California on my Mind

August 21, 2012 § 3 Comments

My mother and Grandmother and an unknown girl

I’m at my mother’s house in California, in that calm before dinner preparations get serious. My desire for a walk in the chaparral was stymied by a 7-year plague of caterpillars: if you walk under any tree, they descend upon you in great numbers. Oddly, no one considers this a free source of fresh protein but rather a creepy-crawly reason to stay on the suburban street, which of course has no sidewalks and boasts lots of neighbor flower bushes that the silly poodle likes to make use of. (He’s not silly because of his excretory instincts, but just because he is. He’s a good dog, Jack.)

This afternoon, Mom showed me old photographs of herself as a little girl in 1930’s Memphis, Houston and West Texas, posing with Joe, Zipper and other long gone but not forgotten pooches. And then her school friends, all vivid with girlish spirit; and the picture above, my mother and her mother. She’s so beautiful. She doesn’t think so.

Dinner: just-picked zucchini roasted with tomatoes, basil, olive oil and garlic; a salad of romaine lettuce, strawberries, cucumbers, mint and parmesan; sourdough bread and various soft cheeses; cherries Jubilee over dark chocolate ice cream. Local white wine.

Roses outside the door, a warm breeze (my mother calls it a chilly wind), quiet, three of us at the table. Mom, Johnny, me. I only think this for a week or so a year, but when I do it’s very strong: all you really need is family, a house, flowers and the past… like those South American novels I read in my youth…locked up against time…

Love & work are so full of disappointment and betrayal. People tell me: write about it, write about it. I don’t want to write about the last 3 or 11 years. There’s too much I don’t understand. I want to write about my 20’s, which maybe I don’t understand either but somehow that doesn’t matter so much. All the anger and shame and whatever else has dissipated. There’s only the crayon-color of love (you love those you remember) and the odd stories.

It’s the present that makes you crazy. When you think something is over and it isn’t. When you think something will last and it doesn’t. It’s no mistake those sentences sound alike. The present is sludge, deafening noise and desperation. But not here, not now.

True Love

In silence the heart raves. It utters words
Meaningless, that never had
A meaning. I was ten, skinny, red-headed,

Freckled. In a big black Buick,
Driven by a big grown boy, with a necktie, she sat
In front of the drugstore, sipping something

Through a straw. There is nothing like
Beauty. It stops your heart. It
Thickens your blood. It stops your breath. It

Makes you feel dirty. You need a hot bath.
I leaned against a telephone pole, and watched.
I thought I would die if she saw me.

How could I exist in the same world with that brightness?
Two years later she smiled at me. She
Named my name. I thought I would wake up dead.

Her grown brothers walked with the bent-knee
Swagger of horsemen. They were slick-faced.
Told jokes in the barbershop. Did no work.

Their father was what is called a drunkard.
Whatever he was he stayed on the third floor
Of the big white farmhouse under the maples for twenty-five years.

He never came down. They brought everything up to him.
I did not know what a mortgage was.
His wife was a good, Christian woman, and prayed.

When the daughter got married, the old man came down wearing
An old tail coat, the pleated shirt yellowing.
The sons propped him. I saw the wedding. There were

Engraved invitations, it was so fashionable. I thought
I would cry. I lay in bed that night
And wondered if she would cry when something was done to her.

The mortgage was foreclosed. That last word was whispered.
She never came back. The family
Sort of drifted off. Nobody wears shiny boots like that now.

But I know she is beautiful forever, and lives
In a beautiful house, far away.
She called my name once. I didn’t even know she knew it.

-Robert Penn Warren


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