This past weekend marked two anniversaries. Cherisse’s birthday on February 14; and the day my father died of cancer, February 16. Twenty-three years have now passed since then, and yet I remember that final night with perfect clarity. My mother, sister and I had watched while he fought for days, hanging on longer than the doctors expected. Finally I said to my mother, “Maybe we should tell him it is okay to let go.” We did, and he died peacefully in the wee hours. When we realized the end had come, my mother said “At least it isn’t Cherisse’s birthday.” Separating the happy day from the sad. So typical of my mother that even in grief she’d think of that.
I note the date each year, but my mind dwells on the happy memories. My father had an exceptional way with words, and he was a wonderful teacher. Growing up, he’d read through something I’d written—a paper for school, or an essay. I’d get the pages back covered with his nearly illegible scrawl, arrows pointing to questions, comments or rewrites. I’d rework the piece, often going through additional rounds with my father, until we ended up with something I could be proud of.
Despite the extensive notes, my father never failed to be positive and encouraging—and I never minded because he treated me like a real writer. That confidence gave me the heart and drive to keep working. HBO aired a great documentary called “Six by Sondheim.” In it, the composer Stephen Sondheim talked about showing Oscar Hammerstein (a surrogate father and mentor) a musical he’d written. With the hubris of youth (he was 15), Sondheim expected glowing praise. Instead, Hammerstein dissected it completely…in the process providing Sondheim with what he deemed one of the most valuable lessons of his career. Hammerstein did it kindly, and credited Sondheim with having talent that simply needed honing. This was how my father taught me, and so many others.
The two dates did collide this year—we ended up having a birthday cake for Cherisse when friends came to dinner on the 16th. We also raised a glass to toast my father’s memory. To happy times.
Not only has 2014 begun, we are well into its second month. Storm after storm have left mounds of snow in the Northeast. Our wonderful neighbor Tom rescued Cherisse last week by pulling her car out of the snow (and then plowing the driveway). Icy snowbanks (now covered with layers of grime) line New York City streets making navigation difficult. And still…the days get longer, the seed catalogs beckon, and the new year offers promise.
It helps, of course, to have stepped out of day-to-day life by visiting my friend Luis’ home in Mexico. A Rhode Island resident, Luis’ mother, brothers, and extended family all live in the Guadalajara and Tuxcueca areas. Luis and his brother Carlos have been making tequila, nurturing the agave plants for the 10 years needed to yield the sweetest piñas which are then roasted and eventually distilled into a fine liquor meant for sipping, unadulterated. They have bottled a Reposado (aged in wood barrels for up to a year) which Luis is working to get exported to the United States. An Extra Añjeo has aged for three years and is ready to be bottled.
Like many dreams, this one is fraught with hardship and nearly insurmountable challenges. Yet they keep working, weeding the plants by hand, trying to create a market for the product, always thinking, planning, adjusting. Many people juggle so much and yet what these brothers have accomplished seems nothing short of miraculous. What struck me the most was the love and strength of this family’s bond…and the power such a bond has in overcoming adversity. Love may not conquer all, but it can carry you pretty far.
“World as it is, /what’s strong and separate falters. All I do/at piling stone on stone apart from you/is roofless around nothing. Till we kiss/I am no more than upright and unset.”—from “Most Like an Arch This Marriage” by John Ciardi
The Rhode Island Senate is debating marriage equality, and this week the Supreme Court takes up Proposition 8 (California’s same-sex marriage ban), and DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act). In a groundswell, a number of large U.S. companies have stepped forward to push for marriage equality, as have many politicians (including Republicans), and a number of prominent sports figures. Scott Fujita, linebacker for the Cleveland Browns, wrote a moving and eloquent piece in today’s paper in support of gay marriage. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/24/sports/football/scott-fujita-acceptance-by-example-in-locker-room-and-at-home.html?smid=pl-share
As Frank Bruni says, also in today’s New York Times, the question now is not “if” but simply “when” same-sex marriage will pass into Federal law, providing all of us with the same civil rights.
This will make a big difference to Cherisse and me of course. Not only will it result in shared benefits, but it also will bring legal acknowledgement that our 28 years together count as much as anyone else’s marriage. I admire and am grateful to all of the brave people who fought to get us to this foregone conclusion. Cherisse and I waited until two years ago—when “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was repealed—to marry, in a quiet ceremony outside on a snowy January day.
The justice of the peace who officiated read the vows we’d written, including the John Ciardi poem quoted above. The poem exemplified—beautifully and concisely—what we mean to each other: “Most like an arch—two weaknesses that lean/into a strength. Two fallings become firm.” My parents gave me the foundation to become the person I am, but Cherisse provides me with the strength to navigate life. We don’t need anyone to tell us who we are, but we do need public affirmation to gain equal rights—recognized by a hospital, in case one of us gets sick, or by the government in paying benefits accorded to any straight married couple. Now, as more and more people stand together, we are finally so close.
You can find John Ciardi’s poem “Most Like an Arch” here: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/176395
On Christmas Eve, my father would sit on the couch in his pajamas and searsucker robe, with my sister and me on either side of him, and begin The Night Before Christmas. His reading glasses went halfway down his nose, so he could both read the words and look us in the eye as he spun the tale. A dramatic storyteller, he made each telling seem new and enthralling. By the time we got to the last page in the book we grew up with—one of the Big Golden Books—half of it was torn, and the last two lines weren’t there. My father didn’t need them. He’d close the book and with the biggest smile on his face he’d say “But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight/Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.”
I have that tattered book still, and read it to Cherisse every Christmas Eve, remembering Christmases past.
Despite the seemingly endless work staying on top of the pests in the garden (or perhaps trailing closely behind them would be more accurate), and attempting to keep nature from swallowing us with its persistent growth, we have passed some pleasant and restful days with family and friends.
One Saturday we spent almost an entire afternoon sitting at the picnic table with four friends. We ate good food, drank red wine (which seemed decadent but was lovely), talked and laughed.
Just last week my cousin came up with her family. We were a bit more active (thanks to 7-year-old Olivia and 4-year-old Maggie), although Oliver was by far the busiest representative of our household. Everywhere Olivia and Maggie went, Oliver followed close behind, showing off his swimming skills and running countless races. (However, in the last race, completely pooped, he stopped midway and waited for Olivia’s return lap.)
Maggie and Olivia are adventurous eaters. Cherisse had prepared the ingredients for her nime chow—a platter with shredded cabbage, kohlrabi and carrots, lettuce and mint, and cubes of tofu. Olivia not only correctly identified the tofu, she asked for some as a snack. When the nime chow rolls were ready, Maggie ate hers with unwavering focus, and then polished off each sliver of vegetable that had fallen onto her plate.
Of course vegetables were no substitute for what was perhaps the meal’s highlight—s’mores made over a bonfire. It was a happy day, for us…and the garden pests.
I am a sucker for great holiday packaging: black and orange dishtowels embroidered with jack-o-lanterns; beeswax candles in the shape of Christmas trees; bunny candle holders in soft pastel colors. So what if you only use them once a year?
My family is not religious, and so our celebration of Easter is much like that of Christmas. It is a time for appreciating loved ones. Easter heralds spring, with all its welcome bright colors—and features bunnies, baby chicks, and Easter candy. In general I try not to eat candy, but mold chocolate into the shape of a rabbit, or wrap it in foil printed with a yellow chick and I can’t get enough. Usually I don’t (knowingly) eat corn syrup, but I am pretty sure it is unavoidable in jellybeans…and I turn a blind eye.
When we were little, my sister and I would awaken to a special Easter basket with papier-mâché eggs my mother had when she was young, and a present. Once my sister and I woke up very early and uncharacteristically unwrapped our presents. One of us got the game “Who You.” We strapped plastic containers filled with cards depicting different farmyard animals to our foreheads. The game was to guess the animal on your head by making the right sound (“moo moo, baa baa”). We played happily for some time before my parents came in and packed us back to bed. They were quite stern but they had to have been laughing when they got back to their room.
A couple of times I attended the Easter sunrise service on the beach in Madison, CT. It was lovely, but what I liked best was the communal experience, standing outside at dawn with a group of people. In recent years we have made brunch for family and friends, enjoying the time together. I take the opportunity to bring out my dishes with bunnies and my glass candy basket that I fill with once-a-year treats.
Had my father lived past age 58, he would be 80 today. That seems very old to me because I haven’t watched him age—the one benefit of dying young is that he remains forever a younger man.
I followed in my father’s field of magazine marketing. He taught me skills that he knew innately, and introduced me to other smart people in the business. The loss of his wisdom made me doubly bereft. Yet his legacy lived on through the memories of so many people he had touched. Like many fields, magazine media is a small world. With some frequency I would encounter someone who would repeat my last name and say “you’re not related to…?” When I answered “yes” I would be regaled with a story of my father’s cleverness or his kindness.
At a summer internship on The Shoreline Times newspaper, I was asked to write a fluff piece about how I wanted to be remembered. In retrospect this seems especially frivolous because I had just completed my freshman year of college and had little life experience to reflect upon. My answer though would probably be the same now: I wanted to have made some positive difference to people’s lives. At the time I didn’t appreciate that my father had been doing just that. Throughout his too short life he made a big difference to many people, and his actions have brought me much solace.
Today was an unexpected day. We’d planned to go to a Saturday morning Pilates class, and then the Providence farmer’s market. However, a late start caused us to switch gears, and instead, we went to the Mt. Hope farmer’s market in Bristol with the dogs; Mt. Hope Farm has a lovely walk we’d been wanting to take them on.
Cherisse and I hadn’t been to this market since its opening day a couple of months ago, and we were happy to see that it was still drawing good crowds. Cathleen, who lives much closer, met us there with Tanner and Kitty, and so we all had a nice walk; despite the freezing temperature, Koa went for a swim.
I wouldn’t dream of inviting myself to a meal at anyone’s house—except for my sister’s. Cherisse had planned to go on to Cathleen’s to pick up something, while I was heading home. But by then I was hungry, and so I might have prompted Cathleen to offer lunch. Next thing, we were all sitting around the dining room table with Cheryl, while Cathleen set out delicious pea soup, cheese and crackers, a salad and cider. As often happens in that house, time passed easily. It’s been a pleasant day.
Eavesdropping might not be polite, but who could resist listening to children as they make up a game?
My cousin and his family came and stayed over the night after Christmas, and we had a wonderful time with all of them. The oldest, now seven, taught us how to play dominoes. When the adults were busy doing other things, the two girls played together.
Tessa and Annika turned coasters (each with a different animal), into a guessing game. They held them up like playing cards and tried to figure out which animal the other had (I heard Tessa offer a clue “Susan and Cherisse have one…”—it was a rooster).
They played the coaster game several times. Also popular was the wooden ferry I had purchased years ago from a toymaker in Maine. It is simple but clever, with two ramps, the car ferry, and two cars to transport back and forth. Many children (and I) have enjoyed it over the years. Yesterday it was the focal point of an elaborate game, along with various commandeered items like a blue dog bed, which became a swimming pool. Annika fashioned a ferry captain and mother and daughter passengers out of strips of paper torn from a bag. Tessa knitted a person. These people rode the ferry, got into cars to travel to points unknown, and visited a castle built out of coasters and dominoes (two levels: living room, stove and sink but no kitchen, and two bedrooms).
The children had fun, but I took almost as much pleasure in how happy they were playing together, inventing their make-believe world.
We’re at the final countdown. This morning Cherisse and I reviewed our present selections (although really it’s too late; we are not Christmas eve shoppers…the thought of entering stores crammed with frantic people is the antithesis of holiday spirit). Still, we assess our choices—knowing full well that our family delights in any gift chosen with care and love, so it is actually hard to go too wrong.
Cherisse went out to the shop to finish a surprise that she’s been working on, and I began to wrap. Paper is carefully selected, and tomorrow each package will be just as carefully unwrapped, preserving the paper for another year. (We have some paper that has been reused, literally, for decades.) Even when we were little, we never ripped open a present on Christmas morning; the tape was gingerly removed from each gift and the paper taken off intact. My grandmother wrapped presents without using tape at all, although none of us has mastered that skill.
Cards have all been sent. Many friends—from college days, and through the intervening years—are still dear, but geography and life have interfered, so an update via a holiday card is how we stay connected. The past few years Cherisse and I have made photo cards. This year we had one image on the front, of the house after the Halloween snowstorm, and inside I used six small pictures to give a snapshot of our 2011, including building the chicken coop and getting our first honey. Many years ago I made my own cards, using linoleum block printing. (I also made my own wrapping paper for a while, cutting sponges into shapes traced from cookie cutters. I no longer seem to have time for these projects.)
Finally I will go back to the kitchen for some last baking, including one of my mother’s favorites. Luckily the chickens came through today, producing seven eggs; we’ve used dozens of eggs in these last few days.
We’ll try not to stay up too late finishing everything, because when we wake up tomorrow, it will be Christmas.