Archive for May, 2011

#12 The Raft

Claudia and I had worked together for years; she as the office manager, and I as the only woman salesperson.  Our relationship changed when she came to work with me at the agency.  As contemporaries, we  became the best of friends.

Our children were about the same age; she had three boys, and I had too many to talk about.  So, we primarily talked about her boys and their antics, and I gave her my unprofessional therapeutic advice.  We generally had our best talks over the incredibly mouth-watering brownies she made with a topping from sweetened condensed milk, toasted coconut and chocolate chips.  My waistline has never been the same.

That summer of our golden years I had picked up a huge rubber raft with oars at the Army and Navy store,  and Claudia and I decided to take it out on Bantam Lake.  We blew it up at my house, hoisted it onto the car and ran it down to the lake early, just after my kids were on the bus.  Her husband took care of hers for life, but at that time I was in sole charge of mine.  Each of us wore crummy t-shirts, shorts and sneakers.  Our cooler was filled with the luscious brownies, sandwiches and iced tea; a little fruit and Claudia’s cigarettes.

The day was splendid, just as planned; a typical Connecticut morning with bright blue skies and barely a cloud.  When we launched our craft, there was hardly a ripple in the placid waters.  It was a Monday in June and weekenders had left; the lake had few boats on it.  We took turns paddling until we lost one of the sticks.  It was floating just beyond the raft, and I thought I could reach it with the other.  Unfortunately, when I stood up, the raft leaned sideways, and I fell overboard.  “How hard is it to get back into a raft,” I thought.  Claudia had the presence to remain seated in the stern during my fiasco, and the boat, thankfully, did not flip over.

That day I found out how hard it is to lift a leg with waterlogged sneakers out of the water onto a raft.  For an aged woman, it was impossible.  The stars, though, were in position to favor me, and as I hanged on, I was able to inch the shoes off.  Contrary to public opinion, sneakers float only for a certain time, and plastic oars float away at an amazing speed.   I saw them go just as I hoisted myself up and over the side of the raft.

Although we didn’t see any boats we could flag down, the day, we thought, was not an entire loss; our picnic was still intact.  After the physical and emotional exertions, we were starving.    Polishing off the contents of our carry-on, we gave little thought as to how long we might be stranded in the middle of a five-mile long lake.  I decided to remove my shirt thinking I could use it as a mast or makeshift kite, or something to wave at a passing boat, but there wasn’t any wind and no one was on the lake at that time of day.   Lulled by the aimless drift of the water and the warmth of the sun, we hunkered down for a short nap.

I awoke first and nudged Claudia with my bare foot.  By the looks of the sky, we had passed high noon and were reaching beyond mid afternoon.  We had to get serious.  Our drifting had taken us further into the bay, and there were few houses in this protected area, most of them unoccupied until July.  We decided to use our hands as paddles.  At first we were just spinning around, and once our hands were in synch, we started to move inland.  It seemed we were moving at a snail’s pace when we sprang a leak and then time lay suspended.  Using paper cups, we bailed with one hand and paddled with the other.  By the time the state police found us, our little raft had only one section still filled with air, and we were glued to it, paddling with our feet.  Strong arms lifted us into their boat; one of the policemen covered my shirtless, sun-burned back with a blanket.

Claudia had sun poisoning and was out of work for a week; in bed for three days.  A side benefit was that she kicked the habit and gave up smoking.   I recovered quickly, but did, for the first two days, shine as though radioactive.  That same summer we bought individual kayaks and took some lessons.  To this day, we use the lake only for swimming and do our best boating on the Bantam River.  Though we have aged, the brownies have not changed.

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1.  The flagpole at Southeast School was my nemesis on dark summer nights when I crossed the river and ran through an open field  past the school, collapsing in Grandma Torsiello’s yard, minutes from my own.  I lay on top of freshly mowed grass and covered my ears while catching my breath.  The wind, my friend in any other circumstance, caught the metal at the bottom of the pole and slammed it hard, metal against metal, rhythmic, haunting; voices of the past.  It was the year I fell in love with mysteries, a year before I discovered boys.

2.  Dad was in the kitchen getting his tools for our turkey dinner.  Mom was in the hospital, and I had cooked dinner.  The boys, having found my cooling rolls when my back was turned, were outside, hitting with the bat, those perfect, misshapen mounds of dough resilient even to oak.  Dad had a serving fork and carving knife in either hand, running one over the other, metal against metal.

3.  I was 13 and Tommie was 15. To my brother Larry, I was his Nemesis, and I did everything to provoke his ire.  That day, his Nash Rambler was parked in the driveway; washing it before he caught the game at the nearby field.  Watching  him hang the keys under the porch on a rusted nail, I had an idea to start the car and move it closer to the garage.  Tommie thought it was a bad one and stood  outside the car while I turned the key.  I took my foot off the clutch, the way I had seen Dad do it, and the Rambler lurched forward, its wheels turning without my trying.  Front wheels went over the bank, and the front fender hit our burn barrel, metal against metal when the car stalled.  The ball team came running to see what had happened, and before I could think, Tommy pulled me out of the car and sat in himself.   Larry suspected that it was me, but it was Tommy who took the rap.


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#9 New York

John, my oldest brother, was the only one of nine children born in New York City at Jamaica Plains Hospital in the mid 1930’s.  Mom,  younger, by 10 years than Dad, had fallen madly in love with the handsome, slim Northern Italian with a black, brim-turned-down fedora.  Her father, an itinerant farmer, who moved his family from home to home, didn’t like Italians and said my Mom should never call or see them again. When  John came home from the hospital, he slept in an open bureau drawer lined with soft blankets; there was no money for a crib.

During that Depression time, there were few jobs in the country, but Dad had connections in New York, and he drove new cars to Miami and Las Vegas, coming back on the train.  Often, Dad would be longer than expected and Mom learned to ration the peanut butter and bread so Dad would have something to eat when he returned.   One day he came back with a high fever; his body trembling with shivers.  Mom said he was delirious and feared it was pneumonia.  The snow that early spring morning had  turned to slush when Mom wrapped John in all of his blankets and took the money she was saving for boots out of the glass jar with the brass top.  She kissed her handsome man’s fevered brow and said she would be back with medicine.

On foot, buffeted by a March wind, she navigated  the wet sidewalks and flooded streets, and held John tight to her thin coat as they stood at a corner waiting for the light.  She could see the sign for the pharmacy on the next block.

A Packard, the kind Dad drove to his clients, took the corner too fast, and Mom and John were drenched.  With a screech of brakes, the car stopped just beyond, and a well-dressed matronly woman came to their aid.  Apologizing and taking Mom’s arm, she led them to the polished black car, and her man helped them in.

The penthouse apartment on Park Avenue was filled with thick oriental rugs, precious porcelain imports and a blazing fire in the livingroom where she was led.  The woman offered to take John while Mom dried off with thick cotton towels.  She ordered tea and breakfast and noticed the young mother’s wet shoes.  Restoring John to Mom, she went into another room and came back with a thick wool coat and high black boots that buttoned to the side.  “We’re just about the same size,” she said, “try these on.  I just bought some new ones.”  Mom was reluctant; proud, didn’t take handouts, but she was also practical and knew about answered prayer.  She tried; they fit.

The woman had her chauffeur drive Mom to the drugstore, where she found medicine.  She also found a $50 bill in the pocket of her new coat.  When she and John returned to the little apartment, and he was tucked into his bureau drawer, fast asleep, she woke her young husband, gave him a dollop of the medicine, and took off her coat and new boots to lie beside him.

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#8 Art

Luke wanted a blue dinosaur and Lilly wanted a pink fairy,

but it was Emma who decided to paint her own design.

There was a table set up with watercolors, paint, brushes and paper,

and Meg had her own corner as designated face painter.

Isaiah was using puffy paint on the black iron table,

but Jadyn took off shoes to dunk her feet in the fish pond.

Emma went to the table for finger painting,

and paper plates filled with blobs of blue and red and green and yellow.

Emma put stripes on her face, wiping her finger on paper towels,

but she made sure the caterpillar was still in the paper cup lined with grass.

OJ was snoozing on the lounge chair in the shade,

and the mommies and daddies were at the picnic table with Poppa.

Noni went into the house to write a story,

but she brought marshmallows, graham crackers and chocolate bars.

We all made s’mores, and went to the parade,

and missed it; too late.

So we had watermelon,

but couldn’t have a rock from Poppa’s pail,

and we went home.

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#7 Tree Peony

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#6 Benediction

Late August sun bathed the cozy, west-facing second-floor apartment with light and shadows.  Her white hair shone translucent as she offered each of us cookies and lemonade, Jesse’s favorite.

 Jesse, my youngest daughter of three, drug addicted for over a year, had been on the streets for three weeks and suddenly, as though she had never left, came home.  I awoke that morning to bathe myself in prayer and was going to that sacred place when our eyes met.

 Her beautiful, almond-shaped eyes were sunken into dark-circled sockets; her figure, once shapely and golden was emaciated and colorless.  Dressed in shorts, a tank top and sandals, she looked to be a teen-age runaway of 13 rather than an adroit college graduate of 23.  Lovely golden hair that I longed to brush was as tangled as a hare’s warren.  Neither of us spoke, and the silence washed over us in centrifugal waves.

 “Mom, can I stay?”  The spell of silence was broken.  “I’ll die if I go back.”  A voice unrecognizable, surely not mine,  from the bowels of hell itself,  said, “No.”   As we both contemplated the finite quality of the word,  I wrapped my arms around her frailty.  The word had resonated, bounced off the walls and ceilings, and settled as a fine ash.

Jesse stayed the day, sleeping through most of it.  Refreshed, and washed of all street debris, I asked, “Will you visit Grandma with me?”  “Yes,” she said, after I make a few calls.”

Mom told us she had been sick that night and spent the day with my sister.  “Something tugged at me all day,” she said, “and I knew I had to come home.”  Frail, a bit unsteady on her feet, she walked us to the door.

“Mom,” Jesse said, “Grandma is on the deck waving to us.”  My mother was bathed in sunlight; an aura of gold wrapped her from head to toe.  In a timeless pose, she raised her hand to wave.  blowing us a kiss, she held her hand upright as though in benediction.  Her last words were, “I love you Jesse.”

We left.  Jesse’s friend picked her up; no phone number to reach her; no forwarding address.  We hugged tight, and it was me who finally let go.  I waved as they drove out of the driveway; blew a kiss.

The phone call came to my brother’s house.  My mother had died, perhaps minutes after we had left.  Months later, Jesse called me from rehab, her third try.  “I’m ready to live,” she said, “will you help?”  There was no hesitation.  “Yes, come home.”

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