Braving the Wilds

Field Notes from the Suburban Jungle

Category: Family

Obsolescence 

The apron, threadbare,
A wilted floral cotton
Piped in a zig zag, ric-rac
With an all-encompassing
Bib, a gathered skirt,
Belonged to a phantom
Woman, her shed skin
Hanging from a hook.

The strings were wrung to
A weakened thread, perhaps
Pawed by an impatient kitten,
Twiddled between a
School child’s fingers,
Barefoot and dependent,
Who, judging from the stain
At the waist,
Must have wiped
Purple blueberry filling
From the corners of
Her talkative mouth.

Perhaps she helped roll out the dough
Growing bored, and tired,
And retreated to the floor,
Next to the cat. Those once
Able, thick ties would take years
Of patience to unravel,
The knots connecting
A piece of vintage
Domesticity to history,
And this empty house.

Seasonal Cottage

When the grass began to sprout
From the swathes of grey like
Tufts of newborn hair, starkly
Green and colorful against the dead
Landscape, ripe for the
Awakening: ’twas a signal,
A call to the Lake to install the
Porch screens. We’d inspect the
Damage from a hard-played previous
Summer, winter months stacked
Against the wall, tucked behind
Antique wicker purchased
Three generations ago.

Barn swallows, chimney swifts,
House sparrows and non-native
Starlings didn’t take kindly
To having their nests moved,
So we avoided construction altogether,
Pinching our whitened fingers
Between hook and eye closures,
Some winking with rust. The screens
streaked with mould, others
Grey, having just been stapled to
Chipped wooden frames, homemade
By the over-taxed man who
Funded this seasonal household
At present.

“Just like New York!” he’d say,
As if this porch were the
Epitome of fine-tuned engineering;
Yet we all knew he hated the City,
In “its constant state of decay.”
“Renewal, Dad,” I’d protest,
Thinking of the thousands of men
And women, scurrying on, over, under
Its streets, changing the hardscape on which
They trod with heavy feet.

Interrogatory

Answer only the question posed,
Offering no additional
Information than what was
Originally requested:
Sage advice from childhood
Development specialists.

The first answer will undoubtedly
Lead to a second, a third, etcetera,
For the more inquisitive of
Tots, until the parent has pieced
Together a daisy chain of examples,
A regular Kotex ad of explanations
Beginning with “in my uterus” and
Ending abruptly, by,
“Sexual intercourse.”

The most precocious of them, however,
Will push deeper, if you will,
Skipping the “Disgusting’s!” and the
“You did WHAT with Daddy?” and turn,
Instead, to the stickier of subjects.

“But where did the first person
Come from?” Blushing, the parent
Stumbles over Genesis and Darwin’s
Hominids, Adam’s agnostic
Rib, which couldn’t possibly have taken
Residency in the cage of
Mitochondrial Eve.

Tripping down an endless path made
Beautiful by Natural Order,
It’s divinity subject to
Personal interrogation,
One as endless as the
Expanding Universe, the
Young prodigy, shakes her head,
Exclaiming, “I thought
She was from Texas.”

A House Made of Stone

Perhaps the origin of our own beings
Exists there, at the center of
Concentric ripples on water, where
The stone, a seed was thrown:
An ephemeral place that is only
An impression, a start, a beginning.

When we turned our eyes
Toward the sun, the waves
Extended out of reach,
The rock lay at the bottom of
The pond, while its smoothness,
It’s weight still keenly felt
Between our growing fingers.

In later years, while bathing,
Like elder salmon returning upstream,
We will search for that small piece of gravel,
Only to find that during our Odyssey
It has eroded to something
Altogether unrecognizable.

unknown

Connecticut Dawn

The morning my father died,
He woke before dawn,
Attempting to start his final day
As he did all of the others:
With the quotidian copy of
The Hartford Courant,
Clipped securely to
A lap board instead of laid
Out on the breakfast table.

He used to liken our bodies
To that spread, “Look at you,
Laid out like a warm breakfast,”
As we poured ourselves onto
The floor like syrup, at his feet,
Onto pillow pancakes,
Our chins perched atop
The heels of our tiny hands
To better view
The Wonderful World of Disney
Or
The New England Patriots.

During such TV enterprises
He’d often fall asleep himself, an
Uneasy sight, his mouth agape
And his lungs rattling him
Gratefully awake. Who would take care
Of this large world while he sleeps?
Who would ensure that Steve Grogan
Would connect with his receivers?

This morning we’re out of season,
His work done: Tom Brady has
Long taken over, two foreign wars
Have been fought, maybe won,
Seven children educated. Somehow
No circle or square of the Word
Jumble lay vacant, his pencil
Scribbles legible by all who
Love him, long for him;
We kiss his waxy cheek,
Turn away to hide our human selves
And find another way
To make ourselves useful.

In the Moment: A Retrospective

In the hours between the
Dawn melting the stars into its
Warm glass of sky, and
The dusk reigniting them
From burning streaks on the horizon
To the arms of unseen lamplighters,
The day is illuminated by
Some remarkable moments,
Ones I would try to remember to
Share with you, when you
Would stumble through the door,
After dark.

I’d hand you a paper cup
Of chowder, the soup
That warmed my Raynaud’s toes
Somehow from the inside of my belly,
Like I was in a fisherman’s port,
Where the locals knew the secret
To the best creamy broth:
Was it brandy?
You would know.

An older man
At the counter, eating the same
Soup, his with oyster crackers,
Mine with bread, said:
My wife of 60 years preferred bread
With her chowder, too. And she had
Red hair, like yours. He winked at me,
As if I was supposed to know
The code of winking
About chowder, or redheads,
Or bread.
You would know.

Behind the counter there was an
Etching, a print, a woodcut
Of a birch tree, like the one that leans over
Our fields, seemingly fragile,
Providing a foreground, a streak to
Our winter landscape. I longed for the piece,
Which was a medium
You would know.

In the moment, alone, I
Ordered more chowder that I hoped would warm you,
Comfort your own body, where we would relive it all
In a delicious retrospective. We’d sit on the couch
Toe-to-toe where I’d lament all
The details of the day my middle-aged brain
Had forgotten, but somehow,
You would know.

Qu’ils Mangent de la Brioche!

“You can’t have cake!”
Exclaimed my youngest daughter
To my former mother-in-law,
Seated at the dinner table of
My broken home, as I blush
With embarrassment over my
Child’s id-ridden stage
Of development.

I quickly cleared the celebratory
Dishes of my daughter’s setting,
Explaining, as we made way
To one of life’s sweeter rewards, only
Jokingly withheld from tardy guests.
“There’s more for us!”

Even Marie-Antoinette was misunderstood,
While those of a lesser standing –
Peasants whose most deadly sin
Was being born of a situation
Lower than themselves – shrouded their
True human nature. Brioche was
Ordered, by a century-old predecessor:
Bland, basic, nutritional.

My disillusioned guest, now
In a station of sisterhood, whose truth
Lay blended like bitter powders,
A pinch of sugar, stinging salts:
A sweet yin yang swirl
Of ingredients, of human realities,
Concurrently benevolent and cruel.

27, rue de Fleurus

For Elizabeth

“You take delight not in a city’s seven or seventy wonders but in the answer it gives to a question of yours.”
-Italo Calvino

A decade has passed since we lived here,
So we delighted in the fact that the new tenants kept
Our curtains, our finials,
Our terra cotta pots on the distinguished,
Haussmannien balcony. It was in these
Containers that I cultivated a
Smuggled Martha Washington geranium,
Double bagged in A&P plastic tucked
Deeply in a canvas duffle bag that
The sniffing labrador retriever
Gratefully ignored. He instead
Sucked in the moist air around
My ankles, swollen from flight,
Expectancy and pregnancy
And moved along with indifference
To the next foreign traveler.

I suppose I thought I was being provocative
By the gesture, yet disappointingly the
Red blooms never thrived here. They grew, but were
Choked out by the native sort, with which it shared
Soil, lived but never showed her
True, showy blossoms, which stay contained
As the french, split variety spilled over
And welcomed passers-by
On the rue de Fleurus,

Where now a shadow of a sentry
In front of her own personal Picasso
Lays fixed, a mark on the cobblestone
Where her formidable human form
Blocked the terrorizing radioactive light
Of a holocaust.

We were barred entry,
No code de porte; the keypad
lacking in letters which were once permanent,
Offering nothing now but an
Unknown digital sequence.
A less emotional being would remember
Exactly: there are 3,621 miles from
The sidewalks of New York to the
Ville de quelqu’un d’autre,

Where sirens’ foreign screams
Woke us from sound sleep,
Disoriented until I regarded the
Familiar curve of your newborn lips
Blistered from nursing and puckered
Exactly the way they do when you rest,
My own Moveable Feast,
Here, years later,
At home,
Wherever that might be.

Setting the Table in the Age of Reason

“Suffering has been stronger than all other teaching…I have been bent and broken, but I hope into a better shape.”  From Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens.

A dinner fork with a bent tine
Serendipitously landed
At my place setting most often,
It seemed to me.
Flanking a flea market find,
A Wedgewood drabware plate
Crackled and chipped in earnest,
Antiqued sufficiently to suggest
It could have held the roast chicken of
Thomas Paine himself.

The northward tine was at first
Jarring, startling the smooth
Maneuvering of this thrice-daily
Task, sustaining, comforting,
Unifying, at the table
Of those I have borne,
Rendered, after more than a decade of
Sycophantic childhood, as imperfect in
Their teenaged eyes.

The slide of stainless steel
Fits with precision in the
Space between my upper incisor,
My canine, a whistle, never repaired
For a series of human reasons,
Leaving a photo documentary:
A trail of Jaconde-like portraits,
Seemingly confident, omniscient
Expressions, hiding the gaps,
Revealed only to a handful of those
With whom a shared, altruistic,
Symbiosis feeds divinely flawed,
Earthly love.

Two Turtle Doves

About a month ago, I discovered that I left the storm window open in my second floor bathroom. In an attempt to bring order to an otherwise chaotic life, I decided to strive for a spotless sill, capitalizing on minutae of life that lay under my power. Removing cobwebs and dead leaves from the space between two pieces of glass seemed an obtainable goal and satisfying task at the time, yet subsequently leaving that window open would have eventually defeated the purpose.

IMG_3256I likely wouldn’t have noticed the oversight until the next OCD attack, if it weren’t for the female mourning dove who had decided to build her flimsy nest there. One evening while attending to my toilette I heard the distinctive, soulful coo coming from the window, coupled with an aviary silhouette: an evening sloped bird shadow in the lower left pane.

The next morning she remained, periodically exposing her two small ivory-colored eggs, much to the delight of my children and me. We scoured the Sibley’s Guide To Birds, devoured the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website, took daily photographs and videos of our new feathered friends. We were careful not to disturb her mothering, her dutiful and steadfast wait for her squabs to emerge from their shells as she warmed them with her bulbous breast.

They hatched about two weeks later, wet little chicks with tightly wrenched eyelids, vulnerable to all that lay beyond that sill. My teenaged son crouched in the adjacent bathtub waiting for over an hour the morning we discovered they had hatched to capture their image on film. I marveled at his stamina, his persistence, the ability of this tiny winged creature to tear him away from all electronic distractions. It’s as if Lovey Dovey, a name coined by my five year-old, had reminded us all of a world that existed beyond ourselves, outside of our comprehension or natural abilities.

The squabs matured, violently devoured dove’s milk from Lovey’s esophagus, which is simply regurgitated seeds she had pre-digested for their convenience. The growing squabs bulged from underneath their parent, as we learned that both male and female take on child-minding responsibilities. We wondered when they made the shift change, musing to ourselves that the changing of the guard was done in much more private circumstances than those of Buckingham Palace.

Mostly, however, her presence was reassuring in that there was an order to the world that was natural and that perhaps we were part of it. We instinctively lowered the shade when her uneasiness was clear, when the reactionary ruffle of feathers in a stream of artificial light spilled through the pane of glass that separated us. We understood that there was a wall, albeit a clear one, that offered an impressive view, but kept us definitively apart.

About a month after we discovered we were playing host to one of nature’s wonders, we left for a weekend away, only to return to two adolescent doves struggling their way up our back steps, and clumsily flying to a near-by branch. The nest was left, empty and filthy with guano, as we regretfully acknowledged that we missed the flying lessons and the thrill of observing the first stretch of fully-functioning wings. Of course we are not part of that world, and understood that our connection to this little family was fleeting by necessity, distant by nature and yet unusually intimate.

Yet it is impossible as emotional beings not to connect the experience to interpersonal, human ones. We had suffered loss that all human beings do, albeit in greater concentration in the recent past: we lost a parent, a grandparent, a marriage, the dream of a cohesive, nuclear family, an adored family dog. We had begun to prepare for my oldest child to leave our own nest, as he begins to think about colleges. It made us wonder if all such connections are as fleeting as an accidental intimacy we shared with a doting dove.

So it is with joy that we discovered that Lovey has returned to her nest this evening, perhaps seeking shelter from a rainy summer night, maybe to delightfully re-use the nest for another clutch of eggs. Let her serve as a reminder that the simple yet wondrous experience that she has shared with us, by some stroke of serendipity, will always be ours, as will every human connection we were lucky enough to make.

Meantime, I will leave the sill littered with sticks and droppings, ignoring – for now – what can be controlled.