Friday, February 25, 2005

The Big File

Housework is not a time-consuming chore when it is done a little bit every day and no unsightly mildewed confusion is ever allowed to grow. In much the same way, studying mathematics is a manageable endeavor as long as one does the homework everyday and never gets behind or fails to have a confusing concept promptly explained. I used to be a pretty good math student, and even expected to major in math and minor in actuarial science in college. That didn't happen, I ended up an art major, and then I became a pretty good homemaker.

The last few years the whole housework discipline has escaped me. I can't always balance my checkbook the first time through. Things pile up; stacks of bills, piles of files, stacks of unsorted images torn from magazines that I use for teaching, images I used in class last summer but didn't refile, other stacks of the papers I use for my collages, lots and lots of letters, clipped newspaper columns from Leon Satterfield and Molly Ivins, "Get Fuzzy", "Zits" and "One Big Happy" comics, small appliance owner's manuals, old report cards and team rosters and drink schedules.

My friends know that when I finally embark on The Big Clean, The Big Cook, or The Big Iron, I will be off the radar for at least two days. They know I am jousting with dust bunnies the size of Abyssinian cats, or blowing fuses in the kitchen. They probably don't know the ugly truth about The Big File, however.

The Big File is like being sucked down Alice's Rabbit Hole. I keep painting myself into a smaller and smaller circle until I am kneeling in a spiral of paper stacks. When the phone rings my legs are too cramped for me to scramble up and answer before the voice mail kicks in. I'm very close to running out of file folders, and the file cabinet drawers are crammed to overflowing.

Fritzi's letters and lots of other correspondence had been saved in a Rubbermaid shoebox since I moved to this condo in 2000. They hadn't settled into neat and tidy strata, however. I spent a good hour arranging the letters by date this afternoon. I hadn't saved all of Mom's letters, and I didn't use any clear specifications when saving or discarding. I especially want to read through the last two years some other day. I think it will be a very positive experience, but I can't do it right now. I have all those other pictures stacked all over the floor, and I can't walk in my room.

As kids we had some plastic circle gizmos for fanning out and managing a hand of playing cards. That is what I need now on a much larger scale. I saw the Texas Ballet Theater's Jayme Autrey Griffith performing the classic Don Quixote fan dance last weekend. Why can't I flick this semicircle of files in a coquetish manner?

Interestingly, I received a letter from my aunt today that included a delightful letter my mom had written her a couple years back. Mom was dealing out the full update on all her kids and grandkids and travels. It was fun to read. I feel sorry for people who have no pen pals. A long-lasting written relationship is a fabulous gift. Now I just have to figure out how to get out of my "wheelie" home office chair without rolling over any of the stacks!

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Hung up in the decisions

Yesterday I gave my dad permission that he didn't need (but seemed to want) to buy a small electric skillet with a non-stick surface on sale at Shopko. Apparently my mom did not approve of non-stick surfaces. My sister and I discovered the current electric skillet in their kitchen is quite large, uncoated, and doesn't work worth diddly. My mom was a wonderful person, but she had very black/white opinions on absolutely everything from the most trivial on up. If you lived with someone for fifty-five years who told you to cut the ring of sausage into 3/16" pieces to fry for breakfast, you might find yourself a bit adrift. Dad may find he is free to make quite different choices now. He may also find that lots of choices aren't nearly so earth-shakingly important anymore. How important is it???

It was a huge relief to me when someone commented about one of my agonized decisions, that the selection would "never be seen from a galloping horse." Fritzi had the gift of knowing what made her really happy. I hope through all this grief we can find some peace in making easy choices about the small stuff, and find some clarity about what's really the big stuff.

Monday, February 21, 2005

Emotional weather changeable without warning

After a couple weeks of being calm and philosophical, I started to think I was "coming out of the intense grief". Instead, I was about to become the target of torrential meatballs and mudslides:

Tuesday--My hard shell has been penetrated and my cold core altered by the wonderful thoughtfulness and generosity of friends and family. My body seems light and aerated. My energy is really high when I'm teaching. My students find me more open, accepting, soft, and huggable. The phrase "permeable membrane" keeps popping into my consciousness. Had to get out the dictionary, of course. Permeate... to pass through the openings and interstices, to spread and flow throughout, diffuse... Clearly not a scientist. All the plants I grew in Dixie cups for Biol 101 lab died. Does permeability allow for flow both in and out?

Thursday--I've been just exhausted this week, and don't really know why. Feel like I'm on a planet with much more gravity. I'm being triple-teamed by hayfever, hormones, and grief. My head is stuffed with Brillo pads. On the drive home from work this afternoon, in the time spent just waiting for a red light, I became absolutely furious that Modern Medicine failed Fritzi, and indirectly failed everyone I love. Perhaps I had tried to sidestep that phase of grief, so it waited to hit when I wasn't looking.

Saturday--Answered the doorbell with tears streaming down my cheeks and didn't even care. Writing notes to people who have been so kind, sharing happy memories about my mother, and about times our families shared when I was growing up. 100% chance of precipitation. At the door a neighbor waits to give me a handheld vacuum. I appreciate the gift and the distraction. I sent my oldest back to grad school with the Dust-Buster, so I've got stairway crevices and corners that look really gritty.

Sunday--Went wandering through Stein Mart just looking at clothes and colors. Never even tried anything on. Senses of time, urgency, purpose all suspended. I haven't done this kind of numb wandering in the nearly nine years since my divorce. I felt quite refreshed, except for my sinuses. Listened to Stevie Ray Vaughan's "The Sky is Crying" twice.
Monday--Still don't know about permeability, but I dreamt of energy moving in and out of me as I was connected into a huge stream of people traveling on a huge airport moving-walkway. The energy looked like bubbles, or like Steven's photos of glass marbles. Very peaceful and clear, really.

Friday, February 18, 2005

20/20 at Twenty

My middle son is turning twenty today. I gave him a call, but he was at work and couldn't talk long. He'd received my cookie care package, and a card from Gramps. We talked about so many emotions running so close to the surface these days.

This son has 20/20 vision. He has a keen view to his future, a thrifty and hardworking plan for the present, and a deep emotional connection to his family that pleases and supports us all.

I think he got his clear vision just before birth. Second pregnancy, arrangements all planned out for little Jeffrey at the neighbor's, Lamaze choo-choo train breathing, and nothing to do but wait. If this kid didn't pop out in a day or two, my OB/GYN would induce labor. As he said, "There are too many people in your body."

The nurses had me racing laps through the corridors in my breezy hospital gown and pushing my IV stand. I was becoming convinced of the positives of arriving fashionably late! And then, adding insult to injury, the teaching hospital sent a med student who looked about twelve years old to test my vision.

I never got a happy face sticker after my eye test, but I eventually got a bouncing baby boy.

Saturday, February 12, 2005


Lavender's blue, dilly dilly,
Lavender's green
When you are King, dilly dilly,
I shall be Queen

Who told you so, dilly dilly,
Who told you so?
'Twas my own heart, dilly dilly,
That told me so

Call up your friends, dilly, dilly,
Set them to work
Some to the plough, dilly dilly,
Some to the fork

Some to the hay, dilly dilly,
Some to thresh corn
Whilst you and I, dilly dilly,
Keep ourselves warm

Lavender's blue, dilly dilly,
Lavender's green
When you are King, dilly dilly,
I shall be Queen

Who told you so, dilly dilly,
Who told you so?'
Twas my own heart, dilly dilly,
That told me so

I'm being guided by lavender. I walked into Mervyn's through the children's department. On the forty per cent off table there were pairs of lavendar sparkly fairy wings. I sensed I needed to get them for our summer fairy camp, if not for my own personal use.

Moving on through the mall, I found a fabulous lavender and black top to go with my "dress-up" black skirt, and on sale. I 've spent forty-five years as an anti-purple person. Purple made the dark circles under my eyes prominent, and never went with my brunette hair. Plus, the whole idea of purple paisley polyester double-knit made me irritable.

When my sister and I got into the closet and drawers in the spare bedroom we found Mom's jewelry box, her mother-of-the-bride/groom outfits, my sister's blue-ribbon 4H sewing projects, and Mom's personal favorites from her long sewing life. We found the all-time grooviest outfit I ever wore. Mom created it for me from 1970's Marimekko fabric. The cotton/linen print had huge waves of black, sand, lavender, and white. Mom designed my outfit to have bell-bottom pants that Judy Carne and Goldie Hawn would kill for. Then she made a knee-length buttoned vest to go over them.

Mary Jane and I gasped when we found it. The outfit was even more impressive than we remembered. I wish I could fit in it, now that Marimekko is back in style. I also wish I could find the awesome gold and lavender floral print corduroy Nehru dress Mom made me in junior high. That's the trouble with retro. You never know what to save until it's too late!

I wore the new lavender top to the Texas Ballet Theater's performance called "Five of Hearts" at the Bass Performance Hall in Ft. Worth. I wore Mom's large mother-of-pearl pin and her mother's mother-of-pearl pinkie ring. Lavender looks surprisingly nice with my graying hair. Crap. I'm turning into my grandmothers!

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Writing thank you notes

Fritzi brought me up right to write thank you notes promptly and feel really guilty if I didn't. How funny that she still nags me, albeit gently, in a way that will urge me toward health.

I have a list of wonderful people/friends/family/generous souls to write, thanking each of them for their memorial gifts to the museum fund. In the other-dimension first week after Mom's death, I wrote many thank yous. The process was extremely healing. Each small inky verbalization of explanation, sadness, and gratitude was a step in my acceptance of the reality, an expression of true appreciation for the gifts and thoughtful givers, and a powerful impetus toward recalling more pleasant memories and images of my mother.

Now, after a couple weeks attempting to resume "normal life", I find myself dreading the small written meditations in gratitude, memory, and grief that I know deep-down will be healing. It's the renewed verbalizing of the experience that frightens me. Repeating words clarifies the ordeal, but also limits and sets the experience in stone. Still, I would be verbalizing the experience from a different spot than that in the recent/distant time. I'm at a different roadside scenic turn-out, overlooking a vista where a cataclysmic event wiped out life as we know it. The lava cooled into solid and sharp stones. The landscape was gradually reforested. Aren't the wildflowers gorgeous, especially the tiny pale blue star-shaped ones? Perhaps pressing death and loss into a block, a concrete cornerstone and setting it in our gut is how we go forward, although slower, heavier, and leaning a bit more to one side.

Saturday, February 05, 2005

Coming out of the fog

The fog comes
on little cat feet.
It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.

Carl Sandburg, Chicago Poems (1916) "Fog"
US biographer & poet (1878 - 1967)

It's always exciting when I find a useful site for finding word derivations, definitions, quotations, urban legends, etc. Deep down I'm still the library Information Desk lady:

1544, from Dan. fog "spray, shower, snowdrift," related to O.N. fok "snow flurry." The word meaning "long grass" (c.1300) may be a different word, but the two may connect via a notion of long grass growing in moist dells of northern Europe. Phrase in a fog "at a loss what to do" first recorded 1602. Foggy Bottom "U.S. Department of State," from the name of a marshy region of Washington, D.C., where many federal buildings are (also with a punning allusion to political murkiness) popularized 1947 by James Reston in "New York Times," but he said it had been used earlier by Edward Folliard of "The Washington Post."

In a fog best describes the past two weeks. I functioned pretty well at work, but when I got home I was still at a loss what to do. During the five months of my mother's illness many tasks became too unimportant and/or too overwhelming to tackle. I was focused on helping my dad cope as best I could long-distance, putting interesting stories and things in the mail to amuse my mom, and keeping the rest of the family informed. I didn't clean or iron, rarely cooked or watered the houseplants, sometimes failed to open the mail the day it arrived. I didn't file the images and materials I use for teaching. Often I didn't help my youngest son deal with his college search and application process. On the plus side, I did keep the washer, dryer, and dishwasher running, and I did a lot of writing to preserve a little sanity.

Feel like I crossed through a gate this week, and not an airport security gate, either. I've started cleaning the condo. Yesterday I began turning my middle son's bedroom into a guest room that my dad can use when he comes to visit. My middle son will attend summer school at Tech. My eldest is in grad school. It's time to get real. Neither of them are actually likely to live here again. That bedroom had become the sculpture studio for my youngest, and the depository of orphaned automotive items, a dusty museum to the frequently dashed hopes of teen auto ownership.

Floormats from the Batmobile.

Today I moved all the photo albums into an emptied bookshelf in that bedroom, along with all the free-floating snapshots that need to be albummed. Then I allowed myself to just sit and watch a movie. I've always been leisure-challenged, and that tendency had worsened through the autumn as my stress increased. A wise and dear friend had sent me a DVD of "The Producers" with Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder, one of my all-time favorites. After that I went to Kohl's to replace my kitchen towels that were so horribly disfigured in the tragic X-Drano kitchen sink episode the day my mother died.

I have a plan for dealing with the backlog of filing and organizing. Little tasks are becoming a celebration of life instead of cement overshoes. My dad talks through his accomplishments when we visit. I will have some of my own to report next time.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

A small grey-green bird in the myrtle

There's a tiny bird wiggling the leaves of the myrtle on my little back patio to catch my eye. Sometimes it perches on the rim of one of the flowerpots where I planted some better-late-than-never pansies last weekend. It fusses about in the loose dirt. Fritzi would know exactly what kind of bird it is. I can't find it in my Birds of North America field guide. As I search through the warblers and vireos, I discuss the identification process with Mom. She feels very close, but doesn't tell me the answer, even when the little bird disappears still unnamed.

Such fun times we had watching birds in the backyard, or trying to identify birds by long distance phone calls and letters. While I was in Lincoln I remembered the strange bright morning after a big snowstorm in the Sixties when we had a confused snowy owl in one of the pine trees. A snowy owl has no business being in Nebraska, but there it was. Neither do pelicans, but we saw one of those once as well. Not so very long ago some cute small owls made a nest in a hole in the maple tree next to my folks' patio, and raised a family of owlets. I think it must have been about 1999, as I got to see some of the baby owls perched on the street light out front and in the locust tree when I was home with my boys. Watching and listening for the owls, and learning more about them was fun for all of us.

Mike has written my dad about his memories of a special trip together to Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo to visit the jungle exhibit. I bet it was during that same trip home in 1999, right after I bought the little Buick. Fritzi shared many wonderful visits with us to the Henry Doorly Zoo when my boys were little. It was a precious gift that we lived in Omaha, just sixty miles from Lincoln, and could spend so many days together. The aviary is still one of my favorite places in the world. Fritzi even overcame some squeamishness to enjoy picnic lunches in the aviary with her grandsons.

Tomorrow Steven will meet with the chair of the art department at the University of New Mexico. I think it would be a terrific place for Steven to go to college. The chairman's bio says he was influenced by the teaching of Richard Diebenkorn. My oils professor at UN-L long ago was also influenced by Diebenkorn, so I was influenced indirectly. I got to share a Richard Diebenkorn retrospective at the Fort Worth Museum of Modern Art with Fritzi and my dad. What a splendid day that was! I was stunned to look back and find the exhibit was in 1998. Six years seems like yesterday. Fritzi was in heaven spending a morning at her much-loved Kimbell Museum viewing Renoir's portraits with her grandchildren, a lunch at La Madeline, and then getting much more excited about the Diebenkorn exhibit than she had expected. She was absolutely glowing. I'm glad she got to see the new Modern building more recently.

I experience these memories now without tears for the most part. Fritzi wasn't glamorous. She was much like the tiny grey-green bird with the bright black eye. She was lucky to know exactly what gave her the most joy; grandchildren, art, good food, letters, polite golfers, and two beers with conversation before dinner every evening with my dad for fifty-five years. Today I feel Fritzi's telling me to focus on what gives me joy and eliminate most of the rest.

1947 - "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah" from Song of the South
Music by Allie Wrubel
Lyric by Ray Gilbert

Zip-a-dee-doo-dah, zip-a-dee-ay
My, oh my, what a wonderful day
Plenty of sunshine headin' my way
Zip-a-dee-doo-dah, zip-a-dee-ay

Mister Bluebird's on my shoulder
It's the truth, it's actual
Ev'rything is satisfactual
Zip-a-dee-doo-dah, zip-a-dee-ay
Wonderful feeling, wonderful day, yes sir!


Mister Bluebird's on my shoulder
It's the truth, it's actual
Ev'rything is satisfactual
Zip-a-dee-doo-dah, zip-a-dee-ay
Wonderful feeling, feeling this way

Mister Bluebird's on my shoulder
It is the truth, it's actual... huh?
Where is that bluebird? Mm-hm!
Ev'rything is satisfactual
Zip-a-dee-doo-dah, zip-a-dee-ay
Wonderful feeling, wonderful day.