilous feats of balance and a few incorporated driftwood.

What is it in us that compels us to build piles of stones? To gather stones, to move stones from place to another, to lay stone upon stone upon stone? How can we explain the deep satisfaction of choosing the right stone to rest upon another stone? Since ancient times cairns have been built to mark graves and paths and sacred places. Not all that long ago I arrived at my brother’s house in New Hampshire and saw that someone, an artist of stones, had built delicate balancing acts of stones and boulders, atop the already solid stone wall. It turned out the artist was a nephew who will always have a smooth rock in his pocket.
The cairns of Mohegan took our breath away. Of course they were beautiful, but there were so many and of such various artistic styles. Looking up at the imposing bluffs, we imagined that the first cairns were built in homage to that rocky face, and then subsequent cairns were built to join in, and then further cairns were built to honor the community.

While there are no specific patron saints of cairns, stonecutters and stonemasons are well supplied with patron saints. Though – and this should surprise no one – the patrons are not the saints who were in fact stonecutters.
Saint Antoninus, for instance, was a 4th century Syrian stonemason known for castigating the locals for worshipping stone images. After making himself unpopular, he went off to become a hermit.

Saint Marinus (5th century) is credited with being the namesake of tiny San Marino. A stonemason and a lifelong bachelor, a lunatic lady accused him of being her estranged husband, and he had to flee to a cave where he lived as a hermit. (Is this a pattern?)
Neither of them are patron saints of stonecutters.

Rather, we have Saint Stephen, the proto-martyr, stoned to death, one of the all-time favorite scenes of martyrdom in art, q.v.: Fra Angelico, Ghirlandaio, Fouquet, Donatello, Foppa, Rubens, Vasari, Uccello, Cavallino, Carpaccio. Who would have thought throwing stones at a handsome young man would be so popular?
Then we have Saint Reinhold (10th century) who supervised the stonemasons building the monastery of Saint Pantaleon. His diligence so enraged the masons that they killed Reinhold with their hammers and threw his body into the Rhine. For that, he too is a patron saint of stonecutters.
I prefer the cairn builders of Block Island to the martyrs, but there are enough pebbles on the beach for all of us.