Being Taught: a Reminiscence and a Call for the Best

Lawrence W. Guenther and Edna Kelly, two examples of very good teachers, shown on their 50th anniversary (my parents, now deceased).

For a moment as a teenager, I thought I might become a teacher. My DNA prompted this. My parents were educators. My father taught a variety of musical instruments, how to be a part of a successful orchestra, music history and music theory and even how to educate youth about music. My mother taught all ages and subjects in a one room country school, and later in several urban elementary schools. A grandfather (and my father) taught about the Bible in church while being county superintendent of public schools; he was all about teachers and teaching. I had an uncle who taught music, flute, particularly, but also composition and more at a university; another uncle taught students sports and health. There’s a cousin who has taught high school students music and given private string lessons for decades. There are others like this perched in our family tree, as this was one of the legacies handed down–like being a dog breeder/trainer or a dentist or shop owner or artist. Generational work expectations yet thrive. And many heed that clarion call. For us, it wasn’t just teaching but primarily teaching music.

Some of my older siblings also wanted to teach subjects such as English, history, psychology. A brother taught at a college and a sister taught high school. Another brother completed his required practice teaching of music education in pubic schools, but that was the end of it. They all gave the idea up though they gave private music lessons, no doubt– a good way to garner extra cash. But they focused on professional music careers, most also adopting a business, human services or military career. I had many industrious role models to observe yet after that passing impulse to teach, I was sure I’d always be involved in the arts. Doing them, not teaching them. It didn’t seem possible at 13 that I would not as my passion was that unquenchable.

It wasn’t that there weren’t positives to recommend teaching. It was clear to me this was an honorable profession. I just loved performing and creating, either alone or with like-minded groups. I also frankly deducted that teaching people various skills plus disseminating diverse ideas and a ton of information required a huge amount of energy and work. By contrast, engaging in artistic pursuits seemed more fun, less exhausting. I, after all, watched my parents prepare for each day’s lessons, grade assignments, worry over students needing extra attention or to be given the boot; commiserate over parental interference or unspoken and unhealthy domestic matters; or funding for next year’s educational needs. And this was labor beyond what was undertaken in class rooms five long days a week. I saw how much their devotion cost them even as they gave their lives over to guiding each child and adolescent as she/he discovered excitement of learning,  and overcoming insecurities in class and beyond. Being a teacher made a difference in lives. I still hear how my parents influenced others in positive ways, not just in school subjects but in life. Love can be transferred via teaching, I think; they cared that much for and helping others. I saw this at home, as well, as they were always teaching us something, their excitement in sharing overflowing.

I’ve had several good teachers, many not remembered, some not even useful in my quest for knowledge and fledgling mastery. My own music teachers (cello and voice, mostly) were strict and meticulous, even unyielding and before I had left school I knew classical performance was not for me. There was too little good humor in my fine teachers, too much of the tyrant–perhaps they felt they had to be that way to get perfected results. Or because my father ought not be let down. I’d leave lessons knowing I could perform classically yet it meant less to me each year, even as I made good strides. I longed to, for example, sing folk music, belt out blues and jazz and Broadway tunes. These I was taught by records, other musicians, other aficionados– and did sing these genres a few years. By high school I sought on my own the means by which to keep my own passions ignited and the dreams aloft.

Then I took Advanced Placement English with Mrs. X., excited to have the best teacher I might ever have–so I imagined.

It was a strange–yet familiar–sort of year. I had not been doing well as I battled with PTSD, downing mostly prescribed tranquilizers and barbiturates to sleep and illicit amphetamines to stay awake several times a week, sometimes daily. Plus, some of this and that to further make it tolerable. I did not understand how complicated it was even though I had been resided in a psychiatric ward in a far city for a couple of months, recovering from what everyone determined was acting suicidal. I truly had felt they were more of I can’t stand this state of being anymore but who has useful answers that don’t hurt even more? sorts of actions and words. I wanted a break with assistance but got far more than bargained for, in a place that wasn’t very tolerable. But they offered me more drugs.

The transition to home once more was rocky, marred by suppressed anger and overt anxiety on both sides. My much older siblings had long flown the coop so there were no sibling distractions. It was the parents and me and the same deeply hidden sexual abuse history resulting from countless times with the man my oldest sister had been married to a few years. She likely thought she loved him after briefly knowing him. She also wanted to escape her four year, full tuition music scholarship for cello at a prestigious university without a loss of face, without letting our parents down–those scared her far more then. (It has taken six long decades to say who it was in public. My cherished sister passed nearly three years ago, long and happily free of him. He was an elementary school teacher. Time’s Up.) Things were not at all clear, though my body and soul sustained remnants of ruinous events that haunted me day and night. It was like I was running in mud, getting nowhere better.

But I was making do, piecing things together again. And I was writing, as usual– even when I wasn’t, the words kept working away– and it was one of the means by which I was able to keep going. And hoping. I felt an ardor for story, for language, and discoveries of wide ranging knowledge.

Getting into Mrs. X’s class was very  hard, everyone wanted to be with her, even those who feared her which was the majority. From the externals, one might never guess Mrs. X. wielded an influential magnetism that drew English students. She possessed intellectual prowess mixed with arrogance and pushed students to their limits. Perhaps even beyond. I wanted in because I qualified and because I wanted to write a lot more, far better. I knew she could teach me how. I made the cut.

That first week in autumn I sat in her class, it surprised me how many seemed at ease with her, as if they knew her well. Some had had her as their teacher the year before, but I wasn’t quite motivated to pursue entry since there were other goals and trials to address. It seemed she favored a handful–not so frankly but by implications. I was bothered by this–wasn’t teaching supposed to be more fair, especially when you had a room full of excellent students preparing for college? Or was this when it got harder, as competition among students ramped up? It seemed the latter. So I diligently prepared and completed assignments, spoke up in class (easy as  I enjoyed oral communication, too). I thrived on discussions of writing genres, techniques and far ranging literature, debates about the merits and failings of our own work. I did well, but not as I’d imagined. My essays and papers were decorated with bold red marks and comments that undercut my confidence and enlarged my understanding. I could see what she meant, what I had to amend. I did wonder how it was that I could write with the best of the group but a few still captured top grades. I observed further and intuited it might be in the nature of relationships, as well as their style and topics about which they expounded. One had to be edgy, witty and cynical–and , arch. Or sparely romantic in tenor but justifiably,, elegantly, no whiff of sentimentality. A twist of existential romanticism, I thought, and how odd that read. Not my style.

But I had to know what was going on beyond the classroom parameters.

I was invited to Mrs. X’s home along with maybe 4 or 5 others that winter after school on a Friday. It was ostensibly to talk about a collaborative class project but when I arrived there were pizzas and soft drinks; music lilted in the background. Her husband wandered in and out; he was a photographer, seemed gently distracted. The older students of Mrs. X’s got comfortable on couch and chairs or floor and as talk rose and fell, food was scooped up. I joined in the camaraderie, that inner circle of delights where the teacher treated students like equals. She offered her philosophy about life and art, not only English literature. A plain yet appealing woman, her bespectacled face glowed when she got going, and as time passed the more eloquent she became, words like silver balloons in the gathering dark, messages of adult wisdom that floated into our open minds. Those at her feet looked up at her with dreamy smiles, nodding. There were cross connections made between favorite authors , their morsels of insight and we discerned how those applied to our daily living: my breath caught in my chest as if a door opened. This was the writing group I was looking for. They were bright, articulate; she was so capable and, it turned out, generous with time and ideas. Such succor–she was leading us along the road to greater things and I was “in.” Yet, I felt wary even as I laughed and critiqued with the others.

I felt more at ease as gatherings occurred month after month, if also more uncertain of the growing intimacy. I was not that trustful. I worried that a couple seemed enamored of her presence and even saw her on their own. I thought this might not bode well for them or her, though her hospitality was authentic. We savored folk and blues, protest music played within that rarefied atmosphere, the candles and incense burned, the alcohol students sneaked in and drank without any comment (though I never drank), such heady conversations. Philosophical weavings. Being among the elect. Respected as more than “just kids.”

Mrs. X was there for us, for very few when they were faltering, it appeared. She basked in our affection and awe; we warmed in her direct gaze. My work output and quality changed; my grades were excellent. Mrs. X. welcomed me each day into her classroom as if I deserved an honored spot. It was as if we were special friends in the making but even better to me, she, the teacher, wanted to refine my rougher ability.

That spring following the winter, however, things got tougher again outside of school life. My grades were a seesaw, excepting, so far, AP English. I had those confounding emotional matters but needed to figure out how to recover alone, how to juggle drugs and a facsimile of normalcy as a teenager while starting to date more. I thought I might be in love but had no confidence it could be a safe or fully reciprocated love. I felt split behind head, heart and body at times.

At some point as the tender yellow forsythia bloomed and tulips were parading their wiles, I crashed again. My wrist was sewn up after avoiding temptation of overdose by becoming “blood sisters” with my best friend, an action ill-imagined and badly executed. It was another impulsive, scary thing to cause more worry for the parents and more anguish for me. After staying home a few days, by an act of will I returned to school. I felt if I just kept on getting up and living life I might get through it all and end up where I wanted to be: at ease in the world, fully engaged in all I still valued. I vowed to give up all illicit drugs, at least. I vowed to be industrious again and hopeful.

A research paper had been due for Mrs. X’s class before that event. I had barely gotten it finished, much less proofread and well edited, but it was late so I handed it in. Classmates gazed at my bandaged wrist as it edged from beneath my shirt sleeve. Swallowing deep embarrassment, I slunk back to my seat.

The following Monday I was handed back my paper. A failing grade. I sat in class deaf and dumb, afterwards spoke with her.

“I missed school for a week. I had a very bad time of it, I think you saw that, so why are you being so hard on me?”

She looked at me a long moment as my palms sweated.

“I’m sorry. Life is truly taxing at times. But the content is not convincing, your footnotes require  attention, your bibliography, sloppy. You did not give it your all. It was late, very late.”

The hand, the one with the obvious bandage, was shaking as it held my paper. “But I was not able to work on it more–at least I got it in! This is not that serous, this is a research paper!”

The lines about her blue eyes furrowed but her voice was cool. “That isn’t enough, not now, not tomorrow. You’re in this class because you have a gift and you have failed it. What do you think a college professor will say if something is late and this quality, give you a pass because you had some bad days? What will an editor think if you don’t do the what is required to write the best you can? Publish it, anyway? No. I’ll let you re-work it–I should not do that– and bring it back to me on Thursday. We will see what you can do with it. Get to work.” She waved me out the room.

The revised paper received a “D+”,

“It was still late, too little was done! This is a generous grade.”

I could think of no rebuttal and held back enraged tearful.

That was still as poor as a failing grade in that class; it didn’t count for anything. I ended up with a very average grade for AP English that year, and was humiliated by my failure to meet the highest mark, my true desire. It would not impress college entrance staff. It felt like a betrayal–hadn’t she seen something in me, liked me, too? Didn’t she also know I had a few problems but tried to carry on? But I heard her words and took them to heart– she was my teacher. And teachers wield power in many ways for they just know things students do not.

I did not go to the after-school and week-end meetings much, anymore. I felt distanced from the others. It also had felt a bit close for comfort in those walls, a hothouse of teen-aged angst mixed with adoration of teacher-mentor. Like a warning, I felt maybe there was something else. I didn’t like how one classmate kept his eyes and mind on Mrs. X. as if a puppy blindly attached to his master’s every move and command, how she bestowed warm smiles on him. He and I had been friends once but no more, not the same way.

The next year I took another teacher’s AP English and did well. I remained friends with a one or two from the old group. I would see Mrs. X. in the hallway; her eyes would pause on me, then flick away. I found her stature a little smaller. The end of that year she left the school, got divorced, moved away. I imagined reasons why it ended that way but said nothing. No one said anything. We had had moments that were beautiful. And it was over.

I thought of her as I became an adult and realized I had learned a few life lessons from her mistakes and dispassionate, penetrating mind. I kept my own boundaries and ethics clear during my career as a counselor. I got more therapy if I needed it. I took care with what my words conveyed, what my face and body telegraphed. I made sure my compassion was that of an attentive clinician, not of a friend.

Seven years later I got in touch with Mrs. X. when visiting the university city where she’d gotten another teaching job. I wondered if she was happier. She never referred to the time in my high school. Her shoulders sloped more, her face was fuller and  softer and she was still hoping for admiration though I was married, in college, had had two children. I also knew the best teachers and mentors free us while carefully guiding us and imparting their knowledge; they do not require devotion but, rather, avoid it, get out of their own way. I was relieved to say farewell but thanked her for encouraging me once.

She’d certainly had poor boundaries; I knew that difference early on. I had had the satisfaction of learning from fine teachers. I have had a few very bad ones. I know Mrs. X. desired to help us find our paths as creative youth even as her personal issues interfered. She was harsh at times, certainly towards me at the end when kindness would have netted far better results. Still, she’d said I had ability, had to work harder, integrate the right skills to practice the best craft. I well knew those words from my upbringing; it boiled down to discipline. Something I had but didn’t always feel up to using those years.

Rather, the best help was given with the words that I had “something to offer”. This was urgently needed confirmation: I might even become a true writer. After all, she was supposed to be an exceptional teacher, everyone said so; she knew her subject matter, had a brilliant mind. And I had been, for a short time, one of her star pupils. Whatever else happened in my life, the passion for storytelling would remain my ally and a true love, a joy that reinvented itself, a rich illumination–and a measure of faith.

The Wishing Well of Chardonnay

Image from “Jealousy”

She shouldn’t be here. If she was the kind of woman who used common sense with a creative twist to solve her problems she’d be blocks away, on the train, headed to the house with its verdant shutters and two cats snoozing on the windowsills. Bernard would be lurking about even though next door, waiting for her to run up the three steps to her front door so he could rant or gossip or cry on her shoulder. He found her manner and words reassuring, she imagined. Mariana felt his loneliness shifting between aggravation and a bleak reminder of her pull to wounded creatures. But never said so, except to Tater and Gawain. Pitiful, she was already a cat lady at thirty, yammering her secrets to each fluffy, noncommittal countenance. They had to listen–or pretended to.

But it was Friday night and here she sat, staring not at the goblet of wine but at the round paper coaster beneath it. It reminded her of her own boxed and forgotten coasters, then of doilies, those lacy white decorations that adorned her grandmother’s mahogany buffet and chests of drawers and side tables. She closed her eyes and saw the shadowed rooms, how the dust lept up as she passed through an errant stream of light. How her nose took her to the kitchen where everything reflected the truths of “Cook of the World” and “Bread is Love of Life.” Those words of praise and gentleness were embroidered in bright floss, framed at the far wall by the swinging door. She had made them at eleven years old for Christmas gifts. She, Mariana, was daughter of her grandmother’s wayward daughter named Delilah. Delilah made it big then forgot to visit but was the one who paid for her mother’s needs until her clutch on life released its grip, thus providing relief for that ardent but “too ultra daughter”. That’s what Grandmother Cort called her when angry:  “My too ultra (rich, risky, artsy, out of control, irreverent, fill in the blank) daughter. My missing daughter.”

And after all was said and done, Mariana got the house, the one she hadn’t yet returned to this evening. Oh, there was more but it didn’t matter, it was not and could not be her grandmother.

She got over the worst grief since time passed on and with it, the random tsunamis of suffering and technicolor insertion of memories that had seemed the glue of her identity. Mariana missed Grandmother Cort in the way that one misses steady, friendly heat during chill weather or the swing and fall of living voices. They had grown apart while she was in college, then Grandmother Cort had called on her two years ago and she had returned. Her own mother she missed very little (she was across state, five hours was rather close). The feeling was mutual.

But most of all she longed to be sitting in her living room with a whole bottle of wine. Or two or three. Here she was anonymous. No one cared if she drank or if she looked smart or who she was related to. In this corner bar just off 11th Street and Hay she was nobody of interest, certainly not known as Delilah Cort’s kid, the artless offspring of an ecologically focused, famous performance artist. Diving through flaming hoops beneath a gigantic red and purple moon that emitted plaintive calls of dolphins. Human hair jacket worn to a fundraising party to save foxes and wolves. A six-foot tall and long sculpture of shells and stones, seaweed and driftwood that floated down the Columbia River, then was sunk and returned, dissembled, to the ocean.

It was all very titillating and thought-provoking and like an echo it had always boomeranged off Marianne’s life. In self-defense, she became a middle school English teacher. The students were more interested in the latest teen pop artists, their touchy complexions and sports. And, too, their inner problems and possibilities. They wrote what they felt and it didn’t feel so intrusive or demanding as her mother’s ideas. Her mother’s headlining life.

“Another?” The  bartender with the cleft chin and soul patch held the attractive bottle of chardonnay at an angle, teasing her with more.

“Why not?”

He smiled and poured. He knew her by now, though not by name yet. She had been coming off and on the last couple months.

“Want to order any food yet?”

Marianne shook her head. The idea wasn’t appealing even though her stomach rumbled beneath voices and clinks of ice in glasses, the traffic’s crescendo and decrescendo. It was only six. She would eat later. Now she was thinking and sipping wine, only relaxing and releasing…something.

A small, compact man hopped up on the bar chair next to hers and plunked down money. The bartender, returning his nod abruptly, poured a whiskey neat and moved on. The man tasted it, licked his lips in appreciation, drank it down, then waited until the bartender poured another. This time he looked into the glass as if divining something of surprising interest.

“So. I see you in here a few times. I say to myself, ‘Why is she here when she doesn’t drink enough to count for much but she doesn’t eat a meal and talks to nobody? And she gets tipsy sort of fast. And all alone.’ That’s what I think. And I have obtained no answers yet.”

Marianne looked at his squat glass, then at the hands holding it. They were average sized, broad-palmed, and stained by something woody brown. She sipped her wine and sighed. They tried to get her to talk and then she had to leave. Sooner rather than later, she just wanted nothing of it.

The man turned to her. “I know you, you know.” He chuckled, either at his sentence or what he meant.

She studied him now, wondering if he was another teacher and she just hadn’t noticed yet–it was the start of her second year at this school–or, worse yet, a student’s father she had met at a conference.

“Yeah, every now and then, in comes this lady who has a pleasing air of mystery and she has a couple of drinks and then slips out the door with nary a smile or glance at others.”

Ah, a man who would be a poet, perhaps. Was he talking about her or generally all women who did this? She unfortunately blushed and caught a glimpse of them in the bar’s rectangular mirror. He was decent to look at, neat haircut with even features. Unremarkable in a crowd except for height, the lack of it. She sat many inches higher. Maybe his eyes counted, as they were lively and large under thick eyebrows.

“Well, I like a little wine after work. Once a week or so. I’m not a big drinker, that’s all.” She turned the goblet stem with manicured, tapered fingers.

“Oh, she does speak.” He holds out his hand. “Then I’m Daniel Unger, virtuoso furniture refinisher and dedicated patron of Hay Street Bar and Grill.”

It wasn’t as if she had never met a guy at a bar, hadn’t had some flings and even an earnest boyfriend, once. But she wasn’t up to it. Somehow turning thirty months ago had felt like a gong banged inside her head. She was still reeling from it, her mother swooping in and taking her to L.A. for the week-end, acting as if it was a rite of passage requiring a doting and madly extravagant mother, something she had never been but that Mariana foolishly was still open to. It had failed to much amuse Delilah or her “uptight” daughter. Mariana had gotten very drunk and high and then sick and shouted that she felt like she was trapped inside a Fellini film, no, much worse as it had her mother in it and Mariana couldn’t find a way out. Delilah provided that via the return ticket, of course. Luckily.

But she did awaken at home on that next Monday morning thinking it was time to reassess. What needed to fit in the big blank picture window called her life? Meanwhile, the fusty smell of smoke–cigarette and cannabis–had stunk up everything in her suitcase. She washed on a twelve minute hot cycle, then hung her clothes in sharp fall sunshine and wind. She had lost her favorite tattered volume of Theodore Roethke’s poems which she loved to read at night. Her burgundy high heels had gotten scratched. One (new from Delilah) topaz earring landed in a gutter as she scurried to catch a cab–she felt it fall off, too late to stop. What else did she have to give up?

The unsurprising fact was, her brilliant, wild mother would always come and go. What more was there, now that she had her grandmother’s beloved if creaky house; a fair career launched; and a few, okay, two good, sociable friends? What could she make of this lopsided life?

All of that only made her want to drink again. To long for big, sumptuous gulps of wine.

“Ah, right,” she extended her hand limply, “Mariana here, nice to meet you but I’m leaving now.” She grabbed her purse hanging on the chair and began to rise.

“Oh, don’t depart now–please.” He sounded so hearty. Undaunted. He tossed back the whiskey. His eyeballs glistened. “I’m not looking for more than conversation, Mariana.”

“I’m not looking, at all, I’m afraid. I just like my wine and then I am done.”

She rose and stood towering above him. She was tall next to most people. Next to him, she was a leaning tower of a giantess. His gaze rose to meet hers, as if he might try for a better look at an interesting flag flying in the wind.

“Okay, say I just thought you might be smarter than the average person, and I wondered it someone like you knew anything about William Blake or operatic arias or the meteorological status of the coming winter months–anything, in fact, that might interest a more fully thinking person. Because most of these folks–” he swept his arm around the room–“they just aren’t liable to converse. Like that.”

Mariana sat down and slumped over her goblet. She beckoned the bartender for another go at the chardonnay and knew she had detoured into quicksand. Or maybe that happened when she entered the Hay Street Bar and Grill, she wasn’t yet clear.

“You have a way with words, Daniel Unger, very savvy.”

“I am hoping you do, too, Mariana….” He tilted his head and waited her to offer up a last name.”

“Cort. Teacher, owner of cats, power walker. Unwed.”

“Ms. Cort. Hmm. Cort. The name rings a bell. Teacher of what? Metallurgy? Calculus? The history of theatre?”

She grabbed her drink and let its voluptuous taste settle, then soothe her throat. If she kept this up, she would get home very late and this Daniel would know all about her or she wouldn’t get home, at all.

“I teach eighth graders English and I love it but I’m still a neophyte. I do appreciate Blake but not like Rukeyser and Levertov, even Mary Oliver. A ton of others. I am interested in weather patterns as they specifically affect my small corner but sometimes am piqued by trends globally— as we all at least should be.” She put her chin in her right hand and leaned on the bar. Gave him her full teeth smile. “I enjoy opera once every few years. I do love ‘Carmen’ and ‘Madame Butterfly’.”

Daniel had turned to face her. His mouth fell open, wordless. His back straightened. “Alright then. A live one!” He shook his head and pulled a mock look of dismay. “I’m sorry, that sounds terrible! I meant my hunch was right. I think I’ve finally found someone I can engage with!”

His thin-lipped, open smile was infectious but somehow off-putting. Mariana didn’t want to be the lucky number on his bingo card, even a remarkable card. She didn’t want to have to entertain anyone, swap light intellectual fact-findings. The thought of her cats, yes, her tawny and white cats, was now magnetic. Her kitchen, still embraced by the spirit of her dead grandmother, was calling to her to make scrambled eggs with hash browns. She had papers to grade despite feeling a little drunk.

More than a little. Feeling the prickling of shame at the reality: that she was unable to get past this Friday without stopping in and ordering the drink and putting it to her lips and swishing it around her mouth and savoring every stinging-sweet bit of it. And ordering more. Knowing that she would soon be taking her own bottles home and forgoing the goblets altogether each night. Once again.

With some effort, aided  by Daniel’s warm, confident hand on her forearm, she stood up. His brow creased into furrows and she knew he was more than a few years older than she, well-built (short, true, but irrelevant) and muscled or not.

“You know, I have work to do tonight…I’m really not much of a drinker, not a jolly one, and…and I do need to get home to my little family.”

“Family….Cort. Cort. Say, wait a second, are you by any chance related to that Delilah Cort, the great performance artist? Amazing woman!”

She wished she could toss a drink in his face but it was gone and so she nearly gave him her mother’s phone number. But that would be unkind, wouldn’t it. She shook her head, the room swaying a bit, things slowing down. “No, don’t think we’re related.”

“Well, huh, I sure do wonder about you. Alright then, nice just meeting you and safe journey home. See you next time?”

His expression looked like he was used to disappointment and she thought they might have had a few laughs, even some stimulating moments. She wanted to tell him all would be well but it wasn’t.

“Sure,” she agreed, “ditto. Goodbye Daniel Unger, good furniture making.”

“Refinishing!” he called after her.”On Hay and Bueller!”

Outside, the October air blasted her with a tangy, frosty breeze. Maybe it was the wine, but she stood there and thought of orchards and frost on apple tree leaves, the land her mother had cultivated but rarely even saw due to her constant touring. The thought of the perfect, silver-faced moon sending its light down to shine all over those forgotten, sweet red apples made her throat swell with tears. She got out her phone and dialed.

It took him six rings to answer.

“It’s me. Can you come get me? Yeah, right, that bar I like and you call a den of thieves. Honestly, tell me, why that? It’s a nice little grill, too! No no, no food yet. Seven thirty already…really? Well, I dunno, maybe three. I think?” She lowered herself on the curb between a BMW and truck. “Yes, Bernard, yes, I know, call before not after!” She covered her mouth so she wouldn’t cry out. “I’ll be here, in front. Honk your horn loud, okay?”

She leaned back on her hands and looked way up. The sky was like a crystalline, midnight blue platter of delights. She imagined the adventures of Orion and Cassiopeia unfolding on the infinite arena of heaven. Angelic presences dancing as if perpetually joyous. Did they do that or was it all a story her grandmother told her to keep her safe? She imagined she saw her now, looking down her significant nose over the top of glasses, and her eyes were just sad. It has really come to this? she said to Mariana and Mariana closed her eyes to be better unseen by her and the heavens. I want to write poetry, she told her, I do. As she’d always told her, but to what end? It was another chardonnay she wanted now.

Mariana knew, of course, this wasn’t the place she was meant to be, sitting between a bar and the street, evading a real life that needed her participation, both feet in. But it was hard! Being the kid of a famous person who gave her love to art. Being the granddaughter of a generous-hearted grandmother who tried so long yet somehow lost her own child in that very trying. Being a teacher of youth who wrote of unspeakably awful and bracingly beautiful things. Being alone, alone with this and more. Even having two cats who could walk away from her if someone else fed them better and let them curl up on her or his lap. Wouldn’t they, now?

Being an alcoholic who had four years sober until she fell under Delilah Cort’s spell and gave in, then gave away her recovery for a few quick hugs, a rush of regrets from the woman who never knew what power mothering held.

And the off-chance she would be seen and loved for who she, Mariana, actually was. Maybe she didn’t know yet, after all. Maybe it wasn’t all that late to find out, either. How could she know these things? Now the sidewalk felt frozen to hands and legs. She could lie down, sleep here all night.


His hand on her back felt like a hand she knew. She squinted at him. He was big and dumpy; his broad face was puffy as a soft roll and he smelled like earth and greenness because that is where he lived, in his garden. He limped terribly because his back was bad. He was so much older now. But he was always there. Would she never be grown up and right-minded enough to manage her life well? Yes, he had said. Yes. If he could do it half-crippled by arthritis, cranky, unmarried again and too fat, but still sober after thirty-five years, longer than she had been alive–well, then, she could do it, too.

“Mariana. Come on, girl. I’m double parked. I’ve got some stew on. I’ll bring bowls over; you can add bread and butter. Strong hot tea. I’ll make a fire. We’ll sit with Tater and Gawain like your grandmother and I did. You’ll start over. Tomorrow! Get up now.”

She heaved herself up and looked toward the open door, light from the car’s interior illuminating the short distance, Bernard close enough to catch her but not so close he would push her forward. She took a sloppy step and then another, the moon and stars humming in her head, his labored breath forming a bright fog that hovered about them.


The Beauty of Another Country

yo30097-breaktimehudsonriver1973 Taking a break Along the Hudson River, NYC by Wil Blanche

(Photo by Wil Blanche, Break Time Hudson River, 1973)

The river flowed as if it had a plan, deliberate, strong-willed, slathering the banks and concrete retaining walls with dirt and detritus. Heat-powered scents were redolent of city life combined with ground beneath concrete and brick. Cass had biked there. She wished for a strong breeze. But it was a miracle to be resting, sunshine so easy on sore arms and legs. Honeyed light soothed her. She let go of a twig she had picked up and watched it bounce away on the Hudson.

Cass worked hard at the cabinetry shop her dad owned. The business was even better than last year. She knew how to do things that men older than she did not. There were four other women there, two in the office, two laborers. He liked to think himself progressive, but they were paid less than others. Only Cass made what the men did, with top overtime allowed. That was due to thousands of hours she had clocked since age twelve when she was a “go-fer”. Unpaid labor until fifteen.

Lately she had thought about talking to him about moving on. Making it on her own. She watched seagulls wheel and dive. There was a loud girl chatting up one of the road crew; their talk leaped over the sound of barges. Cass shut her eyes tighter. She wanted to forget all the people who acted so special because they were desperate; the shop and its demands; the endless traffic din. It was the countryside she tried to conjure.

She had last been there three years ago. Hills were burnished with the glow of autumn. Emerald grasses, cows lolling and red weathered barns all seemed to her a part of a living art museum. Trees like bouquets of copper and jade. As a kid she had studied such scenes in a heavy library book of photographs and felt a stirring but to visit it was always like seeing a foreign land. There was a family reunion every five years at Great-aunt Dinah’s farm until she passed. She and her dad and brother had gone to her funeral, something her dad hadn’t wanted to do; it was an obligation. Cass didn’t recall the viewing (other than her hair, white as snow drifts against deep-lined skin) or the funeral (except for a cousin swearing he’d never put on a suit again no matter who died, the idiot).

Later, she’d sat on Dinah’s creaky back steps and drank in the openness of vast acreage. It was like drinking fresh water when she was parched inside and out. She had been needing something, She hadn’t fully realized it until then.

In the city there were weeds that struggled through sidewalk cracks and little parks bounded by streets crammed with people and vehicles. It gave her a headache. Their shop had a break area, a patch of dirt with a wobbly, splintered picnic table that Cass finally fixed up with a blue-potted ivy and a yellow checkered plastic tablecloth. No one said anything except for the office girls who liked looking at it from the second floor window. Her dad saw the modest improvement; he said so when she asked. But the workers often took a smoke and coffee break at the side door, ate lunch down the street.

Great-aunt Dinah had left her farmhouse to her son, Howard. He’d leased it and one hundred-fifty acres, then week-ended in a house he’d built on a pretty spot a few years previous. It was really a cabin, as though he’d dreamed of remote forest living. The majority of land was sold off. Howard was an ancient history professor. He liked to go to read and write, take long walks, he’d told them during a recent visit. He’d retire there soon.


                    (Photo courtesy of Discover New England)

Howard had some business in the city, so called to see if they wanted dinner at the Zenith; he’d pick up the tab. Cass enjoyed his conversation as well as the food. Her dad, less so. They only saw each other two, three times a year, Howard’s idea.

He said, “You two should come out for a long week-end. There are beds in two rooms upstairs. The master is downstairs. It’s a nice refuge. People enjoy the peacefulness.” He cocked his head, raised his grey eyebrows. “Time is fleeing; family should gather.”

Cass recalled how comfortable it was and the gentle land. She had looked at her dad with anticipation but he shrugged and lit another cigarette off the butt poking from his lips.

“Not likely, Howie. Got a business to run and Cass is my right hand. Started to make great money again. Can’t risk taking time away. Thanks just the same.”

Howard wiped his lips neatly with the white cloth napkin, studying her. “Well, Cass, you’re twenty-one so decide for yourself. Savor some time away. Bring a friend, too!”

Her dad had grunted as though a) Howard had no business extending such a grand offer to his kid; b) Howard was too high and mighty–like he didn’t work for a living, too; and c) Cass wouldn’t consider a three-hour train ride for a week-end marred by “eau de manure”.

“I might do that,” she had said. But she had one week’s vacation, saved for Atlantic City with her best friend. Still, which sounded better?

The girl by river’s edge shrieked with laughter. Cass’ eyes flew open. She watched a man trying to grab her so he got smacked. They roared as if this was hilarious.

The strong waters churned but Cass imagined reclining on a pontoon, holding an iced drink. Coming to join her might be someone tall like her, with wiry brown beard and longish hair, a guy who appreciated women who knew machinery and wood and had a mastery of both. Who had some savings and a dream. They would sit and watch the world drift by. He’d also like a horizon far enough away that you had to travel a long time to feel any closer to it.

Cass’s shoulders slumped. She needed more beauty in her life, hard-core awesomeness, the kind that multiplied with each season and is valued for all time. Trees, bugs and creatures, dark rich earth, flowers among vegetables. The weather seen coming from the distance. The strange music of birds in the morning. She wanted kindness, enough so her hard work and restless nights finished well with interesting talk and a kiss that meant something. Her long, muscled arms stretched above her, soaking up sunshine.

Then she said aloud, “Dang, I want my own carpentry shop. Sooner rather than later.”

Wanted to leave this city, sit on grass by Howard’s cabin and learn about the things he knew. Figure out how she could start her own true life. She felt a frisson of energy slide upwards. That’s what she was going to do. It was amazing how easy it was to decide once she was ready.

As she rode her bike back to the shop, she looked long at the girl with pastel bell bottoms and bare shoulders, the bottle blond hair. It was not her destiny to be that way but she raised a hand  in greeting. The girl stared back and Cass wanted to call out, Don’t take what you can get, find what you want, but peddled on.

Hagg Lake outing 023