My Mother’s House has Many Rooms

August 24, 2012 § 2 Comments

Library with Poodle

I retire for a rest and computer drift in my not-large bedroom at my mother’s house in Lompoc, California. There are two single beds with carved head and footboards, once in my grandmother’s guestroom in Texas, with their original pale peach silk and lace spreads. I never slept in them visiting my grandmother—there was a less fancy room for children—but my mother slept there and I remember admiring the contrast of dark wood and pale coverlets as we talked while she dressed for dinner. I luxuriated in the hour that it took her for make-up, hair, clothing…my father was dead by then…I was both clingy and detached…

Single beds were what married couples on television used, and they still retain a whiff of the original mystery: what was the meaning of that separation, each adult in their childish pajamas needing their own private craft into dreams? I learned the answer probably as soon as I framed the question but even then it didn’t make sense. It wasn’t as if TV would ever show people having sex.

On the dresser facing me, under the cloudy & scarred gilt-framed oval mirror, in which it is just possible to apply lipstick, are a Santa Claus figurine, a Christmas tree coaster, a lamp in the shape of a tree with a twiggy bird’s nest—in which my mother has put three tiny egg-shaped stones—a pair of china showgirls doing their hair, and a photograph of my grandmother in her 30’s, wearing a flower on her bosom, a light-colored dress and short pale gloves with rolled cuffs. She’s not a beauty but she has a face you want to keep looking at: wide, calm, her features not bold but large, promising a person with secrets, kindness, sense and sensibility. I wish she’d lived longer. She took me to Mame when I was 12, and taught me to play Gin.

There’s a narrow, dark red oriental rug under the one window with its amaryllis curtains (a color I came across today looking online at dresses I can’t afford) and a small sheepskin rug between the beds that the poodle likes to sleep on. A vase on the night table brims with yesterday’s lush garden roses; a cream and sepia painting of a bride on the far wall (my sister painted it in high school and wishes it would disappear) perfectly mimics the wistfulness of the antique bedclothes. Several more paintings, drawings and photographs by friends and family adorn the walls, as well as framed, faded 19th century flower prints—those languid sexual shapes, frills and bells….Since I left New York I’ve been assailed by desire, though assailed is the wrong word: a soft pummeling, a reminded of skin and kiss, of possibility. It hardly even makes me sad anymore (though I dreamed last night that I was masturbating while my mother retrieved from my head—from a distance—souls I’d saved from the Devil. Charles was there too, vacuuming his grandmother’s oriental rug.) But back to the real bedroom—a three-tiered table holds a couple of dolls and painted china cats, and other curios; a striped hatbox rests on the closet shelf, a stuffed pink pig lies on the floor…

The room opens into a dim and spacious bathroom, which in turn leads to the library, the most in-use room of the house (during waking hours when there are no visitors). I don’t use it because something about it makes me want to go to sleep, and regardless of the fact that my mother spends so much time there, I fear that if I fall asleep in that sun-faded red leather chair, I’ll never be found. There are too many books, and few of them are new. Some were new when I was a child; some were bought in recent years: the set of Dickens and other classics that my mother originally read in other editions. There are histories of Greece, Rome, The British isles (pre-Christian), The United States; books on magic and mythology; lots of fiction and poetry; art books and dictionaries.

Random titles: The Bedside Book of Beasts, The Subtle Knife, Obama’s Wars, The Passion Artist, Bloomsday, Kontiki. Flowers of Evil, The Last Place on Earth, The Travels of Marco Polo, a Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Herzog. Other than books there are more family photographs, mostly recent; various shawls (my mother gets cold); a little desk covered with papers; a map of the Arctic Circle and one of North Carolina shipwrecks. My mother reads for hours every day and the poodle watches her. He knows she’s escaping to far realms without him—moors and glens, wind-whipped seas, battlegrounds, Victorian drawing rooms. He would also like adventures, and so perhaps he and I—no, I hear my brother’s voice, “Let’s go see what Margaret’s doing.”

I go with them on errands: returning a ladder to friends (an older lady who resembles a large, hesitant, tangerine-pink grasshopper) then stopping by the bank and CVS, where we buy paper towels, some household fixit, and two bottles of red wine. I can’t get over that: the greeting cards, the feminine necessaries, bandaids, booze. No reason why not. It’s just so West Coast.

Home to tea and my bed again, my twilight burrow. You’d like it too.

from A Woman of a Distant Land

1
In this country, we do not bury the dead. We enclose them like dolls in glass cases and decorate our houses with them.
People, especially the cultivated ones from old families, live surrounded by multitudes of dignified dead. Our living rooms and parlors, even our dining rooms and our bedrooms, are filled with our ancestors in glass cases. When the rooms become too full, we use the cases for furniture.
On top of where my twenty-five-year-old great-grandmother lies, beautiful and buried in flowers, we line up the evening soup bowls.
2
We do not sing in chorus. When four people gather, we weave together four different melodies. This is what we call a relationship. Such encounters are always a sort of entanglement. When these entanglements come loose, we scatter in four directions, sometimes with relief, sometimes at wit’s end.
3
I wrote that we scatter in four directions, but I did not mean that we merely return home, scattering from one another like rays of light radiating from a single source.
When there is no more need to be together, we scatter in four different directions, but none of us ever breaks the horizon with our tread.
Because people are afraid at the thought of their feet leaving the earth, we turn around one step before reaching the horizon. After thirty years, those faces we wished to see never again enter our fields of vision.
4
In this country, everyone fears midday. In the daytime, the dead are too dead. Bathed in the sharp view of the sun, our skin crawls, and we shudder.
When the nights, vast and deaf, vast and blind, descend with size great enough to fill the distances between us, we remove our corsets and breathe with relief. When we lie down to sleep at the bottom of the darkness, we are nearly as content as the corpses around us.
5
The sight of fresh new leaves scares us. Who is to say that those small buds raising their faces upon the branches are not our own nipples? Who is to say that the soft, double blades of grass stretching from the wet earth are not the slightly parted lips of a boy?
6
In the springtime, when green begins to invade our world, there is no place for us to take refuge outside, and so we hide in the deepest, darkest recesses of our houses. Sometimes we crane our necks from where we hide between our dead brothers, and we gaze at the green hemisphere swelling before our eyes. We are troubled by many fevers; we live with thermometers tucked under our arms.
Do you know what it means to be a woman, especially to be a woman in this country, during the spring?
When I was fifteen, becoming a woman frightened me. When I was eighteen, being a woman struck me as loathsome. Now, how old am I? I have become too much of a woman. I can no longer return to being human; that age is gone forever. My head is small, my neck long, and my hair terribly heavy.

Tada Chimako, translated by Jeffrey Angles.

Born in 1930 in Kita-Kyūshū City, Fukuoka, Japan, Tada Chimako spent most of her youth in Tokyo, during the tumultuous years of the second World War. Tada authored over 15 books of poetry in Japanese and was also a prominent translator of French literature. Her work frequently referenced Greek, Latin, Chinese, and Japanese classical literature, and concerned itself with the psychology of women in both mythology and the modern world. She also published several books of essays on cultural theory, ancient thought, and mythology.—From Poets.org

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Readers and Writers

March 14, 2009 § Leave a comment

Edvard Munch, Girl Kindling Stove

Edvard Munch, Girl Kindling Stove

My sister bought me a Kindle for my birthday! I had just decided to stop buying books—as well as chocolate, fruit other than apples and bananas, and Perrier. I was going to do what my brother suggested and live on spaghetti and spam. Start watching more TV.

But she bought me a Kindle so I’ll have to download a few books, right? The Kindle will be perfect for all those airplane trips I can’t afford to take anymore. I have a few books on my iphone, mostly Dickens, but I hardly ever read my phone. I use it to take pictures. Which reminds me—another iphone app I’ve thought of: you rub the screen a few times and then aim it at your pile of gathered kindling and it starts a fire. It will come in handy when we’re all living in the National Parks, hiding from the reckless hordes of starving immigrants besieging our shores. Yeah, I know we’ve probably got ten years before the world’s coastal cities disappear and things get ugly. Still, it’s good to be ready.

**

A writer friend of mine who fought in Vietnam recently wrote a novel about that war and sent it to his agent. His agent asked him to set it in Iraq. I guess the idea is if your book is on Iraq you can go on Jon Stewart and Charlie Rose, and what could be finer than that (unless you’re Jim Cramer)?

I think he should write a novel about a squadron of young recruits being sent to Iraq, entering a time warp after the plane collides with some very old geese, and ending up in Vietnam, circa 1966.
“Man, this is some weird desert.”
“Desert’s supposed to be sand, right?”
“Probably the whole country isn’t desert. You know, like Arizona isn’t the whole U.S. This is just like Lousiana.”
“I been to Louisiana. This ain’t Louisiana.”
“How come our guys all have their guns pointed at us?”
“They sure look funny.”
“They’ve all got fucking antique guns, that’s why.”
“Fucking Bush.”

Okay, now you see it has to be a TV show. Hogan’s Heroes meets Gilligan’s Island. The present-day guys finally figure out what’s going on and try to explain that the war is over, that we lost, that there was no point to the whole mess anyway and the best idea would be to sneak over to Iraq and kill Saddam while he’s still a young thug (though others have different ideas on who should be killed).

The Vietnam-era soldiers, annoyed by being asked whether they’ve killed any babies yet and where their ear collection is, spike the newbies’ drinks with hallucinogens and send them out to find what the old soldiers keep referring to as ‘IUDs’, except for stuttering Jeremy from Fresno who has an eidetic memory for Internet porn, and is kept in camp to spend his evenings describing every video he’s ever seen in minute detail. Viewers love the way his stuttering disappears when the sex gets hot, and the way the Vietnam-era guys smack him every time he says, “iphone.”

Ancient Tech

February 28, 2009 § Leave a comment

I’ve been in Florida for a week and went swimming for the first time today. It was lovely; I came home and promptly passed out. I was woken by the harsh ringing of Charles’ evil telephone—it’s an old-fashioned instrument, the color of dried blood, with a crocodile pattern, only used by telemarketers. This is because since 2007 he’s been checking his messages at most twice a year in order to subtly persuade people to call on his beloved iphone or go away. Some can’t be persuaded.

He came in the bedroom and took it off the hook to stop the ringing, but off course I soon had to get up to deal with the busy-signal yammering, and the sight of the receiver dangling from its curly cord brought back so many memories of hope, agony and loathing. Do kids today ever feel this amorous dread? They must want someone to call and someone else not to, fear calls they have to make, and so on. But the phone itself doesn’t seem to become the personification of what they feel; rather it’s a part of them, like their own ears (which makes it so upsetting when teachers confiscate them). If a woman were to rip her ears off for bringing her news that broke her heart, or mildly annoyed her, we wouldn’t all sigh with recognition, or complain, “What a cliché. Can’t these screenwriters ever think of something original?”

Which reminds me of Jeff Bezos laughing like a hyena on Jon Stewart the other night, discussing the Kindle. Stewart talked about the feel of a real, paper-and-glue book, its low-tech homey comfort. Others have rhapsodized about this. I could too—though I’d also like a Kindle. What we’re afraid of is losing everything we’ve projected onto books: their understanding, their silent dignity, their assurance of immortality (for some). Their independent life.

Once, I was idling in a bookshop, as I did so often in my youth, and saw a book on a low shelf, no dust jacket, with the title, Phone Calls from the Dead. I glanced at it several times, checking that it was really there and that was the actual title, but I didn’t pick it up. It stirred too many emotions, and not because I believed any of the departed had my number. But someone had written a book about it, the book had been published, and the shop had ordered it. The idea was made flesh. It was like seeing a voodoo doll that looked just like me, one pin quivering in the heart.

No way I’d get that feeling from an online list of titles available on Kindle. Anyway, I can read books on my iphone.

Now we’re going to the beach again. It’s 9:30, Saturday night, we’ve been hard at work since dinner (an early dinner that felt like lunch since I’d slept half the afternoon) and we’re taking the last of the wine to the dark gorgeous crash of the waves.

some books

some books

Last Night in Lompoc

December 30, 2008 § Leave a comment

I’ve been sleeping all afternoon, still sick; I don’t want to get on a plane tomorrow. I’ve gotten over the feeling that I should leave because my brother did–it’s quieter now. I could read and write and spend time with my mother. I have to start planning longer trips, like the Victorians did, staying a month or so and keeping on with one’s business. Not that they had a lot of business (the women),but. I could. Or maybe it’s just the pain talking, the desire to not have to face crowds and security and coughing on others and a cold wait in the taxi line. My mother’s talking to herself in the other room. That low murmur is so soothing. As as child, it made me know what she was thinking–that it was nothing harmful or strange, only what she was doing or had to do–now it makes me think she’s not lonely, which is probably untrue. When I told her Charles said he was lonely, she said that’s what books are for. Actually, he said he was lonely for me, so I guess that’s what my books are for, or would be if I could write day and night. We talked about Dickens. Nobody wrote or writes as wonderfully as Dickens. “When he dines alone in chambers, as he has dined today, and has his bit of fish and steak or chicken brought in from the coffee house, he descends with a candle to the regions below his deserted mansion, and, heralded by a remote reverberation of thundering doors, comes gravely back, encircled by an earthy atmosphere, and carrying a bottle from which he pours a radiant nectar, two score and ten yeras old, that blushes in the glass to find itself so famous, and fills the whole room withthe fragrance of southern grapes.” I could go on quoting for pages, but will not. Read it yourself. Bleak House. Dickens cures the ills contemporary culture inflicts, though it helps if you’ve spent some large part of childhood and youth in like company. If the style  is too unfamiliar it may not help, but for me it brings back everything that made me excited about being alive, conscious, possessed of language and sympathy.

Foggy, Foggy Brain

December 28, 2008 § Leave a comment

Mom, Christmas, 2008

My mother, in her living room

Sick as a dog in Lompoc, CA, post-Christmas, drinking peppermint tea and reading my haul of nasty-Bush-era-politics books. Somehow the books do the opposite of what they are intended to–I find the wealth of detail makes it all seem less horrible and frightening. I can’t blame the authors for humanizing the actors because they don’t, much: the personality sketches are perfunctory and I don’t feel sympathy for the devils. They just don’t seem like devils. Is this because of Obama’s win, or is it a quality of the writing? Or of my cold-fogged brain? My mother and brother murmur in the other room, at work on a series of projects. The main one is scanning boxes of family photos–Mom in her glamorous middle age, my grandmother in love, Daddy doing his Don Draper imitation. The past will always be seductive, never more so when I’m ill and unable to work or even think about working. Does that statement make sense without a gloss? I spent too many years doing not enough to find idleness (which I can’t afford but even if I could) romantic; I may long for it when I’m tired and feel stupid but never think it will equal the idleness of youth when time and the world were vast and gorgeous and could be ignored for awhile or two. I like hearing my family’s voices. I feel profoundly safe. As I went to sleep last night I thought I would be happy living with these two, even if it was a dwindling-world kind of happiness, but realized that in fact I wouldn’t, not as time passed, that this was a fugitive pleasure to be enjoyed and let go of. Johnny and my mother are arguing about whether ’emend’ is a word just as I am wondering whether it is my writer’s history of constant revision that makes it seem that it is, that it should be possible, to go back and change one or two little things, that nobody would notice (and the image I have is the not-quite-dark of a house at night, me on tiptoe going into a corner with a needle, picking up or pulling out a stitch)…

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