Nothing Bad Happens

Martha and I are asleep in our room with yellow curtains the night that Mamma wakes us up to meet her new friends. Dreams may be happening when I start to hear talking and music, but I don’t always know the difference between dreams and daytime. I know how old I am and can show you on my fingers–this many:  four. I don’t know what the sixties are or that they just ended. And I don’t know where my Daddy is tonight.

I am the baby of the family. My other big sisters are sleeping in their own rooms downstairs, but I share with Martha. She is five. Sometimes she will sing to me at night and I will feel myself float up up up in the air with her pretty voice.

Before bedtime, if I stand on my tippy toes, I can look out my window and down into the shadowy back yard. When I am twice as old, when I know what the 1970’s are, and that I am in them, I will jump out of that window to show that I am big and that I won’t break my leg. On that day, I will perch on the narrow window sash and my mind will freeze, stuck like the tip of a knife in bone. Martha and the bigger neighborhood kids will have gotten bored looking up and watching me be scared. They will be gone when I finally bend my shaking knees and stop looking down at the grass. So no one will see me when I push off into space and land with my thighs shoved into my chest. No one but me will hear my teeth clack together as I hit the ground. Everything will hurt when I land. But I won’t break my leg.

And, with no audience, I will practice how to not to let fear stop me. My sweaty hands will will grip the window frame just long enough to prepare for landing by bending my body into the leathery shape of a bird’s feet. I will leap and land, then walk through the back yard and into the house through the dining room’s shining glass doors. I will saunter through the kitchen, wishing, as always, to be seen. I will want Mamma to notice what I have done and to say, Jenny Lynn! I thought you were in your room! How did you get here? But that day, the kitchen will be empty.

Tonight, when Mamma comes to wake us up, I’m still little. She opens the door, sending a crooked line of light across the floor. I roll onto my side, away from the brightness. Voices I don’t know creep in from the hall.

I feel my bed tilt as Mamma sits down beside me and touches my shoulder. My nose wrinkles at the smell of grown-up drinks and smoke on her skin. Jenny Lynn, wake up! Come and meet my friends! I push my eyes half-way open and see her hair loose around her face. My eye lids fall closed again.

I hear Mamma’s crooked, late night way of walking as she goes over to Martha’s bed. Wake up and come see my friends! My beautiful girls. Come on, get up for Mamma! Her voice is sticky like pink candy.

She pulls us to our feet, wrapping a warm arm around each of us. We lean into her sides and stagger together down the hallway. Two men sit on our long, gold-colored couch. They look fuzzy in their blue jeans and straight brown hair. There wasn’t a dinner party, so I don’t know why there are ashtrays and drinks and strangers. Martha and I stand next to each other in our nightgowns, blinking at the bright lamps Mamma has turned on. Light from the kitchen ceiling bends over our heads to the top of the dark basement stairs. See? These are my little girls!

We start to smile at Mamma’s new friends. I know I am supposed to be cute and sweet.

Aw, Ragna, you didn’t need to get them out of bed! one of the men says. His smile to us is real.

The other man says, Look how sleepy they are! What cutie pies!  He looks from us back to Mamma, who tilts her head and grins.

Say hi to my friends! We obey her and give a little wave. She tells us to go back to bed.

Those two are my babies, we hear her say as she turns back to the party that came out of nowhere. But you know, I have seven children! The words of the men melt away as we close our bedroom door.

Martha and I go back to our beds and our dreams. I don’t remember anything about the next day, but my mornings were joyful–I woke up happy, and I woke up knowing I was loved. Only decades later did I paint that night in dark colors. I write the story and recoil at my old certainty that my mother had been so horribly wrong, when nothing bad happened. I loved her and loved that she was proud of us. I jumped at the chances she gave me to be seen.

Writing Encouragements

The more I write, the more I enjoy asking for encouragement in my notebook and seeing what words drop onto the page. A few (edited) examples:

Please, can I have some inspiration?

To inspire is so simple, just breathe in. In-spire. You just made something new, from oxygen to carbon dioxide. You created something. You can’t help yourself. You’re always making something, so why not make it on purpose? Draft the poem, polish the essay, spin the story. You can disdain those self-absorbed creative types from afar, but you want some of that chocolate donut they’re reaching for, don’t you? You want to dunk that donut into terrible coffee and melt those black crumbs on your tongue until your eyes water with relief that you’re one of them, after all.

So, go ahead:  inhale deeply and exhale words from your fingertips. The more you do this, the more inspiration you will have.

I want to love everyone, but these people are really getting on my nerves!

Squirrels are good vehicles for loving the annoying, the takers and the screechers. They are soft furry things just like us, in temporary shape, hungry and easily frightened. Love squirrels. They haven’t done any real harm, and it can’t be easy to sleep in trees.

And remember:  writing is like resentment, but the opposite.  It doesn’t eat at you, but it doesn’t want you to leave it alone, either.  Instead of that angry scab of corn skin in your teeth, just under the gum line, writing is the salty-sweet taste of summer on your tongue.

I’m sure I’m doing this all wrong.

Well, the only way to find out for sure is to keep doing it. Make mistakes! Get messy!  Don’t pull back out of fear of being wrong. Be wrong in a big way. Screw up enough that it’s honest and visible and worthy of an edit. Forget about hiding yourself away so nobody can criticize you. Somebody will criticize you for something else anyway. Let them. Be yourself, your neurotic, frightened, messy self. It’s your only responsibility.

Forget about striving for self-improvement—to strive is to paint the rosebud, keeping it closed.  Watch writing bloom in its own time and way. Sit in the sun, soak up the rain, and let creation happen.

I can’t think of what to write next.

You definitely should stop thinking, then. Thinking is the enemy of writing!  Thinking is linear and puny and time-bound. Writing is time-travel magic carpet riding. Writing is the post-nap contemplative mind wander, considering the arc of creation.

Writing is friendly to thought, but thinking is the enemy of creativity. So write! Dance around with your pen in the air. Dream the days away! That’s what they’re there for, after all.

Mary Oliver Mug
Serendipitous reminder from a favorite poet

Welcome, and Clams Casino

The more I write, the more I appreciate reading and being read. So, welcome, and thanks for spending some of your reading time here! Expect a short essay two or three times per month–mostly memoir, with a few reflections on the writing process.

And if I haven’t already tracked you down to announce it in person, I read my first post, Fighting Woman, on the Denver Orbit Podcast (ten or so minutes into episode twenty-seven). You can find it here.

Clams Casino

One summer day when I am twelve, Michael, who is my mother’s best friend, teaches us how to make Clams Casino. Michael has a regular place at our dining room table. He and Mamma always smoke and laugh together after dinner, his lopsided grin under wavy black hair bringing out the deepest green of her hazel eyes. On Daddy’s days off from the Weather Bureau, he and Michael sit at the backyard picnic table and drink cans of Stroh’s. I like to perch on the patio steps in that summer of 1978, listening as they talk about politics and travels and all of the things we have to be grateful for.

After Michael dies the next spring, I hold on to the bright memory of our summer feast. I watch again as my mother stands next to Michael at the kitchen sink. She looks small leaning toward him, her head barely reaching to his shoulder. Michael demonstrates how to press a blade into the tender seam of a clam shell, then twist until it snaps open to expose a mound of flesh resting on its own blue-green reef. He says:  Ragna, I’ve seen guys stab themselves right through the palm doing this, so be careful!  She smiles and takes a turn–soon she wields the clam knife like an expert. I help sprinkle the opened clams with a blend of cheese, bacon, and spices. I stare into the oven as they bake, transfixed. Meanwhile, the wild blue crabs that we have scooped out of Chesapeake Bay are waiting to be steamed, bubbles of salt water foaming at their crusty mouths.

That morning, Daddy had driven Mamma and Michael, one sister and me to a cove along the bay, a place with a pier and a welcoming stretch of beach. He’d supervised the noosing of chicken-necks onto lengths of twine that hang under the surface, just deep enough to be in shadow.  I lie on my tummy and rest my chin on my stacked fists as I watch the dimple where a bait line meets still water. I inhale the mingled scents of salt air and creosote. Soon, my eyes catch a flash of blue as a crab latches on to eat while paddling backward with its its tiny swimmer-legs. I pull the taut string slowly and wave an alert to my dad so he can slip the net under our prey. The crab thrashes as Daddy raises it from the water. We untangle it from the net, then go to the next line and pull up another.

Mamma is wearing a bandana on her head, paisley red against the dark of her hair. Her legs are tan under jean shorts. Even dressed for the beach, she radiates elegance. She strolls along the shore, her shape growing smaller as she scrambles to the edge of a rocky breakwater. I watch the bait lines and look for her again. Soon, I feel her light step on the boards of the dock. Tendrils of hair have blown free as she explored, and sheer sunlight bounces from the water back up into her face. She is filled with peace. In a little while, we head for home.

Today Michael laughs with us as Daddy uses long metal tongs to hoist pugnacious crabs from kitchen sink to stove. The claws of one giant are clamped onto the legs of another’s, forming a crustacean chain that travels through the air and lands with clanks into the beer-belching steam-pot. My father holds down the lid of the pot until the crabs stop fighting. In the dark heat, the blue shine of their shells transforms to brick red.

We fill water glasses and pull down the can of Old Bay seasoning from the cupboard. Layered sections of The Washington Post protect the kitchen table, set with wooden mallets, small knives, and stacks of paper napkins. We sit in a circle and toast in Icelandic: Skal!  First, we eat the clams, succulent flesh under lightly flavored cheese. Michael is pleased as we marvel at the tastiness of Clams Casino. Then, we settle in to pick our crabs—removing the top shell and pulling translucent cartilage away from segments of crab meat. The afternoon stretches into dusk. I use a wooden mallet to break open the hard shell of a claw and dissect its pieces, chewy flesh still holding the shape of pincers.

I put my hammer down and look into my mother’s face. I absorb her concentration and her pleasure in the day.  She lifts a morsel of back-fin to her lips, holding the delicate bite between her thumb and the edge of a serrated steak knife. She doesn’t drop a speck, wastes nothing. I see that the sunlight reflected off the bay still dances on her cheek,  shimmering all around us, from face to face. I pull that light forward through time and extend it to shine through the dark day of Michael’s funeral. When I tug again, the taut string glides through my hand like water.

Fighting Woman

Mamma

We called our mother Mamma, not pronounced Momma in the American way, but mummah, as it sounded in Iceland, with a pause on the combined m’s. She forbade our calling her “Mommy,” the indignity of the American word implied by her mocking tone as she said it. When I was small, I only ever called our mother Mamma. The second syllable turns upward in my memory, holding the shape of a question, of hope and home.

Mamma

When I was little, Iceland was the scent of sulfurous water that clung to my father’s skin after he returned from a trip there. My mother’s island home was the smell of smoked leg of lamb—a frozen red haunch wrapped in foil that had been smuggled past customs, then softly boiled to anchor our feast on Christmas Eve. Iceland was a dragon-shaped map on our dining room wall. And Iceland was the place that held my mother’s name, simply and crisply:  Mamma.

So “Mamma” was the answer I gave when a neighbor in our DC suburb asked me my mother’s name. He re-introduced himself to her, and they laughed at my not knowing her real name. Embarrassed by my ignorance, my mother taught me, syllable by syllable, how to say her name properly.  She wrote down every letter, and her handwriting, so elegant and even, was itself a lesson in correctness. She had me repeat her name over and over until it rolled off my tongue with sharp r’s and a crisp Icelandic rhythm. Most grown-ups, including my father, called her Ragna, using open vowels and mushy r’s. But I knew how to say her full name: Ragnhildur Gudrun Finnbjornsdottir Ellis.

Ragnhildur:  Fighting Woman.

My mother fought incorrectness, both in pronunciation and in behavior. She fought the dulling ordinariness of American culture, with its casual manners and sloppy clothing. At night, through cycles of peacefulness and of combat, she simultaneously fought my father and alcohol, her berating voice rising and falling for hours. Then came the thump of her shoulder hitting the wall after my father shoved her hard and staggered to the front door and escape. She fought to hide the bruises, but showed them to me when I came out of my room to try to take care of her. Year in, and year out, she was Fighting Woman.

She fought hard for the steady sanity she gained in her sixties. Now that I can see the pattern of illness in her descendants, diagnoses lined up like breadcrumbs in the woods, I know she fought cyclical depression and psychosis. When I was growing up, I sometimes thought she was a monster. But the monsters were in her head, and, as strong as she was, she couldn’t defeat them.