In praise of stuff

A month ago my neighbor called. “Do you have a big canning pot?”

“Of course,” I say.

“Can we borrow it?”

“Of course.”

He came right over to get it. “The electricity was off for days at my cousin’s and all the berries thawed out in the freezer. Mom is going to make jam. Do you like jam?”

“Heck yeah!” I say.

The canner is way up on a high shelf. It has a tool to pick up jars too. “Do you need the lids?” I ask.

“No, we are good.”

I got the canner back a few days later with a beautiful jar of jam. Yum.

I am going against the fashion tide. My house is not spare and elegantly decorated. I joke that it is decorated in “Pack rat Cat lady”. I have two cats. My daughter wants me to not get ten or twelve. I don’t want ten or twelve either. Two is fine.

I have stuff. I have a house like my grandparents. Though really, I have less stuff than they did or than my parents did.

I loved my maternal grandparents house. It was an old farmhouse near Trumansburg, New York. My grandfather was a psychiatrist and professor at Cornell. The old farmhouse had a “newer” house built on, colonial style, in the 1860s. Fourteen foot ceilings and a fireplace in every room. There was a grand entrance with Corinthian columns that was almost never used. The hallway had a grand staircase and a spectacularly uncomfortable horsehair couch. My cousin always said she wanted it: I hope she got it. There was a back stairway as well, in the old house. The door from the newer house to the older one upstairs went into the attic, which was full of all sorts of mysterious old things. My sister and I were three years apart and had three other cousins between us and we all played for hours. We dressed up in my mother’s 1950s prom dresses and made fun of all of it. There was another attic, with a pull down ladder. I only got to go there a few times. I loved it. The back stairs were very narrow and twisty. The kitchen had huge cupboards made from old barn boards and with hand forged hardware. All the cupboards along one wall had doors in the kitchen and on the other side, in the dining room. That fascinated me too. There were two cellars as well. One larger one which once had a copperhead snake

 that my grandfather killed with a hoe, and a smaller one with a door flush in the floor. My grandparents had a wine cellar there and we were strictly not to go in there without an adult. There was a huge flagstone screen porch off the kitchen and dining room, with a table and chairs and a daybed. We practically lived there in the summers.

That house would be a nightmare to heat now. I love old houses, though. My house is from 1930 and really quite big. It is full of books and stuff, but my parents had a smaller house, a full two car garage with no cars, and two barns. I cleared that after my father died in 2013. Every time my daughter says I have too much stuff, I point out that I have gotten rid of a house full and two barns full. I am resting on my laurels for now.

My daughter gives me grief about the stuff, but she borrows too. She borrowed two sleeping bags for a trip when her brother helped drive her car because she had an injury. She borrowed “ugly mom shorts” for a summer job where the shorts had to be long. She tells me that she will get rid of it all when I die, but she has her eye on some things.

I am going against the tide. What is the idea behind having an empty looking house, a living room with a couch, two chairs, a rug and side table with a vase and possibly one book? Ugh. Not me. My living room must have at least 100 books on shelves along one wall. My mother was an artist and I am still trying to get her art out into the world. She was prolific. Watercolors, etchings, drawings, oil paintings and pottery too. My word.

I have a grandparent house. I have stuff and I know how to use it. I have books. I do look things up on the computer, but old books are amazing for understanding what people were thinking, what was acceptable, what discrimination would horrify us now, old recipes and photographs and children’s books. I am not an expert canner but I can make jam. I am a great knitter. I play guitar and flute.

I took care of a two year old neighbor about ten years ago, on and off. The first time he came to my house, I showed him the stick dragon, that would roar with flashing eyes, in one closet. He wanted the  door closed right away. But the next time he came, he went straight to that closet and pointed. “Do you want to see the stick dragon?” I asked. He nodded, very serious. I opened the door and we got the dragon to roar again. The grandparent house if full of mysterious things and old games and toys and grandparents who could possibly be witches or magical or grumpy some times.

My sister would get mad at my mother and say, “I’m going to run away and live with grandmother!” We stayed with my grandparents for a week while my parents were gone. By the end of the week, my sister threatened my grandmother, “I am going to run away to mom!”

My house is ready. Now I need a grandchild. For now, I borrow them, while I loan out the odd things that people no longer have in their spare and elegant houses.

________________

I don’t have a picture of my grandparent’s house with me today. However, this is a picture with me on the left and my sister and the maternal cousins. I do not know who took it. This was in the late 1960s.

Small cat

The kittens were new in 2021 and are so much bigger now. Elwha is the biggest cat I’ve ever had. Tiger face and shoulders. They were a bit malnourished when I got them and Elwha grow out rather than up at first. He was also very worried about food and ate very fast. It took a while for him to trust that more food would come. So far so good and he is much more mellow now.

And they both love to go outside on harness and leash. I have to take them one at a time, because I can’t effectively carry both if one of them freaks out. Elwha is much more likely to freak out than Sol Duc. The recycling truck is particularly scary. Also people, dogs and SUVs.

Early on, when everything was new, Elwha jumped into the bathtub and howled, because he landed in water. He had previously found it empty. I had to rescue him and he was very upset. He spent a full thirty minutes cleaning himself.

Very happy New Year’s Eve. Be careful out there and I hope the New Year brings joys. I am hoping that this will be our last really bad Covid-19 winter, though we may need to do yearly vaccines.

Here is a tea-cat, Hot Kitty, in a teapot that Helen Burling Ottaway made. She was my mother and the poem on the teapot is mine. You can read it here. We drank a lot of tea growing up.

For the Ragtag Daily Prompt: new.

Weight

Sorrow weights my chest like lead: breathing
is hard. Today I can cry for a minute or so
and then that is over. Sorrow teething
tearing at me from inside like a crow’s
beak sharp pointed poking grabbing tearing
winter break approaching everyone goes
insane buying drinking drugging bearing
the cost into the New Year deepening woes
I miss the dead: father sister mother
Read my mother’s journals when I am ten
She writes about art and us and other
friends dead. Her voice clear again.
My mother is my age when she dies.
Her younger voice: memory smiles and cries.

Sterling too

I grow up with sterling.

My mother has a set of sterling. It is important to her. It is an emblem, a badge. She does not have as extensive a set as her mother.

My sister and I know the silver is special because of our mother. We like the tiny spoons best. They are silver with gold on the bowl.

“Can we use the special spoons?” we ask. For ice cream.

“Yes,” says my mother, smiling.

We run to get them, the small spoons, heavy for their size. Silver is heavier than stainless steel. The spoon also gets colder than stainless steel and tastes different. We eat our ice cream with our special spoons very happily.

We know that the silver is sterling. I don’t know what that means for a while. It means it is not plate. Plate? But these are spoons.

My mother shows us the stamp on the back of each spoon. “See? It says sterling. That means it is silver all the way through. Plate has silver over another metal.” She shows us the back of another spoon. The bowl has a worn spot. “The silver has worn away. And it does not say sterling.” We both study the two spoons and weigh them in our hands. The plate one is lighter. My mother is scornful of silver plate.

My mother is an artist and goes to museums. She comes back from one laughing. “They have an exhibit about homes and decoration. There is a room with tv trays and very few books and wall to wall carpet and a large color television. I thought it was so dull and ugly. Then I went to the next room. Oriental carpet and books and a guitar and no television and art!” She laughs. “They have me nailed. I am such a snob and it looked just like our house!”

We do have a tv but it is the smallest black and white that you can get. And my father knocked it over one night. Now the picture is cup shaped. The top of heads are wide and swollen. Neither of my parents care enough to get it fixed or replace it. They spend their money on art supplies and books and music. Friends visit. “What is wrong with your tv?” I look at it in surprise. I am so used to the deformed picture, I stopped noticing long ago.

Once we are at my mother’s mother’s house. My mother tells another story. “I found mother sweeping to get ready for guests. She swept the dirt under the edge of the rug! I said, “MOTHER! What are you DOING!” Mother just looked at me and said, “It’s a poor mistress who doesn’t know the maid’s tricks.” My mother’s mother did grow up with servants. But not here. She was born in Turkey because her father was a minister, running an orphanage and school. My grandmother lived there until she was sixteen and the family was exiled from Turkey at the start of World War I.

I give my mother’s sterling to my niece, after my sister dies. My children are not very interested in sterling. That is ok with me. Things change and values change.

I still have some special spoons, and think of my mother and father and sister when I eat ice cream.

___________________

For the Ragtag Daily Prompt: sterling.

The happiest day of his life

When I was a preteen, I got my first Spiderman comic book. I was enthralled. A hero who had powers, but had a grandmother, responsibilities, made mistakes, felt guilt and confusion. I wanted this, not the princess crap. I did not want a prince to ride in and carry me off. I did not and don’t trust princes. The wedding being the happiest day of a woman’s life: what the hell? Is it the happiest day of the man’s life? If not why not? It’s important to the woman to be married to her love but not the man?

And anyhow, the Disney movies were very consistent. There were no good Disney Queens. The good ones died in childbirth, or were absent, or their ship went down. The stepmothers were evil. The princess career ended with marriage. Pregnancy either kills you or turns you evil. Actually, sex turns you evil if you are a female. That was the very clear Disney message judging by the animated features. Virgin girls are pure princesses but there are no adult female role models for years and years and years. By my preteens I wanted to drive my own wagon: I was not going to be taken care of, controlled, or left poor and with small children through divorce. I would have a career and children.

What IS the happiest day of a man’s life? Do we have any map of that? When they are promoted? When they buy twitter? When they are elected President? When they get married? Why do we have a happiest day for women (and is it the marriage or the sex?) but not for men?

In the romance novels, the man is usually older, “experienced”, rich, and has a reputation for seducing women. The woman is often a virgin, or she has a child because there was an evil man who she thought loved her, or the older man got her pregnant and she never told him. She knows it is true love because she is pure and yet is overcome by lust, so it must be true love. Snort. I have always thought this is stupid and silly. So men in the novels are experienced, have sex with lots of women, and then are carried away by lust that turns out to be true love with this woman? What about all the others? Did they think it was true love too? Or were they “bad” women, who had lust without true love? Impure, not virgins, not a “good” girl. Seems pretty confusing to me. Often the virgin gets pregnant because, hey, she is carried away by uncontrollable love, so of course she would not think about birth control. What is the experienced man thinking? Hey, let’s get this one pregnant, I’d like to pay child support? Oh, he’s carried away by uncontrollable love, but really now, you’d think after all that experience that he would use birth control. Apparently the rich experienced older seducer males are all morons when struck in the heart by true love. These books should be burned, really.

Anyhow, I was suspicious of the princess story and I wanted my own horse and armor and sword and I’ll fight my own dragons, thank you! I was much more interested in the super hero story, even though the superheroines were still pretty lame and likely to get killed off. Oh, and girlfriends get killed off. Gwen dying from fear during a fall: give me a break. Yuk. Made me glad she was dead if she was that much of a weakling. At least she couldn’t reproduce. I liked Mary Jane a whole lot more: feisty.

I wanted to be a superhero and still human, not a princess.

So what is the happiest day of a man’s life?

_____

The cat is Boa, not Sol Duc. Boa died at age 17 right before Covid-19 started.

Elephant

My daughter got the elephant in the mail yesterday.

She called me, very happy with it. “It has a TAIL! It matches the pillowcase. I love the fishy fabric.”

The back story is that when she was a baby, her father’s mother made her a pillow. It had two pockets. In the pockets were four small stuffed toys. Her older brother has one too. The toys were not exactly the same. Hers had an elephant.

When she got sick earlier this year, I start sending her care packages. I send the pillow with three of the stuffed toys. However, I don’t find the elephant.

She loves it but asks, “Where’s the elephant?”

“I’m still looking.” The elephant is pink, with fabric ears that are different from the body. I find it! She is coming here for a month, so I don’t mail it. She is very pleased with the elephant.

It goes AWOL before she flies back to work. “Check the tent, mom.” She stayed in the tent in the back yard with two of her friends. I take the tent apart. No elephant. I check the sleeping bags. I sweep under her bed and search the house. As my daughter says, my house has a lot of hiding places and the cats like the elephant too. No elephant.

So for her birthday I make one. I remember how it looks and I make it while watching some continuing medical education. It’s easier to hand stitch than to get out the machine. I have to buy a large bag of stuffing, because the store downtown only has one size. Never mind, maybe I will make more elephants.

I made her a pillowcase last year, with the whale/mermaid fabric and the fish. So the elephant matches.

And she likes it! Hooray!

_______________

My daughter says I can’t make clothes for her, but pillowcases and elephants are great! A breakthrough!

For the Ragtag Daily Prompt: breakthrough.

quiet woman 2

mirror mirror

I am culpable as the mirror
hiding hiding hiding
curious about you
what is it you want to see?

I am always surprised
when a man lays his fantasy over me

I have hidden and studied people
for many years
now realize that that is why
the fantasy gets overlaid

I did not know
I was hiding behind a mirror

I think about four men
serial monogamy
over fifteen years
a year break after each

a mirror reflects
a man’s own anima: his ideal woman

all four so different
yet there is a thread that binds
trauma like my trauma
and closer and closer to an opposite

I do not want to be a mirror
any more

the connection of the damaged child
I tried so very hard not to trigger
until the mirror broke
I hold pieces up in my bleeding hands

they leave when the mirror breaks
now I understand

this time was hardest and least hard
at the same time
I could almost see what was happening
almost

and now I can see
and break the pattern with the mirror

my friend says
why don’t you let them see
who you really are?
they would never have let me work

I had to wear the doctor mask
even with other doctors

the nurses and the staff saw through it
right away
they’d call me for patient needs
and knew I’d answer

did I have to wear the doctor mask
or did I wear it to feel safe?

water over the dam
but it’s time to take down the dam
and be myself
and not a mirror

I didn’t know this quiet woman is me

_________________________

For the Ragtag Daily Prompt: ART!

My mom loved me

I struggled after my mother died of ovarian cancer in 2000. She was 61 and our love was complicated. Two years after she died I hit an emotional wall and had to go find help. My marriage was showing cracks too. I have written about Adverse Childhood Experiences, but there can be love too, even in a difficult household. I wrote this poem during that time.

My mom loved me

It’s herself she didn’t love
She didn’t love her anger
She didn’t love her fear
She didn’t love her sorrow
She didn’t love her shadows

She packed all her troubles in her saddlebags
and rode forth singing

When I was angry
she felt her anger
When I was scared
she felt her fear
When I was sad
she felt her sorrow
When I felt my shadows
she felt hers
I hid my shadows

I hid my shadows for many years
and then my saddlebags were full
They called me

I dove in the sea
I rescued my anger
I rescued my fear
I rescued my sorrows
I rescued my shadows

At first I couldn’t love them
My mom didn’t; how could I?

But I loved my mom
I loved all of her
Her anger
Her fear
Her sorrow
Her shadows
Her singing and courage

I thought if I could love her shadows
I could love my own

It was hard
It took months
I looked in the mirror at my own face
And slowly I was able to have
Compassion for myself

I am sad that my mom is not
where I can touch her warmth
and tell her I love all of her

I tell her anyway

I’m finding many things as I surface from my dive
Sometimes I feel the presence of angels
I was looking for something else
I found a valentine
that she made me
No date
Many hearts cut out and glued
to red paper

I am so surprised

My mom loves me
shadows and all
now and forever.

__________________________

My mother used to quote “Pack all your troubles in your saddlebags and ride forth singing.” Does anyone know where this if from? I have not found the source. It could be her mother or her mother’s parents.

The photograph is my father, the year my sister died of cancer, 2012. He died in 2013.

Finish?

“Get rid of him. Send a letter. Never speak to him again.” Male friend one.

“You need to read He’s Just Not That Into You.” Male friend two.

“There are other fish in the sea.” Brother.

“Men are too high maintenance.” Female mentor twenty years older than me.

But but but.

A poem circles in her head. “There was a little girl, who had a little curl, right in the middle of her forehead. When she was good, she was very very good. When she was bad she was horrid.”

We are like the poem. We bring out each other’s small child, two to four years old, who was hidden and traumatized. We laugh like hyenas. We play with words. We compare childhoods, each sometimes terrible, each full of scars. And when we disagree, we are also like four year olds. We want to stomp our feet and sulk. He wins the sulking award though. I worked through an awful lot of it with my sister and much effort, over 40 years. My sister was as smart as me or smarter intellectually. It’s the emotional part that is so hard to heal. Will you or won’t you, will you or won’t you, will you or won’t you, won’t you join the dance?

I don’t think he will.

But, but, but.

The small bird of hope sings happily and says he will, he will, he will…

For the Ragtag Daily Prompt: finish.

The photograph is me and my daughter years ago. Her expression is very thoughtful because I think this is the first time she is seated in an adult chair. She is thinking about it. I am not sure who took the photograph.

Epilogue.

Doll culture

When I was married, my husband described my parents as “Time-Warp Beatniks”. That is a good description. We had no television until I was nine and my sister was six, because my parents disapproved of television. This lack made me even less social at school, even though I was never ever good a small talk. I still don’t understand the small talk code.

My mother disliked Barbie, so she conspired with her brothers. We had five girls and two boys in my maternal cousin generation. My mother got the four younger girls all 8 inch china dolls, instead of Barbie. The next summer, the younger boy got one too, since the girls were all sewing and building furniture and generally going to town with them.

I was also given the doll in the picture. She was my grandmother’s china doll, Katherine White Burling. I do not know who sewed the dress that she has on, possibly my great grandmother. The stitches are by hand and tiny. We understood that the dolls’s world was in the late 1800s and since this doll came with a wardrobe, we sewed doll nine patch quilts and my grandmother helped make demure pantaloons for our dolls.

My sister and I did manage to score Barbies eventually, though our china doll world was much more full. The china dolls went with us to Ontario, to Blind River, Canada, where my maternal family has shacks on a lake. We were all allowed to use scrap wood to build tables and chairs and benches and beds, as long as we PUT THE TOOLS AWAY.

Meanwhile, my paternal grandmother, Evelyn Bayers Ottaway, was a brilliant knitter. She taught me to knit at age 8, but it didn’t really take. I learned again in Denmark and still knit. Grandma Ottaway knit elaborate Barbie clothes on microscopic needles. I still have a few of them. They were in the late 1960s and early 70s and really beautiful. One was a tiny knit stole, with a mohair, lined with brown satin. My china dolls stole it from my Barbies. Or perhaps there was an exchange, I don’t know.

The hand sewing came in handy. I have had surgeons ask me where I learned to stitch. “Doll clothes,” I say. They tend to look confused at that.

At one point I had a patient here who was indigenous to the area and age 104. She told me, “When I was in my twenties, even if I dressed like the Caucasian women, they would get up and move to a different pew if I sat by them in church.” I apologized. She told me not to worry, things are changing. So in the photograph, the woman behind my grandmother’s doll is an indigenous weaver. There is a tiny baby on a cradle board. They are having tea together. That is wishful thinking on my part, but we are allowed to wish for peace and work for harmony. Two cultures, still trying to come together with respect.

Blessings and peace you.

__________________________

For the Ragtag Daily Prompt: culture.