::20/20 Vision::

Best Friends - ARTWORK

I was in third grade. The term they used was, “legally blind.” All I knew was, I couldn’t see the blackboard. Sister Damien got fed up with me needing to come stand up close to it, so she called my mother. Mother took me to the eye doctor in the Utica Square Doctor’s Building. We picked out burgundy frames with little specks of glitter in them. And then …

I remember the moment I put those glasses on.

Wait … was this what other people’s normal was? I could see every tree leaf! I could read the street signs, I could even read the numbers on Mrs. Temples’ front porch. In an instant, my eight year old life took on a whole new meaning. My heart was pounding like a bass drum.

For the first couple of weeks, through those glasses I read everything, everywhere, out loud.

“T G & Y. C. R. Anthony’s. Bekins, we are careful, quick and kind. Meadow Gold Milk, Ice Cream, Beatrice Foods Co. You can trust your car to the man who wears the star; the big red Texaco star. Desert Hills Motel, Guest Laundry, No Pets.” I could read it all.

Finally my Dad hollered into the back seat for me to shut up he was driving. Then he cranked up Frankie Lane on the radio singing Moonlight Gambler.

I looked out the window and whispered to myself,
“Jim’s Coney Island.” I had to, because I could read it.

artwork copyright cece dubois, 2012, all rights reserved. http://www.cecedubois.com

::Upsy Down::

ADIRONDACK

“Those chairs are upsy down.” His shrill young voice echoed across the water, hovered in the air, trailed the heron down river.

I opened one eye to try and locate him. His red hat bobbed in the tall grass and disappeared. I sighed and settled back against the Adirondack.

“Whatever,” I murmured to no one. The sun was hot and high, the locust buzz was steady. I felt a bead of sweat let go and travel slowly down the center, between my bosoms. My fingernail played with the peeling paint on the arm of the chair.

“UPSY!” he crowed. I raised my head, squinted both eyes open.

“What?!”

“YOU! You’re upsydown!” Oh, for god’s sake. I settled back.

“Jasper, STOP. I’m tryin’ to relax.”

“Well, you’re relaxin’ but…” he trailed off. I heard him laugh, then saw him jump in the water, watched him stream across like an alligator, right before the chomp and roll. Just as I started to shut my eyes, his head popped up near my feet, gasping for air.

“You’re upsy down!” I raised my head and looked at him, then noticed something floating down stream.

“There goes your hat.”

He let out a shriek and started paddling madly toward it. He caught up to it, wrestled it for show, poured out the water, and slapped it on his head. I closed my eyes, and listened to the splashing rhythm as he slowly made his way back to shore.

He climbed out, dripping, and slopped his way up to me.

“Did you know?”

“Know what?”

“That you’re upsy down.”

I sat upright and stared at him.
“For god’s sake, Jasper, what in hell are you talkin’ about?”

He shrugged his tan shoulders, turned and walked over to the water’s edge. He peered at his reflection.

“Well,” he said, “from here you can’t tell. But from over there,” he pointed a bony finger to the far shore. “Everything is upsy down.”

He looked back at me and grinned.
“In the water.”

photo credit: http://www.catherineandersonstudio.com

::Bread Heels on My Family’s Table::

BREAD HEELS

We called them bread heels. The ends on loaves of bread. Once a loaf was opened, it was each user’s responsibility to keep the end slapped up against the next slice inside the plastic bag, so the remainder would stay fresh.
When there were no slices left, the two heels took on a life of their own, and a sort of bread heel caste system was born.

Sometimes on a Saturday afternoon my daddy would slather two heels with Miracle Whip, and make a sandwich with slices of raw potato and purple onion. This was the working class life of bread heels.

Then there were the heels that were lined up on a baking sheet, covered with cheese product, and slid under the broiler just long enough for the yellow stuff to char around the edges. Middle class bread heels lived through fire in a gas oven to become the cheesy toast served with potato soup on a Friday night.

Other times they were thrown into the skillet with the broken handle that lived in the oven. The ones that piled up in that skillet got hard as a rock. When there were enough of them, my mother clamped the food grinder to the kitchen table, and ground the petrified heels down to a powder.

She took that bread heel flour, mixed it with eggs and vanilla, buttermilk, molasses, spices, raisins, poured it into a cake pan, and baked it in the oven. This was bread crumb pudding; dark, dense and moist, it was just about the best thing you’d ever want to put in your mouth.

It’s been said that bread heels the world over have talked amongst themselves, and considered with reverence the fact that the heels of breadcrumb pudding had indeed lived the upper crust life of bread heels everywhere.

::JOURNAL ENTRY: OCTOBER, 1961::

Tattered Treasure Box

My altar is secret. I don’t really even have one yet, but I’m getting ready.The things I have for it are tucked away in a box. It’s a shoebox. From Renberg’s. Christmas, 1959. My father’s slippers came in it. If I lower my nose to the box, I can still smell the leather from those slippers.

The box is in the bottom drawer with some other stuff—so that no one can tell it’s something special.

A picture of Susan Van Wyck is in there. Susan Van Wyck’s been on the cover of Seventeen magazine about twenty times. Some people tell me I look like Susan Van Wyck. But she’s so beautiful, it makes me shy to think about it; I can’t believe it. But I keep that picture to remind me.

Then there’s my scapular. I got it in first grade when I made my First Holy Communion. It’s faded and the silk straps are twisted, but it reminds me of the Holy Sacrament. I like to remember when I was seven, and believed everything they told me, without question. Sometimes I sleep with it on, because I need those feelings I had back then. Innocent. Faithful.

There’s a little rock from the time we went to Roman Nose State Park. It was the summer before first grade, and the only vacation we ever took. This stone makes me think of highways, and swimming pools, and places far away.

The four leaf clover is from my boyfriend. Rick gave it to me –or should I say he walked down the aisle at school and dropped it on my desk. That’s how I knew he was my boyfriend. We haven’t talked to each other or anything, but sometimes you just know.

The scrap of brown eyelet material is from Nanny. She taught me how to sew, starting when I was five. When I was ten, She taught me to use the treadle machine on her patio. We made doll clothes all summer that year. Nanny always said, “You can do anything you want to do. Just come up with an idea, then think backwards and you’ll know how to get there.” This piece of fabric reminds me that I can do anything.

The last thing in here is a crystal heart. Daddy gave it to me before the 8th grade dance. It’s the prettiest thing I’ve ever seen, and it makes my own heart squeeze when I look at it. When Daddy’s having a bad night and I can hear him through my door, I take the crystal heart out and put it under my pillow. It helps me remember who he really is.

::THE TRUTH, OR SOMETHING LIKE IT::

Girl In Chair - Jessie Wilcox Smith

Lately the world seems like it’s spinning out of control. People who in years passed could “agree to disagree” now act ready to destroy anyone who fails to share and to celebrate their point of view. So, in large part, I’ve gone pretty silent. I think many people have; that makes me weary and sad. And confused. No matter which way you go, it feels a little dangerous out there.

When I was a girl, I can remember sitting quietly in a chair at my grandmother’s, listening to my Daddy and my uncles talk animatedly about politics, religion, how high the mower blade should be set so the grass won’t brown out in the summer heat. Their voices would raise and lower, there were long pauses. Then they’d talk over each other, louder and louder, things like, “Nonono, you got it all wrong on that one …” It was bold, lively, and strong. One thing it never was is hate filled. Or mean.

When they’d finally had enough–because no minds were changed during their debates, or if they were no one admitted it at the time–the men headed to the kitchen for another cold beer. I was still in my chair; I could hear them popping off the beer caps and laughing together.

For me as a kid there was something so reassuring and grounding about those eavesdropping episodes. I learned that the people I loved most could fiercely disagree, and still throw their arms around each other. I learned that when hearts are good and true, the opinions carried by those who love each other do not stand as executioner of relationships when positions don’t line up. My Uncle John and Uncle Jim, Uncle Ferd and Uncle Leo were no less connected to me and mine after those conversations than they were before. In fact, the experience of being a seven year old “fly on the wall” taught me that these moments were the fire that forged stronger relationships, not weaker ones. Those men were staunchly opinionated, but they could also laugh at themselves when they needed to. Looking back I realize that I learned something else on those afternoons at grandmother’s: to not take myself seriously.

Today, Uncle Leo is the only one still with us. I was thinking about that crew this afternoon, and I wonder: are there still people on this planet who engage in Sunday afternoon discourse, where they share ideas and different points of view with passion, but with no fear of retribution or retaliation? Are there people out there, anywhere, who love each other enough to risk disagreement? Are there people it’s safe to trust? Can anyone disagree without becoming the enemy, or being verbally belittled? Is it safe to be oneself anywhere?

I don’t know the answer. But here’s what I wish: I wish every kid could climb into a chair in their grandmother’s living room on a Sunday afternoon, and listen to the men in their lives verbally duke it out. Then I wish they could observe those same men head to the kitchen for a cold drink, laughing and cutting up as if nothing had happened. Because the truth is, so much happened. It’s a heart-deep lesson about how people truly love, how they navigate, how they get into and out of verbal challenges with their relationships, and their integrity, intact.

And it’s about the importance of leaving the grass at least four inches long in hot weather.

::THE EMPTY BOWL::

EMPTY BOWL

Have you ever considered the pristine beauty, the mystical significance of an empty bowl? Or even the hands that created the bowl itself? I hadn’t, until this past weekend.

An empty bowl is an important symbol in Buddhism. The bowl points to the monk’s way of life; they go from the monastery into the village each morning, bowl in hand, and ask for alms from the lay people. Whatever they receive, food or alms, is prayed over with thanksgiving, and counted as “enough;” “plenty” for that day.

As a prompt during a writing class recently, we were asked what we would need to fill our bowl.
I sat with my hand holding a pen, suspended over the page. My mind was blank. Just when I thought, “This is not working,” I heard my father’s voice.

My dad used to say, “Your mother could feed a family of eight on a potato and an onion.” And looking back, I realize that’s exactly what she did. She’d dice them, and boil them in a large pot of water; season them, and leave them to simmer on the stove. She’d put small pieces of Velveeta on the collection of bread heels, and run them under the broiler just long enough for the cheese product to melt across the surfaces of the bread, and start charring around the edges.

We loved potato soup night. It came after meatloaf night, and was followed by fish stick night, which was always on Friday. There was also tomato soup and grilled cheese night. There was bean and cornbread night, which was followed by chili night, because the leftover beans went into the chili.

When I recite the menu − this litany of how my mother fed six children on my dad’s hard earned but meager income − I am struck by a couple of things:

Regardless of where she kept her heart, regardless of how disconnected she seemed from the rest of us, she got up every day and did what needed doing to keep the children fed.

The process of creating a meal is a spiritual act. It is a prayer. Just saying grace over two such ordinary things as a potato and an onion − trusting that these will become the loaves and fishes on your children’s plates − that is a mother’s hope. An act of faith.

And I will say that doing it once makes it an event − marks its significance above the commonplace. But through my years of growing up, sitting as I did at that table every night, I can tell you this: the miracle of plenty was ever present there.

So when I consider what will fill my empty bowl, I humbly request one potato, one onion, and the power of my mother’s prayer.

::THESE LINES::

Hands with Tea

I’m sitting at my kitchen table, studying the palm of my hand, and waiting for snow.
The house is warm, but my nose is cold. The wintry chill around the edges of the house drives me to the center so I’m here, at this table. And thinking of building a fire.

But these lines. They’ve been on my palms since I grew hands while in my mother’s belly. Had I known them to reveal things, had I known there was a map, I might have done life differently. I might have checked the highway that starts at my wrist and curves up to the center-point between my thumb and forefinger.
I would have read the road signs held in the two that cross from left and right.

Years ago I went to a palm reader in New Orleans. I was newly divorced and trying to figure out how to navigate in the world as nobody’s anything. The palm reader looked at my hands, traced the lines she saw, and nodded.
“Three children.” I shook my head.
“No. Only two. Two children.”
“Oh well,” she said, still looking at my hand, “You will have a third. There are three children here.” She looked up and smiled.

I paid, left as quickly as I could, got outside, leaned against the wall, folded into myself, and tried to breathe. Apparently my palms didn’t show the complete hysterectomy I’d had the week of my twenty seventh birthday. There would be no more children. But I could still feel her fingernail tracing that line. I looked at my palm. How could she see that? How did she see the one I lost? How is that written there? I choked back sobs, slouched against a building in the French Quarter. I’m teary now, just writing the words. So be it. The question I had, and still have, is this: is my story really written here? Right here? And how I could never read it, never even know it was here to be read?

I had wanted a house filled with children, but looking back – even through the grief of loss – I can see it all came together exactly as it should have.

Life is a fascinating tapestry of love and its heartbreak, growth and its pain, choices and their consequences … and the freedom to know that all things work for good in the hearts of those who believe.

So I sit here, check the weather forecast, watch The King’s Speech, and … realize that I’m idly running my finger across the line. The one that told her there were three. And I remember: whatever any of us might think we know about anything, we don’t know everything … we simply cannot. We’re inside it, looking out. There’s a certain relief in that, really. And how exciting it is to be aware that there’s always more to learn, reasons to wake each day, eager to wrap our arms around this miracle of life.

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