Showing posts with label family. Show all posts
Showing posts with label family. Show all posts

Saturday, August 4, 2018

A Poem about Home

Just a few nights after my mother died, my sister Ellen and I were driving to a hotel near the small cottage at a senior community where my parents have lived since 2013.


"What are we going to do?  Mom was home." she said.
"I feel homeless," I said.
It is true.  Our mother's heart was our port in the storm, an open welcome, a space of rest and respite.  The bricks and mortar surrounding her didn't matter.  She, herself, made us feel safe and loved, always and unconditionally.

I came across this poem by Ruth Carr, that reminds me of our family home, and even more of our mom:

There is a House

there is a house
whose door will not close in my face
where there will always be a place for one more
at the table.


there is a house
that lets in light all the year round
even in the winter the weakest of suns
reaches in.

there is a house
with walls that hold me like branches
with a roof of summer leaves
and roots that go deep.

there is a house where I can be long and not outstay my welcome
where I can be low and not have to pretend
where I can be loved without trying.

for the house whispers
tak off your shoes, rest your bones
here is room for your dreams
let me rock you to sleep

you are home, little one.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

When Someone You Love Dies: Notes for the Living

I never gave a lot of thought to death until my mother died unexpectedly two months ago.  Now, I think about it all the time.

Until confronted by it ourselves, we tend to ignore death and grief.  For something that is all around us, all the time, it seems invisible ---  right up until we become the ones blindsided by the news of the death of someone in our intimate circle -- parents, spouses, children, siblings, close friends.  My friend Erik said to me, "As the Greeks say, eventually, time and tragedy come for all of us."  Truth.

 I am in the process of writing down some thoughts into something of a series.  The first post, here, is a list of things that in retrospect, I wish I could have articulated to people in the wake of my mom's death about how to help, how not to help and what they could anticipate from me.  There is no order and this list might not help you. 


But I hope it helps.  If you are grieving, I send comfort and love.  If you want to help someone who is grieving, I send comfort and love.

List One: 

To My People: I am Grieving and Here's How to Respond
  • Do something.  Anything.  Just do not ask me what you can do.  Any simple act of kindness is appreciated. I don't want to be rude, but I literally cannot manage your response to my grief.  Please don't ask me what you can do. Figure out a way to show me you care. 
  • I appreciate you, even if I don't respond to you.  I absolutely love your texts, your cards, your emails, your photos, your calls, your pie, your prayers into the darkness, your visits, your casseroles, your gift cards.  I need them. They help.  They fill the space between me and the enormous black hole that threatens to engulf me. I just don't always have the bandwith to respond.(Also,  let me just say that I finally get the food thing.  Not only is it a ritual act of practical care, it is necessary to bring food to the grieving.  The prospect of procuring, preparing, consuming and cleaning up food in the aftermath of death is just so not possible to fathom for the heartbroken.)
  • I am not OK.  Even if I am laughing, functioning at work, asking you a question, trust that I am not OK and I won't be for a long time.  I will let you know when I am OK.  Until then, assume that I am fragile. I have good hours and bad hours, good days and bad days, good weeks and bad weeks.  My interior life is a bit of a minefield.  I can't predict it and I can't warn you. 
  • If you knew my loved one, I need you.  I need new memories and I need stories that absorb the shock that comes with the realization that I won't get to build any new memories with them.  The idea that ours is a completed story terrifies me.  Please share your stories of her and make her live for me in those stories.
  • Assume I am thinking of my loved one even if I don't say anything about her.  She is always on my mind, somewhere, somehow.   Grief is not a one-and-done thing.  I might be talking about cinammon crepes, but I am also grieving, too.
  • "She had a good life,"  "It was her time,"  "God has a plan," "At least she didn't suffer," "She had another calling," or any other truism that you think might take the edge off my grief is probably best left unsaid.  Just tell me you're sorry and you are thinking of us all.  The rest? Meh. 
  • I don't want to process everything right now and I don't need to.  Take my lead when it comes to talking about the loss and the grief.
  • I might make you uncomfortable.  I might say strange things. I might be cold, uncommunicative, unresponsive and, basically,  a total pain to support and you might not find it a lot of fun to support me.   I might not respond the way you would respond.  I need you to let me be me and find my own way through my grief.  Please support me.
  •   If you've been through Big Grief,  do ask if I want you to share your experiences.  I might want you to, or I might not be able to bear it right now. Do help me navigate, but don't overburden me in an attempt to show solidarity.  I am fragile and overwhelmed and your stories of loss run a fine line between helping me and making me feel like I am drowning.
  • Like this list, my grieving self is a work in progress.





Friday, January 16, 2015

On Priorities

With a new semester, it begins again.   I am not talking about the classes, the meetings, the students, the committees, the scrambling to pick up loose strands left over from last semester.

I am talking about the promises we make to ourselves.  It is our new year's ritual in a world of busy, whether it is manufactured or organic busy.  Everywhere I turn, people are making bold declarations. "I will say 'no' more often."  "I will only check email twice a day." "I will remember to stop and breathe."  "I promise to make time for what matters to me and to stop wasting time on things that don't matter."  "No more Facebook!"  "No more Netflix." "No more letting people dump stuff on my shoulders.  I choose me!"

Everywhere I look, people want off the habitrail… Looking for meaning.  Purpose. Authenticity.  Time for the people and things we love.  The sense that we are in the right place, doing what we should be doing  -- a feeling that, if we were very lucky, we glimpsed for a moment or two as we nestled in with family and friends during the holidays.  Remember?  It was nice, wasn't it?

Monday, December 22, 2014

Thanks for the Memories, Donald Trump.

(October 10, 2016) Note:  I wrote and posted this blog post almost two years ago.  And then --  Donald Trump came along.  And I was reminded -- in the most disturbing of ways -- that these stories are so many women's stories.  As mild as they may be, they are scarring.  As quotidian as they may be, they are wrong.

Donald Trump has triggered our traumatic memories of sexual violence. 

I want to join the chorus of women who are saying, "I don't want to be silent anymore.  If my silence is my complicity, then I will be loud."

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
I had no intention of telling her.

No intention, in fact, of sharing my story of the bizarre sexual assault or assault-lette that occurred last weekend -- beyond my husband and the Facebook message I hurled like a scared grenade immediately after it happened to two of the most reflective feminists and genuinely empathetic people I know.

But your mom asks you how your weekend getaway was, and unfortunately there it is --- the image of the fat, drunk man pushing you up against a shelf of potato chips in a convenience store off a New Hampshire highway exit, grabbing you with both his arms and squeezing you while breathing a boozy, "I love you" into your face from a proximity that can only be called inappropriate.

So I told her.

And there was much alarm and empathy.


Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Constructing Usable Pasts At Home

Here is the quote of the week:

“In the end, we get older, we kill everyone who loves us through the worries we give them, through the troubled tenderness we inspire in them, and the fears we ceaselessly cause.” Walter Benjamin

"Troubled tenderness" is the most beautiful phrase I've read in a long time. It's been a tough week around here, with my mother hospitalized after a collapse that was the result of taking too much medication.

Her body didn't like that one bit, and heart, kidneys, lungs all had something to say.  The first twenty-four hours were rough. She is doing better now and with some luck and some hard work, she will be right as rain in a month or so.


We've come down to help my mom and dad when things have gone pear-shaped before.  My husband once remarked that my dad looked like Mario from the video game -- running into walls and bouncing off of things.  In the thick of the panic, he does get a little dazed. Don't we all?  (I often feel like free-fall Mario myself.) Dad is 84, can't see well, can't hear well, and until recently didn't have a fully functioning set of teeth.  He is still a formidable guy on his good days, articulate and even a bit fierce.  But on bad days, I can see the age, the wear and the tear, the worry -- and the toll it has all taken.  He looks depleted.  He shuffles and bounces off walls.






I have been teaching an online summer class on public history over the past six weeks. For some reason it is more difficult online to make the links clear between history and memory. It is also really challenging to explain without actual back and forth dialogue the way memory functions as glue, piecing together and holding steady our identities as we understand them.  Memory structures events, offers them a shape.  It also makes certain that this shape adheres to our sense of who we are.  The ways memory becomes codified into history ---  if the narrator is reliable and the same version of events is repeated often enough --- is kind of a tough thing to explain. Once you see it, you never stop seeing it.  Once the veil is lifted, the relationships between history and memory are only too clear.  But for history students, who tend to really like the "facts," this tends to be a stretch. 

Monday, June 2, 2014

A Tale of Two Margos

On Saturday, my friend Holly and I went for a jaunt out to west Donegal.  We took the road from Derry, out to the Grianán fort, then stopped in Letterkenny for a bite to eat and a rummage through a local flea market.

This gave me a chance to think about Irish kitsch, how it speaks to a different history of material culture and what I want from it.  I shocked myself by picking up a series of objects that I do not think belong in my home, but which I couldn't bear to leave in the crates and boxes of the market.  They were very inexpensive.  I felt like I was rescuing them, whether they come home with me or I find homes for them elsewhere.


We got a little turned around in the Letterkenny suburbs, but eventually made our way from Kilmacrennan, to Glenveagh Natl. Park, through the Poisoned Glen and out to the Bloody Forelands and Gortahork via Gweedore.  (Or the Bloody Holiday Home Lands, depending on your cynicism.)

We drove the "Wild Atlantic Way" up to Falcarragh and Dunfanaghy, came down through Creeslough and back down to Letterkenny and Derry, which is just on the other side of Bridgend.
(I still can't help humming The Emigrant's Letter every time I am up in this country.  You can listen to it here.) It is cheesy.  I don't care.  I am not sure that you can understand the emigrant experience without occasionally inhabiting the emotional and sentimental cultural expressions that it birthed.  As much as there was opportunity, there was loss.

So, we covered a fair bit of ground.   Here's a map so you can see for yourself:




Ever since my first visit out to Gortahork, with the wonderful Irish historians Billy Kelly and Breandan Mac Suibhne in 1999, I have always tried to make at least one trip up there when I am in Derry.  In the heart of the Donegal Gaeltacht, it is a special place.  The quality of light, of air, of sky --- the softness that is insistent in spite of barren and desolate landscapes.....the history.  It is not my place, will never be my place.  Nevertheless, I see it as a pilgrimage of sorts.  A visit to the northwest without Gortahork and the Bloody Forelands  would feel incomplete.


Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Performing Memory

My mom has a habit that has become more pronounced over time.  If she doesn't want to do something, she makes herself late.  A strange, passive aggressive stalling tactic. You might think about it casually and consider her disorganized, or worse -- approaching senility.  The dillying.  The dallying.  A whole ritual involving socks.  But I don't think so - because I can see the intention behind it.  A quiet protest.  An insistence on her right to choose.




As I was sitting on the couch yesterday morning, in pjs, drinking tea -- a half an hour before I needed to be somewhere it takes me twenty minutes to drive to -- it occurred to me that I have inherited this particular habit.

When I first picked up Diana Taylor's wonderful book The Archive and the Repertoire, the idea that we perform acts of memory everyday in our speech, our silences, our habits and ways of being in the world  was new to me.  It kind of blew me away.  I think she actually talks about looking in the mirror and seeing her mom looking in the mirror in the introduction.

When I ask, "How's by you?"  I am performing memory.  I never ask anyone who is not in my immediate family this, but my association of the phrase with my mother and her mother and aunties -- five first generation Polish-American women -- comforts me somehow.  I usually ask the cat, though a. he cannot answer and b. how's by him is pretty much the same as it is for me, since we live in the same place. Never you mind that the etymology of the phrase is Yiddish and I have no idea why my mom's family adopted it. Maybe it was my German/Irish grandfather's.  I've adopted it to signify what I want it to -- probably changing the meaning and original purpose of the utterance.  Oh well --- memory is fluid, flexible and open to adjustments.

We all think about food as memory and traditions of other kinds as well.  But isn't it fascinating, and maybe just a little freeing, to consider your nervous ticks, procrastination and avoidance tactics, the armor you grab for whenever you get in an argument, etc.  performances of memory as well?  Doesn't it make you want to understand what attitudes and behaviors are yours and yours alone, and which ones are inheritances?


I've become more inclined to make hospital corners the way my mom taught me, to follow a particular choreography in the kitchen, to find it funny and oddly lovely that I hoard cans of tomato sauce and stockpile condiments just like my dad does.  It is still neurotic, but as a performance of neurotic memory, it makes it a little more OK.