As I was falling asleep last night, the patched-up cast-iron furnace in our 1930s Cape, kicked on with a burp and a heave. We crank the thermostat right down when we go to bed, preferring the cold for sleeping. Besides, oil’s expensive and we try to be energy conservative. But temperatures dropped so low last night, even the radiators in our bedrooms got hot. I was reminded of frigid winters at Machamux.
Machamux was Tom’s rambling, leaking, old house across from a rocky little beach on the Long Island Sound. I landed there in early summer of 1987. Back in the States after almost 4 years of living in Kyoto, I had no idea where to go or what to do next with my life. My friend Laurie told me that Tom, her Dad, a 70-something but ageless and charming man, rented rooms and might just have one available for me. Tom, Machamux and everyone in that ramshackle house, were just what I needed for my American re-entry. Settled in my room, I felt home.
Now there’s a fat book’s worth of Machamux stories to tell, almost all remarkably joyful and hilarious ones, but this is just a memory of the warmest-cold house I ever lived in. The house was drafty as a wrecked ship so mostly we hung around in the living room and kitchen area where the wood stove was always stoked as were our glasses at cocktail hour, beginning promptly at 5. Tom drank martinis with pimento olives. As ‘roomers’ and visitors wandered in, newspapers were shoved aside on the saggy couch to make space. Laughter and good cheer warmed the room and we took turns standing near the wood stove, letting our backs heat up rather than turn away from the usually lively banter. We took our time going up to bed, knowing our rooms, would likely be cold enough for our breath to be visible. But when it got really, really cold, like it did here last night, the baseboards running along the perimeter of our rooms hissed and gurgled, emitting rare heat with cozy old-house smells. That felt luxurious.
I met R at Machamux back in 1987 – his room was at the top of the house. That’s one of the stories I have to tell another time — about a love that got lost — then found again. And together now, so many years later, we savor our shared history of two old drafty houses made warm by love, fire and sometimes reluctantly, very old furnaces.
As my daughter finishes her first semester at college and the need to declare her major looms, I think about my own school-to-life trajectory. I ‘majored’ in Fine Arts. Unlike these days, I don’t remember thinking my degree should be relevant to making a living. It’s not that I was some rich kid who didn’t have to think about that – in fact, I was financially independent from my school teacher parents by the time I was the age my daughter is now. My folks, to their credit, encouraged me to find and follow my passion, never discouraging me from the impractical choice of art. They and I too, presumed that I’d figure out a way to live as an artist even if that meant, as it did for years, waitressing. Eventually, I landed on other ways to earn money that I loved and that have no relevance to my major.
My life became more interesting than I imagined while plodding towards my college degree. Twists and turns took me around the globe for rich experiences and encounters that include some well known, mostly very great people. This week, I remembered one extraordinary morning when I was in the same, albeit very big room, with Nelson Mandela.
In 1990, Nelson Mandela spoke at the United Nations just months after his release. At the time, I was UN Tour Guide and happily crammed in with the rest of UN Secretariat staff, into the General Assembly. As Nelson Mandela walked regal-like to the podium, we leapt from our seats – a massive wave of global citizens – roaring our love for him. We clapped and clapped, ignoring the stinging, then throbbing of our hands. Tears ran down our faces while our smiles made our cheeks ache. That great hall thundered, on and on. We could not and did not stop applauding for what must have been 5 or more minutes. Elegantly, he stood and waited. Here’s a taste of that moment, courtesy of the UN.
How lucky was I to have been there? I loved working for the United Nations and I was lucky to get hired with my degree in sculpture and mediocre Japanese. Most of my fellow guides were fluent in at least 2 languages, many spoke 5 or even more. I applied for the job just back from a stint of living in Japan where I barely studied the language between making art and teaching English. My Japanese was (and remains) pretty awful. Lucky for me, at the time there were only 2 Japanese tour guides and those gals wanted a break. Yukiko assured me they’d help me learn the tour and I’d be daijobu – just fine.
I still remember some pretty obscure Japanese – “Trusteeship Council” being one of my favorites since even explaining that defunct council in English is tricky. And imagine this American gal’s discomfort guiding Japanese tourists through the disarmament exhibit displaying artifacts from Hiroshima and Nagasaki. While my Japanese, mostly memorized tours were lame, most visitors were delighted to have a gaijin guide and I was happy to use up the extra minutes left on what should have been a 45 minute tour, posing for pictures. They were always very polite, most not asking questions and if they did, accepting my Japanese style of sucking air and saying “Muskashi…” (“hmmm… that’s difficult…) as a satisfactory answer.
I like to think that my English tours made up for my lousy Japanese ones. I passionately delivered my love and interest in world affairs to groups of all ages, tailoring each tour to the group – responding to faces, encouraging questions and discussion while sticking to the UN line of answering – most of which I fervently agreed with. Mine was no rote delivery but rather an always changing glimpse of issues and the UN’s role. Each morning, us guides had our own briefing on the latest world events. We knew and understood every Security Council Resolution, we could discuss every conflict, environmental and humanitarian issue. These briefings could put CNN to shame. I felt like I stood at the threshold of world events and so much was happening at that time – and a lot of it good. The Berlin wall came down! There was the first World Summit for Children (I met Vaclav Havel!), the European Union was established. For a time, it seemed that borders were disappearing – giving us an utopian flash of hope that so might prejudices, that resources might be more equitably shared. Then came the end of the USSR and almost every day it seemed that a different flag of newly recognized countries was being added to the flapping fabric on First Avenue.
Then Yugoslavia imploded and I left my corner couch in the Guides Lounge to join the Peacekeepers. Another amazing opportunity I never studied for in college.
Have times changed so much that it matters now that it really matters what Molly decides to major in? I wonder.
Yesterday, strong winds curbed our kayaking ambition. Rather than venture all the way out to one of the islands, we floated out only as far as the sandbar. A 10 minute paddle away and marked by sea grass that disappears completely at high tide, this spot is where we go for short trips when we want to get on the water, content to be jostled about. At low tide a nice little beach is exposed and we can park the boat up on the sand. We wade through the water, watch the birds, the clouds, the waves, the shimmer of light and shadow on the water, dig our toes beneath the sand. We don’t talk much, absorbing the bliss.
Yesterday, overwhelmed by the beauty I said, “There’s something magical about this little spot, isn’t there?” It feels a bit like that patch is ours.
The tide was heading out it was still too high – no parking the kayak yet – but R hopped out into the water to stretch his legs and let the current swirl around his knees as I paddled over to the grasses, the plastic boat heaving but held steady by the Moses-reeds. Peaceful. Finally, I floated back to R and we agreed to head back. With the kayak and my gaze pointed towards shore, I felt R climb in and pushed my paddle into the water.
“Wait. We have to go back,” R said. “I had the car key in my pocket and it must have fallen out. We have to look for it.”
Silently, I guffawed. The Long Island Sound still around our calves even at the most shallow spot around us. We’re supposed to look for a key in the water? Certainly a case for lost causes, I thought. Were I a believer I’d be praying to Saint Jude. In any case, I hopped out of the boat and began scanning the rippling water, grateful that these days, it’s clean enough to easily see the bottom.
“It’s my only key. I only have this one left,” R said philosophically with a smile, not ready to get despondent yet.
At least the tide was going out and not in — the sandbar would soon be exposed — instead of disappearing even more underwater with an incoming tide. Still, this was no gentle retreat. The water billowed around us, the sandbank churning broken clam shells, stones, mussel shells with each new wave. Creating, I thought, new layers for us to dig through. I flashed on the rest of our afternoon sifting through our beloved sandbar, surrounded by piles of wet sand. Or maybe we could enlist some guy with a metal detector to lend us a hand. We’d have to kayak him out with that crazy apparatus to save the day. Maybe.
Zeroing in on a dark object, I plunged my hand into the water hoping this might be the rubber end of the car key. Mussel shells look a lot like car keys in a foot of water. I took off my sunglasses hoping to see a little better. A few minutes later, a flash of what might be metal was the inside of a piece of oyster shell.
Impossible. No way we could find R’s single key in all of this churning water and shifting sand. I thought again of lost causes, of Saints, of prayer – something I don’t do much, vague as I am in belief. Yet I have a sense of not really ever being alone, of being watched over. Mostly, by those that have loved me. I do believe in love and think it impossible that love can just disappear, poof! – be gone. Sometimes, I’ll have a silent chat. And yesterday, while poking around for a key in a sandbar, I did just that. Maybe that’s a prayer. And maybe it’s just a coincidence, or perhaps just luck — but in all that water swirling around on our magic sandbar, I found the key.
It was near the end of my shift and I was waiting for drinks I’d ordered, my cocktail tray at the ready. The odd name of the restaurant, “One Potato Two Potato” was annoyingly embroidered across the chest of the butcher apron I wore over black shirt and pants. It was not the worst waitressing get-up I’d ever worn and the pockets were perfect for order pads, pens and tips. Tips at this pub-style restaurant on Harvard Square helped pay for the apartment I shared with my sister a few blocks away. I was in-between things in my life, having just landed in Boston after a 4 month solo jaunt through Europe. I was still pining after Gerry Clancy who I’d met early in my travels, on my first day in Limerick. Thus, my brogue-alert was triggered by the man with a tweedy jacket and shock of messy, slightly greying hair at the bar, when he placed his order in a fine Irish accent.
“John, I want to buy that man’s drink,” I quietly said to the owner. I recognized the poet Seamus Heaney.
With Harvard right across the street, quite a few writers frequented this pub-style restaurant. One Potato Two Potato had unexceptional food but a long, wooden bar and unpretentious atmosphere. John Updike was a regular, usually sitting at a deuce, his back to the window. Once, he hurried back in after leaving, having forgotten his cap. He smiled and thanked me when I handed it to him but he seemed a shy guy, preferring not to be recognized or engaged.
On the other hand, Seamus Heaney seemed delighted by my offer and asked me to join him so he could buy me a drink in return. After my shift, I hung up my apron and climbed onto the bar stool next to him. What did young me talk about with Seamus Heaney? I can’t remember. I suspect my memory falters because he was a charming gentleman who asked questions. And so I talked. Perhaps I told him about my dysfunctional Irish family and the strange sad tale of my father’s journey back and forth as a baby and child. Did I tell him about my obsession with Gerry Clancy and the days spent mostly drunk at a thatched cottage in Clare? I cringe now to think. My recollection is vague but sweet of Seamus Heaney attentively listening to my searching, blathering, waitress-self, as if I were fascinating. Slainte, Seamus Heaney.
“I don’t really know what I feel…” my daughter said the night before leaving for freshman year at college. I understood. Everything was shifting. We were both worried that our center would not hold. It will.
We anticipated dissolving into sobs when the moment came to say goodbye. We didn’t. Our eyes got puffy but barely a tear was shed. I reckon that’s because we each had a friend with us to sweetly cushion the blow of our separation. (we also let go of each other just in time – both of us sensing that if we hugged a moment longer we’d be in trouble.) Beside Molly was with Halle, her pal since elementary school and now also a freshman at this school. With me, Chris, sweet Chris who woke at the crack of dawn, packed her car with Molly’s stuff and drove me to deliver my kid to college with me.
Chris and I share important history. I ran with Molly to her house to spare my daughter seeing her father in death. Molly calls Chris her ‘second mother’. She is such a key part of our lives, it felt right she be with us for this momentous event – and she insisted on driving. My loving, good-natured, cheerful friend, lightened the mood throughout the day. By myself I suspect I would have bawled on those country roads home.
I think of Molly in her room, in her new life. Between the excitement and newness, she is probably missing her routines and the comforts of old friends – the posse of girls from high school. She is lucky to have Halle and others there with her and soon her circle of friends will widen even more. The number of people who ‘get’ her, who love her, who will laugh and cry, share old and new secrets with, friends who will see her through whatever ups and downs come her way – love, heartbreak, love again – will grow. Some, maybe many, of these friends will last and enrich her for a lifetime. Maybe even, one day, they will drive her to drop off her kid at college.
And meanwhile, I’m here with R and Tetley. Her ‘second mother’ Chris and family will be just across the street and all our other pals and loving neighbors too. We’re here. We’re Home.
Growing up in the Bronx, when I wanted to go outside to play I yelled “I’m goin’ down!” not “out”. Exiting apartment 7D, I’d walk down the windowless hallway to the elevator, or more likely, yank open the heavy door to the stairwell and leap down (step on first two steps, jump the rest) 7 flights of stairs. Sometimes I stopped at the 2nd floor to ring Barbara’s doorbell – if she wasn’t already waiting out on the stoop. We’d sit on those cement steps for hours, taking turns at hopscotch – or maybe we’d roller skate up and down the bumpy stretch of Broadway sidewalk that constituted our block. If Barbara’s mother, Mrs. Bullard, wasn’t at her usual perch, her elbows propped on a pillow as she looked out at the street, we might dash across the 4 lanes of traffic to go play in VanCortlandt park. This instead of walking down to the light at the cross walk – that would have taken 2 more minutes.
VanCortlandt park is now a gorgeous stretch of woods and fields, streams and even a horse barn. Back in the late 1960s, the stretch across from our apartment building was mostly shabby, sad grass ruined by dog shit and we still rarely ventured beyond that one field. Especially after the stocky guy with the red goatee crashed through the branches to lift Marjorie out of the tree she was climbing in. Puzzled, I stood watching him until I realized he was trying to get her pants off. Feeling a weird detachment, I ran out beyond the tree line yelling for help although there was no one but a distant dog walker. Seconds passed before Marjorie ran out after me having successfully squirmed out of his arms. We didn’t speak as she zipped up her pants. I held my breath so I wouldn’t laugh, feeling crazy – why did I want to laugh? I didn’t tell my parents and I bet she didn’t tell her’s either. Unaccounted for shame of good Catholic girls. We stayed out of the woods from then on, unless there was a gang of us. Marjorie and I were probably 10 at the time.
I didn’t intend to write about this creepy childhood, urban episode. Funny how memory works.
No, this morning, as I listen to mad-chirping at my window and watch the birds surrounding the feeder that hangs inches from where I sit, I remember myself as an almost-teen, raiding the nature shelves of the Riverdale Library. Almost weekly, I’d come away with another stack of books on identifying birds, tracking animals, living out in the wild. I loved books by naturalists – or simply observers of nature. May Sarton was a favorite – a poet in New Hampshire who wrote about the seasons and solitude and kept journals like I always did, full of observation and reflection. And I thought, that this was precisely the life I wanted: to be in a place where I could write and watch the birds, maybe the deer and other creatures who wandered out of the surrounding wood, to drink from the stream I also imagined as mine. A city kid, I wanted to live in the country, maybe even live off the land.
Some summers, my parents who were teachers and had summer off too, would rent a house in Vermont where I got to live out my fantasy for a few weeks. Eventually they bought a getaway in the Hudson Valley that we’d go up to on weekends. Behind that house were woods with an old trail I used to wander up feeling safe even by myself, mesmerized by the silence that wasn’t really silence, enchanted. Listening, watching, hoping the Chickadee’s might land on me if I stayed still long enough. In those woods, I discovered a way to a peaceful place -physically and spiritually.
I imagined then, disappearing into the wild and staying there. My copy of Euell Gibbons Stalking the Wild Asparagus, the original bible of foraging and eating from the wild, was dog-eared. Once I treated my Fifth Grade classmates at PS 95 to a meal of Dandelions — roots and little flower buds drenched in butter. That seemed to be the key to the memorable meals from that book: butter. And sugar too. Another favorite were blossoms of the Black Locust tree – dipped in batter, drenched in OJ and rolled in sugar. Fritters of dough and sugar with a green stem in the middle. But the perfume of the blossom was intoxicating and somehow, that translated to taste as well.
Decades later in a Connecticut city on my .24 acre of nature, with no stream or wood, I narrow my focus to my green patch (also a little shabby, I admit) and find the same joy. Although the hum of traffic is always audible and houses surround me just beyond the hedge, my garden, the bird feeder and observed moments just outside this window nurture me and I remember the kid I was. I knew then, the way to serenity. And now, I get to just go ‘out’.
Birds and bugs weave across the sky, skirting the patchwork of green and golden field grass. Yellow butterflies – Monarchs? – float by, a Hummingbird buzzes past my ear. A Crow caws from somewhere in the forest and a pair of Wrens creep upside down along the branches of the willow tree beside me. A frantic Robin flies back and forth, filling the gaping beaks of her babies parked right outside the door we go in and out – as annoying as that may be for Robin-mama, she must feel safe from predators. With every breeze, the leaves of a stand of Aspens across the field shimmers like confetti.
It rained for much of yesterday and today, but this afternoon the sun finally shines – the clouds are benign – puffs and strokes across the vivid blue sky. The air is sweet with summer smells. In the field where I dare not venture for fear of ticks, is Queen Anne’s lace, Milkweed, Black Eyed Susan all lend splashes of color to the range of greens.
Just now, a shadow crossed the table where I sit. A Great Blue Heron swept by so close – it’s legs and neck weirdly postured as it positioned to land at the pond tucked into the wood below. So magnificent and commanding! I watch the shadows watching for more movement, wanting to see it lift off, to witness that wide flap of wings again.
It’s later and my friends have all gone out to a play. I opted to stay home for some rare solitude. After cleaning up the remnants of another delicious dinner, I’ve come back to face the field. The sound of a plane fades and then there is silence – but it is only momentary – an illusion really – there is plenty of noise. I hear the cracking of sticks, the evening complaint of a Robin, another bird song, I cannot identify, perhaps a Red Wing Blackbird. A rustle of leaves, the flutter of bird wings, the vibration of insects. The sounds are subtle but certainly there. From the pond just down the hill where I still look hopefully for the Great Blue Heron, I hear the odd belch of a bullfrog.
Out by a towering Pine tree about the distance of a block away (a city reference still works best for me), a deer is feeding, gently moving through the field. I know these creatures are common – even a nuisance – but to me, they still are marvelous. She passes gracefully back and forth across the mowed pathway, mostly she keeps her head down in the brush, busy munching, only occasionally popping up to twitch her ears, a beard of foliage hanging from her cud like a beard. Her nose looks like a chunk of sweet licorice.
Later still, I faced the field – now singing with nighttime insects – and watch the night draw in. I stared ahead at the now blurring shapes of trees, bushes, grasses, stones tumbling into the wood where darkness had already settled in. As the sky turned a blue to purple, the stars emerged, even as I watched, my neck cricked back, my face to the stars.
I miss this – nature at night – not so easily available in my busy neighborhood – not on this scale. I cannot even begin to capture my excitement – as if I have discovered a secret: what really goes on when we are closed into our homes, driven in by the mosquitoes, the draw of the light, and alas, our televisions. Standing at the edge of the meadow having been with it for hours now, I recalled this feeling, watching – no: being in nature, alone, until I feel one with the pulse of a wood or a meadow.
I remember, long ago as a young girl, a nature lover stuck in the city, memorizing animal tracks, matching the leaves of the trees to those in Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx, gathering dandelion roots and buds. Summers our family would go to a country spot and I remember exploring dirt roads on my bicycle. Often, I would stop where no one was in sight and stand leaning over my handlebars, mesmerized by a meadow a wood, the light, the dark. I still am.
Children fidgeted on the miniature furniture, a few strained against their parents’ grip, trying to make a dash for the door. Many wept on that first day of kindergarten. Not my daughter. Her perky-pigtails pointy straight up like two exclamation marks over her bright eyes, she comforted her new classmates. Unlike these timid ones, she wanted me to leave so she could get on with this new chapter of her life. Without me. Already, she was in command of the situation, sure of how she might fit in, ready to lead the way.
I was the one who wavered, lingering at the door not quite ready to separate. She offered a quick hug and wet kiss and turned back to reassuring the inconsolable blond boy next to her. I walked down the long hallway and out of the school. In my gut, my aching gut, I knew that in some huge way, she was no longer mine. In my car, I put my forehead on my steering wheel and sobbed.
It wasn’t like this separation business was new to us – she was in full time daycare from the age of two. But kindergarten, her first day in mandated school, felt different. She became part of the education machine that would define her, arguably, in as fundamental a way as me. Bereft and with tears still flowing, I drove away from what would become, her beloved elementary school. Her world without me had begun.
Well, not quite. Waking her up, making breakfast, lunches, homework, studying, play-dates, violin lessons, plays, sports games, concerts — the requirements an endless list of juggling and challenges over the years. Still, I was a stage hand, providing the behind-the-scene assistance for the Molly show. And she was a star throughout the years.
Last week she graduated from high school. Her name in the program followed by real stars marking her achievement. I’m terribly proud of her of course, but I also feel a sense of accomplishment of my own that surprises me. While she is pretty self-motivated, I get to take a little credit, too, don’t I? After all, she might have turned out so differently.
She was only in second grade when her Dad and I told her the reason behind his erratic behavior and our terrible battles. Certainly, this was a young age to learn your father is struggling with drug addiction. Then, just a month shy of her 9th birthday, to know it killed him. After his suicide, Molly and I, with our precious dog, Tetley, forged on with our fierce love, determined to seize joy.
We found that joy and more as our net of love expanded to friends and neighbors who became our family. Then, after a little more than a year, R joined us, bringing support, laughter and more love to our little house. These beloved ones, also get to share credit in steering Molly through this major stage of her life. She gets to move on now, sure of the support, laughter and love of all of us who stand behind her still. We did it — we grew a delightful child into a remarkable adult. And as usual, she is ready for the next stage.
Eighteen years ago, my beautiful daughter was born in a white-washed little village located just above the heel of the boot of Italy. She emerged on a blazing hot and sunny Tuesday around 4:30 PM. Everyone in Ostuni was still siesta-groggy.
In retrospect, I understand that I’d probably been in labor at least since the night before, but until my doctor peered at the state of my cervix, smacked the side of his head and said ‘ba fungul’ like a cliche, Italian cartoon character, I was in utter denial that my baby might be born 7 weeks ahead of schedule.
We’d already decided that she would not be born in Italy. The plan was, I’d travel in a few weeks to the flat we’d rented in Oxford, England, not far from where my husband was from. I’d spend my long summer days taking a Lamaze class where I’d learn correct breathing technique, indulge in fish-and-chips, wander in bookstores and libraries in search of a perfect girl’s name. And I’d read – spoiled by the abundance of books in English. And I’d wait. In England.
While welcome (no: celebrated!) my pregnancy was not easy. For most of it, I was in Croatia fighting bouts of nausea brought on by the insidious smell of vinegar and cabbage. The war that brought me to the Balkans 4 years earlier with UN Peacekeeping, saw some definitive battles that year, (1995) eventually ending the conflict with a bang. In late spring of 1995, shells were lobbed at Zagreb city, and each time, I lumbered down the 17 flights of stairs from my office to take cover in the building’s garage. A month earlier, I’d been catapulted through the sky on a particularly rocky helicopter ride that rode the crest of the famous “Bora” wind. So I welcomed the early maternity leave offered to me by UNICEF and the chance to join my husband at his new, plum job in Brindisi, Italy.
The villa he’d found in Ostuni was lovely, surrounded by fruit trees and roses and I was tempted to revamp plans and just have my baby there – but Chloe, the Oxford based midwife I hoped would deliver my baby, suggested that I might as well return to Sarajevo if I was going to consider giving birth in Southern Italy – that it wasn’t much better. A visit to the teeny, run-down looking Ostuni hospital cemented our decision to stick with our plan for me to go to England. Flat was rented and plane tickets purchased. My due date was August 1. I’d leave Italy at the end of June to leave enough time to settle in.
At first I ignored the bouts of cramping on Monday evening. When they continued through the night, I called Chloe in the morning. She suggested the baby’s head might be settling into position but I should certainly call my doctor. I would – later. I hated feeling like a moron when making phone calls in baby Italian. It was awkward trying to make myself understood and painful to follow someone blathering on at the end of the phone. My husband went to work in the morning – but called me every hour and finally, hurried home around lunchtime. By this time, I could barely get out of bed. I remember I was reading a very bleak novel set in the Eritrean war and had to constantly flatten the splayed paperback on the bed as yet another pounding cramp ripped through me.
My husband, much more confident about faking his way through languages he didn’t really speak, called the doctor who instructed us to come to his office in a few hours – after siesta. Traveling the 5 minutes to his office by car was excruciating. I couldn’t sit, but rather crawled into the back seat, dizzy watching the clouds spin by through the back window as we sped through the narrow streets of the town. In the waiting room, I stretched across the pleather seats, not caring about the other patients stares as I moaned. Quickly, we jumped the queue and quicker, were told by the doctor to drive to the nearby hospital.
In a salmon pink room that reeked of antiseptic, the pretty Italian nurses undressed me while giving me a crash course in breathing (in Italian) then, wheeling me into the small surgery room. After a two few intense pushes, my daughter was born. That’s it. That was the birth. Within minutes, she was being tapped and prodded on a table to my right.
I craned my neck to see her. The doctors and nurses had unsuccessfully tried to shoo my husband into another room, but he would not budge beyond the doorway and now gave me a blow by blow – telling me she was gorgeous, her legs were so long, she has my eyes. Beyond the doctor’s back – I could only catch a glimpse of her weirdly-moving limbs and tiny rib cage. Wrapping her up, the doctors told me they’d need to take her to the larger hospital in Brindisi. My husband told me he’d follow the ambulance. I was left with the nurses who pattered on in Italian while they stitched me up. All of this happened within 30 minutes.
It was night when I woke in a room with big iron beds that seemed plucked from an old movie set. The other beds were festooned with either pink or blue balloons celebrating the births of healthy babies. My bed in the corner by the window, had none. Most of the women appeared to be asleep but the young mother in the bed next to mine spoke some English. Pulling myself upright, I told her I needed to find out about my baby and she insisted I borrow her slippers – feather adorned, heeled slippers that were at least 2 sizes too small for me. Clutching the back of my hospital gown closed behind me, bleeding and achy, I waddled down the hall to find a telephone.
In my sorry Italian, I tried to explain to the nurse on duty that I needed to call Brindisi Hospital or my husband to find out about my bambina. The nurse put her hands in prayer position and cocked her head to one side to mime sleep. “Domani,” she repeated, ushering me gently back towards my room. I spotted a pay phone but remembered I had no change nor did I know what numbers to call – not even my own. My head low, I clip-clopped back down the hall, past the life size statue of the Virgin Mary, her light-bulb halo casting a strange glow against the ceiling.
Mumbling thanks to my neighbor, I stepped out of her silly slippers and she cooed sleepy reassurances. I stepped barefoot across the tiles to my bed by the window and crawled between the sheets, weeping silently, praying to the sky. A full moon emerging just over the tree tops sent a silver light shimmering through the warped glass windowpanes, bathing my face, my arms limp over the starched linens. As this mystical glow washed over me, so did peace. I knew my daughter would be fine.
My remarkable friend Naomi in Kyoto, has generously featured a collage of mine on her website’s Chasing Writing in Art link.It’s humbling to be there with so many amazing artists.
Here’s my collage and a few words. Please check out Naomi’s site here.
I painted this piece at my home in Connecticut about two years after returning from living and working in a war zone. From June 1992- June 1996, I was with the United Nations Peacekeeping Operation in Former Yugoslavia and UNICEF in Croatia and Bosnia. During that time, I met and married my husband and Molly was born.
I remember setting up my paints in front of the fireplace, imagining I’d capture a peaceful image. Instead, what I see now in this image, is torment. I recall the turmoil and demons we were living with, even as the trappings of our life seemed ideal. It was a struggle for us – especially my husband – to switch gears to a normal life away from war. The supposed tranquility of a chair in front of a fireplace – this scene that should be cozy, looks like the center of a storm.
Indeed, it was.
I still live in this house and love sitting by the fire. Twenty years on since the Balkan wars ended, almost ten since the death of my husband and these days, ghosts have mostly settled and my life is serene. I write more than paint. But I should attempt this interior again to see what would reveal itself. I imagine it would be an image of warmth and peace – butwho knows? The subconscious reveals itself almost in spite of us.