Sunday, December 29, 2013

Hope . . . My Favorite Word


Published in Black Mountain News, December 26, 2013 

     Hope is my favorite word. In a world that is sometimes darkly cruel and random and bleak, hope rescues me from pessimism and pain.

     Hope has come to me in the most frantic moments of my life: moments of heavy despair that dragged me down, and dragged on, for what felt like years but were soon disbursed and sent packing. Time and again (because I’m no saint), hope has pulled me out of wells of sadness and fear, turned anger into tolerance, understanding, and acceptance, if not actual forgiveness.

     In these days of world strife and polarization, of manmade conflicts and hatreds, of walls of stupidity and close-mindedness, I find hope in this small town.

At a pre-election candidates’ night at the Black Mountain Center for the Arts in October, I observed a group of rational community leaders, all of whom seemed to be of good character, who opted to run a clean, nonpartisan campaign based on their own consciences rather than blind party loyalties.

What a difference, I thought, from the contentious, soul-destroying postures of our national parties which have our nation in the grip of a nonproductive, indeed destructive, stalemate. I admit it takes a great deal of hope these days to wish Congressional leaders would stop chipping away at the values of fairness we were brought up on and the promise of a good life for all Americans, not just those who feel an entitlement because of their material wealth.

     Hope is what humans dream of for our families’ well-being, the chance to live a decent life in a safe place, the potential for world peace. Hope is the best part of us. It is compassion for others regardless of ideology and differences in values and rituals, in the color of our skin or the names we call God.

We celebrate hope at birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, graduations, and especially during the holiday season. I saw hope in the delight of fresh rosy-cheeked children at our town’s annual holiday street parade. These children, all of our children, will carry our hope into the future. 

Hope is the color of yarns that can be woven into beautiful, useful things that keep us warm and dry. Hope is stone and wood and iron that can be carved and burnished, not into weapons, but into tools and sculpture and strong habitats that can survive tidal waves and earthquakes. Hope is music and art and poetry that uplifts us and reminds us that we each have a bit of the divine in ourselves. Hope is the fabric of our lives, our spirit, our community.

Hope belongs to Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists, Creationists, and humanists. Hope is Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, John F. Kennedy’s Peace Corps, Martin Luther King’s 1963 March on Washington, among others.

They may not have solved all problems perfectly – because who’s perfect, anyway? – but they’re steps in the right direction. The direction of fairness, justice, and equality. 

Hope is Handel’s “Messiah,” Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” John Lennon’s “Imagine,” and Irving Berlin’s “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas.” Hope is in the mountains cradling our small, precious community, when the clouds hug the crests, when spring turns them lush and green, when autumn imbues them in blazing colors, and when winter shadows evoke the mysteries of the Seven Sisters.

And for each of us, hope is personal.

For me, today, it’s meeting a deadline, completing at least one or two tasks on my to-do list, grateful that the temperature is above freezing, and that Harry, my dog, is content with a shorter walk on this cold, wet day and the house will soon be filled with the good smell of what I’ll be cooking for dinner.
Myra Schoen, December 9, 2013   



Thursday, November 21, 2013

“On Paths Not Taken”

Published in Black Mountain News, November 14, 2013

Do you ever think about the doors you didn’t open? The paths you didn’t take? Recently, I’ve been mulling over what I might have discovered and how my life might have been shaped if I’d taken the left fork of the road instead of the right.

From the time I was about ten, I wanted to be a writer. My father must have known, even if I never said. For my twelfth birthday he surprised me with a Remington Rand typewriter.   

As a rebellious, anxious and confused teenager with minimal self-esteem, I tapped out stories on the clattering keys, wrote night poetry in the moonlit room I shared with my younger sister, and filled notebook after black-and-white speckled notebooks with the ramblings of my mind and adolescent emotions and impressions. I had to write, as if driven by a churning internal machine.

One day, as a college freshman, I passed the publications office. Taking a few steps back, I stood before the steely dull brown door. I reached out to hold its cold brass doorknob. But as if it burned my hand, I quickly released it, intimidated, and turned away to disappear into the mainstream of students flooding the corridors. Whatever courage I had was lost in fear and self-doubt.  

In my early twenties and newly married, my then husband, an artist, and I were invited to move from New York City to Rockport, Massachusetts. Rockport was our favorite getaway spot, a small, charming town renowned as an art colony.  

Bea McNulty, an artist and owner of the Granite Shore Inn, had taken a liking to us as frequent guests. Bea invited us to manage the hotel’s art gallery. That weekend, as we explored homes to live in, I was enthralled with a particular house that overlooked the bay. I remember looking through its front window, seeing straight through to the back window, where I could see masts of moored boats beyond through a prism of blue, purple, red and green glass bottles, like a kaleidoscope. What magic I could craft here, I thought.

But again, doubt and fear darkened the dream . . . and that life went unlived. I’d longed to live in a small town, closer to nature, to be part of a community where creativity was nurtured. Instead, we returned to the city. Instead of crafting magic from my own heart and imagination, I spent the next decades as an editor and publicist, editing and writing to fulfill the dreams of others.

One birthday, a friend of mine gifted me with a session to an astrologer, Brenda B. I was a born communicator, a triple Gemini, Brenda said. In past lives, she explained, I had been a leader, a revolutionary who’d put others at risk. As a result, in this lifetime, I suppressed my own ideas and beliefs and used my voice only for others. While skeptical about astrology, something about what Brenda said resonated in me.

In July, while touring Western North Carolina to find a future home, my husband and I discovered Black Mountain. I knew this was the place, the chance, to peel back the dark layers of self-repression, to take the left fork of the road instead of the right. It was my time.

Two months after we moved here, on a quiet Friday afternoon in October, I opened the door of the Black Mountain News. I stepped inside to introduce myself, not afraid but confident, sure of my goals, certain of my dreams. To my delight, I was warmly welcomed by Editor Jennifer Fitzgerald as if I’d come home to an old friend.

I’m not ashamed to say I’m madly in love with Black Mountain. Whatever the mood of my inner life, whatever my worries, concerns or frustrations, the day, the mountains, enfold me in peace and awe. And I write from my heart.

Yes, I regret some of the paths not taken, but I’m awfully grateful for the roads I’ve traveled because they’ve led me here.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Clutter - A short story


Clutter was everywhere. It came crawling toward her like roaches stalking fudge.
Binder clips, post-it notepads, ceramic cups stuffed with pencils and pens. One cup said “Julia”; another said “Paris, Las Vegas,” the hotel where she and her husband had honeymooned five years before.
Yellow Number 2 Hard pencils, mechanical Bics with hard erasers that smudged across words she wished could be wiped out; blue, pink, and yellow highlighters, spelled H-I-L-I-T-E-R-S; blue, black, green and silver Sharpie permanent markers; black Uniball pens, green and red Micron 08s, red Pilots with see-through bodies, the ink inside squishing around like blood, and three Schaeffer calligraphy pens, her favorites.
With the Schaeffers, her neat, correct penmanship seemed artistic. Even the bank tellers and sales clerks at Nordstrom’s and Pier One remarked on her beautiful hand, as she raced around with her handwritten checks paying bills mere hours before the due date, another sign of her procrastination and cluttered mind.
Clutter was behind her, on the bookshelves that lined one wall: books on Eastern philosophy and religion, books on writing, reference books like The Ultimate Visual Dictionary, Office 2011 for Dummies, The Barnes & Noble Book of Quotations; and stacks of incomplete projects. Or should she say, unfinished. What were they: incomplete or unfinished? The first implied hope, a promise of completion. The second seemed more definite, something that would never happen.
The roof of the dog crate, where the two-year-old Shih-Tzu snored peacefully on his grayish mattress, served as a bed for clutter: her open Day-timers, with lists of things she had to do, and only a few of which she’d actually accomplish, unpaid bills, unopened mail, stray papers that needed filing. One look at it made her stomach turn. They were akin to the business cards that spread out like a jigsaw puzzle on her desk and windowsill: people she shouldn’t forget, people who could help her with information or leads to new business, or people she’d met who she liked and wanted to be in touch with, like Diza, the meditation practitioner she’d studied with six years ago, and whom she’d recently run into at the Galleria Mall, when she and her husband were shopping for Christmas gifts for his grandchildren (now her grandchildren too).
But most of the clutter was in her mind, spiraling out of control. She woke up exhausted every morning, no matter how much sleep she had. Exhausted and depressed. Dreams depleted her, echoing the struggles of the day. Dreams of lost keys, of lost purses with her credit cards and driver’s license gone. Dreams of being stranded on strange streets in unfamiliar cities. Dreams of directionless stasis at airports and seaports, adrift and alone in crowds of people who knew where they were headed.
Julia stared at the computer screen, waiting impatiently for the spy zapper to finish its frenetic work and allow a new page to appear. When it did, she wrote, in a stream of consciousness style recommended by Natalie Goldberg:
Sweating, I toss the comforter off my feet. Anxiety lies across my stomach like taut elastic bands controlled by an unseen creature who derives joy in squeezing the bands even tighter at unexpected intervals.  I sit up, swinging my legs over the edge of the bed. Elbows on knees, head in my hands, I rest a moment, summoning up energy to shake off the debilitating dreams. JJ barks rudely and nips at my toes as I squirm my feet into my slippers. Is he being playful or trying to master me? And why not, I think. Everything else controls me.
Julia took a swig of sugared coffee from the mug that rested just left of the laptop. Every mug in the house held memories. This one said “Sylvester’s Restaurant & Bakery, Northampton’s favorite place for breakfast and lunch, Massachusetts.”
She cherished the mug for the memories it evoked. She and Joseph had visited her sister Shanti in Northampton a half dozen times in the five years since they'd married. Sometimes they’d stayed in a hotel, other times in the house Shanti shared with her partner Toby. Julia glanced up at the photo on the wall to her left. It was Shanti looking radiant, taken on the day two years ago when Shanti and Toby had married, in a civil ceremony sanctioned by the State of Massachusetts.
Julia smiled. That was probably the happiest day in Shanti’s all too short life.
She rubbed the burning sensation in her eyes, and turned away.
JJ stirred and shuffled toward the office door. He stuck his flat-nosed face and fluffy paw between the door and the doorframe, edging it open. Loud rock ‘n’ roll assailed Julia’s ears. “Jailhouse Rock.” The beat was compelling. She couldn’t help shaking her head from side to side. She smiled, thinking about the transitory nature of mood. One moment, low and melancholy, a second later, buoyant.
Clutter of emotions, too. Julia took a deep breath. Her old meditation companion, Diza, had continued their meditation practice while Julia had gone off in another direction, to graduate school. Diza had progressed, if that was the right word, to meditation group facilitator. Would renewed meditation help untangle Julia’s cluttered mind or add a new burden of responsibility, the demands of self-discipline, and the inevitable guilt?
Her younger sister, Shanti, had studied meditation in India, where she’d lived for four years. There, she had changed her name from Linda to a word meaning peace. When she came back to the States, Shanti was already in her thirties, and had become a different person, a better person, Julia thought. She went to graduate school at Smith College and began a therapy practice specializing in trauma, incest, and self-destructive behaviors.
Living a thousand miles from each other, Julia and Shanti were connected by Saturday morning phone calls, and infrequent visits, until Shanti’s voice, weakened by chemotherapy for a greedily rapacious cancer, was too thin to be heard, and Toby became the interpreter. 
On Julia’s last visit to Northampton, Shanti had shrunk nearly six inches in size, her cracked spine, attacked by tumors, bent and stooped like an old woman’s. 
Julia stood up to look closer at Shanti’s wedding photo, her hand at breast level, where the cancer had started, holding a pure white rose. Underneath, Toby had highlighted Shanti's writing in yellow: It’s amazing all the things one can accomplish when there is belief in the self.
The music in the living room seemed to swell. “Let’s Go to the Hop bopped through the open door. Joseph seemed to be in a teenage nostalgia mood that morning. Torn between the music and the act of willful consciousness toward writing practice, Julia half-danced across the floor to close the door. JJ lay on the floor like a white dustmop but raced to beat out the closing door before it nearly cut off his feathery tail.  
Even with the door closed, “Blueberry Hill threatened to do Julia in, leaving her sobbing, with its “wind in the willow trees, love’s sweet melody.”
Damn it, love is even doing me in, she thought. It was seductive. Life was seductive. Grief was seductive. Helping people was seductive. Being busy-busy was seductive. Maybe it wasn’t clutter after all – even mind clutter – that was doing her in. It was seduction, being pulled here and there, wanting to do it all, be everywhere, experience everything, being in the thick of life.
Then again, life could be too messy, too painful. Easier to pull back, be an observer, be part of it, but not part of it. Watching, seeing, listening, feeling, but shying away from responding, from making a commitment, from being obligated, obliged, responsible. No, she didn’t want to commit. She didn’t want to be held accountable.
Was it laziness? Fear of taking a stand? Fear of choosing? Fear of losing? Clutter, clutter of thoughts and emotions. How to untangle them.
The dog barked at the closed door from the other side. 
Let me in, he cried.
            “What’s all the racket about?” Joseph shouted.
Let me out, she cried.
Night. Moonless night. The overhead garage door creaked open. Julia dragged the battered old trash can down the driveway. Joseph had left to play bridge for the evening at the bridge club. Julia gathered armfuls of files from her office. JJ was locked in his crate, barking, wanting to follow Julia.
She balanced file folders in her arms and dumped them into the trash can outside. Inside the garage again, she pawed among some gardening tools in search of a box of candles she thought she had stored there a couple of years before. The box was sticky where the wax had clung to the bottom, but she clawed out one of the half dozen vanilla-scented candles from its neighbors, lit it with a safety match, and shielding the flame as she walked, placed the candle on top of the paper pile in the trash can. From one of the file jackets standing on end, she slipped out an eight-by-eleven sheet of paper and held its corner to the flame. She held the paper until the flame reached her fingertips, then dropped it. The small flame grew and crept deeper into the can. Julia strode back to her office and shoved the debris on her desk into a carton.
Ashes and sparks shot up from the top of the can like miniature fireworks. Flames licked low into the can, transforming information into dust. Julia up-ended the carton and slowly spilled out the contents, careful not to smother the flames below. A peculiar smell of melting plastic and charred metal rose from the can. Julia wiped her brow with the back of her hand, streaking the sweaty silken ashes across her forehead and into her hair. She smiled, satisfied.
Time after time she returned to her office, methodically emptying every drawer, every filing cabinet. Some things took longer to burn than others, and soon a backup of trash lined the driveway, waiting to be incinerated.
Julia returned to the office for the last time, to open JJ’s crate. She attached the leash to his collar even as he squirmed and nipped at her hands. Once the leash was secured, he stopped barking. She pulled him along through the garage toward the driveway.
They sat there together, Julia atop a pile of phonebooks, JJ at her feet, quieted.  She rescued a blank notepad and a pen from the tongues of the fire,  and watched the starry conflagration sizzle and sparkle, like the birth of the Milky Way. 
The End

The Ramones

The Ramones
Hallandale’s Button South just east of I-95 was a showcase for the odd, bizarre and off-color in 1984. On a summer Sunday night (in Florida it’s always summer, so it might have been spring, fall or winter, I don’t remember) at six-thirty, I was a member of the second party on line for the Ramones gig there. With me was my fourteen-year-old son, Peter, and his friend, Mike (I think that was his name).
Peter was into the Ramones that year. He dressed in grunge style, flannel shirts. I don’t recall what material his pants were made of because he never liked blue jeans. I, on the other hand, wore them whenever I could.  Peter felt out of place at his high school, Taravella in Coral Springs. We lived in the next town over, Tamarac, a community of retirees and blue-collar neighborhoods of construction workers and others who built and served the older generations who’d come from up north to live in age-segregated subdivisions, my parents among them.
When it was planned and built, Taravella was intended only for Coral Springs kids, those sporting LaCoste alligators on short-sleeved, finely woven cotton knit shirts, kids living in suburban houses with two-car garages and two parents. Peter lived with me, his newly divorced mom in a small house with no garage, just a blue-collar carport, although his dad, an artist, was often around toting a sad face.  
As our only child, Peter was doted upon by both of us. We didn’t spoil him with things, with toys and fancy clothes or trendy teen accessories (whatever might have been objects of the moment, like today’s Ipods, MP3 players, WIIs and the like), but we indulged him in his interests, especially his creative ones, because, like I said, his dad is an artist and I’m a writer. Peter chose a third form of art. Why? I often wondered.  In defiance of us, as an act of rebellion? From his childhood drawings, visual art didn’t seem to be his strong suit, but his writing was always extraordinary.
I took his avoidance of developing his writing talents, at least back then, as anger with me for asking his father to leave our home. But maybe I’m too egocentric. After all, this story is about him, not me. (Right?)
With his first Bar Mitzvah gift, one hundred dollars from my uncle Davey, my mother’s twin brother, Peter bought a guitar. He’d had piano lessons for a year only, when he was eight and we’d first arrived in Florida, but he was pretty much self-taught as a guitarist. He was drawn toward Alternative music, especially punk, another sign of his break from the mainstream, and an expression, surely, of his inner anger.  
So, back on line outside the Button South. It was hot. The boys talked to each other. I may have smoked a couple of cigarettes while waiting. I still smoked back then. I shifted somewhat uncomfortably and impatiently from one foot to another for an hour or two until the doors opened, thinking why I had let Peter talk me into coming so early for a late show. Eventually we and the long line of people behind us rushed into the dark, air-conditioned lobby. There, a guy behind a table patted down T-shirts and tapes displayed on a banquet table. Signs on the bathroom doors stated no drugs were allowed. If you went out during the performance, you wouldn’t be readmitted (it being assumed you’d go outside to score or partake of drugs).  But those were the days when you could still smoke in restaurants and bars.
The concert stage was in a large room with a huge empty floor between it and the actual bar, which held a scatter of high-top tables and chairs under individual high-beam spotlights, like stars in a black heaven. The boys ran to the stage, and virtually glued themselves, standing, to the four-foot wall, with their heads peeping over the top as if for a front-row vantage point. I installed myself at a high-top table under the starlight. I pulled out a book I had brought for the occasion and began to read as the room began to fill up, mostly with a crowd of twenty-something young men.
Music from an invisible source suddenly pounded the room. Not the Ramones, but something primitive, bass-driven, deafening. My chest felt the vibrations. I thought I was having a heart attack. (Sorry this is so much about me . . . but wait.) I ran out of the room, to the lobby where the T-shirt Man was folding shirts on a table.
“Do you feel that?”
“The pounding – in your chest.”
He shrugged and turned to a guy who wanted to buy a T-shirt. The vibrations hadn’t traveled from the bar to the lobby. My chest didn’t hurt here. OK, I could live with the vibrations, at least knowing I wasn’t having a heart attack. I went back inside to my book and my Coke.
The boys were still glued to the front of the stage. I could just make out their heads through the crowd filling the now-occupied space between us when a twenty-something guy approached me.
“You don’t look very happy here,” he said. How perceptive of you, I thought. A forty-something woman reading a book at a punk-rock concert.
I smiled.
“Good book?”
“A mystery.”
“Sure,” he said. “Have fun.” He saluted me with a raised beer bottle.
For a moment, the din of DJ-spun music stopped, and Joey Ramone stepped out onstage, sucking the juice from half an orange. Tall, mop-haired, Joey flung the orange peel out to the audience, and Peter jumped for it – and caught it.
The concert we had come to hear began. Guitars and drums dazzled in rapid-fire rhythms that provoked flight-driven slam dancing, from audience to stage and back again. Bodies were hurled upward and thrown helter-skelter heedless of injury across the room. The music was relentless, frenzied. Testosterone dominated the room. Who wasn’t immune to the muscle intensity, like the spell of a shaman, the perfume of brawn, the weighty drug of masterfulness, the energy of individual might and supremacy.
Later that night, drained and exhausted, we arrived home after safely delivering Mike to his parents. Before he went to sleep, Peter left Joey Ramone’s orange peel on the kitchen counter. A little while later, I picked it up gingerly and plopped it into a plastic sandwich bag and placed it in the freezer, where it remained for years. My son’s induction into manhood, a talisman even more meaningful than his bar mitzah.

Motherlove - Fictionalized memoir

“Everything happened to me all at once,” Mother said. Her voice was that of a hurt child, stunned by the surprise of pain, as if it were a personal assault from the universe, something she should have been immune to, protected from.
Her voice was hoarse, her throat still sore from having a respiratory tube shoved down it a week before. She lay propped up in bed now in the rehab center, wearing a diaper, an ill-fitting faded hospital gown, and beige hospital socks with skid-resistant rubber dots on the soles resembling sugar candy stuck on paper strips.
Mother had fallen in the kitchen, fracturing the bone in her leg from knee to hip. Although more than twice Mother’s weight in size, Father was unable to lift her, and had half dragged her onto one of the vinyl-clad kitchen chairs, fortunately on wheels, and rolled her into the bedroom and from the chair onto the bed. It was eleven o’clock at night, and the couple, not wanting to disturb anyone, even the paramedics who might have driven them to the hospital, decided to wait till morning. Mother lay there in pain all night, while Father tried to soothe her as best he could.  
In the morning light, he dialed 911.

“I was going along all right, when this had to happen,” Mother said. Her lips were down-turned in the perpetual, self-pitying pout she wore, like a mask of suffering. When was the last time I saw her smile? The last time she actually seemed to be enjoying herself, enjoying life? I couldn’t remember. Her negativity hung in the room like a wet, winged shroud, blocking out light and air. I felt its weight pressing my chest, cramping my belly, filling my nostrils. It was a claustrophobic feeling, but out of daughterly duty I was trapped. For these hours by her bedside each day, I was compelled to endure her fears and complaints and victimhood, psychological demons I had been running from for as long as I could remember.
My sister combed Mother’s thin hair. Gray roots showed for lack of the reddish brown hair dye she’d missed applying this month.
“When you’re home, I’ll do your hair,” my sister said.
My sister was a lot better than me in dealing with Mother. For one, she could endure touching Mother physically. I could hardly bear the feel of Mother’s reptilian, cold white flesh.  For another, my sister thought of things to bring to the nursing home to make Mother more comfortable. My sister reached into the cavernous canvas tote bag she always carried, and pulled out a bed jacket, price tags still hanging from a sleeve.
“What’s this?” Mother cried. “Why did you bring me this? I don’t need it. Don’t spend any money on me. Take it back. Take it back to the store. Get your money back.”
It was a familiar scene, played out over and over. My sister would buy something for Mother, and Mother would reject it.
“Can’t you ever accept a gift?” my sister said. “You don’t appreciate anything. I won’t ever buy anything for you again.” It was an empty promise. Tomorrow she would surely buy something else and try again to please Mother, to give her something, to win her approval and love. I, on the other hand, brought nothing, thought of nothing to bring. Instead, I sat there like a lump, wishing I was back at my computer, back at work. Soon my sister turned to me and said, “If it were from you, she’d take the bed jacket.” It was something she’d always say, and I would always deny it, yet for reasons I couldn’t quite understand (maybe because I was the older daughter), Mother did seem to seek my approval and love, even though my sister was immeasurably more thoughtful and giving than I.
Father sat by the window across from the bed in a wood-framed, vinyl-seated armchair, backlit by the February afternoon sun. His eyes were closed. His cane rested against the chair. A hardcover plastic-jacketed library book lay open, facedown, on his bare knees. He wore khaki Bermuda shorts, a cotton knit golf shirt spread over his huge belly, and a baseball cap embroidered with the words “Hollywood Hills” that I had brought him from my last trip to California.
“Hy,” Mother called out.
“Shh, he’s sleeping,” I said. But Father stirred, hearing his wife’s familiar plea. For the past five years, as arthritis began to impair her walking and macular degeneration her eyesight, Mother had become increasingly dependent on Father. With his own disabilities at eighty-eight, Father, as Mother’s caregiver, was starting to buckle under the weight of her demands. His well-being was one of the chief reasons I endured the daily incarceration at the nursing home.
“I have to go to the bathroom,” Mother said. “I can’t hold it in.”
“You can go in your diaper,” my sister said. Since the surgery on her leg that had required the installation of a metal plate, Mother hadn’t wanted to or been able to eat. She spurned the food that was delivered to her under a plastic dome at mealtimes, and was nourished only by the nutritional and antibiotic IV system hooked up to a shunt in her chest. The hospital stay or the surgery or some other unclean handling had left her with a bowel infection that stimulated her intestines toward elimination every half hour or so. She was weak and frail, a shrunken figure in the bed, reduced to dependence and indignity greater than she’d ever known. 
My sister pressed the call button to summon one of the nursing aides to clean Mother. The aide, whose name was Princess, drew the curtain around the bed.
Princess was Jamaican, a pretty, broad-faced woman with a pleasant Island lilt to her voice. She handled Mother with tenderness and called her “sweetie,” unlike the other CNAs who were sullen, impersonal, and seemed to resent attending the mostly white patients in the nursing home.
My husband was a nursing home administrator and because of the stories he told me, I was aware of the racial tensions, attitudes, and complexities of staffing. Registered nurses were in short supply, leaving the field for better paying, more highly specialized jobs. South Florida’s current crop of certified nursing assistants, who did most of the dirty work of patient care, came from various Caribbean islands. Some were kind like Princess, others didn’t seem to place the same value on kindness and gentleness. At worst, they were rough; at best, they were indifferent to the comfort of the patients. Often, I’d pass two or three aides in the corridor or at the nurses’ station, chatting in their native tongue, oblivious to the discomfort of the residents who squirmed in their beds or called out in confused voices for help.
We all rose as Princess drew the curtain around Mother’s bed.
“I’ve been here for hours,” my sister said. “I need a cigarette and I have to get home.”
“Go,” I said. “I’ll stay for her dinner. Dad, why don’t you leave also? You’ve been here all day. Go home. Eat dinner. Relax.”
Reluctantly, he agreed. I caught my breath, afraid that he’d lose balance, as he held onto the arms of his chair, steadying himself as he rose. He kissed my cheek. My sister and I hugged.
I watched as Father walked, totteringly, down the corridor. I wanted to run after him, to steady and protect him from falling, but I knew he would refuse my help, just as he refused my sister’s as they walked toward the lobby. Father’s balance was off, and he leaned heavily on the wooden cane I had bought for him in a Mexican market in San Antonio three years back. It had taken me weeks to convince him to use it. Even now, he sometimes left it in the car or in their condo instead of carrying it.
“Turn over for me, sweetie,” I heard Princess tell Mother on the other side of the curtain. I could smell the mess Princess had to clean, and I walked away toward the window.
I looked out at the planned serenity of the landscape, the sloping green lawn, palm trees, beds of seasonal impatiens, red and coral and lilac colored. It was already unseasonably warm where the sunlight fell direct, even for Florida in the spring, but the late afternoon shadows lay across the lawn like up-ended dark towers, promising a refreshing evening coolness. The day before, I’d noticed a woodpecker sawing away at the trunk of a Royal palm tree, and sure enough, there he – or another who looked the same – was again, his small red head bobbing persistently at the tree in his quest for a hearty meal, tireless in his need for sustenance.
It was nearly dinnertime for Mother, and I wondered if she would be tempted to eat tonight. Her vision seemed to be worse in the nursing home, and we had to cut up her food and sometimes place it on the fork or spoon. The night before I’d fed her like a baby.
Princess left the room and an aide from the kitchen appeared, carrying a plastic tray with Mother’s meal.
Mother grimaced in disgust as I described her dinner. “I’m not hungry,” she said.
I lifted the plastic lid on a bowl of steaming chicken-and-rice soup, and urged her to take a few spoonfuls before she cried that she’d had enough. When I pulled back the lid on the main course, she wrinkled her nose in distaste. It was a quarter of a very small roasted chicken.
“Eat a little,” I said.
“No, I don’t want any. I can’t swallow it.”
“Try. You need some protein.”
I cut into the breast part, and it was pink, nearly raw. I wouldn’t have eaten it. I nearly gagged at the sight of the partially cooked flesh. You could see its bloody veins.
“How about the noodles?” I said. They were heaped in a congealed, pasty mass.
“No, I can’t eat.”
“OK. Here are pears. You like them.” I dug the spoon into a canned half pear to cut it into a bite-size morsel. Like me, Mother loved sweets. This would tempt her. And the cool wetness would soothe her sore throat.  
She swallowed the first two spoonfuls, then turned her head away. “I can’t eat anymore.” The sugary pear juice dribbled down her chin. I wiped it with a napkin.
“Do you want the tea?” I asked.
“Yes, the tea.” Finally, something she accepted. I dipped the teabag into the cup of now-tepid water, and emptied an envelope of sweetener into the mix. She drank it greedily. When she was done, I slid the bed tray away from the bed, and removed the stained hand towel that had served as a bib from under her neck. 
          Feeding Mother was surprisingly satisfying to me. I was able to give her something, and in the giving, I felt a shock of tenderness, even love, for her.