Thursday, April 30, 2009

May Baskets, Markie, and Me OR It's Never a Good Idea to Jump Out of the Second Story Window

We had lovely celebrations on May Day during my childhood. On May 1 each year, we would make May Baskets for our friends. May Baskets usually were decorated cupcake papers, or perhaps something stronger, with a handle made out of twisted pipe cleaners. Into these little baskets went a variety of small candies, maybe a posy of flowers, and a name tag.

The really special thing about May Baskets stemmed from the stealth and secrecy of planting them on
someone's front doorstep, ringing the bell, then slipping away without being caught. I remember making the baskets of treats up with my mother's assistance. (Okay, she did most of the work and I probably just got in her way, but I was little and doing my best.)

We would fill up a 13x9 cake pan with the May Baskets and take off around the neighborhood to drop them off. Maybe the mothers coordinated their timing, but I don't ever remember running into anyone else while delivering my May Baskets. Nevertheless, I always got May Baskets in return.

One year, when I was five or six, my neighborhood
Markie Hall (a year younger than me) gave me a wonderful May Basket that I still have all these years later. It is about four inches tall, with a handle that rises another three or four inches above the basket. The basket had a paper doily as a liner and I'm sure it was filled with candy, but the little woven basket in and of itself made me so happy that I don't remember much more about it.

Markie's parents owned a flower shop and perhaps the wicker basket was just a run-of-the-mill item to them. Or maybe not. I have no idea if anyone else got such a lovely little basket and it would probably have been a topic of conversation among the preschool set, so he might have had "special feelings" for me.

I know we played together a lot. He had no siblings and no prospects of any, being the only child of a middle-aged couple who had not been able to have other children.

Aside: I knew this by eavesdropping on my mother's bridge club and at various other womanly get-
togethers. A favorite trick of mine was to sit under the card table - which had a very proper, long tablecloth on it - and dig around in the ladies' purses while enjoying their conversations above me. This lasted until the day I applied a lipstick I found under the table in someone's purse to my own face, without a mirror, and then reappeared among the ladies looking like a clown. Please remember, we're talking preschool here!!

I, on the other hand, had way too many siblings for my own good, namely three big brothers who picked on me and made my life miserable most of the time. Someday I'll tell you about the candy rocks that weren't candy or brushing my teeth with
Brylcream before I learned to read. (Which may be why I became an early reader.) Be that as it may, Markie and I found each other and played happily together even though he was a boy.

One summer afternoon when I was six,
Markie and I ended up in the boys' room upstairs. The boys' room consisted of a raised attic with a dormitory-like sleeping area, a large study area, and a small bathroom. My dad had built it when he and my mother moved in to their new, two-bedroom bungalow with three children and one on the way. I can't remember why Markie and I had headed upstairs. It got hot up there in the summer and my brothers would probably not have been very happy to find out we had been playing in their territory. Maybe that was the appeal.

But there we were -
Markie, me, and a window overlooking our side yard. Naturally, we got the bright idea to play "parachute." I don't recall ever playing parachute before then, or hearing of anyone playing parachute. I don't recall if it was my idea or Markie's or just the devil taking the opportunity to screw with a couple of kids. But we did get the idea that it would be fun to make a parachute and jump out of the second floor window of my house.

How do you make a parachute when you are five- and six-years-old respectively? Why, you use the boy's tee-shirt, of course!
Markie took off his shirt, climbed up onto the window ledge, held the tee-shirt over his head, and jumped. The moment his feet left the window sill, I knew with utter and absolute clarity that it had not been such a good idea. I knew it so clearly that I didn't even watch the results, I simply turned away and found a hiding place behind my brothers' dresser.

It felt like I stayed hidden for a very long time. I figured
Markie had died, I would follow shortly, and there was no reason to rush things by giving myself up; however, when my mother came to the foot of the stairs and called me, I went to her as meekly as a lamb to the slaughter.

Surprisingly, I didn't get into trouble. When I asked my mother years later how I escaped punishment that day, she told me that I looked so terrified when I came downstairs, she didn't think spanking me was necessary.

Markie did not die. He didn't even break anything. He may not even have gotten grass stains on his clothes. He did have the wind knocked out of him, which actually feels awful, as I discovered myself about thirty years later. And he earned absolutely stellar bragging rights. No one, I mean not even the biggest lunkhead boy on the block, had ever jumped out of a second story window on purpose!

I can't remember if we played together after that. I'm thinking that if his mother had anything to say about it,
Markie shifted his attentions to safer playmates, like my older brothers. And, thinking that, I'm also now pretty sure I got the wicker basket from him when I was five ...

Happy May Day one and all!!


Tuesday, April 14, 2009

A Moment of Grace

April 12, 2009 marked the 30th anniversary of a calamitous loss
for Michael and me. This is my recollection of that event.

The most astonishing thing about tragedy is the amount of time a split second can take. Awake, but not up, I heard a sound like a rifle report at 6:10 a.m. and looked up to see a crack of blue sky at the top of my bedroom wall, where it met the ceiling. Without another thought, I shook my sleeping husband.

"Get up! The house is falling in," I yelled.

He got up immediately, without questioning me, and we ran for the third floor, where our 4-year-old daughter and 3-month-old son were asleep. Both of us wore almost nothing, and I grabbed my robe, belt missing, as we ran.

Holding my robe closed with the baby, I started back down the two flights of stairs to the front door. At the first landing, I realized my husband had not followed.

"Come on," I yelled in panic, "we have to get out of here."

For the first time, I could see the doubt in his eyes about my conviction of imminent demise.

"I'm not going anywhere without my pants on," he said categorically.

I replied by taking my daughter's hand from his, and, in my heart, abandoning him to his foolish pride and his fate.

At the front stoop, I stopped to bang on our neighbor's apartment door. I knew that Jack, the husband, would be gone to work, and that Kitty would already be busy with housework. As she opened the door, I warned her that we had to get away because the house was falling in. Kitty gave me an incredulous look and then staunchly refused to leave without her purse. As she walked back into the apartment, I followed, grabbing her telephone to call 911. My pounding heart made my fingers awkward and my voice breathy, but I managed to dial and to ask for the fire department. In the seconds it took for the St. Louis Fire Department emergency dispatcher to answer, I forced myself to calm down so I could speak clearly.

"I live at 2348 South 12th Street and my house is falling in."

I hung up the phone and walked back to the front door. Kitty stood behind me with her purse, urging me to put on her slippers against the cold April air. I had not even realized that my feet were bare. Slipping them on in Kitty’s doorway, I looked at the beautiful blue sky and the antique blue and white tile inlaid on the porch of our reclaimed tenement house. I thought about how the tenants living in the apartment beneath us had just moved out in a pique because we did not want them to keep their mange-ridden dog after we had our new baby. I thought about my husband, whom I had not seen since my flight down the front stairs. And I thought about what I would say when a fire truck showed up in front of my perfectly fine, about-to-be-renovated, 150-year-old home.

I thought about all these things in a flash, and then, in another flash, the wall across the porch from us melted into a black cloud of dirt and grit. I turned away, sheltering my children from the choking cloud and myself from the anguish raining down with the dirt. As soon as the collapse seemed over, I grabbed my daughter’s hand once more, clutched my infant son closer to my bosom, and ran past a 20-foot cascade of bricks that had been my absent neighbor's bedroom and my front yard. I ran down the sidewalk and through our gate into the safety of the empty, dawn street.

Standing on the cold cobblestones, I screamed for Kitty, who had turned back, and screamed again when she still didn’t come, fearing that the rest of the house would collapse any minute. I listened to the wailing of an approaching fire truck. The next-door neighbors ran out to investigate what had thrown them from their beds. It was the collision of three courses of old brick, three stories high, two rooms deep, against their house as our sidewall collapsed across the four-foot gangway we shared with them. The collapse that began with the sound of a gunshot at 6:10 a.m. and finished in a cloud of grit and dirt at 6:14 a.m.

Those four minutes seemed like an eternity to me. They gave me enough time to save what I loved the most, my children. They gave me enough time to warn my dear neighbor, Kitty, who finally came away from the danger after checking her stove. They gave me enough time to call for help and to doubt myself. They even gave my skeptical husband enough time to put on his pants, take the dogs out the back way, and run for his life when the wall crashed into the gangway just as he stepped into it to investigate. Those four minutes gave me enough time to capture a moment of grace that served me well when reality took over.

We had planned to renovate our old, four-family flat into a gracious home with two apartments for income. The architects and professional engineer that we had hired to design the renovation were young, enthusiastic, inexpensive, and, we discovered too late, inexperienced. Our professionals dismissed a small, ground-level separation between the floor and exterior wall, discovered on a recent walk-through of the project, with a simple and easy answer.

"We'll just need to reinforce the foundation with concrete," one of them said.

Unfortunately, everyone underestimated the urgency of the problem, and before the engineer and architects had even planned the remedial measures, that wall collapsed, taking a second wall with it.

30 years should be enough time to recover from grief, but I still choke up when memories of that day surface. My recollections usually stem from news reports of similar tragedies. Once, hearing a woman describe the engulfing, smoke-like wave of dirt and soot she experienced in a wall collapse in Houston, I broke into tears, engulfed myself in the billowing, choking dirt that remains one of my most vivid memories of our loss.

When I look at the tall townhouses springing up around our city, I see my four-year-old daughter’s green bed ruffle fluttering at the edge of a three-story precipice that had been the wall she was sleeping next to only four minutes before it appeared. Entering unfamiliar spaces, I glance up, automatically assessing where danger might lie, and seat myself carefully away from anything suspended from the ceiling, unable to forget that what seems solid can become, in as little as four minutes, a pile of debris. And when I look at my children, now 34- and 30-years-old, I am swept back into that moment, standing on cold cobblestones in a belt-less bathrobe, clutching one child’s hand, and pressing the other child’s swaddled body into my own. I am swept back into that moment when I encountered grace.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Thoughts on Saying "Uncle"

Since the kitten Smudge entered our home on December 27, 2008, I have observed quite intriguing feline behavior. Jack and Trixie, our 15 year old cats, do not like Smudge, who wants nothing more than a playmate. Apparently bad attention is better than no attention, so Smudge behaves like an obnoxious brat to the older cats. He will pounce on the cats' tails as they whip back and forth in annoyance; he will spring out from under the dust ruffle of our bed at an unsuspecting cat; he will leap up where another cat is settled peacefully and practically land them.

Jack has achieved an equanimity about it. He and Smudge play fight, rising up on their haunches and bopping each other soundly with their front paws, no claws extended. Jack towers over Smudge and outweighs him by ten pounds, but he's the one who usually walks away from their encounters.

Trixie is another matter all together. She is a very timid cat. Many of my friends have never seen Trixie because she stays on my bed or hides when we have company. After 14 and a half years of carefully cultivated association, she has sat on my lap three or four times maximum. She loves to be petted by me or one of our immediate family members, but if you pick her up, she leans away from your body as far as she can until you put her down. This said, Trixie is very attached to me and apparently very jealous of Smudge in addition to annoyed by him.

Trixie has gone overboard expressing her feelings. She hisses, snarls, lunges and otherwise threatens Smudge ... and Jack ... and us if Smudge is close to us. For years I have been protecting Trixie from Jack's aggressiveness - he outweighs her by nearly as much as he outweighs Smudge - and suddenly she has Jack on the run from her slashing claws and gnashing fangs.

Now comes the really fascinating part. Whenever the atmosphere gets too intense - Jack throws an extra hard punch or Trixie corners him - Smudge flops onto his side and presents himself helplessly, belly exposed, to their teeth and claws. And immediately, the aggression stops. I have heard of submissive behavior in animals before, but observing it is different. A snarling, hissing cat just stops, looks, and walks away? Yes, indeed.

This made me think about human relationships. As a naive 18-year-old from a small city, I vividly remember the first time I witnessed random violence. I was riding a city bus in St. Louis that had a short layover at a big stop in a seedy, industrial area. Two men were at the bus stop (among other people) and I saw one of the men attack the other. In short order, the second man had been beaten viciously enough to be on the ground and no longer even protecting himself. The winner - if that can be called winning - then proceeded to kick the other fellow in the stomach several times before deciding to quit.

Back on the bus, I practically vomited in disgust and terror, but no one else seemed to take much notice other than to walk in the opposite direction of the attack. I kept waiting for someone to intervene and help the injured man, but no one did. When my bus pulled away from the stop, the victim was stirring, but had not yet gotten up and still, no one helped him.

So, it would seem that cats (and other "dumb" animals) know how to say "Uncle and what that means, but human beings don't. How could we have missed out on such an important biological imperative?

Do you remember, as a child, that you could get a bully to stop beating on you by saying "uncle?" In fact, making someone say "uncle" often motivated the attack in the first place. But once you said it, the pain stopped; you might slink off in humiliation with taunts at your back, but no one kicked you when you were down. If they had, the crowd would have turned on them with derision for such craven behavior.

So kids do it and cats do it, but adults don't do it. Hmmm, could it be that we actually teach kids not to be merciful or relent in their assault on someone else?

This morning, when Smudge flopped over yet again into kitty submission, I tried to imagine Trixie then attacking his exposed underbelly and ripping it out with her fangs - the cat equivalent to kicking the s**t out of someone who is down - and the picture just wouldn't come together. It's not going to happen.

Wouldn't it be lovely if humans could be as evolved as cats?