Together

I planned to work on my piece for the reading the next day, eat a nice dinner, but instead I lay down and I did not get up.

I took two advil ever two hours, and still my jaw beat and streamed with pain.  I found some old mouthwash and swished with it.  Over and over.

That night I woke up every two hours and took more advil, and I wasn’t sure it was helping.  I had been so energized to march, but suddenly I was stilled.  I started googling and calling dentists’ offices on the phone (a true sign I am in trouble, as I’d rather do almost anything than call anyone).  I found a dentist open on Saturdays.

I lost my debit card last week, so I was going to have to go to the bank, then go to set up signs at the March for our Lives, then go to the dentist, then go back to the March.

This sounded reasonable as I sat on the couch between my sisters, eating the overboiled macaroni one of them had made for me.

In the morning, this was no longer reasonable.

My mom took me to the dentist, my sister went to do the duties I so badly wanted to do.

The dentist gently injected my gum, we waited, and when he returned, he had the offending tooth out before I realized it had happened.  Out.  Gone  They don’t show it to you.  They just say, “Doing okay?”

I was doing okay.  It was at least the 6th tooth I’ve had pulled.

My mom took me to get my antibiotics.  I shuffled along with my mouth full of cotton.  She drove us to the March.

I got there.  I got there and was cold, but heard the kids speak.  And had my signs.  And said hi to some friends  And my gum stopped bleeding.  I sat down on our blanket and leaned on my sister and closed my eyes for a bit.  I was so cold, I asked if we could go to Winstead’s, a Kansas City hamburger institution.

I was not up to marching, cold and woozy from the infection, and I decided this was all right.  Instead of marching, we set our signs in the window and the march marched by us.  About 25% of the restaurant cheered when they started by.  The table next to us also set up their signs.  People waved at us, and cheered.  Someone apologized to the waitress, because shit was kind of crazy, and she said, “I’m glad they’re doing it!”

I sipped my milkshake since I couldn’t use a straw.  Dry socket.

I wished I could have done it all myself.  Instead, it took my mom, my sisters, and about 4,999 other people.

These things, thankfully, we can’t do by ourselves, no matter who we are: the president (thank God), a senator, a charismatic teenager with a fire in the belly.

I was driven to a gathering of teachers, afterward, and I got up to read some writing about two of my former students who were shot.  I could have done a much better job.  If I had been able to keep my mind clear, the night before, if I had rehearsed my reading as much as I usually do.  It was okay.  I got to read.  I got to say something about them.  I am so glad I know so many people who wanted to listen, and to talk, about this particular pain that cuts through our country, again and again.

This is what I said:

Our students were rarely silent.  During the PSATs, and on the very rare occasions Coach punished them with “silent lunch.”  They certainly were never quiet in the gym, where we had pep assemblies.  I only attended pep assemblies when the principal directly directed me to.  Pep assemblies featured pounding music, screams, and as a special bonus, microphone feedback.

But that day, our students sat looking like wax figurines.  It was the Madame Tussaud’s of our school, our faces a little too thin, eyes unlit, mouths loose and closed.  Our social butterflies were pinned, static.  Our class clowns were bare-faced.

Darreon was dead and Eric was paralyzed.  The only sounds was Darreon’s girlfriend.  She sobbed softly, then she wailed, and it sounded so private, so primal, I felt guilty for intruding.

Dead people look waxen.  Eric was not silenced by medication, his spine clipped.  He would need medical care for years.

The gym was not quite our gym.  It was an imitation of our gym, a what-if come true.  After years of cousins and siblings and parents being shot, now it was one of us.  After all the anti-violence talks, the coaching in conflict resolution and making choices.

I held a white coffee cup with a black lid, took a sip of coffee and chicory and half and half, and then I thought: I can’t drink this in here.  No food or drink in the gym.  Of course no one cared.

I had taught Romeo and Juliet as a conflict between fatalism and free will.  Shakespeare would not have been pleased.  Romeo and Juliet could have chosen differently.  Could they?  Have not chosen to argue with or antagonize the kid with the gun?  To drive faster?  To not go to that game?  Or did they, literally, take the bullet for someone else?  I’d never know.  Romeo and Juliet, I said, should have waited.  Waited on their parents’ approval, waited for hte friar’s message.  “Wisely and slow, they stumble that run fast,” the friar said.  No one listens to the friar.

I had the students choose parts each day.  Everyone could get a chance to read the part they wanted.  Except for Eric.  Eric was always the Prince.  He wanted that part.  It suited him.

Some adults spoke to the kids, as if we knew what to think, to say.  No one had to tell the kids to be silent.  They had been silenced.

In that moment, the kids were silenced.

They aren’t any more.

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Truth

Two people told me the truth this week.

I was at an organizing meeting for the March for Our Lives– that’s March 24 at noon at Theiss Park, kids– and someone said, “You can’t use the same model for a new situation, you always have to build a new model,” and I nodded at the wisdom of this, as we stood in the entryway of the 100-year-old library.

Later I thought, oh, hell, no.  Some things last forever!  Some things are stable, rock, like Shakespeare! (said the English major).

Aside: watching a TV show on Queen Victoria, a lady-in-waiting says Shakespeare is too vulgar for a noble audience.  So.

Then I was chatting with someone who was a veteran, and I said, “Is there anything you can say about you experience in Iraq and Afghanistan?” And he said, “It was fun.”

We then discussed War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, which basically explains that people continue to have wars because they are “fun,” well, additive, even.  We agreed that its author, Chris Hedges, was great.

The times they are a’ changin’, and war is fun.

I went to meet with my future graduate program (though I shudder as I write this, because I cannot make a new model).  I was relieved that there were so many people of color, this made me feel safer, in my special weird way of the WASP who feels safer among anyone but her own people.  (My people are scary.)  On campus, in meetings, being “wooed,” as I joked, but we were being wooed, everyone was so quiet and polite and apologetic and welcoming, I felt I was on another (professional) planet.

All these years being a high school (and lately elementary) teacher, I am not used to being treated like a person whose feet might hurt (“Sorry for all the walking,”) or who might be tired (“It must have been a long day”) or who might have something valuable to say (“Do you have any questions?” for the tenth time).  A person who might be hungry (“Let’s get you to the cafeteria, you must be starving”).

It wasn’t that I disliked this, it just felt strange, a contrast between “women’s work, ” teaching children, and “men’s work,” teaching adults.  If you work in “women’s work,” you are treated like shit, and then everyone says you are a saint.  (Thanks, I don’t need to be a saint.)  If you work in “men’s work,” you are treated like a person, and everyone says you are a reasonable guy.  (I’d like to make social justice an important part of my life without being called a fool.)

A new model?

College classrooms are white, white, white, in temperament, in color, in blankness.  I sat in on a class, and everyone was so quiet.  Their values and their vibe are intensely white and middle class.  (I don’t really know what upper class rich people vibes are.)  Everyone exercises self-restraint at all times.  Rarely does anyone get upset.  In a high school classroom, someone is always upset.  Because her boyfriend dumped her, because she is going to lose it if so-and-so interrupts her one more time, because last night he was up half the night with his little sister because his mom works nights and the sister was scared.

In a college classroom, there is nothing to touch, nothing is soft, there are no words on the walls, except words to tell how to work the technology installed.  No one knows who wrote those words, and people expect them to be unclear and frustrating.  No one ever touches anyone.  Even in my high school classroom, I was frequently touching someone on the arm, or the shoulder, to get their attention, and people were frequently brushing up against each other because we moved around in a small space.

I like a high school classroom, and elementary classroom, but also, it exhausts me.

I remember now that when you teach adults, it can be hard to get people talking.  My entire career in education thus far has focused on getting people to please shut up.

“I’m going to– ”

“We’re going to–”

“Okay, I’ll wait a minute.”

“Class, class?”

“One two three, eyes on me.”

(Other than the times my high school kids were discussing in small groups, then, of course, they were silent as Quakers.)

I am still enjoying teaching at one school in the northeast part of Kansas City.  There is great poverty and violence there, but also a lot of immigration, which gives energy and hope, and feels, to me, like New York City energy, since that is where I first felt immigrant energy.

I had my most rambunctious class there, and the first hour, I was worried, because I didn’t figure out how to get their attention.  The first hour, most classes, even wild ones,  will be pretty sedate because they are sleepy, and have not used up much of their patience.  This class had a wild first hour.  This school, though, is a place where a little wildness is not dangerous.  It has a looser vibe.  Anyway, this class, I discovered, liked stories.

I’ve had a class that loved to sing, that if I could just come up with enough songs (“Wheels on the Bus”!) we would have sung all day.  This class liked stories.  When I began a book, everyone’s eyes were on it.

I explained I was going to read “Alexander and the Wind-up Mouse,” by Leo Lionni.  I explained I wanted to read it because I had met Lionni when I was a child, and because his books were about ideas that were so deep even grown-ups struggled with them.

It was beautifully silent, as they waited to hear the story.

War is fun, especially when you win.

Lionni poses the question: would you rather be a  wind-up mouse, who is loved, but then discarded, or a real mouse, who is in danger, hungry, and will die?

Everyone had her own opinion.

Image: detail of “Woman in White,” Picassso, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

 

Right

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I stood between my dad and stepmom and I said, “I just want to do the right thing.”  This is carryover from elementary school subbing.  In the industry, we say, “If you are [standing up/punching a cardboard box/going to get your backpack], you are doing the wrong thing.”

With my dad and stepmom, we were only discussing if I would drive or fly to my stepsister’s wedding, a situation I realized, once I said it, had actually no moral value.  Well, I mean, I was offering to keep my dad company on the drive, or accept his offer of a plane ticket so I could work more days, but.

The school where I subbed on Friday was different.

At least three times, I opened the door to the classroom and stood in the doorway, because I could not figure out what else to do.  Kids were yelling, wandering.  The teacher had left me a thin packet of worksheets, a thick packet of worksheets, iPads, and directions to “not let them get into verbal arguments,” which was… comical.

Let me tell you, there is no way in hell worksheet packets and iPads are going to keep rambunctious third graders occupied for an entire day.

I opened all the cabinets, closets, and found nothing but games without pieces, markers, and (thank heavens) books.

I cruise near this line of feeling like you have enough of the kids’ attention to keep them safe, and then I drift away from it.  Whoa.  They wouldn’t hear me if I said, “Fire, let’s go,” and at any moment, it seems clear, the calling back and forth about your mom could erupt into (third grade) violence.

A girl comes up to me and hugs me.  “I’m sorry,” she says.  “They’re bad.”

What I can’t figure out is, what is the right thing?

I spent seven months at a place labeled one of the worst schools in New York.  Kids called me every profane name in the book, threw things across the room, out the windows, refused to sit, to get up, to shut up, to leave the room, to stay in the room.  Just the volume of the classroom slowly wore down and then tore at my nervous system.

It was so important to me that the kids not see I was threadbare, and never to think they had “won,” because this would mean they had lost, that adults could not protect them from themselves, and this broke my heart.

Only one day did I kind of storm out of the building, and by storm I mean that with two hours left in the day, I went to the secretary and said I had to go, someone would have to take my class for two hours.

That was so, so expensive for me.  Under the surface of healed layers, of the last couple of years I was tutoring, and everyone was always perfectly nice to me, and these last couple of months of subbing, when there were odd moments I thought, oh, boy, I never really saw myself lose it, like you can see your sane self drifting away, like a ghost out of a body in a cartoon.

On Friday, I had one moment I did see that.  Teachers had come by and offered to take kids I had to kick out, but they drifted back eventually, claiming they had been sent back, and I had no idea, and no way to know, if this was true.

A boy had left the room as I asked.  Then he came back.  I opened the classroom door (which I could not lock, from the inside or the outside, school security gurus, FYI, no one cares about the safety of students at a school in this neighborhood).  He was there, and I leaned down, and I knew I wanted to scream at him for being a little shit.  It takes me a long time to get to that point, but it scared me how much I wanted to.

Instead I said, “No.”  And I shut the door.

He came back.  His buddy came back.  I stood in the doorway, as far as I had opened the door, and each of them tried to push me aside, in turn.

“I have to get my backpack,” he said.

“I have to get my stuff,” the other kid said.

I stood in the doorway while they tried to push me out of the door.

It came to be time for “dismissal,” but I had no explanation for how the kids would be dismissed.  Eventually an administrator showed up and helped.  While we waited for another twenty minutes (apparently dismissal was not exactly dismissal), I thought about having a panic attack, and if I should leave and go get my medicine.

I don’t know what of my anxiety mess is from actual life stress, and what is from chemical imbalance, but for sure, being in a room of screaming kids is clearly not great for one’s nervous system.

The right thing.  To stay, and prove to the kids who were so sweet and patient all day, that I wanted to stay?  To stay, and prove to the kids who sometimes were little shits, and sometimes were very sweet, drawing me a picture, or telling me about a little brother, or going to see “Black Panther”?  To go, and say, “Fuck this,” and not feel my blood pressure rising and rising?  Because I can tolerate it, complete the day, show the kids adults can stick in there for them, because I can, I should?

They were paying me about $12 an hour, after taxes, no health insurance, to be the “guest teacher.”

We had a lovely time when I told them to draw pictures.  And when I told them to write stories.  And we played one calm, lovely round of BINGO.

To pay back for privileges unearned. To participate in putting the world back together.  To be a force for healing and not more destruction.  To learn from challenge.  To know that one’s life is about something other than making money and buying more crap.  To approach one of the open, bleeding sores of our broken society, which somehow, always finds plenty of money and care for the rich and the lucky and the white and the strong.

How much work, help, kindness, pays back or shows respect to my dad and stepmom for letting me stay with them, lending me a car?  How much do I owe anyone, everyone?  This idea of owing, of debting and paying and exchange, it always seems to lead to more stress and strain.

Three kids were punching a cardboard box of food from Harvester’s.  I figured it was for them.  They were punching it, hard.  I told them they would stand on the wall at recess.  Five minutes, I said.  I did get each of them to stand there, five minutes, though it was one by one, and after going to get them from the playground.  They deserved consequences.  We don’t punch things.  We don’t punch food.  Punching things leads to punching people.  Punching food is disrespect.  Disrespect for things is disrespect for you.    I don’t know.

I stood outside while kids waited for their parents.  Finally.  Finally.  “What are you going to do this weekend?’ I said to a kid who had been quiet and patient all day.

“I’m going to play with my friend.”

“What do you play?”

“House and tag,” she said.

“How do you play house?”

“I’m the auntie,” she said.  “My friend is the mom.”

“I’m an auntie, too,” I said.  “Whaddaya know.”

Image: late 15th century French door, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Down

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A book about archetypes explained something to me: I am Athena.  Athena is all in her head, a rabid fighter for causes she supports, and doesn’t fret about being a woman because she competes with men brain to brain, and does well.  She measures many things on a completely other scale, so what she cares about, what she uses to measure and plan her life, may seem odd to others.

Another gunman goes into another school and kills and forever traumatizes more people.  See, there’s only power in guns, some people said.  That’s not true.

My dad and stepmom and I went to the hospital yesterday.  My stepmom was having surgery.  I wasn’t sure what my job was, except maybe to make jokes.  When I visit my aunt with dementia, I feel the same calling.  To be a straightforward slapstick and pun comedian is valuable in these settings.

My stepmom is the sort of person who packed us a bag of snacks for her surgery.  Fresh from scratch banana bread and sliced apples.

The hospital is boring.  The nurses are super nice.  Each step takes forever.  I wrote a little, read a memoir that was about the fashion industry, about the lightest thing that could engage me.  I explained to my dad how I wrote the story.

We ate lunch with my dad in the cafeteria.  He kept our table while I got my food, and then he got his food.  The food was terrible.

I tried not to talk to him about politics.  I got him some peanut M & Ms from the gift shop.  I flirted with a one-year-old boy who was practicing walking, doing laps in the waiting room.  My dad lay back and put his hat over his face and listened to a podcast.

When it was time, we went back and helped my stepmom dress.  She had three tiny wounds, and she was groggy and dizzy.  She and the nurse talked about their dogs.

We went home, and the dog had not peed on the floor, which was extremely impressive.

The same day, these other things happened to my siblings: a fire at work, a scan to look for brain tumors, and a bomb threat at work.

Seriously.

What was I supposed to do about those things?  I got those peanut M & Ms?

I watched several hours of a show about British people who visit castles and interact with the castle’s upper class owners.  Then I stood up, and I wanted to rip my chest open so the bats could fly out.

Instead I took a shower.

My aunt is bothered by her bra straps and her shoelaces, and her teeth.

There is so much power in nursing homes, in schools in western Kansas, in hospital waiting rooms.  There is so much care and love and patience.

Two Marys made sense to me: the one at the spring in my old neighborhood of Kansas City.  The Catholic school has a grotto with a little waterfall and a Mary.  It was a special place for me.  Mary has her arms out, hands open, the way many cement Marys are.  She was giving, giving, and open, open.

There was a similar one at the mansion, by the driveway, a cement Mary.  She was there to say hi to when you got home.  Occasionally the wind knocked her over, and I set her back up.  Someone stole her, towards the end of my time there, and I wonder where she went.  She was pretty heavy.  She didn’t blow away.

 

Image: detail, Bronze statue of Minerva, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Lancaster

This was an insistent wind.  I was holding onto the steering wheel, thinking, this isn’t the wind.  It’s the car.  The wheels.  The tire.  I’ll be pushed off the road.

I pass a sign, “Beware Strong Winds.”

After a few hours studying Catherine of Siena at the monastery, I look up how far it is to the town where my great-grandparents’ church is.  A ten-minute drive.  I can’t believe I haven’t looked this up before.

The great thing about going to Lancaster, Kansas, to see the church is that I won’t need directions to see where the town is, or to find the church itself, as the town is maybe thirty buildings, not counting the one that is falling down and has windows covered in memos from the state of Kansas explaining that its owner needs to take it down because it is dangerous.

Between the bustling metropolis of Atchison, Kansas (population 10,000) and Lancaster (population 298, when everyone is home), there is an industrial park with some small places making something.  The color of winter here, when there is no snow, is flowing forevers of a dead, pale gold.  I used to think it was depressing.  Now it reminds me of the colors I like to wear: mustard, grey, shades of dust.  The world could use some red lipstick, but.

I see the cemetery.  There is a gate, and half of it is hanging open.  I just stop the car on the gravel, there is no place to park, there is no need for anyone to park, ever.  There is a small structure for the cemetery equipment, and a rusted pump. I open the car door, and the wind blasts me.  It isn’t cold.  Just strong, so strong.  No one is about.  They are all inside looking at their phones the way everyone is all the time.  Or making Sunday dinner.

I do a few walks up and down before finding the right Schurmans.  There is one couple right by my car, but the ones I am looking for, my great-grandparents and grandfather and a couple of great uncles, they take a little more walking.  My grandfather’s headstone has an airplane carved into it.  It’s by far the coolest gravestone I know of, the most personal, and this is weird, because no one will tell you my grandpa was such a great guy.  A lot of people will be like, well, you know.  There were some good things about him.

The wind blows and blows.  It isn’t cold, and my hair is back the way I always put it back, neatly and without vanity, when I go to the monastery.  The sisters have never seen me with makeup, or wearing prints.  It’s just how I like to be when I’m there.

I kiss my fingers and touch them to my great-grandparents’ headstone.  I knew both of them.  My great-grandma was college educated, and a teacher, and rather mouthy.

I see a poinsettia, a fabric one, that has lost its arrangement, and I pick it up and stick it in the ground in front of my great-grandparents’ stone.  The lipstick.

The other last names in the cemetery are British, Scotch-Irish.  There is one clearly Catholic grave, with a Mary statue on it, but it is a brand-new one.  The oldest grave I can find with a date says eighteen-eightysomething.  (Last letter worn off.)  It isn’t that old of a place.

I get back in the car to make the drive to the church, which is, in New York City terms, truly ridiculous.  Walking is where small towns and New York City meet.  If not for the wind, I would walk the whole town.  Inside a garage, someone has hung a Confederate flag.

I see the Methodist church– that throws me– but then there’s the Lutheran church.  I don’t remember it being so close to the cemetery.  I thought we drove from the church, after funerals, but maybe we didn’t.  Maybe it was because of weather.

My great-grandparents, and my grandfather, rode horses and buggies to this church.  There is a crudely built iron bell tower.  Someone painted it Babe-the-Blue-ox blue, and I wonder whose idea that was.  I peek in one door, and see the entrance has been renovated in the last twenty-five years (drat!), but peeking in another glass door, I see that the entrance to the sanctuary looks exactly the same.  Lowest of low pile brown carpet, steps going up to the sanctuary, where Jesus in a  painting is rising, and above him, a stained glass window with an unchurchy design.  I don’t have any memory of what was at the front of the church.  We spent a lot more time in the basement, having potlucks, than we did in the sanctuary.

I don’t know if this church used to be a Norwegian Lutheran church or a German Lutheran church.  But my great-grandma told me hers was a mixed marriage: German Lutheran and Norwegian Lutheran.  And that they compromised by going to her church, which was Norwegian.  That was the kind of lady she was.

I walk down to the post office, another memorable Lancaster spot.  It is still open, and looking fresh and good.  Next to it is the falling-down building.  Then that fixture of small towns: the insurance agency.  And finally, to my great surprise, there is a restaurant!  It is open!

I have to get back to Kansas City to my cousin’s birthday dinner, but damn, way to go Lancaster!  I can’t wait to go back and get a cup of coffee there and ask some townspeople what’s up.  “I’m a Schurman,” I imagine myself explaining.  “There are a bunch of us up in the cemetery.  I just blew into town.”

Aunts

When I don’t have a sub gig, I visit my Aunt Bettie in the memory care unit.  “Memory Care Unit” sounds disingenuous, as they are not caring for memories, they are caring for people who have tattered and torn memories, memories which are wearing thinner all the time.  Anyway, this week, when I arrive, Aunt Bettie is lying in a fetal position, dressed, but on her bed, just staring.  Usually she is up and singing in the living room.

When people are like, “Does she know you?”  I’m like, “Do I know myself?  Who knows me?” which makes me sound like an ass, but is also actually true.

My great-aunt, Rita, who is on the other side of the family, died last week.

I see my great-uncle Jess at the funeral.  He is the only remaining sibling in my maternal grandfather’s family.  He is 92, walking with a cane, weekly going to coffee at HyVee in Lincoln, Nebraska.  I don’t recognize anything about him except his laugh, which is close to my grandfather’s.  So I tell him this, when I see him sitting to the side, at the party (well, it sort of is) following the funeral.  Any time they gather, my maternal family is loud and gregarious and enjoying beers.  A few of us are looking out the back windows of my mother’s cousin’s house, at deer who are gently eating birdseed out of the neighbor’s bird feeder.  My grandparents had deer who appeared in their backyard, too; they would bless our breakfasts with their delicate calm in the distance.

Jess was the farmer in the family, and I was not taken to the farm as a child.  It was too far, far out in Nebraska.  People met in Omaha.  I went to Omaha.

My mother’s cousin does the ceremony at the funeral home.  He blows a flute, rings a singing bowl, and speaks about mothers and heritage and the divine feminine, and my whole front feels cut off and exposed.  My heart is my whole body.  What he says is true.  Was true.  Is true.  How tenderly his mother cared for people.  How her own troubled childhood wounded her and made her tender.

He talks about how every Halloween, my great-aunt dressed as the Wicked Witch of the West.  For obvious reasons, this blows my mind.  Poof.  When he quotes “Surrender, Dorothy,” I start to cry.  Do you see, she is me?  That she had a life, like I have one, that was beautiful, and is over, and there is nothing to do but let it go?

I struggle to “believe” in God, or Jesus, or whatever, in the last few years, but I continue to believe completely and easily in people.  Some people make it easy and clear to believe.  They keep doing this for me.

My mother’s cousins talk about caring for and interacting with my great-aunt as she progressed with Alzheimer’s.  Three years ago, my grandmother with dementia died.  This year, my aunt moved into the “memory care unit.”

It’s a nice idea, that they are caring for her memories.

I sit and talk with old friends, in a bar we’ve patronized for many years.  The waiter brings a sample of every salad dressing they have, so that we can try them all and figure out which one we used to order, when we went there for happy hour every Friday.  We can’t figure it out.  I think they don’t have it anymore.

I brought face cream to the memory care unit, and spread it on her cheeks and forehead, which are chapped and dry from the winter air.  I let it sit, and then Aunt Bettie rubs it into her own face.

We stand under the burial tent and look at Great Aunt Rita’s casket, with its spray of yellow and purple flowers.  My mom and sister and I take yellow roses and put them on the graves of our people there: my grandfather, my grandmother, and four of my great-grandparents.  My sister cries, which means I don’t, because she’s doing it for both of us, and for my great aunt, my grandmother, and Aunt Bettie.

My grandmother, in her last years, was difficult.  She was angry and scared a lot.  At her funeral, it was hard to remember the person she was before her brain started getting eaten away.  She loved meeting people, chatting with them, she laughed easily.

My mother’s cousin says, “The cemetery guy asked if my dad was an important person.  I said, ‘Why?’ And he said, ‘Because he got a great deal on this plot!'”  My great-grandfather, a mortician, got him the deal.  This meant my mother’s grandparents are all buried right next to each other.  And one set of aunt and uncle.  And her parents.  It’s good to have people in the death business.

I walk up to my aunt and touch her shoulder.  “Hi, Aunt Bettie, it’s Elizabeth, how are you?  Are you okay?”

She would have known about my great-aunt’s death.  She would have wanted to know all about how my mother’s family was doing.  She would have contributed stories about her parents, grandparents, people she knew.  She was our family’s keeper of stories.  I have some of the stories, her children have some, my father has some, and others are lost forever, the way all of us will be, eventually.

At first she smiles.  “Hey!”  But then she says, “Not really.  I’m not okay.”  But she sits up.  I wish I could tell people I am not okay in such a straightforward manner.

“I’m sorry,” I said.  “Can I help you with something?”

“No,” she says.

“Do you want to color in your coloring book?”

“No,” she says.

“Do you want to do a puzzle?”

“Yes,” she says.  I take her hand, and we go to the table.

Image: “Julia Jackson” by Julia Margaret Cameron, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Of Oz

I think this is the longest I’ve gone without posting here.  I wasn’t sure I was, so I wasn’t sure what I had to say.

Or I was nervous about who would be writing here.  So I will give her the third person.

She crumples with sad when the sixth graders start punching each other because the day was almost perfect, why did they have to?  What did she do wrong?

Grins when the kindergarteners dance and jump at their special day of bowling in the gym.

Sees the boy in sixth grade, and the boy in first grade, who are hopelessly behind, and need the teacher’s constant attention, and imagines (with cause) what their high school years will be like.

Sees and knows this is where the grinding, sticky problems of poverty and race are growing in their youngest stages, and that try as they might, the concerned, kindly, hardworking, thoughtful and wise adults there are doing the best they can and poverty and race will not be solved.

Walks the halls of the beautiful school where each classroom is sponsored by a real estate agent or a cafe, and then the halls where the reading center is put in by the football player who did it as community service to compensate for his mistake.  The teachers who are overly thankful because they know a lot of people won’t come to their school.  The grade school with a metal detector.  All the schools with their insane “no concealed weapons” signs outside.

She is hugged every day by kids who just met her.  It’s good.  Apart from the fact that she has been warned never to touch a student for any reason apart from dragging them out of a burning building.

Though it is like putting on favorite gloves to be a teacher again, she may feel at the end of the day her introversion, like, “Stop talking to me, nobody talk to me,” even when the kids are sweet, so sweet.

She arrives at the restaurant, the apartment, the house, the party, and several people say, “Liz!” and hug her, and get her a drink, and surround her in conversation.

On Friday night, she decides if she will go to the movies with her sister, to see her friend’s work at the gallery, have a drink with friends, or just go home and fiddle with the hot glue gun, glitter, cardboard, and duct tape for hours, prepping for Mardi Gras.

The KCMO schools pay the least.  They are the easiest gigs to get.  She doesn’t have the paperwork done to sub in the more affluent districts, and she wonders, driving as she so often does now, around the interstate loop of the city, is she going to do gigs that pay more, in fancier schools, now that she is all in debt, or is she still going to do the work she feels she can do, with kids who need someone so much?  It’s just one day.  It’s just a sub.  Other kids need teachers.

She has to get gas right after teaching at a school in the deep hood.  She drives past a mess of fire trucks and police cars.  The gas station is not a chain.  Across the street is a thrift store with a handmade sign.  You cannot pay at the pump.  Ever.  She likes this place, it’s bereft but free in a way a place no one gives a shit about is free.

Inside the place, a white guy behind the counter is chatting with a black guy, and another guy is hanging around like he has nothing else to do.  “Twenty on four,” she says.  She has more than twenty dollars now, but this seems easiest.  “What’s up with that?” she says.

“Police chase, like a ton of police cars,” the white guy says.  The black guy shakes his head.  There’s one of those cutouts by the door on the way out, a guy who makes her start, thinking he is a guy standing by the door.

“He doesn’t have a dad,” a kindergartner says, cocking her head.  Why does it have to be the black boy?  But it is.

As a sub in an elementary school, she smiles big and hard, especially at the poor schools, because she worries they don’t see enough people happy to see them, not enough people will now, or ever, be happy to see them and praise their enthusiasm and their good manners.  “Very nice manners,” she says.

Sometimes she has to make her voice sharp, or louder, but she saves this for the last hour of the day, which is like the last day of school: do whatever you want, precedents don’t matter anymore.

Until you go back to the same school twice.  Then the kids treat her like a celebrity.  “Miss S!”

It’s Ms S, but no one can say that, so it’s fine.  This is a little bit of the New York City anonymity she used to dread and enjoy.  When on Friday night she was deciding between watching TV or having a drink alone at a neighborhood bar, with a book she’d rather was a person.  (How rarely has she thought that!)

She attends Mardi Gras parties, and people she barely knows, or doesn’t know, are happy to see her and talk about fun times past.  She remembers that evenings in silence, actual silence, with only the art supplies thrown everywhere, doing her messy work, she has no patience, how engaging, how warming.

She says she moved back here from New York City, and people say, “Why?!”

She walks down one flight of stairs in her pajamas to do laundry, instead of three flights down and three blocks over.  She tries to buy her own groceries, but her parents buy them before she can.  Her cat is staying with her sister, so the pet she has is the parents’ dog.  She sings songs to the dog, walks the dog, takes the dog to the nursing home to visit her aunt.  The ladies at the nursing home stare happily, and stare blankly, and some of them are enlivened by the dog, like they were hungry and didn’t know it until they smell garlic being sautéed.

Her aunt has dementia.  There are a lot of things she doesn’t know or understand, but one thing she does know is “The Wizard of Oz.”  She knows who the characters are, says their names: Dorothy, Toto, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, the Wizard of Oz.

Image: “Water Carrier by Moonlight” by Marc Chagall, Metropolitan Museum of Art.