Midbuny

I wrote this several years ago but it seems somehow more timely now…

The night Edie met Lenny was at the tail-end of a very stressful day. Edie would not admit it was stressful. That would be un-cool, the result of not being centered or not smoking enough pot or not meditating. She often tried to meditate but she was constantly distracted, thinking about her job at the day care center, or about her U bill that still came due even though she had finally gotten her degree, an invoice of unclear items relating to classes long over but still to be paid for. And she just hadn’t been feeling right, not really sick but sort of tired and draggy all the time, and her tits hurt. She had finally decided to go to the ratty old doctor that someone had recommended because he was cheap. He asked a few questions about her period, yes, she had just had it, and told her to wear a bra. That was this afternoon and she was hanging around hoping to score a ride home back to the country or run into someone that would let her crash that night. She was admittedly relieved after her doctor’s visit but skeptical, too, and decided to forget about it and have a few beers at The Silver Spur. Since moving to the country with her girlfriend Tam, a good deal of her time, when not working, was spent finagling  a ride or a free shower from anyone, really. 

The house they moved to had seemed to be a dream come true. On closer inspection it was an old claptrap, drafty, dusty and mouse-infested. The pipes in the jerry-rigged bathroom that had been tacked onto the front porch, froze and burst the first night of hard frost. Their landlord had attempted to replace the plumbing but he did such a crummy job that they burst again at the next frost so running water would be out for the rest of the fall and winter. He settled up by giving them a slight reduction on the rent. It was too much trouble to move and besides they had wanted to live simply, back to the earth and all that. They both had to work in town and despite three old vehicles on the property, none seemed to be running right now. Edie hated to admit that on some days after reading in the sun and pulling pigweed in the yard, she got bored. Didn’t want to tell anyone that either. If her housemate was home and they had a project, well, that was different.

Everything was so much more complicated than it should be, like baking or cooking. The old wood burning stove had been so poorly maintained that it took hours just to heat up, then several more hours to bake anything or even cook soup. The last time she baked bread, it was a full six hour project.  Since the cooler weather kicked in, Edie and her housemate kept the fire stoked all the time, mainly to keep warm but also to cut down on cooking time. That meant splitting wood and lots of it. Edie found she actually liked this task and volunteered all the time, spending hours in the pleasantly chilly evening air. The rise and swing of the axe, the sharp pleasant crack as the log yielded and opened, was more soothing to her than pot or attempts at meditation. 

That afternoon, she ran into some friends, acquaintances really, but friendly enough to join for a beer and possibly get a ride home. The Spur was the new favorite of people who now lived in Iowa City, folks who had made this town and the country and small towns around it their home, after dropping out or finishing school. The old college bars had become too crowded, too obnoxious, too young and too loud. This place was thought a townie bar with it’s sort-of cowboy feel and mostly working class customers. The tall backed booths and hillbilly juke box were a welcome relief from psychedelia and frat boys. 

The Spur had copied a popular lefty bar’s practice of calling a half-pint of beer a Republican and a full-to-the-brim pint a Democrat. Edie was finishing off her second Democrat and getting into a lively discussion about things to do to Richard Nixon to blow his mind wide open. The blond Marxist farmer, usually scholarly and serious, had suggested a heroin enema, much to everyone within earshot’s amusement. Except, she noticed, the mustachioed bartender, probably having second thoughts about his new clientele.  She noticed a curly haired guy walk by, an appreciative and amused look on his face. That hair, it was auburn-red and he walked with a sort of bounce, the curls bouncing too. Soon he was scooting up to the table and into the booth next to Edie smiling at her, laughing and at ease. He knew the farmer, it seemed, well enough to buy pot from him, and joined in their beer-fueled conversation. 

Edie found herself going on about The Grateful Dead concert that she and Tam, her housemate, had seen in San Francisco the previous spring. She really wasn’t that crazy about the band. Maybe it was the beer or maybe it was Lenny.  His name was Lenny and his warm thigh pressed against hers in the crowded booth. His eyes were green, almost the same color as her own and he looked at her intensely making her nervous and talkative.

A sharp sliver of fall sunlight had disappeared from under the fake swinging doors and the group was separating, off to pick up girlfriends  from work or fix boyfriends’ suppers. Lenny turned to Edie.

“Can I give you a lift?”

“I live way out by Downey at Midbuny’s.”

“I know. You said so, remember.”

Edie remembered very little. She was lightheaded and more than a bit distracted by this red-headed guy with the New York accent and the invasive eyes. A bit drunk too. She liked to say that she never got drunk, drank a lot of beer, but never got drunk. Was she drunk when she slept with the blond customer from the pizza place where she waitressed two nights a week, the one that kept pawing her, that repulsed and aroused her at the same time? That may have been a better excuse than just giving in to his relentless pestering, the one who vowed he would use  protection and didn’t and she, if not too drunk just too oblivious to notice? It was not a big town and she was so angry and secretly ashamed that she avoided him and hoped never to see him again. That had been six weeks ago already and she hadn’t run into him yet. So far, so good. But this guy, he was cute and seemed genuinely interested and willing to drive her all the way out to the country.

“I don’t mind. I live near West Branch.”

So they were both country people and even lived in the same area, east of town.

He had a funny Dodge Dart with push button gears. They laughed and he  showed her how it worked. Then, she got into Jerry Garcia again. It had to be nerves. She wasn’t that into The Dead. They drove south of town then east. It was dark by then but still mild, the sky distinctly blue, deep, deep blue. Once free of the town lights, stars spread out across the sky like gauze. They drove off the paved road and onto the white gravel that glowed in the moonlight, a path leading me somewhere, Edie thought, somewhere new and mysterious and a little scary. They came to the slight rise on the Downey road and she could see the cluster of trees and buildings that were now her home. The house was quiet and dark. Maybe Tam was staying in town. The dogs quieted down after racing out to the Dart to check on who was coming up the drive. Once inside, however, Tam, in a thrift store silk kimono, was warming water for tea and had candles lit all in the kitchen and living room. She was high, Edie could tell, and had her tarot cards  out on the kitchen table, a half smoked joint resting in the chipped china saucer.

 They had some tea while Tam, singing to herself softly, was intent on her cards. Edie sat on the old velvet couch sinking into the cushions, Lenny perched on the edge, still looking at her, appraising her. The house began to get chilly and it was getting late. She felt herself wanting to stay with this guy, not wanting him to be away from her. Then he asked,

“Would you like to make love?”

“Do you have indoor plumbing?” she said before catching herself.

He threw back his head and laughed, soft but confident. She could not commit to so intimate an act without access to running water, at least after not bathing properly for two days.

So they got back into the Dart, back on the white glowing road, clouds of dust following them north to the big farmhouse where he lived with a couple also from the East. Her bath was luxurious with Dr Bronner’s peppermint soap for bubbles.  Clean and excited, she went to him and their story began.

The move to Midbuny happened fast and without much thought really. The name was the old telephone number spelled out. The telephone, however was long gone, as most other “unnecessary” conveniences. It seemed like all of Edie’s friends were moving out to the old shabby farmhouses outside of town, dreams of organic gardens and barefoot children running about. In reality, the upkeep on these old places had been questionable and idyllic dreams gave way to hard work. Still it was lovely to be out and in the quiet, especially in the early fall when Tam and Edie made their move. The softly rolling hills were still lush and still flourescent green, the corn tall and undulating like ocean waves in the breezy humid afternoons. Soft, hazy Turner-esque skies of summer were now brilliant and clear, autumn blue. Sometimes, when Tam’s old Chrysler was running and they were driving along one of the gravel roads, the noise would flush a  pheasant out from the culverts along the side of the road, their russet feathers glistening, fearless since the lumbering drunk hunters hadn’t yet come to run them down. The girls seemed to have inherited a hoot owl in the back of their property near the garden and in those early fallevenings they heard his call, mournful and comforting at the same time.

Their first night there had been nothing short of terrifying, They could look back now and laugh but they had spent it clutching each other and flinching at every sound. Tam brought a rolling pin to bed, and they tried to sleep in the absent tenant’s room on a mattress on the floor.

Along with the hoot owl, they also inherited Jerry, the guy who was gone most of the time, they weren’t quite sure where, in some rehab program for selling pot and acid. Jerry was like a biker but protective and almost fatherly when he was at Midbuny. He had tried to leave them a pistol to keep around the house but Edie, declined, more frightened of it than of possible invaders. She was startled to even think of danger in this idyllic setting and was eager  for Jerry to get back to his program and for she and Tam to embark on their quest of the simple life.

The garden to the side of the house had been planted by the previous tenants and apparently by Jerry as well. Along with the sweet corn and peppers and tomatoes were huge stands of marijuana. For the first few weeks, they had had unlimited supplies of weed, for their own use but also to lure their guy friends out to help with some of the heavy moving and fixing up. One night they came home after a movie in the nearest little town to find the garden stripped clean of the marijuana, yet hardly a tomato or pepper had fallen to the ground, an obvious planned hit. Edie was relieved. She had been concerned about the illegal crop despite feeling isolated out in the country. Farm folk are nosey and she didn’t like the idea of some of the losers that it could attract. And she wouldn’t have to deal with the former tenants who had decided they were Rastfarians, with their stringy, matted hair and adopted Jamaican slang. Tam was disappointed however and Jerry just laughed when he found out on his next visit from the rehab center. Maybe relieved too, Edie thought. You can’t be around that stuff forever without trouble and Jerry had enough of that already.

The old house had been without running water after that first early frost. The useless bathroom had almost floated off the front porch. Indian summer was upon them, the days warm, but they now had to go to their very kind neighbor up the road and  walk jugs of water back to the house.  And the place was alive with mice. The stench was every where. Their cats kept them out of the most used areas downstairs, but at night, Edie lay in her antique wooden bed under the weight of her grandmother’s quilt, listening to the squeek and scurry of them in the upstairs rooms, having visions of being overrun by the creatures.

Lenny soon became a regular visitor at Midbuny. Edie would be in the long process of baking, Bonnie Raitt playing on the radio. They did have electricity, most of the time, except for strong winds or other excesses of weather. The crunching sound of the Dart’s tires on the gravel road filled her with joy and anticipation. There was little traffic in front of the house, especially after dark. And with no phone, the unplanned visits were especially exciting and romantic to Edie. Lenny often stayed the night sharing her big, antique wooden bed, under a pile of quilts because it was getting colder with each day. In the morning you might see your breath and it took forever to get coffee going on that blasted stove. More and more he would spirit her off to West Branch, to his more comfortable house and the pleasure of running water. She felt especially bad leaving Tam, who smoked more pot and huddled closer to the old stove in the kitchen.  They never seemed to be in sync with boyfriends, one always left out of the other’s happiness. Lenny was proving to be more than a fly-by-night pass-around boyfriend of which there were plenty in their circle. One night after spending two days in West Branch, Edie came home to find a embroidered heart on her bed. It read Lenny and Edie are in love in bright colored swirls and flourishes. Yes, they were and Tam was their witness.

But something else was going on that clouded her happiness. Her period had not come this month and thinking back, the last had been irregular and spotty. Lenny had been thrilled with her swollen breasts but she was not. She made an appointment in town between her two jobs, to see another, friendlier, younger and more sympathetic doctor at the free clinic. 

This time the young doc said, “I think you know what I’m gonna’ tell you.”

Edie did know and left the office with a profound sense of dread. Most of her girlfriends talked a lot about when they would have their babies, how they would have them, at home and naturally of course. Tam’s good friend Louise had already had her first, in she and her husband’s apartment above his natural food store. 

To Edie it was all theory. She was more intent on making a life with someone that included art , photography perhaps and music. Lenny was a piano player, Leon Russell and Carol King his idols. He had talked of moving back to New York and really working on a career. More and more he hinted at her being part of it and more and more she dreamed that she might be.  Somewhere, looming, was her strict father, her Catholic girlhood, that taught her never to ask or to pressure, only to hope. She let the women’s talk of childbirth float over her as she imagined walking the gritty streets of lower Manhattan hand in hand with the red-haired musician, her version of that first Bob Dylan album? The Iowa countryside was still beautiful but it now seemed temporary and transitional. First she had to deal with this, this condition that she found herself in. 

That day after her appointment at the free clinic, Tam’s car was running and she picked her up. They drove in silence back to Midbuny. Tam was not one for extraneous chatter. Once home, they threw the I Ching,  perseverance furthers…always…always I get this, Edie moaned. My life is to be one of perseverance.

 The next day she was depressed. The chill and the no-color sky did not help her state of mind. She climbed to the highest limb of the not-very-tall mulberry tree in the front yard, deciding to jump and perhaps alter her condition. She flinched at the last second and stiffened, straining her foot as she landed but she felt otherwise unaltered and profoundly foolish. And who to talk to? She wasn’t even sure who to blame. Mostly she felt as if she had contracted some sort of virus. It probably was that jerk from the Palace and who did she have to blame? She had also been spending time with Larry, the black-bearded sculptor, playing a game of sexual one-upmanship, this is natural and fun and no-strings. And she was playing the dangerous game of timing, rhythm, wherever that use of the word came from, she was not sure. Right now, it was a case of rhythm and blues. John, the young liberated doctor at the free clinic even seemed to expect a firm answer as to the “father.” She knew of his dalliances with any number of her women friends but the issues of birth control and child bearing still fell, heavily, at the feet of women. No changes there, Edie thought. God could not possibly be a  she. God most certainly is a man.

In a state of funk, panic and depression, Edie contacted an agency, an eccummenical church group that gave her a list of clinics and hospitals she could contact to arrange the procedure, as it was so discretely referred to. Several were in New York and Lenny fell into the role of savior and caretaker. She was able to separate her feelings about men from her feelings about this man. She allowed herself to be saved. He would drive her, Tam, and Tam’s new boyfriend to New York. They’d make the trip fun, Lenny would visit old friends and his folks and Edie could deal with her “problem.” It really was the best hoped-for solution but it cost money and that Lenny could not provide, nor could Tam but she did the next best thing and got Edie hired on at the trendy new store where she worked, complete with an advance of wages, enough to pay for everything. Perseverance did indeed further and Edie learned something else, about friendship and kindness. That gave her the strength to head out in the Dart with her friends, as they drove straight through to Manhattan, the car floating along the interstate and toll roads in a cloud of marijuana smoke and sitar music.  

 New York was not quite as easy as Edie had hoped. The purpose of her trip could not be ignored. Looking in the Village Voice, she found a clinic on 9th Avenue in Manhattan. She and Lenny were staying with his friends in Brooklyn and he rode the subway with her, holding her hand tightly, all the way, despite the jerks and jostling of the train. The doctor at the clinic was long-haired, young-looking but spoke kindly and with authority. Her bravery and nonchalance had suffered on the subway ride, despite her boyfriend’s reassuring presence. The hippy doctor handed her a form with the address of a private East Side Hospital. 

“They’ll help you,” he patted her hand. “You’ll be alright.”

Apparently, the hospital had become a center for these procedures, since a girl in her situation couldn’t get this done just anywhere, not in Iowa, that’s for sure. The yellow brick building was old and tired looking, but clean once you got inside. Lenny kissed her briefly on the cheek and left her after she had registered.  Enough for him already. Edie was shown to a room, amazingly one all by herself. That seemed fine at first but maybe someone to talk to would have been good. All the women she saw looked worried or sad or so engrossed in their own thoughts, perhaps this was best. After all, this was something she had to do, she had no choice. It would be over soon and her life would resume, back to Iowa, back to normal, back to a job at the stylish new store. And her romance with Lenny that was just starting to blossom. 

  A nurse came in with a light snack.

“We’ll come get you about 10, then you can sleep and leave in the morning if everything’s OK. “

The word “if” hung in the air for a while. The nurse, like the others she had seen since arriving here, was Filipino, or so she assumed from her look and accent. Although she tried, Edie couldn’t catch her eye. The nurse was brisk and efficient, but not particularly friendly.  Edie noticed the scapular medals pinned to her starched white uniform. Her Aunt Grace wore similar medals pinned to her cotton brassiere. She saw them when she had stayed with her last summer in her little apartment in downtown Waterloo. Edie closed that thought fast, ate a bit, then tried to nap until her time came.  

 She woke up the next morning, fresh air wafting in the window of the stale room. She remembered very little of last night, after a shot from an older, kindly doctor. The nurse, another one this time, larger and plumper, came in, pulled up the shades

“Have you had your baby?”

 Edie did not comprehend. She was still groggy, a bit of pain down there, but otherwise she feeling  “normal” except for the huge bulky pad between her legs. 

“Call your friends. You can leave in about an hour. Have them pick you up at the 77th street entrance.”

The nurse bent towards her and handed her a telephone. Edie could see her smooth close-together brown breasts and the tiny gold crucifix that hung on a thin chain. 

“You look like a nice girl. Go home now.”

Edie wasn’t sure if she was nice or where home was exactly but she was glad to see Lenny and Tam and her friend waiting for her and eager to get on with their visit to New York City.

They walked for miles it seemed, Edie letting her experience fade as they took in the sights of the city. She felt like she was having a heavy period, but nothing she couldn’t or did not want to handle. What she wanted more than anything was to not think about what she had just done, for everything to be as it had been “before.” 

 Two days later, they drove to Massachusetts to visit friends of Lenny’s who lived in a huge, rambling white frame farmhouse. The trees were starting to turn, more brilliant than she had ever seen in the Midwest, even along the Mississippi. The skies were clear, bright blue, like pictures she remembered from her mom’s old Ideals Magazines. Yes, the poetry was corny but the photographs of New England in the fall had looked just like this. And what would Mom, her real mom, think of her now? Edie felt like another person, in another life with no connection to who she had been back when her mopher was still alive.

Back in Iowa, the trees turned but less brilliant. Edie began working at the new store, and she and Lenny saw each other almost everyday. He’d pick her up at the store and they’d go to The Spur for “old time’s sake” ‘tho their times were in fact not that old. That winter, she spent a lot of time at his place, he had better heating than the Midbuny farmhouse. They cuddled beneath heavy, moth-ball smelling quilts and made love easily and often.

Sometime in the early spring, that time of year when it’s bright and promising one day, then wet and dirty and sloppy snow falls the next, it was about then when he stopped showing up at the store after work. They had never been much for calling or making plans. It seemed contradictory to the type of relationship they had, spontaneous, free, easy-going, no demands, that kind of thing. He’d come by the house some evenings and still want to sleep over. He wanted to try things, too, that Edie thought unnecessary, if they truly cared about each other, like screwing in the middle of a field by the house with the possibility of one of the staid old farmer neighbors driving by on their tractor or a blow job in his car on the side of the road someplace. And always pot, the more public the better, and if Edie objected, it was because she was uptight or too Catholic, she who had not stepped inside a church for five years and done about the most un-Catholic thing imaginable, just last fall when they had first started seeing each other. 

One loud, over-anxious woman who she knew only through other people started being sugary nice to her and even gave her some trinkets she had brought back from Mexico, all the while telling her what a cool guy Lenny was. What was that all about? And one day, at Lenny’s house, when he was downstairs getting the car started, she spotted a letter he was writing to his parents. It seemed remarkably open as she revealed very little of her personal life to her dad. certainly not to her stepmom or her Aunt Grace. He was writing about a “new relationship with a remarkable artist,” a relationship he had “great hopes for.” Edie knew she wasn’t “new” and maybe had some tiny bit of talent but could hardly be thought of as “remarkable.” She hadn’t done much of anything art-wise since she got her degree two years ago, just crafty things, here and there, and picture taking on a pretty casual level. She knew it was not her that he was referring to. She didn’t have the nerve to confront him but he became more distracted and she saw him less frequently and people in town seemed to look at her warily when she talked about him, about them, like they were a couple.

One day a woman approached her on the street. Sheila was older than she was older than Edie, a New Yorker who dressed like a man, the sweetheart of the art department. She had never had two words with her before. She started telling her how “wonderful Lenny was and how he was going to drive her to New York.” And “Wasn’t it hard to believe that a guy like that still existed in this town since most of them were just creeps and losers.”

Edie was speechless. She felt her heart, the organ itself, literally drop down into her empty stomach. Had he sent Sheila to do his dirty work? She hated her so much right then, more than when Sheila’s gorgeous figure drawings were held up to the class as samples of how one should see the figure, she who had a master’s degree and had shown in galleries and sat in at all the undergrad life drawing classes.

 Well, at least it was out in the open now but what about those plans to move to New York together, the ones they hadn’t talked about since forever? And how long had everyone else in town known about this. When Edie and Lenny finally talked, he presented himself as helpless. She, Shelia, was so talented but guileless “like a child,” he said. He was conflicted, he could still see Edie but it would be “different”. Edie sought out one of his friends who was kind but could offer no succor. Lenny had told him about Edie’s “great tits” but apparently had discussed little else about their relationship. Perhaps their’s hadn’t even been a “relationship”  to him, Edie thought. And of course, his friend was loyal to Lenny and uncomfortable with this weepy, distraught young woman who he liked too in an awkward, platonic sort of way. 

When Lenny and Shelia went off on their New York trip, Edie’s friends gathered around her, sided with her and gossiped about Sheila. It was only temporary relief but she allowed herself to gossip and hate as well. Yet she could not bring herself to hate Lenny. Tam was sympathetic but seemed glad to have her friend back and they started hanging out more, going to the bars and drinking beer and getting stoned with friends. Tam’s last fall boyfriend lasted about as long as the season. They also started talking about leaving Iowa City. They had hitchhiked to California that previous year and had once talked about going back there. Well, if Lenny’s in New York maybe I’ll go the opposite direction, thought Edie. It became The Plan.

 Edie took a second job back at the Palace Bar and Pizza where she had worked off and on for years. This time she served drinks, in a tank top, cut-off jeans and striped knee socks and Kork-Ease. She was thinner than she’d ever been, often having only a Democrat at The Spur for lunch and some corn nuts, veggie and brown rice at home if she was being more healthy. Sometimes she worked the door, checking IDs for the bar, and guys hit on her a lot. One night Shelia’s former boyfriend came in and they found themselves in bed later after a drunken, weepy evening of confessions and anger. Edie was more sorry for him than for herself but avoided him after that, embarrassed and disgusted with herself.  

She and Tam decided to rent another place in the country this time north of town. It too didn’t have indoor plumbing but it was cute and comfortable and had running water in the kitchen and a wood stove that worked. Her room reminded her of Van Gogh’s blue bedroom, with its blue painted walls, tiny bed and sloping wood floor. Edie let other guys come home with her and hoped Lenny would know. Besides, she was leaving for California in the fall. She hoped he knew that, too

 They had one last night together. Edie gave in against her friends’ advise, against her own will. They made love in the hayloft of the quaint barn on the property. It was almost as romantic as Edie had hoped. She imagined herself a brave, long-suffering but realistic character in one of Colette’s novels. The next day she set up a ride west through an ad in The Daily Iowan. Tam wasn’t ready, as she put it, and planned to meet up perhaps in the spring. Edie arranged for her little cat to stay with friends until she could send for her. Then she packed some clothes and immediate necessities for the trip. Some books, bedding and collected knick-knacks would be sent UPS to her new address in California. She would move in with an Iowa friend now living in the Mission District in San Francisco. 

The drive out was fairly uneventful except for a stop in Kansas by a small town cop looking to bust the hippy couple that was driving their big, old, loaded-down sedan. He was only able to ticket them for a sagging muffler, so after a two hour delay in the little town while that was repaired, they were back on the road. It was fall again, more than a year since that day at the Silver Spur. She tried hard not to think of him.

The Twenty-third Street flat was a San Francisco classic, rooms off a long hallway, kitchen at the back, sunporch and a view of staircases running the block. Edie’s Iowa friend, having lived in the city  few years already, had a full life with her work, a boyfriend, other people and routines. Still, Edie got a job quickly and was bussing across town, getting to know the layout of her new city.

But the rain. That fall it rained and rained and rained. Like a Ray Bradbury story, she felt as though the trees and plants and buildings would melt if there was any more rain. The flat was high ceilinged and chilly. Her room was sparse with white painted walls and a narrow twin mattress on the floor. She had left an antique highboy and bed in Iowa with hopes that she could ship them out some day. That seemed less possible all the time. 

In Iowa, Edie felt as if she was part of a family. On that first Christmas In San Francisco, she had not yet established a family. Two of her flat mates had left for visits home. Her Iowa friend was celebrating with her boyfriend. They did have breakfast together, quiche and fruit and good coffee, but the rest of the holiday lay ahead of her, quiet and empty. Where was home, anyway, where would she being going? Her stepmom’s house in Springfield did not feel like home. Her dad was part of another family now and Edie did not feel she was, not at all. Tam was in an apartment back in Iowa City not willing to endure another winter of icy roads and a poorly heated house in the country. Edie really didn’t know what Tam was up to these days. So there she was alone in the flat, listening to holiday music on the radio. Mission Street had been so alive those weeks leading up to the holiday. The markets bustling, Christmas lights and gaudy pinatas everywhere, and street vendors from South and Central America selling their wares on wobbly tables set up on the wide sidewalk. When the day itself finally arrived, the street was still.

Edie decided to go for a walk. It was hazy but mild, not raining finally. She marvelled at the palm trees running up and down Dolores, palm trees and Christmas in a city not unfriendly but still unknown. Up at the corner past Jamestown Hall, and onto Fair Oaks Street, she came across three little girls, carrying their new dolls from Santa, comparing and showing off to each other. Edie had thought to bring her camera and the girls eagerly posed for her. This, this is how I will know the city. Walking on to Dolores Park, her aloneness started to feel right. She was free to absorb, free to look, free to record. Looking out across the city, the green of the park, an occasional near-empty  J-Church street car trundling by and the downtown highrises in the near distance, suddenly it all seemed wide open. If not welcoming, but right there – inviting, beckoning, teasing, daring.

     It was that night, though, laying on the narrow twin mattress, she longed for the warmth of a body next to her, an arm around her waist, the weight of quilts holding her down, keeping her grounded. The old nagging feeling came back. Is there a place for love in her life? The kind that lasted? Did that kind exist? Was Lenny in New York now, with the artist? Were they walking the streets of New York hand in hand?  She closed her eyes, trying to erase the image. Her mind drifted back to last year, when one possibility ended, another began and then it ended as well. But today, she had seen and felt all that new possibility just spread out right there in front of her.

Still, in that dark, bare room in the quiet empty flat she could not block out the face of the brown-skinned nurse as she came to her. She could not mute her voice.

“Have you had your baby?”

Maybe some day Edie thought, but no, not yet, not yet.

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.

Mount Pleasant

A sad story but also one of compassion, about learning that love does not conquer all and that we are in fact our brothers and sisters’ keepers. Just now posting but written 20 years ago.

A diverse group filed into the office on South Ward, University of Iowa Psychiatric Hospital. Trying to be as normal as possible, the staff dressed in street clothes, except for the nurses and doctors in their white lab coats. You could always tell the professional attendants. They dressed conservatively. The men wore their hair short, the women too, in tight no-fuss dos. Student aides like myself stood out, obvious in our long hair and baggy sweaters, cords and chukka boots – a sort of unisex look for the politically correct and socially concerned. Mrs Hancher, Head Nurse at Psych, started the daily meeting with an introduction to our newest patient.

“Lenny Mize is eighteen years old and he’s huge. He’s very hostile right now. He’s been acting out, physically assaulting people around him, most recently his father, so he’ll have to stay on locked ward at least until we can work out his medication.” She paused. “Lenny’s got severe epilepsy. He’ll be a lot to handle.”

Locked ward was usually reserved for murderers and rapists. We had a lot of sick people on our ward but rarely violent ones. The two murderers who had been here for a while mostly wanted to shoot the breeze or play cards. They didn’t seem crazy at all but Lenny sounded frightening.

Lenny did not score high on the basic IQ test, I did know that. According to his patient profile, the only thing he wanted to do was to be a farmer like his father. His parents had Lenny late in life. After two stillbirths and countless miscarriages, his mother finally gave birth to their long awaited son. At forty-nine, she was worn-out from the hard life on the farm and from her attempts to carry a child to term. When Lenny was born, she told admitting physicians at Psych, he was big, weighing ten pounds with a monkey like face and black hair covering his entire body, making him look even more simian. She said the fits hadn’t started until he was ten years old. By then, Lenny had grown tall and strong for his age. To his mother, though, he was a “fine young man.” 

“He’s not much of a thinker but that boy can work, when he’s not having his problems, of course,” his dad had told Head Nurse Hancher.

“I sure hope you can help him. He’s all we got, him and the farm. Without Lenny, we won’t have the farm either.” 

His mother reached blindly for her husband’s chapped hand.

The head nurse continued with Lenny’s personal history. The interview with his parents had been revealing. Lenny just barely got by in school. The kids were quick to make fun of the lanky kid with the ruddy face and low brow. The first convulsion was at school and that didn’t help his reputation. His young teacher was terrified and tried to remember what she was supposed to do. Would he swallow his tongue and die right there in the classroom? After that the kids were frightened of him and the teacher skittish. 

The fits happened at home, too. One time he had a seizure in the barn that scared the cows and sent them fleeing out an unlatched door. In the thick-headed stupor that followed, Lenny waved off his dad and set out to round them up, getting back late that night disoriented and exhausted,

His parents took him to the local doctor in Mason City, then to a larger hospital. The doctors prescribed medications but the seizures still continued. In fact, they grew stronger and longer in duration.

“Maybe we should have quit trying. Maybe the Lord was trying to tell us something,” his mother said during the interview.

His father said, “It was the Lord that give him to us. We got to accept him as he is.”

Still his mom felt herself die little every time she saw Lenny sway, then twitch and drop convulsing wildly. His face contorted and strained, the veins on his neck bulged til she thought they would surely burst and shoot out jets of blood. She could hear his teeth grind as he foamed and slobbered.

At first Lenny was mostly confused by his condition and tried to pretend it didn’t bother him. At fourteen however, the time not spent convulsing snd recovering was spent being angry. His classmates kept their distance when he thrashed away but giggled and whispered and made faces when he wet himself.

“Yech. Nasty,” said a plump, adolescent farm girl holding chipped red nails to her face.

After a particularly fierce seizure at school, Lenny’s eyes opened to see his young teacher’s doughy face looking at him with pity and disgust. This time Lenny took a swing at the teacher and bloodied her nose. He then stormed out of the all-grade community school and walked fifteen miles home on white gravel roads. 

His folks did not go to the requested parent-teacher meeting. They just never sent him back and let him work on the farm as best he could. It was when he threw his father up against a wall in the corn-crib that his parents decided to take him to the University Psychiatric Hospital in Iowa City.

One of the old time psych attendants was Hiromi, a small, compact, muscular man of Japanese descent. His round face was kind, his eyes lively behind thick glasses. The permanent, longtime staffers were a pretty stoic bunch. They had learned to survive in their jobs by distancing themselves from the patients. Impassioned, idealistic students like me rarely lasted more than a few yers. Hiromi however, jumped into each new case with enthusiasm and oftentimes courage. He listened to the report on Lenny, asked for the chart, thick as a book, scanned it, nodding now and then, his brow furrowed.

“I want Lenny,” he announced.

We laughed at the way he said it but were secretly relieved. When our meeting let out, I was cruising the ward, catching up with fellow workers and greeting the patients. I walked by locked men’s ward and saw Lenny. He was a formidable sight – gangly but powerfully built, standing hand shoved into pockets of a new pair of denim overalls that his mother, I assumed, had ironed to knife sharp stiffness. On his feet were brand new work boots, the kind with thick orange rubber soloes, so big they were almost comical like clown shoes. His face was red from time spent in the outdoors or perhaps from the meds he was on. His hair was cut short in a burr, his eyebrows one thick black line low over his eyes. Hiromi was already on the ward, Lenny towering over him, on his best behaviour it seemed. I saw Hiromi touch Lenny’s arm tentatively then grab the young man’s hand and shake it. Lenny looked surprised and awkward. Just then Mrs Hancher walked By.

“The lion lies down with the lamb,” she said with a subdued smile.

Hiromi spent most of his time now on the locked ward with Lenny, but the seizures continued. The attendant would kneel beside his patient, Lenny’s long limbs and giant hands flailing, watching for any life-threatening turn of events. Afterwards, Lenny would sit on the edge of his bed, sullen, groggy and embarrassed. Then Hiromi would pat him on the shoulder and leave the ward for a talk with Mrs Hancher.

A gloom settled over South Ward. The other patients became passive, acted out less, watched more TV and shook their heads in sympathy when they walked by the ward. Deemed too unpredictable and possibly too dangerous because of that and because of his size, Lenny stayed on locked ward. He glowered at anyone who caught his eye, like an animal in a cage. At the staff meetings, Hiromi dogged the head nurse. They’d go through a litany of drugs, what had been tried, what could be.

Finally, on an experimental medications, Lenny had no seizures for an entire week. Hiromi brought him out of the locked ward, proudly walked with him to the dayroom, introducing him to a few other patients. Hiromi was grinning, Lenny solemn, his gestures old-fashioned and self-conscious. I think he was thankful just for the peace. Hiromi took Lenny outside into the courtyard to look at the plantings, his charge stooping politely to hear what the attendant was saying. That day after the shift Hiromi said, “I think we’re making some progress.”

That very night, Lenny had a grand mal, cutting his head badly and had to be rushed through the connecting catacombs over to the main hospital for stitches. The next morning, he slouched in the chair next to his bed, grim and drugged, arms extended over his knees, hands hanging limp. Hiromi was shook-up but went on ward anyway to comfort Lenny.

I heard Lenny bellowing, “You ain’t gonna take me to Mount Pleasant. No way. I aint’t never going. I’d have to be dead first.”

Mount Pleasant was the state mental institution. Everyone knew it was the end of the line, when you went to MP, you didn’t come back. I couldn’t hear what Hiromi was saying, his soft tone nearly drowned out by Lenny’s ranting. Lenny had been surly and threatening up until now, but never so vocal. The patients in the dayroom were getting agitated, the courtroom drama on TV not engaging enough to ignore the commotion. Suddenly, Lenny let out a howl and we heard things breaking, a chair maybe. Hiromi came scuttling out into the dayroom. His face was puffy, a cut opened over one eye. He was holding pieces of his broken eyeglasses in both hands. He looked like he was going to cry. A flurry of white-coated interns trotted by us and within minutes, Lenny was out cold, mouth gaping open, laying flat on his back in his narrow bed like a big overgrown kid.

The last we saw of Lenny was a few days after that. He was so drugged up since the incident, all he had done was sleep. This morning, though, when Hiromi unlocked the door to the ward with keys on a long chrome chain, Lenny was awake and alert. Hiromi had insisted that Lenny be driven to Mount Pleasant, not taken in an ambulance. I wish I knew what Hiromi said to him but after a few minutes Lenny was chastened, again the polite farm boy. Hiromi reached up and put one hand through Lenny’s arm. In the other he carried Lenny’s cheap cardboard suitcase. Hiromi walked with purpose, avoiding eye contact. Lenny walked slowly as if he could barely lift his feet in their huge shoes. They went out the side doors, through the courtyard now in full summer bloom, to an idling car. It was a large white sedan with the university insignia on both front doors. The driver wore a shabby cap and a jacket with the same U of I logo over the pocket. Between the front and the back seat was mesh screen. Hiromi would ride with Lenny to the institution, get him registered and then ride back. He had his own small satchel in case he needed it. Patients, attendants, nurses, we all gathered around the French doors to watch. Hiromi held the car door for Lenny like he was a senator or congressman or something. Lenny folded his long body into the back seat. Hiromi slammed the door shut, went around to his side and got in the back seat with Lenny. Mrs Hancher shook her head. According to our procedural manual, Psych Hospital personnel sat in front when transporting patients. Seeing all of us peering out, Lenny lifted his hand in a brief, almost regal wave. His mouth opened slightly and he grinned, a small nervous grin. His teeth were straight and surprisingly white. The driver put the car in gear and with a crunch of gravel, eased out of the driveway and headed to the interstate and to Lenny’s last home.

Barbara Wyeth, 2002

Queen of the May

Written several years ago-sweet memories from childhood. And our little Gravenstein is still going.

The apple tree in the garden behind the building where I live has had a difficult time the last few years. It gets a fuzzy, white mold on the base of its trunk and the leaves are stunted and curl into themselves. Still the apples it manages to produce are tasty if very few and I am cheered by its existence.

When my brothers and I were growing up in Springfield Illinois, the apple tree in our back yard was the center of our lives during the outdoor months. It was a grand, healthy tree. If it suffered any of the maladies of my little San Francisco tree, I was not aware of it.

One of the first signals of life in our backyard, after the bare cold winter, were apple blossoms. Their white petals, barely dusted with pink, clustered on the almost bare branches. The blooms came out before the leaves and our tree became a mass of flowers. My mom would cut a few twigs and put the stems in little blue ceramic bud vases for our May altar, May being the month of Mary. I dreamed of some day being the lucky girl who would get to crown the Blessed Virgin on May Day. Meanwhile our modest shrine would have to satisfy my religious fervor.  

The white painted corner cupboard sat in the hallway at the top of the stairs. I cannot remember that piece of furniture at any other time of year, or what knickknacks it held. I remember it only in May with the small plaster statue of the Virgin Mary and the bud vases filled with apple blossom with their sweet subtle scent. The blue of vases was the exact same blue as the Blessed Virgin’s cape. That color will always be Virgin Mary Blue. Sometimes after a particularly clear bright day in the City and just a bit before dusk, the sky turns that pure shade of blue.

Our apple tree had a sturdy, straight and trunk but my brothers and I devised ways to get up into it.  We could climb up on the arm of a metal lawn chair, or easier, lean a bicycle against the trunk, climb onto the seat then hoist ourselves up into the crotch of the tree. It had three main branches that we named after streets in our neighborhood; our street, Carpenter Street, Reynolds Street where one of my school friends lived, and Walnut Street, an important thoroughfare. 

I liked sitting on Walnut Street, the branch that was most level and parallel to the ground and reading

Laura Ingalls Wilder while my brothers chased each other around on their bikes. They preferred hanging from the branches to show off but they never stayed long so I’d be left in peace.

The tree was prolific and being on intimate terms with it I saw the cycle from bloom to falling petals. I saw up close as the leaves filled out and the tiny apples began to form and by mid-summer I was almost totally hidden up there on Walnut Street or Carpenter or Reynolds, in my private, leafy aerie.

As the fruit ripened, the immature, ill-formed apples would drop to the ground below and rot. That’s when the rotten apple fights began with the other kids in the neighborhood. I could give up my book for a good battle. The small squishy apples were messy but safe weapons but I dropped out of the warfare when the neighbor bully started putting cinders from the alley into the soft apples. Getting hit with one of those produced a sharp sting – and besides, it was cheating.

Soon there were so many apples and all at once it seemed. They were far from perfect but Mom would give us brown paper grocery bags and we filled them up. Mom and Dad would give the apples to anyone who’d take them, mostly neighbors and friends. For weeks our house smelled of cooking apples, sugar and cinnamon. My mom made apple sauce, apple pie, apple crisp, apple butter, apple bread. I’d help slice up the fruit, cut out all the bruises, and worm holes. Mom and I would nibble, eating slices raw with salt. Sometimes I’d bite into a really sour one and spit it out, startled by it’s powerful tartness.

For the rest of the year we would go down to the freezer in the basement and take out a container of apple sauce. We ate it year round. It was a staple in our household. That and the darker, sweeter apple butter that tasted so delicious on hot buttered toast. I never tired of it. And come spring, I could look forward to the sweet smelling blossoms in the blue vases, the smiling figure of the Virgin Mary, harbingers of summer and lazy hot days in the comforting arms of the apple tree.

The tree in my garden here is a Gravenstein. It’s not as big or robust or bountiful as the tree I remember from childhood  but the apples  taste remarkably similar. I use them in pie or in a crisp. I don’t usually bother with cooking apple sauce. There’s rarely enough fruit to do that. On a fine late summer day, as I peel and core the apples, small, imperfect and sweet. I look out my kitchen window. It’s beautiful out there and the sky is clear and blue…Virgin Mary blue.

Barbara Wyeth

Easter

Is it unusual to be looking at old photographs of myself, my brothers, my mom, my dad. the farm, Leslie, Janet – and feel as though I will burst into tears?

The house on Carpenter Street, the doorway, the big easy chair in the living room, the apple tree in the yard.

The photos on the wall, the plastic drapes.The farm again, my cousins, Uncle Bill, Aunt Mayme, Aunt Fordy, Uncle Pie, Grandma, Grandpa, Uncle Nick – 

The clock on the mantle, the Hummel madonna. 

The birds in the cookie tin, the baby birds we tried to save.

Richard on his moped, the house on Outer Park Drive.

Carpenter Street, lined with dying elms, the apple tree, the Rose of Sharon, Schlisser’ s green-shingled house, the alley, Buster, the neighbors’ spotted dog, Chrissy in the wicker char, a big white bow in her hair.

Dad painting a canvas on an easel at the Sangamo Picnic, sporting a beret and a painted-on moustache, all of us eating popcorn out of striped paper bags.

Mom looking at me, me looking up at Mom. 

I’m in my pink coat, wearing a pink grosgrain hat with a little ponytail in back, black patent-leather bag hanging from my arm, straw-hat pin on my coat. 

We’re standing in front of the rose arbor.

It’s Easter. I look at Mom, she looks at me.                                                                                                                                                         

Barbara Wyeth

  Budapest at Saint Pete’s

Hard to believe that I wrote this over 20 years ago! I recently bought copy of The Chestry Oak by Kate Seredy, a childhood favorite . I remembered this story I had written about my 6th grade life, the hide-under-the-desk fear of Communism and the Russians, about an early crush on the exotic newcomer at our parish school.

     I was in 6th grade at SS Peter and Paul grade school in Springfield,, Illinois. In our classroom, a new boy had just joined us. He was Hungarian, bigger and taller than any of the other boys and older by a few years than all of us. He was a refugee. The Hungarian Revolution and putdown by the Soviets was big news. Our family had been following the events on our small TV in the family room on Carpenter Street. We watched nightly the flickering images of tanks rolling down the streets of Budapest. This was the height of the Red Scare and the Cold War.

     When I went to bed at night I dreamed of ways I could fight back if a Russian soldier attempted to capture me. I had planned to rip his hand apart by spreading his fingers and pulling until they split. I have no idea where I came up with this and how I ever thought it would be effective. Fear of attack and communist world domination was heavy on our minds that winter. Jano, that was his name, came to our school quietly, without fanfare and appeared one day seated awkwardly at a too-small desk.

     Everyone at our school seemed smitten with the handsome sturdy boy who spoke virtually no English and smiled a lot. Even Mother John, her red, round face pinched in the too tight, starched wimple of the Ursuline habit, was tongue-tied in his presence, this victim of god-less Communism.     

     I already had a vivid impression of Hungary from books I had read by Kate Seredy, about the legendary White Stag that led the Magyars and Huns out of Asia and into the dark, lush and mystical core of eastern Europe. And the one about Prince Michael who plants an acorn from the Old World when he finds a home in the New World. I collected a cluster of acorns from the tall trees in our nearby park and kept them in  a tiny brass box on my dresser. It would be my Chestry Oak that I would plant in some new, faraway place that awaited me in the future. It did not occur to me that I would be merely escaping my old-fashioned parents and Midwestern provincialism rather than Stalin when I eventually left home as a young adult.

     Jano was one of four children that had fled Hungary with his father and mother. Catholic Charities was accepting refugees and tucking them into the various parish communities in our town. Our Saint Peter and Paul’s parish, in our North End working class neighborhood seemed like a good place for this family to start anew. They were put up in one of the duplexes on 6th Street across from the church. It was a dark time of year. The sun would not sparkle for some months come. At best, it glared unmercifully on a few days during the winter, so much so that my eyes ached when we were out on the blacktop playground during recess. The wintry pall of eastern Europe seemed to fall over the north side of our town.

     In spring when everything would be new again,  clean and fresh and even miraculous, our Hungarian friends might seem simply out of place, clumsy, odd, foreign, lost in the world of Easter and new fancy clothes. Certainly, I could not picture Jano holding his nose and cannonballing into Memorial Swimming Pool on a sweltering summer day or swinging at an underhand pitch in a softball game at Lincoln park. But in this dark, dreary time of year their plight fed my fantasy. I was with them, with Jano escaping the Communists, in the grey decaying streets of Budapest, in the alleys of my hometown with its crumbling soft drink factory, the rusting railroad tracks, the coal cinder gravel just waiting to embed its tattoo into your skin should you trip and fall in your haste.

     I took to cutting through an alley on my walk to school every day. I would go up Carpenter Street to the railroad tracks then go in mid-block and walk up a ramshackle lane that trucks used but few pedestrians. The alley was littered with twisted metal scraps, old automobile parts and busted wooden cases for soda pop. Everything was just out there, along with small puddles of stagnate oily water and piles of crushed rock, the purpose of which I could never fathom, an abandoned project perhaps, a good idea for something forgotten. 

     The alley wasn’t pretty, not like the tree lined sidewalks and modest frame homes I could pass if I stayed on the street. It was dark and I wanted dark, I wanted dreary, I wanted not-pretty. I wanted to relate to Jano, to his plight. I wanted to run into him on my way to school, perhaps he would be coming out of their crowded apartment, I would see his olive skin and dazzling broad smile and perfect Magyar teeth. He would say Hi and attempt a shy wave. I would look at him, my eyes, my face saying I understand, I’ve read, I know. After the anticipated encounter I would not know what to do next but my heart would be full.

     It happened a few times that I did run into Jano but he would break into a nervous trot and cross the street to the school and try to fit himself into his low, old fashioned desk. Sometimes, if I were early, I would linger to buy a cherry coke at the drug store on the corner, so as not to prolong the embarrassment and try to interpret those exchanged glances.

     We learned about the family mostly from the local TV station that was following their progress integrating into our community. And we prayed. At Sunday mass Monsignor Kipping offered the Sacrament and on First Fridays we recited litanies for their safety and for the protection of the world against the spread of communism. 

     Jano could say a few more words now. He smiled more and seemed even bigger and older. He was more than the boy clutching an acorn from his beloved oak tree to plant in the new free world. Our reverence, especially for the girls in my class, was turning into a massive giggly crush and Jano kept smiling. Mother John began to raise her eyes and frown at him like she did the older boys who hung around the playground when we girls were playing kick ball.

     Spring was approaching and the alley seemed dirtier and more unappealing as the air freshened and the sun highlighted its ugliness.  Then we heard that the older brother’s bicycle had been stolen. It was his way of getting to work and the family’s only mode of transportation. He rode it everyday to Rechner’s German Bakery near the projects farther east in town. Father Kipping and our church prayed some more and the local TV station put out an impassioned appeal to the thieves. The bike was not returned but the community came to the aide of their Hungarian friends and presented the family with a brand new shiny bicycle. On TV, the grateful brother thanked our town in his endearing broken English and Jano looked on, his broad handsome face beaming. The announcer introduced the entire family and when he came to Jano, he announced with great flourish that the boy would be starting high school in Chicago with the family of a distant relative there. 

     Jano lowered his head, bashful, and gave that little wave. The world was changing, Jano in Chicago, me here, the Russians putting their heavy hand down on Eastern Europe but it was spring. 

I hoped the sun was shining in Budapest, too. 

              Barbara Wyeth ‘02     

Dawn

I wrote this several years ago about a complicated and much loved friend.

Growing up in Waltz Michigan,

A pretty sort of place I guess if you like empty fields ringed with pine woods .

A mother who said little and hugged less, numbed by kids and a servile marriage

A dad, mean and thoughtless.

He didn’t bother the boys, so she acted like a boy to discourage him,

Fending off his hands while her mother stared at the TV.

She learned to fight her own battle and defend herself.

I never put a hand to you, never harmed you and yet

He left her guarded and bruised.

Her only solace the pine trees and a kindly grandmother who died

And abandoned her at twelve, the year she started her bleeding.

Chicago and San Francisco could not penetrate her armour though her fierce fragile love was never far from the surface. 

If it began to appear, she yanked it back, quick and cruel.

And we who loved her despite the hardness, stood by helpless, not up to the battle.

It was her own bitter blood that betrayed her in the end.

The mom still stares at the TV in dumb absorption, her dad somewhere unfairly alive, or so we think

And she is gone, having pushed everyone aside to make way for her journey.

Barbara Wyeth

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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