Not Sainthood, Just Common Decency

Bishop's Close Memorial Day 2011 024

I’m going to go out on a limb here and admit I miss what some may deem old-fashioned virtues and ways of behaving. This stands although now I have made it into my sixties, I accept without reservation that I’ll never be the saint that, as a small child, I set my sights on being. Though whether saints have been free enough of failure to uphold pristine standards, I can’t know for certain. I suspect they were as challenged as most yet had within their personalities far finer characteristics, and could demonstrate as such. I, alas, cannot at all manage feats that warrant such outstanding regard.

I wasn’t raised with sainthood as part of my religious vocabulary, but I mean no disrespect. As I early on heard of the idea I interpreted saintliness to mean a courageous, superior and compassionate human being who died an often terrible death. Minus the untimely and unhappy expiration, I thought this was a position in the world worth striving for, something grand and humble at once. I was aware of the legend of Joan of Arc and it inspired me. Early visions took her into incendiary French and English politics and even battle. Then, for all her risks and fervency, was burned at the stake very young. I should have extracted from this a message of warning. Instead, I found her to be a fearless young woman dedicated only to the greater good. She heeded such a call to action. The depiction of her as an individual who appeared to rise above station, gender and, for a time, common societal rules was breathtaking. I wanted to be someone like that.

Why was I taken with such thoughts even as a kid, then as a youth? It may have been the romance of it, given as I was to dreaming and pondering disparate viewpoints and experiences. I am sure a small, hungry ego was well on its way to growing, as well. Yet something in me longed to do good for others, felt it a mandate for being alive on earth. And heroics appealed, whether on the playground or in the greater world. I didn’t have patience with others being hurt, physically or emotionally. I had a fierceness tucked inside a small body topped by a blond “Dutch-boy” haircut and outfitted with pretty dresses made by my mother. As I grew, my idealistic response grew. Sly, offhand cruelties that emerged in school by adolescence inflamed me. To excel, to make the world better, to be a person of whom my parents and God (and others) might be proud were driving forces.

I was much like any other child in that regard, I suspect–it came down to love in one way or another. So I practiced behavioral expectations with the same discipline required of playing cello or figure skating. Kindness in thought and deed, fairness in work and play, forgiveness and reconciliation. Depth over superficiality, civility over impatient self-service, respect of others despite differences, a basic good humor. These were hallmarks of the family’s code and the community I knew. It all worked well for a long time. My parents tried hard to model them. And my earliest Methodist church groups underscored the importance of cultivating such strengths. (I know it’s unpopular to make such a statement as many are quick to give hew and cry about hypocrisy in Christianity. I would posit that all religions on this planet are embraced and practiced by human beings. That fact can and does seriously complicate things. That Jesus was in truth a spiritual and social revolutionary is another story; his message was of life changing love and taking responsibility for our actions.) In fact, I was a cheerful learner because it was pleasant and offered desired responses.

But then one begins to grow up. Life is not experienced with the same level of guilelessness as before. And bad things just happen. My mottoes became “Excellence Above All” and “Courage, Strength, Tolerance, Determination”, just abbreviated to “C.S.T.D.”,  which I wrote on notebooks and my personal bulletin board, even my palm. If it had been an era for tattoos, these would have been inked on my forearms for daily reference. They were aiding my internal survival as I navigated damage of non-familial abuse and other assaults. They helped me manage the vagaries of a pressurized society, and strive to compete in many arenas. These exhortations may have held a somewhat grim quality. Still, in my center most self I yet felt the potent stirrings of earlier lessons, those softer ones that undercut anger and confusion over injustices private and public. And they also sometimes kept me quiet when I desired to be outspoken, less mannerly–this was the other side of “civilized” behavior at times. Like mighty wings, however, those earliest values kept me aloft even when I sank. They gave me hope.

I am given to rumination in part because one of those sites about one’s hometown posted a picture of my father a couple of weeks ago. It isn’t the first time. He was shown playing his viola. The multitude of comments about him stated he was a true gentleman, a beloved teacher and fine conductor and musician. All those years ago, students and friends had been impacted by his profound integrity, an impulse to aid folks on the path of life as well as nurturing musical talents. He was soft-spoken and eloquent, held a crowd in thrall with speeches surprised by humor. His classical and pop orchestral concerts were shaped by an appreciation of high ideals, romance and drama as well as uncompromising technique. My father had a grace that came easily. At home, he never yelled or took a hand to us; he gave us “the look” that told us to get a grip on ourselves. (Far from perfect, he was absent a lot, a man of few words privately, perhaps unusually devoted to music and study of other subjects. He could be less attuned to his family though this was not for lack of love.) In short, the commenters were correct, he lived what he taught: Love God, be good to others and strive for success.

My mother also provided preparatory for life, often with intriguing stories told at the dinner table. She was attentive and charitable, believed good manners got you much farther than good looks (though a bright ensemble and well brushed hair were useful, too), encouraged us no matter our “hits or misses”. But if my father’s personality was characterized by a restrained but steady glow, hers was one sparked by emotion of all sorts. And frankness when something was unjust or even deemed to be in poor taste. Then she tapped a forefinger to lips, as if to admit she may have uttered more than necessary–though we hung on every word.

However, by eighteen, it appeared I was failing to uphold trusty family standards. I struggled with drug abuse. I was an eager hippie who also felt vehemently that the world was on its last legs and people like myself were needed to wake it up and set things right. Circling closer to the establishment-challenging Students for a Democratic Society and becoming involved with women’s liberation in college women’s centers, small group gatherings and more, I pondered things not experienced up close before. It was the sixties and seventies, a period of intense student activism and civil disobedience: civil rights marches; rising feminism; nonviolent, anti-war protests. I was engaged in furious creative activity, in performance art, with writers and musicians who espoused these ideals and protested in the old style coffee houses, in streets, on stages. I jumped in and made my own small waves along with my cohorts. We dreamed large dreams and tried to live them, with some successes.

All this took me a long way from home base but I argued with my worried parents that I was not really free of childhood beliefs, at all. I wanted equal rights for people regardless of race or gender; I wanted peace and love, not war; I wanted things to be made better for students but also for future generations. I wanted–that was the problem… I wanted too much for everyone, also myself, but did not have the wisdom yet to find my way well, to be effective while true to myself. That was the hardest part, as it is for anyone who is caught in the throes of becoming an adult. (I did conclude drugs did not provide worthy avenues for that pursuit.)

All this time I still sought God’s guidance but was less receptive to answers, perhaps. There were such diverse voices making noise in the streets and in college classrooms and when I was alone I felt besieged by the passions of youth. I’d held God’s Presence in my heart while trying to light my own path by any number of curious and sometimes mad means.

In my early twenties I married an award winning sculptor (who built houses, as well), then had my first child. I still felt naturally given to a bohemian but less politically engaged lifestyle. I embraced “the personal is political” idea; my husband and I would simply live more enlightened and simplified lives day to day. We struggled with marital demands, money issues and parenting but had much to create. Explore and share. Over time, much settled within me and a quiet life tending hearth and gardens appealed more than I had imagined. Motherhood tamed that need for a radical life lived ardently into a life of devotion and hopefulness for my children, that they might live freer, with intellectually and emotionally rich lives. With stalwart integrity. I became less enamored of my selfish needs, to my relief. I wanted first for them to be clear that humans are spiritual beings making lives on a shared planet, and that we must treat one another with care. And I found that paring the excesses in my life could eventually bring more to fruition.

And so I found my way right back to what mattered as a child (if I had ever truly abandoned it). Not being a saint, oh no–I had already committed far too many offenses to ever hope for that, with more to come. And, truthfully, it just held so much less appeal. But I stayed true to my own “C.S.T.D.” and survived disasters of my own and other’s making. My intention was to make up for the scurrilous times by loving God with more openness and constancy–and behaving like I did. Just as I was taught early on.

It is tempting to forget the Divine Creator has the power to sustain and direct us in all things. We are distracted every day by endless curios, our fears and desires; important causes and effects of a myriad events near and far. It can begin to seem more comfortable to sit back, stop the mind from questioning and the soul from heeding its urgings. And in our moral laziness we get short with the sales person, cut off the driver trying to ease in, hush the child who needs to talk about anything at all. We compromise ourselves. I  find it spiritually dangerous to do so.

God is placed somewhere off to the side, after the list of chores and wishes. But we might give more attention to God; God attends to us in the very center of our souls where clear intuitions and our best impulses exist. They are there to show us the way to deeply decent lives. And, too, we should take risks, stand up, speak our minds, share our hearts. No one else can do these things for us–and countless numbers in this world are not able to do so. I want to share peace and a smile even walking down the street; it is lovely that most people smile right back. If all we can do is just exercise good manners and be fair and honest in everyday dealings, that is a fine start.

There is another reason why this topic took hold. The other day a homeless person was bending over his cart, tending all his belongings. I thought as I walked by that I should take out my wallet and offer money. I knew I had only ten dollars, no smaller bills or change. So I just did not; I rationalized it away. I walked on and the next thought I had was: the next person that asks me for money, I’ll give ten dollars to. Within a half block another man walked by and said, “Spare change, ma’m?”

And did I give that ten dollars to him? I just shook my head and moved on and as I passed, I felt so much smaller than I had felt in a long, long while. It was as if God was giving me that tiny challenge and, boy, did I ever fall short. I cannot say why that occurred except I am fallible so I hesitate. Then the moment passes. There was no good excuse. It’s one of the warnings I get–that it’s too easy to forget what matters. It also showed me how I can–even when it’s what I want and need to do–outwit my better self. Just a few steps apart from the opportunity, then a chance is gone. It’s not enough to tell myself I gave at such-and-such or to another gal yesterday. But the next time whatever I have will be given, as I do believe God and I are in this maze of life together and I want to be moved first and last. Otherwise, I am lost, since intelligence and achievements cannot love or heal or provoke the joy I want to share.

I now live a tame (if still creative) lifestyle by most standards, I suppose. I live with or around art in many forms and am happy with that. I’m sure not trying for any measure of sainthood. I’m all grown up. It’s hard enough to be a decent human being. I do try to live an actively compassionate life and want it to be as if it is like my skin, as if I cannot leave the house without it. It may take courage; it certainly takes awareness, then action. I’ll keep working on it as there are so many needs and I do know how to respond.

Meanwhile, there’s a weatherproof jacket left outside near the place the homeless come to look for cans. It rains a lot here. Maybe that will be useful to someone. It’s the least I could do today. Tomorrow, something else will present itself like a question. I will do my best to answer. It’s so little to require of ourselves, don’t you think?

Ward’s Mailbox


At the end of tree-canopied, winding Renwick Street, Ward Hughes waited for mail. He dearly wanted mail. Not the sort of mail your eyes gloss over because you can see by the envelope it’s meant to be useless. He didn’t understand why mailboxes had to accommodate dull circulars or advertisements with two pages of fake cheery notes about a bobble head prize for your dashboard if you just ordered a subscription to Monster Truck Enthusiasts magazine. He had a sedan that he didn’t drive often (he took the bus), so why was he getting this?

The grocery and hardware store coupons were helpful. He held a low-level appreciation for the seasonal clothing catalog where he’d order T-shirts or chinos on sale. But overall, except for seed catalogs and a gourmet cooking magazine Ella used to get, he got very little of interest in the mailbox. And he ought to toss Ella’s magazine–it was a two year subscription that had another four months of life. Ward found himself studying each issue as if it held secret ingredients that might bring her back, like magic  spell recipes. Which was ridiculous. For one thing (and two), she was teaching English in China with her new husband, the entrepreneur. That’s what he got for marrying someone younger and better all ’round, and he accepted it most of the time. But then her magazine came again and he was at it again, though he certainly didn’t intend on trying fancy recipes.

Of course, as far as communication was concerned, there was the option of virtual mail. The email alternative and texting, both of which he found mildly aggrieving. But you could pick and choose who and what you wanted to write or read. There was a place for junk to be sorted. Everyone else seemed to think this was good enough, so why not Ward? Because there was still too much junk, that was the problem, and precious little in the preferred inbox.

He’d  been thinking about it and come to a conclusion. He wished to re-institute paper letters that arrived via snail mail, as many called it with a heckling tone. He wished for the hand of his mailman, Tom, to reach into his vast leather pouch and slip a tidy bundle right into his mailbox, some of which were addressed to Ward Hughes by someone who cared. It would liven up the evening when he returned home from his job at the state employment office. The job that threw at him much of the woe of the world some days.

Ward would finger the mail in the box, then tuck it under his arm as he worked a key in the front door lock, then entered the living room. He kept a lamp on; it always cast a honeyed shaft of light across the entryway. He’d put his hat on a hook and coat on another and set down his briefcase, all the while wondering what was in that pile. He’d put it on the breakfast nook table and sort it into yes and no, happy to see an envelope addressed to him in blue inky penmanship. He might know at once who the letter was from, or he would scrutinize it with anticipation.

It seemed a small thing, he knew. He’d mentioned it to a couple of neighbors after the mailman left one Saturday and they engaged in a brief foray into the business of mail. They’d responded with very different views.

Frank the tax man said, “I’d rather abolish the postal service, it is a limping relic, an unwieldy system. Who really needs it unless there is a package? And there are more efficient ways to manage those–they have special stores for things like that and now, I hear, lockers for pick up. I miss my parcels most of the time, and how can it be helped? I’m not even home in the daytime, don’t they get that?”

Then Aaron the lawyer, considerably older than both of them, piped in. He seemed genuinely distraught by the state of postal affairs.

“It’s a sad and sorry day, that so few want to bother with real correspondence, isn’t that just how things are anymore! People take the easy way instead of the interesting way. It’s all about me me me and how fast can I become gratified? I do miss the birthday cards I used to get when I was a kid and even not all that many years ago. On the other hand, I’m gone so much as we seek out our soon-to-be retirement home in Mexico, it seems foolish to keep the service going here. We are set to leave again soon. By the way, might either of you pick up packages that may come in my absence? I do worry about theft. I’d be much obliged, Ward, if you might check on things when I’m not here.”

Ward considered a second, then agreed. “Yes, that’d be fine. I seldom travel. I don’t myself order much online. Maybe I should start doing that–it would be like getting presents left on my doorstep!”

Jenny, Ward’s neighbor on the left of Ward happened to be walking by with her little girl, Adrianna, and heard their talk. “Well, Ward, you can have some of my mail stash. It just piles up on the side table all week long, maybe longer, until I get the courage to attack it on week-ends after a stiff espresso and a danish.”

“It falls off the table onto the floor and then Tally gets into it and has lots of fun,” Adrianna offered with a smile, brown eyes wide with glee.

“Yes, he turns it into confetti sometimes….Oh, Tally, our new Lab puppy,” Jenny explained.

“Ah, right. Tally the mad little barker,” Frank tossed in as he waved goodbye and jogged across the street.

“Does she keep you up, Ward?” Jenny hoped this wasn’t so; they loved that dog already and had been happy neighbors with Ward for eight years.

“Oh, no, I wear earplugs and a mask–no light or sound disturbs me.” He liked Jenny and her family; he wasn’t going to tell her Tally sometimes provided a ghostly howl right past his custom silicone plugs.

Harriet studied Ward with an index fingernail caught between her tiny teeth though her mother tugged at her. “What mask? Like a bunny or fox or a skeleton head?”

Ward smiled at her indulgently. Harriet was thoughtful six-year-old and interested in everything. He imagined she was thinking how he’d look as a rabbit, his balding head adorned with long floppy ears, stiff whiskers sprouting from his cheeks. He suddenly wondered, too.

“No, just a regular mask, like Zorro–oh, well, wait, you wouldn’t know about him. Like Batman’s friend–that Robin’s mask? But no eye holes in it.”

“Ohhh, that’s funny! Well, eyes are closed at night. Except Tally’s can be a little bit open, I noticed that once!”

“Smart cookie,”Aaron noted, then said good-bye.

“Adrianna, time to make dinner, don’t keep bothering Mr. Hughes.”

They headed down the sidewalk when Adrianna called out, “I’ll put some things on your porch when Mommy throws stuff out.”

Jenny yanked on her sweater and waved at him with a twist of her hand without turning around.

So Ward resolved to not think about the mail issue anymore. Adrianna’s offer of their (even more useless) mail was a kindness harboring a vaguely pathetic streak though the child, of course, couldn’t know that.

Two weeks later Ward shared lunch with a co-worker on the corner park outside their massive grey work place. Spring was showing off, and they sat sunning their faces, blinded by brilliance after too many months of rain-soaked clouds. Titus, an office mate who preferred his last name to first, always brought a peanut butter and jam sandwich and a piece of fruit. He now wadded up his paper lunch bag to toss into the trash can, a signal it was time to return. They hoisted their bored, tired selves off the bench when Ward noted a new grey and lavender striped awning above a shop across the street. The space had been deserted for months.

“Curious,” Ward said and hesitated.

“I think it’s an art, no, someone said it’s  a stationary store, how weird is that? I can’t think why someone would gamble their money away on that venture,” Titus said.

Ward felt a rush of pleasure. “Really? That’s quite unique, isn’t it?”

The rest of the afternoon flew by. He checked the store’s progress each day after lunch, taking Titus’ ribbing. There was something enchanting about a stationer, he always thought so, even as a kid when his parents needed some nice cards. His days proved much swifter now that he knew the store would open soon and he could go in it.

The day came when he could spare fifteen minutes after a quick bite. He examined leather-bound journals with smooth, empty pages and turned over artistic greeting cards to see who had designed them. He ogled substantial pens and pencils in fancy cases. Memos pads that were decorated with flora and fauna or abstract shapes. But the real treat was along the back where many shelves held colored papers, several weights and sizes, with matching envelopes. They were a consortium of watercolors, some delicate, others rich as gemstones. Those delicious colors dressing fine papers were waiting for his hand to take a pen to them, that was all there was to it. As Ward left, he vowed to return after work on Friday and buy several colors to mix and match. To use for…something. Someone. He didn’t quite know the why of it other than it was mail in the making for others. He certainly wasn’t going to mention it to Titus, nor anyone else.

The next Sunday afternoon, after he had mowed the lawn and washed breakfast dishes, he sat at his desk with his acquired array of stationary papers with corresponding envelopes. He tried different pairings of the six sheets and envelopes: aqua and coral, grey and rose, creamy white and sage green and then he changed it up. It was a puzzle, which papers and for whom they were meant. He had the idea to send birthday notes to a couple of family members, a letter to an old college buddy, Grant, who had recently contacted him via social media (they had exchanged  addresses for a future visits), and then maybe a couple very short notes to neighbors for some reason or other. Like invitations for dinner, perhaps.

The task gave him a charge of gusto, a sense of purpose that was also fun, a good way to while away an empty hour or two. He snickered at the thought of Ella seeing him do such a thing, something almost refined, even careful–she would not believe it of this man who preferred garden work, had a neutral and polite response more often than not to a gourmet meal she’d labored over. A man who frankly could wear a favorite sweatshirt for a long while before noting any untoward aroma. But he did like to write, she would have given him that, and enjoyed some art. Ward wrote little pieces, a few paragraphs of insights with doodle along the edges. A short poem that he kept to himself.

He began with an ordinary ballpoint in hand, and kept them brief. After a good hour, letters and notes were finished. They were stacked on his desk, stamps affixed, ready to mail.

He went to his job each day feeling as if he kept an funny secret, or had done something good without any prompting. But he also now knew he had expectations. If only there was a response, if one piece of mail came back to him from a sender of good cheer, he would be pleased. The week passed, and then another began. The mailbox was full of the usual detritus, nothing of note. Ward did, however, get two emails from a nephew and a cousin thanking him for the well wishes for their respective birthdays. And those included checks, most appreciated.

Then, near the end of the second week when he wondered if he was a complete idiot to undertake such an endeavor, he found tucked among the neighborhood newspaper, advertisements and a bill from the dentist: two white, standard envelopes. One was written by someone who scrawled Ward’s name and address (how did the post office decipher that?) and then didn’t bother with a return address. Well, it had no stamp, either, so Ward saw it had to have been put into his mailbox. The other had poorly formed yet carefully placed letters due to age, he determined. He hurried indoors and sat down at his desk.

He opened the messy one with no return address.


Good of you to think of Mary and me for your spring dinner get together in two weeks but we’re off to Los Cabos–might have found a great house at last! I think we’ll be back after midnight the evening after, if all goes well. I’ll stop by then.

I have to say I liked getting your handwritten invitation in the mail! The green and ivory were good to look at and the paper high quality. I was surprised by your neat handwriting–you can see mine is a mess. I rely on typing, of course, or other people to do the job.

But now you have gotten some actual mail of a sort–smart thinking! I will send you some postcards from Mexico now and then and you can update us on nice stationary stock. So, a win-win!



He found this a relief and also humorous, that Aaron would finally send him postcards after all these years of being such good neighbors. But he was happy with it.

The next mail was carefully opened and he unfolded a picture of a rabbit that looked suspiciously like a man. With no hair but funny long ears.

Dear Mister Hughes.

Mommy says you like art and lettres. Here’s 2 for yer pile. Of mail. I hope oyu like yer rabit!


His hand rested on his heart as he sat a few minutes re-reading them both. He propped them up on the counter, under the calendar. His first personal mail in a long while. It felt humanizing somehow.

The next week he got a long letter from his old college friend. Ward learned more about Grant than he’d thought to ask. He wrote about his work as a wildlife photographer and his family, about his tennis passion, how he created handmade canoes and loved being at his cottage with his gang more than anything else in the world. And he had traveled the world and found it little compared to his cottage spot with his four kids and wife of twenty-two years.

And by the way, I was so glad to get your letter, an actual letter! What a novel idea and how good of you to take the time to write a page. You’ve started a conversation I hope we can continue. It will be good to catch up, so write back soon.



And that did it. Ward was so happy, he got out his typewriter and started on a poem. It wasn’t grand; it was about connecting with others, how good it was to have many voices in his life. He thought about his earplugs, how they blocked out everything so well that a puppy having a good howl in the night caught him off guard. It needn’t be like that. He could try to be friendly even with Tally. He might ask Jenny and her family over for a simple meal when it got warmer. That Adrianna was a kid to reckon with, a fledgling letter writer.

It was time to be more of whom he’d hoped to become, not just a middle-aged man yearning for a letter in the mail. Ella was long gone and that was that. He had a career that wrenched more from him than he’d realized but it was a good position; he’d stay with it. Still, Ward wanted a variety of people-filled experiences, poetry now and then, wildflowers strewn around the hearty veggies. A few honest and eloquent letter exchanges. He felt writing thoughts on paper brought people to the truth faster and he was off to a decent start. Now he just needed an attractive new mailbox. The old one sported residue from a label emblazoned with Ella’s and his names. It needed only a house number. He did want to repaint it canary yellow or maybe fire engine red. Surely it–and he–deserved that modest upgrade in dignity.


The Good Luck Girls

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“We have to be the best we can be!” Pen always said, and she should know. She was the one who brought home all the trophies, going way back to first grade when she was given a blue ribbon for best behaved at recess. She had broken up a fight by hugging an angry boy who started the fuss. After that, there were awards for reading excellence and penmanship, followed by tennis and debate team, then four years on the honors list. Finally, all the commendations garnered a scholarship for the top rated teacher’s college downstate. In 1949, three years after she began her career at North Village Day School, she was voted Teacher of the Year of the entire county, so was being sent to a state education conference in Five Lakes, an idyllic resort town. And that is where her sister, Bree, lived. Perch Lake, the largest body of water, clasped to its shore a rustic though well appointed conference lodge. There were events all year round, including that conference.

Bree was nervous about seeing her. She used to think they had been close siblings, four years apart but thick as thieves as children–“best friends, not thieves!” Pen corrected. They’d stayed in touch the last six years by letter and had seen each other at the homestead, as they called it, for their parents’ Thanksgiving or Christmas gathering. These were arduous for Bree. In fact, she hadn’t gone often the last few years. There were brief phone calls every now and then. Pen filled creamy linen-like pages with rhapsodic descriptions of teaching experiences and little else. Maybe a brief description of a possible suitor, a recipe she’d tried, the undependable weather. Lately, notes about pieces she was trying to learn (“how time consuming, even painful it can be”) on her new (“aged, really, and I suspect out of tune, you should come and report on its condition”) upright piano.

Bree was jolted by this news. It was surprising that Pen would study piano after years of refusing an offer of lessons alongside herself. She’d also demonstrated a lack of natural rhythm when they had dance classes together. Pen could not even, if one was frank, carry an agreeable tune. But she loved music, that much was true. There was always had good music on the radio or record player. Their mother was abashed to admit she idolized opera singers though for her husband popular music called.

Music, in fact, was Bree’s specialty. Her one saving grace in a family where the older sister collected awards as if trinkets. For Bree began singing the moment she registered the robins outside her nursery window. Her mother still noted this as if it was a miracle a baby cooed in response to feathered warblers. But true, she sang without hesitation from the start, mimicking each sound she heard, later absorbing tunes and lyrics. Bree was born with a musical talent that surprised her musically untalented though otherwise capable parents. So they put her in a church children’s choir where she might elevate the congregation. They instructed her to sing when visiting the pharmacist, Mr. Gundell, himself a fine singer who pronounced her a marvel. She was lauded in school music classes. Given vocal lessons early. And at home soon was paraded in front of visitors like a show pony. There was a girls’ quartet in early adolescence, her soprano ringing bright and true. Solo recitals elicited large enthusiastic audiences. She learned how best to bow and smile with appreciation. For she was appreciative–to sing was her life; to hear applause, a lovely bonus.

The “Culture and Lifestyle” section of the newspaper had a loquacious reviewer who noted her vocalizing held “a certain piercing quality for mind, heart and soul” and “the range of a far more seasoned vocalist, according to this impressed reviewer and Solomon Hastings, Professor Emeritus of Music, Arbor-Kessling Conservatory. Breeanna Irving, daughter of Dr. and Mrs. Reynold Irving, is in truth bound for great things.” She began to give recitals around the state a few times a year and participated in singing competitions. And won. Then she was courted by Arbor-Kessling, among others, before she was seventeen.

Bree mused over her sister’s piano and their upbringing while she misted lacy ferns on a side table. Her past. What she’d given others were the fruits of studying voice, the endless practicing, performing, competing. She’d wanted, yes, to attend a top notch music school, to study and perform more and then–if fate allowed–become a full-time concert soprano. To honor the greatest music with the best she could give.

“But get your degree in music education,” her father had advised one evening as they lingered after dinner.

“I don’t want to teach,” Bree insisted. “I’m singing or I’m doing very different.”

Her mother tittered. “What? Please let us in on it.”

Pen piped in. “You do want to be able to provide for yourself, right? I mean, in case you don’t catch a good man. It is, after all, the twentieth century, nearly decade four.”

“Is that why you’re going to college? To be able to pay your way in case you can’t snare the right man?”

“Don’t be sarcastic, Bree, it’s reasonable and I’m glad of her ambition,” mother inserted.

“Well, fine, but I’m going because of my passion for my art.”

Pen spoke with her usual authority. “Of course, and I shall want to teach even if I marry, otherwise it will be a waste.”

“You may decide differently, dear.” Mother was bent over a darning egg, one of dad’s heavy sport socks pulled taut around the wooden shape. Her stitching was so expert we could never feel the repair work.

“So, Bree, you will consider a practical degree to pull your head out of the clouds? It’s a necessary asset, even for one such as yourself. ” Dad smiled at her with a wink to cajole her into it.

“I’m either singing for my supper or going off to the pristine wilderness and living off the land, ” Bree pronounced. “If there isn’t singing I may as well leave civilization. I’ll commune with birds and swim naked. But I will not teach or get married for no good reason.”

Pen shook her burnished auburn head of hair, her hair ribbon awry, and sighed. “Don’t be so terribly dramatic, so–radical!”

Mother and Dad simply ignored Bree. The family was used to such pronouncements. Both parents thought them harmless if oddly idiotic (“eccentricity is a part of musicianship” Mother assured Dad after another odd statement), whereas Pen found them mildly alarming if annoying.

“You two are my good luck girls,” Dad said, not for the first time. “You’ll both do fine work, you’ll make us even prouder. We’ll be fulfilled in old age, to know we raised such capable young women.”

“And you will marry, too, have wonderful grandchildren!” Mother hastened to add, then bit off the thread under the knot and tossed the sock to Dad.

Bree knew she would attend music school, but the back-up plan was just as she said. Leaving behind the city for somewhere beautiful and wild. She only could enjoy cities if she sang in them.

And it was a good thing she had such a thought. In her third year at the music conservatory she contracted infectious tonsillitis and had a tonsillectomy. She did not rebound well or quickly. Her father felt helpless to work miracles but her convalescence finally ended. Then, as she was working on limbering up her voice for the umpteenth time, it became apparent she could no longer replicate those superior tones that drew an audience to their feet. The resonant, shimmering notes that lived in her higher range had vanished; the lower rich and warm ones faltered, sank. Bree could not coax them with skilled commands, not even her talent. Her vocal teacher worried some as weeks and months passed but reassured her it would take time, that was all.

Bree knew differently. Much had changed during feverish days and nights as rawness took over her swollen throat. The scalpel sliced away her tonsils and left her weak, almost empty. It was not the life for her now. It could never be the same after such a moratorium on singing. No amount of persuasive debates from her mentor and teacher or others, no pleading from her parents changed her mind. There was nothing worse than being a pitiable has-been trying to re-establish worthiness. More than that, she was utterly bereft. Bree would rather be that musician who once delivered flawless music full of heart, but then just no longer sang. Soon people would forget what was.

But Pen didn’t. And her parents never quite forgave her.


The sun slipped behind the rim of the earth and Perch Lake was splashed with golden and orange hues. Bree heard the low growl of a car engine, light rattling as it shuddered over the gravel road. It had to be Pen. She was given a raise so bought a good used Buick.

Bree didn’t have a car. There was Hardy’s work truck, and that was it; she drove it well after a time. He liked to see her behind the wheel, enjoyed being driven to town where they loaded up plumbing supplies for the business as well as their pantry. He’d taken a ribbing the first times she’d driven, as if giving her the keys made him a soft-touch or a fool. Soon residents saw Bree MacIntyre as Hardy’s indispensable right hand and a good woman, at that. She helped run Mac’s All Plumb Repair as expertly as she directed the Young Artists program at Five Lakes Retreat and Conference Lodge. The town was delighted to have someone who cared for their children’s artistic side and handed them over for a few classes each year.

Bree swatted at her neck. It was getting warm already; mosquitoes were hatching. She pulled her shoulder length hair back and slipped a rubber band around a neat ponytail. There was no time to change into a dress but her blue blouse was clean as were the tan slacks. She stared out at the lake. Languorous waves slapped against the shoreline a few hundred feet from their front porch; she listened to the water’s depths. Her heart beat harder though her mind told her all was fine, it always was in the end when they met up.

A car could be seen around the last bend now, the blue Buick. Would Hardy make it in time for dinner? It might be better if he did not, but Pen had said she’d be glad to see him. He’d had an emergency call at 5:00 at the lodge, of all places. Pen might have run into him there as she checked in. Bree laughed at the thought of Penelope Irving crossing paths unexpectedly with her husband in soiled work clothes. High heels clacking against the wood floor, her skirt too tight to make fast progress, wavy hair swinging. Then Hardy: high cheek boned face and powerful shoulders, clear but questioning eyes, broad, often dirt-smudged hands. Few words fell from him. She would have dodged his path, yet tried her best to be mannerly. Pen wasn’t fond of his country ways, the animal grace and strength as he moved and reposed. His pithy observances. Neither were her parents the three times they visited after the elopement. Hardy was nowhere close to what they’d wanted for her.
As with her singing, she had made a terrible choice, they’d all agreed.

The Buick honked twice and soon Pen, suit jacket off, shirttail hastily tucked in, was out of the car and up the steps. The sisters embraced.

“I thought I’d never get here! I nearly ran out of gas. How was I to know? Last time I visited I took a taxi from the train station, remember?” She held Bree at arm’s length. “My, you look healthy and gorgeous as ever, you get such sun!” Pen gazed at the lake, then blinked as if trying to break the spell before it interfered with her consciousness. She did not love the outdoors except from a good view indoors, but she did like Bree’s welcoming log house and this lake at sunset. “Lovely.”

“Of course, the sunset is courtesy of nature, just for you! Let’s go on in. Dinner will be ready in about an hour. I hope Hardy can make it. Want a beer?”

“Do you have a little scotch? Mmm, pot roast or beef stew.”

“Stew, I know you enjoy it.”

Bree got herself a cold beer and a scotch on the rocks for Pen. After they settled on the sofa Pen swept her gaze over the room. It had been repainted. New curtains with vines and birds were hung. A rectangular antique mirror gleamed above the sofa. She noticed they had a television on a painted bench in the corner. The business was going well.

Pen slipped off her heels and threw her head back, then spread out her hair along the back. She turned her neck and met her sister’s pensive eyes. “I can’t believe I’m here, Bree. It has been such a year! I never expected that award and now I have to make a speech and talk on that panel. You know I don’t like public speaking. The stage was your venue, not mine.”

Bree took a long drink and licked her lips. “It’s a learned thing. I got better as I got used to it. When do you get the trophy and give your speech? Should I sneak in?”

“It’s at the banquet dinner on Saturday night. It’s not a trophy, it’s a plaque of some sort, not showy. The presentation is tomorrow, too. I attend workshops all day, then the panel, then speak at the end. Exhausting. Success in teaching should be a humbling thing, less fanfare!” She said it lightly, as if she didn’t mean it, then sat up and faced Bree. ” Anything new since we talked a couple months ago?”

Bree knew this was a hint about the possibility of pregnancy but that hadn’t happened. She and Hardy were busy with their business. Bree had an affinity for numbers and organization, as well as outdoor life and her fledgling youth arts program. Not necessarily having children. Hardy was okay with that for now, too.

“I’m finding work satisfying on all fronts. My arts program is getting better monetary support and kids keep joining! Hardy and I are growing the business. We’re done with cross country skiing for now but fish, boat. Soon we’ll water ski, swim, hike. You know all this–how I love it here.” She tucked her lower lip under the upper a moment, then blurted it out. “Nope, no kids for now. I’m tied up with projects, Pen. Mom and Dad will have to wait.”

“Well, I’m not dating since Ted and I broke up.” She looked at the drink in her hands. “I guess they’ll survive.” She took a gulp. “We sure have lived lives other than what they imagined.”

“Not true, Pen. You’re the teacher they hoped–you hoped–to become. You’re more visible with this award. You’ll likely do much better as you pioneer those methods you keep talking about. A real educator. That’s what you want, right?”

Pen’s fine eyebrows rose, then settled. “You know, I do like teaching, implementing my ideas. But I enjoy public notice and want to research modern educational practices. I was to forge ahead! I’m pretty happy so far.”

“Losing Ted was tough. But I know you’re darned good on your own, too. Funny how I turned out to be marriage material, though!”

Bree brushed a dark lock from glowing skin, her eyes radiating pleasure. Pen thought again how extraordinary her sister was, how impressive she would have looked on the nation’s stages, even the world’s. With her face and that voice, what might have come to be? It pained her to think it.

Shifting against a plump pillow, Bree said, “Well, my ambitions took a turn. We all end up with quite curious lives.” She touched her sister’s forearm. “Say, what’s with the piano playing?”

“I adore my piano! It turned out to be one of the best things I’ve done for myself! I got it tuned last week and it sounds good. I think. It brings back good memories…”

Bree was silent. Glancing out the front door, she hoped it was Hardy’s truck she heard as dusk gathered and spread itself over trees, water, cottages and creatures. She thought of the bats swooping and darting by the pole barn, their electric cries. She hoped the barn owl would visit again.

Then she spoke carefully. “I admit I was surprised. Are lessons harder or easier than you expected? What is your goal?”

Pen grinned, her large eyes brightening.”The lessons aren’t so bad, it’s the daily practice that taxes me. I have much to learn as fast as I can. I plan on playing a few things for the parents by Thanksgiving. I can’t wait to see their faces, they’ll love it, won’t they? And I hope you’ll be there.” She took her sister’ s hand and squeezed it.

A charge of cold energy erupted in her spine, traveled to her neck, then spilled over her. Playing piano for their parents like she, herself, did long ago? A family performance. Would they expect her to play, try a song? Like when the girls presented a dance routine or a play. Or when Bree sang the newest tune. That house had a large space that only masqueraded as a family room; it was really a theater for their parents’ and their friends’ entertainment. For their pride to bloom with each new trick the girls learned.

She pulled her hand away, hoping her shudder wasn’t obvious.
“I don’t know. I’m glad you’re enjoying learning how to play.” She felt heat erase the chill as her heart pumped faster. “Are you playing for your own enjoyment? Or to please Mom and Dad? Or trying to rectify things somehow?”

Bree looked into her sister’s face, saw the deep blue irises and the pupils expand as she sank back, frowning.

“Maybe you’re trying to make things perfect, even now. That thing I dared do that hurt them. The disappointment I caused you all. Such a career I might have had, right? Perhaps even fame, likely some fortune, child so-called prodigy makes good and the family is lifted up in the eyes of all beholders. Isn’t it enough that Dad is a fine doctor? No, Mom and Dad had to preen at the supermarket, at church, at concerts.” Bree felt her voice as roiling steam trying to push out of her throat with a screech.

Pen pressed her lips into a taut line. After a slow, steadying breath Bree stood. She didn’t want to be so near her sister, nor look at her. Her eyes welled with forbidden tears. She never cried about this anymore, she rarely even thought of it. It was done with. But there it was, subterranean all this time, now rousing itself from a sleep in dark places where it had lived, now forcing itself into this tender spring light. Bree leaned against the doorjamb as Hardy’s truck pulled in. He sat in the cab, looking down at something. She took a deep breath.

Pen came close but not too close. “Bree, I can barely play right now and it isn’t about that. I knew you were the special one… I was the ordinary girl who worked damned hard to get what I wanted…” She reached out and touched Bree’s back but her sister’s shoulders hunched, recoiling. “Yes, alright, I wanted to do something for them, why not? They do like music, they miss it in the family! I can learn for myself and others, can’t I? I had no idea this would bother you so. I thought it would please you! That we could enjoy a little music with them again…Bree, look at me.”

But Bree didn’t want her sister’s words. She kept her tears at bay by watching cottage lights undulate on the lake, hearing the rhythmic rushing forward and falling back of water in a dance upon good earth. It was not so much Pen playing, it was the reminder of all that was lost. Her parents’ easy appreciation. Her sister’s pleasure and admiration. And that music that owned her, body and soul, oh dear God the feel of that music welling up from mysterious places and entering the atmosphere of the world like a healing thing. Making its primal, ethereal life deep in her blood, her being. It was what she had to offer them, as well as others. It had been almost the whole of her. And then it was gone.

Bree pressed her fingers against hot eyelids as Hardy got out of the truck, willed her heart to lie down and rest, her mind to uncoil. She turned back to Pen, who stood with arms crossed and her brow furrowed in anger.

“I don’t get you, Bree! I come to see you, we’re just talking and you have to pick this time to do this–”

“No time is a good time, is it? It was me who lost something, not you, not Mom and Dad! The one passion of my life. You had so many. I had one, Pen, one, and it carried me, fed me, loved me, transformed me–it shaped my every moment. And then, it was taken. That’s what I have wanted to say all these years. It wasn’t about disappointing any of you or my giving up or casting aspersions on more good fortune we might have had. Not being able to sing as before was…it was like dying. It was a terrible death. And no one came to pay their respects or offer true condolences, because no one really saw it my way. I let others down? The ruin of that passion was what was left me. And I was alone with it.”

Hardy waited on the porch as his wife finished speaking. He heard her but had sensed what it was about as he stepped down from the truck. He felt her pain, caught its signal of grief, and he knew to wait, be still. He clutched a bouquet of daisies in one hand and thermos in the other. When she was quiet he said her name and she opened the door. Bree stepped outside, sank into a rocking chair. Hardy went to her, put the flowers in her lap and his thermos on the floor. Then he knelt down and took her hands and kissed one palm, then the other.

“Hello love. Smells good, dinner,” he said.”Pen staying?”

Pen was passing them, then stopped and raised her hands in the hushed spring evening as if in surrender. “But we lost the real you, Bree. I lost you!”

Bree touched Hardy’s bushy head and he lifted it to see her. “That’s where you’re wrong. I’m still here, sister, just changed.”

But Pen was already in her car. As she backed up the tires spun against rocks and dirt. She turned the Buick around and sped down the country road.

Hardy walked to the top step of the porch, sat as Bree joined him. They put their arms about each other’s waists. Watched the lake change from a deep bruising blue to a swath of silvery black, as if the stars had fallen in love with water, spread themselves over its buoyant surface. And Bree sang a wordless song to the lake, the night, to him.

In That Country with Children

The barn at the country house
The barn at the country house

As I read about the Arctic weather that is descending upon the eastern portion of our country again, the images that slid into mind’s eye were of the ten months spent in the country outside of Clare, MI. It was 1981, a winter of moderate blizzards in Michigan. And we lived in the middle of it.

Snowdrifts and banks were often so high they dwarfed my five children, all aged seven and a half and under (as well as myself) as they trudged to the school bus stop a quarter-mile away. This was dependent upon whether the snowplows–either county road service or those attached to personal trucks– got out and cleared the way in time. Their youngest sister, one and a half years old, was swaddled in pink snowsuit puffiness. As she called out her voice was the barest tinkle swallowed up by the razor wind. She could barely move her little legs to keep up with me. I lifted her and held tight as we joined the others. I wanted to make sure they weren’t sideswiped by a zealous snowplow wielder or even lost in another battering round of snow-armed gusts.

It was not so far to go, but it was a walk through a whiteness that fairly sparked, a landscape of hillocks of voluminous snow. Trees and structures were refashioned into abstract sculptures. Sunlight bounced off curves and hollows, rendering us half snow blind. Traffic was scarce but we were lucky if the school bus made it on time on those treacherous side roads.

At the end of school days five sleds came out from the garage and snowball fights commenced from behind the protection of snow-block forts. Snow angels covered the pristine surface. They would take refuge in the towering, spacious barn, a favorite place. Once they tumbled into our house, snow pants and jackets peeled off, ruddy cheeks kissed and snotty noses wiped, there would be hot cocoa or tea and snacks. A fire to thaw fingers and toes.

The Clare house was one that accommodated us easily. We had moved from a small college town and an aging two-story house that was just big enough. But the idea of a larger contemporary house smack in the middle of flat farmlands appealed to us. The owners were off trying out a business on the other side of the country for a year. It seemed a good adventure for us; it wasn’t that far from Marc’s job. So we signed on the line and moved in. It was the first country habitat shared since our two families had been blended, though Marc and I had each separately lived in the country. We were not that naive about life without easy city convenience. He now commuted a leisurely 25 minutes to and from work but it felt farther in winter. Then it was a journey marred by life-threatening moments on icy county roads. Skidding into the ditch was to be expected sooner or later, and often more than once a season. Carrying sand and shovels, blankets, coffee, flashlight and some food was recommended. There were no cell phones then; you relied on passersby, if any came.

We found the new house and fields vast, refreshing. It was not altogether comfortable at first to me, there was so much to it. I had to keep track of all those children. We had lived in a neighborhood where the kids could come and go a bit as long as they were together, and they’d met friends at the corner. Bicycling all over and playing hopscotch on sidewalks–no more. We had no sidewalks and the roads were so long and bumpy–deserted. Here we had plenty of elbow room to spare, huge windows that allowed us to see far across the acreage, a wood stove in the living room that cast radiant heat even up and downstairs as long as fragrant wood kept burning. We even had an extra room for the television and record player, with wall shelves for a library. But the children could no longer dash to their buddies’ places. They couldn’t while away the time on a cozy porch, watch cars and walkers pass by, strike up random conversations. They were stuck with each other. And I was more often alone for long hours without Marc as his career took off–my good friends were elsewhere. Still, I had faith that this would be a good year. We would make it so.

For one thing, there were whitetail deer about. They most often came out toward dusk and twilight to feed, as well as early in morning. There were dense woods near the back of the our borrowed land; they would make their way into open spaces, stealthy, sniffing the breezes, grazing and taking tuns keeping watch. Their sleek brown bodies gliding across bright white land enchanted us. Deep snow hindered at times; we’d see only tracks here and there, if at all, near us. Marc hunted a few times, but came back empty handed, except for a bone or two that roving dog packs had left behind.

In fall, spring and summer they came closer to the house, roamed wider, sprinting about. Fawns with spotted fur made us catch our breath. But the proliferation of deer meant that driving could be hazardous to both them and us, and many a deep had its life ended early from crossing a dark road and making contact with a vehicle. We hit a deer that year, and it limped deeper into the forest, leaving our front fender dented. Once you hit a deer that heavy thud is not forgotten; you become vigilant, watch either side of the road for a flash of tail or eyes in headlights.

One evening in the deep of winter I rested in shadows by the dim light of the wood stove when something skulked about, one corner to another. I looked around and thought at first it could be shifting light from the stove slipping over the room. I grew drowsier. The children were sleeping, Marc was due back from a trip in a couple of days, and I felt grateful for shelter from the snow and a deep, soothing quietness. I had my notebook in hand after a coveted hour of writing. Yet I felt something else alive was there so stood and searched with chest tightening. Nothing but the stillness of night. I checked the children’s rooms and found them snoozing. I settled down again, eyes half-closed. But a sudden scurrying sound across the kitchen floor told me these were not children’s feet approaching and receding.

Mice had finally found their way in.

I wish I could say the problem was easily solved. There were countless traps set over the next weeks. We stalked them ruthlessly. But no, they eluded us most of the time. They heard us coming. They had their hideaways and they were not budging until snow melt. I worried about every stray crumb. We put all grains in tightly sealed glass or plastic containers, put fruit away. The garbage was removed daily though once I had the impulse to make a trail with scraps from kitchen to the back door, readying myself with a broom in one hand and sledge hammer in the other. I didn’t carry that plan out, but I thought it may have worked for at least a night. We were forever cleaning and disinfecting, opening traps with small, mangled bodies in them sometimes (I can’t say I was aggrieved but neither did it bring glee), but more often empty. Cheese gone, of course. They were busy all night even getting fat then resting or undertaking sneaky reconnaissance during day. I knew they were there always, and resigned myself as best I could. I gave names to ones I kept seeing, though common sense said they were likely not the same, and told them things that were not close to kind. Though, of course, it was we who resided in their territory.

The children got so used to them that they’d not even look up, just call out, “There’s another one, it skidded under the big pillow,” or “I heard one in my room but it didn’t get on the bed.” We were not allowed to have an indoors cat. The major problem was that the mice were gnawing away at things in walls. Like insulation, surely electrical wires. So we called the owners who were not at all pleased. (Did they never have mice running havoc, or did the critters just like our hospitality? It was the country!) Then pest control in utter defeat. They took care of the infestation, in time.

The winter proceeded in a plodding fashion. Its grayness imbued the rooms and outdoors alike. We played board games and card games. We hauled out art supplies and made things of paper and cardboard, paint and glitter and macaroni and string and more. The walls filled up with marvelous and crazy creations. We baked cookies and cupcakes. Cleaned the house for fun. All five children danced and sang to the music cranked up on boombox or stereo; practiced acrobatics in the lower level of the house; played in the snow but less often. They growled and argued and luckily the house was big enough that they could get away from each other. We were being taken over by cabin fever and resources were strained. But, too, five (not entirely related) children were learning how to live together without anyone forfeiting their place in our arms, without anyone needing stitching up, without Marc or me staving off regrets. It was all hanging together, imperfectly, but it was working pretty darned well.

When the older ones were in school, my toddler daughter and I took walks, read stories, played with blocks and tinker toys, found notes on the toy piano, sang favorite songs as her language skills grew. I played my cello for her as she lay at my feet, twisting her curls, humming along. She loved being in the kitchen as I made meals and when I wrote, took crayon to paper.

And that was the year when she underwent some of the first medical testing to determine why she was growing so very slowly. I remember the day when I got the news that she did not have an assortment of dread diseases or disorders. So far. I pressed telephone to ear, sliding to the kitchen floor, weeping and thanking God even while knowing the tests weren’t close to being finished, that there was much more to come. I just didn’t know what next or when or how. But that snowbound, splendid winter it was enough to know she was not actually ill, that we would investigate and find–yes, find–different answers. A child was given me who was filled with a joy that bubbled over, who was doted upon (mostly) by her siblings–and still oblivious that she was perfect, but tiny. She had a knack for discovery of surprising experiences and brought the wonder to us; we surrounded her with our hearts’ protection.

I told myself: Snow will soon leave us. Our lives are good here. These children, this living is so beautiful I could die today and say it was all much more than enough. I was full to the brim. It felt as if such love would never tire, would just keep growing and holding us up no matter what. Even if I had fear or worry, even if there was pain or sorrow. We had made it that far, mice and medical tests, cabin fever and certain lonely nights.

As spring arrived in increments, one snow bank melted after another to reveal brown, muddy grass and it was a miracle. Rivulets of water filled the ruts of roads and pathways. We flung open the sliding glass doors of the dining room and kitchen. The land gave up its wild perfumes, the coldness relented in soft gusts of sun-burnished air. The children ran and leapt like mad things across the soggy earth and their hands came back filled with rocks, tiny blossoms and frogs. Insects and broken birds’ eggs and twigs with tight buds.

The barn was the best place when not roaming under the sun. They climbed into the haylofts, screeched over its scratchiness and odd smells and made special rooms in the corners. They put on plays w with remnants of this and that. They got out tools and fixed things or made things with Marc’s help. We walked down the road and waved to farmers as they planted fields. The bikes came out and in time I trusted they would come home to us. The deer roamed closer. The birdsong was so startling in the dawn I would lie there mesmerized. Eventually, snow was replaced with rainstorms. We could trace their path, see them coming miles off, black clouds running and lightning with its thunderous postscript dazzling the scene, rain swooping across treetops, dashing the hungry land with curtains of water. After it stopped, Marc and I might sit on the wide deck, breathe deeply, watch the children play in the puddles and the trees grow greener. We’d say nothing at all. Contentment found us that easily. It felt like there was nothing not to trust or hold with care.

Our year there came to a close as the school year ended. The owners had had enough of their experiment in the new city and state they’d tried. They wanted us out, pronto. And so we packed up everything again. It wasn’t easy to leave the large, light-filled Clare house with its myriad gifts. and lessons. But it was alright to go forward. The next house was in a good neighborhood with scads of kids, in a city known for education and the arts and best of all, near loving grandparents. I might say that year was the one when I knew for certain that I had dug in, managed well enough and was looking forward to the long haul–more challenges of motherhood, a second marriage and my own life, a crazy dragon I had always wrangled with and defended, sword in one hand, olive branch in the other, a life loved, anyway.

(An afterthought: The owners of the Clare house had moved to Portland, OR., which is where Marc and I have lived for over two decades, as well as some of our family.)

My Mother’s Closet

Photo by Vivian Maier
Photo by Vivian Maier

“Don’t blame it on me, blame Grandma Ginny,” she said as she let the luxe dress fall to the soft green bedroom carpet. “Your grandmother never could abide a lack of good taste or elegance and from the start it was impressed upon me that all girls need a good dash of both as well as civility.”

I glanced at a silver framed photo on her dresser, the one showing Mother walking down the street between Grandma Ginny and her Aunt Tess. It had made the “Lifestyles” page of the Kansas City Star back in 1950. Even then my mother held the hint of a person who knew her mind.

“A little, sure–not so much that it enters the room before you even say a word. I think you must have been born with a dash of ostentatiousness.” I hoped she would take the hint for tonight’s dinner.

She made a sharp turn, hand set at her waist. “Now, don’t be smart.” Then she snickered. “Well, maybe there’s truth to that– but your father likes it and I like it, so…” She held her hands palms up. End of discussion. “Let’s keep that one.”

I picked up her crumpled ice blue brocade dress from the floor, hung it neatly on a satin padded hanger and put it in the closet in the blue section. It was one she wore to the opera sometimes. I loved its texture, its weight in my hand. By seventeen I had sometimes wished I wore the same size, but she was taller, bustier, smaller-waisted and broader shouldered. Somehow I ended up with my aunt’s slight frame. Mother was shopping in her own closet, trying on a number of items that she had forgotten or found too… something the past seasons. Now the year was inching toward a surprisingly early spring from the tedium of winter. She was at it full steam.

She stood in an ivory lace-trimmed slip before the mirror, her palms slipping over her rounded hips, her lips pursed. She refused to do without such fine lingerie items. It didn’t matter how many times I told her it wasn’t necessary. Her slips, like nylons, were so outdated she had to special order the antiquarian brands. She wore a substantial garter belt, a garter belt even though there were pantyhose to be had if one insisted on covering legs with such things in cool weather. I preferred tights or leggings. Everyone did who was under forty and even then, but not my mother. She still wore high heels every day, despite going fewer places that required them. Mother was sixty-nine in two weeks.

“I want the plum silk and then the black sheath, the one with a tiny ruffle at the armholes, Marianna. Oh, and bring out the silver heels and the black ones with the rosette on each toe.”

She stood on tiptoe, then lowered to the floor, up and down a few times. I knew this without looking. She always did that when trying things on, as if exercising her slim calves. Perhaps priming them for the strain of supporting feet in high heels when she should be wearing more sensible shoes. Stalwart clogs might be a good idea, or a walking shoe. I was here partly to encourage her to get rid of her vast collection of more formal clothing, the ones she and my father had long worn to concerts and fund-raisers and luncheons and conferences. He was a lauded professor of forensic science and an expert witness. She had been a lawyer for three decades, newly retired.

As for me, I was only a teacher, sixth grade. I wore chinos and skirts with leggings and shirts and sweaters to school, with strong leather shoes or boots. I’d wear jeans if I could but it was a school that didn’t encourage that degree of relaxation.

“Ah, this one stays,” she said.

“I do agree with that one. The plum suits you even better than before, now that you’re a little paler…I mean, it contrasts well with your more salt than pepper hair.”

In the full length mirror I saw her right eyebrow raise, her lips form an “o” with a sudden thought. “Does it bother you?”

“What? That you’re getting older? Of course not. You will be a terrific old lady.”

“No, that the plum still suits me, still fits!” She caught my gaze in our reflected images and held it with steel-blue eyes. “I keep feeling you wish I would morph into someone different, sink under the weight of age and broaden and shorten–as if it’s indecent to stay in good shape pushing seventy. But if I changed shape I might start wearing things that would pass unnoticed on the street, shoes that made that awful heavy contact with sidewalks and oak floors. It’s as if you feel I’m managing to look pretty good just to irritate you, Marianna.”

“Oh, Mother, really.”

I disappeared into her closet again, irritation flicking at my chest. She was such a prima donna, concerned with presentation and place in society. Well, that wasn’t quite fair. She, in fact, was less self-conscious than I was about many things. She was given a certain status after so many years braving a path in the legal profession when women were much more sparse in the ranks. And my father had his own well-earned honors. They were rather formidable together, regal with height and heads of excellent hair, their congenial, well-bred ways and so on. I knew that at dinner they would mark their spots at either end of the dining room table with a pride of place that came from proving themselves.

I, on the other hand, was a mere teacher of children because that had seemed the easiest thing when the alternatives bored me more. Law and medicine, though pressed upon me as being the best routes to take, held little appeal. I’d have rather taken coursework in botany and then landscaping but the university to which I embarked–my mother’s alma mater– didn’t offer such an agrarian program. Education held an attraction: security and comfort for someone like me, an underachiever who loved kids and appreciated sharing knowledge with them. I had been a fine baby sitter, after all. I now worked hard and long at a job I enjoyed more each year.

Those beautiful shoes, though, I thought as I picked them up and handed them to my mother. They might fit now that my arches had fallen a tad or whatever happened with over two decades of hiking and backpacking. But I wouldn’t manage to walk serenely across hallways and down many stairs in them for the big dinner without falling over at my boyfriend’s feet–if I made it that far. I sighed loudly.

“Are you feeling nervous about Dennis coming for dinner?” she asked from over my shoulder.

“Not at all,” I lied. “He met you at the art museum already so he knows what to prepare himself for, he knows who you both are in this city.”

“Well, it’s about time he got to know us better and vice versa. Now that you say you are serious! I do like that he likes art. Hand me the black dress, will you?”

I watched her pull it on and then helped her with the back zipper. It stopped three-quarters of the way up.

“Take it slowly, dear, it will get there.”

I tugged but it refused to slide up. “It’s resisting. I don’t want to pull harder.”

Mother ran her hand over the top of her wavy pouf of hair, squared her smooth shoulders, gathered in a deep breath. “Now try it.”

With some effort, the dress was zipped but both of us could see it was too snug, how it creased at her waist and flattened her ample bust. She held her breath until I started to laugh, then she let it out.

“Alright, quick, off with this, before the seams pull apart. What happened since last year?”

I wanted to say: You’ve changed, you just don’t want to accept it but you are compressing, the muscle is becoming flab at last, despite tennis and daily swims and eating fresh figs and greens and handfuls of almonds. You are not what you once were, not so gorgeous and proportioned and enviably thin. Even aging royalty has to put aside the princess gowns.

“I suppose things are shifting,” I said.”Don’t they for us all after twenty-five at least?”

As Mother shook her head a wavy hank of hair fell over her eyes and it softened her. I remembered when it was long and thick about her shoulders, how it’s ebony luster was streaked with silver for so long. It was one thing I inherited. Now I saw her hair was less full and shiny, that chin length was more suitable. I felt a pang, wished it was long enough to be pulled into a voluminous chignon as it always had been when I was growing up.

Mother peeled off the dress and disappeared into her walk-in closet. I followed. She was elbow-deep in the greens to blue-greens section, fingering a pale sage linen tunic, then sateen turquoise pants. I liked those pants and told her so. She agreed and moved to a royal blue flyaway sweater, which she wore often. She put it against charcoal grey slacks and an oyster grey blouse. She took all three and put them on a dressing stand.

“For dinner, I think. Gads, what to do with all these white shirts I’ve accumulated? I don’t even like white unless paired with black. Or red.” She ran her hand over the sleeves and dismissed them until later.

“Mother, did you even get a good impression of Dennis? You never said anything last month after meeting him. Of course, we hadn’t planned on bumping into you, we had come from the trails.”

She looked at me a moment, then grabbed black jeans and a black cashmere sweater, went to the mirror and stripped off the slip, then put on the dark ensemble. She turned this way and that. The jeans looked tight in the seat and thighs.

“How could I get a correct impression when scads of other people were milling about on a Saturday afternoon opening of Rothko’s work? He seemed perfectly fine. A little hairy. Friendly look. You said he was in building trades?”

The irritation prickled again. She knew what he did for a loving and more. “He has a good beard, that’s all. He’s a builder, yes, Mother. Remember? Houses of finest repute.” I paused. “Those jeans do need to go, along with the black dress.”

“Perhaps, dear. Into the ‘maybe’ pile. Well, if you find him so interesting, I’m sure we will manage the same.”

“No, they go in the ‘toss’ pile, they’re too tight and you are too old to wear tight things. It’s not becoming, anymore. In fact, one third of your clothes should have been tossed a few years ago. You have the tastes of someone who is forty or fifty, not late sixties!”

Mother frowned at me and pressed her hands together, bit her pink, thin lip. She was getting ready to defend her position with that tongue of fire–so useful in court–so I disappeared into the closet and blinked back tears.

Why was she getting on my nerves? I knew well all her expectations. I knew what she had wanted for me. I’d endured therapy for three years to get beyond my underachieving, the self-worth issues. Our afternoon started out fine with a delicious lunch I paid for, then the seasonal clothes sorting. We used to do that together when I was home. It was fun, a time when she put all else aside and I joined in and then she’d help me with my things. “Our gabby girl time”, she called it. Even though I had found it more a chore except for the chance to have her all to myself. We used to swim together each week, yes, but we each swam in our own lane, gliding through the water like two mute, very fast fish. Now even that had gone by the wayside.

The woolen items hung in a small section near the end of the row. I pulled up the protective plastic bags to finger them, then pressed my face against the fabric. I loved the smell of wool, its animal heartiness, how it was rough and smooth at once on my skin, how it was pure, somehow, clean and rich. Substantial while refined, to my liking. Mother in trim work suits and then over those, her shawl collared, camel woolen coat.

She came up behind me as my face was buried in the folds of the very same coat.

“What’s wrong?”

I pulled away from the woolens. “Oh! I just love this coat… anyway, nothing is wrong that won’t be gone after dinner.” I turned to her. “Keep the jeans if you want. I was just–”

“No, you’re right. I need more stretch than I used to. I need more room, I guess!” She patted my back as we left the odd safety of the closet. “You go to the solarium with a good book and relax. Dinner will be ready at seven. Your father is cooking tonight. And I do like that tweedy skirt and caramel colored sweater on you–I used to wear that sort of thing when I was younger. Fine Pendleton standbys.”

I smiled at her and left. So that’s why I bought and rarely wore the skirt.


When she entered the room even my father stopped what he was doing, which was lighting his pipe. Dennis and I were sitting in the living room, having just enjoyed a chat with him about the quality and types of area soils and how this impacted building houses. Father had been into the discussion, seemed like he was looking forward to the evening. Then we heard her voice as she called out to him.

“Thad?” Her strong voice had moved around a few corners before she arrived. “Ah, there you all are!”

Father smiled and it simply telegraphed how much he still adored her. She paused in an archway and surveyed our trio. Dressed in a fiery red silk tunic with a long keyhole opening at the chest and black, loose pants, she floated toward us. Her hair was swept back and her long bangs were held aside with a gleaming silvery barrette. Long black and silver oval earrings dangled from each lobe. Her feet were clad in the heels with leather rosettes at each toe.

As usual, a statement had to be made, her identity established, no mistake who was ruling the roost: Ms. Helena Halbrecht.

She put forward her hand to Dennis as he rose. “Welcome to our place, Dennis. Lovely to see you again.”

“Thank you for having me.” He took the hand and nearly bowed, but just stopped himself.

I rose, too. “Mother, aren’t you amazing tonight,” I murmured through half-closed teeth. “I should have had my fairy godmother whip up a gown to wear.”

She lifted a perfect eyebrow at me and Dennis took my elbow. Father chuckled at the scene, then lit his pipe before getting us cocktails.


“I, too, find my work exacting, Mrs. Halbrecht,” Dennis countered. “Timing is often the key no matter what we do, don’t you think? I have to make sure the essentials of a house are well in hand before making complex decisions. The foundation must be entirely sound before all other actions proceed, right? I have to coordinate many laborers’ efforts as well as work closely with architect and owners. Everything has its own time and method. Each material has its strengths and even a corresponding weakness if not placed in a manner that coheres with the others. I also am the one to bear bad news–I have to finesse my way through! If I am not a good communicator, that I may as well take down my business shingle.”

They had been talking about the importance of logistics in the field of law, how you have to know when to make this move or that, how to execute it without doing damage to the whole scheme while putting pressure one place and alleviating it another. How to command, manipulate, execute the power of language. My mother was finishing her salad and she now put down the fork slowly, took her napkin and pressed it against faded scarlet lips.

“I see. That is a lot to consider. And I somehow imagined good houses were just a matter of perfect schematics and able-bodied workers.” She laughed lightly as if to say she was certainly not that dim, then quaffed her iced water.

“I think he’s made an excellent point!” My father’s eyes swept over our plates and found that we all had enjoyed the salmon. “All decent work requires detailed plans that leave a margin for unforeseen variations in data–or error as it happens–and just as valuable, strong teamwork.”

His sharp eyes crinkled as he beamed at Dennis and then nodded at Mother. She shifted in her seat. She had no choice but to admit that the man I had brought to dinner was a good conversationalist as well as a successful businessman. But I had hoped she would discern more than that.

“And what do you think of our daughter’s teaching career? Do you have an interest in education? Or children’s welfare, for that matter?” Mother asked.

Her cheeks were flushed, or it was the red of the shirt radiating upward. She looked beautiful despite being demanding of our guest, my boyfriend. I knew she was sincere, but it had begun to seem she was interrogating him a bit. It was her habit after years of prosecuting, of cross-examining and rooting out the loose thread in the fabric of things.

“I know children ought to have someone like Marianna teaching them. They need people who are not only smart but compassionate. Someone who shares her enthusiasm about life with children who become jaded too soon. I know she”–he covered my hand with his before I could grab my goblet to wet my ticklish throat–“thinks she might have done something splashier with her life but she’s very trustworthy as well as persevering. Those qualities matter in teaching, I’m sure, as in other parts of life. Marianna is the sort of human being who gets respect from others because of her character first, not because of achievements. Although I suspect she will be rewarded well for all she does for sixth graders and her school. I am in awe of her dedication and patience, really.”

And he gave my hand a squeeze, then reached for the pitcher and poured me fresh water. Mother had both eyebrows raised and she wet her lips then bit the lower one to stave off more questions–I knew that “tell”. But Father leaned back and studied Dennis with a level look.

“I guess he truly likes and loves me,” I said somewhat defiantly and everyone laughed.

“As we also do, Marianna,” Father said.

Mother gave me her doe look which unnerved me, it was so warm and soft.

It was extraordinary that Dennis had spoken this way to my parents. All my growing up years friends were more intimidated by them, especially Mother, and I seldom brought home a boyfriend to hang out. Not even during or after college. She was so much to take in. It usually required a willingness to get past her ultra confidence, the intense questions. And my father, well, he was devoted to forensic science and how did one casually converse about that over a well-set dinner table? Did one query how the dead were maintained for, uh, further review?


After Dennis left due to a big job starting early the next day, I found myself lingering before heading back to my place. My parents were in the kitchen; the low rumble voices passed through the swinging door. I went upstairs to refresh my face and then walked around, peering into bedrooms. My childhood room, with its window seat for daydreaming or reading and the skylight over the bed that gave me a star-pierced sky, a wash of morning light. I wandered back to my parents’ room where their luxurious, quilted king bed belied insomnia I knew they both had. Then I found my way to Mother’s closet again.

I turned on the track lighting, stood in the middle of the deep space, turned slowly so neatly separated clothing ran together. Became a kaleidoscope of hues, like a child’s toy turned slowly to illuminate patterns of jewel colors. I stopped. The extravagant room held a surplus of design, and the rigid order felt oppressive as well as sumptuous. But it was my mother’s place. It held her choices and desires. The area was imbued with her unique mixture of scents. As I touched the fabrics they felt as if they had just been worn by her; they held her energy somehow. This was her place of safekeeping for parts of an identity– what it had been, maybe still was. An inner sanctum for preparation for the days or nights. Later she’d shed clothing along with her roles. It held some of her tools for work and play. Beauty to make the ordinary world more palatable, vibrancy to grant the day a warmer tinge of hope. It was her realm and her pleasure.

I loved her for devising this quirky oasis from the cruelties of the world she had stared in the face over and over as a prosecuting attorney. And now she was finding these props and valued pieces did not fit in the same way. Elegant and vital, she was nonetheless a woman reconfigured by time. That, she could not negotiate. But she would find something to her liking and benefit. I turned out the lights, exited their private domain.

It came to me that I should resign from the job of assisting my mother with clothes sorting. It was up to her, after all, whether or not she would keep on with the old or make way for different goods and her changing life. No matter what, she would still reign over her small kingdom and be happy. And I had my piles to sort as well as my own romantic life to manage. I looked forward to it, thanks in part to her expert, even loving tutelage. But whether or not her style would ever mix well with mine still remained to be seen.