Friday’s Passing Fancy/Poem: Fruit on Plate with Flowers on Wood

Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

(For NJF)

About the time you think you’ve taken in just
enough to sustain you, to fade ten more marks
left by the world and ease the daily ache
that lodges along the spine like a blunt knife
delved into the earth of your nerves and sinew,
and you admit it is this voyager body and dancer soul
that must hold more, bear and hope and give more–

then you pass the dining room table and see
four sweet fruits nestled beside one another
on a plate found and offered by a daughter
to be used whenever you may desire.
Everything loosens and reassembles
as if the heart’s flesh, tender and tight,
opens then closes around an obdurate core,
the love that will not be ruined,
never dismissed, will not sell its secrets

but this, just being here, now, perfect: for you.

We are Hearts Among Others

67 BDay 006

Though my eyes were open, I wasn’t even out of bed this morning when I was planning on a day stuffed with creative choices: drawing and/or painting, starting on a montage, dancing to some bossa nova, electronica, soul or flamenco, maybe singing a song or two, taking my daily walk if the rain let up a bit, and perhaps starting a poem that I felt in sync with rather than a moderate connection to, for once. Or at least two or three of these. Because it is my earthly birthday. And one should do what one wants to do if one possibly can for at least this particular day. Or ignore it altogether, some years the best choice. Like when my oldest sister passed away a week before my birthday two years ago and we were all heading to Texas for her service. Or when there are better things to do than have dinner with cake, like becoming submerged in recreation and rest of a real vacation. Just skipping the intense focus on one more year survived (one hopefully made a little worthwhile), with the attendant hullabaloo. Additionally, much of my closest family–three of our five adult children plus son-in-law plus two twenty-something adult grandkids–do not even live within a four day’s drive nearby. Birthday fuss seems overrated, even though I have gratitude that my difficult heart continues to pump and pound with great diligence. Despite its often fast jazzy blips and propped open vessels, I live pretty darned well.

Seven days ago I had anticipated that second choice: simply not being here. Because Marc and I were going to San Diego, California. Where a semi-arid Mediterranean climate (bordering on subtropical at least in summer) landscape and the Pacific Ocean’s rolling waves have been calling to our souls and bare toes. We can avail ourselves of a plethora of interesting experiences in and around that city and on an island nearby. My husband has been there often via business trips. So he got me all revved up, enthusiastically describing the place. What a birthday gift. It was also a reward for him–time away from labor’s grind. He works harder now than he did ten years ago; it’s that sort of job.

But it didn’t happen. It was his work, of course, the boss’ directive (despite having told him we would not lose our vacation). Marc never knows exactly what day or time he will be finished, when he will have quelled another manufacturing crisis. Not until he is good-enough done, for the time being. I well know this; I’m a seasoned “corporate widow” spouse (bad way to phrase that….). Deep inside I didn’t really believe we were going anywhere for this birthday though we’ve managed it many other years. So when he called three days before our departing flight and said there had been “a change in plans”, I accepted it without serious complaint. No use wasting the energy since this has more often been the “norm” than not. So I had another plan, sketched out as above: create more diversely a few hours and enjoy more time outdoors, say, visit the Japanese Garden which just re-opened after redevelopment.

Okay, wait, greater honesty is required. I was disappointed to not go on the trip. Deflated, just enough that it hovered at the edges of my consciousness for days. Butting into my honest desire to exercise acceptance and tranquility. I know it wasn’t like he was taking me to Tuscany or the Great Wall of China…but, still.

But back to the opening scene. My phone rang. It was my other sister, the one still energetically engaged in sentient life, reminding me of a birthday lunch date. I hadn’t forgotten; it would fit nicely around noon. Then I noticed a few birthday text messages, including one from my busy fifteen year old granddaughter who took time to say sweet things. I hopped out of bed, got myself together for a minor, rather ordinary, quiet rainy morning sort of birthday. In truth, I’d already had a good celebration with two close friends over the week-end. They each got me beautiful flowers, loving cards. Another friend called. One took me out for brunch and a good gab; the other took me to see the film “Beauty and the Beast” which was fun entertainment and well done. I felt cared about; I didn’t actually need anything more.

I am good on my own, anyway. I am independent, pretty tough when the going gets bumpy. And sure don’t need presents or people hovering about as if I am a pitiful lone woman during a sparse birthday I wasn’t going to count as important.

I sure didn’t think I needed anything else. We don’t always know what we need.

As I was cleaning up after breakfast, my brother and sister-in-law called from back East to sing me “Happy Birthday” in a perfectly harmonious duet (being professional singers). A treat in itself but we caught up a bit, too. They are dear family; it was heart-filling to get the call.

I also had received some gifts in the mail. Totally unexpected, not even necessary. I tend to not want anything. I have books and music and a few other valued objects. I always feel “superfluous goodies” are something to give to my children, grandchildren and sometimes other adults. However, I got three more excellent books, a handcrafted pewter necklace and an interesting language game that can be used in play or also as prompts for my writing. To my surprise, I felt more than touched by them all this year.

Maybe because it was a more difficult twelve months than some years. But I’m resilient, adaptable, life does go on as it shall, I chant daily. One will prevail!

Then I spent the entire afternoon with my fabulous sister, Allanya, and some with her partner, enjoying stimulating talk as we ate at a favorite neighborhood spot. My lunch was tasty if unfancy (grilled chicken panini with avocado, pesto, tomato; steaming split pea/vegetable soup, freshly brewed iced tea with lemon, slices of a perfect orange). I thought as we talked: how good it is to be right here, to love these two people. After two hours at that restaurant, her partner went home.

My sister and I were off to a fine French bakery and cafe. We availed ourselves of a tantalizing array of choices that beamed at us from behind gleaming glass. I felt excited by all of them. I chose a tender, flaky, royal-sized apple turnover; she, a lemon-drizzled-with-chocolate torte. Dessert in late afternoon! With an aromatic coffee. You need to understand I am a minimalist eater so eat very simply, even carefully due to a lifelong digestive disorder. So a good meal that is happy with my taste buds plus innards is a successful, even outstanding experience.  This day was entirely satisfying in that regard–another not-so-small gift, believe me.

As I sat sipping coffee with Allanya, covering various topics and making plans for a small road trip we hope to take soon in Oregon, Marc left me a text message.

Where are you, are you home? 

No, I responded, I’m out having fun.  

Well, there is something to be delivered to our doorstep. I hope it’s safe. Must go.

He hadn’t yet mentioned my birthday, hadn’t called to wish me a happy birthday. Likely he forgot, I mused, in the midst of his mad work day, as he sometimes has. I try to overlook this; it’s not as if we are a new couple in need of constant attention or thrilled to get older each year. But this message left me perplexed. I could not imagine one thing that might be delivered he has been ensconced in Mexico three weeks. Allanya and I continued to chortle and hold forth in the candle-lit and lively cafe. I noticed through distant windows that sunshine appeared to be challenging, even perhaps defeating rainfall and accompanying dreariness. She can be a frequent time checker but not this day. I watched her unwind, ignore those streaming shadows of later afternoon. My own mind and body indulged in all the stimulating sensory input, savored our emotional and intellectual exchanges.

Another gift. They were sure adding up.

Eventually she had to go home. I was ready to walk or maybe write. When we arrived at my apartment building I saw nothing at the outside door. She sat in the car, wondering what was awaiting me though I imagined it might have been stolen. I unlocked the door, looked in the foyer: there was a large, gloriously hued floral arrangement. It smelled softly sweet. There was a small card: “I know it isn’t San Diego, but it is something.” (The rest I’ll skip.) I carried it out  and held the rainbow flowers up to her open window.

“Wow, nice!” Allanya exclaimed.

“He sent me flowers from Mexico! Well, okay, not exactly from there, but he didn’t forget!”

She admired them, then we hugged long and gently. Sisters we are first, but also best friends, more so  now that there are just two of the original three of us left. I feel I hit the jackpot to have been born into a family with my unique sisters. (The brothers are good, too.)

I went inside and considered the unfolding of a day I had thought would be simply another day–a decent one, sure, but one spent mostly alone. Removed from any celebration of jut another year, now a total of 67 years. My eyes rested on the gifts, the flowers filling my home as reminders of people whom I care deeply about. My heart went to the top notes of gratitude.

As I started writing this post, two daughters from out-of-state called. One has been attending a conference on the arts in education with her (artist) husband; the other, an associate sculpture professor, was winding up a long day after lots of grading, consults with students, meetings. At first there was an impulse to cut it short and get back to writing. But it struck me: I have hard working daughters (among three other fine children, lest they read this–though unlikely) who took the time after jam-packed days to call, to speak with me and share some of their lives, as well. This despite having sent gifts and cards and texting me earlier. And one sang “Happy Birthday.” I then told them about my day. No, I did not feel lonely at all. No, I was not much sad about the cancelled trip. I had a day of joy right here.

I pulled on my jacket for a quick walk to clear my mind. To reorder my thoughts for more writing, to appreciate the bursting abundance of spring. I considered how my day had become something other than planned or expected, as days can do. But as far as birthdays are concerned, this one was superior. Maybe staying home instead of travelling was meant to be. Maybe I needed this one certain day, to be made to pause and open up to expansive, nourishing moments right in front of my nose. It was like a little tap on the shoulder from God. The beauties of life are sometimes not where you look and clearly see, but what you may miss when looking in the wrong direction. I had to let my soul and heart, my vision be directed by others today.

What it all boils down to is something I know, but that one can never tire of learning anew: I am well loved. Happy Day of Birth to me!

I offer a few photos of the lovely flowers. Click at bottoms of pictures to see captions.

 

Yours is Not Mine

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Margarite’s Viewpoint

He made the decision impulsively. Very unlike him, everyone agreed, moving from one side of the river to the next, from a five bedroom, 4500 sq.ft. home in the hills to a homey bungalow on a corner. In one of the historic districts but still! I wasn’t prepared for it. I should have been. I was his wife for thirty-six years until last February. What was I going to do with all the room if he left? Not that he was there so much. But he was still vitally important to his company and that meant entertaining, plus everything we just required. The marriage had been fading a long time, so we both had ample preparation for that. No, the house was the issue along with a few other loose strings.

One Saturday I mentioned looking for a condo in southern California near one of our daughters so I could have an escape from the blasted rain all winter. We could even share it if he wanted, I thought, but knew better. He was staying at the house until we decided when to sell it. I had been resisting this part.

Robert agreed. “Go ahead, that will do you good. We should talk  about selling the house after the solarium is finished being renovated. I need to move, anyway.”

Busily repotting a plant while he sat on a white deck chair created some distance between us. I hated talking about the house and what we had to do next. It made everything so final, despite my agreeing to the divorce. Endings can be made to seem tidy while still feeling messy.

“Really? Are you being transferred?” I felt a little alarm go off.

“Putting an offer on a house.”

I heard him say “offer” and “house” but the Bensons’ riding mower next door had started up. I noticed he casually turned the page of his magazine, Smithsonian. He no longer read me articles aloud, for which I was grateful. How many random facts about the Amazon, thirteenth century Florence or how our bodies are not designed for speed can a person absorb? I had flowers on my mind; I was hosting the garden club meeting in two weeks.

“What did you say, Robert? The mower!” I gestured to the neighbor’s house. “Someone offered to buy our house before we even got it on the market?”

The magazine was tossed on the round table and he kicked his legs out. He put his hands behind his head and stretched back both elbows, that chest puffing out. His bare feet–it was seventy out–were enormous and clearly in need of grooming. I kept noticing things about him I had managed to ignore or blur. I returned to yellow pansies, pretty even though their tiny faces scowled at me. Robert says flowers don’t have faces and of course he is right, as he is about so much. But he knows nothing about making things grow.

“I’m leaving as soon as I close on a house on the east side. It’s much more manageable than this one. I thought you’d be happy to stay here–or sell. It always was for you, really–you’re good with large spaces, complicated landscaping. My career, I know, has required it. But I just want a nice new spot of my own.”

And then he got up and refilled his glass with lemonade, freshly made by yours truly. I knelt there in the dirt and watched him quaff a whole glass of it down, as though he was dying of thirst despite doing nothing all morning. How did he just go out and get a house without my considerable skills and input? How would he decorate it? The thought frightened me. What would become of it while he was gone for weeks? I needn’t worry myself about it, but still. Most of all, what drove him to leave so suddenly, the divorce papers’ ink just drying? It felt like an unecessary affront. We were amicable enough, uncoupling in a fashion that everyone envied.

“Is it another woman?” I demanded even though I knew it was absurd. I stood, then walked toward him. He was never a man to stray; it would have taken too much effort. Robert was attached entirely to his work and when he retired in ten years there would be another passionate interest for which he developed an inordinate devotion. I’m glad I never needed that sort of  attention; I would become claustrophobic.

Robert looked at me, unblinking, as though incredulous, those thick grey eyebrows fluttering an instant as though uncertain how to match his internal response.

“You know, I like the pansies and tulips,” he said. “The rest of this-” he made a sweeping gesture with his arm across the large, bedecked yard-“always struck me as superfluous other than it provided you a haven. But that was good enough. If you could see my new yard”–he paused and I thought he was going to say it wasn’t an invitation–“is small with little to distinguish it. There is, though, a good front porch. I can sit in the breeze and watch people stroll by. I will enjoy that immensely though I know it would strike you as a waste and a bore. No, this is not about another woman, Margarite.”

And then he went indoors. I barely knew what to think. Robert on a humble porch watching neighbors. To think houses might be close enough for him to see them at table. How odd an image to summon. He’s never had time or inclination for such a life. It was always rush rush to this and that, work to do, people to meet, flights to catch. Nothing will change just because he is changing an address. He just won’t have me around to tidy up after him, to make sure his shirts are back from the cleaners, to call the caterer or make reservations when his business people come to town. To keep track of his life so he can live it elsewhere, with others.

To wake me up when he finally slips under the covers and tosses and turns, then slumbers as though dreaming is the elixir of those such as he, like Zeus and Midas. Well, maybe I will finally get some sleep. And redecorate. Possibly sell, sooner or later.

Robert’s Viewpoint

DSCF5231

I found it serendipitously so there’s no going back. My GPS had malfunctioned earlier in the week. I didn’t miss it until I had a business lunch on the east side with a supplier, then made a wrong turn on the way back.

It was a perfect error, leading me to a different solution. I will use it to all its advantage, cheerfully so.

Margarite and I just hadn’t wanted to face giving up that house. It was made into a home in which to raise three kids and enjoy as many dogs over the years, had been a perfect place for entertaining and her expensive love affair with gardening. It was–is–a good place, substantial, elegant, affording good views of the river and a rolling park. But we are done with it. I am, anyway. Margarite will enjoy it until the last piece of crystal and panel of draperies are removed. But she will have to start over just as I will be.

It’s shingled which is full circle in a way. Margarite will be aghast. I always said I would never again live in a house covered in shingles. My parents had one and it embarrassed me when growing up. I wanted so much more, a ravenous child with no end to my appetite. And got the positions that enabled me to buy a few houses that impressed, our last being intimidating, I suspect. But the new place has cedar shakes, not ugly green asphalt shingles like my parents’ had. It has a couple extra bedrooms upstairs for kids or grandkids when they want to come around. The back yard is smallish but big enough to fit easily a dozen on the patio. I can set a long bench or two along the edges. It has a small area that’s partly covered with an open beamed roof. Purple wisteria is hanging from it, the real estate agent informed me. It is enchanting. A new word for me to use, enchanting, and mean it.

I know it’s a shock to those who think they know me. But I have always wanted this–to detour, slow down. To sit back and observe something other than the arcane workings of international business. My best friend–is he that? do we have enough in common besides work, handball, golf?–is sure I’m having a midlife crisis and I need to buy a new Jag. I told him I’ve shifted altogether different gears. I want less, not more. My career won’t likely change, at least for now. But I can. Will. Maybe I’ll learn to cook. I like Italian, which Margarite found too common; she can have her saucy French cuisine. I want to eat fat grapes off the stem while reading a good mystery novel half the night. Walking to the store is likely as I am close to everything there; what a novelty that is. I want to listen to bossa nova and hum along with the music without anyone telling me I’m a late-booming romantic without a willing dance partner. I can dance alone. There are far worse things.

Should I have waited to see if my wife could get with my new program? No. She needs certain things and has the inner resources to adapt, believe me. She can have the possessions since she oversaw all acquisitions. Yet she lost track of our trajectory long ago, somewhere between my eighty hour work weeks and her antique clock and china collections, garden tours and trips to exotic spas. Well, I lost sight of her altogether. Soon we could only manage our separate ways. I didn’t intend this and it does hurt, still. We ended up in different places. I don’t see a way back.

But this unique new house. It has the pure lines and spaces of a structure devoid of the ostentatious. I had no idea I liked that so much but when I sat on a rocker on that porch the vise around my chest (that has been convincing me I am going to die any minute) finally loosened. There were two blue glass hummingbird feeders and I thought, I’m going to see and hear hummingbird wings flap! Ten to eighty wingbeats a second! I looked it up later but that realization bowled me over. I felt my eyes moisten even with the realtor standing nearby. My wife would think I was having a mini-breakdown.

Instead I am becoming the man she never knew and now will not know at all. I am making the years left mean something more. I feel it like a hunger, but a better sort this time. There has to be more satisfaction. Peace. I could build a koi pond in the back. Learn to meditate though that may be going a bit far. I can cut back my hours at this point. I’ll buy a basic barbecue and grill chicken legs, then invite every neighbor over! I haven’t done that in twenty years. It feels like my accidental turn offers a possibility of happiness. I aim to make that happen. Now. At last.

Anita’s Busker

Pic of busker-

“Well, there you go! You never know who you’ll bump into. See that guy over there? The busker. Blue shirt and sharp little cap? I knew him once. Yeah. He played around. Anywhere there was jazz of some sort, he’d hang around the edges, inching his way in so that by the end of the night he’d be sitting in. You know, when everyone else left and the real music started up. I wonder what happened to him?”

Anita pulled her sweater close around her. It was sunnier than it had been in days. She and Chilla met at the park on Saturdays. Chilla brought the donuts, Anita brought the coffee.

“I might know him,” Chilla said, mouth full, lips rimmed with powdered sugar. He ducked when she tried to wipe it off.

“Naw, you don’t  know this one. Right before your time. You came- when? Nineteen seventy-nine? This was when I was just twenty-two. When I was starting to make money. I was with Zero to Ninety. We’d made our first record and I was busy. Making the rounds, getting into good joints like suddenly we were something hot. Always hot, always something. Took some folks off guard but I had it goin’ on.”

Anita added more sugar to her coffee, blew across the top so that the steam floated away, ghostly feathers. She listened hard. The man sounded pretty good from where she sat under the aspens.

Chilla shrugged. “You had it, I had it, we were smart and bustin’ out. ‘Course I was particular about my tunes; you were about whatever you needed to be.”

She turned sharply to face him. “What do you mean? Versatility! I had chops. Fluidity. Yeah, sang anything you wanted.” She took a gulp, frowned. “How would you know, anyway? You were a drummer. You were so full of sound when we played together you could barely hear me.”

“Oh, I heard you. How could I not? ” He smiled. “Want a chocolate creme? Or maple log?”

Anita took a bite of the maple log, then watched the busker. Two couples had tossed money in the coffee can. She smiled. She liked that, liked him more. Coffee cans were hard to find these days. Maybe she should edge up closer, sit so she could catch all the notes. The tunes were a mix, old and newish. His shirt looked fresh; he was clean. Where had she last heard him play? Was it with Smithy Levin’s band? Forty years ago…

“You know I don’t think about all that much.” Chilla leaned against the bench, put his arm around Anita. “What’s the point? I can’t play, anymore. Even if I beat five minutes on one of my drums, the landlord would set me free in the world and no, don’t want that again. Did enough travelling once. I like my place. Like my peace.”

“So you say. I like remembering. Cheers me up. What’s going on now, Chilla? We watch the pigeons sneak up on every crumb. Watch the kiddies endanger their lives on monkey bars. You have your t.v. shows. I have my books and fish. Well, that’s nice. Oh and we work together–too much. I’m so glad we don’t live together, anymore. I can’t abide television on every day. What about more fun? Music was fun!”

He looked out over the street. Chilla didn’t care so dearly about music. It used him up, spit him out, so he was done. Maybe it was mutual. No matter. Anita knew all that but she had to make a fuss about the past, anyway. It was true she was good. She made the room hold its breath sometimes. She managed to acquire admirers faster than decent money. That came later, a good ten years of success. And then. A car accident, months in the hospital: her voice on its way out. She said she’d sue the EMTs who did the tracheotomy but, really? They saved her life. So he got it. She was still sorry it all ended. He’d played for thirty years but everything ended sooner or later.

Now they did alright with their part-time tax business. Musicians had a talent for math.

He brushed away the dusting of sugar on his lap and looked at her. Lines around her eyes and her deepening dimples made him want to plant a kiss on her cheek.

Anita raised her hand, as if reading his thoughts. “Wait, listen. That’s ‘Stairway to the Stars!’ Oh, I do love that old big band number.”

She sang along, the tune rolling out, voice rough but rich in timbre. Closing her eyes, her face tilted in amber sunlight, she was transported. Her long grey hair flew off her shoulders in the breeze, then caressed her face.

Chilla shut his eyes and was back in the blue smokey depths of Night Cap Lounge, his beats sure and deft, underscoring a grand design of sound. His hands were so limber they belonged to a superman. He felt the thrill of liberation. Anita was making a statement in a blue and silver dress, her voice grabbing them all with its saucy beauty. She was dangerous, that woman, her warmth a beacon, her vocalizing a bearer of adventurous messages. It was another world and it was theirs for the asking.

After the music stopped he sat still. The wind picked up; the trees answered each other with rattles and sighs. When his eyes blinked open he saw Anita walking rapidly toward the guitarist. He pushed off, eased onto his aching feet and followed.

“Why, Griff Baxter! Of course! I was saying to Chilla–I know that man. How long you been around here?”

They were chatting it up like old friends. Chilla held out his hand.

Griff looked uncomfortable. “Not so long. I was in Baden Baden the last big gig but then had some problems. The last three years, see, I’ve had two hip replacements and then medical bills came in and now, well, I’m staying with family, a daughter. Just for awhile, though.” He took off his cap and turned it in his hands, then resettled it with a nod.

Chilla felt embarrassed for the guy and looked down. Anita put her arm through the crook of Griff’s and grinned up at him with her toothsome smile.

“Well, imagine, you in our neighborhood. You ought to come by. We have two apartments, both in the same building. We could have dinner. I have a piano, old upright. We’d share a modest feast and then play a little.”

“Or not,”Chilla said. “I was a drummer.”

Griff laughed. “Or not. Yes, it’s not quite the same in a small room without the blue haze and ice cubes clinking and talk so thick we could barely hear ourselves sometimes. Right?”

“Oh,” Anita laughed, “we can light candles and make some drinks with little umbrellas and have a go at it.” Then she put her other arm through Chilla’s. “Or not.”

Griff chatted amiably and then took a request from passersby. Anita and Chilla left him their phone numbers and started home.

“Now who was he? I really don’t recall that name,” Chilla said. “Seems I’d know of him, Baden Baden and all.”

Anita shrugged. “Me, neither! He’s younger than I thought, but that face…had a head of wavy hair once, I think. Thing is, he sure can play, Chilla. Beautiful soul in those fingers, right? Just got to love how good music compliments a sunny day.”

The Lives that Live in Drawers

DSCN1796My desk is crammed with paper items and I immediately got sidetracked from my objective–finding a document. Each drawer I opened revealed sign posts to other times. I realized my life could be considerably pieced together by whomever rooted around in the piles. Two deep drawers contained unsorted cards, letters, drawing and photos from many decades.

I shuffled the photos. My children stared back at me, busy, happy, worried, loving, annoyed, surprised, sassy. All aged before my eyes. I pondered how time and experience had molded them.

All children are born into a voluminous web of longing, desire, and hopefully, love. Some are not born easily, on a doctor’s timetable and certainly not with all the world at their naked feet. Some leave the aqueous mysteries of womb with fierceness and some with solemnity. The unique creature each baby is peers out at us with surprise and acceptance: this is the place to be. For now.

I had been informed at age twenty-one, after my first marriage, that I had a very slim–emphasis on very–chance of pregnancy due to reproductive problems. My core trembled with distress. After a couple of weeks I decided it was alright. Maybe some women were not meant physically or psychically for mothering. I was working hard to heal from some life-altering events, so allowed this might be best. And I was in college, studying creative writing, painting, sociology, art history. The man I’d married was a sculptor, obtaining his Master’s degree. We were poor but there was much to aspire to and to accomplish.

But a prognosis such as I was given should note dramatic exceptions. I got pregnant and gave birth to three of five children and every time it seemed an astonishing thing. Maybe the doctor had been wrong. But her concern about the reliability of my reproductive capacities was not.

My children did not arrive in a timely fashion. They were born prematurely. The heftiest was five lbs. four oz. This was thirty-five to forty years ago, when premature babies were always considered very high risk. Interventions often seemed desperate and minimal. Very tiny newborns were placed in Isolettes–really, incubators for human babies– in the hope they would survive, then grow well enough. That they would have minimal damage internally and externally. The probabilities of things going wrong outweighed any optimism. 

There had been warnings of things going askew almost from the start with intermittent cramping with bleeding, warning of a disastrous early labor. At six and one half months, there was no stopping my body’s insistence on slipping Naomi into earth’s atmosphere.

It was a night of a swirling blizzard. I was cold, fearful and overcome with the beauty of snow. It took longer than I expected, but I hovered on the rim of consciousness after being administered an alcohol-solution IV (something no longer done) for hours along with other medications. The foot of my bed was raised up to  encourage her to stay tucked inside longer. Labor and childbirth were experienced as though underwater, from a distance. I wondered how she felt about it.

And then she arrived. My first daughter was born shining through her skin. Her luminescence overtook all and burst into my awareness as hope in the flesh. Her tiny voice ensued like the cry of a new bird, insistent, soft. It was a moment of reckoning. For the doctors: She breathes but how much longer? For us: She breathes and so she will carry on. Even as she was attached to a monitor that noted any interruptions in vital functions, even as each sudden alarm cast a dark shadow across my prayers, I felt her spirit rise up to greet the world.

Naomi was born two and a half months early; she weighed two and a half pounds. She fit neatly into the nurses’ palms. Tiny veins traced purplish-blue designs under fragile skin. She held a purity and innocence despite her hard work of survival. I could not touch her; it was not allowed back then, not until she grew stronger, gained weight and could eat on her own. We watched nurses and doctors through a nursery window, saw her wriggle thin limbs, saw how unready she had been to come. Staff reached into the portals of her Isolette with gloved hands to check vitals. She accepted feeding tubes with forbearance. Her father and I pressed against the cool glass, watching our daughter stretch inside a glass box. We wanted to break into the room and that glass, pull her close forever.

That first time I whispered, “She has artistic hands, oh, look at her long beautiful fingers!” It was terrifying to not hold her, feel helpless in the face of so much wonder. I was not encouraged to keep breast milk flowing; she was too weak to nurse. And it was not the way in nineteen seventy-three. I wept hard over it.

For over two months she remained there. We drove  forty minutes to the hospital each way many times a week. Each visit increased our longing. But Naomi grew strong; her eyes began to focus better and follow us. She finally breathed well and drank from a bottle.

She came home at last, into the lushness of spring and our arms.

Caring for a preemie infant, even one with no serious issues, is not without challenge. There was finicky digestion that presaged allergies, sleep issues, skin sensitivities. She quickly tired of being touched, so foreign was it to her realm of experience. There were painful ear infections, a fickle immune system. But in the midst of this was a reigning delight. Her tenderness of spirit and probing curiosity were evident as soon as she began to better interact with others and the environment. Her determination to thrive and explore were heartening. As for me, being a mother was an epiphany, a series of lessons in love.

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A first word uttered was “moon.” Her eyes were two blue stars glowing in the center of my universe. Large, round and keenly focused, their new acuity informed me of intrigue once unseen. She was indeed an artist; her hands guided me in making new the ordinariness of things. I discovered how to be accountable not out of obligation but out of devotion. How, in fact, to build another life, a far finer one. Her very presence, as well as the duties required, aided in saving me from myself. I think it can be said that my first daughter taught me how to love without expectation. To know God in a more intimate manner.

Each child gives us a chance to find the best in ourselves. As we go along for the journey a child’s presence and needs define a new life together. One’s first child unearths a great and ancient story of primeval bonds, of the boundlessness of familial loyalty. The first child informs us of ourselves in ways we cannot imagine.

Before Naomi, I had given little thought to parenting; I had babysat only a handful of reluctant times. But my knowledge was hourly expanded with skills soon diversifying. Moment by moment, I became more willing to traverse that rugged, breathtaking terrain. I realized parental love fills a bottomless well from the inside out; it is there despite our errors.

Naomi plumped up and communicated with us but didn’t speak sentences until well after she was two. We worried a bit. But she spent hours building complicated designs from blocks and other more random items. We watched her, loathe to interrupt. Her concentration was uncanny. She could sit at my feet and play while I wrote poetry and stories. She did not have any disabilities that we could see. Instead, she became a gifted student. Her need to gather knowledge, make sense of the universe and create of its components were an intellectual engine that drove her. But quietly, so that teachers commented on how she seemed to disappear at times. Her way of being was marked by tenderness toward others, as well. The capacity for stillness and observation grew. She increasingly focused on visual arts although she also had excellent aptitudes for mathematics and science. She completed her Masters of Fine Arts at Carnegie Mellon University, and became the visual artist she was meant to become.

Time has altered some things but not all. Her passion for the arts and for learning have taken her many places. She is no longer the quiet one off to the side. She has been making all kinds of art for many years– sculpture, installations, performance art, videos and photographs, printmaking, drawings–and teaches at a liberal arts college, as well as coordinating the art gallery. Exhibiting often and winning prizes, she has also attended many artist residencies here and in other countries.

The infant who appeared delicate and weak in doctors’ eyes and spectacular in ours defied the odds for that time. She became strong in body and mind, and has hewed her path with tenacity and vision. I cannot begin to tell you how much I admire her charitable heart and independent spirit. Her courage to create despite the obstacles that being an artist presents. She has made my own world a more habitable and happy place.

This is a very brief story of one of three children who were not supposed to be here. And there are two others, also welcomed, who were given to me to help raise. They each inspire and intrigue me. Do you begin to see why those pictures waylay me. I am in my sixth decade. That is how motherhood is; it is never truly set aside.

My drawers remain stuffed. They need a full day of attention. And my thoughts are still full of color, tumbling, rushing, rippling as I contemplate all the treasures. What a grand tale every life is. What an exotic, a lustrous thing.

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A prescient poem by Naomi, age 12. Her website is www.naomijfalk.com.

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