Wednesday, February 27, 2013

I Was Her Last Car

       She bought me and brought me home with great pleasure.
       She thought, If I can have a yellow door and a yellow dress, can I not have – as my last vessel of exploration, ship of independence, proud, moving glowing house – a yellow car?  And so in 1971 I arrived home with her.
      “This is my last car,” she always said, and she was happy about that.  I was swift and sleek and my doors opened wide so that an old man on a walker, and dogs with short legs, and the cleaning lady could all get in and ride my smooth ride.
      I hid things from her.  All the stirrings and whirling gears in the drive train were separated from her by impervious black upholstery and carpeted floors.  My spinning wheels whispered on highways and complained loudly on ice, but she was confident in me and my heavy weight and progress. She said I was as big and yellow and easy to open as a banana! 
      Is it always progress to go to the grocery store and back to the garage?  My odometer said so.  Is it always progress to go from 49,999 miles – clickclick click – to 50.000?  And then on to 100,000?  (And have her and her husband of 60 years pretend to pour champagne into the gas tank while her son watched?)
     Is it progress to be forced – with cruel and frightened wrenchings of my drained-dry steering to turn where Providence wouldn’t have chosen me to go?
     One last time, she drove my darkening, bug-smeared body to the grocery, and she couldn’t remember how to drive me home and we hit a tree and her daughter (who had filled the – my – garage, my room in the house, my manger in the stable with her junk), had to walk to us and drive me and my shaken lady home.  I probably didn’t want to turn in at that too-familiar long driveway, to wait all night for morning and another excursion.
     All night, leather-winged buzzards shat their limey excretions on me.  My cooling engine ticked.  My tires sagged with my weight.  The dog-torn carpet behind the passenger seat was hidden. I had been with her now for 28 years. Sometimes the daughter took us all over the mountain and back, to "blow out the pipes" said the mechanic. The daughter said driving me was like driving a Sherman Tank.
     After my lady died, the daughter gave up driving me and gave $25 to a man who had one like me and wanted some parts. He took me away for the operation;  surely better than to be dragged to stockyards full of the fallen, the crashed, the old, the worn out and the dead.

Sore Throat & Croup

    As a child, I (like my brother) had frequent ear aches and sore throats.  Mummy would unfold the bound-off blanket samples that her own Mamam had used on her, and take the beautiful cobalt glass jar of Vicks Vaporub from the medicine closet.  She would unscrew the metal lid (which I can still hear) and dip her fingers in the jar and then spread a layer of Vicks on my chest and neck.  It warmed my skin and the mentholatum made my breathing cool and easier. Then she would lay the small blanket sample across my chest, fasten my pajamas back across the blue and gray woolen stripes of the blanket, and pull the covers up.

    Vicks was a salve, a linament, something of a magic potion, something a witch doctor would have loved to have in his leather bag of cures. It dates to 1905, and was first called Vick's Magic Croup Salve, and when my mother was born in 1908 it was still Croup Salve, and then four years later they renamed it Vicks Vaporub.
    I can't imagine that it didn't work for any of us.  If I close my eyes, I can feel Mummy's cool fingers spreading the salve across my chest, rubbing it into the base of my throat, and I can feel the scratchy wool blanket.  Seventy years later I still do it, to myself.  All the things she did to make us well -- they work!  

Friday, February 13, 2009

Snow Falling on Pine           Forever?

Now I can see the snow from above, from eye level, from below. As a child, I could only gaze up at this snow globe on top of the high chest by the living room door. This I remember from the late 1940s.
  We lived on a farm in Toledo, and had plenty of snow every winter. Daddy took me and my brother Robbie sledding at Ottawa Park, but I remember icy slush more than snow. I remember the feeling of danger, the suspense of the sharp runners; my cold fingers. I remember the smell of wet wool mittens and the creakly sound of galoshes flapping. I remember dusk-toned glee and weary shouts: "Children, it's almost dark! Just once more . . . this time I mean it."
  I remember what could have seemed unfair, but didn't: the way it took moments to get to the bottom of the hill, but minutes to drag the sled back to the top. Did Daddy do that?
  In Ottawa Park was an upside-down tree, some kind of pine. Robbie and I would ask for a detour so we could see the upside-down tree. I wanted to hide under it. When it was summer.
  Meanwhile, Mummy was cooking dinner. At home, where it was warm. And when we got there, after we took off our buckled boots and wet snowpants, we would eat.


    I didn't save much from Daddy's last garage. A few flowerpots, some tools; one big printed sign "BE CAREFUL" and another "TODAY." I saved the idea of drilling a bird-sized hole in the garage door, so that never again would a bird die inside because it couldn't get out. And I saved the old rope.
    This is the best rope anybody ever had. It is about 40 feet long, and at least 70 years old, probably more. It is still as strong and flexible as it ever was. It is like a live thing, like a pliant and pleasant snake -- ready to coil and uncoil. It is like a beautiful gold necklace, that lies close to each hollow and rise in the wearer's neck -- not that this rope would ever be used by a hangman.
    This rope has pulled cars out of the snow. This rope has fastened big things to car roofs. This rope has slept in many car trunks and on a huge nail in many garage walls. This rope has hoisted 4x4 lumber up three stories outside my neighbors' house so that he could build a deck.
    This rope feels good to the hand. Nothing pricks your palm, nothing sticks your fingers, nothing burns. I dreamed one night that I used it to slide down from the roof to the ground, it was as smooth and cool in my dreaming hands as a yellow silk scarf, a banana, or a bannister rail!

Piano Lessons

    This little white plastic piano bank now sits next to my real piano. I got it as a present about 60 years ago. It was made by Plastic Masters in the United States, and the design is registered with the Patent Office. When I was given this bank I had one other plastic toy -- a Viewmaster. The Viewmaster was a family toy; this piano was mine, just mine. I could put pennies and nickels in the slot behind the sheet music stand, and by unscrewing the back leg I could get the money out.
    I gave up taking piano lessons in 1950 -- even this toy didn't help me practice. I had a choice: playing in the yard and field, or staying in and practicing two hours a day. How I wish I'd kept playing. Picking out a tune by ear isn't the same as reading music or writing it. Having perfect pitch allows me to harmonize with my voice, but I can't sit down and amaze my friends.

This Is What a Phone Looks Like

    A WWII veteran, a black man from way out in the country in Georgia, came home from the war and tried to make things that would show his family what he'd seen in the army. The dealer who sold me this carved wooden phone refused to give me the name of the man -- no matter how I begged. This is an army phone, and shows the buttons that would let the user call different offices. I imagine the man used it often. I can pick up the receiver and almost hear his voice through the line. I can almost say "Yes, Sir, I'll call him right now," and hear the buzz and static. I wish i could call the artist on his phone and tell him that his message got through, clear as could be, sixty-five years later.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Welcome Home!

        I've had this blackboard, made with real slate, since 1975. I had it on 20th Street in NYC; I moved with it to Third Avenue, and one time while I was away my friend Mickey Lee Donaldson wrote me a message on it. That was thirty years ago, and I haven't erased it. One time, here in Baltimore, when it was leaning against the wall, one of my dogs rubbed against it with his tail, but either I was lucky, or the chalk marks were so old that they hardly smeared at all.
    Can chalk marks, meant to be erased over and over and over, get old and permanent? Can shadows become permanent? Can reflections? Write in the dust, and slowly the marks fill up with new dust. Write in the dirt, and quickly wind or rain will wash your words away.