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.


Wednesday, February 11, 2009

I Was 40, He Was 36

    At the end, he wrote me a note that said "I never liked you anyway." It took me a while, but I realized I never liked him either -- I liked the idea, a man who took care of animals, was a veterinarian! A veterinarian who loved plants -- succulents and cacti. And all that time, looking back, it was me he didn't like.
    One time he took me to Bermuda. I guess he didn't want to go alone. I had a good time riding a scooter, scuffling through pink sand, smelling night-blooming cereus and spotting a century plant in a dark back yard. I never wanted to go to Bermuda, but I did get to go, didn't I? And I did see pink sand -- that was worth the trip.
    The day before we flew back to New York, I bought two things: a dish towel printed with a Bermuda Onion and a bottle of hot sauce; and I took a bar of soap from the little tourist hotel where we stayed. After thirty years, I'd given away the unused towel, used up all the hot sauce, and found the bar of soap in the back of a bathroom cupboard. I took the paper off so I could start using it.
    First, though, I think I need to find a spell, a little voudou, maybe a potion -- either that, or throw the soap away.

No Man Is an Island

Mechanical Curls for Little Girls

Combs Wrapped in Velvet

Canned Heat No. 4006

     When we moved from Memphis to Toledo, in 1945, we had never before seen snow.
Throughout the late 1940s, terrible winter storms brought down wires and trees by
coating them with up to an inch and a half of ice. I think of the hearts of trees pounding
and trying to keep their limbs from freezing and bending to the ground and breaking.

The electric stove was rendered useless.  My mother got 
a Sterno camp stove, and a carton of canned heat, and she
cooked candlelight dinners on the Sterno.

Holes in the Heart

Friday, February 6, 2009

Sammy Eats Birthday Cake & Candles

In the school year 1946/1947 there were seven of us in the first grade, and seven birthday parties. We all went to every party. After the flurry of coats off, ribbons yanked, tissue ripped, a mother would call us to the dining room table and we would sit and wait for the cake. At my house (as at everyone's house), Mummy dressed the table in printed paper that reached almost to the floor, and set each place with a favor, a fork, a milk glass and a pull cracker. We vibrated, we jiggled, and a fleet of mothers stood just offshore.
  Then the cake was carried in, with six or seven candles lit, while we sang Happy Birthday. (At our house, the cake was placed on a windup music box that plays the song.) The birthday child blew out the candles, a mother plucked them from the frosting and laid them on the table, and one boy, it was Sammy, collected them in his fist and retreated under the table to eat the colorful little twists of wax. In those days, wasn't candlewax as edible as gobs of white paste?