Saturday, January 19, 2019

The gifts of grief

I hesitate to use that title for this post, because it sounds so...Pollyanna-ish. And trust me, anyone who's Pollyanna-ish about their grief isn't being honest with you, and certainly not with themselves. Sure, the process has its moments of grace, as I've written about before, but (as I'm learning) it's far more often about a dull numbness punctuated by searing moments of heartbreak. 

However, this week has brought me two gifts that I feel compelled to share.

Skyping with Mom last year.
Monday--January 14th--would have been my mom's 92nd birthday. While that particular anniversary wasn't as difficult or painful as the holidays were, it was still a hard day. It doesn't help when Facebook's "memories" algorithm kept showing me post after post of happy birthday celebrations with her in years past, including just last January. 

Who knew that would be her last birthday? I mean, when you're in your 90s I guess you know that any birthday could be your last one. Because of a winter storm last year, neither my sister nor I could get to Columbus to celebrate with mom. Instead, we Skyped her, although her cat Lily (who now lives with me) took up most of the screen, as she's wont to do. Grief-induced guilt leads me to say "If I'd only known that was going to be her last birthday, I would have driven through a blizzard to be with her": but thank god, we generally don't know those things. And I know that even if mom had known, she would have told us to stay off the roads.


Tuesday afternoon I was sitting in my office at work, trying to clear some things off my desk before heading home. Around 4:30, I turned to check my email one last time. There in my inbox was a message with the subject line "Joyce Hathaway." In the kind of magical-thinking state that accompanies grief, I had the brief but thrilling thought that it was an email from mom herself. Electronic communication is mysterious to begin with, so what better way for a dead person to make contact?

Of course, it wasn't from her. Instead, it was an email from a first cousin of my father's, a woman I've never met. 

She'd tracked me down in a very circuitous way. Every December, the English Department asks people to submit book recommendations, and then publishes a little accordion-fold brochure of them to mail out to alumni and friends of the Department. I never remember to submit anything, but this year I actually did, largely because I wanted to recommend Angie Thomas' The Hate U Give, a book that the students in my young-adult literature class universally loved. 

Apparently, this cousin of my dad's was an English major at WVU back in the day. Mom had told her that I taught at WVU, but she'd forgotten until she saw my name in the mailer. So she tracked down my email address. 

It was the kindest note. An excerpt: 

I met your mother at Aunt Eva's house during one of her first visits there.  I'm a few years younger than Joyce and at that time was quite taken with her because I thought she was one of the smartest and most interesting women I had ever met.  On all the occasions I saw her after that I never changed my opinion.  I last saw her when my husband and I went to Columbus to help with the Hathaway Family Association meeting at the time David made the arrangements for the organization to meet there, but we continued to exchange Christmas cards after David's death. I always enjoyed her notes and missed hearing from her this year although I knew by then that I would not. I only recently learned that Joyce had also passed away. I so wanted to express my sympathy, but didn't know how to reach anyone in her family.  
Needless to say, I had to shut my office door and do some not-so-quiet weeping when I read that. Especially coming the day after mom's birthday, it was a gift to me to hear someone I've never met say such kind things about my mom. To give part of her back to me like that. To know that people I don't even know share my grief, when it feels like such a solitary endeavor.

A couple days later, I checked Facebook messenger (another thing I rarely remember to do), and there was a message from a friend of my mother's, sent on Monday, mom's birthday. 

To preface her message, I need to explain that before my mom's house sold last fall, there was a big tag sale of all the things that none of the children wanted to take. (Or rather, the things we didn't have room to keep in our own homes.) In some ways, that was harder than selling the house itself--knowing that people would be coolly judging the value of a lifetime's worth of accumulated stuff. 

One of the things my sister and I anguished about was mom's wedding dress. She'd had it cleaned and stored in one of those sealed boxes years ago. Neither Pam nor I was tiny enough to even consider wearing it for our weddings. It seemed awful to put it into the sale, but what else were we going to do with it? It was either that, or take it home and stuff it into one of our closets for another few decades. 
So we left it. 

The message described encounter that [the friend] had at the estate sale. A young woman was there looking at the wedding dress. She was clearly really pondering it. She said that she had tried it on and it fit perfectly, but she was a little concerned that it was a bit short for her. I suggested that she could cut it down a bit to make it tea length and that seemed to really intrigue her. I told her that I knew your mother and that I was sure she would be thrilled to know that someone loved the dress and desired it for her own wedding. I saw her again in the checkout line with the dress. When I told her how excited I was that she had decided to take it, she asked to know more about your mother. So I told her about Joyce's time as a train stewardess and how she had raised children while completing her doctorate. The young woman was so happy to learn more about her! My only regret is that I didn't think quickly enough to buy the dress for her. But I am sure that she was a beautiful bride.
Once again, office door shut, Kleenex out. How happy, and sad, it made me to know what happened to that dress. How I wish Mom could know. How I wish I knew who the buyer was so I could send her a photo of mom wearing it, and ask to see her own wedding photos. 

These are the gifts of grief. They are blessings. I hesitate to use either of those words, because they've both become so hackneyed in an Instagram world where people are #blessed and #grateful. Those hashtags flatten their meaning, rob them of the complexity of emotions they evoke. And not just positive emotions, either; there's also a sense of fear and loss attached to them: what if this is the last time someone tells me a story about my mom? How can I live up to the legacy of that intelligent, interesting woman? 

What was even more satisfying than knowing someone bought the dress and planned to wear it was knowing that she also got some stories about its original owner. Mom would have loved that. To her, the stories that were connected to things were vastly more important than the things themselves. She told me more than once that the older she got, the more important family stories, and stories in general, became. 

Stories are gifts. And when you're grieving, there's no greater gift anyone can give you than a new story about the person you've lost. 

Saturday, September 29, 2018

Yes, it's another #MeToo post...because this week has broken me.

In the midst of the cretinous circus that's been playing out on Capitol Hill this week, the thing that has struck me most is the off-the-charts level of denial it takes for some people to think that a woman would make up a story like this to get attention. Christine Blasey Ford has gone public with her very private trauma only to be subjected to death threats.

Death threats.

Think about that for a second. You tell your story, and people who don't even know you--who don't even have a dog in this fight, really--want to kill you.

It's not the fact that those folks think she's making it up that bothers me so much as it is what that belief reveals about the depths of misogyny in this country: that there are people who genuinely believe that women are so fundamentally unstable, needy, and plain bat-shit crazy that they will willingly--nay, enthusiastically!--throw their careers, families, and reputations under the bus in order to 1) get famous; 2) blindly serve someone else's political agenda; or 3) just for the hell of it, because, WOMEN. You know, they're like that.

To me, that realization--that a significant number of people believe that women are innately crazy, and therefore dismissible and disposable--is even more depressing than the hearings themselves.

I think--well, I know--that part of the reason that this case has pushed my buttons even harder than usual is because Brett Kavanaugh and I are of an age. Both born in 1965. While I didn't grow up with the kind of privilege he did, I did grow up in an affluent Midwestern suburb where I went to school with lots of people, male and female, who did.

Back then, in the early 80s, it was a real social coup to find out about a parents-are-out-of-town, let's-have-a-party at the house of one of the kids who lived in the really rich parts of that town. Even better if it was a party thrown by someone who didn't even deign to go to the public high school, but to one of the private schools.

(Thankfully, now) I didn't run in the kind of social circles where I ever would have been invited to those parties--I wouldn't even have thought of crashing one. I do remember driving by one, once, on Wolfe Park, where hundreds of teenagers spilled out of the enormous stone mansion and down the meticulously groomed grounds to the street. At the time, it seemed glamorous: a way of life that I could only read about in The Preppy Handbook, which I read more as an aspirational DIY manual than as the parody it was.

Imagine this place at night, with hundreds
of teenagers drinking on the lawn
The image of that party has popped into my mind all week, since it's at such a gathering that Christine Blasey Ford was attacked. Could I imagine such a thing happening at that house party on Wolfe Park? Absolutely. Did such things happen? I wasn't there. I don't know. But if I met someone now, 35+ years later, who told me that she'd been attacked at that party, I would completely believe her. And I would also believe that her attacker went on to become a well-educated, wealthy, and powerful man--one who would be just as shocked to be confronted by his victim as Brett Kavanaugh was.

And that was the other thing that pushed my buttons hard: does Kavanaugh even remember that night? Did he know her name then? What so many people don't seem to understand is that just because he doesn't remember it doesn't mean it didn't happen. Trauma sears memories indelibly into the brain. The fact that she remembers it so clearly is backed up by brain science. The fact that he doesn't is backed up by patriarchy.

My friend Erika posted something on Facebook yesterday that resonated deeply with me:
Several months after I escaped a rape attempt, I passed the guy (a stranger to me) on the street. I stopped in my tracks. I know, 100%, that he was the one, because he stopped in his tracks too, and I saw the fear and recognition in his eyes. Time arrested for a moment, then we each walked on. 
I can’t fully recall in detail the face of my boyfriend at the time, but I’d swear I could pick out my would-be rapist from a crowd. As he was then, and I think even as he has become.  
I wonder if he would recognize me.
I was raped during my junior year of college. It was date rape--a guy I'd met at a bar, who came home with me and wouldn't take no for an answer. At the time I told no one. I was ashamed. It was my fault, of course, for letting this guy into my apartment. What did I expect? 

The fact that I can now describe it as date rape is a very recent phenomenon. Though I called myself a "feminist" in college, even I was uncertain as to whether what happened to me "counted" as rape or not. 

And I remained uncertain until just a few years ago. My friend Christina was clearing out her house in preparation for a move, and she gave me all the letters I'd sent to her while we were both in college. Looking through them, I came across a letter in which I described what had happened that night. Honestly, I didn't even remember that I'd written to her about it. But there, in black and white, I told her about how I'd said "no." Multiple times. And still this person persisted. 

When I read Erika's post, I remembered something else: that a month or two after the rape, I was sitting in an English class in University Hall when the door swung open shortly after class had started, and there stood my attacker. He'd apparently wandered into the wrong room. Though he was probably only in the doorway for a few seconds before he realized his mistake and turned away, like Erika, those seconds were frozen in time. We locked eyes, and I know he remembered. 

What makes me especially sad as I write all of this is that I don't think I could have told this story publicly had my mother not died earlier this year. I wouldn't have wanted her to know. Not because she would have been ashamed of me, or blamed me--though for sure, that's why I didn't tell her then, or in the thirty years afterwards. But because she would have been sad, too. And hurt, and guilty. I wanted to spare her that. More evidence of the many forces that keep women silent.

So when our President claimed that Dr. Ford's story couldn't be true, because if she really had been attacked, of course she would have told her parents, and they would have prosecuted Kavanaugh...well, the most charitable way I can describe my reaction is "Wow. You really, really don't get it at all." He doesn't get it on any level: not on an emotional level, not on the parent/child-relationship level, not on a historical level, not on a legal level. Of the innumerable ignorant statements that man has made since taking office, that is one of the most profoundly ignorant. And that's saying something.

But the thing is, he's voicing what a lot of other people are thinking. 

So add that to the list of things we've all learned this week: first, a good number of people think that women are flat-out crazy and bent on destruction. And second, that even though they're crazy (maybe because they're crazy?), no one else can be held accountable for what happens to them. 

Duly noted. And grieved. 

Friday, June 8, 2018

Fragments and full stops

Hans Thoma, "Kinderreigen," 1872
For years, my mom had been talking about wanting to write something about the games she remembered playing as a child growing up in Mercer County, West Virginia. So many of them seemed very specific to that time and place: a game called "Pretty Girl Station," another played in the fall called "Dead Man" where kids formed a ring around a pile of raked leaves, chanting as they circled it until a kid hiding in the pile burst out of it and chased the others off.  

When she got her diagnosis in March, this particular task took on a new urgency. I didn't know that she'd been working on it until she was in the hospital in early May, though. One morning while my brother Mark and I were visiting her, she told me that she'd gotten a start, but added, "I'm such a slow and picky writer...I'd write a sentence and even before I finished it I'd be editing it. So I didn't get very far with it." 

My brother Mark and I both suggested that she and I just have a conversation about the games, which I'd record and then the two of us would co-write the article. Mom was pleased with that idea. She was a folklorist too, after all, so completely understood that sometimes it's more natural and productive to talk about your memories than it is to write about them. 

Of course, none of us knew at that time that she'd be dead within the week.

When she died, I asked Mark--who had her laptop--to keep an eye out for a document about children's games. He found it pretty readily--it was titled, in all caps, THE GAMES WE PLAYED--and emailed it to me about a week after she died. 

Here's what she'd written: 
When I was eight years old, our family moved to Athens and I became one of Kathryn Gibson's fourth graders. For the first time I learned playground games. Concord Grammar School was a two story brick building  surrounded by grass facing the street and play areas on the other three sides. There was the usual playground equipment:  a seesaw, a slide, swings, and a giant stride. It was a frightful thing consisting of a number of chains attached to a tall metal pole. Two metal bars were attached one above the other to the end of each chain. We ran hanging on to the bars one hand above the other and soon we were flying through the air fast round and round.
I remember the games we played as seasonal. In the spring it was jump rope for the girls in the back of the building with all the rhymes we knew. The boys played mumbley-peg and marbles at the side.  The boys’ knuckles would     
I got to that last incomplete sentence and burst into tears. What clearer evidence that her voice had been silenced for good than an unfinished sentence? I'd never even know how she meant to finish that one line, much less the whole piece. But I could see how carefully she'd crafted what little there was--how evocative that description of the giant stride was, both in terms of how it worked and the combination of terror and joy it inspired in the kids who played on it. 

Giant stride on a New York City playground, circa 1910-1915
There was no full stop to that sentence, but there had been a full stop to her life. I was bereft, sobbing inconsolably not for the first time since she died, but certainly for longer than I had before. 

So much regret. Why didn't we do this sooner? Why didn't I tell her about Anne Lamott's concept of "shitty first drafts," and suggest that she try to write a sloppy version of the whole thing, or at least an outline? Why didn't we ever talk about our respective writing processes and practices? 

My therapist tells me that these deep regrets are all part of the "bargaining" stage of the grief process--that bargaining doesn't only include the promises and deals you make to get your loved one to live longer, or to bring them back to life, but also the whole range of "what ifs" that haunt you when the person is gone. 

Mom had hoped to submit her piece about children's games to the West Virginia Division of Culture and History's magazine Goldenseal. I may still try to complete the article; over the years, I know that she had sent me several emails with details about those games, which might include enough information to put something together. But it will never be in her voice. 

Mom had told me about her diagnosis on St. Patrick's Day. On Easter Sunday, her amazing primary-care physician, Teresa Holt, came to mom's house in the afternoon to talk with all of us about the prognosis and mom's options. It was a difficult but necessary conversation, made so much easier by Dr. Holt's no-nonsense and compassionate approach. Seeing her sitting on the couch, holding my mom's hand, and explaining how the disease would progress and answering all our questions, I felt unexpectedly calm. If this was the person in charge of mom's care, I had far fewer worries about what was to come. 

Later that afternoon, I was sitting next to Mom at the dining-room table, helping her with something on her computer. Out of nowhere she turned to me and said, in her sort of mock-severe tone, "Rosemary Hathaway, I want you to promise me one thing." 

"What's that, Momma?"


My plan, ever since we knew that at some point mom would need round-the-clock care, was that I would decamp to Columbus this summer and work on the book there. "I would love that," she said--and I think it was about the only way she would have tolerated my being a caretaker, if she knew it meant I was getting some writing done as well.

That didn't happen, obviously. And the book remains unfinished, six months after my original deadline for getting it to the press.

Completing it seems like such a chore. Like mom, I know what needs to be done but my internal editor gets in the way. Already the idea seems stale and overdone to me--what do I have to say about Appalachian history and identity that more recent writers like Elizabeth Catte and Steven Stoll haven't said far more persuasively and eloquently? 

And the mental energy it takes to do that kind of writing...well, I just don't have it right now. 

And part of me is afraid to finish it. The book is in many ways about my parents' experiences growing up in West Virginia and attending WVU, and moving to Ohio and reinventing themselves as Appalachian out-migrants. Irrationally, it feels like finishing the book is consigning them to history, to the past. 

But it is also a legacy to them. And knowing that it was one of my mom's last wishes to finish pressure there. 

I guess it means I have to take my own advice, the advice I regretted not giving mom about her own writing: just get it down. Crank something out. Get some input from a trusted reader. Plenty of time to revise later. 

Plenty of time. It's what I have that she didn't.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018


This morning I was out in the front yard, once again weeding the bed along the sidewalk.

In the distance, I could hear a lawnmower running--the neighbor's yard-service guy was out early, too, to get his work done before the heat and humidity become unbearable. As I pulled mock strawberry and thistle, I vaguely registered the sound of the lawnmower stopping, being loaded into a truck, and an engine turning over.

The lawn guy's truck pulled to at stop at the intersection where our house sits. I had my back to the street, but I heard a voice behind me. I turned around to see the lawn guy leaning toward the open passenger-side window of his truck.

"Thank you for the peonies," he said, referring to the two gigantic bushes in the bed along the other side of the house, whose branches are so heavily loaded with blooms right now that they have toppled to the ground. "I love their fragrance."

It took a moment to understand what he was saying. "Oh, me, too...please cut some and take them--there are so many." 

He waved that idea away, just saying, "Thank you. I grew up with them," then drove off. 

Such a simple and unnecessary exchange. But it rocked me to my core. 

It's these unexpected kindnesses in the last couple of weeks that have both soothed me and utterly destroyed me: a letter from a friend of my parents', containing such detailed and loving memories of them both. A neighbor who stopped by to drop off some cookies. Tom went to the door, so I didn't see her, but as she walked away, I could hear her three-year-old daughter saying "Bye bye, wall. Bye bye, flowers." A phone call with a former colleague of my mom's that ranged across topics from the inconstancy of cats to transgender rights to purchasing Turkish rugs, with thoughts about mom and her last days scattered in there, lightly, when they came up. I understood why she was one of the few people mom told about her diagnosis. 

All of it feels like not enough and too much simultaneously. What did I ever do to deserve such kindness, even from strangers? I certainly have not been as kind or thoughtful when others I know have suffered losses, much less in daily practice. And hearing so many stories about my mom's generosity makes me feel especially unworthy. 

Before anyone leaps in here to demur, let me stress that that's not the purpose of this post. Even in the midst of the exquisite tenderness of the moment, I recognize that my mother was not a saint and neither am I, nor do I wish to be. It's taken me the better part of the last few decades to grow the steely backbone that I also know my mother had. 

I simply want to acknowledge the many examples of grace I've experienced recently. 

I don't mean "grace" in the religious sense--but something like that, in the sense of its being "unmerited favor, love, or assistance." No need to get God or the divine involved. Humans can and do grant these gifts to each other, knowingly or unknowingly...and in these harsh times, we should probably strive to do it more often. 

Ever since mom died I've had a quote from a Robert Frost poem in my head. It comes from "Home Burial," one of his narrative poems about a couple that has lost a baby, their struggle to cope with the loss and with each other in the aftermath. The wife says that
The nearest friends can go
With anyone toward death, comes so far short
They might as well not even try to go at all.
In those lines, Frost perfectly captures the isolation of grief: the world keeps spinning, the sun comes up and goes down, and even those who are mourning alongside you are just that--alongside you, having their own separate and personal experience of it. 

I first read those lines when I was nineteen, in a 20th-century American poetry course, and they (obviously) struck me at the time, since I remember them all these years later. 

But I also realize, now, that Frost is suggesting that the wife is wrong to interpret the fact that friends' "minds turn...and make their way back to life and living people" as evidence that "the world's evil." Frost seems to be suggesting that part of grief is the feeling of betrayal the bereaved feel when they, too, have to bend back toward life and living. 

Fellow mourners, friends, colleagues, strangers in trucks: we're all on separate paths, but we can see each other and wave as those paths align, diverge, or intersect. 

When it comes to both grief and grace, time and religious belief are irrelevant. About a year after I took that poetry class, my dear friend Jay died of AIDS. At the time, a friend told me that she didn't know what to say to comfort me, because she knew I was agnostic. That same friend showed up at my mom's memorial service, even though we hadn't seen each other in over 20 years. It was an amazing kind of full-circle moment, to find that in the intervening years we'd both learned that comfort doesn't lie in platitudes about something intangible or theological. It lies in your real-world presence. 

After I joined Facebook a decade ago, I reconnected with another friend from college who I hadn't been in touch with since my freshman year. In an early exchange, she asked about Jay; she'd met him once on a weekend visit, but didn't know about his passing. 

When I told her that he'd died twenty-two years earlier, she wrote to offer me her condolences, saying that she knew that it was old news to me, but that to her, "the loss is fresh." That meant a lot to me, both in the moment and now--evidence that grief is cyclical, not linear. Her fresh loss brought me back to my own grief about Jay's death, though from a very different perspective and place. A wave from one of those parallel, or perhaps spiraling, paths. 

That friend has also provided grace to me in recent days, as she's blogged about her own process of mourning her husband's death in 2016. In fact, it's her daughter's name, Grace, that made me think about the way grace moves in our lives, and gave me the title for this post.

And it's reminder to me that it's never too soon, or too late, or too unwelcome, to offer condolences, grace, and our mere presence to each other. There's a reason why the colloquial expression is to "grace us with your presence." Because our presence is perhaps the truest kind of grace there is. 

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Beauty, decay, air

My mom died in the early morning hours on May 16, about ten weeks after she was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer.

"Breathe," "Take deep breaths," advised friends in the hard moments and days afterward.

How to do that when you watched your mother suffer from oxygen hunger in the last hours of her life, eyes half-closed, gasping for air, fingers turning blue? Breathing seems like a betrayal, a grotesque indulgence. It certainly doesn't feel healing.

A couple of days ago I had a doctor's appointment, and as part of taking routine vital signs, the nurse put a pulse oximeter on my right index finger. On the paperwork I got afterward, I looked at my blood-oxygen level: 97%. Normal, healthy, too much. I remembered my brother and I looking at the same kind of device on my mom's finger during the long afternoon before the hospice team arrived, watching her oxygen levels plummet from somewhere in the 80% range into the 70s and 60s, even as we cranked the oxygen concentrator up, switched her over to the 10-liter portable O2 tank that was eventually supposed to allow her to be mobile. The panic as we realized the tank would only last for a couple of hours, the home health-care service dispatcher saying that the nearest driver with a larger oxygen concentrator was at least an hour away.

The concentrator, the hospice nurses, mom's primary-care doctor, and a tornado all arrived around 6 p.m. In the midst of our personal typhoon, a thunderstorm had produced a twister that was spotted in Franklin County, and the sirens wailed. A tornado, its winds sucking up the air around it, its physics indifferent to the destruction it causes.

Things calmed both inside and outside after that, fortunately. The hospice nurses pulled the pulse oximeter from mom's finger: "We're monitoring symptoms now, not numbers." They retreated to the dining room, though, to crunch various other numbers--mom's weight, dosages of other medications she'd taken that day--to calculate the proportions of the magical pharmacological cocktail that eased the gasping and allowed mom to breathe, to sleep, to die quietly and peacefully a few hours later.

Driving back to my own home the following week, the beauty of the May world assaulted me. When I'd driven from my house in West Virginia to mom's house in Ohio a couple of weeks before, the trees were just starting to leaf out. While she was in the hospital, we took her flowers from her own garden: fragrant lilies of the valley, which had been her wedding flowers, and blooms from the tree peony that she had transplanted from her own mother's garden after her death. 

But I drove back in a different world--one that was lush and green and suffocating. Summer had arrived. Mom knew it; when she came home from the hospital, just a day before she died, she said, glumly, "Well, it looks like spring is over." 

When I parked my car at home and got out, the first thing I noticed was the clematis in the flower bed along the side of our house. I just planted it last year, and it had finally gotten large enough this spring to train it onto a trellis. Tom and I had very carefully wound the delicate vines around the trellis base just a few weeks ago, but now the vine was filling the bottom part of the trellis and was full of purple blooms, cascading to the ground like the train of an elegant gown. The climbing rose on another trellis a few feet away exploded with deep-pink flowers. So much beauty. It wrecked me. 

Now, just a few days later, the clematis and the rose are both dropping their petals, drooping, beginning the process of decay. As I wrote in my journal, "So many fucking obvious metaphors everywhere these days." 

The one thing my mother desperately wanted to have done while she was in the hospital was to get her garden beds weeded. I'd made a start when I had last been in town, before she went into the hospital, and while I was working she came out and joined me for nearly an hour, cutting back the Lenten roses, thinking about which plants she wanted to replace. "I don't understand why I can feel so bad in the mornings, but then be able to get out here and do this," she said to me. Weeds may have been the bane of her existence, but gardening was her exercise and her worship and her relief. At 91, she could still get down on the ground and back up again with little difficulty, and could kneel for the long stretches of time that gardening requires. 

Not long after that, of course, her lungs and her body betrayed her. But like Edna in Kate Chopin's The Awakening, "she knew a way to elude them." Despite the trauma of the last afternoon of her life, and the many regrets I have about assuming there would be time to ask all the questions that still remained, I admire her for realizing that although she made it home, she would not be able to live there in the way she wanted to. She would not be able to work in the garden. So she set her rudder towards death and hustled across Lethe. 

Shortly before the hospice nurses left, they wanted to change her clothes and the sheets on the hospital bed; the oxygen concentrator put out a lot of heat, and the room was stuffy. Together with my sister and sister-in-law, the nurses and I exchanged mom's long-sleeved satin pajamas for a cotton t-shirt--in aqua, the color she looked best in. 

In the process, I saw my mother's naked body for the first time since I was a child. In it, I saw my body: though I knew that I had her height and her shape, it was another thing to look at her and feel like I was simultaneously looking in a mirror and seeing the undeniable evidence that my lively, fierce mother was old

There was the scar where she had a mastectomy seven or eight years ago. There were her long arms and bony hands--so like mine--bruised from hospital IVs. This was the body that carried me, gave birth to me, loved me and worried for me. This was a familiar body, but also one I recognized as a well-used and worn body. A body that could no longer sustain the being inside of it. A body that was now a trap rather than a tool. 

I thought, "Well done, you fragile and miraculously strong vessel. You held this woman's spirit and allowed her to live independently and do the things she loved to do for so many years." But I could see, so clearly, that the time had come for the spirit and the body to part ways. 

Beauty. Decay. 

And air.

I was asleep when mom died, but my brother Mark was in the room with her. When he knocked on my bedroom door to tell me the news, he said, in a voice quiet with awe and maybe a little bewilderment, "I think mom just slipped away." After the noisy horror of the afternoon, her ultimate passing was almost utterly silent, he said. No gasping for air. 

The lungs do their work autonomically. Our bodies are miraculous machines and terrible burdens. But only we, as humans, have the gift--or the punishment, depending on your perspective and the day--of being aware of all of that. 

Consciousness aside, though, we are animals, governed by the same cycles as any other part of the natural world. At my mom's memorial service, the minister read Wendell Berry's poem "The Peace of Wild Things," a favorite of mom's that echoes this awesome and awful reality:

Since I've been home, one of the few things I can do to sidestep despair is to work in the yard. I pull weeds, pick up dropped petals, pinch spent blooms to produce more. So many fucking obvious metaphors everywhere these days. 

But also a reminder both painful and inevitable that, as Walt Whitman wrote, "All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses/ And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier."

Saturday, March 25, 2017

In memoriam: Toby, a magical cat

A friend of mine in Colorado once referred to a late feline of hers as a "magical cat." She didn't explain what she meant, but she didn't need to: I understood that she meant that it had been a once-in-a-lifetime cat, a cat with a personality so big that as its human companion, you understood that it owned you, and not the other way around.

Lucy was that kind of cat.

But so was Toby, the unassuming stray who started hanging around our house about five years ago. He wasn't a stunner of a cat--our nickname for him, in fact, was a reference to his melt-into-the-background color, a kind of grayish brown taupe that led us to refer to him as the "taupe tabby" and finally just "Toby."

"Toby" was just what we called him. No one knew what his original name was, because he'd apparently been abandoned by his original owners. He just turned up in the neighborhood, apparently unscathed by the trauma of being abandoned; I've rarely met a friendlier, more loving and trusting cat.

A neighbor who lived diagonally across the intersection from us eventually adopted him, in as much as Toby could be "adopted": during the day, he rambled around the block, sleeping on other people's porch furniture, running up to folks he recognized on the sidewalk for some attention, and supervising yard work.

Every day, when Elizabeth got home from work, though, Toby would recognize her car and dash out of wherever he'd been, running up to her to welcome her home and to accompany her inside for dinner.

A couple of years ago, Elizabeth got a job in the D. C. area, and wasn't allowed to have pets in her new apartment. Toby had to stay in Morgantown--not so much because Elizabeth couldn't take him, but because she knew that this was his place, and he was the neighborhood cat, not her cat. Tom and I would have loved to bring him into our house, but our selfish spoiled felines had let us know long ago that Toby was not welcome. Fortunately, another neighbor, Brett, was able to take him, and so Toby remained.

Even though Brett lives at the end of the next block, Toby still considered the entire area around the intersection of Waitman and Simpson streets his territory, and would spend most of every nice-enough day making his usual rounds.

And trust me, Toby's threshold for "nice enough" was a lot lower than most cats'. Last winter we had an enormous storm that dumped a foot and a half of snow over one night, and the next morning, who was out on our front porch but Toby? Fortunately, our cats were sleeping upstairs, so we were able to let him in, and he promptly jumped on Tom's lap, purring up his own storm, and when he'd had enough of that, he made a beeline for the basket of cat toys that our ingrates never go near and promptly dug out a fluffy toy with a bell and began flinging it around like it was the Best. Toy. Ever.

But eventually, he was ready to move on--yes, through eighteen inches of snow. We tried to make him stay, but he wasn't having it. He had things to do, places to go, people to see. Brett had this experience with him regularly; the weather could be miserable, and Toby would still insist on going out. He took his job as the neighborhood cat seriously.

On warm days, he put in long hours on the heated-up sandstone walls of our front porch; even during last summer's cicada invasion, he slept directly under a lilac bush that was swarming with the noisy things, completely unperturbed.

When Tom or I got home, Toby was often there to greet us at the car, and accompany us to our door. The fact that we often fed him or gave him treats when he did this was part of his motivation, but he also just wanted you to know that he was there, that he recognized you--and vice versa.

And though he gave dogs a wide berth, he was always willing to give a human a chance. Not that he was foolish about giving his affection: if someone rubbed him the wrong way, literally or figuratively, he wouldn't hesitate to run away. But if you proved yourself to him, he was your friend for life, running up to you on the sidewalk, rolling around while you petted him, purring like crazy. There were many days when I'd be walking home from work, feeling tired or depressed, and here would come Toby, trotting up to meet me. And everything was better.

As I mentioned, we have two cats of our own who could really take or leave humans most of the time, including me and Tom. And they're very uncertain about strangers, especially ones under four feet tall. This has been a huge disappointment to the daughter of a friend of ours, who desperately wants to be friends with Pip and Stella when she comes to visit. But Pip and Stella are having none of it.

After being let down by the indoor cats yet again on a visit awhile back, I suggested that Maggie try her luck with Toby. We put a chair out on the front porch, Maggie sat in it, and sure enough, within a very short while, Toby was sitting out there with her. Not on her lap, as she'd hoped, but on the porch wall, right next to the chair. From the living room, I could hear Maggie's conversation with Toby.

"Pip is really cute, but she's not very friendly. And Stella's not nice at all. But're different."


He was different, and magical.

His magic became even clearer to me recently, when another stray cat showed up in the neighborhood. Unlike Toby, this gray-and-white cat is clearly feral--or else was so badly treated by people at some point that it's terrified of them. If he so much as catches a glimpse of us in the window or door, he runs away--and if we go outside when he's on the porch, he's been known to bail out, to literally drop sideways off the porch wall into a bush, to get away from us. But we knew that he'd also been eating the food we set out for Toby.

What we didn't realize was that the two of them had developed a system about how this worked.

A few months ago, I saw Toby sitting out on the front porch, giving me his intent "Hey, I know you see me--how about some food" look. So, I went out and filled up his bowl with kibble.

But he didn't eat any. OK, I thought, I guess I misunderstood your signals there. That's all right; you can come back and eat later.

Toby continued to sit in his spot on the wall, though, and a minute or so later, the feral kitty came creeping up onto the porch, and jumped up onto the wall between Toby and the food dish.

Well, I thought, now we're going to have a cat fight.

But no: the feral kitty started eating, and Toby nonchalantly jumped down and went on his merry way.

Then I realized: Toby had begged for the food for the other cat! He wasn't hungry, but he knew the other cat was, and he also knew that the feral cat was too skittish ever to show up on our porch and ask for food directly.

I was gobsmacked, and would have written it off as a fanciful bit of anthropomorphizing if I didn't see it happen several other times after that. Sometimes Toby would eat a few bites of food and leave the rest for the feral cat, who would wait patiently on the wall until Toby left; other times it was the same routine as the first time, where I'd put the food out and then Toby would wait to make sure the feral cat knew it was there before he left.

An altruistic cat? That's an oxymoron, isn't it? Toby showed me that the stereotype of cats--especially seasoned street cats--being selfish and mean is just that, a stereotype. He was as big-hearted as they come, whatever the species.

On Wednesday of last week I got a text from Brett, asking me if I'd seen Toby recently. There was a post on our neighborhood Facebook page saying that there was a dead cat at the intersection of Waitman and Simpson. A gray cat. "The one that hangs out on that corner, I think," wrote the poster. It had been hit and killed by a car.


Cruelly, I hoped it was the feral cat, who's also gray. Or maybe some other random gray cat in the neighborhood. But when I posted a photo of Toby on the Facebook page, the original poster said she was pretty sure that's the one she saw. But someone had (mercifully) removed the cat's body from the street, so it wasn't there anymore.

I was relieved that I didn't see the accident, or see Toby lying dead in the street. But that also allowed me to believe that maybe it wasn't him. How could such a street-smart cat be killed by a car? He knew better than that! But Simpson is a busy street, especially in the mornings, when school buses and cars are tearing up and down on their way to the high school that's a block away. Of course it was possible. Of course.

Still, when I got home that evening, I was keeping my eye out, hoping that Toby would come trotting up to greet me like always. And when he didn't, I thought, well, he may be inside somewhere. Or over in the next block. Denial.

Later in the evening, Tom went out to get something from his car. As he was walking back to the front porch, the feral cat dashed out from its hiding place between our house and the neighbor's, and boldly ran up on our front porch, knowing Tom would see him.

He was hungry. And he knew that his protector was no more.

And that's when I knew that Toby, our magical neighborhood cat, was dead.

But Toby taught feral kitty to be brave. And he taught me a lot about being open-hearted and trusting. For that gift, I will always love and remember him. And oh, how I will miss that handsome, loving creature.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Black Volgas, White Vans, Donald Trump, and why legends matter

The sinister black Volga, now a "classic car"
A few weeks ago I was in Tallinn, Estonia, to attend the annual meeting of the International Society for Contemporary Legend Research. (The term "contemporary legend" is folklorist-speak for what most people call an "urban legend.")

It was my first time attending the ISCLR, though I've been a longtime fan of the work that legend scholars do. It was also my first international conference, and the first time I'd been to a conference small enough for everyone to hear everyone else's presentation. And let me tell you: it's a conference that rewards hearing every paper, because what's most intriguing are the connections between the legends that people are studying, despite being from such different places.

A couple of notable examples:

  • Anna Kirzyuk of the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration gave a fantastic talk about rumors and legends about mysterious black cars--Volgas, specifically--that are alleged to drive around kidnapping children. During the Soviet era, the kidnappers were government agents, linking the stories with the real-life disappearance of people arrested during the Stalinist era. Contemporarily, the kidnappers are rich foreigners--most often Americans--stealing children to harvest their organs. Many of the conference attendees from former Soviet states--Poland, Latvia, Belarus, Ukraine--had heard this same story.
  • In the Netherlands, according to Peter Burger of Leiden University, it's a white van, not a black Volga, but the story is essentially the same: strangers in white vans cruise around looking for children to abduct. In the Netherlands, the identity of the perpetrators has shifted in recent years, from generic pedophiles (who presumably were Dutch) to Eastern European immigrants, and Polish workers in particular. 

This anti-Polish sentiment isn't unique to the Netherlands--in the wake of the UK's vote to leave the European Union, which happened just days before the ISCLR conference started, there were reports of attacks on Polish immigrants in England, as well.

And if you read the Guardian article, you might also note the rhetoric of the hate speech against Poles, describing them as "Polish vermin," and remember how effectively the Nazis used the very same rhetoric to stoke German hatred of Jews in the film The Eternal Jew, which depicted Jewish people as rats (and later influenced Art Speigelman's decision to depict Jews as mice in his graphic memoir Maus).  

I could go on and on about the other legends people discussed that tread the same themes, blaming foreigners, immigrants, people of color, gypsies, and other minorities for heinous, fictional acts. But at heart, they're all related to one much older legend, the blood libel legend. As the Anti-Defamation League's website summarizes it, the blood libel legend is "a centuries-old false allegation that Jews murder Christians--especially Christian children--to use their blood for ritual purposes, such as an ingredient in the baking of Passover matzah."

This is a story that's been in circulation since the 12th century, folks. 

As a folklorist, I shouldn't be surprised to discover that people in many different places, speaking many different languages, are telling essentially the same story. But what was stunning to me was how so many of the legends discussed at the conference function to put the blame for one's own problems onto an "Other," and how disturbingly easy it is to substitute the cultural demon-of-choice into a narrative to create a dramatic, dangerous weapon against an entire group of people.  

Given the demonizing of Muslims, Latinos, and African Americans that's been so rampant in the U. S. recently, it was fascinating--and sickening--to realize that the impulse to scapegoat "Others" is so widespread.

So when Donald Trump tries to tell you that "Mexicans" are the ones committing rapes and murders,  and that American Muslims ought to be on a registry since they're all on the verge of becoming terrorists, I beg you to think globally and act locally. This isn't a story that's unique to him, but rather a terrible fiction with very real consequences. 

Sunday, March 1, 2015

All about the Hat

It's a snowy day here in Bexley, Ohio, where we are visiting for a short weekend.  Rose and I walked down to the local coffee shop (well, not really: it's a Starbucks, now that the Bexley Cup O'Joe has closed), First, though, I ducked into the new car to grab my hat.

I think I've mentioned the hat before: it's a black wool felt fedora with a wide-ish brim. Nothing special or expensive, but also not a polar-fleece cap.

And it was a good thing I grabbed it, as it snowed steadily the whole way to Starbucks. Which reminded me of what I usually say when some stranger or passerby compliments my hat: It keeps the rain off. Or, in this case, snow.

And then I told Rose about an odd conversation I had a few days ago. I was placing my order at the Blue Moose (the Morgantown coffee shop I usually hang out at after making a delivery to the post office) when the barista asked me what my name was. I told her, and she said "I'm glad to know, because I couldn't just keep calling you 'Hat-Guy' in my mind."

Rosemary laughed, and called me "Old School," but with the kind of anxious laugh that let me know that she was equal parts amused and afraid that I was getting a reputation as a local character: "Hat-Guy." So, in an attempt to stave that anxiety off, I reminded her of another hat-related conversation I'd had at the Blue Moose in recent months.

It was a rainy day and I walked into the Moose and one of the other "regulars," who looks like he might be one of the homeless folks who also hangs out there, said, "Nice hat." I replied (as is my habit), "It keeps the rain off." He told me I ought to go have it waterproofed at the local shoe-repair place, adding, "Tell them Backpack Jack sent you."

Somehow Rosemary wasn't comforted by this anecdote, or my remark that at least "Hat-Guy" wasn't a name I'd adopted for myself, as was Backpack Jack's. She countered that I didn't know what people in the Blue Moose might call me when I'm not around.

Apparently my hat is just the nickname-attracting sort of hat, now matter how much I think it's all about the weather. But if you see me wearing it, I'd probably rather go with Old School than Hat-Guy. If you have to choose.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Recent auction purchases

Two auction lots, still in cardboard flats.
I buy a lot of stuff at auctions. Well, to tell the truth, I try to do my best to buy wisely: I really don’t want to fill the house up with junk just because it’s cheap. But antique auctions and eBay are two of my favorite places to buy, and it strikes me that, in some ways, they couldn’t be more different.

When you go to a real, old fashioned antique auction, you never know what will be there to buy. Some antique auctions, of course, now produce detailed catalogues or on-line listings, in which case you know exactly what you’ll find, but I prefer the sort of auction where you can discover something you never expected to find or even to see. Where you end up buying something you didn’t even know you wanted until you saw it. On eBay, by contrast, you can usually only find what you are looking for: you put search terms into the eBay search engine, and only those things that match your search terms usually show up. 

Despite the differences, though, I had a remarkable experience this week in which I bought two things that are, in many ways remarkably similar, and both were things I found by not looking for them. The first I found on eBay by searching through all the auction listings that include the word “manuscript” in the title. 

Usually there’s close to a thousand such things, including stamps with manuscript cancellations, medieval manuscripts and fragments, and just about everything in between. But when I found the eBay listing for this manuscript of Lord Dunsany’s one-act play, The Compromise of the King of the Golden Isles, I couldn’t resist it.

The pages are all one-sided, and they were formerly glued together on the left hand side. Now they've mostly separated, and the glue has stained the pages. 

This is not, of course, an authorial manuscript, but rather a kind of work of art, a hand-lettered manuscript of the entire play, accompanied by a number of full-page gouache-and ink paintings or illustrations.

The play dates from the 1920s; I think this manuscript must date from the 1930s, based on its art deco style. The artist signs her name Louise Womack; my Google searches haven’t been able to identify her. I especially like the illustration, "The gods are asleep," but "The king's questioners" and "assistant priest" are also striking.

My second purchase was at an antique auction in Ohio I often go to with my folks. On the day of the preview, I saw these two stacks of paintings in cardboard “flats,” (as shown at the top of the post) and I thought I’d like to get them if they weren’t too pricey. It turned out I got them for five bucks a box, which I was pretty happy about. When I got them home, where I could take the time to get a closer look at them, I saw that they were a college student’s (possibly a graduate student’s) semester portfolio of sixty paintings of historical costumes, probably the final project for a class in costume design for dramatic productions. 

Late Medieval

Each painting is on onion-skin, now somewhat wrinkled, usually mounted to a card, and with a typed or hand-written notation about the published source from which the picture is derived. 

Medieval Peasant Woman
Some class notes taken by the student are dated January 1950, giving a clear indication of these paintings’ age. But I was especially interested to find as many pictures of medieval costumes as I did.

In fact, some of the medieval pictures were distinctly familiar to me: though I don't know what original source might lie behind the romanticized picture of the medieval peasant woman, I am pretty sure I recognize this Anglo-Saxon monarch, and however many intermediaries there are, the painting still resembles its Anglo-Saxon manuscript original to a surprising degree. Those colors, though!
Anglo-Saxon Monarch

These costume paintings are not high-quality original art, but they are still impressive in their own way, especially when you see all sixty pieces together, and think that they were student work.

In the end, I like the one-of-a-kindness of these things, and the hand-work and care that always goes into a piece of art or a manuscript.

And, it seems to me, finding things like this is itself an important thing to do, or to allow oneself to do: it's a great experience to find something no one else knows about, to come to a feeling of appreciation for it, to share it--or try to--with others.