Posts Tagged ‘mother’

Ophelia’s Journey

Monday, September 17th, 2018

Winter Woods tw

Winter Woods painting by Nolan Winkler

Born in Visalia, California, the fifth of seven children in a tempestuous Italian family, Ophelia Martinelli is fifty-seven and has been a legal secretary in Martinez, California for the last twenty-five years. Small and pretty with shoulder-length brown hair not yet touched with gray, friendly and kind and interested in other people, her voice soft and songful, Ophelia attracts men as clover in full bloom attracts bees, yet she has never married.

She has one child, a daughter, Jean, who is forty-one. Jean has two children, Miguel, twenty-one, and Sara, nineteen; and now Sara has a son, Orion, who is ten-months-old.

“Which makes me a great grandmother,” says Ophelia to the man she is playing cards with at the table between them on the train.

Ophelia is traveling from Martinez to Eugene, Oregon, while the man, Harold Boatman, has been on the train since Santa Barbara and is headed for Portland.

Harold looks up from his cards and says, “That’s impossible. You don’t look a day over forty.”

Harold is fifty-two, the eldest of two children, his parents New Yorkers. He has been married and divorced three times, and is about to marry again. Portly and good-looking with a reassuringly rumbly voice, his close-cropped gray hair turning white, Harold is a longtime insurance salesman. He has no children, though his fiancé, Angela, wants kids, and Harold wants to please Angela, though he thinks he would be happier without children.

“My mother was the same,” says Ophelia, discarding the Ace of Diamonds. “She looked sixty when she was eighty.”

“Good for her,” says Harold, drawing the Jack of Spades. “My fiancé is thirty-seven and doesn’t look much younger than you.” He discards the Ace of Clubs. “And I’m fifty-two and most people think I’m over sixty.”

“What’s taking you to Portland?” asks Ophelia, drawing the Seven of Hearts and discarding the Four of Spades.

“My niece’s wedding,” says Harold, picking up the Four of Spades and declaring, “Gin.”

“Your fiancé isn’t going to the wedding?” asks Ophelia, relieved the game is over.

“Oh she’s going,” says Harold, nodding. “But she’s flying and I don’t fly if I can help it. She hates the train. I hate to fly.”

“I won’t fly,” says Ophelia, shaking her head. “I flew once. Never again.”

Harold takes a deep breath. “Buy you dinner?”

“No thank you,” says Ophelia, shaking her head. “I brought a picnic. I have plenty if you want to join me. French bread, goat cheese, sliced tomatoes, pears, oatmeal cookies, and a thermos of coffee.” She gazes out at the passing fields. “I must have good coffee.”

The next morning, a few minutes before the train arrives in Eugene, Harold gushes to Ophelia, “This has been the best train ride I’ve ever had, thanks to you. Even sleeping sitting up wasn’t so bad.”

“I hope you enjoy the rest of your trip,” says Ophelia, eager to get away from him.

“Can I have your email and phone number?” he asks, nodding hopefully. “Love to see you again.”

“No,” says Ophelia, shaking her head. “Sorry.”

“Oh,” says Harold, disappointed. “Because…Angela?”

“Yeah,” says Ophelia, forcing a smile. “Angela.”

Ophelia is sitting on the sofa with Sara and Sara’s baby Orion in Sara’s depressing little apartment a few blocks from the University of Oregon where Sara was majoring in Psychology when she got pregnant and decided to have the baby.

Sara is short and buxom with long black hair streaked with magenta highlights. She is quarter-Italian, quarter-Irish, half-Mexican, extremely bright, terribly self-critical, and currently estranged from her mother and stepfather. She never knew her father. Having lost her scholarship, she is entirely dependent on Ophelia for money.

“I’m so glad you’re here, Grandma,” says Sara, handing Orion to Ophelia. “I’ve been so stressed out and I haven’t been sleeping and I’ve been eating junk food and…I just want to die.”

“Taking care of a baby is hard work,” says Ophelia, smiling at Orion smiling at her. “Did you ever figure out who the father is?”

“Yeah,” says Sara, plaintively. “There were only two possibilities. I wasn’t sure at first, but now Ori looks just like him. He’s half-Japanese, half-white. The father.”

“Have you told him?” asks Ophelia, making a silly face that makes the baby boy gurgle in delight.

“He transferred to Stanford,” says Sara, fighting her tears. “I texted him and he sent a hundred dollars to my PayPal account, so…maybe he’ll send more. I don’t know. He didn’t actually write me back. Just sent the money.” She shrugs hopelessly. “I don’t know what to do.”

“I thought you were going to arrange for childcare and go back to school part-time.” Ophelia kisses Orion’s forehead. “Do you need more money?”

“I’m just so tired,” says Sara, sadly shaking her head. “Things were working out okay when Carol and Rachel were helping me, but then…” She yawns. “I guess the novelty wore off and they had to study and now they almost never come over. They just…you know…finals and stuff.”

“When the novelty wears off, the baby is still here.” Ophelia holds Orion in a standing position, his little feet dancing on Ophelia’s knees. “I can stay for two weeks, honey. Help you get going again.”

“What if…um…” Sara’s eyes fill with tears. “Do you think we could come live with you until he’s ready for pre-school?”

“You mean move to Martinez?” asks Olivia, thinking Why does this keep happening to me? What is the point of all this?

“Until he’s old enough for pre-school,” says Sara, sobbing. “Or First Grade? I can’t handle this, Grandma. I’m falling apart.”

While Sara sleeps, Ophelia dresses Orion in a cute blue jumpsuit and pushes him in the stroller to the university, the day sunny, a nip of fall in the air.

They stop at a big fountain in the center of a plaza, Orion delighted by the geyser of water splashing down into the pool. Ophelia looks around at the impressive buildings and beautiful old trees and hundreds of students walking and running and biking and skateboarding, and her eyes are drawn to a young man and young woman with their arms around each other, the young woman gazing into the young man’s eyes, a dreamy smile on her face, and Ophelia wants to shout, “Don’t have sex until you graduate.”

She remembers gazing up into Zack O’Reilly’s eyes, Zack the quarterback of the Visalia High football team, Zack saying, “Don’t deny me, baby. I love you. We’ll be together forever. I swear to God. I don’t want anybody but you.”

Her reverie is interrupted by the arrival of a man hanging onto the leash of a large brown dog who bumps Orion’s stroller in eagerness to drink from the fountain.

“Sorry,” says the man, sturdy and good-looking with longish brown hair, his accent British, his blue eyes twinkling as he reins in his dog and smiles at Ophelia. “He’s a sweetheart, though something of an oaf. Answers to Bingo.”

Orion shrieks with glee and reaches out to touch Bingo.

Olivia reflexively moves between baby and dog.

“Fear not,” says the man, grinning at Orion. “Bingo loves children and he’s been well-tested on my grandchildren. Is this your grandson?”

“Great grandson,” says Ophelia, squatting down to officiate as Bingo brings his snout close to allow the baby boy to touch him.

“What a darling little boy,” says the man, looking down at Ophelia. “I saw you from across the plaza and thought, ‘Who is she?’ and had to come see. I hope you’ll forgive my curiosity.” He bows to her. “I’m Jon Richardson. Literature. May I know your name?”

“Ophelia,” she says, standing up and looking into his eyes. “Ophelia Martinelli.”

“Coffee?” he says, gazing in wonder at her. “Café just around the corner. Excellent coffee. Not quite as good as I make at home, but eminently drinkable.”

“I’m sixty-two,” says Jon in answer to Ophelia’s question. “A widower, as they used to say. Five years now.” He laughs self-consciously. “And again, I hope you will forgive me, but my long-shuttered heart opened for the first time in eons when I saw you from afar, so I came closer to find out who you were.”

“And now that you’ve seen me up close?” She gazes steadily at him, having no expectation he will say anything to distinguish himself from her previous suitors, though she likes the tone of his voice, a smoky baritone, and how easily he expresses his feelings.

“Now that I’m near you,” he says, taking a deep breath, “I wonder all the more who you are.”

“I’m fifty-seven,” she says, glancing at Orion slumbering in the stroller. “Not married. I live in Martinez, California. I’m a legal secretary. I sing in the choir at the Presbyterian, though I’m not religious. I came here to help my granddaughter with her baby. She had to drop out of college when she had Orion. Now she wants to come live with me in Martinez until he’s old enough to go to school, which is what her mother did. My daughter. Only she stayed until her children were thirteen and fifteen. So who I am is a mother and grandmother and great grandmother and legal secretary.” She smiles wistfully. “Who are you?”

“A professor,” says Jon, nodding. “A poet, too, but a more successful professor than poet. Father of two, grandfather of three. Owner of large mutt and two cats. Sing in the shower. Not religious, but I do believe in karma, and…I’m thinking I’d like to make a life with you.”

Ophelia laughs in surprise. “How would we do that?”

“You and your granddaughter and this little chap would move into my house that is plenty big for all of us, and we would carry on together.” He shrugs pleasantly. “I know it sounds ridiculous, given we’ve just met and know nothing about each other except what we feel, but…what if there’s a chance we’d do well together? Shouldn’t we try to find out?”

“We should,” she says, nodding. “But slowly.”

“Does this mean I’ll get to see you again?” he asks, surprised and delighted by her acquiescence.

“We could have supper tonight,” she says, offering him her hand. If he says Thai food, I may marry him. “The four of us.”

“Do you like Thai food?” he asks, gently taking her hand.

“Love Thai food,” she says breathlessly. “How did you guess?”

“I don’t know,” he says, his eyes filling with tears. “Just came to me.”

fin

In the Beginning

Monday, November 27th, 2017

Toddy

Calvin: Dad where do babies come from?

Dad: Well Calvin, you simply go to Sears, buy the kit and follow the assembly instructions.

Calvin: I came from Sears?

Dad: No you were a blue-light special at K-Mart—almost as good and a lot cheaper!”

Bill Watterson

Not long after we are born, before we know we know anything else, we know we are alive. We don’t know this intellectually. We simply know because knowing we’re alive is inseparable from being alive. And you’re thinking: so what else is new?

On assignment from my therapist, I’ve been hanging out with my baby self via photographs of me taken shortly after I was born and going up to about age five. I was ten months in utero and born with a full head of black hair. According to my mother, the black hair quickly gave way to blondish brown hair, and for a few years I might have been Danish. Then my hair grew dark brown again and I went through my Navajo/Magyar phase, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

I have two memories vying for Earliest Experience I Remember Not Based On A Photograph, both experiences occurring when I was three-years-old. One of these experiences was pleasurable, the other terrifying. I’ll start with the good news.

So…we were living in the house my parents built in Mill Valley, a little town fourteen miles north of San Francisco. When my parents built that house in 1949, the year I was born, the hillside lot and three-bedroom house, beautifully made by artisan craftsmen, cost seven thousand dollars. Today, 2018, that house, which is still standing, would go for multiple millions.

I woke up and padded down the hall in my pajamas to my parents’ bedroom where, to my chagrin, they were not in their bed. Where were they? My pajamas, I must tell you, were white, of one piece, and covered me from neck to toes, the sock-like endings to the legs having thin leather soles. I tell you this because those leather soles figure prominently in this memory.

Not finding my parents in their bed, I went in search of them, and as I emerged from the hallway into the living room, I saw our front door was open. I know this experience took place on a Saturday or Sunday because my father was home. Monday through Friday he was not home because he left the house at dawn and came home at night long after my two older sisters and I were asleep.

I stood in the front doorway and looked out on the cement walkway leading from the door to our lawn. On the right side of the cement walk was a bed of succulents—bluish plants surrounded by white sand. My mother, her black hair in a ponytail, a sunhat on her head, was on her knees, pulling little weeds growing among the succulents. I remember she was wearing a sleeveless top and shorts, and I remember thinking she was incredibly beautiful. This is my only memory of my mother ever doing anything in a garden other than strolling around. My father was further down the walkway—a blur.

I was keenly aware that my mother was calm and happy, and I was also aware that her calmness and happiness were unusual and mysterious, and this felt wonderful to me. The other mystery was: why were my parents up before me, which, apparently, was an unusual circumstance on weekends.

As I stood on the walkway beside my mother, I very slowly shuffled my feet back and forth so the leather soles of my pajamas rubbed grains of sand against the cement and made scratching sounds I really enjoyed making; and I just kept sliding my feet back and forth as I gazed at my calm and happy mother.

The second memory involves our mangy gray cat—Casey Cat.

We kept our metal garbage can on a cement patio on the backside of the house. One morning I stepped out of the kitchen onto the patio and found Casey Cat crouched atop the garbage can devouring a big rat, the rat’s dark red blood running down the side of the can—Casey Cat’s snarling face half-buried in the eviscerated body of the rat.

“The mystery story is two stories in one: the story of what happened and the story of what appeared to happen.” Mary Roberts Rinehart

I’m tempted to make a big deal out of these two memories because they are my earliest, but as I’ve been hanging out with these pictures of little me and enjoying the child I imagine—a kid wanting to be outside as much as possible, wanting to run and dig and shout and play with other children—I doubt these two remembered experiences are bigger deals than thousands of other experiences I don’t remember.

Still, as Sherlock Holmes liked to say, there are several points of interest that may explain why these experiences are so deeply etched in my memory.

1. My mother was calm and happy, which amounted to something extremely rare in my memories of her: she was content. I have many subsequent memories of my mother smiling and laughing, but very few memories of her being calm, and no other memory of her seeming content. To be content is to feel we have enough, to feel we are safe, to feel we are loved.

2. Casey Cat, sweet purring fun-to-pet Casey Cat, turned out to be a ferocious snarling murderer. How confusing! And that torn-apart rat atop the blood-drenched garbage can was my first glimpse of mammalian death, my first inkling that my own life might have such an end.

I admire this young Todd for his openness, his curiosity, his remarkable physical energy, and his great joy at being alive. He seems sad sometimes, and worried about something, but he doesn’t let sorrow and worry keep him from dancing and singing and exploring the world.

toddy older

Her Children

Thursday, June 23rd, 2011

Photo by Ginger Malisos

(This article first appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser June 2011)

“My mother is a poem 
I’ll never be able to write, 
though everything I write 
is a poem to my mother.
” Sharon Doubiago

I’m about to pull out of the Presbyterian parking lot and make a right turn, when I see a woman on the sidewalk across the street dragging a heavy suitcase. She has a baby girl on her back in a makeshift backpack, and this baby has a smile on her face as big as the world. The woman lets go of the suitcase and backtracks about twenty feet to where she’s left a bulging duffel bag and a blue plastic laundry basket piled high with clothes and toys and whatnot. She takes hold of the duffel bag and starts dragging it to where she left the suitcase, and as she drags the duffel she calls to two tiny children waiting for her some twenty feet further along the sidewalk beyond the suitcase.

“Wait for us at the corner,” she says, her voice clear and musical; and I am struck by how calm she sounds, how sure she is that the three-year-old girl and the four-year-old boy will obey her, which they do.

So I roll down the passenger side window of my little truck, make a left instead of a right, and pull up beside the woman. “Need a ride?” I ask, smiling out at her.

She assesses me in a twinkling and says, “That would be great. We’re just going to the bus stop down there.” She points in the direction of the new wooden bus cottage adjacent to the one and only public bathroom in the economically distressed village of Mendocino, about two city blocks away. “If you could take our stuff, we’ll meet you there.”

She is dressed as most women in America dressed two hundred years ago, with a floppy white bonnet covering her head and obscuring much of her face, a long-sleeved white blouse tucked into a floor-length gray skirt, and brown walking shoes. I assume she is young, but I can barely see her face, so I am not sure how old she is. In any case, she decides to entrust me with all her worldly possessions, save for her children and a black purse.

“You’re welcome to ride in back,” I say, trying not to sound too eager to help, though I’m desperate to lighten her formidable load. “I’ll drive slowly.”

“Okay,” she says, heaving the duffel bag into the bed of the truck. “Come on, Gino, Tina. He’s giving us a ride to the bus stop.”

“I can climb in all by myself,” says Gino, swaggering up to the back bumper. Gino is as cute as a button, his pants and sweater notably clean, his shoes new. “Don’t help me, Mom.”

“Don’t help me, too,” says Tina, who is as cute as two buttons and not much bigger than the baby on Mom’s back. “I climb myself, too.”

So everyone climbs in, Gino and Tina unassisted, and as they settle amidst their luggage, Mom laughs and says, “Isn’t this fun?”

Gino shouts, “I love this truck!”

Tina shouts, “Me, too!”

And the baby on Mom’s back gurgles and grins.

“Ready?” I ask.

“All set,” says Mom.

So off we go on our two-block ride to the bus stop, and I’m thinking, “Who is this woman and where is she going with her three little kids?”

When we come abreast of the bus stop cottage, I make a U-turn and park in the No Parking zone next to the cottage so Mom can unload. Mom climbs out with admirable grace, lifts Gino out and sets him on the ground, lifts Tina out and sets her down, and says to them, “Go on and play by the tree while I unload.”

“Can I climb it?” asks Gino, frowning at the big tree.

“Wait for me to come watch you,” says Mom, nodding to affirm her command.

Now she comes around to my window and takes off her bonnet. “Thank you,” she says, blessing me with a radiant smile. “Thank you so much.”

Her hair is black and cut very short, her eyes brown, her cheeks flushed from the exertion of lifting children and lugging heavy baggage. She reminds me of a woman I was crazy about long ago in my fabled youth, a woman who was forever falling in love with louts and never cared much for me.

“Where are you going?” I ask, and I mean that both literally and philosophically.

“South,” she says, with a quaver in her voice. “We just missed this bus yesterday so we had to stay over. Got a late night special at the Sweetwater Inn. Seventy dollars. We’re headed for Guerneville. I have a friend there who said we could camp on her lawn until I figure out what to do. The bus only goes as far as Point Arena, so we’ll stay over at the Surf Motel and get the bus to Guerneville tomorrow.”

I give her a twenty-dollar bill. She bows her head, a smile playing at her lips. “Have a grateful day,” she intones, which I take as a reference to the Grateful Dead marching bears the previous owner affixed to the back window of my pickup; and I also take it as a gentle reminder to be grateful for being able to help her.

Making the decision to have a child is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.” Elizabeth Stone

When I get home I tell Marcia about my encounter with Mom and her three little children, and I admit I was tempted to bring them home with me, though I doubt Mom would have accepted such an offer from an unshaven old coot in a rusty pickup. And where would we have put them while we went about our lives, Marcia and I self-employed and working at home in a two-bedroom house we do not own? I laugh as I imagine informing our landlord that her tenants are suddenly no longer two, but six.

I wheel the wheelbarrow to the woodshed, imagining Gino and Tina tagging along to help get wood for the evening fire. I love children, though I have never fathered any—a conscious choice made in deference to a world I judge to have too many humans on board.

“I’ve got my faults, but living in the past is not one of them. There’s no future in it.” Sparky Anderson

In 1970, a year after I dropped out of college, I was employed by a marine biologist as his assistant, translator, and tutor to his four children as we traveled for six months in a converted milk truck along the Pacific coast from California to Costa Rica and back again, exploring tide pools and estuaries. My pay for six months work was a few hundred dollars and a great adventure. Nearly every afternoon of our odyssey, I would hail someone and ask, “Hay un lugar acerca de aqui a donde podemos acampar? Is there a place near here where we can camp?” And not once did a person reply No, but rather, “Come to my house. Come to our village. Come to our farm. Yes, follow me. I will show you a good place.” I had never known until then, and have never known since, such endemic generosity.

When I wasn’t working, I explored our surroundings; and everywhere I went in Mexico and Guatemala and Honduras and El Salvador I was followed by gangs of little boys—skinny, hungry boys with enormous eyes and solemn faces, solemn until I made them laugh with my clunky Spanish or until I gave them food, and then they would smile as big as the world. I had long talks with many of these boys, and I was constantly surprised to learn that boys I thought were six or seven-years-old were actually twelve and thirteen. Most of these children had never eaten meat, few had ever worn shoes, and many had never been to school.

One morning in Mexico, a few weeks before we returned to the United States, I walked into the nearby village to buy freshly baked bread at the panaderia. We had been camping near this village for two days, and each time I ventured away from our camp, hordes of little boys would follow me. On this morning a veritable army of boys accompanied me to the bakery, the growling of their stomachs loud in the morning quiet. And as I approached the bakery, something gave way inside me—some persistent idea of myself—and I was overcome by fear and desperation. I wouldn’t say I had a nervous breakdown, but something inside me definitely broke.

I entered the bakery and bought a hundred small loaves of bread, five big shopping bags full, which cost the equivalent of ten dollars—a small fortune to me in those days. Then I came out into the sunlight and gave each boy a loaf until all the loaves were gone; and there were still many more boys hoping to be fed.

“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” Frederick Douglass

When I was twenty-three I got a job as janitor and teacher’s assistant at a day care center in Palo Alto, California established by the city especially for working mothers. We had an enrollment of thirty children, ages two-and-a-half to five-years-old, with twenty-eight of the children from single-parent homes—all those single parents women. The center opened at 6:30 AM and officially closed at 5:30 PM, though I was often mopping the kitchen floor while simultaneously watching over a handful of children when the last moms arrived long after six.

Two of the thirty children came from two-parent homes, and when one or both of those fathers came to pick up their children, the stacking of blocks and finger painting and playing in the sandbox and swinging on the swings and teeter-tottering ceased as the miraculous fathers came into our midst and shone their radiance upon the children who did not have fathers. And verily, the fatherless children were in awe of these rare men.

“At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.” Albert Schweitzer

Two weeks have passed since I gave Mom and her kids that slow ride to the bus stop, and I wonder if I will ever stop thinking about them. Sometimes I wake in the night worrying about Gino and Tina and Baby, worrying they might be cold or hungry or afraid. Sometimes I find myself worrying about Mom, wondering how she’s holding up. Sometimes I think I should have brought them home, at least for a day or two, and then driven them to Guerneville and given Mom enough money to make a new start. Sometimes I imagine Marcia and I buy a place with room for six, and we go on a quest to find Mom and Gino and Tina and Baby; and they come to live with us unpredictably ever after.

But most of the time when I think of Mom and her beautiful children, I remember their smiles as big as the world, and I am grateful.