Christmas Cards

It’s fun to stick my hand into the mailbox these days to see what’s in the stack. Sort of like those surprise unraveling balls we used to buy when I was a kid. What will be next? In the old days it was probably no more than a cheap little plastic heart, or a tiny marble. Christmas cards are better; we hear from real people, some of whom send us messages only once a year. What have these friends been up to over the past twelve months? We find out. Others send us a photo–a small work of art that, like a thoughtful present, lifts us up.

This year we are receiving baby pictures, as young couples in the family proudly display their infants dressed in red and white while held on Santa’s lap, or snug between them. The parents’ faces radiate pleasure, satisfaction, and hope. These young families are building their own holiday traditions, creating Christmases that they, and eventually their children, will remember.

I think of our parents, how they would have loved getting to know their great-grandchildren, to see their individual characteristics come alive so rapidly. But they are gone. It will be up to us–the grandparents, great-uncles and great-aunts–to tell the stories of the past generation to these babies when they are old enough so that they come to know the characteristics of their ancestors in the same way we are now discovering those of this newest generation.

I am glad that in December, 2009, the tradition of sending Christmas cards still exists; little gifts of remembering and sharing come in the mail, always more satisfying than a plastic heart.

Roland

Last night Paul and I went to bed early, got up as midnight approached, put on jeans, sweaters, and boots, and drove downtown. The trees to our right and left on Massachusetts Street held a dusting of snow lit up by Christmas lights. We parked on Ninth Street, walked briskly to The Jazzhaus.

Upstairs the scene was festive, expectant. It was “stop-day” for KU. Classes were over but finals yet to begin so the college kids were out on the town. Older generations were dotted here and there, everyone drinking beer and–to use a new word made up by a friend–“conversating.”

We sat on low chairs, drank beer and, amidst the loud music playing, tried to conversate, too.

My son Roland is keyboardist and a vocalist for The Irietions, a hot Reggae band that writes its own music. The “Iries” are winding up/winding down the end of their performances with Ska. The band was hot. Roland was skankin hot.

Cora’s Nigerian friend begged me to get up and dance. Then she begged Paul to dance. But most of the time, I was slunk in my chair avidly listening and watching.

Jo

After reading a June 4, New York Times article by Sarah Kershaw “Therapists Wired to Write” my cousin Dorothy sent me last summer, I decided that for my writing to grow optimally I needed most particularly a support group. In the article’s first paragraph the following words caught my eye “The six psychotherapists…make up what may be the most nurturing and deeply connected creative writing group to arrive on the literary scene.” The words “nurturing” and “connected” jumped out from the page.

I emailed my friend Jo in Lawrence and asked if she was interested in such a venture. She responded quickly. Yes.

We were quite formal at our first meeting. Two professionals, we sat over our note pads and wrote down ideas and possible goals. She read the New York Times article and made a few comments. She liked certain parts of it but not others. She would think about what she might like to write. Having been in a women’s group with Jo for five years, I already knew her essential character: knows her own mind, smart, deeply committed to humanitarian concerns, goal setter and achiever, reliable, a good listener, kind.

We decided to meet once a week on Thursday mornings for an hour to read and discuss what each of us has written. We have kept it up, taking turns. These meetings hold me accountable for producing new work each week. Now I look forward to listening, reading, sharing, and commenting with Jo. I can count on support, nurturing and a feeling of connection for the writing process.

Christmas is Coming

My daughter, Cora, had to jump start me this past Saturday.

“It’s time to get the tree,” she told me.

“Oh, okay,” I replied, “I guess it is.”

“I think it would be great to get two trees this year,” she said.

“Two trees! That’s too expensive.”

“I’ll go out with Paul and we’ll compare prices between the tree farm and the hardware store. I’ll pay for one of the trees. One can go downstairs, the other upstairs.”

Now I begin to get the idea. Cora is back living at home, going to KU for a degree in design. Her area of living is downstairs. She wants a tree to light up her personal space. I also realize she’s offering to shop and pay for it with money from her part-time job.

“Alright, go ahead with your idea,” I said.

“While we’re getting the tree,” she added, “why don’t you get the lights and ornaments out. That way we’ll be ready to trim the trees right when we get back. Look around for the Christmas music, too. Then we’ll be set to go.”

I notice mother and daughter are beginning to reverse roles. Later on, while we were trimming the trees to Roth and Henson’s Flute And Harp For Christmas, Cora added, “There’s a lot of work around the holidays, which I hadn’t realized when I was young. But don’t you just love Christmas!”

Thinking of Our Summer Cabin at the Lake

I like to think of the cabin at this time of year after the leaves are gone from the trees.

Paul’s father and mother built the cabin in Wisconsin. There are many photo albums there; one contains pictures of the cabin in various stages of construction. There’s a particular one I can think of right now, where Paul’s Mom–Ruth–is sitting on top of the roof smiling away. The photograph is taken near the cabin’s completion in 1967.

When you head out the front door and turn right, you walk down an incline that boasts a little garden hugging the house. The base of the house is made of boulders cemented together. I think of this as Ruth’s wall, because everyone in Paul’s family tells stories of Ruth building it. But everyone also tells stories of Paul’s father, Winton, masterminding the whole family project. He was a perfectionist, which is why the cabin is so well put-together now.

In this day and age, it’s such a cool thing to be able to say, my mother and father built this house. Paul and his two sisters, Carol and Ellen, can say that.

The family is rapidly expanding: three new babies in one year! This coming summer there will be at least eighteen of us there in the second week in July.

I remember one year, when Paul and I were visiting his parents in winter, we suddenly decided to get in the car and drive the two hours to the cabin. We trudged through snow up to our kneecaps. It took a long time to walk the twenty-five feet to the cabin. When we finally got there, Winton sort of patted the door. Then, the four of us turned around and trudged back to the car.

Thanksgiving

For Thanksgiving, my husband, Paul and I, try to plan. Paul wants to spend time with his sons, and go with them to Kansas University basketball games, and, if the weather holds, to play golf. I want to create taste treats in the kitchen, party a little, talk spontaneously if the spirit moves us, and take a walk in nature.

Sometimes, though, we have to improvise. Pre-occupied with other things until the last minute, we made a mistake. If you have a 22.2-pound turkey that you stuff, how long should it bake? Quick, to the Internet. It says, 330 minutes. No problem. Just 3 ½ hours–plenty of time to bake the pies before the bird goes into the oven.

So my daughter, Cora, sets to peeling apples and some other stuff to make her pies, while I scurry around feeling very important while I make a stuffing; I do make a good stuffing. Then, there’s a spicy South African sweet potato dish Cora wants to make, plus an asparagus/ ham/parmesan new dish she wants to try. There’s also a wonderful spinach/pomegranate/avocado/cucumber/tomato/scallion salad she’s made for the past three years, which is not going to be ignored this year. Paul will wing back into the kitchen at some point to make his mashed potatoes.

When we peak in the oven after three hours, the turkey looks a wee bit tired–like it wants to do a good job, but it just needs a little more direction. Is 330 minutes really 3 ½ hours? Oh, my God. We’ve screwed up Thanksgiving! The turkey won’t be ready till 9:30 at night! That’s usually when Paul and I are winding down from the day. How could we make this mistake? How many years have we made a turkey?

Improvisation worked. We ate at 9:45. We did not hurry the turkey. It was moist and tender. My favorite of Cora’s dishes was her apple pie, which had a baked apple/cinnamon/cardamon flavor. Paul’s mashed potatoes were creamy, yet light and fluffy. The stuffing and gravy were both savory–quite yummy–if I may so myself.

Tweaking Facts to Create Fiction

Last week I read The Notebooks of Tennessee Williams, collected and annotated by independent scholar Margaret Bradham Thornton–all seven hundred pages. The book is back at the library, so I may have the number wrong, but the point I am trying to make is that I have been deeply immersed in the personal life of the playwright.

Imagine my satisfaction when my husband Paul came home with tickets for The Glass Menagerie performed by the Kansas University Theater. I had seen the play many years ago; now I wanted to view it from the standpoint of examining the relationship between the facts I now knew about Tennessee’s own nature and family life, and what he had created to drive the dramatic action of his first acclaimed play. At least six real life pulsating facts went into the forming of the prickly, mournful drama.

Fact 1 about Tennessee: From early youth, he was an aspiring writer. Fiction 1 about The Glass Menagerie: Tom Wingfield, the narrator, is an aspiring poet.
Fact 2 about Tennessee: he was an alcoholic. Fiction 2 about the play: Tom Wingfield is well-on-his-way to becoming one.
Fact 3 about Tennessee’s sister, Rose: She suffered from schizophrenia. Fiction 3 about the play: Laura Wingfield, Tom’s sister, lives in a more robust way with her collection of glass animals than she does as a member of the Wingfield family, and is so sensitive she can’t function at all in the world outside her home.
Fact 4 about Tennessee’s father: he was an alcoholic. Fiction 4 about the play: though only a picture on the wall, because Tom and Laura’s father has long since abandoned his family, he was an alcoholic.
Fact 5 about Tennessee’s father: he was abusive. Fiction 5 about The Glass Menagerie: Amanda Wingfield–with killing merriment–carves away at the hearts of both her adult children. (Tennessee has switched the gender of the abuser in creating the fiction.)
Fact 6 about Tennessee: he was gay. Fiction 6 about the play: Tom Wingfield goes “to the movies” night after night, coming home at 2:00 a.m., long after the movies are over. The audience gets the idea of where he’s really been, and what he’s been doing.

Tennessee Williams may not be everyone’s favorite playwright–my husband Paul, did not really like the play, and he hated Amanda Wingfield–but I did like it. I was mesmerized by the way Tennessee Williams used the pain from his own life so effectively, the way he worked with it, shifted it, refocused it, and drew on it to create his memory play.