LOSING AND GAINING ONE’S SELF
Over the past few weeks I’ve worked phone banks for the Democratic Party speaking to folks in Ohio, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. Often I only reach an answering machine. Sometimes, people hang up on me. One person wanted to help me find God. And sometimes, I get to share our mutual concern over the state of the world. Tonight, I phoned someone with a Greek last name. When she answered the phone, I said Kali Spera or Good Evening in Greek. She responded by asking me Ti Kaneis or how are you? After she learned my grandfather had been born in a small village north of Delphi, she told me that although she was 90 years old, she had already voted using a mail-in ballot. Poli Kala. Very good and very rewarding.
On a walk to the Farmer’s Market, the autumn light retrieved a sense memory. When I was in the 6th grade the school bus dropped me off around 4. Once home, I was confronted by floor to ceiling windows flooding the living room with hot afternoon sunlight, suffocating me. I wanted to escape the house or was it the family?
From the short story “It’s How You Play” in my collection Jersey Dreams.
The summer before, I had accompanied my mother, with my brother and sister in tow, to the lake. This thirteenth summer I went on my own, picking up friends along the way or joining them in the designated spot to the left of the beach, where anyone from thirteen to sixteen was welcome. We spread our blankets in the direction of the sun, hiding our lunch in the shadow of a beach bag, and waited. We waited for the older kids, mostly boys to show up; we waited for the lake to warm; we waited for mothers and younger children to go home.
Now my family wants to escape me. My younger sister and her husband wouldn’t visit on my terms: backyard, social distancing, masks. Puts me in my place. But what place?
Finally, Joe Biden declared President. Hope, Relief, Black Cloud lifted, temporarily.
Drifting again, playing too many computer games. An antidote- a walk through the university gardens. My friend and I stopped at Small World, a popular coffee shop. Even with masks and social distancing, the day felt almost normal. Back by noon with plenty of time to do “stuff.” No success.
Prospect Gardens, Princeton University
This afternoon, I attacked my nemesis, Rudebkia during a three hour stint in the garden. Another sense memory, my old gardening self. I could feel her: I was her. The welcoming warmth of the house after a day working in the cold. It reminded me of Svetlana Alexievich’s The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II. She describes herself as an historian of the soul. The women she interviewed said that when they relived their war time experiences, they could see themselves clearly above from the heavens and below from the ground. The sense of self drifts in and out but isn’t entirely lost.
In another attempt at getting back parts of my old self, I decided to take a ride down the shore to Spring Lake once knows as the Irish Riviera. (See my Washington Post article “Spring Lake, Splendor on the Shore.”) In the 1940’s my parents danced to big bands at the once grand Essex and Sussex Hotel now converted to condominiums. When I was single, I would spend the day on the beach, don a coverup, wear a large sun hat, and retreat to the Warren Hotel (now torn down) order a martini at the bar and for an hour gaze at the grass covered dunes and the sea. My daughter and I spent many a happy hour perusing the Spring Lake Variety Store, a traditional 5 and 10. I often took my elderly mother to lunch at the Breakers Hotel after which we sat on the boardwalk and people watched as she called it. Once my husband and I saw an elderly couple walking past Saint Catherine’s Catholic Church holding hands: we hoped we would do the same as we aged. This brief visit seems familiar and strange.
Essex and Sussex House Spring Lake, New Jersey
Thanksgiving, fewer members of the family present. Nevertheless, shared stories, jokes, gratitude and remorse.
Most years, my children and their spouses celebrate Christmas at my house. A few weeks before Christmas day, we pick out the tree, decorate it, argue over the number of lights needed, and reminisce as we hang the handmade ornaments. When I realize I’ve forgotten to string popcorn and cranberries, I’m told nobody cares. A bossy crowd. This year, my daughter and her family couldn’t make it. They were deep into preparations for moving to another state. Then, my son and his wife couldn’t come because they’d been in contact with too many people: I was uncomfortable seeing them- that old Corona Virus interference.
Wednesday-Bah Humbug. Screw Christmas. It’s canceled at my house!
Friday- Goddamn it. I’ll do it myself! I went to my favorite tree farm. Not one left. I drove around in a panic and finally, managed to get the last one in town as well as the last pine garland.
It was a brute of a tree, 7 feet tall and almost as wide. I had to get it out of the car and into the house. I huffed and I puffed and I blew the tree in. Getting it up, just as troublesome. I wrestled with it and won. Now I could put on as many lights as I wanted without commentary.
Next lights, garland, and ribbons around the outside porch, surely the easiest task of the day. I hadn’t accounted for the length of the garland or the difficulty hanging it. Unwieldy. Seeing me covered in pine boughs and lights, neighbors walking by rescued me. The husband and daughter took over, thank God, fully masked and socially distanced. We celebrated with a Christmas toast as the sun set. The heart was warmed. The self regained.