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When my daughter, Jessie, was three she was terrified of tow trucks.  That was my fault.  I’d say, “C’mon, c’mon, we have to hurry, the tow truck’s gonna get our car.”  She’d run ahead of me and reach up to grab the door handle, protecting the car from marauding tow trucks. 

“As long as I’m here, no tow truck will take our car,” she seemed to say. 

Imagine her delight when she spied a tow truck towing another tow truck.  It felt like vindication to her.

I told that story for years until it became part of Jessie’s legend. She grew up and told it to her daughter Molly.  Molly loved it so much she begged to hear it over and over, then she told it to her friend, Flynn, as if she’d seen it with her own eyes.  Then Flynn told the story as if he’d been there.  Now it’s legend and I’m sure one day Flynn’s grandson will say to his grandchildren, “Did I ever tell you about the time I saw a tow truck towing another tow truck?”  A story becomes a legend.

 

“I just re-read The Fire Next Time,” I told Jessie. “James Baldwin.  What a beautiful writer he was.”

“I know,” she said.  “I’ve read everything he wrote.  Plus, he said I was a cute baby.”

“Oh, I think that’s just one of your father’s stories,” I said.

She said to me, without anger, “Why would you take that away from me?”

Why indeed? I could have bitten my tongue. 

“You know, now that I think of it,” I said, “James Baldwin did live on Horatio Street when we did, and I often saw him walking by.  I’m sure he looked into your stroller and of course he would have said you were a beautiful baby.”  

I have since checked with Arthur, who was there.  He said, “Yes, it happened.  I wouldn’t make that up.”  So it’s true, and it’s Jessie’s story, her legend.

 

My mother was born on Long Island in May 1927, the week that Charles Lindbergh took off from nearby Roosevelt Field to make his historic flight across the Atlantic.  My grandfather liked to say that as he drove his wife and new baby home from the hospital home he looked up, saw the plane, waved and said, “Good Luck, Lindy!”

Is that a true story?   It’s a good one, full of hope for the future, the beginning of a heroic journey and a brand new life.  Is craft involved?  Did my grandfather conflate two separate events to make a compelling narrative?  He wasn’t writing a newspaper account, he was creating a family myth.  I believe in the absolute value of verifiable facts but I also believe in the value of a good story. I’m sorry he’s not here for me to ask.

  Our stories make us who we are and they are ours to tell. Sometimes they’re absolutely true in the verifiable, fact-checking sense.  And sometimes they’re true in the sense of legend and myth. 

My father was a storyteller who often repeated himself and we teased him for it. One Christmas as we drove away from his house my son Sam, age ten, said, 

‘I don’t know why you give PopPop such a hard time.  I think his stories are great and I love them every time.”

Oft-repeated, well-loved stories make up our family lore.  When they move into the next generation they bring back lost loved ones.  Sam reminded us to be grateful for them.

Will you tell me your story?

This collage made of pen and ink and watercolor is one of my favorite creations but I needed a little serendipity to complete it.
First I drew the table without thinking of anything else. I echoed the curve of that leg with the billowing curtain. I got very wrapped up in drawing the ivy leaves on the wall paper, and then gave it a gray wash to make the table stand out. Unfortunately the empty space out the window left me uninspired and I put the piece away in the flat file.
At another time on another piece of paper I drew the pelican. He was better than the background I had given him so cut him out, and put him away.
The two pieces lay in obscurity until I decided to clean out the overflowing drawers, making piles of Keep, Throw Away and What Do I Do With This? The Pelican and the table by the window fell together and Voila! They were made for each other. The swell of the pelican’s chest echoes the curtain and the table leg, the colors in his feathers echo the gray in the sky. The unexpectedness of his being there rates a double-take. Did he just fly in the window? What’s he doing there? So many questions. Thank you, Muse.
The pelican is a favorite of mine; so goofy on land, so graceful in flight. You will often see a pelican sculpture in an old graveyard. He’s a symbol for Christ because early observers noted red on the breasts of nesting pelicans. They surmised that the mother plucked at herself to make her blood flow to feed her chicks; thus she became a symbol of self sacrifice. Turns out the red was just a phase in the plumage but the idea stuck; that’s why you see pelicans standing over the graves of the long ago dead.
Was it the muse or the holy spirit who put my two images together? Are “muse” and “holy spirit” two names for the same inspiration?

When I was teaching second grade Art one of the parents asked if we ever talked about art appreciation.  That's a good idea I thought and so we made an art history book.  I gathered postcards of famous works of art and dealt them out to the kids, face down.   I then asked them to draw the work and write an essay about it.

Some suggestions for the essay were;  first, name the artist and the work.  Then, what do you think the artist was thinking about?  What does this piece of art make you think about, or how does it make you feel?  And, What would it be like if you were in this picture?

The results were fabulous and sometimes hilarious. The artist who wrote about The birth of Adam from the Sistine Chapel said; "You can tell which one is God because he's the only one with clothes on."

The student who chose the Portrait of Princess Alberte de Broglie was, happily, a girl.  when she turned over the card her eyes popped, and she wrote in her essay; "If I were in this picture I'd be a princess and I'd have a new dress every day."  She is now an adult and I'm sure her ambitions and her achievements have far surpassed her early dreams.  But it is a great dress.

 

This is on view in my exhibit titled "In Dreams Begin..." at the Port Washington Public Library, from December 2 til the 30th. Opening reception Saturday 12/8 2-4, and Gallery talk, Tuesday, 12/8 7:30. I'd love to see you there. Can you identify all these Manhattan statues? There's one from the Bronx and one that's claimed by New Jersey.
Manhattan's Great Statues at the Chamber of CommerceThis is on view in my exhibit titled "In Dreams Begin..." at the Port Washington Public Library, from December 2 til the 30th. Opening reception Saturday 12/8 2-4, and Gallery talk, Tuesday, 12/8 7:30. I'd love to see you there.
Can you identify all these Manhattan statues? There's one from the Bronx and one that's claimed by New Jersey. 

In August it will be ten years since my mother died and I think of her everyday. In Maurice Sendak’s obit this week he was quoted as saying; “ the ones we love die and leave us and we love them more.” Thank you again, Mr. Sendak.

In August it will be ten years since my mother died and I think of her everyday. In Maurice Sendak’s obit this week he was quoted as saying; “ the ones we love die and leave us and we love them more.” Thank you again, Mr. Sendak.
Shortly after Mom’s death Alan, Rob and I were staying at her house, preparing it for sale, and Mom came to me in a dream. She told me we were doing a good job and then I asked her what it was like being dead.
“It’s OK,” she said, “but it’s a little boring.”
I can believe that. She was never happier than when she had a project. It was not uncommon for us to come home from school and find that she had painted the living room, or wallpapered the kitchen ceiling. One Christmas Eve she said “We should invite Santa!” It was too late for that year but December 26 she asked a friend in the textile business for some red velvet--actually, yards and yards of red velvet-- and white fake fur and by January 26 there was a full Santa suit hanging in the back of a closet. She never mentioned it until the next Christmas Eve and for years after that Santa took time out from his busy schedule to drop in on our Christmas Eve party.
She never made a big deal of things. Once when I was still little enough for her to hold me in her arms we were playing in the surf and a huge wave came out of nowhere and knocked her down. Now, some mothers might have made a drama out of that- “we almost drowned!!!” my mom? Nah. She held me tight and when we came up again she said, “Phew, that was fun.” And I have always loved the surf.
A pretty woman, she didn’t fuss over herself--a flick of the comb and a dash of lipstick and she was good to go. She always looked great and you never caught her looking at herself in the mirror. Her friend, Norma told me that Mom encouraged her to buy an emerald green dress that she still wears and loves and I can totally believe that. Mom loved bright colors; she always dressed me in red and I can still hear when I’m shopping--pick a color that makes you happy to look at it.
A strict disciplinarian , she was furious when Sally Hubbard and I broke Dad’s bed by jumping on it but when I made such a mean crack to Bobby Dannenfelser after her father died that the whole neighborhood wanted to lynch me and everyone’s mother said I should be severely punished, Mom said, “I think you feel really bad about what you said. That’s punishment enough.”
Alan used to get into fights and come home with his clothes wrecked. He wasn’t a particularly belligerent kid, just a boy. Mom said, “If you come home with your clothes wrecked one more time, there will be severe consequences.” Naturally it wasn’t long before he came home with clear signs that he’d been fighting, and he took his punishment without a word. But then Mrs. DeArmond called in tears to thank Alan. Mark DeArmond, Alan’s classmate, had cerebral palsy and was a target for bullies. Alan had come upon some boys beating up Mark and he said, “OK, pick on someone who can fight back."

“Oh, Alan, I’m so proud of you!”
So, fighting is very bad unless it’s for a good cause and you have to decide that for yourself.

LIke many people of strong character Mom held fast to her convictions. It isn’t easy growing up with One Who Knows All There Is To Know. She was fond of saying of certain others “Seldom troubled with the thought that he might be wrong” I never got the chance (or the nerve) to look her in the eye and say,”You know, Mom, there’s a lot of that going around.” But there’s always an upside.
When I had to face a firing squad of sorts my friend Frank said, “Whatever you do, Barbara, don’t let them see you cry. Carry your mother in there with you and let her stiffen your spine and your upper lip.” I can’t count the times she did just that for me.
Our family has had some terrible days. When a young person dies before what we think is his time there is very little comfort but somehow you have to carry on. You have to eat and sleep and keep moving; you have to get through the days until time can begin to heal your wounds. You also have to keep yourself open to the possibility of fun and even joy.
On one of our worst days, Mom called all her grandchildren together and said; “Come on everybody, I’m going to teach you how to do the twist.”
She was an imperfect and wonderful mother and I miss her every day. I’m grateful for everything she gave me, and especially that every gift from her came wrapped in brilliant colors.

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It’s the season for gift giving and I’m sorry that it’s often more of a chore than an act of love.  Lately it’s become an act of war, with people using pepper spray and trampling their fellow shoppers. What could Wal-Mart have that's that precious?

Here are some of my thoughts on gifts and their complications.

In the Nativity story the Wise Men bring gifts to Baby Jesus and then it says “but Mary took these things and kept them in her heart.”   I always thought Mary was stealing Jesus’s birthday presents. It took me a long time to get over my suspicions about her and understand that there are gifts that don’t get wrapped in paper.

You know that book,  Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree?  It’s a classic, supposedly a children’s book which gets held up as an example of true giving.     A headmaster I know read it to a group of little girls.

I have a bone to pick with Mr. Silverstein.

Here’s the story. There’s a tree and a boy.  They have a great time together.     He climbs and swings in her branches, eats her apples and rests in her shade.  Sounds like a fairly heathy boy/tree relationship, right?

Did I mention that the tree is a she?

Then the boy gets older and wants to buy things and have fun, so he tells the tree he needs money.  She says take my apples and sell them. Does he say thank you or offer something in exchange?  Nope.  He takes the apples and goes away and the tree is lonesome.

Now we’re getting exploitive.

Then he comes back and tells the tree he wants a house.  Does she say so get a job?  No, she says take my branches.  He cuts off her branches (ouch!) and goes away to build his house.   Does he say thank you?  Nope.

Now the relationship is abusive.

He comes back and says he doesn’t like his house anymore.  She says take my trunk and make a canoe.  He cuts down her trunk and leaves just a stump.

How is that not murder?

He’s not satisfied until  she give him everything she has, until she’s nothing but a stump.   Actually, he’s not satisfied even then, but he knows she has nothing left to give him.  And he still doesn’t say thank you.

So what’s the message here? Is this what we’re supposed to give-- Everything we have and are so we’re left with absolutely nothing?  Is that supposed to be a happy relationship?  See why I have a problem with a male authority figure reading this to a bunch of little girls?

Okay, I know, Jesus sacrificed himself freely and completely, but he did have expectations for us.  Is the tree God?  Maybe the tree is the Earth, and the boy is humankind.  That makes some sense.

I think we should give as much as we can, give until it hurts even and we should take joy in giving but we should treat ourselves as renewable resources.

It’s hard to find the right gift, but it’s worth the effort.   I once asked my Grandfather Brown what he wanted for Christmas.

“Now don’t be giving me a lot of stuff,” he said.  “You don’t take on baggage at the end of the line.”  I thought about him and the fact that he was always chilly, so I got him flannel pajamas.  When he opened them on Christmas morning he said, “Oh, you DOLL!”  I had hit a home run.

When I was eight I stayed with my other grandparents for a long visit.  They gave me some chores to do and I saved up my money.  It was the first time I was allowed to walk around town by myself so I went shopping  and bought a present for my grandmother-- a teacup with lilies of the valley.  That was her favorite flower, because Jesus was called the lily of the valley.  She opened it and shed a few happy tears and then my grandfather said “That’s a present for me, too.”

Uh oh.    Should I have gotten something for him, too?  Does he feel left out?  Is he mad?  Am I in trouble?

It took me years to understand that seeing me make her happy brought him Joy.  When you give a gift you don’t know how many people you’re actually giving it to.

Which leads to my mother’s mink stole.  My father brought it home from work one day--he couldn’t wait for Christmas.  She was thrilled.  She danced around the living room and gave Dad a very nice kiss. She wore it for years and then stoles went out of style.  It stayed in the back of the closet until she wore it to a Hallowe’en party where a friend, Mrs. B, looked at the stole with longing and said, “Oh, I’ve always wanted a mink stole.”   And Mom said, “Here, it’s yours.”

The next day Mom ran into Mr. B.   “That mink stole!” he said.  “She came into the bedroom in the stole, her high heels and nothing else!  Ginny, thank you for a wonderful night!”

Remember what I said in Organized at Last about passing it on?  How you never know how a thing you don’t use anymore can be someone else’s treasure?

Then there’s the way we receive our gifts.     My mother and my grandmother and grandfather  knew how to accept a gift with joy, but I had another lesson in the way to appreciate  a gift from a little baby.   That's appropriate to the season, don’t you think?

We were visiting my old friend Valerie to meet her son Ted for the first time.   Ted was about a year old, so we bought him a little wooden car.   We didn’t have time for wrapping so we made a big wad of the paper bag and gave it to Ted.   He was delighted with the gift of a big wad of paper and played with it until he discovered the little car and that was even more delightful!

May we always be just as delighted with every gift we receive!  As I said in my title, I wish you all the gifts of this happy season, and I wish you joy in both giving and receiving.