By Caroline Allen
Monday, Memorial Day Holiday, May 26, 2013
Who cleans the wax out of your ears? My mom used to. She’d have me lie next to her on the couch, head in her lap, one ear facing up, while she used the head of a safety pin to scrape the inside walls of my ear. She’d then pull out the pin with its clump of yellowish goo and drag it across the top of my hand, leaving the small spot of wax to rest there, intact. She’d repeat this until my hand hosted a constellation of little clumps, then proceed to the next ear. In the end, we had visual proof of how much she’d taken out. It satisfied us both, the whole process. It is one of the greatest forms of intimacy I have ever known, and every time I do what I know doctors have been telling us not to do for eons, every time I stick something like a pin or a bobby pin or a q-tip in my ear I feel the absence of my mother, the absolute safety of having someone else in charge.
Bob made French toast for breakfast. “Would you be interested in some French toast?” he said, in the arch tone of voice he uses for teasing.
I said, “Sure!”
“Oh you would, would you?”
“Only if you feel like sharing,” I said. “Otherwise, I’m okay. You can have it all if you want it.”
He glances at me. “Alright.” I’m such a killjoy.
A minute later. “Here’s your toast.”
He plays alternately the sadistic master and the put-upon servant. Last night, though, as we were watching The Protectors, the latest of our crime drama addictions, he paused the show, turned to me, grinning, his face lit by the computer screen, and said, “Oh Caroline, I love you.”
“I love you too,” I said, tickled that he’d paused the show to tell me. I tell him all the time, just about every moment I’m aware of feeling it, I say it.
“I’m going to get another beer, ” he said.
“I know,” I said, agreeing with the need. “Isn’t it interesting that we need to be anesthetized against the thing we use to anesthetize ourselves against the other things in our lives we don’t want to think about?” We’ve had two deaths recently, but we really got addicted to crime dramas a few years ago when my job at the university got so stressful I’d rather watch a show about the solving of a crime than feel myself in the situation I was in– helpless, criticized by the boss, attacked by a new colleague, but still managing to be loved and respected by the best students. It was too confusing and upsetting, and I obsessively fretted about it until I discovered the beauty of crime drama– the cultivation of feelings so intense they block out one’s own life story.
But The Protectors was focusing on the lives of couples when one person is an elite body guard in a special police division charged with protecting V.I.Ps. Usually it’s a man, but there is one woman body guard as well. They’re put in dangerous situations all over the world and their loved ones are left at home, hoping for happy outcomes, knowing their spouses could be brought home in a body bag. Joan, the widow of the friend of ours who just died came by this afternoon. The show’s intensity only exacerbated our own sense of fragility.
In a Randall Jarrell poem we talked about in class the other day, he says:
What some escape to, some escape: if we find Swann’s
Way better than our own, and trudge on at the back
Of the north wind to–to– somewhere east
Of the sun, west of the moon, it is because we live
By trading another’s sorrow for our own: another’s
Impossibilities, still unbelieved in, for our own…
Failing this escape, beer– beer!
Today chainsaws fill the canyon, the buzz ripping through whatever peace we might expect on a warm breezy Memorial Day. Eyes rest on cool shadows of oaks, a respite from the glow of sun on parched grass. But this constant tidying with motorized saws, bad music on the nerves. Even the dogs mope, nothing to do but wait it out or take a drive. It feels as if the whole world is sheering off branches and plucking shaggy fronds. The neighbor across the driveway had his gardeners tear out the old yellow roses, the climbers that spilled over the wall and creeped across the Italian cypresses. If tidiness is a virtue, I’m going to Hell. Fill heaven with the sounds of chainsaws and weed-whackers. This is Hell. Or maybe it’s me, like Milton’s Satan:
Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell;
Time to change out of my pajamas. “Oh my God!” I suddenly yell. “Look, Bob– there’s a tick on my breast.” I peel off the small round blood-engorged bug and hand it to him.
“He’s a big one,” he says, and to the dogs, “Which one of you brought this in?”
What to do on a Memorial Day? Remember Chuck, my favorite veteran and a tidier up of kitchens. He did not die in war, but he flew planes and I’ll remember him, my adopted Dad. And the other one too, the one who just died, also a veteran of WWII, though with zero pride in what he’d been, a medical assistant. I remember he told me he’d teased an officer who’d contracted a venereal disease. “You’ve had your fun, now you’re paying the price.” He also told of pulling the shit out of a paralyzed man’s behind.
“How could you do it?” I’d asked.
“I had to. He couldn’t do it for himself.”
How could such things happen? I wondered, still a very young girl.
Also, he told me of a homosexual experience with another sailor. “Most men have them,” he said. “They just don’t like to talk about it.”
Also, he told me the song they sang:
You’re in the army now,
You’re not behind the plow,
So dig that ditch,
You son of a bitch,
You’re in the army now!
Memories rip through me like a spinning blade, a chain of blades. No limbs fall off. I never tidy. I am covered in dead wood.
But if I held the saw, what would I cut? Nothing. Memorial Day should be my day– a day of the rememberer.
We take the dogs to Bates beach. Perfect weather, sun and breeze. From the top of the cliffs we see the blue-green swells rolling in, stick-figure surfers hopping up and gliding toward shore. A large girl in a bikini stands near a towel and umbrella, talking to her friends, smooth thick torso fully exposed– a big beauty. I take off my shoes at the rock where the ramp meets the sand. Bob’s tending the dogs up ahead, overdressed in blue jeans, Redwing work boots, a t-shirt with a button up shammy over it. His usual Canadian lumberjack at the beach affair.
Our smallest dog, Ruby, a year-old five-pound chihuahua sets the pace. She pulls on her leash, tugging Bob along at a fast clip– she’s straining to run faster, head down, back legs bow-leggedly propelling her forward. Bob walks in long strides. I jog slowly and Jose, the nine-pound chihuahua, trots along beside me. We’re an odd bunch of movers, my jog slower than Bob’s walk, and Ruby insanely rushing forward with all her might, heedless of restraint. What a great escape from the chainsaws!
I don’t know personally any soldiers who died in war and the millions I don’t know are impossible to imagine. Each one a person. Each one having been loved. I want to be grateful and thank them for their sacrifices, but I can’t. I just feel guilty and angry, mad to be a part of a species so vicious it can’t stop fighting wars, sending kids off to kill and be killed.
So I’m going to remember others this Memorial Day. I’m going to remember the artists and writers and musicians who’ve made a difference in my life. What if the whole world celebrated Artist Day, instead of Independence and Veterans and Presidents and Memorial and all their international equivalents Day?
My Artist Day memorial roster starts with Chekhov, the wisest man who ever put pen to paper, a good brother and son, a doctor who treated peasants for free, paid for the building of hospitals and schools, organized clinics during cholera epidemics, stood up for Dreyfus against his own best friend, Suvorin, the powerful and conservative newspaper magnate who was spewing anti-Semite rhetoric in his editorials. Chekhov, who said his holy of holies was the human body and freedom– absolute freedom from violence and lies. He explained why he was liberal by saying he remembered a time when servants and children were routinely beaten with a gnout (his own father was a terribly violent man) and that the difference in life between that time and the time when beating was stopped was huge. So simple. He repudiated violence, always, and he protected its victims by standing up for them publicly and privately. His letters are a marvel, his short stories the creative expression of a just and beneficent god observing the world of a lesser god, an unjust and sometimes malevolent one.
Let us now name the few we could not have survived without: Jane Austen, Lev Tolstoy, Geoffrey Chaucer, James Boswell and his muse Samuel Johnson, Diana Athill, Sybille Bedford, Penelope Fitzgerald, Elizabeth Bishop, Van Gogh, Vermeer, Monet, Matisse, Botticelli, Raphael, Titian, Bruegal and Cranach and Rembrandt. Mozart, Handel, Haydn, Bach, Beethoven, Stravinsky, Satie, and Cocteau. Balanchine. Fellini, Kurosawa, Bergman, Truffaut. Fairfield Porter, Diebenkorn, Hopper, Jane Wilson, Albert York, Alice Neel, Lee Krasner. Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Thelonius Monk, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughn, Joni Mitchell, Howlin’ Wolf, Freakwater. Ray Misrach, Gershwin, Martha Graham, Ian Frazier, Joseph Mitchell, Isak Dinesen, Joan Mitchell, and the Beatles.
The next day, Tuesday. I’d like to stay in bed. Ah, the merry sounds of the chainsaw revisited!
Dreamt of Joe, again, the old boyfriend, with a different feeling this time, impossible in real life, were he still alive. The feeling was love and old affection and forgiveness and a little sense of guilt, because there I was with him and not my real husband. And I wondered if I’d been unfaithful to Bob. It seemed as if I’d had sex with Joe, but I couldn’t remember it. What were we doing in the bedroom? In my dreams he’s always in a bedroom, not the same one, not any I recognize, but the closed in, afternoon with the blinds down light is always familiar. And the shoddiness of architectural material– cheap rentals with sheetrock walls and faded carpet. We were packing his things, my things. I was taking the odds and ends of travel toiletries stuffed in clear bags for airport security, saying, “You won’t want these anyway.” I was helping him. Such a difference from the old reoccurring dreams’ cry of, “What are you doing here? I have a new life, a new love– get out, get out!” and his insistent presence, not budging.
It feels as if I’m writing him out of my life by writing the memoir. Deal with it, be done. We’ll see. Time to move on, but my subject is the past. I am the rememberer.
Blessed moment of quiet. No chainsaws. Two chihuahuas curled up on the bed, Ruby between by legs, and Jose beside my knee. Clothes slop across every horizontal surface, some mixed with books, notebooks, and old magazines. Cupboards open, drawers only almost closed. Chirps and twitters float in through the open slider. This is the present. No need to change a thing.