Aging, blue-haired old ladies, and messages in bottles ~

Aging, blue-haired old ladies, and messages in bottles ~

What’s it like being old? I asked my grandma this loaded question when she was 80, plus or minus :).

I don’t feel old, she answered thoughtfully. And then I look in the mirror, and I think: who’s that old lady? I don’t FEEL old, she repeated. On the inside, I’m still a young woman. And then I realise: I’m 80…

How, I wondered then, could she not feel as old as she was? As she looked? As her birdbone body indicated? But these days it makes a lot more sense. 😏 Inside, I don’t feel age. On a link a friend sent me recently, a woman was laughing at aging, explaining dryly that you don’t get to practice being old. While there are, as she noted wryly, ‘warning signs,’ it ‘kind of creeps up on you.’

Yup. It shore do. It seems to be creeping from my toes (broken, arthritic darlings) to my head (greying and often shaking in frustration at the indignities of this death watch called aging)…

When my old ladies, as I call them still — my great-aunts, my grandmothers — would tell stories of being young, I would sit as still as possible. Sometimes, if I didn’t move and didn’t make a peep, they would forget I was there and just be sisters together. Aunt Ina would bemoan her miserable marriage, and Grandma would talk about how Grandpa fooled around w/ ‘a wall-eyed hussy.’

I went to the café where they were having breakfast, she remembered. I stood by their booth and I was going to stab the hussy with a fork. I had it in my hand. But the sheriff came, she went on, and took her by the arm, assuring young Emmie that ‘the hussy’ wasn’t worth it.

And once again, my imagination would fail me. I just couldn’t see, in the blue-haired grandmother rocking in her velour recliner, the passionately angry woman my tiny grandmother was once. I had no concept of the lives these once-young, now elderly women had lived — before me, before my childhood. To me, they were (as we are now for the children in our lives) bulwarks of safety, of stability. In my itinerant childhood, they were rare constants: always there, providing home, place, roots.

But I can see that my own nieces, my sons, the ‘youngers’ in my life — as my grandmother would call us — have no idea of who their own elders (me, my 3 sisters, their uncles and grandparents and older family) were at 16, at 20, even at 30. Should I tell them about gambling in Monaco? Reminisce about dancing crazily at Embassy parties? Regale them with stories of our misspent youths, our tragedies and triumphs? Do those stories have anything to do w/ them? Any more than the story of my grandfather’s infidelity does w/ me? How much of history belongs to the young?


When my other grandmother, on her deathbed, confessed that she wished she had followed her sister to California, and hadn’t succumbed to the pressures of her parents, her pastor, to marry my widowed grandfather (who came complete with toddler son and pre-school daughter in tow), I sat stunned.

How could this elderly, dying woman bemoan her life? Rich in family, as stable as the rock foundation of her tiny northside house, what other dreams might she have cherished? How could she tell me, a young woman weighing her own possible marriage, that her husband was a failure as a provider? That my own father was like his? My father who supported us just fine, thank you — even in style, at points in my childhood. And why was that important, anyway?

She was the postmaster (postmistress?) of her small town post office. Took up china painting in her 70s, and swept every award in every category at the State Fair. On the board of club after club: I remember going w/ her to a meeting of the Ateloka Club, held at a tea room restaurant in the old money area of our town. There were 15+ women, each dressed like Grandmother, in lavender and silver and the shadowy neutrals of Victorian widowhood. I remember nothing of the meeting except my Aunt Alene reading the minutes. Only my mental snapshot of a table of blue-haired old ladies around a U-shaped group of tables remains.

But when I look at pictures of the young Elsie, she was beautiful. Perhaps it wasn’t the fashion, her tall dark beauty. But w/ her masses of brunette hair braided around that finely chiseled face, she was beautiful. Who of us could see that in the marcelled silver curls framing her stern Grandmother face? Who could imagine passion igniting for this pillar of temperance and propriety?

Once all of these — my great-aunts, my grandmothers, and now my mother’s sisters — were as disbelieving as I was that old age would catch them, grinding them fine in its ratcheted teeth. Like the tray of old snapshots on my bookcase, or the box beneath my study chair, there were pictures for each of them. Some of these even remain. In the picture of them reclining together on the grass, my great-aunt Bonnie and Grandma are young girls. Bonnie’s shadowed eyes hint at the minx she was — well into her 80s. And Grandma’s straight brows suggest, even that early, just how stubborn she could be. Stubborn enough to leave two husbands — one a drunk, the other an abuser — and make a life for herself and her four daughters. Independent enough to move into a house w/ the two younger girls, and figure out how to support them all, With only an 8th grade education, by the way. She became a cleaning lady, playing to her slightly OCD strengths.

Message in a bottleTo see the women they would become in these two girls, think of the pictures of them etched into my heart and brain, as I do: the two women I loved like my own mother, who made me cornbread and creamed turnips and rhubarb cobbler and corn w/ milk and bacon. Who taught me how to do laundry and how to plant a garden and how to value the different birds on the feeder outside the screened porch. Who slipped me money out of their own meagre bounty, when I walked the three blocks from my college adulthood back into my childhood. Who ran a red flag up the clothesline to let me know I had a phone call — a red flag I could see from my phone-less efficiency apartment around the corner. Old photos of them are like messages in bottles, from a past so dimly distant I still have a hard time fathoming it…

There are pictures of me as a girl, and when I look at them, I wonder: what do they tell about who I am becoming? My sister had old family photos copied for Christmas one year. She made each of us an album, with a picture on the album cover that she said was true to how she saw us. In mine, I’m sitting in a batik bikini in the tide on the island of Phuket, where we summered. I am the slender, rail-thin boyish girl I was until I had my two sons. Hair wet, looking up at my mother, probably, behind the capturing camera. And I can see none of who I am today.

But someday, perhaps one of my two great-nieces will look at it and wonder who I was, what I dreamed, what I wanted out of life. She may trace the unmarked face of that girl who looks fearlessly into the camera, and try to find in it the great-aunt she knows. Should I leave her a message in a bottle…?

muffins and role models ~

muffins and role models ~

Today I made my beloved mother-in-law’s bran muffins. I had a slue of fresh, organic blueberries, and decided to add them to her recipe.

Mom’s bran muffins were legendary. You couldn’t imagine how they could be good for you; they were just tooo delicious. Hers often had dates (which I adore), and always tons of nuts. I made a scant half of these today w/out nuts, as my own beloved doesn’t like them. And since he also doesn’t like dates, they’re chockfull of blueberries.

On the notecard in Mom’s careful, English teacher handwriting, she lists the ingredients, neatly entered in 2 columns. They’re not, however, in the order you put the ingredients in, which is interesting to me. Mom was very organised, as well as an excellent cook. Nothing terribly fancy (well, except for the 7-minute frosting she always put on my birthday cake!). So I have to wonder what the order is that was in her head when she wrote this down for me.

It’s a rare day I don’t think of my old people: my mother- and father-in-law; my blood mother & father; my grandmothers & great-aunts. But Mom was something rare — not only my family-by-marriage, she was a dear friend, a mentor, and a role model unparalleled. My own mother & father had a sometimes rocky marriage — a divorce, a remarriage to each other, long separations for my father’s work that led to hot&cold reunions. So modelling my marriage on Mother’s & Daddy’s would be an exercise in futility, if not failure. They certainly loved each other — no one doubted that. But as they aged, they didn’t grow more alike, or even more close, as Mom & Dad seemed to. dominoes

Unlike my own parents, Mom & Dad did so many things together. They played dominoes almost daily. In fact, for weeks on end it would be daily, interrupted only by a doctor’s appointment, or a trip (by Mom) to lunch w/ old friends from the school where she taught 20+ years. They went on most errands together, making of a grocery run a small outing. Sometimes taking a snack, sometimes stopping by the Princess Drive-In for a burger. Occasionally Mom could persuade Dad to play Scrabble, which she excelled at. In part because she was a verrry creative cheat, making up words that sounded true, and reminding you — when you thought about challenging her — that it would cost you 50 points if you were wrong. I mean, a spigot MIGHT be a differently masted frigate, right? After all, she had graduate work in Shakespeare & Chaucer!

They volunteered together, working at bagging food for the many hungry in their county. Dad worked on the rural fire department board, & Mom gave her time to the nearby library. Both were salt-of-the-earth types: you could depend on them like gravity. They were always there. Until they weren’t… Still, Mom remains one of my most influential role models: teacher, wife, mother. Reader, lover of birds & natural history. Learning the names & calls of all her birds, and spending hours weekly feeding them.

But most of all, I learned from Mom how to be a wife of independence, and a mother of adult children. Ask her for advice (something I love to offer!), and Mom would demur, refusing to weigh in. She was respectful of privacy almost to a fault: sometimes when I really wanted her opinion, I’d just have to lump it. That’s not bad modelling for a congenital busy body.

I miss you, Mom. It’s a rare day I don’t thank you for teaching me to cook (once I called her long distance — $1/minute — to find out how to make stuffing and put it in the turkey). For showing me the difference a great teacher makes. For leading me by love. Not to mention perfect bran muffins.

Sons, travel, & memory ~

Sons, travel, & memory ~

My younger son has a blog, as I do. HIs deals w/ his ongoing world travels (he currently lives in Brisbane, but spent last year hopping from Goa to Nepal, from the Philippine Islands to Thailand. Not to mention Sweden, Bali, et al… Next stop, probably the city of my childhood: once Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City.

He comes by this peripatetic gene honestly — my grandmother would say the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. Either tree, really: I grew up in Southeast Asia, as we four girls & my mother followed my father’s career in the state department. My beloved joined the Marines in part to see the world. And our marriage was rushed, so we could go to Algiers where he had a new job.  Years later, we would relocate to Saudi Arabia, where my younger son was born. We would live there 8 years as a family — 4 years of his life — and my beloved, his father, would stay two more. He learned travel as a 2-month-old infant, traveling in a carry cot.Apples falling from trees

In a recent blog post, he was able to articulate for me something I’ve wrestled with throughout my own migratory life: thereis a difference between friends for years and friends from years ago.

I have almost no friends from high school, much less earlier. Two friends found me on FB, and there are a couple of others who found me via my sisters. But none of these are people I would call in case of sorrow or loss, or to share new joy with. I have my sisters & heart-sisters for that, a small but true number.

All my sisters — of blood & heart — have friends from childhood. I seem to have shed many of my friends, as if they were autumn leaves. Probably a good analogy, as autumn leaves are shed for growth and preservation of energies. Many of my ‘old’ friends — from years ago — have beliefs that don’t really accommodate my own. They’ve chosen other paths, and that’s fine. But not necessarily something I like to think about.

I do have one friend from the first days of my long-ago college entry: the ‘brother’ who introduced me to my beloved. G & his wife & 3 daughters are true ‘friends for years’: the eldest daughter, my wonderful Kylie, emails me papers from her classes sometimes, and sends cards. The middle daughter, Lynzie, follows me on Pinterest, and is the source of GREAT tea pins! Little Fiona — who will be in HS before we know it! — is the 3rd of these virtual nieces, and the fact that I remain so close to all of them is a bright spot of reassurance that I’m not secretly unloveable… ????

This thread of reflection is brought to you by my younger son, his blog, and the things our children teach us. Recently I wrote a young friend that your children are takers, but they are also givers. And this — these skeins of connected rumination — are what mine have given me today ~

Louis Armstrong, memory, & my mother ~

Louis Armstrong, memory, & my mother ~

When I was younger, I didn’t care much for jazz. For many of the same reasons I didn’t listen to classical music then, although Mrs. Schumaker made me practice it daily. I still remember Für Elise by heart: I can even do the 5th finger/4th finger trill. But I didn’t listen to it — it wasn’t FUN. ????

And jazz was even harder. Not the Big Band jazz my mother loved, but Miles and Coltrane and what I even now think of as intelligent jazz. Where the music bears listening to again. And again. And 5, 6, even 100 times. Like Bach, it needs familiarity to breed love. I know people who fell in love straight away, but I wasn’t one of them.

imageBig Band was okay. I actually liked it (still do), but it was my mother’s first. Which meant it wasn’t for me, when I was younger. Like the bright floral prints I still can’t see w/out thinking of her. Or her long pearl earrings I have yet to wear — they’re too much hers.

Louis Armstrong, though — he was different. I loved him from the first time I heard him. It was probably Blueberry Hill, one of my mother’s favourites. When I hear it, I’m transported back to the old record player in the corner of the dining room, by the stairs.

imageMusic has that magic power. Play a song, overhear a melody and the years and distance fall like leaves to the ground. Like notes from a cornet. People you haven’t thought of in years walk like ghosts beside you. The tinkle of glasses, the acrid float of smoke… It comes alive in a lyric, a refrain.

Like Louis Armstrong. I hear his unmistakeable rough-cut diamond voice, and I can see my mother as a young woman. I can hear the excitement in my son’s voice when he ‘discovered’ New Orleans jazz. It’s New Orleans, and my husband and I are walking through the French Quarter, me barefoot because I left my shoes in a bar. This is as close to time travel as I have.

imageThere are religions that admonish their followers not to listen to music. Not to play instruments. There’s even a Buddhist precept that states this, but I don’t buy it. I can not believe that any universal good can be against music. Surely it’s the purest language we have? And I say that as a poet, knowing that nothing I have written or will write can compare to a song. No emotion I trigger, no response to my most carefully crafted, polished-until-they-glow words is as evocative as what happens when a song plays us.

So Mr. Satchmo, sir: please resurrect my mother for me, holding her hands out from her body as she moves to the music, that woman years younger than she became. And take me back. And oh, by the way — thank you. A hundred times, thank you

tea and empathy ~

tea and empathy ~

Hello. My  name is Britton and I haven’t had any tea in 7 hours…

I’m nuts about tea. Crazy, obsessive, elitist (and possibly boring :)) on the topic. I love coffee as well, but that’s another post…

I have almost as many tea ‘cookbooks’ as the more traditional type. There are (at least) six tea sets in the china cabinet,  including two hand-painted by my grandmother, who also loved tea sets. That number doesn’t include the celadon set my husband brought back from Korea, the antique Persian set he bought me in Saudi Arabia, the hand-thrown pottery set in our wedding stoneware, or the various tempered glass ones I mostly use. Did I mention I love tea?

If you don’t love tea, you should stop here. If the fragrance of a SFTGOP1 First Flush Darjeeling doesn’t make you swoon, then you may be beyond saving. An aside ~ in Singapore once, at (of course) the old Raffles, I drank a Darjeeling I still remember. Sitting in the unintentionally shabby-chic dining room, I inhaled a haunting floral nose, swirled colour like dark honey in my cup. You hear from some that Darjeeling tastes of Muscatel wine, but really? That was the only Darjeeling I’ve ever had that did. I still love Darjeeling — although not as much as China blacks, particularly Keemuns.

Tea comforts. When my world falls apart, I can create one small island of order: boil water, watch it climb the glass walls of the kettle. Measure out the Hao Ya A w/ the scoop Glen bought me in Dhahran. About 2-3 scoops, depending on the pot, in the filter. Warm the pot which one? the small glass 2-cup? the larger 6-cup? the Aynsley or the Wedgewood…?, throw out the water, place the filled filter in the pot. Pour the boiling water over. Steep four minutes. This is the ritual that rescues ~ focuses the galloping mind in its own Anglicised tea ceremony. Calm.

Sometimes just a cup will do. So I pull out one of the many tea trays — a small one, perfect for a glass cup, a smaller filter and the honey pot my niece gave me. Rooibos chai is good to soothe. So is verveine. Some of the flavoured teas out now are lovely in the summer. And most are even better with honey from a silver spoon. 🙂

Elsewhere — in poems, in essays, in letters and journals and who knows where — I’ve written about learning tea. Long ago, in a galaxy and time far far away In a desert city, in a box of a trailer, alone w/ the wintry desert shamal and new motherhood, I learned tea. It was my life line. Or rather, the other women huddled together for support were my life line. A Brit, a Madrasan (now a Chennaite? ), an Aussie, three Texans, an Okie, a Canadian, a Vermonter… an eclectic group, my tea family.

Some of them already knew tea — the Brit, of course. And the Canadian and the Aussie.  The Queen’s brew has a long, wide and colourful history. Here in the US, we drink coffee — proof of our rebellious natures. But no one ever turned to coffee (which I also enjoy) for comfort. Few people write poetry to coffee. And rarely do people worry about ‘too much tea.’ That would be tea’s younger and more aggressive brother.

the author's

the author’s

In that long beginning, when I was learning tea and motherhood and loneliness, my tea family shared our lives over pots and pots of tea. Lyn, the tall Brit who mothered me in the way all eldest children crave,  patiently instructed me on the intricacies. First I had to buy a pot. Which I did — at the seconds sale at Harrods once, on a layover in London — a lovely curved Aynsley teapot, as old-fashioned as its cottage flowers. I must have bought a couple of cups too, probably four.

I know there was a teapot first. And black tea — always four minutes, never five. Usually English breakfast, those first years. Sometimes Earl Grey — was it Martha who loved it so? Occasionally Darjeeling. Later? Lyn would pick us up wonderful teas from Fortnum & Mason’s, teas as beautiful as Paris, as sophisticated as Bangkok.

So much of what I know now is the gift of women. How to mother. How to bargain. How to live through grief and come out the other side still capable of joy. Many of these things I learned from my tea family, none of whom I see now. One is on my Facebook, and her daughter — who once played in the bathtub w/ my older son — is now a mother older than I was then. Others I lost track of in moves, lamenting their loss.

In those far-off days, I still ran. And sometimes I would run the track in furious anger, homesick and terrified of the alien spaces I inhabited: landscape and motherhood and marriage and all that comes with ‘adulting.’

the author’s

But when Ione — another of my tea family — and I sat down over tea, in the quiet breakfast room overlooking two small boys playing on a swing set, I belonged. For probably as long as there has been fire, women have steeped the gathered leaves and twigs of plants in water placed in a skin, a gourd, a bowl of clay. And shared their stories.

What is it about memory? A fragrance, a fragment of song, something as small as a shard of coloured glass, and time respools. I am standing in the long narrow living/dining room of a trailer, with sand sifting in through drafty windows. The sound track is the laughing voices of women thrown together by time and circumstance: not quite sisters, more than friends. The fragrance this time is the bergamot of Earl Grey, no longer one of my favourites. In a cup, it’s just tea. Except that nothing we remember is ever quite that simple.