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The View From the Alley

South Minneapolis Alley

As puns go, Write Up My Alley may call forth a groan or two, but I’m okay with that. The metaphor of “the alley” suggests a point-of-view as well as a physical space. It is not the front we present to the street; nor, the tree-lined boulevard.  It’s the back, where we keep the trash cans. It’s where we come and go from back doors, back yards, garages, and driveways. It’s not formal.  It’s where we cook out, play with the kids, and curse the old lawn mower within sight and hearing of our neighbors. In the inner city, you may see your alley neighbors more, and know them better than the people who live across the street.

Why do I write “from the alley”? Who wants to write from the enclosed front porch of a suburban McMansion? I don’t have access to one, anyway. I’m a city person, and when I lived in Minneapolis, the alleys of my neighborhood, Powderhorn Park, brought me many friends and stories that have informed and influenced my writing, especially my young adult novel Paris Thibideaux & the World of Lost Things.

For me, the alley is a state-of-mind that is diverse, informal, inclusive, multicultural, edgy, family-friendly, artsy, organic and green. From here you can observe the back end of the cycle of life: trash, garbage cans, dumpsters, litter and defunct appliances. It’s where scrap metal and junk go to die in the city–out of sight and out of mind except to those who live in the neighborhood. It may be littered with abandoned cars and the viscera of cars: old tires, hubcaps, drive trains, and mufflers, but there it goes through cycles of renewal with each new generation or new wave of immigrants.  City kids navigate the alleys like river systems, and scavenge in them like archaeologists. And out of the alley comes the raw material of junk art and political expression that sometimes erupts on to front lawns and dances down the street and into the park with a neighborhood parade.

 

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Cancer & the Bathroom from Hell

Demolition

Tub gone!

It’s hard to acknowledge that I’m in a dark place just now—a light snuffing, oxygen sucking, and energy-zapping patch of life that I can’t ignore. Cancer hovers over our bed at night like a cartoon balloon filled with cancer vocabulary. Oncology. Radiation. Hormone therapy.

The prostate’s been gone for five years. Bob’s surgery looked successful until some nasty cells started generating a hormone (PSA) that says “Cancer here, pay attention.” The scans didn’t detect any masses, so he’s having radiation treatment in the area where the prostate used to be. It sounds crude, but they say it’s very sophisticated, and besides this is a slow-moving cancer. “Chances are,” they say, “at his age, something else will get him before this does.” Like cancer vocabulary, cancer conversation with doctors is unsettling even when it’s meant to be reassuring.

Going for radiation treatment is less time-consuming than getting my hair done. The technology is so precise and the procedures so streamlined that you can almost forget the gravity of the disease. Radiation treatment is poison that affects both the good and the bad cells, but it’s not even as dramatic as a toothache. Bob drives himself to the hospital in the afternoon, comes home, takes a nap, and we have a pleasant dinner and evening together. He is more tired than usual, and he has some other side effects that are hard to deal with. We were told what to expect, but like everything else about cancer, being prepared doesn’t make it any easier to live with. Bob says he feels like about 70% “himself.” The rest, he explains, “feels blurry around the edges, like it’s somebody else.” Other cancer survivors I know have said similar things about their state of mind in treatment. My cousin could only come up with the word “surreal.”

I, on the other hand, am just living “beside” the cancer. It casts a shadow over everything, but I work hard to see beyond it. I keep fresh flowers in vases and water my houseplants faithfully. I make wholesome meals every day. I do all the dog walking because it’s just too much for my guy these days. I even watched the Final Four with less than my usual impatience. The truth is, I have plenty to keep me positive in spite of the ambient grief and fear in the air, and so does Bob. We have always brought a sense of humor to bear on the challenges of our lives, and cancer is no exception.

The perfect activity to accompany radiation, we decided a few months ago, is to bring in our contractor, a good friend, to remodel our horrible little bathroom from Hell. Our kids were skeptical that we were taking on too much, but we were so right! The demolition of the cast iron bathtub alone (there was no other way to remove it) was cosmically satisfying. The aggravations of radiation are not easily dismissed, but they faded a little before the sound and spectacle of a sledgehammer crushing a tub so old and ugly that no amount of cleaning could make me want to sit in it. The bathroom is almost done now, as is the radiation treatment—just a couple more weeks to go. The new tile work is beautiful. Everything is clean and new. Bob and I are about to celebrate our 36th wedding anniversary.

It’s hard to acknowledge that we are in a darkish place right now, but being together, sharing so many blessings as well as battles through the years, is the light we carry through the dark forest. There is beauty here, too, among the comings and goings of all things.

 

© 2019 K. F. Thurber

My Life In Dog Walks

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Jussi: Simply Irresistible

An argument can be made that my dog Jussi (U-c) is saving my life. We walk daily regardless of the weather, and average two to three miles a day. We’ve logged hundreds of miles in spite of Syracuse winters that are not only cold but also dark by five o’clock. We each have our own reflective vests and clip-on lights. I have heavy, warm boots and a hooded L.L Bean jacket, so nothing stops us. Along with healthy eating and reducing stress, walking with Jussi has helped improve my health and appearance over the past two years, and brought down my blood pressure and cholesterol numbers so that I don’t need medication. I’m at an age where such things matter, but perhaps more importantly, Jussi has changed my social life. He has a magnetic personality that draws dogs and people to him, and by extension, to me.

We should all eat healthy, be physically active, maintain a healthy weight, and manage stress, but there have been times when I have found myself doing only one or none of the above. Sadly, the more I let healthy habits slip, the harder it is to recover. That’s how a person can find herself in photos from her daughter’s wedding, dancing like a happy little orca in beige lace. I’ve made many changes over the past five years, but exercise was harder to incorporate into my life than anything else. First of all, I hate fitting “the gym” into my life. My schedule falls apart at the drop of a hat, as soon as my routine is interrupted for any reason. Holidays are the worst.

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Jussi in the Wilds of the Back Yard

Before Jussi I did not take walks. We had lived in the neighborhood for several years, but in that time we had only met our immediate neighbors. Our sweet old dog “Lady,” didn’t like to walk on a leash. She just roamed around our unfenced acre when she wanted to go out. She was so meticulous about the property line that people thought we had an invisible fence. Before Lady, we had a Schnauzer named “Ted.” He was a big boy, wiry and intelligent, who went out into our fenced yard in Minnesota. We were looking for another medium-sized dog when we walked into Helping Hounds and saw a little one-year-old, longhaired Chihuahua mix with soft, intelligent eyes that instantly reminded us of our other dogs. According to his papers, the original owners in Texas had named him Stinky, but his pound name was Corby. We immediately named him Jussi after a Finnish soccer player. Suffice it to say we had just watched a Swedish detective series, and we loved Wallander’s dog Jussi.

Unlike Lady, who lived by strict boundaries, Jussi is a total hot dog off the leash. He has to be leash-walked, and he has to walk for miles before he can focus on the reason we we’re walking. You can see where this is going. A beautiful confluence of needs: mine to get adequate exercise without going to a gym, and his to walk fast and far on his short little legs in order to complete his mission. Also unlike either of our previous dogs, Jussi is an extrovert, a compulsive greeter, an unabashed cuddler, and a persistent purveyor of toys that must be thrown by us and fetched by him. As I write from my comfy couch in the living room, Jussi is upstairs hanging out with our friend, the contractor who is remodeling our bathroom. His real gift, however, is his charisma. He attracts other dogs and humans like a magnet. Even dogs that are known to be antisocial will whimper with happiness at Jussi’s approach, and the big ones bow their heads so he can stand up and hug them. This leads to smiles and introductions, and before I know it, I’m being way more social than I’m naturally inclined to be. I tend to remember dog names better than human names; nevertheless, my circle of acquaintances has expanded because Jussi likes to meet people. Even my husband’s social life has changed because Jussi insisted on introducing me to a neighbor whose poker game had just lost a player.

My life measured in dog walks adds up to a good time. I agree with John Grogan, who wrote about his “big bad boy dog” in Marley & Me, “It is amazing how much love and laughter they bring into our lives and even how much closer we become with each other because of them.”

 

© 2019 K. F. Thurber

 

Kindness to Strangers

 Hebrews 13:16     And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.

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When I boarded the Greyhound bus in Kane, Pennsylvania, I was headed home to Syracuse after visiting friends. I took one of the few remaining seats up front. On both sides of the aisle the bus was a sea of Amish people, the men in their homespun black coats, white shirts, and suspenders; and, the women wearing gray or blue cotton work dresses and starched white caps with the ties hanging loosely about their necks. From the chatter of the young men seated all around me, I soon learned that they were heading home to upstate New York from a barn raising in Ohio. In spite of their austere Amish clothing and bowl-cut hair, they were typical teenagers. They tossed bags of Doritos at each other, and mocked their peers. A boy with a bandaged hand was teased mercilessly for not being able to handle a hammer.

“I got stung by a bee!” he protested as a bag of chips bounced off his head.

One of the older boys was apparently getting married soon. “This time next year,” his brother teased, “Jacob will be spending more time on his father-in-law’s farm than with his bride!”

A few rows back, the men sat together, some dozing while others conversed quietly, holding their brimmed straw hats on their laps. The women chatted as some pulled garments up from bags at their feet and proceeded to sew. Even from a distance, I could see that they were taking small, precise stitches despite the rocking of the coach.

As we approached our first stop of several on this route, a number of Amish men got up and asked other passengers if they could borrow their cell phones. They explained that they needed to call friends with cars who would meet them and drive them out to their farms. Owing to my limited exposure to Amish culture, I was surprised that they even knew how to use cell phones, and I had never even considered that being Amish would probably not prevent them from having helpful non-Amish friends.

We were rolling along on schedule when the driver’s microphone crackled and we heard him take a deep breath, “Um, ladies and gentleman, we are going to make an unscheduled stop. We have a flat tire we need to change. I’ll drop you off at a nice place to have lunch on us while I take the bus to a service center. Then, I’ll swing back, and we’ll be on our way.” Immediately, the Amish were lining up to use the cell phones again. I called my husband to let him know, “If all goes as planned, I’ll still make my connection in Buffalo and be home on time.”

At lunch, I sat with a young Amish couple I will call John and Rebecca. John told me about how barn raising is not only neighborly but also a way to pass on to the next generation the fundamental skills of traditional construction. Rebecca explained that while the men worked outside, the women were occupied in the kitchen. She gave me her recipe for Chicken Fricassee for fifty.

“You must have horses,” I remember saying. “I volunteer with a sanctuary for retired Standardbred race horses.”

John’s eyes lit up, “Yes, Standardbreds make good buggy horses. We have one and also a draft horse for plowing and pulling.”

He studied me before continuing, “You probably like to ride horses?”

I nodded.

“To you, they are more like pets, but it’s different with us. They are important tools like maybe your automobile. You take care of it to keep it going. We take good care of our horses, so they keep working. I know some English think we are cruel to horses, but our laws forbid it.”

“How do you feel about your horses?” I asked.

John leaned in and said, “How do you think I feel? Without the horse, there is no farm.”

We finished lunch and went outside to wait for the bus in the afternoon sunshine. A half hour ticked by. Then another. People began to get anxious about delayed arrivals and missing connections. Finally, the bus appeared, with the bus driver clearly frazzled and apologetic. When we got to Buffalo, I went up to the ticket counter to ask when exactly I should tell my family I’d be arriving in Syracuse. I stepped aside to call my family, and the young couple I had met at lunch stepped up. It was clear that they were frantic because they were going to miss their connection in Syracuse, and there would be no other bus to their remote part of Northern New York near the St. Lawrence River until the next day.

“We need to get home to our children,” Rebecca said urgently.

“Don’t you have any friends in Syracuse? Maybe go to a shelter?” the ticket agent offered.

“Are you joking?” John asked.

“Well, you can stay in the bus station, but you’ll have to sit up in chairs,” the agent added unhelpfully.

Now, as bus stations go, the Syracuse station and its furnishings are clean and contemporary, but not what anyone would call “comfortable.” These people had already been traveling all day after a weekend of heavy construction and cooking for a crowd. John turned to his wife and shrugged, “There’s nothing we can do. We have to call and let them know.”

“You can come to my house,” I said as though I was part of their conversation.

“You would do this?” Rebecca asked, “your family won’t mind?”

“Not at all,” I assured them, “you can stay with us, and we’ll drive you to the station in the morning so you can catch your bus.”

They looked at each other, and I turned away to let them talk it over.

“Okay,” John said seconds later.

Rebecca smiled warmly, “Thank you. Can we use your cell phone?”

“Okay!” I said, handing it over.

I don’t remember deciding not to call home about this development. I guess I just knew I didn’t need to. As we got off the bus in Syracuse, John told me that they had stuff in the baggage compartment, so they got into a line, and I went to meet my family inside. My husband and our teenaged daughter greeted me with hugs and kisses as soon as I walked through the door, and tried to whisk me out to the car.

“I’ve got an Amish couple with me,” I blurted, “We have to wait.”

Pleasantly perplexed, they listened as I explained about my new friends who needed a place to stay for the night.

“I just couldn’t let them sleep here,” I concluded. As I expected, my family was glad I had offered our hospitality to strangers in need.

“Here they come,” I said as John and Rebecca came into the station. They were a handsome couple, but they looked like characters in a play. Amish women wear long, solid-colored dresses and head-coverings, and men have beards and wear suspenders rather than belts. Their pants are not closed by a fly, but rather by four buttons across the top of a large panel. John and Rebecca carried ancient suitcases that looked like props from an old movie, and each balanced a box of potted tomato plants on one arm. After quick introductions, John seemed embarrassed about the tomato plants.

“You may wonder why we carry tomato plants on a bus, but they’re a gift from my father who is dying,” he said, turning to Rebecca, who continued, “On the way to the barn raising, we stopped to see him in Pennsylvania.”

“I’m so sorry,” I said.

John shook his head, “He is ready. He has had the cancer for a long time. We hadn’t been home for a few years, and he wanted to see us. He gave Rebecca the tomatoes for the garden.”

As we piled into the car, everyone became more talkative. Questions flew back and forth. They asked us about our children and our work. We asked about their farm and their children.

Rebecca began listing the kids, occasionally looking to John for confirmation on the pairing of names and ages, “Hannah is 18. Rachel is 17. Caleb is 15. Jonah is almost 14. Elizabeth is 11. Susannah is 9, Aaron is 8, Michael is 6, and Sarah is 3.”

Nine children.

“What a family,” I said earnestly.

When Rebecca entered my home she went straight to one of the oldest things in it—an antique treadle sewing machine that belonged to my husband’s grandmother, “Oh! What a beautiful sewing machine! Do you sew?”

“Not on that machine, but it is beautiful,” I said.

“It’s nice you appreciate the old things,” she said, and I was glad we had that in common.

We discussed what to have for dinner. They were very tired, so I suggested take-out. I described what was available from Panera, and to my surprise they were enchanted. Who knew the Amish could be so easily entertained in a pinch? Dinner was pleasant and relaxed, and as the evening progressed, we began to speak freely and unguardedly about the differences in our ways of life. They talked about the history of the Amish people—why they came to America and some of the differences among the communities. They wanted to know about our family histories and found it curious that Bob and I came together and could make a strong family from such different backgrounds and traditions. We found ourselves talking about faith without really talking about religion, and discovered that we had many common values.

Bob admired John’s broad-brimmed straw hat, and Rebecca explained that there was one woman in Pennsylvania who made the hats for all the men in their community “because she’s the best!” John proudly pointed out the workmanship that distinguished these hats from lesser models. Laura and I noticed the lack of buttons and zippers on Rebecca’s dress, and she showed us how everything was held together with straight pins. I said she seemed like a particularly graceful person, and wondered if the pins had something to do with it.

“Oh, yes,” she laughed, “If you’re not careful, you’ll be a pincushion.” She went on, “This is plain clothing,” she went on, “It’s not fancy, it’s practical and easy to clean . . .”

“The clothes say we are plain people. Not like the English,” John interjected.

Rebecca added, “That’s what we call everyone who is not us.”

The next morning we rose early so they could catch a 6:30 am bus. We didn’t make plans or promises to keep in touch, but before we parted we hugged each other. I don’t remember the exact words we exchanged, but Rebecca remarked on the blessing of my opening my home to them, and that God was in it, and we all agreed that the combination of circumstances that brought us together seemed so unlikely as to be a little miraculous. I am grateful for the unexpected door that opened between our worlds, and allowed me to show respect and kindness to people I would not otherwise have had a chance to know. Their open delight in our conversation, our food and our home was our greatest reward. It was so easy for all of us to show kindness to strangers.

© 2019 K. F. Thurber

Museum Quality Life

My house is no museum. The way I keep things is not exactly “museum quality.” My wedding gown, for example, which was also my mother’s wedding gown, is in a vacuum bag in a plastic bin at the back of my bedroom closet. No acid-free paper or museum-quality framing protects my keepsakes. Yet, I do take pains to honor and preserve the heritage of the families that come together in my household. Anyone can tell from the way they are displayed that they are loved and precious.

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It’s not the National Portrait Gallery, but we have photographs on display going back to the early 1900s: the Swanson family portrait in which my mother-in-law Evelyn is only four years old. My Fortino grandparents wedding portrait, in which my grandmother looks like she’s facing a firing squad. In the Spagnolo family portrait, my mother is a big-eyed toddler with boy-cut hair. In my parents’ 1948 wedding portrait my IMG_0258mother has on the dress I wore in 1983. From my husband’s family, I have his grandmother Bette Amalia’s treadle sewing machine with the bill of sale still tucked into a drawer of the oak cabinet with the word “White” elegantly carved into it. I also have her bread bowl, and a stoneware pitcher, as well as several pieces of delicate china that I’m told came from the wealthy people Bette and her sister worked for when they first came to New York from Sweden more than a hundred years ago. My father-law’s wooden camp desk is a lacquered wooden box with brass fittings that opens out into a leather-covered surface. It has wells for pen nibs and a bottle of dry ink flakes. I IMG_0264have my mother-in-law’s lovely china stamped on the bottom with “Made in Occupied Japan,” and also my mother’s china, which I helped pick out when I was a teenager. My mother gave me her engagement ring a few years after my father died, and I love wearing this symbol of their long marriage.

I’m not sentimental; I’m mindful. Am I more inclined to reflection these days because I’m getting older? Not really. I’ve always had respect for the past. My Sicilian grandmother kept alive the connection to her language and her family by telling me stories in broken English that were so vivid that I felt like I knew the people and places she loved. Also, even as a little girl, I was inclined to make treasures out of everyday objects. My Shirley Temple doll, dressed as Heidi, is a perfect example. She is in mint condition after sixty years. I never played with her; instead, I chose to display her in a clear plastic bag, intending her to be an heirloom. As nerdy as that sounds, I know I’m not alone. It’s a human impulse to “show and tell” about our lives and our ancestors, and to make our homes reflect a little of whom we are and where we came from.

That’s why I love museums. They reflect the same impulse, at the societal level, to share who we are and what we stand for. Museums are the “homes” that reflect our collective history and the many cultures that contribute to civilization. Some see them as tombs full of relics; therefore, they avoid them like the cemetery. But they are missing the point. Museums are alive with what we need to know about ourselves in order to sustain life on Earth. We need art museums to show us the beauty human beings are capable of creating. We need the museums of natural history and technology to reveal the history of civilization and the many cultures that contribute to our prosperity. For our moral education, however, we need institutions like The National Museum of African American History and Culture, the National Museum of the American Indian, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and National Women’s History Museum to remind us that in spite of our works of beauty and genius, human beings are also capable of grave injustice and brutality. These museums document the destructive steps we have taken on the path to oppression, and the horrible consequences of ignorance and apathy that we must learn to recognize and avoid.

Museums have influenced the way I think about the people and objects passing through my life. I’m a bit of a curator in my own home, but I don’t have a “museum-quality life” and neither does the Earth. Stuff gets used; it sets out in the open where dust and accidents happen no matter how much we love and promise to protect it. I always marvel when I’m in a museum at how miraculous it is that anything survives the innate carelessness of human beings, who rarely recognize the value of things until they’re gone.

© 2019 K. F. Thurber

 

Encounters with Lisa

As a rule, I do not regret. When I look back on the painful things in my life, whether they were the products of bad luck or willful stupidity, I try not to get too wistful about them. Many more good days have followed the bad ones. I am loved and I know it. I am healthy. And ironically these two pillars of my life are precisely what separate me from the person who is genetically closest to me in the universe—my sister Lisa. When I reflect on my relationship with my sister, I break all my own rules about regret. Her mental illness has created decades of family heartbreak and has taken me down many dark rabbit holes including visiting her in jail and promising a judge I’d get her out of Maryland only to lose her minutes later when she bolted from me in the parking lot with a resounding “F— you!”

Mom & Dad 1970s

Mom and Dad 1972

In my family, there was a time before and a time after the word schizophrenia became the explanation for Lisa. I recall one day that may have been the end of before and the beginning of after for me. On this particular summer day in 1976, I was living on a boat, pretty proud of myself, being just two years out of college with a good job in the Nation’s Capital and enough income to buy a 26-foot sailboat with my boyfriend. My sister, almost sixteen, had come down from New Jersey to spend a week with us. She was failing in school and getting rebellious, the opposite of my trajectory, and my parents were beginning to feel helpless. Since she had always looked up to me, we agreed (naively) that maybe I could help. Her visit started out well. We took her sailing, and I got a chance to show off my skills when my boyfriend fell overboard in the middle of the Potomac River, and I had to rescue him without running him over. Then, she met a guy who invited her to a party. He wasn’t scary. He promised to get her home by 10. Still, I don’t know what I was thinking. I was twenty-three. I guess I didn’t want to act like a parent and lose my status as a cool big sister. I let her go.

She stayed out all night. That day haunts me because until then, she had never disrespected or even argued with me. I’m almost eight years older, so what would be the point? Plus, I adored her. She had always seemed fragile, and I felt protective of her. When she finally came in around Noon, after I had spent an agonizing night of terror and reproach, I was so relieved that I burst into tears. Maybe if she had been penitent, it would have been different, but she was defiant and insisted she was going out again that night so “F” me-and-my- rules. Stunned, I threatened to send her home. She swore at me some more, and I expected her to turn and run, but she didn’t try to get away. I think she didn’t believe I’d really do it.

I said, “I’m going to call Mom and Dad now, but if you promise to follow my rules, I’ll let you stay.”

Her response, which would become standard for exchanges with me, was a resounding “F____ you!”

I was out of my depth. I sent her home on the bus that very day. Maybe, that sounds like an overreaction. Maybe, it sounds like tough love. All I know is I was afraid something terrible would happen to her while she was with me, and that I couldn’t live with the consequences. By the time we got to the bus station, she was begging me to let her stay, but she had scared me, and I stood my ground. We have never talked about it since, but I know I lost any hold I might have had on her as a sister. From then on, she treated me like everyone else in the world—as either a resource to be used or an obstacle to be overcome in her continual quests for money, drugs, and freedom from rules.

I regret that day because I thought I was just giving Lisa a sisterly nudge in the direction of discipline and self-respect and that someday we would laugh about it over cake and coffee. If I had known that she was already falling away from the family, and into a mental abyss, would I have acted differently? Even if this break between us was inevitable because of her illness, I still struggle against feeling I could have done better. Now that my husband and I have raised three daughters and gained a grandson, I think there might have been a better way to respond to my little sister’s risky adolescent behavior than the one I chose. Of course, a naïve young person cannot be expected to save another child from mental illness, but I wish, I wish, and I wish to no avail. Forty odd years later, I still wish.

Many sisters live far apart and yet are emotionally close. Lisa and I are apart even when we’re together. Even in her presence, I feel the loss because she cannot or does not want to really see, hear, or touch me. She is walking away from me every few minutes, and then coming back, until she finally says, “I can’t do this any more. Thanks for comin’” and I am dismissed. I gather from many such encounters that I represent “normal” life as she has never known it, so she prefers that I keep it to myself. She sees right through me. “Don’t try to inspire me. It’s easy for you,” she says, “you’re smart.” Then she laughs. It’s the one thing she likes to tease me about, how smart I am. “You was the genius!” she says, purposely using bad grammar, “Bee- u-tee-ful, too!”

Even in the relentlessly sad landscape of mental illness, I have to admit that laughing together is a connection we can still pull off. It helps if we’re both laughing at me. We both know I’m not a genius, and I was a chubby if cute girl until my twenties; but, as far as she can see, I’m living happily ever after. I want to say to her, “It’s not easy for me! I’ve had to work hard for everything!” but compared to hers, my life has been easy. Besides, as sisterly conversation goes, whatever I say will last in her mind no more than five minutes. I can’t really touch her with my experience, nor can I really comfort her, and that is worse. Encounters with Lisa always leave me churning. I feel guilty for my blessings.

Nevertheless, I’m no saint. I’m not all compassion and humility for my sister. In fact, I spent years being furious. Her illness took over my parents’ lives and destroyed the peace and security they had earned for their retirement years. To put it briefly, she took off at eighteen and came home seven months pregnant. My parents thought that keeping the child would help her “grow up.” I disagreed, and they accused me of being a cold, heartless “career woman” who didn’t understand motherhood or “blood.” Well, within a year, my parents were so worried about the baby living with Lisa in a drug house that they offered to adopt him. Lisa demanded a plane ticket to California in exchange, and they closed that deal against the advice of all their friends and relatives. If you believe that no good deed goes unpunished, you are right. Eventually, Lisa came back to live with my parents, and her son grew up in the same household, and he added abuse and violence to the mix. He continues to be a threatening presence in all our lives. As things went from bad to worse for my parents, they retreated from anyone who tried to help. They were so ashamed of the havoc in their house that they couldn’t enjoy my home or their three bright, beautiful granddaughters. My father often said he felt “cursed.” It didn’t matter how respectfully we tried to get along; he thought we were all “looking down our noses” at him.

“You take care of your family, and I’ll take care of mine,” he once scolded me.

I said, “Dad, you’re breaking my heart. I thought I was in your family.”

“No,” he argued, “you’re married now. Your husband, your kids are all good. You live in a different world. I’ve got trouble. You don’t tell me what to do.”

I thought I would be eternally angry with my sister, the eternal victim, but how could I? She is in a pitiful struggle not only with her demons, but also with the side effects of the powerful medicines she has to take to subdue them. Her illness and addictions have devastated our family, and I could feel forever wronged by my parents’ withdrawal from my children and me, but how could I add to their suffering by condemning them?

I agree with Annie Dillard that “the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive,” but a voice in my head is always saying, “Nobody wants to hear that shit. You have no wisdom or happy endings to offer, so shut up!” And yet, reluctant witness that I am, I feel an imperative to testify against the shame, isolation, and destruction of families that comes with chronic mental illness. Countless American families are grappling with the mental illness of a close relative, and yet we have fewer facilities and resources for the chronically mentally ill now than we did thirty-six years ago when Susan Sheehan won the Pulitzer Prize for her book Is There No Place on Earth for Me? There were Congressional hearings and promises of change after that gut-wrenching case study of a schizophrenic and her family exposed the inadequacies of the public health system. Ironically, instead of increasing and improving services, the government proceeded to defund and dismantle public facilities and programs, so that more and more of the burden of mental illness falls on families, or tumbles out on to the streets, and ends up in the criminal justice system. Proud, hardworking families like mine will spend all of their precious emotional and financial resources trying to handle this disease on their own, and yet there is a public policy issue here, and a moral obligation, isn’t there?

Lisa & Mom 2018

Lisa and Mom 2018

I am trying here to represent my sister, as she is unable to represent herself. Beneath the weight of mental illness, she is smart and quirkily observant. Years ago at my grandfather’s funeral, which was a bit of a circus with little kids running around and daring each other to touch the body, Lisa said to me, “It’s clear that Pop-Pop isn’t gonna show up to this fiasco. I’m going downstairs to have a smoke. Wanna come?” At one time she was a fair poet of the ironies of street life and rock-and-roll, her passion, and got published in the South Philly newspaper. She loves to sing, and although it sounds to me like she’s singing the cracks between the keys, people in her group home love it.

She smiles, and my heart breaks. She has lost two front teeth because Medicaid favors extraction over sophisticated dentistry. I never take pictures with her because she looks like a tortured version of me, and I can’t bear to see the resemblance. I’m ashamed of the smallness of me, but there it is. She senses my sadness when we’re together, and it pisses her off, but other more common avenues of sisterly communication have been closed to us. Lisa and I can’t bond over my daughter’s wedding plans or share cooking tips. She lives in a supervised home and gets her cigarettes rationed. I teach college English and live in a nice little house with a pond out back. Time eventually heals most wounds, but Lisa’s illness leaves me feeling like an amputee. Sometimes, I still “feel” her like a phantom limb, and then I reach for an armful of air.

© 2019 K. F. Thurber

 

 

 

 

 

Quilts & Makers

Hali's quilt binding  IMG_0192  IMG_2415   IMG_0853

Quilts are symbols of love and industry that women have shared since the first woman decided to create something beautiful and useful from the first rags. There are quilters who win prizes at the State Fair, and there are professional quilters. I am neither. I quilt the way I cook: it’s good but I couldn’t make a living at it. My quilts are few and far between. I have made four in thirty years.

My first quilt was for my second child. I signed up for a beginner’s class at a magical place called “The Quilt Block.” Six months pregnant, I entered the shop and breathed in the clean, fresh smell of pristine cotton. From floor to ceiling the shelves were lined with bolts of fine cotton arranged like the spines of oversized books in a library catalogued by color. Solid, floral, striped, and abstract patterns were grouped into color palettes, ranging from the palest to the brightest hues. The first class was taken up with choosing the fabric for our projects. Mine was a crib-sized quilt sampler. Each block would be hand-stitched in a different pattern, hand-pieced and hand-quilted. Not knowing whether I was having a boy or a girl, I chose pink and blue floral and striped fabrics and a creamy white background for my little stranger. My baby stirred as I pieced together each block in my lap, and with each block, I began to feel more strongly that I was having another daughter. When I had stitched together all the blocks into the quilt top, we laid out the quilt back, batting, and top on the big table, and everyone in the class helped me pin the layers in preparation for hand quilting. With tiny brass safety pins, we started at the center and worked our way out to the edges, careful not to create bumps or folds. The fabric stretches with handling and the cumulative effect of a thousand tiny stretches is a rippling edge instead of a flat one, so even though you want to keep the quilt flat and smooth, you don’t want to pull it too tightly as you pin through the layers. The pinning of my daughter’s quilt was a celebration. The whole group felt they were contributing to the baby gift.

When the pinning was done, I was strangely surprised and elated. Out of hundreds of cuts and snips and seams, I had actually made something. It had warmth and weight and texture. Now all that remained was the decorative quilting. I set a wooden hoop around the center block and tightened the screws. I pulled my cotton thread through a block of beeswax to prevent fraying as it passed in and out of the fabric. Then I threaded my tiny quilting needle, put on my leather thimble so as not to puncture my finger pushing the needle through thick layers, and took the first stitches. I stitched along both sides of every seam, so that each shape was outlined by two rows of stitches. As I worked, the baby under the blanket poked my ribs. She came early in a thunderstorm, and family life took off like a rocket. I didn’t finish the quilting until she was almost two years old, but she loved it from the first time I wrapped it around her shoulders and hugged her close. She is a grown woman now, living inconveniently far away. When the quilt began to show its age, she brought it home at Christmas and asked me to bind the edges in a new border. Although it may seem that I procrastinated, I maintain that I sat on the project for ten years just because I loved having it at home like a tether to my adventurous daughter, who has climbed glaciers in the Cascades and pursued her love of archaeology to the Andes of Peru. The quilt is now back in her possession, and sometimes I see it in the background of her selfies, so I know she keeps it close.

My second quilt was started at the busiest time of my life. I was running for the City Council when I discovered I was pregnant. With daughters ten- and seven-years old, we were excited to welcome a new baby, but also a little overwhelmed by the prospect of giving birth about a month before the primary. Under the circumstances, I chose to do a small quilted wall hanging instead of a quilt. Not knowing the baby’s gender, I chose a neutral theme and colors. I found a pattern for a Noah’s Ark scene done in homespun cottons—ginghams, stripes and stars in navy, burgundy, and earth tones. Instead of a pieced quilt, this would be an appliqúe, a technique that would require sewing cutouts of the ark, the animals, and some stars in the sky onto a solid backing, and then quilting around the shapes to create texture.

When you run for office while pregnant, the baby can easily become a footnote to the campaign. After long hours of door knocking, putting up my swollen feet and working on the quilt helped me keep that from happening. In those quiet hours, the making of the quilt and the making of the baby made me feel full and happy. For the longest time, I thought I was having a boy, but by the time I started quilting the three stars in the sky (one for each child), she began to whisper to me and kick like she was a big, strong girl. And she was. I finished the project including the quilting on time. Everything about this quilt was simple and sweet like my baby girl. It was just two lions, two elephants, two giraffes, an ark, and three big stars overlooking it all. The baby’s grown up now. She lives in Brooklyn and works in Manhattan, but she is the biggest homebody of the three. She is sorely homesick by Christmas, and spends as much time with us as she can in summer. The little quilt, like our little house in upstate New York, represents a lot of love in a small package. Maybe the baby who “spoke” to me as I quilted reflects the homey spirit of the quilt, maybe not. Nevertheless, she has it with her, and it speaks to her of home.

My third quilt was for my first daughter, and before I go any further I need to apologize in advance for how long it took me to finish it. When it took me two years to finish the hand quilting on my first quilt, I thought it was reasonable, considering that I had an infant and a potty-training toddler at the time. And when it took me ten years to finishing putting new binding on that same quilt, I chalked it up to my busy middle-age. Unfortunately, I lost all credibility for time management with the epic saga of the third quilt. When she was a junior in high school, I offered to make a quilt for my first child. She liked the idea as long as she could pick the pattern and the fabrics. She chose a double bed quilt with a star pattern, a big project compared to the others. I think the size of the project was to make up for my not making her a baby quilt. I did crochet a blanket during that pregnancy, and got carpal tunnel syndrome for my trouble, but she wanted a quilt to take to college, and I had two years to finish it. We went to The Quilt Block, and she picked all burgundy, white, and navy blue fabrics with stars and stripes. It was going to be a very bold, very patriotic quilt.

I started work on it right away, and by the time she graduated from high school, I had all the blocks made, but that was all. “That’s okay, Mom, aim for college graduation. That gives you four more years,” she said graciously. You know where this is going. College flew by, and she headed to London for graduate school. I had finished piecing the top of the quilt (let’s not forget it was for a double bed!) and the batting was taking up the bottom of a closet like a fat roll of insulation. “For sure,” I promised sheepishly, “I will have it for your graduation from London School of Economics.” She smiled. Her sisters smiled. My husband laughed out loud. So, I’m not sure of exact timing, but I finished the quilt sometime after she graduated from LSE but before she got married. And now for the mystical aspect of this quilt: did all those stars and stripes lead her to marry a Marine Captain or what? At the very least, I believe that quilt is more than a little connected to my daughter’s trajectory in life. She is a political consultant, married to a Marine, living on Capitol Hill. Cue the Twilight Zone theme here.

We laugh about how long it took for me to finish that quilt, but I don’t mind being the punch line as long as I am always part of the narrative. All the quilt narratives are bound to me, the maker, and so I have an interest in keeping up the tradition. I have made three quilts for three daughters, but recently, I made a fourth quilt. As soon as we learned that we would be grandparents, I got started on a crib quilt. I consulted with my daughter, and once again we came up with a bold and colorful design. Deep tangerine, lime green, sunny yellow, and sky blue on a white background. Dots, stripes, and abstract designs make the quilt festive and light. My daughter found a carpet for the baby’s room with the same color scheme. Our grandson arrived, and I had finished the quilt on time! I’m glad I was able to make it for him. I don’t know what it will mean to him, but for now he likes it, and when photos pop up on my phone, the quilt is often in the frame with him and his toys. I smile, feeling that the quilt is representing me well.

Quilting is not my hobby. I’ve only made quilts for the births in my family, and each quilt represents hours of personal and unconditional devotion to each child. I am the maker, and the quilts signify me as much as anything—something that matters more over time to a mother or grandmother. I’m also an English teacher, and the word “maker” has special meaning for me. It has roots in medieval Scotland and the poets known as “makars,” literally makers or craftsmen of words. In poetry, the makars sang and gave meaning to the actions of the people of that time, and for this they were loved, and those times are remembered. The act of making anything is at its heart the creation of meaning. As surely as the poet chooses and arranges words to convey meaning, so a quilt maker chooses and arranges and creates meaning out of cloth and stitches.

 

 

Stealing God’s Stuff

Nature’s role in my life has changed. When I was a kid, in South Jersey, I lived on a dead end street. At the end of the street was The Woods, a suburban wild place for hide-and-seek, tree climbing, and poison ivy (which I suffered yearly because I never learned to recognize it). That was Nature to me. I played outside in all seasons: Simon Says, Steal the Bacon, Swinging Statues, Red Rover, Huckle Buckle Beanstalk. We jumped rope and played kickball and softball in the street. There was no traffic. My best friend and I played dolls under the dome of a colossal forsythia in my back yard. We fashioned doll clothes and furniture from acorns, leaves, twigs, feathers, and weeds. “Earth” meant to me hard dirt studded with rocks that scraped my knees and gave me bruises. Now, where there was once a wall of honeysuckle at the end of my street, there is a house. The Woods have been subdivided and developed, and almost every house on the street has been expanded to take up more of what used to be back, front or side yard. When I return, I never see children playing outside. Everyone has central air.

Today, I live by water— a small nameless pond with a wetland buffer against encroaching development. Right now, I can look out on the winter snow blanketing my little acre of Central New York. The pond and the marsh are frozen. The tall brown grasses, majestic evergreens, and bare branches of the grand old birches and maples stand out against the whiteness. To live here is a great blessing. I agree with Thoreau that “A lake is the landscape’s most beautiful and expressive feature. It is earth’s eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature.” I behold my stillest self in to the stillness surrounding our cottage. Occasionally, a deer (or two or three) materializes out of nowhere. I never see their approach. A movement catches my eye, and there they are, sometimes just feet away from my window. Then I blink, and they’ve disappeared as if beamed up by Scotty. The landscape is not just nice to behold. Here, Nature requires a working relationship that challenges my muscles and keeps me humble. In a way, though, I’m still a little girl playing outside. We have a small saltbox barn that survives in spite of our poor record of maintenance. It’s ideal for potting plants and storing tools, carts, and summer lawn furniture. It has a rusty little cupola with a weather vane that suggests the long-ago farm it was once a part of.

While we expect people and buildings to come and go, we count on the land and water to endure; and yet, the recent McMansion built next door and the earthen dam that came with it exist in spite of rules that should have prevented them. Predictably, they are altering the pond and the wetland. Will they eventually kill them? More importantly, will I have to fight to prevent it? At this time in my life, I’d much rather contemplate the beauty and peace of Nature. My husband and I like to watch the sun set over the pond and marvel at radiant clouds reflected in the glassy pool. Summer evenings bring out the bullfrogs and peepers who voice the rhythmic breathing of the marsh. In my hammock, I close my eyes and listen to their music, but I can’t quite get lost in it. Disquieting thoughts cloud the future of my little ecosystem even as the dreadful effects of climate change have begun to upset the very equilibrium of Nature. I’ve lost my innocent belief in Nature’s ability to withstand unchecked exploitation; worse yet, I’ve lost the ability to trust (borne of countless science fiction movies) that humans will quit before it’s too late.

I grew up in a generation of protesters. I marched in the first Earth Day in 1970. I remember that sunny day in Fairmount Park, being swept along in a tidal wave of students. Young Me felt so powerful! She never would have believed that some fifty years later, Americans of her generation would be supporting a government so deep in denial of climate change that it eliminates environmental safeguards and closes its eyes to the destruction of wilderness in order to extract minerals, oil and gas. Fossil fuels for fossil minds? Americans seem determined to pollute and destroy until I don’t know when. Is there an imaginary number of people (eleventy billion?) who need to be directly impacted, as if by an atomic bomb, before we can look beyond profit to save life on Earth? In the end, what’s the difference between nuclear winter and the extraordinary snowfall in unusual latitudes we’re already experiencing? Is creeping Armageddon somehow better than The Bomb? We must face that there is no time when it will be easier than it is now. If I knew that every day my job would cause a loved one to die, would I be willing to give up my job to save them? So far, people with the power to do better than this for humanity, say “No.”

In 1945 the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and E.B. White wrote in the New Yorker, “Today it is not so much the fact of the end of a war which engages us. It is the limitless power of the victor. The quest for a substitute for God ended suddenly. The substitute turned up. And who do you suppose it was? It was man himself, stealing God’s stuff.” Today, while almost limitless power is arrayed against Nature, our leaders dither and pretend nothing catastrophic is happening. I don’t believe these powerful, educated people are as blind as they pretend to be; for, the catastrophe is already here. I can’t think of Nature these days without also recalling shrinking icebergs and emaciated polar bears, devastating storms and wild fires. Climate change has altered my experience of Nature much as the atom bomb forever changed the way I think of War. Changing American law and policy in favor of healing and sustainability, is an uphill battle because we have an economy based on carelessly helping ourselves to “God’s stuff.” Those who would preserve the status quo are full of rationalizations. Some deny it was God’s stuff in the first place, so it can’t be stealing. Others say, “God is dead, so it’s irrelevant.”

When I was young, I took for granted that Nature’s job was to nurture, educate, and entertain me. In my twenties, I lived on a sailboat for two years. Unlike most of my friends and family, I wanted to experience Nature in ways I had only read about. We savored the beauty, culture and food of the Chesapeake Bay area, and sailed through some fearsome storms that tested our beginner skills, but even now, decades later, I recall this as one of the best and most rewarding challenges I ever gave myself. I can never think of Nature as a commodity to be bought and sold for human profit. Some people act as though natural resources are eternal. Others fantasize that we can develop manmade alternatives to what Nature provides. There is ample evidence that these are stupid and dangerous ideas, and yet they hold sway in the chambers of economic and political power.

Our relationship to Nature has changed. Once considered the revelation of God’s presence in our lives, Nature is increasingly dependent like Blanche DuBois, “on the kindness of strangers.” Where are the kind strangers? I like to think I am one, but I’m protective of my peace and quiet these days, and my knees are not up to marching very far. I will at least write. Otherwise, I am complicit in stealing something that is not mine to squander: the Future—in other words, “God’s stuff.”