In our girls’ school uniforms we watch “Un Chien Andalou” in the auditorium. I’d rather be in the bathroom, hanging out and smoking Balkan Sobranies with my friend Juliet. She favors the black ones with the gold filters. They taste of elsewhere. A hole opens in the man’s palm and ants crawl in and out. I’m unimpressed. We have plenty of ants, in every sandy crack in the sidewalk. My father is at war with all nature, setting mouse and ant traps all over the house. And yelling at us if we leave the sugar bowl uncovered. But he is losing the battle. An old mop abandoned on the back porch is colonized by yellow jackets who build a nest in its snaky Medusa head. My father’s three daughters swell from flat-chested childhood into the busty rebellion of womanhood. We roll up our uniform skirts and show our legs, a shadow between the thighs. We believe, for the first time, that we are real, and begin to act accordingly.
When I was a young teenager, airplane hijackings came into vogue. Perhaps there were more then than now. Added precautions probably cut down on them. But in the 1960’s, they filled the news.
My overactive imagination easily created a scenario in which I was trapped with my family in a downed plane among sand dunes.”If we get hijacked, what will we do?” I asked my mom.
To her credit she didn’t point out any of the unlikelihoods. She just retorted: ‘We’ll teach Danny to read.”
My brother was about three years old at that time, so it would have been quite an undertaking. But I felt instantly unworried and happy. And that was because I had an activity.
This approach continues to help me. After all, much of life is about being hijacked–by history, health, finances, fate. Even by our own characters, and obligations. Free will, as a Jesuitical friend once explained me, is not an absolute, but on a scale. And that scale slides.
It can’t be a coincidence that I’ve taught literacy my entire adult life–from ESL to composition to poetry, fiction, and memoir. When my plans are hijacked, even by a pandemic, I still have something to do.
I like to think about it, read about it, and talk about it. I like to take a risk. I like to win, too, but the taking is my main motivation.
Covid has radically changed the conversation about risk, but not in a way I find productive. And that is because the cultural conversation seems to set up some assumptions: there was no risk before the pandemic, and current risk is all about the virus.
Being born into a human body subjects us to risk. In the poem “White Shroud” Allen Ginsberg is sick in bed in China. He writes: “I made a mistake a long time ago.” I take this to mean having been born at all, and not deciding to go on a trip.
Stay home, or go to China. Either way, we all grow old and die.
Some risk isn’t really risk at all, but self-destruction. Drunk driving, for example. I don’t count it as risk because there is no potential gain, and it is a doomed enterprise. Not getting a vaccine is similar. It might carry a very small risk–and so does driving to the pharmacy for it. I don’t focus on miniscule risk because I find that more a product of my anxiety than my critical thinking. And there is nothing much to gain.
Risk involves the possibility of great success, and real failure. Artists and writers tend to live in this realm. But so do parents, even if without seeing it. Midwives I know socially told me in all honesty: childbirth is chancey. Babies die. No one wants to admit it, but having children is risky.
And that doesn’t even include raising children. And here is an arena where, in my opinion, taking many small chances is important. Letting children have freedom–physical, mental, and emotional. Not being too controlling. Letting them make their own mistakes.
Let me say right now, I’m not a very groovy or relaxed person. Anxiety is a big problem for me. But I know my fear isn’t an accurate reflection of reality. When my daughter Isabel was about eleven, she wanted to walk a few blocks alone to the bookstore. I was nervous, and asked her step-dad Rich to decide because I trusted his calmer judgement. He said: life is full of risk, and if she figures that out in this neighborhood, that is fine with me.
So off she went. Into competent adulthood.
Of course…anything can happen. I don’t quarrel when people tell me that, because it is true. However, alien abductors or Nazis in the neighborhood just aren’t very likely. Nor is getting Covid from a library book.
And, as anything can happen, perhaps that anything might be beautiful, like falling in love, expressing your full heart, or a good deed.
I don’t know that living through a pandemic has taught me a single thing other than the pretty obvious fact that whatever else is wrong in my world and the larger world is worse in the midst of a pandemic. That’s kind of a “duh, bunny-brain” epiphany.
Instacart is my friend. Even the not-so-great shoppers are my friends. I tip well on the basis that folks doing that job are probably not doing it as a first-choice career, not that it’s not perfectly good, useful work, which is more than I can say for…let’s just say “some people” and leave it at that. I have also been told that there are people who don’t tip. I will spare you my opinion of those schmucks. So I can’t say that I have acquired any wisdom, and I’m sure that my character has not improved. This is not, therefore, a post answering the questions Miriam asked. I have learned how to make 3 different kinds of masks, but I don’t think that counts. So here’s my Other Kind of Covid Story:
The only reason I go to the grocery store is that it’s also my pharmacy. I have relationships with the pharmacists. They ask about my family and commiserate with me about the ridiculous co-pay for my anti-depressant and the aches and pains associated with the aromatase inhibitor I take on the 10% chance that it’ll help me not get more breast cancer. And when I do go, I typically pick up a medium-sized pile of groceries—some from a list and some “oooh, I forgot we need that” items. I hate it. People wear flimsy masks, about half the folks seem clueless about how far 6 ft. is, in spite of helpful markings on the floor, and most folks ignore the one-direction-per aisle signs. So I usually come home hating humanity and sure that I have contracted Covid-19. Good thing I don’t need to pick up ‘scripts too often.
I will now just go in, pick up my prescriptions and leave. I’m done. In the course of my most recent trip, not only did I rip the same nail twice (happily not below the quick, but still…), I had my usual fights with the self-checkout machine (I know these are not good for humans who need jobs, but right now I prefer to avoid the cashiers, who can be a bit casual about the mask thing), and, having checked out and paid, I noticed that I had forgotten to get the envelope for one of my grand-daughters’ Valentine’s Day cards and had to park my cart next to the beautifully patient young human who was staffing the self-checkout area and go back across the store to get it. None of this made the trip more than annoying.
What did was the loudly unmasked woman who was probably drunk off her ass–and that on top of being kind of a jerk by nature—who picked up my nice English cucumber, waved it around, planted it in her crotch, and began to fake-masturbate it. Part of me wanted to beat her with the cucumber, but that would not have been fair to an innocent vegetable, and would (like any other form of confrontation) have resulted in her yelling in my double-masked face, up close and too personal. It also would have added considerably to the embarrassment of her (masked and civil) husband and son (brother and nephew…), which was palpable. Along with the twice-ripped nail, the fractious checkout machine, and the forgotten envelope, this was just too bloody much. How messed up do you have to be to do that sort of thing? Pretty seriously, I’m guessing, at a near-cellular level of assholicity. So I’m done with grocery shopping.
Oh, there is one wisdomish-thing. I was seriously torqued for a bit about getting the vaccine. Friends kept posting on FB that they’d gotten theirs, and I got frantic, even staying up one night to try for a timeslot at any of the 39 Walgreen’s stores in my county as if I were trying to buy opening-day tix for the latest Star Trek movie. Then I figured out that all my friends who had their shots had probably registered ahead of me because I was kind of paying attention to another situation that needed lots of energy and focus. And a retired nurse friend who has been volunteering at the State’s big vaccine-events told me a bunch of stories about how they were still working on the 80+ crowd, and the State itself (probably in an attempt to save the sanity of the folks working the Department of Health phone lines) sent out a letter saying, in several ways, “the reason you haven’t gotten your vaccine yet is MATH,” which I found oddly calming. I am not, by nature, a patient person (though I can be passive—but that’s a different thing altogether, appearances to the contrary). But I have developed a sort of calm about when I’ll get my “Fauci Ouchie.” It’ll happen. I’m registered with 4 different agencies. One of them will come through, and, though my semester starts in two weeks, I am not teaching in person, so my exposure is not going to be any greater than it is right now. I guess I’ve learned some limited patience. And not to walk away from my grocery cart and leave cylindrical vegetables where serious eejits can get to them.
My husband-the-historian, who is a medievalist, started teaching a course a couple of years ago called “Plagues & Peoples” that covers more than the Black Death. His father lost a sister to meningitis and survived, but lost his hearing. His mother lost hers to scarlet fever. Or the other way ‘round—I’d check, but he’s snoring away contentedly in the next room. The point is that for most of human history there’s been a barrage of bugs trying to get us. Covid-19 is particularly nasty in many worrying ways (okay, terrifying), and it will mark a generation or three.
But I’m more afraid of the Cucumber Beast than of the disease itself. Humans are wonderful. Humans are gawdawful crudbuckets. Being patient as my state’s medical system turns itself inside out to get us vaccinated feels reasonable and sort of peaceful (or maybe Miriam’s fatalism is rubbing off on me after 40+ years of friendship) The Cucumber Beast (I ended up walking back to the entrance of the store where they keep the sanitizing wipes and wiping its plastic-sealed surface down), well, I’ve written her into my permanent narrative of the pandemic, which is as much revenge as I can safely and decently exact.
Editor’s Note: I asked Ana if she’d like to dialogue with me on this topic. She is “ahead”–in that her grandchild is a year older than mine, and I benefit from her insight as well as hand-me-downs. These pieces were written separately, then we read the whole. Hoping there is more to come–and that you, the reader, enjoy.
Right Here. Right Now by Ana Consuelo Matiella
When I think about what I expected being a grandmother would be like, it makes me ponder still, right now, about what I expect even today. My frame of reference is not that illuminating. My mother was Sara’s grandmother for one-year-and-a-half. Then my mom died and that was that.
What kind of grandmother was she? She was loving and affectionate and opinionated. I check all those boxes. But there is incomplete information. She was gone too soon.
I remember she believed in letting babies cry and I don’t. I don’t let Lala cry and I never expected that I would be “one-of-those” grandmothers. The way I see it, when babies cry, they’re trying to tell you they need something, and it’s my job to find out what it is. Luckily, Lala now has an extensive vocabulary and if she needs something, she just tells me what it is and I give it to her.
You hear the word “doting” a lot when it comes to grandmothers. I dote and I expected to dote. Doting was something I expected to be doing and doting is what I do but I dote in my own way. To me, “doting” has come to mean, “ being present.”
Prior to meeting Lala, I had the expectation that doting would be something like buying her lots of clothes and giving her lots of kisses. Now they have this thing called “consent” for babies and it’s not okay to kiss a baby without her permission. So we have both perfected the art of the “Mwa.” She is particularly good at kissing her hand and waving it at me while she says “Mwa,” at the window.
Sometimes, I must admit that I am overcome with joy and have to give her very smoochie and loud kisses on the cheek, Spanish style, and without warning.
And then I say, “You do what you have to do and I’ll do what I have to do.” But it is rare that I do that now, on account of the new consent protocol. Plus, she knows how to say, “I need space.”
I expected that I would be a dedicated and loving grandmother, a little on the overbearing side, and I am that. But I did not expect to be blown away by a two-year-old. I thought she would be cute, and charming and fun to dress, and she is that. But I did not expect her to knock my socks off.
But here’s the real deal and how being a grandmother impacts my existence as a human: When I am with Lala, I am completely present. I have zero Attention Deficit Disorder. I don’t think about anything else but what I’m doing right here, right now.
I was a pretty attentive mother; some would say an over-attentive mother. The Runaway Bunny Mother had nothing on me, but as a youngish mom, I remember being distracted. I had all those balls in the air. I had a husband to manage, and two dogs. A house and a business to run. There were many other things that I had to pay attention to. And now, sure, I still have a full life, a partner, a business, a house. But only one dog. (Surely, that can’t be it.)
For me, there’s something about being a grandmother that grounds me in the present. Everything else just falls away.
And that, was unexpected.
Am I Bubbe? by Miriam Sagan
“Here’s Bubbe,” my daughter tells my grand-daughter. The pandemic has shut down daycare, and so I’m babysitting most afternoon. Sixteen month old tow-head Grainne Rose sees happy to see me. She does her little dance and asks to be picked up. Her birth made me a grandmother, but I’m not exactly “bubbe,” the quintessential Jewish one. I can’t cook and my Yiddish is limited to curses
My mother, a devoted grandmother of seven was no “bubbe” either. She didn’t cook, but instead played the piano and read aloud to her grandchildren. Her mother, my grandma Sadie, was a terrible cook. Her brownies were barely edible when hot from the oven—stone like when cold. She was a fine seamstress—and had been blacklisted as a union organizer. She did give us unconditional bubbe love—scratching our backs for hours, crocheting for our dolls. But even as a child I sensed she was a woman caught in too small a sphere.
My father’s mother was bosomy but emotionally vague. We inherited a love of lavish clothing, massage, and exercising naked from her—she had the Russian Jewish affinity for “calisthenics.” She set a delicious table—but just because she employed an excellent cook.
However, I can’t deny I’m now a matriarch—the oldest woman in my family. No one else seems to care but I feel some responsibility—to what? Representing the ancestors? Transmitting values? When Grainne was tiny I held her in my arms and danced to Laura Nero, singing along: ”Little girl of all the daughters you were born a woman not a slave.” Something I sincerely hope is true.
When my daughter Isabel was pregnant—and frighteningly in labor with pre-eclampsia—I didn’t really love that unborn child. She was threatening this child I held most dear, my daughter. Once Grainne was born of course I took to her immediately but in a slightly impersonal way—I like babies and she was a cute one. It took longer for me to start to get to know her—really for us to start to get to know each other.
I find it annoying that people gush about grand-motherhood, giving me credit for something I didn’t actually “do.” I’m uneasy in societally determined feminine roles. I do feel unconditional love for G., in part because I’m really not responsible for her. What I decide to give her can be personal, optional.
And I do enjoy reading “Yiddish for Babies” with her. She can find her pupik. I’ve always thought babies were particularly drawn to bellybuttons because of an atavistic memory of the womb and mom’s sources of nourishment.
“Bubbe is FUN,” says my daughter. That is a mission statement I can get behind.
Strands of white litter odd corners. And that is because I am a bad indulgent grandmother. Grainne likes to pull my hair and play with my earrings. I’m afraid I’ve encouraged her by acting fake frightened, shrieking “help help!” and otherwise encouraging her to think this is a game.
She does hear “no” from me, particularly around her deep love for wires and outlets.”No,” I say, “not for babies.” She looks sad, but doesn’t cry. And she stops, if temporarily.
I have to indulge her. After all, in Zen Buddhism we speak of “grandmother’s mind” as the kindest most warm-hearted approach to anything. As to “no”–well, what are parents for?
When Isabel, G.’s mom, was little I didn’t meet her every need instantly. I was responsive, but often she had to wait and fuss. This was probably a useful life skill but that wasn’t my motivation. Sometimes I was just occupied–dinner was about to burn or someone was offering me work on the phone.
But now I’m a grandmother. I feel G. should have some hours a week where she gets everything she wants. Recently she patted me very approvingly after I’d run about figuring out her desires. I don’t believe this “spoils” a baby but I don’t want to create ridiculous expectations. So I encourage her to “help”–put her arm in the sleeve, put things back in the box. She’s 11 months old, so that barely works. But it feels collaborative.
Soon she’ll be able to talk, and if she asks to go for ice cream, the answer will be yes. The world teaches us no more than enough.
I missed the baby when I was gone the past two weeks. I dreamed she could talk, and was explaining the difference between Donald Trump and Donald Duck. (The first makes us sad, the second happy). What a S-M-A-R-T baby, I spelled, not wanting to overpraise her. “Oh, it’s nothing,” a mean woman said in the dream. “All babies can do that.”
I got a chuckle when I woke up. The baby’s mother, Isabel, is worried the baby thinks her name is “the baby” and we need to use her given name, Grainne, more. When I read her “Good Dog Carl” in the board version she gets very excited to hear the words “dog” and “baby” together. She babbles a lot on English right now, but doesn’t really put syllables to objects.
When Iz and her friend Reuben finally learned to talk I interviewed them.
“Where were you before you were born?” I asked.
“It was dark,” Reuben said.
“I came out and it snowed on my head,” Iz reported.
Accurate enough, but hardly the esoteric info I was hoping for.
Jewish mystics believe the soul knows all of Torah. But in the womb the angel of forgetting puts a finger between the nose and the upper lip. (You can note that runnel on your own face).
And we have to learn again.
I’m working on a new memoir with some difficult material. I’m puttig bits of it in “stash” boxes and hiding them in plain sight in this funky art town. It’s a bit of guerilla art, but also an editing process to see how I feel.
Here is a bit of the text:
The habit I can’t break—probably don’t even want to—is that I am amazed by everything in my world and afraid of all the adults in it. It’s going to be difficult to work this one out.
2. Following the impeachment
3. Trying to improve myself
4. Sending holiday cards
5. Keeping the basil plant alive
6. Believing the human race is improving
Things I am doing
1. Reading War and Peace
2. Allowing myself to miss my parents
3. Not mentioning art history to my baby grand-daughter when she says Dada
4. Waiting for you to serve the lentil soup
5. Cracking myself up
By the end of 2019, I’ll have been on the current trajectory of my life’s path for about three years. I retired, and by unplanned coincidence, my mom died. I felt shot out of a cannon–in a good way. I was no longer flying to Boston every three months to caretake. I was no longer going to work. For the first time in my life I felt I wasn’t operating with some kind of deficit. I know this can’t last forever–I’m 65 and well aware of aging. However, I planned to make the most of this new stage, and I think I have. However, I am suffering from a lack of feeling grounded.
I’m not exactly sure why. When I retired, I said I wasn’t going to do
1. Home Improvement
2. A lot more writing
3. Self Improvement of the diet & exercise sort
Well, I did not manage to avoid the first–renovated kitchen, concrete garden pathways, raised garden beds, etc. But it’s been fine–worthwhile.
And I didn’t manage to avoid the second, either. At least this year, I published three books and a chapbook. It’s not quite as prolific as it sounds. Writing takes a while, publishing another while…this was kind of a logjam that came to fruition (mixed metaphor and all).
Mercifully, I’m eating and exercising per usual–a regime of several decades.
I don’t like to live exclusively in the creative world. It feels unbalanced. Maybe I’ve swung too far in that direction. For volunteer work, I did a year of hospice, a year of teaching ESL…when my grand-daughter was born I started taking care of her about two days a week. It’s been tremendous, but maybe too close to the creative world. After all, she and the studio I share with my daughter are in the same house. We started photographing her as part of a project…
I struggled for a long time to live an integrated life. Now I want something…looser? I don’t know. I’m worried about all the things I’m usually worried about–Trump, my chronic pain, my friends’ difficulties, the future.
I keep making a To Do list for getting grounded but it has only two things on it:
1. Learn to bake biscuits.
2. Get an African violet.
And how are you these days?