The past is never where you think…

Cimarron County, Oklahoma 1936

The past is never where you think you left it — Katherine Anne Porter

 In San Francisco I keep my past in a trunk.  The trunk is old and barrel-topped, bound in copper patterned like crocodile skin, with a lock that has no key.   Each time I come back, I  pick the lock and rummage to see what I’ll find — a tray from the President of Mexico, given to me and every other foreign journalist there that year; my grandmother’s crocheted lace;  a necklace from Yasir Arafat’s sister (this is a personal gift); a blue vase made by a college friend in hospital after she tried to kill herself — fragments for which there is no present place but without which, mysteriously, I would be bereft.

The trunk has a past of its own — a fantasia of theft, requited love, and honour with a coda of small triumph.

It was given to me my mother’s friend S., a Dust Bowl refugee, an Okie,  whose life lay somewhere among songs by Woodie Guthrie and a Steinbeck novel.  “I thought chickens were only necks and wings ‘till I was about twenty,” he’d say.

He was a big man, married to a big woman.  They made their living “buying junk and selling antiques.”  The lot with the trunk contained, among other things, a three sided mirror, an 1890s book of pressed flowers, an old stove, $350,000 in securities, $42,000 in cash, and it sent S. to jail.  He’d bought the contents of a house where an old man had died without heirs; a bank had been given control of the estate.  While S. loaded his two tone Chevy pickup someone from the bank, in a grey suit as I remember,  searched everything for valuables.  The searcher skipped the stove — I think  he didn’t want to  get his hands dirty — and that was where the money was.

S. kept the money, feeling he had as much right to it as the bank. Enough people on  the jury agreed with him to deliver a hung verdict on the grand theft charge, but had to find him guilty of perjury. They’d all heard him lie about what he’d done with the cash.  When S. was led away to start his year in prison and we, his friends, were crying, the prosecutor walked across the courtroom, shook S.’s hand and smiled. “See you again,”  he said.

We hated him for that.

My mother and I visited S. every weekend and when S got out he wanted to leave his wife for her.  I think it was difficult, but she refused.  “I wouldn’t be as good a wife as the one he has.”

In the end, though, she did do something for S.  She humiliated the prosecutor.

I spent my last week of high school sitting-in to protest atom bomb testing in the Pacific.  We camped out in front of  the main post office, Joan Baez sang to us, and I missed my senior prom.  After a  week we were arrested for trespass. In those days peaceful protest was a right, arrest was optional and juveniles were routinely released.

My mother showed up at Juvenile Hall to reclaim me and was told I had to stay in jail.  The U.S. Attorney, the same man who had prosecuted  S. and by then  the first African American U.S. Attorney in the continental United States, had decided to charge us with a felony.   My mother was  so incensed she tracked him down, had him summoned over the loud speaker out of a San Francisco Giants game and got him to rescind the order.  We were freed that night, but I’ve always thought it was the victory for S. the Everyman.

My mother is sitting in the sun at the dining room table.  “Did you love S.?”  I ask.

“I don’t know any more.”  She closes her eyes.

Paradise as a library…

“I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.”  —  Jorge Luis Borges

In front of the house

The house I was raised in had a room called the library and it was, as befitted its name, filled with books.  The house needed repair and sat on a rutted dirt road close to the city limits.  Neighbors, few and far between, were blue-collar Italian and Irish Catholics.  They grew flowers or cut hair or worked for Southern Pacific Railroad or, these were the elite, served as firemen and policemen.   In fact, the policeman who killed the city mayor and a supervisor in the 1970s — because one was liberal and one was gay or because the policeman had been eating too much sugar — grew up just down the hill.

Our neighbors watched early television, went to mass, had light wall-to-wall carpets that were always clean, kept large ornate dolls with perfect hair and skirts made of lace spreading evenly over bedroom pillows, and had families that sat around the table at supper time facing each other.  No one lifted a fork until grace was said.  Our house was small and ramshackle; there were no carpets, TV came late, and when supper was ready my mother and I went to get our books to read while we ate.

Some  books were hidden at the height of the McCarthy hearings and I remember my mother’s fear when I found them and my fear when baby sitter said if I didn’t do what she said she would send my mother to prison and my mother saying yes, she could that.  But the books survived.

When we moved to the Haight Ashbury  — the Upper Haight it was called — on the cusp of the exuberant 60s, the library disappeared, but my mother kept reading.  Books by her bed: Native American history, modern novels, science fiction, nature studies, random essays, politics, short stories, and anything anyone handed her and suggested a look.  The books didn’t just sit, she read them cover to cover.

Recently, her reading became simpler: Carl Hiaasen, The Number One Ladies Detective Agency several times,  and whatever I brought her from the free box at Green Apple Books.

Not any more.

Ten days ago, having successfully reached the top floor after the heroic, arduous, hand over hand climb, she fell.  There were no injuries but no apparent cause. The emergency room doctor said they could do more tests or she could go home. Then he reached over and patted her hand, “I think you should go home.”

Her own doctor told us that perhaps it was time to have dessert before dinner if she wanted it or dessert instead of dinner if she wanted that, she could stay in bed all day if she so desired, but no stairs and maybe the hospice should pay us a visit.

At some point since, the reading stopped.  My mother lies in the new bed in the sitting room eyes closed or staring in front of her.  I’m not sure she understands what the doctors meant.  I want her to understand —  if she can, if she wants to —  because I would want to if it were me.

I sit on the bed next to her and take her hand.  Behind the bed is a wall of bookshelves, it has only the  books on folk music.

I look at them.  “What do you want to happen to them?” I ask.

It takes her a long time to say anything now.  Finally.  “I always thought I could take them with me.”

My mother and I are isolated…


shipyard arc welders lunching, 1943

My mother and I are isolated, but not alone.  The very old are everywhere, scattered over the landscape, worn and scraped but going still.   Common wisdom is that it is the duty of their children to keep them running.

This is an unexpected shower on the Baby-Boomer parade.  My generation which has had so much — Elvis, the Beatles, college educations, smoking and inhaling,  Timothy Leary, jobs, Andy Warhol, the Pill, Woodstock, owning their own homes, only one war  —  finds added to this cornucopia gems like the Boomers’ Guide to Ageing Parents and

I’m not sure I am a true Boomer; I was too early for that famous surge of post war euphoria. My mother’s first memory of my birth is people crying on the streets of Mexico City because President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was dead.  Her doctor wanted to attend an important horse race and used drugs to hurry me into the world.   It was two days before she recovered enough to really know I was there.   My mother and father met in New York when she as an arc welder in the wartime shipyards.  I am the daughter of a Rosie the Riveter.  My father was an artist in Greenwich Village who abandoned her before I was born.   After that, the offer of work in Mexico seemed a good idea.

I have another story from that time, not one my mother told;  it comes from a playwright who shared our pension in the heart of Mexico City.  Paris Siete was owned by the Aranals,  in-laws of the great Mexican muralist David Siquieros and were involved with him in the first, unsuccessful attempt to assassinate Leon Trotsky and probably the successful one that followed.  I think the assassination was a tragedy, but am impressed by my early proximity to shattering events.

The playwright befriended my mother because, although nursing me, she wasn’t given as much food as the other lodgers.  The Arenals, bless their Stalinist hearts, fed her less because she paid less.  Dear Karl Marx  (“from each according to his ability, to each according to his need”) must have spun in his grave.

Never mind, we’re here now.

My mother just lies on her bed or the couch most days, eyes closed or open, in the sun if it’s there. She smiles beatifically at visitors, tries to follow conversations, and drops in one liners when she can.

People are making me a repository of ageing parent stories.  The vet vaccinating my dogs tells me her ancient grandmother does nothing but sit at a table all day and stare sadly into space.  The vet’s father, who must walk the length of his Spanish village to do his duty as her carer, is dogged at every step by advice from neighbours on how  to make his mother happy again.

The owner of my local hardware store’s mother is almost the same age as my own and we’ve been exchanging information for some time.  His mother had a fall, breaking her pelvis and her hip,  but has made a complete recovery.  The conscientious Irish government sent home help to visit her.  His mother’s first response was invite the visitor to have a seat, “and I’ll make you a cup of tea, love.”

The Palestinian grocer tells me about his grandmother in Nablus.  Her husband divorced her and sent her to live with her grown children.  Broken by grief, everyday she loaded wood onto her head and walked back to her old home.  “I was sent to get her. Everyone knew her, it was okay.”

The stories from San Francisco are different.    “Of course he didn’t want to go.” “It was the hardest decision my sisters and I ever had to make, to put my mother in a home.” “We had to explain that everything can’t be perfect.”  “My mother wasn’t happy there, of course she wasn’t.”  These are good people, I know them, and I may have to do the same.  Are we really such a brutal place?

Outside there is the sun and it is the day of the Bay to Breakers race.  In true San Francisco fashion, the real object is to dress up.  I see a man in a toga go into the hamburger cafe.  Spidermen, Batmen, Ghost Busters pass in droves.  On the corner a group hold long poles with bird heads painted on top, swans probably, although they look like geese.  The bottom of the costumes, for both the men and women, is a tutu and a long, blue feathered tail.  Exquisite.

Near them is a bus shelter with a sign:  “Get unfreaked out by repossession.  Call 188-995-Hope.”   A few feet away a young man is rummaging in a white  plastic trash bin.  He throws things on the ground and once in awhile lets out a cry that sounds like a cartoon “aarrgh.”   He is thin and tall and handsome, with  neat red hair and a neat red beard.  Neither his skin or his layers of clothes have yet acquired that patina of grey, impregnable dirt.  He has not been on the street long.  He stops his search finally, circles three times stamping his feet and sits down.  He lights a cigarette butt, looks at it, lights another and studies them both.

I hear Patchen again: “Have you seen the homeless in the open grave of god’s hand?”