Patty’s Page

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What’s in Your Quiver? A Story from the Classroom

“Mrs. Pick! Mrs. Pick, you’ve made a mistake!”   Nate kneels on his chair, finger-jabs the test, waves his arm, and calls out.  I rush across the room, one finger to my lips.

We were two minutes into the standardized reading comprehension test; the children had been warned about talking, advised to raise their hands, and given the ready-set-go. But now the rest of the test-takers pause, pencils still on the multiple choice circles, heads still inclined toward their test booklets, but eyes angled toward Nate.  Across the room, his twin, Jake, stretches his neck to get a better look. Nate repeats his first statement and added on.

“Mrs. Pick! Mrs. Pick! You’ve made a mistake!” (Finger-jab.) “It’s the wrong test!”

At this, the kids rest their pencils in the pencil grooves, push back from their desks, and look from Nate as he zigzags his hand down a page and then to me as I weave my way through the widely scattered and strategically separated desks.

“Mrs. Pick! Mrs.Pick! You’ve made a mistake. It’s the wrong test!”

I pull up at his desk ready to throttle him. The other kids are scanning their test booklets and frowning. Before he sinks his head down on his desk, Nate adds one more sentence to his dirge:

“It’s too hard!”

At this, Jake speaks up from across the room. In a clear voice, he calls out, “You can do it Nate! Remember, you’ve got the power!”

It’s pin-drop quiet. Could everyone really be inhaling and holding it? It seemed that way.

And suddenly, Nate swallows hard, slips off his knee, back into regular at-the-desk posture, picks up his pencil, gives it  a lick it, and goes at it.

The room exhales, settles back in and works steadily until Times Up.

Afterwards, as I stack his test on top of the others, I ask,“So,Nate, what’s your power?”

He holds up his fingers. “Mrs. Pick! Mrs. Pick!” He seems to always say my name twice. “You know!”  He  ticks his power off finger by finger. “Olaf. Roof and Walls. MIOW. MRSP.”

His twin nudges him.  “Pulled those arrows out, hey bro’!”  They high-five and zoom off with the rest of the kids for recess.

Explanation:

Olaf is a character in Jean Lexau’s book Olaf Reads. He can decode but never thinks while he reads. His troubles end when he starts to ask himself questions while he reads.

Roof and Walls: Most paragraphs have a sentence that is like a roof and the rest of the sentences support that roof and are called walls.

MIOW: Most sentences in a paragraph—the walls—tell More In Other Words.

MRSP: The sentences in a paragraph relate to each other. Coherent, fluent paragraphs connect via MIOW-ing, Repeated words, Signal words, and Pronouns.

PATTY

1/6/11

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I Remember Willa Cather, My Dad, and What It Means to Me Now as a Writer

As a senior in high school I sought and hoarded Willa Cather nuggets as if I were a squirrel sensing a hard winter. I read My Antonia, Death Comes to the Archbishop, and A Lost Ladyduring one three-week stretch. Her strong characters gripped me. I studied how she showed her love of the land and her struggles with nature, her family, and the past. I copied my favorite passages onto snippets of paper and slipped them in my pockets. I taped them to the inside covers of my Algebra II book and traced them as if they were Braille during a lull in the quadratic equations. I mulled them. I rolled them around in my mouth.

Before I wrote for school, I reread my favorite Cather excerpts. I peered at the dog-eared pages and underlined passages multiple times. Then I tucked her to one side and wrote. I tried to write as she did.  As I drafted, her words echoed. Like a hawk riding the thermals, I was somewhere in my writing I could never have been on my own. In the beginning, Paul McCartney had Buddy Holly; I had Willa Cather.

This is not to say that what I wrote was any good, but what I was doing was exercising my writing muscle. I was attending to craft and tuning in to structure and tone.  The Zen Buddhists would say that Cather was the bamboo pole for my creative snake.

Until Mrs. Twining’s fiat, that is.

Mrs. Twining was the head of the English department at Salem Classical and High School and always taught the honors track seniors.  During World War II she had been in the WACs and she still held herself as if she had a yardstick down her back. Her trademark gesture was to inhale, torque her shoulders back, and iron her already flat stomach with her hand.  I was wary of her and her stern manner. I hoped she would not take aim at me. Up to now, she had left me alone.

One day, she handed back a short piece I had done on my favorite tree. I had written about the wide-hipped apple tree in our backyard lot.  I had a fabulous time composing. I studied how Willa Cather described trees and I parsed out her writing.  I wanted every word to show.  I placed my phrases and clauses as she did.  I shaped my paragraphs as if she were there coaching me from the sidelines. I looked at my tree and described it better than I ever described anything before.

Mrs. Twining stood in front of me, her straight skirt forming a right angle to the swirl of books on my desk, my Willa Cathers piled up along with the Algebra and French texts.  She tapped my paper and inhaled.  Then, with her fingers in a pincher position as if she did not want to touch more of it than she had to, she extracted one of the Cathers. She fingered pages. “Patricia,” she paused to smooth her stomach,  “we don’t do this.  No more Willa Cather.”

And that was that.  For several weeks if I found myself clipping my sentences like Hemingway or using the gerund in a prior sentence to start my next sentence like E.B White or lower-casing everything like e.e.cummings, I’d pull myself up short, cross it all out and start again, on my own, but feeling light-weight and lost like a boat whose ballast has been ditched.

Frustrated and confused, I brought my problem to my  Dad. In our family Dad was the one who knew things about writing. Help sessions happened in the den while he caught a cat-nap, pillow over his face, bowtie tucked in his shirt pocket.

I told him about Mrs. Twining and Willa Cather.  I heard him take a deep breath. He flipped the pillow up and looked me in the eye.

“What happens around here when I’m working on a summation?”

“A summation?”

“You know, at the end of a trial? When I’m preparing my final pitch to the jury?”

“Uh…we have to be quiet?”

“No, what do I have you kids find for me?”

“Oh! We have to scrounge up that special version of the Bible and some Lincoln book.”

“Right!  Know why?”

“Nope.”

“I have favorite parts of the King James Version that I reread for the cadence and parts of Sandburg’s Lincoln that I reread for the words. I read them over and over for a while before I start writing.  I want them in my mind.”

“Like what I did with Willa Cather?”

“Like what you do with Willa Cather.”

Recently, decades after the “Twining Incident,” I was working on a speech I was to give to a banquet hall of my peers.  Worried about it, I called Dad long-distance. I needed an opener, a hook. He listened as I outlined my ideas and said he would get back to me.

A few days later I received an envelope into which he had tucked a form letter from the Boston Symphony Annual Fund.  Dad had circled the first three sentences.

Suppose for just a moment that this was your letter to write. What would your first sentence be?  I’m curious to know because in many ways you’re as qualified for this task as I am.

Dad scrawled in the margin, Try this model. He’d crossed out the word letter, and penciled in the word speech, crossed out the word write, and inserted the word make.  I used it for my opening lines.

Dad drove down from Salem to attend the dinner and watch me give my speech.  After delivering the opener, I looked up and caught his eye. He winked.

We talked afterwards.

“That worked okay, I thought.”

“Just right.”  Dad paused, his hand going inside his suit jacket to the inside pocket.  “I’ve got something here.”  He extracted an accordion-folded bumper sticker.  Placing it on the table, he began prying the folds apart to smooth it flat.  “After I sent you the symphony model, I kept seeing other ways to shape the lead.” He gave his full attention to the bumper sticker, trying not to tear it. The sticker’s adhesive side had partially peeled from the protective strip.

He held the sticker down straight so we could read it. “This would have worked, too, I think.”  We studied it together.  I nodded.  It was one of those bumper stickers that said: If you can read this, thank a teacher.

Dad looked up,  “Save it for another time.”

Sweet is the camaraderie of a learning community that values the power of a good model. We are fellow seekers who delight in both the search and the discovery. To document this, TheNew York Times recently asked authors to describe the “hum” inside their heads. The Timeswanted to know about other writers and books that influenced them. Implicit throughout was the idea that not only does every learner need a model but a good one at that.

Models provide the hum whether they are models from books or actual demonstrations from a live human. Teaching without valuing them causes tropic cascade. Not good.

As a senior in high school I sought and hoarded Willa Cather nuggets as if I were a squirrel sensing a hard winter. I read My Antonia, Death Comes to the Archbishop, and A Lost Ladyduring one three-week stretch. Her strong characters gripped me. I studied how she showed her love of the land and her struggles with nature, her family, and the past. I copied my favorite passages onto snippets of paper and slipped them in my pockets. I taped them to the inside covers of my Algebra II book and traced them as if they were Braille during a lull in the quadratic equations. I mulled them. I rolled them around in my mouth.

Before I wrote for school, I reread my favorite Cather excerpts. I peered at the dog-eared pages and underlined passages multiple times. Then I tucked her to one side and wrote. I tried to write as she did.  As I drafted, her words echoed. Like a hawk riding the thermals, I was somewhere in my writing I could never have been on my own. In the beginning, Paul McCartney had Buddy Holly; I had Willa Cather.

This is not to say that what I wrote was any good, but what I was doing was exercising my writing muscle. I was attending to craft and tuning in to structure and tone.  The Zen Buddhists would say that Cather was the bamboo pole for my creative snake.

Until Mrs. Twining’s fiat, that is.

Mrs. Twining was the head of the English department at Salem Classical and High School and always taught the honors track seniors.  During World War II she had been in the WACs and she still held herself as if she had a yardstick down her back. Her trademark gesture was to inhale, torque her shoulders back, and iron her already flat stomach with her hand.  I was wary of her and her stern manner. I hoped she would not take aim at me. Up to now, she had left me alone.

One day, she handed back a short piece I had done on my favorite tree. I had written about the wide-hipped apple tree in our backyard lot.  I had a fabulous time composing. I studied how Willa Cather described trees and I parsed out her writing.  I wanted every word to show.  I placed my phrases and clauses as she did.  I shaped my paragraphs as if she were there coaching me from the sidelines. I looked at my tree and described it better than I ever described anything before.

Mrs. Twining stood in front of me, her straight skirt forming a right angle to the swirl of books on my desk, my Willa Cathers piled up along with the Algebra and French texts.  She tapped my paper and inhaled.  Then, with her fingers in a pincher position as if she did not want to touch more of it than she had to, she extracted one of the Cathers. She fingered pages. “Patricia,” she paused to smooth her stomach,  “we don’t do this.  No more Willa Cather.”

And that was that.  For several weeks if I found myself clipping my sentences like Hemingway or using the gerund in a prior sentence to start my next sentence like E.B White or lower-casing everything like e.e.cummings, I’d pull myself up short, cross it all out and start again, on my own, but feeling light-weight and lost like a boat whose ballast has been ditched.

Frustrated and confused, I brought my problem to my  Dad. In our family Dad was the one who knew things about writing. Help sessions happened in the den while he caught a cat-nap, pillow over his face, bowtie tucked in his shirt pocket.

I told him about Mrs. Twining and Willa Cather.  I heard him take a deep breath. He flipped the pillow up and looked me in the eye.

“What happens around here when I’m working on a summation?”

“A summation?”

“You know, at the end of a trial? When I’m preparing my final pitch to the jury?”

“Uh…we have to be quiet?”

“No, what do I have you kids find for me?”

“Oh! We have to scrounge up that special version of the Bible and some Lincoln book.”

“Right!  Know why?”

“Nope.”

“I have favorite parts of the King James Version that I reread for the cadence and parts of Sandburg’s Lincoln that I reread for the words. I read them over and over for a while before I start writing.  I want them in my mind.”

“Like what I did with Willa Cather?”

“Like what you do with Willa Cather.”

Recently, decades after the “Twining Incident,” I was working on a speech I was to give to a banquet hall of my peers.  Worried about it, I called Dad long-distance. I needed an opener, a hook. He listened as I outlined my ideas and said he would get back to me.

A few days later I received an envelope into which he had tucked a form letter from the Boston Symphony Annual Fund.  Dad had circled the first three sentences.

Suppose for just a moment that this was your letter to write. What would your first sentence be?  I’m curious to know because in many ways you’re as qualified for this task as I am.

Dad scrawled in the margin, Try this model. He’d crossed out the word letter, and penciled in the word speech, crossed out the word write, and inserted the word make.  I used it for my opening lines.

Dad drove down from Salem to attend the dinner and watch me give my speech.  After delivering the opener, I looked up and caught his eye. He winked.

We talked afterwards.

“That worked okay, I thought.”

“Just right.”  Dad paused, his hand going inside his suit jacket to the inside pocket.  “I’ve got something here.”  He extracted an accordion-folded bumper sticker.  Placing it on the table, he began prying the folds apart to smooth it flat.  “After I sent you the symphony model, I kept seeing other ways to shape the lead.” He gave his full attention to the bumper sticker, trying not to tear it. The sticker’s adhesive side had partially peeled from the protective strip.

He held the sticker down straight so we could read it. “This would have worked, too, I think.”  We studied it together.  I nodded.  It was one of those bumper stickers that said: If you can read this, thank a teacher.

Dad looked up,  “Save it for another time.”

Sweet is the camaraderie of a learning community that values the power of a good model. We are fellow seekers who delight in both the search and the discovery. To document this, TheNew York Times recently asked authors to describe the “hum” inside their heads. The Timeswanted to know about other writers and books that influenced them. Implicit throughout was the idea that not only does every learner need a model but a good one at that.

Models provide the hum whether they are models from books or actual demonstrations from a live human. Teaching without valuing them causes tropic cascade. Not good.

Patty

12/10/10

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The Freshman Speech: A Garden Creation

“I was the pole bean expert in my family.” I stood in front of my Bates College freshman speech class and began my five-minute talk on the assigned topic “What are you an expert at? Explain.”

I paused, just as instructed, as if to let a truck drive between each sentence.  I scanned the desks, hunting for the Big Handsome Guy. I spotted him in the back in his usual seat, legs stretched out, reading what looked like the sports page. He always seemed to check the box scores before class.  “Each of my six brothers and sisters had a particular vegetable to grow and harvest. I took charge of the pole beans.”

BHG had slanted forward in his seat, tucked his legs under his chair, rubbed his chin, and was gazing right at me. The paper was still folded to the sports page, but under his elbow.

“I sowed the seeds in little pots. I pushed them into the soil with my pinky finger. I remember having potting soil under my fingernails.”

BHG glanced at my fingers.  They wiggled at my side, nervous energy making them like live, loose electric wires.

“I lined them up to germinate on the sunny windowsill in my bedroom.”

“After three weeks the seedlings were ready for transplanting. But first I had to prepare the soil. Bean roots like to go deep, so the ground needs to be dug twice. I’ll demonstrate.” I put my note cards down and picked up a shovel and pitchfork I’d borrowed from the maintenance men. I showed how I removed four inches of soil. Then with a pitchfork I mimed how I loosened another four inches.

BHG leaned into the aisle and watched me place my foot on the lug of the shovel, bend over, push, and turn.

“Beans also like rich soil. I used 17-year-old horse manure.” The class snickered. I could feel the color rising up above the collar of my red corduroy dress. BHG looked sympathetic.  I rushed to explain. “Manure this old doesn’t smell, and it works really well.”

“Beans need a framework to support them as they grow taller. Just like any growing thing really.”  I stood straight and held my arms out to demonstrate. “Our muscles need our bones to support them. For the beans I made wigwams out of bamboo poles.”

I took three bamboo poles and demonstrated how I arranged them in the dirt and tied them at the top.  “The cane supports the growing bean like parents support children.”  BHG’s eyes twinkled at this.

I took a deep breath and plunged on. “Another thing beans need is insects. For the pollinating.  So I planted the beans in several short rows in a block.” I drew a little sketch in the air. “This is better than long rows that block the sun and air currents.” I could see BHG following my hands. “Planting in squares leaves space and shelter for insects to get in amongst the wigwams with their climbing bean flowers.” I was a little shy to explain that if the insects didn’t get to the flowers then the pods wouldn’t set. It seemed a little too explicit, so I skipped that card.  BHG smiled. I think he knew what I skipped.

“I put two plants per cane and made sure to water them well. I had a special fleece blanket I used to cover them up if I heard on the radio that it was going to be cold in the night.”

I looked up from my note cards and adlibbed, feeling very brave.

“I was a little like a parent, I think.”  BHG’s eyebrows arched and he frowned at the same time, something I’d noticed he was good at.  I had been eyeing him this whole first semester, wondering if he had a girlfriend, hoping he didn’t.

“Beans need tons of water especially when the first flower buds show and after they’re open.” I pretended I was holding a watering can. “I used to stand and sing a verse of Yankee Doodle over each plant.” I sang one verse to demonstrate.  BHG laughed out loud, although no one else in the class did.

“I started harvesting when the bean is about this size.” I measured it off with my fingers. “The more I picked, the more the bean plant produced. I didn’t want them staying on the vine too long. One time I went to Girl Scout camp in July and came back to ten-inch pods. The beans made the pods bulge. They looked pregnant!” I blushed. BHG rubbed his chin. I felt as if my three-inch cinch waist belt was suffocating me. “Really! They tasted like cat tongue.”  He slapped the desk and guffawed.  “So. Thin, pencil-sized ones are the most tender.”

“Questions?” This was an obligatory part of the speech assignment and usually no one asked anything.

The BHG raised his hand.

“Yes?” My voice quavered. I couldn’t look at him straight on.

“Why are pole beans your favorite?”

I brightened at this question. “Well, the beans grow straight up, and they stay off the ground.”

“Because of the bamboo wigwams?”

I nodded and continued. “They helped the beans stay clean and are easy to pick.”

“Thanks,” he said. And smiled.

I smiled back.

***  ***   ***

“Help me do a little digging, Jack?” He’s in the lawn chair and looks up from the box scores. “I’m planting beans.”

He laughs as he comes down to the garden, paper still in one hand.

“Pole beans?” He chuckles and starts chopping soil with the pitchfork. “I can still remember you standing there in that red corduroy dress.”

“I know. I watched you the whole time I was talking.”

“I just kept thinking this is the girl for me.”  He breaks up a big clod. “Yup. I thought: cute, big family, garden–just like my family.”

I don’t know what prompted me to do what comes next. But I put down my trowel and stand up.

“Jack,” I straighten and square my shoulders. I can feel the hot on my cheeks. I clear my throat. “I have something I need to tell you.”

He stares at me, face clouding over, grin fading.

“We didn’t have a garden.”

“You and your sisters and brothers didn’t plant your particular vegetables?”

“Nope.”

“You didn’t specialize in pole beans?”

I shake my head.

“Hmmm. “ He rubs his chin. “You know, I sort of figured this out…after meeting your family, that is.” He does the eyebrow-arch-and frown thing and sweeps his newspaper over the wigwams. “But how’d you learn how to grow the beans?”

“Well, from  the book Cheaper By the Dozen and the Scotts, remember, that big family that lived next door? They all came to the wedding? I used to help them in their garden.”

I relax and take a deep breath.  I feel like a newly turned bit of yard all ready for growing something new.

“My friend Edie Scott specialized in pole beans. That’s where I learned about bamboo wigwams.

I spilled the beans, so to speak, after we’d been married for many years and had four children. It’s going on 42 years now, and we’re still twining, like well-fed and watered pole beans, despite…or maybe because of…my garden creation.

10/18/10 (I read a version of this for the upcoming 10/22/10 Colin MCENROE show on WNPR)

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Last Chapter of My Novel with Particular Attention to the Last Sentence

(On October 6th I talked about John Irving’s habit of starting his book when he had his last sentence. Here’s my last chapter. Irving’s got me thinking that the last sentence may have had more influence on the entire writing of the book than I previously thought.) This is the last chapter:

I Have a Few Afterword(s) (Another Little Joke!)

So, you can see from all these stories, I take after my middle name: Scheherazade.

It may not have been a life or death matter for me to catch the stories, but sometimes it sure seemed that way.

The other day I came across another character I’m like. Winnie the Pooh. Remember when he ate all Rabbit’s honey and couldn’t fit through Rabbit’s doorway? He had Christopher Robin tell him stories until he got thin enough to get through it? To sustain him through tight times.

These last few months my family’s been through a tight time.  My finding and telling our stories have helped tons.

Scheherazade, Winnie–these connections fit–but today Pop gave me another handle.

He says I’m the “geriot” of the household.

Pronounced gee-roh, Dearie, says Mimi.

A geriot is the carrier of the tales. In Africa the geriot gathers all the stories and remembers all the details, no matter how tiny. The geriot’s job? Pass it on.

I agree with Pop. I am sort of a geriot.

I’ve got tons more stories.  I’m thinking that I’ll just keep on the lookout and grab them.

Remember that box Mimi and I found in the attic? There was this little book in there, too. I wrote it when I was in kindergarten, or maybe before. Lots of scribbles and every once in a while some strings of letters. But on the last page was this:

2Bkntnud.

To be continued? Get it?

So that’s what I’m putting at the end of this set of stories:

To be continued.

(The above is the last page of my novel Isabel Scheherazade:Storyteller. It’s out there soliciting attention and getting a bit from a few publishers. Stay tuned.)

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Ravioli and Writing: Another Connection Along with a Little Cooking Story…

I wanted to make ravioli from scratch. My childhood kitchen had a fair amount of Chef Boyardee-type ravioli–lots of processed cheese and some kind of meat, but my desire was to make ravioli like I’d had at my Italian friends’ homes. Sometimes my friend’s mamas called them ravioloni, or tortelli, or agnolotti.

So, I get myself a recipe for butternut squash ravioli.

And immediately problems stuff my kitchen.

I don’t have any rolled refrigerator dough to use for the pasta dough (I know I know, I’m revealing myself to be a very amateur cook, not making my own dough.) But I did have wonton wrappers! Go figure. A few days earlier I’d popped them in my shopping cart along with some tofu, also never used. I seem to remember thinking they went together.

So, no pasta dough, but wonton wrappers. And look what came about.

I take one large butternut and do the usual with it. Bake cut side up in 350 oven. Put a slide or two of butter along with salt and pepper in each hollow. Cover with foil. Bake ‘til fork-tender.
Put roasted squash pulp in bowl and mash. Mix with a toss or two of apple pie spice and some Parmesan. A little mascarpone works too. Very Rich. Sometimes  I put an egg yolk in here, but sometimes I don’t have any eggs and just skip it.
Line up the wontons! With your finger—I can never find my pastry brush—dampen all along the edges with egg white—or water if no eggs.
Decide if you want half-moons or rectangles. If half-moons, put ½ tablespoon of the mixture in center of one wrapper and fold in half. Make sure to pinch the edges. If rectangles suit better, put 1 tablespoon of mixture onto one rectangle and cover with another. Do that seal it with a good set of pinches thing.
Do this next step in a deep pot. I use my spaghetti pan with the slotted liner. Bring water to a boil and drop in  the wontons with their butternut bellies. Takes about 3 minutes to cook. Maybe 5 for the larger ones. Or until they float. Pull up the liner and keep them warm while you make a little sage butter sauce.
Cook butter until it’s got that tan look and nutty smell. Cook garlic and some sage until crispy. You can just pour this over the warm wanton butternut beauties or put the raviolis in with the hot butter and cook a little to give them some color. It’s delicious.

So what do butternut wanton wrapper ravioli have to do with we women who write?

1. Writers need to make the best of whatever they’ve got at hand.

2. They’ve got to be inventive and a little bit fearless.

After making this dish I read about all sorts of problems with wonton wrappers. People told me horror stories that had plot twists involving spilled squash guts and sticky surfaces and…oh I don’t know what else, suffice it to say Problems Can Happen, enough so I might have never tried if I’d known all the potential dangers.

But I’d already done it, already grabbed the wanton wrappers out of the fridge and taken a chance, and gathered strength for other cooking adventures. Just like with writing when I sometimes just have to do it, use what I’ve got, scribble away with it, and see what else needs doing. If I had quit on the raviolis just because I didn’t have refrigerated dough, I wouldn’t have had the energetic rush that comes with taking a risk and having it work. If I don’t put pen to paper and start following the ideas that emerge, I don’t get the surprise and delight of seeing what I’m thinking and where it’s leading.

And I stop being one of the women who write.

Patty 10/2/10

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Words of Warning: A Poem for Two Voices

My Mama:*

The burner’s on, roll up your sleeves!

If a man in a car stops and rolls down the window, RUN!

Wear a petticoat.

Me:**

I’m like my cousin, the velvet monkey mama.

She has one warning for Leopard!

And her babies zoom to the treetops.

Another for Snake!

And her kids stare at the forest floor.

Still another for Eagle!

And they circle their heads all around.

My Mama:

Walk on the sidewalk and turn around at Poussard’s.

No side streets!

Wash this by hand or else it shrinks.

Me:

I give detailed warnings

like Mrs. Prairie Dog.

Different barks for coyotes than for humans.

And when she sees a human?

The bark changes

and tells what color shirt.

So Yellow Shirt, Human!

sounds different from

Red Shirt, Human!

My Mama:

Better use the wooden spoon; it’s an angel food cake.

If you wear that sweater, they’ll be trouble with your sister.

If you start now, it’ll grow out thicker.

Me:

I’m always on the lookout.

Like Mama mongoose when she scans for predators.

Different squeals and squeaks tell where trouble is coming from.

Predator Coming From the Sky! or

Coming from the ground! or

It’s this close. It all sounds different.

My Mama:

Stay away from Emil. What’s that you say?

He enlisted? Good.

Where’s your slip?

Your dress is too short.

That color’s too bright. No lipstick.

Here’s a dime.

Don’t “yes mama” me.

Me:

Ms. Chickadee has different calls for whether the predator is

flying or resting. And, if resting,

how dangerous it is.

Her cheep is almost a shout for PYGMY OWL!

But just a mutter for Horned owl!

The big ruckus for the pygmy is because

it loves to eat chickadees.

Horned owls? Not so much.

My Mama:

You did WHAT in Reno?

He was home on leave?

Oi vey.

*Mostly true Mama

**Fictionalized Me

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Lois, the Lesson She Taught Me in her “Sister” Role, and the Three-Way Love Story She was One Part Of…

If you can have a sister that’s thirty years older than you are, Lois was like a sister to me.

I’ve known her for 15 years, but have heard about her for almost 45. Lois was the girl friend of Bob, Jack’s father, and she came before and after Jack’s mother, Marjie.  (Jack being my husband.) And it was all as decent and above board as you’d ever want. In fact the story of Lois and Bob and Marjie is a great love story, or actually four love stories all rolled into one: Theirs. Hers. His. And then Theirs again.

When he was a preppy high school guy Bob dated the town’s prettiest girl, Marjie. In those days “dating” meant you went with big groups on hayrides, church youth group carol sings, bowling, and hikes. Everyone assumes that maybe one day Bob and Marjie will get married. But then Bob goes to college, and Marjie who’s a couple of years younger stays in the hometown. In college Bob meets Lois, and they get pinned. Pinned apparently signified something just short of getting engaged. Marjie is crushed, but continues to have “beaus” and goes to secretarial school. Rumor has it that she had a picture of Lois that she would lie on her bed and kick. Seems very out of character for the Marjie I came to know, but her younger sister would tell this story at the, well, I’m getting ahead of myself.

At the end of college, Bob wants to marry Lois. He’s on his way to law school, but a world war is looming and Lois is doesn’t think she wants to get married. Not that I meant to end it all she would say later. I just wanted to get unpinned, not completely disconnected. Guess he didn’t hear me say ‘let’s not get married yet.’

Guess not. Although Bob urges her to keep the pin for old time’s sake, she refuses and sends it to his mother who places it in an envelope and writes: The pin Lois sent back to me for safe-keeping.

Lois goes back to Brooklyn and meets Art. Although I don’t know Every Detail of life with Art and Lois, by all accounts they are a very happy couple. They have three wonderful boys. After 50 years of a darn good life, as Lois tells it, Art dies.

In the meanwhile, Bob goes to Yale law school and starts up again with Marjie. Pearl Harbor happens, and he joins the Navy as a Lieutenant Junior Grade assigned to the boiler room of a destroyer. Sometime during the first year of the war his destroyer gets bashed in and has to go to drydock in Bremerton, Washington. He sends a telegram to Marjie. WILL BE HOME IN THREE OR FOUR DAYS LETS GET MARRIED THEN HAVE TWENTY DAYS LEAVE NOTIFY MY FAMILY ALL MY LOVE=BOB

Bob and Marjie are married for 50 years and have five kids, one girl and four boys. As a college kid in love with their oldest son, I love to visit at their house. I see them hug and kiss, call each other dearie, and laugh the laugh of a happy couple. I love that this boyfriend of mine knows how great families look.

Then Marjie gets a mysterious lung ailment and dies. We’re devastated. She was a lively, lovely woman who graced her home with a generosity and love that made me just want to sit at her knee and let her show me how she did it. She was only in her early 70’s.

Once Marjie dies, Pop moves out of the retirement community they’d moved to, finds a little apartment in their village, and because he really can’t see well enough to drive, starts a year of walking. He walks to the golf course, to Bernie’s for poached egg and hash, to the laundry, to the church. Some of the kids and their families live in town and he has lots of friends, but it’s pretty lonely for him.

Friends convince him to come early to his 55th college reunion. There’s some special committee they want him to be part of.  He arrives on campus and waits at this particular bench for the gathering of the “commitee.”  Suddenly Lois walks up and sits down on the bench. This where we’re meeting? she asks.

Pop looks up in surprise. (Remember, he can’t see too well.)

Lois takes a good look and says, Why, Bob, it’s me, Lois and settles onto the bench next to him.

It takes them a couple of minutes to figure out the matchmaking scheme that’s been in play and only a couple minutes  more to decide: Let’s get married.

Before her sons will give their whole-hearted approval they say, Who is this guy? We need to meet him. It intrigues all of us that although our side of the family knew lots about Lois, Lois’s side knows nothing about Bob. As far as the sons are concerned this Bob could be some fortune-hunter.

Bob flies to Detroit the next weekend. Before going he thumbs through his mother’s papers and pulls out the envelope with the pin. When Lois picks him up at the airport he pins it to her jacket and gives her a kiss.

They have 11 years together, and then Bob dies. But before that they have lots of love, laughter, and joy. And we kids sit back and beam. We were like benevolent parents in some sort of marvelous inversion of age.

Lois died yesterday. She told me that after she married Bob she experienced that kind of joy she’d almost given up on ever having again after her first husband died.

That’s the gift this sister has given me. Live forward. Love large. Don’t give up on it. And, yes, sometimes it’s okay to make Huge Decisions in Two Minutes.

Patty 8/2010

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August 13, 2010

Dad Tells About His Bates College Letter

(This is the Bates College Track Team in 1934. Dad–otherwise known as Sumner or Grampie–is in the far left, front row)

For a while, when all the kids were younger, we spent a fortune on running shoes. (www.RoadRunnerSports.com) The catalog people knew us by name and asked after each child when we called to order more shoes. We purchased so many shoes in such short intervals we qualified for free shipping and express delivery. Jack was one of those early 1970’s runners back when cars would sometimes honk if they saw you on the road. Some of the kids did track and cross-country. They all ran for fun.

My Dad ran when he was young too.

So, back in the day, when we visited Lafayette Street, I’d bring him up to speed on the kids’ exploits.  On one particular visit I had lots to tell: Sarah placed in the Berkshire League race, Rob bested his Last Best Time, John increased the speed with which he rounded bases, and Baby Doug got his first pair of shoes and they were running shoes.  This prompted Dad to tell his old Bates College track story. This was a re-tell, but we loved to hear him tell stories. I remember settling into my chair and munching toast while Dad clears his throat.

My track jersey read ‘SLOW RAYMOND’ was how he begins. He explains how this came to any non-spellers and early emergent readers in the group. My first name is Sumner. This is the ‘S’ on the jersey. He pauses to check for comprehension on the faces of his grandchildren. They were smart and by then had heard the story a few times already, so no problem with getting this part. My middle name is Low. (Our family gives family names for middle names. Dad’s mother was Louisa Low.) This is the Low on the jersey.

And, Grampie, your last name is Raymond! says one of the kids.  SLOW RAYMOND!  A joke! As an aside, the kid says, That must be why they didn’t put the period after the S. Right Grampie?

Dad nods and resumes the telling. In 1934, the men’s track team at Bates was tops. I was on the team, but never placed. I was disappointed. He sees puzzlement and explains. If you never place, you never get a letter for your jacket.

A jacket? Like my Dad’s? asks one of the kids. They know about college jackets. Jack has one from his Bates baseball team. Little Doug wears it wrapped around him a few times like a bathrobe.  Some of the kids have already earned letters in junior high.

Poor Grampie! No letter. Doug pats him on the arm.

It was the end of the season. We had runners in the first six places. Bates men were way way ahead. I was further back but the next team’s men were way behind even me. He waits for us to get a mental picture.

Then Dad announces with drama. So. They. Waited.

They waited, Grampie? Waited?

Yep. They waited. Dad stares into some middle distance like he’s reliving an old glory. Or so I think. All six men slow down and wait for me to catch up. We cross the finish line together.  So I placed. I finish along with the winners. I get my letter. We start to make hurrah murmers, but he holds up his hand.

For years this is the story I’d heard. But this time, he adds a Coda.

That night Joe Berger knocks at my door. I was a bit surprised to see him since he was a townie and didn’t usually hang out around Parker North, my dorm.

I say, ‘Hi Joe? How’s tricks?’ Then I stop talking because I see he isn’t smiling.

‘That’s just it, Sumner,’ he says.

‘What’s just it, Joe?’ I say.

‘The waiting.  It was a trick’.

‘The waiting?’

‘Ay-yuh.  You really didn’t place. It was just a trick.  I need to take back your letter’.

I’d already sewn it on my jacket. I say, ‘Aw, how come?”

‘The coach says you didn’t win it fair and square.’

So I rip it off and hand it to Joe. And that’s it. I never got a letter.

I’m dumbfounded. I almost choke on my toast. But, Dad! That’s not how you’ve told this before. You changed the ending!

I didn’t want him to put this ending on the story.  I start to protest, this time more loudly.

Dad sets his mouth in that way he had. Well, that’s the story. That’s what really happened. I thought you should know the truth.

After all this time?

The conversation was between the two of us this time. My kids are watching back and forth like it’s a tennis game. They want Grampie to take it back and make it right too. Tell it the old way.

Yep. It’s time you knew.

The next week he goes in for the triple bypass. It repairs his heart and destroys his brain. He never tells another story.

So, on that last Sunday did he have a premonition? Was it some sense of impending doom that compulsed him to tell all the old stories and sanitize  one of them?

I think the new ending was not the real ending. I think he revised it out of some tired, grandfatherly fear that he might influence the future generations.

What Dad did or didn’t do tugs at me because it’s such a slippery thing, this telling our stories process. What’s true?  Is this how it really happened? This is not the question of someone who is trying to gild the lily or write fiction and parade it as memoir. I mean, I ask this Is this how it really happened about something that happened yesterday for heavens sakes, let alone something that happened years ago. Trials are predicated on the FACT, the fact!, that different people at the same event will have different ideas of what happened. And both people can be fine, upstanding, honest people.

Sometimes I feel like a fossil hunter—a palentologist.

The fossil hunter rummages through miscellaneous bones, like that pile they found in the Gobi desert. Voila! A dinosaur wishbone appears. Now, pay attention…wishbone? Dinosaur? This wishbone provides a link, a link that previously was suspected but never proved.  Aha! Now we know dinosaurs are related to birds. Again picking through the Gobi desert find, the palentologist spies the bones of a rat-sized mammal that possesses both the pouch of a kangaroo type mammal and the bones of placental mammal. So now what scientists once thought about how they could categorize mammals is turned on its head.

It seems that these bone hunters are always reviewing and leafing through bones and filling in gaps–sometimes gaps they knew were there and sometimes ones they didn’t even suspect.

It’s the same for me when I’m fashioning the text of a memory. Because of these excavated finds I have to change the stories. My perception of what happened changes. So, I rummage through the “bones” of my family. I riffle through old pictures, letters, and retold family stories and juxtapose my adult life with my childhood on Lafayette Street. I begin to see things in a new light. Or I unearth ideas that have never seen the light of day.

I reconstruct a portion of the family history just as the scientists reconstruct this or that slice of dinosaur history. The writing acts like the paleontologist’s pick. It helps me drop the plumb line deeper into my memory of events and I find things out that seem to undercut my traditional ideas of what really happened.

I have the sense that there’s more excavating to do.

But I do wish I could ask Dad about that letter.

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August 9,2010

Writing and Whittling—A Supper Prep Conversation with Pop (This is a draft of a chapter for the second Isabel Scheherazade book I’m writing.)

Pop and I are going to have “breakfast for supper.” When we do this we always have to have some food with color as Pop says.  So, I’m snapping ends off the green beans. Pop’s pouring applesauce into bowls, and then, I think he’s going off to forage in the garden for some salad greens. His hip is kicking up again, so we’ve decided to finish up the leftover cereal in all the boxes and food shop tomorrow.

I’d started my homework earlier and then stopped to lend a hand. I’m worried about my assignment.

Pop, I can’t think of anything to write. I need 200 words by tomorrow. I shake the bowl to see if we have enough beans yet, decide no, and keep snapping. All the teacher said was ‘write from the heart, kids.’ I sigh.

Did you know I used to whittle? Pop is using the scraper to get the last bit of applesauce out of the jar. Darn jar, he mutters. The sauce jar is one of those plastic containers with handgrip indentations. This thing works for old hands, but it sure makes it hard to get all the sauce out.

I eye him.  Am I talking to his bad ear? I speak a little louder. Pop? Did you hear me? Pop? Whittling? This is a writing question!

Pop has switched to sprinkling cinnamon on top of each applesauce dish. He looks up. You want help, or no? He caps the cinnamon and looks at me with one raised eyebrow.

Sorry. I decide we have enough beans and dump them in the colander to rinse. You used to whittle?

He studies my face as he talks. When I whittled I never knew exactly what I was going to carve. I’d start out. Pop stirs the applesauce and cinnamon slowly so it wouldn’t slop over onto the oilskin tablecloth. Sharp knife. Comfortable stool. Nice piece of apple wood. Nothing more. I’d eye the wood every few shavings. And I’d ponder. He pauses to see what I make of this.

Sort of what I did when I came home today? He nods, and I keep going. Write? Stare? Cross out? Rip up?

Pop laughs. He’d been sitting across from me in the breakfast nook reading the paper when I’d started on my work. Right! Then voila! I’d see it.

See it?

A glimmer.  A hint of what I might carve. I followed my knife.

Seems like magic.  I am not convinced.

Not magic. I muse.  I mull. I keep looking for a shape to emerge. Here, lower this a bit for me. I take a slurping spoonful. It’s brim full. Pop always does this, and I always love that first early bite when I’m pretty hungry for supper.

I swallow. The cinnamon tickles my throat. That’s what I’ve got to do, huh? I can tell Pop’s done with his advice because he starts out the backdoor with the basket and pruning shears.

Right. The trick? Pop looks over his shoulder. The trick is to keep writing.

Just like you kept whittling?

You’ve got it. Don’t stop to erase or rip the page out. Keep your pencil moving and follow what comes out.

I put the beans in a steamer inside the pan. The water boils. I cover the pan and take out my notebook, go to the next empty page, smooth it out, take a deep breath, and move my pencil. I feel shy about this for some reason, like I’m pretending to write or something.

Pop comes back in. His basket has some huge leaves of Swiss chard. He starts rinsing.  Oh, one more tip. He puts an ugly piece of chard on a paper towel to dry. To help you keep the pencil moving, you can write something like ‘I’m not really sure what to say here, but…’ He eyes the chard and shakes his head. Too many slug slides. He puts it in the compost container. I’m relieved.  Or, you can write, I don’t know what to write, but I’m going to try this idea…’ That will keep your brain working.

Move my hand, and it moves my brain?

Works with whittling.

Supper is pretty good. No giant chard, lots of Motts and cinnamon, and two bowls of a mixture of all my favorite cereals. And I’m pretty okay with the writing thing. I know my teacher is going to say Hmmm, you came up with a few surprising things here. He’s always saying Surprise yourself when you write.

I’m thinking he’d like Pop’s whittling idea too.

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August 6,2010

Brown Ties and Kissing

(This is a memory inside a memory. It took place during my classroom teaching days.)

I was poised to ask Hector to show me where in his writing he was using the strategy I’d just modeled in front of the class. (I taught my school kids to write by writing in front of them, talking aloud, and then saying In your writing today, try this. Sort of like the master potter in a pot-throwing class.)  As I settle myself on a small conferring chair next to him, Hector closes his notebook part way, book-marking it with his whole arm. I lean back and wait at his not-too-subtle sign that he has pronouncement of some sort.

So, did you bury your dad with his brown tie, Mrs. Pickard?

My Dad died the week before.  I’ve just returned to school and am not yet back in the swing of things.  Hector’s question about the tie tosses me off the recent sad times and into a Live Dad scene. For a startling second I picture him as a busy lawyer bustling off to his office. For six decades he donned a uniform that consisted primarily of brown three-piece suits and snap-on bowties.

Did I…?

Yeah, did you bury him with one of those brown bow-ties?

Dad had about fifty ties, all of them brown.

Hector watches my face. You know…the drawer?

The buffet in the dining room had a long middle drawer reserved just for Dad’s ties. He lined them up in rows like a garden of brown flowers.

Remember?  Every morning?  He picked one of those ties?

Hector is right on this part. Dad rummaged for just the right tie every day.

In my classroom earlier this year, to show how stories attached to objects, I’d taken one of Dad’s brown ties and written a story.  In my supposedly true story I wrote how he pretended he needed help and called for my mother, who would be in the kitchen making breakfast.

Miriam! Honey!  I need help!’ He said that EVERY DAY! Hector’s shoulders shake with mirth at the transparency of this ploy.

I can’t talk for the grief this memory evokes. Sad that Dad is dead, but also sad that, at most, this memory that I was calling a ritual happened maybe a handful of times. Certainly not daily.  But I’m also amazed that my student remembers the story. Pretty much word-for-word.

Oh, here’s another thing. Hector puts his pencil down, opens the notebook, and leans forward.  Remember the funny story about that guy Pop…?

I laugh. To teach what I mean when I say We need to get a writing model inside of us, I tell a World War II story about Jack’s father. We called him Pop.

He reported to his commanding officer in New York City.  The officer hands him a slip of paper.  Ensign, these are your orders. Top secret.  Read them, memorize them, and then eat them! Pop proceeds to read, memorize, shred the orders and, with the help of a glass of water, swallow them.  This story makes the kids laugh and helps them to remember that while getting it inside us didn’t mean eating the writing, it does mean they’ve got to really learn the model and how why it works.

After telling this story I gave Hector and the class a Beverly Cleary excerpt from The Girl From Yamhill. It was about the time she dipped her hands in ink and went round and round the damask tablecloth spread out for the Thanksgiving feast and marked it up with her handprints. She didn’t recall what happened when the relatives came, but she always remembered the sweetness of covering that white space with ink. It was our model for short memoir pieces.

So, here’s what I’ve got inside me. He taps his chest, then points to the Cleary piece, and pauses to see if I’m still with him. I nod. Next, he flips through his notebook and stabs at a dog-eared paper taped to the page.  Here’s the one you wrote about the brown ties and the kissing.

I read it aloud:

Kissing.

Mom stirs the oatmeal on the stove. We kids sit around the breakfast table and wait. The tie drawer in the living room creaks. Dad always wore brown suits and every morning he opens the drawer full of brown ties and tries to match them up with what he has on. “Miriam! Will you help me, Dearie?”  We watch as Mom wipes her hands on her apron. She leans into the little mirror propped over the stove and finger-combs her hair back behind her ears.  She smoothes her lipstick out and lowers the heat under the oatmeal. She walks down the hallway into the living room.

I slip off my chair, wait a second, and follow. I hide behind an armchair as Dad clips a tie onto his starched white collar. I watch as he takes a step closer to Mom. “Does it match, Dearie? What do you think? Hmmm?” I see Mom look up and straighten the tie. I hold my breath as Dad leans his face right in front of Mom’s. Then, suddenly, he plants a big kiss right on her lips and squeezes her in a bear hug. They laugh. I grin and tiptoe back to the kitchen as Dad closes the drawer and leaves for the office. Mom comes back to the stove and turns up the heat.

I don’t recall if they noticed I was watching. All I remember is that the grin that got started early in the morning stayed with me all day. Even now, I’m grinning as I write.

We both stare at the piece for a few seconds.

Then Hector says, Yeah. That’s how it’s gonna be for me. You know, when I’ve got me a family and all.

I stare at him now and think, But it isn’t really true. It only happened a few times. They weren’t like that most of the time. Then I’m struck still.

So what? I know just what Hector means. It’s just like when we use models for our writing. Our writing and what we read can be models for our living too. I love writing this story over and over in different writing workshops in front of kids, pausing to tell more, modeling different writing tactics depending on whether we were first-draft-chatting, revising, or editing.  Now I’m realizing that I love living the story myself as a wife and mother. Living the daily sweet happiness the story thrums with.  It’s one of the models I’ve set up so as to shape the narrative of my life. Never mind that it’s not-quite-true.  (Annie Dilliard’s got a neat thing about this business of truth. She says something like, Face it; once you’ve spent a few weeks working on a memory—fashioning the text of the story–you’ve spent tons more time than it took for the event itself to happen. Plus, you’re a few decades older with all the perspective and experience that you’re small self didn’t have. Truth is not so easy to pin down when you think of it that way.)

So your Dad had a brown tie on him, didn’t he? He smiles. That’s fine. Way fine.

Hector’s right. If I’m trying to clear my mental table of tough times from way back then, if it helps to tell a story about brown ties and kissing, even if it only happened a few times and didn’t characterize the whole marriage and the family? So be it.

That’s fine. Way fine.

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July 9, 2010

Mr. Pacific Loon Reminisces as He Paddles…

Glad I found my honey in that tundra lake I love so much.

As soon as I spied her first thing I did was check the old body:

Was I ready to do the deed?

Head and neck smoothly rounded?

Bill straight?

Top of my head and back of my neck pale gray, lighter around the face?

Body black with checkered markings?

Dark brown on the sides?

Chin, throat, and breast all white?

Dark necklace at the top of my throat?

My nest was a fabulous.

Well-formed bowl, grasses, lots of aquatic plants.

I have to say, it was spectacular.

Found our same special spot right next to the lake–

A room with a view for my sweetie pie and kids.

Thse three months went by like a melting glacier in May and, POOF!

We’re finished with all the billing and cooing.

The kids swim off, and we plan our getaway.

Lots of talkttalktalk about that little cove off the Japanese coast.

My plan was to team up with those Arctic loon dudes.

We’ll do that herd-the-Sand-Lances thing, so they can’t swim away,

Get ‘em into one meter of water and THEN!

Banquet time!

Dip my head in to survey the captured creatures.

“Who’s first?” I like to say in my head.

And then it’s divedivedive and snapsnapsnap.

Yummy.

Sometimes those humans with their boats get in the way

even though we were helping them.

Seems our itty bitty fish attract the Sea Bream.

Who knew?

And do those humans love their Sea Breams.

So sometimes it’s a scrum of us guys diving around all these nets.

Talk about loony.

But, they give us first dives most of the time.

I mean without us…hey!

No profits.

Some years in just February and March alone those humans earn a year’s wages–

with our help of course.

But what’s happened now?

I started out with about a thousand of my closest buddies.

We were all doing that flapflappatterpatter thing to get ourselves out of the water.

Back in the day I could get aloft in just under 30 meters.

This time, I admit, I probably needed the full 50 meters.

I mean, cut me some slack! I’m a “mature” loon.

By the time I was airborne, though, I was alone.

All 999 of the other guys were up and out of sight.

But, I kept flying.

Figured good old Mother Nature and my instincts and good genes would take over.

Any minute I was sure I’d see the flock at the next water spot.

I mean I’m no bird brain.

But no such luck, duck.

They’re lost.

As far as I can tell it’s just those three humans on the shore and me out here on the smallest ocean I’ve ever seen.

And what funny looking fishermen these three are.

Not dressed like the normal fisherpeople at all–

big brim straw hat, gloves, scarves, baseball caps, notebooks, dungarees, sandals–

Peering at me with their big black glassy pop-eyes.

I’m sure not going ashore to get a closer look at them.

I mean I’m, well, let’s say, I’m Extremely Awkward on land.

And there’s no way I could take off if these humans wanted to catch me. (Remember, I get the job done but it takes me longer.)

What’s so fascinating about me anyway?

It’s like I’m some kind of weirdo.

Haven’t they ever seen a Pacific Loon?

Or, wait, What’s that big sign on the beach say?

“Welcome to Bantam Lake.”

Hey, isn’t that in Connecticut?

Oi vey.

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Gotta be a song left to sing,

cause everybody can’t of thought of everything.

One little song that ain’t been sung.

One little rag that ain’t been wrung…

(Gillian Welch)

After 40 years with the Milwaukee Symphony, my sister Linda is retiring. Decades of playing within the strictures of an orchestra, counting endless measures and producing the cymbal clap at just the right moment, tuning the tympani with split seconds to go, racing up and down marimbas of all sizes, performing xylophone solos while the audience rivets on her alone, Linda with her beautiful face, stunning shape, bouncy blonde hair.

I’m at her retirement party, worrying about whether she has songs left to sing.

The party is lovely, but for a while–as expected–it was full of the retelling of the old stories, the rehashing of past adventures. All that talk about what-we-all-went-through  fuel my concerns that there may not be Life After Retirement for a professional musician. Then, as the food changes from main courses to dessert, and candles and torches get lit and spread around, the atmosphere shifts. Guests reach under their chairs and pull out instrument cases and duffle bags full of percussion tools. Young women set up marimbas. Old men adjust the straps to their dobros.  Guests unzip bulging backpacks and assemble instruments, tune fiddles, set out spoons and tambourines.

A Klesmer Group sets itself up under the tent, and calls out for Linda to come center stage.

An African drum ensemble sets up congas and timbales, all a wild variety of colors, shapes, and textures. They start thrumming intricate, mystical rhythms.

An all women’s drum circle arranges itself on colorful woven blankets and starts a beat that has bystanders swaying and dipping.

A Tabala teacher describes Linda’s progress with these complicated Indian drums and explains his plans for her next set of lessons.

The Ethnictricities play ethnic music with electricity shot through it and gesture come-on-over to Linda. She’s our energy source, they say.

And the Irish Band sets all our feet to tapping. The second seat to the left is for Linda’s boudram.

I talk to the members of the different groups, and they tell me that Linda plays with them, inspires them to make up music, and for some, this party was the first they’d known about each other. A principal from the Music in the Schools group shares a story of the youth percussion groups Linda mentors.

And then I realize Linda is exactly like this particular bird I’m learning about on my bird walks, and I stop worrying.

She’s like the Winter Wren.

It’s got this long, varied, and exuberant song that begins with a few preliminary notes, then runs into a trill, slightly ascending, and ends in full clear notes or another trill.

Its song is enormous for its size, ten times louder, weight for weight than a rooster.

And the music is complex, consisting of endless variations on a repertoire of thirty or more songs!

And as I wander from music groups to dance circles I see that Linda is exquisitely complex and capable of endless variety.  She’s got tons of songs to sing in her future.  I breathe a sigh of relief as I pick up a set of spoons and then join a line-dance two-stepping and swinging to an Ethnictricity song.

6/24/10

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When I was ten the Peabody family bought the Bishop Estate, and the first thing they did was turn the little chapel in the back into temporary living quarters while they fixed up the Big House. Since all this happened right on the other side of our snow fence, and our yard ran the whole south side of the property I could watch it all happen. Didn’t I have anything better to do you’re thinking, but wait, who wouldn’t spend time hanging on this particular set of fencing? I mean, for all those years that the Bishop Estate sat empty it was always being looted or used—for what we kids were never told, but since the Bishops were supposedly filthy rich, as my big sisters would say, chests of gold? deeds to gold mines? lost stock certificates? Mark Twain’s lost chapters to Tom Sawyer? The last will and testament of Old Man Bishop? And when Ginny Lafonde got beat up because she stared at a guy and a girl breaking in one time, my parents laid down the law: Never, we mean never Even Look over the fence at the Bishop Estate. Do you hear? Never.

Back to the chapel. It was pretty darn cute. Gabled tower. Cupola. Grouped roofs made of slate with rolled tile ridges. Round-headed stain glass windows. But the glass colors were dim–dull red,pale orange, faded purple, watery yellow. But even after Ginny got her black eye and before the Peabody family took over, I was mesmerized by the romance of those windows. I mean, All Of Them, ALL of them were stained glass. So every inch of the inside must be tinted I’d think. Misted with color. Dreamy.

And then my art teacher told me that stained glass was a form of gas, liquid and solids. A super-cooled liquid that captured light. Sand transformed by fire. Even before people began writing down their histories, ancients learned to make glass and color it by adding metallic salts and oxides. Mr. Winfisky—the art teacher—talked about stained glass during art class while we waited for our paint to dry. He’d invented an idea that involved madly rubbing all sorts of crayon colors onto paper and then painting it over with black. When it dried we scraped the black way with a sharp pen tip and made–voila!–stained glass windows. Mr. W. was one of my favorites. Not just because of the art—I wasn’t that good at it even though he told me I had a nice, free hand—but I loved him because of his stories and his Explanations For Stuff.

Like this business of the salts and oxides. In the middle of his tale about the Abbot Suger of the Abbey of St. Denis and his apprentices who all worked together in a thatch-roof, three sided shop, Mr. W stops and fits colored chalk in between each of his knuckles. On BOTH hands. Then he begins sketching and coloring. He transforms the black board into a complex mosaic of bits of color separated and joined by the black board. He becomes Abbot Suger and we’re his young helpers. Mr. W. uses a thick French accent for Abbot S. Zeese gold? Eeet maaakes the stunneeng CRANBERReee! Zee cobalt? EEEt maaakes The Blue! And the silver made shades of yellow and gold, while the copper made greens and brick red. Mr. W. then pretends to be the monk Theophilius who discovered all that business about how light and spectrums work. This monk wrote a How To book on stained glass windows. Big deal you’re thinking. Well, think again, buddy, Mr. W. says. 900 years ago he did this. 900. That’s 9 with two zeros, kids.

I remember that on that particular day, Miss Small our Everything-But-the-Art teacher sat at her desk the whole time sipping tea while Mr. W. covers her board with a window from the Abbey of St. Denis. Miss Small finds a picture of it in her Encyclopedia Brittanica. Later, when Mr. W. has to leave and it’s time for arithmetic, we roll the library blackboard into our class and use it so we don’t have to erase the Abbey of St. Denis window.

When you’re ten and you have a big backyard that falls away through the woods and out of sight of your mother at the kitchen window, when you’re ten, you have time to lounge around fences and muse about stuff. So, here I am one day looking at this little chapel and thinking. But these windows aren’t as beautiful as the pictures in the Encyclopedia Brittanica. They were flat or something. And for all those years when the Bishop Estate was left to rack and ruin as my father would say, at night the whole Other Side of the Fence including the little chapel was pitch black. And scary. Certainly not stain-glass-knock-your socks-off beautiful like Mr. W’s windows. Not like the monk’s and abbot’s windows that’s for sure.

And then one night I was outside with my sisters and brothers. I’m not sure why we were all out there running around and yelling. Maybe catching fireflies in a jar or waiting for a comet or larking around because Ruthie was in charge and my mother and father were at a meeting or some such. Unsupervised. We ended up at the fence down back where the little chapel was. The new people—we called the Peabodys the New People for the rest of the time they lived there—twenty years or something like that—the Peabodys had just moved in. The big house had scaffolding all over it and huge tarps covered the roof and piles of bricks were everywhere. But the little chapel was Done. We could smell that they must have made a fire in the stone fireplace in the little chapel so we’d drifted over to the fence and set ourselves up to watch for awhile. And something like magic came upon us while we rested our chins on our hands and stood, arms akimbo on the fence. Magic. What was flat and dull red, orange, green, yellow in the daylight had been transformed. The little chapel was a jewel. The light from within made it glow. The flicker of firelight played across the panes and one by one, the red burst into cranberry with a flash of scarlet, the orange boomed as if sparked, the green smoldered and swelled and then faded a bit to smolder again. The yellow leaped like a sunspot. Each color was vibrant alone. But even more glorious as a group.

Note: So, all of the above came from my intent to write to the kids about something that I notice about all of them. I’ve now figured out why I like to think about them aside from the usual Mom-loves-her-kids-and-her-kids-in-law-and-her-grandbabies thing. What rivets me? I’d asked myself. Then I started remembering the old chapel and how that one night we realized it glowed like a jewel. And it all came clear. Sarah, Craig, Lydia, Chloe, John, Ryan, Luke, Rob, Catherine, Doug–they too glow from within. They’re the jewels in my life. And like the richest of jewels they enhance the beauty and charm of each other.

I’m struck too by the process here. I’ve been mulling this being riveted syndrome, making little notes in that tiny notebook I carry around, and at the same time noticing the little chapel houses here in town. Then I realized I was slowing down and looking at the chapels or any building with stain glass windows. Then I’d go back to making notebook entries. And suddenly I’m casting a long line into the deep lagoon of my memory, and I pull up the incident of the little chapel in the woods. (And I loved how the recollection came up dripping with Mr. W and his marvelous ways.)

So, this is my story for the kids. Lighted from within and glowing. Every one of them.

6/1/10

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All winter our yard was a scrum of Juncos. Ronnie called them some sort of monks what with their black and white outfits. Spiffy. Supposedly they go up to the boreal forests for the summer. Except for this one little guy I spy under the hemlock this morning they’re all gone. In their place are chipping sparrows. They’re the ones with that rusty cap and a white eye line. They’re chipping up a storm. Also making a ruckus are: two downies-Mr. and Mrs, a flicker, a red-belly, a hairy, many chickadees, two white-throated sparrows, several goldfinches, a song sparrow somewhere–I don’t see him, but I hear his I’m-I’m-I’m-a-song-sparrow song. A nuthatch has arrived along with a RAVEN! I see Mr. House Wren doing put and take with various little twigs. He’s working up two little cavities for the Mrs. I’m thinking it’s the same wren as last year. We had three sets of baby wrens in the license plate bird house Rob gave us several years ago. What he does is set up a few nests and when his wife appears, she picks out the one she likes the best. This is such a homey scene right now, nothing like the drama we had about a month ago–the one where Jack and I watched a Great Horned Owl kill a skunk. This all happened in the raised bed right outside our back windows. I’ve been out there planting my veggies and keep finding more plucked skunk fur. I think I’ve got to write this one up, and also the House Wren story.

New Entry: 6/8/10

27 thoughts on “Patty’s Page”

  1. Words We Women Write said:

    Your story is so rich…images collected and pasted into a priceless gift. You lift me up.

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    • Words We Women Write said:

      Thank you. I’m lifted up by the writing of it all. What a miracle.
      Who are you, by the way. Are you one of “the kids?” Or, egad!, an “Outside Blogger?”
      Patty

      Like this

      • Words We Women Write said:

        Egad yourself, it’s your accompanist. I
        optimistically continue to scour for “outsiders”.

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  2. Words We Women Write said:

    Beautiful story. I like the idea of lifeless glass coming alive with light from the inside. And, the transformation of old chapel as a den of sin back into a place of warmth.
    The telling of this story is lighthearted and engrossing. Thank you for sharing.

    Like this

  3. Patty,
    I see your tale as a poem …. the chapel’s stained glass windows that glow and shimmer as jewels… and children who carry the glow in their lives like angels in procession.
    I love it.
    Ronnie

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    • Words We Women Write said:

      Ronnie, This is a thought. The piece is Too Long as is, but I’ve had luck going back and forth from prose to poetry in order to shake out the essentials. (Thanks again to one of those Donalds. I think it was Donald Hall this time.
      Patty

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  4. Words We Women Write said:

    I can hear your voice as I read these to myself–what a delight. Too bad novice readers can’t experience the sound of your voice, too. It brings new meaning to a writer’s “voice”–yours is always music to my ears. Mary

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  5. Words We Women Write said:

    Patty, I LOVE what you have done with your piece on your sister! What a beautiful tribute, and it has so much to describe your sister without one boring adjective list. The piece itself sings–and they are songs of love and hope that happiness and connection will fill her life. Guess you can stop worrying now, huh??!! We sisters are always more concerned about our sister’s happiness first. We could have worse personality traits, methinks!
    Mary

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  6. Linda Siegel said:

    Well, I emailed my sister Patty with a review of my first two weeks of merely theoretical retirement. Musical doors keep opening up. Let’s see, African drumming–very intensive. This Saturday I’m on the dunduns. July 2nd is a concert band job with my colleagues, etc. New doors are opening as my Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra door shuts. To create without a conductor and many times with no music is challenging. Still it’s imperative to do without both in order to play the new rhythms. This is exciting. Great love to my sis Pat

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  7. Words We Women Write said:

    And now, Sister Linda, that ‘retirement’ is well underway, come visit often and tell us about your new life. Maybe write for our contest about the Reinvention Of You. Happy to welcome you in, Toni

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  8. Words We Women Write said:

    Magnificent, Patty… by whittling and rearranging you have captured the glory of the day. The sheer number of creative musical geniuses that were present at Linda’s party makes my jaw drop. I see you walk amidst all of this music with a sense of wonder… any concerns you had about Linda’s retirement evaporate. As you wrote, “like the winter wren, she has tons of songs to sing.”
    I loved the piece.

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  9. Words We Women Write said:

    Yo, Cuz!
    Word is that you’re out East
    lookin for a lady.
    Good luck, dude, slim pickins out here
    on the Northwest coast.
    There’s this algae blooming in the sound,
    going rogue just like Sarah,
    you know the one whose house we can see from here.
    It’s a mushroom-shaped, single-cell species,
    pretty mysterious, the way it multiplies so fast
    and breaks into toxic foam.
    Remember that time in Monterey, about two years ago,
    this is way worse
    and it’s driving the chicks away.
    They don’t like getting that foam on their feathers,
    Can’t blame ‘em, it washes off our protective oils.
    I never knew cold like this,
    I worry about hypothermia.
    I swim all day, don’t see a white-winged scoter in the sound
    or a grebe along the peninsula.
    I been hangin’ out with a flock of loons from Japan,
    they know birds from Australia, and none of them
    ever saw anything like this.
    It’s like an Alfred Hitchcock movie around here,
    birds crashing into cars, spiraling around,
    and dead loons washed ashore all the way down the coast to Oregon.
    And when you eat, you take your life in your webbed feet.
    And it’s not just our loon buddies.
    even our surfer friends that ride through the foam,
    they’re complaining about sinus problems.
    Remember Mary Sue from the Marine Sanctuary who kayaks here?
    I heard her tell her partner that she lost her sense of taste and smell.
    Mary Sue loves her razor clams, but that’s a harvest that ain’t gonna happen.
    The surface of the water is getting warmer, maybe that’s it.
    Or El Nino. ..or pollution….Who knows?
    I can’t even figure out how you ended up out there.
    It’s like a puzzle with 500 pieces and you only have 50.
    Get this, the miserable little algae is called Akashiwo sanguinea.
    I dated a loon once by the name of Akashiwo.
    Mary Sue says this species wasn’t ever considered harmful
    but now it is. If people start eating shellfish around here, it could be
    sayonara for them – seizures, paralysis, even death.
    Watch out, Cuz, red tide is out East too,
    those blooms are getting bigger and lasting longer.
    Gulf of Mexico, Chesapeake Bay, wherever you follow that little honey you’re chasin’.
    The water here is cleaner than there, did you notice?
    Might have given you a clue that you were off course
    if you weren’t so jiggy about that lady.
    I’m watchin’ the ocean, the rhythms, ya know,
    but there’s gotta be more to it.
    There’s still a lot of us loons left but we gotta be careful because
    we don’t know what the heck is going on.
    Like you, Cuz…find your way back here, before it’s too late.

    Like this

    • Words We Women Write said:

      What’s a bird to do? Between BP, this nasty stuff on your coast, invasive creatures of all flora and fauna, I might just stay on this Bantam Lake puddle. I mean, I’m the only loon in town, but, hey, maybe another one of us might wander off course and show up here to keep me company. You might think this is beside the point, but I’ve got confidence in Barach Obama, the President dude. I watched a camper’s laptop and how Barack’s raising the rhetoric and finally–finally!!–talking tough. Well, less conciliatory. Maybe he can get some environmental safeguards and alternative energy stuff going that will help with the upsets on the water that are making it so hard for us.
      So, thanks for the head’s up on the other ocean. It’s loony. (And you are_____, by the way?)

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  10. Words We Women Write said:

    I’m StellaLoona. That’s me on license plates, door mats, canvas bags, t-shirts and bumper stickers. I’m a star.

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  11. Words We Women Write said:

    Do we need to pin down the truth? Sounds too much like wrestling. Keep taking that messy sprawl of events and put your narrative spin on it.
    The most interesting character will end up to be you. Brown ties and kissing, humor and truth – you’re onto something here.

    Toni

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  12. Words We Women Write said:

    Patty,
    I love seeing your stories appear on my screen…. I have seen many of them as just a kernel of an idea and here they are fully grown. What a pleasure.
    Ronnie

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  13. Words We Women Write said:

    Ah, Book Two..I like the sound of that.
    Pop would be proud.
    Toni

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  14. Words We Women Write said:

    So soon after our meeting and you have the Home page tickler and the father/letter debate already in print–WOW!!! I see the natural ebb and flow between your generations of family stories, and your writings prompt my own multi generational memories to percolate. (Alas, I am more a “brewer” than a finisher–ha!) At the end, the longing to sit with your dad and get some answers and more stories is universally touching. I’m sure we all long for that one more day, one more conversation, one more chance to listen. I do. I’m not so sure you need the bone hunter (Ha–private joke??!!), but as a piece about writing, it fits. So, which “little darlings” will you murder??? Had to ask since we are so into Marion! Mary

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    • Words We Women Write said:

      Mary! I WAS channeling you when I fussed with the fossil hunter part of this piece. I’m so in love with this science stuff, I’m addicted. It’s hard to resist developing the fragile link between the story and the science metaphor. That said, I did fiddle and faddle with it. I deleted and wrote more, deleted and wrote more. In the end, I left it in. I’m still musing on murder though, so between you and Marion I think I’ll get the gumption to heighten and add and in the distilling process I can see something happening to the palentologists. Maybe. But not the whole Gobi Desert.
      Patty

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  15. Words We Women Write said:

    Sign me up for surprise and delight!!!!! But I need my ricotta. :)
    Toni

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  19. Thanks I finally came to a website where the webmaster knows what they’re talking about. Do you know how many results are in Google when I search.. too many! It’s so irritating having to go through page after page after page, wasting my day away with thousands of owners just copying eachother’s articles… bah. Anyway, thanks for the information anyway, much obliged.

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    • Words We Women Write said:

      Thanks Hasychak 239,
      I’ve got a lot of teaching and learning stories from these last 40 years and it’s interesting to see how they can inform almost any area of life. And vice versa too.
      Thanks for reading!
      Patty

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