This cold January, Mama keeps the heat cranked up to 73 and only goes outside to put out the mail. She’s down to less than 90 pounds, her weight about the same as her age, but she still glides around on her little cat feet from chore to chore, all day long, every day. By the time I get up in the morning she has already unloaded the dishwasher, brought in the newspaper and read it, made the coffee and warmed up the biscuits.
The tree lights twinkle silently on Christmas morning in our Kentucky living room. Beneath the lowest limbs, glassy-eyed baby dolls, circa 1960, lounge among piles of soft new pajamas and socks, awaiting the arms of three little girls.
I believe these are the happiest days of my mother’s life, when she sees us with our new dolls. It’s true that we asked for them, but in a roundabout way.
“What do you want Santa to bring you?” she asks.
“A football and shoulder pads,” says my older sister.
A student talked to me recently about his storytelling style. Film is his medium, and though he resists it, he tends naturally toward tightly constructed romantic comedies with snappy dialogue and happy endings. “I think I should just embrace my clichéd self,” he said. I told him that during my newspapering days, my co-workers, hard-nosed reporters, often teased that I covered the tearjerker beat. Sometimes, I said, we just have to admit what we’re good at whether we like it or not.
In her masterpiece, The God of Small Things, Indian novelist Arundhati Roy says this about stories: “The secret of the Great Stories is that they have no secrets. The Great Stories are the ones you have heard and want to hear again. They don’t deceive you with thrills and trick endings. They don’t surprise you with the unforeseen.”
It’s the day before the September equinox. Black clouds pile up to the north of Denver and a stiff breeze whips the tablecloths on the patio of a streetside sandwich shop. Diners clutch their newspapers and napkins, and their eyes dart across the busy street toward the approaching storm.
High school students on lunch break wander the sidewalks, deep in a dream of themselves.
“Things get bad for all of us, almost continually, and what we do under the constant stress reveals who/what we are.” In his posthumous collection, What Matters Most is How Well You Walk Through the Fire, poet Charles Bukowski encapsulated an all too familiar manifesto for growing old.
What nearly kills us strengthens us. What we lose brings into clear focus what we have. Clichés for living through the middle distance that, like all clichés, have become worn and ubiquitous because they are true.
This mid-August morning, the cool air already begins to hint at fall. The light is soft and gray. The only sound is the crunch of gravel as I walk down the alley, green bucket in hand, to the garden I tend, about a block away from where I now live.
Until just a month ago, I lived in the tall house that shades the garden. Now I’m a daily visitor there, slipping through the back gate while everyone in the house is still sleeping, a venture that makes me feel secretive, like a kid spying on her parents.
Ours was a show tunes kind of house, at the height of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s great musicals. And though we lived in a small Kentucky town where the idea of seeing a musical theater production onstage wasn’t even a distant dream, from the year I was born until I turned 11, films were made of Oklahoma, Carousel, The King and I, Flower Drum Song and The Sound of Music, and on television we saw the musical Cinderella. Between these and soundtrack releases on LP, we learned the melody and lyrics to most every song in every show.
My heroes haven’t always been cowboys, but after moving to Colorado and getting to know a choice few, that changed. I was lucky as a journalist to spend time with Duke Phillips of Chico Basin Ranch, south of Colorado Springs, and witness his dedication to responsible land management and conservation. And I was privileged as a reporter back in the 1990s to hear Kirk Hanna explain to a room full of environmentalists how ranchers like him could help them achieve their goals if they’d just put aside their stereotypes and prejudices.
If you drew a line straight up through the middle of a map of the United States, across the fruited plain, that line would come within 100 miles of the shooting locales of two American films currently contending for Oscars in multiple categories: Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, filmed in and outside a number of the state’s eastern plains towns; and August: Osage County, filmed largely in a big old house in Osage County on the border of Oklahoma and Kansas.
Half a month into the new year and I have lost all sense of time passing. Moving deeply southward across the continent in the dead of winter will do that. It is disorienting to see a rose in bloom in January, but here on the Gulf coast of Texas on the trellis of my mother’s front porch, the yellow climbing rose is loaded with buds.
My son-in-law arrives tired and hungry for his annual holiday visit. Winter storm Hercules, followed closely by a record-setting Arctic vortex of extreme cold, has left thousands stranded in New York City but he managed to get out and fly to Houston following a harrowing day in an airport filled with desperate traveling strangers.
When I arrive in Galveston on the next-to-last day of 2013, my mother has made a soup from the bones of the Christmas turkey. Just a few rags of meat on the bones, but the broth is rich and brown and fragrant. She has tossed in the last scraps of vegetables from her refrigerator and a handful of wild rice.
(This column originally ran on December 3, 2010. Kathryn Eastburn will return next week.)
‘Tis the season of contradiction. Bare black tree limbs, frozen earth, and neighborhood houses lighted up like Vegas. Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and a constant string of economic forecasts based on how much we might or might not spend on stuff we don’t need in this holiday season.
Meanwhile, 28 million jobless Americans lose their federally funded unemployment benefits, barely raising a peep.
The earliest bedroom is corner-mounted in a brand new post-World War II house built of native Kentucky limestone. Your mother has arranged a maze of chests of drawers and beds for her three little girls — so close in age they seem part of one big whole — to offer them equal amounts of relative privacy. The effect is of a nest, a tiny space barely big enough to turn around in, where you hide the things you don’t want to share. In winter, it is cozy and dark. In summer, a large and very loud electric fan fills the window frame, blowing hot air out by day and sucking cooler air in by night.
It has to be a cold day. Preferably the first really cold day of the season, when the wind has swept down from the north and left the yellow leaves dangling, threatening to fall all at once; when the still-green summer grass stands stiff and frosted. A gray mid-October day when staying at home is in order.
Summer of 1971. Our hip-hugger bell-bottom jeans are worn thin in the seat and we like to wear them with flimsy halter tops. It’s possible we are emulating the hippies in San Francisco we’ve seen on the news since hippie sightings are still rare here in Memphis, Tennessee. We will be high school seniors in the fall and this, we faintly realize, is our last summer of real freedom.
The clock is ticking and it’s making me uneasy. I’ve got those back-to-school, back-to-work, back-to-reality, check it off the to-do list, end-of-summer blues.
This year I decided the summer would be mine to do as little as possible in. I would recharge, replenish, rejuvenate. No road trips to places I hadn’t been before or to visit family. This would be the first summer in memory when I just stayed home and received whatever the day delivered.
Out here in the middle distance, the light is sometimes so harsh and bright that we want to draw the shades and just rest in cool darkness. The impulse to retreat has never been stronger than in these years approaching old age.
At home I am safe, is my mantra. At home I know who I am.
A friend asked me yesterday what’s been in the news. She had not been paying attention. Let’s see, I said. More killing in Syria, more guns flowing in so even more will be killed. Edward Snowden is holed up somewhere in Moscow while the U.S. and Russia argue about extradition. Mmmmm … The Supreme Court’s ruling on the Voting Rights Act and Prop 8 and gay marriage.
As Memorial Day approaches, far too many American families are not thinking about what they’ll cook on the grill, but how they will remember their military dead, particularly the growing number who died at their own hands, of suicide. I am the mother of one of those soldiers. My son was a reservist between deployments in the summer of 2007. He had served in Iraq in 2005 in a Special Operations unit and was scheduled to deploy to Afghanistan at Thanksgiving. He floundered between civilian jobs and was increasingly enraged and irritated. His sleep patterns were labored and erratic.