Walking home

18/03/2017

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Conditions

01/10/2016

 

…value dignity in the face of battering conditions.” Beth Kephart

reqieum2The ritual of faith in my childhood taught me to look at death. Directly. Unflinchingly. At seven years of age, I sang in our school’s children’s choir for every funeral. Hidden away in the great ceiling, a small loft for even smaller children.The great organ dwarfing our statures. Both beloved and severe, the choir mistress stands erect, in black, baton in hand. Cold eyes piercing through the young’s urge to giggle – to fend off sorrow. A Gregorian chant of “Requiem aeternam”  begins. We are consumed by solemnity. Only our voices echoing within the high walls to greet the slow procession for the dead. The bowed heads covered in black lace. The straight backs of men in dark suits, like soldiers. Stepping carefully to muffle the clipped sounds of their wingtips against the hard tiled floors echoing against the monophonic repetition. The mantra of children – of innocence –  to greet death. To relieve the sorrowful burdens from the shoulders of the unknown. Of the adults.

An initiation for the loss in my future.  So many deaths, it seems, that every one is personal. The prayers rise up for love incarnate – my mother, my father, my sister-in-law, my childhood friend to those splashed across the newspapers. The drown Syrian child on Greece’s rocky coast, the African-American father lying dead on the street in Charleston, the babes and their teachers in Newton, the street carnage of Paris’s les jeunesses… on and on.

Far from my childhood in months and years, the “Requiem aeternam” resonates. Now, it is my head bowed, my back that is straight. Faith remains the constant.


This post is dedicated to the choristers, past and present, of St. Alban’s School for Boys, where their voices fill me with longing.

Kiffles

17/09/2016

recipe-001The Christmas season. On our table standing proudly are these basic ingredients: Pillsbury flour, Land O’Lakes butter, Philadelphia brand cream cheese and Rumford’s baking powder – the one in the small, red can. Next to this are her utensils: a large stoneware bowl to mix the pastry, glass measuring cups and inexpensive aluminum measuring spoons, a knife from our everyday set, and a well-worn, wooden rolling-pin. My Aunt Agnes Check’s recipe – a blending of Slovak family heritage with Italian sensibilities. A new heritage.

Pounds of Diamond’s unshelled walnuts wait for my mother and me on this winter evening – a school night. We sit at the white porcelain kitchen table-top that my parents purchased when they were newlyweds. Metal nutcrackers in hand, we sit together in a comfortable silence and begin to squeeze and crack. It is tough work for a ten-year old. Repetitive. Detailed. Inexperienced, I laboriously pick out the bits and pieces of meat left behind in the inner shells – spaces dark and convoluted in nature. My mother’s pile is substantive while mine – quite a pitiful showing for the attention I am dedicating to this task – fill only a cup.  Our conversations alleviate the tediousness; our banter brightens the evening hours. We talk of the nuns, my teachers; the friends and the cliques to which I belong and those where I am shunned, already at a tender age. Back to family, she carefully guides the talk, of Christmas gifts, wrappings, of course, eating. Ham or turkey? Both kinds of potatoes? My hands begin to hurt, but I am loathe to leave. Feeling as if I am caught in some dark fairy-tale with the impossible task, I persevere not for my survival, but for my mother’s love.

 

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My son, plugged in, and baking kiffles for the holidays. Same recipe; different generation.

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The enclosed space, perhaps an afterthought, at the back of our house  is small. The size reminds me of our inexpensive rug. One that the working class buys, bordering on gaudy, to show that they too, have dreams of more. Here, windows are everywhere. They gaze back with tired faces encased in layers of hardened enamel paint. Pure white, because it is cheap. Chipped from years of opening and closing, despite their thickness. The early morning summer sun blinds the eyes. Brittle paper shades carefully rolled onto wooden rods are tinged brown. Weathered, they remain serviceable still, for this family of the sewing mills and steel yards in Pennsylvania.

My mother pulls on silky braided cords dangling at the shades’ edges. Faded from sun and use, they too, remain serviceable closing out the blistering heat – heat that runs through this long, narrow house of brick as fans whirl. She shuts out the Angelus blue morning-glories. Silently, I watch her, but do not enter. Waiting, as only a good Catholic girl can, waiting for her to relinquish this room. This back porch.

My world. To a small seven-year old girl it is an immense space with infinite possibilities. Closing the kitchen door softly – the shared kitchen door of my mother’s world – brown & white saddle-shoed feet enter. They are eager, but silent. Alone. Breathing in the heat, the tepid air, the wonder of it all.


To balance my life this school year, I have begun an online writing course with author, Beth Kephart. Grateful. Grateful to be able to mesh feelings, words, and imagery for so inspiring a teacher.

A young couple during the 1980s, my husband and I were looking to put down roots; we were drawn to Takoma Park, Maryland for many reasons: proximity to D.C., wide variety of socio-economic classes & houses, but most importantly because it felt “real.” In a metropolitan area where pretensions about self-importance, whether it be a style of house, income level, or the newest car abound, this one community seemed to stand apart.  So, in 1981 we made it our home and we hope to “age in place.”

Working as an artist during the 1970s through the 1990s and with a flexible schedule, my first impulse led me to the library at the bottom of our street.  I began volunteering there while pregnant – stamping new books and writing titles in a ledgers – before technology. During the raising of our sons, soon to follow, we became regular patrons as a family. Our boys participated in children’s programs no other county library offered – the celebration of the solstice, Eagle Bear, Morris Dancers are among the few in addition to being avid readers. Twenty years later while pursuing my M.L.S., I interned at TPML eventually working as a part-time shelver and librarian before my career as a school librarian.

rendering of the library in 1935This place – this library – has remained steadfast, growing from a small house on Jackson Street in 1930 to its current “new” building erected in 1955.  Its friends and patrons, programs, City administrators, and even librarians, have come and gone, yet it provides what it always has – a solid center for new residents and a home for those who remain.  It has nurtured generations of residents, and has never asked for much in return, as the community is a supportive & generous one.

My first impression of Takoma Park was based upon the library; it endeared me to this city – the building, the librarians, and the ambiance, oh, so many years ago; now, if I were that young woman, hoping to buy a house and raise a family, I would look at that building and it would tell me a sadder story about the values of Takoma Park.

Rendering of 1955 library Now is the time for the City to be generous.  It is the same building space as 1955, yet is 2015. The building is tired. It strains to hold the collections, the patrons, the programs – rugs are worn, aisles tight, offices crammed, windows small.  A library speaks about the community and their values.

I can think of no better way to honor our city and the values we hold dear, than by creating a library for the 21st century – one for all our new immigrants and little patrons, all who someday will live and work here.

meatballs

Our school begins rather late, after the American Labor Day, in early September.  The hectic pace is exhausting, despite how prepared I think I am for the new year.  Inevitably I bring home a substantive amount of work for the weekend.  This, coupled with the fact that we have had such beautiful weather here lately (also something unusual), made the weekend work somewhat painful. I would rather have been out and about, than sitting in a chair at a computer or surrounded by calendars.

Regardless, I needed to attend to this work.  But I also needed to have a some moments that were “mine.”  I am sure that you too, dear reader, have experienced this very same series of events.  So, on the past Sunday afternoon I found myself alone at home – a rather rare event in our household –  and I snatched it for myself.  I played Pandora Radio – French Cafe music – and made Italian Wedding Soup.  With this marriage of cultural experiences in my very American kitchen I pretended to be elsewhere as I gathered the ingredients to begin an epicurean form of relaxation.

Being of Italian descent you might think that I have this special recipe handed down from Nonna to Mama to me, but alas, I do not! So I do what all others do – go online @http://allrecipes.com/recipe/italian-wedding-soup-i/.  As I stood at the counter, mashing and mixing while swaying to “la musica”, my thoughts began to wander to my childhood and my father.  He, being Slovak, made homemade meatballs and spaghetti sauce for our family every weekend (and also to give my mother a much needed break from cooking).  On Saturday evening I could follow the scent of hot olive oil to find him at our stove “browning” the meatballs before immersing them into his homemade sauce. Our ritual consisted of the following: entering the kitchen I would engage him in some inane ten-year old conversation, and while he pretended to be distracted I would “steal” a cooked meatball cooling on the counter.  Of course he would “catch” me in the act and pretend to be angry.  Scampering away I would shove that sumptuous morsel in my mouth and anticipate our Sunday noon dinner – after Mass.

There I was on this Sunday afternoon, standing at my counter making meatballs, and wishing I had my children with me or perhaps a grandchild to reenact this vignette. On another Sunday, in another year, I will make homemade meatballs…with my grandchild.

Memorial day

27/05/2013

I miss the Dead.

Polaroids with washed-out colors,

Nuanced meanings behind the creases

of their smiles. Muted sounds.

Long before devices marked

every event, every movement,

my heart recorded their sounds.

Sounds now scratched into my life,

spiral round and round.

My needle, lodged in the groove of past lives,

plays their sweet voices.

While many of those who I love have died throughout my years, either unexpectedly or through aging, the one life that brought so much joy to our family daily, was Ellie, our golden retriever – our fifth and last dog.  2013 cp

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an inefffable time

17/03/2013

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This is the year when I have less years ahead, than I have behind me. I am not happy or sad about this, but rather grateful. It is an ineffable time in one’s life as one has the ability to be moved by all that has gone before, and rejoice in all that will lay ahead for others. Many years ago, when I was a young woman and after I had given birth to my second child, my seventy year-old father and I went for a walk together through my childhood neighborhood. As we walked side-by-side, we talked about these children. He was not a self-reflective individual, but he was a sensitive one. He said to me, without bitterness or self-pity but with an honest statement, “I wish I could live to see them [his grandchildren] grow up.” I too wish I could live to see many things come to fruition in the world, but it seems right that I will not. I am a part of nature; I am a part of the world. “Coming into the peace of wild things” is what life demands from us.

The Peace of Wild Things

When despair for the world grows in me

and I wake in the night at the least sound

in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,

I go and lie down where the wood drake

rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.

I come into the peace of wild things

who do not tax their lives with forethought

of grief. I come into the presence of still water.

And I feel above me the day-blind stars

waiting in their light. For a time

I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

-Wendell Berry

My thanks goes out to Rev. Jill Lum who gave this poem to me many years ago. It stays with me as a reminder of her goodness, and of my own part in the world.

This Thanksgiving holiday our family traveled to the home and town where I grew up, so very long ago.  My parents who were married for almost 50 years, died a few decades ago, and now my sisters share this home.  Every time I enter the house I feel as if I have really come home, although I have not lived there for more than four decades.  My sisters have done a remarkable job of making this house their own, without losing the “feel” of our shared childhood.

This year was as many before it.  All six of us shared bedrooms and one bath; my husband and my elder sister made the Thanksgiving feast; we shopped; we went into the attic to reminisce, where we looked at old furniture, handbags, and framed pictures; we talked, and talked some more, and finally, the “men” went into the basement to play pool.

As in years past I went downstairs after hearing the clacking of the balls, and shouts of who cheated, to see the game for myself.  This year, for some reason, I walked to the far end of the basement.  It is a dark and unused corner now.  There is a coal room, where coal tumbled down a chute to stoke the coal furnace that kept us warm, and there is my father’s workshop.  As I stood alone, surrounded by the voices of the men I love, I could  see my father – his back to me, as he mended a broken lamp or tried out different washers he kept in a tin to tighten a screw on one of mother’s appliances.  He had an old ashtray on his table where he would keep his “stogie” as he worked.  The scent would fill the cavernous floor, and when he came back upstairs it stayed with him.  I stood and waited.  When I could smell his cigar, I knew he was still there.

I gave thanks, and joined my family.

At the end of the street where all the big oak trees lived, there also lived an unusually small ant.  Not only was he unusual because of his size, but because he loved to spend his days inside the house at this corner.  It was a big house with lots of floors that almost reached up to the treetops, and lots and lots of windows to let in the sunshine on a beautiful day.  It was a yellow house, so when the forsythia was in bloom this very corner was ablaze, radiating love back to the sun.

This ant loved to live on the very top floor of this house where there was a small room, not quite finished.  The floor was made up of wide, rough planks of pine with knotholes.  Sometimes things disappeared down into these, never to be seen again.  The windows were large and round, so that when it stormed with angry wind and rain, it felt like a ship at sea.

But, the best part about this room was that a young boy lived up here too – well, not exactly lived, but let us say that he spent most of his time here.  He had made it into a fort, like boys do, but it was a bit different.  Instead of army men lining the wooden crates, he had old coffee cans of quills, paints, brushes and an old Ball jar with bluish water.  Among these were scattered pine cones, acorns, leaves, and anything that interested this young boy.  But, the very best part about this room at the top of the house was the chimney in the middle of it.  It was old and crumbly, with sand falling out here and there, but that didn’t matter.  Pete’s mom had let him bring her big old pillows here, so he could sit on the floor and lean against the chimney, as one might lean against an old friend for comfort.  He spent hours and hours up here, in all the seasons and all kinds of weather, drawing or just sitting…well, sometimes even singing to himself.  All this the little ant observed from his own secret spot on that very chimney.

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