Wednesday, April 22, 1998

Blue Bird of Happiness

          She burst into the room, exploding with the news that she had won the scholarship, and watched their faces turn to stone.

          "Scholarship?" her father asked.

          "I auditioned for the music school," she said.  "I sang 'Blue Bird of Happiness', and when I had finished, one of the admissions panel members actually had tears in her eyes.  There were five of them, and each of them gave me a ten!"  

          Their expressions did not change.   "Ten, Poppa," she coaxed.  "That's the best you can get.  They rate you one to ten.  Poppa, everyone of them gave me a ten!"

          Her father's look remained stern.  In desperation, she glanced at her Aunt Betty's face, hoping to find a glimmer of sympathy there.  There was none.

          "I wasn't told nothing about any audition," her father said.  "Well, too bad; you won't be taking no scholarship!" 

           "But, Poppa...."

           "Your mother in the ground less than two weeks, and all you think of is going off to some school to learn how to sing.  Well, there'll be no more school for you, girl!  Who did you think was gonna keep house now that your mother is dead?  Who did you think was gonna help me raise your baby brother?  You're selfish, girl.  Do you know that?  Selfish!" 

          "He's not my brother!" she said.  "And she was not my mother!  My mother died ten years ago!  Why can't Aunt Betty help raise him?"

          "I got my own little ones to worry about," her aunt said.  "And he is SO your brother!"

          "Half brother," she said.  "Why do I have to sacrifice MY life?  What's in it for me?"

          "What's in it for you?  I can't believe I heard you say that!" her father said.  "There's no reward paid out for doing what's right.  Virtue is its own reward.  Remember that, Miss Sassymouth!"

          She never sang again, and by the time her brother was grown, her voice had long ago lost its lyrical lilt.  She never even considered picking up her dream and running with it.  It would have been too late anyway.  Instead, she continued to keep a neat, clean house for her father and to cook his meals.  They rarely spoke to one another, and when he died just at the onset of World War II, she shed not a tear.

          Her half-brother went off to make the world safe for democracy, and still she stayed in her father's house, locked into a dull routine of scrubbing and cleaning.   

          After the war, having seen only stateside service, he returned, worked his way through college, and used the GI Bill to go through medical school, a wish he had expressed since childhood.  She hated him beyond belief.  He was ingratiatingly ambitious and handsome, and married the daughter of one of the town's first families.

           He held his stethoscope now against the bend of her arm and pumped the cuff tighter, then slowly released it.  "One-ninety-two over a-hundred-eight.  That's dangerously high blood pressure," he said.  "We'll get some blood work done as a starter, to see if we can find the cause.  In the meantime we'll give you some pills to bring it down.  Your health would greatly improve, though, if you tried to be more serene -- less negative.  Try to enjoy life.  Count your blessings.  I know it embittered you to have to stay home to raise me, and it was good of you to do so, but sister dear, life owes us no reward just for being good.  Virtue is its own reward.  Besides, haven't you always been well provided for, first by Poppa and then by me?  You haven't had to work a day in your life."

          She felt the blood pounding in her temples.  Her heart raced.  "'Virtue is its own reward'," she thought, "is what those who have never had to sacrifice their dreams say to fools like me so that we will sacrifice ours for their benefit."

          Aloud she said, "I have wanted to say something for years -- to all my kin, but mostly to Poppa.  I never gathered up the nerve, though, and the opportunity to tell him is past, so I will say it now to you, dear brother of mine."

          He smiled at her indulgently.  "What's that, Sister?"

          "To put it politely, may the blue bird of happiness fly up your nose," she said and watched his face turn to stone.


Monday, April 13, 1998

House Tour

Assignment:  Describe a scene - from your own "place."

          My husband pulls back his recliner and exposes a large hole in the carpet .  "Time to do some major redecorating around here," he says.  

          "Just put your recliner back over the hole, dear," I say.  "Each grandchild in turn has run toy cars and trucks over this family room carpet.  We can't take it up and deprive them of the 'roadways' its plaid design affords them.   When we are gone and they are grown, it will be another of the fond memories they will have of our home."

          "A memory of holes in the rug," he says, and pulls his recliner forward again.

          Our house is us -- all of us --, and for better or for worse, I love it and its contents.   The "purple chair" in our living room, for example.  It's not purple anymore, actually, having been re-upholstered in a mellon-shade fabric some sixteen years ago.  Back in the old house, though, it had been purple.  We lived in the old house twenty-five years before moving to this one.  For all of those twenty-five years, we referred to it as "the new house."   Now it is "the old house," of course, but the chair for some unknown reason is still "the purple chair."

          It is the most comfortable seat in our living room.  My husband sits here to read.  If he sits in his recliner in the family room to read, he falls asleep; the same as I do if I sit in my recliner in the family room.   Lately, all he or I have to do to fall asleep is to get fairly horizontal.  

          "Clear conscience," my husband explains it.

          "Or low mentality," I say.  

          Neither of us even entertains the thought that it might have to do with age.

          Anyway, when my husband and I have reading to do, we vie  for the "purple" chair.  He usually wins, leaving me to settle for the long couch on the opposite wall -- the green-beige-tan-and-brown-striped one with a bolster pillow on each end, four large cushions along the back, and two larger cushions on the seat.  One time when Linda, our oldest child, was visiting with her husband, she saw her sister Ann's son, who was then under two-years-old and at that time our only grandchild, remove all eight pillows from the couch, including the firm, round, wonderful bolster pillows, and throw them on the floor.  In horror she watched as he used the two large seat pillows as trampolines, bouncing from one to the other, and back again.

          "Ann!" she said to her sister.  "Look what he's doing!  Mum will have a fit!"

          "Oh, she lets him do that," Ann said.

          "She does?  That's the same couch she wouldn't even let us SIT on when we were little!"

          The couch is older now, Linda," I said, "and so am I."

          Centered above the couch is an enormous oil painting of Hrachney Castle in Prague and the lovely Charles Bridge over the Charles River.  The painting had been my father-in-law's.  He grew up in Prague.

          On another wall, behind the "purple" chair, is our Russian icon.  Gold-colored metal half-covers the Byzantine-looking oil painting of Jesus' face.  A minor official in the Russian government gave the icon to my father-in-law a long time ago.  My father-in-law had to smuggle it out of Russia, or so he said.  He had many fascinating tales, and his family took them with a grain of salt, but I believed them all and do so still.  He had had an entire other life before coming to America and marrying my pretty little red-headed Bostonian mother-in-law.

          After his death, my mother-in-law gave the icon to us, along with two statues that now stand on either side of our grandfather clock in the hall.  The three-feet-tall statues 

are hollow and of dull, coppery metal.  One statue is a woodsman holding an ax over his right shoulder.  The other is an apronned woman in long peasant dress, holding a bundle of twigs and kindling in her arms.

          I had often admired them in my in-laws' home.  "You like the statues, don't you, Sugah?" my mother-in-law had said to me in her Boston way.  "You can have them some day.  They were in our house in Nashville."

          Their fabled house in Nashville!  My father-in-law had bought it fully furnished and had moved his young family there from Boston.  I never before in my life, nor since, have heard of anyone's buying a house completely furnished -- from basement to rooftop, including beds and sheets and elegant dining room suite, and, of course, two metal statues, which my mother-in-law called "danz lays boys."

          "Danz lays boys?" I remember asking.

          "It's written right there on each statue, Sugah.  Go over and read the little coppah plaques at the bases for yourself."

          Sure enough, the plaques read:  "Dans les bois."

          My father-in-law spoke seven languages, four of them fluently.  My mother-in-law spoke every language as long as it was English.  If the French couldn't pronounce their words as we do in English, she considered that their problem, not hers.


          When we were still in the other house, Ann, our youngest, and the only one left in the nest at the time, said, "Oh, please, please, please!  Don't sell this wonderful house until I have graduated.  I would HATE to come home to my bedroom and find it in another house!"

          She had a love affair with her room.  When she came home from long months at college, she would run right up the stairs to her bedroom in the old house, which even at that late date was still the "new house."  

          "Hi, room," she would say.  "Did you miss me?  I missed you!"  

          We are a family that talks, talks, talks -- to people, to rooms, to anything and anyone who will listen, and even if they will not.  We all talk from waking moment to bedtime hour.  All of us, that is, except my husband.  He economizes on words.  Sometimes it's fun to guess what he means; sometimes it's a pain.

          When the children were growing up in the other house, Linda, our oldest, often said she was going up to "read" Ann's room.   We all knew what she meant.  Almost every inch of wall space, to say nothing of the large cork bulletin board, was covered with posters and tickets and all kinds of mementos of Ann's girlhood.

          We sold the old house a month after Ann's college graduation, and the three of us moved together into this new house.  Ann had already set her wedding date for a year hence, and stayed with us in the interim, rather than rent an apartment of her own for so short a time.

          The week-end before we moved, our son Tom, being unmarried yet, came down from Sandusky to, as he said, "shoot a few baskets through the old hoop in the old driveway, one last time."  I heard the bounce of the basketball for a long while that evening, and when he came in, Tom's eyes were wet.  I felt guilty.

          "We're robbing our kids of their beloved childhood home," I said to my husband that night in bed.  "Tell me again why we are moving."

          "No steps," he said.

          I could only guess what he meant.  "Well," I said before dropping off to sleep, "since you put it that way....."

          So, Ann packed up her mementos, took them to this, our new house, and plastered them on the walls of her new room.  Now since her marriage, that room is our guest room, as well as repository for the crib which has been there for each of our grandchildren when "staying over."   The Looney Tunes mobile over the crib is new, recently bought for our son Steve's little daughter, our brand-new and sixth grandchild.  And the mementos that had briefly adorned the walls?  Well, Ann packed them up again when she and her then-new husband moved to their apartment, but I never saw them in evidence there, or indeed, in her present house.  Once married, I think adult life, alas, overtook her, as it does with us all.   

          When I have need to "read" a room these days, I simply walk into my husband's den.  Ann, no doubt, inherited her mementos-plastered-on-the-wall tendencies from her father.   

          The walls of my little office, on the other hand, are adorned with pictures of the grandchildren, and my desk is laden with so many small frames of the their likenesses, that there is barely room for the phone.  

          Above my other desk, the computer desk, is a collage of our own children's school pictures, from first grade through eleventh, forty-four  two-by-three-inch pictures in one large frame.   Their larger, senior-year pictures are on shelves on either side of the fireplace in the family room.  In so many ways, their growing-up years were my finest hour, and I like to surround myself with the memory.  

          The entire wall opposite the fireplace in the family room is covered with family pictures.  Its maintenance is my husband's self-appointed duty, and he takes one picture down to make room for another newly-acquired one, and rearranges others to reestablish esthetic balance. In such a way, the wall is a living, ever-changing panorama, and quite a conversation piece.  

          My husband's portrait reigns above my piano in what we call "the music room."  It used to be just that before the grandchildren were born, because besides the piano, it also houses the antique melodeon which the lovely Miss Hagmire, a maiden-lady patient of my husband's, gave him when old-age forced her to give up the family home in Aspinwall and move into a nursing home.  She was her family's last survivor, and the melodeon, she told him, had been in her parents' home even before she was born.  When my husband "operated" on the bellows that were losing air, he found that they had previously been patched with a newspaper dated several days before Lincoln's assassination.  Needless-to-say, he repaired the bellows without disturbing the original patching.   Now the room should more accurately be called the toy room, because it holds more children's books and games and toys than anything else.  The grandchildren make a beeline for the room when they come to visit.

          And what of the fore-named grandfather clock that stands tall between the woodsman and his lady?   My husband made it from a kit.  The clockworks came from Germany.  It chimes the Westminster Chimes.  We turn the chimes off when the children are visiting, because it bongs throughout the house and keeps them awake.  The funny thing is, when the chimes are turned off, I have trouble sleeping.

          My husband also made a "hi-fi" from a kit, and we used it for years before replacing it with the present stereo.  He made the hi-fi when we lived in our first house. Oh, yes, our first house!  If our other house is now "the old house," then our first house is the "old-old house" -- so old in fact, that it is but a loved and distant memory of a tiny one-story place that we moved into with one little toddler, and out of six years later with three lively toddlers and a new baby.  Yet, it had seemed a palace in comparison to its predecessor, the first home my husband and I shared so happily together, -- a drafty, third-floor apartment in a very old, no-elevator building.

          The stereo that replaced the hi-fi doesn't work anymore, but we have a CD player on top of it that does work.  In this way, we are able to keep the old and yet enjoy the benefits of the new.

          "In simili modo," as the old Latin Mass used to say, I wish that, for the grandchildren's sake, we could somehow figure a way to re-carpet the family room and yet retain the intricate road system the "hole-y" carpet provides.  Then would I cheerfully consider some serious redecorating of this, our family museum. 

Wednesday, April 1, 1998

Fellow Vagabonds

          Gertrude pulled her straight-backed chair nearer to the closed door of her bedroom and put her ear near the narrow strip of light between door and wall.  It was difficult to hear what they were saying.

          "My ears are as good as they ever were," she thought, "but nowadays, no one takes the time to enunciate."

          At the sound of her son-in-law Bill's voice, she strained to hear what he and her daughter Lydia were discussing.

          "....gets to the place where the bills keep piling up...."  The sentence faded, and she pressed her ear closer. 

          "Is he talking expenses again?" she wondered.  "Surely I'm not all that costly.  I eat like a bird.  Lydia herself has said so.  And I do contribute my social security, after all."

          Certainly, she would have preferred to be financially independent, but Lydia's father had lived his life as though he would be able to work and earn forever.  They never put much aside, but took wonderful trips and lavished gifts on the grandchildren, and on Lydia, too, for that matter.

          "How hard," she thought, "to be a ward of one's own daughter and son-in-law."  Still, in all fairness, Bill never openly showed resentment.  "But I know," she thought.  "Oh, yes, I know."  She sighed and felt the familiar knot in her chest, and tried even harder to hear what they were saying.

          When she saw the knob turn, it was too late to get her face out of the way of the door as it was pushed open.  Lydia grabbed Gertrude before the chair tilted backward.  "Mother!  I'm so sorry!" she said.  "Are you hurt?"

          Gertrude rubbed her eye.  "Didn't I ever teach you to knock?" she said.  "Of course, I realize it is your house...."  She was getting the catch in her throat down to perfection.

          "But, Mother," Lydia said, "what in the world were you doing sitting right up against the door?"

          "It's stuffy in here," Gertrude said.  "I was trying to catch a bit of air through the crack.  Such a tiny room does tend to get terribly close.  And you know the difficulty I've had getting my breath lately."

          It was Lydia's turn to sigh.  She walked briskly to the window and flung it open.  "There!" she said.  "Is that better?"

          Gertrude, seeing Lydia's lips tightly drawn, thought better of mentioning the possibility of a draft.  There was a time, though, when Lydia cared about her mother's health.  Gertrude's chest rose and fell.  It was difficult, she supposed, not to be influenced by one's husband--even when it came to one's own dear mother.  "They would both be happier with me out of the way," she thought.

          She felt ridiculous sitting in the chair now, almost in the middle of the room as it was, and she got up and went to look out of the window.  It was a warm evening.  Fall used to be her favorite time of year.  Now, as she grew old, it made her sad; she liked spring best.  But autumn was lovely this year.  A slight breeze stirred the curtains.  

          Lydia, gently put her hand on Gertrude's shoulder.  "Mother," she said, "come on.  This is silly!  Come into the living room with me and Bill.  We were just ready to have some coffee."

          Gertrude moved just enough to cause Lydia to drop her hand.  "No thank you, Lydia," she said.  "Don't bother about me."  She took a deep breath and expelled it.

          Lydia walked away, and Gertrude, turning at the sound of the door's click, saw that she had left the room.  "Well really!" she thought.  "She knows how much I would have enjoyed that coffee!"

          She sat on the edge of her bed and leafed idly through a magazine.  Living here wasn't working out well at all.  Of any two people in all this world, certainly she and Lydia should have gotten along.  They had always been close.  Actually, they weren't not getting along.  Yet it seemed that the more she tried to be considerate of them, the less they considered her.  Now, one would think that Bill--when he had offered at dinner to take her to Niagara Falls with them the coming weekend, and when she had said no, that they should go off by themselves and not worry about her--one would think he would have insisted.  He hadn't.  Lydia, of all people, should have known that she would have loved to see The Falls, yet  Lydia had said nothing, and the matter had been dropped.

          The tears that filled her eyes and overflowed onto her cheeks were a great comfort.

Watching the drops splatter and mark the pages of the magazine, she thought of St. Stephen stoned in the square and of Joan of Arc at the stake.

          Her back, without support, began to ache.  She rose and squared her shoulders.  One must do what one must.  She would leave.  Tonight.  Without their knowledge, for she mustn't let them stop her.  They might not try.

          Later, when they realized she had made the break, she would write and ask them to send her her belongings.  For the moment, she took only her sweater and her purse.  It would not be easy, she knew, at her age, to climb out that window, especially in her delicate health.  Why did Lydia refuse to notice how delicate she had become of late?  But she would manage somehow.  Fortunately, her bedroom, having originally been Bill's study, was on the first floor, and had a window which reached to within a foot of the baseboard.  The drop to the ground was not more than a foot at the most.  She would have to be very careful not to trample the shrubbery.  Bill might be furious.  But then, she wasn't coming back, was she?  So she had no need to concern herself  with Bill's disposition.  Still she was careful.

          Finally, with a great sense of freedom, she found herself on the street.   She thought of Patrick Henry.  

          The leaves of the trees, in the yet balmy breeze, made a pleasant sound and reminded her of waves breaking on the Miami shore.  Theodore  had taken her there once, just a few years before he passed on.  "Dear Theodore!" she said aloud.  She wished he was still with her.  What would he think of Lydia's treatment of her?  She smothered a sigh and walked up the broad sidewalk.  She wasn't, after all, a complete nobody.  They had been places.  Still, she had never seen The Falls.  It would have been grand to see The Falls.  Would they be conscience-stricken when they discovered her gone?  She certainly hoped so.  

          She had no idea where she would spend the night, nor where she would go when the night was over.  She hadn't dwelt too much on it, hoping that somehow a plan would open up to her.  The main thing was to get away.

          She passed Mr. and Mrs. Betz, and they exchanged nods.  It would be interesting tomorrow to hear what would buzz through the neighborhood about her departure.  But then, she wouldn't be around to hear.  What would Lydia and Bill tell everyone?  A pity, really, that she would never know.  

          There was firmness and determination in her step, but when she had reached the end of the street and turned onto the wider road which led to town, her pace was already dragging.  She arrived at the square in the center of town and stopped to rest a moment on one of the benches.  She sat, and, feeling the throbbing  in her legs, smiled at how easily one is made happy at her age--even just to sit and rest.  If Lydia had but realized how easily she could be made content--just a little consideration--a little catering.  Was that too much to ask of a daughter, after all she had done for her?  Too late to think about that now; the dye was cast.

          She looked around her.  The evening was darkening into night, and already the street lights were on.  Along the opposite sidewalk, in front of the shops, people walked, the older ones mostly in twos, and groups of young people together, chatting, giggling, laughing aloud.  It was a happy hubbub, and it filled her with almost unbearable sadness.

          "It's really quite a nice town," she said aloud.  "I shall be sorry to leave."

          The sign over Wilcox's Five & Dime was out.  She would have to mention it to him.  But there she was, forgetting that she wouldn't be here to mention it.  Herb Wilcox would simply have to find out for himself.  She had spent many a pleasant half-hour or so in there.  Would he miss her at all?  Probably not.  Would any of them?  "The 


          A young voice at her side said, "What's a blagard?"  It came from a small boy.  In the dim light, she squinted and judged him to be no more than five.

          "And who might you be, young man?" she asked.  "I don't believe I've ever seen you before, have I?"

          "I'm Tommy.  What's yours?"

          She had to smile.  "My name you mean?  It's Gertrude.  And what, pray tell, are you doing out at this late hour?"

          "You talk funny," he said, and sat down beside her.  "I'm running away from home.  What are you doing?"

          She noticed that he carried a paper bag, and guessed it held the treasures he couldn't bear to leave behind.  She thought of her own meager travelling gear--a sweater, a purse, some loose change, and the clothes on her back.  Really!  She hadn't even remembered to take along her blood pressure pills.

          "Do you always," she asked, "answer a question and offer the same in return?"

          He leaned against the back of the bench, and lifting his leg to seat level, examined the scuffed and dusty toe of his shoe.  "They don't want me," he said.  "I'm always in the way."

          She remembered a time when Lydia was little.  She put her arm around him, and at first he held himself stiff, but she must have passed the test, or perhaps he was just weary enough that any shoulder would have done as well.  He put his head against her and yawned.

          She let him stay awhile.  "They'll be worried about you, you know," she said finally.


          "I would be, if you were my little boy."

          "I know," he said.  "That's why I went.  But it's all right.  I knew all along I'd go back."

          "You did?  Why?"

          He hunched his shoulders and held his hands palm-upward.  "Because, where would I go?"

          She thought that over.  "Well then, Tommy, weren't we.....I mean, weren't you foolish to leave if you didn't actually intend to run away?"   He leaned back against her and did not answer, and they were quiet for a long time.

          "You're right, of course," she said at last.  Turning to him and lifting him under the arms, she set him before her on the ground.  She took his hands in hers, and let him help her from the bench.  She really was awfully tired.

          "Come along," she said.  "I'll take you home.  You show me where.  We've made them sorry enough for one night."

          It was, she reasoned, perfectly forgivable in a five-year-old.  How fine was the line between childhood and old-age?

          Hand-in-hand, they crossed the street and passed the Five & Dime.  "See that up there?" she said, pointing to the unlit sign.  The boy nodded.  "I must remember to tell Mr. Wilcox about it tomorrow."