Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Fields of Gold

At the end of the summer, I began to worry that I had run out of stories for you but autumn is an endless field of gold, and now that the weather has turned a corner, I am filled with nostalgia - images and spirits haunt me anew. I shouldn’t be surprised – autumnal renderings always find me as soon as the air turns apple-picking crisp and billowing clouds sail quickly across the sky before me. Once the swallows begin their eerie wire to wire dance at dusk, I am lost once more to sweet yesterday.

I have wistful fall memories of being a young mother and happy school memories. But fall recollections always begin and end with my mother. I see her now in her wool plaid Bermuda shorts, white peter-pan shirt, navy knee sox and penny loafers. She grabs a sweater from the back of the closet and runs out of the house to make a quick dash to the corner store for something suddenly and urgently necessary for Sunday’s roast. When she turns the key of the station wagon, she sees that a co-pilot has slipped in beside her. She smiles. “Sneaky”, she says.

Now she’s in a blue 60’s patterned shirtdress, her light brown hair shorn and windblown, her legs tucked under her in worn summer espadrilles, the ones she wore on the sharply pebbled beach in Scituate on our summer vacation. She’s waiting on the front porch steps for her litter to return from the first day of school. After a touch, a kiss, a smile, we bound into the kitchen for cupcakes. If one of us is lucky enough to think of it, there’s still a beater or two in the sink dripping with batter.

I see her this time in cropped sage pants, white blouse, a grey Shetland sweater with a grosgrain ribbon sewn along its placket. She’s running in front of me in a race to retrieve the mail but soon she stops short and lets her competitor win. The wind nips at our faces and the scent of burning leaves fills the air. She tucks my corduroy jacket under my chin. I am wearing a piece of her costume jewelry, a sliver of a gold bangle and soon I will lose it jumping in a pile of leaves. When I confess, she’s talking on the pink wall phone, leaning against the kitchen door jamb while dinner cooks in two saucepans on the stove. She’s not angry and holds the phone away from her ear long enough to kiss the top of my head. I skip off down the hall to read before supper.

It’s Halloween and I’m crying. I don’t want to be a monster - I want to be a princess. “How about an Indian Princess?”, she asks. Within minutes, feathers are plucked from a brother's long dead head dress, an old skirt becomes a sack dress, a brown tie becomes a sash. My tears dry just in time for war paint that comes from a weathered basket hidden on the top shelf of the linen closet. In the end, I decide that no princess should be without mascara from a cake and Cherries in the Snow.

Tonight is parent teacher night and a half moon is hanging from a black sky. The brass lamp above the kitchen table is dim as we finish our soup. She tells us to be good as she reaches for the car keys from the hook by the door. She’s in her chic cranberry boucle suit and brown alligator pumps with the alarmingly pointed toes. She tugs off a long navy cotton glove to wipe a smudge from a face. “I hope I get good reports tonight”, she warns. The scent of Arp├Ęge wafts behind her as she shuts the door. At breakfast, she tells all, and we beam before her from the compliments. And soon, just beyond the kitchen window, the fields beside our house will turn to gold in the early morning fall sun.

Photo Credit:  My own.  My mother, my twin and I.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Mrs. Carlton

I was thrilled that my 7th grade American History teacher was to be Mrs. Barbara Carlton. My older brother had her the year before and told me that she was great. Where we lived near Boston, Revolutionary War history permeated the region. We had already been to Paul Revere’s House, the Bunker Hill Monument, the town green at Lexington – all courtesy of our schools, scout troops, and my own family, where my history loving mother led the way.

Mrs. Carlton was a vibrant teacher and charismatic lecturer and her wide smile and breathless tone of excitement inspired us.  Mrs. Carlton also charmed my impressionable 13 year old self with her 60’s mod style, which was in contrast to her passion for history - I learned that a girl could be both brainy and pretty. She wore her shirtdresses and A-line skirts with square toed slingbacks and printed tights, her swingy blond hair pulled back in a neat low ponytail, often with a red, white, and blue silk scarf tied around it. One of her dresses had petite brass buttons which matched her earrings and a gold coin charm bracelet. I loved when she wore her hip brown leather skirt with a mustard gold blouse, this time her long straight hair down on her shoulders and held back by a tortoiseshell clip on the top.  I realize now that she resembled a young Catherine Deneuve, and was never without her warm powdery perfume which filled the corners of our classroom. She wore simple makeup and frosted lipstick in a tawny tone.  Mrs. Carlton had feminine, gentle mannerisms and a modulated voice and yet still commanded attention in the classroom.  She was practical, pragmatic, and no nonsense and most of the boys were smitten, even knowing that she was a young wife with a husband in Vietnam.

For his part, the unseen Mr. Carlton supplied our classroom with a monthly tape recording of himself.  Mrs. Carlton used these tapes to complement our history lessons with current events and then drew parallels for us to discuss. The tapes became an anticipated treat and we sat attentively when our beloved teacher set up the large standard issue green tape machine. Soon we would hear Mr. Carlton’s young friendly voice boom out “Hi students! I hope you’re behaving for Mrs. Carlton”, and then he would launch into a one sided discussion about his location and give snippets of life as a GI stationed near a war zone. We enjoyed his tales of funny bunk mates and terrible food rations but we knew his life was dangerous. It was hard to fathom, with us tucked safely away in our cozy classroom and Mr. Carlton a world away in a jungle with biting mosquitos.  We knew why he was there and so we often supplied him with care packages of books, music, photographs, and cookies in thanks. The recordings always ended with him asking us to turn off the tape machine as "the rest was for Mrs. Carlton's ears only".  Being girlishly romantic, I imagined all the tender things a faraway husband would say to his beautiful young wife at home.

A week before Good Friday, she quietly asked me if  my mother would allow her to take me to an art museum when school would be closed for that day. She picked me up in her lovely sedan and drove me to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. It was the first time I had been to an art museum and she intuitively led the way through the galleries, showing me the museum’s collection of Renoir’s and Childe Hassam’s. But mostly she wanted to show me the Revolutionary era paintings of George Washington, Abigail Adams, Mercy Otis Warren, etc.  I was overcome to be so up close and personal to all the historical figures we had studied in class.  That trip fostered a lifelong love of art that possesses me still. We had an early dinner before she dropped me safely at home. I preened under her attention and chatted nonstop about what I saw and learned.

That Mrs. Carlton shared her husband’s experiences with us in a real way speaks to her love of teaching but also to her generosity.   She was generous in other ways too and has remained one of my favorite teachers.  She occupies a pedestal alongside my other style muses.

Friday, September 7, 2012

September Song

In the unlikely event that I own a boat one fine day, I will name her "September Morn".  September is a gentle month and it inspires me in many ways: the refreshingly cooler temperatures and lower humidity, the reawakening of happy school days memories, and most of all, the excited feelings of new beginnings - more so than New Year's, when my resolutions usually fall unseeded by Epiphany.

Ernest Hemingway thought about such things too.  Having come out of a protracted period of sadness and depression, Hemingway went away to the seashore where he ordered a plate of oysters at a cafe.  After slipping one down, he tasted the sea.  Suddenly, life had possibilities.  A few more oysters and he wrote, "I began to make plans again".

I too, am making plans this September...to leave a job that has long become too small for me, to find time to do more creative writing for publications that really like me and appreciate my "voice", and to spend my precious hours only with special people who are honest and caring.  These are my oysters...and my September song.

September is the time to begin again.
In the country, when I could smell the wood smoke
in the forest, and the curtains could be drawn
when the tea came in, on the first autumn
evening, I always felt that
my season of good luck had come.
~Eleanor Perenyi
More Was Lost (1946)