Saturday, April 25, 2009


Theremin, leather fedora, and carpenter's belt
Here's another installment of my Great American Lesbian Novel (in progress), Ginny Bates. If you are new to reading GB, go to the section in the right-hand column labeled Ginny Bates to read background and find out how to catch up.

24 and 25 December 2019

Gillam, Mimi and David ran the completed cookie tins to be shipped, while Myra and the other children wrapped presents. Jane made pies and cakes for the following day's family feast, and Ginny grated potatoes and onions for latke batter. Sima began frying doughnuts. Eventually Myra was on her own with the gift-wrapping, once the smell of hot sugar began wafting through the house. At 4:00, Carly and Eric arrived and helped her finish. When Margie and Frances, Allie and Edwina showed up soon afterward, the entire house was full of activity, children eddying from one stimulation to the next.

They ate dinner before lighting the menorah, saving doughnuts and gelt for after the candles were burning. During a wild game of sugar-fueled dreidel, Frances made polenta to fry for breakfast the next day, supplementing lox, bagels, cream cheese, and fruit salad as a buffet meal. The main Christmas Day meal was going to be scallops a la Frances, a massive standing rib roast, turkey with dressing, and tofu/nut meatballs in buttermilk sauce.

By 7:00, each of the children had asked at least three times when presents were going to be opened for Chanukah. Since Lucia's birth, Gillam and Jane had instituted a policy attempting to cut back on the torrent of toys which overran their house. Throwing out toys was difficult because there was always a younger child coming along who wanted those which an older child had outgrown. With an exemption for strictly educational and artistic supplies, gifts were now limited to one each per night of Chanukah, rationed out among the aunts and uncles plus Gramma and Bubbe. Christmas morning would allow stocking stuffers, gifts mailed from relatives elsewhere plus the “big present” from Santa.

This year, however, the largest presents for the children would be those specially selected by Chris before she left for Colville and stored in her closet the past month. The adults had agreed to give these to the children this first night of Chanukah, because they would be played with the remainder of the holidays.

During the delay between dinner and present-time, Gillam had hauled from storage the artificial tree Ginny and Myra used each year. They had had no time to set it up, so he and Jane assembled it and hung the multitude of individual, hand-made ornaments. Myra heard Gillam's steady murmur as he told Jane stories about this or that decoration from the family archive. Periodically, one of the children would abandon the ferocious competition of dreidel to zip over and join their parents briefly. Ginny muttered to Sima “Blended spirituality turns out to mean propaganda war”, but she was grinning.

When it came time to turn on lights, dreidel was forgotten for colored flashes. The top of the tree was allocated to the Santa Lucia crown. Lucia was held up by Gillam to set it in place. After she turned it on, clasping her hands in admiration, she turned to Ginny and said with accusation “You wasn't here for my day.”

“No, we were with Aunt Chris. We called you that night, though, remember? We got to see you in your crown.”

Myra added “Who won the marzipan pig?”

“I did” said Lucia smugly. The faces of her siblings registered revived disappointment.

Myra got assistance from others to haul the cartons from Chris's closet to the living room. Some of the boxes were massive and heavy. Three of them were for Lucia, while every other child had only one, and Myra wondered when the outrage would hit over this discrepancy.

Jane, the accomplished parental diplomat, separated the gifts around the room and positioned each child next to their own, telling them they could begin opening when she gave the signal. Anticipation was like a perfume in the air. Jane counted down and the ripping began, assisted by a nearby adult when recalcitrant cardboard was reached.

Mimi's gift was the smallest and she held it up first: A microscope complete with biology learning kit, slides, test tubes, and experiments. Margie offered to help her set it up on the dining table, and in short order they were headed out the back door to get a sample of pond water for viewing under the microscope.

Charlie uncovered his item next and stood with bewilderment in front of a curved walnut cabinet on legs, fronted with an array of knobs, a chrome-plated antenna extending vertically from one side and a closed irregular horizontal loop on the opposing side. Most of the adults looked just as uncertain as Charlie, except Jane, who said “Oh my fucking god, it's a theremin!”

Charlie was too anxious to point out “Language”. Jane zeroed in on the instrument, marveling “This is too perfect for you, Charlie Gillam” as she plugged it in and began showing him how it worked. Within a minute, eerie wails stopped all the other children momentarily. Charlie's face slid into pure joy as he moved his hands over the oscillating coil, creating the sort of free-form tones he preferred in his ballads.

David resumed his carton assault, and was also temporarily baffled by what emerged. This time it was Carly who cried out “Dance Dance Revolution, I haven't seen one of those in years!” Carly and Eric carried the large arcade unit into the hall, and soon competing sounds emerged from that direction, accompanied by shrieks of delight from David.

Lucia had two of her three boxes breached by the time Leah revealed a small-scale printing press, complete with trays of lead type in several sizes, ink rollers, and stacks of wonderful parchment. “Oh, wow!” said Gillam. He helped Myra convey it to the second table in her study, moving the computer and scanner to create a print shop area for Leah. Myra remembered just in time to borrow a drop cloth from Ginny's study, to protect the parquet floor and her hand-woven rug. The jangle of Japanese electronic music blended with theremin, wafting up the stairwell from downstairs.

The four older children were so enthralled, they didn't care about Lucia's extra boxes. It was Ginny who explained the small table with a recessed grid in its top was for rolling out clay to make tiles. She showed the buckets of clay and incising tools to Lucia, who grasped the concept instantly: She could carve her own patterns. The heavy box was a kiln, which would be installed under the barbecue portico in a space Ginny had cleared for it a month before. Edwina joined Ginny in carrying the layout table and clay upstairs to Ginny's studio.

Allie turned to Sima and said “Chris knocked it out of the ballpark.”

“I wish she could see their faces” said Sima, fighting back tears.

“Some seeds we plant on pure faith” said Allie, settling down beside Sima.

“I missed her voice during the prayers, the way she always pronounced 'Adonai' just a little bit off” said Sima. She was wringing her hands together.

Allie said, very softly, “You wishing you could talk to Susan tonight?”

Sima looked at her in shock, then nodded, her eyes beginning to spill over. “I feel bad for missing her, too, when I miss Chris in such a much more visceral way. I'm – what a mess I made” she said.

Charlie sang in minor contralto “What a mess I made” as he wove an undulating melody to the line. Sima laughed once before giving in to her need to cry. Allie held her hand and cried with her quietly.

The children were only persuaded away at bedtime by the reminder that if they didn't get to sleep, Santa would never come. Margie's lab was moved to the workspace by the aquarium, and Ginny taught Lucia how to rinse off clay-smeared hands in a bucket of standing water before going to the sink because clay sediment was hell on plumbing. Leah's first effort, a thank-you card for Aunt Chris, sat on the mantle. David was worn out, and Carly and Eric were both drenched in dance sweat. Gillam carried Charlie, still warbling, and Jane carried Lucia into the night, the other children already scanning the sky for reindeer.

Myra and Ginny filled stockings after everyone else left, and set out the rest of their gifts hidden away in cupboards. Upstairs, Ginny called Myra to come look out the glass wall at Gillam spreading hay and carrots on the roof next door, under his children's excited direction from the upstairs deck. “They'll never get to sleep” commented Myra.

“No, but they'll be up at the crack of dawn all the same” reminded Ginny. They went to bed together.

Myra woke up early, the room still in pre-dawn darkness. She scooted backward to find Ginny, but there was no warm body in the bed with her. She listened for a minute, waiting to hear Ginny in the bathroom, and almost went back to sleep, but eventually her consciousness dragged the rest of her reluctantly to the surface. She rolled over, sighing with irritation, and saw a shadow in the large striped chair near the bed. Ginny was sitting there, watching her.

"What's wrong?" said Myra.

"Couldn't sleep. But it's too early to get up."

"Why are you over there?"

"I was afraid I'd fidget and wake you up. Because I kinda did want to wake you up."

Myra decided to not be irritated any more, and hoped that would chase it away. "Come here" she said, opening the covers. Ginny lay her head on Myra's shoulder, kissing her neck softly, and said "We're mortal."

Myra heard Chris laugh in her head. "Well, yeah."

"I mean...I woke up hearing a clock ticking away."

"Is this about Chris dying?"

"It must be, but more -- I was thinking about Gillam and his children. And our friends. And -- I had this fantasy, ever since we got together, Myra -- no, not a fantasy, really it was a plan, that when we reached this age, we'd travel and explore the world and come into our prime as artists. I was counting on it."

Myra could hear the sadness in her voice, and it was infectious. But then, waking up early always left her depressed. She tried to think of something hopeful to say.

"I think we are in our prime as artists, Ginny, more and more so. Don't you?"

"Yeah. Only --I'm not doing everything I want to do. Some of it is simply not having enough hours in the day. But...Myra, don't think I'm being ungrateful, okay? I absolutely wanted our children to stay close, I was ecstatic when Margie moved back and even more out of my mind when Gillam made us grandparents. I would not change a single thing there. Only, they've moved so fast, those two. Margie is just now the age I was when I had her, and she's been married for years, they have a house and six businesses, seven if you count Margie's contracting -- she's way ahead of where I was at her age. And Gillam, my god...I guess I had this idea that we'd have some down time from parenting, and instead it's gone up several levels. And I want the life we have, I honestly do. Only -- I want the other, too. Not more, but I do want it."

"Well..." Myra was trying to think of a way they could rearrange things.

"Oh, it's not a problem to solve, Myra. I've been thinking about your shopping trip with Leah, how good she looked when you got home, and -- she needs you, Myra, as if you are a primary parent. The way Gillam needed you, could never quite get enough of you. I know Gillam and Jane give every last bit of extra they have to those children, and all the aunts and uncles do, too, it's a rich set-up, but I think maybe each child could actually use more one-on-one attention than they are receiving. And it will probably need to be us to fill in that gap. Which is its own reward, don't get me wrong. Except, by the time they leave home and head for whatever they mean to do in this world -- we'll be too old to go to Paris for half a year."

"Or Amsterdam" said Myra softly.

"Plus we're all getting closer to each other, us friends and spouses and extended family. I honestly can't imagine going now to Brazil for a month without Allie and Edwina, for example, I'd miss them too much. And now Sima is going to be living with us..."

They lay in close silence for a minute. Myra whispered "No wonder you couldn't go back to sleep."

"Happy Christmas" said Ginny.

Myra kissed her. "Well, let's take it to Nancy. We may need to make a list."

"I've already got one in my head" said Ginny. "You realize the last time we made love was well before we left for Colville?"

Myra didn't want to answer that. "What else?"

"Allie's having a hard time and I don't think you're noticing it, or being as close to her as you were a few months ago. Maybe it's because you don't want to face her dying, eventually, now that you've lost Chris. But we need to at least talk about it" said Ginny.

Myra felt cold shock. She didn't want Ginny to be right about this. She felt too wiped out to argue, though.

“Can you go back to sleep, you think?”

Ginny sighed. “Yes. We don't have long, anyhow.”

An hour later, the phone rang and Ginny answered in a trance “What?” Myra could hear Mimi's shouting “Santa came, he was just here, we heard the reindeer bells!”

“Uh...Okay, we're coming over” mumbled Ginny. She and Myra dressed in the clothes they'd laid out last night. Ginny joined Myra in the elevator, saying “You got the photo?”

“It's in my coat pocket by the door” said Myra in a voice hoarse with fatigue. They woke up Sima and waited for her to dress. The outside air woke them up thoroughly, wet fog soaking their hair by the time they reached the brilliantly lit house swarming with frenzied children.

Ginny went into her script. She assumed a serious expression and said, not quite in a whisper, “Son, I need to tell you something.”

David quelled his chatter to eavesdrop. Leah followed suit.

“We happened to look out the back window and, well, we saw someone on your roof just now. Actually, it looked like more than one figure. We were about to call you or the police when – well, it's foggy out there, and neither of us had on our glasses, but – it's like they vanished into the air. We're not sure what to do.”

Now all the children were listening, a dawning possibility on all their faces.

“Should I call the security service, you think?” asked Gillam solemnly, playing his part.

“I happened to have my camera with me” said Myra, “And I did manage to get one shot.” She pulled from her pocket the 8x10 color glossy Ginny had photoshopped meticulously onto a real night-time snap of Jane and Gillam's roof. In between swirls of fog were tantalizing glimpses of brass bells, harness, antlers, and a patch of red suit trimmed in white fur. She held it up for everyone to see, and Charlie screamed “It's Santa and the reindeer! You took their picture!”

Combined with the crumbs on the cookie plate by the fireplace, the discarded carrot ends and trampled hay visible from the upstairs deck, this was blood-chilling proof. Leah suggested Myra post the photo on her blog and Myra agreed that was an excellent idea. They moved on into the living room, where more gifts were opened while the adults drank coffee and tea against the long day's demands.

Eventually, the children were persuaded to get dressed so they could go back to the grammas' house where Chris's presents called to them. Margie and Frances were already there and breakfast was arrayed on the table. Myra slathered cream cheese on a hot slice of crispy polenta and took a bite before remembering how much Chris adored this combination of flavors.

After a while, Carly and Eric arrived at the same time Thad came. Annie Gagliardi showed up with a basket of roasted chestnuts and a bag of espresso that the coffee drinkers immediately began using. Allie and Edwina were the last to join them, smelling strongly of Kona and sex. They, too, partook of Annie's offering before finding seats in the living room near a new fire.

Myra used the little red wagon to haul in the last wave of Chris's gifts. Everybody got one of her wooden boxes, wrapped in one of her scarves and tagged with a card in her handwriting. Two minutes in, they were all crying to some extent. Inside each box was a piece of Chris's jewelry, a ring or bracelet or necklace. Lucia received the bear-claw necklace, which she immediately donned. Although it dwarfed her small chest, her serious face allowed her to carry it off with dignity.

Some of the boxes contained an additional gift, if it would fit. Carly and Eric each had a key, which turned out to be to Chris's nearly-new baby-blue truck which Eric had once commented was exactly the color of Carly's eyes. Gillam was given a handwritten index card containing Chris's recipe for making camas root. Margie was given the horse bridle trimmed in silver.

For others, a separate container was necessary to hold Chris's bestowal. Edwina got all the original audio tapes and videos Chris had compiled to write her dictionary. Ginny sobbed when she looked down on Chris's worn carpenter belt, its loops and pockets filled with her favorite tools. Margie cried just as hard over the infamous leather fedora which Chris passed on to Frances.

Allie's hands trembled as she pulled open the lid to her carton, which held Chris's drums and flutes, including the elderberry flute handed down from her ancestors. She put her hands over her face to bawl. The children were watching attentively, crying in spurts, fingering everything as it was revealed.

Finally, the only unwrapped box left was in Sima's lap. She visibly steeled herself to face what lay inside. Myra felt a quick gladness it was not her being confronted with Chris's long white braid, cut from her by Ginny before Chris went in for her first chemotherapy, now wrapped in delicate leather sinews decorated with glass beads and turkey pinfeathers. Sima put it to her nose, took a long sniff, and wailed.

“I want to smell” demanded Lucia. Sima blindly held out the braid and all the children took a turn. Myra was relieved when Lucia cried gustily.

One wooden box sat on the mantle, set aside for Nika. After a few minutes, Myra stood and said “I suppose we can move on to stockings now.”

“No” said Sima, wiping her face. “There's one more. From Chris to you.”

“I already have her gift, the buffalo robe” said Myra. Which still lay on Sima's bed, she couldn't help thinking.

“Besides that” said Sima, walking down the hall. She returned with a book-carton sized box and set it on the floor in front of Myra. Myra wondered if this was really from Chris, or Sima's idea, until she saw the handwriting on the tag:

“Now you'll have answers to every question. Love you always, Myra My Own – Kash Kash”

The carton was filled with notebooks, most of them with battered covers hanging limp from their ring binders. Myra opened one at random and realized, with an electric shock, that it was a journal. In Chris's handwriting.

“She kept a diary?” she asked Sima in disbelief.

“Yes. Every night when she went to sit on the pot, she'd write for ten or fifteen minutes.”

Myra still couldn't believe it. “She never mentioned it, not once. How – far back?”

“Before me” said Sima. “Ever since she got out of the hospital.”

Myra counted and came up with 18. Plus a small plastic zippered bag in silk, to the side. She picked this up and heard Margie say “I wondered what that was, in her bedside drawer.”

It held a smaller version of the same kind of inexpensive notebook, only a third filled. Myra couldn't focus well enough to read a word in it, even with her glasses on. She took them off, polished the lenses, wiped her eyes, and tried again. She turned to the final page, which was headed “December 14, 2019” -- the night before Sima came. One week before she died.

There were only four lines on the page, in writing that was almost illegible from physical distress:

“It's like a white-hot auger burrowing into my hip. The morphine doesn't stop the pain, it only makes me not care. Nothing stops it except, for long clear seconds at a time, the creek. And Myra's soft brown eyes.”

This time, Myra's release was better and worse. Better because she knew she would emerge from its scald, and worse for the same reason. When she was able to wipe her eyes and blow her nose, she handed the book to Sima and said “You can read it out loud.”

Later, after stockings and remaining gifts had been appreciated, the last of the blueberries fished from the fruit salad bowl, and they were putting on coats to go feed wild birds and other animals, as they did every Christmas morning, Allie put her arm over Myra's shoulder and said “You be knowing what to do with those journals, huh.”

“I do” said Myra. “I will.”

© 2009 Maggie Jochild.

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