Nov 3 2012

Chair Stories

After dinner, we huddle around the wood stove to keep warm. “Tell the one about the Pepper-chaser,” Buddy-roo begs. De-facto has told so many stories about this childhood pet, a daschund named Pepper, loved and tortured by the four siblings in his family, it’s as if Short-pants and Buddy-roo have a memory of the dog themselves. De-facto falls into the story, like a musician answering the audience’s call for a tired hit song, and Buddy-roo squeals and claps her hands. She knows how the story ends, but she loves to hear it again, and again, anyway.

This is what happens at the country house, especially now, as autumn bleeds into winter. The after-dinner routines of summer – foraging for blackberries, a badminton match or running down the road to see the lambs – cease to be viable. Darkness drapes around us before dinner is even on the stove. Our reflections in the windows accompany the meal and the cleanup that follows. It’s chilly in this old stone house, so we hover around the cylindrical stove, warming our legs until they’re too hot to touch, pushing our chairs back away from the fire until we’re too cold, then hustling close to the fire again to keep warm.

There is no Internet – even though it would make it easier to stay here for longer stretches – it’s hard to justify the expense. We’re here no more than 15 weeks out of the year; the obligatory two-year contract seems like a waste. But that’s not the real reason. If we had the Internet, we’d spend our evenings on it. Since we don’t, the evenings are spent with laptops closed, face-to-face around a fire, playing cards, laughing, adding to the collection of family stories that Short-pants and Buddy-roo will tell, someday, when their children say to them tell us a story about your childhood.

~ ~ ~

The shipment of things from my mother’s house, designated for our country house, arrived in September. We couldn’t be here, so a helpful neighbor met the movers and let them in. Not knowing where things ought to go, everything was left in the middle of the main room, which is where we found them when we arrived this week. We spent two days sorting through the boxes and re-arranging furniture to accommodate the new possessions.

A wooden table, with leaves folded like arms at its side, now stands against the fieldstone wall. I see it instead as it used to be, in her living room, beneath the portrait of an old Dutch man in a brown cape, smoking a pipe. A long, shallow dish filled with gold-painted gourds rests on top of the table, with two gold-colored candles in gold-plated candleholders on each side. I think no matter where we end up putting the table here in this house, when I look at it, I will see it there, as it was, all those years, in her house.

Two enormous fauteuils made the trip from upstate New York to the southwest of France as well. We didn’t really need them here, but I couldn’t bear to give them away. The shipping cost was a bit extraordinary, but now that they are here I am certain the indulgence was a good one. They, too, have a place in my memory, when I sit in them I am transported back to other rooms and other parts of my life.

~ ~ ~

You tell a story, Mama,” says Buddy-roo, after the Pepper-Chaser story is finished. I am slow to think of one. It’s as though I get lost in my past when I go digging for a story to tell. Buddy-roo gets impatient. “Tell us one about the big chairs.” She points to one of the fauteuils, its huge cushions flattened unevenly from the last person who sat on them.

“The chairs,” I say, “they used to be red.” I picture the chairs as they once were, in a room with wood floors and a faded blue rug. I get stuck in the details. Was there a couch? What color were the walls? There was that coffee table with the gold border, what ever happened to it? And the piano in the next room, it was painted white…

“They used to be red…” Buddy-roo repeats, nudging me out of my reverie.

“Red velvet, with a row of thick golden tassels all along the bottom, a skirt tickling the floor, like the fringe of a flapper’s dress.”

Her eyes widen.

“The chairs belonged to my grandparents before they gave them to my parents. There’s an old photograph of me sitting on the living room floor, and my grandfather is behind me, sitting in one of the chairs. His half-moon-shaped eyes smiling at me, like he was utterly amused.”

This isn’t really a story, but rather a chain of memories unleashed. One scene after another, how the chairs were moved upstairs to the room next to my parents’ bedroom, next to a table with a telephone – a green rotary phone – where I used to sit and talk to my friends for hours. How I sat in one of those big chairs and called my friends to tell them I had to miss the sleepover party to go my grandfather’s funeral. I have a video of my mother sitting in one of the chairs, telling me about her great aunts and uncles, sketching out for me a branch of the family tree.

After a big renovation project the chairs were reupholstered in green velvet. They looked beautiful, like brand new. Except nobody sat in them any more. After my father died, they were placeholders in his empty dressing room. They seemed a bit sad, two lonely armchairs in an unused room, their cushions always plump, never sat upon.

~ ~ ~

I have just finished reading The Hare with the Amber Eyes, which I highly recommend to anyone who likes a book that wraps you up in the lives of the people in it. The book chronicles first the collection of a family’s heirlooms and then the dismantling of its grandest household. The circumstances in the story are more severe and turbulent than that of the disassembly of my mother’s house – the possessions, too, much more valuable – but reading it made me think of those disheartening days when we watched her belongings get carried out the door. Even when it is voluntary, the separation of beloved things that have belonged together in a room is heartbreaking. It’s not so much about the things as it is the loss of what those things coupled together represent. As I wept for the family in the book, I wept for my own childhood home, its details still entirely intact in my mind, like golden gourds on a golden plate or puffed-up cushions longing for someone to sit on them.

A consolation, at least: I’ve read this book while curled up in a fat and familiar green armchair. The girls play at my feet, on the floor with the Fisher Price castle – one of the last of my childhood toys also included in the shipment – acting out stories that they make up as they go along. They are debating who should be rescued, the prince or the princess. The rain is steady outside. De-facto has just stoked the fire in the wood stove; the house is finally getting warm. I close the book, lay it on my lap and let the tears roll down my cheeks, happy for all my family’s stories, lucky to have had such good things to grieve.


Jan 7 2011

Porch Stories

That back porch could tell you some stories. It’s a porch that was good for licking melting ice-cream cones and sipping gin & tonics from tall glasses. It’s a porch where, as a young girl, I spent hours reading every book I could get my hands on, escaping into the thick forests of Narnia or sitting in a crowded courtroom with Scout Finch. It’s the place where I sulked and stewed, indignant that my parents would not let me go to town with my friends, forcing upon me an unjust incarceration in my own home. It’s a porch where sheets have been hung out to dry, in any and every season. I’ve swept its long, thin boards and shoveled snow from them more times than I can count. This porch I have shared with my family all of my life, an extension off the back of our home like a giant cradle where good things could and did happen, its balustrade like teeth in the smile of a happy childhood.

I remember a Saturday, last May, sitting alone on this back porch, steeped in an after-everything feeling. My mother was gone. She’d been buried for months, but now that her memorial service was behind us, it felt real in a way it hadn’t before. The house had been ordered and cleaned, the refrigerator emptied of everything but ketchup, pickles and a few jars of jam. The doors were locked, the alarm was set, and my ride had just called to say he was approximately thirty miles away, in a town with a name he mispronounced marvelously. I did not mind that traffic had delayed him; this gave me a little pocket of contemplative time.

I pulled out my journal and seated myself in one of the wicker rocking chairs on the porch, facing out over the grove of trees along the border of the property. It used to be you could see the lake beyond the thick of trees. Now the hedge is taller, fuller – as is every living thing that’s grown behind it – and the view, though still lovely, no longer includes the lake.

Just as I put the pen to paper, I had a flash, a sense of something different, something distinct from the sadness and grief that I’d known for the last many months. For a brief set of seconds, not even ten, I felt free. The feeling wrapped itself around me, singing a light song to lure me in and then, as quickly as it came, it slipped away.

It made me a little bit giddy, jumpy, kind of electric. Giddy like I felt that first day on campus, wandering around the cobblestone streets near my university. The sun was setting but I was rising, my whole life ahead, and this great collegiate opportunity about to launch me into it.

Or standing on the Metro North platform, after leaving the keys to my apartment on a table inside before closing the door behind me. I’d sold my car to a woman, a stranger, who then drove me to the station to go to New York for a quick overnight before flying to Europe – to live. I had with me only three suitcases and a red wide-brimmed hat. I giggled out loud as the train rushed into the station, the wind from its passage fierce against me as I held the hat firm on my head.

Or giddy like the first night in my first Parisian apartment, listening to Miles Davis with a bottle of Burgundy, or the Indian summer weekend I moved into my second Paris apartment, unpacking boxes and listening to a mixed tape given to me by a younger De-facto, wondering if the next time I moved house it might be with him beside me.

The thread in all these giddy moments: I had just let go, but I had not yet grabbed on to what would be next. That next was still unknown or unclear, and yet – and there was trust involved – ripe with promise. The prevailing thought: What can happen now? Anything.

~ ~ ~

When I was in college I slipped away one long weekend to take part in a seminar that was an offshoot of the Werner Erhardt personal growth movement. The reasons I was compelled to go are better left for another post, or it suffices to say that I’d taken my sophomore slump a little too seriously. The workshop did me a lot of good. A few of my friends remained involved in the program, but I was done after attending two levels. I couldn’t afford it on a student’s stipend and the pressure to proselytize, though not overbearing, was implicit enough to put up red flags warning me to keep my distance.

I remember going home to tell my father about the workshop. I wanted to express to him how it had changed me, how I felt so much more alive and in touch with myself. He interrupted me, reminding me of the occasion when I had eaten, in its entirety, my first Big Mac.

It was on the way to summer camp Yaiewano, circa 1972. The challenge must have been issued when I had pronounced it impossible. Not that my father was so interested in my consumption of a special-sauced hamburger, but I imagine he was trying to teach me something about setting and preparing for a goal, or turning an idea once considered implausible into something entirely feasible.

“Your Big Mac story,” he said to me, in that voice of his that could be comforting and frightening at the same time, “is one of many stories that you will have in your life, as is the story of this seminar. I hope you make the most of every single one.”

He was expert at having the last word.

But he was right. It’s easy to tell yourself a story and then begin to believe it’s your only one. Sometimes when it feels like Short-pants’ hospital story comes up too frequently I tell her just what my father told me. It is an important story, one that changed her life irrevocably, but it’s not her only story. I want her to know that. I want her to own that.

~ ~ ~

A thoughtful reader sent me an email, this week, with an excerpt from The Love Queen of Malabar, a memoir about the friendship between its author, Canadian Merrily Weisbord and the Indian poet Kamala Das. The timing – that this fell in front of me while I was musing on the subject of stories and freedom – was uncanny. This passage especially:

A writer moves away from family, old relationships, very far with the speed of a falling star,” she says. “Otherwise the writer is destroyed, and only the member of the family remains: the mother, sister, daughter, wife. The writer at some point must ask, do I want to be a well-loved member of the family? Or do I want to be a good writer? You can’t be both at the same time.”

I often wonder about this. Except it was the shock and awe of having children that (finally) propelled me to get serious about writing. My earlier story ideas languished, but the manuscript about the paradox of motherhood is the one that is (nearly) done. The number of posts I’ve written about my mother is growing out of control, but her departure from this earth provoked a stream of words from me like nothing before in my life. These roles of mother and daughter have not inhibited my word count.

But have I told the truth, the real truth, my truth? Not entirely, and I probably won’t, as long as my partner and children and siblings are alive and can read what I’ve written. That’s not out of fear, it’s out of respect.

Still, there is a shift now that my mother has joined my father in the land of gone. Sad as I am, I am also free. I was never deliberately constrained by her, but as long as she was alive, her influence was present. It wasn’t a conscious, I couldn’t write that, what would she think? kind of influence – if anything, I carved out a good portion of my identity by doing exactly what my parents thought I should not do. But therein lies the kernel. Some part of me has always been his child, her daughter. Now that they are gone, I am free to do as I please without worrying them, free to be who I am, without pleasing or displeasing them, free to write the story that is mine, unencumbered. Not that there is something so terrible to tell, or that I couldn’t have written already for them to see. But now, free of their reaction or judgment – negative or positive – the core stories within me are mine to tell.

This is what comes to me, then, after reading every post I’ve written during the Reverb10 challenge to reflect on the last year of my life. It’s as if I am once again alone on that back porch, staring out at the trees, wondering how it is they grew so tall. Let go. Grab on. What can happen now? Anything.

I’m participating in Reverb10, and this post is in response to a prompt from author Molly O’Neill: Prompt: Core story. What central story is at the core of you, and how do you share it with the world? (Consider your reflections from this month. Look through them to discover a thread you may not have noticed until today.)