The pleasures of writing memoir

In my job I tutor all kinds of students, but most of the writing they show me is academic writing and their questions are about how to do it, improve it, and understand it.  Last week I was surprised by two students who were working in a border genre of academic writing meets creative non-fiction. It was such a pleasure to listen to them and read bits of their work. I was motivated to open up a document I wrote in 2014, a short memoir. I was guided in my writing by a book on women’s memoir. Unfortunately, I cannot remember the title or author, but I do remember that her suggestion was to write using topics, not chronology as a guide. One chapter, for example, is on “birth and beginnings” in your life. Another one is on “body language.” And so on.  I liked this approach, and I produced around 80 pages in a few weeks. I tucked it away and forgot about it until recently. Here are the first few pages. img_1451-1

Prologue

A sunny protected courtyard with high whitewashed walls. The courtyard is scattered with easels, and small children wearing paint-splashed smocks stand before the easels, brushes in their hands, intent on making marks in bright colours on the cheap newsprint. Dave Brubeck’s jazz is floating over the scene. Branches of a mountain ash tree, resplendent with clusters of orange jewel-berries, hang over the edge of the courtyard wall. The feeling is one of serenity and innocence, yet zinging with the subtle undertone of jazzy, creative energy.  This memory is lodged deep inside my bones, and I don’t even know if it is a memory of something that really happened in my life, perhaps at nursery school, or a dream, or a scene I imagined in waking life. But it doesn’t really matter, in the end. It stands for the best of life to me—childlike open curiosity and freedom to create, the improvisation and airiness of jazz, sun on white walls, signalling the unlimited joy we can feel, the beckon of the blank slate that we mark with our spirit. I want this scene at the beginning of my life story, and I hope it passes before me as I die.

Chapter 1 – Births and beginnings

Birth—my story goes like this. My parents and two older sisters lived in Berkeley, but my mother arranged specially for me to be born at Kaiser Hospital in Walnut Creek because they had “rooming in,” a fresh new concept in 1958. Your baby could room in with you instead of being relegated to the big nursery of Plexiglas cribs filled with pink and blue swaddled bundles.  Rooming in would make it easier for mother and baby to breastfeed and bond.  But the plan was upended. My father took my two older sisters, 18 months and three years, trick or treating on a rainy evening, October 31, 1958, while my mother, lonely, I imagine, and feeling unwell, laboured and gave birth to me. I was whisked away from her and she didn’t see me for 24 hours as she recovered from some virus they didn’t want me—the newborn—exposed to.  So best laid plans of women often go awry (with apologies to Robbie Burns).

Perhaps I should take that as important information about my life—don’t make elaborate plans, as they are sure to fall apart at the last minute?  I look at that blurry old photo of me, tummy down, in that nursery crib of acrylic glass, my face squashed, and I imagine the suffering there. No skin to skin contact, no bonding or gazing into my mother’s eyes. No breast at all, not even one suck. I was bottle fed from birth. I would like to call my mother and ask for some details, but there is a bruised quality to our relationship right now. I imagine her getting very defensive, touchy about those details I would probe for: What illness did you have?  Were you terribly sad when you couldn’t see me, hold me?  Did you feel the loss?

So I imagine a lonely beginning to my life and loneliness for her as well…no soft breast to suckle me, only the discomfort of rock hard engorgement. A new birth marked by loss. But there were two other children to see to, and not much time or money. So not a time of abundance. Rather, of scarcity. I have never thought of my birth this way before, as a time of loss, but perhaps this inured me to getting less than expected, to ask for less, to settle for less, and to pretend it doesn’t matter.

Many people remark with curiosity that I was born on Halloween. “What was that like?”  Perhaps my propensity to feel bereft and envious grew from that first night of my birth. My sisters were out getting candy, trick or treating, other babies getting the breast…I was getting nothing. No candy, no colostrum. Poor me. The night in the Wiccan calendar when the veil between two worlds is at its thinnest…perhaps I feel closer to that mystery now, although my affinity for the metaphysical was well closeted for almost 50 years.

I had a turn toward the melancholy as a youngster. Photos show me looking sad or scowling, and perhaps I cultivated that persona. But why? When my smile was so brilliant and beautiful, and I could have plucked joy like plucking a low hanging fruit?  But it took me awhile to paste on that frown. It was not always so.

I love a photograph of me at the kitchen table in student housing in Berkeley, my first home.  I am sitting in one of those 1950s chrome and plastic high chairs—the simple kind you pull up to the table: no trays or gadgets or even straps.  The profile shot has me turning in the chair to face the camera, one hand grasping the side of my chair and my plump little leg and bare foot tucked under me. The other hand clenches the end of a piece of toast and brandishes it in the air, and the plate in front of me has a few crumbs of scrambled egg left. I have this big lovely open grin on my face. I look to be around one year old, my dark happy eyes gaze at the picture taker with love, my tongue is just at my lips which are slightly open and upturned. I have a thatch of glossy hair atop my square-ish head and my demeanor says I am joyful and ready for the day! I love to check out this picture of me to remind me that my sad-sack self that persisted through childhood and adolescence (and beyond) was a construction—that I am and was equally able to be joyful, present, happily alive in the moment, ready for anything, loving, accepting, energetic.

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Elephant Man Comes Out

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Another hot dream. I woke in a sweat. My chest felt sticky, my erection painful. Sal’s big body had crowded me all night. Sometimes her broad back against me felt like a dam pinning my pent-up life force. I got up quickly and had a shower, and when she got up, eye-smudged and groggy to get the baby, I was efficient, even curt as I passed her a cup of coffee.  She was fat and innocent and I felt like a shit.

I knew my son had a birthday party to go to that day—Saturday August 27, 11 to 1. Every time I went to open the fridge for the last two weeks, I’d seen that invitation emblazoned with bright balloons, stuck under an anti-bullying magnet. I realized then I’d been seeing 11 to 1 as a bit of an escape. I vaguely knew the boy, Liam, and the family. I met them once at a La Leche League picnic—a group of earnest people I feel no connection to, even though my wife is a leader.

She sat by the window breastfeeding the baby, one hand around a mug and the other cupping her enormous brown breast. Propped into the crevasse between her big belly and her thigh, the baby applied suction to the hidden nipple, and around that little mouth, working rhythmically, spread the puckered aureole of my wife’s breast, stippled with long black hairs like a dunce cap askew the vast mound of veined flesh.

“I’ll take Pete to the party, “ I said, looking away from her bare breast and out the window to the silent green park, dotted white with seagulls.

“Oh, okay. I was going to….” the baby gurgled and farted and with a little cry came off the breast. My wife fussed with her, repositioning the flannel-wrapped sausage back onto the long damp nipple.  “You can have some time to yourself with the baby” I said, watching one large seagull open his wings.

Pete was playing Lego in his bedroom. “Hey kiddo, I’m taking you to Liam’s party. We’re leaving in half an hour.”

Pete looked up at me, serious brown eyes in his pudgy face, a lollipop stick protruding from his dark lips.

“Where the fuck did you get a lollipop?”

“Lady at the grocery store,” he mumbled.

“Give it to me,” I opened my hand, “now.”

“No” said Pete, arching away. Little shit looked at me, defiant eyes, wild crinkly hair framing his fat face, a line of purple syrup dribbling from his mouth. He looked demented.  Sometimes I looked at that kid and thought “he’s mine?”

“Whatever,” I said turning my back. Losing battle. Genes. My wife was fat, my kid getting fat, even the baby had rolls of podge.  And today there would be more sugar—a cake and ice-cream, goody bags. Jesus.

Liam lived in a little stucco house a block away from an elementary school. The front steps and door were shabby, a stack of old newspapers moldering in the corner and a bag of garbage sitting atop the stack, like nobody had the energy to get this stuff into the bins down in the driveway.  Sometimes homeschoolers were like that. Home all day with their kids, yet can’t get it together to do simple chores.

The door opened. Lily, the mother, beamed her smile. Pete shoved his gift into Lily’s hand and darted around her, yelling “Liam, Liam! Where are you?”

“Sorry, he’s really excited,”

“Oh, no worries! Liam’s excited too.”

We stood there together at the door entry, her smile lessening a little at the corners as she jiggled a baby on her hip.

“I’m Lily, by the way.”

“Oh, yes, Nils.” As both of her small hands were occupied, we both looked at my outstretched hand and laughed.

“Well, are you just dropping him, then? Or do you want to stay?”  she asked.

I hesitated. “Well if you don’t mind.”

I hadn’t thought about what I would actually do from 11 to 1. For some reason a coffee at Starbucks with yesterday’s Globe spread before me seemed sad. Maybe I’ll stay and observe how the other half lives.

“Oh come in, come in,” she chimed, leading me into the living room, decorated with streamers. Scuffed, coloured boxes of toys lined one wall, bookshelves lined the other, and two big sagging sofas faced each other like old drunks.

“Coffee?” she called back to me as she started to fill a kettle.

“Sure, that would be nice.”

“My husband is just finishing up some balloon blowing in the rec room—it’s a secret game so don’t say anything to the kids. I’ll keep the game a secret from you, too! You’ll love it” she chuckled.

And then she did the most remarkable thing:  She shifted the grizzling baby from her hip into the crook of her arm, lifted her t-shirt to expose an alert pink nipple, slid the baby onto it, then cradled the egg head with her splayed hand—all in a series of expert moves.

I felt embarrassed then, to have watched her virtuosity with such curiosity, so I quickly turned away to look out the large windows wrapping the kitchen nook, onto the compost heap in the back, just in time to see a shiny rat running across the debris with an apple core in his mouth.

More kids started to arrive with their parents, but none of the other parents stayed. They seemed eager to be free of their children for a couple of hours. People hugged one another and handed off gifts in loud voices at the crowded doorway, as if insisting on how much they loved family life. Children, all boys, were running around the small house, yelling and laughing.  I sat safely in the kitchen nook where I had holed up, nursing a cup of coffee, watching, listening, feeling my gut loosen, my mind soften. The children’s shouts seemed far away.

Liam’s father emerged from the basement with another child—a toddler. So they had three kids?  Wow.

“Hello,” he approached me with a lopsided grin, hand outstretched.

“Oh hello, I’m Nils, Pete’s dad” I half rose from the nook to shake hands with this gangly man.

“I’m Liam’s dad, Miles. Just finished the one-hundredth balloon, and I’m knackered,” he laughed, blowing a raspberry from puckered lips in a demonstration of the work he’d been busy at below.

Pretty soon the birthday party started to take on a shape. Lily and Miles organized the kids in the living room and announced there would soon be a soccer game in the schoolyard, followed by lunch and cake and presents and finally a special game in the basement—a secret! Then goody bags and good-byes at 1 o’clock.  The kids swarmed and pushed each other and shook the wrapped gifts piled onto one of the couches.

I sat in the kitchen nook, feeling quite proprietorial by now.  I liked this corner. It felt safe.  The kitchen table was strewn with used coffee cups, a colouring book and crayons, a stack of library books in one corner. The other adults had things in hand—there was nothing to do. My son was taken care of. I liked the coffee made from beans from a local roastery. It was strong with real cream.  I liked the big panel of windows behind me. I could turn my head and see the narrow yard with a rusty play gym and the compost pile, home to happy rats. I could see the sagging homemade cake perched atop the fridge, the goody bags lined up on the top shelf in the Ikea-styled kitchen.  The sun had come out and I felt the warmth on my neck and a pleasant breeze from the open window beside me.  The kids’ voices seemed as if they were coming from a distant country in another language.  I liked the feel of the smooth cushion under my bare thighs.

Miles shepherded the kids out the door with a soccer ball in one hand and holding the hand of his toddler with the other. He managed everybody in his gentle tenor, punctuated by chuckles: “C’mon guys, it’s not far, just a block, but let’s all stay together now! Last one there is a green frog,” and then he hopped like a frog for a few meters while the boys shrieked at him.

Lily stood at the open door, watching them go, jiggling the baby, talking softly.

“Oooh look at Daddy going bye-byes and all the kids. See your brothers?”      Then she turned abruptly, flushed, “Oh I’m sorry, did you want to go with them? Go play soccer? I’m sure Miles could use the help. . . .” she trailed off.

“No, no, actually I’m really enjoying sitting here, if you don’t mind. I don’t often get to just sit. It’s very relaxing.”

“Oh, yes, of course,” she smiled. The baby’s eyes were closed and it leaned into her small breasts.

“I’m just going to put her down for a nap. Perfect timing, really,” she said, and padded down the hall to the dark nethers of the house, no doubt piled with cloth diapers, toys and more toys, precarious towers of books on attachment parenting  beside the messy bed.

I leaned back into the cushioned nook, my hands on my thighs, feeling peaceful after the roiling night, feeling my breath go in and out.  I pulled the stack of library books closer and—with a quiver—recognized the title on the spine of the bottom book. A Boys Own Story, by Edmund White.  What are the chances! I pulled it from the bottom, and looked at the cover, a beautiful bronzed teenage boy in a tank top, his sharp profile framed by dark messy locks. A book I had finished only a week ago. What are the chances of us both reading this somewhat obscure 1982 memoir by the same guy who wrote The Joy of Gay Sex? Or maybe Miles was the one who had taken it out of the library? That would be even weirder. Feels like a sign.

In the opening scene, White describes, in erotic detail, how he, 15, and a young visitor to his summer cottage, 13, fuck each other every night in a narrow cot, with the boy’s younger brother asleep in a cot beside them.  Some of the lines had kept coming back to me, stirring me, after I read it.

I opened the book and found the page.  “Now that he’d completely relaxed I could get deeper and deeper into him.”

I registered tingles in my groin area.

And then I skipped down to this:  “‘I’m getting close,’” White said to the other boy. “‘Want me to pull out?’

‘Go ahead,’” the boy said “‘Fill ‘er up.’”

Oh sweet Jesus. This kid welcomes the rush of ejaculate into his butt like a tank welcoming the flow of gas—my God that made me horny. As I re-read these lines, I felt my prick start to thicken. I closed the book, but continued to hold it in my hands, touching it almost tenderly now, recognizing again how much yearning it had stirred in me.

After a minute or two, Lily padded back down the hall, toward me, smiling.

“Out like a light.  I’ve got to get the lunch ready for the kids, but just sit there—it’s fine.”

I had made no move to get up to help her. I just smiled broadly, fully relaxed now, holding the book in my hands.  Was it something about this messy house, the coincidence of the book, her open smile, the drone of lawnmowers on nearby lawns, the caffeine buzz in my head, the arousal that made every pore a thirsty mouth?

Lily started to pull things out of the fridge – mustard and ketchup in plastic squeeze bottles and packages of wieners.

“I bought both meat hot dogs and tofu hot dogs because I happened to know some of the kids are vegetarian, including ours” she said brightly, with an inquiring look on her face as if to say “and what about you and yours?”

“Oh, we all eat meat,” I said. “But I’m not sure how much real meat is in those things,” I laughed.  And then lifted the book up to show the cover.
“Did you like White’s memoir?”

“Oh my god, so good!” she said, putting two pots of water to boil on the stove and fumbling around for scissors to cut open the plastic packages of wieners.  “Have you read it?” she looked over her shoulder at me.

“Yes, just recently. It seems such a coincidence that you have, too.”

“Oh, I belong to a book club, and we’re doing a year of memoirs, actually. It was my turn to pick, and I was at a loss. So my brother, who’s gay, was here for dinner and raved about it. So I figured—let’s give it a try!”

And here my voice took a leap out into the warm air.

“The opening chapter—that was brilliant. I read it more than once” I said, feeling a blush creep up my neck. “Every time, I got hard as a rock.” Nervous laughter. There was no turning back now. It was out there, hanging in the air, that boys having sex made me hard, this thing that had rolled around inside me, a lump deep in my gut, a greasy red coil that fueled my erections every morning.  I wondered if her back had stiffened a little, hearing it, or did I imagine that? Practice, I told myself. Practice this. Don’t expect approval, man. Don’t expect anything.

“Sorry, Lily. That was TMI, I know.”

She turned square, facing me, wiping her hands on her cut-offs.

“Not at all,” she laughed. “Do you know, I felt aroused by that scene too? Don’t you think we’re all polymorphously perverse? Freud was really onto something.”

That got me sitting up at attention. “But did you know Freud said that it is under the influence of seduction that children became polymorphously perverse, just like so-called bad women are swayed to perversion by seducers. He did not approve. To him polymorphously perverse was a distortion of sexuality.  You know he was a product of his time—a real prude.”

“Hmm,” she sat down across from me. “How do you know so much about him?”

“Oh, Freud has held some fascination for me over the years.”

She looked at me quizzically, then got up, went to the stove, and started to lift the pots to drain the dogs.  “I’ll put these to keep warm in the oven. Help me get the cake finished? I haven’t frosted it yet.”

“Okay, sure.”

“Tell me more about Freud, you dark horse,” she said.  “Or, actually, tell me more about getting hard from reading Edmund White.” She looked me in the eye. “Seriously, I don’t judge.  I don’t tell. I am an impartial listener. And I grew up with gay.” Then she laughed and started to lay tofu dogs on a cookie tray.

“I’ll take it,” and I joined her laughter.

* * *

When Miles and the kids returned from the soccer field, Lily and I were working side by side putting the hot dogs into buns, pouring juice into glasses.  “How did it go?” Lily called, and Miles, in response, came up behind her, sliding his arms around her.

“Fun, fun, fun. We’re hungry, baby.”

Pete rushed up and punched me in the leg.

“Why’re you here, Dad? You’re the only one. The only parent. You can go now” he said, his dark brow furrowed by the anxiety anything out of the ordinary produced in him.

“It’s okay, Pete, I’ve just been hanging out with Liam’s mom, helping her.” Pete seemed to accept this explanation, and soon there was just the blur of kids eating hot dogs, and then the singing of Happy Birthday, and cake, and Liam tearing gift wrap off of boxes of Lego, a book, some juggling pins, a sketch book. I had reclaimed my nook, and I watched the proceedings, all of it a bit surreal. I could not take back what was said, nor did I want to.

Lily was deep into being a mother. The baby was back on her hip, her other hand gestured and grappled with a lighter to light candles, squish balls of gift paper, and rescue bits of hot dog from between sofa cushions. Miles snapped pics with his iPhone, laughing frequently.

“Good gift for you Liam, a sketchbook – nice one – young artist.”

The kids were playing with the new toys—a dozen bodies moving rapidly and making noise in the small living room. I watched safely from my nook, sipping juice. Then Lily did a remarkable thing. She handed the baby to Miles, leaped onto the coffee table, and cried “Elephant stomp! Elephant stomp! Elephant stomp!”

Each time she said it, she punched the air with her little fists on the “stomp” and stamped her naked feet, making it into a war holler. In only a few seconds, the kids caught the idea and echoed “Elephant stomp! Elephant stomp!” Letting toys drop to the ground, they punched at the air with sticky fists.

“Okay guys, the game’s down in the basement, but first you have to put on your elephant feet.” Lily took a stack of brown paper bags she had placed at the end of the coffee table and started handing them out, two for each boy along with two rubber bands.

“I’ll show you what to do.”

But before she demonstrated how to make elephant feet, she strode over to me in my protected corner—“You too!” she said, smiling. “It’s fun!”

I hesitated, but then I took the bags and watched. Lil put one bag over each bare foot, securing them with rubber bands around her ankles.

“Now I have elephant feet,” she crowed, stomping them up and down, and causing the baby in Miles’s arms to startle and wail. She laughed and helped the kids on with their bags and rubber bands.  Soon they were all shuffling down the basement steps in elephant boots, following Lily, laughing and talking excitedly, except Miles, who stayed above, shushing the baby. I trailed behind, my paper boots making every step uncertain.

Lily opened the door of a large rec room strung everywhere with dozens of coloured Christmas lights glowing on a sea of softly bouncing balloons. The children stopped quietly for a moment, looking. One of them exhaled loudly, “Jeez Louise.” We all laughed at that.

The first kid in the line, my kid, yelled “Hey, let’s stomp ‘em” and soon all of the young bodies smashed into the softly lit space and were stomping on the balloons that burst with cracking noises, like guns in rapid fire.

Lily hadn’t needed to show them what to do. They knew. Then she grabbed my hand and pulled me in. “Let’s do the stomp, elephant man,” and she brought her right arm up against her face, pursed her lips, waved her arm up and down, pushed a loud stream of air from her tight lips. At the same time she lifted her knees and splayed them in an African dance. She was a mad she-elephant trumpeting, waving her trunk in the soft jungle light, bursting jungle balls in heavy-footed splendour.

Laughing, I made my arm into a trunk, trumpeted my own rich high-pitched sounds into the mix, bursting my own bubbles in the dim cave, protected by the dark.

Tribe

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This is the story of how I became a drunk and found a tribe. My memory often fails me, so I have quilted over gaps with scrappy fictions, not completely accurate, but not without truth, either.

I was a sweet, reckless 11-year-old, still taking ballet lessons on Saturday mornings. Our instructor—upright, proper, wearing a pencil wool skirt—told us in her English accent not to hold our fingers “like the bunches of bananahs in Lob-ee-laws.”  I wore the garb of the innocent—pink tights, black leotard, hair in a bun. I was perfect, chaste. I had hankerings then for certain clothes, just like 11-year-old girls do today, but my coveting now seems odd and historical. For example, I yearned for a floor length nightgown sewn from a particular Butterick pattern in lavender viyella. And I wanted a kilt, a real kilt.

I often passed the store on Yonge Street and stood in front of the window, pining for one of the kilts worn by the chalky mannequins. You could order a kilt from one of the many tartans on huge bolts at the back of the store—cut to your measurements. How did they make the pleats, I wondered?  The idea that I should have my own kilt became an obsession.  Did that desire pull me precisely because I did not belong to a tribe? Strangely, my family didn’t feel like my tribe; there was a sense of “every man for himself” with us.  But here I could choose my own tartan, my own clan. . . I could pretend to be Scottish.  I could belong.

My mother was agreeable. Perhaps she thought it quaint that I wanted a kilt.  It must have been very expensive to have a kilt custom made in 1969. We didn’t have much money, but my mother tried to give us what we wanted, within reason. “We’ll find the money,” she would say, and she did.  I chose a small red plaid, the MacAulay modern red, and the Scottish lady measured me up with her long yellow tape, marking numbers on a scrap of brown paper.  I waited impatiently for several weeks, imagining how the quilt would look and feel.  I had a tendency then to fetishize objects. If only I had that thing, my life would be perfect.

One Saturday morning we went to fetch it. That lady’s broad freckled hands wrapped the skirt around my neat, trim body, expertly fastened the kilt pin onto the outer apron, checked the waist, stood me back from her appraising eye, and commented in her brogue that I looked “bonnie.”  I loved the way the skirt swung around my thighs just slightly, the mechanical whirl of the crisp pleats—the big silver pin that I could put in myself—higher if I wanted some of my leg to show. There is something lovely and innocent about a slender 12-year old girl wearing a kilt, bare leg in the fall, black tights in the winter.  You might expect her to raise her arms in a highland fling.  She looks as if she belongs.

* * *

I try to imagine how it all came down to vomit on the kilt and all over the bathroom floor, my sisters both dabbing at me with warm wet cloths, quickly cleaning me up and putting me to bed so our mother wouldn’t know. Perhaps we started by pouring small amounts of wine from corked bottles in the kitchen. We might have sat around the kitchen table with coffee cups half full of too-sweet sherry. But my memory also keeps tugging at the old refrain, “come alive for a dollar five.” That was the joke we used to make later about the cheap rotgut wine “Old Niagara” that kept the rummies fueled. I remembered the old men slumped against the wall of the Silver Dollar tavern when I walked Spadina, paper bags concealing identical green glass bottles lying beside each ragdoll body.

I come up from the abyss of memory with a wry smile. It’s no wonder you can’t remember, can’t put the details together, you killed your brain cells, you pickled them with alcohol. I once asked a chemist acquaintance if he thought my memory loss was from frequent LSD trips while my mind was tender, still developing. “No, LSD is likely not the culprit. That’s the cleanest drug around—more likely it was the alcohol.”

We got tipsy, the three of us, light-dark-redhead, but it was too much sweet stuff my first time drinking. We probably laughed, acted giddy and silly as sisters do. Felt the thrill of being bad. But before the sweet sickness came over my gut, I felt the first stirrings we alcoholics get—that deep gut-warmth. That halo of euphoria that crosses us over into a land of freedom, power, luxury—the velvet couch of glory. Give it to me again and again!

So even though I scrambled up the stairs two at a time, my gut heaving, to retch in the toilet, partly missing and getting the sherry-smelling chunks of vomit on my new kilt, I was still shaken, seduced by that blood-warming pleasure. Even if I woke the next morning feeling black-wasted, tongue sour, I still wanted to go back to that land soon, to loll on that velvet couch again.

There was a problem with empty bottles, which makes me think we had somehow gotten our own booze, not purloined small amounts of our mother’s. Come alive for a dollar five . . . indeed!

* * *

The kilt smelled of my vomit after that, and so I wore it less than you would think a girl would wear a new kilt she was so excited to get. “Why don’t you wear your new kilt?” my mom would ask. “Don’t want to,” I mumbled.

But really what I wanted to say, I imagine, was that it smells vile now, the smell reminds me of my first drunk, which was horrifying because it felt wretched to get sick but it felt wonderful to get drunk. So wonderful that I am going to find a way to do it again, soon. I stuffed the kilt into a plastic bag at the back of my closet.

* * *

Latvia is a smallish Balkan country, the home of Michael P’s mother. I wanted to ask Michael about the Latvian quilt I puked over in his basement all those years ago—what were the colours, what was the fabric? Who made it? But then I remember Michael died of AIDS in 1989. Michael’s tribe is now the tribe of the dead—all those beautiful young men who died that decade and beyond. The faded quilt I wasn’t sure about, but we always joked about it, calling it the “family heirloom.” We would cuddle under it—teenage boys and girls in Michael’s basement room, our hub. We nestled together, legs sprawled over legs, arms around each other, drinking, laughing, feeling the incipient sexual thrill for one another, the thrill of being so close with hormones bubbling. One night we were all gathered there, my first time drinking tequila. Lime wedges, salt shaker, the iconic worm in the bottle. Michael lined up the shots, the shaker, the slices of lime on the edge of his candle table, a slab of wood holding dozens of candles in wine bottles. The dripping wax formed stalactite formations we loved to pick at, rolling warm wax in our hands and creating new shapes.

The candle glow lit our young pimply faces as Michael prepped the shots and passed them round. The taste was medicinal burn, but the feeling was flooding gorgeous warmth, an invitation to the couch of glory.  After several shots, I felt my gut roiling, and it all came up again on the quilt.   I suffered shame and guilt from ruining that heirloom, staining it and souring it so Michael would never use it again.  Michael is dead now. But he was Latvian, he was gay, he had two loving tribes. I like to think he basked in their tribal warmth when he was alive.

My contemporaries were not my tribe. Sure, they partied, they drank, but I started to see I approached drinking differently from them. I had to hide, elaborately, the machinations to get another drink, to keep going when everyone else had enough. I had to keep going until I was curled fetus-like, comatose, on the velvet couch.

* * *

Memory, please help me excavate the first AA meeting I attended.  Likely it was held in a church basement somewhere in Toronto. A large room with scarred tables on metal legs laid with 12-step literature on one end and a huge coffee urn and cookies at the other. A tower of Styrofoam cups and those leaf-shaped maple-creme sandwiches in plastic trays, straight from the package. A cloud of cigarette smoke striating the room. Chairs set in front of a podium. All old men but perhaps two faded washed-up ancient women with bad lipstick. This is not for me. Not my tribe. I am so different. I am young and smart.

* * *

We’d had some wine for dinner but the bottle was empty, and we lay in bed, my husband and I, talking, arguing. I was agitated—I needed more booze. This was becoming a grating need. Not so bad when I hadn’t had a drink for a few days. But when I started, the pull was tremendous, and I couldn’t fight it.  I went up to the kitchen on some excuse and poured a coffee mug half full of cooking sherry I found in the cupboard. But before I took it back down to bed, I took several big slugs. I drank more than my share of wine at dinner, and now I was increasingly slurry in my words and actions. As I got into bed, and he smelled the sherry in my cup, I could see the disgust in his face. He took the cup and flung it against our bedroom wall. I remember the drip, drip of it down the wall, and the stain it left there, even after scrubbing.  You were not of my tribe, husband, you who could nurse a Guinness for hours. You could not understand the addict’s yearning beyond reason.  But who, then, was my tribe? Not other drunks, they were old and washed up.  But not non-drunks either. Not the Scottish or the Latvians. Not the gays, not ballet girls—I had quit dance after being told I didn’t really have the body to make it as a ballerina.

* * *

I remember starting a hand quilting class in my early twenties. Quilting was another yearning—I longed to create those perfect squares and sew them all together. To make something great out of small goods. I only completed one square when alcohol—my then lover—got in the way of my relationship to quilting.  Alcohol was my primary relationship in those days; none other stood a chance.

I have been sober 30 years now, but some days I still feel like an emotional drunk careening through life.  Recently I took up my love affair with quilting. This time, with focus and forgiveness and a Pfaff Ambition sewing machine. This time, I started slow, piecing fabric, watching YouTube videos over and over. Pause and sew, play and sew. The plump woman with infinite patience on the video, sewing, showing. Laughing at herself, sewing, showing. Talking us through the techniques, the tricks.  Always a beautiful finished quilt hanging behind her. And then the women in the sewing machine store, the fabric stores, the quilting stores. Patient, full of information, encouragement, tales of experience, wry compassion for the mistakes. So I would try again, laughing at myself for cutting wrong, sewing wrong, taking out stitches, not once, but three times. Patience growing like a little bud inside me.  Oh you quilters, all you women out there—are you my tribe? Is this how I finally learn patience?

These are women I once would have scorned—too podgy, domestic, uninteresting, unintellectual. They care about fabric, for God’s sake, and quarter inch seams! I cared about building skillful arguments, refuting claims, excelling in academia. But now that stuff seems arid.

Free motion quilting got into my soul when I first tried it. After struggling for an hour to put the new foot on my machine, I took off with the freedom of it. Flying around the fabric in huge loop-de-loops, great flowers, words, lines, circles, hearts grew out of me like thread songs. My whole body moved with the shapes and the orange thread spun out, making my mark. It was like the poetry that sometimes runs through me. I am just the container now, for the great spinning quilt goddess who speaks through me.  Oh, is this my tribe, then? This is my tribe. I can’t wait to tell another quilter about it, to share that feeling of stepping off a cliff into free motion quilting.  Sometimes I worry it feels a bit too much like being drunk, that crazy whoop-de-whoo feeling. Like lolling, once again, on the velvet couch of glory. But I reassure myself: There is no hangover, no shame. Just a beautiful imperfect quilt at the end that I will give to somebody I love. Perhaps to you.

Memoir and sketches by Madeline Walker.

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Plants and Books for Sale

One Saturday in May I noticed a clearly lettered handmade sign taped onto a telephone pole near our house: “Plants and Books for Sale” followed by an address on a nearby street. My husband and I headed over; how could we resist? We approached a small white house screened by a cedar hedge. The driveway was lined with makeshift tables brimming with plants of various sizes and types. Printed sheets in clear plastic protectors provided information about each plant: latin name, care required, interesting facts.IMG_0937

Two deck chairs were set up at the head of the driveway. In one sat a woman, about 75 perhaps, with white hair and an anxious face. A teenaged boy sat next to her wearing a beige safari hat and glasses. He smiled at us and rose as we approached. “Interest…est…est…ed in buying some plants?” he stuttered. “Yes, in a bit” I answered. Looking at the woman I added, “But I am even more interested in the books.”

“Yes, well we have a house full of those, and they’re all for sale,” she announced, getting slowly out of the chair. “Follow me.” As we followed her into the dark hallway and throughout a warren of small rooms, I was impressed by the many bookshelves as well as boxes of books in the house. There must have been hundreds, even thousands of books. Books about philosophy, religion, mythology, art history. Shelf after shelf of novels, books of poems. Thick hard-covered books about countries of the world, about ships, and about plants. Politics, history, economics. This was an incredible collection, accumulated over a lifetime, evidence of an astute and curious reader.

“If you don’t mind me asking, why are you selling all of your books?” I ventured.

“They belong to my husband. He just had a stroke. They said he’ll never read again. And he won’t want them here when he gets back from the hospital. So they’ve all got to go.” She spoke in a rather brusque fashion, then turned on her heel and went back outside.

What a thing to happen! How unfair life is, to rob a man of one of his central pleasures!

My husband and I wandered through the rooms browsing, ending up on the front porch where several cardboard boxes set up on card tables overflowed with books. The boy was soon standing beside me. “Was your grandfather a professor?” I asked. “Yes, he was, before he retired,” the boy replied. We stood companionably together thumbing through books.

For one dollar each I bought Antonia Fraser’s Must You Go? My Life with Harold Pinter, Norman O. Brown’s Love’s Body, and Through the Flower: my struggle as a woman artist, by Judy Chicago. I tucked them away and forgot about them.

This week I discovered them atop a tall pile under my sewing table.

Fraser’s account of her long relationship with Pinter is comprised mostly of short, choppy journal entries. I read the first fifty pages and realized that the intricacies of their affair, the play reviews, the money problems, the vitriolic ex-wife, the children: none of these things interest me. I don’t really like Pinter’s plays, and I couldn’t get through Mary Queen of Scots. Sure, it’s a real-life romantic love story, and I am a sucker for those. But why on earth did I buy this book, when there were so many other better ones?

I reflected on this for a bit and then it came to me. It was the clippings. When I first handled this book at the sale, three slips of folded newsprint fell out: all from the Globe and Mail, all published in different months in 2010. One was a review of the memoir by Keith Garebian, the other two were reflections about Fraser’s book by Ian Brown and Elizabeth Renzetti. Two of the clippings focused on the uncontrollable force of love. As Brown wrote, “sometimes people’s hearts just overtake them.” Pinter and Fraser, each in their early forties, were both in long marriages with other people. With cyclone force, they fell in love with each other.

The clippings told me a story about this person I’d never met. As the folded slips fell out of the paperback, they brought an image of an old man sitting at the kitchen table in the sun with a mug of coffee, a pair of scissors, and the Globe and Mail. Carefully cutting out articles, folding them precisely, and tucking them into the book he’d recently enjoyed.

Perhaps he loved Pinter’s plays or Fraser’s historical biographies and was curious about the scandal they created in London in 1975.

Or perhaps he was moved by this grand love affair, where two people ignored social expectations and fell into the vortex of attraction and emotion. Perhaps this love story stirred some deep longing in his own heart. In any case, the clippings showed his interest in the book. And they also show his meticulous attention to detail, his wish to capture information and cross-reference it. I like to think the clippings give me a glimpse into his lively, complex mind before the fateful stroke. Or perhaps I’m just telling stories.

I also bought a large pot of Autumn Joy at the sale. The grandson, who shared with us his dream of becoming a botanist some day, told me I could look forward to reddish pink blooms in the fall.

Works mentioned

Brown, Norman O. Love’s Body. New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1966.

Chicago, Judy. Through the Flower: my struggle as a woman artist. Anchor Books, 1977.

Fraser, Antonia. Must You Go? My Life with Harold Pinter. Random House, 2010.