Harvest

I received an email from my father today. It read, “My first tomatoes in about 30 years !!! I Love Life !!!”

Attached was a photo of several smallish reddish tomatoes, with only a few scars from growth, photographed in a tangle of thick, sweet tomato leaves and vines.photo

It’s not necessary to write he is very proud of these tomatoes.

Eight months ago, I heard him make rumblings about buying some tomato plants. He mused about it for a while, thinking aloud. Then one day I came to the house and found two large decorative terra cotta pots, once neglected and cracking with hard cores of gray dirt cast inside, filled with fragrant, moist ebony soil and two optimistically leafy plants tucked inside – a tomato and a pepper.

The pots were equally spaced and set on tiles, for proper drainage, on the front patio my parents never, ever used during the 30 years they lived there together – and in the two and a half years since cancer took my mom. I was quizzical.

Soon after, he left town on another of his “if-I-am-moving-my-grief-is-more-bearable” trips and asked me if I came to the house to be sure to water his plants. I came by only once or twice and dutifully and skeptically gave them drinks. I figured the plants would be dead in a month or so, composting victims of his scattered focus, collateral damage of the other distractions of the new life he was jamming awkwardly together.

But they didn’t die.

When he came back from the trip, I mentioned to him he ought to move the pots into the sun.

I figured he would forget.

But the next time I came to the house, they were in the sunshine and had small, white blooms. He was nearly ecstatic with these latest gifts of nature — blooms on the vines!

“Do you think I’ll get tomatoes?” he asked, a kid, asking me to predict the Christmas morning take.

“Well, if you’ve got flowers you’ll probably get tomatoes. That’s what that means,” was my snap-ish, erudite response.

Then he left again, this time recruiting a neighbor to support his campaign.

When he was gone too long and the weather was too hot, she fed them and cooled them and reported back. The tomato and pepper plants hadn’t expired of heat exhaustion. They were thriving.

He asked me about them all the time. Had I been by? How had the tomato plant seemed? Was the soil wet? Were they wilting?

I. Didn’t. Get. It.

Finally, the neighbor sent my dad a text. “We have a tomato.”

The night before a Transatlantic journey home, he wrote to me excitedly, “I can’t wait to see my tomato !!!”

I was miffed. He might also mention his daughter and her family. Enough about the tomatoes!

Maybe it was another goofy stage of his grief process, which is a maze for us all, and presents particular challenges for a child who must observe a beloved parent suddenly and tragically forget themselves, go astray, come back, follow rocky paths, want to die, want to hide, want to go back, pine for happiness, try to disappear, then reappear and need you (only you) and not need anyone at all ever again and need someone who is never, ever coming back again. These are agonizing circular challenges of your loss and their loss and your loss and their loss. Ad infinitum.

But still I puzzled, not seeing anything other than tomatoes. Fruits masquerading as vegetables.

When I got the email today, I glanced at it on my phone without really reading it. I asked him about it. He serenely told me he had invited his neighbor over so they could both be there when they picked the tomatoes. “I was afraid a critter might get them,” he said, his voice bearing all the protectiveness and vulnerability of a new mother.

And something in my heart changed. Dissolved. Clarified.

My father had planted, nurtured, worried over, babied, cooed at, cajoled, fed, and then, finally, brought to life something way more significant than fruits or vegetables.

He had harvested hope. For the first time in three decades, he wrote. (But I think he meant four because my oldest brother is 40.)

After Prima and Secondo were tucked into bed, I crept to my computer and looked again.

“My first tomatoes in about 30 years !!! I Love Life !!!”

I love you, Dad.

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Wherever you are…

I was just going to write a post that started out: “I am at the library.”

The post would have gone on to tell you all about how much you can learn about a person by

Modern Mary wants to go to there. Always.

finding out where their favorite places are. The library has always been a refuge of mine. Not necessarily this library, although it’s history in my life is rich, but any library, anywhere. And every library at every university I attended and every city I have lived in. The library to me is nearly church.

A few weeks ago, as I was walking out of the library with Prima, I told her, “Prima, no matter what you are going through in your life, no matter what you need, you can always go to the library.” I squeezed her hand extra tight when I said it, hoping to create a physical reminder of this gospel. I hope she holds that idea somewhere inside her heart forever.

But back to my post.

The post would have told you about my childhood, when my three brothers and I spent the early summers after we moved to Bedford Falls and did not know many people, driving in our powder blue Pontiac station wagon to wherever the public library’s Bookmobile was

“Get your books and get in the car! We going to the Bookmobile,” Modern Mary’s mom used to say.

stopping that day. Many lived miles from the main branch of the library at that point, so our growing city had settled on the Bookmobile as a suitable replacement to the brick and mortar.

I have vague images of the heat, our four little bodies sticking to the blue leather seats, windows down, wearing our mid-80s short running shorts, with the white stripes down the side, and our Snoopy T-shirts.

We would arrive at the Bookmobile, books clutched in dirty paws, and rush over. The big step up into the Bookmobile required a double-handed grab on the silver handles and a hoist from behind, willingly delivered with extra viciousness by one of my brothers.

And there was Dorcus. She was the Bookmobile lady and probably one of the first friends my Mom made in our new city. My mom made friends with everyone. That was just who

Dorcus was not this old. But in our childhood minds she was about 500.

she was. Of course she was on a first-name basis with Dorcus, and reprimanded us when we giggled at her name, sharing some sobering detail about her life, like how much Dorcus loved her grandchildren or that, did we realize, Dorcus’ husband had just had surgery.

The four of us would scatter around the Bookmobile, pulling out new books, returning old ones, leafing through illustrations to select more. My mom would talk to Dorcus, and get recommendations for the next book or 12 that deserved to land on her nightstand. I remember being amazed my mother could read those thick-as-Bibles books in just a week or two and then return them to Dorcus for a full discussion and request for another recommendation. To me it was a sign of ultimate grown-up lady-ness.

The Bookmobile was a refuge from the hot summer days, a way to unwind our constantly kid-wound minds, an old friend, and always a place that had the magical effect of bringing peace to our mother, who found herself in an unfamiliar city, surrounded by four young children only 6 years apart in age and a husband who constantly traveled.

They eventually did build a library branch closer to us and so the Bookmobile went away, as did Dorcus. (I know my mother kept in touch with her for awhile, once she moved to a proper librarian position. I remember my mom walking right up to the main desk and asking if Dorcus was there, which as a teenager was so supremely embarrassing.) Sometimes after school if my mom was delayed, she would call Mrs. Phoenix the chain-smoking, rod-thin and mean secretary and have her relay the message that the four of us should walk over to the library, and she would pick us up there. Mom knew we would be safe there, find distraction and comfort. We would play and get shushed, get lost in the stacks, panic and find each other in relief, and read stuff we knew we shouldn’t. It was all so thrilling.

My mother is gone now, but the library is still here. This place, above many others, seems to calm my spirit as it captures her essence in its cool quiet and the reassurance of all of those books, all knowledge and insight, and fun and adventure at my fingertips, an orderly anchor for my chaotic Modern Mary life. It feels like my mother’s embrace. It reads like her forgiving, commonsense caring approach to navigating life and relationships. It’s less heartbreaking and more heartwarming.

I was thinking all of this as I walked through those sliding glass doors from the warm day and was enveloped by the cool, bookish library smell. I was missing my mom so much the hole in my chest was gaping open a bit.

As I walked by the charity shop the library volunteers run, where they sell retired books, the first volume my eyes laid themselves on called out to me its title, “Wherever you are, my love will find you.”

So then, I decided to write about that.

What Our Friends See in Us

Mr. Bailey told me recently he admires me for my resilience. By “told me,” I mean one day when I was feeling particularly low I prodded him to tell me what he liked best about me. Anyway, that’s when he said the thing about me being resilient.

Modern Mary considers the future, reflects on the compliments of the past. Amazing painting, “The Future” by Felicia Olin. http://www.feliciaolin.com

It delighted me, as I was feeling not so resilient at the moment. So maybe it was a Jedi-mind trick that he executed quite well.

In any case, it wasn’t the first time I had heard that particular trait called out.

My teenage years consisted of much intense falling in love. In my mind, though, I was not boy crazy. In fact, I despised my classmates who were always talking about some boy or lusting after some dude who they were too shy to speak to or who would not give them the time of day.

Instead, (shameful admission forthcoming…) I chose to be that outgoing, annoying girl who perennially had a loser or scumbag boyfriend who she kept breaking up with and getting back together. Ad infinitum.

Sometime in this morass of teenage girl angst, I found myself bottomed out in the aftermath of yet another lame-o boyfriend break up. I was whining to my best friend, when she said nearly the same thing.

“Mary, you’re nothing if not resilient,” was what she said. (Yes, we did speak like that then.

I may be modern, but I still have a thing for Walt Whitman.

We were major literature lovers who just as often quoted Whitman as we did The Cure.)

The comment, back then, stopped me in my tracks. I had not considered my passionate falls into love and writhing agony I felt after each break up as being resilient. To me, it felt confusing and weak.

Modern Mary considers the idea of “resiliency”. Another amazing painting by Felicia Olin, http://www.feliciaolin.com

As life turns out, resilience has turned out to be a pretty good trait to possess. At my (ahem) tender age, I’ve dealt with a good helping of suffering, betrayal, isolation, depression, grief, change and challenge; humbling humiliation and heart-stopping, hope-busting loss. This last go around had me walking underneath Eeyore’s black rain cloud for the better part of two years. It made the teenage years look like an episode of The Facts of Life. I never thought I would emerge with a place for hope to rest in my soul again.

As it turns out, resiliency as a defining characteristic/flaw is not easily dashed.

But I’ve realized another part of resiliency’s tenacity lies in the precious people you have around you to point it out to you. In that regard, I’ve been ridiculously blessed by a host of amazing friends/sisters/life guides (and, of course, Mr. Bailey, who must deal with all of my crazy crap my wonderful friends are spared).

Thank you for being a reason to find resilience again, for quietly, patiently marking the path back. Thank you for gathering up the broken pieces I had discarded, for believing when I didn’t, for crying with me, for whispered prayers, generous pours, and, mostly, for forgiving me my general lunacy.

Birdhouse in Your Soul by Felicia Olin

I hold so much gratitude to you for helping me repair this birdhouse in my soul.

Secondo in the park

In my mind, Secondo is still little enough to be entitled to a generous dose of playing hookie.

Most days, after crabbing for 20 minutes about school, she suddenly becomes ecstatic about going. When I pick her up in the afternoon, as she sits with her classmates listening to a story or quietly playing with her backpack on, her joy radiates. As we walk to the car, dark clouds form and she’s suddenly furious at me – both for picking her up and ruining her fun and that I don’t immediately have a glass of warm milk and a delicious snack ready to shove into her plump little hands.

She’s a Gemini and built that way.

Sometimes in the mornings when her protestations are furious and my resolve is weak, I let her stay home with me. This is one of the advantages of being a freelance writer and free of the rotten old 9 to 5.

I let Secondo stay home one Friday recently when Prima’s school was out on spring break. They could keep each other company, I thought, and play cheerily all day long together.

By 10:30 a.m. they were at each other’s throats and I was about to report myself to CPS, when I realized we had received a last-minute invite the day before for a birthday party in the park. I had dismissed it at the time, thinking my little darlings would be much too engaged in the sublime spirit of sisterhood to pry themselves away.

“Get your shoes on girls!” I hollered a little too loud. “We’re going to the park!”

Mrs. Bailey used to dream of the meaningful talks she would have with her Zuzus, over a cup of tea at the kitchen table -- errr on the playground with sand in her shoes.

Prima is getting to the age – who am I kidding? – Prima is at the age where bringing your adorable and charming younger sister to a birthday party is not a very good idea. But I figured Secondo and I could while away the time on the playground a respectable distance from the party. That is to say, in true Mom fashion, I thought I would take care of a few loose-end thank you notes and sundries, while Secondo distracted herself on the playground with another random and clean-looking kid her age.

But that was not to be. Five minutes into my ideal scenario, Secondo bonked her head on a low-slung bar and was crying in my arms. We regrouped, went and bought a smoothie, and came back.

But the vibe had changed or I had dismissed my earlier misgivings about prim multi-tasking.

“Play with me,” Secondo begged, “push me on the swings! Watch me on the monkey bars.”

A cool smoothie coating my stomach, I happily agreed.

We fooled around on the monkey bars and then Secondo dashed over to a smaller play structure with those new-fangled metal telephone-like horns popping out on either end, so that you can play telephone across the playground. This will be fun, I thought, AND stationary.

“Secondo!” I called to her, “put your ear to that blue horn over there and we’ll have ourselves a little chat!”

“OK!” she called out, loving the suddenly engaged interaction.

I smiled at the thought of what her 4-year-old mind might invent to whisper to me.

She galloped over to the horn and leaned in, her face disappearing into the blue funnel.

“Moommmy,” she chirped, playfully, then her tones dropped, “Why did Zsazsie die?”

ZsaZsie was my mom, who passed away from pancreatic cancer almost a year ago. My heart sank a little, I paused for a second and smiled, knowing what I thought I understood about the day, the mood, the mind of my little ingénue was woefully inadequate.

“Well,” I started, trying not to pause too woefully, creating a sunny, matter-of-fact tone. “She had cancer.”

“But how did she die?” Secondo asked from across the playground equipment, the other kids’ shouting, playful voices just a backing track.

“Her heart stopped beating, and she went to heaven.”

“But Mommy, where is heaven?”

“I’m not sure,” I answered craning against an awkward twist of my neck to speak into my horn.

“Mommy, we can’t see heaven. Why can’t we see it?”

And on and on it went in this vein for several minutes, until Secondo grew bored of talking about the crux of our human existence and ran off to find other fun.

I sat back down in my parent’s playground corner and watched her, and Prima, off in the distance, subdued. I wondered if I should worry about this exchange. Should I engage energy in contemplating just how deeply my mother’s death has wounded or confused or unsettled her? I felt like I should worry, but somehow the impulse seemed to float above my mind, vagrant, and numb.

It’s funny how kids think, I thought, and felt myself become a little bit delighted in Secondo’s boldness, proud of her apparent comfort with asking me the tough questions, and duly impressed by her sheer aplomb. My heart and mind validated her, and envied her, too.

Children have such expansive minds, with brand-spanking new neural connections popping up everywhere, all the time. Thoughts of playing with your mom on a school-free day on a brand new playground dash between synapses at the same moment as the concept of death and heaven are unloosed and make a break from left hemisphere to right.

When they play, what does Secondo think about?

The beauty of it is that it’s done without fuss, or worry, or over-analysis, which is what our grown-up minds are forever doing. My Secondo and other children, do not fret over these wild intersections, don’t seek to master the inner chaos that begets, “monkey bar-hand-monkey bar-hand-drop” and then suddenly “why did my grandmother die?”

I sigh a little, of course, and felt a bit weary. But not at all worried.

 

Wrestling with Hope

You know what hope is?
Hope is a bastard
Hope is a liar, a cheat
and a tease. 

Hope comes near you?
Kick its backside,
got no place in days like these.
–Picture Window, lyric by Nick Hornby, music by Ben Folds

I have been hearing the lyrics to this song by Ben Folds and Nick Hornby over and over in my mind over the last week. It’s a brilliant lyric I wish I had written.

Not sure how thoughts and emotions bounce around inside of you, but sometimes my brain cannot think anymore along linear pathways. It’s not capable of rational thoughts that further my growth. When that happens, music tends to take over.

I hear the music of poems I’ve read, snippets of stuff I’ve written and then – as though filing through an old-school rotating round Rolodex, I hear my brain flipping through 34 years of music and lyrics for that One.

Sometimes I hear a foggy, faded version for days until I can consciously recall the words and the tune, solidly.

When it does finally jam into gear, the song usually flattens me. Literally. The best way to channel this music and tune it into my emotional center, to let it express that which I am unable to access rationally, is to lay flat on the ground next to a speaker and play the song. Loudly. And repeatedly, if necessary.

Ryan Russell Design

It sounds crazy, surely. Maybe it is. But it works for me. When I’m sung out, wrung out, cried out, a mellowness comes over me and the wave of song has disintegrated, is being pulled back out to sea.

This song came to me out of nowhere, driven by two things happening: 1) letting myself venture into the anger stage of grief, allowing the fury I feel at the whole bullshit cancer saga my Mom and my family went through and 2) suddenly remembering Mr. Bailey, at least a year ago, singing part of this lyric as he listened to it for the first time. I did not recall what it said entirely. Something about hope was all I recalled. But suddenly, I had to track it down.

After my ritual, I realized “Picture Window” should be handed out *preferably at the precise moment a cancer patient/caregiver gets completely sick of hope* as a cathartic listening device. I’ve come to appreciate the song’s power too late.

Eventually, I recalled trying to listen to it when Mr. Bailey first presented it to me. But I wanted none of its bluntness or pessimism then. Hope was my only friend, my only consolation and I didn’t feel able to disrespect the notion of it then.

Now, I’m fine with it all. Why? Because hope isa bastard. (Or as my Mom used to tell me, “Sometimes, life’s a bitch!”)

Hope by George Frederick Watts

Sometimes, hope just flat out lets you down.

And still we hope. This song expresses what I didn’t want to express then – the desperate position one is in when they turn to such a fickle (yet powerful) notion like hope and proceed to make it the center of their perseverance.

Hope made my Mom take that last chemo treatment that made her last months a hellish physical battleground. Hope brought her down to 100 pounds. Hope stole her hair, her beautiful eyelashes and eyebrows. Hope kept her injecting herself with insulin, bloating herself with IVs, swallowing pills, forcing down food she couldn’t taste. Hope influenced so much of how we approached life during those two years.

And we got a cruel result.

Perhaps years from now, I’ll have a better grasp on Hope. I’ll be able to find some cockeyed and optimistic way to tell you, dear readers, that the Hope we had and used to

our own advantage made everything – or even something – better. Or maybe not.

In the meantime, I’ll have this song.

(Click here to hear “Picture Window” in full.)