The day lilies are back. Honeysuckle and morning glories climb fences. Begonias bloom in pots and line sidewalks. Cannas are on the rise. Clover, wild onions, and dandelions spangle the grass.
It’s Memorial Day, the kick-off of summer. Memorial Day is for honoring our nation’s war dead. It’s a day to put flowers on soldiers’ graves and hang the flag in remembrance of those who gave their lives in service to our country.
I have three 4th great grandfathers who fought in the Revolution. I have a piece of the original tombstone of one of them, standing up in the bed of irises I planted in Dad’s memory after he died.
Dad served in World War II — he was a sergeant who received a field commission to second lieutenant, a front-line medic, and got a Bronze Star with Valor.
“War is hell,” Dad said.
“War is a bloody, killing business,” General George Patton said. “You’ve got to spill their blood, or they will spill yours. Rip them up the belly. Shoot them in the guts. When shells are hitting all around you and you wipe the dirt off your face and realize that instead of dirt it’s the blood and guts of what once was your best friend beside you, you’ll know what to do!”
“The first exposure, whether from being wounded, the scream of an artillery projectile, a buddy with a gaping wound exposing his guts, cries of pain, stench of blood, decaying body parts, the odor from a flame thrower producing that of roast meat, your buddy blown to bits, missing a limb or two, the realization that he’ll never walk or talk, a pig devouring the guts of an enemy, are forever etched into the brain matter,” said Dr. Harold Rosenberg, a WWII veteran.
Dad’s first exposure came at Mars La Tour, when his ambulance was hit by a plane. He jumped out and opened the back door to check on his men, and one fell out, dead on the ground, his head blown half off, brains and blood spilling. Dad never forgot.
I should go home this weekend and put flowers and a fresh flag on Dad’s grave. Mama’s, too. She was a veteran.
But instead I will stay here. Maybe cook hamburgers on the charcoal grill. Wait for my neighbor to hang his flag off the front porch…I don’t know why he hasn’t done it yet…maybe he’s too old and feeble to reach up…maybe I should offer to do it for him.
And while I do these things, I will remind myself that our nation is still at this killing business, and sons of others are over there learning to spill the blood of the enemy before their own is spilled — carrying the torch my 4th great grandfathers lit when they killed those who would keep them from making a country…carrying the torch my father held in Trier and Bastogne, carrying the torch my friend held in the jungle of Vietnam, the same torch another friend’s father held in the Hobo Woods when he lost his life two months before my friend was born.
Because of them, life today for me is grilled burgers, climbing roses, ice cream, day lilies, and a flag that waves in sunshine.
If no one offers to build you a home, find a way to make it happen on your own. There are options out there. Look for them.
Even in the writing world…
The cicadas are back.
Fly. Sing. Mate. Die.
Every thirteen years they emerge from underground where they have been feeding on roots. They crawl up tree trunks or fence posts and then draw themselves out of their nymphal skins. They fly a week, the male cicadas sing to attract females, they mate, the females insert their ovipositors into tree branches and deposit eggs, then the five-week-old bugs die. The nymphs drop to the ground and bury themselves for thirteen years, and then the next generation climbs to the light to do it all over again.
What kind of a life is that? What’s their purpose, other than providing a steady month-long diet for raccoons, skunks, and possums every thirteen years.
I remember the last time they were here. May, 1998. In the middle of their chaotic screeching, the veterinarian told me that the swelling on my golden retriever’s jaw line was a malignant tumor that could not be surgically removed. “Just let her live out her days. Could be a year, maybe sooner.”
Needing to ground myself, I took the dog to the northern edge of my neighborhood where a tributary of the Harpeth River runs and stepped out onto a wet rock in the water. She sprawled in the cold flow. She’d gone with me on walks, helped me raise two boys, supported me through a divorce. I sat on the stone and let the river move on without me and let its whooshing sound block out the pain of the real world.
There at the river, vines crept and crawled, and exposed tree roots twisted across the banks, as time had washed away their mooring. Leaves from seasons before covered the sides of the creek, as did clumps of coreopsis, patches of clover, and wild roses. Cicadas screamed their primal sounds.
I wanted to scream, too.
All the while the river rushed onward, gushing around slabs of jagged rocks, hell-bent west toward sunset.
Life is like that, too, and so there at the river, I thought about death and how the present is such a brief moment and the future is forever beyond the curtain of that final sunset.
My world would change when sunset came, and I feared the emptiness without her.
I was afraid of death.
There at the river, I asked questions, sought answers. How do I let her go? How do I say good-bye to someone I love? How can I accept the finality of death, save crying with clenched fists and crusted heart at the fiery embers of sunset or recoiling in a fetal ball and closing my eyes to sunrises beyond?
And I knew the whole time I was grieving for her, I was really grieving for my father. His five heart bypasses were twelve years old and he was having other health issues and I knew I was going to lose him. I’d never lost anyone close to me, and I didn’t know what I’d do without him. I couldn’t imagine life going on, the sun ever coming up again.
My retriever died six months after that cicada event.
Now they are back. I step out my door and one swoops down against my neck. Their exoskeletons are clinging to the decking and the arbor, and I step around them as I cross the patio. They are stuck to the ivy, azaleas, and thyme. I can’t let my cocker spaniel, born six months after the last swarm, outside because she eats them—all the transparent shells that have encased the red-bulging-eyed bugs for thirteen years. Apparently, they taste like popcorn. Only they are not digestible.
I am a prisoner to the bugs—forced to hear the swell and ebb and flow of their mating cries and forced to keep the doggy-door closed, not giving my dog access to the yard, which means I can’t go anywhere for a long period of time.
Six years after the last cicadas, my father died. I had already grieved him because I grieved for the retriever. Yet I still felt the loss and it weighed heavy on me and then two years after I buried my father, my husband died and this was uncharted territory because I’d never lost anyone my life depended on, one I was with every single day, and I didn’t have enough time to forge through this grief before my mother died and I went to a deep abyss where there was no light and I was closed in and cocooned and separated from what life here on earth is supposed to be. If I could just scream and call them all back, I would.
So now the cicadas are back and all I can think about is that the last time they were here, so was everybody else, and I wonder if they were heralding death, and now once again their dizzying screams fill up my head.
There’s a man I met several years ago at a writers’ gathering we both attended for a while. He brought his manuscript and read selections from it. Soon that manuscript became a book, and he had his first signing at Barnes and Noble. I just happened to be the first person to arrive to congratulate him, buy his book, and have him sign it. He never forgot that.
My book was published shortly before the Southern Festival of Books the following year and was displayed in the publisher’s booth on Legislative Plaza. I had a signing there. Who do you think was the first person to arrive that Friday morning of the SFB to buy my book? Yes. He was. He made a point to drive to Nashville from out east of town and to be the first one there to see me. I have never forgotten.
Writers should support one another. Yes, it is a cut-throat, keeping-my-knowledge-secret kind of business. Writers can be friends, but they don’t always share and support. Some don’t share and support at all. Oh yes, they expect me to include them, to come to their book signings, to “like” them on Facebook, and to spread the word about their books and events. But it’s a one-way street. And I don’t understand that.
Networking is important. I have tried to do my part in informing area writers of writerly gatherings and signings and events, including all, and sadly, that favor is not always returned, even by some of my best writer friends. It’s a dog-eat-dog world; it’s all about self; it’s all about taking and not giving back; it’s about pulling everything you can inward and not reaching out to share.
And that bothers me deeply. And sometimes leaves me with a dilemma. If you are so tight to self and to a little clique of your choosing, why would I want to come hear you speak? Why would I want to buy your book? You seem to have enough with just you.
Yes, supporting each other is important. Encouraging, informing, inviting, participating. There should be a wide tent over the writing community. We are by nature loners. Some of us do not get out much. Some of us are locked in our closets writing. I truly believe we should be there for those like us and we should reach out and pull those like us in close.
Sometimes, I think people want to pull out front and keep others back. Getting ahead is what it’s all about, apparently, to some.
And that is sad.
Community: a group sharing common characteristics or interests and perceived or perceiving itself as distinct in some respect from the larger society within which it exists.
We are thrust into the writing “community” by nature of the interest we share. It would be ideal if everyone participated in that community.
Don’t get me wrong. Some do. Some are very giving, even when they don’t have the time. Some are open and happy and want a wide tent of sharing and supporting. Some work hard to achieve that. It’s beautiful when that happens.
I notice and I don’t forget that either.
“What I want from work front and center is the writer struggling with nothing less than how he or she has or hasn’t solved the problem of being alive.”
~ David Shields
I twist the lid off the jar of Noxzema. Jars back in the Sixties were of deep indigo glass. Now they’re a shade lighter in plastic. Nothing’s like it used to be.
The level of cream is so low I can see a spot of blue at the bottom, the size of a fingertip. I gasp air, and a flash of heat runs up my face. It’s close to being gone. What will I do then?
Noxzema cream is caked on the inside of the lid and stuck to the sides of the jar, but it’s still soft and wet-feeling. I lift it to my nose and breathe in the comforting smell of camphor, menthol, and eucalyptus. It takes me home, and I’m thirteen again, with the familiarity of things I used daily—thick Cover Girl makeup that was too dark and left a line at my jaw because I didn’t put it on right, nubby red Maybelline eye pencil, OJ’s Beauty Lotion with Witch Hazel in it, blue eye shadow, a clear plastic container of brush hair rollers the size of frozen orange juice cans that I used every single night in the years before blow dryers.
I don’t use Noxzema anymore.
This was Mama’s jar. I picked it up off her dresser the day we cleaned out her house. Mama used Noxzema all her life—all my growing up years and beyond. She bought it for me when I was a teenager. She bought it for my sister. Noxzema became a part of my day. Morning, spread on face, rub in a circular motion, rinse. Night to take off makeup—rub it in, wipe with tissues.
Noxzema took me from being thirteen to newlywed. When I moved away, I thought I had to have more expensive lotions.
This jar has been around a long time. Its contents look old, the color’s a little off, aged yellow, maybe out of date, if cleansing creams have expiration dates. But I’m using it anyway. I don’t care if it’s old, if its ingredients are starting to separate into different textures, if it’s not stark white. It was hers. I couldn’t throw it away.
When it’s gone, does that mean she is more gone than she was?
She has been gone nineteen months. This month brings what would have been her ninetieth birthday, but she won’t be here to give Gerbera daisies to, or a wind chime, or new garden gloves.
I took others personal items of hers, too, when we were selling and disposing of her belongings. I took a tiny crystal vase holding her collection of old red eyebrow pencils, sticking up like a bouquet. I took her jar of Vicks salve, the answer to all ills. I have her hair brush. With hair still in it. In the brush her hair is white. All her life except for the last three years she kept her hair brown. White marked change—her allowance that age was taking her and she was becoming less.
I can’t look at the brushful of hair without crying. There’s something about having a dead person’s hair—it was a living part of them, and now all the other parts are gone, but here’s this fistful of hair twined around bristles, clinging fast, denying its removal. I won’t let myself touch it. I won’t let myself throw it away.
Maybe I need to protect it because I couldn’t protect her.
“Close the door. Write with no one looking over your shoulder. Don’t try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It’s the one and only thing you have to offer.” Barbara Kingsolver