Archive for the ‘Family’ Category

Surfing channels the other night we got stuck on a home improvement show and before leaving TV behind for sleep we witnessed the woes of a family whose kitchen layout was so awful, their stove was crammed into an alcove by the back door. Lying in the dark coming out of dreams the next morning I was picturing my grandmother’s kitchen, trying to remember: where was the stove? I got it in place against the wall shared with the living room; next to it, the fridge. Then the doorway through to the front of the house; and I went around the room like that, filling it in, nailing it down. Like staking out a tent before you go inside.

As I worked my way around the walls things came back to me. I couldn’t actually see the stove, or its color—probably white, definitely electric—but I remembered that Grandma used to store crackers in the oven. Club crackers, my grandparents liked. I guess they stayed fresher behind the oven door and its seal.

Atop the fridge were two ceramic roosters—well, actually a rooster and a hen I think, one being large, the other small. I have them now; they have red-painted combs, gray and white feathers, ochre-colored feet standing in matching clumps of green. You should always have a rooster for your kitchen, I think I remember my grandmother explaining. Certainly no farm would be without one, and she did start life on a farm.

Passing the fridge and the doorway in my mind I turned to the north wall; up against it, the kitchen table. Very 1950s, it was chrome and cornflower blue formica and suddenly I was seeing the blue light in the kitchen, on a winter morning. From my highchair pulled up to the end of the table I could see out, see the snow drifted and heaped everywhere, piled on the sills of the screen porch beyond the back door. The light is sudden and fierce, almost scathing, bouncing off the snow and into the room.

Behind me in the corner there is some kind of electric roaster, a behemoth that sat on its own cabinet, the kind of kitchen fossil that I imagine a lot of women of my grandmother’s age had standing around. Above it, the black telephone, mounted on the wall. I remember my grandmother talking on the phone. My grandfather almost never did—his hearing was bad, and he was telephone-averse. But I can hear my grandmother’s voice, clear, echoing just slightly in the open room with all its hard surfaces, and I remember the lilt in her voice in just the single word, hello. When she answered the phone she did not ask a question: “Hello?” Who are you? Instead she sang, gently: “Hello!” I am here.

She was there, they were both there, as was I. As I work my way around the kitchen I take on this feeling of my grandparents and their lives, a slowness and a kind of solitude but also presence, intention. Without the distraction of electronics, email, smartphones, cable, so unlike my life today. I remember how my grandparents turned on the television to watch a particular “program,” as my grandmother called them, Lawrence Welk or the evening news. Grandma liked to watch a John Wayne western if one was on.

My circuit around the room takes me along the eastern wall, passing the door to the porch with that winter light streaming in like an ice-bright river and next to the door the sink, framed on both sides by cupboards, above and below. I can’t picture the curtains in the window over the faucet, but suddenly I see a pale green, the cupboard doors or the walls must have been painted that hue. Then I’m seeing wallpaper, a pattern comes almost into focus: neutral tones, flourishes and a spice grinder. I think it was on the wall over the table.

On the fourth and last wall, more cupboards and then the washing machine. This is a small house, my grandparents’ place, even though the kitchen feels large and open in my childhood memories. But there is no basement or utility room, so the washer is here and the dryer is in the attached garage, beyond the dining room. When it’s really cold outside Grandma will open the small closet next to the washer (I can see the door, it’s louvered), take out a Pendleton shirt hanging on a hook there, and put it on before she carries the clothes out to the dryer.

I feel how big the day was, opening up before us on a bright winter morning. I see my grandfather take up his coffee cup (and it was a cup, sitting on a saucer), I hear the sound of my grandmother’s chair scraping softly on the floor as she gets up to take dishes to the sink. They did not rush, or hurry. I realize that they were retired; but I believe their calm ways and measured pace had as much to do with who they were and the world they came up in as with circumstance.

Breakfast in the kitchen. I turn the memory over and over in my mind and study it like a small but endlessly faceted diamond, and in that expanse of time there is something vivid and real that I have trouble finding in my life today: that slow, deliberate act of living even in the smallest things, especially in the smallest things.


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To Catch a Fly

Lucy and Callie have a project they’ve been working on: they’re trying to catch a fly. I watched them chase it all over the house yesterday, tearing around and jumping into the air. Callie took a big leap mid-stride, launching herself high above the furniture, but still the fly evaded her. A few minutes later she jumped up on the kitchen counter to follow it when it buzzed up against the cupboard doors. She ignored me even more than usual when I told her to get down.

Then the fly got trapped against the living-room slider and I watched both cats stretch up and pat the glass, trying to bat it down or catch it under a paw. The fly buzzed over and touched down momentarily on the TV screen, and Callie jumped up on the cabinet and—bam bam bam, hit out lightning-fast with her paws in all directions, her long front legs flying. Professional boxers got nothin’ on her.

Feline reflexes are so fast, it occurs to me that cats would be really good (but also spectacularly bad) at a number of human activities, things like soccer, or driving. Very quick when braking, turning and swerving; but can you imagine what would happen when a flock of birds swoops down over the highway or the playing field? Or when somebody suddenly needs to wash? Which happens all the time. They’ll be running full-tilt across the floor and—oh, need to wash. Must stop and lick my shoulder…

But back to the fly. As far as I know, it remains at large—at least, after I got in bed last night I could still hear Lucy and Callie bumping and thumping around after it. I believe they will have the project to occupy them again today, provided the fly has not expired. It makes me think of the article I was reading in my alumni magazine when they first began. The title was “Dare to Fail: Why Success Requires Taking That Leap.”

I have to admire them, our cats. They love to leap. And they are not afraid to fail.

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Last Thursday Lucy was still a kitten.

The vet tech said “Awwwwwwww!” when she plodded out of her crate on her short little legs, and the vet called her “this little cutie” while holding her up to examine her. She’d shown signs of a cold, off and on, for days, and it turned out she had an infection. When she got nervous in the exam room as we waited for the doctor, she tried to climb up my leg so I would hold her. Back home as she got ready to nap she crawled onto my chest while I sat on the couch, purring and curling up to doze under my chin.

But three days and many doses of antibiotics later, Sally and I looked at her and then at each other and said, “She’s not a little kitten anymore.” She seems to have grown overnight, like Jack’s beanstalk. She’s still compact, but her legs are longer and her torso has stretched out under her too-big head. She’s suddenly gotten feisty about her medicine, trying to fight us off where before she just squirmed and squeaked while we squirted drugs into her mouth or eyes. Yesterday, she didn’t climb up on me even once to cuddle.


We’ve had our two rescue kittens about a month, and already their childhood is nearly over. Of course, they’re still wildly entertaining, even if they are nearly “teenagers.” Yesterday I had figure skating on TV when Callie suddenly became entranced by the action. She jumped up on the TV stand and plastered her nose to the screen as the skater twirled and twirled, a blur of hot pink. I couldn’t help but grin at the sight of Callie’s huge ears and slender body in silhouette against the bright TV screen. Our cat, watching Olympic figure skating trials.

A few minutes later Lucy was trying, as usual, to draw her older sister into rough and tumble. Callie, seeking a reprieve or at least a tactical advantage, crouched under the magazine stand. As I watched, Lucy approached her, but after a few steps went into what I call her sideways war dance: back arched, tail held like a pony’s, bouncing obliquely towards her target.

I laughed out loud.

I know there are plenty of fun times ahead. Neither of the cats is six months old yet. Callie, the oldest, is coming up on five, and when she gallops around the house on her long legs she looks like a colt. (I did think, for a brief moment, that we should name her Flicka.) The two of them will be running around, getting into stuff, tearing up the house and making us laugh with their antics for some time to come.

Still, I already feel a little nostalgic and misty-eyed for Lucy the baby. How adorable she was when her legs were even shorter, as we watched her trying to do a pull-up to reach the top of a table or the edge of the drawer under the bathroom counter. I feel happy that the fur behind her ears is still fluffy; Callie’s is all smooth as silk. “Take a lot of pictures!” my sister-in-law, also a cat lover, said on the phone yesterday. I wish already that I’d taken more.

It’s hard to try to compute cat age on a human scale, but lots of us try, anyway. At six months cats can already reproduce; so among the various numbers I found on veterinary websites, 12.5 human years seems a reasonable comparison to a six-month-old cat. That would mean that in one month, the kittens have covered a portion of their lifespan equivalent to two years for a human. No wonder I feel like they’re moving at warp speed—kind of like that old Star Trek episode, where the aliens are moving so fast through time that they’re an undetectable blur to the crew of the Enterprise.

Anyway, I’m trying to learn from this experience: one, to live in the now, and two, to be ready with my camera. I still hope to catch a shot of Lucy’s sideways war dance. I’ll have to set my shutter speed very, very fast.

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They had us pegged the moment we walked in the door.

Sally had emailed ahead, asking about a kitten we’d seen on the rescue group’s website, so they kind of knew us, when we arrived. The scene was chaotic: in the very center of the mega pet supply store during holiday shopping madness, a series of metal cages was set up, each holding one or two cats in various states of playful excitement, standoffish nervousness, or determined, sleepy oblivion.

The woman Sally had emailed with told us right away that the kitten we saw online had been adopted. But the volunteers working the aisle were eager to help. “Let me show you this one,” said a smiling gray-haired woman, wearing a red holiday sweatshirt emblazoned with cats wreathed in holly and bells. We were so focused on the occupants of the cages that we didn’t really notice at the time that we were experiencing what’s known as the “bait and switch.”

Moments after arrival we were each holding a kitten, with a foster mom at our elbows, regaling us with the many delightful qualities of the little creatures we cradled. We were, of course, properly admiring, ooh-ing and ah-ing over each new candidate. “It’s been a long time since we’ve had kittens,” I admitted to the woman in the holiday cat sweatshirt. “Twenty years.” And the comparisons kept flowing out of us as we made the rounds of the cages: this one looks like Annie, that one like Charlotte, and so on…

I could not help but notice the tiny black and white kitten who kept poking her paw though the bars to play. How could I possibly miss her? They had placed her cage at the corner nearest the entrance, where everyone walking up would see her first. I was dimly aware of the envious looks of a couple of gaping six-year-olds as the kind woman from the shelter took the kitten out of her cage and gave her to me to hold. One little boy had to be literally dragged away, still protesting, by his dad. It crossed my mind that age does have its advantages, after all.

“Would you like to see the two of them together?” asked the first volunteer, noting our interest in the black and white kitty and a slightly older cat with beautiful tabby/calico markings. And like that, we were whisked away to one of the clinic rooms, up front. There we watched the kittens climb, adorably, on everything they could reach (including us, seated on the floor). The rescue league woman told us their sad stories: the small black and white kitten was found on the street, the tabby came from a barn-full of cats, a situation involving someone who was kind of an animal hoarder. It occurred to both Sally and I that already this winter, the temperature has dipped into single digits at night.

I don’t know exactly how it happened—mysterious, isn’t it?—but somehow we started talking schedules. “We’re home for the holidays,” I said. “We can spend a lot of time with them.” The volunteer remarked that she thought this was great, as the spunky black and white kitten climbed up her back and perched on her shoulder.

“We haven’t even put in an app yet,” I mentioned. We’d applied at a different shelter a couple of months before—then never followed through, realizing we had travel plans coming up. The application form had been extensive, and required three references with phone numbers. When we visited that group’s adoption event, they’d told us they would check us out before allowing us to adopt. (Luckily neither of us has ever been convicted of a felony.)

So I was expecting much the same this time. But when we got to the subject of paperwork, the light flashed green. “Oh, there’s some paperwork,” the volunteer told us as I jumped up to remove the tabby kitten from the sink. “But it’ll only take about fifteen minutes, and you can take them home.”

Take them home? Now? Today?!! I was shocked, and elated. I pictured our living room, graced by these two little furballs. Home for the holidays. “I brought my checkbook,” I announced. I had been thinking we might need to put down a deposit. “I could go home and get the cat carriers,” I suggested, explaining we live close by, and still have the crates we used with our old (departed) cats.

“Oh we have boxes,” the woman said, dispensing with any need for me to leave the premises. Again, it wasn’t until later that we noted the similarity to the tactics at a car dealership—she wasn’t about to let me go anywhere, now that I was on the hook.

That exchange seemed to finalize things. Back at the cages, I was able to catch Sally’s ear for a quick private moment to make sure she was as sure as I was that we should take the kittens home. The fifteen minutes of paperwork passed in a blur, during which various volunteers (most in holiday cat-themed clothing) came by, asking which cats we were taking home, seemingly wanting to share in our happiness. After a quick spin around the cat aisles to pick up some supplies, we walked out the door with two cardboard carriers, each holding a small cat. I couldn’t believe my good fortune. Nor entirely forget the sad looks on the faces of those six-year-olds…

At home, we rushed around the house, closing doors, setting up the litterbox, food and cat beds, moving all the ornaments off the bottom of the Christmas tree, and heavy objects off the end tables. And wondered, as the little bundles of kinetic energy burst out of their boxes: How did this happen? That three days before Christmas, we suddenly had kittens?

Sally attributed it to the fact that she was on cold medicine, and nothing on those forms asked if we were under the influence. I have no excuse—except I know now the house has felt empty ever since we put old Josephine to sleep last spring (God rest her soul), and I’ve been waiting all this time for the stampeding of little feet, the questioning gaze of feline eyes, asking “where you been?,” the soft feel of silky fur beneath my fingertips, the sound of purring while a cat sits in my lap (or in the case of the little black and white kitten, curls up on my chest).

And those women at the rescue league? They knew when we walked in the door that we were going home with cats. I wonder how many of those cardboard carriers they keep on hand. They probably would have loaded up a half-dozen for us if we’d been willing.

I’ve never seen such consummate sales and marketing skills. And I have to admit, I’ve never been happier with anything I “got for Christmas.”


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Christmas Eve.

Snow is on the ground. Icicles big as baseball bats hang from the porches of the little houses on Leroy St., and if you come late and the church lot is full and you have to park on the street, you will carefully make your way up the end of someone’s driveway—lit by Christmas lights—and move along the sidewalk as if through a tunnel, flanked by walls of snow.

Inside, there’s a huge tree at the front of the sanctuary, hung with ornaments all in white and gold, all Christian symbols. I don’t think even the grownups know what half of them mean. Ok, we all know the dove is about peace, and the fish has something to do with early Christians, but lots of others just seem vaguely familiar, or not at all. A woman in the congregation painstakingly crafted every one of them, out of Styrofoam and braid and beads. (The tree in the social hall, in the basement, is far less majestic. It’s artificial, white, and has a color wheel turned on it so that it slowly changes: blue, to red, to emerald, to a funky gold. It always has a hypnotic effect on me—I could watch it for hours.)

But back to the sanctuary. The advent wreath’s up front, on a stand. I never remember what the colors mean, I just know the white candle in the center does not get lit ‘til Christmas. I like the purple candles best, and how fat they are: big, round columns that look like they could burn for days. The altar is banked with poinsettias, scores of them. Sometimes our family has paid for a few and takes them home later, but at home they always look spindly and kind of lame to me compared to how they look amassed here—an army, a forest of fiery red flowers.

There are a lot of people packed into the sanctuary, some of whom we see only once a year. But my young brain doesn’t think about this much, or judge it. It’s exciting, the crush of people, all dressed in their holiday best. Men in waistcoats, and holiday ties; women in jewel colors, ruffles, hairspray, clip earrings. One year our mom sews long skirts for my sister and me. (Mine is deep green velvet. I think Linda’s was port.)

The sanctuary feels warm with the press of all these people, and the darkness at the windows along the sides makes the effect even more cozy. Crammed into the pews, a handful of kids always drop their votive glasses, and they clink as they roll around on the floor. “Good God, it sounds like a bar in here,” my dad always says, and we all laugh.

Every year the service begins with our best musicians, the T. family, playing “Gesu Bambino,” “Bring a Torch, Jeannette Isabella” on alternate years. Tom’s sweet violin cuts through the sanctuary, supported by his mother’s steady cello and intertwined with his sister’s warm-sounding flute. Already everyone knows that he will play in a professional orchestra one day. I can picture the chairs they sit on, small wooden chairs that usually stay in the storage space behind the choir loft and have “ihs” carved in the back.

The choir assembles in the “narthex,” the space just outside the doorway to the sanctuary. I always think it’s funny that people seem to enjoy using the technical terms for parts of the church—and yet, it fascinates me, too. The T. family has finished playing, picked up their chairs, retreated from in front of the steps to the altar. The organ begins something we all know—because it’s Christmas Eve, and we’ll know all the hymns tonight. There is a sound—how do you describe it? The sound of everyone around me getting to their feet. And as the choir comes down the center aisle in their pale gold robes, we’re all singing. “O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant…” Even in the robes, I can tell who’s who—and I enjoy this, recognizing that the short woman with the carefully coiffed hair and the gorgeous voice is Mrs. A., and the tall, thin man who bounces a little is Mr. W. They’re familiar, and yet, transformed. Or maybe it’s just that I recognize the fellowship in singing in a choir, symbolized by their robes. I know about singing in a choir, I’ve been doing it here since I was four years old.

And sing is what we will do, for the next hour. Sure, there will be readings from the Gospels, and the minister will address us briefly. He knows he has to keep it short on Christmas Eve—besides, with the votive glasses rolling around, and the occasional baby bursting into voice, how long can he expect to hold the floor?

And we have a lot of carols to sing—so many, that “The First Noel” will only get three of its umpteen verses, and someone’s favorite will get left out—better luck next year. And then the moment comes we’ve all been waiting for, even those who don’t know it.

The ushers come up the aisles and light the candle of the person sitting at the end of every pew, and that person lights the next person’s candle, and that person, the next, until everyone in that crowd of people is holding a burning candle in a glass. The lights are dimmed and the organ, softly now, strikes up “Silent Night,” and we begin to sing the last hymn.

Somewhere around verse three the organ drops out and it’s just us, the multitude, singing in the candlelight, the dark of a winter’s night pressing in at the windows as we sway with the music, not really thinking any more of gifts we’ll open tomorrow, what Santa will leave under the tree, what we’ll have for Christmas dinner, or even the relatives we’ll see. All drops away—as I suppose it must have in churches all over the city, with their own colors of candles, ways to decorate an altar, hymns to the eternal.

How strong a pull has Christmas Eve. When I look back on it, I think I understand better than I ever have that for me, the pull is in the power of uniting, of belonging, of opening our hearts. And of course, singing.

Always, singing.

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Yeah, I know – there are so many ways to interpret dreams, you can’t put too much stock in them. Different people at different times have claimed them as omens, portents, visitations. But then again, they could just be neurons firing, the product of a busy, busy day in the psyche. Who knows?


I dreamed I was in the back of a smallish car. The seats were folded down, and I was lying in the back like cargo. The car kept rising and falling like a ship at sea. A soothing rhythm; if I paid attention I could feel the wavelength – the interval between the moment we started climbing the wave and when we dropped over the crest.

My dad was driving, my mom was in the passenger seat beside him. We were stopped for a moment when I saw him slathering some dark mud on his arms, like he was preparing for an onslaught of voracious mosquitoes. He told me it was important to do this, here. I asked, “Where’s here? Where are we?”

He looked at my mom. I didn’t hear what he said, if anything, but I recognized his gentle, open expression and I knew he was asking her for help explaining. I remember him doing this in life sometimes, when he wasn’t sure what to say. I didn’t hear what she said either, and I couldn’t see her face. He turned back to me and said two words: “Astral projection.”

I still wondered where we were going. For a moment I wondered if I might be dying – I guess because my parents have both passed on. I wondered if we were about to crash through some barrier, ending my life on earth. But I was worried only for a moment – and then I felt calm. I thought to myself that everything was ok, because I had faith in this journey, whatever it was, wherever my parents were taking me. I laid back down in the car and tried to feel that rhythm again: the pause on the crest of the wave, the plunge that made me just a little dizzy, then the slow surge forward.


When I wake up I remember the dream clearly. “Astral projection” though, I’m not so clear about. I know I’ve heard of it, but I’m not sure exactly what it means. I think “astral” has something to do with the stars – that’s about all I can dredge up from memory.

I google it:

“Astral projection (or astral travel) is an interpretation of out-of-body experience that assumes the existence of an ‘astral body’ separate from the physical body and capable of traveling outside it.” (Webster’s New Millennium Dictionary of English, 2006)

Strange journeys we take in our dreams, to realms where a dictionary may help more than an atlas. Where are we really? There is no telling.  But don’t forget the insect repellant. There could be gnats like you’ve never seen before, where you’re going.


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I’ve been working on editing and collecting some of my writing about the cottage. Here’s a bit from May two years ago.

We arrived at the cottage yesterday, our first trip this year.  After we took the shutters down, we had a winter’s worth of dust and spiderwebs to clean up, and we found that mice had once again made their winter encampments in the furniture. This time they claimed some dresser drawers, and one of the sofa beds – which I’ve decided is going to the junkyard, despite its classic early 60s lines.

Today we’re working out in the “yard.”  I call it that, but it bears no resemblance to a suburban yard.  There’s no grass, except for a few tall tufts of wild stuff that sprout around the tree trunks and in the packed dirt of the driveway.  Just like my dad used to do, I take a scythe to the wild grass – and think of him as I’m swinging it back and forth, how he used to joke about “mowing the lawn.”

Right now the sandy, moss-grown ground is covered in drifts of pine needles and oak and maple leaves, exposed when the snow melted. I start raking behind the cottage, and find that the bottom layer of old leaves is dark and shiny, glistening with moisture and full of earthworms – lots of them.  Smallish night crawlers, they stretch out like thin rubber bands as they move away from me, avoiding the tines of my rake.  As I pull away the leaf mold beside the well pit, I make another discovery: the glossy brown shells of eight or ten acorns, each split by a greenish-white root winding its way into the soil like a gleaming, determined tooth.  My rake sweeps a few away, but the rest remain – at least for now – taking hold in the damp sand.  An infant oak grove, just beyond the bedroom window.


Later we sit on the beach, relaxing and hoping to warm ourselves in the sun.  The wind out of the north is driving a low fog before it, so rapidly that we can see wisps flying by.  As we watch, it keeps covering and uncovering the island like a magician performing sleight of hand: now you see it, now you don’t.  Occasionally a puff of fog is thick enough to throw a shadow, but mostly it’s thin as gauze drawn over a pale white sun. The surface of the Bay glitters, dimly; and we can feel a little of the sun’s warmth getting through.

We sit and watch for a long time. Slowly, the north wind herds the wisps and patches south; slowly, the bottom of the Bay fills with fog like milk collecting in a bowl.

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