A Room of My Own in My Father’s New York…

I ought to have been born between the World Wars, when it was romantic to be sentimental, when having an attachment to the past was normal, when lovers would hand-write nostalgia-filled letters whenever apart, when taking a journey down a memory lane strewn with tales of adventures and friends and events long gone by could rouse a spontaneous and unembarrassed launch into Doris Day’s and Les Brown’s rendition of A Sentimental Journey. Gonna take a sentimental journey Gonna set my heart at ease Gonna make a sentimental journey To renew old me-emories… My parents, unapologetic romantics, loved Doris Day. They listened to big band music, wrote long letters and took countless black and white photographs of people long passed into the Al di là, which my mother tucked away in envelopes or framed and hung on the walls of the house I grew up in – the house my father built for her with his own hands, the ultimate amorous gesture – with a multitude of framed memories from their individual and collective lives. Artworks suspended on stuccoed walls next to pen and inks of places I thought I would never have an opportunity to visit conjured imaginary blueprints of the imaginary house with the imaginary rooms I dreamed of building for myself one day, the walls of which I would hang with art and photographs curated from my own memory lanes.

Remembering a Friend…

The news did not exactly come as a shock. I had filed away the possibility that his life would end one day in the part of my brain reserved for things I simply did not want to think about happening. A less willful, less stubborn, less enthusiastically alive man would have long ago succumbed to the many illnesses he had endured over the last 2 decades. His ability to push back had convinced me that nothing could kill him. An email in mid-March relaying that he was in hospice care switched on the emotional regulator that controlled my reservoir of memories about him, sending through a few at a time, as though dropping them into my consciousness in a metered manner would avoid a flood tide the day he finally decided to part this Earth. I called and left a message on his home answering machine – announcing, asking, hinting – that I would get on a plane to see him if I could be sure I wouldn’t be intruding. When his wife called back minutes later, I hoped she would say, ‘Yes, of course! Come!,’ but instead I heard, “No one has told you…Jim died last night.” I had not seen Jim and his wife since the Summer of 2011, when I accompanied my husband to New Mexico for the unveiling of his mother’s tombstone. The four of us had gotten together for lunch, a lunch that was interrupted by an unexpected visit from my family, a lunch over which I had wanted to talk to him about so many things suddenly shared with too many people, a lunch I did not know would be the last one over which I would enjoy his company. “No!,” I wailed, then apologized, embarrassed. How could I commandeer this sorrow for myself… Continue reading Remembering a Friend…

There’s something about T-straps…

…that I’ve always had a strong visceral reaction to, but I never gave it much thought…until this past Friday afternoon. The way the standing leg of the “T” stretches up the middle of the forefoot to meet the cross bar, which circles around the ankle and cinches at the side in a buckle, only to tie the foot up so that it can’t easily get away, makes me feel constricted, confined, controlled.  The hair lifts off the surface of my arms, my breathing becomes shallow, my shoulders rise up toward my ears, my toes assert themselves and spread out along the insides of my shoes, as though trying to push their way right through the seams to free themselves of the leather that binds them. When I was a child, the thought of not being able to kick a shoe off in an instant and wade through the waters of the Rio Grande River if I wanted to, the thought of not being able to slip out of a pair of shoes on a whim, climb over the fence of the horse corral and slide, barefoot, onto the back of my horse, Patches…the thought of not being able to run free made me crazy nervous.  Nutty, perhaps.  But I’m more than a bit of a claustrophobe and it extends to footwear. I don’t remember a time when T-straps haven’t been more or less in fashion, often in black patent leather, a high-gloss enameled treatment of animal skin to which I was strangely attracted when I was 15.  When I was invited to the prom by a friend of my older brother’s I used my savings to buy an above-the-knee cream-colored long-sleeved lace dress with a matching slip to modestly cover my almost non-existent breasts.  A search of virtually every shoe… Continue reading There’s something about T-straps…

On Single Parenting…and the Promise of Sopapillas at El Pinto

When I was a kid I would scour the landscape for mothers with children and watch them as though through a microscope.  Mothers with packs of children followed us everywhere – to our dentist’s and doctor’s offices, to the gas station, the grocery store, the laundromat and the bank. They drove up behind us at the window at McIlhaney’s Dairy to exchange their glass milk bottles just like we did, the back seats of their Pontiacs and Chevys and Plymouths stuffed with bored and grim-faced kids who had been dragged along on these usually Saturday morning excursions just like my brother and sister and I had been.  They would pull up next to us at an intersection, check us out, then speed off down the road leaving our car covered in silky New Mexico desert dust. After Unitarian Sunday School my mother would sometimes take us to the doughnut shop, where there were always other mothers with children in tow – pressing their noses against the glass cases, pleading, “I wanna a chocolate-glazed one,” or “I’ll have a vanilla cream-filled one, please,” or, “No, wait!  I can’t decide.  Okay, okay, can I have that big powdered sugar one in the front?” or, “Sorry, but I changed my mind…I want a chocolate on chocolate one…‘cause they’re fatter, okay, Mom?” and, “Can we have a box of doughnut holes please please please please please?  For later on, please?” And the sly looks on the faces of those other mothers’ children were the same as on ours – the smugness of knowing that our willingness to go along for the ride on chore days could only be pacified with a doughnut, a cookie, a popsicle, an ice cream cone…or the ultimate promise of sopapillas at El Pinto later…and woe be unto the mother who resisted this particular form… Continue reading On Single Parenting…and the Promise of Sopapillas at El Pinto

Our Mothers, Sex…and Freedom

For reasons I have never quite understood, children tend to flinch, blanch and wince at any suggestion that their parents might have had sex for the pure pleasure of it, rather than solely for the purpose of having children.  It has never made sense to me that a child might prefer to think they were conceived by an emotionally disconnected physical act, rather than one drenched in pleasure and absorbed in carnal indulgence and abandon.  It seems to be almost universally against the nature of children to think of their parents as having had a sexual appetite, let alone a possibly ravenous one.  Taking pleasure is often perceived as selfish, and parents are supposed to be decidedly self-less. Indeed if children were to spend any time thinking about their parents having been so physically and emotionally enraptured and enwrapped, other questions might arise from which to further flinch, blanch and wince.  Such as how often their parents had sex.  And what kind of sex they had.  And where they had it.  And under what circumstances.  Which might actually lead to a conversation with their parents about, well, you know…sex.  Children don’t want to go there.  Nor, really, do their parents.  Parent/child conversations about sex usually revolve around the egg/sperm get together, and preventing pregnancy and being responsible and careful and cautious.  With all the worry involved, how can one openly and curiously venture into the dangerous territory of physical pleasure? All of which musings would naturally lead to these dreaded, inevitable, inexorable, and ultimate queries:  Within all of our parents’ wanton and woozy pleasure, did they actually mean to have us or was our conception merely a byproduct of sex rather than as the sole intended purpose of it?  Are we meant to be here, or were we merely accidents?… Continue reading Our Mothers, Sex…and Freedom

On Birthdays and Black Nail Polish

I never set out to write about being a stepparent, but then I never set out to be a stepmother. To be honest, I never set out to get married or to have children, so long before not intending to be a stepmother, I hadn’t intended to be a biological, adoptive or surrogate mother either.  No, I never set out to embrace the neatly ordered schedule traditionally required by a husband, children, assorted pets, multiple cars and a house-and-yard-with-white-picket-fence. Unlike little girls I well remember from my childhood, I never dressed up like a fairy princess, I never dreamed about marrying a handsome prince, never fantasized about an exotic wedding, or imagined what we might call our children, fervently writing down possible names on little slips of paper until hitting upon the ones that would perfectly reflect the magical essence of our carefully envisioned family.  But I was always ever so slightly jealous of girls who had these innocent fantasies, because it seemed so normal, so natural to want to grow up, get married and start a family. And it seemed decidedly, dismayingly, even distressingly abnormal not to want to.  At least that is what everyone told me, particularly other little girls.  And we all know how convincing little girls can be. I confess that even in my teenaged years I was never compelled to plaster my bedroom walls with the airbrushed images of fantasy princes – most popularly embodied at the time by John, Paul, George and Ringo – one of whom would surely, if only I could be at the right place at the right moment, put a ring on my finger one day.

New York, Italy, Virginia, Italy, Kentucky…Italy

My mother was a collector of letters and photographs.  She filled old shoeboxes with meticulously hand-written communications from my father’s Italian relatives, their fragile parchment leaves folded within envelopes bearing intriguing foreign stamps and exotic return addresses.  Bunches of letters bound together with thin rubber bands, their cohesive elasticity pushed to the limit, filled the corners of her closet, were tucked under her bed, and occupied the shelves in the green-painted hutch originally intended for crockery, while oversized and heartier legal documents were crammed into manila envelopes marked Soragna Farm, Liguria Affair, or, simply, Italy.  The years passed, she ran out of room, and even more letters eventually took the place of the spirits bottles in her elegant old liquor cabinet. Yet there was a decided devotion to the care she took in maintaining the scores of letters exchanged with my father before and during their marriage, most of which were shielded from the harsh New Mexico sunlight by an inexpensive desk centered under her bedroom window.  Occasionally, when she was out watering the garden, I would sneak in to read whatever I could easily access in an unlocked drawer, a far safer way to snoop than staying longer when she would go out shopping.  If I had too much time, I feared, I would disturb whatever invisible order there was in her placement of the letters and she would surely know I had been going through her things.