Poetry, Politics and Hell

Critics note that in the Homeric narrative, Ulysses’ original mariners are dead. A significant irony therefore develops from Ulysses’ speech to his sailors—”Come, my friends, / ‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world” (56–57). Since Dante’s Ulisse has already undertaken this voyage and recounts it in the Inferno, Ulysses’ entire monologue can be envisioned as his recollection while situated in Hell. —Wikipedia

 

Everyone has a song. Upon hearing it, we declare our possession with pride, recite the lyrics like a religious mantra and exchange knowing looks with those for whom our song is our song. We cobble together a soundtrack of identity, connecting our inner lives to a moment in time, our culture, our history and the human spirit itself.

 

Few people have poems. “No one actually reads poetry anymore.” When my undergraduate Classical Studies professor made this dubious assertion, several of us came over our desks at him in protest. We read poetry. We were not no one. He grinned like the Cheshire Cat and uttered his trademark guffaw. “You read poetry?” We eagerly awaited his praise. “You are not normal.” After class, he accepted our invitation to serve as Master of our residential college and presided over years of bacchanalia and poetry readings.

 

I knew I wasn’t normal. My family wasn’t normal. From my first days, my mother read me poetry from an anthology originally owned by my grandfather. Given its fragile condition, I surmise it was the same book from which he had read to my mother. My grandmother was not well educated but made up for it with an aesthetic sensibility so refined it’s impossible to believe she was born into a family of sharecroppers. My grandfather was the intellectual, though most likely an autodidact. He made my mother memorize poems, learn Greek myths, read The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, practice the works of classical composers (for which she was rewarded a collection of small marble busts) and study art history – all before the age of 14. She in turn sought to cultivate her own children. We had Longfellow and Keats instead of picture books and cartoons.

 

My mother grew up in a small town in Southern Illinois. I know little about my grandfather, whose origins are shrouded in mystery. There is a photo of him taken at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. The rest is apocryphal. After a stint as a Prohibition bootlegger, he oversaw the local ammunition factory during WWII. There he hired the first African American foreman, causing some controversy to which he responded by inviting said foreman’s family to dine at his home. He bought the first television set in town and invited neighbors over to watch boxing matches. He drank, had mistresses, forbade the children from crying and impaled my mother’s seat at the dining room table with a knife. For her posture. The pistol-size cubbyhole mounted under the dining room table was not apocryphal; my brother and I used it in our childhood games. My grandfather was elected to City Hall and active in the Civil Rights movement. After his death in 1963, my mother was so distraught she was sent to live with “family” halfway across the country in New York. In Hell’s Kitchen. I have no relatives in New York.

 

Decades later, my grandmother would schlep us around her small town, introducing us as “Mr. Ladd’s grandchildren.” Old women fawned in adoration. It felt surreal to me that they’d known him but I never would. They’d say something about “everything he did for our fine city” which was a small town and not a city and ask us with intrigue if we knew that he had ridden in the very same car as President Kennedy? We knew. And did we know what an honor that was? Yes, we understood. Our grandfather had been involved in John F. Kennedy’s campaign. A framed letter from Jacqueline Kennedy, expressing condolences and gratitude to our family after the death of my grandfather, hung in my grandmother’s bedroom. You’d have thought my grandfather and John F. Kennedy were best pals. It was a small town.

 

The early death of my mother and inevitable passing of my grandmother dissolved any connection I had to that town. My grandfather’s mystique dissolved as well when, propelled by rabble-rousing idealism and a desire to be part of something greater than myself, I found politics as an adult. Of course a popular Irish Democrat who made his name as a bootlegger and held elected office in a key state had chipped in for Kennedy. He’d met the candidate? I’ve met Barack Obama. Millions have. Professional etiquette dictates one acknowledge the death of a donor or delegate. It was most certainly a form letter with a stamped signature hanging on that wall. My foray into politics tarnished the cachet of my grandfather’s life. But something more meaningful replaced it.

 

“I know it’s silly and I know everyone hates what I do, but in some way I feel a connection to grandpa. I think he’d be proud of me,” I confessed to my brother. “We’re not a political family, Toscha. We’re a mafia family,” my brother replied, as if this were a more honorable option. “Same thing,” I joked.

 

We aren’t a mafia family. My mother never invited her Hell’s Kitchen “family” to visit us back home. My grandfather has been dead for over half a century. My stepfather’s grandfather was sent back to Sicily in the old days, but that scandal predates even my grandfather’s death. We’re not a political family either. We’re not any kind of family at all really. Too many of us are dead. Too many of the rest only call when they’re in trouble, have had too much to drink, both, or another has died. That’s not a family. That’s hell.

 

Yet our patriarch’s presence looms over our lives like God looms over the faithful. We’ve never seen him, but we revere him and trust that he loves us unconditionally. It’s not unusual that he’s mentioned in conversation with my brother, and on this occasion it was in the context of my job. We were hosting the son of Robert F. Kennedy. “Bobby,” my mother had called him, like he was some sweet boy who lived right down the street. “Jay-Effing-Kay’s nephew,” I exaggeratedly impressed upon my brother, to which he replied in an affected old lady voice, “Did you know that your grandfather rode in the same car with President Kennedy?” We howled in unison with laughter. “Well, that’s cool.” I was anything but.

 

When Kennedy entered the pub, he strode right up to me. The man running the event swiftly grabbed him by the arm and walked him toward a group of retirees. I have no internal censor (likely the reason he was yanked from my presence) and yelled in Kennedy’s direction, “I have to talk to you!” Before taking the podium, he removed my purse from the chair at my side, sat down, leaned over, focused his blue eyes on mine and introduced himself. I viscerally registered that oh so this is the Kennedy thing happening now wow ok while he waited for me to express my position on Medicare for All or something. I leaned forward. “What I am about to say is obnoxious and presumptuous and you’ve heard it your whole life and it’s going to bore the hell out of you and I apologize for that, but I have to do this ok?” and I told him about my grandpa and everything his family had meant to mine. He endured it with grace. Before I could embarrass myself further, I changed the subject to the Cape, about which he was more eager to swoon. The man running the event saved me: “Hey Kennedy don’t you have like a speech to give or something?”

 

A friend took an empty seat across from mine and nodded accusatorily. “What?” “It’s true about the Kennedy men and pretty girls.” I clarified that I’d been doing the chasing and, despite the absence of a knife in my chair, sat up straight. After the meeting, I stayed to drink and talk shop. “What he said about Trump being the product of an uneducated electorate is true,” I said, gulping a martini. “You can’t say that in a stump speech!” a political advisor objected. “Well someone has to. Education isn’t just about jobs. It’s about creating an informed citizenry. No, not just informed – people are being bombarded with information – but capable of filtering and synthesizing all that information, otherwise voters will act from a position of fear, because that’s what ignorance breeds. Fear. Education opens minds, cultivates empathy, connects us to history and the whole fucking human condition. You need that stuff when making decisions that impact the lives of strangers.” I should have given the stump speech. “Why didn’t he mention his family?” someone asked. “Yeah. That was weird. I mean, he’s a real Kennedy,” another chimed in. “Right? I wanted him to talk about his dad. Like whoa what was that like?” yet another exclaimed animatedly. I shuddered.

 

The Kennedys aren’t normal either. Americans who would never read a celebrity gossip mag or watch TMZ will discuss with abandon the most gruesome and personal details of this family’s private lives and tragic deaths. They may be an actual family and are most certainly a political one, but our morbid curiosity about them must be its own kind of hell. I was surprised that these cynical political operatives wanted the juicy bits. This is Chicago. We do real politics, not Arthurian legends. Sure, I have a magnet of JFK on a boat and let people assume it is “ironic.” But we don’t want to live in a world where we are judged by our refrigerator art. Judge us instead by our poems.

 

I have poems. Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese.” Walt Whitman’s “O Me! O Life!” But seemingly from the beginning, Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “Ulysses.”

 

“Ulysses” is a well-known poem, referenced in everything from Frasier to the James Bond franchise. It’s so popular I wince to admit it is my poem. It’s like declaring “Imagine” your song. It’s a good song. And a Miss America pageant answer. I don’t know how it came to be my poem. It is in the Bedford Introduction to Literature I purchased for high school AP English. Marginalia suggests I wrote a class paper on it. In college I posted To follow knowledge like a sinking star, Beyond the utmost bound of human thought along with a photo of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and specimens of ironic and erotic art on the door of my Northwestern dormroom. When a long-term relationship collapsed in my 30’s, I wrote Come, my friends, ‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world. Push off, and sitting well in order smite the sounding furrows on a large scrap of paper and taped it to a wall while listening to Cher. Less publicly but no less ostentatiously, in private moments of success or defeat, I’ve opened the AP English book, its spine having broken at the poem after decades of use, and read aloud, hardly glancing at the pages but gripping them for dear life, tears streaming down my cheeks and the tip of my nose as I reach the crescendo, Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’ We are not now that strength which in old days Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are; One equal temper of heroic hearts, Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will. To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

 

A few days after the meeting, I went to the library to pick up a book on jazz. Becoming a jazz aficionado was my New Year’s resolution; it seemed more achievable than eradicating fascism. While there, I scanned the shelves for the new Hillary Clinton book and found a series of Kennedy bios instead. “Like whoa what was that like?” echoed in my head. No. Don’t. Using the excuse that I’d promised my stepfather to read more history, I randomly clutched a Kennedy bio and scurried off. Feeling self-conscious, I grabbed one about Peggy Guggenheim too so the woman at the circulation desk would just think I was really into biographies. I got home and skimmed the Kennedy book. The political history I mostly already knew. The private lives were none of my business. But the motif of Tennyson’s “Ulysses” stopped me in my path.

 

My poem was their poem.

 

I’ve never given thought to how it became mine. I just assumed it came to me as poems do: by serendipity or comparative literature courses. I was now confronted with the possibility that I’d inherited it along with the apocryphal stories and literary tendencies of my grandfather. Or worse, I heard it on TV. We weren’t a family who spent evenings in front of the boob tube, but we did eat our dinners with C-Span on in the other room. I was a child when Ted Kennedy gave his famous “The Dream Shall Never Die” speech, which like those of his brothers, borrowed from “Ulysses.” But I was a precocious child. I remember trying to divine the sadness and anger that fell upon our household when Reagan was elected. That I may be less a discriminating consumer of classical literature than an indiscriminate consumer of political rhetoric haunted me. As did the fact that this realization followed the arc of my conversion from librarian to politico. It was too tidy. Too poetic.

 

Perhaps it is not so strange that I, or anyone so bold as to believe their ambition nothing less than heroic, should be drawn to this story of Ulysses. Perhaps it is not so strange that I, or anyone born to a romantic, thrill-seeking, stubborn brood, should be drawn to this tale of doomed but glamorous adventure. Perhaps it is not so strange that I, or anyone who refuses to hang up their sword after enduring unknowable loss, should be drawn to this ode to perseverance. Perhaps it is not so strange that I, or anyone whose family history is as much legend as truth, should be drawn to this humanizing of the mythic. Perhaps it is not so strange that I, or anyone immersed the terrible world of politics, should know the value of pure oratorical gold. Perhaps it is not so strange that I, or anyone who has a poem, should have “Ulysses.”

 

Of course, I may very well have discovered the poem in AP English. Let us not discount the power of formal education, not after my moving speech at the pub! I may owe this debt of gratitude to Mrs. Votoupal at Marquette Catholic High School. Or I may owe it to Ted Kennedy. Or I may owe it to my grandfather. I will never know. And as it was for Ulysses, the unknowable is hell.

 

 

 

 

 

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Solstice Specters: Four Midsummer Ghost and Faerie Stories

“Midsummer Eve was one of the spirit nights of the year, when the boundaries between the worlds were thin and porous. Evil spirits and witches were active. Men were proverbially subject to fairy tricks and queer fancies, as portrayed by Shakespeare.”Mythology Matters

 

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

 

I routinely have vivid dreams I rarely remember. When I can recall them, it is only in fragments, like a person recovering from amnesia after a terrible car accident. Because no one ever gets amnesia on account of a fortunate event, I assume the dreams I know I’ve dreamt but am unable to remember are not the kind I’d want to anyway and allow my subconscious its private traumas.

 

Dreams I do remember upon waking are often loose adaptations of some mundane event from my waking life. For example, the other day my cat was trying to get into the windowsill behind my bed. Oscar was a large tom in good health, but has grown to a Bulgakov-sized Behemoth as a side effect of daily steroids. A 20lb black tux with queerly human behaviors (I recently found him brushing himself with his brush clamped between his two front paws) he’d fit nicely into Woland’s entourage, but not the window. He’s grown too large to slink between the curlicued bars of the bed frame to taunt and be taunted by urban wildlife. I was always a bit anxious he’d fall from the precariously framed screen, so perhaps life behind bars is best for him. Then I dreamt my cat was on the window ledge. See? Mundane. But for this “thin and porous” business…

 

I dreamt there was a tornado, a plot device also plagiarized from real-life and more mundane than you might imagine here in the Midwestern summer. I looked around for Oscar as a funnel cloud barreled toward us from the horizon, all Dorothy and Toto-like. On the window ledge behind my bed, on the exterior side of the screen, lay my cat. My mother’s cat, to be precise. I’d inherited the fat white cat after her death, and the cat itself had passed away many years ago. “Bella! You have to get inside!” I dream-screamed. She paid no attention to my demands, attached determinedly to the concrete ledge. The wind picked up. “Bellakin!” I fought to wrench her from her perch, but she simply would not move. I awoke in a panic.

 

White cats are bad omens. That’s what my mother believed. Her head was full of superstitions and faerie tales and god knows what or how it got there. Mind you, her own cat, Bella, was mostly white. But a mysterious white cat showing up outside of one’s home was bad mojo. When a massive, long-haired, solid white cat came lurking around our house one year, she said it was a “harbinger of death.” I protested. “Mom, it’s beautiful. It’s a stray; can’t we please bring it in?” We’d brought in all types of animals over the years. But inviting this creature into our house was verboten. It sat each night outside the sliding glass kitchen door, under our windows or on our porch in front of the door. Bella would cry and howl and growl and hiss. Eventually I too became afraid. When I arrived home one night to spy it sitting under my bedroom window, I genuflected and slept on the couch. We talked at length about calling a priest but opted for animal control instead. It was a crazy thing to get caught up in over a poor stray… My mother was dead within the year.

 

I can’t for anything imagine Bella out there in the afterlife doing Uber but for Death. And whose soul had she come for? Perhaps the cat was a representation of my mother, slipped through the porous boundary of the spirit world and planted firmly on the threshold between me and a coming storm. Perhaps, as Puck would implore, it was just a dream.

 

City Gates

 

I went to the store for coffee.

 

I’d put off going until there was no coffee and only a tin of tuna and some ramen left in the cabinet. I’d put off going because storms had threatened daily for the previous week, and I’m doing my part to save the earth by walking and using canvas bags. I’d put off going because I get vaguely ambivalent when the food v. bills v. everything else times hit. But I am not ambivalent about coffee. And once I was inside the store, I was no longer ambivalent about food. Blueberry carrot hempseed bars? Organic peanut butter with flax and chia? Sprouted wheat bread? Superfruit spread? Australian lemon curd yogurt? Watermelon water? I am the novelty food market’s target demographic: a single white female freelancer whose ridiculous lack of money is matched only by her ridiculous abundance of curiosity. Momentarily giddy and greedy, I justified my purchase of fruit with the prefix “Super-” by the fact that I was in a German supermarket for poor people: so continental, yet so practical! I wondered if there were even any poor people left in Germany or why there wasn’t more German food here and remembered the coffee. And milk. And eggs. As the cashier muttered my total, I realized I totally could have gotten the watermelon water.

 

I returned home on foot in the blazing late sun like a little mule laden with canvas sacks of treasure, wobbly and strained. I scanned for cracks in the treacherously underfunded sidewalk infrastructure and for rogue summer children, either of which could send me crashing to the pavement. I successfully dodged dogs and bikes and paleteros and women in majestic, sail-like abaya. The earth’s strong gravitational pull keeps things upright on the solstice, I remember.

 

And so it was that I was not knocked into the street when just steps from my building, a large black iron gate clanked unlatched and opened onto the sidewalk blocking my passage. It had opened neither too slowly with a spooky creak nor too swiftly as if thrown open by the wind. It just … opened. I stopped abruptly, set down my bags and waited a moment for it to close again before continuing, as if it had been a proper human who had opened the gate. And in fairness, at one time, I suppose it may have been. “Hey, howabout you look where you’re going next time, huh?” I complained aloud as would to anyone who’d flung a giant iron gate open in my face. As I continued on my journey, I threw an accusatory look back in its direction and grumbled something about why do ghosts even open doors and gates when they can go right through them? Like, what the hell is that about?

 

Some days I think everything I know about living in the city I learned from Seinfeld. Hardly a day passes that my friends and I don’t share tales of the infuriating, inexplicable or downright absurd situations we’ve been subjected to throughout the day, and the equally absurd schemes we’ve come up with in response. I do love living in the city though, precisely because you can yell out loud at a ghost gate to have some fucking respect and literally no one is talking about it at the supermarket the next day when you go back for that watermelon water. Because the inhabitants of cities have lives.

 

Even those who no longer do.

 

A Romance in 3 Acts, by either Shakespeare or Chekov, I don’t know. But it’s utter, utter crap. See Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 instead.

 

I’d been witnessed having a bit of a low-key row at the pub over vodka tonics, and he’d checked in with me when my boyfriend got up to use the bathroom. He came back to check on me each time my boyfriend excused himself. He seemed a bit shy and sweet. Not at all like my boyfriend, who was not in the bathroom because he had to relieve himself, who thought American Psycho was a how-to manual. Things eventually ended with Patrick Bateman and I. Meanwhile, I became accustomed to my server at the pub, a preferred meeting place for my client. I was there routinely for work, and so was he. He had raven hair, pale olive skin and a subtle Slavic accent. He told me he wanted to get out of Chicago and move to Moscow. I wasn’t lying when I replied, “Me too.”

 

I know people who immediately become friends in such situations, dropping in unannounced, inviting each other to shows, saying things like, “My friend Kristian so-and-so… Do you know him? Oh I’ll have to introduce you…” These people usually bang on about being loners but know someone at literally every establishment in town. Then there are people who draw hard and fast lines between their waiters and their peers, who cloak class anxiety under pretense of professionalism but fuck the coat girl. These people fancy themselves well-adjusted but are horrible humans. Me? I was just happy to see him every month. It was nice to be around a nice person in a cruel world. It helped that he was devastatingly handsome, a cross between Rami Malek and a young Vladislav Surkov. Macedonian. He could have been one of those hackers for all I know, but he was so beautiful I couldn’t possibly care. And I was content to leave it at that. I was in no mood for relationships after Bateman. A routine lament for Moscow with a beautiful man was enough romance for me.

 

One day I showed up to the pub, and he wasn’t there. Earlier in the year my scarf had disappeared from this very same pub and then inexplicably reappeared, so I didn’t panic. Schedules change. To be honest, I was a bit sadder than I thought I would be. A young girl busing tables came up and asked me how to get involved in our organization. “Who are you and what have you done with Kristian?” I thought as the long memorized lines from the bylaws rolled off my tongue. As I headed toward the door, my waitress inquired if she could ask a personal question. I was done talking. “You can ask, but I can’t promise I’ll answer.” “Are you … dating anyone?” She seemed like a nice person, but that’s not my scene. “Who is asking?” “Kristian. Do you know Kristian? He works here. He thinks you’re so beautiful.” “No. I mean, Yes. I mean I know him, and I’m not dating anyone.”

 

And then I left. Like an idiot.

 

There was much ado about if I should call the pub, but I decided I would just see him the next time I was there, like my scarf. Because now I believed in magic. The next time, however, moved increasingly farther down the calendar. No matter, he had been there for ages… Until he wasn’t. There were over a hundred people crammed into the event room to see the kind of person a hundred people should cram into a room to see, but not one of them was him. If he had wanted to see me, then… why… It was hot and damp from the torrential evening rains and I wanted to weep a little but I didn’t. Before leaving, I staked out the waitress he’d asked to ask me personal questions. “I was rather hoping Kristian would be here.” “He doesn’t work here anymore,” she explained. “Why?” “He’s moved away.”

 

I wanted to weep a lot and I did.

 

After a summer rain, my mother would take us children into the back yard to see the drops of dew on the tree leaves, which she would have us believe were faeries. Rain, or idiot faeries who fuck up people’s romantic lives… Workplace, or magical Irish pub where things strangely materialize and vanish… Psychologically moving between the realms of the material and immaterial seems no more preposterous to me than physically moving from Avondale to Moscow. But I can think of few things more absurd than when the living become ghosts to one another.

 

For Sentimental Reasons

 

It’s always raining these summers now. Searing heat and flooded underpasses. We’re far enough north for there to be fewer hours of darkness than required for sleep, but the weather feels more like that of a subtropical developing nation. The trauma of climate change, like terrorism, is best responded to by maintaining a sense of normalcy. And by leaving the AC off. And by walking places. So one sweltering evening, a friend and I headed out for ice creams. A light drop of cold sky water here and there on our sweat-slick skin felt exhilarating. We arrived at a busy paleteria and debated eating inside or nah while making obnoxious guesses about the flavors. “It’s black, so black currant.” “No, look at it. It’s black brown. It’s tamarind or coffee.” We brazenly settled on scoops in cups, chocolate chip and strawberry cheesecake, straight up owning our basic whiteness. But we chose to eat them in the rain on our way home. We weren’t so basic we couldn’t get our hair messed up. I didn’t mention the matter in deliberations, but I think everything is better in the rain. Everything.

 

Living in my neighborhood requires navigating both cultural barriers and dangerous streets. “Basic white girl.” There is in fact no confirmation of my ethnicity, and most people here don’t see me as an interloper since I am on the swarthy end of the Caucasian spectrum, and everyone here is from somewhere else. But guilt is guilt. And girl is girl. So when I hear a lone man’s voice behind me on a dark side street, I move into the light. Which is what I did when about three blocks from home we heard a voice behind us that put the hair on my neck on end.

 

I stepped into the parkway and turned around. Emerging from the inky night and backlit by the rain-blurred neon lights of the city, an older man approached, passed, and continued down the block, acknowledging neither us nor any of his surroundings. The words I had been unable to make out earlier were lyrics.

I love you and you alone were meant for me
Please give your loving heart to me
And say we’ll never part

I think of you every morning
Dream of you every night
Darling, I’m never lonely
Whenever you are in sight

I love you for sentimental reasons
I hope you do believe me
I’ve given you my heart

 

He sang the song slowly and sonorously in a professionally trained, and I suspect professionally performed, baritone voice as luscious as our ice creams. We followed behind, mirroring his pace despite the increasingly inclement weather, caught up in whatever spell had been cast upon him. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone sing so beautifully, so intentionally, outside of a concert, and even then maybe only at La Traviata. This isn’t the kind of neighborhood Lyric Opera singers reside in. It’s not even the kind of neighborhood season ticket holders reside in. I wanted to approach him to pay a compliment and perhaps to inquire, but I feared doing so would break the spell.

 

“You really missed something out there,” I announced as I whirled into the apartment, dripping with rain and delirious with noirish romance. “I know. That’s why I don’t go out there,” my roommate joked. I scowled and began singing in an unfortunate tone but with all the cheeky swagger of Bill Murray’s lounge act. “I love you. For sentimental reasons. I think of you every morning. I dream of you every night. I love you. For sentimental reasons.” I looked like a drown rat, my ice cream had melted, and I was really hamming it up for my audience of confused felines. Everything and I mean everything this week had been so fucking awful, it felt good to blow off steam. But I meant each word I sang. About my mom. About my dead pets. About my mercurial Macedonian. About everyone who is still around until they no longer are. And then I simply could not stop singing, as if possessed.

 

“You’ve been pixilated,” my mom would say whenever I fell into these silly moods. Pixilated meant gotten to by the pixies. By the faeries. By Puck. There was nothing she couldn’t explain in terms of the supernatural. And maybe it’s just where the sun’s been in the sky, but I confess there seem increasingly fewer events I can explain using logic. And those I can? They frighten me more than ghosts.

 

Besides, even though faeries can fuck things up for no good reason at all, they at least apologize:

 

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber’d here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend:
if you pardon, we will mend:
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck
Now to ‘scape the serpent’s tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call;
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends

 

–Shakespeare, from A Midsummers Night’s Dream

Object Permanence

Early last November before the election, before gatherings with extended family reinforced suspicions of complicity rather than bonds of kinship, I spent an evening with my estranged cousin. Not estranged estranged. Nor even very distant in terms of relation or travel. But whose connection to my life had ruptured over the course of a decade of funerals for those who had maintained our association. I’ve always admired my cousin in a childlike way that makes me self-conscious. Her dark beauty. Her manic energy. Her irreverent humor. She reminds me of my late mother, in the way she could absolutely rob a truck stop out of necessity, in heels and a tasteful shade of lipstick, and laugh about it all the way home. In my cousin’s presence, I felt returned to the strange goo of the petri dish in which we were both cultured. All families have their idiosyncrasies. Ours are turned up to eleven. In familial jargon, “The Ladds” refers not simply to my maternal grandfather’s descendants, but to that branch of the family distinctly unlike the others, a branch wound with wild, handsome, impertinent, troublesome vines. Exotic. Invasive. We can’t be tamed, yet we are prone to strangling ourselves and thus tend to be left alone. We are not ostracized, just reminded of our prodigal status with tedious notes of envy and apprehension. We’re a family of Nastasia Filippovnas and Raskolnikovs, except we aren’t Russian. I don’t think. We may be. We may even be fictional. The truth is no one knows, or believes, the origin of our lineage. This adds to the cache and distrust roused by our inexplicable looks and even less explicable life choices. Despite having spent most of my adult life orphaned and on the run from my family’s past, I find it is wise to have dinner with someone who looks and thinks like you just often enough to remind you that you aren’t entirely responsible for your own neuroses.

We sat up late at the hotel that November evening debating the whereabouts of my mother’s and our grandmother’s possessions. My stepfather had my mother’s things. My aunt had my grandmother’s. Upon reflection, neither of us could recall actually having seen any of our family heirlooms in these people’s homes. The upsetting revelation came only after a few drinks and mutual assumptions, even accusations, that the other were in possession of it all. I felt low about being materialistic, but as the conversation progressed, I could smell the varnished interior of the hand-carved hutch in my childhood dining room and the half-empty whiskey bottles on my grandmother’s sideboard that had stood on that sideboard half-empty since my grandfather’s death in 1963. I could hear the clinking of tea sets and porcelain dolls as my brother and I ran rampage through my grandmother’s house. My mother had kept a black bottle of Jean Patou’s Joy in the back of her lingerie drawer, in velvet-lined box. And my grandmother, above a mid-century record console, had hung a photo of a mist-shrouded, tree-lined empty country road, perhaps in France, the trees and road disappearing into the horizon line. We conspired to rent moving trucks, kidnap our thieving elders and make them give us our stuff. It was our stuff. And it was good stuff. I’m not that into stuff. When I consider my inheritance, I think of genes, mannerisms and axioms. I was suddenly struck with the conviction that if we cannot know where a soul goes when it dies, we should at least keep tabs on its stuff after the unfortunate event. Yet it had all been the same in my experience. People are taken from us. People’s things are taken from us. The world takes indiscriminately.

Upon my departure that evening, my cousin gifted me with a set of three identically crocheted handmade scarves: one in beige, one in white and one in black. The Ladds go in for the classics. “This will never go out of style,” my mother would declare, shoving London Fog trench coats and fitted blazers into my Goth girl arms on department store outings. I only wore the black crochet scarf my cousin made for me, but I wore it often.

In the Avondale neighborhood of Chicago, there is an Irish pub I routinely visit. We could be Irish, after all. That’s the official if dubious claim. Arriving on one such visit in February, I placed my coat and scarf across the back of an empty chair. As the evening wore on, a fellow sat in the chair as people do in a crowded bar: making a gesture to brush a bit of the coat off the seat, but not daring remove it altogether. When my ride announced our imminent departure, amid a flurry of goodbyes I grabbed my coat and scurried into the night. It wasn’t cold enough to warrant zipping up, let alone fishing out my winter accessories. The next day, I took down my coat from the rack in the kitchen and reached for my scarf. The scarf wasn’t there. I remembered having thrown my hat and gloves into my bag at the pub. A black bag full of black gloves and black hats but no black scarves. I took down all the coats from the crowded rack, turned them inside out, upended my bag, searched the floors of dark closets and inspected lopsided hangers. I looked under the bed. Why my scarf would be there, who knew? But that’s where runaway things hide and whisper to you as you tear apart the room, “Do you love me enough to brave a haunted clown for me? Do you?” I did. It was ridiculous. It was just a plain scarf. But with the discussion about the Ladd family stuff, the scarf acquired inflated emotional value. When a survey of the haunted clown lair turned up nothing but some old canvass slippers, my stomach sank. Ok. I texted the friend who had driven me home, in the most nonchalant way possible, like I’d lost a scarf and not a person, like my mind knew the difference, requesting they perhaps have a poke about in the car for it. No, no scarf. Now I was going to have to call the pub. They knew me. I would tell them my name, my waitress’s name and where I’d been sitting. “Hello. I was there last night and may have left a black scarf…” “Hold on. … No ma’am. No one’s reported a black scarf.” “Oh ok, well thanks so much for checking then, I mean I didn’t think I left it there anyway,” I blurted out, angry that they probably didn’t really look, embarrassed by my own object attachment. I was devastated.

It was an unseasonably warm winter, not scarf weather anyway. I wrote off the affair as penance for allowing myself to be drawn into pettiness about material possessions, or as another test of my ability to endure loss. I tried not to think about it, this small grievance in such grave times. I accepted responsibility for my inebriated carelessness. Still, I was unable to shake the injustice. Who would steal a scarf? Everyone in Chicago already has a scarf. At least everyone who can afford imported ales. It was probably one of those rejected suitors. I recoiled with nausea, imagining some creep’s perverse molestation of my scarf. What the hell was wrong with people? Unless it was the Macedonian server. Or was he Montenegrin? He could do whatever he wanted to with it. Hot. I fantasized about my abandoned scarf’s new life as mine continued as normal.

A few days ago I was invited to return to the Avondale pub. Not for St. Patrick’s debauchery, but to meet a political operative popular with supporters of Bernie Sanders. I didn’t want to go. The wounds on both sides are still fresh and are being doused with more blame than aftercare. But earlier in the week my ailing cat had almost been taken from me too, and after days of precipitous grief and soiled laundry, I needed a break. Perhaps, I fancied, I would walk in, and on the back of the very same chair would hang my precious scarf, and as I panned the room inquiringly, the Macedonian or Montenegrin server would smile, nod to the scarf and wink. That would be nice. It probably wouldn’t happen. It certainly wouldn’t happen if I didn’t go. So I did. I approached the very same chair, strangely empty despite a crowd, and sat down. Of course the scarf isn’t here. It’s been well over a month, and this is a popular bar, and an Irish bar in March. I smiled anyway, the kind of smile Oscar nominees smile when they don’t win. I looked a bit too eagerly into my waitress’s eyes, the very same waitress, as she approached. I struggled to concentrate on the operative’s pep talk. I overcompensated with feigned interest in my surroundings as I scanned the room for my scarf. I dared not mention the matter to anyone out of shame at both my materialism and incompetence. I imagined meeting potential mates or employers: “What brings me here? One of my few living relations made me something nice and I left it at a bar, you see. So that’s me. And you?” I wasn’t unhappy to see old friends, and the Balkan beauty did wave and smile from across the room. I couldn’t regret having come. I stood with my back to the table, chatting with aspiring candidates and staffers, lingering in wait for my bill. When it arrived, I fetched my bag from under the table, and as I emerged upright, my eyes landed on the chair, in which lay a black crochet scarf folded tidily into perfect squares.

I concealed my ecstasy as I coolly as I had my earlier disappointment and asked those around if it belonged to them. No. Did they know whose it was? No. Did they see who had placed it there? No. Certainly the Bernie bro next to me hadn’t been nesting atop it the whole night. I picked it up, unfolded it and held it out like a holy shroud. It smelled of a fresh dry cleaning and not cigarette smoke or musky perfume. Or Bernie bro. In vain, I asked my waitress if she had placed it there or knew who had. No. I explained nervously, “It’s just that, well so this is weird, but I thought perhaps I left a scarf here, this scarf, over a month ago, and I mean I called, but. Look, I would like to take it, but if anyone reports having left it here tonight, let me know, and I will return it. I promise. Ok?” “If you think it’s yours, you don’t need my permission to take it,” she replied matter-of-factly. “Right. Good point.” I hadn’t thought of it like that.

Despite repeated inquiries, the scarf taker-cleaner-returner remains unknown, I suspect intentionally. There is an alluring glamour to anonymity. Is it a decision born of boredom, mischief, scandal or self-preservation? These are questions I’ve often posed about my grandfather, whose identity also remains unknown. It’s not impossible for a Ladd to be Irish; the name, if rare, appears in ship manifests leaving that country. But it is improbable. It’s just as improbable that this was his real family name. We look more … Spanish. Dark-featured Irish have had their DNA traced back to the Iberian Peninsula. And though not appearing the bloated, ruddy Irish-American stereotype, my grandfather played the part exquisitely: a prohibition bootlegger who rose through the ranks of City Hall, invited neighbors over each week to watch boxing matches and worked to help John F. Kennedy to become President. They died the same year, my grandfather leaving behind little more than fragile books of poetry, half-empty whiskey bottles and a beautiful, badly-behaved brood. Each time I resolve to investigate his past, I decide that other people’s secrets, like their stuff, are not mine to take.

It’s strange. I knew the scarf would be there. I needed it to be there. I needed the world to stop taking the Ladds and all of their stuff. My mother’s Joy. My grandmother’s finery. My grandfather’s ancestry. I’ve long doubted my entitlement to any of these things, never mind my ability to recover them. I’ve accepted the romance of mystery and nostalgia as compensation for suffering and loss. I’ve conflated my minimalist existence and the assertion that all property is theft with moral superiority. Keep your righteousness, Bernie bros; I’m living the leftist dream. But questions have been raised. What is a family without a history, but a sludge of genetic material? What is a culture without its artifacts, but an obsolete experiment? What is an object without a story, but stuff? I won’t be advocating for Focus on the Family, cultural purity or recreational shopping anytime soon or ever. And family trees are potential firewood for those of us born with axes to grind. But perhaps I’ve been too dismissive of material possessions. Even wild, handsome, impertinent and troublesome vines need something to hang onto. A crochet scarf. A fragile book of poems. A delicate teacup. A vial of perfume. Perhaps it is wise to maintain a few objects with which you share provenance, just enough to remind you that you aren’t entirely responsible for your own cultivation.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day

Foremothers

Victoria

My aunt Vicki died from ovarian cancer when I was 10 years old. She was about 35. Because she died when I was so young, I never knew her very well. But as I was growing up, people would often compare me to her. Which is a bit creepy, telling a kid she reminds you of a dead person… I took it as a compliment. She was a perfectionist. Her home was impeccably kept, everything tasteful, coordinated and in its proper place. My mother told me that Aunt Vicki would break down in tears if a dish she was preparing did not turn out ideally. She was beautiful. She looked like Natalie Wood. She once told me that if a man proposed to me, I should never say yes unless he had a diamond. She was very Christian, athletic, and had a wonderful husband and baby boy. One of those people who seemed to really have it all together, whose only fault seemed to be all the effort she put into not having any. I couldn’t tell you if she was shy or just incredibly well composed. It is probably because I only knew her briefly during my childhood that I remember her having an ethereal way about her. She was intelligent and polite, but not stern. Active and engaged, but not gregarious. Lovely and proud, but not fake. That is how she seemed to me. One of the things I remember most about her was her dog, Dusty. It was a fat, smelly, psychotic, ugly little black poodle she would have groomed. Every time I saw it, it had a different color bow on its head and matching nail polish. Peach, mint green, red… It was total madness. I think that dog must have been her outlet.

We kept a picture of my Aunt Vicki in our living room. It was a photo of her as a child, with her bobbed hair, her thoughtful eyes and the Mona Lisa smile she always wore. That’s how I see her when I think of her, not as the young housewife or the wisp of a woman confined to the living room couch, a silk scarf around her head and dark circles around her eyes. I actually don’t remember her often. There’s nothing I can do about it. I remember her when I give a doctor my family medical history or when my ob-gyn asks, and she always asks, “How old was your aunt when she died?” Then she gives me the look. Like I need to be reminded that I am at the age my aunt was when she got sick and died. Like I’m not in her office precisely because of this! I resent that this is the only person who ever vocally reminds me about my aunt. But I don’t need the doctor for reminding. My family is crazy, laid back. Not caring what others think of them is some tribal stamp and “propriety” is not even in their vocabulary. I feel like the odd one out here. I want my apartment so clean it looks like no one lives there. I become inconsolable the moment things do not go strictly according to plan. I’m a neurotic, a perfectionist and I do care what others think. I don’t know if I am shy or just incredibly well-composed. I luxuriate in propriety and think people should make the effort. My mother would find me in this state and declare, “Where do you get this? I didn’t raise you to act like this.” My grandmother would mumble, “She’s just like Victoria…”

Ruby

My grandma Ruby Ladd was insane. But I don’t judge her. Ruby liked to do silly dances to Johnny Cash albums. Ruby liked to tell us stories about escaped convicts who were on their way to her house this very minute. Ruby was profoundly depressive and lonely, though I don’t ever remember a boring moment with her. Ruby had old time religion and a mean streak. Ruby had a makeup drawer that contained nothing but tubes of red lipstick. Ruby looked exactly like that lady in Grey Gardens. Ruby thought no one loved her. Considering what she gave and got in return from us, she may have had a point.

She lied about her age, so I don’t know when she was born. 1911? 1917? 1921? My grandfather was born in 1898, and she was scandalously younger than he. She was from a family of Arkansas share-croppers, ran away from home and lived in a convent while working at an ammunition factory, and eventually married my notorious Irish grandfather, who then died when my mother was 14. Ruby became the quintessential Miss Havisham. Nothing in the house changed much after my grandfather’s death, except that a brief courtship with an antiques dealer left her with even more old valuable stuff around the house, adding to the Dickensian ethos. The house was as haunted as all get out, largely because she refused to let my grandfather die. There was a little compartment under the table -the house was full of such secret nooks- in which my grandmother would leave money or treats and tell us Grandpa Ladd had left them for us. She’d speak of him as if he were still alive. She’d wake us in the middle of the night, pile us into an ancient car and drive to the cemetery (owned by our family) to “visit Grandpa.” We were just little children. Can you imagine?!

Her home was my second home. On many weekends and some school nights, my brother and I would stay with her. Sometimes I was so afraid, I would spend the whole evening in the kitchen, by the back door. In case I needed to make a run for it. Other times I’d spend hours in one of the back bedrooms, lost in a game of dress-up, to look in the mirror and see her standing the doorway, staring at me. I’d scream in fright, thinking she must have been there for some time. But for all the spookiness, it was also exciting to be a kid in her charge. The house was magnificent, wall to wall paintings, china, chandeliers, hand-made furniture, and curiosities like the buggy bench, the mounted deer head, the wine press and the whiskey barrel, the tv from the 40’s and the old telephone with the hand-crank. And the etching of two children burying a dead bird, which hung above the antique bed where my Grandpa died. Her closets were filled with silk gowns from the 30’s and 40’s, wool suits from the 50’s, fur coats, opera gloves, boxes upon boxes of jewelry. One closet was a walk in and up -there was a staircase in it!- devoted simply to hats and shoes, all in their original boxes. Dresser drawers contained intriguing lingerie contraptions that must have dated back to the early part of the century. Downstairs, she ran a beauty salon. And Grandpa Ladd’s “workshop” contained rusted old tools with mystery uses, cans of lead paint and DDT (discovered after she moved out) and a creepy old crib. Continue reading

Ghost Stories

“Toscha, I think we have a child ghost,” my brother confided in me after a recent move to St. Charles, MO. I have the kind of family that has ghosts.

I’m not trying to convince anyone that ghosts do or do not exist. I don’t believe in God. Or angels. Or monsters. I do believe in ghosts. I was raised by a crazy Irish woman. My belief in ghosts may inspire accusations of idiocy, but I think there is enough evidence to the contrary. My belief in ghosts may inspire accusations of an overactive imagination and romanticism, but you don’t need a ghost story to know that about me. It seems a pretty harmless belief to have. No ideological agenda. No evangelizing, no political lobbying. Ghosts neither confirm nor undermine my worldview, no more than bunny rabbits or paintings hung on a wall. They are part of the deal. Bad teeth and ghosts.

Of course it is natural for you to want to challenge such beliefs and offer up alternative explanations for the events I am about to recount. In general I support the scientific method and rational, objective attempts to understand the world around us. But the following stories need not be true or untrue. The point is, I have them. Largely against my will.

 

The Intersection

Growing up, my mother and brother were quite fond of recounting stories of ghosts and felt a combination of annoyance at my rigid intellect and pity that it limited my repertoire of experiences. Whole other worlds I was cut off from, out of sheer stubbornness. Apparently part of their special “gift” included the “knowledge” that I was secretly like them, just less self-aware. I was dragged to psychic readers who nodded in agreement. Oh I had it. It. I was just too busy hating the world and sticking my nose in books. This was all discussed in the way old women might sit around a bridge table mewing on about how Pearl’s granddaughter who works at the soup kitchen could be a real catch if she just put some effort into her looks. Full of unrealized potential, but too myopic to realize it. Well, I pitied them in my own way too. I spent my childhood agnostic and became a professed atheist at the age of 9. And they were still praying. As if that is how things got done. Pathetic.

One night, dark, a bit wet, I sat in the front seat of my father’s truck as he drove me home from a friend’s house. We came to a stoplight and sat chatting. It wasn’t a rural road. It wasn’t the city. It was one of those depressing arteries that run through what we might now call the exurbs, lined sometimes by undeveloped land, sometimes by fast food joints, the occasional mall or church. Not enough traffic to create lively atmosphere, but enough so that if a person walked out into the middle of the highway someone would notice. I turned my eyes away from our discussion and back to the intersection to find a man standing right in front of the truck. The moment I realized someone was standing in the street, looking me in the eyes, the light turned green, and before I could scream for my father to stop, he hit the gas and … we didn’t hit anyone. My father continued talking while I sat there in shock. What had just happened? Traffic had moved normally, no thud, no horns, no screams, no sirens. Maybe I’d imagined it. Obviously I’d imagined it! No one dresses like that nowadays. A floppy wide-brimmed hat. Overalls? Maybe it was just the traffic lights and rain playing tricks with my eyes. No. This was not a figure, not a shape. I can still see the expression on his face, feel our eye contact. Soon my father noticed I’d stopped talking. “What’s wrong? Hey, you look like you’ve just seen a ghost. [For real he said that.] What’s going on?” I began to cry inconsolably but couldn’t form any words. We got home and walked in the door. “Toscha’s upset about something and won’t talk to me about it. Maybe you can find out what’s going on with her. Cried the whole way home…” my father pronounced to my mother. For hours I could not speak. I could barely breathe. I could only nod “no” during the following interrogation. No, nothing happened at my friend’s. No, no one had done anything to me. No, it wasn’t school. No, it wasn’t a boy. Eventually I gathered myself. “But it’s stupid. … There was a man in the intersection. … And we drove through him. … I mean, you know, through him.” I sat on the ottoman opposite my mother’s chair, collapsed into her lap and resumed sobbing.

“Well, these things happen,” my mother consoled me. Continue reading