Mementos for Living

Photos by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

The crowd wasn’t holiday-large, not jam-packed in corridors, just impossibly thick with kinetic energy, bodies propelled from the mall storefronts like party favors tossed into the electric air, mouths chattering about nothing, eyes alight with the thrill of the hunt.

Nell didn’t much like crowds. She observed from her perch in Madrigal’s Mementos, her workplace. Her store, in a way, since her mother, Rona, was semi-retired and hightailed it to Santorini with a new companion. She wasn’t surprised Rona left her to deal with problems actual and imagined, as well as their thriving trade in “fancy this and that”, as her mother called the wares. She was more like a good older friend and seasoned business partner than a mother in most ways, she admitted. That was how it had always been.

The store was tastefully arrayed with small stone animals, elegant glass paper weights, fine pens and papers, hand crafted jewelry, silk screened scarves, hand bound books of poems and wisdom to live by, bright woven baskets and so on. In other words, an expensive gift shop for those who are used to the best or those who want to indulge once a year.

She felt less like a snappy sales person than a rag doll who had been propped up on her stool and directed to come alive. This was not what Nell had planned on doing right after college, yet here she was grinning at three customers who likely had little extra cash to spend and another two who did, each of them absorbed in examining the interesting pieces, wondering aloud if one person or another would enjoy an item. Nell could care less even though she was proud of Rona’s business acumen–she had two more stores–and glad of a decent paycheck. But she would rather be studying for her Masters in Ethnomusicology, doing musical and cultural field work in the Ozarks, say, or on Prince Edward island, in India or Mongolia. Yes, Mongolia would suit her better than all this.

The two women she thought would purchase something left the store arm in arm. But two of the other three lined up, items in hand. Stone elephants, a stone eagle, a bracelet of silver and good turquoise. As each was carefully wrapped, she thought how this business was partly responsible for Nell’s interest in other cultures since much of their inventory came from worldwide markets and crafts people.

“Such a great shop,” one woman breathed, hands gesturing toward displays and making coppery bangles clink. “Is Rona not here anymore?”

“Ah, yes, and no. She’s considering retirement, meanwhile just travels.”

“To locate more neat stuff, no doubt.” She dug in an enormous shoulder bag for her wallet, bangles jangling more. She looked at her friend. “Rona has such an eye, is so interesting, I could go out for coffee with that woman once a day and never be bored, she’s quite a talker.” She found her debit card and handed it to Nell. “You’re new here, right? You know her well?”

“For quite a few years. She’s my mother–I’m Nell Madrigal.”

“Oh! I should have known since you have her thick black hair, so pretty, I guess we’ve never met.”

“Likely not, I come and go. I’m not here for good; she’ll be back in time for holiday shoppers.”

“Lovely, I’ll be back then!”

They finished their transactions and left. Stillness billowed in the room, a relief. Nell watched more people stream by, a monotonous blur, a mass of colors and shapes, a telegraphic signal from another world that she didn’t understand. That she wished fervently was not her domain. She’d rather be on a mountain, in a holler, by the sea. But last year at her East coast university had brought a defining moment that left its mark. She turned on a CD of benign spa music and settled into the exorbitant but beloved “clam chair” covered in sheep’s wool near the counter’s end. It was for Nell the safe place in the store where she would watch and not be seen, could rest and the ache in her back and shoulders would ease.

If she dared close her eyes while still awake, she would still recall it and anymore it seemed better to let it come, rather than fight it. She had no desire to go into battle with old demons. She was tired, as always. Nell let her eyelids lower.

Back at Hartford School of Music he’d fast become her first love. Quinn: excellent oboe player, a composer of abstracted woodwind quartets and trios. They made her think of watercolors, layers of morphing shapes–yet these belied a greater intensity of feelings she didn’t recognize on first listens. The music could have been a clue but for her it was then all surge and flow; seeking, giving and taking and waiting for more; following less trod trails into a wilderness of surprise. It wasn’t that she hadn’t been in love before, just that she hadn’t ever known a man like Quinn before. Hadn’t found the proverbial rabbit hole so enticing as to willingly tumble into it and risk being lost. Which soon, she was, then she sailed right into his arms, out of her life, into his.

Was it his amped up adoration of her, even as her own ardor had begun to settle? Was it the way he had of subtly and frequently chiding and correcting her when he insisted she was wrong about something, no matter how small? Was it how he needed to know all her friends’ names, where she was going–then that he preferred she spend her free time with only him? Even then she saw it as signage of his enveloping and rock-steady love for her–the way he attended to her every need, how he graced her apartment with armloads of flowers when they’d had a spat, how he’d serenaded her at her window one night.

His mellow oboe sweetly filled the night air, calling other women to their windows, as well. But it was only her for whom he made music, no one else.

Nell flicked open her eyes, checked to see if anyone had slunk into the shop and was trying to nab anything but no, it had been a mostly quiet afternoon so far. She glanced at the shoppers then shuttered her vision once more.

Quinn was not handsome, not even quirkily so. That is, his features were not noteworthy and his torso was long and gave off a hint of natural athleticism but not one blazing with prowess. Still, his presence sooner or later filled the space of any place he went. It was his eyes, for Nell. Not the shape or color–though they were a warm brown, caramel-tinged in the right light–but the force they exerted, and his honeyed voice. Yes, a delectable force, that was the word Nell came to identify with him. His eyes on others exuded the demand that one pay attention and if one did, a rapid and intense response was forthcoming. Nell succumbed the first time they met. She saw him; he saw her. They talked of music and how it enabled people to become more attuned to nature’s complex notations and each other. There was nothing to be done but give in to such lively energy.

“Hello there…?” A male voice rang out.

Nell startled in her chair, stood up as if commanded.

“Yes, sir?”

“I was hoping you could show me some possibilities for my fiancée’s birthday.”

“Of course, tell me a little about her if you don’t mind.” Tell me you want her to be delighted not indebted, that you want to grace her with a token of your caring not your ownership, Nell thought as she listened, then led him to a display of pens–since she had beautiful handwriting.

They spent a few minutes perusing his options and then he wandered, returned to choose the flowing ink pen with a green and gold barrel, then silken paper with a tasteful ivy design along its left edge. He added delicate earrings with tiny sapphires. As she gift-wrapped them, they spoke of the weather–bright and warm, still–then he was gone, loping beside the others  into the outer realms.

Easy and at ease: Quinn was not these, never could be. He was smart and talented, given to flights of fancy that ended in wakeful nights of composing, revising each measure as he found more gaping chasms of error in the music and himself. It was the one vulnerable spot inside him, this part that privately did not feel good enough, and it seeped into other parts of his life though especially composing.

“I’m not meant to do this, have no gift for it!” he’d cry out and she would wrap her arms around him and he would shake her off. “Father was right, I didn’t catch the right genes, I can only conjure the right things in my mind but not execute, never fulfill my desires!”

His father, it was true, was a renowned composer of choral works, Terrence Carlton, he said proudly. Then he complained of it, how he lived in Spain, out of reach, unable to help and had little interest in woodwinds. He was far out of Quinn’s league. Only Nell could soothe him after the anger had been lit, then it subsided a bit. That is what he told her, only she seemed to understand him, no one else. It was not hard for her to be there for him. All he asked was devotion and she loved him, didn’t she, this is how it felt, to belong entirely to one person and be there for them always?

Nell sat back down and stayed put even though a couple came in, picked up a few stone animals and then left. A wave of panic had welled up in her, then slowly receded as she dusted the glass counter tops, rearranged elegant necklaces that lay on colored sand. She paused at the animal totems. She had given a stone creature to Quinn last Christmas, before he left for Spain and she, for Arizona. A coyote. She had liked to watch them in and around Tucson and he found it enchanting, said, “Thank you, that’s an animal I do admire.” And even that might have informed her better but it did not, not soon enough, not until they had returned to Hartford and studies resumed.

One snowy week-end in February they ate at Tango in Bridgeton Village, a funky shopping district.

“I don’t want to see him again soon, but he wants me to spend a couple weeks at spring break. He and his new wife at their new house. A villa, really.” He eyed her ruefully over his burrito, eyes suddenly a deeper brown as if a shadow had fallen over them. Then he smiled shyly. “He asked to meet you, said he’d even buy your ticket. I agreed I’d go if you come along. How about it, Nell?”

She put down her fork. Studied him. “I think that might be a little…too soon?”

He was chewing so didn’t speak a moment but his face changed nonetheless, from hopeful to irritated to a precarious cliff of anger that she saw in his narrowed eyes. “Why?”

“I mean, it’s been seven months, hardly as if we’re, well, betrothed!” She said it lightly, as if the whole idea was absurd, truly.

“What if I was thinking of the future? Our future?”

“I am, too. Getting our Masters degrees, finding good jobs. I’m not anywhere ready to have parents reintroduced into my world–our world. Certainly not marriage…surely you aren’t, either?”

He got very quiet, leaned over the center of the worn table top. Put fingers on her fork, then a knife, then drummed both sets of fingers beside her.

“I must be thinking of it, to agree with my father’s wishes. He has the right to meet you if I am imagining you in my future life.”

Appetite gone, Nell leaned into her chair, saw his index finger fiddle with the knife, saw him look her over as if he wasn’t clear–or happy–about who sat opposite him. Hr fixed his gaze upon her and did not blink.

His throat was cleared and when he spoke his words were hard and loud. “Don’t you agree, Nell? That meeting my father soon is best?”  He grabbed her wrists in both hands, and applied pressure until her fingers started to feel odd, then numb. His face was a mask of someone else, a man she’d glimpsed lately yet not known face to-face.

Until now.

“I don’t think so. We haven’t even talked about things past graduation much. I can’t go to Spain this spring, Quinn, I have the store and Rona.” She dabbed at her lips with a napkin, hands shaking, unsure of what to  do. She needed to leave, give him a day or two to rethink things and calm down but knew in her gut she could not leave without arousing a worse response.

He reached up, slapped her across the cheek, then grabbed her burning wrist again.

“Are you entirely sure, my love?”

She looked down, shocked, heard whispering, felt the humiliation of it. She could not get out of this! Or could she? Why not just go?

Nell stood up and doing so her hands were yanked so hard Quinn was pulled forward into the table so she she spun around, her wrists freed and pushed her way through tables, pressed the entrance door open, and ran. She wanted to be to just walk away, hail a cab and not look back but heart and legs would not do as she told them and she was moving fast. She ran one block, crossed a street, her booted feet striking slushy pavement and uneven sidewalks, hair whipping in the wind, wrists aching, arms freezing–she had left her coat behind.

“Nell, come back! Stop!”

Nell glanced over her shoulder, just streaked past a moving car with its horn blaring, then she crossed again, ran between quaint shops, barreled into startled pedestrians, pushed her way through a more languorous group that stood smoking outside a bar. They shouted at her, then turned at Quinn’s yelling.

“Nell, stop right now. STOP or you’ll be sorry!”

She stumbled and fell, got up again and ran into an alley. A door to the bar opened as if by magic and she rushed in past the shaken kitchen help.

“Shut that door tight, he’s chasing me!”

The door closed with a bang. She could hear raised voices, Quinn pounding on the door but she kept on, raced through the cafe with apologies flung out, into the street again and running the other direction. Her chest hurt, throat stung, eyes watered–was she crying?– and face and hands were chilled as fat snowflakes fell.

Nell did not stop until she was crouched behind a dumpster in the alley four blocks down and her breathless voice came roaring back as a piercing scream, hands over ears to dampen the sound of her own fear.

Someone came, called the police. People talked to her, reached for her. An APB was put out on Quinn. She was taken to the police station to give a written report. Her mother was called. She went home for a week until Quinn was in jail. Only when she was sure he had left, was back in Spain–Rona had called his father to make things even clearer–did she return to finish the year. She could not believe she had still graduated, if barely. She had made it, was safe again at home in Arizona. If only her mother was here more. But Rona felt Nell had to find her own way, regain confidence. And she was right, of course.

At Madrigal’s Mementos, a familiar place, even like home.

An elderly, soft-bodied woman hobbled in.

“Hello,” Nell said, hand at forehead, smoothing away the memories. “Can I help you with something special?”

The woman readjusted a hand knitted orange beret,  white hair spilling out of it and curving about her lined face. “I so hope you can–Nell, is it?” She pointed to Nell’s name tag. “My granddaughter is graduating from nursing school. I want a gift that’s different, something she can take wherever she goes but useful, too. Something to represent a milestone. She’s a wonderful girl, let me tell you. She waited so long to get to where she wanted to go and it was tough, school can seem tougher as time goes by. But she did it. Now she’s to be an RN.”

The woman smiled warmly at the thought and began to consider possibilities, picking up objects and looking them over with care. Nell suggested a few items.

“Is this your store? It’s quite good. I see a few things I’d like for myself, drat!”

Nell laughed. “Oh, no, my mother owns three stores. I’m just the sales person.”

“I doubt that,” she said, holding a hand-blown paperweight’s bright colors up to the light.

“Well, I want to be an ethnomusicologist but life is unpredictable.”

“So it is, but that’s a great field. I’m an historian myself, taught forever at City College, now I get to relax.” A ready smile sparked blue droopy eyes as she chose another paperweight. “Mandy would love this one. She has a nice study at home to manage her bills and to read and such. The turquoise with green are her colors, so soothing. Just look at that.” The paperweight glowed in a stream of recessed lighting.

She wandered as Nell worked on inventory online. In a few moments a purchase was made. They chatted a bit more about the granddaughter’s plans. The older woman waved good bye, then turned back, came back to the counter.

“Don’t let life derail you for long. Take hold of your dream and pursue it doggedly, it’s the only way to go. You will not regret it, believe me.”

She patted her hand and left. Nell watched her disappear into the crowd. As she returned to the computer, she noticed something white on the counter.

“Harriet Millsand, PhD., Retired Educator and Historian,” it noted, then further stated, “History is our own story: the past intersects present while the present anticipates future.”

She turned it over and read aloud: “A memento has been defined as a warning or a reminder of what has come before. But one can create new mementos of a life, Nell. Best wishes, Harriet.”

Love and Excisions

By Vladimir Volegov
By Vladimir Volegov

Tomorrow I’ll roll out of bed before 6:30 so I can pick up my dear friend on the other side of the city, then ferry her back my way to the hospital. I’m doing this because I have so cared about her for fifteen years. There is a grab bag of chortles and sighs to sort through as I consider what’s ahead for her. She lives alone now. How few people we might call upon; our neighbors are usually not the first choices for such events. Just as she has been with me through upheavals and victories, I am for her. For one thing, she extended herself immediately at a women’s recovery meeting when I was in need of a particularly female place of both daring tales and ready kindnesses. It became obvious the meeting was exceptional and her rhapsody of laughter and open-heartedness made a real difference. We remain close, checking in with each other, enjoying a meal, attending movies or plays. Life has thus far been pretty darned good to us. She and I haven’t had one fall-out though we are quite different in many respects.

But tomorrow I know it will be humbling, even taxing, to pull on one of those visually defeating, chill-inducing gowns, then to lie back and submit to various drugs and tests. Then wheeled into the room where medical staff organize and implement surgical procedures. They try to reassure you as full consciousness fades. Still, you are left stripped down to vulnerability, set sailing into a narcotic-tinged land from which you emerge an amnesiac. If lucky.

It’s not a situation to be wondering why you are somehow left alone. It is not what anyone of us would want to be doing, at all. The smells, the sounds, the equipment and the faces you don’t even know but must trust…well, we do what we have to do.

She is having a lumpectomy, whereby a discovered but not yet scientifically identified mass will be removed from breast tissue and sent to pathology. I’m not certain just how the rest works after I remind her God is watching over her now and always, and I am with her, too, only in the waiting room, then give a small wave.

However, I do recall some of what it was like for me in 1977.

It seemed the room to which I was sent was right inside the exit of the small hospital. I think there was greeness seeping through curtains, undulating shadows of branches. Then the rudeness of a light so huge it swallowed me up. Or was that later? It was mainly like swimming in dreams, peculiar yet exquisite, memorable enough that I wrote a poem about it two years after the excision, at age 29. This was way back when I used the name Cynthia Guenther-Falk. It was published in a small college lit journal, Wave Two. 

How is it that beauty sprang from overriding fear as my eyelids fluttered and fell? My husband at that time had brought me to a small city from the country–we were rural then–but I don’t remember his being near in other ways. We were at odds then and our teeth were set hard as we faced this new ordeal. There was a love that exhilarated us with its creativity, the countless possibilities between us, yet we could not keep steady footing for long. Before the atmosphere grew heavy, passion woven with recurrent patterns of resentment and disbelief. A sculptor and carpenter, he was an echoing force without uttering a sound. I, a writer and singer who needed to excavate obscure meanings, a lost and elegant measure. I wanted happiness to take deep root but it grew spindly, in the end. Failed us even as we held on.

And in the midst of this snarl of warning signs was that well-defined lump, left breast. An unyeilding bit of matter that made life more strident. What were we to do if it was–trying just not to think it– cancerous? What would be left of me even if not? Would this bring us together, like two feet walking in a pair of shoes as meant to be? Or would there be one more expanse taut between us as we moved into opposite positions?

There was and has still not been any breast cancer in my family–in fact, very little cancer of any sort. There is heart disease that kills in many ways; it got hold of me at 51. But before then I was horrified of that three-inch mass, how it dictated the tone of my daily life, threw long shadows onto any future. For a while. When it was sliced, tested and certified benign we were released of staggering options that would have brought more grief. But I remember how the sudden hug hurt as he pulled me  so close. That after the winter I nearly subsisted on air, stress and a foolish, stubborn hope. His father was dying. The air thickened with angst. We were unable to say to one another the saving words. Then finally one late spring day he passed the children and me as we drove away from that life, and he shouted from his truck that he had already filed for divorce, anyway. How that made me cry out as if another kind of knife had rent the skin of my soul.

But the breast tissue healed. The scar was not too big, was even tidy. Sometimes I felt guilty knowing things were not fine for so many other women. I had been a hippie mom, nursing long and well, and would again. My biology had often felt easy; being female even felt irrelevant as intellect worked hard. Yet being female also had hindered and hounded me. Still, although that life was not one fitted with sturdy happiness I was able to reclaim it as my own when the diagnosis came.

In youth we feel it all but understand–indeed, can barely claim the truth–much less. I don’t today live in fear of breast cancer and the spectrum of experiences I did then. Even though anything could happen that is worse than imagined. Even though some things have. I am much older now, older than I thought I wanted to be when only 27. But I know the veil between this life and the other is nearly transparent. I have slipped through it, have even been comforted. Amazed. Life reconfigures us and we, it. I am most fearful of not living in truth, with enough depth. Not seeing the kaleidoscopic beauty of this current life. Not finding enough of God moving among us. Not loving enough, without one regret.

The physical scarring that was left me has remained visible; it has been tagged at every mammogram,  explained as partners’ fingers have found it. There was another biopsy but less invasive; decades have passed and there is so much more knowledge and good treatment. But women still suffer and die way too often from the proliferation of treacherous cells. And, I know, from treacherous lives.

My first husband, he who accompanied me to the breast surgery, passed away this year. I dream of him and say his name without speaking. We had something rarefied as an orchid though it also needed more or different nourishment. He died from long-ignored cancer, which haunts me (though he would have said: it can be anything, anything that gets us, it matters little). Maybe that is why I was able to locate the poem; it longed to be recalled, the caring and errors of caring. I went right to it, found it wedged beside greater volumes on crammed and dusty bookshelves.

When my friend told me she had to have a similar procedure as I had once had, it came right back as if it was yesterday: that day, that year. And when the page was opened I felt again that disassociation, the weirdness of biopsy. But also how much any kind of love can elicit moments rare and unsettling and crucial. Friends, lovers, children, husbands. We find the intersection of such moments and take them with us or are the lesser for it.

We know how much we care for others and our very lives by how our hearts keep close their names–and the fierce and tender ways we continue living.

This is the poem from 1977. It tells a portion of that surgery’s story and what surrounded it.


I am swung high into whiteness
as voices skitter beyond.
In the chrome-ringed sun–
is this Saturn, have I come
this far?–
is my head, hair spread out
over shoulders in silken
riverlets, my neck
smooth as a moonstone.
Breath is drawn somewhere
near my toes,
vaporous breath and sensibility
rippling about veiled flesh
and mind.

Soon the singing comes
even though I have not called it,
bird-voicings, light sounding
the whiteness through a tangle
of vines. Wings
of many colors,
eye of jewels,
flowers like plumes in the wind.
Your shaman hands dipped into
sweet waters, my throat.

Whirling, we lose our legs
to shadows, lengths of light.
And stop. See here?
My forehead bears our imprint
and more,
and less; nothing is lost.
But we migrate to the certainty
of earth, changed and unchanged
And I become
mountainous, my narrowness
overcome with leaves and blossoms,
blossoms and leaves.
I try not to sing aloud

now it is done. I see that
from my breast has come something
as large as a pigeon’s
egg. The pocket of
skin is embroidered shut;
I am covered with a new breast
of soft gauze.
And rise with quivering sight,
the knowledge of so much
fine-edged steel in a lifetime,
your fingertips dreaming
in my shoulders

(from Wave Two, published 1977)

So, tomorrow morning I will sit and read, pray for my friend. I may even recall my own experience but will accept my past self as I was, a young woman filled to the brim with intimations of good to come yet blinded by wrong assumptions, too. But for my friend I will be present. Will hope against hope that she comes through this without any weeping but if weeping is needed, I will hold on to her. Love shared is that easy–it comes from a place of grace, thanks be to God. I want her life to be reinvigorated by joys. Balanced by peace. If difficulty is ahead may I take that road with her. The light we seek and find is always there. We are charged with keeping it bright. May it fill her being and body now and tomorrow.

A Poetry of Sisterhood, Past and Present

Birthday, lilac farm and tulips 5-12 151

I was going to write about writing and reading poetry, its innards and otherness, how its spareness rearranges and keeps honest the core of living. Then my sisters stepped forward. One lives on earth; the other does not.

I have kept a snapshot on a table that sits inside the front door. We three are standing together on a river walk in Astoria, a town we visited on one of our too-few sister getaways. We are grinning, arms about each other’s waists. Taken several years ago, we look chubbier than more recently. I study the softness of our faces revealed by late spring light. We are confident, sure we will be there for each other year after year. I stand in the middle. Being the youngest, bookending myself with each sister is natural. None of us was/is tall, but we stand firm. They have white or greying hair; mine is still brown in the photo. An anomaly in my family. But I think the white is flooding my roots in the last few months, trying to catch up with the others.

Maybe my hair is grieving.

I still don’t know whether to use present or past tense half the time. Marinell passed away a few days before my birthday in April. Allanya is still here, in the same city as am I. Which to state: we were, or we are, or we will be…There are these new gaps–not one but many–like crevasses we note, then assiduously avoid.

But everything has changed. Everything. When one sibling dies and leaves the others behind, nothing fits in the same way. We became parts scattered by a toss into the circle of our expectations and hopes. Landing, though, outside the usual parameters of things. It is being alone in a good boat that, even when secured at dock, rocks with the waves–but it isn’t quite a comfort. It’s off-kilter. I stand with feet apart and scan for the others. Wait.

I have two brothers, one nearby and one on the other side of the country. We occasionally speak of many things, but not Marinell’s death. We are kind to one another. We note our health and projects. They are engaging in various captivating activities, invigorating travels. They live forward, I assume, as before. I haven’t asked them recently what else, what now–now that we are four in a family meant to be five (seven with  parents, gone as well). But their presence make two linchpins in the wheel of my life, helping it keep its place.

But sisters. They can occupy the same internal territory at a glance. Marinell and Allanya have been as close to me as any of my friends. More so. Not just because we were born of the same parents, but because we have embraced each other thoroughly. Our differences have skirted around the edges of conversations. We’ve had divisions and multiplications of positive and negative in our lives. Some shared like a knotted rope. But we didn’t waste time on the oppositional, rather forged connections all ways we could. Empathy, full throttle, has made it easy, no matter that we have inhabited different lifestyles. Mutual respect has been restorative in a world that seems to often disregard it.

Allanya and I care about helping people, the arts, our families, about creative work and nature. About how we can live from inside out, manifesting the Divine Love we know to be real. The same can have been said of Marinell. I do not idealize any of us. Our errors have informed our knowledge of the world and ourselves. No one has judged; we’ve gotten those stings from elsewhere.

Allanya has been an executive director of such diverse agencies, she acts that way more often than not, but her tender compassion can light a brave light in the dark. She collects turquoise and primitive paintings, yard creatures that she rescues from curbside, then repaints. Allanya is devoted to her family, so is often busy, as am I. But on the phone and face-to-face, we can erupt into laughter as well as weep without hesitancy. We have affinity, we have loyalty galore.  We eat chocolate together when sharing errands. Remember old flames.

Yet, we somehow steer away from the places our sister has occupied, literally and emotionally. We need more time to assimilate the truth, I suppose. To add it all up. To dispel the undertow of tears so we can reminisce with light heartedness.

The power of place is resonant of people in ways that perhaps only scent can be. For a few decades Marinell lived three and a half hours away. I cannot imagine returning to her quaint town outside of Seattle yet. There would sit her two-story pale yellow house with many windows, snug on a hill. Now owned–taken over–by others. Her music room is likely a television space or guest bedroom. Her burnished cello and grand piano were sold to strangers two years ago, when she and her husband moved to Texas. The thought still elicits a gasp. I may not even enter Seattle, a stellar metropolis that is resplendent in its offerings. It used to be partly hers–where she played in the symphony, shopped at Pike Place Market with us, attended Seahawks games. I imagine it less welcoming now, a city other people get to use for their pleasures and ambitions.

She was the reigning family historian. Lineage details and events and rumors were kept in her excellent memory, as they were in our mother’s until she passed at ninety-one. Now who do we contact when wanting to know where our second cousin once removed ended up? How will we know what really went on for our grandparents and parents during the Depression? And what was the name of that great-aunt’s gadabout son and did he ever marry?

I think of calling her every week. There is something I need to hear from her. Anything, a chortle of delight, a surprising insight, a question put in such a way that it never meant harm. She and I had many of the same health issues so shored each other up with two wills. We meant to endure without fuss, to give gratitude a refreshing.

I think of her answering the phone, that lilt of her refined voice, also capable of improper asides. How those beauty queen (literally) hazel eyes warmed the room. A tentative breath, then a pause when thinking, biting her bottom lip.

Everything was beautiful in her world even when it wasn’t. She found it, nurtured it, carried it, shared it.

I peruse the memroy bank and find us taking the (small, not large) yacht voyage for a week through the San Juan islands and sparkling Victoria; the journey to Banff where bears gorged on berries and we were awed by the Rockies; and that trip to tulip fields where we three sisters us sat gabbing amid such a profusion of color it was as if we were painted into a living canvass. And the shopping we did. We caught up on even serious personal issues while weaving between aisles, browsed the sale racks–all with pungent asides on good, bad or plain ugly fashion. I shake my head thinking of updates on crises amid discussion of earrings and scarves–but it worked fine.

My sister. Mercy and flowers, courage and fine crystal, stamina and a Bach concerto.

There will be no new times, not here, not soon. I accept she is gone, and I know where I feel she is. But she is not within my reach and it still shakes my heart without warning, a rattle of sorrow in the quietude of my days and nights. I keep trying to fill those gaps with frail wisps and little souvenirs, even epiphanies of memory. She shone for me. For so many.

This was to be about poetry. It has become musings on how I have been a sister with two other sisters, now one to one. That number flummoxes. But I will rebalance. What is left is what was before, a peculiar lessening and yet, still more.

Allanya and I are closer in age so became friends first and longer. Our childhood territory was marked by quiet fighting, sharing food and secrets. Co-conspiring of kids, and then deep sympatico as adults. Marinell was thirteen years older than I; eight more than Allanya. Perhaps her re-entering my life much later made it different, my being youngest to her oldest. She was a sort of second mother, pushing my pram, reading me books, reinforcing good manners. In time our ages better aligned as we discovered in each other solace and good humor, shared revelations.

I knew I was a grown up when I felt equal to my sisters–trustworthy, a part of their repartee, present for them and entirely able to return their affection.

The years gave, then took. As they do.

The poetry has been about herself, afterall. About accepting that loss swoops down on us, picks us up and drops us, altering all. Even how I think about journeying into the Olympic National Forest, where I know she walked and wondered about her health and future. It is about a sister who calls forth these words and inscribes the vibrating notes of my mourning. In truth, she liked my stories and we once made music together at her piano. I have written pages for her to critique; now I just write for myself. The music, it whispers.

As the days pass, sadness visits me and burrows but in time healing will complete itself enough. I have been enriched by her comings. Now her going. Yet I will find her in myself because we are ever sisters.

In the end, nothing can be perfectly retrieved from the past but love.


My Childhood of Gardens

Courtesy of Wikipedia
Courtesy of Wikipedia

What do we care to remember? Hold up like a canvass awash with color and movement, a moment memorialized in exquisite or grievous feeling, an encounter hidden for all time or shared like a feast with many? It might be the truth or it might not; time rewinds recollection and sometimes erodes it. What is the truth for any of us? We curate our own stories.

I am taken away by memories despite not being one who seeks nostalgia or carries the past like a back-breaking burden. I let my mind wander where it will. What I recall is what I choose to harbor, to examine and keep close to heart. Memories are intrinsic to the development of identity. They are the path we have walked and assist in laying out the one before us. We can move backwards to see where it all began.

Gardens. I have a gallery of gardens in my memory.

My life has always had something to do with the outdoors, all things that grow. My first childhood home on Trenton and Lamb was large, rambling and its yard held an abundance of fruit trees. My memories include breezeway gusts, songs sung to me as I was held close by a soft, one-handed woman who ironed our clothes. The wind in trees lulled; apple blossoms fluttered. The grand old trees dropped pears and apples into my mother’s apron. Off she went to peel and cook them, can and store their fruit in the pantry for our large family. I can smell the applesauce simmering., the strawberries poured into jam jars.

And I grew up with vegetable gardens nearby. In Missouri, my paternal grandparents’ tended a kitchen garden. To me it was a barely tamed jungle of hues and forms, the vegetables set within a deep, rolling yard. A worn white picket fence encircled the garden; a little gate not too big for me had to be unlatched to enter. I’d slowly make my way down rows of tomatoes, potatoes, lettuce and cucumbers, strawberries and watermelon, between marigolds and pansies and a couple of hearty rose bushes. I tried to keep my dress clean but didn’t notice if it got soiled. Everything smelled good, happy, even better when I knelt down on hands and knees, put my face close to the vegetables and dirt. I dug my hands into the earth, found beetles and worms creeping across my palm. My grandmother would stick her head out the back screened door, paring knife in hand, and call me to shuck corn on the enclosed back porch with sisters and mother for dinner. I was reluctant to leave the soft, wriggling worms, the nodding flowers and bright, mouth-watering berries. It felt better than anything; contentment was captured in the very moment.


The other garden was Mr. Benfer’s. He owned an entire plot of land on the north side of our house; he and his wife lived on the south side. I often wondered what my life would have been like if there had been another big house there. Instead, it was open land tended as though in the country. He and his wife grew things I didn’t even recognize, but there were rhubarb and corn and tomatoes among many other vegetables. They grew flowers that I longed to hold and bury my nose in but we were told often to not invade his garden. In fact, to avoid it at all costs. The Benfers were not fond of children. There were five of us. We often crossed their boundaries, whether playing basketball or Red Rover, using the archery sets, enjoying badminton or croquet.

There was a low wire barrier between his land and our yard. Since it was not more than a couple of feet high with no barbs on it, it was easy to get over and under. Which we managed fine if we didn’t want to simply step into the back of the plot which opened onto a tree nursery that was behind both the properties. But as the youngest and often on my own (since the others were five to thirteen years older), I watched these antics. I longed for sumptuous raspberries and tomatoes, yes, but for some time I was brave enough to only wander at the edges. I often was installed as a guard for my daring siblings.

Mr. Benfer was not a very generous, easy-going gentleman. Tall tall and balding, he had wire-rimmed glasses that bracketed squinting, watchful eyes. He emitted a quiet grunt when spoken to. I knew the story about Peter Rabbit very well. It seemed to me that Mr. McGregor and our neighbor had a few characteristics in common: they did not like others nosing about and they could threatening with a look. I knew better than to misbehave but eventually I also heard the call of adventure. I determined to be as clever as he was, even more so, as I had no intention of being discovered. It was mostly at dusk that I ventured inside the wire barricade. By then Mr. Benfer had gathered what he wanted and gone home. I was quick and small and could get in and out with a strawberry or two in under fifteen seconds. But many times I simply stood there and breathed deeply, or watched the twilight settle and gather about the neat rows of greenery.

I had also admired his burgeoning flowers from our side of the fencing. His irises were taller than any I had seen; his daffodils more lemony. Sunflowers towered in the back of the garden, making it a haven for birds. The roses were like an exotic species. Bursting with fragrance, their colors shone in the streaming light of day. Though delicate of petal, all those blooms seemed strong, proud. I talked to them sometimes, shy questions, such as how they liked the warm sunshine on their faces or if they felt sad when storms ripped them apart.


How, I often, wondered, could someone who so cared about growing things be withholding, in such poor humor? I know he could see me lurking in the background, his hat pulled low and eyes searching. I greeted him in a friendly way when we passed on the sidewalk to let him know I meant no harm. He knew, I think, after all. He seemed more at ease as the years passed and occasionally his wife would ring our doorbell and offer a small gift from the garden, a pumpkin or stems of peonies. I so wanted to be part of it all, the planting and growing, the reaping. I would arrange their hearty flowers in a white ceramic vase, mix them with our humble bouquets picked from a side yard.

There was a third garden that inspired me, that of my mother’s best friend. But that is a different tale, to be shared in a Mother’s Day post.

I suppose every child is intimate with enchantment or wants to be. I watched butterflies skip into our yard and wondered after their travels. Saw the bees (which stung my bare feet and created admiration from a distance) carry riches from those forbidden flowers to ours. The turning of Michigan seasons was an ancient ritual carried out in detail in our yard and Mr. B’s. Life unfolded, grew and altered, died away easily. I lingered these places as often as possible. I learned by paying attention– about creation, patience and mystery, of the allurement that swept me up in a secret, gentle ecstasy. Such gifts shared by the earth seemed a virtuous thing, proof of God’s hand. And they welcomed me into sanctuary, helped heart and soul stay safe in the rockiest times.

How I miss those childhood gardens. None of my own yards have been so transformed. I imagine my eyes checking the flowers, my hands reaching for vegetables and fruits. Spreading the bounty on my table for one and all. But I can hold these gardens in my mind and call them up. What a difference they have made in my being and living. For a garden is synonymous with hope, a perfect place for faith to flourish.