Rememberies

Tomorrow is my mum’s anniversary. My dad’s was a few weeks ago. One year since I had parents. Last summer was pretty surreal. This summer is surreal too, in a different way. I’m very glad the two surreal summers didn’t happen at the same time because that would have been a lot harder.

I only have one photo album of hers from before she married, and a jumble of loose photos with or without helpful information on the back. The other albums were family ones that went back to my aunt when I cleaned out the house, that had come from my granny when they cleaned out her house. Mum wasn’t sentimental; I never caught her leafing through them. Her lack of sentimentality helped when I had to bin things I might otherwise have kept, but there’s only so far I can take that. I’m an archivist at heart.

This photo album is a relatively recent one, from just the year or two before she married, ski trips and Club Med holidays with girlfriends to Austria and Jersey and Paris and Greece. My dad was away for all of 1970 but returned in early 71, when their romance took back up, but she didn’t go on holidays with him so he only figures in one photo, on a day trip to Brittas Bay. Still, it’s nice to see him there.

Unlike him, she didn’t leave behind a diary for me to trawl through, meticulously annotated photos that he sent to his brother, sketches and paintings of people’s homes and boats on the water. I feel guilty that she gets short shrift in the tally of physical objects that hold memory. I have a couple of books, her loopy cheerful handwriting on postcards she sent to her parents and then took back to stick into her album, a few pieces of jewellery that I love to wear, to feel the depth of the past against my skin.

She was small and sleepy and fragile and barely there at all the last time I saw her. She was all but emptied out by then; but she had once, and for much longer, been the tanned and smiling woman in these photos, posing at the top of the Arc de Triomphe, with a backdrop of the ancient stones of Athens, lining up with her ski class on the crisp snow in a fair-isle cardigan, even a tiny figure at the far end of the waterski line.

I don’t need to have the objects or read the words because she did it all, she was there, it happened, I don’t have to remember it for her.

So it goes on

So, how’s your global pandemic going?

It’s funny how people get used to things. At first I was on high alert, totally hypochondriac, sure we were all going to come down with the virus any minute. Pre-empting disaster, tidying out the spare room in case it was needed to quarantine someone, monitoring my every wheeze and sneeze, wondering if I was finding it hard to breathe. Deciding who’d get my stuff when I die, that sort of thing.

The first trip to the supermarket in the new order was exhausting, with all the extra worrying and paranoia. Am I getting it now? What about now? What if I put my fingers here instead of here? Did I miss a spot with the Clorox wipe? Oh help, there are no more Clorox wipes.

But last week I found myself singing along to the piped music behind my mask, no longer abashed to be old enough that the supermarket tunes are my jam but finally just embracing it. They’ve probably been playing those tunes the whole time, but I was too busy worrying about how much I wanted to scratch my nose or whether our children should stay in America or move to Ireland if we both died of the virus. So I suppose I can say we’re used to it now. It’s just how things are, having a global pandemic.

Not to say the danger is gone, or to minimize it in any way. This is where we are now: we have five family members in Ireland who probably had covid-19 pretty early in the year. Luckily, they all had “mild” cases and recovered well. I have an old schoolfriend in New York who had a really tough dose. I have an internet friend in Sweden who’s had a fever on and off since March and she is miserable. (They won’t test her because in Sweden you have to be hospitalized to get tested. But everyone agrees she has covid.) Several people I know have lost elderly parents this spring in ways that may or may not be related to the virus.

Our county was the hardest hit in Maryland, but hospitalization rates peaked in early May and we are on a good downward trend for the time being. Tests are readily available and the positive rate is under 5% and trending downward. More than 3000 people in the state have died of Covid. People here are still staying home, wearing masks in buildings, spreading their wings very cautiously. I jubilantly got my hair cut the other day; there were only two customers in the salon and everyone was masked. There was no blow-dry, so it was quicker than usual. I’ve been going to the supermarket once a week, and now the farmers market too, which has masks, sanitizer and a one-way system in place. I went to Target last week for the first time since early March. It was not nearly as exciting as I remembered.

We’ve picked up food but not eaten out at all – dining establishments only opened here for outdoor eating last week or so. The bars are not open. I do my pilates class over zoom on Sunday mornings. My book club meets over zoom. We have a family zoom quiz every Sunday afternoon, with participants on both sides of the Atlantic ranging from Calgary to Drogheda and points in between. I arranged a socially distant playdate for Mabel the other day. She and her friend sat on our front lawn at opposite ends of a picnic blanket and played with their own toys and chatted.

The kids finished out their school year. We had two graduates – one is done with middle school, the other has now left elementary school. There was very little fanfare, though the schools did their best. It wasn’t the same. It can never be the same. They’ll never get that back, and it’s sad. One child cares deeply, the other not at all.

They’ve had orthodontic appointments, for the braces grind slowly but they must keep grinding, or not grinding, at the appointed time. Dash got his braces off, a little later than he should have. Mabel is getting her next set on in two weeks’ time. I sign the permissions documents on an app on my phone now.

We keep weighing it up. The price of boredom. The inconvenience of a mask. The relative unimportance of a few months of fifth grade. The probability of no summer vacation and not knowing when we can ever go to Ireland again. The tragedy and senselessness of lives changed forever or cut short. The racial upheaval that has somehow happened in the middle of all this, because you can be angry about more than one thing at a time. The uselessness of our president. The hope for November’s election. The news cycle that won’t stop.

One day at a time. Hanging in there. I hope you are too.

Paper people by Mabel

Rationed

No more than two cartons of eggs per customer, it said

But take as many words as you need, and whip up poems and stories to feed to the bored, restless people

Your stimulus cheque may not arrive for a while

But all the words are right here and you don’t even need to hoard them; use them to write articles and papers to share the truth and the science and the hope

Don’t go to work, close the schools, stay home from church and don’t meet your book club

Locate the words already there on your bookshelf at home and inhale deeply, to lose yourself and forget

More are being flown in daily to Kindles and e-readers, coming as quickly as you need them, just ask

Stay close to home if you go for a walk, wear a mask if you need to go shopping, don’t take unnecessary journeys (thanks, Theresa)

Take comfort and give comfort generously, with all the words you like and more

They won’t run out.

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Live from your correspondent

If I could wave a wand and say “Accio scissors”, I am certain that at least thirty-four pairs of scissors would come marching out of the house and line up obediently at my wand-tip, but right now the only two whose whereabouts are known are my good sewing scissors (staying right here beside me in the sewing box on pain of death) and the kitchen scissors, which has been taken upstairs to the black hole of Mabel’s room because she can’t find any of the others.

Which is to say that I need that back. Also, no food in your bedrooms. Or if you do take food to your bedrooms at least bring back the plates. Soon. Today. Not next week. And could you please listen to that with headphones before I go completely insane? No, I don’t know where your headphones are.

Blankets are not clothing. Please put on a sweater, don’t swoop around the house like a giant cosy fleece-winged bat. You’re taller than me, this is ridiculous. Just wear actual clothes.

But stop putting them in the wash after one day. You’re not even leaving the house, how can they be dirty? I’ve been wearing these jeans for two weeks and they’re fine. You’re only putting them in the wash because it’s easier than putting them away. There’s no excuse. Fine, do your own laundry.

Also, the tape. We have a lot of tape. It’s all hidden in Mabel’s room, with the scissors. I have one roll of duct tape here, a roll of fancy washi tape, and some double-sided tape but I just want plain ordinary sticky tape to close this box of spaghetti so it doesn’t spill all over the floor when someone opens the cupboard. Is that too much to ask? Of course it is.

If you want to talk to me come down here and have a conversation. I do not respond to shouts. Not even from the next room. I can’t shout that loud. You won’t hear me if I shout. See, I’m shouting and you can’t even tell.

What can you do? We can all go on a bike ride! It’s spring break! You can do things! No, then stop asking me. I’ve made a suggestion. I don’t have a ping pong ball. I cannot form ping pong balls fully fashioned out of thin air, even as I did you lo these almost fourteen years ago. Get off your sister. Get off your brother. Play Apples to Apples with each other. That’s why you have a sibling. Not with me, I’m busy. Daddy’s working. He doesn’t have spring break. Go outside. Go kick each other outside. If I don’t have to see it I don’t care. Go. Go. Go now. Please go.

view from my window

Violets

It’s a beautiful evening outside. There are tiny violets, vividly purple, in smatterings across people’s lawns, daffodils dance in the breeze, some of the trees are laden with blossom, others are already bursting into leaf.

It’s so quiet. Hardly a car passes. They all sit in twos outside their houses, making me wonder why we need so many. A person, here and there, giving me a wide berth. No children on the playground. Yellow tape drifts from the fence where it was tied to “close” the slide and the swings, even though you can’t close a slide and a set of swings. And yet, no children.

I have a loaf of bread baking in the oven. The cat that meows does so at me; the other cat lurks patiently in the background, doing quiet cat things. My children, who are too old for playgrounds anyway, are on their ubiquitous screens, away from real people.

I walked up to the elementary school and enumerated all the things my fifth grader will miss this year: recorder ensemble, instrumental recital, the production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in which she had a small speaking part as well as being an Oompa Loompa, the Fifth Grade Dance, the overnight field trip she didn’t want to go on, the fifth grade graduation ceremony. She’s dealing with all this very well, but I was looking forward to all those things too, to our swan song at this school that we’ve been part of for the past nine years, whose community I’ll miss terribly even though I’m not the one who went through its hallowed doors and spent eight hours there every day.

But still. When you’re 46 one year is much the same as the next, but you only get to be eleven once, and it’s important and special, and to have half of it ripped away from you with no warning at all is awful.

My bread is done, and the violets are still lovely.

Crocuses
These are not violets, they’re crocuses. I didn’t have my phone with me when I went out just now.

Birnam wood

I keep trying to write here but it seems pointless. We’re all having the same experience, more or less, those of us lucky enough to just have to stay home and stay healthy. But maybe I’m writing it down for the future, so that I can look back and pick out of the gaps between the words the emotions I had that I can’t even define right now, the sense of time that I can’t see from here, the memory that’s more vivid than the reality. Maybe that’s what will happen.

I went for a walk yesterday and encountered my next-door neighbours from both sides, separately. We stood at a distance and chatted, as you do. When they asked how the kids were doing I remarked that this really validating our decision to raise them to be totally dependent on their screens and to shun human contact. They’re doing really well, as it happens.

Dash is currently explaining an idea he had for something in Minecraft to his father, who’s responding in increasingly desperate-sounding affirmatives. Yes, sure, I’m sure that’s true, yes, please go away. Something about red slime and sticky pistons. That boy needs an audience who is not us.

Today I was supposed to be selling books at a local book festival. I bought a new top for the occasion. I would definitely have had a haircut by now and have done my roots. So this is … not that. It’s odd, watching the March that should have been slip off the calendar as one thing and then another doesn’t happen, replaced by this future we didn’t anticipate, even though we saw it coming through the wrong end of the telescope but didn’t really believe it until it was here.

I mean, if we’d known what the future held as a nation, we could have stocked up on PPE and ventilators, which would definitely have been good, but on an individual level it doesn’t seem like it would help. On the whole, I’m still anti- knowing the future. It didn’t do Macbeth any good.

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Keep well, stay in

It’s been two weeks. Two weeks since my kids’ last day of school. Two weeks since everything was almost completely perfectly normal, except for the niggling sense of impending doom. Two weeks is not a long time, and this is the beginning, not anything like the end, or even the beginning of the end. It might mark something, but with the delay on testing (not to mention the difficulty getting testing), I don’t think we’ll see any difference in the numbers for another week, maybe.

I like numbers, so long as I don’t have to do long division with them. I like looking at graphic visualizations of numbers that help me get an overview of all this. This is a very good time for the charts-and-graphs people. I try to squeeze the hopeful angle out of the charts and the graphs, where things are getting better in China, where deaths are slowing down in Seattle. But it’s always at the expense of somewhere else; Italy, Spain, New York.

Can’t go around it, just have to go through it.

Then I close the tab with the news on it and I stay out of Twitter and I have learned to scroll past the terrifying articles other people are putting on FB to convince their denier friends, because I am not a denier friend and I have all the truth I can handle right now.

We are staying in. We are doing all the things. Being further terrified will not help me get through this, so there’s no need for that.

I am grateful for good leadership, where it exists, and for people who are listening to scientists and medical professionals where it doesn’t. I am despairing for those who listen to bad leaders and think they’re doing a heck of a job, Brownie.

As for what we’re actually doing: not much. Dash’s excellent school is continuing as best it can to provide excellent schooling, which means he logs on to Zoom classrooms at 8:30 every morning and, with a few breaks, isn’t done till after 1pm. Then he has homework, which he has kept pretty much to his usual schedule of leaving till last thing before bed. It’s good to keep your routines in these times.

Dash’s timetable inspired Mabel for the first few days to assiduously divide up her subjects into half-hour blocks and work on the packet they’d sent home with her. She’s sort of fallen off that wagon now, but it’s nice to have something to aim for. Mostly, she’s working on minecraft worlds, often with a friend, and has discovered how to Skype her besties. Sometimes she practices her music, she reads now and then, she goes outside and scooters round and round the court, she is doing admirably.

I don’t have any editing work at the moment so I’m writing. I started book four of my trilogy and I’m trying to pound out 1000 words a day. It’s a first draft, I’m only writing it to see where the story goes, maybe it just won’t work at all, but it’s nice to have a goal and feel like I can do something. It may not be as good a book as it would be if all this wasn’t going on, but it will be a book at some point.

B is working from home and going for runs, though all his races were cancelled so he has nothing to be in training before. He was meant to be running the Boston marathon this year (for the third or possibly fourth time), so that’s a bit sad. It was his birthday on Wednesday, and since we couldn’t go to a show, we made the kids happy and got Disney+. And a new board game for all this great family time.

A quick run down on what I’m:

Reading: I finished Emma (a re-read, though it had been a long time) and we went to see it just before everything shut down. The new film is glorious to look at and very entertaining, though I have issues with Emma’s lack of subtlety.
Then I launched straight into a re-read of the four Dorothy L Sayers books that follow the Harriet Vane and Lord Peter Wimsey love story: Strong Poison, Have his Carcass, Gaudy Night, and Busman’s Honeymoon.

Watching: To complement that, we’re finally watching the box set B got me for my birthday last year of the first three of those, as dramatized for the BBC in the 80s. It’s a bit stilted and Harriet’s hair is terribly distracting, but Wimsey is fairly perfectly cast and it’s fun to see.

He and the kids are watching The Mandalorian, of course. I sort of didn’t bother, though I agree that Baby Yoda is cute.

Suffering from: A stye in my eye, recurrent anxiety symptoms, no coughs or fevers.

Eating: Birthday cake. I made Nigella’s sour cream chocolate cake, only with yogurt because we were out of sour cream, and iced it with Smitten Kitchen’s chocolate buttercream. It is a triumph.

As blog posts go this is a bit of a mishmash. Sorry not sorry.

Keep well, and stay in.

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Trenches

So here we all are, I guess, on the Internet, where we live now. It’s nice that we can be here together.

I was fine with not living through momentous times, but maybe it comes to us all at some point. Maybe, as a friend said recently (in real life, while we stood a meter apart and I petted her dog on the end of his leash) this is just our time. It’s the thing we get. Other generations had wars and famine and pestilence or whatever; we get to stay in, with the internet. It’s not a bad deal. I much prefer it to sending my firstborn off to die in the trenches, say.

I am aware that some of the trenches are hospitals and some are supermarket aisles and some people’s firstborns are already dying there in other countries, and might here too. I can’t really think too much about that. We are so lucky. We are always so lucky. Long may it last.

Things are changing every day. The situation is evolving, as they like to say. It will be evolving for a while. This is not a quick spot of evolution and then we’re done. This is a long-term thing. But I can’t look into the future except into the vague future when it’s all over and we’re back to normal, if such a thing exists by then. I’m taking this one day at a time. I’m choosing to believe, for the good of my own mental health, that all those very very smart and amazing scientists searching for a cure will come up with something sooner than it would take for us to wait out the curve that we’re busy flattening like mad by doing nothing every day, and sooner than it will take to get a vaccine approved.

Who even knows where the situation will be in another week.

 

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.