Valentine’s Day 2019

Love isn’t a mystery.

Loyalty, resiliency, and kindness are mysteries. And humor. Humor is definitely a mystery. And a gift.

I have been in love with many people who weren’t funny. They were thrilling at first but ultimately gave me a headache.

If two people are in love they will be happy for a while. If one or both of them is funny, they will soldier through the giant snow drift of life like it is fresh popcorn waiting to be eaten.

I know this to be true from laughing with my husband in emergency rooms and other places where people are silent or crying.

We would leave the hospital’s circle drive to have a milkshake, one thinking the other would be cheered by the chocolate, and it reminds us of times in the summer leaning against the car with the big neon sign giving our faces a slight blue hue and how we joked about coming there with all the other people who had no other place they’d rather be.


My Mother’s Face

After my father died, I found this photo in his bedroom. It was leaning against the mirror of the vanity where my mother had sat painting her nails in a room dark except for the small lamp, her red nails gleaming in the dim light. She painted them with half moons, her touch was that fine.

The photo was in a cheap frame from our Ben Franklin store. I knew from having worked there for years that the frame came from the counter between the greeting cards and housewares. It was probably 79 cents or maybe $1.29, When a price ends in a 9, my dad said, people don’t realize they are spending more. This was his wisdom and I’ve remembered it.

I’d never seen the picture before.

Because we were there in his house to take the things that had meaning to us, I took this picture. I also took the bedroom furniture and my father’s minnow bucket. I didn’t take the toaster even though I needed one at the time because it had no meaning to me and I didn’t want to think to myself that I so needed a toaster that I would take it from my dead father’s house. Taking the picture was another matter. It meant something.

It was the image of my mother that my father loved most.

He took it from wherever it was kept before she died, a bottom drawer, an old scrapbook, and he framed it and put it on the vanity in their bedroom where he was now sleeping alone.

Today I slipped the old photo out of its dime store frame to put it in a sturdier frame I’d found. On the back was her perfect handwriting; she always labeled every photograph, with her name and the date, 1946. This was my mother two years before I was born. Her open, beautiful face and her glance of a smile. She is unadorned and so lovely, so unknowingly lovely.

No wonder he loved her so.

I wouldn’t have known this had he not left the picture there on the vanity.

My mother’s face.

The First Baby

Our marriage was already failing when this picture was taken. We went on a road trip to northern Michigan, stopping at the special spots marked on the map, unpacking ourselves from the car and from our long uncomfortableness. Every mile was futile.

Some couples can come back from the edge but we couldn’t. Or we wouldn’t. Or I wouldn’t. It depends on one’s perspective.

I titled this essay “The First Baby” thinking I would write an essay every day for the next four about each of my children but the picture made me remember the stones on the beach that day, the stones in my throat, all the unutterables piled up. There was no way to make sense of all the stones and we were too weak to throw them.

This darling child had to travel with such misery.

Then the trip was over. We went home and then after a short while started to divvy up our stuff. He left me the stereo and most of the furniture and he moved to Chicago. One night on the phone he told me that he’d seen a little girl on the bus wearing the same shoes as our little girl and it made him sadder than he had ever been.

I wept at that, the cruelty of the situation, and blamed myself for making such a good man so sad. And I gave up my plan to claim our girl as my own, to be a single parent of a single child. I was one of two parents, later, after I remarried, one of three.

We never fought about our girl, not a single time. We gave way to each other about her in a way we never could about ourselves. We were generous and kind. Patient and steady. We left the misery at the beach.

This week I saw pictures of him reading a story to our twin grandsons. He is an old man now. I never see or talk to him. We have no need of that now that our girl is grown. Our lives don’t intersect. Our work is done.

Looking at the photo and remembering that sad trip, I think this: we may have done wrong by each other but we did right by her. We should be proud of that.

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Collaboration: The Daily Post

 

Two a Day #14: Not Go

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“The real reason for marriage. The borrowing and lending of courage.”

I said those words in a blog post I wrote last summer about a conversation I had with my husband on the back porch. Of all the things I’m grateful for, a husband who builds me up and makes me better is right at the top of the list.

I hope everyone is so lucky on this Valentine’s Day. Read about how the guy I married makes me a stronger person at Not Go.

When She Had Endless New Years

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She had dozens of New Years before she knew the end was near. Eighty six of them.

The young woman in this picture, with one hand in her pocket and the other on the arm of her husband, is my grandmother. She’s not looking at the camera. She is looking off to the side. And as many times as I’ve seen this photograph, I’ve not figured out where her gaze was aimed.

All I know about my grandmother is what she told me. It wasn’t much. She was born in rural Michigan. She finished school and then became a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse. She married at 26, after most people had labeled her an old maid, and she immediately quit teaching because, then, at the turn of the century, being a married woman made one unsuitable for teaching children.

She married a widower with one son. And she took up for her new husband, telling his story of childhood deprivation to anyone who would listen. He was well to do, though, owning the only lumber yard in town, and after a while, she was ordering her groceries on the phone and having dressmakers come to the house to take measurements. Until the Depression, when all that changed.

In the faraway look she has in this picture, I wonder if she was thinking about that afternoon or the next day. Was she thinking about another baby and hoping that would happen or wishing it wouldn’t? Did she still love the man whose arm she held or was it just reflex? Had her love for him run out? Was she enduring life or was she glad?

I didn’t know her then. I only knew her later. It seemed to me as a child that her husband dying years before I was born was a watershed event from which there was only partial recovery. Oh, she was still the competent woman who could stay unmarried for 26 years and wrangle a school house full of children, but she was demarcated in terms of having a life that was clearly lived in two parts – real life and life after her husband died.

Life after her husband died involved learning how to drive (my father taught her) and taking a job at the local Ben Franklin Store. The days of ordering groceries on the phone were long dead by then, replaced by keeping things exactly the same in her house while acquiring a taste for TV dinners and professional wrestling. When those things were happening is when I knew her.

When I look at this picture, I yearn for time travel. I wish I could talk to the woman with her hand in her pocket. I wish I knew what she was looking at. I wish I had been her friend.

There were so few pictures then. So the pictures that exist have extraordinary meaning. In another couple of seconds, another photo of my grandmother might have shown her looking at the camera in the most traditional way, posing and smiling. But it is the moment that was captured that defines her for me.  Here she was full strength with dozens of New Years in front of her. Her life was so long, her future so endless, in this picture, that she had no thought of the end.

She was only thinking about what comes next. She had one hand in her pocket and the other on her husband’s arm.

 

 

Be Bright and Beautful

There were long patches of my life when there were no photos. When I was a single mom was one of those times.

I had my daughter’s school pictures but there weren’t a lot of other pictures. A few. Her father had been the photographer in the family and when he and I split up, he kept his photos of her and us.

I went for a long time undocumented. There wasn’t a camera in the house. Cell phones hadn’t been invented. I lived my late twenties and early thirties as a person not thinking about lasting images. Even though, many a time, I felt as beautiful as Layla. You had to have lived then to know that would have been a fine way to feel.

Then I got married again. And I somehow rejoined the part of society where people had cameras and used them. I had spent years not posing. Caring how I looked but not concerned about capturing myself with a particular attitude, not worried about my hair, whether I was smiling right or showing the best side. Knowing that however I looked that moment was transitory. It wouldn’t matter five minutes later.

There was a lot of freedom in that, the whole not caring thing. I think I miss it.

This picture was taken in Gulliver, Michigan in 1984, four or five months after I remarried. We stayed in a cabin on a lake where I’d spent a lot of time as a kid, my brother’s family and my sister’s family and my parents all had cabins. We were in a row, all of us with our own rowboats and screen doors that slammed shut in the way only old screen doors do. Our wet towels hung over the clothesline and we wore sweatshirts all the time we weren’t swimming.

It was a golden time. I never thought I would be happy again, all those years being single and wrestling with bad ideas and worse decisions. And then I was.

It was a time that glowed. Glowed. And it was caught on film.

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