May 3, 2021

Old Wood

            We are out to dinner in Massachusetts, my husband, his brother Aaron, and Aaron’s wife. We are talking about furniture.

Aaron took home the coffee table, a coveted Mid-Century Modern piece, when my in-law’s Manhattan apartment sold. He wanted only a few items. Pieces of memory, he said.

            Called Long John, the table was a creation of man commingling with Mother Nature, whorls of walnut cut cleanly from the umbilical cord, shaped with miter saw and bench chisel, slimmed with block plane and sandpaper, massaged with oil. Shiny on the showroom floor. 

            Sixty years ago, my father-in-law lugged it uptown from downtown on the subway. He christened it with a cup of coffee he set, still steaming, on the glowing wood. Heat left a ring. My mother-in-law’s cigarette left a scar. Actors, directors, singers and stage managers left candles to burn. They smoked joints, spilled Scotch, and scraped high heels against its bronze body. The gloss faded to a soft shine, then to a rawness that revealed the years. A life of memory in a coffee table.

    Beauty is so individual; what we love differs depending on who we are. 

    Aaron is telling a story. The moving guys broke one of the table’s legs. Aaron took the table to a furniture repair guy near his home in Amherst. Two months later he went to retrieve it.   

      The furniture repair guy carried it in. The table glowed. 

    “It had all these burns and scrapes,” he said. “I refinished it. Isn’t it great?” 

     Aaron stared, speechless.

     Sometimes a favor is an infringement of faith. What we love differs, depending on who we are.

This week, I ask you to think about – and perhaps write about – objects you keep that are more about the beauty of nostalgia than the need for usefulness. Share what you write with me, and if you are so inclined, take a photo of the object and send it along too.

May 10, 2021

A Word about Words

   One day, when I was as tall as an armchair, my teacher, Ms. Ewald, who taught us songs in German, or was it Sister Joseph, straight-backed, black-habit serious yet the kindest woman to ever grace that NYC school’s hallowed halls? No matter, one of those excellent women set forth on my lift-top wooden child’s desk a small volume that would change the way I looked at words.

  The title was “Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle and Other Modern Verse.” 

  Back then, we had reading time scheduled every day. Once the prescribed reading was done, we could read whatever was offered in the classroom. That day, I read “Reflections.” A book compiled for children. A knee-high doorway into the paradise of poetry. The book’s pages grew worn under my thumbing fingers. I folded over the edges of my favorite poems, which I was forbidden to do because the book was the school’s, not mine, committed to a pristine handing-over to the next student the next year.  I was a precise student, a methodical, careful one. But love is messy. And I had fallen in love. With a book of poetry.

    As I grew older, I moved on to other poems and other poets, to Elizabeth Bishop and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Alfred Lord Tennyson. To Sylvia Plath, Emily Dickinson, June Jordan and Adrienne Rich. Billy Collins and Maya Angelou.

    But I never forgot my first love, the one that introduced me to rhythm and rhyme, to melody and meter. To joy and sadness expressed through the glory, the romance, the power of words.  

   If we look, we find poetry in the everyday. “Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle” reminds me of the importance of doing so. Here’s the title poem from this wonderful book, and I hope you are able stop to see, today, poetry where it awaits:

Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle Received from a Friend Called Felicity”

By John Tobias

During that summer

When unicorns were still possible 

When the purpose of knees

Was to be ‘skinned’

When shiny horse chestnuts 

(Hollowed out 

Fitted with straws

Crammed with tobacco 

Stolen from butts in family ashtrays)

Were puffed in green lizard silence

While straddling thick branches 

Far above and away

From the softening effects of civilization;

During that summer

Which may never have been at all;

But which has become more real

Than the one that was;

Watermelons ruled. 

Thick pink imperial slices

Melting frigidly on sun-parched suns

Dribbling from chins;

Leaving the best part

The black bullet seeds,

To be spit out in rapid fire

Against the wall

Against the wind

Against each other;

And when the ammunition was spent,

There was always another bite;

It was a summer of limitless bites, 

Of hungers quickly felt

And quickly forgotten 

With the next careless gorging. 

The bites are fewer now. 

Each one is savored lingeringly,

Swallowed reluctantly. 

But in a jar put up by Felicity,

The summer which maybe never was

Has been captured and preserved. 

And when we unscrew the lid 

And slice off a piece

And let it linger on our tongue:

Unicorns become possible again.

April 5, 2021

Up in the Air 

I first stepped on an airplane in my late teens, when I flew from New York to Missouri for college. From then on, I flew all over the country to visit friends I’d made in that college: Denver, Austin, New Orleans, Spokane. 

    Then my friends began to expand their reach. Three of them flew to China to work for Xinhua, the government-supported news agency. One flew to Vietnam to ride a motorcycle with her boyfriend. Others flew to Venice and Vienna, Paris and Pamplona. 

   I worked, raised kids, and vacationed, every so often, in Martha’s Vineyard or the Jersey shore. 

   But I never once set a step off this continent. The ribbons of responsibility kept me here, in my homeland, yearning to see more.

   I wanted to see where Caesar walked. I wanted to see where Michelangelo painted. I wanted to see where the hunchback of Notre Dame lived, even if he existed only in Victor Hugo’s imagination. 

   I wanted this for my children, and I wanted it for myself.

   In sophomore year of high school, my daughter flew for two weeks to France for a school trip. My eldest son, four years later, flew to Moscow for a college semester abroad. My next son flew to Florence for a semester abroad. When it was over, he flew throughout Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. 

    I drove them to airports, hugged them before they piled onto planes, watched them race down the runway and float into the air, away from me. I went back home, back to work, back to the business of paying bills, never having enough to go anywhere but the grocery store. With four kids, even that was a financial risk. 

    I knew the days were passing; I knew my knees were getting achy. A person needs knees to travel. 

    One day I put my foot down, so to speak. When I turn 50, I said, I am going to Rome. The people I loved looked up from what they were doing – a son from his computer, my husband from the newspaper – and then looked down again. Sure, I heard them saying to themselves. Sure.

   At 49, I began checking fares. I began reading the N.Y. Times Travel section, to figure out how to get the cheapest ones. I was only buying one ticket, after all. 

    At 49 and a half, I sat down one day at the breakfast table and said to my husband, I’ve researched fares and I’ve settled on this one. I’m buying it. Here are the dates I’m going. 

   This time he put down the paper. What? He said. You’re serious? 

    All of a sudden, wheels were moving. I, my husband, and two kids were now going.  One day, we heard from a friend who was planning to be in Rome at the same time we were. Did we want to stay with him and his girlfriend and respective children at her villa in Umbria?  Did we want to stay in his apartment in Florence while he visited Rome?  

    Was he kidding?

   We flew to Italy. We ate and drank out every night. We turned into random churches – a Rafael there, a Michelangelo here, an Ecstasy of St. Teresa over there, how is this possible? – and touched the crumbling concrete of the Colosseum. 

    I wanted to go to the Vatican, I said. Not so much because I was raised Catholic. Not so much because I wanted a glimpse of the Pope. Not so much because the Vatican is this massive, famous building jam-packed with history and art and I wanted to be sure I breathed the air of it. 

    I wanted to see the Sistine Chapel.

    To my two younger boys who accompanied us, the trip was a vacation. For my husband, it was a repeat of a world tour he had taken when he finished college. For me, though, traveling to distant lands was an opening into a new world – a world about which I had read for years in books, in newspapers, in National Geographic, a world that lived in photos and descriptions by others. Over the years, friends would say, ‘Don’t go here or there.’ And I would respond, ‘I want to be able to say that. I want to be able to say, oh, don’t go to Venice. It’s drowning.’ Or whatever. 

    We walked into the crowd of the Sistine Chapel, as jammed as a pre-pandemic Monday morning at Grand Central Station. I froze in place, breathless, ecstatic, enthralled. I envisioned the mystery of Michelangelo painting upside down. I gazed at the chapel ceiling and felt the weight of it; the extraordinariness; the majesty. I wondered who had to clean up all the paint he dropped on the floor.  

    Tears rolled down my cheeks. 

    My sons saw this and moved quickly away from me. Mothers can be so embarrassing. My husband was off in a corner, viewing a fresco. Other visitors glanced sideways, shrugged, moved on. I stood in the center of the room, eyes upward, weeping from years of wishing. Salt tears trickled down the sides of my face onto my white cotton sweater, where they left watery dots. 

    Through the entire Vatican, I cried into a tissue a sympathetic woman handed me in passing. And that was how I was the rest of the trip, a watery mush awash in tears, a weepy tribute to wanderlust unleashed. Escaped. Overflowing. Joyous. 

   As soon as I can get on a plane, I’m out of here. 

   Think about your first time on a plane, and what that experience was like: the sights, the sounds, the smells. If you could go anywhere safely, where would you go? Write about why you want to go there. Share your thoughts with someone; if you have been or are a participant in the Candlelight Writing Workshops, send your work to me. I’d like to read it.