Tag Archives: Memoir

Generational Redux

As I sit in my art studio surveying the drawers full of the tiny objects I use for my assemblages, I often think of my Grandma Jane. Midwife, mother, knitter, crocheter, tatter, embroiderer, Chinese Checkers player, master at whipping up meals making use of whatever was at hand, in her old age she became a hoarder and was given to confusing liniment with vanilla when baking cakes. Consummate martyr, she was fond of muttering something in Dutch that to those of us other than my dad, who spoke Dutch, sounded exactly like “Mama milk my goat.” It came to be a family retort anytime one of us seemed to be feeling sorry for herself, and it was not until I returned from college, amazed that none of my friends had ever heard the phrase before, that my dad laughingly admitted that what she was actually saying was the equivalent of “Mama might be dead!” in Dutch. It was his little joke on us that he had never corrected our misquoting of the phrase.

Toward the end of her life, my grandma was not an especially pleasant person to be around and although we took her meals to her, had her over for Sunday dinner and holidays and took her shopping and for rides, we spent less and less time with her. At my 50th class reunion, a woman who had been in my class at school who had grown up in a house near my grandma, who came from a family of 13 children, told of how they’d all go over to grandma’s house to watch TV at night, and it was comforting to know she had not been as lonely as she always professed to be. As a little girl, I, too, had loved to visit her as she struggled to make me into the knitter or stitcher I’d never be, but as I grew into my teen years and as she became less of a pleasant companion, we spent less and less time together. She died at the age of 96 when I was 16.

Buried Treasure

She always wore a navy dress of heavy crepe with dozens of small black buttons down the front. Her jewelry, turned dull black by some body chemistry that I share, lay abandoned in her dresser drawer, the food stains spilling down her front, her new adornment.

Trunks in her house were filled with ill-stitched pillowcases, her handiwork rendered less carefully year-by-year as her eyesight failed— her useless glasses repaired at the bridge with thick amber glue she bought by the box to sell but never did.

Every Christmas, her gift to me was one more from her cache of dozens of small plastic lamps powered by batteries— another failed scheme received in the mail that had promised to swell her fortune.

Her china cabinet was crowded to each edge with 96 years of carnival glass, milk glass and heavy Dutch beer mugs, green dishes from soap boxes and cut glass jelly goblets— treasures doled out to us one per visit towards the end, as though she sensed the inescapable. The day of the fire, she didn’t want to leave her things: canning jars full of Cracker Jack prizes and other treasures mined from her pockets after a neighborhood stroll. They carried her, kicking and screaming, from her house and put her in our car. “All right, old girl,” my dad said, and drove her 50 miles to the nearest residence for the elderly.

I remember all of this after a Christmas gathering with friends as I clean food spills
from my Mexican-embroidered blouse: how they bulldozed her house with most of her treasures inside and built a hospital on the land; how it, too, now lies abandoned in the dying town, its cobwebbed rooms giving no testament to that which lies below: trunks filled with yellowing embroidered sheets and pillowcases, shelf upon shelf of Mason jars filled with the collection of her lifetime: buried riches whose containers have acquired a worth far beyond the trinkets they contain.

For RDP#1 Prompt.

What Vestige Left?

                                                              What Vestige Left?

I think what any of my ancestors would find most surprising if they were to come back is that there is so little of them left.  My paternal grandma would look for her quilts, her embroidery and her China cabinet full of glass and porcelain and would find none of them in my house.  I spent too many years traveling, so my older sister Betty Jo and my cousin Betty Jane wound up with all of grandma’s things. The one good quilt is over Betty Jo’s bed in the managed care facility where she now lives, but she knows nothing of it or of us or of her own children, being the prisoner of Alzheimer’s that she is.

My cousin Betty Jane passed on years ago, so the China cabinet full of Grandma’s dishes is in Idaho in the house of  her second husband. What Grandma would find of herself in my house is:
one blue bowl filled with jade plant cuttings by my kitchen sink,

an old pottery canning jar above my kitchen cabinets––

and remnants of her tatting, a small square cut from a pillowslip she embroidered and part of a quilt square that I used in a retablo entitled “Our Lady of Notions.” (The view above is looking down on the top of the retablo–details not shown because of the shooting angle in the view of the entire retablo below.)

judy 2Amazing that so little remains of her in my house when she had a house stuffed full of things.  Now that I am the one with the house stuffed full, I wonder what of me will remain after fifty years.  Perhaps just this blog or my books or my artwork.  Maybe that is why I am so compulsive about writing and doing art–that need to be remembered.

The Prompt: Modern Families––If one of your late ancestors were to come back from the dead and join you for dinner, what things about your family would this person find the most shocking?

Most of the Time: A Serial Tale, Chapter 6

Most of the Time

Chapter 6
(A Ghost Story)

“Where shall we begin?” The fussy little man moved his little mustache back and forth like a typewriter carriage gone slightly out of control. We were off to solve a mystery, Hercule and I, and although I followed along without a clue as to where we were going or what the mystery was, I had faith that this friend I had followed through so many adventures would once again take me to a worthwhile  place.   I had caught up to him by quickening my step, but my legs were so much longer than his that doing so caused me to sprint out ahead a bit until I shortened my stride to match his.  The combined effect of walking faster but taking shorter steps gave me a prancing quality that I’m sure was humorous, but since no one was viewing this daydream but me, I had no sense of embarrassment.

It is only in retrospect that I gain a viewer, but since that viewer is me, I am perhaps harder on my protagonist than an impartial viewer might be.  What does one do when she is the narrator of her own life?  It is an exercise in schizophrenia.  You are you.  You are she.  You are you.  You are she.  When I see through the eyes of that woman, feeling the onset of middle age years before the appropriate time to do so, I understand the need for flight and escape.  What she needed to do was to leave her outgrown marriage, but how many women do?  Instead, they seek to alter a dress that no longer fits–to plump sofa cushions that have grown too matted to plump years ago.

They live in fantasy worlds of ladies luncheons or afternoon movies or midnight novels.  They simply neglect to fix the thing that needs fixing or to leave it behind for a new set of life problems. For it seems to me from the vantage point of my sixties that that is what life is–a series of puzzles that we can either confront and try to solve or merely overlook and seek distraction from.  Fold up the paper and use the puzzle to swat flies or form it into an origami bird  or party hat.  Use it to wrap up garbage and count on someone else to carry the problem away for you.  All the different solutions we invent in response to our problems is the point of life.  We are all our own choreographers, doing our version of the dance. So I try to be more patient with Susan than I want to be, calling forth more sympathetic narrators.  Susan at 40.  Susan at 35.  What would Susan at 20 have to say about me, I wonder?  Stretching my mind to this task sends me off in a different direction, to tell a different story.

A woman lies in bed in her short purple cotton spaghetti-strapped nightgown.  She shows upper arms too heavy for showing outside of her own room.  She lies typing, which is true in more ways than one.  For when she writes in the very early morning, as she has said countless times before, she writes from a different part of her brain than that which guides her actions during the day.  She writes more about the present, with spare bits of the past popping up as well, as they do in dreams.

That whole part about Peter is imaginary, but where did Peter come from? Is he a manifestation of something she really was trying to escape at the time–some dream lover she might have in fact married in her twenties if she had not in reality been off pursuing the life she described as a metaphor in her initial chapters?  This whole hierarchy of selves is getting so complicated that even I as the real person narrating this story cannot keep track.  How did Doris Lessing keep all those separate selves straight in The Golden Notebook?  By compartmentalizing. Other writers do it by splitting themselves into separate characters, but I’ve never been successful at that.  I write best as myself and somehow can’t make the jump into dividing myself into the parts of myself.

When I split here, it is my whole self being presented at  20, at 35, at 45 and at 67. It is so complicated that the plots become intertwined, but since this is what they want to do, I’m going to go along with them.  Like Alice down the rabbit’s burrow, I will swallow bitter pills and grow and shrink–but in my case it will be in age as well as size.  Let’s see where this acid trip of imagination takes me. No doubt some readers will drop away, but at this point I think this has become an exercise more for myself than for any viewers who are free to jump on and off this slow moving platform at will.

“We have arrived at our destination,” my twitching little companion tells me, his prissy voice cutting through my reverie.

“And what is our destination?” I ask him. “I’ve never known where we are going.  I’ve just been so busy trying to get in step that I never asked.”

“You don’t recognize this place?” he asks, as he swings open a wide door before us.

I step into the view on the other side.  It is a large golden yellow house with rose pink domes.  Two dogs rush up to greet us–obnoxious dogs that jump up and bark and then rush out the open door behind us into the street.  They vanish in seconds up the big hill that we, too, might have climbed if we had not taken this detour. The courtyard of the house is full of flowering trees and bushes and succulents and palm trees towering or contained within  pots.  As we walk, the door to the house opens.  Inside is a table and a computer, but we keep walking to another door, open it to see a woman in a purple nightgown lying on her back in bed. Typing on a laptop. Lying in two different ways.  I take off my coat and shoes.  Lie down next to her.  Roll over into her, and we are one.  And that is why, dear reader, when you ask me the question everyone inevitably asks, I admit that yes, “I believe in ghosts.”

The opening and closing lines today are from  “Orphan Train” by Christina Baker Kline. Thanks, Patti Arnieri, for furnishing me with your second prompt.

You may find Chapters 1-5 of this tale in postings made over that past 5 days.



Six Gifts for My Sister

The Prompt: The Language of Things—You have to write a message to someone dear to you, telling that person how much he/she means to you. However — instead of words, you can only use 5-10 objects to convey your emotions.  Which objects do you choose, and what do they mean?

First of all, I have to say that this is my all-time-favorite prompt, so kudos to its creator. It is original, thought-provoking and fun.


Six Gifts for my Sister

 Older sisters are our teachers, our critics, our cruelest enemies and our best friends. When we were younger, my sister was no exception. With age, however, some of these roles have fallen away. The others I often take for granted even though I know they are still there.

This year I will be, as I have been for most years in my life, far away from my four-year-older sister, Patti, for Christmas. Betty, my 11-year-older sister, unfortunately started to leave us four years ago and now lives in a world we are not a part of. Both Patti and I fear the same thing happening to us and we’ve made some Thelma and Louise pacts to that end. Hopefully, we’ll never have to use them and will fade peacefully away in our dreams when we are well over 100.

If this sounds excessive, you are right. I am a glutton for life and probably part of the reason is the capacity for play taught to me by my sister, who was always my most imaginative playmate. Even when I’m sad, I love living and want for life to go on for as long as possible, so long as I remain relatively pain-free and retain my mind, my sense of humor and my girlish good figure. One of these things does not belong. You can probably guess which one.

Since I live in Mexico and my sister will be in her home near Phoenix this year, we have sent gifts early. Mine sits on top of the armoire in my beach rental in its blue wrapping bag with curly ribbon. I have added a pelican feather and gaudy ribbon streamers. Since I’ve chosen to spend this Christmas far from friends and other relatives, it is my only gift and I am hoarding its mystery until the last possible minute. Perhaps I’ll open it at 11:55 P.M. on December 25! I’m sure my sister has not opened hers, either.

A usual tradition in our family was to do Christmas stockings to which we all contributed. (Well, except for my dad, who instead donated the cash we all used to purchase our stocking stuffers.) With that in mind and feeling sentimental, I’d like to assemble an imaginary Christmas stocking for my sister to open right now—as soon as she sees this. It’s a not such a large stocking, but as in all things imaginary, anything is possible; so I’m sure all the gifts will fit.

I need to start at the top, with the lightest most crushable items, and so the first gift she will find sticking out of the top of the stocking will be something flat, rolled into a cylinder before wrapping. When she rips off the paper in her usual unceremonial fashion, she will know exactly why I have given it to her.

It is a folder of Debra Paget paper dolls with snub-nosed scissors taped to the front to encourage her to actually cut them out. I have visions of them decorating her tree for the remainder of its life this year, or even better, my sister on her stomach on the living room rug, cutting them out while she listens to “Our Miss Brooks” or “The Shadow” on the radio, then assembles the material for a paper doll house: Kleenex box beds and sofas, tuna can tables covered in tissue tablecloths. Since she taught me these imaginary games, she’ll figure out the rest. Then I want her to imagine me there playing with her. She can be Debra Paget. I’ll be anyone she wants me to be, as was the norm way back then when we constructed our first paper worlds.

The next box she pulls from the stocking will be long, narrow and flattish. It will weigh practically nothing. There will be instructions on the front to open it more carefully than usual, for it is fragile. When she folds back the paper, she’ll find a box of the old aluminum tinsel—the extra long and extra skinny type that only she knew how to put on perfectly. It was an art, this distribution of tinsel on the tree. One had to be sure to spread it out evenly in bunches of only three or four strands. For maximum beauty, it had to be hung on the ends of branches so it hung just to the top of the next branch without lapping over. In our house, it was never thrown! I am absolutely sure that now, as then, Patti and I are the only ones with patience enough to do the job right, so she will have to do it for both of us.

I’m sure that what the next gift is will be obvious. It is a Christmas tradition started by my mother, who would tuck a small box of Russell Stover Chocolates in each stocking. At times, she would succumb to temptation and all of the boxes would be empty as she generously absorbed all of their calories herself. I am making one small change in tradition and tucking in a box of See’s Chocolates in lieu of Mother’s poor taste in chocolate. Helen Grace would be even better, if I knew where to buy them.

The next box is small and may have slid a bit further down in the stocking when the others were removed, so I’ve attached a streamer that extends well out of the top of the sock. Pull the streamer and the little box will pop out. Inside is a key. Looks like the key to a car. Actually, it is the key to a little tan Scout whose top can be taken off to make it a convertible. Here are the instructions I’ve written for Patti and wrapped around the key:

There is room for the driver (that’s you) and one more friend in front. (That’s me.) I am sitting there in honor of friends no longer able to: Patty Peck, Diane Looby, Mary Jo Kuckleberg. I think Karen Bossart is so slim that she could also squeeze in front with us. In the back, along the side benches and on the floor, if you really pack them in, there is room for at least eight others and I have written them all to be expecting your call. Billy Francis, Clarence Rea, Mick Penticoff and Bobby Brost are all must-rides. Since the male friends of your youth have outlasted most of your female friends, Billy and C.J. and Mick can bring their wives to sit in for Patty, Diane and Mary Jo. If my buddy Rita North were going to be in Arizona for Christmas (she isn’t) she could tag along as both of us always longed to do—and sometimes we were actually asked! Jim, I don’t think a Scout is your style, but be a sport and ride along in the back with the guys! You’ll discover formerly undiscovered levels of fun bumping along in this replica of Patti’s and my first wheels. And there is always room for one more in the back of a Scout!

The next gift is merely an envelope. Inside are two tickets to Africa. The accompanying note reads:

—To complete our journey that was once curtailed by a revolution and shooting that sent you off to bravely face the rest of the trip alone. It’s about time we tried it again, hopefully with happier endings. Since then, you’ve been back so many times that you can probably pick the agenda better than I could, so it’s an open ticket. You fill in the blanks.

So, we’ve finally come to the bottom of the stocking, but anyone who has plunged into the depths of a Christmas stocking knows there is always something left in the stocking’s toe. In this case it is a small but substantial box wrapped in rich gold paper with a shiny silver cord. Inside is a slide with a large diamond set in gold. Although I know that gold and diamonds are no longer my sister’s “style,” this one is a wonderful modern design with an emerald-cut stone set in a flat gold setting. It is this gift that I’ve chosen to show her worth to me and for that, nothing but the best will do!

Merry Christmas to all. Especially to that sister who has been there for me every single time and who need never worry again about being mean to me in our youth. That, too, is what older sisters are meant to do. It gets us ready for the world, which will not always be paper dolls and U’ing main in a Scout chock full of friends.



Nesting (May 3, 2014)

For most of the day on Thursday, I wondered at the profusion of birds whose cheeping seemed to be filling the air outside my kitchen, but as the afternoon wore on, I realized that the sounds—like a cross between a puppy’s squeeze toy and a handful of fingernails scraping across a chalk board or 5 squeegees being pulled across dry glass—was coming from my kitchen. A dining room chair served as a step up to the counter top, where I stood as I removed  the terracotta statues and pots from the top of my cupboards. The sounds seemed to be coming from there, but I found nothing but a half-inch crack between the concrete wall overhang and a triangular piece of board that had been placed in the corner to seal the gap.


I went outside to see if I could locate what I now was sure was a nest of baby birds making all the racket, but I could see no place other than the half-cylindrical teja roof tiles where the nest could be. Meanwhile, every time I drew close to the corner where the sound was coming from, they grew quiet, but when I whistled for the dogs, the little chirping choir resumed, as though I’d called out to them and they were answering. The next morning, I feared the worse, as for an hour there was no sound, but when Yolanda arrived to clean, they started out again, and she was as intrigued as I was about where they could be. We got a ladder and Pasiano climbed up to inspect every inch of area on the outside of the house where they could be. He peered up a six foot long expanse of tejas but could see nothing up the tubes for as far as he could see. Yet the chirping went on for all of yesterday as well as today.


The biggest part of the mystery is that I have never seen a parent bird enter the tejas from any side. The babies are quiet in between chirpings, which seems to indicate a mother bird arriving with fresh nestling fuel, but I can’t figure out how she is getting to the nest—wherever it is. Needless to say, as irritating as their shrill chirpings have grown to be, I prefer them to the opposite—the silence that indicates the mother has not been coming back and that her nestlings have met with a premature demise.

Birds abound here, if not in the same profusion as when 13-year-old vines covered every surface of the walls and palms, but this morning I was awakened by the loud peckings of three woodpeckers on the now-exposed trunks of my 80-foot-high palm trees. I scrunched my eyes up to watch them hop up and down a 20 foot expanse of palm, working their way around the circumference of the tree as well as up and down, their very loud pecking forming a percussion background to the chirping coming from the kitchen. For once, I knew where my camera was, so I snapped a few shots.


I had thought to spend this day in isolation to get some writing done, but sometimes the quieter our day, the more activity we find in it. Bottle rockets as loud as cherry bombs have been going off in the hills all around me for the past two hours. I don’t know what the celebration may be, but I’ve grown accustomed to their weekly if not daily presence. There is a birthday or a communion or a wedding or a quinceañera being celebrated. Or a holy day or some national holiday.

Even if I stay inside my house and do not answer the phone, the world finds me and I can’t complain, for I always have something to write about, even if it is not the topic I had planned.