The Bad Boyfriend

Every day I read about how much San Francisco has changed. I peruse the familiar litany; what business has closed, what arts organization has lost their space to development, who is moving to some outer suburb or back “home”, wherever that may be, how the city has lost its spirit. The blame mostly falls on “tech”, the current catchall for everything wrong with our City by the Bay. I am empathetic and frankly agree with most every complaint and observation.

The pandemic has shone an unforgiving light on all the inequities and contradictions of this place once shamelessly touted as “Everyone’s Favorite City.” It’s the homeless situation that bothers me most, so many wandering lost souls. And seeing for-sale signs on simple three story buildings in my neighborhood, meaning someone will be evicted, condo conversions or transformation to a single family home will follow. These buildings are usually finished off with a tasteful dark gray paint job and metal doors that would be more suitable for a high security prison. Those metal doors say a lot about who will choose to live there. Are they afraid to take on the city, to become a part of community life or  will they instead secure themselves in their private fortress with a “great view of the Golden Gate?” And god save the lone houses or cottages that bravely remain, what a waste of profitable square footage. I can’t look at the Real Estate section in the Sunday Chronicle without wanting to throw it across the room. Who on earth except the super wealthy can ever even dream of living here? The young tech workers who were willing to pay outrageous rents now choose to leave, if not for greener pastures perhaps for more affordable ones, since the pandemic showed that they really didn’t have to be here.

Many never “got” San Francisco anyway. They never understood about choosing a place to live so you could be free, without sanction or disapproval. Free to be different or creative or a dreamer or a liberal thinker in search of like-kind. You could be someone who loved the quirky and the weird and the funky. I always hope some of those who came here for tech will catch the bug and stay and keep it all going but the signs are not here, not right now.

And yet – I’m still here with no intention of leaving. I suppose I’m still the flaky hippie who believes in the sort of world we thought we could make, before the boomers got tired of the sex and drugs and rock and roll part, and settled into making money and celebrating lives of comfort and convenience. I remain a transplanted Midwesterner who fell in love with San Francisco nearly fifty years ago and is still doggedly (naively?) faithful.

When I first moved here, yes, the museums were free. I adored the meandering old DeYoung in Golden Gate Park, those cabinets of ancient glass, the period rooms. I wasn’t quite sure about the copper-clad ship that replaced it but on a clear day the view from the tower seems to reach halfway across the Pacific Ocean. And there’s the renovated Academy of Science with the white alligator who must be ancient and the lovely manicured Music Concourse where the Park Band plays amid fountains and neatly lined trees and benches. To commemorate the park’s 150 years, a towering ferris wheel turns lazyily at the bandshell’s opposite end. When I wandered with friends through Golden Gate Park back in the 60s and 70s, we frequently came upon folks congregating back in the greenery. Today, the homeless frequently find shelter there but the park remains San Francisco’s big, always surprising, always busy playground. 

I recall the old Modern Art Museum stuffed into the upstairs of the Veterans Building in Civic Center but I applaud the not-so-new Modern and it’s recent expansion. More room, more art, more to see and experience. And boy, has South of Market changed. The most troublesome part of all that development was the displacement of so many low-income folks who lived and worked in the neighborhood. But as San Francisco changed, so did and so does the world. Of that we are not unique, not one single bit.

I know some would call me lucky and I suppose I am. When I came to San Francisco, I wanted to live simply and I came at a time when that was still possible. I wanted to be car free, I had no ambition for a big house, I didn’t think the kids and family thing was for me but trusted myself to go with my heart. That I have done. If I had dreams when I was younger, it was to live in a city and to fully engage in all that living in a city meant.

A few years out of college, I thought I would land in New York but when a youthful but intense romance fell apart, the other half of that short-lived relationship headed East and I headed West. I had hitchhiked out here a few times with friends, had lived a summer in Berkeley and another summer in Boston, so it wasn’t a blind move by any means. A degree in art meant little career-wise but I took it and my cat and decamped to San Francisco. 

It is here where I have made my home.

In 1972, San Francisco seemed like a bigger Iowa City in many ways. Maybe because so many Iowa friends had moved here. I took a room in a big flat in the Mission and began my new relationship, this time with the city.

In recent years, I have called San Francisco my “bad boyfriend.” I fell in love with its beauty, the blessed geographic setting alone swept me off my feet. Because of our hills and despite how crowded and dense the city is, you can look down almost any street and see green, open space and often water, the Bay or the ocean. Oftentimes you can see very little at all when our chilly, damp fog blankets the city and  foghorns bleat. But on those brilliant blue days of which we have plenty, I still get a rush driving from Marin through the tunnel and suddenly, there it is! Framed by the orange girders of the Golden Gate Bridge, the sparkling white city, my city, rising on the other side.

I’ve lived for many years in the Russian Hill neighborhood, in a small, fortunately rent-controlled apartment. The architecture in this part of the city is fairly nondescript, two and three story flats, an occasional rear yard house, lots of short narrow streets and alleys, and larger 1920s era apartment buildings like the the one I live in. But it’s wonderfully convenient. City buses are well within walking distance, the cable car just down the block.                                                    There are many long-time residents and shop keepers up here. I’ve seen them age as they’ve seen me. Some have become good friends. We exchange nods and small talk, neighborhood gossip. The cafes know what kind of coffee I like, the cleaners don’t need my name to pick up the laundry, the wine bar asks when book club plans to meet, the butcher at the local market picks out the perfect sole filet for me or asks me if I need double. Is your hungry guy in town this weekend?

Sometimes I’ll see the little cottage I had long admired has been torn down and a new, hard, unwelcoming building sits there with a condo 

for-sale sign. I sit in a favorite North Beach cafe trying to ignore a man raving in the street as an elderly lady tries to cross. I hear of another pedestrian hit by a speeding driver on the Embarcadero. I walk to catch a bus and wonder if I should check on the man laying in the doorway. I read NextDoor and hear about a car broken into, a young woman accosted on her way home in daylight. At Walgreens I watch a young couple blatantly stuffing their backpacks with shampoo, a window is newly cracked at the corner store. The Bad Boyfriend can be pretty shitty on those days.

And then there are those other days when the light is ecstatic and like no other, at least anywhere I have ever been. I walk out in the back behind our building, a casual garden of hard rocky soil and old trees, of hydrangea, Japanese anemones, a gnarly old lilac, datura and  bouganvila, the product of years of stewardship and nurturing, our modest but beautiful respite from the busyness beyond our building’s front door. On the street a neighbor greets me and we both continue on our way. Walking down Pacific Avenue to Chinatown, I look straight down to the Bay Bridge, past the Pyramid and the downtown high-rises, past the city and the bay to Mt Diablo pointing its tit to the sky. 

I never tire of that view. The bad boyfriend is showing off for me again, and again I am smitten. There are other days when logic and just plain common sense tell me I should break up but I just can’t. 

Love always wins out.

Barbara Wyeth. 8/4/2021

Getting Ready

My dad and mom belonged to the Saturday Night Dance Club when I was growing up in the Springfield, Illinois. Once a month they got dressed up, really dressed up, and went to the clubhouse in Lincoln Park to drink and dance the night away. The drinking started early usually with a progressive dinner, meaning cocktails at one couple’s, then hors d’oeuvres at another’s, dinner at yet another home and off to the club to dance it all off.

I remember the premixed Beefeater Gin and Vermouth and the pimento-stuffed olives waiting in the refrigerator prior to the evening’s events. I think those martinis continued to flow most of the evening, judging from Sunday following when late the next morning both parents wandered downstairs, bleary-eyed and cross. Then it would be a hurried-up getting ready for church so we could catch the last mass. Sunday also meant donuts on the way home and our favourite breakfast of bacon and eggs. For Mom and Dad it was lots of coffee and the St Louis Post Dispatch as my brothers and I headed out the door, our day just now really beginning.

My little brother got sick once drinking some of that martini mix he found in the fridge after the party had progressed, after my father had poured a good portion (but not all) of the mix down Mr. Lafare’s throat before he hopped in our giant Pontiac to drive to the d’oeuvres portion of the evening’s festivities. Not to be outdone, I once got my hand stuck in an olive jar when I took them for a snack at the rowdy Friday night movies at a local theatre frequented by my preteen friends. An usher had to break the glass jar much to his and my friends’ great amusement to get me unstuck.

On those Sunday mornings after Dance Club, my mom complained to me that she rarely got to dance with my father, as he was such a great dancer. The other women all wanted a twirl around the ballroom with him, leaving my mom to plod around with their clumsy husbands, always careful of her feet in  her special pretty dance shoes. Still, Saturday Night Dance Club was a regular thing until Mom died.

By the time I was in high school, I helped mom get ready for these galas. She was not tall, neither parent was. Mom was big around the middle but had smooth slender calves she liked to show in high-heeled pumps. Around the house she favoured canvas sneakers and cotton shirts and a wraparound skirt. She was not a fancy woman, by any means, an at-home mom who cooked and gardened, volunteered at Boys’ Farm and made flower arrangements. But once a month on Saturday night, she got dressed up for dance club. If she hadn’t gone to Mr George at the Ambassador Beauty Salon downtown to have her hair done, she would wash and set it on prickly rollers and dry it herself. Then she would call me for help with the comb-out. Unlike my ordinary brown hair, her’s was jet black though starting to grey at the temples. Mr George would take care of the grey but on these occasions, I became the stylist.

On the night of Dance Club, Mom would sit in front of the long horizontal mirror above the dresser in their upstairs bedroom, wrapped only in a towel. I would then take out the rollers and comb and “rat” each tuft of hair to make it fuller, then shape it around her face and spray it with AquaNet, a lot of AquaNet. She would then continue with her makeup and such, careful not to muss her hair-do and I would retreat downstairs until she needed me again.

The next time she called, it was for the serious work. She’d shake the Playtex Living girdle, all rubber and fleshy pink, out of its cardboard tube and step into it naked except for her flimsy and good sized panties, and we would begin the struggle of pulling the girdle up over her ample bottom and stomach. It involved the heavy use of talcum power and upper body strength. 

I cannot imagine this task could be accomplished singlehandedly. After much huffing and tugging, she was sufficiently compacted and flattened and ready to confine her copious breasts into her pointy coned brassiere and step into her gown. The one I remember was a lovely and slimming black taffeta floor length dress. She was not thin and elegant like Mrs Lafare but she looked sophisticated and very beautiful in my eyes. That girdle was so binding, I knew she would be on her feet most of the evening, dancing as best she could while avoiding getting her toes stepped on.

What I remember most about those struggles to get Mom ready for her night out was how she smelled, her scent- the flowery talc, the whiff of Emeraude by Coty, a gift from my brothers and I at Mothers Day, perhaps, a hint of sweat – and her own unique scent, that mammalian connection, that innate, biological bond I swear I can conjure up still as I write this.

I have lived almost 20 years longer than she was fated to. Yet last night I lay in bed thinking of that dress, of mom graciously dancing with her friends’ awkward husbands. I could feel the crisp taffeta of her dress as I hugged her goodbye quickly, almost mindlessly, a disinterested teen anxious to get back to the scary Saturday Night Movie on TV. I lay there, light from a neighbor’s window sneaking through the blinds, unable to let go of a feeling of heartbreak, of aching, of longing for that scent to envelope me and swaddle me and send me to slumber.

Barbara Wyeth July 2021 

Murmuration

“What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.” George Saunders

The American Starling Sturnus Vulgaris

When I was growing up in a mid-size city in the Midwest, starlings were considered a nuisance; dirty pests to be gotten rid of, unattractive, plain, with no distinguishing features. They weren’t familiar like Robins or pretty like the Baltimore Orioles that built their hobo-bag nest in the elm tree outside my parent’s bedroom window. They weren’t cute like the black-capped chickadees or brilliant like the scarlet red cardinals that brightened our yard on snowy, winter days. Even their scientific name, sternus vulgaris seem to verify that they were just ordinary, plain, dull birds. Common knowledge was that they had no redeeming qualities and there were far too many of them. 

Just down the street from us lived the Starling family; mother, father, and five girls in a house much smaller than ours, no staircase and landing, no upstairs. The girls all slept in one room, mom and dad in an adjacent room. There was a parlor or what we called a living room, the kitchen and a small WC but the shower was in the basement, no real bath room like ours, like everyone else I knew had.

Mr. Starling was tall and skinny and always wore overalls like my farmer uncles who lived in Iowa. We saw him in big yellow leather work boots but more often just barefoot with no shoes at all, his feet long and knobby and white. Right outside the house, he had a separate workshop that gave off a smell of oil and metal and rubber, off-limits to us kids so we could only peek in when a door was ajar. Looked like a lot of tools and old tires in there. I never heard him raise his voice, but he always seemed a little scary. Way in the back of the yard was a garage. I don’t know what was in there because they didn’t have a car. Mr. Starling rode a heavy black bicycle all around the neighborhood and to work at the power plant. I never saw him driving a car.
Back next to the garage, he tended a small patch of garden where he grew garlic and rhubarb. He would yank the garlic out of the soil, brush it off, and eat it raw, sometimes with dirt still on it. Said it was Good For You and suggested we do it too. We stared, half afraid of his strange ways, half curious.

The other thing I remember about their house is that it was almost empty but tidy and clean – no toys laying about, no parakeet flying around. The mom was quiet and in the kitchen most of the time, the radio playing Kalaija on what we called the hillbilly station. I did love that song.

The middle girl, Susie, was about my same age and we became playmates. She always wanted to be close, too close and would put her sweaty arm around my waist on those hot, humid summer days. We were virtually stuck together as we walked down to the corner drugstore. I would always buy a Popsicle to split as she had no such thing as an allowance. One day she decided we should be blood-sisters. I thought it gross but reluctantly agreed. We scratched mosquito bites to bleeding and pressed them together to seal our pact.

Susie wanted to be with me all the time, to be a part of our gang of kids. Most of the time the gang was me, my two brothers and a brother and sister whose dad owned the drugstore down at the corner. Susie didn’t have a bicycle to take rides down around the brewery and the blacksmith shop, or a miniature china tea set to play house with on our front porch, or a doll to dress and undress with clothes like my mom had bought for me at the school bazaar. But she tried go along with anything the rest of us wanted to do.

A coal-cinder alley ran along the side of our house. It crossed another alley that ran parallel to our street and bordered our backyard. We played a lot in those alleys, creating entire imaginary kingdoms in the black cinders, under our over-hanging Catalpa tree and cavelike forsythia bush. When it rained, we would make elaborate connecting waterways to service those kingdoms.

On the telephone wires and in the branches of dying elms that lined our street, starlings would gather and roost, usually at dusk. Despite concerted efforts to “trap, repel and deter,” there was no getting rid of these birds. Their numbers only seemed to grow. Nobody liked them. There were baseball teams named after birds, the revered St Louis Cardinals, the Baltimore Orioles but what city or town would take on the name of that loathsome bird for its team moniker? 

As a child, I did wonder why the Starlings had the same name as the birds. It just seemed odd but everything about the Starlings seemed odd, strange but not really off-putting. Despite all that sweaty hugging, Susie was my friend.

As an adult, I think about some of the things I did as a kid. Sometimes I feel like a recovering addict that needs to go around to all the people I have wronged in my life and make amends. Like I said, Susie would do anything I or our little gang wanted her to do, sometimes dared her to do. She was always compliant, she never got mad.

One very hot afternoon in late summer, after a thunderstorm the night before, our alley was filled with glorious big puddles. We sloshed around in them splashing but careful not to get too wet as it was nearing suppertime and our moms would soon be calling us to get home. Susie wandered over, in a clean simple dress, a hand-me-down no doubt from her two older sisters. She wanted to get in on the game. I don’t know who suggested it, but we dared Susie to sit down in the biggest puddle, mud, cinders and all. She lifted her skirt and dutifully sat, much to our giggles and amusement, her dress now floating around her in the muddy pool.

That early evening, like many others, the lines from the telephone pole at our curb swayed under the weight of all the starlings perched on them. Suddenly, startling us in our play, there was a loud whoosh and all the birds rose in one motion, it seemed, joining another, much larger flock high up in the sky. More starlings than I had ever seen before. More than I could imagine even existed. The flock kept growing, now an enormous cloud that swirled in a dark, undulating moire. We stood there gape-mouthed, silent; Susie in her soiled, dripping dress, the rest of us quieted by the awesome sight. 

Just as suddenly, the spell broke, my mother called Kids, Time To Eat. Then Mrs. Starling called for Susie who was still standing in the puddle in her wet, muddy dress. I remember her walking slowly down the sidewalk to her house, toward the reddening sky, as the sun was beginning to set. My only thoughts were about the birds and that I’d better take off my soggy tennis shoes and that I was home and supper was on the table. 

Barbara Wyeth 2021

January

TreesFall'19Some thoughts on friendship (and growing things).

In San Francisco the seasons melt one into the other without much fanfare. But we do have seasons and today is a true winter day. I’m sitting in our garden, now a lush patch of verdant greens, most of which are called “weeds” but I prefer to call them volunteers – wild onion, oxalis, nasturtium, miners lettuce. I’m not sure where they came from or when, but now all are adamantly part of our backyard landscape. Beneath the oxalis, some of the more purposed greens are starting to appear, the favas, narcissus, helebores, day lilies, dutch iris. Already, the green dotted snow drops are blooming. It’s damp and chilly out here but the sky is bright blue with a light brushing of gauzy white clouds. I’m trimming the rosemary and sage, clipping off dead hydrangea blooms. They’re crisp and brown and some as big as my head.

Sitting down to give my back a rest from the bending I’ve been advised not to do, a modest tiny sparrow flits in and out of the pear tree. Maybe, it’s a junco, very shy, not like the shiny, cawing crows or the scolding, bossy bluejays that come around when it’s warmer. This fall, the leaves of our apple tree turned a bright yellow and clung to the branches far longer than I can recall in the many years I’ve lived here. And the pear tree too kept it leaves, turning gold then a deep, brilliant red. One day, I woke up to see they had all fallen off, suddenly it seemed, not after a dramatic, windy storm, but after a gentle nighttime misting.

Not long ago, a friend of many years who lived just down the street from me had to be put in hospice. Her passing a month later was not unexpected, her lengthy decline had been painful to witness. In my mind, the leaves on the trees out back seemed to fall with her. Sitting in the yard today I thought of her visits to our garden. There were few especially as she became immobile and finally bedridden, but she loved our bit of green in the midst of the city. It reminded us both of our Midwestern roots. Today I think of us sitting out here in this careless backyard in our mismatched garden chairs, one of which she had given me.

Friends, unlike family, are not a guaranteed relationship. Even family members who we don’t like or lose connection with, will always be a part of us if by blood only. But friends – are they like all that green growing in back that I didn’t quite plan on but have found a home in my garden? Those friends that have found a place in my life; whose merits and quirks I may have passed over on first meeting but have learned to appreciate, love and cherish.

With friends, there is a bit more work involved than with family because nothing is automatic. Yet I feel that the important people in my life have come to me – circumstantially.  For that, I thank my good fortune. Despite our many flaws as a species, we humans have the ability and the need to love, nurture and care for other humans. That’s what carries us through the hard times and what cheers me in my darker moods.

Today, in our chilly garden, I thought of a recent visit with my friend. That evening she was in obvious pain and embarrassed because she had called me asking for help. But after we started chatting, it was her wit and her loyalty, her interest in my life that kept me sitting with her long after my help was administered.
I was reminded why our friendship had endured for so many years.

Staring up at the bare, leafless branches today, I felt her loss. I felt the loss of others that have graced my life. Out there with green stuff growing and blooming and dying all around me, I did not feel sad. It is, I know, the natural course of things. But I’m glad that the leaves were so bright and stayed so long before they were gone.

Barbara Wyeth 1/9/2020

The Art Room

Sister Maureen 2The Art Room

Sister Maureen would sit in a old-fashioned wooden office chair in front of her over-sized roll top desk, her feet never touching the ground except to gently propel herself in the direction intended. The desk in itself was a wonder, each of its many compartments stuffed with bits of paper, writing utensils and stamps. Stacked on top in precarious piles were periodicals about stamps, newsletters about stamps and glassine sleeves full of more stamps. The giant piece of furniture dwarfed the slight figure of our teacher, artist, writer and avid stamp collector.

In her collecting, Sister Maureen focused on Vatican Stamps, specifically on Papal Issues. I thought her hobby quaint, but not so curious. She was a nun, after all. And that particular obsession with the pope and the Vatican and those miniature printed squares of almost endless variation and theme seemed the perfect specialty for Sister. I pictured her, long after school hours, perhaps late into the night, at her desk, hunched over her albums, in the big room atop the Victorian mansard roofed building that was our school, a Catholic all girls academy located in the wooded west side of our Midwestern town.

When you grow up in a place, it is the world to you. It seems neither remarkable nor special. It is simply your reality. Once away from my hometown, out of college and on my own, it seemed even more unremarkable. And yet, place is of great importance in our lives. It affects not just where we live, but how we live. It forms our memories, our judgements, our likes and dislikes. No place, especially our home place, can truly be considered unremarkable.

As a child, I lived on a street lined with tall, overarching elms. By the time I was in high school, those stately trees had fallen to Dutch Elm Disease. Our lush high school campus, which took up two square blocks, was like a park. It had numerous varieties of trees, apparently no elms, and many flowering bushes like roses and lilac. In a far corner of the grounds was a grotto with a blue-cloaked statue of the Virgin Mary that was crowned every May Day by, I assumed, the holiest girl in our school.

There were other buildings on campus, their styles reflecting when they had been built over the course of time. There was a modern building for the boarders, a mid-century convent where the nuns lived, a ranch house style rectory for the resident priest, and a modest Victorian white frame house that held the music department until the new hall was built.

And then there was the chapel – ancient, tall, imposing and Gothic. It was on the second floor over the old auditorium that now served as our study hall.  The chapel was straight out of Lives of the Saints. It was deliciously dark inside, smelled of burning bee’s wax candles and lingering incense. The altar was smaller than the one in my parish church but ornate in the old style, festooned with statues of the divine. The stained glass windows let in little light but those beams of color glowed like small jewels. In the center of the chapel were pews for us students. The high walls were lined with kneeling stalls for the nuns, each with a bench that folded down on the rare occasion the sisters got to sit during a high mass or Forty Hours Devotion. We did not have to use those benches or maybe weren’t allowed to since we had not yet entered the convent. I recall being in the Chapel only a few times but it felt truly Medieval and otherworldly to enter that dark and holy place.

The view from the Art Room was not of our campus as it faced North and looked out on the rather ordinary street below. From the tall wavy glass windows we could peer out on a residential neighborhood of modest homes and still healthy trees. To the west was an old, slightly run-down house that I found fascinating and made sketches of for class projects. Farther down the street and just barely in view was the Catholic boys’ school and in the opposite direction was a public elementary school and playground. All this we could see from the tall windows of the Art Room. It felt like we were looking down on the world from an enlightened and impartial viewpoint. There it was for all of us, to see, to experience, to learn from, and someday explore – but not quite yet. We were still within the protective arms of our Catholic girl’s school.

Despite her tiny size, Sister Maureen was dwarfed, actually, by nothing that I am aware of. She held her own as a staunch proponent of the liberal arts, especially history and fine arts. The Art Room was one half of the top third floor. The other half was the Science Room that also served the Home-Economics classroom. We art students distained both science and home-economics, concerned as we were with far loftier matters of art and beauty. The Art Room was high ceilinged, dark and somehow sacrosanct, with an almost similar aura as our ancient chapel. In Sister Maureen’s view, I think, it was a sacred space. One of my classmates was of special favor because Sister Maureen was a close family friend. She had painted a portrait of her mother and aunt when they had been a students a generation before. It hung in a darkened corner over a set of file cabinets that held pictures of “visually interesting things”; prints, art postcards, reproductions, old book pages, magazine clippings to use as reference, though I can’t remember ever using them for that. Just looking at this collection of so many years was a rare enough treat.

Next to those cabinets that lined the wall we shared with the lab next door was a floor to ceiling glass-fronted display case holding samples of former students’ work. Most of it looked ancient to me, like something I would see in the galleries at the Illinois State Museum. I recall some pottery, though we had no wheel or kiln. Perhaps it was a piece of Sister Maureen’s. Also in that cabinet of wonders were small Plaster of Paris figures, a wooden hinged manikin, and some drawings and paintings that all seemed like they hadn’t been moved from those shelves since the beginning of time. Still, I was fascinated by the sort of rarefied world being presented to us by this small, forceful person in a white habit and veil who spoke of art and painting and stamps and very little of God or popular culture.

Small in size, she could be intimidating. Her blue eyes would narrow, her small mouth purse if we failed to reply sensibly to her questions about Art and esthetics. She demanded we think and not just repeat something we heard or thought that she would approve of. I remember struggling over essays about What Is Art? Does anyone really know the answer and certainly I did not as naive Catholic girl. I think our answers mattered less than her wish to get us thinking and learning the value of thinking. As budding artists, she exonerated us to not just look, but to actually see. Seeing is a life long struggle but Sister Maureen introduced the practice as a worthy and necessary endeavor. As an artist/photographer I constantly struggle with seeing, rather than just looking or assuming or guessing. And I know full well when I DO see or, more often, when I miss the mark entirely.

I‘m a big “saver”, I have a difficult time throwing anything away so I’m surprised that I have none of my artwork form those years under Sister Maureen’s tutelage. I know with certainty that there were no paintings of palm trees in a blazing sunset. Palm trees, I recall, were her pet peeve – well one of many-but we lived in the heart of the Midwest and I doubt if anyone of us, at that point in our lives, had even seen a palm tree.“Paint what you know,” draw what you see” were her mantras yet I can remember little of note that I did during those years, just dance programs, prom decorations, and such. I do remember one pastel drawing of the Virgin Mary so I guess those rules could be stretched a bit when it involved images of sacred beings.

I believe it was our senior year when Sister Maureen took our class on an excursion to the Art Institute in Chicago. It was my first trip on a train, my first trip to a large city, larger than my hometown or Waterloo, Iowa where my favorite aunt lived. It was my first trip to a major museum to see paintings I had seen only in the pages of art history books. The museum felt holy when I walked in, almost like the beautiful somber churches of my childhood. It felt expansive, too, and each gallery opened to more wonders. Sister Maureen was especially enthusiastic about the Impressionists and that period of Art making. Looking at Van Gogh’s Blue Bedroom, I could hardly believe I was looking at the real thing, actually painted by the real artist. I loved this painting that I had looked at so many times with my mother when we leafed through a leather bound book of Great Masterpieces of Art that we had at home. And here it was, with many others I recognized. What a big wondrous world this was! On subsequent visits to the Art Institute, long after that first trip with my art class, I make a point of dropping by to see Blue Bedroom. It’s like visiting an old friend of long acquaintance.

That day, Sister allowed us some free time to wander the museum and the gift shop, then meet up to catch the train back home. A friend and I were certain we were on time but getting to the station, the other girls were already seated and looking out the windows, worried. Sister Maureen glared at us and we could hear that the engines had started. A kind conductor reached down and helped us up on board. We did not miss the train, but Sister Maureen was red faced and frowning for most of the trip home. Only later did I realize how concerned she must have been. My friend and I feared her wrath when we got back. By then her anger seemed to have faded but not without some stern words about being responsible and sticking together and behaving like adults. I remember thinking that the train left early but saw no need to put up any sort of argument against my teacher who was also a nun, an argument that I most surely lose and be branded as disrespectful. I also knew she was right. It wouldn’t have hurt to be early and cautious. These days I’m at an airport at least two hours before any flight any where.

When graduation time approached. I was eager to get on to the next phase in my still-young life. I had loved my school and most of my teachers except for Sister Veronica 2nd year Latin and French who once falsely accused me of cheating and another time called me in front of the class to wrangle around a particularly vexing French word I couldn’t seem to pronounce for the life of me. And Sister Thomas Aquinas, Senior homeroom, who called me to task for questioning Holy Mother Church over the mysterious Index of Forbidden Books.

I was going to go to the local junior college so I knew I would be seeing many of the girls that had become such dear, close friends. I knew I would most certainly miss my taciturn but adored Sister Maureen, but I was ready to get on with things. I remember girls crying openly about leaving the school. For many of them, their lives were about to change dramatically, moving away from home to college, or to marriage and children. I looked out to the world I had viewed from the protective confines of the art room, a hand emerging from Sister Maureen’s snow white habit pointing to all that was out there, waiting for us. And I felt ready for it all.

Within a few years, I would learn the enormity of what I would need to face, more dramatic that I could have possibly imagined. On graduation day I had felt well-armed and confident. Within two years my mother died, and I went off to college and it was the 60s and all hell was breaking loose on college campuses across the country including my university. At the time I never realized how unanchored I was but I bumped along through those years, invigorated, crushed, thrilled and sometimes totally lost.

I visited Sister Maureen only once after graduation and by that time she had retired or, to her mind, “been retired.” She told me about the new art teacher who had replaced her and had students making paper flowers. I felt Sister’s disappointment and anger too. She was prideful enough to feel that her legacy so-to-speak had been erased and that she had been replaced by a craft teacher, not an art teacher. She said the other retired sisters at the convent talked only about former students and their growing families and children. She now had her own small room off the main sitting room where she could work on her Vatican collection, but I sensed her boredom. Had she become bored with the Church as well, with the restrictions placed on her by going into the convent, by the kind of life that was required of her? Teaching kept her mind active and engaged and now she was living with other old women who she had little in common with. I am no doubt projecting here, but that was the feeling I got during our visit. Perhaps it was because I was going through my own serious disenchantment with the Church. Or maybe it was just plain boredom. I became bored with the routine that my “faith” required of me without any real engagement with life, with the world that was opening up to me, a dangerous joyous place I was attempting to navigate. There was a disastrous war going on, blacks and women and gays were all demanding their rights, the earth was being assaulted by man’s neglect, I was learning about sex and art and literature and disent and activism. That world was scary and hurtful at times but definitely not boring.

My father remarried much sooner than I had liked but I recall it was quite a bit later when he and my stepmother invited Sister Maureen to dinner at their home. I had already been on my own, living in San Francisco for some time but I had talked so much of Sister Maureen. They know how fond I was of her and how important she had been to me. They told me that she had seemed forgetful and confused and I was saddened hearing that. She had always been so witty and interesting. Perhaps they had expected a more saintly sister. Perhaps she was indeed fading as we all surely will.

A while back that friend who had been so close to Sister Maureen all her life, actually, sent me copy of two of her etchings, both simple and lovely – and secular in subject. A small print of men playing cards is especially appealing. With her keen eye she had recorded quite simply and quite well what she was seeing – no embellishment, no palm trees. And just recently that friend emailed me. Would like to see a copy to her of a letter from Sister Maureen, mentioning me in her remarks? I know I was not as important to her as she was to me, but I felt so honored, so pleased. Now when I look at her print I can see Sister Maureen, holding court in the Art Room with all of us seated at our long work tables. We are young, we are idealistic, eager for life, eager for art, and we are learning how to see.

I Remember Miles

A piece I started before the lockdown… prompted by a PBS documentary.
An escape into my early San Francisco days.

When my two brothers and I were teens, our parents set up what they hoped to be a study room for us in the basement of our new home. We each had an old, hand-me down, rummage sale desk for our supplies and books. They were arranged with enough space in between so we wouldn’t pester each other. That was the idea, at least.

I can’t recall my younger brother ever being down In that damp, dark room. He was more interested in tennis and girls. I however did spend time down there, wrestling with math and algebra in between daydreaming in a big, old easy chair that had moved from the living room of our old house downtown to the basement in our new house in the good neighborhood. That chair had long been my refuge, a favorite spot to think about life and fantasize about boys. I’d slouch down in its worn cushions, drape my legs over one arm and listen my record albums; Joan Baez, Ian and Sylvia, Richard and Mimi Farina, and of course, Bob Dylan – that is, when I could claim access to the record player.

My older brother exercised nearly complete control over the music played down in our basement room. Since our move, he had dropped the “hood”  look – shirt collar turned up, skinny white belt, tight blue jeans – for a beatnik persona. He dubbed his corner of our room The Rat’s Nest. When he wasn’t typing out witticisms on our dad’s old Smith Corona and air-planing them over to my desk, where I was really and truly trying to study, he played his music. And his music was jazz: Dave Brubeck, Jimmy Smith, Don Shirley, Ramsey Lewis, Miles Davis.

We were never what I would call a “music family”. As kids, we played 45s, in the basement of our old house, in a room we shared with a big huffing furnace and shelves of my mom’s canned pickles and apple sauce. My older brother was always the most interested in music. He still is. We played rock and roll and Disney movie music but my education in jazz began in The Rat’s Nest and like folk music and Bob Dylan, it all became the soundtrack of my adolescence.

When I went away to the University of Iowa, the first concert I went to was Dave Brubeck at the Iowa Memorial Union. Perhaps that music made me less homesick, having lost my mother, gotten a new stepmother, another new house and a whole different life in the short span of a few years. The familiarity of the music helped smooth the way of so many more changes. But in those same years,  the Stones and the Beatles and more folk music all entered the scene. I was exposed as well to blues and old-time country and all that amazing psychedelic music.

By the time I moved to San Francisco, popular music was dominated by heavy metal, guys in pants too tight and hair too big and Punk hadn’t come along quite yet to shatter the disco ball. In San Francisco at that time was a station that played jazz exclusively. It was all those sounds I’d heard emanating from my brother’s Rat Nest. Listening to that station was like a graduate course in American Music and it rekindled my interest in and my fondness for this free-flowing, adventurous genre – something that was still with me from those days of studying and daydreaming down in the basement while my brother grooved along to his latest LP.

My first job in San Francisco was at the Cannery on Fisherman’s Wharf. I was living in the Mission in a flat with three other women so getting to work on Muni put me on the 30 Stockton bus through Chinatown and North Beach. In that neighborhood, right next to the cop shop as we called it, was  Keystone Korner, a nightclub featuring jazz exclusively. I could see the  marquee from the bus window and when I saw that Miles Davis was going to be at Keystone, I knew I had to go.

My roommates and I frequented 99 cent movies at the Times Theatre on Stockton Street. Often we would wander over to Keystone and stand in the doorway listening to the band, but my friends were not necessarily jazz fans, they really didn’t get it. I not sure I did either but I know I liked it, and the whole jazz scene was so cool. But I had no cool boyfriend at the time that I could cajole into going to a jazz show. Still I was determined not to miss this opportunity to see and hear probably the most famous jazz musician in the world.

That night I dressed in the hippest all-black outfit I could cobble together and set out on my own. After fortifying myself with a cappuccino at the Trieste, I headed over to Keystone Korner.

The club was surprisingly small and very dark. Round cocktail tables jammed the floor with barely enough room for the waitress to maneuver through with drinks. The crowd was older, lots of academic looking men in sport coats with elbow patches, woman is dark clothing wearing dramatic ethnic jewelry, and a big contingent of black men that I assumed were ardent fans and likely aspiring musicians. I briefly had a table to myself but the place was filling up fast. Soon I was approached by a tall, dark haired, older woman. She asked, in a deep accent, if she might join me. I was relieved and felt shielded, being a young woman alone in this nightclub, from any uncomfortable attention. I remember her name, Elizabeth Black. She was German, she told me, and a fan of jazz and especially of Miles Davis. To me, she seemed wildly sophisticated, being from Europe and all. Then she told me she had lived in San Francisco for years. Her American husband had no interest in jazz but she most certainly did and like me felt, that she was not going to miss Miles Davis.

The club’s small room made for close proximity to the performers. Todd Barkan, the club owner and emcee, introduced Miles Davis and out he came. With him was a very young black man carrying his tall standing drum. Miles was in meticulous hip attire as always, but the young drummer was barely dressed only in a wrap of brightly printed fabric around his waist and a headband, like someone in a National Geographic photograph. I don’t even remember the rest of the band, I was so mesmerized by the two performers right in front of me. The music was thrilling-loose, bending, swelling, going off in unexpected directions. Elizabeth and I gasped and applauded. We were awed, deeply affected, emotionally moved by this music, by this experience. I was so exhilarated, I wanted to do it all over again so I arranged to go to the next performance that following night.

The next night could not have been more different. My elegant friend from the night before was not there to join me.  Miles came out, looking carelessly put together, almost sloppy. I don’t recall if the drummer was back with him, I was so fixated on the drastic change in Miles. I felt disappointment and pity. I was embarrassed for him as he wandered aimlessly about the small stage, sometimes stopping unpredictably. I kept trying to assume this was his idiosyncratic way of working but to me it just seemed sad.

That night I learned that genius was no more protected from the fragility of life than the rest of us, even though we fully expect it to be.  The music on Sketches of Spain is very different from his sterling first night club performance, but it remains my favorite Miles Davis album. It’s the one I remember most from those days when my brother was educating me from his post at The Rat’s Nest. I’ve had some copy of that recording since those days, first in LP form, then CD and now in my iTunes. I wasn’t able to duplicate the thrill of our first night but I do not regret any of my time with Miles in that crowded North Beach night club, a long time ago now, because I got to see him soar.
I was there to witness it.

3/30/20

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Viola

     First of all her name was weird, Viola Romani. When I told my parents, my dad said, “What is she, a damn Gypsy?” And she dressed funny, always in purple, or should I say violet, you know, because of her name, Viola. Purple was not a big color then unless it was a purple and gold letter jacket or cheerleader uniform for Bishop Griffin Boys High School. And here she was, our new English teacher, smiling a wide gummy smile, but nervous, you could tell. The lumpy purple suit, a collection of body parts held loosely together in its violet fabric.  The odd hairdo, dyed black, white roots, a low chignon, long fleshy earlobes hanging out at the sides.  The Minnie Mouse black pumps, her short thick legs ending in the slightly too big shoes. Her make-up, a bit splotchy and too pink on those droopy round cheeks. Violet lipstick, of course, a shaky outline on her large pendulous mouth. And big moist brown eyes, their lower lids loose, eagerly darting from girl to girl. Everything about her seemed to be going south but there she stood before a jury of 16 year old Catholic girls, mostly white and freckly, mouths set, watching our new American Lit teacher, the first lay teacher, a non-nun teacher in our all girls academy. She told us her favorite color was violet, that one was easy, and that her favorite poet was Vachel Lindsay. Who? 

 I vaguely knew of a run-down house near downtown with a battered old sign out in front reading Home of Springfield Poet Vachel Lindsey. That’s about all I knew. She informed us, that first day, that she had been his fiance. Then the snickering started. Up until then we had only had nuns for teachers, certainly sexless, often intimidating. Their very sexless-ness made them immune to our judgment and their status as the “religious” made them off limits. Catholicism still weighed heavy in our lives.  Miss Romani’s engagement to the mythical poet of Springfield was a bit too much to contemplate.

 We learned that she lived with her mother in a neighborhood of old homes and brick streets not too far from our school. Did our instructor hope for gentile afternoons with old Mrs Romani playing the piano while we sipped camomile tea and nibbled on shortbread cookies from the B&Z Bakery? Perhaps at her former school, a tough public high school on the East Side, Miss Romani was able to spot the open hostility of her belligerent black teenagers but here she stood before us, her silent scrutinizing class, a deer in the headlights, fair game.

Perhaps, to us,  the strangest thing about Viola Romani was that she wasn’t even Catholic. Maybe she was a gypsy and I didn’t know if they were Catholic or not. I suspected not. On the first fall day of semester, our new instructor stood before us, rocking on her heels and tugging at her bra straps. Miss Romani asked in a timorous but deep voice if someone would please lead the prayers. Our principal, Sister Blanche must have clued her in on the practice of praying before class started. Patricia McCorey’s hand shot up, jumping at the chance to lead the charge. The idea of prayer, I am sure, was to make us smart and keep us holy and above all pure, at least until we were married. Then we could be un-pure but specifically for the purpose of bringing little Catholics into the world. Judging from the number of kids in our parish, there was a lot of this sort of impurity going on.

Patricia started in with a Holy Mary, short and sweet, and Miss Romani stood, eyes closed, hands folded in a definitely un-Catholic trying-to-do-the-right-thing pose. We all knew that no one closed their eyes unless they were really, really holy or in big-time trouble. Our prayer before literature class ritual was thus established. Prayers concluded, Miss Romani opened the high wooden door to the paper closet. She seemed to be in there for a long time. Patricia caught my eye and we all exchanged looks like what is she doing? She came out finally with a sheaf of mimeographed sheets, purple (!) type, all chemical and floral smelling. It was our reading list for the semester. She handed them to the first girl in each row, watching eagerly for our expressions as we got a glimpse of what we were in for. And she tugged away at those bra straps all the while. When we each had a copy, she read the list in a voice rich, redolent but a bit shakey. She was really into this or really nervous, probably both. At the name of Vachel Lindsay, her voice slowed and thickened and she lifted her head to stare out the high windows of our classroom. Some late yellow roses were hanging down from the arbor that clung to that wall of the building. She paused, her eyes glistened, her lashes fluttered. She told us, again, that she had once been engaged to Vachel Lindsay. Her voice quivered at his name. We looked at each other. Many pairs of eyes rolled heavenward, Ohmygod. We never had to deal with this kind of thing with the nuns. She went on to extol his artistic virtues. I knew little about him except that house we passed when driving out 5th street and that my girlfriend at the public high school said her old-maid English teacher has been engaged to him as well. We of course could not imagine Miss Romani young or a fiance to anyone, not as she presented herself now, old and violet and fading. Even the word “fiance”, that was a part of our future not her past. It was our word. We did realize however, after those first few days, that Vachel Lindsay would be a leading figure in our study of American literature.

The reading list and class plan that Miss Romani handed out looked pretty foreboding, so Patricia McCorey, now class leader it appeared, began the next day’s prayers, with a few more lines than a simple Hail Mary. The longer the poems we were to read, the longer the prayers became. Still, we were gradually working our way closer to native son Vachel Lindsay. As the prayers became longer, Miss Romani would look furtively out to us, trying to catch someone’s eye. She seemed to be asking Help. What should I do? but after a while, she’d rock back and forth on her heels, hands clasped low in front of her round short body, very un-Catholic, and stare out the tall, rattling windows.

     Then came the day Vachel Lindsay was introduced. Miss Romani was positively beside herself with excitement. I leafed through the pages of hand-outs and sniffed the purple ink. There were only a few short poems in our anthology but Miss R. had supplemented with sheaves of pages from his epic song-poems. The guy was quite a “character” as my mom would put it. Young Viola and apparently many other young local women of the time had been similarly smitten.

     

Miss Romani finally was able to begin class after all the praying. She went into the paper closet, hitched herself-up and turned to face us, eyes glowing. “Would it be The Congo, today? Ah yes” and she began to read:

“Fat black bucks in a wine barrel room…

Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay Boom.

Be careful what you do,

Or Mumbo Jumbo, God of the Congo… 

Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you,

Mumble-Jumbo will hoo-doo you..”    

Ohmygod.

Patricia rolled her eyes, they settled on me, I dared turning to Ellen O’Shaunessy.

Miss Romani kept going, her eyes moist, her voice trembling but growing louder,

” A Negro fairyland swung into view,

A minstrel river 

Where dreams come true.”

I snuck a look at Pam Hubbard, the only Black girl in our class. Her mouth was open. She was listening, really listening. She didn’t see me and some of the other girls staring at her. Miss Romani was really into it, too, almost prancing in her Minnie Mouse pumps. Then the metal clang of the bell. Thank god. It was like a balloon had burst. Miss Romani and all of us slammed down to earth. I know I was out of there fast. And we still had the rest of that poem and more to go.

The next day Patricia had obviously thought out a battle plan. We had already gone through all the prayers in the back of our Saint Joseph’s Missals except for the litanies. Would Patricia dare? Would Miss Romani cut her off? What about the importance of prayer to a Catholic girl’s upbringing? No, she couldn’t stop us from praying.

                                                                                                                  

Patricia started off:

“Lord have mercy.

Christ have mercy.

Jesus, hear us.

Jesus, graciously hear us.

God, the Father of heaven, 

Have mercy on us.

God, the Son, Redeemer of the world,

Have mercy on us…”

Miss Viola Romani started looking really nervous when the invocations began coming, but Patricia just kept going, Miss Romani figiting, shifting from one foot to the other, glancing out the window, sneaking a look at her wristwatch.

“Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world,

Graciously hear us O Jesus”

Is it over yet, the teacher’s eyes seemed to say and Patricia signaled the end to the prayers by sitting down, a smug look on her face. There was still time left. Miss Romani worked herself into a trance again as we sat dumbfounded. we weren’t out of the jungle, not yet.

“And they pranced with their butterfly partners there,

Coal black maidens with pearls in their hair,

Knee-skirts trimmed with jassamine sweet, 

And bells on their ankles and little black feet”

Is Pam absolutely dying!!!

“Walk with care, walk with care,

Or Mumbo-Jumbo, God of the Congo…

Gods of the Congo,

Mumble-Jumble will hoo-doo you…”

According to our mimeographed sheets, we were not through with Vachel Lindsey yet. He would continue, with Miss Viola Romani’s help, to hoo-doo us. But this stuff was like stuff I had never heard before. I was curious but it made me uneasy, or was it Miss Romani’s transformation from prim schoolteacher to chanting performer that affected me in a way I couldn’t explain. Patricia, our leader, was prepared, after all we had only recited one litany and there were at least four more in our Daily Missal. And how could Miss Romani, a non-Catholic no less, keep us good Cathoilc girls from the practice of our faith?

“Holy Mary,

Pray for us.

Holy Mother of God,

Pray for us.

Holy Virgin of Virgins,

Pray for us.”

She sure couldn’t stop us there, now could she? What would Sister Blanche think of interfering with our prayer? Especially to the Virgin? Miss Romani looked up, hands still clasped, rocked a bit, wiggled her shoulders. Straps slipping, probably. Patricia finally wound down as we droned our replies:

“Pray for us, O Holy Mother of God,

That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.”

Miss Romani, seeing her cue, jumped in. This time it was The Kallyope Yell, Lindsay’s masterpiece, she informed us. “Please follow along and feel free to join in should the spirit move you.”

Omygod. She’s really going off the deep end.

“I am the Gutter Dream,

Tune Maker, born of steam. 

Tooting joy, tooting hope,

I am the Kallyope” 

Listen to the rhythm, she extorted and sing-songed her way through verse after verse, Her eyes glistened, she moved towards the tall windows, no leaves on the trees now, the sky hard and grey. That didn’t seem to matter to Miss Romani as she sang “Listen to the Kallyope, Kallyope, Kallyope.” I could almost hear the vague huffing and puffing of the giant organ that I had heard at the Fair, but long ago, I must have been a very little kid. Maybe at the circus that came through town every summer, the one I had grown tired of, too cool for.

“Born of mobs, born of steam,

Listen to my golden dream…

I will blow the proud folk down…

Popcorn shall rule the town…”

I liked that part. I loved popcorn. I loved the Fair.

Miss Romani was now swaying, trance-like.

“I am the Kallyope, Kallyope, Kallyope,

Tooting hope, tooting hope, tooting hope, tooting hope….

Willy, willy, willy wah hoo!

Hoot, toot, 

Whoop, whoop…

Fizz…”

When she finished, the class was totally silent for what seemed like a long time but was probably only a few minutes, if that. Miss Romani was still at the windows, but her eyes were closed as if some fantastic burst of energy had just left her, left her exhausted. Sizz…fizz.

“Monday, we’ll go back to Emily Dickinson,” Miss Roamni finally announced. 

I guess we had jumped sequence. I was relieved. I wasn’t looking forward to any more litanies and I think Vachel Lindsay had exhausted me as well and the whole class as we silently filed out of the classroom. On Monday, Patricia lead us in a short Hail Mary, Miss Romani almost mouthing the words, and we looked at the only known photograph of Emily Dickinson. She looked refreshingly lady-like and I hoped would not invoke the same fervour in Miss Romani as her former fiance had.

Years later, home from college for a long weekend, I was eating at a favorite old restaurant in the downtown. There weren’t many left but this one was dark, charming. and almost exactly as I remembered. It had been a favorite for moms and daughters after shopping for new clothes for the school year. My mom gone by a number of years, I was alone, but enjoying the quiet familiarity of which there was so little now in my hometown. Who should I see, having lunch with a very frail and much older woman, her mother, still alive? The two were engaged in quiet conversation, but yes, it was her, and she’s still dressed in purple. As she was leaving, I approached her. 

“I remember you, do you remember me?” 

She nodded but no recognition showed in her eyes. She looked so much the same, it was uncanny.

“I didn’t appreciate you,” I said,” I didn’t understand your passion.”

She nodded again. “What was your name dear?”

I said a few more embarrassing things and then they left. I noticed a limp in her walk and she held her mother’s arm while a car pulled up to fetch them. No wave, no look back. I stood there in the  winter afternoon’s  feeble light, waitresses in nurse-like uniforms bustling around me, wanting something more, but knowing I not given very much in the first place. Perhaps she remembered it all very clearly, the tall high windows that rattled and keened when the wind blew, the yellow roses, that paper closet, and the good young Catholic girls praying so ardently for their virtue. Perhaps she decided that she had given quite enough already.                          

 Barbara Wyeth ‘02

David

Thinking about the loss of a friend and coworker of many years.

And just like that

A call from his husband.

Sweet, droll, funny- maker of beautiful flower arrangements.

My friend is gone.

2:27pm the call came.

He is gone, his illness is over.

I am making soup and wrapping Christmas presents.

Outside the window it’s raining again, the wind picks up.

I am thinking of his lovely bouquets

Lavender, purples and blue.

The Vitina Sansone School of Dance

Childhood story with real names!

When I was 8 years old, I had a crush on Sammy Davis Junior. More than anything in the world, I wanted to tap dance like him. He was small and lean and dapper and his fe et moved so fast. I probably had seen him on the Ed Sullivan show or Perry Como. “Cool” wasn’t a word I used then but I knew Sammy Davis was cool. Our cleaning lady Willa May Franklin showed great enthusiasm as well when she and my mom sat chatting at the kitchen table. She came once a week on Thursdays and sang church hymns as she dusted us and mopped and talked very little except when it came to her Sammy. My mom seemed in agreement and we never missed a TV performance. soon I was signed up to take lessons at the Vitina Sansone School of Dance.
The School of Dance was a frame bungalow on Eighth Street not far from Saint Peter and Paul’s parish church and school. Miss Sansone lived with her mother and was a member of Saint Joseph’s. Despite the dictates of parish boundaries, it seemed like the Germans went to Saint Pete’s and the Italians went to Saint Joe’s.
I am not sure where our family fit in but Miss Sansone was a good Catholic even though she was single and peripherally involved in show business. At first mom tried to get my pudgy little brother to take dance lessons. He did go just once and cried because it was all girls. Then he rode his bike home and wouldn’t come back. I, on the other hand, loved my weekly visit to the School of Dance. I just couldn’t understand, however, why anybody would take ballet lessons with their frilly tutus and silly pink slippers. There was a class right before us and all the girls seemed soft and blonde and after class their mothers pick them up in fancy sleek-finned cars. I rode my blue JC Higgins bike to the School of Dance, tap shoes in the wire basket, sun glinting off the patent leather and chunky metal taps. I felt like a bigger and more worldly person when I put on those magical shoes. We bought them from Miss Sansone and had to take them to the only shoe repair man in town who could put taps on the. Oh, the noise they made! My dad wouldn’t let me wear them around the house, just in the basement when I was practicing. Besides, they scratched the hardwood floors, he said.
Now Miss Sansone, she was a mystery to me. I would rather be learning from my friend Sammy Davis. Miss Sansone had blonde hair, peroxide blonde my mom said, in a massive French twist piled high on her head. She had a big, hooked nose that looked like Stevie‘s nose on the neon sign for Stevie‘s Latin village Italian Restaurant over on East Cook Street. I had to assume all Italians had those kind of noses. She wore white cats-eye frame glasses with rhinestones embedded in the corners. She dressed in cardigan sweaters buttoned down the back and tight straight skirts.
Her rump (my dad’s word for that part of the body) was big and stuck out in the back, way out like a little wagon she pulled along. I had never seen a rear end like that. She always wore high heeled pumps and when showing her class new steps she wore tap shoes but they were high-heeled too. Mostly she stood to the side and made us go through drills, calling our routines out loud, step shuffle ball change, step shuffle ball change, over and over and over. Her mother, old Mrs Sansone sat at the piano, her shoe polish black hair pulled back in a bun, her wide bottom planted on the piano bench playing simple rhythms for us to practice our steps. When she struggled to stand after a half hour of our stomping and hopping, I could see her very ample her bottom did not stick out.
All week long I looked forward to my class, trying out new steps on the playground at school or in the TV room with my brothers went around to laugh at me or in the basement next to the big huffing furnace emblazoned with an Indian chief logo. On lesson day, I rode over on my bicycle, cruising down Murder Hill, past the brewery, Lynn’s blacksmith shop and the “woods”, past the bully’s house, past the vacant lot where we had buried some baby birds under a chunk of concrete and wrote BIRDS in Elmer’s Glue that dried opaque white, past Memorial Hospital and down the alley that ran along side a small park with big oaks and a giant swing-set. I flew past all these usual distractions undeterred In class I mostly loved the noise, the almost deafening, out-of-sync clap of metal on hardwood. Apparently Miss Sansone did not worry about her floors, a point I brought up to my father receiving only a hoarse Lucky Strike grunt in reply.
I made a few friends class friends, not-play-with-outside-of-class friends. Our teacher did not encourage talking during class. She was very serious about “dance” she had let us know and we were there to learn. She was not the friendly sort. But her mother, squat, fat, warm brown eyes behind wire rimmed glasses, she was the one who greeted us and took our jackets and tennies once we changed into our taps.She was the one who handed out notes to take home to our parents. Miss Sansone was always a bit scary. Except for all the hopping and stomping, we were pretty quiet during class. On my ride home, then I could stop at the little park and swing standing on the flat wooden slat seeing how high I could pump and how far I could see over the north side of town.
For sometime, Miss Sansone had us working on what she called a “routine.” One day she announced to those of us who wanted to be in a recital, that we should let her know by next week. Mrs. Sansone gave us a letter to take home to our mothers. I could finally show off what I had learned, all of my Sammy Davis moves and we would get to wear special costumes. To me it was all terribly exciting until I showed the letter to my mom. She would have to see that special costume to Miss Sansone’s very strict specifications.
I don’t remember the tune we were to dance to but it was a Broadway number, our teacher had said. We would be wearing a short, solid color pleated skirt, a plaid vest and a plaid tuxedo-like jacket to match, all in taffeta. I loved taffeta, the crispy crunch of the fabric, the sound it made when I moved and the smooth cool, feel of the cloth. My mom and I went to Adloff’s on North Grand Avenue to buy the material. The store was familiar to me, just down the northside branch of Lincoln library and my dentist office. It was crowded with double racks of little girls dresses and boys slacks and shirts, women’s clothing too and notions for sewing and quilting, yarns for knitting, some children’s shoes that came in boxes not like Sears with their fancy x-ray machine to see if your shoes fit properly and weren’t scrunching your toes. Everything was so packed in the small store that we had to struggle to get back where Mr. Adloff pulled down bolts of shiny fabric to measure and cut.
My mom did a lot of sewing – dresses for me, play pants and shorts for my brothers and me, but this costume for the recital was pretty fancy stuff as she put it. I heard her mumbling under her breath and ripping out seams, starting over again. Her sewing machine was in my bedroom, a big room we called the Strawberry Room because of the berry printed flounces around my bed and chairs and strawberry patterned curtains. She had sewn all of it but I guess that sort of thing was easier than an outfit for a Broadway show. I’d wander in and see her hunched over her Singer, that beautiful bright taffeta strewn on my bed, snips and pieces on the floor, my mother muttering under her breath. I had to quietly go back outside and go for a bike ride or play in the alley with the girls down the street. Their dad worked at the power plant and rode a bicycle, a grown up man on a bicycle.They couldn’t afford dance lessons, my dad reminded me. I think I was supposed to be grateful but it’s just reinforced my opinion that these neighbors were indeed odd. They listened to hillbilly music too but, the girls were close to my age and we played together a lot.
After much trying on and many alterations, my costume was finished and I looked spectacular.
I was beside myself with pride and confidence. Down in the basement next to the furnace, I practiced harder than ever, determined to be a star in Miss Sansone‘s production.
When the big night came, my two whining brothers (do we have to go?) my mom and dad and me, we all piled into the car. I sat in back with my shoes in a new fancy overnight case and my costume or a hanger in the back side window. It had to be on my side because my big brother complained that he couldn’t see out the window as we drove to the Knights of Columbus Hall downtown.
All us dancers had to dress in a funny little room with lots of lights and mirrors.Miss Sansone was scowling, yanking on tutus and patting down stray hairs on the ballet girls. When they went out to perform she looked nervous but told us not to be. I was anxious to show my stuff and our class in our taffeta tuxes. We really outshone those prissy ballerinas, so I wasn’t the least bit nervous. In my head I kept going over the routine: hop step shuffle, shuffle hop step then shuffle shuffle. On we ran to the stage, old Mrs Sansone at the piano, Miss Sansone in the wings, watching over us, her eyes narrowed behind her glasses. We were snappy, crisp, our tapping finally in sync as we stepped forward for a turn .
Now I had always practiced with 10 beats then a hop step ball change and turn so that’s how I did it. Where was the rest of the line and why were they now at the back of the stage starting a side shuffle? Miss Sansone was now animated, waving her papers at me and motioning me back . But I continued my count, looking from side to side, hoping the rest of the girls would realize their mistake and join me. They did not and as gracefully as I knew how, I shuffled back to join them and try to catch up. A polite titter came from the crowd, Miss Sansone looked mad and Mrs. Sansone just kept playing. I was so sure I was right. Had I missed that in practice? But we got a big hand and bowed and even Miss Sansone seemed relieved and came out to bow and smile as a heavy velvet curtain came down to end the performance
Nothing was ever said at the Miss Sansone School of Dance but that day in the car my dad couldn’t resist a comment something about always having to “row my own boat.” My brothers could care less, my mom said I did very well. Mostly I felt confused and still correct about the steps like I was the only one who really got it right. We stopped at Producers Dairy for hot fudge sundaes and by the next week I was in tap dance class again and we started working on a new routine
When it came time for a new recital I took the letter home but was decidedly less enthusiastic than I had been before. My mom said No Way and I didn’t argue. I didn’t want to be right again when everyone else was wrong, at least not in front of an audience and my mom had lent the taffeta tux costume to a girl who was her friends daughter. I really didn’t like that idea at all and I never saw the wonderful costume again . I was back in seersucker shirts and T-shirts. My interest in tap dancing waned. Sammy Davis Junior was in the movies now and singing in Las Vegas. I missed that bright taffeta outfit though, the one bit of evidence proving my pursuit of the art of tap dance. I somehow knew that Sammy would have approved of my endeavors but I could also hear him say, we all have to move on, sweetheart.
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Sanctuary

A94E1D9B-DAA1-45BE-A604-EB1CB5C2B567One thing gardens are not is static. This year in San Francisco we’ve had less than normal rainfall yet our garden is healthier and more lush than I can recall. But it never repeats itself. 

The agapanthus that I’ve never been fond of has more blooms than ever, taller and more prolific certainly than last season. The acanthus which is downright invasive but produces those giant, glossy, sculptural leaves and dramatic stalks. Who can deny their beauty and how could you possibly ignore them? Last year’s gorgeous foxgloves didn’t come up where I planted them but sent their seeds way over on the other side of the garden and produced a six foot high brilliant stem of pink flowers right next to the shed. Go figure.

The California poppies are not as prolific this year but just as brilliant as ever mixing with the equally bright orange and gold nasturtiums, more of them this year than last. Bearded iris, gorgeous and showy on one side of the garden, only modest green leaves on the other side.

There are fewer  scarlet Shirley poppies this spring but they often show up later and the artichoke which I grow solely for its looks is behind schedule to produce fruit but the dusty, grey-green leaves are full and healthy.

This year, a frightening world wide pandemic has forced my isolation here at home. But it has allowed me to observe closely the nuances of our garden. Despite the virus, this spring has been glorious. As I sit out here, a soft breeze is barely stirring. Butterflies, a Western Swallowtail,  an Imperial, and cabbage whites and lots of bumblebees busy themselves in the lavender and rue. A bird flying overhead casts its shadow, more birds rustle and fuss in the branches of the pear tree above me.  A robin busy and close, looks at me, his beak holding a tuft of dry grass, totally comfortable sharing this space with me.  And dragonflies – when did they show up out here? Perhaps drawn by our birdbath that hasn’t attracted too many birds yet but certainly the dragonfly is welcome. 

While there are many of the same players out here, their performances change. We invite some new guests in every year. Not all decide to stay, like the bleeding hearts that wowed us for a brief few weeks then bowed out, or the lily of the valley that I’ve given up on…and those seed packets of mixed flowers that I casually sow and forget about. Maybe that’s where some of those surprise guests come from, but they don’t always stay either. It was fun to see in early spring, a patch of tête-à-tête daffodils show up in the middle of a grassy patch, or the red amaryllis blooming furiously in June,  I can only guess that these bulbs were dropped and overlooked by a weary gardener.

Soon the mockingbird, returning after a two year hiatus, will start up. At dusk, a big fluffy white cat will scoot under the neighbor’s fence for his daily visit. His resemblance to a late feline resident of the building is uncanny. My tabby will watch his every move from the window, envious I’m sure of the interloper’s freedom. Early evening I will join his vigil at the kitchen window and watch the light fade into darkness. It’s become a habit of these last months. Tonight the sky over the garden turns gold  then pink. The light is flattering to our less than formal garden surrounded by the backyards and the staircases of neighboring buildings. It becomes almost glamorous like those in expensive British garden magazines. I get up to pour myself a glass of wine. When I return to my watch, the cat is swatting at moths at the screen and night has taken over the garden for another day.

One Day at a Time

What more can be written about what our world is going through. At first, I couldn’t concentrate to read or to write and far more erudite observers than me have been giving  their thoughts voice. I jotted this down the second month of sheltering-in-place, when I was  feeling the effects of what may or may not have been the  virus. I am still at home- it will be a quarter of a year on June 6.

Should I dress?
Does it matter if I do?
Does it matter if I wear a bra?
Who is to know?

My morning routine is not.

Pre-covid, it was a walk up to the corner, a bus ride to work, a macchiato  at the coffee shop.
The smell of fresh flowers, the “good mornings” when I open the door to the shop.
Normal is another lifetime.

I went back to bed this morning
My usual remedy for worry is to sleep
Sleep a lot, never mind the dreams.

It takes me out of the now
For a while.
But that eludes me too.

I fell in the kitchen
On my birthday no less.
A rude reminder-you’re not a “new” anything. You are old.
This is what old people do-they fall.
As if I’ve not enough to worry about –
All those diseases I’ve self diagnosed
And now the shoulder that robs me of escape.

I apply lipstick to pick up the mail and hope I see no one in the lobby.

Taking out trash has become my outing.    I pick a faded tulip from the yard and lose myself for a few hours
With pencil on paper, defining a leaf’s angle of attachment to the stem.
Welcome  respite from the worry.

The shoulder aches, I grab the Advil and pull a frozen dinner from the fridge

I can think only of the past, so long ago
And try to sleep myself there

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