Recipes and Life – A Memoir

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Sunday Lunch

My mum always cooked a traditional roast dinner on Sundays. Dinner, usually eaten in the evenings by our family mid-week, was moved to lunch time on Sundays. Sunday Lunch, even to me as a small child, felt unlike mid-week meals which seemed more like food put in front of us to nourish the body. Without the words to describe the feeling of Sunday Lunch, even as a six or seven year old, I knew this food, this meal, was more than just about nurturing our bodies.  It would not be until I was a University student sharing Sunday Lunch as a guest of a Church family, or cooking with fellow students that I would understand this tradition as one of communion, sharing, appreciation, thankfulness and sheer delight in this great British tradition.

Today, continuing the tradition of eating roast dinners with family and friends, many people flock to the local pub for Sunday Lunch. Who knows how many families in the U.K. today keep up the Sunday cooking ritual at home? Perhaps people are too busy to cook on Sundays, or maybe with so many two-parent-working households the Pub offers a treat while still maintaining a tradition.

When traditions survive from generation to generation one has to wonder why? What is so important about this tradition, or ritual that keeps us so engaged? When traditions and rituals are based in religion it is easier to comprehend why they would stand the test of time. Perhaps even if the “why” of Sunday Lunch is not universally analysed, the answer can be found deep down in the British psyche.

When I moved to California twenty-four years ago with my then almost six year old daughter, I found it hard to maintain this treasured tradition. The weather is better in California than in England. The almost year-round sunshine tempted us into outdoor living, enjoying the simplicity of being outside in the warm sunny weather. As with any other day of the week we found ourselves eating dinner in the evening on Sunday. After all, who would want to punctuate an otherwise cloudless, rain-free day with an extended time indoors only to eat?

I mourn the loss of this tradition in my California life. I love when I go back to England to visit and Sunday Lunch becomes part of my life again. One thing I can say about all of our mealtimes while Alexandra was growing up, is that we were fortunate enough for them not only to be about nourishing the body. Every mealtime, sitting around the table, was an opportunity for discourse, for making sense of the world and each other. We navigated school life, parenthood and anchored our stories, discoveries, lessons learned, joys and sorrows shared, around a table of food conjured out of love with the help of fresh ingredients and the memory of cooks before me, like my mum.

Back when I was a little girl living in London in the 1960s, Sunday Lunch, for our family and everyone we knew, was part of a greater Sunday ritual. Going to Church came first, followed by Sunday Lunch at home. Often the men went to the pub for a drink after Church while their wives dutifully returned home to the kitchen.

Traditional.Sunday.Roast-beef

Roast Beef and Yorkshire Pudding

In anticipation of Sunday, our family ate dinner late on Saturday evenings. We ate late so that my parents could stave off early Sunday morning hunger. Dad and Mum didn’t eat breakfast on Sunday mornings because Catholics had to fast before receiving Holy Communion. They needed their bodies to be as pure as possible in order to receive the body of Christ. Fasting on Saturday nights was a sacrifice I had to make only for a short time as not long after I made my First Holy Communion, this fasting was no longer required by the Catholic Church. With the arrival of “Vatican Two” our young Catholic lives changed. Mass became more interesting as we understood it for the first time as it was said in English, not just in Latin.

simple-roast-chicken-5011-ss

Roast Chicken

I remember my mum getting up early on Sundays and preparing the vegetables and the joint of meat before Church. She would put the meat in the oven, and set the timer to switch the oven on while we were at Mass. Even though I must have been about six when mum got a cooker (stove in the USA) with an oven with a built-in timer, I can remember her being very excited about it. The next piece of culinary equipment my mum seemed to get a lot of joy out of was a stacking steamer pan set. Vegetables were so much nicer steamed than drowned and saturated in a pan of boiling water. Perhaps it is because of my mum’s excitement at such things that I, at the age of twelve, was extremely proud of my first electric hand mixer. I know, weird isn’t it? A twelve year old saving up her pocket money to buy a food mixer. A foreshadowing of things to come, maybe.  il_75x75.434708076_jqbg

Even back then when I was little, I knew Sunday Lunch wasn’t just about the food. It was about sharing that food with family or friends. Occasionally my grandmother, mum’s mother, would come for lunch. I never questioned the absence of my grandfather. I can only remember meeting him once. Mum didn’t talk about him and I never asked. Now and again my favourite Aunt – Aunty Ethna and her husband, Uncle Bill, came for lunch bringing their four children with them. These were the only cousins I really got to know. Mum was the eldest of eleven and so her siblings were very spread out in age and marital status. Child's treasury of verse

More regularly than any other Sunday guest though, was an honorary uncle, Uncle Joe. Uncle Joe was a friend of my dad’s. Dad and Uncle Joe were both writers for the Irish Press Newspaper in Dublin before they left Ireland to make their “fortunes” in London where the streets were “paved with gold.” From what I can remember being told about Uncle Joe, he continued to be a journalist, while my dad tried out a variety of jobs.

slinky-classic-toy Mum and I loved every second Sunday because that’s when Uncle Joe came to lunch. In fact, just today mum and I talked about our memories of this man who, as mum said “was a part of our lives forever.” To mum and I Uncle Joe was the bringer of gifts. He brought mum a box of Black Magic chocolates every visit, while he brought me something different every time. Sometimes Uncle Joe brought me a toy. Other times he brought me a book, or after Santa Clause brought me a record player, Uncle Joe built up an eclectic collection of forty-fives for me. I listened to songs from Pal Joey, or part of a movement by Beethoven. Best of all I liked listening to “I could have danced all night” from My Fair Lady. I learned the words off by heart, and would stand on my bed singing along to the record at the top of my voice.  blackmagic_2649634b (1)

Of the books Uncle Joe gave me the ones I remember most were a few collections of poetry, The Wind in the Willows, and a volume of The Encyclopedia Britannica. I longed to own a whole set of the encyclopedia. I begged mum every time the Encyclopedia salesman showed up on the doorstep to buy them for me. They were too expensive for my parents. Now, at the age of 57, I still have one of the poetry books Uncle Joe gave me. It was because of one of those poetry books combined with my love of The Wind in the Willows, that I felt inspired to write a poem about Mole and Ratty. It must have been a sad poem, don’t you think, as I remember my mother crying while I read it aloud?

My favourite toys from Uncle Joe included a Slinky, and a Gyroscope. Uncle Joe spent many hours playing with me, and reading to me. His attempts at explaining the science of the Slinky, or the Gyroscope were lost on me. I was fascinated by the magic of the seemingly self-propelled falling and folding motion of the Slinky. I can still hear the sound it made as coil followed coil in a silver-spun journey from the top of the stairs to the bottom. The Gyroscope became boring quickly when spinning it seemed pointless.

Gyroscope toy

He might well have been the admired and adored gift giving friend to my mother and me, but to my dad, Uncle Joe was “The Communist.” As a little girl I didn’t know what a “Communist” was, but I knew it was something bad because dad would yell “you’re an effing communist” at Uncle Joe, and Uncle Joe would ask dad not to shout in front of “the child,” and mum would say to dad “listen to him, Paddy.” The shouting and accusations didn’t come about until after lunch, and usually by tea time all was well with our little world again, when mum would bring in sandwiches made up of whatever cold cuts of the roast meat we’d have eaten that day, along with picked onions and pickled cauliflower. Occasionally mum would bake a cake, but that’s for another story.

I asked mum today about why dad accused Uncle Joe of being a communist. Mum is almost 81 and she will tell me she forgets things. She had no recollection of the accusation. I had asked mum about “Uncle Joe the Communist” a few years ago, and at that time she told me it had something to do with a socialist newspaper Uncle Joe had been writing for secretively. At that time mum remembered my dad being very angry when he discovered one of Uncle Joe’s author aliases.

Memory: Fallible, our own, and only our own. Is memory truth? And if so, whose truth? I always tell my readers and my students that when I write memoir I write my truth, and there may well be other truths.

For now, in this chapter as in others, I am interested in sense memory and all the recipes, recollections and stories that brings. With that in mind I hope you will enjoy my Sunday Roast recipes. I hope that when you cook you will create and recover memories of your own to share along with the food. And of course, you can turn any day into a Sunday with a hearty roast dinner.

(Note to Root – Mum loves and approves this story.)

Recipe:

Traditional Roasted Chicken with a Twist

All measurements are approximate to taste.

Ingredients

1 Free Range Organic Chicken (Choose a size to suite the number of people you desire to serve)

1 sweet onion

1 medium size lemon

1 small bunch of herbs (fresh cut handful thyme, sage, a few twigs of rosemary) If you don’t have fresh herbs a tablespoon of good quality Herbes de Provence will work.

2 Tbsp of olive oil

2 Tbsp of butter

2 cloves of minced garlic

Salt (large sea salt crystals or kosher salt), pepper, and paprika to taste

 

Method

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Strip herbs from twigs then chop or mince finely. Melt butter in microwave until sizzling.  Stir herb mixture into butter with approximately one clove of garlic.  Crumble some salt crystals and pepper and combine to a paste.  Gently slide your fingertips under the chicken skin to break up the membrane.  Spoon herb butter mixture under the skin and massage to evenly cover the chicken.  Peel and slice onion in quarters.  Put half of the onion into the chicken cavity.  Cut the lemon in half.  Squeeze half of the lemon into the cavity and place the remaining half of the lemon into the cavity along with a few uncut herbs..  Loosely tie the chicken legs together with culinary string.  Massage olive oil around the top chicken breast and legs.  Sprinkle with salt and pepper and a light dusting of Paprika. Place chicken in oven.  Cook at 400 degrees for 15 minutes.  Then reduce to 375 degrees for 1 hour.  Baste chicken thoroughly with pan juices after 1 hour and check the color.  If chicken is already golden, cover loosely with aluminum foil (shiny side down).  Check for doneness every 15 minutes using a meat thermometer.  Chicken is cooked when meat temperature reaches 165 degrees.  Remove meat from oven to a carving board.  Cover with foil and let rest.  Meanwhile make gravy.  See Gravy section.

 

 

National Osteoporosis Month

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Dear Friends,

When I was approached and asked to write an article/blog Post on Osteoporosis in order to help draw awareness to the condition, at first I was excited to contribute, but then I went away on vacation, and relaxing in Spain with my daughter I began thinking more about it. I asked my daughter, almost rhetorically, what do I have to say about the subject? After all, it doesn’t seem to affect me, and as long as I take the monthly pills I’m ok. Really though? Let’s think about this some more. The first bone I ever broke was in my ankle. I was running through the house trying to get Christmas presents wrapped so that my then eleven year old daughter could take them to teachers at school that morning. Actually, I broke that ankle in 3 places, and due to leave on a sailing trip the next day, this was more than a little inconvenient. I insisted on going sailing anyway. I insisted on a removable cast, a heavy splint. I didn’t want to be completely incapacitated in a plaster cast.

Lesson 1 – listen to your doctors. They honestly know best. It took so much longer to heal starting out in this way. On the other hand; lesson 2 – not being willing to give up or give in to an illness is a good thing. It means you are not going to give up on the things you enjoy in life, but this needs to be tempered with reason, patience, and following the advice of a medical team you trust. I’m not very good at the Patience thing. When it comes to others, I’m very patient. When it comes to me, I am demanding, relentless, and unforgiving. Patience disappears.

I didn’t know all those years ago that I might have Osteoporosis, after all, I had only ever experienced one bone break in my life, and as kids, lots of friends were breaking arms or legs in the pursuit of some sporting goal. Click on the link above to learn more about Osteoporosis. It’s worth the effort.

A wonderful evening with the ladies in Arcos.

A wonderful evening with the ladies in Arcos.

Sipping a full bodied Rioja in our friend’s home in Arcos de la Frontera,  after a 9.6 mile walk around Seville, (you’ve got to love FitBit) rubbing my aching knees, yes the one I had replaced twice in the same year – (revision surgery November 2014,) and the other “good” knee, which, with the knee cap shifting and sending me into shrieks of pain, I realized might be another candidate for replacement in the not too distant future, I began to think about accidents I have had.

In the last 10 years I have fractured my femur, broken three fingers on my left hand which lead to Complex Regional Pain Syndrome, broken a bone in my left foot – a break known as a Jones Fracture, and a few days ago I fell off my bicycle (for the second time in as many months) breaking part of my wrist – the scaphoid bone.

Such a big cast for such a little bone!

Such a big cast for such a little bone!

This most recent break made me realize that I couldn’t, or shouldn’t continue to try to ignore how vulnerable I am to breaking bones as a result of my Osteoporosis.

It was the femur fracture that got my doctor questioning whether I could have Osteoporosis. After all, the femur is the biggest bone in our bodies and supposedly the hardest to break. I was very fortunate. I managed to just do a hairline fracture. The issue was how easily I had managed to fracture this bone. I simply tripped going up a step and landed on my left side. It wasn’t a hard fall. Anyone else might at the most have had a small bruise. I was in a lot of pain, and I couldn’t walk for a long time afterwards, but it was following this fracture that my rheumatologist, (most of you know that I was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis 26 years ago) suggested I had a bone density test. I’m glad I did. The test revealed I have severe Osteoporosis. I was forty nine years old at the time. My doctor talked to me about the need to maintain a healthy level of vitamins C and D. Our bodies need vitamin C for healthy bones. Remember your mothers nagging you to drink milk? We need vitamin D in order to absorb vitamin C. Of course you can take supplements, but in my case I didn’t need to. I have a healthy diet, and a healthy exposure to the sun, a natural supplier of vitamin D. Many people are not so fortunate as to live in a climate where the sun shines all the time, and natural foods are plentiful and not outrageously expensive. My doctor and I settled on a drug called Actonel to help me fight my fight against this bone destroying disease.

Lesson 3 – denial is counter-productive. Being as unforgiving as I have always been, I refused to acknowledge the incapacitating nature of Osteoporosis. I was determined that a silly little disease like this would not stop me from living life to the full. I continued to push myself physically. I refused to listen to pain and what it might be telling me about my body and my needs. I refused to consider self nurture to be a gift I deserved and needed to practice. Then I fell. I was helping a young family get off a plane in Puerto Vallarta, and I tripped carrying their luggage. Three of my fingers bent backwards and broke. The family grabbed their luggage and rushed on to enjoy their vacation. I ended up in the emergency room of a hospital where my hand was set incorrectly, as a result of which I sustained permanent damage, and developed chronic regional pain syndrome. My life was in turmoil. I couldn’t endure the pain. I had regular nerve blocks to try to contain the pain, but one of the best treatments was Mindfulness Meditation. I took mindfulness classes at Stanford Hospital.

Losing much of the use of my left hand proved a catalyst for depression. I needed help for the depression, and I realized pretty quickly that I needed help coming to terms with having Osteoporosis. Some studies point to depression as being a risk factor in developing Osteoporosis. Other studies look at how having Osteoporosis can lead to depression. Our minds and our bodies are not separate entities. Please take the time to read about our mind-body connection.

Arcos at Night

Arcos at Night

I mentioned earlier in this post that I had a total knee replacement last year and that it didn’t go so well. I’d like to take the time to talk some more about that, and to give you some pointers on how to find the right medical team to work with. Watch this space. I need a few days without writing as it is hard with just one hand. I’ll return in a few days.

Undertaking Research

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Dear friends, I was delighted to wake up this morning in my hospital bed to see that a short piece I wrote on writing research has been published in the Brevity Blog. If you like this piece, please repost it, retweet it, or do anything you can in the name of literary citizenship to help me enhance my on-line presence. I hope you enjoy this short essay.
Thanks for reading and sharing this.

Undertaking Research.

Challenges, Writing and Otherwise.

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Hello again,

To all of you who keep nudging me and asking “when are you going to write another blog post, I want to say thanks for the encouragement! The reality is that when I’m working on an essay, or part of my memoir, I’m entirely focused on that, and blog posts disappear.

It’s that time of year again when we hunker down and enjoy the change in season. Autumn leads us into reflection, well certainly some of us. In Big Sur we still have super warm sunny days, but we also have days like today when the fog rolls in and bathes us in an invisible cloak. The trees and the landscape are truly “shrouded” in the sort of fog that feels like one of those ultra-light down jackets, you know the ones, they fold up and fit into a tiny bag and barely seem to exist, but when you open it up and put the jacket on you are snuggled into a warmth you can hardly believe possible. yellow sunrise Looking out of my window this morning, the fog hides my view of the south coast but I feel warm and held in a weightless, barely perceptible, gift from mother nature. It is hard to believe on days like this that the cliffs and cresting waves were ever visible from my window. I know they will return.

A foggy sunrise

A foggy sunrise

The Writing Life.

As far as writing goes, I am most productive on days like this. I am not tempted to swim outdoors. I cannot resist a swim on a sunny day when procrastination rules! I do a lot of my writing in my head. I know it sounds odd, but I can go about my daily activities thinking writing. I might not put pen to paper for several days, but when I do, it all pours out. All of the thoughts and internal edits I’ve been making for days, sometimes weeks, manifest in an essay or a segment from the memoir I’ve been working on.

The problem with writing a memoir is that it is so personal it can also be extremely painful at times. There are days when I can write without sadness. There are days when I just cry. There are days when I stand back and wonder at the life I’ve had so far, days when I cannot believe I have emerged into the woman I am today, a woman I am beginning to actually like, and sometimes admire. I know I’ve worked through a lot of the highly charged, emotional issues in my memoir, and I can say I’ve come to terms with a lot, but that doesn’t stop me, the memoirist, the writer, from feeling all over again. My friend, Allison Williams, a superb writer, pushes me to go deeper with everything I write. Allison advises me not to just hint at a challenging aspect of my life in my memoir, but to dig deeper and explore the stories on the page with continuing depth. I’m trying to do just that.

Shaping a memoir feels like an almost insurmountable challenge. I’ve written chapters and just when I think I’ve got them in the right sequence in the book, I review them, and lacking confidence in my last decision, the reshuffle begins all over again, and so does the whole question of how to transition from one chapter to the next. Recently, I’ve been looking at memoirs written by writers I admire in an attempt to see how they resolve the structural issue. (Thank you Dinty Moore.) I’m moving towards constructing my memoir as a series of stand alone essays. My thoughts are that if I put the narrative together in this way, I can still keep a loosely chronological movement driving the book by making definite transitions from one essay to another. The reader can pick up the memoir, read one essay, and have a complete “story” to enjoy and think about without being held in an artificial suspense which requires needing to read on to find out what happens next. Of course what happens next is very important, and if I can skillfully transition from one story to the next I hope the reader will want to read on. Enough of that. I need to get back to work pretty soon.

This week is very special. Two of my friends, Kim and Sherilyn, have joined me for a writing retreat at our home in Big Sur. We all went to Antioch University, Los Angeles, for our MFAs in Creative Writing. Kim lives in Kauai, and Sherilyn lives in LA. We usually work together remotely. We are all so excited to be together in the flesh! We are spread out right now in different parts of the house writing away. We kicked off our time together last night with a home-made curry, and some wonderful wine. Tonight we will eat together again and talk writing.

The challenging body.

Driving Home Another reason this week is so special for me is that it is the last week in a while that I will be able to come to Big Sur. Lately I’ve been spending half the week every week here. I’ve fallen in love with Big Sur all over again.
Many of you know that I had a knee replacement last year. It was challenging as things didn’t go well, and I had to go back into hospital for a manipulation under anesthesia, which is basically a surgery to break up scar tissue and get the range of motion in the knee back. I’ve struggled all year with pain, and my knee has never felt right. After some research I found a surgeon who specializes in knee and hip replacements. He is amazing. I had a C.T. scan and a series of x-rays, and the doctor was able to show me what went wrong with my knee replacement. Unfortunately though, I have to have the surgery done all over again. On November 18th I’m having revision surgery. This means the surgeon will remove the “new” knee that was put in last year, and replace it with another set of components. It can be a complicated surgery. The doctor needs to get all the cement out of the knee.
While I am anxious about going through all of that pain again, and having an even longer rehabilitation than I had originally, I am excited at the prospect of ultimately returning to a pain-free, active life.

An exciting part of this whole new experience is that I intend to be awake for the surgery and watch it on a big screen in the operating room. The doctor warned me about the noise when they get their surgical chainsaw things out and hack away. He said being wide awake can be stressful, and if I feel stressed the anesthesiologist can give me something to sedate me. I hope I will be able to stay awake for at least some, if not all of the surgery, but if I need a nap, I’ll take a nap.
I’ll keep you posted about how this whole new wide-awake knee surgery goes. Imagine, I get to see inside my body!

Time to move on. Please watch this space. I plan to write more about the aging, not as stable as I’d like it to be – body. I have Rheumatoid Arthritis, and Osteoporosis among other things. I’ve tried to live my life in denial of the related challenges I face on a day-to-day basis. One of my writer friends suggested that I write about my life with this complicated body. I think the time has come. I am such a positive person normally, but there are days when my body doesn’t work and I struggle to stay positive.

Until the next time – thanks for reading and sharing your comments.

Audio recording – Forever and Ever

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Recently, during my time at the Keyon Review Writer’s Workshop, I did a reading of a short piece I wrote during my week at Kenyon. All of us students read from work we had created during that week. This is my first experiment posting a reading to my blog. Please excuse the crude editing. I will work at fading in and out soon. I just wanted to get this up here asap.

I hope you enjoy this short essay. It is 465 words. It is just over 4 minutes long.

Dear Daughter

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Dear Daughter,
I listened to a recording of you sing last night. You sang a song to the moon. You were alone on a stage six thousand miles away, and I was at home, in the home in which you grew up. The symphony gathered like wood nymphs congregating in the forest, creeping through the long, tall grass until they found you; you, an angel with gossamer wings. That’s how I saw you in my mothering mind’s eye.

You stood alone on that stage, and I could see you, feel your joy to be there. I felt your excitement, your anticipation, your giddiness, your sense and seriousness of what you were about to do. You were about to gift an audience the most beautiful sound they would ever hear.
You sang so beautifully, your heavenly voice scaling earth to sky, the richness of your low tones, the soaring clarity and thrill of your high notes brought your mother into ecstasy, and I broke down and cried. My chest heaved with a swollen heart, and I understood yet again in my life what it means to burst with pride.

I am proud of you, the daughter whom I admire.

Alexandra Cowell. Photo courtesy of Scott MacDonald Photography.

Alexandra Cowell.
Photo courtesy of Scott MacDonald Photography.


You stand alone so often, not just on the opera stage, but on the stage of struggling life. You are not one of those people who land on their feet, effortless into your desires. You work, you fight, you lose, you win, you thrive, and sometimes it must feel like you just survive.

You are the most amazing young woman I know.

You inspire me with your curiosity about life and people and what makes this world both good and bad. You have such a level head and an innate sense of fairness. You teach me so much about patience and acceptance, about struggle and reward, and also about fun.
The first time that I saw you lying on my stomach, your wrinkled face turning toward the light, I knew I loved you more than I could love any living soul. I joked that you looked like Winston Churchill, then you snuggled to my breast, no longer alone in the womb but with me in your new world. You blossomed into your beauty, and I still stare mesmerized by your truffle eyes, your sallow skin and your long dark hair.
You were always an advocate of your own special style. You wore baskets on your head and pretended they were hats. You shuffled around like little girls do in my grown up adult shoes. Today you still love hats, sweeping, statement hats, and shoes an architect designs.

When you slipped on a wet leaf one winter, your heel escaping beneath you, your devastating injury robbed you of your career as a flutist, but you picked yourself up, and gradually one foot in front of the other you found your way back into music, to an instrument you dug deep inside to find. You didn’t give up.

As a little girl you stood back, alone, even at nursery school. You surveyed the landscape of your dreams, and only when you felt safe in your own perception of trust did you launch forth, gracing the children and adults around you with your spirit.
You fell in love with a boy when you were four, and found yourself torn between two loves when you were four and a half. By six years old you had knocked a young suitor out with a golf club, and he still loved you.

Today the “boys” that please me are the ones who cherish your love, and also know how to make you laugh. When you throw back your head in abandon your laughter warms my heart.
You stand today on the precipice of your longing. Those gossamer wings once again ready to take flight. I watch. I want to be there to catch you if you fall, to mend your delicate heart, to punish all who hurt you, but I cannot. For you are a woman on top of the world, and I stand beneath you, in awe and adoration of the person you have become.
Fly my darling, fly.
Your adoring mother.

Dear Teddy

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Tuesday – Continuing with the Epistolary experiment

Belinda, aged 1,  takes Teddy for a walk .

Belinda, aged 1, takes Teddy for a walk .


Dear Teddy,
We are both getting old. I celebrated 56 years of my life last week, and I celebrated 55 and a half years of your life same day. I am told Santa Claus brought you down the slim chimney of my parent’s first house on my first Christmas Eve. I don’t remember meeting you back then, but once you arrived we were never to be parted. They placed you in my cot.
Belinda and her new friend, Teddy

Belinda and her new friend, Teddy


We have shared many secrets over the years. I have cried, my nose tucked on top of your nose. Perhaps it was my tears that softened your straw filling and soaked it into disintegration. I’m sorry if that was the case. I hope you haven’t minded my amateur repairs. I think the new flashy bandage the doctor gave me for my hand is a better fix for your nose, than the bulky ace bandage that smothered your face almost beyond recognition. The skin tone of the Coban better fits your faded once-upon-a-time golden fluff. I got my hair coloured yesterday. I’m not bald like you, just white – snow white underneath the painted on blonde. There is no cure for your baldness, and even if there was, I like you the way you are. I don’t mind being reminded of my aging when I look at you and watch you fade. I dare not let my hair go white though, as to do so would remind my dearest love that he is aging too. I think it is an American thing, or maybe just California dreaming that buries age in dye. Twenty-five years ago my dad suggested I box you up and send you to the teddy bear hospital to get you fixed. I thought about it for a while and came to the conclusion a month ago that I simply could not do that. Again it’s about loving you the way you are. It’s also about fear – fear of change, fear that you will not look the same or smell the same. You host a thousand scents; of infancy, childhood, the first perfume I bought when I was a teen, the dried in sweat of the first time I made love and sobbed with you afterwards, him gone, you and me alone in the bed and I, asking you, wondering if I had given away my virginity too young. You spoke to me back then, reassuring me every time I tipped you forward to hear the gentle growl from inside your tummy. I don’t remember when your voice box fell silent. I still tip you now sometimes hoping you will speak again. Belinda and teddy at 6
You carry the dust of continents in your round, still soft belly. I wonder what the airline staff thought all those years when I fastened the seat belts around you. My heart almost broke the first time I traveled without you. But I came home to your worn out hands, your creaking arms tired from my childhood handling. It must have been the oils from my skin that wore away your leather clad paws, hands and feet. I did an awful job stitching black felt around your worn out hands – your now black-gloved forearms.
Teddy today

Teddy today

You were such a sport in the olden days. You played sick so well lined up in my imaginary hospital; home-made beds for you and walky-talky doll, long-legged-Polly Anna doll, stuffed dog, and the occasional pretty doll that mum brought home from business trips. You outlived them all.
You were a good student too, sitting to attention on the classroom bed with the above cast of characters, my home-made school books tucked into your lap. You learned so much, and I did too.
Belinda and Doggie

Belinda and Doggie


I sat you up on my grown-up bed today, tucked up against a pillow. You were wrapped in the cotton blanket – the first blanket, from my almost 29 year old daughter’s ancient crib. As your cover fell away and revealed you, it revealed me too. I laughed. I too have worn frilly white socks that cover my legs from toe to thigh. Like you, I wore those socks to cover and support the frailty of aging. I went to the people hospital and got a new knee some months ago, not much fun. Don’t you think those frilly socks give such great support? And as for hands, again like you, one of mine barely works anymore. They couldn’t fully mend it at the people fixing place.
I look into your brown glass eyes, and they reflect a past, the present and a future too. They speak to me in loving calm of joy and pain, love – lost and found, lessons learned, lessons failed, hopes and dreams and trust, but most of all you speak to me of the gift of acceptance.
Thank you Teddy. All my love xxx

Dear Rattlesnake

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This week I am experimenting with the epistolary form. I intend to write a letter a day and post it here.
Monday

Dear Rattlesnake,
You are not the first rattlesnake I’ve met. A few of your kind held me hostage one summer in my home in big Sur. One gave birth, live birth – I’m impressed, right outside my door. That mother took to the shade of the barn door a few steps from my front door, and when I tried to leave she came out and hissed. Funny how your hiss sounds just like a spray of water escaping from a hose. I waited inside the house, hoping she would leave but she was joined by 2 other snakes. They formed a triangle in front of my door, a warning triangle, almost as stern a warning as the characteristic shape of your head. “Get a bucket of ice water and throw it on top of the snakes,” one friend said. “They don’t like cold water. They’ll curl up and you’ll be safe and then you can leave,” he said. But I would still have had to come back, and who knows how many more would have joined the reptile army? So I stayed inside instead and read a book.

The Rattlesnake in my garden.

The Rattlesnake in my garden.

Get a burlap sack, make it damp, and throw it in your direction, the man from vector control suggested last month, when I asked him how to usher you along your way. “And what good will that do?” I asked my expert. I’m told the dark, warm, sun-steamed sack would have seduced you into leaving your natural habitat beneath the brush, or even have tempted you out of the burrow you followed the no-longer-gopher into a few Fridays ago. “And then?” I asked the expert, who later mailed me photos of your kind, who knows why, and first-aid instructions in case you might bite. Thank you, by the way, for not retaliating when I accidentally dropped those daisy heads right on top of your head. My intention was to dead-head the flowers in my garden, not you. Not then at least.

“When he crawls into the sack, pick it up and take the rattler away.” The snake man said. “Where to?” I asked.” I don’t know. Just somewhere else.” He said. “Like my neighbor’s garden?” I jest. And so, not willing to trap and remove you in a sack, or even grab a spade – the wise man’s next suggestion, and chop off your head, you are still with us, a guest among my flowers.

When I startled you with daisies you raised your head, and your little tongue danced in and out testing the air for prey or danger. I backed away. Slowly. I went to fetch my camera. When you curled up and settled down again, camouflaged in the wood chips, I looked for you and snapped a shot and posted you on Facebook. Some people “liked” you. I saw your cushiony imprint under the lavender just now. At night I spray my sheets with lavender scent and snuggle down, a little like you, and I long for the peace of undisturbed sleep.

You were not what I expected, when I left my home in London and moved to California. Snakes like you do not slither-slide side after side along the underground tracks among the rats. I was not prepared for your diamond back, the risk of your venom. We had talked of earthquakes, my American fiancé and I. We had planned for shaking buildings, gathered emergency supplies of food and water. We planned for sun and warmth, even temperatures topping one hundred. We planned for fire and flood. We did not buy a snake kit. I did not expect to have to worry more than most about the risk of an attack from your kind. I did not know before I got here what poison already existed in my body. I do not get the warning rush of adrenaline a sighting of you should cause. I did not expect to have a kidney and an adrenal gland removed. I did not expect that tumor.

Evening garden

Evening garden

I travel cautiously in my garden now, even announce my presence. I stamp my feet, call out “snake, I’m coming.” My intention is not to surprise you, but to give us both fair warning. We need to share this place, this space. We need to share the beauty.
When you are sleeping tucked beneath the daisies, I watch you from a distance. I look for the beauty in the skin you shed, in your reinvention-resurrection. Like you I feel the warmth of summer sun, and when I’ve had enough of scorching skin, I too search for the shade, a place where I can hide, a place where I can shed a skin, can camouflage, where I too can adjust and change.

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