Friday, December 11, 2015

Journalistic License

My mother believes that newspapers in California do not ever, as in never, ever, print any news about the Pope. She believes this the way creationists believe in the 7 literal days, the way children believe in the tooth fairy, the way NRA nutcases believe in the right to bear arms, lots and lots of extremely lethal arms: that is, irrationally and in the face of all science and evidence, because it suits one’s agenda. That is the way my mother believes and insists that California newspapers are entirely remiss in this important news function. She has forgotten the names of several of her grandchildren and the words fence and English muffins, and even pomegranates, but this fact of journalistic dereliction she clings to.

Contradict this assertion at your peril. I know this, as they say, the hard way.

Now that my mother is living at the Little Red House in our backyard, we thought that it would make sense to share our New York Times subscription with her. We would thereby save a few trees and save a few trips to the DPW recycling bins.

So on any given day, when my mother is here for a meal, for a visit, or a dose of filial obeisance, we have variations on this conversation:
MOM: Have you read this yet? I’d like to take it to my house and read it. I want to cut out this article about the Pope, and send to my friend Joan. The newspapers in California never write about the Pope, so she makes copies of the articles I send her and gives them to all her friends. She is a nun. All her nun friends are grateful, because the papers there never write anything about the Pope. Have you read the paper?
ME: Not yet. I will bring it to you as soon as I have.
MOM (scanning the headlines): Have you read this paper yet?
ME: No, Mom, I haven’t. Not yet.
MOM: Well I would like it when you have, because I always cut out articles about the Pope for my friend Joan.
ME: I know.
MOM: So have you read the paper yet?
ME: Not yet. But I will later. What is the Pope up to now?
MOM: I have to read about the Pope and then I will cut it out and send it to Joan. Have you read the paper yet?
ME: Not since you last asked me. (I know I shouldn’t get testy; such testiness flouts the principles of “Habilitation”, but the testiness is coming over me, like a fucking tsunami.)
MOM: I haven’t asked you before.
ME: No, of course not. (I am chagrinned, ashamed.) You take it home with you. I can read it online.
MOM: Oh no. I don’t want to take your paper. I used to have my own paper, at the Orchard. I don’t want to take your paper before you have read it.
ME: Please take the paper, Mom.
MOM: Have you read it yet?

(I can read it online.)

Friday, December 4, 2015

Dispatch from Somewhere Else

First my mother moved in with us for a month.

It is hardly worth mentioning that this was not the original plan and that all has not gone as planned.
The plan was: Given her diagnosis and the impossibility of her remaining at the Orchard (even with more or less full time care, it is too big; and too full of generations of stuff causing her to be in a state of constant panic; and too far from any of her children) my mother would move into the Red Cottage right next door to us, in our back yard actually. We would make some small but necessary changes. [Such as: weed and prune the garden; repoint the brick patio; plant ferns and ginger and astilbe; remove the fence (dating back to a Draper family feud); redo the bathroom for my mother, seal up one wall, cut a door through another wall; redo the powder room to become a proper bathroom for Mom’s caregivers; paint the exterior of the house: Country Redwood, a red but not, per my mother’s description, a flaming red, but rather a tasteful, Harvard red; paint the interior of the house with colors to match my mother’s fabrics; hang my mother’s brass Cairene lamps, and French chandelier. Small changes.] Then the movers would arrive with her clothes and stuff and furniture and rugs and Egyptian objects, and in a jiffy we would set up the house to resemble the Orchard, in tasteful miniature. Then my brother would drive Mom to New York and she would walk into a house all prepared, move in, and all would be well. She would learn to love Maggie, Ada and Shedley and would even remember to turn left and walk twenty yards to get to our house. And not right and end up stranded a park full of dog walkers and Bocce-playing Croatians.

This is what has really happened so far: Redoing the bathroom turned out to be a larger project, involving: demolition, architectural plans (dear Ned Baldwin, scooting over on his Vespa, telling the electrician that no one listens to what he says), getting a building permit, ordering and acquiring and then returning multiple plumbing items and bathroom fixtures, getting plumbers and plumbing inspectors over, ditto electricians and electrical inspectors, moving large cast iron pipes, getting friendly with a dumpster in the driveway, installing plumbing fixtures, discovering that certain plumbing fixtures won’t fit, going to a large discount appliance store late at night to acquire a washer and dryer unit, visiting Home Depot at least once a day and often twice.

Meanwhile, the movers arrived with my mother’s things and put them in the Red Cottage that was nowhere near ready for habitation. Indoor plumbing being considered the sine qua non of 21st century life.

Meanwhile, my mother stayed with my brother in Boston once her things were moved from the Orchard. We hoped this would prevent a trauma by the egregious disruptions to the house she had lived in for the past 50 years. (Even though the house was, and is, still full of furniture and books and objects of mysterious provenance, and multiple portraits of my French maiden aunt’s sister who died in a flaming car crash with her lover, and a good portion of my mother’s camel collection.)
The plan changed.

After a few days in Boston, my brother would bring Mom here to stay with us while we finished up the Red Cottage. All would be fine. It would allow her to gradually transition to life in Hastings.

Then the weather turned chilly, and we turned on the heat and suddenly there was warm and fecund smell, as of a clutch of newly birthed Amazonian howler monkeys breathing heavily. CSB returned from a foray to the furnace room to report that smoke was pouring from the boiler, in an entirely inappropriate manner, and that he had flipped the emergency shut OFF switch. There would be no heat that day.
My mother stayed on at my brother’s house, while we called the plumber. First he attempted to repair the boiler. Then he told us that he had never seen this particular problem happen with this particular boiler. (A 22-year-old Peerless steam boiler.) In the matter of plumbing problems, uniqueness is pretty much the last thing you want to be saddled with.

What I have not mentioned in that without a functioning boiler, my mother could not stay with us because she is 85 years old, weighs 103 lbs., and needs an ambient temperature of at least 77 degrees.

The plumber was unable to repair the boiler. Something about the metal casing being so shot that it was impossible for the screws to get purchase. So we would have to get a new boiler. In order to get a new boiler, the old one had to be dismantled – that is to say demolished – and removed. For this task, Anton, Jimmy and Nelson arrived. Anton was the head guy. He was originally from Bulgaria and upon seeing our chickens roaming loose in the yard, he told me that back in his Bulgarian hometown his grandmother also had chickens and that she could kill and pluck and truss a chicken in less than five minutes, a record in their Bulgarian village. (I have no idea how that time compares to world records, and I was not about to ask.) Jimmy took lots of cigarette breaks out the back door, and communed with the raccoon (a chicken predator) that CSB had caught the night before in our HavaHart trap. Jimmy wanted to make himself a raccoon skin cap. Nelson was quiet and worked steadily.

It took two days to demolish and remove the old boiler. Meanwhile, the weather became warm. Unseasonably warm for November, and my mother had been at my brother’s longer than either had planned, so he brought her to us in Hastings, where we ensconced her in the large ground floor guest room. Theoretically, if she so chose, she could watch and enjoy the destruction and removal of the old and the installation of the new furnace. Theoretically, she could take walks and do jigsaw puzzles.

Reality-wise, the furnace destruction, removal and installation were all mysterious to my mother, the rituals of a tribe so foreign and idiomatically alien that when she asked for the eleventh time what the plumbers were doing, she nodded and kept talking. (There is so much to be said about plumbing. And so many metaphorical possibilities. But we will leave them for the moment.)

Reality-wise, the 500-piece jigsaw puzzles that had amused her a year ago - a painting of Breughel’s, a New Yorker cover, an illustrated floral alphabet, an Egyptian wall painting - were now too complex. The pieces were too small and indistinct. Though with the fancy jigsaw puzzle tray, with its green baize surface and wooden lip and lazy susan, fewer puzzle pieces ended up on the floor, to be sucked into the maw of the vacuum or chewed laconically by Bruno. So we acquired puzzles with 300 pieces, large brighter pieces. On the box we are told that these puzzles are suitable for ages ten and up. Reading those words on side of the cardboard box I recalled and was haunted by the scene in John Bayley’s memoir, Iris, when Iris Murdoch, his beloved wife, the brilliant novelist and philosopher, now engulfed inside Alzheimer’s, watches teletubbie cartoons. With delight. Was she another person then? Has she lost herself in a tangled mess of neurons? Where is the Iris Murdoch who wrote The Sacred and Profane Love Machine, and The Word Child, and The Severed Head?

Where is my mother who taught us all the intricacies of fenestration? Where is my mother who could distinguish between Gothic revival architecture and Flamboyant Gothic architecture, not to mention Craftsman Gothic, and for whom this mattered?

She appears to be missing in plain sight. The person impersonating her has now moved, after a month in residence here, right next door to the Red Cottage.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Overheard as I departed the local swimming pool

Adorable child #1:
OK, this is a gross question. But would you rather have hair made of tongues or a tongue made of hair?
Adorable child #2:
Definitely hair made of tongues, because then I could lick ... (unfortunately lost in the nearby cannonball.)

I recalled this exchange yesterday morning when I was stung by a yellowjacket (just above what I judge to be the navicular tarsal bone. Thanks for asking.)and in the interests of discovering exactly how much pain I was in, I consulted the Schmidt Sting Index, where I learned that the pain of a yellowjacket's sting is comparable to "W.C. Fields extinguishing a cigar on your tongue."

What did those adorable children know?

Friday, August 7, 2015

How to find a car and what to do then

Because it is summer time and one of the great pleasures of summer is pink wine, I went to Stew’s Wine Shop to get some cases of this year’s vin d’été .
Each year’s vin d’été is chosen by the following scientific method: sometime in early June I buy a selection of this year’s crop of vins de Provence priced under $11, and test them. This involves inviting friends over and then drinking lots of pink wine. If we also eat bread and cheese and fried zucchini blossoms, that is a good idea. Then I buy several cases of the favorite. Sometime I have two favorites at the beginning of the summer, but by the end of the summer it will be whittled down to one. Without fail.)
I got just a little carried away in Stew’s Wine Shop, so when the time came to push my cart out to the parking lot, it was remarkably heavy and unwieldy. Luckily a young man with a charming gap-tooth smile and a rather apt port wine stain at the corner of his left eye volunteered to help. (His nametag read: I am Grover. How can I help?)
Together we walked out to the parking lot. I couldn’t see my car anywhere. Not in the row where I recalled parking. Nowhere. There are certain triggers to Alzheimer’s Onset Anxiety: forgetting the word for the weird fruit bush that CSB fell into when they lived in Georgia (scuppernongs), or forgetting the name of the reservoir upstate that flooded my friend’s ancestral home (Ashokan), or losing my car in a parking lot. More or less everything makes me worry about the onset of Alzheimer’s, which is a problem for CSB who would rather undergo knee surgery sans anesthesia than ever hear the word Alzheimer’s again. (But he doesn’t have a choice, either way.) So there I was in the Stew’s parking lot, getting a little diaphoretic, imagining the kind of things the helpful Grover would be thinking about this woman in turquoise Birkenstocks with a shopping cart full of Mas Fleury, Cotes de Provence, who couldn’t find her own car in the parking lot. Things like: when did they let her out of Milledgeville?
Then I remembered that I had not driven my own car to Stew’s. My car was getting an oil change at the service station, so I was using one of my nephew’s cars. Two of my ten nephews live in NYC and own Subaru station wagons of varying vintages. They both park their cars in my driveway because that is much cheaper than paying to park in a lot, or parking on the street and getting lots of tickets; and since they don’t use their cars for months at a time, my driveway has become their home away from home. One has New Hampshire license plates (LIVE FREE OR DIE), and one has Maine (VACATIONLAND) license plates. That is how I tell them apart, the cars, not the nephews. Once I realized that I was not looking for a red Subaru, but a greyish Subaru declaring its willingness to die, I felt much better, and in no time at all we arrived at the car. I popped open the trunk, and Grover stood at the ready.
We both realized rather quickly that there was no room for even a single case of wine in the trunk, because it was full of extra large fire extinguishers. (There were also coils of rope, axes and a life buoy, but those could have been consolidated enough to allow for wine storage.)
From the looks of them these were brand new fire extinguishers. I actually knew, or suspected what these fire extinguishers were for and why they were there, but just then that did not seem to be my dilemma. What seemed most important just then was to act as if I knew those fire extinguishers had been there all along and I had just momentarily forgotten about them. I worried that if I acted startled to see them taking up the space I had planned to fill with cases of pink wine, coupled with my previous difficulty in finding the car, that Grover might then begin to think this wasn’t my car at all; he might suspect that in addition to being a pink-wino, I was a car thief. Or if he didn’t think that, he would suspect me of engaging in some sort of arson-related activities, but being so cluelessly focused on procuring my pink wine that I had forgotten my car was full of the tools of my trade. Whatever that might be.
“Of course we can’t put the wine back here! We’ll put it in the back seat.”
I opened the back door. Grover inserted the several cases of wine. I considered offering him a free fire extinguisher for his trouble, but decided against it.
The fire extinguisher fun didn’t stop there. That evening, the nephew whose car it was took the train up from the city in order to retrieve his vehicle and drive up to the north woods. Apparently he too had forgotten about the presence of fire extinguishers in the back of his car (LIVE FREE OR DIE). Or so I gathered from the look on his face when he opened the rear door and discovered that there was no room for his ‘gear’. He then conceived of the plan to remove all the fire extinguishers from the back of his car (LIVE FREE OR DIE) and temporarily lodge them in the back of his cousin’s car (VACATIONLAND). He set about performing this translation, and in the process ignited, or activated, or set off one of the extinguishers. Suddenly, the back of his car was filled with pressurized nitrogen, in a white powdery form that would have extinguished a fire, had there been a fire in the back of his car. (LIVE FREE OR DIE). Being as there was no fire in the back of the death-seeking car, said nephew then spent a good part of the evening cleaning up the wasted nitrogen.

Has anyone found a piece of yellow paper?

Monday, July 20, 2015

I have left my translating (of Les Sept Faux Departs; see below & then below) at home, and I am driving down the Henry Hudson Parkway, back to Mt Sinai/Roosevelt hospital where CSB has just had his left knee immobilized, scored, sliced open, dismantled and replaced with a Stryker titanium knee. Engineering is a wonderful thing. Translation is something else.

Since I left his hospital room yesterday evening, CSB has acquired a roommate. More than one roommate: There is an older man who had a hip replacement, and there is the elderly wife who never leaves his side. She spent the night sleeping (badly I presume) in the chair next to his bed. Should I too have devotedly overnighted in the hospital? Should I have spent the hours fitfully dreaming and worrying about MRSA and C. diff and the myriad forms of antibiotic resistant infections that lurk in hospitals like pickpockets in 19th century London, while CSB dozed in narcotic indifference?
Perhaps I should have. I did not. I kissed CSB good night and went home and watched a French movie with subtitles, because he wasn’t there to object.

So this morning I meet the roommates for the first time. We don’t exactly meet. They are both Bulgarian and only speak Bulgarian. CSB learned this from the Russian-speaking physical therapist who told him that Russian is similar to Bulgarian and so he tried to communicate with the couple. All three of them now seem confused, and locked in their lonely territories of incomprehension.

According to the last census there are at least 4000 Bulgarians in NYC, and surely many of them speak excellent English. But they are not here today. I am pretty sure that more Bulgarians speak English than Americans speak Bulgarian, for many reasons, an important one being the fact that a Bulgarian verb can have up to 3000 forms, because its variations include not only person, tense, number and voice, but also aspect, mood and gender. Bulgarians use the Cyrillic alphabet, the very same one created by Saints Cyril and Methodius in order to translate the Bible from Greek into Old Slavonic. In terms of ease of language acquisition, it probably makes no difference that Bulgarian lacks the other Serbo-Croatian languages’ phonemic vowel length and alveo-palatan affricates.

Given their mutual confusion, I have no idea how the Russian-speaking therapist has gleaned that the Bulgarians speak French, and that they were, once upon a time, French teachers. CSB, who normally would rather be deep-fried in a vat of bubbling cottonseed oil than call attention to himself, interjects that his wife speaks French.
Meaning: moi.
He does not say that she was just this morning translating her grandfather’s memoir from French into English, and that is good thing, because it might give the impression that I actually know a thing or two about translating.

Here is what I know: when the relics of a saint are moved from location to another, often by heavenly, angelic means, they are said to be translated.

So now there are 4 of us in the little cubicle: 2 Bulgarians, 1 Russian-speaking physical therapist, 1 sort-of-French speaking American. The R-S PT wants to explain to the Bulgarian man that he will be moved from his present location, our present location on the 10th floor, down to Rehab on the third floor. I repeat this in French. This is not as simple as it sounds.
First we have to establish that we are now on the tenth floor and why should the Bulgarian know that since he was drugged when he rolled here on a gurney after surgery?
Failing any real comprehension on the matter of moving down seven floors, the therapist wants me to inquire about the Bulgarian’s pain. Ask him if he has pain? he says.
With trepidation I say, Avez vous douleur? This seems to be simultaneously a deeply intrusive and a profoundly obvious and perhaps even a stupid question.
Didn’t the Buddha say that All life is suffering?
Of course he has pain. He is a Bulgarian on the tenth floor of a hospital in New York City, alienated from his homeland, far far away from the Rhodope Mountains, with their vertiginous river gorges and sculptural caves. His wife has dementia and she won’t leave his side. He has left behind the ancestral place of Dionysian rites to live in a New York suburb, where Bakelite was invented in 1906.
What did he say? asks the Russian speaking physical therapist.
I don’t know. It didn’t sound like French to me.
Ask him again about the pain.
Monsieur, avez vous douleur? Le therapiste aimerait savoir.
No, says the Bulgarian.
He says no, I tell the therapist.
Does he understand he’s being moved downstairs?
I ask him if he understands. The Bulgarian says he doesn’t want to go anywhere.
The therapist wants me to assert that he will have to move in order to get rehab. Then – and it seems to me we have gone about this backwards – he asks how many stairs the Bulgarians have at home. Many, as they live on the third floor of a three-story house in Yonkers.

He doesn’t say, Ask him if his hip hurts, and I am relieved because at this moment I cannot think of the French word for hurt.* The word for pain, however, is the same as the word for sorrow…all from the Latin dolor, a word that always puts me in mind of Mater Dolorosa, the sorrowing Virgin Mother. He did not say, Ask him if he suffers. Est-qu’il souffrir?
All Life is Suffering, says the Buddha. Or that is just one translation from the Sanskrit. Another might be, All Life is Pain. And there would be a difference.
Translation is tricky.

The therapist has to leave now, and it is unclear if anything has been accomplished or communicated. No, it is not unclear. It is clear that only confusion and anxiety have been left behind, like medical wastes and latex gloves to be deposited in the ubiquitous medical waste depositories. Hospitals generate the most amazing amount of waste. I don’t know the numbers, the tonnage, the acres of land fill required, but I know that it is amazing, and too much.
The Bulgarians graciously express gratitude. For what? This is embarrassing, shaming even. I have translated badly, gleaned nothing, clarified nothing and like the endless stream of medical waste, only added to their confusion and worries. I return the few feet past the dividing curtain to CSB, in Bed B.
Still anaesthetized by the nerve blocker, he is feeling no pain. Not yet. We speak the same language, most of the time.

*To hurt (transitive) is faire mal, which looks a lot like to do evil. To be hurt is d’être blessé, which is the same thing one would say to mean: to be wounded.
Translation is tricky.

Friday, July 17, 2015

First they kill off the Mothers

I thought that before reading Go Set a Watchman and weighing in on the troubling questions of Atticus’s fall from his pedestal, and whether Harper Lee wanted the book to be published at all, I would reread To Kill a Mockingbird. Because I had either read it so long ago, or, I only imagined I had read it but knew the story well enough because the book and its plot and Gregory Peck as Atticus are woven into our collective psyches.
So yesterday I read To Kill a Mockingbird and Scout is still a tomboy and Atticus is achingly upright and moral. But then I got sidetracked by another troubling question: why is it that in so many iconic stories with a young female protagonist, the mother is dead? Must the mother be dead in order for the father to bond with the daughter? Must the mother be dead in order for the daughter to achieve narrative autonomy?
Everywhere I looked in the vast and chaotic bookshelf of my memory, I found daughters and fathers, and no mothers. Nancy Drew & Pippi Longstocking were most likely the two characters I most longed to be when I was a child, a child with a very present mother and a mostly absent father. A child in training to contribute mightily to the coffers of psychiatric professionals.
And then so many others:
Emma Woodhouse
Cordelia & Miranda
Nora, Hedda and more or less all Ibsen’s heroines
Miranda in The Tempest
Cinderella, Snow White, Donkeyskin, Beauty and the Beast, Hansel and Gretel and almost every fairy tale I can think of. But they are complicated by the inevitably wicked stepmother.
A quick Internet search (“Motherless female protagonists”) reveals that this is hardly a singular observation.

I can well imagine why this trope is so common in novels. Absent the mother the daughter can grapple with the novel’s dilemma on her own and cement the relationship with the father. Absent the wife, the father pays attention to the daughter in a way he might not have otherwise. Kill off the mother, offstage before the story starts, or onstage in an early chapter, and you have already engineered a compelling novelistic dynamic.
But given that this is the construction of so many of the stories that inhabit the childhood landscape, what is the reader with a living and powerful mother to do?

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Humid on several continents

Humidity is all I think about sometimes.

In The Seven False Departures, it is November 1942 and my grandfather is flying, via Ferry Command, from Accra, Nigeria past Lagos and on toward Kano. After months of false starts, he is really and truly on his way back to Cairo. He has been traveling for a week now, having flown from New York to Miami to San Juan to British Guyana, to Natal, Brazil to Fisherman Lake, Liberia to Accra. As he flies he describes the climate of Lagos and alludes to the odd trope of calling it an ‘Earthy Paradise’, when in fact it is painfully humid and a malarial mecca. “The heat is overwhelming all year long and the humidity attains extremities unsuspected by us.” Aerial view of Lagos, 1929.
In the current time and place, I have determined that our dehumidifying situation is unacceptable. Our ‘unfinished’ basement, with its stone walls and cobblestone floors, sweats. It sweats like an armor-clad Spanish explorer in the Amazon. It sweats like a Finn in a sauna. I have always enjoyed the term: “finished basement”. Our basement is not finished. Not a single room in the house is finished. I am not finished.
Today it is 90˚ and 99% humidity. I cannot type because my fingers slither across the keyboard and I get distracted by the droplets of sweat that wend their way from my clavicle, down my chest, through my cleavage and into the DMZ of my midsection.
We now have two dehumidifiers in the basement. One is in the marginally more habitable part of the basement with the large hearth, where once, not so long ago in geologic time, the meals were cooked. Now, I am sorry to say, it is stacked full of extra honey frames. The other is in the far back of the basement, where I never venture without shoes because not only do the cobblestones get quite slimy this time of year, but the chance of encountering large insects is excellent. I like to see large insects before I step on them, if I must step on them.
It turns out that these two dehumidifiers are not enough. Maybe two other dehumidifiers would be enough, if they were other, better, more efficient humidifiers. But these do not suffice. The basement is still very very humid. Everything I touch is damp and clammy.
So this morning I go to Home Depot to acquire yet another dehumidifier. Home Depot is enormous and full of useful things, useful and in many cases enigmatic. I ask the first fellow I see in a bright orange apron, emblazoned with the Home Depot logo, where are the dehumidifiers. He tells me to go all the way to the left, then take a right and go all the way to the back. I follow his instructions and find myself surrounded by long planks of wood, planks of woods in many sizes, all of them long. There are no dehumidifiers. My shopping cart and I start our way back towards the front of the store. En route is a woman also wearing the signature orange apron of helpful Home Depot employees, and I ask her where I might find a dehumidifier. She says, authoritatively, “Aisle 26. In the back bay. Up high.” The aisle numbers, I now discover, start at the store entrance with #1 and then go from right to left, Hebrew-style, to the far left end of the store; then they make a U-turn and continue from left to right for the back aisles, starting with 16 and going on up, presumably to 30, but I never got that far. In writing this is called a boustrophedon, from the ancient Greek for ox-turning. But this is not an ancient text, just aisles in Home Depot. I finally arrive at Aisle 26 and proceed to walk up and down. There are many household objects, and at the far end of the aisle there are air purifiers. This seems like a good sign, but there are absolutely no dehumidifiers. I ask a nice young man wearing an orange polo shirt with the Home Depot logo if he knows where I might find a dehumidifier, and he says that it would make sense for them to be up front with the air-conditioners. But he cautions me that he doesn’t work at the store, so he could be wrong. I nod quizzically towards his Home Depot orange polo shirt, because I can’t help myself, and he just shrugs. “It was a free shirt.”
Should I now return all the way to the front, where the air conditioners are, or at least where this non-employee of Home Depot assumes they should be?
Then I notice the woman from yesterday’s altercation at the post office, looking at the very complete array of grab bars. I don’t know her, and she probably doesn’t even recognize me, since I was behind her in line when the man behind me in line started interjecting himself into her transaction with the post office clerk. It is a well-known, if depressing, fact, that our local post office can be very slow, that it will take longer to post a package to Aunt Milly than it took to embroider the cushions and write the letter telling her all the news and why this embroidered cushion is several years later in arriving than you had intended. I say that not to excuse the rudeness of the man behind me in line, but to give a little context. The woman now surveying the daunting selection of grab bars at Home Depot was in the post office yesterday mailing a cardboard box to some foreign destination. She had filed out the required customs form but omitted to assign a value to the items inside the box.
The clerk asked for the value and the woman said, “I don’t know. They’re just old clothes.”
The clerk said, “Well what are they worth?”
The woman said, “I can’t say, because they are used.”
The clerk then said, “Can you just give any value, because we need it for the form?” Under the woman’s tee shirt were the bright blue straps of what I guessed was a bathing suit. I wondered if she was on her way to the town pool, or perhaps she had already been there. I thought about how much I would like to dive into the lake and swim for a very long time away from the shore.
The woman said, “They don’t really have a value. Other than sentimental.”
“Just say $10.00. It’s not that hard,” said the man behind me in line.
The woman at the counter, with bright blue straps peeking out from under her tee shirt, turned and said, “You are a very rude person. And listening to private conversations.”
The man in line said, “I was just trying to move things along.”
She said, “I waited in line, just like you. Please keep your thoughts to yourself.”
The man said, “It wasn’t my intention to be rude.”
She said, “Well you are.”
Naturally, the rest of us waiting in line were completely enthralled by this interaction. But that was the end. The woman told the postal employee that the clothes were worth $20 and she didn’t want to pay for insurance. The postal employee explained that the insurance came with the postage, and did not cost extra.
And this very morning she is in Home Depot looking at grab bars. It is much hotter and more humid than it was yesterday, but today she is not wearing a bathing suit under her shirt. Or if she is, it is well hidden. It feels odd to not acknowledge her in some way, but I don’t, figuring that even if she recognizes me from yesterday in the post office, she would rather forget the whole incident.
I am still unsure about which direction to take when I see another man in the emblematic bright orange Home Depot apron. I ask him about dehumidifiers. He points me to the far end of Aisle 26. I explain that I have already asked three different people and have not yet found a single dehumidifier, so I am a leery about returning to that particular spot.
“Don’t worry. This is my department,” he says, and now I am noticing that he is tall and handsome, and has rather long braids. I have mixed feelings about long hair on men, but he is young, and on him the long braids look damn good. We walk together to the end of the aisle and he sees that there are in fact no dehumidifiers. He asks a fellow employee, “Did anyone move my dehumidifiers?”
“No, man.”
“Stay right here,” he tells me. “I know there are some on the palette out back.”
I have no intention of going anywhere. Just like that, I trust this guy. I feel like we are in this quest together. Minutes pass and I don’t worry. I note that all the signage in the store is in both English and Spanish, so that a language student could come to Home Depot and learn all the vocabulary necessary for construction, and home decoration. I learn that Vanities are called Tocadores in Spanish (not Vanidades, which is what I would have guessed.) Parts for Faucets is Repuestos para Grifos. Wonder Board is, however, Wonder Board in Spanish. Not Tablero de Maravilla.
More minutes pass and I remember that I also need to buy citronella candles because whenever we eat out on the porch my dear friend Gill is bitten by mosquitoes. I do not get bitten by mosquitoes, at least not here in New York, and never when Gill is around. Just last night we were dining on the porch and she asked if we had citronella candles, and I was sad to say that I had none. Citronella is an essential oil extracted from lemongrass. Like ‘finished’ in ‘a finished basement’, ‘essential’ in ‘essential oil’ is a redolent word. According to the EPA, citronella is a non-toxic biopesticide, but in Europe they don’t think citronella works to keep away mosquitoes at all.
My braided friend returns with a dehumidifier in a box. He gently places it in my shopping cart. I thank him sincerely, and within minutes, I am the owner of a new dehumidifier and three tubs of citronella candles.
In Les Sept Faux Departs, as they fly east from Lagos, my grandfather, Bon Papa, waxes eloquent about the Jukun kingdom of Nigeria, whose religion resembled that of the ancient Egyptians.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

In-flight Movies with Mom

It is not the kind of thing she forgets. She forgets where she has been, and who lived in Courtrai, but not that he was a lecher who fondled her legs. She forgets where we were yesterday, but she still knows she was born in Belgium and she still knows she never lived in Belgium. She still knows phrases in kitchen Arabic.
Every day requires a redrawing of the mental map of what is recalled and what forgotten, what dimly seen, what achingly looking for.

For those accustomed to large seats and warm towels, it is – I am guessing here - a muscle memory. But in her 60 plus years of traveling the globe with my father, trading cotton waste on 5 continents, she never flew in first class. It would not have occurred to either of them. So she could not forget how it worked because she never knew: the magic seat controls, the hot towels handed over with barbecue tongs, the menu choices, the complimentary headphones and movies on demand.
But last week when we took Mom to Belgium, we took her first class, thanks to a cousin with a multitude of miles.

It turned out she loved first class. As we settled into our pods, she was in awe of the room, the magical seat controls, the food, and the attention. The steward was excessively attentive.
It was getting late, and the next day would be long, and in the long list of available movies, I had noticed they offered this Russian movie called Leviathan. I’d seen posters featuring the carcass of a large whale washed up on a bleak arctic landscape – the sort of thing that instantly appeals to me. Mom was finished with her meal and seemed ready to settle in. I was looking forward to dozing over Siberian melodrama.
I booted up the movie, donned my earphones, and started to watch.
Mom tapped on my arm and asked me what I was doing. I explained about the Russian film. She said she would like to watch a movie also. Would I find her one? I stopped Leviathan, took off my headphones and semi-climbed, semi-kneeled on my seat and leaned awkwardly over into hers so that I could actually see her screen. (The airplane TV screens are rather brilliantly designed to look black from any oblique angle; thus you have to be looking straight at it in order to see what is there, and operate the controls.) I pressed the button for WATCH, which led us to the long list of movies, and I scrolled through them, looking for something that would appeal to my mother. I settled on The Theory of Everything. I told her it was about Stephen Hawking, and she seemed to recognize the name. So I selected that movie and helped her put on the head phones, and adjusted the volume. First it was too low: “I can’t hear anything.” Then it was too loud: “Basta!” Then it was okay. She started watching.
I settled back into my seat, put my headphones back on and restarted Leviathan. The Siberian landscape was indeed bleak, and everyone smoked cigarettes more or less constantly. My mother tapped my arm, and started talking. I stopped Leviathan and took off my headphones.
“Is that Hawking in the big glasses?”
“Yes,” I said, without actually looking. “Are you enjoying it?”
“I’ve seen it before,” she said.
“Really? When?” I said. This was foolish, and if I had thought about it, if I had followed the guidelines for “Habilitation” instead of “Reality Orientation”, as explained in Learning to Speak Alzheimer’s, I would never have asked that question.
“A few years ago,” she said.
“But it only came out last year,” I said. (See above comments.)
“Well I saw it a few years ago, and I don’t want to watch it now.”
“Do you want to see something else?”
So I turned myself around and leaned over into her seat, again, and took hold of her TV remote control, and we returned to the list of available movies and scrolled through the possibilities. At least 80% I had never heard of; and of those at least 80% looked inappropriate on the grounds of violence or violence or potential violence. I suggested something called Love, Rosie because it appeared to be a romantic comedy. I clicked on it, and helped Mom put the headphones back on. We adjusted the volume as the movie began.
I settled back down in my seat and figured out how to go back to my place in Leviathan, and then I returned to the tundra.
Glancing over at Mom, and she didn’t look happy. Romantic comedies were supposed to be funny, or at any rate, not miserable. She tapped my arm. I removed my headphones and stopped Leviathan.
“I’ve seen this before,” she said. “And I didn’t like it then.”
This time I managed not to contradict her, thus proving that I am still capable of learning.
“What are you watching?” she asked.
“A Russian movie.”
“I like Russian movies,” Mom said and I could almost see Omar Sharif and his balalaika wafting through her brain.
“This one has subtitles, and it’s set in Siberia. It’s kind of depressing,” I said.
“I would like to see it,” she said.
So hoisted myself up and over her seat again, and returned to the movie menu on the screen and picked Leviathan from the list and started it up for her. She put on her headphones and I fiddled again with the volume. I slid back into my seat, and restarted my own Leviathan. The characters were still sitting around a table talking in Russian about something that was making them all unhappy. And they were smoking. Then they went outside, where there was a lot of snow or maybe that was just very pale tundra.
Mom tapped my arm. I took off my headphones. “This make no sense,” she said. “I don’t want to watch a movie.”
“Good idea,” I said.
She slept. I returned to Siberia, and slept too. When we woke up we were almost in Brussels.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Away we go

So tomorrow we are taking Mom to Belgium for what will surely be her last trip abroad, her last visit to the land of her birth, and most likely her last trip in an airplane. We are doing this just in time. (That is what I am hoping. We could also be doing it too late, in which case I can anticipate a meltdown at the junction of Rue de Chêne and Rue de L’Étuve, when Mom does not recognize Manneken Pis.) Her short-term memory is shrinking like wool in the dryer; sometimes her retention can be measured in seconds.
In preparation for this trip she has read a book about Belgian castles (lots of pictures, written in 4 languages, at least two she knows well), and has told me that she is surprised to learn that Belgium is full of old castles (22 times.) She praises my cousin Pascale for having given me this book (19 times.) She tells CSB that he will enjoy the flat countryside (11 times). She informs us (countless times) that although she was born in Belgium, she never lived there, as they moved immediately to Egypt after her birth. She has related (4 times) an apocryphal story of her maternal grandmother urinating in soup she was forced to serve to billeted German officers. (Mom has the wrong war.) Also in preparation Mom has had a massage, will have a facial later today, and tomorrow will get a wash and blow dry. I will take more Sudafed. So we are ready to go.

I am looking forward to finally seeing Geel. For years I have read about this unusual town outside of Antwerp, where for hundreds of years the inhabitants have taken in the mentally ill, and cared for them in their homes. The tradition goes back to the (possibly apocryphal) martyrdom of Saint Dymphna in the 7th century. She was the Christian daughter of a pagan Irish king. Her beautiful mother died when Dymphna was young, and her father the king vowed he would never marry again unless he found someone as beautiful as his beloved dead wife. When Dymphna grew to be her mother’s spitting image, her father conceived an “unlawful passion” for his daughter, and she had to flee from her homeland. She went with her confessor, Gerebernus and they ended up in a forest outside Antwerp. That should have been far enough and remote enough, but it wasn’t, and her father discovered refugees in their sanctuary. Again she refused his incestuous overtures, and the king ordered his soldiers to kill both Dymphna and Gerebernus. But the soldiers refused to decapitate the lovely young girl, in the end her father did the deed himself. (Sounds like mental illness to me.) Their martyred bodies were buried by angels, and over the years the place and the relics were imbued with miraculous healing powers. Pilgrims came from all over, and brought along lunatics, epileptics and sleepwalkers to be cured. The tradition continues, and Dymphna is the patron saint of lunatics, sleepwalkers, epileptics, incest victims, those with neurological disorders, princesses, runaways and therapists. We would be remiss not to make the pilgrimage.

The beheading of St Dymphna by Godfried Maes (1649-1700), a member of the Antwerp Guild of St Luke; he was particularly good at ceiling designs.

Meanwhile, I am reading about new tests one can take to learn if one has the ApoE4 gene that indicates a high likelihood of getting Alzheimer’s. Should I get this test? Having an exit strategy is not a bad idea.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Do woodpeckers get headaches? And if not, why not?

So early this morning I am still under the covers trying to understand why or how it was that in my dream CSB and I have become Native American activists named Coconut and Chickle, and just outside the woodpeckers are busy in the trees. Busy jackhammering at the trunks of black walnut trees and the catalpa tree and the locust trees just outside our window. And because it is still very early, I can ponder what it might be like to perch oneself on the side of a tree and rapidly, very rapidly, hammer away at the wood, using one’s head and beak as the jackhammer. As soon as I consider this, I recognize how pleasant it is to have my head unmoving on the pillow. Poor woodpeckers. Do woodpeckers get headaches? How could they not? They can, and do, repeatedly peck at the tree at the ridiculously high rate of 10,000 pecks/meters per seconds squared. (10,000 m/s2 – I am not really sure what this means.)
Yet they don’t get headaches, or at any rate they don’t complain about headaches, because their physiology has evolved to deal with this very problem.
Evolution has wisely given woodpeckers small brains nestled inside their skulls in such a way as to “maximize area of contact between the brain and skull”. Their eyeballs and nostrils are likewise protected from the potential damage of flying wood chips: the eyeballs with a nictitating membrane, like a transparent third eyelid, that closes mere milliseconds before the impact of beak on bark, and their tiny nostrils with tiny feathers covering the aperture.

If this is not enough about woodpeckers to enliven your day, you may also want to know that they all have zygodactyl feet; this means that of their four toes, the first and last face backward, while the two middle ones face forward. This arrangement is useful for climbing straight up a tree; it also resembles the finger arrangement used in Alternate Nostril Breathing – Nadi Shodhan Pranayama - in my yoga class that is so helpful with meditation.

What passes through the small brain of the woodpecker as he hammers away at that dizzying rate? Or does he meditate?

Pictures: Woodpecker from ANB sketch from

Monday, April 27, 2015

More False Departures / Encore les Faux Departs

The project continues, and I am getting to know this grandfather who wrote so lovingly of his family, and especially his wife – and in that matter I trust his judgment because she would later become my own beloved Bonne Maman.

Since you last heard, Bon Papa was en route to the Caltex headquarters in NY, planning to go to Cairo. He and his colleagues are traveling aboard the “Challenger” of the Union Pacific RR. He writes in loving detail of the towns and landscapes they pass through, especially the western vistas he so extravagantly admires: “Several ranches as described by Zane Grey”. Or: “Evanston, Utah = it was here I had my troubles with our Dodge car, 7 months ago, but that turned out well.” Or: “This evening we arrived in Omaha, the capital of Nebraska, the state always “dry”, which did not allow us, all evening, to enjoy our whiskeys. Frigid wind and we didn’t leave the station during our half hour stop.” Or: “From Albany, the capital of NY, we passed the Hudson River, whose banks are covered with ice. It is a beautiful spectacle – seen from our well-heated Pullman. The large factories on the riverbanks that I know: Phelps Dodge, Anaconda Copper Co, Fisher Body, De Lavat Steam engines…and many more. We arrived at the formidable Grand Central Station at 9 am.” (I translated formidable, the French, as formidable, the English. I know that is not properly correct, that it means something more on the lines of wonderful. But I like the word.)
While awaiting his Egyptian visa, Bon Papa worked at the office and toured New York, methodically and enthusiastically, and wrote about it for his wife.

On the 6th of February he learned that the Egyptian authorities had refused to grant him an entry visa. This news shocked my grandfather and shocked his boss at Caltex and even shocked the Egyptian consul. He had lived happily in Alexandria from 1931 to 1939, and had many friends and contacts in Egypt, friends who awaited his return.
That same afternoon, the General Manager asked Bon Papa if he spoke Spanish (he did, quite well). The G-M said (This is all written in French; the shabby translations are mine), “You know, perhaps, that the US is investing nearby to Santiago de Cuba about 20 miles from Guantanamo. $18 million for development of nickel and manganese, 2 metals absolutely necessary for war. And we miss a great deal of that. Time is pushing. The development will not be late in starting. This representation (“un chiffre d’affaire”) of the turnover of an oil field from $3 to 4 million per year, and we want it. You need to arrange that we will get this business. …Besides this, you know that the sugar business of Cuba are the largest in the world. Certain mills produce 15,000 tons of sugar cane per day. They are situated in the eastern provinces. Yours. We have to accept we have no clients; it is not acceptable and you need to correct this situation. There is the Cuban RR, but we have never had anything to do with them, and we would like to take our share of the profits. That would be one of your missions.”
About this new posting to Cuba, Bon Papa wrote: Here is the good American method. Precise, quick and broad. This work pleases me at the outset. I saw right away all the possible risks. There is a director and vice- director already in Havana, who would be the obvious ones to fill this spot. But they haven’t succeeded, it seems, and we have more hope in me.
I didn’t wait to study all that can help me in my new functions. I studied for 8 or 9 hours a day to better know the technical side of the exploitation of the mines, of sugar mills and railroads.
Every day I read aloud about 50 pages from a novel, in the Spanish language. I prepare eagerly.

And he went to movies. He went to a movie almost every day. As I translate, I am compiling a list of the movies he went to, imagining that I will see the same movies and know him better. Movies he saw from mid-January to the end of March, 1942 include but are not limited to: Tobacco Road, The Corsican Brothers, Chocolate Soldiers, Hudson Bay, Design for Scandal, Ruggles of Red Gap, Woman of the Year, Louisiana Purchase, The Mutinies of Elsinore, The Last of the Duanes, White Fang, Mister V, Remember the Day, Two Faced Woman, Riders of Sage Brush, Adventures of Martin Eden, Bedtime Story, Reap the Wild Wind, and Sullivan’s Travels.
He loved the moves, but I think he loved the Rockettes more. I have not kept count of his visits to Radio City Music Hall.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Three Things You May Need to Know

Three things I learned today that I simply cannot keep to myself.

1. Bishop, California is the MULE CAPITAL of the world. Since my #1 daughter and her husband and children will be teaching and living at Deep Spring College for the months of May and June, and since Bishop is the only large town, or any town, nearby (It has more feet above sea level, 4150, than it has residents) and not all that nearby, it seemed like a good idea to learn something about Bishop. And I learned that it is the MULE CAPITAL of the WORLD. This seems a bit hubristic on Bishop’s part, given that Mexico has the #1 mule population worldwide, with 3, 280,00 and the USA ranks a lowly #26, with a mere 28,000 mules. But that hasn’t stopped Bishop from hosting the Annual Mule Days.and I dearly hope that my grandchildren will have to opportunity to participate.
2. I also learned today, from Boris the Guatemalan painter, that bananas are considered bad luck on a boat. I never knew this, and now I will be careful never to bring bananas on a boat. I even checked with, and yes, this is a ‘true’ superstition. That is, people believe it, based on absolutely no true facts.
3. The Mayans came as far north as Georgia, USA. (Before it was Georgia, USA.) This was discovered because the Mayans liked to paint themselves blue with a very special blue dye only available at this one spot in Georgia. I was told this item by Boris; but unlike the Mule Days and the Banana Superstition, it is not verifiable or universally agreed upon. Far from it. In northeastern Georgia there is a place with ancient mounds called the Kenimer Site, and one guy, an architect, claims that Mayans once inhabited the site. Another website talks about a petroglyph in Georgia that looks very Mayan. Another website is scathing about the architect's fact-checking. There appears to be no consensus, and absolutely no one mentions the blue dye posited by Boris.

Monday, April 13, 2015

The Seven False Departures or Les Sept Faux Departs

A project is a good thing to have.

A project can keep those demonic lost memories in their demonic cages. And also because I have a tendency to get antsy, and because it seems like a good thing to do before it is too late, I have embarked on the project of translating Les Sept Faux Departs with my mother. French is after all her native tongue. In the past few years, while sorting through the sedimentary memorabilia that buttresses my parents’ home, I found this thick bound volume written by my grandfather in the 1940’s. All 346 pages are handwritten, elegantly and legibly, in French, and the whole is bound in red leather.
I thought that as we translated I would learn the details of the family’s sorrowful wartime separation, along with some French vocabulary.

There are many things we do not know about our parents and grandparents. That is normal and unless one is obsessive and weird, it is also completely desirable. But certain things one does know. For certain.
One thing we all knew for certain was that my grandmother, Bonne Maman, and her children – my mother and uncle – spent the duration of the Second World War in Long Beach, California, while my grandfather, Bon Papa, was in Asia and then Cairo, working for Caltex, managing the oil business in the Middle East and perhaps passing on intelligence to the allies. The family was separated for the duration of the war. That was axiomatic, and of course, sad.
But it’s not true.
The three hundred and forty-six page handwritten book, Les Sept Faux Departs, proves the untruth.
I am not the only one who believed, absolutely, in the truth of their wartime separation. My cousin, a singular Brancart in the new world, was as convinced of that fact as I was. Until I disabused him. On a sunny California Easter while admiring a flock of goats, while noting how much less goats smell than a similar number of pigs would smell, even if they do have disturbing slotted eyes. We admired the goats and agreed that the fact of Bon Papa’s non-presence in Long Beach during the war was a seminal detail we had believed and been told numerous times, and never doubted. Because the point of telling such a story is the sadness of it: to be separated. Except they were not, or not entirely.
I know now the true-truth, as distinct from the story-truth. Bit by bit, garbled sentence by awkward conjugation, I am getting to know Bon Papa. He was delightful, sincere, and he was in California with his family in 1941 and 1942.

Obviously, it would have been useful to have embarked on this project and learned this before….before the great dividing moment, before this, before that, so that I might have asked my mother why she always told us, and why her brother always told his children, and why my grandmother always told all of us, that they were separated for the duration. Now I can’t ask. Now she can’t answer. Whatever the reason, it has been rewritten, retold, and re-forgotten in the implacable landfill of neurofibrillary tangles.

So now I am the one to tell my mother that her father was in California in the summer of 1941, and they all vacationed at Big Bear. I remind her how much they loved Big Bear. Her father writes rapturously about the American West. He devoured Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour. Even as she translates, I explain to my mother that the first of the Seven False Departures occurred in August of 1941, when his scheduled sailing back to Saigon, via Hong Kong, was cancelled. The second came in November of that year, when he was booked aboard the SS Lurline from San Francisco via Honolulu to Singapore; from there he would cross the peninsula of Malacca by train and somehow get to the Cambodian border. On the morning of November 29th, Bon Papa’s luggage was on board and he was making his fond farewells, when a FBI agent found him and announced that under a new regulation no one, neither American nor alien, was authorized to leave the US after December 1without the personal written approval of the Dept. of State, Washington, DC. My grandfather noted that it was still November. Yes, agreed the FBI agent, but the ship was due in Honolulu on December 4th. Bon Papa debarked, and returned home.
The proper papers were duly acquired, and Bon Papa was then booked on the SS President Polk, sailing out of San Francisco on December 7th. The night of the 6th he and Bonne Maman dined with friends: “Oysters, a shrimp bisque, fried sole, good wines.” At noon the next day, the ship steamed past Alcatraz and Angel Island and ventured into the Pacific. At 1:30 that afternoon, they all learned what we all know, that Japan had bombed Pearl Harbor.
The SS President Polk returned to San Francisco. That was the third False Departure, and it meant that my grandfather returned to Long Beach and was able to spend the Christmas holidays back at Big Bear Lake with his family. It meant he could enjoy his children’s enjoyment as they experienced snow for the first time in their lives. (Having lived only in Egypt and Indochina, despite their Belgian passports.)
In January 1941, Caltex beckoned Bon Papa to New York, with the plan that he would depart from there for Cairo. He traveled by train across the US with two good friends, Gordon and Mac. (Years later, traveling with my grandmother, we will stay at Laurie and Ivy Gordon’s Hype Park flat, and I will eat tongue for the first time.)
We will translate some more pages, I will write of the excellent meals they consumed, and of the great sights they saw from that transcontinental train. I will learn how it is that this projected voyage to Cairo became the fourth False Departure.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Losing a Fairy Tale

Until recently I believed fairy tales were hard wired into our universal unconscious. And then I was wrong.

Was my reading of Jung sloppy? Did I actually read Man and His Symbols or do I just imagine I did? What don’t I know about sibling rivalry and Oedipal conflicts? (Per Bettelheim) Are my convictions any different from my mother’s insistence that she and Dad visited Bhutan, twice, on their way home from Pakistan? (She has in fact been almost everywhere, but not Bhutan, or Antarctica, or Alaska.)

I thought if there was one movie I could safely take my mother to, it would be Cinderella, on the assumption that the plot would be easy to follow, or unnecessary to follow, because isn’t the story of the kind orphaned girl who gets her prince one of the cornerstones of the Western imagination?
How could I be so very wrong?

It’s true my mother has never watched much television or movies. The notable exception when we were children was Sea Hunt with Lloyd Bridges, because she was an accomplished scuba diver (those childhood vacations along the Red Sea) and every episode of Sea Hunt afforded ample opportunities for critiquing his technique, correcting the details, and then spoiling the suspense by assuring her poor deluded children that of course Mike Nelson would survive the crisis of the moment, because he had to return next week.

So it is fair to say that even before spiraling down the rabbit hole, my mother was not in the habit of watching movies or television, so she is not in the habit of granting to the small or large screen that willing suspension of disbelief most of us effortlessly cede. No, that cottage in the woods is not meant to be ‘real’. Nor is it ‘true’ that young girls, even the prettiest and kindest, can communicate with mice. I cannot explain why the stepmother is so mean; she simply is; the story relies on her meanness.
I thought we would settle into our seats, shed our winter garments, smell the aroma of popcorn, and watch a story we know so well that no amount of updating could disguise it. We would relax and delight in the slightly vulgar but very amusing polychromatic costumes of the wicked stepsisters. We would each hold our breath as Cinderella’s rags are transformed into a shimmering ball gown. We would shed a few tears for true love winning out.
But my mother did not want popcorn. We were the only people in the theater that wintry afternoon (technically Spring). Later when CSB asked about the movie, she announced with great solemnity that we were alone in the theater. That was all.

This worries me. If a fairy tale can be eradicated by the ravages of amyloid plaques, then what is sacred?

*Illustrations by Adrienne Ségur, from The Fairy Tale Book, a Deluxe Golden Book ca. 1958, and beloved by me.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Memory, Disintegrating

That morning I unearthed a box filled with flakery reminiscent of friable asbestos in the basement or my collection of desiccated horseshoe crab carapaces.The box was labeled WW2 and was in fact filled with brittle rolls of film, mouse-nibbled packages of negatives, and dozens of envelopes containing black and white photos taken by my father in Japan, right after the end of the war in 1945. There were pictures of Japanese tombs, Japanese tunnels, destroyed Japanese warplanes, and what appear to be picnics in the countryside. There were multiple photographs of Miss California, flanked by smiling soldiers.

It was a good thing to find before taking my mother to visit the neurologist. It was pure chance, or maybe just a respite from the cosmos, that the neurologist we visited was from Lebanon and my mother grew up in Egypt, and if nothing else, she recalls Egypt well; and in her mind, Beirut is still the Paris of the Middle East. So the doctor’s name was familiar and reassuring. So reassuring, perhaps, that my mother did not register or hear and acknowledge the diagnosis, so reassuring that she had no reason to recollect the discovery of Alois A. more than a century ago of the neurofibrillary tangles causing us so much dismay; but I did: I heard, I registered and recalled. I have never been to the Paris of the Middle East.

Back home we sat at the kitchen table and rifled through the box of old pictures. We did not discuss the diagnosis or anything at all about the visit to the neurologist. From handling the old photographs, we had to wash our hands frequently. Or I did. (I am only slightly paranoid about hanta virus and its variants.)

My father signed up during his sophomore year at Harvard, and he was sent to the Navy’s Intensive language school in Colorado to learn Japanese and Korean. (Good call: he was already fluent in French and German, as well as his native Esperanto.) Later he was selected into the Naval Intelligence Service and sent to Hawaii where he translated intercepted Japanese messages. Later, he assisted Admiral Jerauld Wright at the surrender of the Japanese Navy in Korea. . We don’t know anything else he did in the war. He never spoke of it - as in never, or only slightly more than he spoke of his mother, about whom he never spoke voluntarily - until the last five years of his life, by which time he had suffered a stroke and his older memories became the most vivid for him. He was stationed in Japan when the war was over, and stayed on to debrief Japanese soldiers and assess the situation. The war was now over, so he was finally allowed to take photographs; he took lots and sent them back to Hingham to be processed. Sixty years later, he still had his prescriptions filled at the same pharmacy.
Here are some Japanese planes. I wonder if even back then, Dad was wondering how the scrap metal might be profitably recycled.

Dad's caption for this reads: If a family doesn't have enough money to build a tomb they make a special thatched hut like this and put the ashes there.

On the back of the above he wrote: The Okinawa thatch is different from that in Europe or England but equally effective.
And here are the young soldiers with their beloved Miss California.

I can't begin to explain this except to marvel at Dad's observations (and knowledge of gemology?)

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Cuba 1956

The story I heard was this: my parents arrived in Havana sometime in the mid- fifties, and handed over their passports to the Cuban immigration authorities, and that was the first realization that my mother was 4 years old, had blonde hair, blue eyes and was 2 feet 6 inches feet tall. (My eyes are actually, currently, green)
She had picked up the wrong passport on her way out the door (in snowy Hingham, leaving behind her three children), and now she was in Cuba pretending to be her daughter.
That is all I ever heard. I assume my parents came to some satisfactory arrangement with the immigration officials, because they proceeded to enter Cuba.

I tried to verify this story, or my memory of the story, but my mother has no memory of ever going to Cuba, with or without my passport.
Which of us is most culpable of failing the narrative: Me for possibly making it all up? She for not retaining the memory?
One thing I feel certain about: They did go to Cuba, and not only did they go to Cuba in 1956, but – according to the paper trail - they did several things we did not do: they basked on the sunny beach of Varadero, they saw the wildly funny De Castro Sisters* perform, and then they attended Sunday mass at the parish church of Santo Angelo Custodio. It was, after all, the first Sunday of Advent.
I know all this because there is an enormous cupboard in the parental basement containing the relics of my parents travels. The drawers are labeled: Europe, South and Central America (Cuba was in this drawer), Asia, Africa. And inside each drawer are manila envelopes labeled with the country visited and a date. My mother’s organization will outlive her memory.

*Three singing sisters, Peggy, Cherie and Babette: they were raised in a Havana mansion that is now home to the Chinese embassy. Their mother, Babette, was a Zeigfield Follies showgirl, and their father, Juan Fernandez, owned a sugar plantation, Radio and TV stations in Cuba, and was planning with Batista to build a canal through Cuba. In 1954 the De Castro Sisters performed at the Desert Inn with Noel Coward when he made his Las Vegas debut, and in 1956 they performed at the Casino Parisién for my parents.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Some Blue in Cuba

As Americans we are not meant to go to Cuba in order to bask on the beach, frolic in the waves, get sunburned, get sand between our toes and drink mojitos.
Only Canadians and Germans get to do that.
As Americans we went to Cuba to see Art and Architecture, of which we saw a lot. Serendipitously, the art studio of Norberto and Jannette was nearby a beach, so we went there for lunch and the possibility of plunging into the warm Caribbean waves.
It was a sirenic possibility, until we saw the Portuguese men o’war. These bluebottles are marine cnidarians, and though I have always thought otherwise, they are not jellyfish, but siphonophores. Their gas-filled bladders – pneumatophores [I am loving this vocabulary] - are bright blue and tempting. My impulse –thankfully thwarted - was to pick one up, pop its distended bladder and bring home the deflated blue sac to show my grandchildren. That would have been a terrible idea, as their venom can remain potent for hours and even days after the dead creatures have washed up on this lovely tropical beach. And then I would have suffered an extremely painful dermatitis, caused by contact with urticariogenic tentacles; and possibly even developed a fever, shock and then died.
I did not touch the bluebottles, or only once, and very slightly.
We didn’t go swimming either, because lots of Portuguese men o’war washed up on a beach indicate even more Portuguese men o’war are in the water, floating this way and that, along with the winds, currents and tides.
(Not my foot, but a good one for scale, and of course the colors are lovely.)