Leaf of the Tree

Finding the Divine in the Details


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In a full heart there is room

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Wertheim flowerbox photo: Jon Ring

Just like one of the characters in my novel, my mother had a Leap-Year birthday on February 29. As my sister and I remember her this year, I’m grateful to share a guest post from my sister that carries my mother’s voice — unmistakable to my inner ear, across years and the incomprehensible distance between this life and the next — in ways that leave my heart astonished.

It was captured at a time of unbearable loss, and unfathomable mystery, just the sort of atmospheres in which our mother knew how to accompany us.

 

Guest Post

By Tracey Edgerly Meloni

I need my mother.

I’m twelve years too late, but never have I needed her more than at this moment. Her last words to me were, “I’ll always be with you,” though I doubt either of us believed that she was being literal.

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Photo: Karen Olin Darling

This is not what I expected, this waiting for Bob, the last time I will see him in this hospital, the last time I will touch his hand, brush his lips with mine. Sometime between when a tinny voice called me in the middle of the night and when I arrived here, he was spirited away from his sterile ICU cubicle (now stripped and eerily empty) to this unknown room I am waiting to enter. The Visitation Room, they call it. Doctors, nurses, orderlies and general helpers bustle past; no one looks at me.

I am sitting in the Dead Zone, an awkward limbo to hospital personnel: the patient is no longer here, but has not yet left the building.

Don’t worry — you know they are getting him ready. And I will be with you.

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Painting, “Movement” by Diane Kirkup

Mum is here – that deliciously throaty voice, Helen Mirren meets Lauren Bacall, her Arden scent wrapping around me like her slender arms.

Yes, I do know, after years as a doctor’s wife,

I know about  “getting him ready.” Removing the tubes and wires, masking the bruises, the torn skin, the paddle burns; erasing that final image, the moment of knowing alarm, from his features. I’ve been there hundreds of times, but not with my Bob being the one readied. Definitely I am looking through the wrong end of the telescope.

Let’s go away somewhere for now – pick your happiest memory.

There were so many … let’s go with Turks and Caicos, 1987, before the Glitterati discovered it, when only one gas pump, a Club Med and the most glorious scuba diving in the hemisphere defined it. When torrid and wine-drenched afternoons were spent lying naked under the lazy ceiling fan …

thOK, enough … I am your Mum, after all, and you were a long way from married then … pick another memory.

In Venice, on the Grand Canal, in the bridal suite of the Regina-Europa, toasting Mum’s leap-year birthday at a time when no sane person goes to Venice.

Or in Cairo, having dinner at sunset on the Nile …

Or in Djibouti, where “Bombay Bob” gained fame on our 100-passenger explorer vessel for my dubious lyrics, to the tune of the old “Pretty Baby:”

“If you miss the final shuttle

Say GOODBYE, your cruise is scuttled,

In Djibouti today!”

Naked stuff there, too, yes?

483660_10151501579297641_2073824323_nThere, and everywhere.  Soul mates and best friends and … yes.

“Mrs. Meloni? You may come in now – and my condolences.”

Mum says nothing – For this, I must step forward on my own.

The room is ridiculous, chintz and lavender wallpaper and a rocking chair, as if I am welcoming him to the world, not saying goodbye.

He is clean, pink, scrubbed – no sign of the odious central line that became so infected, all evidence of his cracked chest,  ventilator, bedsores and other bodily harm hidden by an Amish quilt. Terrible music – Mantovani Mediocrity, elevator music – plays softly in the background. Tears, the unbidden, unattractive snotty-nosed kind, threaten.

No, no, no! We don’t cry for bad taste and worse music. Get everyone out of here and be alone with him – capture what you need.

I ask everyone to leave. I kiss his forehead, his earlobe, his neck. I slide off his wedding ring, knowing I will wear it on a chain around my neck, maybe forever. I marvel at his peaceful expression, so different from yesterday’s angst. I long to stroke all of him, but know that those days are over.

Never again will we lie naked together, under a lazy ceiling fan.

Some not-quite-a-nurse person hands me a plastic bag: the dead man’s stuff, no longer needed. Glasses and underwear and a book he never read about Cole Porter.

I think of his spider-quote from EB White: “and I … as spiders do, attach one single thread to you, for my returning …”

Mum

Peggy Wilson Edgerly, 29 Feb. 1920 – 4 Nov. 2000.

You’ve forgotten Antonio, she reminds me;  we both love Antonio Porchia, especially  in a full heart there is room for everything and in an empty heart there is room for nothing.”

I cock my head to one side, holding Bob’s hand gently, wondering what she will say, and if she will come back again.

She blows me away:

Man, when he does not grieve, hardly exists.

 

 A heart full of thanks to writer Tracey Edgerly Meloni

 

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“In times of war and deprivation …”

As scenes, and themes, of hunger envelop my current novel-in-progress, this writer’s Guest Post is a glimpse of history – and hunger – from the branches of our own family tree: th

The measure of a moral compass

By Tracey Edgerly Meloni

Nana’s last ration book, bilious green and brittle, is pasted to the inside cover of her journal. Rationing in the UK continued until 1954 – July 4 – and defined three generations of my family, for better or for worse. Now, it seems the hand of “democratic deprivation” touches – teaches? – six-year-old me.

Sample_UK_Childs_Ration_Book_WW2Holding it, feeling it, I am engulfed in memories that are not mine, but are as deeply embedded as if they were. All my short life I have heard about the evacuees from London and Birmingham that filled The Chantry, the Victorian Gothic-horror house where eventually I was born in England’s Lake District. Retold stories of GranNana “tsking” over the poor quality of coal available to heat the house while she supervised the hanging of “ill-fitting” blackout drapes, lamenting in her ladylike way the conversion of nearby Shap Wells resort into a POW camp for upper echelon German officers. I recall Nana joining the chorus: “We managed on one egg a week while the best provisions sailed past bound for ‘Those Germans’.”

My mother took up shooting rabbits for meat – “I’m not eating another revolting mouthful of bloody whale, and you’ll not convince me SPAM is meant to be eaten by humans. I’d rather wait for horsemeat.” 1601418_894304997248646_7548890421444550389_n

The “Land girls” made sure they – I can’t help but think “we” – had plenty of vegetables and developed recipes to make them palatable in the absence of butter and onions. Most treasured, and missed, were bacon, butter, cream and whole milk. Till the day they died, my forebear-women would not tolerate margarine, powdered milk or the dreaded peanut butter (used as a less-than-successful shortening in wartime baked goods).

Sharing the shortages was a red badge of courage. Rationing was good for all.

Mostly…

A Well Groomed and Tidy Land 86

Photo: Kathy Gilman

All the women spoke gleefully of the alligator shoes, a size too small, my mother found for 100 pounds (!!) on the black market. No one chastised Mr. Dixon-Hunter for siphoning petrol from unwitting hotel visitors. The tale of Rodney, the ill-gotten pig, hidden and slaughtered for a village Guy Fawkes Day feast, is still cheerfully ballyhooed.

Uncle Willie, my Godfather, who fought in a ghastly conflict no one mentions, sees my untutored ethical struggle. He smells of Pear’s soap and Players cigarettes and ginger. I love him very much.

tracey_edgerly_meloni“In time of war and deprivation,” he says earnestly, looking into my eyes, “our moral compasses may venture off true north.”

Years will pass before I grasp his meaning, but the words remained as indelibly etched as the brittle feel of the ration book.

 


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You CAN go home

 My thanks to writer Tracey Edgerly Meloni for this glorious journey of a Guest Post. Photo thanks to David Campbell of GBC Tours. While the shots may not be Bordeaux, I think they embody the atmospheric rightness, just the same.

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Photo: David Campbell / http://GBCTours.com

You Can Go Home Again

by Tracey Edgerly Meloni

I am driven to return to the far-flung places where I lived so briefly, first as an Army brat and then as a Navy wife. Going back to childhood homes has become a quest, to see if the things I “remember” are my own memories, or if I’ve just heard my parents tell stories so often that I believe I remember them.

Even when dealing with my adult memories, I’ve learned that nothing ever stays the same.  Barbers Point, in Hawaii, felt obscenely festive in the late ‘60s when I waited there alone during Vietnam. It took returning to realize that we “Wanda Warbrides” were working hard to maintain morale. The quarters at Riverview Village in Indian Head, Maryland, where my husband practiced not blowing himself up in EOD training, had vanished like Atlantis when I re-visited.

So I was anxious about going back to Bordeaux, where I began school when my Dad was assigned to the 529th Transportation Depot. I already knew that my childhood home outside Pessac was long gone, and that any American military presence had disappeared from French soil years before – what did I really hope to find?

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Photo: David Campbell / http://GBCTours.com

We sailed up the Garonne River, past some of France’s most celebrated Chateaux and vineyards. I squinted at the glorious passing scene, searching for puzzle pieces to trigger memory. Suddenly we were there, gliding up to dock directly in front of the Place de la Bourse and the wonderful 18th century limestone buildings lining the Quai. Our shipboard verandah looked right up the narrow pedestrian Rue Saint Remi, where long ago my parents shared a peculiar little bird for dinner while I munched happily on bread and cheese.

I need not have worried. The memories of a six-year-old are carved in bedrock, and they flooded back as the landscape around me unfolded.

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Photo: David Campbell / http://GBCTours.com

From there it was a short mental hop to the school, where all students were divided into two rooms, with only four teachers. I was the sole first grader. The harassed lower-grade teacher looked at me sternly and demanded, “Can you read?” I nodded solemnly. “Good,” she said, “you’re in second grade.” Thus my very first school challenge became fathoming the making of change using American coin references – nickel, dime, penny, quarter – while all we had to practice with was “pretend” Scrip. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays we had franks and beans for lunch. Tuesdays and Thursdays featured Franco American spaghetti, all washed down by “vin ordinaire” diluted with fizzy water brought along by French children invited to join us.

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Chateau Grand Barrail

I remembered that Bordeaux was my introduction to a less than perfect world. There were mice living in the mattresses at “Tu et You,” the whimsical name applied to our odd little gatehouse by the Frenchwoman and her American officer husband who lived there before us.   Huguetta-the-maid scraped snails off the walls of the well and crushed them under her heel to eat. And, alas, that well was foolishly located downhill from our dubious cesspool, leading to repeated bouts of dysentery for all of us.

Bordeaux also was my introduction to an exciting world. My mother insisted that we learn to speak the language wherever we were, and I learned terrible gutter French from orphaned children I befriended along the waterfront. I used it to order wonderful marzipan candies shaped like vegetables in the marketplace. With my mother, I would order meat from the butcher with the horse’s head over the door, not realizing until years later what it was. And I spent what seemed like hours debating which pastries to select at our favorite patisserie.

On my recent return, I let the memories rule. I erased the hideous architectural monstrosities growing up among Bordeaux’ gracious historic buildings and concentrated on the soaring spire of St. Michel’s church. I stayed away from horsemeat and had lunch in Chateau Grand Barrail, a highly acclaimed hotel once built to house the mistress of a nobleman. And I went back to the site of the Officer’s Club where Christmas dinner was served to everyone in those divided mess trays, with gravy on your pie.

tracey_edgerly_meloniWhat did I hope to find? Just my memories, but I got much more. I got reacquainted with my early self, made sturdy by my Brats experience.

Not only can you go “home” again – you really should.

Writer Tracey Edgerly Meloni won first prize in Ingenue Magazine’s short-story contest when she was 14 and just kept on writing. Her most recent award is a first place in feature writing from the Virginia Press Association. Formerly press secretary to three California Congressmen and Virginia’s senior Senator, she contributes regularly to several magazines, writing about food, health, the arts, and travel.

 


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A sistership of only-child hoods

What a pleasure to share a Guest Post this week from one of my favorite writers, who just happens to also be my closet relative. 🙂

The Note and the Nail-Bite

by Tracey Edgerly Meloni

800px-Nail_in_a_block_of_woodBarefoot, I stepped on a nail the night my sister was born. To this day, the damned thing can throb like hell with little provocation.

We were both only children, she and I. Born ten years apart, we shared six pretend years together, me playing the part of long-suffering-if-resentful babysitter to my not-really mutinous barnacle charge. It wasn’t cool to let friends, or (God forbid!) parents, know that from the moment she arrived (late, as would be her course through life, a yin to my neurotically early yang), I was besotted. She had a little squished heart-shaped face and liked to head-butt. She was tawny, golden, trusting, with starfish-shaped hands, her eyes navy blue lapis put in by some god with sooty fingers. I heard my orders from a Higher Power, beyond parents, to guide this little person safely past the treacherous shoals of childhood.

I felt almost apologetic for my own childhood, which I viewed (correctly) as an enormous household inconvenience, something to be conquered quickly and forgotten, like chicken pox or diarrhea. With the arrival of “Phylsey,” as she was nicknamed, I seized the opportunity to Be Older, taking charge of her needs, protecting her from my own tadpole experience. 1244s-2T

Phylsey hardly ever spoke – she relied on me to interpret for her. “Mocha, mocha, mocha” meant “milk”; “Munga, Munga, Munga” meant “Morgan”, the forlorn, floppy and filthy stuffed dog toy that accompanied her everywhere.

But suddenly I was 17, ignorant of the havoc casually wrought by Life’s selfish mistress, Change. After graduation from Würzburg American High School in Germany, college and a scholarship beckoned an ocean away. Of course I went, and eagerly — I was even impatient at the sight of Phylsey’s sad little face on the dock in Bremerhaven, Germany, waving a tentative goodbye as my ship prepared to sail. Before I boarded, she pressed a note into my hand, with the solemn admonition not to open it until I was “home.”

Once at sea, I made a valiant effort to put them all out of my mind and have some fun. There were 22 of us going home to college alone, 11 boys, 11 girls, 10-day voyage – groovy!

USS6a00d834543b6069e20147e262b8ef970b-640wiMy memories of the trip are both clear and chaotic – some of them flow along in order and others are seen through a tumbling kaleidoscope.  Diane, one of my roommates, decided she had fallen in love on board with a guy named Dave. She gave him a copy of her graduation picture signed “Love, Diane.” Wouldn’t you just know he ended up rooming next door to her old boyfriend at Johns Hopkins – one of them broke the other one’s nose, but I forget who won.

Me, I met a guy named Ray, on his way to pharmacy school. How we were smart enough to know that we wanted to be just friends I’ll never know, but we did. There were teen dances every night in a little-used function room. Turned out Ray and I danced together brilliantly – we won every contest.

We also were the only souls who made it to dinner one night, as the ship crashed through the remnants of a tropical storm in the turbulent Atlantic.  Like me, Ray just got hungry. Our respective roommates were moaning below, and we quickly learned to stay away from them. th

We all played hearts most afternoons, a game I’d never played before and don’t remember now. But on that crossing into a new life, I could not lose.

On the last night, we had a talent show, a final, frenetic burst of bravado, none of us wanting to think about what lay ahead. I forget what my act was.

In the morning, no one said goodbye. We just drifted to our respective planes and trains. Ray took me to my train. On the way, we passed a sign for Würzburger Hofbrau Beer and had our picture taken by it. Then he waved me aboard, and was gone.

Suddenly I was as alone as I have ever been. Home to a “brat” meant wherever Dad’s assignment took us, whatever friends rotated in with us.  Thirty minutes after the movers left, Mum made wherever we lived home in a way that had nothing to do with neighborhoods and permanence. Now I, who graduated with a class of only 30 after more than a dozen moves, was going to be one of 25,000 full-time students, most of whom had spent their whole lives with the same friends in one town. Phyllistooth-2-233x350

The “nail bite”, as I called my foot-wound that ushered my sister into the world, throbbed, making me rub it and think of her little face, now wearing owlish glasses that magnified her already-huge eyes, her gap-toothed smile always at the ready for me.

I remembered her note and opened it. A 6-year-old’s unschooled scrawl said just:

“Rite Sune.”

And I was home.

tracey_edgerly_meloniWriter Tracey Edgerly Meloni won first prize in Ingenue Magazine’s short-story contest when she was 14 and just kept on writing. Her most recent award is a first place in feature writing from the Virginia Press Association.

Formerly press secretary to three California Congressmen and Virginia’s senior Senator, she contributes regularly to several magazines, writing about food, health, the arts, and travel.

Her sister, formerly known as “Phylsey”, happens to know that she’s also one fine cook of elegant, irresistible vegetarian cuisine.