Monthly Archives: January 2014
Up at 6 am, still dark, front blinds closed but white LED garland lights around the living room windows have clicked on, lending quiet cheer. Was intending to keep my daughter company and try to be useful to her while she gets ready for high school. But she has everything she needs; we touch base on the plan later today–is she going to big brother’s swim meet? Not sure–she’ll text me from school. I put on a pot of breakfast sausages to boil, for easy breakfasts during the week. Nothing much else to do, unless I turn on lots of lights, so I go back to rest, but a slight headache reprimands me for sloth, and my daughter calls because my pot is boiling over. Always set a timer, I remind myself.
Oldest son is now up. Always a good morning from him, in his formal-sounding friendly way: “Good morning, mother!” I fix him a non-dairy vegetarian sandwich that will nourish him before the big swim meet. Daughter calls bye and the front door clunk-clicks shut.
Second son, youngest of the four, gets up with a sigh, accepts an offer of scrambled eggs and sausage. I exhort him to change clothes, especially underwear, as he’d stretch an outfit to the limit if he could. Help him find stuff, give him lunch money and leash the dogs to walk him to the bus stop. It’s still foggy and cool, but I can sense the sun blasting away above the cold blanket, angling for a better shot. The pup wants to jump and lick the other children, and they laugh as I speak for her, “Oh please, please–I want to kiss them, I have to kiss them!” I head home, see the oldest off in the extra Honda, then my middle daughter is up and moving about, annoyed for having risen late. I ask if she needs anything. She likes to be asked, but is very self-sufficient. I sign a form for her, go over the plan for early pickup from school, ask if I can walk with her on the way to Moms in Prayer down at the church. She declines, appalled, then apologizes, I say I understand. She hurries off.
It’s nine. I decide to stay home and work, and jot down a list: Tax returns, call 4-H office, apply first coat of finish to drawer fronts, take doors in to be machined for hanging, choose counter trim. I make a latte, sit down at the computer, check and answer emails, resist the temptation to log onto WordPress, and set to work.
His speech is a burning fire;
With his lips he travaileth;
In his heart is a blind desire,
In his eyes a foreknowledge of death;
He weaves, and is clothed with derision;
Sows, and he shall not reap;
His life is a watch or a vision
Between a sleep and a sleep
–from “Before the Beginning of Years” by Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909)
I leaned my head back and looked up today, experienced the heavenly height of the sky. No focus necessary and yet it’s clear, just blue, soft, cool and going out to space, full of light, invisible waves penetrating the atoms of by body without hindrance. Could feel something in me flow out and travel straight out, all those hardworking little inner eye muscles relaxed, tension released through my temples and flowing down. Made a mental note to do it again, maybe get a mat to lie on and just gaze up. See the occasional winged creative, the ring of branches out on the wide edges of my particular circle of firmament. Hard to imagine how one could forget to look at the sky. I hear that prairie folks neglect their skies much less, and that there’s a kind of soul difference in those sky people, gives rise to a kind of poetic nature. No objects to measure and count, no containers to build, no restrictions, only color, movement or stillness, light or shadow, and sometimes the smell of a storm.
Grammy Mike is my mother’s mother. I remember her as a small, thin, wrinkled and bent woman with fading carrot-colored, wispy hair. She lived with us in the winter. Weak in body, only able to shuffle along between naps in her back room and her chair by our wood stove, in pain most of the time with osteoarthritis, she was a power in herself nevertheless. She never complained, only sat and watched, and sometimes made comments. She got along better with my father than her daughter. And with her grandsons than her granddaughters. I became aware of this through various incidents, and through her sharp words about us, spoken always to someone else or to no one in particular.
When I was thirteen, my Christmas gift from my grandmother was a small gold suitcase containing a beauty care set–comb, brush, and mirror, all with gold trim and nestled into white satin indentations inside. I was enchanted–it was the perfect gift, and a complete surprise. In my memory I am standing in the dining room–really just the other half of the kitchen addition to our old house–though I know we always opened our presents by the tree in the back living room by the fireplace. I can’t get the details to make sense–did we put the tree in the dining room that year? Or had I gone out there to thank Grammy Mike as she had her breakfast? Did my bewilderment about the event itself scramble my recollection? My hurt and confusion?
It must have been obvious how delighted I was–I couldn’t take my eyes off the contents of the case. I did not look into Grammy’s face. I was not in the habit of looking in her eyes, or, probably, those of anyone else. I told her how much I liked the gift, in simple terms–I’ve never been very effusive, either.
“She doesn’t like it,” she told my mother, or no one in particular. I insisted I did. She shook her head, smiling wickedly, and her glasses reflected the winter light from outside the window. My power to show gratitude was taken away.
Grammy believed I was spoiled and selfish. Perhaps I had hurt her feelings in the past by responding negatively to some gift or attempt to reach out, and she had not forgiven me. Perhaps she had witnessed a tantrum or two of mine and judged me thereby for life. But I gradually became aware there was more there than meets the eye. I knew early on I could not please my grandmother.
My response to my grandmother’s coldness toward me was not to reassure her, show extra appreciation and affection, bring flowers or gifts. I was no suck-up, and I also knew it would not work. Instead I maintained my distance. As far as I knew I had done nothing to deserve her cold treatment, nor had my sisters, yet subconsciously I felt guilt. I simply avoided her if I could, while maintaining a quiet politeness, asking questions occasionally. Yet I know I must have hoped she would show interest in me, seek my company for a game of cards, ask me for help, even. The most satisfying interaction we had in those years was before she lost all the dexterity of her fingers and taught me to knit mittens without a pattern. Then she forgot her critical ruminations. Though she lacked the nurturing instinct, he was a natural teacher. In her younger days, when her hair was a deeper red, she had taught in her local schoolhouse. She must have been strict.
Avoiding her was simple enough during our visits to her house in the summer, when she still lived there. I would say hello to her as she sat in her special massage recliner, then spend all my time at the river, swimming and wading or fishing off the covered bridge down the road, wandering around the old orchard, poking around old sheds and the cottage downhill of the house, or inside reading her collection of royal romances, looking at my grandfather’s fishing lures, or in the attic checking out old toys, dairy equipment, and my uncle’s collection of Playboy magazines stored there. When Grammy came to live with us in the winters, however, her nearness could not be avoided. Our life in winter centered around the wood stove, which was kept going to heat the big old house. She parked on one side and would talk with Dad or play chess with one of my brothers. It was a comfort to me to see she enjoyed some of her grandchildren’s company.
I wrote to my mother a few weeks ago to ask her about those memories, and Grammy’s apparent dislike of girls. Dad said in an email that she had “sat down forthwith and wrote a long account of those years from hers and her mom’s perspectives.” I awaited the account with ‘bated breath. I received the letter today, but I was surprised and disappointed to see that my mother only had a sketchy idea of the possible roots of what I had experienced with Grammy. She had had several older sisters who hadn’t much time for her. There was an alternating cycle of “laying down the law” and being (in Grammy’s view) too indulgent with daughters, and she thought Mom needed to be more strict and not spoil us with music lessons and lots of free time. Grammy looked back on her own mother as having been too lenient, but when Mom asked her what she had been allowed to do that hurt her, she teared up and couldn’t say. The year my older sister would have turned thirteen, Mom said, Grammy had been planning to take her to her house and “take her in hand.” She had also seen my next younger sister as spoiled, because of all the piano lessons, she supposed. I suspect Grammy was right about us not doing enough around the house, but other than that, we had few “indulgences.” With six children and Dad working as a civil servant, there wasn’t enough money or time. Maybe the extras came from an early inheritance from Gammy which my mom now controlled–her way was to use only the interest–and Grammy objected.
I’ve heard of other strange prejudices and uneven treatment of grandchildren and even children by that generation, from my husband’s family for example. It seems strange now that it’s anathema to have “favorites,” but that was the way, apparently, for some in those days. Perhaps for poorly understood psychological reasons. Seen in that light, I guess I could believe that Grammy Mike meant me no harm–she just didn’t know any better. Still, when one of my daughters (always the same one) asks me who my favorite child is, I not only will not give her an answer, I truly cannot. Maybe some need more of one kind of love, some more another kind, but I am resolved always to affirm the worth of my children, and their children if I should meet them. I don’t want them, after I die, to have to work at getting healing for wounds I have inflicted.
I started putting together a post full of songs to encourage, enlighten, energize and inspire people who care about education, who look at the monolith of the organized system and see teachers and children trapped in something that has developed a mind of its own. I came in contact with lots of nonconformist, creative and divergent thinkers, agreed with their criticism of the institution of schooling and its defenders. Songwriters, folk artists, comedians, writers and poets, speakers. Some of the speakers were so articulate, so professional in their communication, I was awed; I just felt, if I could only know everything that they know, quote the statistics, writers, studies that they do, get on board with that train, I could maybe be able to have a voice that matters, along with the big-league dissenters. ‘Cause I just don’t know any big ways to change the world that I can do. I just don’t know if getting into arguments (in my head, or in words) is enough. One website even invited readers to “Subscribe to the Truth.” Presents itself as an “all-encompassing educational experience that seeks to tell the greatest truth never told.” Could just get led along and conveniently indoctrinated, it seems. So nice and packaged, so centralized. Too ironic. Something tells me that in this also, small is beautiful. Small, decentralized, freely chosen, personalized, community supported dissent. Can’t even place my bets on those who justify getting dissent to be a trend, selling the t-shirt, starting the movement, all that mass stuff. It’s dangerous–has been for millennia.
George MacDonald, that beloved Scottish nonconformist preacher, storyteller, father and husband, taught this: When it comes to knowing how to live and what is right, one should start with what lies on one’s doorstep. The one thing you know you must do is where you should start. Do not be held back my thoughts such as, “But what will happen if I say that, do that, refuse to go along with that? It won’t work out; It’s not practical; I am too small; it will be misunderstood; I’d rather make a bigger impact; I’ll only hope and keep my head down until change comes some other way. I can’t help it–I need this job. I’ll just talk to a friend/keep a journal/do extreme sports to let off steam.” These are thoughts which in their collective form also have a life of their own, and this life feeds into the life of the Beast. The one thing could be as small as, Say yes, get the man his coffee, to Say no, I won’t do things that way; it’s a violation of my conscience. And the consequences, MacDonald taught, lead one to the next task, with greater courage, clarity, and conviction. Usually through suffering, at least of the death wails of a root of ego/self will, or, if we are particularly loved and honored, in broader ways, along with our heroes and the great martyrs.
I see myself as a person to whom much has been given. Therefore, Jesus said, from me much is expected. Yet here I am, like the character George Eliot describes (see “It is Too Late” post), not quite getting off the ground. In small ways throughout my life I have done so, flown a bit, and I believe even my muddled memory can recall every occasion, when I have thrilled to the knowledge that this is what I am supposed to be doing. It would be a comfort to justify everything I have done in my life, to remember these things in such terms as would give me that halo of glory, but then it comes back to the habits I picked up at home. At home we argued a lot. And we almost always argued with trends, fashions, powers, and institutions. And so I argue with myself, and can’t get away with it. Not completely. But see? Maybe I’m self-justifying after all, because I’m saying: It’s okay to do small things, quiet things, things no one really, not even you, see as significant. Oh, Bother!
I guess I just want to say, when you do those seemingly small things, I see them, I sense them, and rejoice. You are not insignificant in your small righteous doings, in your internal struggles to think and do and serve rightly. You are my hero, my heroine. And if you fall in doing right, I hope I am there to lift you back up.