I wrote this about seven years ago. It came to me while I was making the Thanksgiving pies. I remember thinking the words while I rolled out my pie dough and worried I would forget it, so I wiped my hands on my apron, grabbed a legal pad and wrote it out in one fell swoop! The hard drive with the original piece crashed long ago, but I was fortunate enough to have it published – here is a PDF.
Songs my mother taught me
In the days long vanish’d
Seldom from her eyelids
Were the teardrops banish’d
Now I teach my children
Each melodious measure
oft the tears are flowing
oft they flow from my mem’ry treasure (Anton Dvorak)
My mom and I used to sing this together. It was a heavily marked song in my great grandmother’s song book. It is an old timey tune, full of pathos and emotion written back in the days when people’s lives were more precarious than our own. It is my favorite.
One of my favorite old movies is “I Remember Mama” with Irene Dunne and Barbara Bel Geddes. I have made my own little movie to remember my own mom, Nancy Ann. She was my rock and my best friend. My mom loved the Metropolitan Opera and listened to the radio broadcasts every Saturday. She had a gorgeous soprano singing voice (think Kathleen Battle) and was sunny and bright, always eager to listen to YOUR story and an amazing voice teacher. She was the best grandmother ever and I want to share her with you here. I used music which represented the era she came from, she and my dad loved Andy Williams, hence the Moon River and she enjoyed a classical music career with her wonderful second husband, a composer in his own right, Eloy Fominaya. The final song is Mi Chimano Mimi, her favorite aria, from Puccini’s La Boheme, sung by her favorite soprano, Renee Fleming. I think the internet is a wonderful way to highlght the lives of people who deserve to be known by others.
Sometime in 1898 my great-grandfather, George Ernest and his father in law, my great, great-grandfather (who everyone called Dad) purchased a tiny island on a lake in Northern Wisconsin. On the island they built a small, serviceable summer cottage. We have been traveling there each summer ever since.
Our society has, I think, lost some of it’s grounded-ness; that sort of Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz kind of going home to Kansas-ness, if that makes sense. I guess you could call it the philosophy of ‘click your heels and you are there.’ People who are fortunate to have a ‘click your heels’ location to return to are more than merely fortunate, they are rich.
Now, my little family cottage is not swanky as many modern cottages are. It has been left in the swanky dust by all of the big, peeled log beauties that have sprung up all over the lake. We have bizarre plumbing arrangements, no big screen TV – actually, we do not have TV. It is furnished exactly as my great grandparents left it, complete with their collections of Dickens and selected Thackeray. This last visit, I pulled ol’ George Ernest’s copy of Ben-Hur, A Tale of the Christ from the bookshelf. I have seen the movie many times, but I never read the actual book and the book is wonderful. Lew Wallace, the author, did tremendous research when writing it. He was a bored general in the Middle East when he started writing it. It is worth reading for the description of the wise men and the cultural conditions of Bethlehem at the time of Christ’s birth. You will learn many obscure anthropological facts. Please visit the website about Lew Wallace and his ‘study’ in Crawfordsville, Indiana. I did not get there this trip, but I will next time.
Whenever life seems to be over the top, I know I can click my heels and go home again.
I know this will make for a long post, but this next bit is something I once wrote for the possible start of … something, not sure what – I think it is a mystery. Anyway, it is intended to be fictional … but I used lots of autobiographical sense memories based on this place I love.
The Indian Mounds seem smaller each year, especially now that I am a grown woman. When I was a little girl the only way to reach the mounds was by boat. We would arrive in the throaty Chris-craft my grandfather had happened upon at an estate auction, throw the anchor into the golden sandy floor of the lake and wade in. Some years the water was so cold the drop into the knee deep water took my breath away leaving me in a blue lipped state of shivering that didn’t abate until I was able climb into a warm bath when we returned to the cottage.
My grandfather always putted around a bit in search of a rock to latch on to. For some macabre reason I was always drawn to the mounds. The thought of them silently waiting haunted me from one June to the next and I couldn’t wait for the first sunny day after we arrived at the island to make the trip to the boat beach, as it was known to my family.
I remember my mother taking me by the hand, leading me along the pine needle path away from the sunny stretch of beach and the rhythmic sound of the waves rolling in from the darkest center of the lake. Here, the forest deepened and the sounds of the woods mimicked the sound of the air after a deep snowfall; an intense quiet suffused with a sense of peace. I became conscious of the muffled slap, slap of my pink flip-flops against the densely packed pine needles. I was mindful of the sun streaking through the trees in slanting rays and it reminded me of the religious cards my catholic cousins showed me picturing Jesus looking up toward the sky, thin beams of sunlight streaming from a cloud creating a heavenly aura. Maybe this is how I latched on to the idea that the mounds were a holy place requiring the same reverence reserved for church interiors and the quiet whispers accorded public libraries.
My mother wove her own version of an old legend that loosely resembled the official history of the area. She told a story about a final battle fought by the ancestors of the Ojibwa Indians who, as recently as 100 years earlier, had been the original inhabitants of the boat beach. Her voice barely above a whisper, leaning down to reach my ear as we walked along, she told how the feuding tribes finally culminated their bitter warring by burying the Tomahawk on the shores of the boat beach. My mother was a bit of a history buff and while she had read the scarce amount of scholarship which existed about the mounds, like a true story-teller she used the best bits from both the legend and the research to create a romantic portrait. In hushed tones she told me the brave warriors of the feuding tribes are together, their blood cleansed in the cool lake waters, ceremoniously layered in peace. Their numbers are recorded in the mounds rising gently from the ground, a visible mingling of souls for all eternity.
It was a fairly brutal tale to recount to a four-year old, but her descriptions of the blood running into the lake water like satin ribbons blowing in the breeze made it tantalizing romantic. All the Braves were handsome, all the women Indian princesses. In my mind, I pictured those handsome young braves lying entwined after the final battle, the tears of Indian princesses cleansing the blood from their wounds, (my mother’s description) and secretly dreamed of finding the tomahawk that had finally put an end to the brutality which lay beneath the fern covered mounds. Later in life I tried to find out the details of these Indian battles, as if by confirming them I could prove that the Tomahawk legend was true, but the great Indian battle remained shrouded in mystery with only the silent mounds providing exculpatory evidence of the grain of truth contained in the legend.
All of this was before the State cut a road in behind the forest which was the Indian’s sepulchral ground…before the campers came with the kids eager to scamper on the mounds, causing them diminish in a manner quicker than anything the previous 500 years had accomplished. This was all before the state sold the land to developers. It was before the full force of civilization arrived in the Northwoods.
(I wrote this the year I turned 50 in 2008 – it still seems timely – I have lost a beloved mother and three pets, but life is still Short and Sweet and Full of tickle grasses… so I am sharing it again.)
More than half my life is over. This year I turn fifty and I can no longer console myself with thoughts of “Oh, I still have over half my life to live…” I suppose this was true when I was 45, because even then it was very unlikely I had another half to go. Having a pacemaker, I might have been pushing it to wish for ninety, but now that 50 approaches I have to think realistically and face the reality 100 is a faint flicker, gradually sputtering toward being permanently extinguished.
So why am I happier now than I have ever been in my entire life? It isn’t that life has necessarily gotten any easier or less stressful. In many ways – I have more worries now of a more complex nature than at any other time in my life. Maybe it is simply the fact OF life that makes me feel content. I am here, now, and this is life. So, I make the best of it.
At one time in my life, I wanted to be an actress. Now that I am approaching fifty, I can relax and let that little fantasy fade to black, as they say. It is an absolute certainty I will never appear in a major motion picture or, my personal secret goal, a full blown Merchant Ivory costume, big screen feature film depiction of some obliquely pertinent English novel: something by Henry James or another long suffering closeted gay late 19th century, early 20th century writer. Knowing that ingénue roles will never again be a possibility for me is really quite liberating. And the fact that I wasn’t able to fulfill my completely irrational fantasy to portray tightly corseted ingénues rules me out of the completely left field fantasy to play free spirited, gray locks flowing down the middle of my back, blowing in the wind, spinster character roles as well. The bottom line is this: it’s over – I will not be an actress. So that’s that.
Somewhere in my late twenties I began to develop a passion for interior decorating. Not the kind you see in furniture showrooms; my own individual quirky kind. I determined I loved all white interiors. I crafted all white slip covers and painted everything I could get my hands on with Martha Stewart ironstone white paint (before Sears had the paint.) I was an interior decorating version of Emily Dickinson, only my house was my preferred medium. I suppose you could say I was fashioning my own private sanatorium!
I carefully studied my favorite magazines, Victoria, Country Home, Country Living even English Country Living! I once actually paid $89.00 for an entire year to receive Country Living, English Version. I gardened (gardening is a whole other blog post, so I will save THAT topic for later.) I was consumed with decoration and little lovely things. I CREATED little lovely things. By the time I was thirty five, I even sold some of my little lovely things. Victoria Magazine was my absolute favorite and my actress dreams became “Clever Me Featured in a Magazine Article” dreams. I hired a photographer (a student at the photography school) I had professional pictures made of my little lovely things, I designed a unique and gorgeous letter to Victoria, I sent it. They actually replied and said they were very interested and would get back to me in a year or two, since everything was planned that far out. And then, Victoria folded, the magazine shut down just as the two years was about to be up and my “Clever Me Featured in a Magazine Article”dream faded away as well. I sat on my white couch in my white living room and pondered Martha’s ironstone white walls and thought, well, that’s that.
I still have all my pretty slip covers and things, but I consider my house to be fully decorated and keeping up with the times doesn’t hold the appeal it once did for me. My house will gradually descend into outmoded. Soon, it will be like a typical grandmother’s house. Neat and tidy with things that people decorated with over twenty years ago. My twig wreaths will be the 21st century equivalent of crochetted tissue box holders. I have to face it. It is over. It was not my destiny to be featured as a clever doer of lovely little things in a magazine. And you know what? It is ok.
With the exception of acting, I still do many of the things I used to do. I make pretty little things. But I find that I can’t part with them. They made me happy while I created them and the memory they provide makes me happy when I pull them out and look at them. Maybe that is why I am happier now than I have ever been. Somewhere along the way, I discovered the joy of being satisfied. It has filled me up and it has made me whole.
Now, I look forward to what lies ahead for my daughter. Only, I try not to impose any expectations. I only want her to discover this same happiness I have found. I hope she finds it sooner than I did. I want her to know this joy of enoughness, the pleasant realization of this is it-ness, the contentment of here and now-ness.
I want to say Happy New Year to all who read this. May you be filled to the brim with self contentment and the life affirming spirit of liking yourself-ness…
I love Thanksgiving. I love stuffing the turkey, making the pies, deciding how to prepare the sweet potatoes…I have a couple of recipes one old, one new. My daughter was born the night before Thanksgiving and her birthday falls every so often on this best of family holidays, in fact her birthday is today! I have so much to be thankful for… My husband, my darling, beautiful daughter, the life of my mother, my sisters, my gorgeous nieces, nephews, beloved first cousins a surviving uncle and his dear wife, the wonderful men I work for… I know there are more who should be on the list… like… my friends, near and far. What an amazing country we live in…
One of my favorite books from my girlhood was “Constance, A story of Early Plymouth by Patricia Clapp.“ I think I read it in fourth grade, but it gave me a firm foundation in understanding the Pilgrim story and the challenges they faced their first hard winter here in the New World. Naturally, it was written to appeal to a young, romantic reader such as myself. There was a a wonderful mix of romance and the hard realities of life experienced by those early Pilgrim souls. For years after reading the book, I wanted to name my child Damaris – the name of Constance’s younger sister. I checked “Constance” out of my public library in Naperville, Illinois in 1969 or so. Later, when Amazon came around, I ordered a used copy, so I would always have it, to share with my grandchildren someday. I think it is out of print, which is a shame…
Apparently, the author is a descendant of the real Constance, who left the Pilgrim colony with her family to farm independently. The book is written as a diary and it is compelling reading, even if you are all grown up.
My family is blessed to own a small cottage on a postage stamp size island in Northern Wisconsin.
As a child, there was no television or telephone and because there were no distractions we did all those kid things: swim, catch frogs, swing, play in the woods… on the sunny days. Rainy days, however, were a different story. On rainy days, after we finished moaning and whining about having no television, we headed to the game drawer and started in on Monopoly marathons and my favorite game “Authors.”
We played ‘Authors’ day and night. We made fun of some of the authors’ portraits and we concocted jingles out of the titles. My favorite jingle was the one we made up for “Song of Hiawatha,” sung to a familiar theme played in all Cowboy and Indian movies of the 40’s.
Over the years, the stack of cards dwindled down to a mere shadow of its former self. Eventually, there were no more than a dozen. When I grew up and started taking my own daughter and nieces to the cottage, I mourned the missing ‘Authors’ cards. But, as fate would have it, while reading a magazine, I happened upon an article announcing a re-issue of the popular children’s card game. I ordered two sets and now I keep one in my dresser drawer and one is always in my purse. We never go to the cottage without them. Everyone asks as soon as we get in the car before we pull out of the driveway, “Do we have ‘Authors?” My girls love ‘Authors’ as much as we did as children.
My personal favorite card from the deck is “Idylls of the King.” As children, we often mispronounced this. My mother would smirk each time she heard one of us ask, “Do you have Iddles (rhymes with skiddles) of the King?” Finally, reluctantly, she decided to correct us, but we went on asking for Iddles, guffawing and snickering each time.
Within the past five years, I found an old, beat up copy of the book “Idylls of the King.” It is navy blue with gold leaf lettering.I bring it with me to the cottage, and whenever someone draws the card or asks for it, I whip out my copy and read a selection. Now we giggle and groan because everyone knows I will read a section out loud.
I am not the only one who thinks Tennyson should be read aloud. Radio 3 in the UK with be presenting “Idylls of the King” on July 12th. Apparently, as Michael Symmons Roberts tells us in this article,
Tennyson’s voice has been ringing in my head these past weeks, as I’ve been working on a new adaptation of his Arthurian sequence Idylls of the King for Radio 3. Not just Tennyson’s voice, but the voices he creates for kings, knights, maidens, fools and churls. This is poetry to be read aloud, and this was a poet with a popular voice. When a short, early version of the Idylls was first published in 1859, more than 10,000 copies were sold within the first fortnight. The more I worked on the poems, the more I thought of him as a radio poet before the age of radio.
I hope they create a podcast. I may decide to download it and the next time we are sitting around the table at my beloved cottage playing authors and someone asks “Do you have Idylls of the King by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, I will hit the play button…