Going to the Well

(A way to really embarrass your child!)

At the end of Fernando de Rojas’ enduringly pertinent tragicomedy, La Celestina (various versions; 1499-1502), the father, Pleberio, grapples with his daughter’s tragic fall to death.  Pleberio says to his wife, “¡Ay, ay, noble mujer!  Nuestro gozo en el pozo, nuestro bien todo es perdido.  ¡No queramos más vivir!” (rough translation: “Oh, oh, noble wife of mine!  Our greatest joy drowned (in the well), our life and well-being lost. We cannot go on living.”).  He goes on to say, “¡Oh amigos y señores, ayudadme a sentir mi pena! (roughly: “Oh, friends and kind sirs, help me stand this grief!”), followed soon thereafter by, “Oh duro corazón de padre” (“Oh, father’s hardened heart”).  The tragicomedy, so full of hilarious irony and heartbreaking loss, features the well as the deep and stony resting place of Pleberio and Alisa’s daughter and of the couple’s equanimity.

This past weekend, I drove with our son, our first-born, nine hours north to take him to college.  Actually, he was headed to a community service program that would precede first-year orientation.  “Nuestro gozo en el pozo,” a line I have cried over in private and in class (those who are regular readers of this blog know that I fear not the public flow of tears), ran through my mind as my son snored sleepily at my side for the first two hours of the trip.  But I wasn’t thinking of the “well” as a stony resting place, but rather a place from which our son could draw bucket after bucket of thirst-quenching knowledge and surprising friendships and amazing adventures and a profound sense of self, all of which he could channel back towards the world in his own way.  Of course, I was thinking of “gozo” as joy, from rejoice, and of our son as an unmitigated, undefinable, undisputed joy of almost 19 years.

When Charlie was born, a poet friend of mine from Mexico City asked me how life had changed.  I remember being glad we were speaking in Spanish, which seemed to give me an expanded way to offer an answer.  I said, “El niño nos va enseñando a amar de maneras infinitas.  Me doy cuenta de lo infinitos que somos todos, de que el amor es matemático, es el infinito, es la infinidad” (rough translation: “Our child is teaching us to love in infinite ways.  I’m realizing that we are all infinite, that love is mathematical, that it is infinity itself.”)  I’m lucky my interlocutor was a poet—he was all in.  In a way, I think the birth of our second child was easier because we were already prepared for infinity, for more gozo.  Prepared, maybe, to figure out how you can be so thrilled for another human being’s next adventure and simultaneously devastated by their departure. The pozo, then, for this parent also evokes the stillness or stoniness of loss.

In the three days since our sloppy (on my part) and public goodbye, I have experienced many more emotions than I had anticipated. I have been delighted to have occasional communications with Charlie, who feels right at home in his new place.  On the home front, Charlie’s departure has felt ridiculously akin to my mother’s death of two years ago, and to the recent death of my husband’s mother.  I do not like admitting this.  This moment of great privilege should not encourage any grief or complaining on my part, I know this.  But it does.  Sobs emerge uneven and choking in the “I don’t believe this has happened” way, and I have to avoid casual acquaintances so they don’t have to comfort a relative stranger when they ask her a simple question.  (Yes, I had to pull over to the side of the highway on the car ride back; yes, my eyes keep welling up when friends and family ask how Pat, Susanne, and I are doing; yes, seeing an accidental fourth plate at the dinner table hits deep; and, yes, I can’t imagine my husband’s double loss, since he also taught Charlie for years.) Every part of Charlie’s next adventure seems fascinating, and I delight on his behalf.  I just didn’t expect any part of the experience to feel like death, to land us in the pozo.  The fourth plate, the empty room, the music stand, the piano bench, the ratty old sneakers.  They are all the well.

This lament is particularly silly when I consider how many times I will see Charlie over fall term, how social media makes him so present, how lucky I am to love him and his sister and dad so much.  But there you have it—the infinity of the ways in which we love, or just the infinity of love, translates as well to true lament.  We understand why Pleberio says, “Oh” more than a dozen times in his speech and why the speech seems to sport only exclamations and rhetorical questions, made all the more dramatic as they are framed by double exclamation points and double question marks in Spanish.  Sometimes you need another language to express the hyperbole you feel.

As we packed Charlie off, I gave him some advice (quite different from the one rather bald but well-meaning bit of advice my father gave me).  In the end, though, he does not need the advice, for I believe he already knows how to love infinitely.  May he fare well!

Talking through the Generations

(Our new family member)

For two reasons, this week’s post is neither weighty nor timely: (1) Election Day is Tuesday, and I’m extremely nervous about it. Many of us Virginians are working hard to see this fine slate of Democratic candidates elected (governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, and local representatives and court of clerk).  We understand this election to be something of a referendum on the “president.” I, for one, need some small or big reassurance that people are understanding him to be the sociopathic, selfish, inexperienced lout (for lack of a stronger and still acceptable word in pleasant company) that he is; and (2) yesterday we brought home a bundle of puppy love.  Her name is Nimbus, and she has charmed the socks off even the most reluctant among us, including our grumpy and adorable eight-year-old dog.  I would like to be an adult and say that the first reason overrides the second, but I’d say they’re running neck and neck at this moment. In this lighter and less urgent post, I ruminate about getting older and how aging can change how we communicate with other generations.

This past summer, my father, siblings, and I navigated hospice and loss.  I am the sixth of seven (but really the seventh of eight) children, and so most of my siblings are my elders.  Through this time, I feel I’ve learned better when to offer an opinion, when to quiet one, when to step in, and when to step back; or at least I learned this in the very specific context in which we found ourselves.

One evening at my parents’ house, my dad and I had helped my mom to bed.  I then went back to the kitchen to do the dishes.  I did them thoroughly but as quickly as possible so that I could join my dad in watching the Phillies on television.  This past summer was the first in a long time that I learned the entire Phillies line-up and knew when to cheer and when to despair (and when to call the players mean names, like any good Philadelphia fan).  After watching a few innings with me and celebrating the feats of a new rookie outfielder, my dad went to get something in the kitchen.  I heard him call my name.  “Ellen,” he called, in a stern, dad-voice of decades past, “can you please come to the kitchen?”  Unconcerned and mildly amused, I went into the kitchen, where my dad awaited me by the silverware drawer.  The kitchen was spotless.  What could possibly be the problem, o-Type-A-like-me dad-of-mine?  “Ellen, your mother and I keep the spatula here,” he said, opening the regular silverware drawer and pointing to a specific spot in it.  “Right here.”  For a millisecond, I thought he was kidding, but I quickly realized the stakes.  I had no need to place the spatula in the drawer with the whisks, lemon squeezers, serving spoons, and other spatulas.  When your wife is struggling, the Phillies are losing, and your house has been invaded by your opinionated grown-up children, you get to tell people to put the spatula wherever the hell you please.  I observed my dad’s serious and somewhat stern face and said, “You’ve got it, Dad.  Thanks for letting me know.”  Then I wondered, what is the spatula in my own life?  What little things am I insisting on that don’t matter to anyone but me?  How can I be more flexible about the spatula?  Also, when is it time to tell people to stick the spatula where you say?

The spatula lesson can be applied to my siblings, who were truly a joy to grow up with and continue to be an interesting, funny, and loving collection of human beings.  When you grow up in a big crowd, you learn to love your opinions, which you fight to express, while at the same time competing for seconds at the dinner table.  Loving your own opinions means that you believe you’re always right, you undervalue (“menospreciar” in Spanish—sounds better to me) opinions different from your own, and become vociferous in the expression of these always-right opinions.  I am partly grateful for loving my own opinions because I don’t think I’d write a blog (or much else) if I didn’t.  Nevertheless, applying the spatula rule (“You’ve got it, Dad”) helps me to make room for more voices at my own real and metaphorical dinner tables.  (I didn’t realize I would spend so much time in the kitchen for this post.)

So far, I’ve claimed to improve communications with my parents’ generation and to be working on doing the same with my own generation.  As for generations younger than mine, I often forget that I’m 52 and that 52 is kind of old.  Except for some physical ailments, I feel like my spirit is the same as when I was 42, 32, maybe even 22 on a particularly lively day.  Sometimes I catch an unexpected glimpse of myself and am reminded of my age.  Sometimes I watch a younger person react to me in a certain way—maybe expecting to see shock when I feel none or assuming my children are older than they are–, and I’m reminded that she or he sees me as older.  This gives me increased sympathy for people older than me, who must experience this some or most of the time.

For any of you reading who are from a generation or two younger than me, please bear with the following comments and offer opinions and suggestion about what you’ll read next.  I want to understand which are the spatula moments (accept and move on) and which are not.

I have been teaching for over 30 years, and I love this profession.  Sharing ideas and subjects you love with young learners, helping them to develop skills, watching their own ideas develop, and then seeing them as friends and peers is a gift.  I treasured this gift at 22 when I started, and I still do to this day.  I continue to feel nourished by the students’ youth, energy, and humor, along with the books, films, and conversations that fill my classroom, life, and home.  Wow, how lucky I am.

And here is my older-lady preoccupation of the last several years:  When I meet with students, which I do all the time, I am so impressed by their keen sense of time and organization.  They arrive with laptops, they flip them open before I even notice they’ve done so, the meeting starts without any official nod, and we’re off to the races.  These days, I am absolutely the only person in the room without a laptop open.  I have a pad and pen and am ready to listen, offer ideas, and jot down tasks I’ve agreed to take on.  Now, always, early in the meeting, I notice that all the people around the table are completing the tasks they’ve just been assigned.  They are not listening to the meeting, which is no longer a meeting, because it has simply become a co-working site.  This transition is difficult for me, as I plan to complete my tasks after the meeting so that I’m focused on the meeting at hand.  But no one else is perturbed by this dynamic, and now no one is running the meeting.  My sense is that we end up not exactly knowing where we stand at the end of the meeting, but most of the attendees believe their work is done.  We have spent 30 or 60 minutes together in a congenial environment.  When we conclude the meeting, a moment which to me never seems official or real, the students have completed their tasks, and I’m adding mine to my to-do list.

I like their no-nonsense way of getting things done together, but my generation hasn’t grown up with devices separating us or dictating the flow of our conversations and meetings.  What the students are doing seems inherently rude to me, but I can tell that they don’t see this style as rude, but rather smart and effective.  I try to understand this, I do.  Nevertheless, I observe this meeting-no meeting phenomenon even in one-on-one meetings with students.  It’s almost as if I say to them, “You have great qualifications to apply for X grant.  I really think you should,” and the student immediately starts applying for that grant while I sit there.  They think I’m okay with just witnessing their work, and they type happily on.

I learn a lot from these very capable young individuals.  What should I accept from their ways and understand to be a necessary change, and what should I call out as unacceptable for any generation?  Do you have any advice or words of wisdom?  I’m all ears!  (Big, floppy, golden ones, that is.)

 (Our sweet older fellow.)

Two Months and Five Days Later

My mother passed away two months and five days ago. (*See May, June, and July posts for references to this.)  The morning of July 14, Bastille Day, my friend Tanya’s birthday, the odd little contours of remembrance of a date, a number, that becomes too significant all too quickly.  In these two months, big, gulping tears of despair have overtaken me at certain moments, like when I suddenly come upon a photo of my mother at my house, or talk with my dad on the phone and he can’t pass the phone to my mom, or have a visual memory of holding my mother’s hand and whispering “goodbye” over and over (trying to convince myself it really was goodbye).  I have been taken by surprise by the force of my own body, bending over in its sobbing, slowly feeling relief in the humid release.  I have also been taken aback by experiencing what I call soldier days.  These are the days when I’m too occupied to feel the loss or at a loss, when work presses in and the kids need extra attention and dinner’s not yet made.

Many of my Spanish friends, when they expressed condolences, used the same phrase, reminding me to “crear un huequito para mi mamá,” to create a little space for my mom.  I loved hearing this phrase repeated by different people, all of whom were encouraging me to establish a new relationship with my mom, the reality of her absence, and my upside-down pyramids of memories of her.  The more I think about my friends’ suggestion, the more I understand the substance of that word “huequito.” A hole, a hollowed-out space, a gap, a place of time and space.  It’s all too facile to see this word as womb, but I do—a hollowed-out, protected space waiting for something to exist or grow there.  The gulping sobs on slower days and the secret rivulets of tears on busy days seem to come from and return to the huequito.  When I slow down enough to remember my mom, to think about her ghostly presence at her and my dad’s house, to wear a ring she gave to me, I don’t know, to just feel her around me, I’m so grateful for my heart and mind to have the huequito, a space sometimes left alone and sometimes filled to overflowing.

When my father’s mother died decades ago, I remember the wake and not wanting to go into the parlor to see my grandmother’s lifeless body.  Older relatives and priests were hovering over her body and chanting somber prayers in Lithuanian.  I wanted to remember my grandmother alive, with her big ears and dangling earrings, her mod glasses and dentures, and her interrogations about grades and musical instruments.  I was more interested in hearing the Lithuanian than paying homage to what seemed a lifeless form.  I was 23 years old.  When my own mother died, I was 51.  I no longer see the body as a lifeless form, but rather as a culmination of a full life lived and a memory that belongs forcefully in the huequito, alongside all the other memories of a body in motion and expressing emotions.  My sister’s insistence that we all share my mother’s little things—her rings, purses, scarves, and hats—helped me to understand how we fill the huequito and then visit it, with physical items whose texture and smell invite us to feel and remember.

I walk around every day looking at other people and wondering how they seem so impervious to loss, or so strong and resolute in the face of a loss.  I think, oh, my gosh, how many people have lost a parent and are successfully walking around here.  How do they do it?  And how do you carry on after losing your partner after a lifetime together?  How are people so strong? I imagine each of us has, to some degree, created the little space and spent time there, an intimate, private time that is a part of pain and, maybe, healing.

When I was quite little, my family and I watched the films “Death Be Not Proud” and “Brian’s Song” together.  I remember feeling unable to bring all that sadness into my body, unable to watch the whole film in the company of others. Over these past months, I’ve read Edwidge Danticat’s The Art of Death and Cory Taylor’s piece in The New Yorker titled “Questions for Me About Dying” (from Dying: A Memoir).  A few years ago, I also read Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and Joyce Carol Oates’ A Widow’s Story.  I’ve been working on translating Rosa Montero’s La ridícula idea de no volver a verte (The Ridiculous Idea of Never Seeing You Again).  What I understood before July 14th has multiplied, and the appreciation I have for these authors who have so poignantly described their own illness and approaching death or the loss of loved ones has multiplied as well.

I had planned to write about Betsy DeVos and Title IX two weeks ago, and then last week, and then this week.  But somehow I am just not up to the task.  Lexington-style turmoil at work and Trump-style turmoil for our nation got the better of me, and I turned to the small space, the protected space of the huequito.

(Photo from the credits of the Netflix series “Fire Chasers” [Executive Producer Molly Mayock thanks our mom])

Mi mamá me mima mucho

“Mi mamá me mima mucho”—a silly tongue twister that I use to have my students studying Spanish practice the five vowel sounds.  We practice it slowly, emphasizing the tight, precise pronunciation of the vowels; then we practice it with speed, attempting a fluidity we hope to capture over time.  We use this easy tongue twister at the beginning of class for the first week or so, and I tell the students that they can call me, stop by my office, or find me around campus to recite it perfectly for extra credit.  Like most tongue twisters, the emphasis is on the sound, not the meaning.  Nevertheless, the “my mother spoils/pampers me a lot” meaning of this tongue twister has kept entering my mind over the past few weeks.  While I am not entirely comfortable writing about my mother being sick or my feelings of gradual, and now imminent, loss, I also feel like I can’t write about anything else right now.  Not about terrible governance, unfettered violence, bad politics, or rife social injustice.  There will be no informative links today, no self-assured comments about everything I know I’m right about.  I mostly just need to keep raining, at least for a little while, even if this isn’t really the point of the Gender Shrapnel Blog.

Last week I dreamt of being chased by a large bear, whose cubs seemed underfoot the whole time I ran.  I ended up in a beautiful treehouse enclosed by glass, scrambling to an uppermost branch which appeared also to be a coffee table.  As I peered down from this perilously high perch, the cubs were playfully trying to join me, and the mother bear was nowhere in sight.  When I woke up the next morning, I couldn’t shake the dream.  I kept mulling it over, ignoring the obvious signs of what the dream was trying to work out.  When I googled “dreaming of being chased by animals” and “dreams about bears,” the quick results managed to take me by surprise and bring a fresh well of tears to my eyes.  I was dreaming about my mother, worried about her cubs, one of which I was (or am).  I was dreaming about slow decline and hospice and loved ones and fear and loss.  I was dreaming about this end stage of life that is such a challenge for us and those around us.  I was dreaming about our perilous perches that barely hold us against the devastation and desperation of the biggest loss of our lives.  I suspect I was dreaming, too, about my own fear of death.

After I gathered myself and moved towards getting work done, images of the dream kept returning, and with them came some kind of odd release.  Suddenly I experienced memory after memory of my mother, who is still here with us, and I gloried in these memories.  My mother casing a thrift shop for great looks and bargains.  My mother as the matron of honor in her youngest sister’s wedding.  My mother with a knife in her hand, looking threatening as the dog took off with one of the 24 sandwiches made for that day’s lunches.  My mother pulling me into a hug after I had a tough day at school.  My mother dressing up for her first day back at work.  My mother in the laundry room on Fairhill Road, surrounded by racks of drying jock straps and baskets of freshly folded laundry.  My mother testing me on vocabulary words for school.  My mother’s ankles creaking as she walked up the steps to tell us all to get to bed, that she had had it.  My mother’s eyes narrowing dangerously as she heard someone mention “a dumb football player,” with her sharp words not far behind, wondering aloud why people don’t talk about dumb tuba players.  My mother going to Europe for the first time at the age of 70.  My mother at 72 climbing the Segovia tower and vowing to learn Spanish.  My mother serving another homemade birthday cake to another excited child.  My mother looking beautiful for a party.  My mother telling us we couldn’t watch t.v., and giving us a list of things we could do (“You may talk with your brothers and sisters.  You may do a puzzle.  You may bake a cake.  You may play a game.  You may knit a scarf.  You may read a book.  You may do an extra credit project for school.  But you may not watch t.v.”).  My mother giving my father a good morning kiss.  My mother saying that if you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say it at all (we have had several debates about that one since).  My mother holding my husband’s and my firstborn and our second-born and helping us to figure out how to bathe them (we managed to forget in the time between their arrivals, but somehow she didn’t).  My mother creating a special jelly bean box for each of the 15 grandchildren and hiding the boxes just before the youngsters’ arrivals.  My mother laughing a big laugh, cracking a big joke, living a big life. The image of my mother from the time I met her when she was thirty to now, at 82, always small and beautiful and strong, always smart and funny and over-the-top kind, often stubborn as hell.  Thank goodness for that flood of memories, which carries more along with it.  Thank goodness for today’s new memories, too, and, well, thank goodness for my mother.

Isn’t it amazing to think about how one life touches so many others, not just in that one lifetime, but way beyond it?  I guess this is the theme of at least one-third of the literary canon.  In the last few weeks, I have shared stories with my mother (“Remember the time, Mom, when we hit a deer?”  “Remember when we went to see flamenco at midnight?”  “Remember when you and dad roadtripped with Pat’s parents to meet our son?” “Remember when I worked at the hospital with you and we drove that old bomber of a car every day?”). I’ve also shared stories about my mother.  I’ve had the pleasure of sharing memories and tears with some of my mother’s dearest friends, who are wondering about her and loving her as they approach the mourning process.  My brothers and sister and I have sat with our dad and told more stories, always with that multiperspectivist view—the cubist painting that is a family.

Of course, a life is the sum of these moments and of the unnarrated spaces between the moments.  How to tell the rest of the story about this beloved and loving person?  Well, it’s impossible.  The rest of the story resides in our laughter, tears, quivering hearts, and little personal memory boxes.

A month after a former colleague lost his mother, I asked him how he was doing.  He said, in his gentle, lilting, extrasyllabic Alabama accent, “Well, you know, it’s your mother.”  That about sums it up, doesn’t it?