The Slow Demise of a Flying Friend…

The days are getting longer and I am suddenly thinking about her again, harbinger of Spring and Summer that her species is. I killed her last October. Not intentionally, but in the end it hardly mattered the deed was done. The cool days and nights of Fall had just begun to revive my outdoor red and yellow Hibiscus trees, beaten and bested by four months of brutally hot and humid weather. Over the Summer an infestation of thousands of tiny white flies had colonized the undersides of their leaves, transforming their thick, lustrous surfaces, once dense with chlorophyll, into yellowed, tissue-thin shades against the burning sun. The prior year’s visitation of beauteous bumblebees and butterflies, attracted by a bounty of flowering plants draped over the iron railing off our living room terrace – a kind of natural theatre scrim – was a distant memory. The heat had even chased away the hummingbirds, whose memories of the previous Summer’s supply of nectar were dashed on discovering their favored Hibiscus blooms had been drenched with insecticide, rendering their sweet potion undrinkable. Flying in to investigate, a ruby-throated one would flit from forlorn flower to forlorn flower, hovering in confusion before taking off, thirsty, across the Kentucky fields. Conscious of the ills of pesticides I’d made every effort to honor the organic route to pest control, my costly concoction of cinnamon and rosemary oils accomplishing nothing in the end. Come mid-Summer my Hibiscus, Gardenias and Oleanders were under full siege, and I reluctantly engaged the potency of inorganic insecticide. Failing to identify whatever karmic purpose there might have been in allowing the plants to die, which I was convinced they would have done if I didn’t take action, I spent a small fortune on sprays trying to keep them alive. In truth, the… Continue reading The Slow Demise of a Flying Friend…

A Writer’s Introduction to Google+

While certain life experiences are more or less universal – falling in or out of love, winning or losing a job, saying goodbye to one’s parents at the end of their lives – there are times when our individual realities are so idiosyncratic it’s hard for anyone else to relate, times when things can look calm and ordered on the outside, but underneath roils a breeding ground of anxiety. The sort of uncertainty that washes over one in a business meeting for instance, when a casual downward glance might reveal that one’s jacket is missbuttoned, which inspires a swift hand clutch to the bosom, which in turn reveals a cuff button visibly hanging by a thread. And although everyone knows that buttons on even well-made suits are virtually spit stuck in place, this knowledge provides no consolation whatsoever to the afflicted in this case, nor does it offer the slightest barrier against the oblique stares of judgmental colleagues, each of whom begins to free associate various reasons for their missbuttoned colleague’s public dishelvelment. Panic kicks in, which leads to an instant replay of the morning’s toilette. Do my shoes match? Did I forget to put my skirt on? Do I have eyeliner on only one eye? Do I have last month’s steamed spinach between my two front teeth? Since it is hard in such a situation to be sure that all is in fact in order, save for the unfortunate lapel misalignment and errant button, a sudden flourish of nervous perspiration at the nape of the neck makes it impossible to concentrate on the business at hand. An official silent reconnaisance begins. Skirt on? Check. Price tag removed? Check. Nail polish on all fingers and thumbs? Check. Two earrings? Check. Still, failing an appropriate opportunity to visit the nearest lady’s room,… Continue reading A Writer’s Introduction to Google+

Climbing the Steps: Conversations with My Stepson About Life, Love and Loss

My conscious awareness of the meaning of the word “stepparent” didn’t begin until I married a man with three adult children.  For someone is not a stepparent unless they are legally married to a person who has offspring from a prior relationship.  I really should have known this, or at least given it some serious thought, because my mother was the stepmother to my father’s daughter from his previous marriage, a girl who therefore legally also became my half-sister because we had the same father. But that was all a very long time ago, when I was quite young and didn’t put any thought into the meaning of words and the preconceived notions about certain relationships that are burdened by the attachment of  ‘step’ in front of ‘daughter,’ ‘son,’ ‘mother’ ‘father,’ or ‘sister’ and ‘brother’ for that matter.  And it does matter.  Quite a lot, in fact. If you are a member of a stepfamily, most likely no one ever sat you down at the onset and explained the emotional and psychological complexity of the relationships you were about to encounter.  Most likely no one ever told you that there would be considerable competition for attention, which is normal and to be expected.  Mostly likely no one ever told you that you would often feel like you were on the outside of the biological family looking in, and that the members of the biological family would more than likely feel the same way about the newly formed blended family, as it is often called.  And most likely no one ever told you that it is no easier to be a stepparent than it is to be a parent, that it is no easier to be a stepdaughter than to be a daughter.  And that it is almost more difficult to… Continue reading Climbing the Steps: Conversations with My Stepson About Life, Love and Loss

Green Leaves and Eyebrows…

I was an unusually verbal child.  As my mother told it, after my father died I’d sit between the legs of our round oak dining room table and talk to myself for hours on end.  My way of coping with loss, she thought.  As the years went by I adopted increasingly more sophisticated stress reducing activities – cooking, sewing, dancing, jumping rope, crossword puzzles – adding them to my repertoire as needed.  Decades later, in 1998, when my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, I regularly took refuge in a distinctly different kind of stress-reducing ritual – that of tweezing my eyebrows.  Mind you, it was not some wild frenetic action, but a very deliberate and exact one like a draftsman working on an architectural plan, the calm stillness of which centers me and focuses the tentacles of my emotions in one place like very few things can.  As it did the Friday evening I came home to an email from my brother telling me my sister’s boyfriend was in the hospital and wasn’t expected to make it through the night. And as it did on a snowy day before one particular Christmas when my favorite Man-and-his-Beagle-Named-Maisie duo suddenly announced they were moving two hours away from me and the Island of Manhattan. On one of my trips to see my mother, I sat with her in the activities room of her senior day care center with a tin can of Crayolas and a child’s tablet of black and white line drawings spread open on the crafts table.  My mother had been an avid gardener and loved flowers, so I opened the booklet to a bouquet of tulips.  Her arthritic fingers made it difficult for her to select a crayon herself…they were packed far too tightly…so I chose one for her… Continue reading Green Leaves and Eyebrows…

Woman, writer, designer…wife

Friend?  Family?  Should we start a new Circle?” I asked. I put you in family, G.  You’re an Altman,” she answered. I laughed when I read my stepdaughter’s sweet and swift response to how I should list her among my Circles on Google+.  I thought a moment about her instantaneous claim that I was an Altman (my husband’s name) before typing the words, “Actually, for what it’s worth…I kind of sort of think of you as a Minoli!” An innocent enough exchange on the surface, its subtext was rich and packed with meaning – that even if a woman doesn’t change her name when she gets married (yes, I am one of those women) she is still somehow automatically considered a new member of her husband’s clan, rather than remaining a member of her birth clan who has simply chosen to enrich her life with the experience of marriage. The difference in sentiment between her answer and my response gnawed at me.  “I put you in family, G.  You’re an Altman,” is such a confident and declarative statement, decidedly no nonsense and optimistic, as if there is absolutely no question that I am one of my husband’s clan. My response, on the other had, was decorated in the helter-skelterish “I kind of sort of think of you as a Minoli!” Even I was aware that the exclamation point I tacked on at the end like a caboose was a last ditch effort to put my surname forth as of equal worth to that of my husband.

Pt. Reyes, California: The power of the natural landscape

Arriving, I remember everything exactly as it was – the sights, sounds and smells of a place I have often visited in my memory these past 37 years.  White Calla Lilies tucked among the wild grasses alongside Stinson Beach in winter, hawks kiting into the wind, wings outstretched, suspended above the surf.  Fog, guardian of seaside mysteries, shroud for molting Eucalyptus, billowing a warning to stay off the winding mountain road, yet beckoning one onward.  Sunglasses lightly misting over with sea spray, ears cooled by the coastal wind, dry lips salted and licked.  Sea foam and kelp bulbs, children giggling and dogs digging, and cold wet sand rising up through painted red toes. On leaving, my need to remember certain sensations and vistas verges on desperate.  The last bit of sun faded by haze as it slips beneath the horizon.  The last bit of warmth on my skin before goose bumps rise.  The last turnout at which to contemplate staying forever.  The last lone cyclist hugging the cliff’s edge, as reluctant as I to turn his back to the sea and head for home at the end of the day. I do not have the ability to say goodbye, I never have, to any person or any place, really, but particularly to landscapes in which I’ve lived.  Scattered traces of my soul linger like ghosts across the countryside, over the sagebrush strewn deserts of Northern New Mexico where I grew up, in the valleys and ridges of the Shenandoah Valley where my husband and I have a home, in Kentucky where I too have soared like a hawk, the wings of my small plane outstretched and kiting into the wind, in the Po River Valley of my father’s agrarian ancestors, and in New York City, where I have lived for… Continue reading Pt. Reyes, California: The power of the natural landscape

My year of goodbyes…

My fault entirely for making the task so difficult.  How foolish to have created so many enticing views from which I was forced to disengage.  How indulgent to have installed a window over my husband’s Jacuzzi, in which he bathed and read in the early morning hours while I slept, and from which it was possible to see all the way to the south gap in the Massanutten Ridge. How absurd to have six windows rounding the north and east corners of our bedroom, all the better from which to watch a raccoon, for instance, make its way along the entire length of Farmer Marsden’s apple orchard before disappearing into the pasture on the other side of the vegetable garden. I had no one to blame but myself for making it so painful to say goodbye to the small house my husband and I had built in the Virginia countryside, and the vivid mental picture I’d painted of the long life I thought we would spend in that beautiful light-filled space. But I hardened myself to the siren song of the panorama and closed the blinds to the ridge, then to the apple orchard, then to the western view from my stepson’s room — blinds that were never fully open because he preferred the womblike comfort and warmth of darkness to the expansive beckoning energy of sunlight — before steeling myself against the allure of the writing room, which is arranged around a 12-foot long Hepplewhite Tiger Maple table that sits beneath four windows and two frosted glass and brass pulley lights. A master carpenter had managed to strike the perfect spatial union of proximity and distance; there was ample space for two writers to work side by side, or, possibly, to be pulled away from the often lonely task of… Continue reading My year of goodbyes…

Overdue reflections on days gone by…

People from my early professional life seem to be popping up everywhere.  I’ll receive an out of the blue email from one person, while the smiling face of another emerges from a sea of faintly recognizable features somewhere on social media. Funny how these old friends seem to know that all these years later I still have a land line, their instantly recognizable voices sometimes leaving long and detailed hellos from various places around the world. Yet the sudden reappearance of someone I used to know well, after so many decades of silence, always jars me, for I have to remind myself that in truth we no longer know one another all that well, the years in between having claimed the real lives we all hoped we would eventually have and leaving us merely with memories of what we used to be like and perhaps a few fantasies about what we are like now. When I moved to New York little more than three years out of college, I had no idea that life wasn’t about getting a job, making money and climbing the ladder of success, something I couldn’t possibly have suspected at the time because I’d moved there specifically to work with CBS Records as the (very young) National Director of Customer Merchandising.  As an apprentice to the nascent women’s movement, surely there wasn’t a more fortuitous title for a young woman who had won every regional and national award for merchandising, prompting her company to summarily airlift her out of her sea foam-kissed life in San Francisco and plop her onto the concrete-encrusted island of Manhattan to begin a clamber to the top that would have been the dream of any college graduate. New York City!  Carnegie Hall!  Wall Street!  Lincoln Center!  MoMA!  Broadway!  The Public Theatre!… Continue reading Overdue reflections on days gone by…

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…

Further Reflections on Mantises, Mothers & the Art of Mating…

“In species in which males care for young, testosterone is often high during mating periods but then declines to allow for caregiving of resulting offspring.” – Department of Anthropology, Cells to Society, Center on Social Disparities and Health, Institute for Policy Research, Northwestern University, July 2011 I cannot help but contemplate the full meaning of a recent study indicating that men are biologically primed to lend a significant hand in caring for their young – and not abandon women to do it alone – when I notice that yet another female Praying Mantis has appeared in my red hibiscus, this one slightly younger than the more elegant creature that selected an Oleander in which to take refuge several weeks ago. Their continued presence in my life is a sign, surely, of something I am quite meant to contemplate. I sense many layers of meaning within the folds of their wings, which one rarely sees fully unfurled.  For they save the energy needed to produce such glorious displays for moments when they feel particularly threatened, rearing back on their hind legs, the forelegs ready to strike.  They like the heat and their days are precious.  They have much work to do.  They must find mates and secure places to shield their eggs from the winds of winter.  When the heated air of Labor Day weekend, perfect for the concentrated stillness of coupling, ceded its power to a string of wet and chilly days, I was saddened at the thought that I might not see another of their kind this end of summer season.  It had been many decades since I’d been blessed with the company of even one so close, and I’d not gotten enough of a fix to satisfy my senses before I knew the inevitable cool of Fall would… Continue reading Further Reflections on Mantises, Mothers & the Art of Mating…