Friday, March 20, 2009


Dandelions by Roberto Pagani
(Dandelions, photo by Roberto Pagani)

Late November 2009

Allie and Edwina came for dinner. Chris had printed out copies of the photos Margie sent and during the meal she pored over them with Allie, telling stories of her childhood that ranged from mundane to hair-raising. Ginny joined them only long enough to eat, her face that mixture of intensity and edge-of-being-drained which was typical of Painterland.

After dinner, Chris said she wanted to begin sorting her belongings for the move, and asked Allie and Edwina to join her. Allie looked like she wanted to refuse, but with Edwina's company, she followed Chris to the front of the house. Myra sat at her desk, making her own list of what she would want to take, especially for the kitchen. She had looked over Chris's photos and noted the lack of counter space, at a time where the nutrition of what she prepared would be the most important she had ever faced.

She took the dogs out for a walk at 11:00, right after Allie and Edwina left, and began with a visit to the back door of the store, Margie's ritual. Frances came out to cool down, frolic with the dogs, and give them a treat before Myra went on with them. After a good work-out, she took them back home, dried them with a towel, and promised Frances would be home soon.

At her own house, Ginny was still painting. Myra left a quart of water by her easel and kissed her goodnight before taking a quick shower and sliding into bed behind Chris. There were partly filled cartons in the corner of Chris's room. Myra found she could not sleep right away, worried about the sick grandchildren, about Margie being alone in a strange motel, about Gillam and Carly's reaction to the new plan – anything but the big cloud on the horizon. Finally, when Chris turned to her in her sleep and put her head on Myra's shoulder, Myra was able to drop off.

With a couple of hours of sleep here and there, Ginny worked through until late Friday morning. Myra heard her plinking her brushes down into a large of turpentine before she headed downstairs, and Myra followed. Ginny was standing in front of the open refrigerator, a wedge of cabbage in her hand that she was eating as is while considering her options.

“I'll make you a grilled cheese and tomato sandwich, and there's leftover white bean soup in that container” said Myra, reaching around Ginny.

Ginny pulled out a bowl of blueberries with her free hand and said “Do we have ricotta?”

“Here” said Myra, dumping two tablespoons onto the blueberries. The teakettle was already on. Ginny walked to the table and sat down with a groan, still eating the raw cabbage between bites from her bowl. Myra said over the breakfast bar “I can't wait to see this one.”

“Wait until I get back up. As soon as I have food in me, I'm crashing” said Ginny. “I feel almost sick.”

Myra looked at her flushed cheeks, but that was common after she finished a painting. She rushed the meal preparation and sat down with Ginny, who moaned as she bit into the sandwich. Chris came in from outside and joined them for the end of the meal. Ginny stood and said “Can I owe you for the dishes?”

“Go lie down” said Myra. She noticed Ginny rode the elevator up – at her end of strength, for sure. Chris, helping Myra clear the table, said “Did you see it yet?”

“No, she asked me to wait. You can go look, though.”

“No, I want her there, too. I guess she won't be making challah this afternoon. I'd offer to fill in but I don't know how to do the prayer part.”

“We have some in the freezer we can thaw. You can make bread with me, if you're so inclined” said Myra. They started a sponge before having their own lunch, listening to the radio. In between risings, Myra set up her video camera and read aloud from one the stack of “five children” books that were popular with the grandchildren, creating tapes for when she would be away. These books included the entire Five Little Peppers series, several of Edith Nesbit's books, and the series from her own childhood about the Tuckers.

Margie called and gave a report to Chris, who relayed that work was proceeding and Margie had found an organic food store in Kettle Falls. Margie also said the living room space was too small for a regular sleeper sofa, that it would have to be a futon.

“Ginny won't like that, she hates them” said Myra.

“I want to take the chair from my room” said Chris, reminding Myra that decorating wasn't really up to Ginny.

Gillam had dragged himself back to work that morning, on the assurance of the home nurse that contagion was past for their family. David had returned to nursery school as well. Jane kept Lucia in diapers, but said otherwise the freedom from actual vomiting made her feel like she was on holiday.

At 4:30, Chris put on her coat, telling Myra she had asked Gillam and Carly to meet with her privately before shabbos, at Carly's house.

“Oh” said Myra. “You're going to tell them yourself, then.”

“Of course” said Chris. Allie and Edwina arrived shortly after she went out the back door.

“Jane and Gillam are going to have a really hard time without your help” said Edwina.

“I know. On top of all the loss Gillam will be feeling. Plus, I bet Margie won't be spending much time in Seattle” said Myra.

“She called me today, said she'd found a motel between the house and town that was clean and comfortable, with a decent cafe nearby. We'll be renting rooms there next to her” said Allie.

“But we'll come and go” said Edwina, an edge to her voice. Myra wasn't sure if it was her dread of all the commuting or whatever was up between her and Allie right now. Myra asked Edwina if she'd go wake up Ginny, so Ginny could take a bath before dinner. When Edwina was out of earshot, Myra said to Allie “You two okay?”

“I'm – not sleeping much. My blood sugar is all over the place” said Allie.

“Well, that's not okay” said Myra.

“I fucking hate it that she's leaving town” said Allie. “I think this is a stupid idea. The last thing she needs to do is try to deal with her childhood demons right now.”

“Apparently it is the last thing she needs to do” said Myra quietly. She removed three chickens from the rotisserie and set them on a cutting board to rest. Allie didn't respond.

Myra continued assembling a salad, and Allie took half the veggies to her own cutting board to chop. After a minute, Myra told her about hearing Chris ordering her casket and what Chris had said about her funeral.

“How can she just plow ahead like this, be all cool and business-like?” burst out Allie. “What happened to her fear?”

“It's there” said Myra. “I think it's a relief for her to get all the business, as you put it, out of the way. She's always been like that, get the hard part done first.”

“But that ain't the hard part” replied Allie.

“No” said Myra. “Maybe she's planning to fall apart. Maybe – I don't know what she's thinking will happen. Maybe she's hoping for a miracle.”

“Nothing wrong with that” said Allie under her breath. Edwina rejoined them, saying “She's getting dressed. She wants everyone to come over here and look at the painting before we eat at Jane and Gillam's. I'll make the calls.”

“Thanks” said Myra. Five minutes later, the grandchildren burst through her back door and threw themselves on her, then Ginny when she came downstairs. Myra fervently hoped they really were past the infectious stage.

Once everyone had arrived, including Gillam and Carly with tear-stained faces that drew an anxious look from Jane, Ginny said “Up to the studio, follow me.” Myra said “I'm riding the elevator, any takers?” The grandchildren raced ahead of her, and Chris joined Myra as she followed. As soon as the doors closed, Chris burst into an ear-splitting war cry and began dancing, singing and chanting in a small shuffling circle. Myra didn't know the words but imitated it as best she could, shrieking when Chris did. By the time the doors opened again, all the children were dancing and singing as well, reluctant to stop.

Allie grinned at them as they emerged. “I'm sorry I missed that one” she said.

Ginny had the easel facing the window, with everyone arrayed behind it. Now she turned it around and stepped back to link her arm nervously through Myra's.

It was a group portrait. In the middle was Allie, standing with one arm lanked around the neck of Chris beside her, both of them staring out with their different grins at the viewer. Allie's other arm was over the shoulder of Edwina, whose head was leaned toward Allie. On Edwina's left side was Ginny, in three-quarter view, looking toward – who? Chris? Allie? Or beyond them, to Myra, who stood with her arm around Chris's waist, a solemn expression on her face. To the right of Myra, an obvious gap between them, was Sima, not looking outward but instead resting her gaze on the other five with a mixture of anger and longing. Perhaps that was whose eye Ginny was trying to catch.

It was exquisite, each of them perfectly captured. They stood in an open field with grasses almost to their knees, ferns and wildflowers in a riot around them. Their tread had disturbed a clot of dandelions, and the fuzz flew everywhere around their heads. Myra had an instant of wondering how on earth Ginny could paint herself so knowledgeably before she burst into tears.

She missed some of the response from others, although she did hear Frances said “Margie's going to kick herself for not seeing this with us.” It was Allie who, leaned in close to examine the brush work, found the secret.

“Holy moly” she said, pointed to a spiral of dandelion fluff. “That's Carly!”

And so it was, a mere suggestion of Carly's face somehow imprinted into the gauze tendrils and seed. Everybody now crowded in, children clamoring to be picked up, and eventually the likenesses of all three children, their partners, and the five grandchildren were found in the flying dandelion scatter.

Myra thumped Ginny's back, saying “Goddamn, Ginny Bates, you did it this time.”

“You missed a couple” said Ginny, thrilled with herself. She pointed to two curled fiddlehead ferns at the feet of the six main figures. One concealed the visage of David Bates, and one was Myra's mother. Myra felt tears revisiting her cheeks.

“I hate to stop this, but I have to go check my oven” said Jane.

“Let's all go” declared Ginny. Gillam stopped by their kitchen to help carry their dishes, giving Myra a long hug. The way he looked into her eyes made Myra suddenly wonder what Chris had said about her to these sons.

As they were finalizing getting dinner on the table, Gillam and Carly disappeared for a few minutes with Jane and Eric. When they all returned, Eric looked frozen with grief and Jane looked even more worn out. Myra insisted Jane sit down and not do one more thing for the rest of the evening. The children's excitement at getting to be with the whole family again slowly overcame the hip-deep grief in the room. Myra briefly got the hiccups, which reminded Leah of the burp video and they began beseeching her to do it again. She had never been any good at belching on demand, but Chris produced one that sent everyone into laughter.

“No more at the table” said Gillam. “I'm nervous about playing around with esophagus action, after what I've seen this week.”

Carly turned to Charlie and said “Here, pull my finger.”

“Hey” objected Gillam, but he was chuckling with Carly. Charlie kept tugging at Carly's finger, saying “Why did you ask that, Uncle Carly?”

Frances had left after lighting candles and a quick glass of wine, but she returned at 9:30 with the dogs, saying “Imani's going to finish out tonight. She's taking off tomorrow night in exchange.” They dealt her into the poker game, which Eric was winning at the moment. When they finally called it at night at 11:00, Eric and Carly went with Frances for the last dog walk around the block.

On Saturday afternoon, Margie walked in the back door, surprising Myra who was disinfecting her cutting boards. “Nobody was willing to work on the weekend” she said, “and I decided it was worth eight hours of driving to spend a day at home.” Ginny heard her voice and came to the landing, saying “Come look, I can't wait for you to see this one.”

Margie very nearly cried as well. She said “I'll arm wrestle you for it.” Ginny laughed, shaking her head, and Margie said “At least put it over the dining table or the fireplace, someplace where it's the main attraction.” Chris had come out of her room by that time, and Margie turned to her, saying “You wanna go pick out dressers at antique stores with me? Plus whatever else you might want.”

“I was going to hang out with Annie, okay if she joins us?” said Chris. Myra could tell Ginny really wanted to horn in as well, but she kept quiet and Margie didn't invite her. Chris and Margie returned right before dinner with a long, low three-drawer dresser of gleaming old cherry. Myra went out to help them haul it in. Ginny had been working in the yard for hours, preparing it for her absence.

Margie walked home to get the dogs, having invited herself for dinner and the evening. While she was gone, Chris said “There was a sleigh bed there that she went ape over. I managed to slip away from her long enough to buy it – her birthday is next week, you know. They're going to deliver it to her house on Tuesday, one of us can go let them in.”

“We bought her a gift certificate to Conservation Resources International, the place where she likes to order all her work equipment and supplies” said Myra. “What she does is so advanced now, even Ginny wasn't sure what she needed.”

“We also went by Ikea and got modular units for the other bedroom's closet, plus a futon, kitchen table and chairs she says she can assemble while the painters finish" said Chris. "She's going to swing by and pick it up Monday morning on her way out of town.”

“She must be planning to borrow the Volvo to carry it all” said Myra.

“No, she wants you to go lease a 4-wheel drive monster this weekend for her to use” said Chris. “She said she hit an icy pass on the way home today that scared her.”

Myra felt a chill. If it scared Margie, it must have been bad. “Will do” she said, heading for her computer to look up rental agencies. After dinner she returned to her desk, leaving Margie, Ginny and Chris to talk about the new house. She was glad Chris showed such anticipation, but deep down, she agreed with Allie: She'd rather not face the cabin and all it implied.

She decided to finish her holiday shopping and cruised websites for a couple of hours, having everything shipped by two-day delivery. It put her in a better mood to buy gifts for the people she loved. She was able to go back to her novel and turn out some good work before bedtime.

Margie and Frances didn't appear from their house all day Sunday until it was time for singing potluck. Ginny and Chris had created a menu of all the dishes Chris liked most from various people and handed out copies at the potluck, planning for Thanksgiving in four days. Frances said she was making Margie's birthday cake. Cathy would be arriving on Tuesday and had put in a bid to make Helen's chopped liver. Myra planned to enlist the children on Wednesday to help each make their own pie, so they too would have dishes to claim for this dinner.

“When is Aunt Cathy going back to Denver?” asked Gillam.

“Monday at some unholy early hour” said Ginny. “We're thinking about dropping her off on our way out of town.”

Conversation came to an abrupt halt except for Leah saying “Why can't I have gravy on my green beans?”

“So...singing potluck next week will be...” Gillam couldn't finish his sentence.

“We'll be back for Christmas” said Myra. “Margie's insisted we lease a vehicle that can drive through any storm.”

The mention of Christmas launched the children on a discussion of what they wanted from Santa, as well as what they might get at Hanukkah. Carly interrupted their greed to say “How about this year, me and Uncle Eric help you make the cookies and cakes that we mail out to family and friends? After work two nights a week, all through December?”

Myra looked at him with welling gratitude. Leah said “But what about Gramma and Bubbe?”

“Remember, they're going away with Aunt Chris to look after her for a while” said Gillam.

“But what about all your cookie cutters?” said David anxiously.

“We'll make sure you have them, and all the sprinkles and frostings, too” said Myra.

“You know, the first time we made holiday cookies was when your Daddy was just two years old, and Margie was five. Uncle Carly and his brother Truitt came over, and we didn't know Carly was feeding red-colored dough to our little dog Juju under the table until we saw her a while later and got scared because it looked like her mouth was bleeding” said Ginny.

I'm two years old” announced Charlie.

“And on Thanksgiving Day, guess how old Aunt Margie is going to be?” Frances asked him.

“Seven?” he ventured.

“31!” said Margie in a tone of pride. All the children looked amazed, even Lucia. Leah, however, said suspiciously “But last year your birthday wasn't on Thanksgiving.”

Jane began explaining calendar gimcrackery to the children, who weren't quite buying it. It seemed more likely to them that Margie simply moved around her birthday at will. Which, Myra had to admit, was quite in Margie's character.

When they retired to the family room for singing, Myra noticed a bedspread covering the cushions of one couch. Gillam whispered to her “You might want to sit on a chair, until we get that cleaned.” She didn't ask more, and let Gillam claim that sofa with Carly and Eric.

They progressed through the usual songs to the stage where each of them got to suggest a particular favorite and lead it or teach it. After one lull, with Jane looking around expectantly from the piano, Myra stood and began

Emma, she's calling you out
Can you hear her?
Emma, she's calling you out
You're not alone today

You were young, and you suffered abuse
At the hands of those who said they loved you
So you ran...

By this time, Allie had reached Myra's side, linking her arm around Myra's waist as they finished the verse and repeated the chorus, both of them looking at Chris. Chris was utterly still, and so was Lucia on her lap.

You were scared
You tried taking your life
But your life refused to yield to anger
You hid around a corner of your mind
Where you thought no one could find you

But Emma, I'm calling you out
Can you hear me?
Emma, I'm calling you out
You're not alone today

Gillam and Margie both began crying. Gillam said “It's been years since I heard that one.” But Myra's attention was focused on Chris, who had her big hand held out flat in front of her, palm up. Lucia was tracing the lines of her palm with a delicate finger. When Lucia finished her touch and pulled her fingers back into a fist at her side, Chris looked up at her friends and whispered “Thank you.”


Jesse Wendel said...

The Emma song... is it from source material? Or did you invent it?

Either way, it's beautiful. Touches me deeply, moves me, sings to my heart.

*hugs Maggie*

Also I love both the thought of the children (both first generation and the grandkids) being painted in the painting, as well as the idea of Margie moving her birthday around as she wills. *laughs* The children are right -- that is the kind of trick Margie would play, except it wouldn't be a trick. It'd simply be a Margie-ism, which she'd expect as naturally as she breathes and loves, knowing automatically that the entire world would shift around to accommodate her desires...Margie -- center of the known and the unknown universe.

Maggie Jochild said...

"Emma" is by Therese Edell, one of the giants of wimmin's music from the 1970s. She now has MS and cannot play or sing, but she is still a key figure. Here website is here. If you go there and click on Track #2 (excerpts from her major album From Women's Faces), you will hear her talking as she is now, with clips from other songs she sung with the amazing Betsy Lippitt, including (about a minute in) the chorus from "Emma".

Therese Edell once directed a group of us (August of 1978), including me and my 8-year-old daughter, how to hold down a circus tent when a tornado was threatening the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival. She stood wearing a yellow slicker, boots, and nothing else, shouting over the storm about which guy wires to grab hold of, how to dig trenches to keep the poles from washing out, completely confident and turning 200 women into a cohesive unit. Every time the lightning flashed, all our eyes were on her. She was tall and powerful and we knew that amazing voice as intimately as we knew some of our lovers. I'll never forget it.