ISLA AND THE ASH TREE

Chapter 1

Isla Mai Marsceill loved animals and trees and birds.  Discovering paths that might lead to an adventure was their favorite pastime.  Their family liked having plants and animals too.  Their uncle Lolo always had a dog in his house and a cat or two.  So did their Uncle Chris.  Their grandmother, Gigi, and grandfather, Pop, liked vacationing in the country.  Their mother and father enjoyed having a garden and having a dog as part of the family.  When Isla was five, they got Moose, their drother, a combination dog and brother.  And their grandmother, Mimi, loved to garden.

            Isla liked spending time in Princeton at Mimi’s house.  She had a tulip magnolia tree in the front yard that Isla enjoyed climbing.  But Mimi and Isla’s favorite tree was the old ash in the back yard.  Mimi and Isla worried about the tree.  It had been hit by lightening and looked rather sick.  Some of its dead branches had to be cut by the tree surgeon.

            Isla sometimes stayed at Mimi’s house in the summer so they could swim in the Princeton pool.  This summer, Dan, the tree surgeon, came to check on Ash, that’s what Isla named the tree. 

Isla asked Dan, “How old is my tree?”

  Dan guessed over 100 years.  He was glad that the tree showed new growth but he would have to trim more branches and give it extra fertilizer.  It needed looking after.

            That afternoon, Isla sat down next to the tree as they often did after a swim in the pool.  They tried to comfort the tree.

            “I hope you aren’t too worried about having some of your branches cut.  Dan is just trying to make you feel better,” they said as they stroked its trunk.  “I wish I could bring you some special food or medicine that would help.”

            “You are helping.”

Who said that, they wondered. It sounded as if it came from the tree.  But trees don’t talk.  Maybe Mimi was pretending to be Ash.

            They went inside the house and called “Mimi. Mimi.”

            “Isla, Isla,” Mimi called back.  She always did that when Isla shouted for her.

            Mimi came into the kitchen.  She had been straightening up the house after their swim.

            “What’s up, little one?” she asked.

            “Did you just say something to me when I was sitting next to Ash?” Isla questioned.

            “Not me,” she answered.  “Why?  What did you hear?”

            “I thought the tree said something.  But that can’t be.  Trees don’t talk.”

            Mimi furrowed her brow.  Whenever Mimi did this, Isla knew she was thinking hard.  Then, she told Isla something she had never told anyone.

            “One morning when I was swimming laps at the pool, I looked to my right at a large oak tree.  Suddenly, I felt it communicate with me as if it said, ‘Aren’t you happy?  Life is good.’  I thought it must be my imagination, so after I reached the end of the pool and was swimming back to the other side, I looked at the tree again.  It waved it’s top branch and I felt a smile inside me like a pleasant tingle.  I know this sounds like make-believe but I’m sure it happened,” Mimi said in a far away voice.

  “So maybe you did hear Ash talking to you,” she went on.  “Scientists believe that trees talk to each other using chemicals and electricity just like humans.  And they help each other by sharing food and sunlight the way friends and family support each other.”

Mimi was going to tell Isla more about tree science, but she could see that Isla needed to think this over so she stopped. 

Isla went to their room and laid down on their bed to consider that they might have a friend that was a tree.

Chapter 2

Isla discussed the idea of befriending a tree with their stuffed animals and dolls.  Really, they were just thinking out loud.  What would it mean to be a tree’s friend?  If they thought about it, they were already Ash’s friend.  They liked Ash, wanted to help Ash, and enjoyed spending time with Ash.  Isla especially loved swinging from the tree’s branches.

Now they might even have conversations with a tree.  That possibility excited Isla.   Since their parents were taking them home the next day, they decided to visit Ash after dinner.  Maybe the tree would talk to them again. 

            Mimi thought it would be a good idea to eat outside on the terrace.  Isla tried to hurry her up.  They wanted to talk to Ash alone.  But Mimi wouldn’t be rushed.  She liked looking out at the garden and talking about the flowers, the herbs, and the strawberries.  Eventually, she decided to go in and do the dishes.  She told Isla they could play in the backyard until it got dark.  

            “Finally,” Isla said to themselves and moved over to sit on the far side of the tree’s trunk out of Mimi’s view.  They wondered what they should say or ask.  But before they uttered a word, they heard the tree.

            “I’m glad you came back.  I was afraid I might have scared you away by talking to you.  Are you scared?”  the tree asked Isla.

            “I was surprised.  I thought it was my imagination.  I don’t know anyone who’s heard a tree speak to them.  Mimi and my mom talk to their plants but the plants never talk back.”

            “Usually, it’s just young people that plants talk to, so I’m glad we met before you grew up,” Ash said.

            “My name is Isla,” they told the tree.

            “I know.  I hear your family call your name.  I also heard that you gave me a name, Ash.”

            “Is that okay?” asked Isla.  “Did you already have a name?”

            “Well, we don’t use names.  We call each other by our place in the community,” answered Ash.  “I’m known as Elder because I’m the oldest tree in this area, but you can call me Ash.”

            “I’m sorry I’m leaving tomorrow because we just met,” Isla told Ash.

            “But don’t you have trees in your backyard?” the tree asked Isla.

            “Yes, I do.  Do you know those trees?”

“Sort of.  When trees live close to each other and are from the same family, in my case, ash trees, they look after each other: we communicate through our roots and through the air.  Look over to the side of the yard.  Do you see that tall ash by your grandmother’s bedroom window?”

“I see it,” said Isla.

“Well that’s my child, known as Sprout for now.  We send messages through chemicals, electricity, and smell, a bit like you humans.  If there are dangerous insects close by, we send out an alert.  If I need more water, Sprout sends some in my direction.  We even communicate with other species of trees.”
            “But aren’t my trees too far away?  Could your roots go that far?” asked Isla.

“No, I couldn’t reach all the way to your house.  But there are other ways you and I can keep in touch.  I know you like adventures.  Would you be interested in having one with me, my family, and my friends?”

“What type of adventures?” Isla asked.

“Traveling between trees, meeting animals like moles, voles, and squirrels, assisting us if we need extra help” answered Ash.

“But how? Is it dangerous?”

“I’ll look after you.  If you are thoughtful and kind, all will be well,” the tree assured them.

“Should I tell my family?”

“You can but they may not believe you.  When you get home, talk to the tree where your swing is attached.  That tree will tell you how to enter our world and how time will stop for everyone else when you are visiting us.  That way no one will know you are missing and they won’t worry.  What do you say?”

“I say YES!” Isla shouted.

“Isla, it’s time to come in.  Time for p.j.’s and a show,” called Mimi.

“I have to go,” Isla told Ash.

“Okay.  Talk soon,” Ash replied.

The next morning before Isla went home, Dan, the tree surgeon, and his crew came by to cut the dead branches off Ash.  Mimi made Dan promise they would only take the dead parts.  After he left, she watched the workers from her kitchen window.  They were getting too close to the live branches.  She rushed outside just as a leafy bough tumbled down.  Isla heard Mimi calling up to the workers and ran to the screen door to see what was wrong.

“Stop! Stop!” Mimi yelled.  “Don’t cut any live branches.  We must protect what life this tree has left.”  

They heard her.  Ash was safe. 

Isla breathed a sigh of relief and heard the tree sigh along with them.

     Chapter 3

When Isla got home that night, it was too late to talk to the tree.  Early next morning before breakfast, they went to the tree that held their new swing just as Ash held their old swing in Mimi’s backyard.

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           They stood in front of the tree and quietly said “Hello.”  The tree didn’t respond.  They waited for what seemed like a long time, but still no answer.  Had they gone to the wrong tree?  They decided to count to 20.  If the tree didn’t answer, they would return after breakfast and try again.

           “One, two, three, four, five, six,” they counted.  Then they tried singing the numbers.  “Seven, eight, nine and ten, should I try again” they rhymed.  Isla began to worry.   Maybe Ash was wrong and their tree wouldn’t be able to talk to them.

           They sang all the way up to 20, but the tree was quiet.  Disappointed, they turned to go inside.

           “You have a nice voice,” they heard behind them.

          They turned to face the tree.  “Thank you.  I was afraid you wouldn’t hear me.”

           “I’m glad I did.  I understand you’re going to be traveling in our world.  We have work to do, so you can learn the ropes, that is, how to get around.”

           “Isla, breakfast is ready,” they heard their mother call.

           “I’m not hungry” Isla told their mother.

           “Well, you have to eat something before we go shopping,” their mother called back.

           “I don’t want to go shopping.  I want to stay home,” shouted Isla.

           “Isla, come in now and have a quick breakfast,” their mother answered.

           “I wish I could eat when I wanted to and stay home if I wanted to,” thought Isla.

          Then they sighed and told the tree “I’ll be back later.”

          The tree responded, “When you return, I’ll start teaching you the ways of trees.”

           Isla went inside, raced to the dining room, and ate their yogurt and granola as fast as they could.  Then, they took their bowl out to the kitchen,

           “I’m just going outside until we have to leave,” they told their mother who was emptying the dishwasher.

           “Okay. It’ll be about 20 minutes,” their mother advised them.

           Isla ran to the tree but stood behind it, so their mother couldn’t see what they were doing.  They weren’t sure their mother would understand.

           “I’m back but I’ll have to leave in a little while,” they said to the tree.

           “Okay.  Let me introduce myself.  In this yard, I’m known as oldest maple or O.M. for short.  Since we don’t have much time, I’m going to tell you how we will visit with each other and with other trees. “

           “Nice to meet you O.M.,” Isla replied.

           “And you,“ O.M. answered. “If you decide to join us, you will enter inside our community of trees by actually going inside, for example, inside me.  Once you are in, I’ll show you around.  You’ll learn how to travel through roots or even branches.  You’ll meet others that make a home inside me and inside Ash.”

           “Do you mean animals and insects?” Isla asked.

           “Yes, and you’ll see fungi, a plant that keeps us connected, like your Internet.”

           “I’m a little scared,” Isla admitted.

           “I understand,” O.M. agreed. “How about we give it a quick try, and if you don’t like it, we won’t continue.”

           “Okay,“ Isla answered with a bit of worry in their voice.  Before they knew it, they were in a dark place, but they didn’t feel scared.  They heard O.M.’s voice.

           “How are you?  You are in a small tree hollow.  Do you want to leave?” O.M. asked.

           Isla couldn’t speak. Once their eyes adjusted to the shadows, the light amazed them.  They could look up and see spots of sunlight fall on the tree almost like stars on its golden wood.  It reminded them of their living room at sunset, warm and peaceful.

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           Suddenly, they were outside.

           “I put you outside because you didn’t answer me: I was worried you might be frightened,” O.M. explained.

           Isla couldn’t make their lips move as they tried to understand what had happened to them.

           “Isla, Isla.  Time to get going,” their mother called.

           “Isla, are you okay?” asked O.M.

           “Inside was so beautiful,” they answered.

           “Isla, do you want to take anything with you?” their mother called.

           “You go,” said O.M. “We’ll do this again and I’ll explain what you were seeing.  You might even meet some of the other inhabitants.”

           “See you soon,” said Isla and patted the tree goodbye.

Chapter Four

It was late afternoon by the time Isla got home.  They told their mother they were going to play in the back yard after they changed their clothes.

            “Aren’t you comfortable?” she asked.

            “Yes, I am” Isla answered emphatically.  “Don’t be like Mimi, always asking that question.  She worries too much about people being comfortable- what they wear, where they sit, are they too warm or too cold.  It’s annoying.”

            “Okay, okay. I’m going to start dinner.  Let me know if you want to cook with me.”

            “I’d rather be outside,” Isla called as they ran upstairs to their room. 

“I think I should wear my boots in case it gets muddy inside the tree.  Maybe I should bring my flashlight.  It might be really dark.  And a magnifying glass might be useful” Isla said aloud.  They decided to wear a backpack to hold all their gear and allow their hands be free.  

“Would you like some company?” called a soft musical voice.  It was Croquet, Isla’s imaginary friend who wasn’t always imaginary.   Her hair was white except for a big poof of pink hair on the top of her head.  Her eyes were black with green bags around one eye and pink bags around the other.  Isla liked her looks: they were so interesting.

            “Yes, oh yes, I would,” Isla answered.  “I’m going to visit inside a tree in the backyard, and I’m a bit nervous.”
            “I would be too.  Sometimes, it’s hard for me to be in a new place with new people.  Even people I’ve met before can make me feel shy.  Together, we won’t be as worried.”

            “Agreed,” Isla told Croquet as they made their way down the stairs, out the back door, and over to the tree.

            “I’m back, “ she told O.M.

            “And who did you bring along?” O.M. asked kindly.

            “Can you see her?  You’d be the first besides me.  Her name is Croquet.  She’s one of my closest friends.”

            “I don’t see in the same way you do, but I sense a being.  And my sense is that your friend is kind and generous,” O.M. replied

            “Thank you,” said Croquet who sounded as if she were singing.

            “Okay folks.  Here we go.  Welcome to my world,” invited O.M.

            Immediately, they were inside the tree.  Isla fished out their flashlight and lit it.   They could see through the floor.  It looked like their hair after a bath or like their mother’s hair which is very curly.

“What are all those tangles below?” she asked O.M.

            “You might say they’re my life blood.  They’re my roots and attached to them are a type of fungi.”

            “What’s fungi?” asked Croquet.  Isla was glad Croquet felt at ease and asked the question they had also considered.

            “Have you ever seen a mushrooms growing by trees?” asked O.M.

            Isla and Croquet nodded yes.

            “We have some in our backyard,“ added Isla.  “They’re called morels and they aren’t poisonous.  We had them for dinner one night.”

            “Well mushrooms are the fleshy part of the fungi, like an apple is the fruit of its tree.  The parts that grow the mushroom underground live along side my roots.  They’re partners with trees.  We give them lots of nutrients like sugar for energy and they transmit information amongst the members of the community.”

            “Like what?’ asked Isla. 

            “Well you know that other maple in this yard, the one close to your house?” asked O.M.

            Isla and Croquet again nodded yes.

            “If that tree, which is smaller and younger than me, needs water, it sends a message to the other trees in your yard that it’s too dry.  When we get the information, we send it some water, so it can be healthy.”        

            “OW!” cried Isla and Croquet in unison.

            “What’s wrong?” asked O.M.

            “Something just pushed by us and bumped us hard,” Isla cried out.

            Croquet whispered in Isla’s ear, “I’m scared.”

            “I’m sorry.  I should have warned you.  That was Skiouros, my resident squirrel.  He lives here.  It was cold last night, so he’s busy looking for nuts and places to hide them.  When he gets anxious, he doesn’t notice anything around him. “

Skiouros, an Eastern Grey Squirrel

“Skiouros.  I never heard a name like that before,” said Isla relieved she hadn’t been hit by some weird tree monster.

            “It’s Greek for squirrel.  By mistake, Skiouros ended up in Greece one summer and took a liking to it.  He can’t get back, so he holds on to his memories by having a Greek name.”

            “Why can’t he go back?” asked Croquet.

            “He traveled through the system used for transporting visitors from tree to tree and, by mistake, got caught in a loop.  He ended up in a pine tree on Mount Parnassus.  That method of travel is only for visitors like you and Croquet, not for the residents of the community. “

            As O.M. was talking, Isla got out their magnifying glass.  They wanted to see the fungi more closely.  They bent over, lost their footing, and fell between two large roots.  They let out a big groan.     

            “What happened now?” asked O.M.

            “Isla fell,” answered Croquet. “They can’t talk because they had the wind knocked out of them.”

            “Another warning I needed to give you.  Walk carefully because this isn’t a flat surface.  It twists and turns.  It’s like walking on a log that isn’t straight.  Can you get out?” O.M. asked worriedly.

            “I’m out,” answered Isla.  “Croquet has many skills.  For example, she can twist herself into any shape.  And she is very strong.  So she helped pull me out.”

            Isla put their arm around Croquet and gave her a thank you hug.

            “Isla, time to come in.  I need help with dinner.  Where are you hiding?

I want to see my beautiful bean,” called Isla’s mother.

            “Who’s bean?” asked O.M.

            “That’s a nick name my dad gave me,” said Isla.

            “Well, you better go.  Will you come back or did you get too scared?”

            “We’ll be back, won’t we Croquet?”  Isla assured the tree and Croquet smiled in agreement.

Chapter 5

            Isla was moving up to the first grade and was busy for the next few weeks, so they didn’t have a chance to visit O.M.   At school, they began looking at trees more closely, wondering which ones talked to each other, which ones helped each other.  Finally, on Saturday morning, Isla approached O.M.

            “O.M., I’m here,” they told the tree.  “Can I visit?”

            For a while, there was no response.  Then they heard O.M. speak in a whisper.

            “Hello Isla.  I’m afraid I’m not feeling well today.  I think I’ve got a virus. I’ve alerted the community.  I wonder if Ash is okay.  I know the Emerald Ash Borer is killing many of them.  Have you heard anything about Ash because I haven’t and I’m worried?”

Emerald Ash Borer

“No, I didn’t know Ash was in danger.  I’ll ask my mom to call Mimi.  She needs to know about this disease.  What ails you?” Isla questioned worriedly. She didn’t want her new friend to get sick.  She didn’t want to lose O.M.

            “I think it is just mildew and lichen, which won’t do me in but makes me tired. See what you can find out about Ash from your Mom, or if you’re game, you could visit Ash and find out yourself.  It will be your first voyage.  We could try tomorrow.  Are you interested?”

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            Emerald Ash Borer

“I am but I’m nervous.  I’ll talk it over with Croquet and we’ll decide together.  I’ll let you know later today.  I hope you feel better.”

            Isla went to their room to confer with Croquet about taking that first trip through the trees.  They discussed whether they were ready.  After all they didn’t know what to expect.  But they hadn’t  had any trouble inside the tree and it seemed that O.M. did look after them.   The tree had taught them how to walk along its underground roots.  They decided that they were pretty safe and would probably go tomorrow.  But first, Isla wanted to get a grown-up’s advice. 

That afternoon their father was taking them to the dog park so their drother, Moose, could play with his friends. While they were there, Isla would find a way to get his opinion. Isla went outside to find their father and Moose.  He was getting Goldie, the car, ready for the trip.

            “Should I get Moose?” they asked him. 

            “Sure.  I’m just about ready,” he answered.

            On the way to the park, Moose whined and cried most of the way.  He couldn’t wait to romp around with the other dogs.  When they got there, they could barely hang on to his leash as he pulled them towards the entrance.  Once he was inside, he tore around the perimeter of the park.  After he found his friends, they licked their faces and started jumping on each other.

            As they watched Moose, Isla approached the subject.

“Dad, when you were young did you ever do something that nobody else knew about?”

            “What age are we looking at?” he asked.

            “Well, my age.” Isla answered.

            “I did.  One day, I needed to have an adventure, to do something risky but something I thought I could handle.  I didn’t want to get into trouble and I didn’t want to hurt myself.  And I didn’t want my parents to be involved.  They might not have approved.  So I got my bike and rode down the street to visit my friend, Drew.  We decided to pack a lunch and ride up to the woods at the end of our neighborhood.” 

            “What happened?” asked Isla.

            “We put snacks and fruit drinks in our backpacks and made for the trees.  We tried to find paths to ride on once we got there but that didn’t work, so we parked our bikes and took a walk instead.  We found a log, sat down, and ate our lunch. After awhile which seemed like a long while, we began to worry that our parents might find out.  So we rode home.  We’d only been gone a half-hour.  No one knew or so we thought.  When we were older, we found out that our parents had seen us riding in the street and decided to watch us but not interfere.  They wanted us to feel independent, but they were making sure we were safe.”

            Neither of them said anything for a while as they watched Moose cavorting.  After their father gave Moose some water, they sat down on one of the benches. 

            “Should I be looking out for you Isla?” asked their dad.

            “I think I’ll be all right.  We read books about kids traveling through time and solving problems.  I’d like to have some adventures too and I’d like to help plants and animals if they’re in trouble,” they told him. They knew he wouldn’t ask a lot of questions.  He trusted them to take care of themself.

            After lunch, Isla and Croquet visited O.M. 

            “How are you feeling?” Isla asked the tree.

            “I’m recovering.  Some others in the community sent more nourishment my way and it helped.  I’ll be fine by tomorrow.  Have you decided to take a trip to Princeton and see Ash?” O.M. asked the two friends.

            “We want to go.  I have horseback riding lessons tomorrow morning, so it will have to be after lunch “ Isla explained.

Is there anything we need to bring?” asked Croquet.

“Wear shoes that have a good grip.  Bring some wipes in case your hands get dirty or you touch something that might infect me when you return.  And bring a flashlight just in case.”

After lunch on Sunday, Isla went to their room to get ready for their trip. Moose came into the room while they and Croquet were packing their gear.  He started sniffing around and putting the wipes in his mouth.  Then, he wouldn’t let go.  Isla had to be stern with him. 

“Drop it Moose,” they told him.  “Drop it.”

A few seconds later, he obeyed.  They needed to get going.   When they left the house, he followed them. Isla knew once they disappeared into the tree, Moose would make a fuss, so they took him back inside and told their mother he was bothering them. 

Finally, they were ready and called to O.M. that it was time.  Instantly they were inside the tree. 

“I see you came prepared.  Once you get going, it may feel a bit strange,” O.M. informed them.

“How?” Croquet and Isla asked in unison.

“Of course, I’ve never had the pleasure, but I understand it might feel like you are on a fast boat with the wind at your back.  It doesn’t hurt but you might feel the pressure.  It also doesn’t last long.  Ready?” O.M. asked.

Isla and Croquet held each other’s hands and nodded yes. Then, they felt a surge and a whoosh pushing their bodies through what seemed like a tunnel.  Seconds later, they landed on their backsides as the force dropped them off inside Ash. 

“Well hello you two,” said Ash and chuckled to himself.  “I see you had a safe landing, sort of.”       

They stood up and brushed themselves off, excited and still a bit nervous.

“Is that really you, Ash?” asked Isla. 
           “Are we really here?  asked Croquet.

“Welcome to Princeton,” Ash said to the two friends.  “What brings you here?”

Chapter 6

Isla and Croquet looked around to make sure they were really in Princeton.  The trip happened so quickly that it felt like a dream.  Had they really traveled hundreds of mile in just a few seconds? 

“It’s true,” Isla said aloud.  “We did it Croquet.”

Croquet’s eyes widened in wonder.   So this was Mimi’s house.  So this was Princeton.   Isla realized that they needed to find out if Ash was okay, if he was free from the virus.

“We came to make sure your aren’t sick with the Emerald Ash Borer disease,” Isla explained.

“I see you’ve been talking with O.M.,” Ash replied.  “So far so good.  Mimi’s been taking good care of me and my off spring, Sprout, over there.  She has the arborist give us medication every two years.  But many ash trees have not been as lucky.”        

“I’m relieved you’re healthy,” Isla told Ash.

“Me too,” chimed in Croquet.

Then they heard a car pulling into the driveway.  Isla was sure it was Mimi.  They didn’t know what to do.  How could they explain how they got to Princeton?  And they couldn’t ask Mimi to keep it a secret from their parents.  She wouldn’t go for that. 

“Ash,” Isla said hurriedly, “ Please put us back inside so Mimi doesn’t get curious.”

The tree did their bidding and, immediately, Isla and Croquet were inside the tree.  A few minutes later, they heard the car leaving.  Mimi must have forgotten something as she often did and came back to the house to get whatever it was she had left behind.

Isla asked Ash to put them outside.  They wanted to show Croquet around the yard and have a visit with their favorite places.  Isla took Croquet to the side yard where one summer they had built a stage out of some slate Mimi was storing.  With their dolls and stuffed animals, they had put on a show with dancing and singing. Mimi had been impressed with their performance.  Then, Isla and Croquet peeked out the front yard gate to gaze on Isla’s climbing tree, the big tulip magnolia on the side of the driveway.

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Isla thought that they should finish their visit with Ash and head home before Mimi reappeared.  So they returned to the back yard.

  “Ash, you said that many trees have not survived because of the virus. What happened to them?”

            “Once they get ill or someone notices that the trees are infected, they cut them down.  You can see many fallen trees in neighborhoods and forests.  It can be hard to look at.  All that life destroyed, not to mention the loss of family members amongst the trees.  They rely on each other for support.”

Isla and Croquet almost started to cry as they imagined all the trees that had died.  Ash noticed their sad faces.

            “Don’t be too down cast, “Ash told them. “Even when a tree seems to be dead, like an old stump, it’s still part of the community.  The neighboring trees help to keep it alive if possible and the stump will share its small resources with the other trees.  Even when a tree dies, it helps others.  As it rots it puts nutrients in the soil that help seedlings grow.  We look after each other even when we’re old and sick.”

Ash Stump Still Producing

“What can we do?” asked Isla.

            “Well, you could spread the word about this virus, so more people can save our trees.  People sometimes think trees are nice to look out or even to climb on, but they may not know the many ways trees contribute to the environment.  For instance, trees pull carbon monoxide from the air and put back oxygen. When it’s hot, trees provide shade for people and plants.  Also, we provide shelter for animals.”

            “Like Skiouros the squirrel who lives in O.M,” Isla and Croquet said in unison.  They often found themselves saying the same thing at the same time.

            “Yes, squirrels, mice, and even turkeys feed on ash seeds.  In fact, a flock of wild turkeys once ran across this very back yard.  And bats and porcupines like to make their homes in the hollows formed in our branches and trunks.”

Wild Turkey’s in Princeton Back Yard

Suddenly, they heard a car door slam in the driveway.

            “Uh oh,” said Isla.  “Mimi’s home.  We need to get back to my house.”

            Ash accommodated them and with a swoosh, they were in Claverack.

            O.M put them outside when they landed and asked about their trip.

            “I loved traveling through trees.  It felt like I was part of your lives.  And Ash doesn’t have the virus but New Jersey has been hit hard.  I want to help, but I’m not sure how,” Isla explained.

            “I have a feeling you will think of something,” O.M. assured them.

            “ I hope so.  When I do, I’ll tell you all about it.  I better go inside now.”

            “It’s been a pleasure,” O.M. replied.  “You two have been excellent guests.”

Isla and Croquet felt weary from their travels and made their way back to the house.  Moose greeted them at the door with slobbering kisses.

            “You didn’t stay out very long,” Isla’s mom called to them.  “You’ve only been in the yard a minute or two.”

            So it was true, Isla thought.  Time moved differently when they traveled through trees.  They hadn’t been missed.

            “I feel like playing in my room,” Isla called to their mother as they made their way up the stairs to their bedroom

            Isla and Croquet climbed up on Isla’s bed.

“We need a plan,” Isla said.  “We’ve got to help save the ash trees.  So many living creatures depend on them.”

            Croquet nodded in agreement.

“I’m just going to close my eyes and try to think” Isla advised her.  Seconds later they were fast asleep.

            Isla was awakened when Moose jumped up on the bed and began licking their face.  They didn’t mind: they liked cuddling with their drother.   A few minutes later, their mother came to the door.

            “So you’re up.  About an hour ago, I came upstairs and saw you were taking a nap.  It’s been a long time since you fell asleep in the afternoon.  You must be going through another growth spurt.”            

            Isla smiled, a smile for their mother and a smile for themself as they remembered their secret adventure. Their mom smiled back and winked.

            “Well dinner will be ready soon,” she said as she turned from the door to go back downstairs.

            “Croquet, where are you?” Isla called.

            “Right behind you,” whispered Croquet.  She was sitting on the top of the headboard with her friend Lavender who looked a lot like Croquet but had a poof of purple hair instead of pink.  And like Croquet, she could only be seen and heard by Isla.

            “Hi Lavender.  Nice to see you.  Do you two have any ideas about saving trees?” Isla asked them.

            “We should spread the news like Ash said.  Let other people know about this illness.”

            “Exactly.  But how?”  Isla, Croquet, and Lavender thought hard.

            “A poster!” they cried out together. 

            “And I can take it to school, show it to my class, and tell them all about it.”         

            Immediately they got to work.  Isla’s brain was humming.  They felt full of excitement and hope.  Tomorrow was an important beginning.

Chapter 7

          Before Isla knew it, several hours had gone by. The poster was almost done.            

          “What do you think?” Isla asked Croquet and Lavender.

          “Be-U-Tiful,” they exclaimed in unison nodding their heads enthusiastically.

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Croquet and Lavender

          Just then, Isla’s mom called up the stairs that dinner was ready.  Isla sighed.  They wanted to finish the poster and take it to school tomorrow.  Maybe their parents would let them finish it before they went to bed.  After they sat down to dinner, Isla’s father asked what they had been up to.

          “I’m making a poster about sick trees,” they informed him.

          “Sick trees?” he asked, clearly confused.

          “Yes,” said Isla. “Did you know that ash trees are being attacked by an insect called the Emerald Ash Borer?”

          “No, never heard of it,” their father replied. 

          “Well the Emerald Ash Borer is infecting ash trees and thousands and thousands and thousands are getting sick. It’s so sad. I want to let people know, so the trees can be helped.”

          “What a coincidence,” their mother injected into the conversation. “I was talking to Mimi while I was cooking dinner and she said the same thing.  In fact, she was very upset because she got a letter from a landscaper that said Princeton is going to cut down 107 infected ash trees right around the corner from her house.”

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          “See how awful this is!” Isla exclaimed. “That’s why I have to finish my poster tonight.  I want to take it to school and show my class.  The sooner people know, the sooner the trees can be saved!”

           “How do you know about all of this?” asked their father.

          “I keep my ear to the ground,” Isla said with a smile.

          Their mother and father thought that was a pretty good joke and moved on to discuss who was taking Moose to the dog park tomorrow morning.  Isla was relieved that they didn’t have to explain how they had learned about the disease.  If it came up again, they would say that Mimi had told them.

          Often after dinner, the family put on music and had a dance party.  But tonight, Isla asked for an early bath, so they could have time to finish the poster. Their parents agreed.

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          Next morning before they left for school, Isla used paper bags to protect the poster and keep it hidden.  When Isla arrived at school, their classmates clamored around them.

          “Isla, show us what you have,” they demanded.

          “You’ll see,” Isla replied mysteriously.

          Right before class, Isla went up to Hannah, their teacher, and whispered in her ear.

          “I have a special announcement to make.  May I do it before we begin our work?”

           Hannah nodded yes and a few minutes later, she announced that Isla had something special they wanted to discuss.  Isla looked around at their classmates and told them all about the Emerald Ash Borer and the terrible plight of the ash trees.

            “Did you know that 100 million ash trees have been destroyed?”

            “No,” the children replied amazed at the number of dead trees.

            “Levi raised his hand and asked, “Why?”

            Isla told them that most people believed if the trees were too infected, it was best to cut them down. When they saw the look of dismay on their faces, Isla repeated what Ash had told them.

            “Don’t be too sad.  When trees are cut down, some life remains in the stump. and it can give nutrients to trees that need them.”

            “What?” asked Bryne. “You mean trees help each other?”

            Isla, then, told the class about trees being a family, about how they communicate, and how they support each other.

            Hannah said to the class, “We’re learning a lot about how living organisms relate to each other. It’s like a mini biology class.”

            “What can we do?” called out some of Isla’s classmates.

            “We can tell the world,” Isla answered.

            Hannah asked Isla, “Do you have a plan?”
            Isla nodded yes and reached behind them to bring out the poster.

            “We need to let other people know, so they can give their ash trees the medication that fights the infection.  And we should let people know that trees need to be in groups, that they shouldn’t be cut down, and that they shouldn’t plant just one in their gardens. Trees are like us: they need each other.”

            Hannah suggested that the students work together to find a way to spread the news. There was a great deal of excitement in the room as the children brainstormed ideas.

            “We can put your poster on the Instagram site for Catskill Montessori.”

            “We can ask our parents to use their Instagram accounts to do the same.”

            “We could each make signs and walk up and down Warren Street in Hudson this Saturday.”

            And on and on came the suggestions.

            “Well,” said Hannah. “I’ll see if we can put Isla’s poster on our Instagram account. You tell your parents about what you’ve learned and see if they think a parade on Warren Street is a good idea.”     

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Warren Street, Hudson, New York

          That night at dinner Isla told their parents about what had happened in school. They asked Isla what they could do and if they could carry a sign on Warren Street this Saturday.  Isla felt sure they were on their way to helping their tree friends.

            That night with Moose at their feet, they dreamed of marching up and down Warren Street but instead of their classmates, they were arm in arm with O.M. and Ash.  The next day before they left for school, they told O.M. the good news.

            “Thank you, Isla, for trying to help. I hope it does some good!”

            Isla was surprised O.M. used the word hope.  Of course, it would work!  But they soon discovered all did not go well.

            That morning Hannah gathered the children together and asked how the tree project was going.

No one replied. Isla decided to speak up.      

            “My parents said they would go with me and carry their own sign on Warren Street.”

            “Mine think it’s too dangerous, marching in a group with signs,” said one classmate.  Other’s nodded their heads in agreement.

            Isla was amazed. “But the trees,” they cried, “they need us!”

            No one answered.  Isla stood up and started to walk away.  They felt angry and let down by their friends.

            Hannah called them back. “I have an idea, Isla.  Why don’t you all make signs about the Emerald Ash Borer and about the importance of trees?  Then, if your parents agree, Isla could go to stores in Hudson and ask to display them.  What do you think of that approach?”

            Isla agreed.  They didn’t think it would be as effective, but it was better than nothing.

            After school, Isla visited O.M. and told the tree what had happened.

            “Don’t be disheartened Isla.  Did you ever hear the expression, tall oaks from little acorns grow?”

           “No.” Isla replied.

            O.M. continued, “It’s an old proverb, anywhere from 200 to 600 years old. It means that you can start out as small as an acorn but grow into something mighty like an oak tree.  In fact there’s an ecologist, James Murray White, who used that very expression in his Save the Oaks campaign in England.  So your acorn is you visiting the stores in Hudson.  It’s the first small step that could grow in a very big oak, that is, a march forward.  Thank you for beginning.”

          Isla wrapped their arms around their good friend, O.M. They felt restored.

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Trying to Write

MOTHERS

MARCH 6 2022

This blog is an attempt to finish a project or several projects while examining their success or failure.

I have three novels and five short stories all unfinished.  I, also, have the beginnings of a book about my immigrant grandparents, each from a different country.  I hope to fight my way out of this paper bag of beginnings and no endings.

But first, I offer up two completed short stories that look at the dilemma of motherhood.  Recently, a number of films examined its constraints and the consequences of shaking off the “ties that bind.”   In the following short stories, one mother takes off, the other endures.   Each requires a form of courage.

Migrations

by

Judith Zinis

The train to Doylestown was delayed.  Maybe the Bicentennial celebration of American Independence interfered.  Jane didn’t mind.  She liked Philadelphia’s 3Oth Street Station.  It had elegance and grandeur.  She could pretend she was in a 1940’s movie waiting to board a train with a club car that served martinis.  She began walking towards the benches hoping to while away the time reliving her visit to Maureen’s Upper West Side apartment, the museum visits, the drinks with friends.  For a few days, Jane had been an earlier self, one that had rarely surfaced in the last ten years.  Maureen hadn’t changed much.  Unlike Jane, Maureen wasn’t married, didn’t have two kids, and didn’t live in small town Pennsylvania.

Suddenly a jarring noise filled her ears as she felt herself falling forward and, then, being pulled upright.

“Can I help you?  Are you all right?” A young man asked, letting go of her arm.

I’ve done it again, she realized.  Drifted off.  In dismay, she saw the contents of her handbag strewed across the polished floor

“No, no.  I’m fine.  Just a bit disoriented,” Jane replied, bending over to gather her possessions.

“Do you need directions?  You look a bit lost.  Where do you want to go?’’ he asked.       

“How about the sunny side of the street?”

“Huh?  Sunny what?” he questioned.

She was really losing her grip.  She wondered what she was up to.  From the look on his face, he did too.   I’ll save him, she thought.

“Sunny California,” she answered.

“Oh, I thought you were putting me on.  Singing like that.”

Have I been singing too, she wondered?

He continued, “You want to go to Track 10.  I guess you’re taking the Broadway

Limited to Chicago before changing trains to California.”

“Yes, yes.  That’s right,” she assured him.

“Hey, how about if I carry your suitcase.  You look worried.”

Just what I need, a therapist, Jane fretted to herself.

“No thanks.  Just point me.”

“Are you staying long?”

Why wouldn’t he let her go?  She could fess up and admit she was really going to Doylestown, but the charade seemed easier. 

“Maybe permanently.”

“Bet, you’re afraid of flying.”

“No.  I just wanted to see the country.”

Jane was getting into the farce.  She wished it were true.

“Just go past those ticket booths, the ones on the left.  I used to work here, so I know my way around.  I wouldn’t mind going to California myself.  I once saw a photo of Union Station in Los Angeles.  Great train station.  I’d love to see it in person.”

“O.K.  Well, thanks for everything,” Jane told him as she moved away.  Every time she turned around, he was watching her with that pleasant open face, protective, making sure she didn’t get lost.

She decided to play out the lie.  She had time.  She could watch travelers board the train while preparing herself to reenter motherhood, wifehood.  They seemed more like institutions than an existence.

The weekend had made her hopeful, filled with possibilities.  Over the last decade, the entity called Jane had withered up and blown away.  She hadn’t even noticed: perhaps, knowing was too dangerous, maybe the end of her nuclear family.  Extremes lodged themselves inside her.  Better than the middle, she thought.

She sat on a bench and watched the passengers enter the long row of cars to Chicago.  Jane drifted back to the last forty-eight hours: without a husband and children she had emerged a different person, a stranger.  Maureen seemed to know this stranger.  She had even laughed at the some of the stranger‘s remarks.  And Jane’s gait had changed; instead of dragging her feet, each foot was gracefully lifted and placed lightly on the street.  The sound of her shoes meeting the sidewalk reminded her of French films, the soft clacking of women’s heels as they climbed the stairs of the metro. 

She had held herself together.  When she drank white wine with Maureen‘s friends, she had actually sipped instead of her usual frenzied gulping.  To the group of people with whom she and John occasionally shared drinks, she often appeared to be desperately thirsty, grasping for wine with the same panic a drowning person searches for air.  This weekend, she had been articulate, not brilliant, but articulate.

I was alive for a few days just like that group of porters standing together alongside the train, she thought.  They had forgotten kids, wives, girlfriends, and wages, responsibilities that can sometimes kill the spirit.  Instead, they bumped up against one another, joking, encouraging each other, feet moving and sliding, keeping time, a dance.

Her thoughts moved back to the suburbs rummaging through her chores: getting the boys ready for camp, gardening, teaching summer courses to students whose minds drifted away from film studies to the Jersey shore.  The energy she had regained in Manhattan was slipping away.

Two women walking by caught her attention.  They were rushing, stressed with the effort of making the train.  Instead of snapping at each other, instead of turning angry faces on one another as Jane and John might have done, they laughed and chattered together.

Jane started to imagine herself as a passenger.   She entertained thoughts of stowing away, then laughed out loud at the image of a thirty-two year old uncovered in the baggage department.  Will this displaced homemaker discover that Hollywood is only made of tinsel?  That the wizard is a fake?  Will she learn to look for real happiness in her own backyard?

“I think Dorothy was full of it.”

“What do you mean lady? Dorothy?”

“I don’t know you,” Jane said to the incredulous teenager sitting next to her.

“Well, I sure don’t want to know you!  Too much time in the hat factory.”

What was going on?  Why was he bugging her?  Jane asked herself as she stared into his face.

“You know glue lady.  Sniffing glue,” he informed her and moved away.

She had been talking to herself again, and she had probably missed her train.  Now she would have to call John.

“Lady, you gettin’ on the train?  We’re leaving,” a porter called to her.

“How much is it?” she asked.

“This ain’t no information booth.  This ain’t no ticket booth.  This is a train.”

  “We’re leaving, lady. You comin’?”

She couldn’t answer.

“Go out to the information booth.  Tell them your problems.  Get a ticket.  Get a friend.”

Jane drifted back to the lobby.  She should let John know that she would be late.  But there was time, she reasoned.  Meanwhile, for fun, she’d take the porter’s advice and inquire about a ticket to California.  She approached the man behind the booth and, immediately, became tongue-tied.  He eyed her coldly.  Jane was certain he knew that she had no right to be there.  He saw through her ridiculous fantasy.

“Speak up lady.  I can’t hear you.  This isn’t a microphone you talking into, no coast-to-coast broadcast.  What do you want?”

She asked the price of a ticket to California.

“That depends, lady.  Sleeper or straight passenger?”  He gave her the price for both.

“It’s too much money.  What would I live on?’ Jane protested.

“What am I?  A social worker?  Do you want to buy one or not?”

“It’s so much money,” Jane repeated.

“So take the bus.  How about it?  What’s it going to be?  I got people waitin’ here.”

Without answering, Jane stepped aside leaving behind a line of confident purposeful travelers.  But he had planted a seed.  She remembered reading in a travel magazine that the Greyhound Bus Company was offering a hundred dollar cross-country ticket.  The walk to the bus station was about twenty blocks but she figured she could manage it.  She had an escape plan.  But she could always turn back.

Not far from the Greyhound bus station, she passed a liquor store.  In times of crisis, characters in English movies always encouraged the hysterical heroine to have a brandy.  A flask and a small bottle of whiskey would do the trick. 

A few blocks later, she paused in front of a Western Union office.  So you could still send a wire.  Ten years ago, in 1966, she had sent one to her brother on his thirteenth birthday.  Tonight, she would send one to John: it eliminated the emotional interference a phone call might allow.  She wasn’t strong enough to withstand any demands to return, to pull her away from being Jane.  She filled the flask, took a slug, and entered the Western Union office.

DEAR JOHN.  STOP.  THIS IS NOT A DEAR JOHN.  STOP.  MUST NOT COME HOME NOW.  STOP.  NEED TIME.  STOP.  I AM TAKING A TRIP.  STOP.  GIVE MY LOVE TO THE BOYS.  STOP.  JANE.

Inside the bus terminal, she bought her ticket and stepped behind the last passenger waiting to board the 6:10 bus.  She looked through the brochure she had picked up at the ticket booth.  After Philadelphia, stops included Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Denver, Salt Lake City, and Los Angeles.  The Greyhound would be her Conestoga across rivers, through grasslands, over mountains. 

She had ten minutes or so to change her mind: she could still make a later train.  She could explain the telegram as a joke, a bad joke.   She would laugh and place her head against John’s chest.  He would stroke her hair: within seconds, she would be cosseted, protected, safe as a treasured child.

“Going far?”

Startled out of that possible scenario, Jane looked into a face pitted with old acne scars.  She stumbled into an answer.

“California, um, California.”

“Ever done this before?  Traversing the continent by bus?”

  “I’ve never crossed this country by any means.  This is my first time for both.”

“You’ll like it.  I do this every year.  I come to New York from Indiana.”

“Why?” she asked his gold-flexed green eyes.

Before he could answer, they were shoved forward as the doors of the bus opened.  Jane quickly lost her place as she worked through the maze of checking her luggage.  When she entered the bus, she realized she would have to sit with someone.  She launched herself into the closest available seat next to the man with green eyes.

“Do you mind if I sit here?” she inquired.

“You wouldn’t be here if I did.”

As Jane turned around to see if other seats were empty, he continued.

“I make this crossing twice a year, so I’ve discovered ways of keeping people away. “

“Like what?” Jane asked.

“I just cover the adjoining seat with magazines, bags, clothing.  Then, I stretch across both seats pretending to sleep.  It usually works.”

Jane sat upright holding her awkwardly arranged possessions close to her as the bus pulled out of the terminal.  Should she pick up the threads of the conversation or arrange herself more comfortably?  What etiquette was expected of a fellow traveler?  He turned towards the window without offering any further advice.   Again, she was looking for guideposts to the best Jane.  She had fallen into that familiar trap so quickly.  Forget it!  She would make herself comfortable, take a look around, and decide how to proceed.

Her seat was so close to the front of the bus that Jane felt she was piloting a ship, charting a course.  She was mythmaking.  She turned towards her companion.

“It’s like that Paul Simon lyric, ‘We’ve all come to look for America’,” she shared enthusiastically having lost any reservations she may have had.  She almost burst into song.

Taken in by her exuberance, the slim man with the scarred face, green eyes, and sensuous mouth presented a portrait of himself.  He was an assistant professor in theater at a small college, he was married, and he was from the Midwest.  He shared his struggles with teaching and his take on the state of drama in the United States.  To Jane, he seemed disconnected from his narrative, almost bored, as if he had offered it up too many times.

“Are you censored at the college?  Can you teach the plays you choose?  Do you feel restricted living and teaching in the Midwest?  How long have you taught there?”  She threw question after question at him unable to stop the barrage.

He answered but after an hour or so, turned back towards the window.  When the bus made a dinner stop in Pittsburgh, he hurried away.  She figured she had wanted too much. 

His retreat didn’t discourage her.  There was too much to see.  She hadn’t known Pennsylvania could be so beautiful, so lush.  Even Pittsburgh delighted her.  She feasted on the intersection of the three rivers: the Monongahela, the Allegheny, and the Ohio.  The magic of Native American names, the light reflected off the water enchanted her.  She could barely keep hold of her thoughts.  Even her body seemed out of control.  After long stretches of craning her neck to look through the front window, she would settle back in her seat only to jump up and gaze into the night.

Jane was getting higher and higher spinning out of reach even to herself.  This was a good time to pull out the whiskey.  Morning wasn’t far away.  She hesitated before offering a swig to her seatmate but decided to break through the layer of ice that had formed around the relationship. 

She tapped his shoulder and held the flask out to him.  He hesitated perhaps remembering the bus driver’s warning against imbibing liquor or smoking what he had called that “other funny stuff.”  She guessed that meant marijuana.  His ambivalence lasted only a few seconds before putting the flask to his lips.  Soon they were co-conspirators on a voyage of their own which would last until it was time for him to disembark.

“Is it just the theater that draws you to Manhattan?” Jane asked as the flask changed hands. 

“Mostly, but I, also, need time to drift back to myself.  New York gives me permission to explore parts of me that seem extreme and unreasonable in Indiana.  Manhattan allows me to live there without losing or relinquishing any part of myself.”

“Doesn’t say much for regional theater or regional America,” she countered. “Is there only a waste land out there to greet me?”

“Depends on what you’re looking for,” he answered.

“Me.  I’m looking for me.  What do you find in New York?”

“In the theater?”

“O.K., “ she acquiesced.

“New York is bombarded by hypes, where the pressure to be a commercial success seems to dominate, yet there’s still originality, experimentation.”

“Where?”

  “Off-Broadway and Off –Off-Broadway attract an inquisitive audience.  The playwrights, the actors have people who’ll listen, who’ll engage.”

“But don’t your students want to search, to experiment?”

“To an extent but with little commitment.  Most of them are just putting in time for what they think will be an easy course.”

“Seems hopeless.  As if there aren’t many places in the country where the soul can be fed.  What about the rest of us, those that hanker after a good play, a good movie?  You’re saying we don’t exist?  What about you?”

“I go to Manhattan twice a year,” he offered

“To get recharged?  You hoard all that energy between trips?” Jane retorted.  She didn’t like the insidious portrait of a country that she had yet to experience.

“I saw a foreign film about a traveling theater company that put on Lysistrata in the hinterlands of Sweden,” she told him.

“The actors met with the same sort of mediocrity or complacency you’re describing.  At one point, an actress was appalled at the audience’s apathy.  She stopped the play and addressed them.  Actually she was crying, screaming at them in despair, telling them to listen, to take part.  The play was about their lives, about negotiating power, gender, politics.”

“Did she get through?” he asked.

“No.  The other actors pulled her off stage.  They were angry.  She had broken the fourth wall.  She had forced everyone in the theater to drop their pretensions.  She embarrassed them.”

“Well, what should I do?  Try to make my audiences of farmers, blue-collar workers, and Middle American suburbanites ashamed that they don’t ‘get art’? Embarrass the dinner theater crowd into going to see Aristophanes?”

You’re doing the same thing as my Swedes, trying to separate the two.  Aren’t all those types of drama- theater? If someone enjoys Hello Dolly, it doesn’t mean they’re exiled from appreciating…”

“Eugene O’Neill.”

“O.K. O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night.  Most people have problems with a parent or know someone who’s an addict.  Both plays represent a part of America.”

He shrugged his shoulders and began to make movements of settling into sleep: turning out the overhead light, bending his knees toward his middle, and facing the dark of Ohio soon to become Indiana.

The bus was quiet.  Jane wondered if the driver felt relieved at being alone, if he still saw something new out his window.  She formed the other half of their two peopled Rorschach: turning on her side away from him, pulling her knees toward her stomach, and, finally, slipping into sleep.  Throughout the night, they drifted towards one another until their backs touched.  Yet, neither moved away.  She enjoyed the sexual hit and miss.

He was gone by noon, home to Terre Haute.  Without an exchange of names, the mystery preserved for Jane the guiltless pleasure that had slipped under her skin and had become her own as she moved towards Missouri.

Selecting postcards to send home was the most difficult part of Jane‘s voyage.  Unable to capture the beauty of the landscape or the complexity of her trip, the four by six encapsulations read flat, off-key.  She worried John and the boys wouldn’t get it.  If they tried to leap across the chasm of Middle America to meet her, in spirit at least, would they jump in the wrong direction?

FROM PITTSBURGH:  DEAR JOHN AND BOYS.  THESE ARE MY NOTES FROM THE UNDERGROUND.  THE THREE RIVERS SURROUNDING PITTSBURGH SWIRL INSIDE MY HEAD.  THE WATER SO DARK.  SOMETIMES LIGHT COMES THROUGH.  JANE/MOM

FROM COLUMBUS, OHIO:  DEAR BOYS AND JOHN.  FROM THE TOWN NAMED AFTER THE DISCOVERER OF AMERICA OR WAS HE?  A DECAYED, INDUSTRIAL LANDSCAPE.   SMOKE OBLITERATES THE SKY.  I’VE HEARD THE VIEW IS BETTER FURTHER WEST.  MOM/JANE

Twenty-one hours after leaving Philadelphia, the bus pulled into the Saint Louis terminal.  Jane felt grimy and made her way to the rest rooms filled with other women trying to spruce up.  Some had plenty of equipment: make up, brushes, towels.  She thought they might be homeless.  But, no.  Given the amount of makeup they applied and the tight dresses hiked up to their thighs, she reckoned they might be ladies of the night. 

She was forced to eat a greasy hamburger and down a coke for dinner.  They were no other options.  Within the terminal, the small convenience store’s selection of postcards was limited to views of Gateway Arch, a monument to westward expansion.  After she purchased one, she sat down in the cordoned off area marked for “Women and Children.”  It seems she was dangerous territory.

FROM ST.LOUIS:  EVERYONE.  I’M MOVING OUT NOW.  ON MY WAY.  THE MISSISSIPPI IS NOT VERY WIDE HERE.  IT’S A MEAGER DIVIDING LINE.  THE RIVER IS VULNERABLE.  LOVE, ME.“

Across Missouri, clouds cast shadows over fields of pale gold grain.  Mile after mile of farmland lulled Jane.  Her mind bumped up and down with the rocking of the bus.  Radios from the back seats, noises of children from the middle section, chatter of the elderly in the front rows faded.  She moved outside to the undulating hills.  California was forgotten.  Philadelphia was discarded.  Jane settled in.

In Columbia, Missouri the spell was broken.  Jane had forgotten to place her barricade of books and luggage on the adjoining seat.  Sarah Bennett sat down and offered up the story of her life.

She was on her way to Salina, Kansas: her oldest nephew was graduating from medical school.  For Sarah‘s family, this graduation marked a significant achievement.  Her face expressed a childlike pride. Her unfurrowed brow and shy smile caused Jane to conclude that she had been protected from the outside world.  Jane gave polite noncommittal replies, which Sarah took as encouragement, inviting Jane into the rural prairie life of a retired unmarried schoolteacher.  She had been the housekeeper for her father and three brothers and, later, for a widow who owned the town’s tavern.

“It’s not a big house.  Anna Mae, that was her name, and I each had a bedroom.  There was a living room, dining room, and kitchen.  I did all the cooking.  She liked my cooking, wouldn’t eat at the Texan.  That was the name of the tavern, the Texan.  Her husband had been from Texas.  We had an acre and a half all fenced in.  The half-acre was my garden.  I even got books in the mail on gardening.  I grew all my own vegetables.“

“What kind of vegetables?  How do you keep the birds away?” Jane moved into Sarah‘s garden, easily seduced from the landscape outside her window to Sarah‘s view.

“We had a good life together.  She left me everything when she passed.  I sold the tavern: I had no notion how to run it.  Used the money to help my nephew get through school.  I miss her.  She liked the flowers I put on the table every day.  Some nights we would sit on the porch and watch the corn sway in the evening air.  It could move us to song.  We would both start singing around sunset.  Sometimes the songs were from the tavern, but mostly, we sang hymns.  ‘Amazing Grace’ was our favorite.” 

Jane smiled encouragingly.

“Oh, but you wanted to know about the birds.  Well, what I do is put those aluminum pie plates you buy in the supermarket and string them up between the rows.  When the wind comes across the land, they rattle and bang against each other frightening the birds.  They jingle like tiny bells.  You don’t mind denying the birds their meal when you hear such music.  I’m bringing some relishes I canned for the big graduation party. Feeding my kin is better than giving money.  Ever have a garden, honey?”  Sarah‘s eyes were blue and wide like the sky above them.

“I’ve tried but didn’t have much luck.  I just played around,” Jane answered.

Sarah turned to Jane in surprise. “I never heard of playing with a garden before.”

“Well it’s the idea of a garden, a pretty place to walk around,” Jane explained.

“I don’t know about all of that.  I mean you have a garden so you can eat.  Isn’t that right?  To feed yourself and those you love.  I mean, don’t you get anything to eat from your garden?”

“Sometimes,” Jane murmured.

“Sounds pretty frustrating to me.  Guess that notion hasn’t reached us out here.”

Then Sarah rested, hands embracing her rounded stomach, eyes closed.  Jane turned toward the window comforted by Sarah’s life and fell into a deep sleep, waking eight hours later as the bus pulled into Denver.

The Denver bus depot was everything all the others were not.  It was clean, full of light, more like an airport than a bus terminal.  It had that sense of luxury.  As soon as they stepped off the bus, the Eastern immigrants could realize their dream of a better life.

Jane watched the cop from Staten Island, the drop out from Newark lose the grey cast of the northeast as they walked into the Colorado sun streaming through the large plate glass windows.  Instantaneously, they were equipped with the healthy glow of a cleaner, fitter life.  She supposed dropping the memories of transit strikes, garbage strikes, fires in the South Bronx helped.  They could head for the mountains: they could ski and jog themselves into forgetfulness.  The tanned and well-toned bodies would greet one another, their most urgent worry the choice of the correct ski or the proper sneaker.

Jane turned away from the departing passengers and went to a kiosk for her next postcard.

FROM DENVER:  DEAR PEOPLE.  THE ROCKIES SURROUND ME.  CHEYENNE IS JUST FOUR HOURS AWAY.  JOHN WAYNE BECKONS.  YOU’D LIKE THIS COUNTRY, BOYS.  LOVE, JANE

Soon after, she boarded the bus.

“Can I join you?”

Jane turned towards a man not much taller than herself, slightly built, with a face lined by fine wrinkles.  She remembered seeing him in the bus station.  His look was curious not sexual.  He assumed he had the right to an overture.  The mind and spirit called.  He was compelled to answer.  Later when Jane thought back to Sam, she realized that this information had been passed telepathically, between his request to share a seat and her consent.

As he sat down, he offered her an out. “If you decide sitting together is too uncomfortable, I’ll leave.  But I think we have some things to say to one another.”

That line was straight out of a grade B movie, which this trip sometimes resembled.  As the bus drove south towards Utah, Jane didn’t make it easy for Sam.  She had nothing to say.  But he didn’t think she was empty, superficial, a human pinball machine, flashy and short-lived as she had started to believe.  He proceeded, expecting the best.  He gave his backstory or maybe just a story, Jane surmised.

Originally an owner of a furniture factory in Philadelphia, he was now a traveler, an amateur anthropologist.  He had been to South America investigating the Incas, then to Tahiti meeting American gurus and ex-hippies, and recently, to Micronesia living as a quasi native.  She could hardly believe such tall tales.  He was a regular Paul Bunyan.  Yet, as the hours passed, she began to trust his accounts.  Sam didn’t seem to care if she believed him or not.  He just wanted to be present, in the moment as he told her.  And until Salt Lake City, he would be with Jane.

Perhaps, it was his reasons for abandoning his business and taking to the road that convinced Jane he was for real.  Like Jane, he had had to escape. In one instance, in a single breath, one inhale, one exhale, he had lost his family, his son and wife, in a car accident.  Sam began to follow a new dream.

“How did you get there?” Jane asked.

He recounted various run-throughs and confrontations.  Sam tried encounters with the happy, be-now, touchy-feely psychotherapy, with various gurus, reading Baba Ram Dass, considering R. D. Laing.

Jane raised her eyebrows skeptically.  He ignored it.  Through all the experimentation, he had found a way out of his grief, out of his paralysis.  Sam’s peacefulness hypnotized Jane as had the rhythms of the bus.  No matter how hard she fought to be outside, he drew her in.  Finally, she gave up.

It was to Sam that she confessed she was a runaway.  The bus a monastery, a convent, a retreat.   Like Audrey Hepburn in A Nun’s Story, she harbored secret desires.  As her story unfolded, Sam’s placid expression never changed, no judgment.  He was a good priest with his mantle of Eastern thought and practices.  But the confession cost Jane. Her penance- doubt and confusion. 

“Leaving your family was the only way you could have made this trip,” he assured her.

Jane wondered if that was a question or a statement of fact.  The question had been an intermittent refrain over the last two days.  She had traveled very far, over 2000 miles.  Now this stranger with one sentence had thrown her all the way back, across the continent, to that other Jane.

“I’m not sure it was a conscious choice.  For the first time since I’ve been married I couldn’t deflect or side step this compulsion to escape.  Getting on the bus seemed inevitable, out of my control.”

“Perhaps being out of control, as you put it, was the only way you could gain control,” Sam offered.

“Easier to couch my desertion as a force of nature than as an abandonment of my family,” Jane retorted.

“Did you desert?  Who did you desert or who did you save?” Sam proposed.

“My plan is to emerge from this wheeled cocoon, a butterfly which will dip into all of California’s poppies.”

Sam ignored Jane’s sarcasm. “Who are you leaving, then?  Yourself?”

“I’ll be alive for a season.  Maybe Los Angeles, Hollywood, Malibu will provide the answers.”  

“Do you know the questions?” he asked.

They went their separate ways in Salt Lake City, Jane to California, Sam to Oregon.  The Buddhist interrogation had ended.

FROM SALT LAKE CITY:  HELLO AGAIN.  THE AIR IS NOT VERY CLEAN BUT THE ATMOSPHERE IS ANTISEPETIC IN A MORMON SORT OF WAY.  STILL, JANE.

She could have written more.  Before noon, the air was clean and the Wasatch mountains, cloaked in the purple of Easter vestments, were visible, the city an unopened gift.  She stayed all day, long enough to see the smog hide the mountains, long enough to tour the Mormon Tabernacle which included proselytizing, long enough to visit a bookstore overrun with biographies of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young.  This was no place for female self-realization.

In the evening, she boarded the bus for the final leg of the trip.  The beauty of Utah kept her awake.  A full moon cast incandescent light over roads, mountains, and inky evergreens.  Quickly running streams bathed in silver coursed over the rocky landscape.  The terrain filled her with excitement, sexual tension. 

She spoke to no one but was her own Greek chorus, telling herself western Jane stories until she stepped out of the L.A. terminal on to 7th and Decatur and into the California sunshine.

FROM LOS ANGELES:  MY DEAR FRIENDS.  I AM SETTLING INTO THE FAULT LINES.  WILL YOU COME TO SEE ME IN A WHILE?  JANE

Fast Ferry

by

Judith Zinis

            Surrounded by her children, she scanned the boats docked in the Oak Bluffs Marina on this perfect August morning, ignoring the rage that oozed from every pore of her oldest daughter, Moira.  She reminded herself she wasn’t to blame.  It was her daughter who had decided to return home, turning down her best friend’s offer to spend another week on the Vineyard.  The two girls had fought, and Moira had refused to accept her friend’s apology.

            “Don’t blame me, Moira, because you made a bad decision,” she reminded her daughter in what seemed a reasonable tone of voice.  Nevertheless, others in line for the Fast Ferry inched away from them.

            Moira’s eyes sank in, hatred flaring from her gnome-like nose.  Moira reminded her mother of a witch in training, and she knew that if Moira had possessed any evil powers, she would use them to destroy her, the bad mother. 

            Griff tugged at the edge of her sweater.  “When is it coming, Mommy?  When will the ferry be here?  It’s too hot,” he whined.

            “Jesus Christ, Griff.  How do I know?  I guess it’s running late.  Stop pulling at me.  You’re destroying my sweater.  Stop!”  she growled, pushing his hand away.

            At seven, he was too old to call her “Mommy.”  She thought only he had heard, but as she looked around, her fellow passengers, some sitting on their bags, some standing, some controlling their dogs, stared at her, locked in battle with her children.  Bad mother, she thought again. Someone was missing.

            “Moira, where the hell is Regina?” 

            Moira continued to give her the evil eye, arms crossed tightly against her budding chest. Though shorter than Regina, who was two years younger, it was Moira, aged twelve who would soon burst into womanhood.

            Looking at her ungainly daughter, she wondered, “What do I have in store for me?  Could it get any worse?”  After two weeks with the three of them on Martha’s Vineyard, now being touted as the Island of Presidents, she couldn’t imagine worse, but maybe with teenage hormones exaggerating her persona, Moira, with her sensitive nature and ongoing rage, could make life even more unbearable.

            “Moira, I asked you a question.  Answer me.”  She heard her voice rising in volume, its tone harsh and shrill.

            Moira shrugged her small, slim shoulders.
            She grabbed her daughter by the arm, pinching her flesh. “You listen to me, young lady.  When I ask you a question, I want an answer!  Where is your sister?” 

They stared at each other, green eyes to green eyes.  An irresistible urge to shake Moira took hold of her, but Griff saved her from potential child abuse. 

“Mom, there she is- up on the dock.”

            She released Moira and caught sight of Regina gazing at the Nantucket Sound.  Regina often kept her own counsel, staying out of the frequent battles between her mother and her older sister and the attention seeking antics of her younger brother.  They seemed to wear her out, much as they wore out her mother.

            “What am I, my sister’s keeper?  You should take better care of your children,” Moira threw at her mother.

            She raised her hand to slap her daughter’s face, intending to rid Moira of her self-satisfied grin.  Griff’s ear-piercing scream saved her again.

            “The Ferry.  It’s coming.  Look, Regina’s up front.”

            She pulled the back of his shirt as he rushed forward to join his sister. 

            “Regina, get over here this instant,” she yelled to her daughter.

  Regina ignored her.  She called her daughter again, louder.  Passengers turned, watching her in dismay as she raised her voice one last time. 

The ferry docked, and Regina moved forward, disappearing into its hull.

            “Why does she get to go by herself?  It’s not fair.  You treat me like a baby,” Griff complained, walking beside his mother, careful not to get ahead.

            “You act like a baby,” observed Moira, patting his back condescendingly.

            Griff turned to swipe her, but Moira nimbly moved back, evading his slap.

            “Watch where you’re going, kid,” the young man behind her warned.

            “I swear Moira, you’re the baby,” her mother flung at her, missing the pain spreading across her daughter’s face, missing the tears flooding her eyes.

            Griff smiled cheerfully at his sister, hoping to avert further escalation.

            She knew that Regina was perfectly capable of finding a seat on the boat but worried anyway.  Regina seemed to slip through her fingers as she maneuvered, sometimes literally, between Moira’s anger and Griff’s neediness.  Just last week when they had gone to South Beach for a swim, she had looked away for a second, eyeing the rhythms of the surf, and Regina was gone.  With Griff in tow, she’d spent an hour traipsing up and down the beach searching for her, terrified Regina had tried to walk home or had drowned in the Nantucket Sound.  Instead, she found her sleeping on her favorite towel across from the lemonade stand.  She had really lost it that afternoon, first hugging her daughter in relief and, then, slapping the side of her leg in anger.  Over the last two weeks, she had lost Regina three times.

            Yet, she identified with her younger daughter: she wouldn’t mind getting lost herself.  Certainly, she was losing herself to her children’s voracious need for love, to their ability to steal any time she might have for herself.  They were relentless, so she grabbed time alone amongst them.  Years ago, when Griff was a baby, she had been able to drift away to thoughts of taking up photography, getting a job, going out for a drink, considering articles she had read in the Times.  Nowadays, she didn’t think at all: she became numb, willing herself to separate, if only momentarily, from their crushing love.   

As they boarded the ferry, workers were ordering passengers to place all their luggage in the middle of the cabin.  There stood Regina, staring at the piles of suitcases and backpacks, seemingly fascinated as one passenger after another put his or her belongings inside the cordoned area.

            “Come on Regina, we’re going upstairs to sit on the outside deck,” she told her daughter as they deposited their totes and duffle bags.

            “I want to stay downstairs,” Regina said, her back to her mother.

            “No, you’re coming upstairs with us.  I don’t want to lose you, again.”

            “I’m not going to jump overboard, and I’m feeling sick to my stomach,” Regina insisted.

            “You’re coming with us.” She felt the impatience of other passengers attempting to navigate around her brood.

            Regina stared ahead, not moving.  In frustration, she grabbed her daughter by the collar and pulled her back.  Regina fell against her as she whispered angrily in her daughter’s ear.

            “Get your butt upstairs.  Do you understand?”

            No answer.  With her other hand, she cupped Regina’s chin, turning her daughter’s face towards her own.

            “Now!”

            Upstairs they trudged.

            “Okay, let’s get a picture of the happy family,” she instructed her children grabbing her camera from her handbag.  “Stand against the railing.  I’ll get a shot of the three of you with the island as background.”

            They started to protest, but the look on their mother’s face stopped them.

            “Smile like you mean it,” she said and snapped the picture.  She captured them just as they leaned their heads towards one another, their red hair like sea anemones floating in the air- innocence, youth, and forced joy within the frame.  Taking pictures of her children resurrected her maternal pleasure, an argument against Susan Sontag’s notion that taking a photograph diminished the lived experience.  For her, the opposite was true.    

            Griff tapped her back insistently.  “There’s no seats left.  Can we go inside?”

            “No,” she said emphatically.  “Fresh air is better for you than sitting inside a crowded cabin for ninety minutes.”

            She leaned against the side of the boat, breathing in the salt air.  Suddenly, she was exhausted.  She had to lie down.

            “The best way to pass the time is to sleep,” she informed her children.

            She stretched out on the deck facing the side of the boat, her back to the passengers.  She hugged her sweater to her chest and closed her eyes.  Sweet, quiet, peace.  Griff joined her, facing into the backs of her knees.  She refused to open her eyes.  She had to hold on to this small private darkness.  She drifted off, the chatter of others lulling her to sleep.  Heaven.

            “She told me to rot in hell, Mom,” Moira screamed in her ear.

            “Leave me alone and leave Regina alone, for God’s sake,” she hissed without opening her eyes.  She could feel that Griff was using her hip as a pillow.  Was there no escape?  She refused to get further involved, keeping her eyelids shut.

            Moira lay down, her eyes level with the top of her mother’s head.

            “All I did was hug her,” Moira continued.

            “Let her be,” she advised her daughter.  Her eyes stayed closed.  A small sigh escaped her throat.

            Moira lifted strands of her mother’s hair escaping from a clip at the back of her head.  She carefully separated a few blond hairs, looking through them as if they were lace.  She let them go and raised a few more.  These had a deeper color, almost brown.  She let this collection slip through her fingers, and lifted others, stroking them.

            Moira relishes this contact, her mother thought.  It had been one of her favorite pastimes since infancy.  She sighed again.  It was no use: her children weren’t going to leave her alone.  She shifted Griff off her hip and stood up.  She glanced over at Regina sitting on the deck away from the others, arms folded over her lap, eyes closed, and head bent forward.  She guessed she was seasick again.

“Look to the horizon, please, Regina,” she ordered.

            Regina opened her eyes, glared at her mother, and closed them again.

Turning away from her daughter, she shrugged her shoulders in resignation, leaned her elbows along the rail, and placed her chin on her hands.  Breathe, she told herself, breathe.

            Griff stood up, and again rested his head on his mother’s right hip.  Moira, flanking her left side, began reading aloud a text message she had just received from her best friend.  She guessed the fights were over between Moira and her friend, between Moira and herself.  This was Moira’s way.  She couldn’t stand her ground for very long, needing the affection of others more than her principles. 

            “And listen to this.  She sent me a poem.  I’ll read it to you,” she told her mother enthusiastically.  After reading several lines without reproach, she grew brave, moved closer and tried to put her head under her mother’s arm for a stolen hug.  Her mother closed her elbow to her side, leaving no room.  When the poem came to an end, Moira moved away, sitting down at her mother’s feet.  Griff did the same. 

            While her children ignored each other, there was peace.  She watched the Elizabeth Islands pass by and imagined living alone, isolated from civilization, cut off from the demands of her everyday life.  Just as the ferry passed the Sakonnet Lighthouse, she felt a tap on her right shoulder.

            “You shouldn’t have done that to me,” Regina complained.

            “Done what?” asked her mother, her back to her daughter, her eyes straight ahead

            “Yanked me when we were downstairs,” Regina explained.

            “Don’t be so dramatic, Regina,” her mother cautioned.

            Regina grabbed the back of her mother’s sweater.  “Oh, yeah.  How would you like it?”

            “Stop it, Regina,” she said, trying to pull away.

            Then, Regina moved to her mother’s left side, putting her free hand around the front of her mother’s neck.

            “Regina, you’re choking me.  Back off,” she hissed.

            Regina dropped her hands.  “See, you don’t like it.”

            “You’re exaggerating,” she said, turning to face her children.  “You’re just trying to bother me, all of you.  Stop it.  Give me some peace, for God’s sake.  Whine, whine, whine!  Complain, complain, complain!” she rebuked, voice raised, then quickly turned back to the water as the lighthouse moved out of view.

            Seconds later, Regina tentatively placed her hand on her mother’s back.  When her mother didn’t shrug it away, she moved her arm around her mother’s waist and rested her head on the side of her shoulder.  Her mother kept still, staring ahead.

            “I’m sorry,” Regina whispered.  She heard her mother let out another of her frequent sighs.

            “I don’t feel well,”  Regina reported, lifting her arm off her mother’s waist.

            “Go stand by the stairway and look at the horizon,” she advised her.

            As they approached Beavertail Lighthouse on the last leg of the trip, Griff announced he was hungry.

            “My tummy is rumbling,” he told his mother with a grin.

            “Stomach.  Only babies have tummies,” she warned him.  “You can wait.  We’re almost there.”

            “But I’m hungry now.  I want food,” he insisted.

            “You’ll survive.  We’ll be docking in twenty minutes or so.”

            Griff jumped from one foot to another in a cockeyed Irish jig.  “My tummy hurts.  It needs food.” 

His voice trembled, tears forming in the corners of his eyes.  Griff didn’t usually make demands until he was on the verge of losing control.  He jumped up and down, his hands balled into fists. 

“Why won’t you feed me?  Why won’t you give me food?” he wailed.  “You hate me.  You want me to starve.  You don’t love me!”

            She couldn’t fight them anymore.  She gave Moira a five dollar bill, told her to take Griff downstairs and buy him corn chips to tide him over, then rested her head on her arms, beaten.

When they returned, Griff ran ahead, full of excitement which Moira tried to quell. 

“You’re wrong.  You don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said to his back.

             “Yes, I do.  Yes, I do. You’re the one that’s wrong.”

            “We’re going to play miniature golf tomorrow,” Griff said turning to his mother.  “Daddy says we’ll go golfing every day.”

            “We’ll see.”  She wanted to protect him from disappointment.  Daddy didn’t always do what Daddy said he would do; yet, the children never protested, never battered him with complaints or criticisms.  He had an invisible shield protecting him.  He could do no wrong.

            “He told me we were going sailing most days,” insisted Moira.

            “You’re wrong.  Mommy, tell her she’s wrong,” Griff begged his mother.

            Regina joined them, taller than her two siblings, which seemed to endow her with a certain amount of authority, making her word gospel.  “You’re both wrong.  He told me that we’re going to the movies every day until we’ve seen them all.”

            “Who’s right, Mommy?” Griff asked

            “You’re such a baby, Griff.  Mommy, Mommy, Mommy,” Moira mocked him.

            Griff ignored her.  He enjoyed his status as the “baby” of the family.  “Who’s right?  What is Daddy going to do?” he demanded.

            She shook her head.  She had no answer for them.

            “Well, you’re his wife.  Doesn’t he keep you informed?” Moira asked with all the disgust she could muster.

            “Shut up,” her mother scolded her.

            Moira turned, her eyes filling with tears for the second time that day. 

            “Well, at least Daddy will be nice to us,” Regina retorted, settling the matter for herself, her sister, and her brother.

            Twenty minutes later, the ferry had docked, and the passengers began disembarking.  The children pushed through the crowd, leaving their mother behind.

            He was there, right where he said he would be, waiting with the car.

            They ran to him, Moira and Regina each grabbing an arm while Griff wrapped himself around his father’s middle.

            “Look at my beauties.  You three could get away with anything.  No one could ever be angry at you,” he laughed, looking over their heads at his wife, eyes condemning her.

            “Right?” he asked them.

            They glanced up at him, smiled conspiratorially, and turned six green eyes on their mother.

            “Has she been up to her usual tricks?  Has she been mean to my kiddos?  Shall we report her to the authorities?” he inquired, as he opened the car door, watching them tumble onto the back seat.

            “MacDonald’s.  He got us MacDonald’s. You’re perfect, Dad!” Moira called to him.

            He leaned in and put his finger to his lips, smiling with delight.  “Shush.  Don’t let her hear that.”

September 11, 2021

9/11 An American in France

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Twenty years ago today, September 11, 2001, I was staying in Coudoux, a French village outside Aix-en-Provence where I was on a sabbatical from a community college in New Jersey. I had spent the day doing errands in French and not always succeeding.  I had had trouble making myself understood at the cheese monger’s.  At the Internet café, I had struggled with a French keyboard.  Afterwards, I took a bus to Aix and made my way to the Archives Nationales d’Outre Mer, which holds the records of French colonies.  I was researching my family who had emigrated from Aix to Martinique in the late 1600s.  Using the archives isn’t for the faint hearted.  The protocol is complicated and outdated.  By the time, I had ordered the material I needed, the archives were closing, forcing me to put my documents on hold for the following day.

I walked to the Gare Routière and caught a bus back to Coudoux.  Exhausted, from speaking French all day, I grabbed a glass of wine and turned on the television, hoping to catch an American show.  I thought I had found a movie- some version of Godzilla with buildings crumbling, fire and smoke shooting from the windows.  But something was off.  The narrator sounded like a newscaster not an actor and the buildings were the twin towers at the World Trade Center in Manhattan, not the setting of a Japanese monster film.  It was 5:30 P.M. in the south of France, 11:30 A.M. in New York.  The towers had collapsed just 45 minutes earlier.  At that moment, I wasn’t sure what I was seeing.  Was it a joke? Then the TV screen moved to the Pentagon.

At that moment, Christiane, my landlady, opened my front door talking to me in rapid almost hysterical French.  Nevertheless, I understood that the film I had been watching was real. Terrorists had attacked the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and somewhere in Pennsylvania.  I was paralyzed with fear and shock.  My daughter has just moved to Manhattan.  My son lived in Philadelphia.  My husband, was he at home in Princeton New Jersey just miles from the disaster?  Had he gone to teach at the community college where we were both professors?  

Christiane grabbed my arm and pulled me into her house and to her phone.  I tried over and over but could not get through.  I called everyone I knew, every family member, every friend, every neighbor, but nothing.  Hours later, Christiane’s cousin managed to contact my daughter who assured him that she, her brother, and my husband were safe.

I don’t remember the rest of the evening.  I woke up in the middle of the night wondering if I would ever get home.  All American airports were closed.  For how long?  Would it be safe to travel by plane?

Over the next few days, French citizens reached out to me in sympathy, je suis désolé.  At the local bank, the teller told me, “We are all in this together; we are friends.  The U.S. helped us in WWII, and now it is our turn to help you.” These acts of kindness comforted and fortified me, for a moment, for an hour.

At noon on September 15th, France observed three minutes of silence for those lost in the attacks.  At twelve o’clock, I walked across the street to the village church.  It was empty.  I lit a candle and sat alone while the church bells rang.  I felt no solace, only isolation.  I still hadn’t spoken to my family and the images of people jumping out of windows replayed over and over whenever I closed my eyes. 

This was my second time living in France while my country burned.  During the summer of 1965, I sold Herald Tribunes on the Champs Elysée.  On August 14th, I picked up my papers at the office on Rue de Berri.  Images of a burning Watts filled the front page.  Shocked and frightened, I wonder what I would find when I returned home. 

Thirty-six years later, flying into Newark International airport, I looked out the airplane window and saw a familiar landscape changed forever.  Where there had been two narrow skyscrapers, there was emptiness. 

February/March 2021

February

Just a year ago, my doctor warned me not to go to Paris. I ignored her and went anyway, February 14-28 before all hell broke loose and the pandemic took hold.

Pantheon, Paris, February 15, 2020

A year later, I look out my kitchen window during a snow storm: a male cardinal searches among the sunflower seeds I broadcasted this morning.

March

The dilemma of the artist as a monster haunted me this year. Can their art rise above their monstrous behavior? In Edna O’Brien’s brief biography of James Joyce, she proclaims that, indeed, the artist must be a monster.

It is a paradox that by wrestling with language to capture the human condition they become more callous, and cut off from the very human traits which they glisteningly depict.

Vanessa Springora’s memoir Consent portrays her affair at age 14 with the writer Gabriel Matzneff then 49. She poses this question.

If it is illegal for an adult to have a sexual relationship with a minor, why is it tolerated when it is perpetuated by a representative of the artistic elite- a photographer, writer, filmmaker, or painter?  It seems that an artist is of a separate caste, a being with superior virtues, granted the ultimate authorization, in return for which he is required only to create an original and subversive piece of work.

Were these so called artists really creating great art or was Joyce’s Ulysses, for example, revered because as Springora asserts, it was original and subversive. Is that enough?

For me there is no question about Woody Allen. His predatory behavior towards young women has made his films unwatchable. Joyce’s determination to create situations that fed his writing seems questionable when applied to his wife, Nora. He tried to maneuver an affair between her and a family friend in order to write authentically about Leopold Bloom, the cuckolded hero of Ulysses.

Of course Joyce didn’t seduce teenagers although one wonders about his attachment to his daughter who later went mad.

I spoke to an Irish friend about Joyce. She believes he rescued Irish literature, stealing it back from the British. Serendipitously, a course on Ulysses was being offered locally. It was time I took him on. And so began my odyssey in search of “sunny Jim,” his family moniker.

James Joyce, Dublin, 1904, age 22

Joyce spends 644 pages following Leopold Bloom as he makes his way through Dublin on June 16 1904. Hard, hard, very hard. I fall asleep after an hour or two of reading. So much in each chapter, each paragraph, each sentence. Latin, German, French, Italian, Irish literature, Irish politics, Irish mythology, literary history, and more and more and more. No detail of Bloom’s day goes unattended from reading a newspaper in the outhouse to pissing with Stephen Dedalus in his back yard. I, sometimes, feel I’m in a storm of words without an umbrella. And yet. And yet.

Dear reader, I was rescued. Reading Ulysses put this past year in perspective. I could spend weeks on one chapter, the layers of meaning as dense as the everyday details of the characters’ lives that fill the novel. Joyce celebrates it’s minutiae, no matter how small- a fart, a smell, the taste of gizzards, the pleasure of walking in “happy warmth.” Humanity in all it’s glory and frailty.

First Edition, Shakespeare and Company 1922

Bloom ends the day somewhat triumphantly. An ordinary man saddened by his wife Molly’s sexual betrayal but raised up by that wife’s very words. Molly has the final say- assessing the day, assessing Bloom, and bringing the novel to a close.

Molly can take a dim view of males.

...itd be much better for the world to be governed by the women in it you wouldnt see women going and killing one another and slaughtering when do you ever see women rolling around drunk like they do or gambling every penny they have and losing it on horses yes because a woman whatever she does she knows where to stop sure they wouldnt be in the world at all only for us…

She takes her husband to task, citing some of his faults: how he eats, how he deludes himself, how he makes love. But she also rises him up.

…he said I was a flower of the mountain yes so we are flowers all a womans body yes that was one true thing he said in his life and the sun shines for you today yes that was why I liked him because I saw he understood or felt what a woman is…

From Joyce’s perspective, like Bloom, we all are heroes in our own lives just by getting to the end of the day. Now we’ve managed to get to the end of the year, at least those of us who are lucky enough to be alive.

Molly’s soliloquy begins with “Yes” and ends with “Yes,” an affirmation of life. I’ve heard the sermon from 7 Eccles Street home to Leopold and Molly Bloom. Yes. I’m taking back what I often ignored or half-heartedly attended to over the years- yard work, house repairs, painting, sewing, cooking, canning, writing. What was I waiting for? Was it Sunny Jim? Literature can do that. Yes!

January

January 1

A new year officially. For me, March 13, 2020 marked the “new” year when I rushed home from Ireland as Trump closed the airports to international travel. The COVID-19 year. Usually, I hold an open house, inviting most everyone I know. Fresh ham (the same cut as a ham but unsmoked) sauerkraut, and rye bread are menu staples. Although on my own this New Year’s, I still intended to feast on the customary dishes. Like my search for a Christmas tree, I came up empty: not one supermarket had the ham in stock. I panicked. I needed this tradition to make the world seem normal, even for a day. After much fretting and searching, I found a local farm that sells pork: they offered me a deboned shoulder. New Year’s Day, I did the honors, shoving rosemary and garlic wherever I found an opening. Mashed potatoes, sauerkraut. and salad finished it off. I ate and drank heartily.

IMG_8565Cherry Grove Farm’s Pork Shoulder

January 6

The world, at least my part of the world, went mad today. Trying to hold on to the presidency, Trump created a riot. Hitler accepted defeat and slinked off to a bunker. Trump got his minions to do his dirty work claiming the election was a fraud. He egged on his supporters to storm the Capitol Building. They succeeded: some with guns loaded, some taking congressional offices hostage, some forcing guards to barricade the Senate chamber. Windows were broken, guns were waved, and by the end of the day, two people were dead. The attempt to prevent Congress from certifying the election results failed, but striking fear into the hearts of most citizens succeeded. What’s next? 2021 is 1774 in reverse. The first revolution’s goal was to overthrow a despot- the British. This siege’s goal was to keep a despot, Trump, in power. Heart sick.

January 8

This morning, a large bird sat on the top of my neighbor’s tree. I was pretty sure it was a hawk, sitting, surveying, hoping for a meal. During breakfast, it moved to a large ash tree that graces my back yard. Most mornings, cardinals and sparrows show up around 9 to scratch at the broadcasted sunflower seeds. Not one. He soon left for better hunting grounds.

IMG_8637Cooper’s Hawk

January 20

Inaugeration. Is the siege over? Physically, the White House is now occupied by President Biden. As for the rest of the country- deeply divided. Trump’s supporters, still in denial, wait for a miracle, ignoring the truth behind his presidency.

January 24

I celebrated my birthday at my son’s house on the Jersey shore. Each morning with the temperature in the single digits, we walked along the 14th street beach in Barnegat Light. The only travelers in a desert landscape. Once on Eigg, an island in the inner Hebrides of Scotland, I looked across to the Isle of Skye. I ordered my brain to permanently imprint it’s beauty. These past few days, I gave the same order- hold on to this haunting landscape, to this untouched world.

IMG_8607

IMG_862214th Street Beach,  Barnegat Light, New Jersey