People always ask me when I started to write. Especially songwriting.
I can think of points along my childhood and teen years, when I wrote to process feelings or moments; heartbreak. Confusion. Boys. But the truth is I’ve always, as long as I can remember, written it down.
I say that, and it strikes me quite odd that a tiny girl, not exposed to literary pursuits, would even think of writing.
I was a post war baby; my mother and daddy were young, beautiful, hard working. My daddy was a Navy man, and knew how to do just about everything. They were musical, and funny, but they were not the type to bury themselves in Tolstoy or Hemmingway. They had better things to do: roll up the rug in the dining room on Saturday afternoon and dance to Benny Goodman and Kay Starr records. Or sit on the front stoop at sunset, leaning into each other, beer in hand, and watch the kids ride their trikes in the driveway.
So how did I end up here, at this keyboard? Or way back there, at that Big Chief tablet with my Dixon Laddie #304?
I remember a moment when I was five. I was sitting on the swing in the back yard at 1563 North Marion. The sky was so blue, and I was so happy, I wanted to write a song about how I felt. I threw my head back, and instead of words coming out, I cried. My happy went heartbroken in that moment; I wept, because I knew I was too little to write a song that sounded like the ones on the radio.
And it’s interesting, isn’t it? How I remember that moment so clearly. How even as I think about it, I am “back there,” under that blue sky. In that back yard on that swing. My stomach even grabs for a second as the feelings I had then are here with me now.
So I guess you could say the writing thing has always been part of what I am. I remember in first grade, Sister Dianna was teaching us a song, and I was saying the words with her. She stopped, looked at me, and said,
“Mary Cecelia, do you know this song already?” No, I didn’t. I’d never heard it before. But somehow, I knew what would come next in the lyrics. Didn’t everybody? No, it turns out. They didn’t.
In third grade, Sister Mary Damien announced that the Highschool newspaper class was asking for poems from the grade school. They were going to publish one poem in the next edition of their paper. We were to turn our poems in the next day. My hear jumped, and my head started spinning with the tomes I would write.
That night at home, I took out my Big Chief tablet and my Laddie pencil, and I wrote. I wrote at least a half dozen one-stanza poems. I gave each stanza a name, and its own sheet of lined paper. I made the pages as neat as my third grade southpaw printing could get.
The next morning, I shuffled into the classroom with my classmates, laid my stack of poems on the corner of Sister’s desk, and took my seat. I watched her eagerly, hoping she would be proud of me.
Finally, Sister Damien walked over to her desk and picked up my pages. She leafed through them, then ripped them in half and threw them in the waste basket. As she did so she looked up at me briefly and stated,
“You were not to copy out of a book.”
My stomach lurched. My face turned hot. My eyes welled up. I was horrified, for several reasons:
First, it would never have crossed my mind to turn in someone else’s work; the fact that she thought I would do such a thing made me want to cry.
Second, even at seven years of age, I was in a panic: those were the only copies I had. I learned an important lesson that day: always make duplicates.
Third, though my classmates were laughing at me, I was more concerned with people thinking I had such a flawed moral compass. They clearly didn’t know me at all.
On another level, buried deep beneath my chaotic feelings, was a little voice that whispered,
“Hmmm. They must have been good. REALLY good. She thought you copied them out of a book.”
A backhanded compliment from a nun, saying my work was so good I could not have done it. I’ve lived a lifetime of twisted victories like that.
In fourth grade, we had music class two mornings a week. One morning the music teacher announced that there would be a music program, and that we would be in it. She then said to the class,
“We will need someone to sing the solo. Are there any solo singers in here?”
The entire class turned, without a sound, and pointed at me. All I’d ever done was sing with everyone else. I was completely unaware of my own voice. With all those fingers and eyes directed at me, I buried my face in my arms and cried.
Eventually I did sing the solo in the program that year. And I kept writing. There were times, big stretches in fact, when I was writing for my life. And music is the silver thread that’s always kept me tethered here.
In fact, writing and music have laced the pieces of my life together, helped me make sense of myself, this world, and the path I’m on. They still do.
I used to think maybe these things were pieces of generations past, pulling me back. But I’m starting to believe maybe they’re pieces of the future, pulling me forward.
Either way, I’ll take it. And I’ll write and sing the pieces of my life together, for as long as I’m here.
I’m a little teary today. Not constantly, but in those spaces between big thoughts it creeps in, and I catch my breath. Really, it’s the craziest thing. It started with David Bowie. And Jane Austen.
I’m of the generation that rode Bowie’s outrageous musical wave with him. I was on the sidelines, having babies; but I watched, and listened. And dreamed.
The Viet Nam war was raging, girls were burning bras, and in California, hippies were putting daisies in the barrels of guns.
In my little world, I imagined what that life would be like. If I could make the music I wanted to make. If I could chop my hair, turn it pink, or orange, or blue. If I could climb out of my responsible skin, and into the skin of a free spirit. Jump off the limb, way up high, believe I could fly.
And as an avid reader of Jane Austen books, I also imagined going back to those days, of handiwork under the shade tree; of a simpler life. Of Mr. Darcy.
But I was a young mother; my beautiful babies needed feeding, wash had to be done … all the things that go into keeping a life on track. Still, while hanging diapers on the line, or cooking dinner, or folding clothes, singing lullabyes, my mind went on amazing journeys … back in time, or somewhere future. It still does.
Sometimes I’m a literary writer, sitting on the sandy beach with her books and pens. The south of France; or Italy, in a small medieval castle by the sea. I can see that so clearly, it’s like I’m really there.
Other days I feel the need to trim the oil lamps and pull out my grandmother’s treadle sewing machine.
My fantasy world also embraces the anticipation of relationship.
I remember as a young girl of eight going to see War and Peace. We came home and for days I wouldn’t look in the mirror; I didn’t want to break the spell that I truly was Audrey Hepburn as Natasha Rostova, pursued by the handsome Prince Andrei Bolkonsky.
Years passed, and I kept growing up, as girls do. But I continued to live my fantasies while setting the table or ironing the pillowcases. From the Philco radio, Frankie Lane sang “They Called the Wind Mariah.” It may have looked like I was just pressing hard creases on cloth table napkins, but I knew I was riding a wild Mustang across the prairie, the wind in my hair.
That was long ago. My life has seen heartbreak, death, love, more heartbreak. And yet. Yet I still dream; I still believe.
In spite of what I’ve walked through, I know my Alan Rickman’s Colonel Brandon is waiting for me. But the truth is, I possess the spunk and mettle of Elizabeth Bennett.
So perhaps it will be Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy who calls for me, after all.
I was thinking today about the Christmases in my life.
In my early childhood, they were silver tinsel, colored bulbs and an angel star on a tree that shined through the front window and made the world feel magic. They were chenille robes, and the smell of bacon and coffee on Christmas morning; hair left uncombed and presents torn into. They were oranges and nuts, hard candy and a treasure tucked deep in the toe of a stocking.
They were rides in the car to Nanny’s house, clutching my new doll. They were pickled eggs in a jar on Nanny’s buffet, and a pink Christmas tree that glowed with starry lights inside a cloud of angel hair.
When I was old enough−about seven−mother started taking me with her to Advent service on Tuesday nights. I sat between her and my grandmother, Mom, breathed deep the incense, threw back my head and sang the Advent hymns lustilly, as young girls do.
On Jordan’s bank the Baptists cry,
announces that the Lord is nigh
awake and harken for he brings
glad tidingsof the King of Kings.
By the time I was in my teenage Christmases there were five more children. The young ones were so precocious that, every year on Christmas Eve, Daddy prevented early peeks by sleeping on the floor at the entrance to the living room.
Our trees had gotten smaller; Daddy usually picked one up at the grocery store for free the night before Christmas. We were all excited, it was Christmas after all. But something had changed; I was too young to know what, or why. I just knew I felt a little lost. Advent services, and Advent songs, had started to define the season for me, and I turned to them for the comfort I needed then.
Looking at it from here I can see it was during those years my father lost his job; he was doing what he could to keep six children fed and a roof over us all. It’s clear that his was a hero’s journey, and my heart breaks a little for him when I think about it now.
Then cleansed be every breast from sin;
make straight the way for God within,
prepare we in our hearts a home
where such a mighty Guest may come.
I became a mother when I’d just turned twenty one. And that changed everything. Christmas was more magical than ever. Being Santa to my babies was wonderful. I sewed, and baked, and made ornaments out of egg cartons. We strung popcorn and cranberries; every year we bought the annual Christmas album from the Firestone store.
I saved S&H Green Stamps all year long; I poured over the stamp catalog to see what gifts I could get with my books of stamps.
We made our Advent wreath, lit the candles, purple and pink; said the Advent prayers; went to church and sang the hymns. We made a birthday cake for Jesus, and every Christmas morning the children would run to see if the tiny statue of the Baby was in the manger, having been “born” during the night. The ultimate result, through the years, was Christmas seasons of love, and laughter, and plenty.
For thou art our salvation, Lord,
our refuge and our great reward;
without thy grace we waste away
like flowers that wither and decay.
Then there’s the Christmas I was separated from my husband of twenty-five years, headed for divorce. I’d been holding my own through what was a very rough year. But it seemed like everywhere I went during my holiday shopping I ended up face to face with the perfect gift for him. It was like the stores conspired to show me what I would not be purchasing. Try getting through the holiday without buying him THIS. With each ‘gift confrontation’ came another crack in my heart.
It was exhausting. I clung to my Advent. Yes, it became mine. I wrapped myself in it; I sang the songs and prayed the prayers, sometimes silently other times screaming them at the top of my lungs. There were moments I lost track of what I was praying for, or who I even was; I just knew that Jesus was my lifeline, and I was calling 911.
To heal the sick stretch out thine hand,
and bid the fallen sinner stand;
shine forth and let thy light restore
earth’s own true loveliness once more
I’ve grown into a lovely single life, my kids are beautiful adults, and I have five precious grandchildren. During these Christmas seasons I find that I’ve returned to the feelings of my childhood, but with a depth I couldn’t know then. The many times, and ways, in which my heart was broken have taught me this: in me dwells a personal and a tender yearning for new life; I ache for the beauty of the season; I am joyful at the redemption this Holy Baby brings. And I treasure the brokenhearted, hopeful Advent in us all.
All praise, eternal Son, to thee,
whose advent doth thy people free;
whom with the Father we adore
and Holy Ghost for evermore.*
*Words: Charles Coffin, 1736;
trans. John Chandler, 1837
I read a quote today from Jamie Lee Curtis. She was answering a question about marriage. She and husband Christopher Guest have been married over 30 years which in this day and time is some sort of record. In Hollywood it’s such a rarity that I guess a couple of that standing could pretty much sit in their lawn chairs and charge admission.
But when she was asked about their “secret” to marital success, she answered in three words: “Don’t get divorced.”
Later in the discussion, Jamie Lee said she was tempted to write a book about marriage and call it, “Don’t Leave.”
I rolled that around in my head for a couple of hours. I’ve been divorced for 23 years – almost as long as I was married. I’ve slugged through nearly a quarter century by myself. I take out the garbage, I roll out the trash cans, and I roll them back. I pump my gas. I put oil in my car. I paint my shutters, and walls, and trim, and doors. I shove my furniture around. I cut shelves, and I install them. I hang pictures, and brackets, and hooks, and blinds, and window treatments. I found a scrubby thing with a handle so that I can wash my own back. And at the end of the day, I climb into the bed and sleep with my arm by my side.
And so, okay, I was thinking about Jamie Lee and Christopher, and thinking that building a marriage is sort of like building a house. You get together, and you talk a lot, sharing dreams about that house. You each have some ideas in your head you think are the best, and so together you bring a bunch of lumber, a couple of great hammers, a saw, and you start.
My Daddy was a builder. He was a master builder. And my Granddad was, too. They made building beautiful things look easy. They measured, and carefully considered the straightness of each board. They drew out, with exact precision, what the plan would be. Every fraction was checked and accounted for. Blueprints.
They never got ahead of themselves. First things first. I used to watch my Daddy frame in a wall: he’d use his carpenter’s square, his level, and he’d be certain the wall was framed straight and plumb. Then he and my Granddad would lift it up off the ground, and settle it into place.
It was all slow and painstaking, sometimes I watched and thought to myself, What difference does that make? That quarter of an inch? But it did, indeed, make a difference. Letting a tiny fraction slide on the front end, can send you off a cliff at the other.
So their patience always paid off. Eventually, one step at a time, something beautiful was constructed. And each creation has endured through the decades.
So going back to Jamie Lee and Christopher I’m guessing they, like anyone else, have had their rough spots; their places where the measurement was off by a quarter of an inch, maybe more. But rather than throw in the hammer, they corrected and carried on. That’s what’s required anytime we’re building a thing of beauty. Part of the beauty in that thing is the commitment to it. The willingness, the steadfastness, the refusal to cut and run when things aren’t quit lining up straight and plumb.
Maybe the marital ceremony should start to include a small stone, or relic each participant hands the other. On these are inscribed the words:”Don’t Leave.” Because, in the end, that’s what we’re saying after all.
Daddy said Ma Welp got her teeth from a Sears catalog. We believed him. If you could see those teeth, you’d believe him, too.
Ma was a thick bodied woman with a tight grey bun and sensible shoes. She was the babysitter when our grandmother, “Mom,” wasn’t available.
When Mom came over, once the parents were gone, she would say, “You kids go to bed now.” Then she’d settle herself down in front of Gunsmoke and fall asleep.
Ma Welp never slept. And pretty much never smiled; on the rare occasion when she did the gums on those teeth shined like new Silly Putty.
I don’t remember Ma being mean to us, but I do remember my brother and I did our best to stay out of her way. The woman was square shouldered; she could fill a doorway. She was backlit.
Ma’s daughter Tootie and our mother were best friends. Tootie was a professional golfer and had curly red hair. She was long and slim with freckles across her nose.
Tootie was always laughing. As a kid I was puzzled about how big, solid Ma Welp could be the mother of lythe, bubbly Tootie. I guess Ma’s no-nonsense way is why our parents considered her the best “number 2” on the short list of sitters.
Late one afternoon my brother and I decided to make a racecar, which we did fairly often. We walked down to Brinlee’s grocery store on the corner, and hauled back a cardboard shipping box from Rainbow Bread. The box fit snugly in our Radio Flyer. We wedged it in, and gathered our tools: an old paring knife, and crayons.
We’d done a pretty good job of carving out the opening for the driver when we heard Dad through the kitchen window.
“Okay, Ma, I’ll be by to pick you up in about twenty minutes.” We stared at each other. Awe, dammit. Ma Welp? Tonight?
“We better work really fast,” my brother said.
“We haven’t done the doors, or the lights. We’ll never get it done in time!”
“Well, we could just cut the doors,” he said, and began feverishly sawing on the cardboard.
“NO!” I hissed. “You can’t open the doors without handles and we have to put lights on it.”
“If we just cut the doors …” he had sawed about halfway through on his side. “Then we could take it to the top of the hill and ONE person could get a ride.”
I stopped drawing the headlamp and glared at him. I knew exactly where this was going.
“And who is the ONE that will ride?”
He finished cutting the door, then stood there, plucking cardboard shreds from the knife.
“Hmmm … weeell,” he said slowly as he tested his door. He threw me a sideways glance. “Y’know, racecar drivers ARE boys, so …”
“YOU are stupid!! That’s a stupid answer. And you smell like Cheerios and baloney. Racecar drivers do NOT smell like that.” I threw down my crayon. “I’m not doing this anymore.”
He put down the knife and, without looking at me, picked up the tongue of the wagon.
He pulled our race car through the gate, down the driveway, and headed up the hill. I went down the driveway and watched him reach the top. I saw him climb in our race car, give it a shove, and head down the hill. He gained speed as he rolled, steering with the tongue. He was Mario Andretti. I hated him.
When he got to our driveway, he steered it right, and up the incline. I saw daddy coming down the street with Ma in the car, so I got behind the wagon and started pushing him up the driveway and through the gate. The wagon came to a stop back where our race car building began. He climbed out and looked at me, smiling.
“That was a great ride!” I glared at him.
“Shut up. Daddy’s back with Ma.” His face went pie eyed.
“Uh oh. We better chop chop.” We gathered our crayons, our little knife, and slipped inside. One thing we were good at doing together was making ourselves scarce. And we did that more often that we made race cars. I guess you could say we were pros at it.