Archive for June, 2012

Things Shouldn’t Be So Hard

Tuesday, June 19th, 2012


A sumptuous poem I found on the website Poem in a Box, recommended by my friend Susan. What a treasure.

Things Shouldn’t Be So Hard
by Kay Ryan
A life should leave
deep tracks:
ruts where she
went out and back
to get the mail
or move the hose
around the yard;
where she used to
stand before the sink,
a worn-out place;
beneath her hand
the china knobs
rubbed down to
white pastilles;
the switch she
used to feel for
in the dark
almost erased.
Her things should
keep her marks.
The passage
of a life should show;
it should abrade.
And when life stops,
a certain space—
however small—
should be left scarred
by the grand and
damaging parade.
Things shouldn’t
be so hard


The World Burns

Wednesday, June 13th, 2012

I have long loved Margaret Atwood, especially her brilliant novel Cat’s Eye, which I re-read this past fall. I’m only beginning to explore her poetry; this one is lovely.


You Begin

By Margaret Atwood

You begin this way:
this is your hand,
this is your eye,
that is a fish, blue and flat
on the paper, almost
the shape of an eye.
This is your mouth, this is an O
or a moon, whichever
you like. This is yellow.

Outside the window
is the rain, green
because it is summer, and beyond that
the trees and then the world,
which is round and has only
the colors of these nine crayons.

This is the world, which is fuller
and more difficult to learn than I have said.
You are right to smudge it that way
with the red and then
the orange: the world burns.

Once you have learned these words
you will learn that there are more
words than you can ever learn.
The word hand floats above your hand
like a small cloud over a lake.
The word hand anchors
your hand to this table,
your hand is a warm stone
I hold between two words.

This is your hand, these are my hands, this is the world,
which is round but not flat and has more colors
than we can see.

It begins, it has an end,
this is what you will
come back to, this is your hand.

The Best Old Hens

Tuesday, June 12th, 2012

Lately I miss my Nana and Lala. The missing stabs me by surprise: I’m considering some little detail when I hear Nana cashing in her two cents on the matter, and I forget for a fraction of a second that she’s dead.

Nana, my dad’s mom and the only grandmother I ever knew, was the scratchier of the two; Lala, her sister, was round and fluffy, a white-haired, soft-armed lady. Oh, those arms, those hands. When she touched you, you knew you were something special, lovable in the extreme. She smelled like talcum powder and coffee.

When I was really little Nana lived in Duluth in her house on the hill. But by the time my family relocated out West when I was six, Nana had moved into Gateway Towers in downtown Duluth. Lala lived in Midtown Manor a few miles away.

“I miss Lala, too,” says three-year-old Lillie, brown eyes contracted with sorrow.

“Lillie, you can’t miss Lala,” says Max. “You never met her. She died before you were born.”

“No she didn’t!” Lillie hurls back at him. “Mama, did Lala died before I was born?”

Afternoon light brings out the pink in the freshly painted walls; the skin of Lillie’s face is almost translucent, too beautiful to be real. I cup my hand around the satiny round of her cheek. She’s a bit small for her age, but despite her slightness, her flesh feels soft and plump. Her arms, especially, remind me of Lala; I noticed this when she was a newborn baby. When I close my eyes and squeeze her just below the shoulders, it feels like a memory.

Nana and Lala were my equivalent of other kids’ grandmas and grandpas. While they didn’t live together, they may as well have from my perspective, since I never saw one without the other. They were constant companions: walking downtown, playing bingo and having luncheons with “the old hens” in the senior highrises, and occasionally, taking senior excursions to places as far off as Hawaii and Florida. They’d bring back goodies for my sister, Laurie, and me: tiny china cats lying on their backs with legs splayed, tummies vulnerable and exposed for holding chewed gum; miniature plastic coin purses doubling as key chains and shaped like slippers with Florida inscribed on the sides; plastic alligator heads with jaws that opened and shut via a squeeze-gadget on the end of a wooden stick. I kept the gum holder until I was in high school, having glued it painstakingly together again after various shatterings until I finally lost it for good.

“I met Nana, right, Mom?” asks Sophie.

“Lots of times. Nana loved you. You used to turn her apartment upside down.”

“Did I?” asks Max.

“You did,” I say. All three children are gathered around me, vying for their place in a mysterious history they sense is important.

“And I was there, wasn’t I?” demands Lillie.

“You–you were there in spirit, ” I say, holding her around the waist with one hand, smoothing her fuzzy hair with the other.

“No! Not in spirit!” she cries. “I was there with you. I was. I remember that.”

A day with Nana and Lala always meant overindulgence: necklaces and bracelets and glass bottles sticky with pungent amber cologne and coffee cans full of pennies gleefully assembled on flowery metal TV trays for playing “store” in the close, hot living room of Nana’s eleventh-floor apartment overlooking the Aerial Bridge on the Lake Superior harbor. When my sister and I grew tired and bored, we’d fall into fighting: “You always get the pink one!” “Don’t be a baby!” “She pinched me!” Until finally Nana would say to our father, “My don’t they ever fight something awful! Don’t they, though?” And Lala, “Oh, now, they’re just little.” We two girls would fall silent with shame, still glowering at each other, sweaty from the battle, half-moon fingernail gouges glaring red and angry from the smooth flesh of our forearms.

Then Nana would make her hot fudge–Karo syrup and Baker’s chocolate melted with butter and milk until it formed a soft ball when dripped from a spoon into a glass of cold water. She’d drizzle spoon after spoon of it over soggy vanilla ice cream from her tiny freezer. Less often, Lala would make a butterscotch pie, a recipe I’ve never again tasted until my family’s visit to Quebec last summer. In a surprise celebration of my French Canadian heritage, I sampled a regional specialty, sugar pie–a soft, heavenly creation that tasted exactly like Lala’s.

“But none of us met Lala, did we?” Max asks.

“No, she died when I was only ten,” I say. “But I wish you could have known her. She would have loved you so much.”

Lala never had any children, though she was married twice, outliving both her husbands before cancer ended her own life. No one told my sister and me that Lala was sick. She would have hated us knowing; she didn’t tell anyone, not even Nana, until my stepmother, a nursing student at the time, happened unexpectedly upon Lala’s medicine and recognized it as a cancer drug. The summer before Lala died, my mother made a very special effort to get us girls from Wyoming to Duluth for what everyone assumed would be a final visit. Lala had saved many special things for us for “when we were older.” On that last summer visit, Lala brought out all the treasures she had held back and unwrapped them for us one by one. China figurines, little necklaces, various souvenirs and toys and trinkets, and two handmade Raggedy Ann dolls, each entirely distinct from the other.

The visit was awkward. I thought then it was because my sister and I were getting so old–she was twelve; I was ten–and maybe we just weren’t as special as we had been when we were small. For the first time, I was self-conscious with Nana and Lala, unsure of my reactions. Though we had hardly outgrown the habit, my sister and I did not fight. The visit was shorter than those childhood afternoons of playing store and dress-up, and there was no ice cream or butterscotch pie. When our mother came to pick us up, Nana and Lala each hugged us good-bye.

A few months later, one evening after the cold had come and the days had grown short and dark, my father called to tell us Lala had died. My chest snapped in on itself, and boulder after boulder crushed the air out of me until finally the tears came: crying in, out, in, out. Lala’s dying was a staggering loss. Not only was she gone, but gone with her was the small child I no longer was, that version of myself she had found so lovable.

On a recent winter’s day, clean white snow covered the ground as the children traipsed out the back door with my sister, Laurie, and me. Lillie was wearing her long, red corduroy coat with the hood trimmed in white “fur.” She was breathtaking against the snow. “Look at her,” Laurie said to me simply, knowing I saw what she saw, and then to Lillie: “You are the cutest little girl in the whole world. Do you know that?” The cold air felt good on my face; it inflated my lungs powerfully. I felt I might float away with joy from the snowy backyard, and I thought again of Lala, and Nana, and the way they loved us.

With Lala’s death, I grieved the loss of my innocence–that era of early childhood when the boundaries between reality, fantasy, and memory are still fluid, and the self is still safe and buoyant in the mix. Nana, fortunately, lived till the ripe age of eighty-nine. I was fully grounded by the time she died, a mother with two children of my own, an adult with a life full of the sorts of complexities that helped me to understand and appreciate Nana more each year. With her passing, I lost my last intimate, living connection to Duluth, my birthplace–a beginning that still compels me to live near steep hills and winding streets.

Our house is nestled at the base of a small city valley; out Lillie’s bedroom window, the crisscrossed canopy of bare, mature oaks spans seamlessly up the hill. Inside, Lillie’s fish tank gurgles reassuringly as she nestles against me, patting my cheek. I whisper that I’m so glad she came–”Thank you for being born,” I say, and squeeze my hands around the familiarity of her arms. “I saw you when I came,” she says. “You were there . . . and I was there. Everyone was there. I remember that.”

From her shelf high on the wall across from her bed, my old Raggedy Ann doll looks down at us, her legs dangling and her head askew, pitch black eyes silent and knowing.



The Paper Route

Monday, June 11th, 2012

Mountain Road

When I was nine years old, I took my first paid job delivering unwanted, unread newsprint shoppers to all of the houses in Meadowlark Hills, the charmless new subdivision of particle-board-and-plastic houses nestled in the tumbleweed prairie at the at the base of the foothills of Casper Mountain. Ours was a small, mustard-yellow house with an attached garage and a leaky basement, and once a week, an anonymous adult driver stopped by and unloaded a pile of papers for me to roll, secure with a thin, red rubber band, and deliver.

I earned about five dollars for my trouble, which in the beginning consisted of rolling and binding about fifty, maybe sixty flimsy, inky shoppers, then loading them into a heavy cotton sack and canvassing the subdivision, depositing a shopper on every doorstep. At first the money was worth the horrible, nerve-wracking feeling of ink on my dry fingers as they rubbed against the chalky paper. For me this was, and still is, the sensory equivalent of fingernails on a blackboard. The money was also worth the weight of the large sack on my scrawny shoulders, worth the way the strap dug painfully into the flesh on my collarbone as I trudged along the smooth asphalt streets of the “neighborhood.” But barely worth the money, for a terribly shy preadolescent girl, was the horror of having to be out in public with that huge sack of paper, having to approach strangers who happened to be out on their postage-stamp lawns firing up grills or scooping up stray dog-doo, and having to make small talk, heaven forbid. Or worst of all, having to face other children who might be unfriendly or even downright mean.

I struggled a bit with the job from the start. But as the subdivision grew, with new houses getting slapped up literally every day, my job grew, too. The smeary task of rolling and binding took longer and longer as the pile of papers dropped off grew bigger and bigger, and the time it took to walk the route crept upward with each two-week interval. A job that at first took an hour or so soon took an hour and a half, and then two hours and more. The newer streets sported larger, more complex houses, and these rivers of fresh, black pavement wound around in a mercilessly inefficient maze of curves and cul-de-sacs that seemed to snake nearly all the way to Casper Mountain itself. Over the course of several months, so many houses got built and so many new streets got paved that I wasn’t even sure I knew my way around anymore.

It didn’t help that at the same time Meadowlark Hills was sprawling limitlessly, summer was giving way to fall and fall to winter. I walked my route in the afternoon, and on the day of one of my last deliveries, I found myself wandering in the near-dark streets without a sure sense of where I was or how exactly to find my way back home. The colder weather made my job even more miserable as my fingers stiffened and my body shivered against the howling Wyoming wind. My stringy hair whipped around my face and into my eyes, and I could see my breath in the half-light of the early winter dusk, puffing out in little streamlets as I counted houses until I lost track. Meanwhile, though the job had tripled and quadrupled, I was still earning that same five dollars per delivery. My motivation was slipping fast.

Finally, the day came. I got off the school bus and walked up the hill, past the Suzuki shop, past the little Meadowlark Hills office building where salesmen for the development chased off kids, like me and my sister, who fought boredom by sneaking into the model homes, sauntering up boldly to unsuspecting young couples with grubby-fisted toddlers who smeared dust and grime onto the thin interior walls, and warning them all forthrightly about the flooding basements and the kitchen tile that bubbled up after you moved in and the carpet that didn’t come clean.

I walked briskly past the office and the model homes and down Meadowlark Lane to our mustard-yellow house, where, waiting for me, lay a great, towering stack of shoppers enveloped in a black plastic trash bag. My heart felt leaden in my chest.

I dragged the plastic sack up the three concrete steps, through the front door, and into the middle of the living-room floor. I collapsed in a rust-and-brown plaid chair and stared into space, feeling my fingers begin to tingle and regain warmth after the long walk from the bus stop through biting wind. I didn’t move, I didn’t turn on the TV. I just sat with my shoppers, staring them down, both of us refusing to budge. For a long while, I pretended I was simply procrastinating. But all along I knew full well the truth: I wouldn’t be making my deliveries that day. All of the men and women of Meadowlark Hills were going to have to do without their two-for-ones and special rebates this time, because I quit.

Just thinking the words I quit made me feel better. The ominous black plastic monster on the carpet turned back into a Hefty bag full of shoppers, powerless sheets of newsprint that couldn’t harm a fly. But still, something had to be done about them. On the one hand, no one at home was paying particular attention to my employment with the shopper company–I had been doing the weekly route in latch-key hours. Even lately, if I got started on the route right after school, I’d circle back not long after my mom got home from work. But on the other hand, if my older sister or my mom took note of a large black sack of undelivered shoppers on a Wednesday evening, someone was going to find herself with not only a lot of rolling, binding, and delivering on her hands, but a heap of explaining to do, too.

So I did what any number of nine-year-olds might have done in my shoes. I hid the evidence. And where we lived on the outskirts of Casper, in a wind-ravaged stretch of land better suited to sage and snakes and jackrabbits than people, I didn’t have to look far for a hiding place–just a six-foot-tall, inch-thick wall of cedar past my own back yard.

Almost all of us in Meadowlark Hills, especially those of us whose backyards faced the desolate weed-and-wildflower wasteland that separated our development from the mountains in the near distance, built cedar privacy fences to stave off vulnerable feelings born of living with your back exposed to so much emptiness.

And I of all people knew just how empty it was back behind that cedar fence. I had spent many long hours under the hot sun and high blue sky exploring the nooks and crannies of that prairie. I loved the idea of the prairie, of being out there by myself, wandering in the smell of sage and loneliness, searching for secret places that would be mine and mine alone. And I had stumbled across quite an impressive canyon the summer before–bursting with the promise and possibility of solitude and magic, and carpeted two layers deep with brightly colored wildflowers nodding their heads in the sheltered breeze of the canyon floor. Unfortunately, my canyon was also, during the seasons of my discovery, bursting with bees, billions of them, buzzing relentlessly around my head and face until I gave up and fled. This land was like that: full of mirages and concealed disappointments. What better place for the sack of shoppers?

I dragged it out several yards past the back fence, the rocks and tumbleweeds leaving long gouges in the tough plastic. At the first steep dip in the land, I let go of my burden and headed back home to watch TV and think about what I had done. I thought about it all winter, as the snow buried my secret in a clean, absolving layer of white, and into the spring, when the snow melted to reveal the same old sack of sin, papers inside now soggy and dense as cement. Over the next summer, the black plastic faded in the harsh sun, and grew more ragged and torn. When I one day noticed with relief that the ink on the shoppers was nearly illegible, I finally let go of the fear of reprisal, and sometime later, I even forgave myself.

Though I can’t recall it, I must have called the driver man and told him of my change of heart soon after dumping that first load of shoppers, because I know with certainty that there are not rows and rows of black Hefty bags full of decaying shoppers blighting the land at the base of the foothills of Casper Mountain. There aren’t even that many more houses blighting it, either, from what I hear; the recession of the early eighties wasn’t good for the oil-based economy of Casper, and the building boom came to an abrupt halt not long after my family left Meadowlark Hills.

It’s safe to say the only trace of my former paper route’s unseemly end is in my own memory, a decades-old composted image of myself and my own weakness. If I am better than I might have been at understanding how painful it can be to be a child, and at recognizing the point of no return before it arrives, it may be because of what I learned from my paper route.


The Doll Hospital

Monday, June 11th, 2012



The doctor stared over her glasses and leaned closer. She caressed the stumps where Blueberry’s arm and leg had once been. This grandmotherly surgeon, Clare Erickson, might be our region’s most prominent dollologist, and at this moment she was clearly weighing Blueberry’s prospects. “Do you know what a morgue is?” she said to Lillie.

Lillie stared back at Dr. Clare, entranced. And afraid. “No,” she said.

“A morgue is where they keep dead bodies,” said the doctor. “When my husband died in the hospital, I went to see his body, and then they took him to the morgue, down in the basement of the hospital. They kept him there until they moved him for the funeral.”

“Umm, hmm,” said Lillie politely. Sophie and Max, Lillie’s older sister and brother, looked stunned.

“We have a morgue here, where we keep parts of dolls,” Dr. Clare continued. “But this baby, she’s a bit on the pale side.” She turned to me. “We’ll take a look, though, and if we have any matching parts, she can have them for the cost of attachment.”

Antie Clare’s Doll Hospital has been operating in North St. Paul for thirty years. Here, in this strange suburb in the shadow of a huge snowman statue, nine doll doctors and nurses work on up to three hundred doll patients at any given time. Dr. Clare herself has been doctoring dolls since 1968, the year I was born. This feels meaningful, since today the primary patient we’ve brought in is not Blueberry, though her puppy-related injuries are admittedly ghastly, but Jealous, my childhood doll, who is also now mothered by Lillie. Since almost all of the hospital’s customers are adults, Lillie’s presence as an actual child with a sick doll was enough to warrant having her baby rushed ahead of the others, a gesture that surprised and impressed me.

The problems with Jealous date back to the years she spent in Sophie’s care, which involved frequent bathing with lots of soap. She developed a range of water-related maladies: missing eyelashes, a split down her plastic abdomen, and–worst of all–irreversibly matted hair that emits a mildly disturbing odor. It was also during the Sophie years that the doll acquired her unfortunate name. (Hyper, Jealous’s sister, has since gone missing.) Blueberry (also named by Sophie, who was stubbornly resistant to conventional naming practices) tagged along with Jealous today only as an afterthought, since her ancestry cannot be traced back further than the toy bin at the Goodwill. Sad to say, this means she doesn’t quite merit the cost of any reconstruction beyond bandaging. But free limbs from the morgue are certainly an unanticipated bonus.

According to the doctor, it’s going to cost less to replace Jealous’s eyes than to repair the lashes. “Anyway,” Dr. Clare said as she pointed to the light blue cornea, “you see how there’s rust in there, and that cloudiness is actually mold.” She explained each procedure directly to Lillie, with the patience of an experienced practitioner. “We can’t fix this hair, so we’re going to shave her head bald and attach a whole new wig. You’re going to like it,” she said. Next, she removed the bandages from Jealous’s torso. “Who did this surgery?”

We all froze, as if somebody was going to be in big trouble. Sophie bravely owned up to her handiwork.

“With work like this, you should be helping at the doll hospital,” said the doctor. She told Lillie that instead of fixing the abdominal crack, she’d fit Jealous with a whole new torso (a steal at five dollars, not counting the limb-reattachment labor).

The paperwork was complete, and it was time to officially check in Jealous and Blueberry. First, of course, they had to be brought up to date on their measles shots, which Lillie and Max administered with relish. The naked, vaccinated dolls had to be placed under a quilt in the crib in the corner of the shop, right beneath the high shelves with rows and rows of headless doll bodies. Nearby sat a wise and watchful Mrs. Beasley, worth a whopping one hundred and fifty dollars–but still humble on account of her drastic homeliness.

I was aware as we left that it’s probably tragic to spend money–let’s just say it was barely more than a hundred dollars–on a worthless doll. But maybe it’s more tragic the way everything in our lives has become disposable. I can’t say where the truth lies and I don’t even want to. But either way, I cannot deny what an odd comfort it is, knowing the doll hospital still exists, after all these years.