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I was born into a beautiful old house, four stories if you counted the full basement and attic, which I did. There were beveled glass French doors at the entrance to the living area, a playroom/music room, a dining room, huge kitchen, three large bedrooms upstairs, a walk-through coat closet, and alas, only one bathroom which the four of us somehow shared. I was very intrigued by the dusty musty attic and its possibilities, but not allowed to go there. I also found our strangely shaped closets interesting. I'd sneak into my sister's to see what clothes awaited me in four years, though my mother's dress them alike phase lasted a number of years so I already knew some of the outfits. Only rarely did I sneak into my parents' long closet with a dormer window at the end. One year I completely ruined my Christmas surprises by trying on the clothes I found in bags there. The laundry chute was a real temptation; I so wanted to slide down three floors to the basement. But I could barely see the 90-degree bend and realized I could get painfully stuck. I loved the milk box, the shelves of preserved fruit in our damp basement, the sound of coal being delivered and banging its way down the chute. I sat on hot floor registers and felt the sting as my snowsuit dried out. The gardens were full of wonderful plants: hollyhocks (we made dolls from the blossoms), several varieties of daisies, roses and even gourds one year. There was an apple tree out back that I climbed as if through making the ascension I arrived in a new dimension, a place for dramatizations. We named the process "story." We or sometimes just I would become characters surviving a struggle suggested by a fairy tale, a TV show, or our imaginations. Some stories were repeated and refined, some were short lived.
At around age five I fell backwards out of the tree while eating cinnamon red hearts from a paper cupcake holder. I still remember having the wind knocked out of me and gasping for air and having my dislocated shoulder put back into place. I spent many ecstatic hours gathering weeds, seeds, stones, feathers, moss and such and creating muddy sculptures. There was a cherry tree with tiny bright red poison berries which I wasn't to touch.
In looking back at my life I find I must recall relatives from whom I undoubtedly inherited genetic traits and unconsciously imitated behaviors, accepted or rejected attitudes and learned stories about triumphs and tragedies... I don't know much about my mother's childhood. I sense that she was shy. She had a pet rabbit and fell into a cow pen... .She always had a dignified and virtuous bearing, huge sensitive brown eyes and black hair... she worried about her actions, always wanting to do the right thing. Like my father, she strove to fix things, make life fair. I heard "I didn't sleep a wink last night worrying about such and such" from her often. She was very duty-oriented and worrying seemed to be part of her duty. Cleanliness was important and we traveled with a jar of soapy water in our glove compartment. I was not allowed to eat the bottom of ice cream cones which might have been set on a counter. A few years ago after watching a documentary about polio, I decided that she really wasn't obsessive-compulsive, just trying to keep us safe.
Cancer had attacked her spine and (their) morphine helped amazingly. My mother used the same determination she had drawn on to recover and focused on dying. I will always remember bathing her, holding her hand... the most important tasks I have ever done, will ever do. In deference to her desires I held my grief in her presence. When I once did cry, almost silently, she said, "Don't do that" and I replied "I can't be brave all the time, can I?" She answered, "I guess not." During what was to be her last night (though we thought she had several weeks left) I willed myself to wake up every 45 minutes or so, to offer her water, comfort. After several times in there she said, "Marsha go back to sleep. You don't need to come in so often. There are others, I can hear them, they are helping."
Once my father brought me a red metal fire truck, which I especially loved because it seemed to be a boy toy and such a surprise. He spent time guiding my bike by the seat until I could make it around the corner, many bandaged knees later. He pitched balls into my gloved hand. He put me up on his shoulders at parades. He said often enough for me to remember now, "My girl can do anything"... which both empowered and intimidated me.
There was a bitter, caustic side to my father and I felt the power of it only rarely. As he got older he went into depression at times and was medicated... he grieved deeply, continually after my mother, his wife of 56 years, died. His congestive heart failure worsened to the point that he needed more help than I could give. At the assisted living facility he would sequester himself in the bathroom to make the animal howls and sobs he thought no one could hear. His spirit and body weakened and he slipped into renal failure. Before this he once said, "Promise you'll remember me as I used to be." I went to see him every morning and every night as I continued teaching. I wheeled him out in the courtyard to see the birds. He no longer tried to talk or listen but still let me hold his hand. He withdrew into himself. One night the hospice nurse and I sat with him certain it was the end. I heard him argue with Death... "I know this has to happen, just not yet." He came out of his coma-like state, asked me for cranberry juice and lived another two months. At the moment of death, he opened his eyes and looked up, reaching towards the ceiling, then exhaled a final breath.
SONG: "Both Sides Now"