The Waterfall Project

Southford Falls

The idea to write about these adventures was probably rolling around in my head when I first mentioned the idea of hiking waterfall trails to S earlier this spring. However, writing about our adventures in this space didn’t occur to me until last week, after we picked up his first set of photographs from the camera shop down the street.

S and I are on a mission to find and hike as many waterfall trails as we can this summer. He is nine. Nine, I am learning, is magical. Last weekend we talked about books for an hour while he got ready for bed. He tells us jokes that are for-real funny. He has grown wonderfully independent. And yet, he still grabs my hand instinctively when we cross the street, and he still looks to me when he needs reassurance or a hug. He also still thinks I’m cool. I want to hold on to nine for as long as I can.

I will have to backtrack my posts, because we’ve done two hikes already. The first one was at a park near where I grew up, a place I’ve hiked countless times and is filled with memories. M had taken the day off, so all three of us went, and the weather was incredible. Before we left we bought S one of those disposable film cameras. He took a whole roll of pictures and we dropped them off the next day. A week later we walked downtown and picked up the developed photos and took them with us to the café across the street so we could flip through them.

Twenty-five out of twenty-seven are blurry, most likely because he moved before the camera’s shutter was done closing its cheap, disposable eye. He was bummed- disheartened that his photos weren’t accurate representations of his memories, disappointed that his art didn’t align with his vision. We talked about ways he might hone his new craft, and we bought another camera so he can try again. I promised to find a photo album so he can catalog his photos and see how his skills improve.

Art. Nature. Motherhood.

I have decided to write about these trips so I can capture and consider all of the ways these three vital parts of my life intersect. I intend to write after each hike, so that perhaps my art can represent my vision.

I have decided to write about these trips in this space so that I will hold myself accountable for archiving our adventures, and so that S can have a written record of this summer, too.

And I have realized that by writing about these trips, I have found the way for me to hold on to nine for as long as I can.

“Let a body finally venture out of its shelter, expose itself in meaning beneath a veil of words. WORD FLESH. From one to the other, eternally, fragmented visions, metaphors of the invisible.” Julia Kristeva  

The Beautiful and the Grotesque

I have not written in this space in months. Weeks flew by, filled with teaching, reading, writing elsewhere, preparing, planning, parenting, thinking. And now, on the precipice of a new year, I have this small swarm of thoughts. As I wait for the moment where I can change the date, as if turning the page on the calendar really propels us away from the things we want to forget, I write to make sense of things, and share them here to make them real.

I have three siblings and all we all of have children, so we have collectively decided that Christmas gifts are to be given to kids only. Every year, one of my siblings breaks that rule and I feel like a jerk.

We always chip in on a gift for my mom. This year we got her a record player. Her boyfriend is a wonderful man, and also a talented musician, so she is spending more and more time going to concerts and listening to music.

Before the record player idea happened, I was sitting in our newly finished office thinking about my family and holiday gifts. Our office is a room we have been converting for a little over a year. We knocked the shelves out of the closet in the tiny bedroom next to ours, took down its folding doors, sheet-rocked (for the first time ever), and built recessed shelves and side-by-side desks. We repainted every wall and bit of trim, covered the peeling brown ceiling with layer after layer of white paint, stacked my books on the shelves on the left and arranged M’s pop culture sculptures on the shelves on the right, hung some art on the walls and a new roman shade on the window. It’s beautiful and sturdy and we are still swollen with pride because we created this space with our own hands.

An old painting of my mother’s hung in this room when it was still brown-ceilinged and wallpapered. She painted it when she was in high school– two blonde-haired fairies standing atop a huge spotted mushroom. The grass is vividly green, the fairies’ dresses are pink and blue and sweeping, their facial features vague. I don’t know how I came to own it. It hung in the kitchen at my old house, and it’s in the attic now, and for a brief moment I considered gifting it to my brother or one of my sisters or maybe giving it back to my mother for Christmas. I thought it might be funny to start a tradition between us now that we are grown; perhaps we could rotate it. Every Christmas it would get wrapped and passed along, the receiver would display it for a year, and then give it to another one of us. Then I thought about how my mother would laugh, but probably secretly hate it.

Before school let out for winter break, S finished an art project he’d been working on for weeks. He nearly burst through the front door of the school with it clutched tightly in his gloved hand. His eyes were shining as he carried it to the car. The way he confidently yet delicately placed it into my ungloved hand reminded me of how a nurse hands surgical tools to a doctor. I examined it closely, the glaze still a little tacky, as he explained to me every step of his artistic process.

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It’s an incense holder in the shape of a hotdog. I have it displayed on the coffee table, protected from the new kitten by two large, heavy vases. Every time I look at it I get a little teary. It fills me with pride. Love. And reminds me of the beauty in creation.

My mother and her boyfriend came over for dinner on Tuesday night. It was odd and wonderful to have her as a guest, because so often it’s just her and S and me, a quick dinner of spaghetti while watching cartoons. But this night, with the holiday air still spinning magically, we set out a cheese plate and had wine, played music, lit candles. I made homemade split pea soup, M made salad with marinated artichokes and sliced olives, and we baked the kind of buttermilk biscuits that have to be popped out of a cardboard tube by pressing on the seam with the back of a spoon.

When we finished dinner, my mom helped us clear the table. She stood next to me at the sink, flushed from her second glass of pinot, and put her head on my shoulder.

“I wanted to have dinner like this for a reason. And there’s no easy way to say this, so I am just going to say it. My mammogram came back abnormal. I have Stage One breast cancer. I am going to see the surgeon on the third. Frank is taking good care of me. I am going to be fine.”

And then she hugged me around my waist and we blinked away the wells in our eyes.

After the table was cleared, we set up Apples to Apples and played with S until almost ten o’clock. We laughed, hard and often, and I never wanted them to leave. But S had to get to bed and the kitchen was still a mess and I needed to talk to my husband and I wanted to cry huge tears into the sink, so I waved them away into the cold December night.

As I write this out now, hushed, like a secret, I wonder if art and motherhood and love and fear and life and death and creation and destruction are always this tangled, simultaneously beautiful and grotesque, concrete and ephemeral, and delivered in a silent punch from a gnarled and knotty fist.

Photographic Memory

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My paternal grandparents on their wedding day, 1950.

My paternal grandmother was in a car accident before I was born, or shortly after, which is why she had braces on her legs and walked with a crutch. Her maroon Buick was outfitted with a device that allowed her to drive using only her hands. She had been married two or three times, so her last name was different from ours, and every August she would take us, one at a time, back-to-school shoe shopping at a local shoe store called The Little Red School House. It was a squat building and dark inside, and although it was little, it was neither red nor a schoolhouse. Inside, a man with thick, nicotine-stained fingers that looked like my dad’s would press my socked foot into a cold metal cradle lined with black hatch marks to determine my shoe size. He always gave me a piece of hard Bazooka gum after ringing us up and then I would climb into the back seat of her modified car, sucking on the gum and then scraping the left-behind sugar from the Bazooka Joe comic strips with my teeth. We would go to Duchess for lunch, eat plain hot dogs and salty crinkle fries dipped in room temperature ketchup and my grandmother would ash her long Newports into the silver foil ashtray on the table.

I remember very little about the concrete facts of her life. I know she was from Rhode Island but I don’t know how she came to live in Connecticut. I don’t know how she met my grandfather or when they divorced. I do know she had three children and that my father was the youngest. I can’t recall where she worked or what her favorite food was. I can conjure up the image of the brick apartment building she lived in when we were small, that her couch was covered with a plastic slipcover, and that she collected bells and kept parakeets as pets.

I have a photograph of her and my grandfather, taken on their wedding day. It is one of those retouched old pictures, lightly painted, so it becomes something in-between a black-and-white photo and a color one. The hues are all pastel. Their teeth are very white. Nothing about it seems real, because the paint covers any natural lines and creases on their faces. When I look at it I see two young people I only knew as old people, people with traits that are familiar because they are mine, and foreign because they aren’t. As I stare at it longer I notice my grandmother’s left hand is curled, her fingers are pressing into her thigh. Why is she doing this? Was she nervous? What was she thinking about? This small pose makes me see the whole picture in a different way.

“A photograph’s punctum is that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me).” Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography

My grandmother slept over our house every Christmas Eve and would read us The Night Before Christmas before bed. She bought us red fleece one-piece “feetie-pajamas” and we would zipper ourselves in and line up neatly on the sofa. From far away, we probably looked like a holiday card. On Christmas morning my grandmother would watch us open gifts and then she would join us for Christmas dinner at my maternal grandparents’ house. She would follow us up their front stairs, one arm’s tricep cradled in the upper part of her crutch, her gait balanced by the weight of the overstuffed handbag slung over her other shoulder, where inside a dozen other cousins also called her Grandma Peggy, even though they weren’t related.

“The dominant ideology of the family, in whatever shapes it takes within a specific social context, superposes itself as an overlay over our more located, mutual, and vulnerable individual looks, looks which always exist in relation to [the]“familial gaze”—the powerful gaze of familiarity which imposes and perpetuates certain conventional images of the familial and which “frames” the family in both senses of the term.” –Marianne Hirsch, Family Frames: Photography, Narrative, and Postmemory

As time wore on and we grew up, I saw her less and less. I went several years or maybe a decade without visiting her at all. I don’t remember her at my father’s funeral, although I am sure she was there. I can’t recall whether we mailed each other holiday cards or if she ever called me on the phone. I do know that she developed emphysema but still smoked. That she had a stroke. That she had dementia. I also remember that she loved “Danny Boy” and I can still recall the sound of her laugh.

My mother is the one who called to let me know when my grandmother was in a nursing home not far from where I lived and that she was dying. I visited her on a chilly autumn evening. She was lying in a hospital bed with a corded remote. Her hands were in splints to prevent atrophy and she had tubes in her nose to help her breathe. Her skin was oddly smooth. She looked small and far away. I stood next to her bed and leaned over to kiss her forehead and say hello, my chubby infant resting on my hip, balancing my tilted frame. She looked up at me and smiled and called me by her daughter’s name and told me I had a pretty baby. He grabbed at her fingers and laughed.

 “Thus the life of someone whose existence has somewhat preceded our own encloses in its particularity the very tension of History.” –Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography