4/11/21: A Harvick Social Call

Needless to say, I made up the names and swapped around obvious details. The visit really happened though. A secret to this day.

Our publisher sent me bicycling over to the glam edge of town, to courier an important floppy disk of ad copy back to a customer. Soon I delivered the disk, and was pedalling back to the office.

   “Go see Harvick,” a silent but clear voice demanded.

“He’s at work,” I talked back. “He is always at work. And so am I, on the clock.”

“Next left turn,” the voice nudged me.

   “He’s not home!” I argued. This was life before cell phones. There was no way to even call and check. 

   “Get going,” the voice replied.

So I pumped uphill to a posh cul-de-sac with turfy lawns and widely spaced faux castles and faux moats dressed with artificial concrete stone. 

The doorbell rang its Big Ben chimes. No answer. A glance through the garage window showed that the car was of course gone. With a sigh I hopped on the bike again.

   “Backyard,” the voice commanded. “Hurry up already.”

I hurried around to the backyard fence. Out by the pool, a very beautiful young woman was sobbing with head in hands. Now, Harvick’s yard had seen a range of guests and sophisticated props — for filming the time lapsed path of some comet, or solar-cooking mass batches of turkey jerky, or hanging up salvaged organ pipes as novel improvised percussion for touring musicians. What I did not expect to find there was a lovely young lady, or any lady.

   “Why hello, Miss,” I said. “Are you all right?”

She leaped to her feet, flinging back her hair. “No English,” she sobbed, hands up. 

   “Oh. What language do you speak?”

She named three languages. For some reason, people with zero English can all understand that one question.

   “Oh, okay.” One of her second languages was one of mine. “Hello. I’m Mary, an old friend of Harvick’s.”

Her panic turned to amazement. “I’m Edieta.” She opened the gate. We settled on chaise lounge chairs, and soon our languages warmed right up (her “No English” really meant “A fair amount, but I was too scared to talk”) for a nice bilingual girl chat.

Edieta lived with her large family on another continent and hemisphere. One Sunday they were picnicking at the beach. Harvick on one of his conference and research trips stopped by the waterfront. Soon he was entertaining the four-generation dynasty with his childlike enthusiasm, acute scientific curiosity, and improvised magic tricks using local props. The family was so won over that they invited him for dinner. He visited several times, extended his stay for a week at their house, sent gifts upon his return home, visited again for Christmas, and finally wrote her and her parents with an offer: Would she like to come to the States as his house guest? She could see what the country had to offer, and then consider staying and marrying him. He set aside a floor of his castle with bedroom and bath for her separate use and comfort, offering to take her anywhere she wished to go, to help her explore options for her future, and to buy her anything she fancied. 

Now, her six week American vacation was over. Did she like him enough to consider marriage? Or, would she head back home to her family? That morning she had waited for him to leave for work, and sat down outside for a spell of abject weeping.

   “Such a good man and respecting perfect gentleman. And so handsome!” Edieta exclaimed. “And works very hard — day and night.”

   “He is,” I agreed. “And he does.”

   “Even at home he has ideas, and hurries to write them. Or call the men and talk about it.”

   “Harvick loves and lives his profession. Always asking questions and learning.”

   “He says here I can study and work what I want, and he will help with college, career, buy a car, anything!”

   “Harvick respects women and supports their independent ideas. He pushed me to interview for my publishing job; he insisted that I could learn the work, and he was right.”

   “It’s just… he’s away a lot. Working, conferences, lectures.”

   “Yes; he has many invitations to speak and teach.”

   “And I’m here.” She looked around. “What life is this for family? Nobody visits or calls. Not one child or even dog or cat playing, no shops or place to walk. Neighbors drive by, don’t wave. Because I’m foreign?”

   “No no; because this is a ‘bedroom community,’” I tried to explain. “Young faculty establishing their careers. They just come home to sleep. Their social world is campus. In this neighborhood they need cars to get everywhere, so they are not out walking. And no, they are not avoiding you; it’s just that they don’t know Harvick. He lives here only because it is quiet and private for work. He does not take time to meet these neighbors. If you are on campus you will meet his colleagues, their wives, their students.”

   “Does he go to church? Our village goes to church three times a week. We all walk together.”

   “Well… he says that nature is like a church to him.”

   “He did not introduce me to his family! Why?” She threw her hands out. “They don’t visit or call me.”

   “Oh, they… live far apart, and are really busy.” Harvick was an only child. His folks divorced when he was two. The whole family had drifted out of touch years before. 

   “Back at home, families eat together every night, and big Sunday dinner. Sure, they work hard and not much money. But we shop at the bazaar together, cook together, stroll and chat and sing songs, play music, even dance on the plaza.”     

   “Your family sounds wonderful.” Harvick would pay happily for overseas calls and plane visits for Edieta. But he didn’t have a ready-made family or community to offer a new wife or new mother.

   “Mary?” Edieta leaned close, whispering. “He’s got GUNS. Why?? He can buy meat at the store!” 

   “Right. He’s all licensed, and they’re registered. The guns and the cabinet have combination locks. He’s a really safe responsible gun owner. It’s only a hobby to relax from work. He and the guys go out to… like an academy where they practice shooting at… oh, I don’t know; bottles or cans or whatever. It’s common here.”

   “Shooting the bottles?” She gripped her head. “At home they will call it a strange guy. And that snake. This terrifying thing in glass. Just stares at me.”

   “The boa constrictor? That’s Bilbo.” Bilbo was only four feet long. For a boa that’s shoelace size, but he wasn’t going to get any smaller. “That tank is locked. And he’s pretty chill. I’ve cleaned his cage and given him baths. Just scrub your arms real well with anti-bacterial soap before and after.”

   “No way. We can’t stand snakes at home that they are falling right out of the trees. Put one in the home? Why? By the way, he does not eat.”

   “Sure he does, every month or so. Just mice.”

   “WHAT? No no no, not Blobbo. No, I meant Harvick. Even I am cooking all day, make the table nice and dress up? He can eat in two minutes reading a magazine, say thank you off he goes. Did not notice food or me.”

   “He noticed. He notices everything. He appreciates what people do. He just might not mention it.” 

She looked at me with new interest. “You know him pretty well. How did you meet?”

   “We were students years ago, and then we lived next door in student housing. At the publishing job I edit his magazine articles. I was his secretary on campus. I house sit when he’s away.”

   “Then why didn’t he marry you?”

   “Well…” Right at the start, Harvick had explained his checklist for a future spouse. Criteria included slender, petite, optimally proportioned, adventurous, vivacious, upbeat, appreciative of French wines and hot spices and jazz and direct sunshine and tennis, secular or agnostic a plus. “Because he needs someone like me who he can telephone at two o’clock in the morning to talk about his research! Just so you know.”

   “But no dates?” She sounded incredulous.

   “One. Years ago he saw me read a poster on campus about a dance party. He joked that he’d take me.”

   “Really? What happened next? Did you say yes??”

   “Absolutely! I bought a party dress and got all ready. I waited outside for an hour. Then I waited inside for two more hours. I understood perfectly: he was out in the field with his research and forgot.”

   “No. What did you say to him?”

   “I never said a thing. He was working. It was an innocent mistake.”

   “But all that time together, did he ever try to… well…”

   “No.” My spirits fell a bit at thought of the legion of Harvicks marching through my life. They were brilliant, super-achieving, breadwinning, handsome, cultured, generous, loyal, eager to seek me out to discuss their achievements and dating adventures with me as a good listener and all-round pal. Then they all found spouses and moved on — larger than life, legends like the Terracotta Army warriors of Shaanxi.

Edieta shook her head, gripping my hands. “Please don’t think too bad of me! But really — just I like to go back home. Is it all right?”

   “Have you called your family about this, Edieta?” I was very touched that she cared what I thought, some accidental visitor who she’d known for all of twenty minutes. It sounded wise for her to take more time to think, perhaps make an extra trip or two, than to rush into a wedding. And right now she needed her family’s shared view and support more than anything.

   “No, we didn’t talk! No phone in our house. Only my uncle has a phone, but he’s an hour of walk away.”

I felt sorry about missing these six weeks with Edieta. If only that intuitive voice had come along 40 days sooner! I could have borrowed a bicycle for her. I would have taken her with me to church and the farmers’ markets and music events. There were other language speakers among the faculty and their wives and students. She could have been happier then. Would that have helped? Why didn’t Harvick tell me! A friendly sociable guest with hesitant English — was leaving her alone in suburbia the best courtship approach? Maybe it was his adamant respect for women and their right to make up their own minds. Perhaps he was showing her a realistic slice of his life as it was. 

Harvick never did mention Edieta. Neither did I.  

Soon afterwards, at a conference, a high-tech software entrepreneur spotted him at the podium as a keynote speaker. She read about him in the printed program, then sent her business card to his hotel room with a bottle of French wine and two tickets to dinner at a jazz club. After that weekend, she spelled out for him exactly when and where and how he was going to marry her, and it didn’t take him any six weeks to make up his mind. After the honeymoon his new wife moved to town and invited us friends and the neighbors home for a torchlit Indian feast with all the spices. She was lithe, soft-spoken, gorgeous, poised as a lion tamer. With a single up and down glance she approved of me and Harvick’s wee-hour phone calls; I guess she got more rest that way. Soon she coordinated his career and tenure promotion and invitation calendar, his patents and grants and interviews with the media. She found a home for Bilbo and the organ pipes, sold the castle, bought a Mediterranean villa with vineyard and beach for their early retirement. Last we heard, they do a little remote consulting for fun, bottle their own wine, take the boat out, cycle around, play tennis. They’re doing fine.

Meanwhile, Edieta began to weep again. “Of course he is so kind and share everything,” she cried. “But… Mother of God, I am lonely! Really this house alone with snake looking at me and town of the dead will make me off my mind. Back home, I did not even know how happy we are together. I miss them to break my heart!” 

She walked me to the gate. We hugged goodbye. “Please Mary, don’t tell him what I said?”

   “I won’t even tell him I came here and found you.”

   “When you came here and found me,” she confided, “I was praying to my mother and my grandma. Mommy? Grammy? Come here I am so scared! Come help me now! Wait — You knew he was at work today. What are you doing here?”

   “No idea,” I had to admit. “Just a feeling.”

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Good Friday, 2021: Message in the Bin

One of the brothers was wronged by another. He came to Abba Sisoes, saying “My brother has hurt me, and I want to avenge myself.” Abba Sisoes pleaded with him in vain to leave vengeance to God. Finally, Abba said “Brother, let us pray…. God, we no longer need you to care for us, since we do justice for ourselves.” Hearing these words, the brother fell at the Abba’s feet, asking for forgiveness. — The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection. Translated by Sr. Benedicta Ward, SLG. Cistercian Publications, Abbey of Gethsemani, KY 1975.

_________________

What a scene.

It’s a peak moving out day in our complex. Household belongings, from pillows to pots, are heaped up in the dark in the garbage cage. Once again I’m dragging debris out of bins and re-sorting because once again, people didn’t heed the signs. They threw glass bottles a-smash in the landfill dumpster, disposable diapers in the food compost, and even a plastic infant crib/dresser in the recycle bin, leaving the lid jammed open to the rain — as if plastic furniture is ground up into plastic atoms to clone a fresh new crib. Before moving out these people should have planned ahead, maybe posted this to a giveaway website so some other family could use it.

The open crib drawer has a torn envelope and a note with official agency letterhead, a date several months old. Pounce! As Helen Mirren said (film role Mrs. Porter, “Door to Door,” 2002) “Now I have proof!” A glittering shard of crafty cleverness worms its way to mind, insinuating sweetly that I should take this note to Management, so they can have a parting word with these carefree sorting scofflaws. One triumphant righteous glance at the address, and… it’s a message to this effect. Now that we have taken your baby away to foster care, we have discontinued your medical and maternal benefits. Last year, your child’s father sent you child support for a total of [fillable field] $39.17. 

She was our neighbor. She needed help, and now she’s gone. And I’m in a cage with windblown debris under a yellow floodlight. Cradling a letter in hand and rocking back and forth, pulling up the inside of the sweatshirt to wipe my eyes. One baby with no idea where Mom is now. One Mom needing all the maternal benefits and support and care in the world. 

Soon the letter is smoothed out, refolded, tucked inside the envelope, put in the closed crib drawer. After some careful dragging around, now the recycling lid will close and shelter the crib as it waits for the truck. Like an emptied fish tank or hamster wheel, but with purple ponies with big eyes frisking around. They look full of fun and ready to play.

Along the path back to the house up the steps and through the trees, the cage floodlight grows fainter and fades out. The rain turns into snow.

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3/11/21: Calling Security (or, You Really Oughta Be in Pictures)

Being detained by Security was only one small part of a day that was not going well.

The guard (strong build, square jaw, sharp gaze, raised voice, military air of authority) kept me for 20 minutes of rapid-fire inquiry before letting me go. And, no wonder: security personnel are trained to pick up on erratic and evasive behavior, even in a crowd.

The whole fracas came from Dean’s photo shoot idea. Dean (not his real name) was a new graduate teaching assistant in the doctoral program of a neighboring department. He had good prospects, affluent background, showy good looks, and a sunny disposition. All day every day, at the hourly rush from lecture to lecture, he and his friends jostled past me and my friends in the halls, calling hellos and good-natured jokes. Dean’s teasing was erudite, witty, cheerful, and deeply observant of me and my appearance. Now according to the culture where I grew up, any demonstration of attention whatsoever from a man toward a woman must be appreciated as flattery and answered with a smile. So I smiled through Dean’s hazing during department receptions and parties, and when Dean and his buddies invited me and my roommates out for pizza. One night he gave us a ride home in his car. Next, he decided that I ought to be in pictures.

Dean’s creative Muse stipulated a photo session alone at his apartment, without his friends or mine, and a glass or two of wine to enhance the mood. He offered to pick me up at my house, and to drive me right back to my door. And, he instructed me to first go out and buy a flattering feminine blouse, and apply some makeup. “Let’s find out who you are when you’re not running away with your girlfriends or hiding under those turtlenecks and head scarves and glasses and hair.”

Any English ballad would say that all you fair maids should beware of guys who hold out a promise of greater glory, cut us out of the herd, take us off our familiar turf, lay down rules, and pay lots of attention that we didn’t think to ask for. The ballad would add that with facial recognition technology, you don’t know where that picture will go or why. What’s the rush? 

But my roommates were thrilled. My parents were thankful that I was meeting nice college men. My graduate advisor, who hailed from Dean’s same Alma Mater, pointed out my admirer’s advantageous connections. At our university, people were expected to network all the time, positioning ourselves with strategic key figures in government, law, the economy, international relations, and the media. My social circle recognized right away that an hour with Dean was a good piece of luck for me.

I listened to everybody’s pep talk about taking on some glamor and coming out of my shell. Still, I wondered: When shelled animals unshell themselves, doesn’t that generally indicate a state of death? And “glamor” was originally an accusation that a woman was casting fairy stardust into men’s eyes, inciting them to lose their sense of reason. To call a woman glamorous, charming, fascinating, enchanting, intriguing, beguiling, alluring, tempting, bewitching — those used to be fighting words, shouted by villagers gathering with torches or stones in hand. Why a new picture of me, when other pictures of me looked bewildered and constrained? Why not meet on campus, for a scenic backdrop? Why bring in alcohol? Why not invite the girlfriends, who were all beautiful, dressed the part, and were eager to be seen. For that matter, why not photograph them?

My roommates objected to all this existential hand-wringing. Would you rather sit alone at home for the rest of your life? Go out for an hour to a man’s apartment! Drink a glass of wine! He’s FACULTY, for pete’s sake; what can go wrong? Dean himself cut off my questions, spelling it out in basic English: Show up for the portrait this Saturday night, or he and his social set would never speak to me again.

Wait, Saturday night? That meant no sacrament of confession, no evening Mass, no weekend stroll to the Cathedral to sit in the winter garden at sunset and watch the red-tailed hawks sail in figure eights around the bell tower. It meant missing weekend dinner with the roommates and our piling up on the couch with quilts in our jammies and robes, with pasta and ice cream sundaes for girltalk and TV. 

Instead, on Saturday I had to set out on Dean’s homework assignment to go buy a new blouse with some style to it. That ruled out my cherished one-stop wardrobe solution,  Zed’s Army Navy. Zed’s industrial loft had nice dim lights and a ripply wood floor and laconic retired veterans on staff who took a shine to me, and would point me toward surplus bargains that they could tell would make me feel comfortable and protected. 

But no, this mission called for a trip to the department store. There in Women’s Fashions I stood gaping amid fluorescent lights, ceiling announcements and bells and boings, disco muzak, echoing toddlers, aromas of cinnamon buns and popcorn butter and fabric dye, and the touch of static-cling textiles in counter-intuitive indigestible colors. The store security guard tracked me at a distance while I rummaged along with rising anxiety, speed-reading through the racks. Then, in Last Chance clearance, there was a burlappish corduroy the color of tan M&Ms with a high wrap-around collar. The $14.99 made me wince (for that money you can go to Zed’s and get two rugged turtlenecks.) But it was hands down the ugliest ragmop imaginable, which was exactly my hidden agenda.

Now to beeline for the cash register and pay up. Or… was I supposed to go in the dressing room and take off half my clothes and try this contraption on? I gripped the shirt, looking for the exit. Pay and run? Try it on? Try then pay? Drop it and flee? Unable to act or think, I zoned out for a moment and fixated on a mirror display of silk flowers and felted wool songbirds. The stuffed birds made me smile. They looked like the tiny felted partridges in Grandma’s Christmas decorations from childhood. I wished that I could take a bird home for my room. 

Another shy customer materialized at a side mirror panel, looking as miserable as I felt, drawn close by the same felted fauna. He was a tall cowering young man with long hair and abjectly blanched complexion. Reaching out to pet a bird, I threw him a sympathetic glance. He glanced right back. It took a moment to figure out that the shrinking youth was my reflection. By then the security guard had seen enough, and marched me to the back room. 

After the security guard had checked on my story and let me go, I bought the blouse and trudged home from the department store in the cold, worn out and shivering and increasingly apprehensive. It felt as if Dean’s camera shutter was going to take away a piece of my soul, and forever after I would have even more trouble recognizing myself in the mirror. To avoid being alone with him in his car, I called Dean and told him I’d get there myself on the bus. (“I’ll drive you home,” he quipped. “Tonight or tomorrow — your choice.”) I hung up the phone feeling desperate for some hot cocoa and a long nap and early bedtime with a good book. But, to keep from making everybody angry at me and then sitting alone the rest of my life, I laundered and ironed the tan M&M burlap shirt, showered up, and washed my hair. I packed a turtleneck and head scarf in my knapsack. I added a hot loaf of my fresh baked Anadama molasses bread as a gift. I dressed up and sat, feeling like a sheep at a 4-H judging show, while my roommates applied my makeup. They brushed back the curly thatch of bangs that sheltered my eyes from the world and the world from me, and pinned my hair up tight with a mist of hair mousse. They clipped on earrings, sprayed on perfume, and hollered advice as I headed out for two buses and a long walk. 

At Dean’s, the adventure fizzled out in about seven minutes. My host was seriously miffed that over his strenuous objections I sweetly held my knapsack and coat on my lap, instead of letting him take them away to the bedroom. He was appalled by the shirt. He was offended that I took only one sip of wine and no more, and that I clearly wouldn’t appreciate an excellent vintage if I fell in the oaken vat. He insisted that I pose with a lighted cigarette, which was not part of our original agreement; so I resorted to Fool of Gotham mode and clasped it like sidewalk chalk, breaking the filter. Then under the tan burlap collar he spotted a gold cross, Mom’s gift for high school graduation. That was the last straw. Urgent as he’d been to get me into his apartment, he was practically frantic to get me out of it again.

And that was fine, because we found out that the photo shoot was a practical joke. Dean figured that the image of me trying to look sophisticated would make for a hilarious pinup girl at the honors fraternity house. But the guys there were indignant at his choice of a sporting target. Word through the grapevine reached my graduate advisor, who took a very dim view of such shenanigans from a fellow Bearcat or Trojan or however the men at the old school fancy themselves. My girlfriends were furious, and rallied to my defense and support. Later one roommate reported that my name came up at a beer keg bash, and Dean ventured cautiously that I seemed like a nice girl. He remained a successful man about town, but somehow his presence didn’t really cross my radar; I just didn’t seem to notice him any more. 

That night outside his apartment I shook my hair down and took off the earrings. I pulled the turtleneck and head scarf out of my knapsack, and bundled up. Instead of waiting around alone on a corner downtown for the hourly transfer bus home, I decided to catch the student shuttle by heading down to the waterfront and over the interstate bridge and up to campus. Halfway across the river I stood munching my Anadama and admiring the city skyline, and the lights of our Cathedral miles away, up on our hilltop.

Still, there must be some shared ancestral vision that delights in discovering unexpected glory in unlikely places. We thrill to fashion makeover magazines, or antiques on appraisal in TV shows, or ancient gold coins plowed up in a cornfield. Maybe that’s what Dean was looking for. That’s certainly what I dreamed of, on that stone bench in the winter garden, and that’s what my girlfriends wanted for me: to be seen in the eye of the right beholder — by someone perceiving genuine beauty without, because that someone carries genuine beauty within themselves.

Happily, genuine beauty in the right beholder is how this English ballad ends. Because that’s what she had and that’s what she was, with her strong build and square jaw and sharp gaze and raised voice and military air of authority, when she muscled in to my reverie of flowers and birds.

   “Come with me,” the security guard ordered. “In that door. Sit down. Whatta you got?” 

   “Shirt, Officer. Ma’am.” I held up the price tags. “Just going to pay for it.”

   “I did not ask what that is, Miss. I asked what you GOT,” she demanded. “I was talking to you out there, and you didn’t even notice. You got diabetes? Pregnant, faint, or what? You are white as a sheet. Need a doctor? Husband or boyfriend here? Parents? Somebody I can call?”

   “Why… no, Ma’am. I must be coming down with something. It’s okay. I can walk home. It isn’t far. I’ve got four roommates right there.”

   “Hold on.” She stepped out to a vending machine and bought orange soda and cheese crackers. “You are not leaving this room for twenty minutes. You sit here, and eat those.”

If only I had acted with more presence of mind than any other scrap of wildlife fished from an oil slick and thrown free. If only I’d been able to think straight, get her name, tell store management what she did for me, go back with that hot loaf and give it to her instead. But with that dissociated mind and dislocated conscience I have no memory of eating those crackers or thanking her or leaving that back room.

Over the years other Deans, bigger smarter ones, came and went; they are all around, common as rocks. And every time one showed up, with every decision correct or incorrect, I thought about that guard and wondered what she’d say. If only I could let her know that. “Security” was the right name for her calling, because security is what she gave to me. God willing, maybe I can give some to someone else one day.

Next morning, Sunday at sunrise, I threw the M&M shirt in the garbage can and headed out for early Mass and on to the Cathedral and the winter garden. 

Up over the bell tower the red-tailed hawks still soared in circles, free as ever.

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3/2/2021: Lent with Father Seraphim

Father Seraphim Aldea out in the Hebrides is preparing for Orthodox Lent by taking a walk to the shore, and is bringing the camera along. (I don’t know who held the camera while he hopped the fence and approached the water, but it made for some pretty scenery.)

Twice a week he posts these very small talks about monasticism. An endearing theme in each talk is his response and self-effacing humor to the technical details that pop up in filming: mud underfoot, a migraine, a storm, criticism from the readers, struggling to get used to new eyeglasses, waiting for the tea to boil. (My favorite was the time a goat stood behind him during filming and quietly started to eat his cassock.) For me in this pandemic year, living and working in solitude, his small clips have always brought something good to hear and see and to think about during the day.

Today Father talked about how for Lent we can set aside a little secret place between our hearts and the heart of God.

“How to Go Deeper During Lent. A Heart’s Secret with God & the Courses of our Thoughts”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nT2r0K5IuxY

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2/22/21: Why Not Serenade The Neighbors

Taking out the recycling one night, down at the apartment complex garbage bin cage I saw our two delightful neighbors from Iran.

After friendly remarks about the weather and our pandemic, as a conversation pleasantry I said “Why don’t I go learn an Iranian song, and sing it for you?” Whatever they were expecting to hear coming from a figure in the dark emerging from a garbage cage, they responded with gracious good humor. “A song? Sure!”

So I got to work learning “Jan-e Maryam,” because it’s a glorious song and who wouldn’t want to learn it? especially after hearing beloved singer Mr. Mohammad Noori:

Jane Maryam- جان مریم https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y7DbEmNukh8

The next week as promised I sang that at the garbage cage. Our two neighbors rained down appreciation upon my head. That was a good life lesson. Namely, it doesn’t matter a hill of beans whether we can sing or not, we can still pick a musical tribute and just go surprise somebody.

Next, our two neighbors enthusiastically suggested a new Iranian song to learn, from the classic film “Soltan-e Ghalbhaa,” or “King of Hearts.” In this finale below, the song interrupts a wedding and reunites the prospective bridegroom with his long-lost wife who had lost her eyesight and so couldn’t find him but he finds her because of her singing voice, and as the credits roll the reunited characters join hands and sing their song together. How sweet and appealing is that??

Iran’فردين در سلطان قلبها Fardin in Soltane Ghalbha’_low.mp4

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rB9Jxvf3g_U

“King of Hearts” was a big hit down at the garbage cage, so our good neighbors assigned “Cheshme Man (My Eyes)” by Dariush. In this clip, whenever Dariush starts the refrain, he can just turn the microphone and point it at the audience, because they are leaping to their feet singing it themselves.

Dariush Eghbali – Cheshme Man (My Eyes) – English Subs

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u9xtpdkqB4Y

Meanwhile, the dear wife of my old friend expressed a fondness for “Ay Que Noche Tan Preciosa,” which is the “Happy Birthday” song as it is done up properly in Venezuela, composed by Mr. Luis Cruz. Here is Mr. Cruz himself at a party, with his friends singing away at minute 5:21.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VkVEtNE-mAw

So I studied up and sang it to the two of them over the phone. That inspired my old friend to sing us a real treat: “Happy Birthday” as sung for generations in his family with a lovely childhood poem, to the refrain at minute 3:05 of this “Merry Widow” waltz by Franz Lehár.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7gE-TQE4wHE

So I practiced that at work today while filing papers. By the time his birthday rolls around it would be nice to try singing it to him.

Yesterday I sang the Venezuelan birthday song to a friend during a long-distance phone call. It wasn’t her birthday, and she’s from Guatemala not Venezuela, but she was happy anyway and asked me to send her the words and music.

Now out of the blue two old friends invited me to join their virtual choir! They went and talked to their musical director and put in the paperwork and paid the membership fee! That’s five new pieces to learn and a whole new experience of singing just one track and just one exact set of notes as written, and learning how to videotape too.

After recording those, who knows what song requests will come up. But one for sure will be learning “Cheshme Man,” just like all those people in the audience did because it meant so much to them. It would be nice to learn more birthday songs too.

Now this is just one vote in a blog whose readers live mostly in Kyrgyzstan and China. (What do they sing for birthdays there?) But if we can’t touch people or eat with them or visit their house or nursing home or invite them over or go somewhere in the car or bus —

Why not go serenade the neighbors?

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1/7/21: An Ethiopian Merry Christmas

Orthodox Christians in much of the world observe Christmas by the Julian Calendar on January 7th. My dear co-worker on the facilities crew is from Ethiopia. He prepared for Ethiopian Orthodox Christmas throughout their Advent fast: 43 days with no animal products whatsoever, no oils or fats, and no food (or water?) before or after his one small everyday meal at 3:30 in the afternoon. But all through the fast he kept working, charging ahead through the same laborious heavy tasks as always, on his feet from 6:30 to 3:30 every day. During fasting seasons year round, like his 50 days before Paskha, I like to bring fasting food to work. We sit and share our lunches; beans, vegetables, injira teff bread. He tells me wonderful stories about the culture and customs back at home.

Christmas festivities, church at Lalibela

On Christmas Eve, after a strict fast all day long, everyone enters church holding a lighted candle at 6:00 pm. There they stand chanting until 3:00 am — the hour of the birth of Jesus, when families go home for their Christmas feast. Here is a small glimpse of the festive celebration. (The churches of Lalibela are made of one solid block of stone, created by hand-carving down from ground level.)

On January 8th my colleague came looking for me, to wish me a Merry Christmas. In these pandemic times his own church was closed down, and he couldn’t travel to visit any of his relatives or friends in other cities. We couldn’t even share our lunch breaks; I had to leave his lunch in a labeled bag in the company fridge. All he and I could do to celebrate was stand with our masks on 15 feet apart, shouting greetings in Amharic and exchanging air hugs. But he was radiant with the joy of the season, and eager to leave a Christmas treat for me: the beautiful card shown above, and my own home-baked slice of fragrant honey cardamom whole wheat bread.

And to think that until this kind generous man came to work several years ago, I knew absolutely nothing about Ethiopia or its beautiful culture. Every day, there are people who live and work around us, carrying inside themselves the most amazing worlds of wisdom and beauty. Sitting in my cubicle and eating my bread, it was a blessing to think how human connections like these are a real treasure of life.

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12/20/20: The Play House

(The house in this picture is not the same dwelling as the one in this story, for reasons which will be clear soon. It is added here only for ambient nostalgia value.)

On Day 1, Mom was kneeling in the back room. Planks and wood pieces were stacked on the floor. On graph paper she was marking measurements and angles, and penciling the wood using a tape measure and yardstick. 

   “Mom?” I was back from the bus after my half day at school. “Whatcha doin’?”

“Never you mind,” she said with a smile, and went on working on her latest project.

Mom was always working, doing everything perfectly and fast. She could make anything out of anything. She thought things up, then made them with her own two hands. She scrubbed and painted and polished, cooked and baked. In spare time she sewed clothes,  knitted sweaters and scarves, and crocheted afghan quilts. She painted rooms and hung wallpaper. She got bricks and concrete and built steps and a garden wall. She raised fruit and vegetables. She made glass pendants and silk flowers and stuffed animals and tartan wool plaid covers for my schoolbooks. One time she traced my feet on a piece of thick cork and cut it into soles and crocheted snug sandals out of cord with wool tops. I was excited about trying them on, but she threw them away because they weren’t as good as the ones that she imagined. 

On Day 3, the back room was all cleared and swept.

   “Where is the wood?” I asked.

   “Go out back and look,” she said, mixing up a meat loaf in the kitchen.

I ran outside. There in the backyard under the neighbor’s dogwood tree was a brand new little house, just the right size for someone like me. The light solid wood shone palomino color in the sun. The house had a step, and a plank floor, and a door and window, and a peaked roof with a scalloped strip all around, like a gingerbread house in a fairy tale.

I ran in to the kitchen. “Mom! A play house? For me??”

   “For you.” She patted the meat loaf into shape and lit the gas oven.

   “Can I invite my friends for tea parties, and take the doll dishes outside?”

   “Yes. It’s your play house. You can play any way you want.” She scrubbed the potatoes.

   “Can I put my blackboard there and play school?”

   “Yes! It’s your play house. Go ahead.” She wrapped the potatoes in foil.

   “Can I grow flowers in the window and put crumbs there for the birds?”

   “YES,” she laughed. “It’s YOUR play house! Wash hands for supper.”

That night I couldn’t fall asleep thinking about the play house. We can have tea parties with the doll tea set. We can put up the blackboard and run a school for the little kids on the street. In the window we can hang flowers. Like, red geraniums or something bright. If I put out bread pieces and stay still, the birds can come and feel safe there with me.

On Day 4 I ran home from school. At our house there was wood at the curb. They were light lumber pieces broken here and there with the nails torn out, and strips of scalloping all next to the trash can waiting for the garbage truck.

I ran into the kitchen. “My play house! What happened?”

   “Oh I don’t know.” Mom was working hard, scouring the stove. “Some boys came through the yard and acted up. They wrote on the wall, or something. Don’t breathe in here, I sprayed oven cleaner. Go play outside!”

I went out under the dogwood tree and stood in the rectangle of flat grass. It was a wrong time to talk to Mom. She needed everybody to leave her alone and let her work. And even later, there was no point in asking. She moved on right away to her next project, designing and supervising every step when a construction crew put on a new second floor and new bathroom. Then she sanded down the floors, and got a team to put down varnish. She braided rag rugs for the doorways. She sewed upholstery covers and bolsters for the old sofa to make it look nice. She started running a Scout troop, and the church education program, and the school drama club. 

Now it’s miles and years away, in a town full of fine woodcraft construction. Older homes and yards come with toy houses, child sized. Some are in branches with rope ladders. Some are on boulders in rock gardens. Some have little box hedges and tiny gates. Some have shutters, flower boxes and curtains, or tables and chairs. There are name signs, ceramic lawn animals, bright colors softened down by weather and moss. All of them look well scuffed and played in, by people grown and gone. 

Passing by, I always stop and admire, and think back to a story with another ending that says “Sweetheart, sometimes when you build something beautiful, the world will come and try to hurt it. For us, it was boys who maybe don’t have a play house, or parents to build it. But you and I can scrub off what they threw at the walls, or paint over what they wrote there. Maybe the house won’t ever be as good as new. But we can still care for it. It can still be ours.” 

Little houses in older-fashioned yards have a cozy sentimental appeal. But they don’t shine like mine did, the night I jumped out of bed to look at its window and door and scalloped roof. In my dreams it’s gleaming there still, moonlit palomino wood and trim angles and fresh smell. It’s spilling over with red flowers and eager birds. The lady of the house is caring for them all, serving bread bits and tea for everybody. 

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Salve Regina

Tonight at the shopping center bus stop it was getting dark and cold.

I hopped around foot to foot singing “Salve Regina,” or “Hail, Holy Queen” — not the zippy number in the film “Sister Act,” but the chant at Catholic evening prayers.

We Catholics are fond of our Hail, Holy Queen; no rosary is complete without that prayer at the end. Thomas Merton writes about it in The Seven Storey Mountain, in part III chapter 3, “The Sleeping Volcano.” At that point in the memoir, after agonizing for ages over whether he has a vocation to the priesthood, he takes a long night walk at St. Bonaventure’s Monastery, and prays for help:

“Suddenly, as soon as I had made that prayer, I became aware of the wood, the trees, the dark hills, the wet night wind, and then, clearer than any of these obvious realities, in my imagination, I started to hear the great bell of Gethsemani [Monastery] ringing in the night — the bell in the big grey tower, ringing and ringing, as if it were just behind the first hill.The impression made me breathless, and I had to think twice to realize that it was only in my imagination that I was hearing the bell of the Trappist Abbey ringing in the dark. Yet, as I afterwards calculated, it was just about that time that the bell is rung every night for the Salve Regina, towards the end of Compline. The bell seemed to be telling me where I belonged — as if it were calling me home.”

Like Thomas Merton I was headed home too in a more ordinary sense, after a trip to the Goodwill Store to replace a pair of everyday trousers. The managers at Goodwill, God bless them with health & safety, came up with fine precautions. They’ve cleared out half the merchandise, widened the aisles, shut down the fitting rooms, mandated face masks for entry, put up hand sanitizer stations, and reduced the number of shoppers allowed in. That should have kept things in pie order. But then I got in line to pay for my purchases. All of a sudden, between me and the exit, ahead and behind and to the right and left, the cash-registers-&-donations corner suddenly turned into some post-holiday flash mob superspreader gleefest. I should have dropped the shopping basket and bolted for the door. But my first reflex for that last five minutes was to yank my sweatshirt up over my cloth mask, shielding my head toward a display of tutti-fruity gummy worms, with the judgmental thought “Is it so hard to count up to a social distance of six feet?”

Soon, outside under clearing but dark storm clouds in the falling dusk, while taking huge breaths of open air, I realized with repentance that anyone vaguely in touch with modern living would have realized that this was Black Friday Weekend (!), a sub-optimal choice for social distance shopping. Was I now just a walking viral vector? Resolving sadly to stay even farther away and barricaded off from absolutely everyone for their protection, my discouraged mind latched on to the evening prayer “Salve Regina.” In the wind and headlight glare I belted out the Latin words over and over until the bus appeared.

Upon arrival at home, sitting down with a nice bowl of oatmeal, it was slightly disconcerting to see my internet feed algorithm immediately serve up “Salve Regina.” But at least it was a sweet version of 450 voices in a virtual pandemic recording by Canto Católico.

The visual film calls to mind the gradual individual-to-group unifying theme that one would see from The Piano Guys, that is if devout Latter Day Saints went around singing to Mary at the bus stop. The video shows little clips of the contributing singers praying the rosary with their families. The thought of having a family to pray with had me bursting into tears right away.

Bedtime. Clouds are gone; we’re due for heavy fog and frost in the morning. The moon out this window is 98.7% full, waxing and rising. Tomorrow is the first day of Advent. Goodnight, Moon. Goodnight, Holy Queen.

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11/15/2020: Ruination Shoes

Our Festschrift Day excitement began at 6:00 am.

The team hit the ground running. We racewalked to the all-night copy center, to food services, to the research library to scout out a quote that the keynote speaker needed, to the florist, to the ice machine, to the offices of the top brass to round up their written good wishes on a giant greeting card tied up with ribbon, to the trophy/award store to pick up the crystal pyramid with name engraving, to the rest rooms to monitor tidiness and stock up on extra paper supplies. We lined up chairs along the carpet pattern in the auditorium, draped and bannered the dais, tested the panelist microphones, cued up the tape deck with blank cassettes labeled and ready, proofed the names and titles in the invitation list, stacked the programs by the door, set the tables with red cloth, unwrapped the flowers and set them up in vases, set out glasses, filled the pitchers with water and fresh ice, and stood back to admire it all. Show time!

Now our guest of honor was on the way. The scholars had lured him out for this dark and stormy night to preside over an evening of lectures. They didn’t let him know that the lectures were all about him. This Festschrift was a surprise, a whole intellectual bouquet of tributes dedicated to his lifetime accomplishments in academics, research, comparative political systems, and publishing. Tomorrow I’d take the list of panel talks, and enter all the titles in the Invited Presentation section of everybody’s curriculum vitae. Then I’d transcribe the tapes of lectures and extemporaneous comments and questions and answers. Then we’d put that in a manuscript and publish the proceedings in a bound journal for sale in our bookstore and gifts for the experts who attended.

But for now, Catering showed up to take over for the evening. So I headed down the hall for the two-block walk to the back of the building, then down three floors to my office. I got out of the good shoes and stockings and long red dress suit, into sensible clothes for the walk home: army surplus trousers, hood sweatshirt, ski hat, supersized khaki knapsack crammed with books from the research library sale, long green rain tarp over all, and the ruination shoes — sneakers with soles peeling off. (Wearing them saved the shoe leather from my better footwear, though they made a comical flippery noise at every step.) With a sigh of relief I stepped out the back utility door and into the wind and rain along the parking lot. Driveway. Dumpsters. Fleeing rat. Loading dock, grated and locked up.

Wait, what?
Facilities was supposed to open that grate at 6:30 pm! At 7:00, Specialty Bakers was due with pastries and a tall tiered cake. If that grate was locked, the courier might drive the cake back and try to call Catering, who were all out of their offices and standing at their posts in the hall. Would he just leave that cake out on the ramp wall? That would be a poor outcome, as any listen to “MacArthur Park” can tell us. Now what? Email and cell phones were years away in the future. This was a job for a personal messenger.

We staff weren’t issued keys to the utility exit. So I ran across the lot for one block to the end of the street, two blocks right, one block right again to the main entrance. I charged past the elevators (both full, both too slow anyway), up two floors, through a bevy of guests, to the Catering team. Soon they beelined for the back door to open the grate.

To catch my breath I backed into the auditorium alcove with its two loveseats and large  mirror. I mopped off my sweating forehead and polished the steam off my eyeglasses. Putting on the glasses I noticed a petite solitary figure on one loveseat, looking lovely in a dress and jacket of turquoise brocade, highlighting her blue eyes and silver hair. 

It was Mrs. Professor.
That’s what she called herself, loyal to an earlier American custom of taking the rank and name of her spouse — our Festschrift guest of honor himself, who even now was running off to the dais. Usually she’d be with him, attracting a circle of their peers. She was always in her element at social gatherings. Why wasn’t she in the auditorium now?

A moment’s reflection turned up a possible reason. Not long before this, Mr. Professor went home for lunch and found Mrs. Professor packing for their summer trip with the children to Mackinac Island. Problem was, there was no trip in the works. This wasn’t summer, and they’d given up that Mackinac house years before, and those kids were middle-aged now with teenagers of their own. Ever since, Mrs. Professor grew distracted and upset in bustle and crowds, and was uneasy alone without Professor at her side.

So after the Mackinac incident, Professor came to the break room to ask the staff for a little favor. He asked us to find him immediately, every time his wife called the office. He also asked us to assure his callers and visitors that Professor would be back soon, at those times when he slipped away to check on his wife at home. Naturally, we were ready to help this kind courtly pair who survived the Depression and his wartime service overseas and some major illnesses together in mutual devotion. It was only right to pitch in a bit for their convenience and comfort.

Now I sidled up quietly to Mrs. Professor, giving her a smile.
She gave me a bright glance and a deep nod, but peered at my face with growing bewilderment. I slid back my rain hood, untied the sweatshirt drawstring, and pulled off the ski cap to give her a better look at me. She’d seen me around the center for years. I was forever trundling in with bookcarts of Professor’s library requests, or with sandwich trays for his seminars, or with a spray bottle and chamois cloth to polish his glass-topped book display table. One time she was amused to see me crawl out from under Professor’s desk after troubleshooting his phone line. She’d praised my Catholic schoolgirl cursive, recording Professor’s messages on little carbon-copy pink slips. And on her calls to the center she even complimented my phone manners.

Those phone manners came in handy now as I started talking to her. At the sound of my voice, she looked relieved and attentive. When I stopped talking her attention unraveled, distracted by the company milling around and their animated chitchat. So I stepped in front, to shield her view from the fuss in the main hall. Then she flinched at the shadow from the rain tarp, so I crouched down at her level. Then I started talking again, floundering around for whatever pleasantries her social set might use. I exclaimed over her lovely outfit and accessories, talked about the weather, pointed out the decorations for this evening’s event.

She nodded agreeably, and extended her hand.
After our handshake I opened my fingers and stood up to sit beside her on the other loveseat. As I drew away, she looked with some anxiety toward the door as if wishing to make her exit. So I knelt down, offering my hand again. She clasped it firmly, smiling again as I went on impersonating more society talk, drawn from editing Professor’s curriculum vitae and tribute biographies and press clips, and from his social anecdotes overheard at the office. I reminisced hearsay details about her adventures living overseas, her elegant supper menus, her heirloom fruit home preserves, her petit point needlework, her dried aromatic flower wreaths and sachets, her pets, her son and daughter, and Professor’s accomplishments listed in the evening’s program. 

In the hall the panelists’ voices festschrifted on and on, with smatters of applause.
Shifting my pack with its load of books, of which one hardbound corner was pressing into my spine, I glanced around to watch for Mr. Professor — and spotted our reflection in the mirror. There we were, in view of the guests. One graceful lady in silver and blue with an apprehensive smile. One wet figure latched on to her hand, towering over in an indecent proposal pose, with Clem Kadiddlehopper shoes and a getup like the rear half of a Morris Dance horse costume. Tears of chagrin sprang to my eyes; so much for my fuss to make it a nice evening, and to be a considerate hostess to a solitary guest. What a spectacle! If this were an advert idea, United Colors of Benneton would turn it down as too edgy.

Mrs. Professor leaned forward. She patted my hand between both of hers. 
She gave me a nod and a smile of encouragement, patting away.
I wiped my eyes with the ski cap, shrugged, and burst out laughing. So did she.

And it could have been the tiredness, or the tears; but somehow things just started blending together. Panelists and guests, caterers to and fro; flowers and pastries and bunting and dumpsters and the one fleeing rat — Whatever! We were all just creatures, running around, trying to team up and make something nice out of a dark evening and talk about meaningful things and have cake. It was just another medieval stained glass window with divine figures trailing glory center stage and then off in the corner some little gargoyle looking on, gnawing on a mangelwurzel.

This lovely lady and I were still holding hands and laughing when Professor came rushing up dressed to go, holding a coat and scarf and crystal pyramid token of esteem. “My dear!” he hailed his wife, offering a startled but kind glance to me and his elbow to her, draping her in her coat. “My dear, shall we?”
She stood and tied his scarf around his neck with tenderness and precision. She fastened his top button, smoothing his lapel. Then she turned to me, fastening my sweatshirt hood drawstring with a little pat. They turned to go. She took his arm.  That was the last I ever saw of them; Professor retired with honors and a warm sendoff, and the two moved off to be with family in quieter climes.

I helped myself to a cream cheese marble brownie for the road, with some supersize dinner napkins. Crossing the bridge in the wind and rain I loped along, admiring the city lights, munching my goody. It was a blessing to be out in the fresh air for a bracing hour’s walk. It was a bigger blessing to get back to my warm room, set down that load of books, and get some rest.

The dinner napkins were just right for packing the ruination shoes and propping open the soles. Set beside the radiator as I crashed headlong into bed and slept, they were dry by morning.

___________________

Fact Check: The house was not on Mackinac. It was in another quaint and scenic getaway. But as disguise devices go, Mackinac had a nice sound. I heard of it in Girl of the Limberlost and a picturesque pastel movie with Christopher Reeve. 

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10/27/20: The Racket

(Small retraction: Historically informed readers may point out an inconsistency, that the hit parade song on the transistor radio was released several years after the change in the name of the airport. They’re right, too.)

Sirens are the loudest. 

It’s like the sky is barking right into your mind, and then wailing like air raids in a war movie. The siren is right over on Allen Street, on a pole in Mrs. R’s backyard. One time Mom went to visit Mrs. R., and I ran outside to play with Beagle. Just then the siren went off. Beagle just wailed around in circles, dragging his soft velvety ears all along the grass. I wanted to catch Beagle and help him, but I fell on the ground holding the bones in my skull. They were buzzing so hard I couldn’t think.

Sirens have to be loud in case Russia drops the bomb. Then we’ll have to get under our desks and say the rosary. So the fire department tests them every day at twelve o’clock sharp. Sirens at noon means it’s probably not Russia and probably nothing’s on fire, just time to stop and pray The Angelus and then walk home for lunch. 

If sirens go off in the dark, it’s maybe Russia but probably something burning. All that howling and hollering is really a code to tell the firemen what zone the fire is, and how many station houses need to come to the rescue and also volunteer men with blue lights on the car dashboard so everybody knows to get out of their way. If the fire gets bigger there are sirens from the next district over, and maybe the one next to that.

When the sirens stop, the worst fire signal is a loud robot voice growling notes that don’t fit together and sound terrible on your nerves: 

EE D-F A, EE D-F A, C-D-C B.  EE D-F A, EE D-F A, C-D-C B.

That sounds like code too. Maybe it says All the children, All the children, are dead. It goes on for a long time. Then it stops and the night is silent. Then it kicks up again. Then it stops and the night is silent. Just when you think it’s over, it’s not! It will kick up a few more times. You can hold your ears and hide your head in your pillowcase. But one time I couldn’t stand the robot voice any more, and trying to escape under the covers I tore the bottom bedsheet right in half.

With all that racket there is no way to get to sleep anyway, so it’s a good time to go check the upstairs windows for smoke, and listen for trucks to make sure they are on the way and not on the way here. Also every night after Mom tucks me in I get up again and line up some clothes and shoes and a snow hat at the foot of the bed to grab and go in case the trucks come for us. The closest it got was late one night at Lombardo’s Shoes with the poster in the window of Papa Geppetto hammering a heel with nails in his mouth. Out the window there was the smoke right over the trees! The boys were allowed to get dressed and run down Hillside Avenue for a look.  

Then in rainy weather, here comes the jet planes. Dad says if you hear a whistle from away far off, then it’s a real jet and not just a regular propellor plane. We’re on the flight path to Idlewild so in the rain or especially fog, planes fly right over the TV antennas. The boys go out and watch for the different airline and plane types, and argue what kind is going over now. Then in the house, the TV picture rolls up every time, and Dad has to wiggle the rabbit ears on top, or reach in the back and jiggle the knob until the picture slows down and stays put. If people are talking and trying to hear each other, or on the phone, they have to just sit and wait until the plane goes by. 

If a room is dark and quiet, and you’re just lying there, it’s easy to hear the first sound. It’s a shivery jingle in the windowpanes, or a spoon in a glass, or china animals on a shelf. If the whistle starts, the jet is on its way. If the lights are really low I go look outside and make sure the pilot is high enough. That’s another reason to keep clothes and shoes handy, because you never know. Then when the lights sweep over the house and things finally stop jingling, it’s ok to lie down until the next plane.

Was that thunder? Oh no. Time to shut the windows and unplug the angel night light, and make sure the lamp is unplugged too. Then I make a nest with the blanket away from the windows at the top of the stairs, and hold the St. Joseph’s Family Bible and look at the color holy pictures inside until the storm is over. If it gets bad Mom will let me come downstairs a while.  

There’s another noise to worry about, and it isn’t even real. It’s being sick in bed with a fever. A fever sounds like cotton balls crashing like cymbals on your ears. Then you can even see your pulse flicking on and off in the shadows and tiny bubbles start filling up the room. The bubbles aren’t really there and bubbles can’t hurt you, but it feels like if the bubbles fill the room you’ll drown. So when they climb the walls I wake up and kick off all the blankets until the cotton crash simmers down and the bubbles go away again. 

Other noises are pretty loud, but mostly they are just ordinary things. The radiators bang and hiss steam, and Mom comes in at night and fills the metal pans on the side with water. Neighbors are yelling in their windows all around, because they didn’t finish their yelling during the day. The dogs are barking news back and forth, and cats fight in the bushes. Hillside Avenue a block away has motorcycles and sometimes drag racers with skidding and brakes. If somebody hits a pole, there goes our lights. Two times there were crashes and people even died. One night a car flipped over turning the next corner, and the men went running to see what happened and meet the police. After a while the rescue people and the tow trucks left, and the men cleaned up the street. Next day the parents didn’t talk about it, and we kids knew better than to ask. When we went out to play in the morning there was nothing left but some glass sparkling on the lawn around the block. 

Sometimes to get some rest I pretend I can’t hear anything any more. I even practice spelling words quietly in the dark, from the hand alphabet in my Helen Keller book.  

But some sounds are fine.

It’s nice to hear Mom up at night taking racks of cookies out of the oven. Or the teenage boys outside on the corner chatting and playing their transistor radio. It’s interesting to hear the hit parade of all the songs if it’s not that Napoleon 14 guy with the clowny voice. There’s a rough chime when the men drag the steel garbage cans to the curb on Monday nights. The trains on the LIRR sound like long harmonicas dippling along higher and then lower and then higher up again, and you can picture the people tucked in to bright square windows going home. 

There are click bugs and crickets or raindrops or icicles or snow. There’s our maple trees all along the street. In winter the branches hum, and in summer they shush their leaves. In storms there’s the tall flag at the garbage dump, and the rope and metal braces bang on the pole and make a nice bell sound Bink Bink.

Televisions downstairs and in the other houses have the vacuum tubes humming really high eeeee and blue lights flickering through the curtains. You can tell all the different shows by the theme songs. Perry Mason is a spider walking up your arm, and then glass bottles rolling around in a speeding car. Bonanza is horses bouncing around if you put twangy rubber bands on their hoofs. Dr. Kildare has a real melody of notes in a soft pattern and it has a harp and church bells. Twelve O’Clock High is even better with even more church bells.

If we are lucky there’s a Goodyear Blimp going to the World’s Fair with bright electric letters running all along the sides like the sign at Radio City. One time Dad woke us up to go hear crowds of geese honking over the roof, and sometimes he’ll come inside and call us to look out if there’s a satellite. One time the most amazing sound was a mockingbird. My John Kieran book says they are only in The South but there he was right outside in the moonlight, imitating all kinds of other birds.

But the best sound happens right before the sky gets light. First the rooster way over at Rhodes Farm calls out a tiny silver thread of E-e-e-aaa. Then especially if it’s springtime and drizzling, that wakes up the robins. Robins are the nicest sound blending in with raindrops on leaves. There are hundreds of them out there in their trees all over town, knitting their voices together in a whole soft curtain Cheeraleep Cheeraloop wooty-woot Cheeraleep!

That means night is really over. We made it until morning.

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