November 18th, 2016 · Comments Off on The dainty lady of 1973
Many years ago, when I was a young mom with two young daughters, we loved a cartoon we called “the dainty lady.” All three of us, deeply attuned to “tomboy values” like climbing trees and rescuing worms from rainy sidewalks, laughed with delight at the pink-and-white ruffled and flouncing Mary Sunshine, who ends her flutey song about “11” by falling into some mud. “Ewww, mud!” we laughed. We were not afraid of mud. We would never, ever be dainty ladies.
March 10th, 2016 · Comments Off on What if the mystery is not letting me be?
“Let the Mystery Be” sang Natalie Merchant and 10,000 Maniacs, including David Byrne. (Only after coming to love this performance did I discover that Iris Dement wrote and performed it, a performance that many prefer to the one I learned to love.)
Digression: I remember Arthur Wightman‘s speech at his 80th birthday party. He boasted that he had expanded beyond Ohio origins so that now he could say, in 25 languages, “Where is the toilet?” After demonstrating that phrase from Arabic to Zulu, he told us his least favorite thing about being 80: “My behind looks like something that somebody sat on, for 80 years.”
My behind is nowhere near Arthur’s, I’m happy to say. But the end of my 7th decade introduces strange new effects, almost as disturbing.
For example, I don’t remember, in earlier decades, feeling such strong connection (for example, while cooking dinner) to generations of women who did the same thing. I do remember, painfully, hearing in my mind the harsh criticisms of women to other women, echoing as an antiphony to my own decisions. But I don’t remember, ever before, this sense of hard-working women extending a silent endorsement of my own not-so-hard-working choices.
Many religions share a promise of eternal life after your death. My new experience seems like the opposite, an infinite track of family, all behind me, nodding in some taciturn satisfaction that I extend their other-loving choices. Or perhaps, that the best of me extends the best of them, and that the less-than-best of me is not their concern.
Research shows that people get happier as they get older. Isn’t that a good thing? But I wish I understood more about what is happening, right now, in my lengthening life, to my own happiness.
November 23rd, 2015 · Comments Off on Remembering Leda Carpenter (1877–1954)
We spent every childhood summer with my “aunts,” who were in fact no relation to any of us. Aunt Martha and Aunt Harriet were the surviving two of three unmarried career women who had adopted my mother when she was just 18 months old. Aunt Martha and Aunt Harriet spent most of each year in New York City (36 Gramercy Park,) but they returned every summer to the house where Aunt Martha (and later my mother) grew up.
Leda Carpenter (we children called her “Matante” with no clue that was not her name but Canadian-French for “my aunt”) was another summer constant for Devine children. Matante spent her days in the kitchen, although she too had her own bedroom upstairs, in the back of the house. Matante did all the cooking, day after day after day — fresh doughnuts for breakfast and sturdy thick soups at lunch time. Dinners were of course what everyone ate for dinner in my childhood memory… a big slab of meat with potatoes (baked, mashed, or roasted) plus a small pile of some kind of vegetable engulfed by yellow pools of melting butter.
Aunt Harriet and Aunt Martha were sweet ladies of leisure, always ready to read a story or play chess or Mah Jongg with children (children ALWAYS would win.) Matante was not sweet, she was tart. Although happy to see us when we visited her kitchen, she kept the most interesting things there off-limits to children’s fingers. I remember she had a big jar full of chocolate chips that I really wanted to get my hands on. Naively, I asked her how she would know if somebody just happened to eat some when she was not looking.
She fixed me with her fierce bright eyes and said, “I count them, every morning, and every night!” This was all the persuasion I needed to leave them alone!
Leda was in fact my mother’s real aunt. Leda was the reason the leisurely wealthy ladies adopted my mother, brought her up in comfort, and sent her to Smith College when she was old enough. But Leda came from a much darker childhood than my mother knew. On Leda’s 12th birthday, her school attendance ended, because a child 12 years old could get a job in the textile mill, 12 hours a day, from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Of Leda’s earning, her mother let her keep two nickels a week, one for the collection plate at Sunday Mass, and the other to save up for buying presents at Christmas. Daily lunch was one slice of bread, and if Leda was very, very lucky, there might even be a piece of salt pork spread over her bread.
I was reminded of Leda today, when I went looking through all my old recipe collections for a scalloped oyster dish that my mother especially liked. Please don’t be too shocked by the recipe that follows! It is not exactly health food, but it is delicious.
Leda Carpenter’s scalloped oyster casserole
Preheat oven to 350, grease casserole dish
1/2 pint of shucked oysters
1/2 cup of milk or cream
1 cup coarse cracker crumbs (saltines or oyster crackers)
1/4 c butter
1/8 tsp salt
Drain oysters into milk. Melt butter and mix with crumbs.
Put a thin layer of crumbs into casserole dish. Add layers of oysters, crumbs, oysters, and crumbs, so top layer is buttered crumbs.
Pour salted milk mixture over everything. Bake 35 minutes.
Scalloped oysters were a popular 19th century dish (Abraham Lincoln loved them.) Apparently they are also a popular holiday food in the southern US. But this particular recipe makes a very small casserole. I remember that my mother would sometimes make this as a treat when I visited her. A party recipe would need to be quite a few times as large. I am guessing that my mother’s memory of this recipe was also of a small special treat that Matante would make just for the two of them, in the long winter months when the elegant aunts were all away in New York City. But I really don’t know.
Memories remind us how many people we knew that now we would like, when it is much too late, to have known a lot better. Memories remind us, “Pay attention today. All our yesterdays vanish so much too fast.”
November 9th, 2015 · Comments Off on The Winged Victory of Samothrace
Who knew, who imagined that there would be new news about the winged victory of Samothrace—but there is, from the Louvre:
Samothrace via the Louvre:
This monumental statue of the winged goddess of victory (also known as the Nike of Samothrace), standing in the prow of a ship set on a low plinth, was offered to the great gods of Samothrace following a naval victory…The fourth conservation treatment, which has just been completed, has revealed the splendid colors of the marble and provided new insight into the way the statue was conceived and presented.
So, even a beautiful sculpture from BCE can still make news.
June 30th, 2015 · Comments Off on “I don’t know where I’m going to be on July 11”
When I was a little girl, a sentence like this would have made no sense to anyone in my family. We all knew exactly where we were going to be, just about every day–waking up in our own bedrooms in our own house with our own family all around us.
My sister and brothers and I also knew, just about any day in the future, what we would be doing. Each day moved through a series of stylized programs almost as predictable as (later on in my childhood) a TV schedule. Getting up. Getting clean. Getting dressed. Getting breakfast (mostly bacon plus eggs in various shapes.) A lot of this “getting” by children and my father was the result of “giving” and “doing” by my mother, something we never thought about then, when it was happening.
Today, Frank and I live in such a different world. We’re not little children, or parents of little children, so our lives are full of enormously varied choices, many quite appealing. Our friendship groups link us to time zones around the world, so Skype meetings get scheduled via with friends in China online at 11 p.m., friends in Boston online at 11 a.m., while here in Sweden we’re in the middle at 5 p.m.
We just spent a month living in a hotel in Sweden, where having a private meal by ourselves requires more work than just going out to a restaurant. Our summer is going to be similarly peculiar, because Frank has a new book coming out July 14 (A Beautiful Question, wonderful book if I say so myself.)
The quote that gave me a title from this blogpost is from a friend who is similarly location-challenged… but who DOES know where he will be on July 9, viz. “On July 9, I’ll be stuck in JFK airport for 5 hours, so that would be a good time for a Skype conversation.” How astounded my childhood self would have been by such dislocations!
Our grown-up rootlessness, our freedom to travel and adventure, is both sweet and bitter. It is sweet because our freedom comes not only from financial and personal privilege, but also from a sense that whenever Frank and I are somewhere together, we’re safe inside “family.” (This wouldn’t work, of course, if we weren’t confident that a few weeks will bring us back into connection with actual family back home.)
It is bitter because for us both, the “home” where we set our roots back in our childhoods… those homes are gone. The jolly family dinners that seemed so eternal as they repeated year after year… the houses of grandparents, aunts, uncles, multiple feisty cousins, almost as familiar as our own childhood bedrooms… if we could even find those houses now, strangers live there.
So, I also don’t know where I’ll be on July 11. Sometimes, I’m not even really sure where I am right this very moment.
Both these songs remind me of my brother Mark Devine (who died in 1998) — Mark never quite found a place on Earth that welcomed his big heart and maybe-too-bouncy spirit. Very, very early his imagination took off for some outer-space world of his own — only my mother’s hard work kept him still earth-connected as long as he stayed among us. It was not very long.
Mark, I have not forgotten you. So much that is best in me is what was best in you. So much that is worst in me is exactly what made you so angry with yourself so much too often.
Check ignition, and may God’s love be with you. Mine certainly is.
Lost in time, lost in space, lost in family matters? It seems strange to me that I found it much easier to keep this blog going when my life was complexified by way too much travel and squeezed by too many commitments to varied big projects.
Now I am hoping to have more time to be just plain myself, still fully a part of a wonderful family, but with more time, space, and brainspace to reinvent even more Betsys than I’ve already imagined.
This mountain laurel bush blooms every year in early July. Mickey planted it in memory of her cat Folly, who arrived in our family one similar but long-past summer.
Folly was an orphaned kitten, very small, a tigery-tabbyish caramel and white boy kitty whose malnourished hipbones felt very, very fragile through his baby fur. He loved food, he loved to play, and he loved people. He was the most dog-like cat I’ve ever known.
Something, we later found out, was wrong with his heart. The vet said it would be dangerous to give him the tiny dose of antihistamine other cats often receive as long-trip tranquilizers. Folly, she told us, would have to get valium. She wrote us a prescription with kitty-sized doses, and the pill bottle lived on a shelf of our medicine chest. “Valium … Folly” it said on the bottle of pills.
One morning, ten years ago maybe, I telephoned Mickey in Somerville from a NH Burger King parking lot (we have no phone up here and this was before we had cellphones). “How’s it going?” I rather inanely began.
“Not very well,” said Mickey, very softly. “Folly just died.” She woke up and he had just … died. He was still a young kitty but now he would never wake up. Oh, how sad we all were, to lose Folly. Beautiful dancing Folly, who loved to chase Mickey upstairs and down, Folly who loved to be patted and held, Folly who had even learned to turn a doorknob.
Now his body is here, and it will always be here, under the mountain laurel. And every July, it will bloom again, just to remind us.
In The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett, orphan Mary Craven lives in her strange uncle’s lonely mansion, set somewhere in Yorkshire. The moorland stretching for miles, its lambs and its flowers, the wind that “wuthers” all night, the broad Yorkshire accent — all these made a huge impression on my childhood, and I longed to know them all someday for myself.
It is wonderful to be here, finally. I believe that part of my real job as a grown-up is to discover or do (or refrain from doing) the special things my childhood self vowed to do someday, somehow — or never to do.
It was also funny, both ha-ha and peculiar, to discover just now that Burnett based her book on a house she loved somewhere in the southern counties, not Yorkshire at all. So that house will be a new goal for some new future journey.
I think I can speak for moms everywhere when I say:
“I speak for moms everywhere.”
Because, don’t we all? And anyway, who’s going to stop us?
We are the wearers of aprons, creators of plenty.
We confront nature’s Second Law of Thermodynamics every single day. On a good day, we send it upstairs to tidy its room. On a better day, it comes back downstairs smiling because it actually found that old photograph album it had not seen in a very long time.
I am in the throes, as you may be, of getting ready for the year’s toughest holiday, held in the darkest and coldest part of each year, girded with great expectations of loving and giving, haunted by fears of failure and isolation. Maybe that’s why I take courage from this summertime picture of a moment I stopped, halfway there, feeling tired but confident.
I am a mom, and I’ll be home for Christmas, in a hotel room somewhere on Long Island. Because wherever I am with my family is home.