Sharon regularly travels from her home outside Boston to Maine, where her son and daughter-in-law live. Visiting them is genuinely joyful to her—yet, more often than not, she is there to help with something on their to-do list. Last month, it was painting a room.
Coincidentally, I, too have been on several ladders this past month—we’re in the middle of a remodeling project that has created tasks that could only be accomplished several steps up.
Though my mother and her sisters were Olympian cooks and cleaners, wonderful washing machine jockeys, and exemplary ironing board experts, they weren’t the types to be painting rooms on ladders at any point in their lives, and certainly not after they turned 60—or maybe even 50.
I have a picture in my mind of my mother sitting quietly in the corner of the restaurant where we celebrated her 65th birthday. I just know that the suggestion that she wield a paint roller or stand on anything other than the stepstool in the pantry would be greeted with the same enthusiasm as the prospect of scaling Everest. Being that age meant you were grounded.
There’s something of a metaphor here, it seems to me. We women of a certain age in this very exciting era are breaking new ground in being up in the air. Fitter, to be sure, but also unburdened by a notion of propriety or limitation, we do climb things—ladders, mountains, and challenges. Sometimes we take for granted the freedom we enjoy in not questioning whether we are up to something that previous generations would have considered out of the question. It’s a precious liberty to be able to face what needs to be done without feeling that you are not the one to do it. It’s also a great feeling to come down rung by rung and look at what you’ve accomplished.
I salute Sharon, who never met a task she wasn’t equal to—particularly in the service of others. Let’s salute all of our friends and sisters and selves who regularly undertake what has become the new normal in altitude and attitude. The view is really inspiring from up here, isn’t it?
One of my fondest memories of my father was when he took me to see the Harold Lloyd silent movie Safety Last. Recently I again watched the clip of Mr. Lloyd climbing the exterior of a skyscraper, and I thought that his effort embodies my father’s life. Dad has always met the challenges of impossible tasks and has kept going. Through it all he has loved movies and kept his sense of humor.
Born eight months before the stock-market crash of 1929, Dad will be 83 years old this year. Growing up during the Depression, Father savored Hollywood films, which produced a respite from the everyday hardships of that era. He and his pals would seek refuge from the troubled world in the theater, spending all day in the thrall of a Tom Mix film followed by a first-rate concert with a full orchestra—and all for 30 cents.
My father continues to be an ardent movie fan. He passed on his Cine disposition to me. As his only child, growing up in Manhattan, I spent many happy hours at home with his collection of movie coffee-table books in my lap. I would pore over photos of famous old films. I can still see Ramón Novarro as Ben-Hur with the winged hat in a wild chariot race, or Edward G. Robinson as a gangster grimacing as he clutches his topcoat after being shot.
As a family we talked about movies the way other families might discuss current events. We also were forever looking in the basement for my mother’s moment on the big screen. She appeared in a Movietone newsreel, modeling Easter bonnets. During the hunt for the missing reel, my mother would remark earnestly from the top of the stairs that the reel “must be there somewhere!” Which is no doubt true to this day.
My grandfather was also in on the movie madness, as he was busy shooting home movies of us waving or of me running out of a small Mickey Mouse tent. During idle afternoons I watched The Million Dollar Movie on TV, snuggled next to my grandmother. Maybe all this focus on film was one of the reasons I went on to produce documentary films, and why I can sit through just about any movie.
I love it that the Academy Awards began in the same year my dad was born. Hollywood understands, as Dad does, that when all else fails, go to the movies—and don’t forget a sense of humor.
I find this announcement of my mother’s birth in a pile of papers that has been growing in my basement. A sepia photograph of a blonde little girl accompanies her birth record. It could be my mom, but it looks more like her sister. Not really sure who it is.
These family artifacts are some of many that lay hidden in stacks of photos and tons of other papers. Included in this mountain of memorabilia is a second grade report card for my son, who is now 23, the odd newspaper clipping, and a few Dunkin’ Donuts receipts. My life seems consumed by papers I don’t need. What is all this stuff?
I have heard that clutter can hold you back in more ways than one. In my case it is true. My mother and I are the original pack rats. The words ‘auction’ and ‘Doyle’s’ quicken our pulses, while a 15%-off coupon at Bloomingdale’s transforms us into heat-seeking missiles aimed at 59th Street. Years of this have made our closets and basements untenable. On a daily basis, we seem to function smoothly—until we have only five minutes to collect a wallet, the keys, and the little slip of paper that has the address on it.
My mother is now in her 80s and is unable to sort through what she has collected over a lifetime. She feels overwhelmed with the task of sorting the wheat from the chaff, so to speak. Though my daughters and I have organized a lot of it for her. Knowing how much I am like her, I worry that I will face my 80s surrounded by clutter. So now, at 57, I have begun to sort my stuff out. Truthfully, I have not met with complete success.
Yesterday, my husband Jim found the pair of slippers he was looking for in his closet. I took it as a sign of my new organizational skills, because I had recently fished them out from under our bed and placed them triumphantly into his closet.
“What’s wrong with these slippers?”
“What do you mean?” I answered, casually dusting the baseboards with a tissue, another housekeeping trick I picked up from my mother.
“They’re two left feet. I tried them both on,” he replied, looking down at his feet, bewildered.
This sort of mix-up was bound to happen. Last year I’d bought two pairs of identical slippers—one for my son, who has no interest in slippers at this stage of life, and one for Jim, who along with me has embraced the warm-feet-and-bathrobe-in-the-morning philosophy. Admittedly, my organizational and de-cluttering skills still need some fine-tuning.
But when I give or throw things away, I feel a sense of order emerge in both my closet and my life. I need to do this now—because currently, I am up to my neck in chaff!
Last August, some 40 hours before reporting to Mount Sinai Hospital for my surgery, I went to Lowe’s and bought a power drill. I had owned one for the last decade, a generous hand-me-down from a friend that came to me during my divorce, when access to a power drill had turned out to be one of the immediate losses. But that drill had been no match for the concrete walls in the apartment my daughter and I moved into two years ago. Since then I had been at the mercy of our building staff, who possess impressive tool kits but not necessarily an eye or the patience for placing two picture hooks at the same height, or mounting a curtain rail without scratching the ceiling plaster.
Getting to Lowe’s in Brooklyn is no small feat, especially without a car and in the 95-degree humidity of a New York summer day. You likely take not one but two subways, then still face a daunting walk through some baking-hot blocks between 4th and 2nd Avenues in the Gowanus neighborhood, past delivery trucks and forklifts zipping in and out of warehouses. Heavyset Hasidic warehouse managers use the cuffs of their white shirtsleeves to mop sweat from their foreheads and around their payot as they count the number of plumbing pipe elements on the loading decks and bark orders at the Mexican day laborers. Walking down those sidewalks, you are well-advised not only to be aware of those forklifts but also to wear a broad-rimmed straw hat as well a thick layer of sunscreen. If you don’t, you will not only get sunburnt but in the process, feel guilty for not having taken better care of yourself and for having put off the check-up with the dermatologist far too long. I, for one, knew that at some point I would have some explaining to do to Dr. Pat about this delay. But 40 hours before my surgery, the dermatologist was not the greatest of my worries; nor was it hers. The only thing to worry about at this moment was the surgical removal of my ovaries and fallopian tubes.
I knew that the procedure was not a big deal. But I also knew that, as a crucial part of the recovery process, I would have to lie or sit perfectly still for some time. About a week, in the surgeon’s opinion. At least a month, according to Dr. Pat. I decided that I just didn’t know how long it would be. So I had already spent the weekend preparing my apartment for my confinement. I had hung the curtains I’d had sewn, which had been ready to put up for almost six months. I had filled unneeded nail and screw holes with spackle and painted over scuff marks in all the rooms. I’d paid special attention to the nicks on the kitchen cabinets that had been sanded and freshly painted when we moved in and were showing first signs of wear. Taking advantage of my daughter’s absence at camp, I had spent the better part of a day decluttering her room, tossing books from her shelves and clothes from her closet that were clearly not fitting nor befitting for a lanky 12-year-old. I had paid a visit to our storage space, a five-minute cab ride down to an old warehouse by the East River, taking boxes full of dolls and books too dear to give away, a couple of years’ worth of tax return documents and my daughter’s 6th-grade school papers. And in the linen closet, while ironing every last cloth napkin and pillow case that had piled up from a couple of months’ worth of laundry, I had come across one last small box from our move.
I opened it.
It contained some small framed pictures and photographs, one a tiny passport photograph of my mother, in her early 20s, in a pretty white blouse with eyelet embroidery. There was a tiny heart of clay, painted a now-faded, watercolor red, that my daughter had given me for Mother’s Day when she was in kindergarten. I found two small acrylic picture shelves and my favorite small sculptures: A group of books carved from old hardwoods—bongossi, iroko, durmast oak—beautifully polished and smooth to the touch, with traces of gold leaf. I knew them to be part of a larger collection that the artist, many years ago, had called her Witches’ Library. A head cut from a fieldstone by the same artist, a friend who had died years ago. She had spent many weeks chiseling away at the stubbornly hard rock, making just the lightest of indentations, yet creating a serene, forgiving Lar who had guarded all my homes since he had come into my life. And there was perhaps my most prized possession, an old African sculpture of a goddess, protectress, wise woman I had purchased years earlier, when somehow there had been some extra money. The gallerist who sold her to us had explained that she had an extra-long neck so that she could see far from her village, spotting danger early. Her hands were folded around her belly, protecting herself, her children, and her community. My daughter and I had wrapped her into a soft cloth and taken her home from the Chelsea gallery in a taxi. She had watched over us for years. Yet here she was, wrapped away in that same cloth from years earlier.
How had this happened? Why had I never bothered to unpack my dearest treasures after our move? Why had I been so busy, so caught up in day-to-day life? Something had always felt amiss, even though I had barely noticed its absence. But now I would have to lie and to sit very still, at least for several days. Or for a month. And to be able to do that, I had to put my life completely in order.
I had been told to set aside the next day—the day before the surgery—for preparation. “Hon, you are not going anywhere,” the surgeon’s nurse had cheerfully told me as she walked me through the procedure. Which is not pretty. Let’s just say it involves drinking very unpleasant fluids and not eating anything. On the positive side, you are sure to lose a couple of pounds. But you are definitely not going anywhere. In other words, you get a taste of the home confinement that will start in earnest the next day, after you get home from the hospital. And if you don’t live with a partner, like me, you get a taste of being very much alone with your thoughts and your fears.
Of course, you can work around the thoughts and fears. You can dust the tops of bookshelves and lamps, even the light bulbs inside the lamps. You can clean the upholstery of your living room furniture with a concoction of soda water and Woolite. You can tell yourself that you are only doing all of this because you need to wait for the new power drill’s batteries to be fully charged before its initial use. You can even file every last scrap of paper and pay all your bills, but make sure not to stay too close to your desk for too long. If you get too close, you may have to dig into the hanging folder in the very back of your filing cabinet, the one that contains your will. But before you get that far, the light on the battery charger changes from red to green, and you can finally get to your real task.
I know nothing about power drills. All I had wanted was one light enough for me to hold steady, so that the holes I hoped to produce in the concrete walls would be reasonably straight, deep and not frayed at the edges. When making the purchase the day before, I had arrived at Lowe’s armed with printouts showing test results from Consumer Reports in elaborate spread sheets. I had stood, helpless, in an aisle between shelves stretching impossibly high above my head—shelves filled with more different models of power drills than I could have imagined—and between dozens of men who fingered the store models knowingly and hefted big boxes into their shopping carts. I tried to remember what I had learned about torque, keyless chucks, and reversibility. And then, to my great relief, I had spotted a small, lightweight model on sale, the same brand that had scored a 76 in Consumer Reports. I pulled the box of the shelf with what I hoped was an expression conveying knowledge and experience, paid and fled.
I have always felt very reassured by those ratings, assuming that someone knows exactly what constitutes a 76, as opposed to a 78 or 64. There seem to be much clearer, firmer methods in place to measure the effectivity of drills than, say, the healthiness of human bodies. How do you measure, for instance, on the eve of your own surgery, the risk of having cancer? Two percent, said the surgeon. Five percent, said Dr. Pat. How worried should I be—1.2 minutes out of every hour? 3 minutes? All the time? Or perhaps not at all, since Dr. Pat was doing so much worrying for my sake? And, ultimately, did it matter? There were only two possible outcomes: negative or positive. For the past 18 months or so, certain test results had deteriorated during my regular checkups—Pap smears, abdominal fluid. A line had been crossed. Symptoms that had looked like they needed to be watched now indicated possible but real danger. The best outcome from the surgery was that it would turn out to be precautionary. The least bad of the worst-case scenarios would be to have caught any cancer as early as possible.
I sharpened a pencil and marked the drill holes by holding up the small acrylic shelf next to my bed, double-checking the measurements with the level from my toolbox. I took my time choosing the right-sized drill bit. I attached it to the chuck and turned on the new drill. And what a beauty it was. The bit sunk into the wall as if cutting through butter, the drill making a happy, low, purring noise. A tiny light came on every time I set it to work, illuminating a faint drizzle of plaster and paint dust from the hole.
I had met the surgeon only once, a few days earlier, for a few minutes. With calm precision he had outlined my options. He had drawn a little decision tree: These were the procedures. This was what I could expect in terms of recovery. These were the risks. And of course, there was the possibility that he would have to expand the surgery in the case he found… well, something, The risk of that was a small number, but yet a number. I listened. I told him I would think it over and call. But my decision was already made. I had prepared for it for decades. “I feel—” I began and broke off, unsure how to continue. He allowed a smile to cross his face. “Empowered?” he suggested.
On the retrieved acrylic shelf, I organized my treasures with great care: the Witches’ Library, the Lar of stone, our beautiful wooden protectress. The faded red heart went there, and a resealable pack of Kleenex. (It was a shelf, after all, not an altar.) For a very long time, I weighed the tiny silver frame in my hand, the one that contained the picture of my impossibly young mother before she had been a mother. More than 25 years ago, her risk of ovarian cancer had started out being two percent, and then perhaps twenty. But even though she’d had regular care, nobody had ever laid out the risks to her and had helped her, empowered her, to make a decision. She just continued to be afraid, mostly of the surgery. Until she was not at risk for cancer anymore—until the risk had turned into a terrifying reality.
Weeks before she died, my mother had made me promise not to let it come to this when I reached her age. She was just 49 years old, and now so am I. I had always known, since that conversation with her decades ago, that I would, at some point in my life, have to have this surgery. There was no decision to be made when the matter took on urgency; I had made it a long time ago. I owed it to her to act at the right time, and I also owed it to my young daughter.
I put on fresh sheets, making use of the recently ironed pillowcases. The small shelf was mounted right between my bed and my favorite reading chair. I had all I needed right there, whether I would spend a few days in my bedroom or a month. The apartment was in better shape than it had been since we moved in, and the thought crossed my mind that it might never be this spotless again, this well-vacuumed, this clean-smelling. By late afternoon on the day before my surgery, I had nothing left to do. What’s more, I had decided that this was not the time to look at my will. There would be time for that, a time to calmly and rationally make the more difficult decisions as they were needed. For now, enough had been decided. I called the dermatologist’s office and made an appointment to get my skin checked in a few weeks’ time. Then I turned on some music, picked up a book and settled into my reading chair. I was ready.
Longtime WVFC readers may remember contributor Alice Pettway for her elegant poems, for her just-published-chapbook Barbed Wire and Bedclothes, or her witty reflective essay Perspective 101. And you may remember that the last time we heard from Alice, she was just beginning a transformative journey with the Peace Corps in early 2010. That time grew too absorbing for her to share much with us: we’re delighted that now, as her time in Mozambique wraps up, ours was the community she thought of when she began writing.
My partner, a biologist, describes science as an intricate web of competing ideas. He says that the scientific process works because each idea is constantly being challenged, disproved and replaced with better ideas that are themselves demolished by other, even better ideas. Nothing is ever a fact in science. There are only hypotheses, theories. As a writer, I have always thought this system is well and good for science, but for literature?
A writer’s job is to decipher the code and to give her readers some sort of explanation for our absurd existence.
Then I arrived in Mozambique, where I didn’t even know how to use the restroom by myself. I mistook jokes for anger, greeted people with the wrong hand, insulted where I meant respect. I was adrift. I set my mind to figuring out this new world as quickly as possible, certain that all the parameters would fall into place and that, while I might never be a cultural expert on Mozambique, I would at least get the gist of it. The problem was, I was still thinking of the world as a place I could define, whose dark corners might be distant and difficult to reach, but attainable. Why be an explorer if you know you’ll never map the continent?
After two years of bumbling along in a startlingly and wonderfully unique culture, I have given up on finding those corners. Corners only exist where there are walls, and I am convinced that there are none. We may think we have the world figured out, but in reality we’re just sitting on one pixel of a larger photo. Humanity’s possibilities spread in an infinite wash of diversity. The spatial possibilities of the universe have barely begun to be tapped by scientists. In the simplest sense, I mean that we have never, as humans, defined an end to the life experiences we can have, barring death, of course.
Think of the universe as an enormous jigsaw puzzle. We don’t have the box and never will, so the picture is a mystery. The piece count is infinite. If we use our creativity, our intelligence, our curiosity, we can begin to join together the pieces in the small space around us. Sometimes, those who are exceptionally adventurous or unhinged, shift to the edge of their pieced-together patch and start adding to the edges, enlarging and illuminating our worldview.
But even then, what appears to us to be a stretch of ocean might actually be the hem of a woman’s dress. With each new piece, the image churns, morphs, each border existing only until another row of pieces is added. I feel certain that no matter how many of these pieces I hang together in my lifetime, they will be an insignificant glimpse into the whole puzzle. The obvious question then seems to be this: Why continue searching?
I didn’t join the Peace Corps thinking I would save the world. In fact, I feel it is unlikely I will drastically alter the course of even one person’s life. I also feel now that it is an act of insanity and pomposity to think that as I writer I can decipher the undercurrents of our existence. But I can illuminate them. I can take those shaky steps to the edge of my jigsawed life until I glimpse, in the distance, the nearest piece of yours. And if I stick with it, I can build a bridge of pieces between us. Maybe it’s not much. Probably not nearly enough. But the effort itself is something: a little more light shined on the strange shapes that connect us.
I still hate flying and do so infrequently probably because I have never understood aeronautical principles. Age with its many gifts has not changed that. And the experience of commercial air travel now is completely unpleasant. Most people who fly today seem to wear what they would wear sitting in their barcolounger. I, however, continue to dress for travel.
But how to do it right in these new times — with machines that literally see right through you? That was the question facing me last week, when I had to fly to a special birthday celebration in Louisville, Kentucky during the work week.
When I first flew on an airplane, I was old, 25 years old exactly. I had finished a summer externship after my first year of medical school and had been invited to a Western state to meet the parents and siblings of a serious beau. The beau and I had planned to return by car home to Louisville, Kentucky, where we were both in medical school.
Still, I was not enthusiastic about this. The entire concept of a large metal container of people staying aloft and moving forward based on flow of air under the wings and two airplane motors made very little sense to me.
Poverty did not stop me from purchasing a first class one way ticket for my first flight. I was also convinced it would be my last flight and had some vague idea that St.Peter might invite those in first class to enter eternity by a special gate. No matter how the flight ended, it was important to me that I be well dressed.
This was 1973. Students were taking drugs, smoking pot, wearing jeans and tie dyed clothes. They certainly were not dressing for travel. Conventions of the day did not sway me from the certainty that I should look my best for this flight. Summer knit suit, matching shoes and handbag, hat and gloves. The plane did not crash.
The relatives of the beau were no doubt aghast at the amount of luggage I brought in order to survive any athletic or social event this busy family could create and must have wondered what kind of young woman arrives at a ranch wearing a hat and gloves?
The day of this most recent trip, the weather was vile. The carrier was the dreadful USAIR. And there were new dress considerations that were perplexing. The press had covered new screening techniques in great detail for the past few weeks. I knew that people would be looking at my lingerie while they tried to find some place that an explosive could be hidden. Now I had to choose special lingerie for flying. Not just a great dress, coat, shoes and gloves, but special under garments as well.
After much thought I chose brief white net boy shorts, with embroidered pink roses and a vamped opening on the sides ending in pink ribbons, and a matching low-cut underwire bra. It would be clear that I had nothing to hide; if I were forced to have a pat-down exam, at least I would be dressed for it. You never know.
After all this preparation, along with a two-hour pre-departure time because of all the warnings, we were rushed through a perfectly ordinary screening process with absolutely no special attention given to imaging my underwear. I must admit, I was a bit put out after all the effort I had extended. It seems that USAIR doesn’t care if their small cramped smelly planes blow up or not.
My clothes for the birthday party stayed in my lap, in a garment bag, throughout the miserable two-hour flight through frightening turbulence. There was no room for leg movement. It is amazing that no one developed a blood clot on that flight. And of course the man just behind me kept coughing – he seemed to have both drug resistant tuberculosis and the first case of SARS, or else a new variant of Ebola virus that just attacked the lungs. At any minute I expected that he would cough quarts of infected blood over the back of my seat. I would have asked him to use proper cough technique, but he didn’t stop coughing long enough for me to stand up and test his knowledge of this important way of preventing the transmission of droplet borne illnesses.
The plane landed in spite of it all. The birthday party was fantastic with time to spend with dear friends who were so important to my life journey. The food and conversation were certainly worth the trip.
I really wanted to move into our lovely suite at Hotel 21 C for an extended visit. Instead, within 12 hours of arrival in Louisville we were back in the air. On an even worse plane — something rented from a regional carrier.
This Cinderella had lost more than her shoe, carriage and footmen. After bourbon and a late night, I too looked a bit like someone who had just rolled out of her barcolounger. At least I knew it.
I can paint people, plants and things- even groups of people in conversation or groups of objects arranged in a still life. I have much more trouble painting space – from the corner of a room to the vastness of the Sierra Nevada. In fact, even photography has often failed me when it comes to the vastness of the Sierra Nevada – no single photo, or even series of photos pasted together into a panorama, can truely convey how impressively large those mountains are (how small we are).
Nevertheless, on my recent camping trip to Wright’s Lake in the Northern Sierra Nevada, I thought I could just sit at the lake for a couple hours each day and pop off some passable watercolors of the Crystal Range and their reflections. I’d be embarrassed by my audacity except for one thing. If I hadn’t had the audacity to think I might get some good ‘results’, I probably wouldn’t have had the experience of trying.
I don’t come to this lake in California’s Desolation Wilderness every summer, but have done so as often as I can for about 20 years. I’ve hiked through from one side of the wilderness to the other, where friends met us with a car, clean clothes, and fresh food. I’ve hiked in with fully loaded packs, proudly passing the guys with the stuck jeep on Barret’s jeep trail, and then circling back down a couple days later to the same trailhead, where we dumped our gear and jumped in the car seconds before the rain started. I’ve set up base camp at an unoffical camping spot on the border between the forest and the wilderness, at the car campground by the lake, and at the motel half an hour down the winding road to the nearest town. I’ve hiked those mountains in this year’s unprecedented heat, in swarms of mosquitos, when the surprise electric storms were unavoidable, when the wildflowers were in spectacular bloom of purple and gold. And yet, there were things I didn’t know until I sat down and tried to paint.
Some of those things were of course visual/spatial. I knew there were domed bolders that rose out of the lake in an echo of the mountain range on the other side. I probably could have told you that pine trees lined the lake and some of the ridges of the mountains. However, I couldn’t have told you, despite photographing it many times, that what I was conceving as one straight line of the far shore of the lake was actually two separate lines with a tiny offset in the middle where the lake went around a bend. As a result, the far side on the right was much closer than the far side on the left – and the trees, ah, the trees on the right were therefore much larger.
It’s been a mainstay line of mine that I don’t know what something looks like until I draw it. I’ve given this explanation many times in museums when bystanders wonder why I don’t just take a photo, and I used it recently in an essay on why I make art: seeing things gives me great pleasure, and I don’t fully see them until I draw them.
This was a place I had looked at, drawn great pleasure from, any number of times. But it wasn’t until now that I gave myself the pleasure of properly seeing it by drawing.
I also learned that having a daily art practice has really changed me. It has made me able to enjoy my process and learn from it, instead of coming to a grinding halt from frustration when things aren’t working out. Even though I have a commitment to make something every day that I’m willing to post to the internet, I realized I could post a bad painting as an example of how things don’t always go well, or post a picture of the macrame ‘friendship’ bracelet I had started while waiting out the heat one afternoon. In other words, I didn’t give myself a hard time for how bad my paintings were, and even when not caring didn’t miraculously lead to better results, I continued to not care very much.
Instead, I continued to play, and I learned some things about painting with watercolors. My good friend and watercolorist Anne Longo had recommended Japanese brushes with wells for water in the body of the brush, so I tried those. Anne Watkins, another fabulous watercolorist, had recommended square brushes (I tend to prefer round) so I experimented with the unfamiliar.
I played with different amounts of wetness on the page when I put down color, blotting out backwashes, trying to mix the right color for granite. I re-learned that usually when I want something darker I also want it toned down with a little of the complementary color. This was especially true in the mountains where the only bright colors are tiny flowers and on these hot days even the sky was a very pale blue. I didn’t learn anything revolutionary or come to any conclusions about the new tools I tried – but now, having gained more experience with them and gotten some bad paintings out of the way, there’s a greater possibility of something interesting happening next time. Still, I’m not going to get too focused on the results.
She was my fairy godmother, and she yodeled her way into my heart.
My godmother, Aunt Alda, and I came full circle in sharing and identifying with each other as we “grew up” together. Inherent to the circle of life is a celebration of the grace and beauty of those who nurture our inner spirit, and Aunt Alda certainly nurtured mine.
She was a small woman, standing not quite five feet tall and weighing around 90 pounds, with strawberry blond hair, amber eyes, and very fair skin. Her immediate family includes two amazing sons and their wonderful wives, along with respective children and grandchildren.
My aunt left northern Italy around 1913, at three years of age, with her mother and older siblings. Her father met them when they arrived at Ellis Island, and within ten years, had purchased a home for them in New Jersey. With eight children in the family, Aunt Alda went to work when she was still in high school. Her job, as a foreman in New York’s garment district, led to her contribution during World War II: supervising the construction and testing of parachutes for the US military. Though married with two children, she continued to work, echoing the Horatio Alger myth that effort and tenacity glean their own reward.
When I was growing up, our houses were a block apart. She was my Zia Bumbelina (Aunt Little Doll), my Queen Esmeralda, and she called me her Peck’s Bad Girl. As a child, the name did not thrill me. Her legacy, however, has stayed with me to this very moment, represented by the garden, the imp and the arts.
The garden. The garden was one of the earliest points of communication between us, starting when I was a kindergartener and continuing for many years. Each spring, our town held a flower show. The blue ribbons I received for my bouquets reflected the glory of my aunt’s early blooms, particularly her pansies and lilacs. My mom, aunt, and I would take our requisite tour of my aunt’s garden and choose the flowers that were especially suited to my imminent “creations.” Her garden gave me an early love for my own little patch of flowers and the feeling of community that I got from sharing it. Later in the season, Aunt Alda’s renowned Chinese lantern flowers appeared. The papery orange flowers, perched delicately on their stalks, were always a surprise. After work, my aunt could be found lovingly tending her trees, bushes, and flowers. However, if I picked a handful of ignominious weeds en route to her house, she would accept them with a kiss and a thank you. With respect due the rarest rose, she would put the weeds in a “special” vase on the kitchen windowsill.
At 95, her garden was still important to her. The ubiquitous Chinese lantern flowers had traveled with her 30 years earlier to the retirement community which became her home. In her 90s, leaning on my arm, my aunt would again provide a tour of her “garden,” a small area enhancing the entrance to her home. Each season, she enthusiastically described how my cousin had planted colorful annuals and picked the troublesome weeds. For her—and now for me—the garden reflects meaningful values: the inspiration to create, reverence for the beauty of nature, and perseverance in the light of impinging forces.
The imp. Aunt Alda danced vivaciously while yodeling during the family’s Sunday-afternoon cocktail gatherings, as I accompanied her on the piano. (Alda’s dancing required no help from alcohol.) Grandma’s lips pursed in disapproval and her two sisters shook silently with laughter as Aunt Alda cavorted around the living room floor. The frisson of naughtiness was refreshing among the sisters, who set a high bar for perfectionism and reserve. I recall Alda at 89 playacting with me in a foreign language that had no meaning attached to the words for either of us, while her sister, my aunt Gilda, stared with incredulity. I simply had to walk through the front door and initiate the pretend play. Aunt Alda responded with an alacrity belying her age. Mischief was her game, and we loved adding points to her side of the sibling rivalry. Knowing I had a ready playmate simply activated my own personal pixie. Although we saw each other on a regular basis, my aunt and I were always ready to begin a new game. Aunt Alda embraced the imp at every age, and was willing to risk her “image” to provide innocent fun.
The arts. Aunt Alda used color, movement, and music to express and enjoy the world. This included a flamingo-pink living room; glitter-covered fairies dancing on a box holding the stuffed toy poodle, Petunia; opening a community show by bursting through lush red velvet curtains. All of these things were delights to me. The arts magically claim my love as an observer and a participant, and virtually every day I find reasons to appreciate my aunt’s gift.
As Aunt Alda grew older, she had less clarity about the external world. She continued, however, to be my “little buddy” and to rise to the occasion when important issues were discussed. One day, she asked that I hold her hands and sing to her. Holding hands helped anchor her in the present moment and gave her comfort. Her caregiver sat next to us. What an audience! Within seconds they were both asleep.
When she awoke, Aunt Alda explained that the nickname she gave me as a child, “Peck’s Bad Girl,”was the very same that had been given to her as a little girl. It was our last conversation, and her final bequest. Now, Aunt Alda travels with me in my heart and mind as a reminder of all there is to claim, enjoy and share in life.
I hope there is someone in your life, past or present, who has awakened your spirit as Aunt Alda did for me.
We read about Internet crimes against the elderly all the time. We pity those poor, feeble individuals who can’t fend for themselves, those old grandmas and grandpas who are easy marks for slick and practiced scammers. How condescendingly we cluck and laugh at people gullible enough to be taken in. We say we would never be caught so off-guard. You can’t pull the wool over our eyes, by crackey.
Well, I’m here to tell you that recently, more than fifty of my intelligent, sophisticated, and cynical friends went so far as to bite—if not be pulled entirely out of the water—on the fishing line of a devious Web criminal.
Here is my story. I offer it as a cautionary tale. It may be old news to some, but clearly not for many people in my universe. I think it says something about how differently the Internet is perceived by the young and the not-so-young, and how its presence in our lives has insidious side effects, opening windows into a tantalizing pseudo-intimacy with the world on the little screen.
I got up very early one day last week and was looking forward to an uninterrupted morning of writing after too much time away from my own head. I was at the computer by 5:30 and spent two quiet, intense hours picking away at a piece I was working on. I turned from it to check my email at 7:25, but found I couldn’t log on. I kept getting an error message saying that my password was invalid. I re-entered it several times and then gave up, annoyed, choosing to return to the writing, thinking I would try again later.
At 7:31—early for calls to our house—the telephone rang. It was Bob, the husband of my husband Michael’s first wife, a welcome but unlikely telephone visitor at any hour, and especially so first thing in the morning.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
“Well, yes, but all of a sudden my G-mail password doesn’t work, so my day is already a mess,” I answered.
“Well, at least you’re not in Nottingham,” he said.
“Nottingham? What are you talking about?” I asked.
“I just got the strangest email from you. Want me to read it?” he offered.
“I’m writing this with tears in my eyes. My fam and I came down here to Nottingham, United Kingdom for a short vacation unfortunately we were mugged at the park of the hotel where we stayed, all cash, credit card and cell were stolen off us but luckily for us we still have our passports with us.
We’ve been to the embassy and the Police here but they’re not helping issues at all and our flight leaves in less than 3hrs from now but we’re having problems settling the hotel bills and the hotel manager won’t let us leave until we settle the bills. Am freaked out at the moment.”
A plaintive missive indeed, but I most certainly was not in Nottingham. We verified that the spelling of my name and my email address were correct. However, the digits on the phone numbers of my default signature had been reversed.
“What did ‘I’ want from you?” I wondered.
“Apparently nothing,” Bob replied.
And that, too, was strange. It was obvious that a hacker had gotten into my email account, stealing my password and blocking my access to it. But why was “I” making no demands?
Within minutes, both my husband’s and my cell phones rang. The first call was from my sister.
“Oh, my God, are you okay?” she fairly shouted.
She had jumped to the conclusion that I had gone to England without telling her—an irrational leap, because we talk almost every day. Still, this email message really scared her. She got off the phone quickly to call our mother, who would have panicked if she had seen it without knowing what was going on.
More calls started coming: Stanley, JoAnn, Susie, Mike, Jean, Judy, Susan, Lilly, David, Sandy, Kerry—family, close friends, slight acquaintances, household service providers, old friends not heard from in years. More than fifty over the course of the day. It was becoming clear that everyone in my contacts list received this email. It was amazing to me that some marginal people in my life believed this was a true plea from me, without stopping to think that I had a support system to which I would sooner appeal than to them. It had that much emotional resonance for some.
People were behaving exactly like themselves. A skittish friend said it was urgent that I contact the authorities. Another was frightened because the hacker now had his email address. One kind person wrote back to “me” offering to help in any way she could. Her sister lives in the U.K. and she would contact her immediately. By the time it occurred to her to call me, she was trembling. Friends traveling in Barcelona and Berlin called, one couple joking that they were about to skip over to Nottingham with a bucket of cash. A banker called Michael after fantasizing that since she hadn’t spoken to us in a while, we had separated and I was stuck in England. She wanted to alert him in case he didn’t know I was in trouble.
Some of the callers dismissed this as a hoax right away. I appreciated that many people said they were tipped off by the fact it did not sound like me. The punctuation was egregious and there was wording that was clearly not in my voice: “my fam and I came down here to Nottingham…” At the same time, one friend speculated that under stress I could have turned into a lousy writer. For whatever reason, people called because this was just plain unnerving and they wanted to talk about it.
As I thought about who got in touch with me, I noticed that they were all middle-aged or older. When my children and others in their 30s and younger read it, they knew in an instant it was a swindle, pushed Delete, and went on with their day. They function on the Internet in such a reflexive and nuanced way, there was an immediate understanding that these facts did not add up. We older people, as computer-wise and technology-dominated as we have had to become, may be slower to accept that the world works this way now. We have become easy users of the Internet, but perhaps more vulnerable than we should be to its power. We may have less guile about it than our children. A desperate message from a friend is something to be taken seriously, isn’t it?
My callers needed to tell their stories, to chew over just how they had been duped, or not. Some called with accounts of having replied, either in earnest or to test the legitimacy of the letter with questions only I would be able to answer. To a one, they received the following response:
“Glad to hear back from you. It has really been embarrassing for us. Well all we need now is just 2,240 pounds, you can send it to me via western union money transfer to my full name and present location, Here are the details you need to get it to me:
Name – Shelley Singer
Address: 30-33 High Pavement, Nottingham
Country: United Kingdom.
I still have my passport so I can use it as identification, email me the transfer details and the confirmation number. Here is the hotel manager’s number +447024015257”
I called my local police, not knowing if this was a reportable crime or whether I should be contacting the FBI. A kind and patient officer at the County Computer Crimes Unit let me tell my story, which I was as eager to do as my friends were, and answered right away that this was a common scam, virtually undetectable by the authorities. Wired money can be received anonymously, and by the time the victim realizes he has been defrauded, the trail is cold. He told me the email is likely to have originated in the Ukraine or Nigeria, not England. The next day—once my account had been reopened after I reset my password—Google sent me an alert saying that an unaccustomed use of my email had been made the day before in Nigeria. My in-box, which had been unavailable to me until the reset, contained thirty or so questioning emails.
That night, I Googled “I’m writing this with tears in my eyes” and found a universe of websites and articles about the scam I have been describing. This is going on every day, all over the world. I sent a mass email to my contacts list to explain that this was a hoax, imploring them not to send money. I don’t think anyone did.
It was disturbing and creepy that these fiends had invaded my email account and ascertained my password. It was, of course, a lesson in the need to be alert to scams. At the same time, it was a gratifying experience to see that people cared.
Note to Reader: Strengthen your password immediately. Consider changing it to a nonsense combination of letters and numbers. Google, for instance, will assess the strength of your current password and your proposed one, should you request a change.
But what about our emotional passwords? Should they be strengthened, too? Should we deny friends who write “with tears in my eyes?” Along with myriad learning curves, the Internet presents us with a personal and communal challenge: staying open to the real needs of people we care about while learning to trust the world—especially the online world—a little less.
Here at WVFC, we often find ourselves looking at—and fondly embracing—the relationship of mothers and daughters. But the bond between daughter and father is also worth celebrating. On this Father’s Day, we’re pleased to share Maryann Helferty’s recollection of her father and an outing they enjoyed years ago, at a stream just outside Philadelphia. — Ed.
Restlessness crept into my life as I moved in fits and starts through my 40s. Every June after the first stretch of ninety-degree Philly weather, the next cool mornings taunted me to play hooky, evade my air-conditioned office tower and roam the cool ravine near my home. Often, walking the carriage roads along Wissahickon Creek, I saw men in waders standing midstream, fishing for sunnies and brook trout. They reminded me of Saturday mornings spent long ago with my father, whom we lost to leukemia when he was only 57.
In the mid-1960s, on hazy summer days before air conditioning became a staple of family life, my dad took his four older children out with him to Chester Creek. The morning ritual began in the basement as my sister Karen and I watched and quizzed my father as he sorted his rusty, red tackle box. Out would spill licorice- scented purple neons and the forbidden sharp hooks.
It was rare to have time alone with our dad, so we peppered him with questions. Why are the worms fake and smell like licorice? Why is metal chain called a jigger—does it dance? Won’t the boys dig real worms, like they did on opening day of trout season?
Patiently, he kept opening the packages of lead weights, hooks and barbs while explaining that summer fishing was harder than early spring when the stream was stocked. The tackle was dressed up to look like the food fishies ate in the stream. Heading up the stairs, he would grab his brimmed cap with the license pinned on the side and give my mom a peck on the cheek. She always said “Go have fun and get those rammy kids some fresh air.”
Piling the gear and four of his eight kids into the gray Buick station wagon, he’d set off with us for Ridley Creek State Park. In minutes, the steamy heat set our sibling rivalries boiling. Well practiced at teasing, my oldest brother hissed, “Baitbreath” in my ear. My other brother lectured us about a TV show that he saw after our bedtime, on leeches that loved to suck the blood out of little girls who fell in rivers. My sister and I deployed our usual defense: putting our fingers in our ears and chirping “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me” in tandem.
When we pulled off Painter Road into the gravel parking lot, everyone peeled themselves from the sticky vinyl seats, happy that the real fun was about to begin. Quick to get their poles in the water, my brothers raced ahead while my sister and I dawdled with my father, slowly moving toward a cool shady spot down a stream bank. Dad put on his waders and strode out to the middle of the creek, slowly waving his pole, sending the long green filament in an arc over the sparkling water. My sister and I played along the stream bank, picked buttercups, held them to our chins, giggled, and watched the dragonflies dance.
After a while we huddled quietly, watching this unusual sight of our relaxed and smiling father. For a rare moment he was quiet and peaceful, picking up the line from the water and flinging it over and over again. To us, it was funny to see a grown-up just playing, with a lost-in-time look spread over his face.
One of the first times Karen and I were old enough to join these all-male Saturday excursions, I was bursting with curiosity. I shouted, “What are you doing, Dad?”
A twinkle flashed in his sailor-blue eyes as he said, “I am waiting for the fish.”
Ever helpful, craving attention, I jumped into the wet sand and called, “Here, should we splash them to you?”
With a soft smile my father pointed to a low slab of limestone about 30 feet upstream and said, “Yes, how about if you go to the rocks over there and splash them down here to me. Together, we will wait for the fish.”
With very few words, my father taught us a lot of life lessons on those Saturday fishing expeditions. A quietly Catholic man, he knew we were not in charge of such things as when the big palomino trout would leap and take his hook. A good fisherman, he did not take getting skunked personally. A stoic man, he showed us how not to sweat the small stuff by going to the river when the going got hot. Despite the pressures of young fatherhood, he kept play in his life, a hobby that rewarded him often through the years.
Longing to reclaim some “fishing time” for myself this summer, I cut back my work week to four days. Rising early, I take my journal, walk to a mill stream and sit on a low ledge. Surrounding me are the familiar sounds of rushing water and the cool mist of spray on my face. In the stillness, I cast my pen into the turbulent waters of midlife memory, writing poetry and waiting for the fish.
I often joke about how many hats I wear: data analyst, artist, aikidoist, essayist and Teacher of the Alexander Technique, to name a few. All these activities keep me busy, too busy, but I’ve always been unwilling to let any of them go. After all, they each challenge and fulfill a different part of me: right brain, left brain and cross-brain; physical, visual, verbal and emotional; working solo, partnered and in groups. Everything seemed equally essential.
Then a family member became quite ill earlier this year and spent most of a month in the hospital, and another month recovering at home, with me as primary caretaker. Suddenly, I had an overwhelming primary focus and it wasn’t any of the things I thought I had to do every week.
It was no longer a matter of picking something to let go of – it was a question of whether there was anything else I needed to keep doing at all. I reduced my hours at work and arranged to work remotely, coming in for only the most important meetings. I put my private practice teaching the Alexander Technique on hold and let the Aikido dojo know I wouldn’t be training for awhile. I worked with my editor to get an extension on deadlines.
Only one thing kept going at the same pace: I still drew every day.
And while all this was going on for me, it was going on doubly so for a friend and fellow artist who was drawing from hospital rooms a thousand miles away – where she had not one but two ill family members. So when the dust settled and the emergency was over, I also celebrated the caregiving spirit in the image at the top of this post: my Portrait Party portrayal of artist Amy Nelp.
The time I spend in my rushed visits home to Kentucky is compressed into such a small box. I never take the time to feel when I am there. It is after the visit that the memories of life there, when this place was home to me, visit me.
We took a wrong turn this time, just coming off the two-hundred-year-old square of Columbia, Kentucky, centered by its brick and stone Gothic courthouse. There are four roads that lead off the square and we took the one heading east. Our destination was a farmhouse in the middle of a beautiful working farm just off East 80, where we stay now when we are home. Dinner had to be prepared and my sister had already begun the work. I am always so grateful to my sisters for all they do and don’t want to seem to be a shirker.
At the junction of 80 and Highway 55, I unconsciously directed my husband to stay on 55, because that was the way Home. Highway 55 is the road that led to the farmhouse where I was born, and the tiny church that my family attended in the minuscule community of Pleasant Hill. Just a mile beyond the church was the one-room school house, Pleasant Hill School, the place that gave me the tools to become all that I am.
Certainly I learned to be an autodidact there. Lessons were simple and soon over and Miss Shirley, my first grade teacher, did all that she could to keep me intellectually engaged. When there was nothing else to read, I was given the opportunity to read with the second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth, seventh and eighth grade students. I had to learn to please the other students in those grades or they would have forced me back to my first grade chair. I had to work hard to know more than they did and not let it be too obvious. Nothing made me happier than this kind of competition.
All the books in the world could never have existed in that small space or in the back of the bookmobile that came every two weeks to our school, but I learned there that the larger world was filled with books. Pleasant Hill and Miss Shirley taught me that I could find those books and become part of a world that was at that time as foreign to me as the outer reaches of space are for us now. I am always overwhelmed with gratitude when these memories are accessed. Pleasant Hill under the guidance of Miss Shirley gave me all the skills I needed for life: determination, competition, skills to work with those who have what I need, an appreciation for what I have even when others have so much more, but most of all, an addiction to learning.
I was headed home in that sure and certain way when the husband pointed out that our GPS showed that we had missed the turn for our real destination. We were late and didn’t have time to make the usual pilgrimage to these places that instantly ignite that part of my brain where past memories, buried under years of detritus, are retrieved.
I was too busy to ask that we take seven minutes to reconnect with that part of my life. I had a list of things that had to be done. But the memories, unbidden, came back the night after we returned from the visit home. The school with its blackboard, wooden desks with chairs built into them, black wood-burning stove, the books and the bookmobile and most of all, the teacher who knew how to inspire, were with me all last night.
Memories are much with me these days as I am finding that it is time to separate from things that have become relics in my life. There is no room for all that I have accumulated for 62 years, even though I have been afraid that the memories would disappear with the objects if I gave them away.
It is good to know that I can find the memories without the Canadian table and chairs for dinners of 16 at that wonderful time of my life. That I don’t need the two-ton ice box from Kentucky that has broken the backs of movers in eight different moves, through many states and to and from another country. And that I can have memories that are ultimately unattached to things.
I’m supposed to be doing something else right now, but I’ve chosen to steal these minutes to set down my thoughts on my time and how I choose to use it.
Wait a minute. “Supposed?” Where did that come from?
Old habits die hard. Theoretically, my life is at a point that allows me to choose what I do, 24/7. Yet, as Andrew Marvell complained in “To His Coy Mistress:”
. . . At my back I always hear / Time’s winged chariot hurrying near.
Every spring I give away an hour of my time in order to enjoy more daylight during the warm months. And I miss it terribly until the fall, when I get it back again.
I don’t have much choice about Daylight Saving Time, but there are many other, more subtle manipulations of my precious moments that I could resist if I were stronger-willed.
The man I married in 1964—let’s see now, that was 46 years ago—was constantly in a hurry. We couldn’t walk anywhere without his abjuring me to speed up: “Come on, now, let’s go,” he’d say, pacing furiously and turning back to prompt me. He died in 1999, but his voice is still with me, urging me to step lively. The only way I can slow down is to take a deep breath and make a conscious effort.
Okay, here’s a case in point. Just now, as I was immersed in thinking about this subject, the telephone rang.
Did I let the machine pick it up? No.
I stopped writing, got up and answered. Long story short: someone asking me if I would like to do something that I’ve already said three times I don’t want to do.
Another poem springs to mind: Samuel Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan.” Deep in my own thoughts, I respond to an external stimulus and what do I find? All too often, a “person on business from Porlock.”
This phrase, used by Coleridge as the reason for the poem being unfinished, has become synonymous with an unwanted intruder. And I use the redundant term advisedly, to emphasize the undesirable nature of the interruption.
In Coleridge’s England, the word “person” connoted a lower-class, non-genteel entity. Being in business, or the trades, was not desirable; one could not engage in business and be a gentleman. Why Porlock, a picturesque village in Somerset, England? Not clear, except possibly as a symbol for a place without importance or meaning to the poet.
Many scholars believe Coleridge’s excuse for the unfinished work is part of the work itself, a fiction tantamount to “The dog ate my homework.”
And that’s part of the time management issue for me, too. Even when it’s no longer necessary, I feel a little guilty if I choose to do something that conflicts with what others ask of me. It’s still a struggle, but I’m getting better.
Here’s why: The decision to cooperate (or not) with others’ requests for my time is now pretty much mine most of the time. I don’t have to punch a clock or pack a lunch. I can—
Oops, gotta stop now. But you know where I’m going with this, right?
Yep, that’s right: Porlock.
Editor’s Note: Since June 2009, we at WVFC have had the good fortune to feature The Compass Rose, writer and editor Ainslie Jones Uhl’s chronicle of her relocation from North Carolina to California. We started yearning for her old house in View from the South Wall , empathized as she felt she was “living incognito,” learned to adjust to “West Coast casual,” and rejoiced as she found a few kindred spirits. We’ve even celebrated a few holidays with her extraordinary family (above right).
Now, nearly a year later, it’s with mixed feelings that we present the very last installment of The Compass Rose. Here, Ainslie tells us that the process of relocation is over. She’s now ready to move on to other subjects in future pieces for WVFC, while still giving us glimpses of her life in Southern California.
The rich and famous aren’t the only ones whose genealogies are worth exploring. But when television turns its attention to a subject as sloggingly detailed as researching family trees, celebrities are certainly the best bait for viewers. I tuned in for every episode of the PBS series “Faces of America” with Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. I’m a sucker for the academic credentials of a Harvard professor on public television, and as I’ve acquired the wisdom of middle age, I’ve become more intrigued with the idea of connectedness, coincidence and universal energy.
It turns out that eleven of his twelve guests had a genetic connection, a common ancestor. I swear I could see the physical resemblance between Meryl Streep and Mike Nichols. Look at them! And their gift for comedy must be part of their shared DNA.
NBC is also hopping on this train with their series, “Who Do You Think You Are?”, although that particular Hollywood guest list holds less interest for me.
I believe the renewed excitement in genealogy is part of a growing trend–like the green movement or sustainable farming–that urges us to reclaim what the modern world has made us forget. As technology takes us further from daily personal contact and industry raids the family farm, we look for organic tethers that make us feel whole.
You can’t get more organic, or more personal, than birth and death.
“I found that despite all our apparent differences in terms of culture and history,” said Dr. Gates, “we are all the same.”
Well, of course.
Grasping the familial thread, documenting the ties that bind: I’m crazy about this stuff. But I come from a long line of archivists, paper savers, hoarders of history. My mother and brother are authors of three bound volumes: her memoirs and a short biography of her parents, and his ancestral history climbing the family tree through hundreds of years. My father spent over a year transcribing an old family diary, adding notes and photographs and cross references. No glitz, no glamour, no television or movie deals. Just many hours of looking at marriage and birth records, visiting ancient homesteads, shuffling through old letters and photographs, and standing in line at Kinko’s.
My cousin Andrew, half a generation younger than I, turned his examination of family dynamics and multigenerational research into a newly published book, Between a Church and a Hard Place. What began as an attempt to respond to his young children’s unanswerable questions became a way of connecting the past to the present and opening a dialogue for parents looking for clues about what to tell our children about who we are.
Dr. Gates was right; we are all the same. Human beings are bound by a hunger for connectedness, and we spend much of our lives in search of ways to feed that rumbling need. Whether it’s through genealogy or politics, creative temperament or shared tragedy, we all look to others to solve the riddle of ourselves: “Who am I and why am I here?”
These questions have intrigued me more than ever since our move, nearly two years ago, to California. In an earlier essay, “Living Incognito,” I described reveling in anonymity but anxious for a way to feel connected in this strange land. I pursued my tribe through classes and workshops, where I met as many as thirty to forty fellow writers, all of whom remained acquaintances except one.
And this is the damnedest thing. Out of the 3 million people in this sprawling county, and from a chance meeting in an obscure writers’ workshop, the one creative soul who became a friend is also an old friend of one of our old friends–our son’s godfather, in fact. Beyond our mutual understanding of the writing life, beyond our connection as wives and mothers, and despite our differences in geographical identity and upbringing, my new friend and I have an unlikely, uncanny tie. A common “ancestor.” One degree of separation.
It’s enough to help me feel somewhat tethered to this place. I don’t have all the answers, but I’m satisfied with what I’ve learned about myself so far. Satisfied enough, whole enough, to gather these essays, look on them fondly, and move on.
Throughout its 83-year history, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has established a remarkable record of recognizing pioneering performances by film actresses—performances that have reflected an ongoing sea change in ideas about female beauty and power.
Some Oscar winners—Shirley Booth, Ruth Gordon, and Jessica Tandy, for instance—may have been more acclaimed for talent than looks, especially in their later careers. Others had plenty of sizzle but not much steak. But to the Academy’s credit, for the most part it’s honored substance over style. The hugely talented Katharine Hepburn, winner of the most Oscars to date with four, was never paper-doll-pretty. But her strong-boned New England beauty helped set a new standard of desirability, even into her later years, when she won her final Academy Award for On Golden Pond.
Eleven years after the first awards were handed out, Hattie McDaniel became the first African America to win for her supporting role as Mammy in 1939’s Gone With the Wind. It would take another 15 years before an African-American woman won a Best Actress nomination: Dorothy Dandridge in 1954 for Carmen Jones. Dandridge’s nomination made it clear that the concept of who and what was beautiful was starting to change. (Emphasis on ‘starting:’ the winner that year was the blonder-than-blond Grace Kelly.)
In 1999, Halle Berry paid homage to Dandridge, portraying her in the television movie Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, directed by pioneering woman director Martha Coolidge (Berry executive produced). Berry went on in 2001 to become the first—and to date only—African American to win Best Actress, for Monster’s Ball.
The winners whose appearance defied conventional ideals of female beauty include Italian actress Anna Magnani, whose smoldering Mediterranean looks were a far cry from Grace Kelly’s aristocratic elegance. Magnani took the top prize in 1956, two years after Kelly, for The Rose Tattoo, and was nominated again in 1958 for Wild is the Wind. Other mold-breakers include hearing-impaired Marlee Matlin for Children of a Lesser God in 1986 (the youngest Best Actress winner at the time, at age 21), and the generously proportioned Kathy Bates in 1991, for her unforgettable role as an overzealous writer’s groupie in Misery.
Although a nominee, not a winner, Anne Bancroft expanded the boundaries of sexually desirable older women in her role as the seductive Mrs. Robinson in 1967’s The Graduate. Was it a sign of the times that Mrs. Robinson’s eroticism required that she also be a secret alcoholic with problems galore? Looking back, it certainly seems that way: conventional wisdom held that no “decent” woman of, as the French have it, “a certain age,” could aggressively pursue a younger sexual partner unless she were fatally flawed. (Take that, Demi Moore and Susan Sarandon!)
This year’s nominees have already challenged conventional thinking in several directions. As mentioned in an earlier WVFC story, three of the five Best Actress nominees are 45 or older, and there’s not a Shirley Booth lookalike among them—in fact, you’d be hard put to find a more glamorous and sexy bunch. For her role in Precious, Gabourey Sidibe stands to double the number of African-American Best Actress winners, while striking an image-changing blow on behalf of large women everywhere. The same goes for Mo’Nique, a standout in a field of grass-slender Best Supporting Actress nominees.
Too safe, too staid, too predictable? On the contrary—you might say that the Academy Awards has, in its own modest way, been pushing the envelope on feminine beauty for years. And with luck, this year’s winners may give it another nudge or two.