BEST-LAID PLANS

From A Patchwork Memoir:

Ella is in L.A., celebrating Christmas with her mother and brothers, while Arielle is back in Illinois, visiting relatives for a month, and Igor is down in San Diego with his family. So I’m left to shift—mostly—for myself.

Before Ella left, we decorated our perfect noble fir—kept adding water, since it seemed to be drinking a lot—and admired it for a day or two before I noticed a pool of water under it and realized the tree hadn’t been drinking at all; the stand had merely been leaking. If the tree hadn’t been getting any water, it would probably be dry as toast by Christmas, I realized, like last year’s, which we figured must have been old when we bought it, since within days all our carefully arranged ornaments wound up crazily disarranged, hanging at ominous angles, the tinsel rope straggling every which-way—because all the branches had fallen. The year before that, a string of lights went out a day or so after we decorated the tree, but it would have been so much trouble to take all the ornaments off to replace it that we had to content ourselves with a half-lighted tree.

The best-laid plans…

                                                                                …

It’s Christmas Eve day and, at loose ends, I call Earl to ask if he’d like to take refuge from the holiday crowds in a movie house, even though I know we’ll be getting together for dinner in a few hours. I was hoping to see Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, but when I check the newspaper, I discover it isn’t opening till Christmas Day. “OK. How about The Green Mile,” I suggest, “about a convict who heals people by laying on his hands?” Well, it sounded inspirational. After watching the most grisly electrocution I’ve ever seen, I tell Earl that if they’re going to show another one, I’m out of there. They do—and I am. Later, in the foyer, he wants to describe the final moments of the movie, but I say, “Please, no.”

I have him drop me off at home afterwards and rush off to Long’s to pick up my photos. He called a few nights ago to tell me the moon was the closest it had been in the last hundred and fifty years (later I heard thirty), so I’d hustled out with my camera and stood in the middle of Hearst, in between onslaughts of traffic, taking pictures of the moon rising over the Berkeley Hills.

But all my lunar photos have come out blurred—the shutter must have stayed open longer than I could hold the camera still. I was planning to make cards of them to give Earl as a gift. Now I’m embarrassed that all I have for him is a joke present—a couple of cat dishes with blue and green winged felines for Sukie and Golden Boy, his formerly feral cats. Actually, I’ve been shopping for photo frames for him for weeks—we even stopped by Cost Plus after the movie and I shooed him out of my aisle so he couldn’t see what I was examining—but I haven’t been able to find any I like. “I’ve got to give him more than cat dishes!” I groan. I waste time spinning my wheels and finally, with only minutes to spare, drag out the paper cutter and hurriedly make him some cards of the sunset photos I took the night before. I’d happened upon a spot along Euclid with a panoramic view of the Bay Area framed by the trunks of a few giant spruce that, strangely, had foliage only above and below the view—as though they’d been deliberately pruned that way. In one photo the sky looks molten beyond the towers of the Golden Gate Bridge, and the waters of the bay are a deep red.

Earl arrives with two Christmas gifts and a large postcard—of a bobcat peering through tall grass. On the back of it, he exhorts me in bold letters, “Stop casting porosity!” There’s a crudely painted sign along an industrial stretch of highway 980—and that’s what it says. After eight years of deliberation, we’ve yet to figure out what it could possibly mean. His presents, which I open on the spot, are a beautiful book of lighthouses around the world—the Pigeon Point lighthouse on the cover—and another hefty tome called The Art of Maurice Sendak, the children’s book author who inspired me to become one too.

“Oh, Earl!” I cry, “You couldn’t have picked better gifts!” He used to buy me stuffed animals that kept getting bigger and bigger, until I declared a moratorium on them because I was running out of space in the apartment. Sometimes he gives me un-birthday presents too. When I first mentioned I had insomnia, he presented me with a mallet he’d sprayed with gilt paint and adorned with a red velvet ribbon—for me to knock myself out with at bedtime. Well, I think to myself, I’m just going to have to find a couple of fabulous picture frames to give him as un-Christmas presents.

He takes me a round-about way—another surprise—to Skate’s, which is built over the water on pylons. The Berkeley pier runs alongside it, halfway to Treasure Island, or so it appears. In the distance you can see the twinkling skyline of San Francisco. This time I’m in a gaudy, sequined sweater, and we’re both sporting our red velveteen Santa hats. I was hoping he’d forget about the hats. One evening we went into a fancy restaurant and were seated by the waiter in the darkest corner, though there were plenty of other—better—tables. When I went to the ladies’ room after our meal, I saw a huge loop of hair, sticking straight up from the top of my head, like a crest. In the MG I always bind my hair in a ponytail so it won’t blow into my eyes, and apparently when I removed the baseball cap I wear, it had pulled out a big hank of hair. “Why didn’t you tell me?” I asked Earl. “I didn’t notice,” he shrugged. “You didn’t notice?” I exclaim. “You’re an artist!” “When I look at you,” he said, “I don’t see the details. I see an aura—a radiance.” I just hope the same thing doesn’t happen this time when we doff our hats.

I order the most outlandish-sounding entree on the menu—scallops wrapped in prosciutto with a fig-apricot dressing. Earl settles on the salmon.

The restaurant is garlanded with wreaths and Christmas lights, the decorations reflected in a solid bank of windows on two sides, doubling the illumination and festive ambience. Sometimes when we come—usually at sunset—we watch gulls taking off from the roof, a seal that’s strayed too far, sailboats gliding into the Berkeley marina or ferryboats bound for opposite shores. Tonight we reminisce about growing up in northern climates with long, snowy winters.

“I remember in the coldest weather, my forehead would ache because it was the only part of my body that wasn’t covered.”

“And it hurt to breathe,” Earl adds.

“My knuckles bled, they got so chapped. Too bad they didn’t have Neutrogena back then.”

“Well, that didn’t work for me,” Earl reminds me, dryly. He’s become allergic to turpentine, his hands all cracked—an unfortunate sensitivity for a painter. When he tried Neutrogena, at my suggestion, he said it hurt like hell.

“We used to skate all winter on White Lake,” he remembers. “We’d build a big bonfire at one end and huddle around it to get warm. When I told Bonny about the time my father and I climbed over the fence to the insane asylum to skate on their pond, she said, ‘That’s the first time I’ve ever heard of someone trying to break into an insane asylum.”’

After dinner Earl drives me around the neighborhood to look at all the Christmas lights, one of our traditions. This year, every other house is draped with icicle lights, though they first appeared only a year or two ago. “Jeez!” I say, “Why didn’t I think to invent them first? I’d be living in Malibu by now.”

“I guess I’m ready to head for home,” I say after a while because the houses have a disappointing sameness.

“You’re bored,” says Earl.

“No, just tired,” I protest, dismayed that he would think that.

Later, sipping some eggnog in front of my tree, I realize I feel a little bad about the day, about having picked the movie I did and not having found a special present for Earl, even about not acting more enthusiastic about wearing the Santa hats—I would have explained, but I know he thinks it’s ridiculous to fuss over your appearance. Well, I’ll find him a couple of beautiful picture frames and do my best to redeem myself, I think as I pull the plug on the Christmas tree lights and pad off to bed.

CHRISTMAS 2020

This will be the first Christmas in fifteen years that Arielle won’t be helping Ella and me find the perfect noble fir and decorate it with my rather…er…”extensive” collection of old-fashioned glass ornaments—to the strains of Kathleen Battle’s “Ave Maria,” Andrea Bocelli’s “Silent Night,” and Patrick Ball’s Celtic harp.

Ah, well, the place is a wreck anyway, the plaster still cracked and broken and hanging off the walls in patches from the time they leveled the foundation of the building, said walls also punctuated by gaping rectangular holes that the electricians left when they rewired the building. None of this will be fixed until the pandemic is over.

Still, it’s hard. No seasonal crafts with the kids, no stockings stuffed with pear Jelly Bellies and lemon Turkish delight, no festive wreaths of sequins or bells or berries, no snowflake candles floating in bowls, no Christmas table with poinsettia napkin rings and brass candlesticks gleaming, the candles encircled with Scandinavian mini-garlands of ribbons and flowers, no celebratory toasts with eggnog and apple-raspberry cider… I suppose Ella and I could set a table for our eyes alone…and maybe put a wreath on the front door for our new neighbors to enjoy… but beyond that, I guess we’ll just have to fall back on our memories of holiday seasons past.

BLACKHAWK

From A Patchwork Memoir:

Earl and I are bound for Blackhawk in his red MG, the very same car and the very same route we took when I was seventeen. Actually, he has two MGs and goes to all the “Noggin and Natter” MG Club meetings held at various Bay Area pubs, as well as rallies, which are like treasure hunts with no treasure, only a secret destination that you find your way to by clues.

“Did you bring the spritzer?“ I ask anxiously. “It looks like a scorcher.” It gets so uncomfortable in the MG on a hot day, what with all the heat coming off the gear box, that the last time I spritzed a quart of water all over my face and clothes, drenching myself to keep cool. Going any distance with me and my back problem is a major production, so Earl always brings a small ice chest with two ice packs, as well as a special car cushion.

The mall is even prettier than I remember it. At one end is a modern fountain with tiered, round water tables, the runoff spilling under a bridge into a little lake that meanders between the shops and restaurants. It’s bordered by boulders, wild grass, and cattail reeds, and stocked with yellow and gold-spotted carp.

The Behring Museum is two stories, the black marble floors so shiny you can see almost as much detail in the gleaming reflections under your feet as you can in the antique cars all around you. There’s a 1926 Daimler made of German silver—so heavy they have trouble keeping the air in the tires, Earl instructs me. It was owned by a maharaja and has panes of smoked glass to hide his wives, an exterior wicker seat for the servant, and elaborate boa constrictor horns on each side. There are several Duesenbergs, including Clark Gable’s convertible coupe—they gave rise to the expression “It’s a duesy,” Earl explains. Also a 1931 Bugatti Royale made of thousands of small blocks of wood. What strikes me as funny about some of the earliest cars is that they’re conceptually incongruous—the cabs have the flowing lines of horse-drawn coaches, while the “business” ends look boxily like traveling chests.

One showstopper is rainbow-striped. “I wonder if that’s the original color,” muses Earl. “The cars I remember from my childhood were dark and somber. Henry Ford always said his customer could have any color they wanted, as long as it was black.”

I remark on the fact that many of the cars have TWO spare tires. Tire technology wasn’t all that advanced in those days, he tells me—and his family invariably had a flat on the way to Cape Cod every summer.

He explains to me about disk wheels versus spoke wheels that have to be tuned for tension and points out “artillery” wheels, which got their name because they have wooden spokes like cannon caissons.

Later we sit at the other end of the lake at a table with white linen under a canvas umbrella. A female mallard is snoozing on a boulder just beyond our table. When the waitress brings the bread, the duck rouses herself suddenly. Joined by her mate, they peer expectantly over the edge of the table at us, as irresistible as begging dogs at the family dinner table.

“Did I ever tell you about my Dad’s feud with our neighbor, Jack Landis?” I ask Earl, who shakes his head. I know I probably have, so I’m glad he’s almost as forgetful as I am (though he has the excuse of age) and I get to tell my stories more than once without having to worry about being a bore.

“When I went to Minnesota for my high school reunion,” I say, “My dad and I went back to see the old Dudley house together. He reminisced about how he’d bought me a duckling and built a small cage for it out of wood and chicken wire. The cage was just a little 12” box, so, as the duck grew, there was hardly room for it to turn around. Our neighbor, Jack Landis, told my dad it was cruel to keep a duck in such a small space, so my dad called the University Farm Campus and asked someone over there their opinion; he was assured it wasn’t inhumane, he claimed. He told me all this bitterly, still as angry at Jack as if it had happened yesterday.”

Besides believing animals couldn’t “know” anything, I remind myself, my father didn’t believe they had any feelings either—and I realize that in some way I’ve always identified with my duckling, as though my father built a cage for me, too, that I remained imprisoned in for many years.

DEMISE

The year I traveled and lived abroad, I got a serious throat infection every time I underwent a dramatic climate change—in Canada, then Spain, then England. In Spain I realized I was coming down with tonsillitis one day when I swallowed and felt a twinge in the exact location I knew my left tonsil to be. Rosi, the senora of the residencia, took me to the doctor in a cab. When he asked me if I had a fever and I said not that I knew of, he smiled at me with indulgent condescension, he was so sure I’d misdiagnosed myself. After he examined my throat, however, he looked both startled and sheepish to discover I DID have a spot of pus on my tonsil.

After the school year ended, Dale and I hitchhiked to England to meet up with Britte, the three of us planning to travel around Europe together. In the wee hours of the morning in a hostel on the outskirts of Stratford-on-Avon, I realized I was coming down with yet another throat infection—and by dawn I was running a high fever. I asked the director if I could spend the day in bed, but she said no, they closed down during the day. So Britte and Dale left me off in the lobby of a hotel and went to look around the town. By the time they came back for me I was so racked with fever I started “convulsing” when I tried to walk across the street—my teeth grinding and muscles seizing. They installed me in a room in a cheaper hotel and went out sightseeing for the day. I was so out of it that it didn’t occur to me to ask to see a doctor; all I wanted was to curl up in a ball, instinctively, like a sick animal in its lair. Britte and Dale brought me food in the evening, then went back to the hostel, leaving me alone and untended during the night.

In the morning when they came by, Britte said she’d gotten the name of a clinic to take me to. I thought my fever had broken because I no longer felt hot but told her I felt so weak I wasn’t sure I could get up. When she acted annoyed, I forced myself—but as I tried to walk down the stairs, I was gripped by a sudden panic and realized I was about to pass out; I had to put my head between my legs until my head cleared. At the clinic they told Britte my temperature was 103 degrees and scolded her for getting me out of bed to bring me to a place where they couldn’t treat me; they said I had to see a private doctor. (If my fever was 103 when I didn’t even feel hot, what had it been the day before? I wondered.) I remember going to the doctor alone later that day and asking him to please give me a SHOT.

For the next few days, Britte and Dale left me to convalesce by myself, bringing me food occasionally. Remembering how Britte had taken care of me the previous summer, I felt so abandoned that, still running a temperature, I bought a loaf of nut bread at a little grocery and went and sat by the river in the rain, where I sobbed without restraint. But I was so ashamed of my “infirmity” and worried about being a burden that I didn’t complain. One evening I said I felt well enough to go out for an hour or two, but Britte told me she and Dale had standing-room-only tickets to a play and insisted it would be too arduous for me. The next day I said I thought I could manage an afternoon outing, but she told me they’d planned something for the whole day.

Britte had acted cold towards me from the moment Dale and I met her at the airport—not the reception I was expecting. I wondered then if she was angry at me because I’d fallen off writing letters home in the previous month or two—as my time in Spain drew to a close, I’d wanted to make the most of every moment. My affection for her was as deep as ever, but I’d figured we’d be together soon and have plenty of time to enjoy each other’s company in the future, sharing the apartment she’d recently rented in a brown-shingle duplex near the high school. Or could she be jealous of my relationship with Pete? I wondered.

Whatever the case, it seemed clear to me throughout my illness (which lasted only four days, thanks to the antibiotics) that Britte was captivated by Dale, that she was busy “courting” her, and I was an encumbrance. In Athens Dale met a man she went off sightseeing with, leaving Britte and me behind. Over coffee in an outdoor restaurant, I told Britte what I’d been feeling—that she no longer cared for me, that she seemed completely preoccupied with Dale. I waited for a response, but she didn’t have anything to say.

In subsequent weeks, I couldn’t forget how completely I’d allowed myself to trust her the previous summer. I’d been so sure of our friendship then I hadn’t doubted that we’d be together at one or the other’s deathbed. Actually, I was so stunned by what felt like a betrayal that I couldn’t entirely take it in. And once again, despite my wonderful, liberating year in Spain, I began to sink inexorably into depression.

Though Britte wouldn’t share her feelings with me—she never had until that morning at Jim’s in New York—I tried to trust that things would get better between us. Ten months had passed, I’d changed—I thought maybe it was just a matter of catching up, making adjustments. What her reasons were I won’t try to guess, but we became roommates as we’d planned. Maybe our relationship had gathered so much momentum over the previous four years that neither of us was able to abruptly change course.

I remember strolling on campus one day and feeling numbed by the impersonality of it all—the fact that everyone was walking around in their own world, that people didn’t meet each other’s eye, smile, acknowledge each other, that there was no human contact or connection.

I dreaded going back to school again and decided to postpone it. I borrowed Will Durant’s History of Civilization from my uncle, instead, and started reading, but as my depression deepened, the excitement I’d felt about learning in Spain subsided, until one day I closed the book and never opened it again.

Looking back on it, I know my depression had to do with the staggering losses I was experiencing: the loss of a place I’d loved and felt deeply attached to, of the people there—my Spanish and American friends—of a way of life that had allowed me to bloom, and, most of all, of the feeling that I was loved and cherished by Britte that had been the foundation for it all.

I called the student hospital, hoping to resume therapy with Dr. Camarer, but was told he no longer worked there. When I mentioned this to Britte, she exclaimed, “You didn’t know? He jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge!”—which left me dumfounded. I remembered how I’d intended to write him in Spain—to thank him for his help and tell him how happy I was. I even found myself wondering if that would have made a difference…if I could have saved his life.

For the first couple of months back in Berkeley, I had trouble functioning, so I was relieved when I found my energy returning and was able to do more. But my improvement didn’t improve my relationship with Britte. One day she yelled at me that she’d given me everything and sometimes she didn’t think I was worth it. It was all I could do to hang in there, trying to hold on to the faith that this was merely a difficult passage and we’d come through it. Then one day she exploded, smashing a glass table top and screaming that she felt like killing someone. I was so frightened by her behavior that I moved out—and I took refuge briefly in my mother’s house, since I didn’t know where else to go.

Her outburst marked the end of our friendship; she went into therapy briefly with a colleague of my mother’s, and on the few occasions I talked to her after this, she was hostile and distant. At the end of the school year a few months later, she went to Germany, where she would live for a number of years. So it was a very long time before I learned what the demise of our friendship was really all about. Though Britte could imagine that she’d given me “everything,” she continued to deny me the one and only thing that would have made all the difference: the truth.

GOMAS

The University of Madrid was in political turmoil that year—there were frequent student demonstrations and violent confrontations with the “Guardia Civil,” the state police. (We called them “grises”—“gray men”—for their gray uniforms.) When there was liable to be trouble, Gay, at the Education Abroad Office, would call all sixty of us in the program, warning us not to attend classes that day. We risked jail if we were anywhere in the vicinity—police trucks would drive around and spray “protesters” with paint to mark them for arrest. One day Gay didn’t reach me in time. I took my two metros and bus to campus, but as I got off amid a crush of students, I saw a line of Guardia Civil on horseback at the far end of a field. Frantically I scrambled back onto the bus a moment before the doors closed—and watched the grises charge down the field, descending on the students and beating them savagely with “gomas” (rubber clubs), until the melee was right underneath my window—frightened horses rearing, clubs swinging, students screaming as they were thrown against the bus or clawed at the doors.

Some time after this incident, all classes were suspended, and we U. C. students were given a choice—to leave Madrid or stay—because if the university remained closed, the boys in our program could lose their credits for the year and risked being drafted for the war in Vietnam.

My friends and I, including Ella, Dale, and Pete, chose to stay.

 

ROOTS

The Spanish people were generous and hospitable in a way that astonished someone raised with a Yankee sensibility like I was, with an emphasis on self-reliance and habits like thrift and prudence. When a Spaniard picked up a few of us American hitchhikers, he would treat us all to a meal at a café in the next town we stopped at, whatever his financial circumstances. Because the Spanish sensibility was, as I perceived it, steeped in a sense of community, people weren’t constrained in the way many Americans tend to be; they didn’t worry about the future the way we do in our culture, trusting in the shared ethos that we are all our brothers’ keepers.

By the end of the year, my love of Spain and sense of belonging, like a root system, had grown so broad and deep, I began to consider the possibility of making a life there as an ex-patriot after I graduated from college. I felt for the first time that I understood the wish of the farmer who wanted to be buried under the old oak he’d climbed as a child—because I felt I wanted to be buried in Spain.

PETE

In Paris, after our landing in Le Havre the previous summer, I’d swung through the rainy streets with a boy from our program named Pete—on our way to buy him an umbrella. He was an economics major—handsome and outgoing, with an amiable charm. From time to time during the year we found ourselves together, and I would get my hopes up that it was the beginning of something, but he would always back off.

“At the party Pete told me about the book The Games People Play and we went to the kitchen to try our hand at tortillas, but there weren’t any eggs in the fridge. ‘Por fin y al cabo’ we ate at the university cafeteria and went walking through a park—the grass was wet, the night balmy. There were shadowy figures on benches, low murmurs. Pete carried me over a hedge. I was amazed at how easily he lifted me up. I said one or two things that made him laugh—like pointing out the constellation Orion with his three belly buttons. But it wouldn’t have been necessary to talk at all if he had held my hand. Debbie and Bruce were walking hand-in-hand. His aloofness began to bother me, and I started to tense up. The walk home was uncomfortable, the lack of physical contact so unnatural I think it upset us both. The evening just fell off; he clapped for the sereno, said ‘Adios!’—that was it. I wondered if he would ever ask me out again. I thought he wouldn’t, and I swore to protect my feelings no matter what happened.”

Then, on a trip with some girlfriends, we missed the train back to Madrid and disagreed about what to do. While two stayed behind to wait for the next train, two of us went to the outskirts of town to hitch a ride. There on the shoulder of the road was Pete with a male friend. He and I hitchhiked together that afternoon and shared a room in a pension that night. And although nothing happened, the intimacy of the situation caused something in our friendship to shift.

I found out from Wendy, who was dating a friend of Pete’s, that he had a girlfriend back in the States, which I realized had been the obstacle all along. That spring we hitchhiked to Portugal together. He was great fun to travel with—being ingratiating enough for the TWO of us—and people responded with warmth wherever we went. He didn’t speak any more Portuguese than I did, but had no inhibition about speaking Spanish and changing just the endings of words to approximate Portuguese.

One afternoon we found ourselves on the wrong bus, so the driver let us off along a country road, directing us across a valley to a distant road somewhere on the other side. We waded through a field of wildflowers that streamed up and over the steep hills to either side, the two of us getting giddier and more intoxicated with the natural beauty as we went. We wanted to touch each other but were too shy, so we horsed around instead, frolicked and chased each other until we finally collapsed, exhausted, on the ground. Beneath the flowers, mint was growing everywhere, and when Pete finally kissed me, his hair, his clothes, everything smelled of mint.

LECHEROUS HAND

Rome wasn’t the only place I was anonymously harassed. One day in Madrid I found myself waiting for the subway at rush hour. As the doors of the train opened, I was swept into the car by the surge of the crowd—and someone pulled up my dress the moment before I got hemmed inside. When the train started, my skirt was bunched up around my waist—my panties, nylons, and garter belt exposed (this was the year before we started wearing pantyhose)—and I felt a lecherous hand squeezing my thigh. Not knowing what else to do, I wormed my own hand down and grasped it tight so it couldn’t stray any further, while I peered into the impassive faces around me, trying to figure out who it belonged to. When I found I couldn’t, I hurled myself at the exit at the very next stop and made my escape, even though I was still many stops away from my own.

FLUENT

At first I was too shy and insecure to speak much Spanish, afraid of making mistakes. I’d had three years less Spanish than the other students in my program, since I’d started out in French in junior high, and I continued to have to struggle to understand and keep up.

But in the spring of that year, a strange thing happened. I’d become so facile at conjugating verbs from tables in my head and to referring, mentally, to the other diagrams and charts I’d memorized that I sounded—almost—fluent. Then, quite suddenly, all my “props” fell away—I couldn’t remember these schemata, and I found myself floundering in a sea of panic and confusion. This lasted only a few weeks, until one morning I woke up fluent. I could talk and think—I even began to dream—in Spanish. But the change wasn’t just a matter of verbal proficiency. With mastery, I underwent a more profound transformation from the anxious, reticent young woman I’d been to a voluble, extroverted “Latina.” An alter ego emerged who actually enjoyed being the center of attention. I’m afraid you could hardly shut me up.

Looking back, I think one of the things that freed me was finding in the Spanish language a refuge from my father, a place he couldn’t follow me—criticize or mock me. Rather than the unsympathetic audience I’d had in him, I found a sympathetic one. The Spanish people couldn’t have been more pleased and enthusiastic about anyone’s efforts to speak their language. Soon they were asking me what Latin country I came from, assuming I was a native Spanish speaker, though they couldn’t quite place my accent. (My accent, curiously, WASN’T quite like anyone else’s—and it wasn’t until many years later when I met a woman from the Canary Islands that I finally heard an accent like my own.)