Things You See and Can’t See in a Picture

 

I love this picture. Me and my brothers: Poland, 1976, Wroclaw Zoo.

Johnny is on the left with his European man bag. Adam on the right with his 3 tone flare jeans that would have made any Bee Gee jealous. Neither carried this through in their adult life except for maybe when Adam spent $60 (could have it been closer to $100?) on a pair of parachute pants with all its zig zaggy zippers in the early 80s. My mother stroked out in the kitchen from price shock. I love the way the picture is cut off right at John’s bowl-cut hairline. It was the same kind of straight.  John turned out to be more the Hulk pants wearing type than one to don a satchel. I’m in the white and red dress, age 3, in my mother’s favorite color scheme: The Polish National Flag.

Other than beige, this was my mother’s favorite color combination that added pride or umph to any celebration like the time our Christmas tree was decorated in white lights and all red ornaments in the 80s. I remember how dazzled my mom’s eyes looked when she plugged in the Christmas lights. Her eyes so deeply absorbed in the tree, it was if she was seeing something I could not see.

I wonder if she was homesick.

In later years, when my Dad passed me a twenty dollar bill and asked me to pop into Wood Bros. Flowers, I knew what he wanted: white and red Carnations for Mom. My mother loved carnations. Perhaps more so than expensive roses that might too easily disappoint with drooping buds and whose full glory of bloom depended too much on chance. Carnations on the other hand lasted forever. Although when there were times a garden rose made it to the kitchen table and unfurled its many fragrant layers, she would cup it in her hands like the face of a small child and say in Polish, Look!

These are things that run through my mind when I look at this picture.

That and what I would come to know years later, that we were back in Poland because my Dad became increasingly sick. A kind of sick Doctors still didn’t have tests for. One with no medicine. A kind of sick that would likely involve paralysis and make my Dad unable to walk. The US doctors said it was Multiple Sclerosis.

They went back to their own country to hear it in their own language. My Dad was 35, Mom 38.

I look at this picture and think about where our minds were; for us, probably nothing more than the zoo. My brothers proudly sported their new gold watches and I felt the bounce of air from a twirling dress and knee highs, our backs to the giraffes, tired from our day. For my parents, it was something else entirely.

So much lay ahead for all of us.

But here we were. Relaxed. Waiting. In it together.

The Asking and the Doing

There is always something that needs to be installed, fixed, filled out, moved, hauled, or arranged at my parents’ house. I grit my teeth. I roll my eyes. I help. I proclaim lack of skill. Can’t (insert brother’s name) do it? I do what I can, sometimes it’s a quick and happy fix, other times the task is so tedious I dread having to do it, like reading and translating medical insurance manuals.

And it never fails, I will have one foot out the door and my Dad will call my name.

“Yeah Dad?”

“I was hoping you could install the thermometer outside.”

“NOW?”

“Well…oh skip it,” his gentle voice trails off.

I let go of the door handle and think for a minute.

“Can I do it when I get back?”

“Okay. I don’t wanna bother you.”

“I promise Dad, I’ll do it when I get back.”

“Do you have enough Petrol in the car?”

“Yeah I do. Thanks Pops.”

I think he asked about the thermometer a dozen times before that. It seems like such a small thing to get around to since they already have one in the kitchen. This one is for the bedroom window. Dad likes to know the temperature inside and outside. With his paralysis from MS, it’s a connection to the outside elements.

I get back from my errand and listen to his plan. I try to convince him that tiny sensor cord (digital) can get “a little smushed” between the window pane and the sill.

He doesn’t like this idea. I should know better than to think “a little smushed” would suffice. He proposes that I drill a small hole into the metal frame work of the window and thread the sensor through.

“Dad, that’s too complicated. I’d have to borrow a drill.”

I go outside to see what I’m dealing with. We talk back and forth and settle on nestling the thermometer in between the windows. I don’t have to drill. The cord does not need to be pinched.

He tilts his head right and left.

“Very nice. Thank you.”

For all the untimely requests, boring insurance literature to read through, phone calls to make, thermometers to install, I get the glimmer of the gift now: The asking and the doing.

It’s what captures time in a net.

Innocence Revisited

 

When do you grow up according to your parents? Maybe never.  When I go home to visit, I find I’m 16 again, even though I’m approaching 40.  High school revisited.

But this now, what was then?

The start of maturity can be awkward.

In high school all the girls I knew shopped at Victoria’s Secrets.  Buying expensive underwear was like announcing you were President of your own fan club.  And in high school, you know how important that is…My mother didn’t quite understand the lure of paying 3 times the amount for a pair of cotton underwear with the store name written around and around on the elastic waistband.

“But Mom,” I argued, “It’s a NAME BRAND.”

“Who cares?” she replied, “Who’s going to be looking at your Gloria’s Secret?”

“VICTORIA’S!”

“Oh. Victoria’s”

That winter I came home with a life-size Christmas stocking that my boyfriend filled with every imaginable present I could want. This was the stocking of all stockings!   It included one of my most favorite gifts ever given to me- a pair of Reebok sneakers.  My favorite, because he knew I wanted a pair. My favorite, because he got my size right without asking. What can I say about these practical sneakers except that I felt loved. I re-opened every goodie box to show my mom his generosity.

In my haste and excitement, I opened the Victoria Secret’s box too. “And he got me this…” I said, pulling out the see-through peach lace bodysuit.

 I held it up and I looked at my mother through it.

Me looking at my mother. My mother looking at me.

Both of us just blinking.

Tactical Operations

Brigadier General Ciocia Felicia is an expert in tactical operations involving basement mice, squirrels eating bird food and woodchuck infiltration. No rodent too big. No rodent too smart. She will find its weakness. She will persist.

I bought my father a birdfeeder for Christmas a few years back for the new ranch house they bought. In the winter, it replaces the potted plant that hangs on a free-standing hooked stake in the backyard.

“Give the poor birds some food, will you?” Dad said when it was running low and I was over for a visit. I followed the narrow footpath in the snow and poured the seeds from the top until they gently started to spill over the lip. As soon as I left, a squirrel started pecking at the seeds that had fallen to the ground. Within minutes, it had shimmied up the pole and then hung upside down on the hook like a miniature acrobat. It swung towards the birdfeeder and knocked the seeds onto the ground.

Taking in the scene through the kitchen table window, Ciocia muttered, Skurczy Byk! Shriveled Bull! Not a swear word exactly, but not a phrase for polite company either. It can also be translated as Crouching Bull! Either way, I think you know what you could insert there in English.

The squirrel came back again and again. It was the same one. We knew that because it had an unusual white tipped tail. 

Also not their actual squirrel

 

The window banging started again.

“Can we try to act a little normal in this house?” I asked. Dad shrugged his shoulders and continued to read the paper.

When I came back home the next time, I heard about Felicia’s offensive.

She greased the base of the hook with Olive oil. I imagine that she stood by the window like a patient sniper waiting for her target to approach. And because the story was recounted so many times, I can tell you that the little fury acrobat started up with gusto and then promptly slid down the pole.

In my mind there were sound effects.

On the scoreboard of Ciocia vs. squirrel, she finally scored one for the team. Then I think the squirrel bought some Isotoner gloves because it managed to grip its way back up the pole again.

So our #1 Rodent General took the birdfeeder off the hook and ran a thin thread between the hook and the small flowering tree. The feeder bowed slightly in between. Ciocia was convinced this was better because she had picked an especially strong but thin thread. A thread that was too thin for the squirrel’s body to balance on. That turned out to be true, but the squirrel realized that instead of trying to walk on the line, it would flip upside down and grip the line from underneath like some scene from Mission Impossible.

It got to the seed again. Felicia got back to planning again.

This is the little dance that goes on between them.

Why bring up the woodchuck and squirrel stories? Because it occurred to me that this is what we must do.

You have to die trying.