The freshening darkness sings and snarls.
At the window she rests and waits for
that loft and heft of air that carries
all four directions into her emptying mind.
She doesn’t need to move an inch from the
extra wide bed (nor can she) that cradles her
smallness like a bird wrapped within
skeins of a variegated night.
It is a waiting that brings pleasure
as all the light is turned down.
Things that were hiding or resting
take their places, reveal wondrousness.
It’s all a giant music box that pops open as
last shards of color soon pale and vanish.
Why and for what must you wait? he complains
as he nudges her bones away from his heat. To be friends with life, she tells him.
He utters noises that suit the hollow he makes;
she watches beyond a narrow window, senses keen.
An easy enchantment as earth shifts, sighs;
wind brings sonatas to her strong teacup of a heart.
Everything living in the far-flung night is
larger, far more than she knows, but this is
a comfort: cats ferocious in hunger and desire,
handfuls of birds all glide and whisper,
squirrels and spiders that burrow and spin.
The moon glows without prejudice as the man
creates distance, keeps safe his importance.
Once when she was a brave child
she sat at night under the peach tree.
Savored flesh of tender fruit as twilit sky
stirred with a flurry of bat wings,
each no bigger than her fingertips.
Insects joined in chorus, brittle and bright.
Warm were the rocks, smooth beneath
her failed legs; night crawlers scaled her toes.
No one knew she had dragged herself out
until morning and they found her asleep
by a den of foxes. She had dreamed
she’d stood up, raced in fields behind them.
She grew but her legs did not lead where
she begged them to go. Later, more useless
than when she was certain of healing. Romance.
She has been more at home in breadth of bed
day and night. It has become less to bear.
Fine night creatures circle under the stars;
nature’s design makes room for her in the
unnatural world of trivia. Useless tears.
Night breathes on me and I am freed of it all, she says.
He snores on, head under quilts, blind and safe
from the dark while she floats, heedless,
toward the salvation of this in-between time.
I have a somewhat secret and intense leaning toward hospitality. It especially steps forward every holiday season. The problem is that I have perhaps less talent than interest and desire. Also a smaller budget than allows for all accouterments and provisions I’d appreciate utilizing. And time can feel squeezed. But the truth resides more with the “less talent” part. Christmas, in particular, would be a welcome and industrious time of year except for this reality (allowing for obnoxious commercialism and its wearying impacts).
To start, I am not a great cook–alright, perhaps I am not actually a cook, at all, now. I’ve done little the past twenty-plus years (my husband cooks when he’s around– we slap something together at last minute or we eat at a restaurant/ order take out– after years cooking for my family. And I admit I cooked out of need, in a utilitarian fashion for the most part. Though I created full meals every day for five kids and spouse plus neighbor kids; used recipes from multiple cookbooks; learned by watching the few relatives whose cooking I admired and then determining to do better…well, I just got by. I did feel enthusiastic about baking. I deeply appreciate carbohydrates and sugar and spices and nuts and all. I turned out predictably delectable breads, cookies, cakes and a few pies, though pastry could be challenging, requiring tiny and major repairs. But baking seemed was a fun part, nearly recreational, not a required duty of my household responsibilities. Thus, it might get put on the back burner.
I grew up with a mother who loved to cook Southern, all-American hearty food. She, however, shooed us out of “her” kitchen so we could focus on studies, music, sports, and attendant activities–along with dates and church interactions (sometimes that could be the same). Yet it was through no fault of hers that I had lackluster response to an invitation to help her cook. Help make the family recipe for apple strudel? Yes, come get me anytime. But the rest was left to her and siblings with greater interest. Luckily, I could be persuaded to prep veggies and stir pots and make coffee and tea.
Preparing the dining room table, however, was right up my alley–especially for special occasions. I could unfurl and iron any tablecloth with napkins for ten without snafus. I could shop for and arrange the centerpiece with gusto. And I was eager to tidy the mail-laden buffet and organize records stacked atop the stereo cabinet. I looked forward to studying the china cabinet, all those dazzling groups of china and crystal. And give me the place settings so I can complete the whole look. My mother taught me early where each piece of (freshly polished) silverware was meant to be as well as the several assorted dishes, glasses or goblets and after dinner cups with lovely saucers. Ah, table artistry was worth developing.
From the kitchen floated rich and tantalizing aromas as I went about my work, anticipating the doorbell ringing soon. Her bustling good nature was reassuring, the clattering pans a hearty accompaniment. I’d scan the living room a last time–did we get the errant dust, were magazines and books in their places and pillows plumped, was the baby grand piano duly shining and lighting good but low? Were the fresh tapers in their candle holders and lit? The flowers at their lively best? Cue the music–also my choice unless my father had already chosen symphonies. I was filled with excitement to greet the first family members or other guests.
Thus, my parents entertained off and on but even with family we shared good meals and an attractive table. I learned at a young age how to welcome all who entered our home. I also became attuned to smallest details (my mother, a fine seamstress and milliner, was all about color and details of design). I surely found it akin to setting a stage for the coming scenes, was carried along by anticipation and curiosity about the next restive hours. Anything could happen here, my writer’s mind informed me, and the backdrop felt and looked good.
So I had fine examples and practice for throwing a good party and for concocting delicious if standard meals. Mom knew she was no gastronome, but she did so well all that she knew, and we loved her scrumptious, near nightly desserts. (This was before the food culture proposed self-deprivation or at least self-restraint when it came to that fine finale.)
All this comforting history prepares and buoys me. Still, I have second thoughts each time I start to plan for holidays. It is an insecurity of mine, not being the desired whiz of a wife and mother, a devoted healer and comforter at the domestic altar of the kitchen. For one thing, I am not too wise in the ways of fresh fruit and veggie smoothies, the benefits of kale and heritage tomatoes and hormone free meats and organic everything. For another thing, we have family with all sorts of dietary needs: vegan, vegetarian (I didn’t know there was a big difference until a few years ago), gluten-free, lactose-free, soy-free, poultry-only or no legumes or no shellfish, and occasionally not even fresh salmon (one of my top foods)… versus “bring on the whole feast” that most families must get to enjoy. Each gathering requires careful lists for tricky diets and we painstakingly figuring out menus–unless they bring their own dish, which can happen, thankfully. It requires both my husband and myself to pitch in–and an early start. It requires stamina and skill. I suppose all holiday meals do for everyone. I’m not quite up to the feed bits, clearly, but it works out.
There is also a personal characteristic, a defect, I have to battle: perfectionism. I’ve worked on this my whole life. I understand from where it derives in my childhood and youth. But I don’t like to do things poorly–okay, I tend to prefer those activities I know I can do extremely well, that are road tested and time tested and end with the same result: a job very well done. I have made progress on this, though. As a young woman, I would not even attempt something I didn’t expect to excel at accomplishing. I could become paralyzed with the fear that I’d fail, so the experience of learning could be flat out miserable and my sense of self felt pummeled by any incompetence. An “average” grade was not even considered, an “acceptable” result was not worth anything. Thus, I did not even begin. What a miserable decision that was, for I felt worse about myself for not even trying–who of any fortitude just gave up? I couldn’t win.
In time the realization dawned on me that a lot of pleasures, perhaps less important but worthy experiences, were being missed. So I began to get more adventurous out there in the land of imperfection–which dominates so much of human life, anyway. And I also learned how to compromise here and there. Thus, if I was not a great cook but an average one, I could make what was better for me to make comfortably.. And if I felt unqualified to execute a huge celebratory meal, I could focus on decor and other preparations. I could give even more energy to people, which is what I love most about gatherings for holidays or any occasions.
I was looking at older pictures recently of my granddaughter and grandson decorating sugar cookies with me after I baked them, and gingerbread houses and other activities. Happy memories, now that they’re 12 and 15. It brought to mind a conversation I had with Avery, the older one, at our Thanksgiving. She said she’d recently made a specially flavored vegan cheesecake and shared the recipe.
“Wow, I’m impressed!” I told her. “I know you’ve always liked to cook. You know I don’t…and I sure could never do that. I bet it tasted great.”
“Well, you can find out,” she said smiling. “We could make it together here sometime. You make good cookies and we’ve done that together– so now we can make cheesecake!”
I thought about that a minute; it made me feel nervous, this new recipe thing. But she was right. And she can teach her grandmother something good. It’s the time we spend that matters so much, not whether something gets a little too brown or the icing is a bit thin. It brings to mind another occasion. I like to take her and her brother ice skating and just last week I posted a picture of Avery and myself on Facebook from 2012. We skated a long, hand in hand. She didn’t know how to skate confidently; her brother was a bit wobbly. But I do know how to skate well, it’s an old passion of mine. However, neither of them ever balk at getting out there. They are glad to hang out and learn a little, too. So when she saw that picture of us, she responded, “Let’s go again soon!”
I love being active but lately have lagged some (see, again this note of failure to do better, how maddening). Today I had a check up with my cardiologist about recent episodes of too high blood pressure. We talked of the aging of arteries (drat) and how I should take up Zumba or other dance classes again, hike more, join a new fitness club to blow off steam and get my heart pumping harder, better. I have had coronary artery disease for 16 years, diagnosed too young, but I have been determined to not let it take me down.
Then he leaned forward a little to ask about recent stress levels.
Guilty, as charged. My basic core serenity has frayed some, even flown out the window too many restless nights. One night recently I was awake until 6:00 a.m., then slept for four hours. Quite the experience, watching the sun rise out of the thick darkness, which feels like a too hot and heavy blanket when I am worried.
“Well, yes, I’ve likely had more than usual stress. It’s the holidays, for one thing! And my husband travels way too much and works too hard and he doesn’t like to go to doctors and i worry about his health…. Then I have a couple siblings who have been dealing with tough stuff. Thank the good Lord my adult kids are doing well!”
“Got to work on the stress, Cynthia. Blood pressure is labile, for some more than others. You respond to life deeply, and you need to find more ways to relax. Your slowly aging arteries gradually also get stiffer which causes blood pressure to increase some. But your stress– that can be managed better. Right? But I need to add a new medicine to bring it down and in a month we’ll check in again.”
Right, just relax, I’m not so young now as when first diagnosed–and perhaps not much wiser. As we wrapped it up, Dr. P. shook my hand warmly as always, wished me a merry Christmas and told me I am still doing well, overall. But I kind of missed being told I am his “star patient,” as he has said for so many years. (I outlived my projected “end date” and that is still the gift he gives me with all his care. And I do count my commitment to greater well being.) But honestly–the perfectionism thing again, I have to be so much better at managing heart disease than others? He was so right, I need to intercept smaller but cumulative tensions that can creep up on me. Remember how much I enjoy my life, all I have to look forward to still living. Remind myself to have a good time no matter the worries that come and go. Let go and let God help more. Life is full of eruptions, fissures and letdowns; it is up to me to keep things in perspective and have faith in human resiliency–with support.
So, give a little, take a little: my husband mostly cooks, yes, but I like to create a seasonal atmosphere that feels special and attractive as can be afforded (not too much, just enough; no commercial Christmas craziness with gaudy or cheesy items all about). I enjoy buying personal gifts for our crew and wrapping them prettily to place under our fresh cut tree. I can amp up the Christmas cheer with a little song and dance, throw in good hugs and welcome each person at our door as my spouse contentedly sweats over the stove. I derive a lot of happiness from doing what I can, the best that I can do. Even if imperfectly.
( Below: Grandkids’ gingerbread houses, a few years back. My cookies with their decorations. I love the snowiness. I’d knock on those doors anytime! )
Everyone had a theory about Dani or a judgment and a strong inkling that they were right. It had become a pastime of sorts, the kind that sneaks up on you because there is a lull in the conversation or you’re irritable with the day and why not? Telling stories about other people is infectious and ingrained in the human species, whether or not we get things right. So when she took off after the rifle shots, everyone had a pretty good idea what had happened.
Ben was the sort of man who knew better–his upbringing was decent enough, he had two parents who took reasonable care of things and their six kids– but didn’t much or often enough care. If he didn’t get what he wanted at his real work, with his side business or in other more personal ways, he caused a scene that often played out at home. Especially if the audience wasn’t good enough at the bar. But people got tired of his belly aching and the bartender would cut him off and then he’d stumble on his way until he ran into some unfortunate buddy or stray creature. At home, the door was slammed shut and he’d let her have it, everyone said. She wasn’t saying much at all at her post office job. She was not a shrinking violet, she was private. And tough, there was no denying that. Who else could live with Ben Kerrigan?
The bigger question was: who would want to live with contrary, immature Ben who had temper tantrums at the least? And that’s how it started, all the hypotheses that became rumors before and after the rifle shots.
For one thing, she wasn’t from around there. She’d come up from Cape Farnham, a half a day away, and nobody imagined Ben would end up with her. She was sleeker, smarter, and seven years older.
Her co-workers whispered behind her back–or so they thought–right off.
“She’s bound to have come from a tough background, see how she walks? Like she’s ready for anything, heels hitting pavement so hard those boot soles will wear out in under six months,” Tilly said.
“I know but look how she dresses. Money and style, she’ll get another pair if our shoe repair shop doesn’t suit her. Unlike Ben who has no style though he may have some cash. It is funny she wears them all the time, that’s her look, I guess.” Fran snorted.
“Money doesn’t mean class. Time will unravel this one. Maybe it’s animal attraction.”
“Well, she is attractive. That sophisticated shiny black hair–what does she put on it?–and all the rest.”
“I meant him, sad to say, he does have that going for him though who would put up with him? Oh, right, she weirdly does.”
“Just give him ten years. You know how his brother and father turned out.”
Dani came to work and kept her mouth shut except what related to work and, of course, general pleasantries. She was a fast learner and not so hard to get along with as they all got used to each other. All she said about her life down south was that she had cared for her mother until her passing and then asked for a transfer after the family home was sold. So they knew she was flush with more than a few bucks, just no sure how much or from what source beyond the house sale. Dani didn’t flaunt it, just was literally and figuretively well-heeled–didn’t they all want fine leather shoes or boots and flair like hers? But they were luxuries. They half-wanted to overlook things, get to know her, forgive her as they continued to gossip.
But when she got serious with Ben, they were more than taken aback.
“He can be an idiotic brute and is just a carpenter! She has college education,” Fran said as if others had forgotten. He did much of the good work in town, that was also true.
“No, he’s an artiste!” Tilly chortled, as if this was a designation could not possibly fit such a rough blue-collar guy.
The fact was he made things that sold well in Carrington’s, the main gift shop. Beautifully turned bowls and candlesticks and small animal figurines, but also toys, of all things, for toddlers. Plus a few finely wrought and intricate wood puzzles. But this was not nearly enough to endear him to any woman–until Dani came, apparently. The men, they took him as he came, and when they were tired of him, they just walked away if possible.
“She must be in it for something, but what?” Fran said as Dani happened to walk out of the back office.
Dani paused, looked up at her co-workers with her piercing blue eyes and the room cooled twenty degrees. Then she kept on working as if nothing was said. The women tried to keep it quiet until breaks and lunch after that. Dani went her own way, not that they ever asked her to join them.
Life just carried on for about eight months and then Dani moved in with Ben. Some said they’d taken off and eloped and among all the things postulated, this one was true, apparently. She wore a ring; Ben actually called her “my one and only.” The guys at the bar clapped him on the back and he liked that, being a part of the group that had at last gotten hitched and were glad of it. But no one asked him more though curious, as they saw he was in love. That was enough for them, at least for the time being.
More than one wondered if she was pregnant, and so did their wives and girlfriends. But was Dani in love with Ben? Who was this woman and why was she with this guy? Time would tell.
“I heard she comes from some money, her family is into art and she thinks he is a good investment. Weird, huh?”
“You mean, his wood working?” Fran’s husband Jake paid attention all of a sudden. “I need to get busier in my shop!”
“I guess so, he is pretty good at it.”
“Better than I am, I cannot deny it. Well, I suspect Ben got the better end of the deal,” he said.
“Yeah, and now she’s about to be our supervisor since Cass retires soon. I mean, I sure don’t want that job but Tilly is pretty hot about it.”
“Tilly can get hot about a hangnail.”
But Jake wondered even more about Dani, what they were up to. There had to be some connection of dots no one could see. There had to be something way deeper. He didn’t like the talk at the bar about her good looks or her so-called attitude or choice of men and so he kept his thoughts to himself. He wasn’t overly fond of Ben, despite his good carpentry but he wasn’t against the man. Jake just wasn’t a gabber. Gossip was for the idle, he was too busy.
Some wondered if Ben was different around her. They weren’t often seen together yet he still could get prickly when they were about their business. She ignored it, as if it was best not to feed the moodiness attention. Likely, that was true. But they often walked arm in arm, too, sharing each other’s company in a quieter way. Maybe that was her effect on him, calming, despite her almost haughty ways around others.
“Odd ducks, both of them, they’re about suited, I’d guess,” Mr. Carrington mentioned to his wife.
She agreed and that was that at their dining table.
But somehow that idea got around so other citizens just shook their heads when they saw them. Some muttered about Dani’s too-quick acceptance of authority at the post office as if it was a weakness. Her long-legged, fast and strong walk reinforced the appearance of great confidence. Many thought it obnoxious while others said it was captivating. And then there were Ben’s rising prices on those figurines. But overall nothing much else changed except Ben’s bar tab. He wasn’t so often there.
Everyone watched, waiting for the day when Dani would come to her senses, even if no one was exactly rooting for her. And they feared it, too, as Ben’s behavior could be so impulsive.
It was Black-tailed deer season so when the rifle went off, people were only mildly startled. Each year some fool acted erroneously but so far not in a deadly fashion. Those incidents resulted in steep fines if happening within town limits. When the neighbor by Ben’s place called the police, word spread fast and a couple trucks raced up near house before the cops even got there. But no one answered the door so the law crept around back, gun at the ready; another police car came screaming down the road. They found a rifle on the ground but nothing else disturbed. The small, sparse woods behind the place was entered and searched. Soon people called up friends and family and the unofficial reports went flying.
Nonetheless, inside nothing was stirred up or amiss. They went looking for Ben and Dani.
And she was soon found–due to Tilly’s fast snooping–just walking fast and hard down to the bay in her good work clothes but bundled up to fend off wet, chill wind.
Then Ben came out of nowhere and ran after her at a good pace.
“Dani, are you okay? Wait up, Dani, I really want to talk to you!”
Police sirens shrieked but the official cars slowed once they saw the tow of them on the walk way by the sea. Both were accounted for and no one trailed blood. The officers got out and stayed put, preparing for whatever came next.
Ben had caught up with Dani and when he thrust his arms about her, she pushed him off, and garbled words were exchanged. but he kept at it, grabbing her coat sleeve and pulling her close as she beat upon his chest and yelled something not one of the several who had gathered could understand.
Two officers stepped forward with a guarded sense of urgency.
Mrs. Carrington and a friend–both of whom had gotten out of her car and started to call home–retreated. She felt embarrassed and sullied, observing it all unfold. Jake, despite himself, stayed on, gravely worried that Ben had lost his temper more than usual or might do so. He had seen the younger man get into and out of many a scrape; he’d hoped for better things to come. But Tilly, Fran and a couple of their friends (who had been walking, as luck had it) had gathered on a waterfront bench, a couple pairs of gloved hands pressed to their faces in anxious anticipation.
Dani turned and collapsed into Ben’s arms. He led her to an empty bench and as he did so he glanced over his shoulder and saw police advancing.
“No, don’t come over here now! When will you people let us be?”
He shielded Dani’s body with his, but that didn’t stop them and they came up behind the couple, then stood before them with hands hovering by their guns. Then they dropped back as they briefly conversed.
The irregular group of passersby had melded at park’s edge, a hushed murmur rising in puffs of foggy breath. Fran and Tilly and friends were on the edge of their claimed bench, heads together.
Dani stood up, Ben at her side. He put a hand on her shoulder as the police stepped farther back.
“Why are you all staring at us? What is it you just have to know? Did you want to think we’d gone and hurt somebody? Did you think Ben lost his cool and hit me? Were you awaiting news of the dire situation like vultures circling over fresh road kill?”
“Please, Dani, just stop. They’re not worth all this, let’s go home,” Ben pleaded, eyes big with worry and misgiving, with his arms lifted, hands opened to her.
“No, I will tell them. Then they’ll stop making things up.”
Dani walked rapidly up to Tilly and Fran.
“You and you.” She pointed, shook her finger, then let it drop. “You want the raw truth? Then you shall get it this one time.” Dani paced a bit then stopped, arms folded tightly before her as Ben hung his head and shook it once.
Dani’s voice was so low that the crowd edged forward as if one, straining to hear as she lifted her chin a little. Blinked at them, eyes bright and fierce.
“I pulled that trigger on the rifle. I shot into the woods, then right into the heavens. Yes, that’s right, me,” she said as many voiced surprise, “I was yelling at God. Everyone and everything.” Her chin tipped up more. “Because this–this–this is the date my only beloved, three year old child died two years ago and this is a day after the date my father was put in a nursing home after an accident left him irretrievably damaged four years ago…and this is when my mother died last year, sick at heart, bereft of him and her granddaughter. This, you see, is the date my life was changed beyond any reasonable recognition.”
Dani clamped a hand over her mouth to stifle a scream as the crowd started to blur. Was silenced. She pulled in a deep breath.
“I just got out Ben’s rifle, shot a tiny hole in the trees, in the sky. I don’t know why. To find a passage to God or try to hurt the universe back. And it didn’t help.”
Fran could see, in the pale luminosity of winter, a tear slipping down Dani’s reddened cheek and smoothed her own face, chest heavy.
“And now I’m going back home with my husband. And I may even get drunk, if you don’t mind. I came here to start anew, to find peace, and I’m still searching.”
Ben reached for her and she let her hand be taken into his.
“Is that enough for you?” Ben said but his heart and words were emptied of usual anger. “Can we just go on and live our lives now? We’re all just people.”
They strode by everyone–she, an inch taller than he; he, harder shouldered than she–with eyes forward, leaving the police behind, deserting all who shifted from foot to foot with dark faces turned away from the couple whose lives they’d dissected. Made into a common, vulgar pastime.
But Mrs. Carrington and Jake got out of their cars as Dani and Ben neared.
“I’m so sorry,” Jake told them, cap crumpled in his big hands.
“My sincere condolences,” the older woman whispered as she brushed Dani’s sleeve. “Forgive us.”
The couple nodded but moved on down the street, arms about each other’s waists. Their booted feet struck asphalt like exclamations uttered in clearest unity.
Thanks kindly to Derrick Knight, for use of his atmospheric photograph. Please visit his offerings at his blog, https://derrickjknight.com/
Breath is heat slipping over tender frost,
life leaning outward to inward as demure
roses pale and pines yet soar as spires;
bright leaves spent so soon are bejeweled.
This light is sparsely cast and laid
upon each day and place like prized
filigree wrought of another world,
or an extra skin for the darkening journey.
This heart flares with a blossoming of soul,
settles in for wintry dreams and musings,
snug inside a sojourner’s still-lithe flesh.
Mind catches up though trailing green, gold.
What stays alive is redesigned in December shadows;
we transform within its secret opalescence,
its sheer, still points like a canopy of safety.
The view from where I sit–far east end of the oval oak, heavy claw-footed table–shakes up stereotypes of a “regular” American family. Seated there is an amalgamation of physical, emotional, mental and spiritual traits. It’s a table that’s big enough to hold thirteen if we squeeze in a couple more at each end. And at Thanksgiving it was jam packed with family and food. There was little that was “regular” about what I saw: the variety of lifestyles, skin tones, attitudes, gender preferences and belief systems make up this big, beloved crazy quilt.
It would not have looked and felt this way in my parent’s dining room. My life has morphed significantly since my siblings and I were raised in a small Michigan city. It was and likely is a place where most were Caucasian excepting a very small percentage of Chinese families, a few other Asian and Hispanic families. This was a place where a multinational group of scientists worked at Midland’s major employer, Dow Chemical/Dow Corning. Our hometown was the company’s world headquarters. Yet I grew up in a cultural bubble in very definite ways; racial diversity was not one of them. I didn’t think much of it until I was old enough to travel more, even with my parents, and see how others lived. And I was startled and excited by all that was going on outside my community.
I began to chafe at a few social constraints as I met people beyond our strictly defined realm, and discovered that ignorance was conquerable with education and experience. Eventually, I married “outside” conservative parental expectations (despite my father being a musician, my mother being more open-minded) more than once. As one might imagine, this challenged and enriched my understanding of life.
So, now in my home we verge on being a motley bunch in a variety of ways and I cannot say I am surprised. Our five adult children’s two fathers and I encouraged inquisitiveness, openness, thoughtful risk taking and tolerance. This is frankly reflected at my table during family gatherings. Though it goes way beyond skin deep, I’ll begin there.
To start with, there are some unknown origins represented. My husband’s white mother was adopted and detecting one’s roots was not encouraged in her era; his African American father’s relatives were much less accessible after an early divorce and his father, disastrously, was kept from him. Such was the place and time in which he grew up. So those at the table are clearly not all WASP-ish. I carry the most Scotch-Irish-English-German genes, a tad Scandinavian; I know a lot about my family background. But since my husband does not he has tried to track down more clues as a bi-racial man often thought to be Hispanic or Italian or “mixed something else”–and that can depend on what degree of suntan he has picked up. As he ages he burns more than do I, and that oddly can change perceptions again. But he sees in his daughter’s two children bi-racial coloring and hair; one of our daughters has twice married black men.
Similar questions have been asked of our three adult daughters with their fuller lips, high cheekbones and strong jaws, wavy to kinky hair, complexions that vary. Then, the family marriages: one daughter is married to an Hispanic man; another, to a Kenyan. Two of my biological children’s father (deceased) was German/Polish/Swiss, so they’re fair skinned and light haired like I am and he was. But my son is partnered with a woman who if of Native American heritage. I haven’t met my oldest daughter’s new guy–may be a Caucasian, who cares either way?– and look forward to doing so at Christmas gathering.
Beyond ethnicity and race, there is much, much more that matters. Each person has a story, like all family members. They are not just my/our children; that was only a beginning. They are not just partners of my children or grandchildren; they bring their own diverse experiences. So there all sorts of histories of accomplishments and missteps, homes and journeying, medical crises and apparent miraculous recoveries (for three), beautiful loves and grievous losses for all. There are tales of migrations and trouble averted and families lost and found.
Our spiritual and political beliefs are not all in accord. These are interesting variances: Mother Earth/ Goddess beliefs, Christianity (some differing views), Divine Dust/Supreme Mind, God Within All, Creator-Spirit. Politics range from quite conservative to moderate liberal to a focus on “a greater universal reality” (including ideas like extraterrestrial beings/systems) to radical feminism to occasional conspiracy theorizing to “Too busy living to worry every minute about this POTUS foolishness; the planet is in giant flux, anyway.” Three adult children as well as my gay sister (also in attendance) have been/are politically engaged and active in some way. They want the world to be more egalitarian, ecologically more sound, safer and healthier, and inclusive of all in some meaningful, practical way.
I get it. As someone reminds me, there was a saying going around in the late sixties when I was out there agitating for better educational systems and equal opportunities: “The personal is political.” I have thought the solutions are sociopolitical while our individual life choices and actions can be a potent force for change for the better. Then I add that spiritual health is, for me, the foundation for all. Generally, the crowd murmurs assent.
But there you have it; we vocalize strong ideas here. We have opposing ideas at times or just have different interpretations of things and get into heated debates. But it’s safe, even when someone gets irked. Every time someone has brought home a new friend or love interest they have been prepared for the reality that we don’t do small talk so well or long at our table; we dive right in, for better or worse (hopefully, not the latter often).
And we don’t have to agree or even accept everything about each other. We just need to love each other. Nothing and no one decrees that family has to be on the same wavelength, with no conflicts or darkly confusing moments, no strained conversations. Those, after all, can be addressed or let go or pondered ad nauseum, your choice. And what sort of family is utterly homogeneous, blood-related or not? Robotic beings, not sweaty, emotive humans. And this is how we like it.
So I look about the table and note how everyone has a variety of talents, skills, passions, quirks and issues. This is true of any family. When we bring it all together, it’s fun and curious what we learn from one another. Three are rock hounds; a couple are amateur naturalists. Two or three are adventurers, ready for nearly anything or anywhere. One is a still pro skateboarder at age forty-four who creates, markets; he sells self-designed skateboards and equipment at various outlets. Another owns a farm in Africa and has developed other businesses. My husband, hard working QA guy/engineer, utilizes his mathematical mind for the heck of it by solving tough puzzles, or poses odd hypothetical situations to figure out. Plus he has a thing for puns, to my dismay. We both adore words, however, so discuss meanings, usage, etymology–right at the dinner table with some yawning, others pitching in comments.
Another person is bringing arts and recreational events to a broader community but side passions are vintage clothing and records. Several make crafts or create contemporary art or compose/perform music and record it. A handful have traveled internationally and across the US. One is an amateur Biblical scholar, another a Chaplain for older people. I am an inveterate reader (I even read pharmaceutical inserts, ingredient lists, tags on bed sheets…) and a writer, a lapsed musician who loves world music as well as classical and jazz, and an outdoors nut. I collect visual art and any sort of pictures for collages. Grandkids like to solve brainteasers, draw/paint, play bass clarinet, horseback ride and snowboard, sing and dance and make videos, cook vegetarian meals, research astronomy, camp in the mountains. I knew little about many of those topics until they shared with me.
My gaze is caught by something on my son’s neck. There is a new tattoo on it, an eagle, “his” bird as he says. This is probably the fifteenth tattoo he has gotten, arms and hands (and now neck?) decorated with them, many of them wild creatures which he loves. This is the son who was bitten multiple times by a hermit spider which left oozing wounds that made him terribly ill–yet he has a prominent spider tattoo on his arm, feels no fear of them–rather, feels he was taught things. I don’t entirely get all this but just accept it as his way–just as I accepted that a daughter dyed her hair green or violet, wore mixed pattern clothing as a teen. She still leans that way–funny how some of those choices became fashionable!– and may do so again. One never knows in this family what may come next.
I observe other daughter’s Kenyan husband as he eats our American food, food that cannot be easy for him to relish but he is trying and he smiles back at me, touches my arm. He talks in densely accented sentences of a rich music, and conveys feelings between words I don’t always understand–but I think I do the feeling. He speaks five languages. He thanks us voluminously for the feast, being included in the talk. I ask for him to bring some food at our next gathering.
A granddaughter is laughing at something her aunt is saying, eyes sparkling. She had a rough teenage year or two but now is rebounding. Her presence emanates her more natural calm and there is also quiet ebullience we long missed. She encourages her shyer but brilliant little brother, no longer chastises him when he gets things so fast and misses other things. They put their heads together to share a confidence–how gentle are their words as they sit with us. A lump forms in my throat.
My sister comes late with her granddaughter (who knows my granddaughter) and we hug long and well. She has had memory issues the past year and I worry.–she was once Executive Director, of several agencies. She is still a master conversationalist and knows how to reach out to others with curiosity and kindness; they respond easily. I am more than thankful for the one sister I have left.
But my eyes rest upon my youngest daughter again and again, the once-violet hair gal. A. and her spouse had arrived before the others to hang out and help. We were talking in the kitchen, eating a few before-dinner snacks. I was chatting away when a small piece of cracker caught in my throat. I coughed harder, coughed more and then could not stop coughing. The others paused to glance my way but continued to gab. My throat seemed to close, my mouth went dry. I was choking. No air in, no air out. I kept coughing, trying to pull in a tiny bit of oxygen, my eyes streaming, chest burning, throat constricting further. My chest did not move much, lungs got almost nothing.
Then my daughter really saw me. “Mom! Can’t you breathe? Should I call 911?”
My husband was frozen in place with our son-in-law. “Try a tiny sip of water?”
“Do you need the Heimlich, Mom?” A. yelled.
I could not answer, coughing, coughing and retching and then nothing and I tried to reach for her. Light seemed to be exiting the kitchen, I was loosening hold of body and mind as I doubled over the sink… then she put her arms around me and with her clasped hands pressed hard against my ribs and upward until something small but terrible seemed to be released. Not a pleasant sight, face flaming hot, eyes stinging. I still felt it there. A minuscule waft of air entered mouth and sore throat; body felt misaligned; head felt empty, eyes streamed. Her arms were still around my chest but gently.
“Can you breathe now, Cynthia?” my husband asked, stricken.
I nodded, barely, barely as the light came back on, as legs felt wobbly. I breathed in, out shallowly a little more. I could not quite stop coughing; no words. I took a sip of water to cool my throat and chest, finger held up as a signal that I was likely coming ’round.
Gradually I breathed without diaphragm spasms or sharp pains and stood up straighter. After a moment, I automatically started to do something in the kitchen, and smiled a little to reassure them. My husband put a hand on my arm; A. put both of hers on my shoulders.
“Please come with me and sit down. Rest awhile.”
I sat there and felt as if the world had dissolved and was coming together and into focus again. I could see them looking at me, concerned. I felt tired; my head began to ache badly. I closed my eyes, pulled sweet coolness of air in and out of me. Arms encircling me: my daughter hugging me.
“I love you, Mom!”
“Thank you so much…!” I whispered.
A. had recently trained for disaster preparedness for the city, with essential emergency medical triage skills. She behaved in a calm, clear-minded, fast manner. She said she had not yet learned the Heimlich maneuver. But whatever she did worked. Her presence of mind, a certainty that she must help me made the difference, along with the intervention tactic.
By the time the others had arrived, I felt more normal, had gotten busy though my head still hurt, requiring a pain reliever. I had nearly put aside the incident and didn’t care to mention it further nor did the others.
But when we all sat down to the big table and took each other’s hand as is our tradition, I was asked to say the prayer. This is what came out:
“Lord, I thank you for all who are with us and those who are not. Fill us with Your peace. Fill us with divine compassion.” I paused, out of words for once, only to rush on: “And thank You so much and the angels, too, for helping my daughter save me tonight!”
Of course, I began to cry a little and then had to explain. Everyone was duly impressed with her skills, relieved I was okay. I got more hugs all night.
“I did what seemed instinctive,” she murmured as if surprised, herself, by her actions.
I knew I was far gladder than they. Gratitude does not express enough what I felt. Just to breathe unobstructed was fantastic. To fill out the picture with the rest was nearly too much but in a positive way–delectable food, family together and the love therein. I began to think of how much each person means to me and was imbued with a moment of extraordinary joy and serenity. Those long gone felt near to me, as well.
I suddenly saw again that visibility is an invaluable thing–to truly know a person and to be known. To patiently learn more of another, to stay and abide with each other until the bigger picture is revealed here and there. I hope to never forget that to be seen and being willing to truly note others is of more than simple, average importance. I’m honored I get to know my family as I do, as well as those brought into our home. Human beings need to feel worthy in the sight of others, to be accepted for who they are beneath trappings and niceties. Cared about, regardless of differences or similarities or changing circumstances of life. It is a gift that never goes out of style or loses its value. To not be invisible, to not be overlooked or discounted is one genuine wonder.