A few years ago, I went to an exhibit on mummies at the Milwaukee Public Museum. It was fascinating. Listening to the whispered comments and questions of other patrons was fascinating as well. We have a very scattered cultural approach to death, with so many various ways of marking the rite of passage, including not really marking it at all.
American culture, as a whole, has been dominated by technology to the point that important parts of our lives are relegated to “experts” and taken out of our hands completely. My mother fought against this trend in the late 50s when she insisted on breastfeeding her babies instead of allowing the “experts” to convince her that artificial formula on an artificial schedule was better for them.
Birth experiences have become sterilized, institutionalized, and anesthetized as well in the mainstream. My 4 were all born in a hospital under the HMO system (but not under any pain killers!) because in my 20s, I wasn’t brave enough to seek more creative options. However, my sister birthed one of her children at home, and I once assisted a friend who had a home birth. It’s not impossible to choose to take full responsibility in this event.
Death is another part of life that more and more people deal with by proxy. The hospice movement is a wonderful example of the purposeful effort to maintain the grace and dignity of this stage of life by bringing it back into the home, away from institutions. I recently watched an Ingmar Bergman movie set at the turn of the century, called Cries & Whispers (well, it’s actually called something in Swedish, but that’s the English title). This intense family drama deals with the death of a spinster sister from cancer. The action all takes place at home, in this case an elegant manor. The doctor’s largest role is in an affair with one of the sisters, in flashback. When I think of the family drama of my husband’s death, experts and technology played a huge part. Unfortunately, that became a distraction from entering into the rite of passage, from experiencing the more intimate aspects of the dynamics that were changing my family. What I mean to say is that it enabled denial.
What does it mean to choose to take responsibility for my life? Not to delegate the more painful or complicated bits to an “expert”, not to live by proxy or by representative? In which situations do I most often abdicate my ability to decide a course of action? Are they likely to be mostly financial, political, medical, social, spiritual, emotional or physical? I am only beginning to wake up and ask myself these questions. Steve often puts it to me this way: in every situation, you have at least 3 options: 1) Run away or hide 2) Try to change the situation 3) Change yourself.
This is a good time for me to think about aging, about how I want to live and address the changes that are happening now and will continue to happen. What do I want? I want to experience life in a more authentic way, not behind a duck blind or a proxy, not behind a curtain of denial or dogma, not by avoiding discomfort or hard work. I want to make decisions about who I am and how to live proactively. How do I embody this? At this point, I am still figuring out who I am and want to be and recognizing places where that has been dictated and I have responded without looking deeper. My father and my husband took great care of me. I want to learn to do that myself. I often dream about Jim returning as if he’d never died.
Last night, I had a powerful dream about him, set in the house I sold, with my young children around. My consciousness struggled with it; I knew that the house was emptied and I’d moved. I couldn’t understand why the furniture was back and the place looked so “lived in”. I couldn’t understand why Jim was there. He told me he was going out to work because he wanted to support me and the kids. In a choked whisper, I closed the door behind him and said, “Don’t come back.” I woke up crying. Talking about this dream with Steve, I realized that I do want him to come back and float through my subconscious and consciousness without confusing me, without affirming me or correcting me, just visiting. I suppose when I gain the confidence to affirm and care for myself, my dreams will change and Jim’s place in them as well. Then we will both move beyond this Bardo and into a different sphere.
—- Priscilla Galasso
© 2013, essay and photograph, Priscilla Galasso, All rights reserved
PRISCILLA GALASSO ~ started her blog at scillagrace.com to mark the beginning of her fiftieth year. Born to summer and given a name that means ‘ancient’, her travel through seasons of time and landscape has inspired her to create visual and verbal souvenirs of her journey.
Currently living in Wisconsin, she considers herself a lifelong learner and educator. She gives private voice lessons, is employed by two different museums and runs a business (Scholar & Poet Books, via eBay and ABE Books) with her partner, Steve.
Editorial note and reminder: In two weeks, Wednesday, October 23, at 7 p.m. we will host a second writing challenge (Writer’s Fourth Wednesday) featuring Victoria C. Slotto, novelist and poet. The subject of this next challenge-yourself exercise is stream-of-consciousness. So writers read on, enjoy, write and mark your calendars for next week’s event. Mr Linky, which enables you to share your work with everyone, will remain open for seventy-two hours. Victoria and Jamie will visit all participants to read and comment.
Here an accomplished story-teller, Karen Fayeth (pronounced “faith” by the way), shares her experience of inspiration, story, and the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction competition.
Each year I enjoy participating in the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction contest. The challenge is to write a 1,000 word story over the course of one weekend.
But there’s more! The approximately 700 participants are divided up into groups and each group is given a genre, location and an object. All three must be incorporated in the resulting story. The tale must truly be in the genre, the majority of the story must take place in the location and the object must show up at some point.
It’s always amazing to see the wide array of stories that come from the same genesis. This assignment of genre, location and object can either be entirely freeing, allowing the writer a head start to leap from, or it can be incredibly constraining. It all depends on what genre, location and object gets assigned.
For the first round of the 2013 contest, I was assigned the romance genre. Bleah. Not my favorite but not awful. The location was a haunted house. Hmm. Possibilities abound, but not really for a romance? Hmm. Ok. And my object was marshmallows.
That was my place to start. Over the course of many of these contests I find the judges tend to like if you use the location and object in unique ways, so I always try to think of a twist or a different facet to use in my story.
I was quite busy over this first weekend of competition, doing some work for my employer and taking care of personal business, so there I found myself Sunday morning with nary a word written and a deadline of 9pm that night.
I opened the windows to my studio and let the light pour in. I felt the breeze through the screens and sat down at my computer to make magic.
Magic. Ha! There I sat looking at the curser on my computer screen, willing the magic to begin. It blinked. I blinked.
No magic was happening.
So I subscribed to the “just write something” theory and got started. I began typing words and thoughts and a character sketch. It was going. The magic was not quite lifting off, but it was certainly gaining speed.
That is when something caught my eye outside of the window. A little splash of orange on that first day of Autumn.
I was surprised to see a Monarch butterfly resting on the bush just to the side of the building where I live.
I rushed to get my camera, attached the longest lens I have, popped the screen out of my window, and began taking photographs.
I’m sure glad I did.
Photo Copyright 2013, Karen Fayeth
This gorgeous lone Monarch Butterfly was hanging out in the warm sun, using the ol’ proboscis to drink some nectar and gathering pollen on spindly legs. You know, general butterfly business.
As I watched, a couple of bees were highly displeased at the presence of the butterfly and kept strafing him (I say him but I looked up Monarch butterflies online and I think this might actually be a female, but I’m not sure).
These bees were executing deep aggressive fly-bys that only caused the butterfly to flap his wings a bit but stay put. The bees were quite persistent. They dive-bombed and I kept snapping away. I have some crazy action shots that I’m still editing.
After a while, the butterfly flew off and I downloaded and looked through my photos, very pleased with the results.
Then I sat back in my chair and smiled. After the visit from Mr. (Ms?) Butterfly, I felt totally motivated and completely creative. I turned back to my story and banged out about 1,300 words in one sitting.
Then I set the story aside and let it percolate while my husband and I went to explore a local street fair.
When we came back I had fresh eyes and gave the story a hard edit. I managed to pare it down to 999 words and submitted it about 45 minutes before the deadline.
Man-oh-man, hitting send on that story sure felt good.
I owe an awesome creative surge to a visit from a pretty orange butterfly on the first day of Autumn.
© 2013, essay and photo, Karen Fayeth, All rights reserved
Karen Fayeth ~ is one of our regular writers. She is our tech manager, site co-administrator along with Jamie and Terri, and fiction and creative nonfiction editor. She blogs at Oh Fair New Mexico. Born with the writer’s eye and the heart of a story-teller, Karen Fayeth’s work is colored by the Mexican, Native American, and Western influences of her roots in rural New Mexico complemented by a growing urban aesthetic. Karen now lives in the San Francisco Bay area. When she’s not spinning a tale, she works as a senior executive for a science and technology research organization.
Karen has won awards for her writing, photography, and art. Recent publication credits include a series of three features in New Mexico magazine, an essay in the online magazine Wild Violet, and a short story in Foliate Oak. Her story “What Leibniz Never Learned” will appear in the Fall edition of The Storyteller.
“Your mother has escaped from the facility,” said the nurse on the phone.
I was still in Sacramento. I had just thrown my suitcase into the trunk of my car, and I had wanted to call the nursing home to check on my mom and her progress in physical therapy, one last time before I left for San Diego.
“Escaped? What do you mean, escaped?”
“Nobody knows where she is, sir.”
“How is that possible?”
“It looks like she just got out of her wheelchair and walked straight out the front door, past the front desk, when the receptionist was away. We’ve called the police,” the nurse assured me.
“What did you tell them? To look for an eighty-year-old woman in a hospital gown, pushing an I.V. pole?”
“They’ll find her, Mr. Young.”
“She was supposed to go home tomorrow.”
“I guess she couldn’t wait that long.” The nurse laughed. When my silence conveyed that this wasn’t funny, she said, “Don’t worry, sir. Residents escape from here all the time. We almost always get them back.”
“She has aphasia. Do you know what that is? She can’t speak clearly, because of her stroke. She can’t tell anybody who she is or where she lives. What if she gets hit by a car?”
“We’re not liable, Mr. Young.”
“Your father signed our waiver form, which releases us from liability for bed sores, falls, and unauthorized self-release from our facility. It’s a condition of admittance.”
“This is unbelievable. I was just about to drive down to San Diego to help my dad bring her home and start caring for her.”
“You’re aware that she’s going to need twenty-four-hour supervision in your home, aren’t you? Otherwise she might start walking around, fall down, or even try to escape from your house in the middle of the night.”
“If your entire nursing staff can’t supervise her, how in the world are my father and me supposed to do it?”
She lowered her voice. “I took care of my own mother at home for ten years, sir. I thought I was going to go completely out of my mind.”
I drove toward San Diego with my heart dropping through my chest and stomach. I had never known this much stress in all my life, not knowing where my mother was or what was happening to her. Or what would happen once we found her and brought her home. A perpetual state of emergency was becoming the most powerful reality of my life. I didn’t yet understand that accepting a continuing sense of uncertainty would become my greatest source of strength.
When I called the nursing home from two hundred miles down the road, they had found my mom. She had never made it out of the parking lot. She was walking between the cars and the SUVs, too short to be seen, until a driver just avoided striking her.
When I reached San Diego it was dark, but I went directly to the nursing home. As I hurried into my mother’s room, she glanced up at me from bed and, with the lucidity that aphasiacs exhibit when they’re surprised, she said, “Oh, it’s my son. Let’s go home now.”
I bent over to kiss her on the temple. “Mom, how are you feeling?”
“Window face,” she said, “hotel hotel hotel—and oil.” For the rest of the visit, as I tried talking to her, she replied with her enthusiastic, broken aphasia.
Sharing the room was an elderly man with a group of Mexican women sitting around his bed. My mother is Mexican, but I don’t look Mexican, so they felt free to talk about my mom in Spanish:
“That poor old woman is crazy.”
“She said she has a boat waiting for her outside. She has Alzheimer’s.”
“She ran away today. They ought to lock her up in a closet. She’ll try to walk across the freeway.”
“It’s a shame. I’m glad we don’t have that in our family.”
“It’s hereditary. Her whole family will turn out that way someday, including all of her children and grandchildren.”
Rage blackened my mind so quickly that, for a moment, I was dizzy. Although I’d never heard the word aphasia before my mom’s stroke, I was now outraged for the rights of all the aphasic people of the world, for their right to express their needs, for their right to be understood, for their right not to be falsely labeled.
Yes, my mother’s ability to process and produce language had been compromised, but she knew exactly what she was trying to say, and she could understand most of what other people were saying. She was not a crazy person, nor did she have Alzheimer’s, nor was she “demented.”
I waited until the women had left and then I kissed my mother again and told her not to worry about anything people said. She nodded with relief. “In oil, in oil. It is their face, it is their windows.”
Her spirit—the same spirit that had led her to escape from a nursing home that she did not like—was intact.
The next morning, my father and I came to take her home. Together, we cared for her for four months, until my dad had a stroke and was paralyzed on the right side. Now I had two infirm seniors on my hands.
I cared for my mom for 45 months, until she passed away in May, 2012. I continue to care for my dad every day. I’ve been a caregiver in my parents’ home for 61 months now. I’m proud that my parents have been able to live in dignity and freedom in their own home, without being institutionalized. This is the most important, rewarding, and illuminating work that I have ever done.
Any person with a compassionate heart can learn to be a caregiver. This means that you can do it too.
– Robert Clark Young
© 2013, article and portrait (below), Robert Clark Young, All rights reserved
Photo credit ~ courtesy of morgueFile
ROBERT CLARK YOUNG ~ is a guest writer on Into the Bardo. He has worked as a caregiver in his parents’ home since 2008. “Escape from the Nursing Home” is excerpted from his book, THE SURVIVOR: How to Deal With Your Aging Parents, While Enriching Your Own Life. The book seeks a publisher. Robert’s other books are One of the Guys and Thank You for Keeping Me Sober. Visit his eldercare website HERE. His Amazon page is HERE.
Editorial Note (Jamie Dedes): In addition to being a caretaker, Robert is an accomplished novelist, writer, and editor. I first “met” Robert several years ago when he was the creative nonfiction editor for an online literary magazine. In submitting his bio to us, he was understated about his mission, which is an important one. He notes on Amazon:
“According to AARP, 61% of family care providers are women, with the typical caregiver being a 46-year-old female who is caring for one or both parents. Of the 39% of caregivers who are men, a majority are husbands of senior women, rather than sons. This gender imbalance in eldercare is one of the things we need to work to change.
“I’m unusual in being a male caregiver. One of the goals of this book is to help people understand that men can–and should–become nurturers.
“But my greatest wish is that this book will become a vital lifeline to everyone who, overnight, must face what first appears to be the devastating challenge of eldercare–a challenge that opens the way to unexpected growth and fulfillment for the caregiver. There is nothing to fear in eldercare. There is only joy, growth, and love.”
As a little bit of back story, in the course of my life, I spent quite a few years in the company of a blues musician. By spending a little time with him, I also spent time around a lot of different blues musicians.
Men and women with a deep vein of soul and history and rhythm.
When you are around blues people, you hear a lot of stories. Telling stories is pretty much the foundation of being able to play the blues. As a storyteller in my own right, I used to soak in these stories, letting them enter my pores and fill my soul and tap my DNA on the shoulder and ask it to dance.
The stories are in me. Not all of them are true. Few of them are pretty.
All of this is a long winded lead up to a particular story I have in mind.
It goes something like this:
Back in the 1950’s in a small suburb of Dallas, Texas, two talented brothers grew up together.
Both had music in their bones and talent for playing the guitar. The world knows a little bit more about Stevie Ray Vaughan because of his breathtaking musical style and early death, but Jimmie Vaughan has also seen a fair bit of success with his music.
If you listen to each of their music, you can hear their very different styles. Stevie’s music was intense, complicated and at times frenetic. Jimmie likes to play a bit slower and wider and easier.
Legend has it that back in the day in Oak Cliff, Texas both boys not only liked guitars but they liked cars.
Stevie, unsurprisingly, liked real fast hot rod cars that he could jump in and race around town. Stevie used to vex the local police who couldn’t slow him down.
Jimmie on the other hand liked to cruise. He liked big, heavily finned, tuck and roll upholstered, Buick with a “smile” kind of cars. He’d put his girlfriend beside him on the bench seat and slowly roll through town, vexing the local police who wanted him to speed up.
I think of this story pretty frequently in relation to my own roll through life. My approach is more Jimmie than Stevie, though I admire Stevie very much.
Perhaps this owes to the slow “land of mañana” pace of where I grew up. We don’t move with alacrity in New Mexico and tend to be suspicious of those who do. When I still lived in the state and traveled to San Francisco or Boston for work, I was always comforted to come home, get off the plane, and visually see how slow people moved. Then I would match my pace to theirs and know I was home.
There is a great comfort in moving at a calm pace.
I find, however, that is not how the world thinks one should move.
Let’s take for example, New York City. In New York, you are supposed to walk fast. Very fast. Head straight, eyes forward, and walk.
Despite how much I love Manhattan, I have quite a hard time keeping up. The Good Man (my husband) was born in Brooklyn so moving at that pace comes natural. It does not come natural for me. I prefer to toddle along closer to the buildings and let the people pass me by on the outside of the sidewalk.
I am the person that New Yorkers yell at for walking too slow.
This all came back to mind this past week. It is New York Fashion week and I follow Nina Garcia, Marie Claire magazine’s Creative Director, on various social networking sites.
She has been posting photos from all of the various designer shows and I have been lapping them up like at kitten at a bowl of milk.
I may not have a figure for fashion, but I love it. I love seeing how textiles and stitches and notions come together to create something fantastic or ugly or offbeat.
So a couple of days ago, Ms. Garcia posted a photo of a sign she saw backstage at the Michael Kors Spring show. Oh my, I am a huge fan of Mr. Kors.
Here is the photo:
I read the words and my heart sank a little. I am happily romantic, strong and my own version of gorgeous.
But I don’t walk fast and with energy.
I would love to kill them with chic, but instead I must maintain my killer sense of humor.
For some reason, this really got under my skin and whispered to those demons in my head who heckled me and said that if I can’t walk fast and with energy, I am a nobody. They said I don’t measure up, don’t belong, don’t matter because I can’t keep up.
And that’s when I remembered the story about the Vaughan brothers.
I don’t need to race up and down the streets of New York. There are plenty of people who have that covered. I want to cruise the Manhattan blocks and tip my head upward to wonder at the buildings and smile and give my lungs room to breathe.
Slow though I walk, I always get where I’m going. Pink cheeked, a little sweaty and smiling.
Perhaps I am taking this hand written sign a little too close to heart. I’m sure this was simply a note of encouragement for the models walking the runway, reminding them to keep it peppy and light.
Perhaps it just hit me on a bad day when the demons were a little closer to the open door than I would like. I let them out to play awhile, really let them run, then I whistled and corralled them back into the pen.
And I remembered that a strong, courageous New Mexican doesn’t have to walk fast unless she wants to. That is true both when walking the Bosque or NYC’s Broadway.
A girl should be two things: classy and fabulous.
Thankfully, I am both.
© 2013, essay, Karen Fayeth, All rights reserved
Photo from the Instagram feed of Nina Garcia. All rights belong to her.
Karen Fayeth ~ is one of our regular writers. She is our tech manager, site co-administrator along with Jamie and Terri, and fiction and creative nonfiction editor. She blogs at Oh Fair New Mexico. Born with the writer’s eye and the heart of a story-teller, Karen Fayeth’s work is colored by the Mexican, Native American, and Western influences of her roots in rural New Mexico complemented by a growing urban aesthetic. Karen now lives in the San Francisco Bay area. When she’s not spinning a tale, she works as a senior executive for science and technology research organization.
Karen has won awards for her writing, photography, and art. Recent publication credits include a series of three features in New Mexico magazine, an essay with the online magazine Wild Violet, and a short story in Foliate Oak. Her story “What Leibniz Never Learned” will appear in the Fall edition of The Storyteller.
“The Bardo” is a place of transition, perhaps akin to Purgatory. It is common ground and a sacred space of sorts. It’s intriguing to think of the Laundromat as a place like that . . .
David Attenborough makes a point in The Life of Mammals video about “Social Climbers” – monkeys. He says that you can tell how large a monkey’s social group is by the size of his brain. Baboons live in large, complex social structures and have the largest brains of all the monkeys. Surviving and thriving in a social environment means that you have to be able to assess situations and make an array of decisions – how to make allies and with whom, how and when and whom to fight, how to secure a mate and improve your chances of passing on your genes. Navigating social life is even more brain-bending if you’re human, I think. More subtleties are involved. Here’s a case in point: the laundromat.
When Jim and I were first married, I did laundry at the laundromat. I hated going there, for several reasons. First of all, I was pregnant. The smells nauseated me; the physical demands of standing to fold and hoisting large loads of clothes around exhausted me. It was a depressing place to be physically, but perhaps even more uncomfortable was the social aspect. You never know what strangers you might encounter. I have had some rather pleasant days at the laundromat. I met a psychic, once, who was very interesting. She could tell I was skeptical and not receptive, but she kept on talking to me nevertheless. Gradually, I relaxed and figured out how to respect her and appreciate her and communicate that to her. We parted with a hug and wished each other well. Mostly, I get a pleasant experience if I can do my laundry in silence and read a few short stories at the same time. What I often find is that the laundromat is a place to observe human suffering, my own and others’.
I happened to have selected a book of short stories by William Faulkner as my laundry companion. I grabbed it off of Steve’s stack figuring that short stories would fit nicely into those periods of time between cycles, and I wouldn’t mind being interrupted or distracted as much as I would if I were trying to tackle “heavier” reading. What I didn’t think about was that these stories of post-Civil War race relations would be cast for me on a backdrop of the urban reality of this century…and that the same awkward tensions would result. I felt like some of his characters, eavesdropping in the kitchen, when people in the laundromat would chatter on their cell phones to friends and social agents. Outwardly, I guess I was trying to be invisible. I couldn’t help picking up snatches of their lives and wondering about their stories. For example, Jerry and his family…
I’ve seen Jerry twice now. Yesterday, I recognized him as I approached the laundromat. He was wearing a diaper under sweatpants, shoes, and no shirt. He was hitting his head repeatedly and grunting. Or maybe it was more like moaning. The woman he was with may have been his mother. She was in a wheelchair with an artificial leg that looked like a sandbag. He was with another woman as well, perhaps his sister. She was the one doing the laundry. I remembered them from a month ago. They came with about seven large, black garbage bags full of clothes. They took a social services shuttle bus to get there; I knew this from hearing the mother make cell phone calls about being picked up. This woman had the sweetest, kindest voice you would ever hope to hear. Her voice was full of compassion and pain; it was lilting and rich and Southern. I would cast her as a black Mammy in one of Faulkner’s stories. Her manners were impeccable. If she had to pass around me, she excused herself, and I felt like apologizing profusely for being in the way. Her daughter (?), the other woman, spoke almost unintelligibly as she did the laundry and corralled Jerry. Even the woman in the wheelchair told her, “I can’t understand what you’re saying.” Jerry likes to wander. They don’t want him to wander out to the street and get hit by a car. They don’t want him to bother the other people in the building. Their voices called out periodically, “Jerry. Jerry, come over here.” “Jerry, honey. Stop! Jerry, come here.”
When Jerry wanders near me, I don’t know what to do. I keep my head down and my eyes in my book. Would I frighten him if I made eye contact? Would he frighten me? Another gentleman was there. He helped bring Jerry back inside when he wandered out. The mother thanked him, “You’re so sweet. Thank you, sir.” They exchanged names. He told her that he has a grandson who was hit by a car at age seven; the grandson is now twenty-five and has brain damage. “Oh, so you know. You understand,” she sighed. I learned that Jerry is thirty-two years old.
In the other corner of the room, there was a mother with a five-year old daughter, London. She looked about five, anyway. London had a pacifier. I heard her mother yelling at her. “London! Get up offa that floor! Sit your butt down here!” Her voice was sharp and angry. London began to cry. There is not much to interest a five-year-old in the laundromat. She hadn’t brought any toys or books to occupy her.
The mother talked on her cell phone while London played with the lid of the laundry hamper. I made eye contact with the child as we went about our business. She silently bent her wrist toward me, while sucking her pacifier. “Oh, did you hurt yourself?” I asked. “London! Get out of the way!” her mother said.
In the Faulkner story, Master Saucier Weddell is trying to get back to Mississippi from Virginia. He is the defeated. He and his traveling companion, his former slave who is very attached to him and his family, find themselves in Tennessee at a farmhouse. These victors are extremely suspicious. They think Mr. Weddell is a Negro. Actually, he’s Cherokee and French. The story is short, but intense. The traveler and the farmer’s younger son end up being killed in an ambush by the farmer and his Union soldier son, Vatch. The last two sentences read, “He watched the rifle elongate and then rise and diminish slowly and become a round spot against the white shape of Vatch’s face like a period on a page. Crouching, the Negro’s eyes rushed wild and steady and red, like those of a cornered animal.”
I finished my laundry in silence. I waved my fingers and mouthed “goodbye” to London who had been banished to the corner. Her mother didn’t see me.
At home, the late afternoon sun shines down on the quilt on my bed. Steve isn’t home, and it’s very quiet. I feel like crying. My brain is not big enough to figure out why.
– Pricilla Galasso
© 2013, story/creative nonfiction and photographs, Pricilla Galasso, All rights reserved
PRISCILLA GALASSO ~ is a contributor to Into the Bardo. She started her blog at scillagrace.com to mark the beginning of her fiftieth year. Born to summer and given a name that means ‘ancient’, her travel through seasons of time and landscape has inspired her to create visual and verbal souvenirs of her journey.
“My courage is in the affirmation of my part in co-creation”, she wrote in her first published poem, composed on her thirtieth birthday and submitted alongside her seven-year-old daughter’s poem to Cricket magazine. Her spiritual evolution began in an Episcopal environment and changed in pivotal moments: as a teenager, her twenty-year-old sister died next to her in a car crash and, decades later, Priscilla’s husband and the father of her four children died of coronary artery disease and diabetes in his sleep at the age of forty-seven Awakening to mindfulness and reconsidering established thought patterns continues to be an important part of her life work.
Currently living in Wisconsin, she considers herself a lifelong learner and educator. She gives private voice lessons, is employed by two different museums and runs a business (Scholar & Poet Books, via eBay and ABE Books) with her partner, Steve.
In a full to overflowing bathtub, I relax, soaking the ache out of legs and content to be surrounded by water. It’s not long before I slide down, legs crawling up the wall under the shower, head dipping below the surface. My right hand plugs my nose and my left hand covers my eyes like a sleep mask and water fills my ears.
I savor these few moments I have to just float in nothing.
The water amplifies noise but bends the sound waves into something more beautiful. Even the passing fire truck with its shrill siren and blaring horns sounds almost musical when passed through my warm, clear water. The rhythmic hum of the clothes dryer puts me in a trance and I enjoy this until my lungs ask politely and then not so politely if we can surface and take in some new, unused air.
I reluctantly rise up and gasp in a big breath and go under again. It’s just too delicious and quite addictive. This time I think about buying a snorkel so I can stay under the water and still breathe. I’ve considered buying a snorkel so I can stay under my bath water ever since I was a kid.
Even as a child I was drawn to the solace and quiet of being under water. One early evening as I was taking a bath and creating my own sensory isolation chamber, my mother walked in to check on me. As any protective mother of three children would do when presented with the sight of her youngest lying apparently lifeless in a bathtub full of water, she freaked out.
My mother yanked me from the water and shook me hard, shouting my name. I unplugged my nose and uncovered my eyes and said, “What?”
I got a well-deserved and thorough chewing out and was told in no uncertain terms that I was never to simply slide under the water and remain motionless. Ever.
When I later emerged from my bath and got dressed and ran a comb through my unruly long hair, I was confronted by my father who ripped into me for scaring my mother.
I always thought that was quite unfair. I didn’t set out to intentionally scare my mother. I simply wanted a moment, if even half a minute, where I didn’t exist in the world. Where everything was blocked out and time slowed down and sounds bent in pleasing ways.
My solution thereafter was to continue to dunk my head well below water and plug my nose with my right hand. With my left hand, I would raise it above the surface and wave it like the Queen on parade so that any passerby would know I was still conscious, just submerged.
This seemed a suitable solution for all. A nice compromise.
I’ve always wanted to visit one of those sensory isolation tanks. It sounds like a little slice of heaven to me. Floating in a tank with no light and hardly any sound and just the quiet to embrace me. Yes, I think I would love this very much.
The Good Man thinks I’m half a bubble off level to consider this. “I always figure while you are locked in there, the people outside will steal your stuff or do something weird,” he says.
This is how his mind works. This is not how my mind works.
A few years ago we visited a spa in Calistoga, California. The spas in Calistoga are known for their mud baths. You give them money and they allow you to slide your nekkid body into a warm tub of slightly sulphurous goo. The weight of the mud resists your body, you actually have to dig in there. Once settled, you are surrounded and suspended and oh my goodness I could have stayed in there for weeks.
The Good Man did not feel as kindly toward the mud. He said he was antsy the whole time he was in there and ready to vault from the tub. He couldn’t wait for it to be over. I never wanted it to stop.
Perhaps it’s something Freudian that I like to slip into warm suspended places and forget about things for a while. I choose to think it rather normal to want to seek out genuine moments of respite where the world and all its crazy spinning and shouting and clanking and cruelty goes away, for just a moment. For as long as it takes me to hold my breath.
Until I buy a snorkel.
– Karen Fayeth
© Karen Fayeth, copyright 2013, all rights reserved. Bathtub image found on Rodale.com and all rights remain with the website and photographer. Bio photograph by Claudia Akers.
KAREN FAYETH ~ is one of our regular contributing writers. She is our new tech manager, site co-administrator along with Jamie and Terri, and fiction and creative nonfiction editor. She blogs at Oh Fair New Mexico. Born with the writer’s eye and the heart of a story-teller, Karen Fayeth’s work is colored by the Mexican, Native American, and Western influences of her roots in rural New Mexico complemented by a growing urban aesthetic. Karen now lives in the San Francisco Bay area. When she’s not spinning a tale, she works as a senior executive for science and technology research organization.
Karen has won awards for her writing, photography, and art. Recent publication credits include a series of three features in New Mexico magazine and an essay with the online magazine Wild Violet. Her latest short story will be published in the May edition of Foliate Oak. Karen’s photography is garnering considerable attention, her photo titled “Bromance” (featuring Aubry Huff and Pat Burrell) was featured on MLB Network’s Intentional Talk hosted by Chris Rose and Kevin Millar.
First publication: March 15, 2012, Connotation Press
I am the keeper of the dreams and the memories, the matrix where the generations converge, the record-book held between familial bookends. I am responsible for passing her life on to him that she may continue to live and that he may understand the consequences of history and culture as common people do.
He is the vindication of hope, his and ours. Her heart is the place were hope started. I can hardly think of my son without also thinking of my mother. They are the two people I love most in this world, though one of them – Mom – is no longer here. So for the record, I’m not sure why, but the occasional pancake breakfasts I had with her at Oscar’s of the Waldorf are on my mind. We had rituals we honored until life had its way with her.
We spent time savoring the hotel before going into Oscar’s for breakfast. The Waldorf was decorated with so much gold color that despite the muted lighting we felt we were having our moment in the sun. The jewel-colored furnishings and plush carpeting invited us to find a place to sit. We indulged in wide-eyed rounds of people watching. The businessmen seemed busy with self-importance. The women fussed with their manifest charm. We always stopped in the ladies’ room with its uniformed attendants continually present. They provided each guest with a freshly laundered terry-cloth towel and double-wrapped soaps, lavender-scented. Mom would tip the attendant a quarter and give me a quarter to tip her too.
An important ritual was a visit to the Waldorf Astoria Clock in the main lobby. I’ve read that it’s there still, all two tons of it. It’s a place where people find one another. I’ll meet you at the clock. Everyone knows that means the clock inside the Waldorf-Astoria at Park Avenue. It’s a towering thing, the actual clock sitting below a replica of the Lady Liberty, hope of immigrants, and above some bronze carvings and an octagonal base of marble and mahogany. Standing near the clock gave us the sense of a history of which we were not a part. It offered the illusion of privilege, the true secret spice that made the blueberry pancakes at Oscar’s so delicious. The famed maître d’hôtel, Oscar Tschirky, Oscar of the Waldorf, was no longer there. He died in 1950, the year I was born.
My mom loved the Waldorf and Oscar’s blueberry pancakes as she did everything she felt characteristic of culture and good breeding. Being well bred meant you recognized quality in a person or product: women who wore pearls, men who always tipped their hats in greeting, and dresses with wide hems. Well-bred meant you didn’t swear or use colloquialisms. It meant that if you were a boy you never cried. If you were a girl you didn’t display your intelligence. You didn’t run. You didn’t shout. You never went out without wearing hat, gloves, and girdle. You sacrificed sports and ballet at nine. You didn’t risk turning any tidbit of excess fat into unseemly muscle.
Given my illegitimate birth – which occurred when my mother was thirty-six – combined with our roots, peasant not patrician, and our working-class status in this country, it seemed Mom was forever posturing. Nonetheless, over time I convinced myself that my mother was indeed a most cultivated person. Hence my birth had to be a virgin birth. That would explain my father’s absence, though there was no kindly Joseph to lend an aura of respectability. Mom advised me never to kiss a boy. Kissing could cause pregnancy. Well, yes, if one thing leads to another, but how would my mom know?
Mom’s interest in culture was insatiable. What she viewed as high culture most people would see as popular culture. We consumed it regularly and with religious fervor. We were fickle about our temples of worship. We opened our hearts at the Harbor Theater on Wednesday night, the RKO on Saturday afternoon, the Loew’s Alpine on Sunday, and for whatever reruns were on television at any given time. Because of movies we knew what to dream. They were our world; their luminaries our goddesses and gods. Audrey Hepburn, goddess of fashion. Cyd Charisse, goddess of posture. Katherine Hepburn, the great goddess of elocution. Grace Kelly inspired us to wear pearls, however faux our own five-and-dime pearls were. We did our best to meet the standard. Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, and Jimmy Stewart were the gentlemen gods who shaped our expectations of men.
Our home back then was a one-bedroom Brooklyn apartment on the top floor of a six-story four-section complex that was built in the 1920s before the Wall Street Crash of 1929. Each of the four sections had an elevator, often in disrepair. Our apartment had French windows, which we found romantic and from which we could see the lights of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge at night. The bridge didn’t open until 1964 and so it came to our landscape late. The requisite fire escape was outside the kitchen window, the only window without a radiator below its sill. It made a fine place to sit and read, write stories, and watch the cars below and the clouds above.
Our apartment, D61, was often blessed with rain in the form of leaks. Manna dropped from the ceiling in the guise of paint chips. If the people downstairs were too noisy, we tapped on the wood floor with the end of a broomstick. When there was no heat or hot water we consulted with the landlord’s wife, a common woman whose carelessly open closet displayed a frowzy collection of cotton house-dresses and limp lifeless sweaters. Mom always sniffed as we walked away, her sensibility offended. She said the woman’s hair was entirely too long and youthfully styled for someone of her station and maturity.
I remember my mother as so refined that when conflict arose between us she never fought or yelled or slammed a fist on the table. After a quiet well-barbed soliloquy, she went silent. If Mom’s anger was white-hot, she might not talk to me for years. The last episode of protracted silence extended from my fifteenth birthday until after my marriage. I no longer remember my original offense but a rebellious marriage to someone of a different ethnicity did nothing to serve the cause of reconciliation.
There’s my mother, the little girl on your left. She’s about seven in that sepia photograph – circa 1921 – where she stands alongside her mother and three of her six siblings. My mother’s mother is pregnant and in her mid-twenties. There would be four more children that survived out of eighteen pregnancies. Mom told me my grandmother was married off at twelve to a seventeen-year-old boy-man with something of a temper. They immigrated to this United States of America after the first two children were born, one boy (thank God!) and one girl.
I often look at that photograph of my mother and wonder what she was thinking. What did she long for? As she made her way around the old neighborhood and tried to grow beets in a wooden box on the tenement fire escape, certainly she dreamed of dressing in the latest rage. When, through the aegis of the New York Times Fresh Air Fund, she spent a month each summer at the Muzzi’s farm upstate, no doubt she fantasized about living where the air is clear and the spaces packed tight with solitude and well-occupied with growing green things. She often talked with longing of the fresh vegetables at the Muzzi’s and of a large accommodating farm kitchen.
Mom once landed a part in an elementary-school version of Aïda and got to wear a costume and make-up. Her father had her remove the red lipstick that was provided by a teacher. As an adult, Mom collected lipsticks. You wouldn’t believe how many different shades of red there are and how poetic the names: autumn rose, wild ruby, crimson dew …
Over time, the hope of being valued by a good man, of living in a garden apartment with something more than an efficiency kitchen, moved slowly out of reach. As Mom grew older, less nubile, and more invisible, she became more artful with her war paint and her dress. She no longer wore what jewelry she had as decoration, but as amulets.
Her decline must have started when she was pregnant with me. Coincident with that, she was diagnosed with cancer for the first time. Through the years and bit by excruciating bit, she lost organs: a breast now, then her thyroid, then her womb, a kidney and finally the second breast and lymph glands. I’m just a shell, she’d tell me before warming her soul by the cold fire of a movie screen. She would fight cancer on-and-off all her life. When the end came, she died in my arms of breast and colon cancer. She was seventy-six.
Mom was a good numbers person, always able to find work as a full-charge bookkeeper. When I was twelve, a particularly exciting opportunity came her way. A prospective employer flew her – a Kelly Girl ®, forty-eight years old – to D.C. for a trial assignment and a job interview. When she arrived, she found the possibility of permanent employment required a full medical exam. The exam, along with work history and evaluation, would be submitted to the board for review. All those men would see it. They might even discuss her lack of womanly organs at the board meeting, complete with board notes for the record. Embarrassed, Mom declined the interview, packed her bag, and found her way to the airport. That afternoon, she arrived back in New York at Idlewild.
The next morning, without even a nod to the well-bred goddesses and gods of mortal fancy, Mom threw on some clothes and grabbed my hand. An hour or so later we were in Manhattan. We went straight into Oscar’s. We didn’t stop in the hotel lobby for people-watching or give quarters to the ladies’ room attendant. We didn’t pay our respects to the Waldorf Astoria Clock. We just ate. Rather, I should say I watched. Mom ate. She cut her pancakes at punitive angles and made doleful jabs at the pieces with her fork. When she finished her serving, she moved on to mine. By the time Mom gulped her third coffee, paid the bill, and left a grudging tip, even my child-mind understood that our visits to Oscar’s for blueberry pancakes would no longer be part of a wistful dream. Lacking sacred ritual, they would devolve into compulsion. This was the beginning of Mom eating much too much and of me not eating quite enough. While Mom endeavored to bury her dreams, I sought to scrap their bones bare and set them free.
© 2012, memoir/family photographs and portrait (below), Jamie Dedes, All rights reserved /the photographs which include my mother are a part of our family album but they’re also covered by copyright. Please be respectful. Waldorf Lobby & Clock courtesy of New York Architecture. Theater seating by Reddi via Wikipedia under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 unported license. Subway station by David Shakelton via Wikipedia under Creative Commons Attritution-Share Alike 3.0 unported license.
JAMIE DEDES ~ My worldly tags are poet and writer. I’m in my fifth year of blogging at The Poet by Day, the journey in poem, formerly titled Musing by Moonlight. Through the gift of poetry (mine and that of others), I enter sacred space.
A woman in Brooklyn decided to prepare her will. She told her rabbi she had two final requests. First, she wanted to be cremated. Second, she wanted her ashes scattered over the local shopping mall.
‘Why the shopping mall?’ asked the rabbi.
‘Then I’ll be sure my daughters will visit me twice a week.’
I met my Jewish friend, Laurel, when she came to a meeting at our local meditation center in Northern California where we now live. Laurel and I got on right away. We both like Broadway shows, music and opera, reading, writing, and good meals seasoned with great conversation. She’s from Great Neck, LI in Nassau County. I’m from
the Center of the Universe, Brooklyn. We’re about the same age. So we come from the same time and, essentially, the same place.
Now New York moms get a bad rap, especially Jewish moms – but none of us gets off free. Laurel reminded me of that yesterday with a stereotypical New York joke at the expense of mothers. These jokes usually illustrate moms making caustic remarks or their attempts to foster guilt in adult children. While we do use regional idioms and have a distinct style of delivery, I’m really not sure that mothers from our time and place have the corner on either caustic commentary or the laying on of guilt. New York moms can’t be the only ones who, when distressed by a child’s behavior, say or at least think – despite how treasured the child … and they are treasured – “For this I was in labor thirty-six hours.”
Like all of us, my mother was very much in process and very much a product of her place and time. Among other things, what that means is that modesty was a primary concern. For my Maronite (Eastern Catholic) mother this included modest dress, which in turn included girdles. Now I’ve got to tell you that until I hit forty I was mostly underweight. In fact at Christmas when I was nineteen, I stood 5′ 3 1/2″ and, though I was three months pregnant with my son, I weighed only ninety-three pounds. Nonetheless, from my thirteenth year until her death when I was forty, my mother was adamant that I should wear a girdle so that I wouldn’t “jiggle.” That would be immodest and unseemly. Only my mother, I would think, would put me through this torture for nothing. As my husband said, “What’s to jiggle? If she turned sideways and stuck out her tongue she’d look like a zipper.”
Those old, typically New York jokes at the expense of our mothers were funny because there’s an element of truth in them. Our mothers often did pave the pathways to their homes and hearts with guilt. They could be cruelly caustic. They were as tough as life. They tended to be rigid and narrow on some sensitive subjects. But they were also present. They were idealistic. They worked hard in their homes and at their jobs, where they were grossly underpaid. Many of them worked for hours each week to make the most unbelievably complex old world dinners for traditional Sundays that included religious services and large gatherings of extended family and orphaned friends and neighbors.
No matter how difficult things got, these sturdy immigrant and first-generation American women did not resort to drugs, alcohol, or beatings. They went to bat for us at school. They got us into the best schools they could afford and kept us in school for as long as they could afford to do so. They protected us from old lechers and young men who did not have “honorable” intentions. Kudos and compliments were about as common as Dodo birds in the twenty-first century; but secretly they were pleased and would proudly show photographs of us to their friends and boast of our accomplishments. It took me years to appreciate their insecurities and motivations.
You can tell by the posture in the photo to your right, that moving into my thirties, I was still struggling with mixed feelings. The reason in this particular case: Before I went to work one morning, I left money on the kitchen table for a pizza. I called home at 5:00 p.m. as I was leaving the office and asked my mother if she’d order the pizza right away because I was “starving.” I got home and “binged”: I ate one slice of pizza and left the crust. “I thought you were hungry,” Mom said. “I was.” The fact that I was thirty and still “eating like a bird” and underweight disturbed her. In turn, I was disturbed because she was still trying to tell me how to eat. I do the same sort of thing to my son now, not about food, but about other things.
I miss my mother and am thinking of her even more than usual with Mother’s Day soon to arrive. I wish she was here nagging me to clean my plate. I finally understand. As the saying goes, “We grow too soon old and too late smart.”
– Jamie Dedes
© 2013, feature and all photographs (from our family album, please be respectful), Jamie Dedes, All rights reserved
JAMIE DEDES ~ My worldly tags are poet and writer. For the past five years on medical retirement due to a chronic, potentially life-threatening illness, I’ve blogged at The Poet by Day, formerly titled Musing by Moonlight. The gift of illness is more time for poetry. Through the gift of poetry (mine and that of others), I enter sacred space, the common ground that is our true home.