What I want

What I want is to choose to dye my hair or not dye my hair. I want to wear clothes that are comfortable and cozy and look nice enough to make me feel good when I look in the mirror. I want to wear lipstick and mascara and dangly earrings when I feel like it and go to the supermarket with nothing but moisturizer on my face if I don’t. I want to be physically strong and flexible and maybe even fit. I want to not have to wonder when or if I should start tinting my eyebrows because I only just discovered that’s what people do, when people = women of a certain age.

I want to write and stay off Facebook enough to get this book done. And then finish the other one and write the other one and work on that other project, all of which I can definitely do if I just stay off Facebook enough. I want to write books that people read, that stay with them, that they connect to and that once in a while say something that resonates. I want to be heard.

I want my children to be resilient and confident and independent, but I know that comes with age. I can’t rush it any faster than it’s coming. I want to chill out about their homework and find things to fill my cup instead of screeching about bedtime. I want to enjoy the wine but stop after two glasses because this is not my first or even my second rodeo.

I want to see new places in real life, not just on a screen.

I want to find my blue pen. Maybe I should buy some more blue pens.

I want to live and work in a space that is clean and warm and clutter-free. Ok, that last might be a bit too aspirational.

I want to read books that teach me new things about the world, and discuss the books and have conversations with friends in real life and online too because they each have their own energy and satisfaction quotient and both sorts of conversation are good.

I possibly want those boots that Facebook keeps advertising to me. They’re on sale.

I want to take a shower and go to bed early between freshly laundered sheets and fall asleep and have nobody, human or feline, disturb me, and stay completely unconscious until the next morning.

I want to go outside and take a deep breath and keep going. I can do that.

 

On reading Little Women; not a review of any kind

I never saw the 1994 version of Little Women, I think because I was on my year in Spain when it came out. Winona Ryder never struck me as anything like the Jo I’d imagined, so I was in no hurry to seek it out later. I’m not avidly against adaptations of books I’ve read and loved, and I wasn’t such an ardent fan of the book that I’d avoid any version of it, but I think that’s the reason I missed it altogether. I’ve certainly never seen any earlier one and Katherine Hepburn seems even more miscast to me, so I came to the newest one free of any preconceptions except the ones firmly embedded in my head.

Little Women was a book we had at home, a blue cloth-bound hardback on the shelf in the sitting room, imprint circa 1940, at least, bearing some ancient inscription from no relation at all. My mother kept telling me I’d like it, so I consciously avoided it for years. Eventually, driven by boredom, I took it down and decided I’d have to get at least halfway through before I could nonchalantly impress her by remarking that I supposed it was ok after all. I probably got through two chapters, and was willing to admit I was reading it. She probably did her best to not say “I told you so.” All the Pilgrims’ Progress parts were Greek to me (they still are), and the pickled limes and references to squashes – not a vegetable we had in Ireland in the 80s – also mystified me, but I forged ahead, well used to ignoring things in books I didn’t understand.

Mabel is devoted to Emma Watson and therefore was well aware of the upcoming movie and eager to see it, so I suggested I read the book to her before it came out. Re-reading it after so long, I met the ghost of my former self at the turn of every page, recalling what I’d thought that first time, the sentences as evocative as smells or tastes of childhood. The girl I was then crashed into the mother I am now and reminded her that reading a book is anything but a static event. What you take from it depends on who you are, when you are, where you are, if this is your first time or your twenty-first. My experience of Little Women now, as I read it at the same moment and in the same room as my daughter hears it, is worlds apart from hers.

So of course everyone has different views on anyone else’s temerity to interpret such a well-loved tome on celluloid (digital pixels, whatever it is nowadays) according to their own viewpoint. A version is a version, nothing more. There is no absolute truth, except the words on the page, which every reader is free and invited to see through the lens of their own selves. That’s the beauty of books – they are simultaneously the entire picture that the author provides and still only a fragment of the picture that the reader divines. A film gives you too much, is far too specific as to every little detail, doesn’t allow for nearly enough personal interpretation. It’s one way of telling it, but it’s not the story.

The next time Mabel reads it, or watches it, I hope and believe that her first experience of it, listening to me read it in her bedroom coming up to Christmas the year she was eleven, will come back and inform whatever new meanings her life brings to it each time. And that’s worth something.

Completed jigsaw of a snowy scene painted by Robert Kincade.
My Christmas jigsaw this year. Which has nothing to do with the book but seems vaguely appropriate all the same.

No fanfare, no apologies

I promise to skip the part where I apologize for hardly ever blogging if you promise not to expect that every post will be a big important thing. I’ll just see where this goes and try to do it a bit more often.

———–

Two years earlier I’d emptied the house, given everything away, allocated items to aunts and cousins, donated things, trashed things, watched friends fill their cars with crockery and mugs, vases and clocks, let a man I never met in person remove the furniture and sell it, just about covering his costs, I think, since he never billed me in the end.

Now I had to sort things again, for the last time. The nursing home had an assortment of boxes and bags kept for me. They brought them down to a little room on a trolley and I caught a Dart and a bus and met a women I’d only spoken to on the phone before. She greeted me with a hug. She spoke fondly of my parents. I was the bereaved one, but I felt like she and her staff had done all the heavy lifting. Now all I had was these things to sort though, take, dispose of. No time for sentiment, just two piles: keep, don’t keep. The keep pile had to be small. Almost all the clothes could be donated. The one photo album was an easy keep. I combed through the two tubs of hanging files (the tubs I’d bought, the files I’d lifted into them out of their cabinet at home) made a pile to shred, took anything that might pertain to taxes, kept one slim file of old documents, sketches, certificates. I left the empty file folders in case they could be used. I took my dad’s box of coloured pencils: a lidless wooden rectangle probably made by him; the pencils sharpened by hand with his little penknife.

At lunch after the memorial service we propped up all the paintings that had been kept from the house, the watercolours my dad had done on holidays and around the town, and I encouraged everyone to take one to remember him by. I have lots already, I promised, and I can’t fit them in my luggage. I’d rather you had them, and remembered him, and told people about him, and admired them. They’re lovely, architectural, almost always buildings or boats, and a few gentle landscapes.

So here we are four months later and there are paintings on the wall and albums on the shelf, various special bits and pieces absorbed into our household belongings. But the box of pencils is still just sitting on my chest of drawers, in the way, not put away. I look at it and wonder where it could go. I wonder how two lives and a whole house was reduced to these few square inches’ worth of space.

I can’t just tip the coloured pencils in with my kids’ already surplus supply of them and use the wooden box for something else, because that would be the end, and I’m not ready for the end yet. They’ll just have to sit in the way a while longer.

Coloured pencils in a ziplock bag in a wooden box.

 

 

 

 

 

The end of the sandwich

So I don’t know if there’s anyone out there who still reads my blog to see what’s happening with me. I think most people who actually know me get their news some other way. On the other hand, here’s my blog and I suppose I could write in it.

I have to tell my blog that it turned out that my parents both died this summer. There’s been so much to do that I’m not sure I’ve started to process it yet, really; or maybe it’s been so long coming that the final losing is the gentlest of blows.

I’m tired of explaining all the details so I’m not going to go into them here. My dad died at the end of July and my mum about three weeks later. Her Alzheimer’s was sufficiently advanced that it didn’t seem she still knew who he was or that he’d gone, but on some level she must have done; she got an infection of the type she’d usually have bounced back from, but this time she just didn’t. Dad was sick for three weeks so I had time to process it as it was happening, but when Mum went too, that was a shock. I had very little time between discovering that she wasn’t going to recover and her actual death: about six hours.

We haven’t gone back yet, for various reasons. We’re travelling next week. The kids will miss the second week of school, when hopefully nothing much exciting or new is happening. There’ll be a double memorial service in the church where I was baptized and married and everything in between, and lunch across the road afterwards.

I’ve been writing elsewhere, because you know that’s how I do things. I’ve been going through photos and posting albums online. I’ve been trying to get a sense of who they were when they weren’t just my parents, a sense of the whole of two lives that intersected and stuck together so fast that they left practically together. I have to try to write a eulogy, for one thing. But I also have to give them their due as their daughter, to mourn them and find their legacy and be their legacy and preserve it for their grandchildren. (We’ve been listening to Hamilton a lot. It’s always about the legacy.)

It’s not about me, it’s about them. But it’s not just about them, the couple, it’s about them, two full people. It’s hard to do that when they went so close together. I feel bad that I can’t mourn each of them individually.

But if they’d minded, they wouldn’t have done it this way, I tell myself. I don’t think they’ll mind too much. Ever practical and thoughtful, they were just saving me the trouble of going through it all twice separately.

Two tiny cardboard boats with paper sails, side by side, connected by a thread of hot glue, against a blue background.
Photograph and sculpture by their grandson.

 

Flying low

I flew to Ireland last week for an impromptu visit that could have turned out very differently. On Friday evening my dad was sent to hospital. On Monday morning I was told that things could go either way, that if they went badly he could deteriorate very fast, and that I should probably come home right away.

About an hour after I’d pressed the button to buy the flight, he was no longer flat on his back in a lot of pain. In fact, it was reported that he was now sitting up eating yogurt. This news enabled me not to spend the entire overnight flight anticipating the worst, and when I rang the hospital from Dublin airport, wondering whether I should take the Aircoach directly to St Vincent’s or proceed in a more leisurely manner to somewhere I could put down my stuff and have a shower first, I was told that he was about to be discharged.

Panic over. Welcome to Dublin. Have a nice three days here. Bit of an anticlimax but light years better than the alternative.

I did some shopping, I visited the folks, I saw some friends, I had some nice dinners, I hung out with family. My dad was up and dressed, sitting in his corner of the day room with his book, butter not melting in his mouth, as if he’d never seen the inside of a hospital ward, when I saw him the next day. (He’d been out cold sleeping when I went the first day, not surprisingly. You don’t get much rest in hospital, when they keep waking you up every hour to see how you’re doing.) He had things he wanted to tell me, important things he wanted to be sure I knew, about family history and his childhood. I knew most of them already, they’re safe in my memory banks, I promise I won’t forget. I’ll put it here too.

My father’s father fought in the First World War. He got injured playing football, he used to tell his kids, so they don’t know what really happened. In the second war, the family evacuated together from London out to Welwyn Garden City in Hertfordshire (not too far away) andĀ  – new, thrilling info, this – he was a member of the fire watch at St Paul’s Cathedral, using sandbags to put out incendiaries that fell on the roof. Dad said he’d come home soaking wet every morning. (If you’ve read any Connie Willis you may be extra excited by this snippet, as I was. Though it’s pretty cool either way.) His brother Sylvester won the Croix de Guerre. Uncle Sylv was English, but his wife was French so I suppose he was fighting in a French battalion, maybe? I don’t know really how that came about, but Dad is very proud of it.

‘When I was lying there in hospital,’ he said, ‘I was looking out the window all the time, and it surprised me that not a single aeroplane passed over that patch of sky.’ I was oddly astounded that he was looking at things, thinking about things, when he was meant to be possibly dying, but I suppose even then you have to pass the time. ‘I was thinking about the history of flight, and how my brother and I used to watch the planes going over in the war; we knew them all. They flew much lower then, of course.’

There he was, thinking about the Wright brothers while the medical teams buzzed around him wondering which way things were going to go and I dozed in middle-seat limbo umpty-thousand feet up, waiting to get there so that, it turned out, he could tell me this.

Funny old world, as he’d say himself.

An obelisk-shaped monument on a low grassy hill with a few people in the distance.
My 2012 photo from Kitty Hawk, NC, where the Wright brothers first flew.

 

Polishing glasses

I know it’s Sunday now, and I suspect tomorrow is New Year’s Eve. But how to reconcile these two facts? It’s like apples and oranges. Wait, there were numbers. Yesterday was 29. So today is 30 and tomorrow is 31 and now I’m all caught up. Phew.

I’ve just finished reading I Found My Tribe (excellent; run out and read it) so I will be using short sentences filled with divine beauty and grace, except possibly for those last parts. And come to think of it, that first part too. I’m not very good at keeping my sentences corralled.

Anyway. I was drying glasses to put them away because we had some friends and neighbours in yesterday for ye olde traditional Christmas drinks, and I remembered the us who put all those wine glasses and cocktail glasses and highball tumblers on our wedding list for all the dinner parties we would have where people would need different glasses for pre-prandials and red and white and water. We haven’t given a lot of those dinner parties. Yesterday, I suspect people put all sorts of unauthorized drinks in unorthodox containers, probably necking prosecco from a wine glass or lemonade from a champagne glass or red wine from a paper cup, for all I was paying attention. It didn’t seem to matter.

Becoming a grownup is a process of doing things because they are things your parents didn’t do, and then slowly finding yourself doing things because that’s the way your parents did them, and meeting yourself somewhere in the middle and deciding that’s what feels like home. At least, I think it’s like that for me.

I learned to polish glasses in my waitressing jobs, two in particular that had a need for sparkly glasses without smears or fingerprints because they were just that sort of respectable establishment. Polishing the glasses was a big deal once you’d set the tables. You filled a small metal teapot with boiling water from the coffee machine and took a freshly laundered linen napkin or two. Then you went around the tables holding each glass upturned over the steam of the teapot for a moment, and polishing it to perfect clarity with the napkin. In at least one place we did the cutlery too – knives, forks, spoons – before they were put away in the big baize-lined drawers. No foggy-bladed knives for our distinguished customers. It was oddly hypnotic and very satisfying, much better than hoovering the carpet or sweeping the floorboards.

The girl who polished those glasses was a million years ago: half a million years before she picked the wine glasses for her upcoming wedding, another half-million to now, when we’re only just coming out of the coloured plastic cups from Ikea phase of the household and starting to pull out the fancy glasses again.

I need an ending, but I am not Ruth Fitzmaurice so I can’t effortlessly weave my little story around so that all the glasses are a perfect metaphor for the point I wanted to make. Did I even have a point? That’s the nice thing about a blog, though: you don’t always have to have a point, or you can have a few and let them fall where they may. Let’s raise our glasses to blogs, then.

Lake at sunset with overhanging tree branches

Paths

I will try to work out the words for this thing I thought. Bear with me.

I was telling my friend about this memoir I’m editing. I started working with the writer last spring, when he had a lot of words that made up individual stories that lacked a unifying theme or a coherent narrative. He’d just written down all his stories, the sort of stories you’d tell an old friend or a new one you happened up beside at the bar. They were full of repetition because in his mind each of them stood alone, so he had to explain things anew each time. He asked me to help him make it into a book.

It was a wonderful challenge. As I read, my mind hoppingĀ  from one era of his life to another and back again (because he’d arranged the stories not chronologically but with “the most interesting first, in case people got bored”) I tried to unravel the tangles and find out what happened to him from the beginning to where he is now. And I began to see themes emerging, silver threads gleaming from the page, begging to be picked up and drawn out, explored, rounded.

From where he is, it’s a bunch of stories. My job is to make it a narrative. Because, when you’re in your life, you can’t see the wood for the trees. Of course you can’t. Even at the end of it, looking back, it might take someone else, someone like me, to find your threads and pull on them to make something that feels whole and satisfying. I might be wrong, of course, and need to be set right: I might see threads that aren’t really there, make something out of almost nothing – or I might see things he never even knew about until I bring them up, glittering, a vein of ore that was buried.

It’s so satisfying to begin at the end and have the opportunity to impose an order on things. In my own writing, I have to start from nothing and create something. I might know where the end is going to be, but I don’t know how I’ll get there. I just have to write to find out, which is what I’m doing at the moment – I’m getting towards the end of a first draft that right now is terrible, to my eyes, but once it’s there I can make it better. Before it existed, there was nothing to fix.

And when it’s my life instead of my writing – my parenting life, for example – it’s so hard to see the path when you’re on it. You can look back and discern the road that brought you here, in one straight line or a winding one, but from where I am right now there are a myriad of options, just like with fiction, and I don’t even know where I’m going. Sometimes you don’t even feel like you’re moving; you’re just standing still and trying not to collapse under the weight of all the things the world is throwing at you, like a deluge, a hail of trash and random items falling on your head. One foot in front of another is enough achievement, never mind looking ahead and picking a direction. Who’s steering this thing? Am I supposed to be in control?

So I suppose the moral is that in my writing, I am in control. I can steer along the path both backwards and forwards until I make whatever needs to happen happen, because fiction is tidy and satisfying that way. In my editing, I can take pleasure in helping my client shape his many stories into a single narrative that tells of a life he recognizes as his and yet is in many ways tidier, more like fiction. But in my own life – my real life, unadorned, unedited – all I can do is I can just keep plodding and remember to look up now and then and try to see a little way ahead, pivot a bit, keep paddling.

A leaf-strewn path through woods.
One path, looking back