October 31, 2013

The Dining Room

Memory is a tricky thing. I always thought I wasn't much good at remembering things. There are a very few moments, perhaps, more like a scrapbook, that stayed vivid. Mostly, what I saw was vague, impressionistic, perhaps even composites my subconscious stitched together from any number of roughly similar moments.

Memories become conflated. I'll see a stone bench that reminds me of the one in our neighbor's yard and in an instant I'll be recalling the time, late one night, that my cat -- Angel, the shelter called her, though we chaged it to Tutu, after Desmond -- got stuck in the branches of our tall cedar. The cedar overhung that bench, incongruous, far from the neighbor's house, more a part of our world than theirs. I'll remember my father's daring rescue, stretching precariously, dangerously, at the top of a metal extension ladder to grab the yowling, ungrateful creature and shove it, claws and all, down his vest.

In truth, all memory is conflation. One idea links with another, and these associations build up and build up over time. The strongest memories have more and the weakest only a few. It's simple, and yet... it's deeply informed by emotion, by our human feelings. In that way, at least, it's so very different from any mechanistic interpretation.

These days I don't think my memory is especially good or bad... we all just remember different things. Associations form in a personal way. Emotions resonate through time, reinforcing or repressng the memories to which they attach.

What I remember most vidily about my youth, in the most thorough and complex way at least, is the dining room. It was in the house where we lived, a hundred feet or so from the cedar tree, only the thickness of a floor and a ceiling and whatever lies between from the room I grew up in.

You enter from the rear of the house, out of the back room. Once it was an outdoor patio and the slate floor is cold, as ever. Stepping up, you pass through a pair of french doors onto slats of blonde hardwood, layered with decades of wax polish. You are careful to avoid the little bits of tack that have worked their way loose, lying in wait to snag socks, or sometimes (painfully) feet. It creaks here and there, as old things do.

You look forward through a frame with no door, into the kitchen beyond.

Even when she worked day jobs, my mother nearly always cooked our dinners, not to mention breakfasts, lunches, after-school snacks...

I loved being in the kitchen while meals were being prepared. Sometimes I would help ("help"), mostly in the hopes of stealing tastes of too-hot stir-fried tofu, or sneaking a nip of cider vinegar while concocting the salad dressing (I loved salad, mostly for the vinegar. I may have been an odd child).

Several times a year I would get it into my head to "organize" the pantry or the canned goods, pulling everything out onto the floor and returning them in a (I thought) more efficient and logical fashion. Mom typically endured this with good nature, unless my efforts extended beyond cooking time and into dinner time. And yet, I became quite good at organizing. Cans, boxes, packages of frozen peas. It's a skill I leverage to this day at home and work.

For some reason, I can't help but remember Ooodles-of-Noodles, one of those name brands of ramen that were to small-town folks like us in the mid 80's still something of a novelty. Mom would prepare it with ruthless disregard to the packet instructions, first boiling the noodles, then draining them and stirring them into a mixture of butter and the included seasoning packet, tossing in a handful of frozen peas or corn or what have you. This was typical of my mother's cooking, which may have been based on a recipe, or perhaps inspired by one, or vaguely conforming to one, but never a rote preparation. There were a few notable failures in this method, but I look back with great admiration on my mother's skill in the kitchen, which I suspect she largely made up as she went along. This skill too I've retained.

I never thought of this time as training, but that's typical of the way we learn from parents, I suppose. Anything that smacked of formality was no better than school, and perhaps worse. Yet in another context, we learn in spite of ourselves. And so, now these many years hence, I cook avidly, and in much the same manner.

To your right, a square arch of dark wood paneling opens into the living room. You see one of many possible sofas in one of several possible configurations, and outside, thru the many panes of glass, beyond the driveway and the split-rail fence, the neighbor's yard. In it, a smattering of birds, and here, on the radiator cover, one of many possible cats is perched, chittering at those very birds it can't chase, but deeply wants to. Closer, inside the arch, you find art prints: gothic architecture in silver frames once, stark against the rich stain; some other time a brightly colored cubist whimsy.

Mom loved art. Was an artist, in truth, though seldom really comfortable with her gifts. She made folk art, mostly… wreaths and bundles of dried varicolored corn cobs; husk figures and painted wooden cutouts of cats and Santa Claus. She'd cut the patterns herself on a noisy Craftsman scroll saw that was always threatening to vibrate it's way off the work table, which is to say the Dining Room table. Typically these sort of pieces are found at craft fairs in a fairly particular style. Simple, deliberate, evoking some pastoral lineage -- solid round circles for the cheek dimples, solid red cloaks.

That's not how mom worked. Her cats had irises that shimmered and nearly realistic fur. The Santas had bushy gray and white beards that curled and moved, great velveteen sacks overflowing with individually wrapped and ribboned gifts. One rebellious Santa had a deep blue robe decorated with a dozen or more glittering silver snowflakes in different shapes, so delicate that they could only have been painted with one of those brushes that terminate in only a few fine hairs.

They never sold all that well. The market couldn't bear — wasn't interested in, perhaps — that level of detail. I call it artistry, and perhaps I look on with a son's eyes, but there was, I think, still something special about her work. Way out here in the distant future, I can't help but see that only a decade or so later, Etsy and the like would've very likely given mom the reach to become at least a moderately successful seller of her crafts. Merely another small tragedy of her, and our, life.

You hang your head, and there, on the floor of the dining room, a large maroon Persian rug guards the floor, with patterns in blue, green, black and gold. You see yourself in a blur of time, crouching on it, leaning in close, tracing lines over and over again looking for flaws, for starting points, or ending points, or imagining them as roads in some miniature silken world.

You see too, almost always, a table of simple design, round legs at the four corners, two leaves stowed at either end, high-backed oaken chairs around it. You count them... 1, 2, 3, 4... though only three of us. You think, maybe we'd always conceded the presence of some invisible guest. Maybe we'd invited it...

We weren't dogmatic about much of anything but, as I said, mom cooked almost every day, and so too we more often than not ate together as a family on the dining room table. We'd sit in our chairs, mom and dad at the long sides, me at the head, or maybe the foot... rarely was anyone else seated opposite me. There I spilt countless glasses of milk, battled over unwanted greens, cleverly (so I thought) disguised my rejects, pushing them about so much I figured they might appear essentially eaten.

Once, during a major cleaning, we found a fish-stick — long since desiccated beyond any possibility of sustaining opportunistic mold or insect life — underneath the radiator behind my usual seat. I hopelessly dissembled.

Both the table and the chairs were repeatedly remade by my mother. The chairs were a deep brown, but over the years reupholstered many times, usually out of the blue, at least so far as I could tell, but I suspect the cushions simply wore out, and mom replaced and repaired them.

Once a year, at Christmas-time, mom would pull the heavy iron pizzelle maker from storage, and she and I would bake dozens upon dozens of those thin, crisp waffles. The dining room table accrued at least one arc of char from our efforts, and we a burn or two, but we were not deterred.

The house would fill top to bottom with the smell of browned butter and anise and I'd scald myself trying to eat them before they'd cooled fully, still slightly soft. For that I'd earn a mild reproach for eating up our stock, which were, after all, destined to be gifts to family and friends. Eventually, mom and I settled on an arrangement: I laid claim only to the pizzeles that emerged damaged or misshapen. I only occasionally poured batter into the machine off center deliberately.

You look up and to the right, again. This wall — between the three passages — is inset with a filigreed hutch displaying the curios and ephemera of your family life. A large ceramic crock, colorfully painted with a surrealist image of a fisherman and his catch; a china serving dish for deviled eggs, some never-used legacy piece from old France with a ring of yellow and white concavities surrounding a proud rooster; a plastic plate adorned with a nursery school family portrait in Crayola marker primaries — Mom, Dad and two cats, Puff and Puma, each labeled in your own shaky hand, and below that the name of the school and the year, in Ms. Fourdice's perfect teacher's script.

These are just things, of course, in one sense.

But they're also not. Each is an anchor for memories. Each can tell a story, perhaps many stories, if you look at them in the right way. Our things, much as we try to minimize their importance, acquire a patina of the human activity they are a part of... they become heirlooms, not due to intrinsic value, but due to the layers of memory they accrue.

Often enough it's just a film of tacky dust that accrues, telling a story of disuse, or of delayed or forgotten maintenance. Patterns of practical wear accrue in the faded spots where chair legs and human feet made their daily scuffs; the radiator's many chips in it's many coats of paint; the rings left in the wood of the sideboard by cups placed carelessly and often; a dollop of glue inseparable from silk fibers, having spilt onto the rug during a school project.

You turn your head. Opposite the hutch, a stretch of beautiful, inefficient 6 paned windows with silver latches frames the close set wall of the neighbors house. Below these runs that great iron radiator, valiantly trying to keep up (it's Winter, or feels so) with the drafty seals. This is where you sat, the windows behind you. If you stand behind your childhood place, and lean over the radiator, and press your head onto the glass, you see a thin path between the houses, and a clutch of wilting rhubarb plants. You remember at least one time Mom made them into a pie, with strawberries, but you mostly remember tearing them up to fill with dirt; makeshift weaponry to be flung into the street (wonderful radial bursts) or at friends (satisfying yelps accompanying crumbles rattling down into clothing).

You look out and to the rear of the house. Amber light filters through the pine and mulberry trees that run behind the block, slants through the the thin windows and falls on you, and the radiator, and all these things. Except the table, which is gone.

Mostly, I remember my childhood as happy, or anyway my home life was happy. There are exceptions, of course; days when dinnertime was tense, fraught with unsaid or half-said things, simmering disagreements, or careless words, when I couldn't wait to be excused so I could go to my room and lose myself in homework or (much more likely) one of the books I'd take out from the library each week.

But usually we would sit there in the dining room and talk about our day, or about some topic of interest, and often the dictionary or a volume of the Encyclopædia Brittanica would have to make it's way to the table to settle finally the definition of escape velocity, or the names of each of King Henry VIII's wives.

Once again, you enter from the back room, step up from the ever-cold slate, through the french doors, onto slats of creaking hardwood. The Persian rug still guards the floor. You review it's patterns (blue, green, black and gold) and trace them out of habit, and necessity, and fear.

Eventually, you acknowledge the thing that stands atop it, which has just arrived. You shift your eyes to this construction of aluminum and plastic and you wonder where the table is, with it's painted accents, burn marks, and memories.

You wonder where the chairs are, and how they're upholstered now.

You see the beautiful amber light slanting onto this... this intolerable bed, this monstrous thing, and wonder at the incongruity.

Beneath it all, you sense the presense of that guest, that force that sat at the fourth seat. It's with you, impossible to ignore, present in a way you, being you, considered intellectually but didn't ever really accept.

Behind you, the back door opens. You see your grandmother. Your father, your mother, a nurse.

Your mother is brought in, shakily, carried more than supported, and she sits on that metal and plastic hospital bed where the dining room table used to be. You step forward as she shrinks, and she leans on you, and through the myriad layers of her agony says, "No."

I spend hours, sleepless or in the middle of the day, thinking about that moment, and that word, trying to understand the last thing my mother ever said to me. Still, to this day, I do.

You mouth some platitude, as she winces and you help her to lie down, and then you stand back and separate yourself from it. You shut down every emotion, because at the moment it feels like necessity. Your mother fades out of real consciousness, and your father adjusts the angle of the bed and frets over the sheet and blanket and the dressing on the gaping wound that's replaced most of your mother's chest. You watch clinically, and think : "This is not my mother."

We all face the moment of realizing our parents aren't immortal. For some, the intellectual recognition is shocking enough. I never absorbed it in the slightest until that moment, looking at someone who both was and wasn't my mother, who couldn't possibly be that person and yet, horrifyingly, couldn't be anyone else. Perhaps because of all she'd been through before the cancer, I was predisposed to assume it too would be just another trial she'd suffer and eventually overcome. That she was, at least, bulletproof, if not truly immortal.

I inevitably regret so much. Not visiting, calling, or caring enough. Not understanding the urgency, the slow but inevitable cataclysm that was taking place, which I couldn't, or maybe wouldn't, acknowledge.

Now and then an article or blog post about breast cancer will carry a photo, a memoriam, of a beloved woman recently dead. A beloved woman and mother, skeletal, skin stretched, mouth slack, with the family dog licking her cheek and someone holding her frail hand.

My breath will come up short, and my chest tighten. I know that scene. I remember exactly that face, that half-life, all too well, remember someone barely there at all. I remember the woman who raised me alongside my father, that strong and brilliant and incredible woman, who wasn't there at all. She who poured the water out of my boots after I walked home from school through the torrential Hurricane Gloria; who sprayed Solarcaine on my scrapes when I fell off my bike on Valentine Avenue; who won me tickets to see Nine Inch Nails (who she... disliked, at least) at The Egg; who survived childhood abuse, not to mention both a horrific car accident and a deadly motorcycle collision.

In the days after I wouldn't enter. I'd take the long way around, through the living room. I'd glance quickly through the dark wood panelling, into the dining room, and hurry past. Shortly, I flew back to Atlanta and resumed a version of the life I'd been leading there, presenting a reasonsable facsimile of myself, while feeling drained and hollow more than genuinely sad, wondering why I couldn't cry. It took time. I can certainly cry now... grief is many things, but it is certainly not predictable.

Eventually, the dining room would once again contain that old scarred table. We'd add Grandma's clock, and the chairs and various other peices of returned normalcy, atop the Persian rug with it's patterns of weave and of wear, and only the faintest new indentations from the hospital bed, so out of place.

But really, it could never go back, not for me, and I suspect not for any of us. The dining room had become dominated by an incalculable emptiness, a black hole perched, invisibly, right in the middle of the room, hovering quietly beneath the chandelier, implacable. Nothing in my shattered existence could ever fill it, or anyway, hasn't. Maybe nothing ever will.

That these feelings arose too late, long after nothing could be done, is one of those burdens I know I'll never really put down. Some say grief is assuaged by the passage of time. I have found the opposite to be true. It's been many years now and only with time was I able to realize how much I truly lost in my mother. It was months before even the most immediate grief could begin to form out of those fragmented emotions. Now, not a month goes by I don't wish I could talk to her, only the rarest day where I don't think of her.

The emptiness I expect I will always feel, and I suppose I think of it too as a kind of cancer. As something that grows and mutates; something that always threatens to consume me. The only remedy I can think of is to grow faster than it does, to fill my life with love and good work and passion and energy that outpaces the grief. It won't stop or slow down it's growth, and so neither can I.

I often don't feel I'm doing a particularly good job of it, but I must try, or be thoroughly lost.

I don't have a clue what's in the dining room any more. That house, with it's leaky windows and amber light, the cold, solid slate and the warm, creaky wood, the long yard and the cedar tree... it's long gone. Perhaps it still stands — it was sold some years ago, and I don't think it's been torn down, and I think dad would tell me if it had been, but... I don't know, maybe not.

Sometimes I fantasize about going back one day, knocking on the door and telling whoever opens it that I'd grown up there. Asking if might see the house again, walk into the back yard, under the pines and mulberry, out to the big cedar. To walk again over the slate and through the french doors up into the dining room.

Maybe I'd stand there again amidst the new owner's belongings and confront my own overlaid memory. I'd look at the walls and paint and those old drafty windows and search for the artifacts of both happiness and despair.

But then, I think, the truth is I don't need any of that, not really. In a very real way, that house has already been razed, torn down to make way for another one that may look the same, but isn't really the same at all. Every day, all the time, I carry around that place and the artifacts it contained. I reconstruct it at will in my mind, in my memories of my mother and father and those mostly happy days.

And anyway, visiting wouldn't change how I feel, or what I know about both my mother and myself. I feel the completeness of her love for me and for my father; I remember her devotion and her troubles and I know she gave all of the life she had to me.

The dining room was a place, an important place, a place that connects me to these wonderful and terrible and utterly true memories. Now, it's a memory too, anchored in turn by all these others. In a sense, that makes it perfect... not immutable, but better than that, a touchstone, a portal, and a link to someone I love more than ever.