I love TED talks, and I get a new one every day in my inbox. I don’t always have time to watch, but yesterday’s by Jake Barton put the best possible spin on today, September 11. He’s immersed in designing the 9/11 Memorial Museum in New York slated to open next year and his talk is a journey through that project so far, and how in the process they have designed new ways to enliven modern museums of all stripes. Their interactive museum tools are the new spring growth, the unexpected flower after the scorched earth fire. The interactive features, some of which now in use at the Cleveland Museum of Art, don’t replace the existing exhibits, but they do cool things like allow viewers to put paintings, sculptures and bits of architecture in their original contexts via an integrated digital image. You can see the tapestry on the castle wall, the gargoyle on the building, the bust in the artist’s studio. Our CGI-marinated kids will love this.
The 9/11 Museum also draws on the Storycorps idea of hearing personal stories fro ordinary people about that extraordinary day (if you’ve never heard Storycorps Friday mornings on NPR, they are always worth hearing – click on the link to the main site and listen to one or two – each story is only a few minutes long). They’ll have a booth and people can go in and tell their story, and some of the audio from previously recorded will be playing through the PA system as people walk through the exhibits. Real voices, real people, real stories – unfiltered by historians, TV commentators or politicians.
I’m glad that part of the legacy of this day is bring people together with technology that connects us not just as individuals but with our art, our poetry and our history.
I found a new diary app call Day One that makes it simple and fun to record moments on my phone and attach a photo. It’s a wonderful, quick way to capture images and events that otherwise get recorded in my many random notebooks. The images get buried in my 30,000+ photo library and the words and pictures seldom come together again in the same way I felt them at the time. All the entries can be downloaded en masse as a PDF on my computer if I ever want to do anything more with it. It’s brilliant.
This morning I was waiting for a child to awaken and took a moment to look at the pouring rain and remember this, the anniversary of our Dad’s death, 21 years ago today. I opened the Day One app and I wrote this:
It set off a chain of events that have influenced every moment since.
It was as though the words typed themselves, without my knowledge or permission. It is absolutely true, though, and even though it may seem like a surprise to me now, I knew even then that something fundamental had changed with Dad’s passing. I felt it on the train home that day, knowing as I stepped off that when I left Cambridge he was alive, and when I arrived in Concord, he was not. When I got to the house I called my brother and told him Dad was gone.
“How could you possibly know?” he asked.
“I just do.”
My brother was in New Jersey, I was in Massachusetts, Dad was in Saint Louis. It didn’t matter. A long chapter in my life, in all of our lives, had closed and we were free to look back and forward in ways that were not possible before that moment. It’s when memories and myths and mysteries all start to form and weave together ways that are different for every person; truth matters for a while but then becomes so complicated and elusive that you give up, only to go looking for it again later.
It happens this way for plenty of people, I’m sure, when they lose someone so influential to them. The absence of the reflected love, hate, or diffidence changes the image in the mirror and adjustments must be made. In my case it marked the start of the transition from being a child to being a parent, and the quick realization that even that traditional and expected path was not as straight or simple as I thought.
Libraries and hard drives the world over are full of the stories behind this revelation – that life seldom is what we expect it might be and what happens to us brings us unheralded joy, pain and wisdom. It just so happens that on this day back in 1992, my life took a turn in a new direction – if it were a movie there would be a map with a prop plane and a dotted line moving across continents with great zigs and zags, still going forward but making its way around the globe again and again, flying repeatedly over that point where the journey began.
When last we checked, the azalea was on its way out and the rhododendrons, peonies and irises were on their way in. With a dizzying combination of cool days, sunshine and torrential rain, it has been a changeable, wonderful spring for flowers.
The butterflies made the most of the last of the azalea blossoms. For once I pruned it right on time, as soon as the last flower wilted. I hope that the trimming will save it from the ice damage the extremities seem to suffer each winter.
Down the hill the white rhododendron bloomed almost overnight, its blossoms delicate and quick to wilt in the stormy weather, like a lady’s summer linen dress. When I look at the June sun through white blossoms it seems so right that it’s the season of weddings, graduations and first communions. Our charter school established a lovely tradition of families bringing in flowers and branches from their gardens to decorate the school indoors and out for its high school graduation. Buckets of water await at morning dropoff and people unload a dazzling array of plants and cuttings. Parent volunteers spend the whole morning making arrangements large and small for the podium and receptions tables. Every year is different, but we agreed that this year the weather provided a flower bonanza.
The pink rhododendrons are a bit of a mystery – one towers over the rock garden, loaded with blossoms and buzzing with bumblebees, the others in the deeper shade offer only a blossom or two, if any at all. We will fertilize in the fall and see what happens.
The scent of the white and whisper pale pink peonies outside the front door brings a rush of memories of springs past, when our mother sent us outside to clip flowers for the dinner table. The only thing missing is a purple lilac bush; we have a white one down the drive that is barely hanging on because the towering pines block the sun it needs. We just don’t have enough sun near the house to sustain a lilac, but that shade is what keeps the rest of the garden green in the dog days of summer.
I wait all winter for the deep blue of my favorite irises – they shift from blue to purple in the changing light all day long. I visit them each time on my way to and from the car, taking time to prune and check the progress of the later peonies to the left that will bloom just as they wane. The larger varieties of irises are less vibrant and droop so quickly (they need to be staked), but they also pop out when the garden is viewed from a distance. This looks like it is the first year there are so many irises we will need to split them. That didn’t stop me, however, from buying more at the garden club sale – these teeny ones are just right at the front border, and they bloomed right after I put them in. In the few weeks since they bloomed the leaves have filled in nicely, leaving me hopeful for a beautiful border next spring.
Next up: lilies, astilbe, delphiniums, cone flowers, coreopsis and some maddening hydrangeas.
It’s that “home before dark” moment. Houses peek out from yellow eyes, a perfect clear sky starts faded blue at the horizon to deepest sapphire overhead, the leaves slip from green into velvet black and the air smells of cut grass and warm pavement. The time when you never want the evening or the summer to end.
Right now that hope is a little dim, given that the wars we have now are coming to a close (if we can call it that) with more of a whimper than a VE Day/VJ Day bang.
NPR ran a touching story on Honor Flight New England, an organization that offers free trips to DC for WW II vets so they can visit the monuments to their service. One surviving vet said, though long-held tears, that in all the years since he came home he thought of his service as a waste – he buried those memories and never spoke about it. On this trip, however, he said he finally understood that his service meant something and, knowing how grateful people are for his service, he would do it again ten times over. A number of people said that the veterans in their family never spoke of the war or showed any interest in war movies or documentaries. That came as somewhat of a relief to me because my father only spoke of his service in the Pacific the war in small details, although he watched every episode of The World at War and read every book it though the years. He was so pleased when his war buddy came to town – a towering man named Jim who, in uniform as I recall, would delight us with his strength by tearing a phone book in half.
Dad would pull out the atlas and show me the places with exotic names in the Philipines where he was a harbor pilot. I was very young when we did this together – we made a game out of my mispronunciation of Catbalogan – and it seemed to me then that he felt kind of lucky to be an Iowa boy navigating the ocean on big ships. I once asked him why he didn’t drink coffee and he said “I had a lifetime’s worth of coffee in the war.” That’s as much as I ever recall hearing about life on a Navy ship. After he died in 1992, I read his letters home to his mother and they seemed to chronicle the times in ways that were unremarkable. In the few photos I have of him, he is smiling. Some people interpret this as him blocking out the mean experiences of war – that there were stories too terrible to be told. I really don’t know.
What strikes me now is that in the age of instant global communication, we are not under any illusion about what our soldiers are facing overseas. They do not have the luxury, if you can a call it that, of burying the atrocities of war when they come home. It’s on TV, the internet and at the movies. The Greatest Generation had On the Town, South Pacific and From Here to Eternity – our guys have Platoon, The Hurt Locker, and Jarhead. I suspect there won’t be a musical about Afghanistan any time soon.
We are losing more soldiers to suicide at home than we are on deployment. It’s hard to know what to do to help, although we should make sure vets get the mental health services they need and their benefits on time, neither of which is happening now. In the meantime, I hope that, unlike some of the men in the NPR story, today’s servicemen and women don’t have to wait 60 years to hear their fellow citizens say “thank you.”
We are in the midst of a year of milestones, most of which I would like to ignore. One welcome distraction is chronicling the progress of the garden. I am not an expert gardener (but am lucky to have friends that are) but found a few years back that once I planted a perennial that actually bloomed for a second season, I was hooked. What I love even more than the plants, sun and earth is the few minutes spent each morning with my husband as we look to see what has changed over the past day – new blooms, spots that need something more, what will bloom next.
As I sift through the photos of the last six weeks, I cannot help but think about the days on which I took them and the times during which I planted some things.
We were greeted by brash red tulips when we return from a trip over April vacation. It was a trip that alternated between doing fun things, seeing old friends, eating great food and being glued to screens as we watched in morbid fascination the events after the Boston Marathon Bombings. Looking at the red tulips at home, I remembered that it was after September 11, 2001, that I began gardening in earnest. It was a hot, dry, fall that year, as if the clouds had been chased away by the smoke from New York. I realized that I had spent those first years in our home inside with babies and toddlers and that now they were old enough that I could spent a few of our outdoor minutes – very few – away from the swing set and sandbox. As I planted bulbs that October – hoping against hope that the right end of them was pointing up – a neighbor strolled up and asked what I was doing. My answer surprised even me. I told him that everything I had done to make that house a home was on the inside. After renting for so many years, I felt I had been holding back on the idea of putting down roots in this place. But September 11 had told me to embrace the life we have and the place we have chosen, however temporary. Planting bulbs was a way of taking ownership of this life and my role in it. The bulbs I planted that day? Red tulips.
Tulips are daring. They poke through when nothing else is willing to go first, and sometimes they betray us and don’t come back. All of the tulips planted by the previous owner are gone now, and the numbers of my own tulips (except the red ones) are already dwindling.
These pink ones go through phases when they bloom – they start out kind of hairy and menacing, the colors pale and cool like the light, and then suddenly they warm up and open joyously. Early spring is such an interesting combination of cold and barely warm, as if nature hasn’t quite adjusted the controls on the colors yet.
Crazy forsythia yellow and tulip red are set against barely discernible pink and blue hyacinths. These tulips, which take a long time to open, seem to follow the progress of color with the seasonal light, drawing the warm pigments up from the soil. I think of this image every year when we wake up one gray November morning to find that the bright autumn colors have been completely drained from the landscape. It’s like all of the pigments get sucked down into the earth until spring, when the color faucets slowly creak open and the colors bubble back up to the surface. It’s a story that might make a good picture book someday.
The creeping phlox (first lavender, then pink) and candy tuft are next, and I am glad to see they are making their way around the garden lamps and the tulips because I much prefer them to mulch as a backdrop. My goal is for the perennials and ground covers to fill in so completely that someday we will only need to mulch around the maple. Now that I think about that, it might spell an earlier demise for the tulips. I will have to look it up.
The peonies, astilbe, day lilies and irises start to fill in while the lazy hostas decide whether they are going to disappoint me again. Everyone in the world can grow so many hostas they have to dig the extras up and give them away, but not me. The hostas that do bother to return unfurl a leaf or two and then run out of steam. They are in league with the Pachysandra, I think, which continues to make pathetic showing. But this year the hostas look better than usual, and if they come through then I will post a photo. I won’t jinx it yet.
A good thing about daffodils, my friend T. pointed out, is that the leaves stay beautifully green long after the blooms are gone. No so for tulips, and one reason they don’t last is that we probably trim the droopy yellow leaves earlier than we should.
Then the Japanese maple shows its leaves and we know spring is truly here to stay. The garden sits where once there were two more trees lining the stone walk – a flowering pear and a paper birch. But even as they provided welcome shade in the summer, there wasn’t enough water or earth in this former gravel pit to sustain all three trees so we cut the other two down in favor of the maple, and it has thrived ever since, becoming a beloved tree that would make Joyce Kilmer proud. During winter storms we go out to shake any heavy snow or ice off its branches, sometimes in the middle of the night, we are so worried about losing it.
As the phlox peak and the tulips and daffodils fade, the azalea lights up such a bright orangey red that I think of it as a burning bush. Springtime seems to often bring big moments (births, deaths, graduations) and I have many memories of sitting by the window, looking at the bush and trying to cull some kind of wisdom from the flowers. Now and then, a hummingbird pays a lighting quick visit, and that is always a good day.
Four years ago today I went out to play with the kids and take photos in the snow. Two minutes into it I slipped on smooth ice under the snow and landed on my head and watched the Presidential Inauguration through the fog of a mild concussion (Hillary Clinton, I feel your pain). Sometimes it still hurts on that spot at the back of my head, and it hurts, too, to know that not everything has gone as well as we had hoped over the last four years. We feel more divided and less safe and we are still at war, but we seem to be making progress in a lot of important areas even as we fall behind in others.
In 2009, we were elated at the historical significance of Barack Obama’s election and also in survival mode from the Great Recession. Then, we were looking at some huge milestones for our kids and wondering how we would survive those. Now, we are satisfied from having accomplished so much, proud of our children, but weary and a little worried about the world we are handing to them. It is a new kind of uncertainty, informed by the realization that talking about peace and compromise are so much easier than accomplishing them – and we really thought we knew that. Sometimes it’s like the 1970s all over again, just with better clothes and more cynicism (which I didn’t think was possible).
I still have high hopes for our President, still feel the same thrill at seeing the monuments and marble corridors in Washington that we have visited a few times in recent years, still look ahead optimistically to the next milestones for our family. And I still walk very gingerly in the snow.
We are down to one daily paper and two Sunday papers from a high in 2005 of two dailies, two weeklies and two Sundays. I bore my children every week by announcing a sampling of the papers that flowed through our house when I was growing up: The Daily Record, the Waterloo Courier, the Des Moines Register, the Chicago Tribune, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, L’Osservatore Romano. That expanding concentric circle of news and the priority placed on reading it (no phone nor idle conversations before 9am, ever) was as formative an experience as morning Mass and Sunday dinner. Recalling how frustrating this could be from a kid’s point of view, I have to try very hard not to hide behind the paper each Sunday. I don’t always succeed.
Even though I have read all the major stories online by the time Sunday morning rolls around, I still look forward to sitting down and seeing what I’ve already read in print and the delight of going through each section to read things I know I would missed on any device. Color funnies and Personality Parade (even though it is terrible now)? On paper, only, thanks. Regional news? Still on paper, all week long (I don’t want my kids to ever ask me “What’s a newspaper like?” That would kill me). I set magazines and book reviews aside carefully so that if I don’t get to them they don’t get recycled prematurely. I still keep the front pages from momentous days, good and bad, on my desk upstairs, where they will eventually make their way to a file box in the attic. You can’t pull out a bookmark of a webpage to show children and grandchildren. I still subscribe to the print version of The New Yorker, and in a nod to marital harmony and environmental consciousness, I save only the covers (an interesting family exercise: pull out a random New Yorker Cover and see if we can figure out what happened that week just from that piece of art – the stories we make up are just as interesting as the real explanations).
I could go on and on…but I need to go finish reading the paper.
Eighteen years ago my mother was here with me, welcoming our first child, a girl. Mom stood on our deck, smoking cigarettes and commenting on the spectacular display of autumn leaves. “That,” she said, nodding toward a large, bright red sugar maple, “will be her tree, because it will always be beautiful on her birthday.” And for 16 years, it was, casting lovely pink light into her bedroom on sunny autumn mornings. It is both satisfying and sad to know how much of the world we shared in those heady, confusing days of new parenthood is gone. I look at it now as the cusp between being a child and becoming a mother, feeling only now, with my girl 18, that the transformation is nearly (though never, I guess) complete.
We are renovating our bathrooms, the last rooms untouched since those weeks she spent here, and it was recalling her blowing smoke out of the downstairs bath window (please don’t smoke in the house, Mom) that prompted me to think of all that has changed since then. Little by little we have made the place our own, replacing the carpets, the floors, the kitchen, the boiler, the air conditioning, the roof, the deck and many of the trees (the sugar maple fell victim to a spring storm downdraft that sliced it clean in half). Nursing a broken foot, I am forced to slow down and note the changes to life, inside and out, as I walk gingerly down the street and up the lawn after getting the newspaper, just as she did.
She used to tell a story from that visit, in which she and my husband stood at the kitchen window viewing some small pine trees scattered around the back yard. They talked about how it would be so nice to have a little row of them lined up outside of that window. A couple of hours later she came bustling upstairs to my room where I was nursing the baby, to report that my husband had gone out that very moment and moved all the trees to create the row of tiny pines outside the window, where they remain today, almost as tall as the house now. She couldn’t get over it, “He just went out and DID it!! Just like that!!” It was a defining moment for her, and for us, as we have benefitted from – and been dumbstruck by – countless permutations of my husband’s thought-it-up-and-did-it moments.
She did that for me, and for many others, pointing out things in life that we weren’t really noticing but maybe should be. She wasn’t always right but she made me think, made me BE in my life in a way that is still hard to do without her, eight years after she died. But she has her ways of appearing, of reminding, of inhabiting the lives of her children and grandchildren. A day does not go by that I don’t tell a story about her, say something just like her, or wear something that makes me think of her. I wear her rings, I have her gray hair, I have glasses that are too big for my face, and I’m pretty sure I am buying her sweaters. So, while the outside looks more and more like Mom, inside I am less lost in her shadow than I have ever been. Life has thrown us different curves, and we have handled them differently, if with the same kind of determination.
This week I pulled out a china cup and saucer for my coffee like the ones she used to use to replace my usual white diner mug, partly to reduce the amount of coffee I drink (which is a Mom story for another time) but also because when I see it from across the kitchen, I can pretend for a second that she is just around the corner – or more likely, in the bathroom (I painted it her favorite color, periwinkle) having a smoke.
When I was nineteen I had a major crush on a boy I met at a summer job in Michigan. He was smart, sweet, earnest, funny and boyishly hadsome. We were inseparable for much of the summer but did not exchange so much as a kiss – it was fun; I thought it had potential. At the end of the summer we cooked up a plan to visit my family in Missouri before returning to our respective colleges. I knew my mother would like him, and she did. The feeling was mutual, I guess, because on the first evening at our house he said to me, ” When I met you I thought you were such a unique person, but now I realize that you are really just like your mother.” I should have known at that moment that the romance was doomed; he entered the seminary the following year.
Fast forward twenty-seven years. My husband sits down in front of the family computer situated at the desk that I use, and looks at me and says, “Look at the way you have all of your notes and photos up on this wall and all of your papers here – you are your Mom.” He is smiling – he loved my Mom. “I think you do it on purpose.”
Well, I didn’t; I don’t. I make rolls like she did on purpose, I speak truth to power like she did on purpose, I try to make my home welcoming like she did on purpose. But as my hair goes grayer and the questions from my children get thornier I find it maddening for it to be so hard to lift myself out of her ruts in my road – she did not overtly impose her ways on me and there are so many ways in which our paths greatly diverge. I know we have faced the challenges on our lives in fundamentally different ways. And yet, her influence is an incredibly strong default mechanism. It can make me frustrated, because in the years since her death I have begun to understand how she crafted the myth of herself by selectively sharing information with her children. But I also can empathize with why people do that – there are so many conversations that people will do anything to avoid. Parenthood doesn’t have a full disclosure clause, and the line between honesty and too much information is constantly shifting. When you share you risk two responses: “Why did you tell me this?” and “Why didn’t you tell me this sooner?” I have been through this with my own children over the most minor events already, and perhaps I do share too much. One person’s enlightenment is another’s burden, one person’s honesty is another’s pain. You never know.
I witnessed enough drama in my Mom’s life to know that, as her youngest, I missed plenty. I wasn’t very good at letting those moments I did know about fade; I have a penchant for rehashing events in hope of prying out more details, reasons, answers. I keep looking for a version of the truth that I can live with, knowing full well that my ability to live comfortably with any truth changes from day to day. What is acceptable in one moment is decidedly lacking in the next. Sixteen years ago, I spent weeks camped out in my living room with my Mom, quizzing her about her life while we waited for my overdue baby to arrive. We covered a lot of ground, but I noticed gaps in her memory that I attributed to advancing age. It doesn’t really matter what she kept to herself, it is that she made that choice – repeatedly – that caught me off guard as the details emerged in later years after her death. He legendary candor was not what I thought and some of the things and people she put faith in were, to my mind, not worthy of her devotion. She didn’t owe me full disclosure, but some examples she tried to set have not entirely stood the test of time, either, because she obfuscated.
But these things are true of all parents, all families. For when we tell a story we are telling our own version, and that, by design or not, means that anyone else who was there as there may or may not agree. We have a large family – something as simple as a Thanksgiving Dinner in 1975 can come off as Rashomon on steroids. And I know that, quite often, there are plenty of good reasons to let sleeping dogs lie. And so I struggle to calibrate what memories are rightfully mine, what traits I truly own, how I can understand what it is to write honestly knowing that truth in memory is only our own version of the facts at a particular moment in time.
I will always love and admire my mother, and there are many ways that I am glad to be like her. Still, even in the throes of middle age, it is difficult to know where she ends and I begin, and I am reminded of what she said in the weeks before her death. “You’re going to be forty,” she said as she spoke of her terminal illness, “this is a good time for me to go. It will be a liberating experience. When your parents are gone you are truly free to make your own choices. I never really felt like a grownup until both of my parents were gone. It’s a good thing.” Now, I think I know what she meant.