HEADSTONE

Today, New Year’s Eve day, is the second anniversary of my mother’s death. Last spring I drove again to the distant cemetery that she’d chosen as her final resting place.

In my journal I wrote:

Today I went to visit my mom’s grave at the Sacramento Valley Veterans’ Cemetery near Dixon. At her burial, I could only stand and watch from the road as a machine lowered her coffin into the ground on a dirt slope that hadn’t yet been covered with sod. It was a dismal, darkly overcast day with rain predicted, and the terrain seemed utterly flat and monotonous, with its uniform ranks of identical white headstones stretching in every direction. It struck me at the time as a desolate place, and I wished that my mom hadn’t been so pragmatic and had chosen, instead, to be buried with her family at the cemetery in Concord.

Then yesterday I got word that her marble headstone was finally in place. And this time the weatherman on the news had forecast sunshine.

Though it’s the middle of May, the hills were still partially green—lovely! I thought—in the miles before I reached my destination. When I got out of the car and walked away from the parking lot, I noticed a gully not far off, where I heard red-winged blackbirds calling and I smelled a flowery fragrance—jasmine?—in the air. From the other side of the administration building, I could hear the splash of a fountain and see a row of hills—or mountains—along the valley perimeter. And my impression of the place was completely different than the first time.

For her funeral I’d ordered a “deluxe” bouquet from the local florist in the colors my mom loved—dark and light amethyst roses, chrysanthemums, and daisies, among other blooms. So I’d been dismayed by what I saw in the staging area behind her coffin—a scraggly bunch of flora with white lilies. I’d deliberately avoided lilies because of their overpowering scent. Today I found hedge clippers attached to a trash receptacle and trimmed the ends of my two lush amethyst bouquets, fitting them into a green plastic cone with a prong at the bottom to secure it in the ground.

And what I experienced as I stood contemplating my mom’s headstone, among a welling of complex feelings, was a sense of release—because, I realized, I was finally free to speak my whole truth.

 

UNDAUNTED

I never did finish my thought in my last blog, did I?—when I said, “Arielle made a pair of…” Actually, she had a surprise for me when she came over to decorate the tree, one that also requires a backstory:

When she was a sophomore in high school, she decided she wanted to spend her junior year studying abroad—in Viterbo, a little town in Italy. That Christmas I went for the first time to Baubles and Beads, a store a few blocks from me, to buy the makings of a pair of green earrings for Emma—short for Emerald. (She had pierced ears while Arielle, who hated needles, didn’t.) And that became a springboard for Arielle and me to make earrings together—a new venture for both of us. This was the way she hoped to earn spending money for her year abroad. 

Now, bear in mind that only a year and a half before, she was nearly killed in a car accident. At age fourteen she’d gone on a summer program to Mexico. One night she and her host family were driving through the desert and hit an injured cow that was lying in the road. When I saw a picture of the car, I was astounded that Arielle had survived. As it was, she had a fractured shoulder blade and collarbone, six fractured ribs, a punctured lung, a fractured vertebra, and a concussion. If she hadn’t been handled so carefully after the accident, doctors at Stanford University hospital told her, she would have wound up paralyzed. And here she was (above), happily planning another foreign adventure.

On weekends throughout that spring, she set up a card table in front of her house and offered free cookies to customers who bought her earrings. There were plenty of passersby, since we live on the edge of Berkeley’s “gourmet ghetto.” (Ella even came up with a name for her little enterprise—Ear Candy.) Months passed, until one day Arielle announced she was ready to have her ears pierced. I’ve never worn much jewelry and had had no plans to get my ears pierced ever. Nevertheless, we headed down to Claire’s on Bay Street to do just that—only to discover that the shop was gone So a week later I got my ears pierced at another Claire’s, alone, because Arielle had changed her mind. Fast forward six years to last week—the day she dropped by after her arrival from Chicago. The first thing she did was pull back her long hair to show me the earrings she was wearing in her pierced ears—of her own design, of course.

So after we’d all had pizza and opened presents three days later, I brought out my earring supplies, and she made a new pair before going back to our puzzle. When I belatedly asked if she’d like to take a picture of them for my blog, she said she had already given them to a friend for Christmas, but she brought over a number of other earrings she’d designed for me to photograph.

SMELLY SUITCASE

Ella is home and trying to decide whether to lug her smelly suitcase directly over to our temporary storage room, rather than let it stink up the apartment—which requires a little backstory, I realize:

The kids came over for our annual Christmas celebration on the Sunday before Christmas because Ella was flying to San Diego the next day to spend Christmas with her brother. After we emptied stockings and opened presents, Emma made the candle above and Arielle made a pair of… Oh, but that’s not far enough back.

Arielle had arrived on Thursday from Chicago, but decorating the tree together didn’t go according to plan. Only days before, our neighbor, Gina, had announced… Naw, that’s not far enough back either.

The exterminators finally arrived to set rat traps around the outside of our temporary storage room—five weeks after we reported to the management that the rodents were nesting in our Christmas stockings. Then when our neighbor, Gina, visited the storage room after the belated intervention, she reported back that it stank to high heaven. It turned out that a desiccated member of the rat clan was rotting in there. So Ella rescued our tree ornaments and Christmas candles from the smell and brought them back to the apartment. At the time, she didn’t think to rescue her suitcase.

Days later Arielle arrived from Chicago and announced she’d been accepted to the University of Chicago law school(!) So, to celebrate when she came over—since we didn’t have any champagne—I spiked some eggnog with Fra Angelico liqueur and we toasted to her brilliant career as a lawyer. But when we went to decorate the tree, the tinsel we pulled out of the bag smelled of rat pee. So did the lights. So the three of us headed out into the night to find replacements. We went to a CVS, then a Walgreen’s, that were sold out of tree trimmings, but, as they say, the third time is the…well, you know. The CVS in El Cerrito Plaza had everything we needed. And since we were there anyway, we went over to Barnes and Noble and bought a 1,000-piece puzzle.

Then, when we got home and tried to play our favorite Christmas albums on our boom box while we did the decorating, I couldn’t turn up the volume on Andrea Bocelli’s My Christmas album loud enough for it to sound like more than a murmur, signaling that the boom box was kaput. Fortunately, we were able to stream—on my iMac—not only Josh Grobin’s wonderful duet with Brian McKnight of “Angels We Have Heard on High,” but opera singer Kathleen Battle’s entire A Christmas Celebration album from 1990, which Leia had given me as a cassette when we first became friends—and which became part of my Christmas tradition with the kids after they were born until it wore out.

Anyway, once the tree was resplendent and glittering that Thursday evening, Arielle, Ella, and I worked on our puzzle late into the night.

Now Ella is showing me gifts from her relatives in southern California: among them a wooden foot massager with bumpy spools that turn when you roll your foot over them, a burgundy-colored cardigan that she tries on, and maracuja (passion fruit) jam and herbal tea from her brother Brian. (And here I should probably explain that Ella lived in Bahia, Brazil, from age ten to fourteen. Her father, a geologist, was hired by the oil company Petrobras.)

Next she shows me a coffee table book, also from Brian, called Gordon Parks – The Flavio Story. Parks was an African American photographer who went to a Rio favela (slum) in 1961 to take pictures for Life magazine of the conditions there—and followed a boy named Flavio, she tells me. The slum was called Catacumba—catacomb—which says it all.

And what am I feeling as I study the pictures? A pang of guilt about the money I’ve spent on my doll collection over the years, while boys like Flavio are still wasting away from malnutrition in the slums of Rio.

TRADITION – Part I

One Christmas I decided to buy myself an 8-inch Madame Alexander Wendy doll. I’d been eyeing a display of them for years at Mr. Mopps’ toy store. But they’re collectors’ dolls—for me, an extravagance, I’d told myself.

In A Patchwork Memoir, I wrote:

The day I bought my first Madame Alexander doll—I still haven’t managed to convince myself I deserve the second—I stared at her face off and on all afternoon, I found it so beautiful. When I took off her clothes, I discovered, to my delight, that she had dimpled elbows and knees. I actually felt a pang of tenderness for her, as if she were a real child.

Curious about her reaction, I decided to show her to Arielle. If she liked my new doll, I thought calculatingly, it would give me an excuse to buy the other one—with the altruistic intention of eventually giving her to Arielle…er…when she’s old enough to take good care of her. (Her wig wouldn’t last five minutes, the way Arielle swings her dolls around by the hair, I rationalized. As for her dress… Well, let me just say that the other day Arielle pulled something out of a plastic basket full of Barbie dolls and clothes and asked, “What’s this?” All I could see was that it was roundish, gray-brown, and fuzzy—I thought it must be a wad of some kind of wooly fabric. It wasn’t until I put on my glasses that I recognized what it was—a withered orange, blanketed entirely by thick gray mold.)

Another evening I fetched my old Muffy’s doll clothes from the basement—the ones I used to play with with Kathy—thinking they would fit my new doll, only to find that she was slightly too tall and wide in girth. OK, I’ll make her clothes myself, I resolved. But when I went to The Cotton Patch the next afternoon, I got more and more discouraged as I perused shelf after shelf of cotton prints, none of which I liked. After an hour of scrutiny, I left with only two swatches, one checked and one striped; all the floral prints were in grayed “country” colors that don’t particularly appeal to me. What’s wrong with me? I thought, appalled to realize my aesthetic was—apparently—so narrow.

But this morning at Beverly’s Fabrics in Alameda I got light-headed, I found so many flowered prints—bright and pastel—in the clear colors I love. I actually set foot in the store at 2:00 in the afternoon and didn’t stagger out until after 5:00, with a receipt a foot and a half long! This evening I’ve been trying the trims I picked out with the various fabrics and can already see in my mind’s eye half a dozen outfits and costumes I’m itching to make.

Why did I buy this particular doll? you may be wondering. Because I couldn’t resist the hat. Strangely, I later saw in a Madame Alexander catalogue that the hat in the photograph was on backwards. Whoever dressed her for the shoot hadn’t realized that the lace on these old-fashioned bonnets was meant to frame the face.

And, by the way, I did eventually buy the other doll I coveted—a blond frog princess.

 

TRADITION – Part II

Also from A Patchwork Memoir:

Last night, as I sat trimming a doll sleeve with delicate lace, using the finest needle I could find—and only half-listening to the succession of TV programs Ella was watching—I told her how peaceful I felt; it occurred to me that I was carrying on a tradition of women down through the centuries who sewed by oil lamp or candlelight in the evening, which gave me a feeling of continuity and even of community, strange as that may sound.

This morning as I contemplated the pile of fabric swatches I had chosen—with geometric patterns, hearts, and flowers—I had a sudden impulse to examine a paper doll book of Scandinavian folkwear I bought for Arielle a few months back. But I couldn’t find it anywhere and got more and more frustrated, until Ella joined in the search. She finally spotted it on a shelf with my drawing books. When I thumbed through it, there they all were: the geometric patterns, as well as the hearts and flowers. And the next thing I knew I got goose bumps, wondering if my predilections were a kind of ethnic memory, my Swedish grandmother Marie’s legacy to me.

Above is the first dress I made for my new doll, perhaps inspired by those women of old.

Below is a sampling of the clothes I went on to make. In the meantime I discovered I could buy Wendy dolls for a lot less at doll shows. So Ella and I started going to the Nancy Jo Doll & Teddybear Shows, held at the Vallejo County Fairgrounds, where I could also find vintage fabrics, ribbon, and lace, as well as accessories—like shoes and hats to match the outfits I was making. One of my most exciting finds was an extensive collection of mini rickrack, which is no longer made and is the perfect size for my creations. I must have bought two dozen different shades.

As for buying dolls themselves, I now have a collection—and blame Ella for egging me on.

 

I realize the layout above doesn’t show any details, so I’m adding a closeup that does.

A LINGERING SPRING

A later Christmas letter:

Dear friends and family,

Today when I was driving back from Walnut Creek, I saw the brown hills just beginning to green, which always lifts my spirits. (Actually, I learned recently that the indigenous grasses were perennial, so the landscape used to be green all summer…until annual grasses were introduced and took over.)

Last spring, when the green hills persisted, full of wildflowers, into May, I drove everywhere I could think of to go, including bayside towns like Tiburon and Sausalito that I hadn’t visited in years, as well as Point Richmond to see the progress they were making renovating the old natatorium where my mom used to swim as a child. (They finally opened in August—a beautiful pool with a huge mural of the local park, its tiny lake and small island, on the far wall.) I got to know my way around these towns—where the best views were, the best restaurants, and, most importantly, the best gelato. Eventually I bought a laptop and spent time writing in cafes all over the place.

I also made my annual trip to the dunes north of Drake’s Beach, bordered by fields of ice plant—blooming yellow and magenta—and dotted with wild purple irises. (At my age, it’s not so easy climbing under barbed wire fences, however. It was also a challenge walking across the lumpy terrain to get to the dunes without spraining my ankles.)

All three of my godkids are taking karate classes now. (The day after Arielle showed me how to get out of certain holds, I had bruises on my arms.) She’s taking a computer arts course as her elective this semester and announced the other day that she wants to go to MIT! (Before she wanted to go to UC Santa Cruz because they didn’t give grades and she loved the boardwalk.)

Just last night I went to hear her chorus and Michael’s band perform at King Middle School (Michael plays the trumpet.) I always feel a sense of wonderment to find myself back at “Garfield Junior High,” as it was called in my day. After Mom moved Doug and me to California, I started eighth grade there. But now it’s so changed I hardly recognize it. There’s an atrium full of greenery just beyond the main entrance and a huge garden out back where the students have a chicken coop and grow all kinds of vegetables. (The garden was the brainchild of Alice Waters, of Chez Panisse fame.)

Meanwhile, I’ve been applying myself to doing my final painstaking colored pencil drawings for The Incredible Adventures of Jix, while waiting to hear—or not—from the latest dozen publishers I sent my manuscript to. (They no longer contact you—no more rejection letters—unless they’re interested in your book.) If I don’t get any nibbles, I’ll have to begin to think about publishing my stories myself.

I hope you enjoy a Christmas and New Year full of good health and good cheer!

In the photo above, I’m drawing on my light table, wearing three pairs of glasses that I used to piggyback depending on the magnification I wanted. Originally, I transformed my sewing table into a light table with a rectangle of translucent plexiglass for a drawing surface and a flat florescent light from Ace Hardware underneath it.

With my back problems, however, I eventually decided it was more comfortable to work on the sofa. And when I discovered Readers in San Rafael, a shop that has beautiful reading glasses for $6 a pair, I started a collection in a variety of magnifications.

HEAD ELF

Above is Arielle’s scrapbook page for Christmas 2010. It’s hard to get anything to stick to glitter paper, so we tried various adhesive embellishments to hold photos in place. The captions “Tree Hugger,” “Head Elf,” and “Spiked Eggnog” are hers. The pointed hat is a tree made of Christmas tree sequins I found at Pier I Imports.

NO PICKLES

There are no pickles or dolphins or spaceships on my tree. Half of the glass ornaments I’ve been collecting since my twenties are traditional round ones, and the remainder have a holiday season theme, broadly speaking: Christmas trees, Santas, snowmen, icicles, pinecones, candy canes, bells, stars, and hearts, as well as musical instruments (like drums, lutes, and horns) and toys (like tops, rocking horses, and locomotives). The one exception is a single strawberry—because it’s snow-capped and the first ornament I ever bought. Oh, and did I mention my myriad birds? One year the only ornament I bought was a white dove at East Bay Nursery, which has a fabulous selection. Coincidentally, my therapist, Annee, bought only the very same one, which I like to think reflects that we’re birds of a feather..

I also have a little collection of mini ornaments (above), including a wreath, nutcracker, sleigh, and gingerbread house. (The toy car and mitten I added later.) When my godkids were younger and came over for our annual Christmas celebration, the first thing Michael and Emma wanted to do was play “Find the Ornament”—even before they opened their presents! I had a list that I would read out one at a time, and they would compete to see who could spot it first. Of course, the miniatures were a special challenge—so much so that sometimes when Ella and I took our tree down, we couldn’t find them among the rigidly drooping branches, which accounts for some of the blank places in the box above.

I mention all this for any parents who might like to play the same game with their kids.

SQUATTERS

Well, it took the management five weeks to get an exterminator to set traps for the rats. Meanwhile I was tearing my hair out, worrying that the four-legged squatters were chewing the kids’ beautiful Christmas stockings to pieces. When I decided I couldn’t wait any longer, I went back to our temporary storage room, armed with Gina’s heavy metal rake to fight off the invaders if necessary. What I found was the bag they’d been nesting in vacated, though chewed up, while the stockings themselves were still intact—just so filthy I doubted they could be salvaged.

The dirt on one of them was loose enough that I was able to brush most of it off with a whiskbroom on our tiny balcony. (Ella hates going out there because she’s afraid the balcony will collapse). Only later did it occur to me I’d probably breathed in some of the…er…detritus and that I soon might succumb to some dread disease.

I didn’t dare wash the stockings because they were felt, so I took them to the dry cleaners instead. The red dye bled onto the white parts of the reindeer stocking, but hey… They’re now hanging from the mantle over the fireplace…and I haven’t died yet.