Saturday, September 27, 2008

The clothes mark the moment

About seven or eight months ago, Doralong posted this enchanting story about wearing a perfect little black dress and meeting Jackie Kennedy. I promised her a story about my own Kennedy meeting and the dress I wore. Then my husband got sick and my life fell apart for a while. But I'm picking up some of the pieces now and trying to get back to some semblance of normal. So here, long overdue, is my little offering.

As you may or may not remember, my maternal grandmother was not my favorite person on Earth. She neglected and criticized my mother, her youngest child, and, by the time I really knew her, she was an alcoholic, drinking sherry out of tea cups in the morning because it looked like tea. (My, what odd smelling Darjeeling you have Granny!) She was also a country-club, debutant-ball Southern woman with all the ugly classism and racism that goes with that territory.

But there was also a lot that people loved and admired about her. She was an early and vociferous champion of women's rights, starting with working to get them the right to vote. Toward the end of her life she was a supporter of the equal rights amendment. She knew Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and worked tirelessly for the Democratic party. My grandfather once sent her a telegram that read: "Gladys -STOP- I loaned, not gave, you to the Democratic Party. STOP Come home. STOP Charlie STOP" And she was a "snappy" (to use her word) dresser with a snappier sense of humor and charm.

And, yes, I did just organize a yardsale/fundraiser and raise $620 for Obama. And, yes, I am aware that I am not entirely unlike her, said the pot about the kettle.

But, despite all my mixed feelings about her, there was one wonderful thing she did that, for me, almost makes up for it all. In 1961, President Kennedy appointed her to the U.N. as Commissioner for Women's rights. There was to be a small induction ceremony in the oval office where she was sworn in by the president. She was asked if she wanted to bring anyone. "Why yes!" she replied. She sent them a guest list that included her entire extended family - children, grandchildren, cousins, in-laws - all of us! And the Whitehouse swallowed their surprise and let us all come. Of course, we were excited and nervous, and the way my mother and I expressed that was to focus on what we would wear. Much fussing about was done, but eventually it was settled that I would wear a fairly sedate kelly green dress with a full, petticoated skirt, a bow in the back, a peter-pan collar, and - fabulosity alert! - appliqued - and stuffed for three dimensionality - tam-'o-shanters! Oh, how I loved that dress. I remember wearing it and joyfully petting those surprising little hats.

I also remember being in the oval office with my great crowd of cousins. There are times when it's a good thing to be the littlest person in the room, and that was one of them. I got to stand in front while the bigger ones had to squeeze in behind. Here we all are. My grandmother is the older woman in the suit on the right of President Kennedy. (Click on the picture to enlarge it.)

I'm sure my grandmother was duly sworn in, though I remember nothing about that. What I do remember is waiting as the president gravely shook hands with one and all. Finally he stood in front of me and my dress. He seemed about forty feet tall, and I remember him, as if in slow motion, bending waaaaaayyy down toward me, reaching out, and solemnly shaking my hand. For me, the ceremony ended there and memory stops. But I treasure this photo of it and, folded away in a box in my basement, I still have the green dress that took me to the White House to meet a president.

Let me add, in memory of my grandmother with all her imperfections and passions, that I write this now, in part, as a talisman of hope that another young, charismatic senator who is running for office against an old, experienced Republican, will win the presidency and inspire generations to come.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Summer's end

Last night, as I made my pre-bedtime rounds to check on, cover, and kiss sleeping children, I closed every window in the house for the first time since Spring. My sunflowers have withered and my remaining tomatoes will stay green on the vines. I hate winter. I try very hard not to think about my life in terms of sacrifices I have made, things I have given up. I prefer to embrace, in a whole-hearted way, the choices I have made and the hand I have been dealt. But having grown up in the tropics, winter's a tough one for me. Every winter a small cold cranky part of me thinks, 'Damn it! If it wasn't for this man I love beyond all things who is also my best friend and who I would gladly die for, I'd be living someplace warm and sunny!' Hmmm..... Love or good weather? Tough choice.

But winter here is really rotten. The sky is continuously grey. Any snow on the ground very quickly gets piled to the curb where it sits for months and quickly goes from white to grey to black from exhaust fumes. No sparkly winter wonderland for us. In the coming months I'll try not to bitch about it too much, but I want you all to know that I'm being very very stoic and brave.

Not surprisingly, every year around this time, I revisit Keats's "Ode to Autumn," my favorite of all his odes. He wrote it when he already had tuberculosis (which he caught from lovingly nursing his brother Tom, who died young of TB) and knew that he, too, was headed for early death. [Aside: God I love John Keats! He was exactly my height, 5'2", nursed his younger brother, was unrequitedly in love with Fanny, and wrote gorgeous and, to my mind, really sexy poems! Sigh.... He puts the "romantic" in "Romantic Poetry."] Anyway, here's a link to the whole poem, and I'll let him end this post with the final stanza of that brilliant poem. Remember that the shadows are lengthening around him too. He knows he will most likely die, as his brother did, young and never reaching his full ripeness.

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,
While barrèd clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue,
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river shallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies,
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn,
Hedge-crickets sing, and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft,
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

An old piece rediscovered

I was going through some old files and found this little piece I'd written years ago - after one of my miscarriages. It has some qualities, so I thought I'd share it here.

Selina Says

Selina says her husband held their stillborn son for two whole hours, and would not let the nurses take him. He crooned, "You have to learn to share your toys. You cannot always have your way. Eat your spinach. Don't drink and drive." The baby lay quiet, perfectly formed, perfectly behaved. Selina has a picture taken at the end of his eight months of humming, watery life. With his tiny triangle mouth ajar, his eyes closed, his minute fingers curled, and the scant wisps of wet black hair dappling his skull, he looks just like a baby newly fed and sleeping. He wears a sky blue gown dotted with clouds. It is the gown the hospital keeps only for dead babies so their parents can remember them as clean, clothed, sleeping photos of the living babies they should have been.

Selina believes her son lives with his grandmother in Heaven. That he watches, an anxious angel, over the fetus growing in her now. Belief does not keep her from weeping before me. Belief, it seems, is like her womb - both empty and full, consoling nothing.

I do not know where my child went. It was a ten-week clump of chromosomes and blood, not technically faceless or sexless, but so deeply mysterious an existence that it seems to me now I held it only in feeling and on faith. In the recovery room they sent a nun to stop me crying. Her face was pale and rumpled as an old soft rag. She held her crystal tear-shaped rosary beads against her starched black dress with one mottled white hand. Her other hand gripped mine. Nervous but fervent, she said, "Your baby is with Jesus now. Your baby never knew pain, never knew grief. Thank you Jesus." And I said, "Leave me alone." I knew she didn't know.

Selina believes that Satan took her son, but God received him. Selina says she goes alone to her baby's grave each day at lunch. Afterwards she sits in the muffling capsule of her car and talks to him and weeps. Her husband will not go. He tells her, "I have to live my life now," leaving Selina alone to hold on to her son's.

I do not speak to my child. Where would I reach her? What would I say but, endlessly, come back, to the endlessly silent presence of her absence.