Bridges and Puzzles

Monday Morning Musings:

“Then we got into a labyrinth, and, when we thought we were at the end,
came out again at the beginning, having still to see as much as ever.”
–Plato

“From women’s eyes this doctrine I derive:
They sparkle still the right Promethean fire;
They are the books, the arts, the academes,
That show, contain, and nourish all the world.”
—William Shakespeare,  Love’s Labor’s Lost, Act V, scene iii

 

There are bridges that carry us across rivers

And there are bridges that close gaps in time or understanding

But life is a labyrinth

There are no direct routes

It twists and turns

Until it finally ends

Unsolved

 

We took a bridge to my sister’s house,

Our annual Mother’s Day ritual,

Lunch prepared by my sister and her wife

Stuffed shells, meatballs and sausage for the meat eaters,

A great salad brought by my niece

(ten minutes of agonizing about it over

the phone the day before)

because that’s what we do

The women in my family can make

Not simply mountains out of mole hills,

We can make Mt. Everest out of speck on the ground

But oh, we can spin stories, too–

Best done with food and wine,

Enough food for twice the number at the table

Also part of the tradition–

So we sit at my sister’s table

We talk about our pets

The size of our cats

(big and small)

The time my daughter’s dog

“sprint peed” around her apartment

We talk about family

The “art genes” we carry

The ability to write and a love of chocolate

(Must be carried on dominant genes)

Perhaps a love of spicy food, too,

As no one thought the “hot” salsa was particularly hot

And daughter and I had

a little pizza with our hot peppers the night before

My niece discussing family craziness

“If our husbands die do you want to live together

 and we can drink and be crazy together?”

She might have said this to my daughter

That’s perfectly normal, right?

And then it was off to Macy’s

How many women does it take to shop with my mom?

We have our assigned roles,

Dresser

Assistant dressers

Clothing hangers

Hunter and Gatherer of new items

But sometimes it takes a village

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And this year, we also have

The bra hunter

And dressing room bouncer

Do you wonder what it must be like

Or why we laugh?

You hook the bra, and I’ll put the boobs in

And later a whispered aside:

Just put the pillow over my head if I start wearing bras like that

She has great boobs– you have good boob genes

(Is this carried along with the writing and chocolate gene?)

To the dressing room bouncer,

How about if you close the door– I’m sitting here in all my glory.

Finally, the shopping is complete

My mom has quite a haul– dress, pants, shirts—no new bra

What $40? Forget it?

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom!

We head back to my sister’s,

where my husband, brother, and sister’s wife

have been watching the Phillies

They won!

Time for dessert,

My brownies and daughter’s cannoli dip

We like our chocolate

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Not much left here!

And coffee

What? You don’t make coffee at home?

Back in the car, driving my mom home

We talk of family history

We learn that some of her family lived in a refugee tent city

In England

Caught there between Belarus and the U.S.

Early in the twentieth century

Perhaps during WWI?

My mom doesn’t know

She said her cousin, then a young child

Thought it was fun—the children got to run around and play–

Their mothers probably did not enjoy it as much–

We arrive at my mom’s, but

Just before she gets out of the car

She leaves us with one more family puzzle

Her father left family in Russia who vanished during

“the war,”

That would be WWII.

I have no idea what to make of this.

What people?

How did they vanish?

Life is full of such puzzles

We can never solve all of them

But there’s a quest to try

To work our way through the labyrinth

Not right now though

It’s late

And so we head back over the bridge,

East with the sun at our backs

To home

Where there is more chocolate waiting for me.

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An Adventure

Monday Morning Musings:

“‘I could tell you my adventures—beginning from this morning,’ said Alice a little timidly: ‘but it’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.’”

–Lewis Carroll, “The Lobster Quadrille,” Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

 

I’ve been on an adventure since last Wednesday. Just so you’re clear, it’s a Merril Adventure, so it doesn’t involve car chases, hot air balloons, or ski slopes; no danger involving avalanches or volcanic eruptions. I’ve not been caught in a coup, nor been accused of spying. I’ve not encountered a single lion, tiger, or bear. However, I have seen ponies. (I’ll just pause here for you to say, “awwww.”)

 

It’s an adventure involving women, friendship, and writing. In fact, I’m on a writers’ retreat. It’s not an “official” retreat, that is, it’s not sponsored by a group or organization. That also means there is no pressure. I haven’t spent the last few days hiding away or feeling anxious. Instead, I’ve formed new friendships while learning about writing memoir, fine-tuning passages, and formatting blog posts. We’ve done critiques, but we’ve also eaten great food, drunk wine, shared memories and expertise, laughed, and explored the lovely Chincoteague/Assateague area—apparently the area is a magnetic center that brings people, as well as birds, from all over.

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Janet Givens  instigated this writers’ gathering, offering her lovely vacation home to almost total strangers. Susan Weidener  kindly offered to drive Marian Beaman and me from Pennsylvania. I admit, I was apprehensive about spending a week with women I’ve never met, but it has been a wonderful several days—and I now have new friends!

It’s possible I may have baked and brought my Mandelbrot (aka “Mommy Cookies”) along—because how could I go a week without chocolate goodies? Susan brought chocolate, too—so one crisis was averted. Sigh of relief. Can you imagine me going a day, much less a week without chocolate?

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Just a few left.

 

Our group expanded during the week at Janet’s. Kathy Pooler 

joined our circle from afar. Isn’t modern technology wonderful?

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We were joined—in person–by Mary Gottschalk and Carol Bodensteiner  on Saturday night. Apparently on our blogs, both Mary and I are taller. Who knew blogs had such power? On Saturday night, the six of us gathered together at Janet’s, enjoyed stinky cheese (brought from Vermont), wine, and dinner—along with talk of writing and life. I’ve been among truly brilliant and interesting women who have fascinating tales to share and knowledge to impart.

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Although I’ve missed my husband and cats, it’s been a fabulous several days.

Please do click on the links to meet these women. Perhaps you may also want to buy their books. (You know you want to.)

In addition to walking and talking, listening, and eating, I did do a bit of writing. Here is an echo poem I wrote during this past week–while the weather was beautiful and warm.

 

Chincoteague Island, March 2016

Four women gathered together.

Weather?

Well, it couldn’t be better.

Sweater

off and writing going

flowing

growing with critique.

Incomplete

forms arrested,

tested

by practice and time.

Sublime

words, write, repeat,

delete–

but now it’s time to eat.

Sweet!

Laughter from we four

offshore

gazing and walking

talking of Peace Corps,

more–

Four women together

weathered

bettered.

 

“Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not.

–Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Essay XII,” Art

Have you ever been on a writers’ retreat?  Please share your experiences.

 

 

 

 

Airing Out Some [Thoughts On] Laundry

“I believe you should live each day as if it is your last, which is why I don’t have any clean laundry, because, come on, who wants to wash clothes on the last day of their life?”

–Anonymous

Laundry: a chore that most likely everyone reading this blog has performed, probably numerous times. I’ve been reading and writing about washing clothes in mid-18th century America this past week for my forthcoming World of the American Revolution: A Daily Life Encyclopedia, and suddenly everywhere I turn there are laundry references—the latest episode of the TV show, Fargo; the gym friend’s remark about having a pile of ironing to do (My response? I think we have an iron somewhere in the house.), and of course the never-ending piles of dirty clothes that my husband and I manage to accrue. I’m not certain how two people can accumulate so much, but somehow there it is.

         When my husband and I were first married, we lived in a garden-style apartment complex. Laundry facilities were located in a separate building across the large parking lot from our apartment. Because it was not very convenient to carry the clothes over, especially if it was raining or snowing, we waited until we had nothing to wear—I bought us both extra underwear—and then my husband would load the bags and bags of our dirty clothing, towels, and sheets into his car and drive it across the lot. He was willing to sit there at odd hours feeding quarters into the machines, and then driving our clean laundry back to our apartment. (To be honest, it frightened me to sit there or even to go into that building alone.) One of our first purchases after moving into our next apartment (in a converted twin house) was a washer and dryer to go in the basement.

         My mom and dad’s first apartment in 1940s Philadelphia had a clothesline strung between the windows of two buildings. I’ve only seen these in movies. She had to cart the baby (my older brother) and dirty clothes to the Laundromat, bring the now wet clothes back, go up the four flights of stairs, finding a space for the baby carriage, and then hang out the clothes to dry. I know she was happy to finally have her own washer and dryer when they had their own house. I believe my father bought them for her as a surprise—to make her work easier—but I’m fairly certain he never touched the machines himself.

         Still, this was nothing compared to the problems of washing clothing and sheets in the eighteenth-century—or in areas today where there is no running water, a situation that is particularly dangerous for women. (Most of the world now knows that the two young Indian girls who were recently raped, murdered, and left hanging on a tree, left their home to relieve themselves in the fields because they had no toilet facilities. In many parts of the world, women have to travel long distances to haul water back to their homes, risking attacks during these journeys.)

         For Anglo-Americans of the eighteenth century, new ideas about gentility influenced laundry practices. The global economy was also a major factor in changing idea about cleanliness—one of the most important and frequently imported items to British North America was Irish linen. To be considered “genteel,” men and women had to have clean hands and faces, and snowy white shirts and cuffs. The rest of the body didn’t have to be immersed daily, or even yearly, for that matter, nor did silk or woolen gowns and coats have to be washed. The shifts and undergarments that touched the body were supposed to be washed regularly, as they were the garments that absorbed perspiration from the body. Bedding and table linen had to be washed as well to ensure the appearance of being genteel.*

         As the need to appear clean became more important, so did the regularity of washing clothes. Long Island farm wife, Mary Cooper complained about having to miss church meeting because she didn’t have clean clothing. In her diary, Philadelphia Quaker Elizabeth Drinker also mentioned people missing meeting because they did not have clean clothing to wear there. What once had been a monthly, or even seasonal activity became a weekly ordeal by the late eighteenth century or early nineteenth-century. Monday often became the designated laundry day. Water had to be hauled and heated, irons had to be heated, and clothes dried, sometimes by draping it over bushes or on the grass. A rainy day could jeopardize the whole procedure. Laundry was hot, heavy, onerous work, and households that could afford to do so, hired laundresses. Wealthy slaveholders built separate laundry, or laundry-kitchen buildings, partly as a status symbol indicating they had large amounts of clothing to be washed and laborer to do it the task.

         Here are links to two photographs of washing days from the nineteenth-century. The first shows an advertisement for laundry soap with happy housewives hanging their clothes on a line. The second, undated, portrays the reality of doing laundry without running water or machines. The clothes are boiled in the kettle and spread over shrubs to dry. The women do not look happy.

         Undoubtedly laundry is a chore, although one that is not too burdensome in homes with running water, electricity or gas, and working appliances. The loss of any of those three items makes the process more difficult, if not impossible–until one goes to a public laundromat, the machines get repaired, or the power is restored. It is easy enough for me to throw a load of wash in the machine, and then go and do other things, like write a blog post. In the US, laundry is often a cultural reference or a topic for jokes. In one episode of the Gilmore Girls, for example, Lorelai meets her daughter’s headmaster for the first time while dressed in a ridiculous outfit because the rest of her clothes were dirty—it’s laundry day! We joke about the college students returning home with bundles of dirty laundry for mom to wash, and sometimes it’s true.

         Laundry has produced other slang terms and references—a “laundry list” of items, “dirty laundry,” as in gossip about private matters. A friend of mine used the phrase “folding laundry” as a euphemism for sex. Apparently “doing laundry” is also a slang term for sex.

         Have you ever thought this much about washing your clothing? Have you ever wanted to? Hmmm. . .don’t answer that. Do you have a good laundry-related story? Share it below.

*This is a very brief summary, of course. For more on cleanliness in early America, see, Kathleen M. Brown, Foul Bodies: Cleanliness in Early America, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009. For more on daily life during the era of the American Revolution, you’ll have to wait for my book!

For Elizabeth Drinker and Mary Cooper:

Elizabeth Forman Crane, ed. The Diary of Elizabeth Drinker, 3 vols., Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1991.

Field Horne, ed. The Diary of Mary Cooper: Life on a Long Island Farm, 1768-1773. Oyster Bay, NY: Oyster Bay Historical Society, 1981.