|Bernie and Lynne, wedding photo. Really. May 18, 1963.
Running on Awkward
Yesterday afternoon, in and out of rainstorms, Miss O’ turned to YouTube to watch once again the marvelous BBC production of Rebecca, 1979, a series that seems not to have found its way to DVD because of internal lawsuits, I read; and terrific as the Hitchcock movie of 1940 is, its cheat on too many key plot points diminishes the story substantially, so this version is more faithful, and, thus, more substantial. What draws me to the story of “I” deWinter has much to do with the one word that drove my mom, Lynne, nuts when reading the novel itself: the idea of feeling “gauche.” My mom, sturdy Midwesterner and individualist that she is, has no truck with inferiority complexes, while her daughter, Miss O’, was a pro at feeling awkward most of her life. What I mean by gauche—because it’s not the dictionary definition of crude—is feeling a desperate need to RUN from social situations, away from party invitations, or even out of a shop, my job, or other public circumstance—any situation that causes me to feel awkward, lonely, unsure of myself; it’s a feeling I had to conquer so often in my youth, that in middle age I enjoy feeling more or less astounded that I no longer experience this. Today I am comfortable walking into any bar, or sitting at a lunch counter, or entering a party of strangers; and I owe almost all of this growth to moving to New York City at age 39, and going it alone, with the help of some very good (and hardly ever gauche) friends.
On Sunday May 4, for the week leading up to her 50th birthday and Mother’s Day, your Miss O’ took the Amtrak to her home “town” of Woodbridge, VA—a sprawling mailing address for a certain section of Prince William County around the Occoquan River and Potomac River basin. All through my growing up, my mom, Lynne, denied we were anywhere near the Potomac River, despite its presence right down the road from us. Despite being a scientific person, Mom O’ was not without personal prejudices, and to her, the Missouri was a river; the Mississippi was a river. That bay down there? Please. And the Occoquan? A large creek, at best. Lynne has always had standards.
What Lynne also used to have—and Miss O’ cannot help recalling this whenever she is home, because somehow the house has seemed empty without it since around 1978—was an unquenchable cigarette habit to the tune of three packs a day, and a fourth pack opened before she went to bed. (These numbers come from my dad, Bernie, who quit his own cigarette habit when my brother, Pat, was born in 1966.) My earliest memory, perhaps (and I started thinking about my earliest memories while rereading Virginia Woolf’s only memoir, “A Sketch of the Past”), is watching the curling blue smoke swirls in the shafts of light coming through the half-basement living room window every morning. As far as early memories go, I don’t recall that room ever being lit except by the window and the television set (and the tip of a Salem), so blue light in black air is what stands out to me, even now. And the smoke. As my memories grow through elementary school, I recall lots of light in that room from an assortment of lamps, one bought with Green Stamps that my brother Pat still has today. Somehow, though, I think memory might as well start with a blue menthol haze, since that’s about all memory is, anyway.
|Beer and smokes, Christmas ca. 1970, in Polaroid.
(Don't tell Lynne about this. )
There’s something symbolic that emerges, too, in little Miss O’s first act every morning of her childhood, smothered as she was in Salem smoke. “What are you doing?” asked Mom when I’d open the front door of the split-foyer (seriously—how did any architect think THAT was a good idea?) as I came downstairs each morning, thus letting out the heat, or the air-conditioning. I never explained, but I can tell you now: BREATHING.
Hazy Shade of Menthol
On this visit home, there was no smoke except from brother Jeff’s hourly cigarette, out back on the pea gravel patio. I took a photo of my parents and brother in the living room, now inhabited for 50 years as of June. Here’s a little photo trip down decorating memory lane, the living room of the O'Home:
|The living room and Miss O', ca. 1965.
Note the bookcase.
|The same living room (and same bookcase), with dog, Christmas ca. 1975.
|The living room (and bookcase) in May of 2014. Fifty years!
Bernie and Lynne built a good life for us kids, our family. Has life been the big, juicy experience that every self-help guru tells us we ought to have? If our days pass in the ordinary way of coffee, news, working in a garden, doing work, keeping up with each other through a bi-weekly phone call, some decent meals, a bag of Doritos, a beer, a good night’s rest—does that mean one shouldn’t live at all? This is what I’m thinking of at 50. That, and my gratitude for orthodontics.
|Miss O' at 50, photo by Jeff O', May 10, 2014.
Turning 50 with Friends: Photos
|Friends Mark and husband Joe stand on the porch of Prescott House,
Old Town Manassas,
the house that friends Kerry and Hugh literally re-built, saving a landmark.
That's what being 50 is all about.
|Erich, Miss O', Mark, Kerry (our hostess), and Ana.
|I've been friends with Mark Robinson since third grade.
Thanks for all the treats, the stories, the unexpected glamour of my old home county, there in the county seat, where the Civil War began, for you history buffs out there. We build, tear down, restore. Why the destruction in the first place? This is the question of 50. And the joy of 50? I am happy to walk into any party where people are happy to be there.
Back in Queens: There in the schoolyard, my eye caught a glint of tipping metal, heard the tinny crash. Why do kids run away from something they did, like tipping over the garbage can at the park the other day? I watched the little boy as I passed the chain link fence. He’d inadvertently tipped the trashcan, and rather than set it right, which would have been easy to do, he ran into a group, as if from a crime. And I got thinking about fear—how easy it is to run from everything scary or uncomfortable; how quickly we give up on dreams, on ideas, on taking action to make the just, the good, the impossible come into being. Let the OTHER guys do it—make the decisions, call up the troops, fight the wars, build the innovations, or put right the garbage can. (Me? Shit, I just buy a bottle of bourbon, a scratch ticket, pull out a deck of cards, and wait for the Big One—the Four Horsemen, or the last crumbling sheet of Arctic ice—to take us all down.) Somehow I know there is more to living, and yet wonder what is enough.
My love, H (who just stopped by for tea and talk, en route to a nap), has been regretting lately that we didn’t meet 30 years ago. He’s sure that if we had, we would have run the country by now—“four years, fix everything, and out, no reelections”—with me as president, him as Joe Biden. Then we could spend now being retired happily in Istanbul, relaxing into our mornings in sidewalk cafes, sipping Turkish coffee; lolling through our days wandering the city; winding down our evenings at other cafes, sipping red wine. We dream. He looks at my hair, touches my still-smooth face. “So shiny,” he says. How long do I have to enjoy such sweet attentions? Who knows? We wonder about the future. “Whatever in it is,” he philosophizes in his own brand of English in that wonderful Albanian accent, “we will do it together.”
|Bernie and Lynne in the garden they made over 50 years together.
This edition of the Memorial Day Blog, 2014, is dedicated to the ordinary life, the one that involves loving people, gathering in living rooms, sipping an assortment of beverages during days in all kinds of weather and landscapes, looking at the sun, the stars, the moon, or maybe ceiling tiles, or corrugated metal. Why we can’t all get together on the basics of being human is beyond my understanding. Religions, greed, pathologies, violence, stupidity—today I turn a blind eye to all the idiocies, and instead sip Barry’s Tea (bought at my neighborhood Irish Butcher Block) in a bone china cup I bought in Stratford-on-Avon when traveling with my friend Anna back in 1992. (Anna, who is now 60 and as aware of the world as it is possible to be and still be alive and employed and in love, just wrote to ask what I am dreaming out for my future; that is friendship.) I listen to the kids playing handball on a court here in Queens. I like this old chair I'm sitting in. Today, I don't feel like fixing a goddamned thing. Some days just have to roll like that.
|Symbolic assortment on the Queens apartment kitchen counter:
tea cup from England, 1992; tea pot from New York, 2012;
Christmas cosy from brothers some 30 years ago in Virginia.
Dedicated to the memory of all the ancestors, in all the various living rooms, whatever their plights and sacrifices and joys and sorrows and poverties. And whatever in it accents they happened to have.
|Onward: View from little porch, Queens, 2014.