Looking out my old casement windows the morning after the big snow
For nearly a week now I have been confined to my apartment, too wise to take a chance on the icy sidewalks. My balance has gotten bad in the last few years, and I simply don’t dare risk falling. At my age, the price would be high. But staring at my laptop is bad for my eyes, sitting for too long is bad for my spine, missing my daily walks denies me the rush of endorphins that keeps Depression at bay, and living in the fictional world I am weaving separates me from all sense of reality.
The real world narrows to what I see out those windows and to the photographs my son sends me; the frozen Lafayette River out behind his house; my grandson and his mother in the snow.
Before the dawn that shows in the featured image on this blog, I stood inside my dark co-op and snapped photographs of the same outdoor scene through the top of a vase that belonged to my mother, the oddly shaped heads of three women in kerchiefs that a neighbor brought me from Africa, and a plant I am saving.
I am unable to stop writing, unable even to take more than the shortest break for something to eat.
Then I am back at it. Characters enter, speak, ponder their fates, and wander away to make room for other characters to have their say, or to laugh or to weep. This is my mother and her sisters, I remind myself, and they had plenty of cause for weeping, although few of them did–in real life. In the novel, they weep more, are more expressive in general of their emotions. I have to remind myself that these are characters in a novel. Although they are based on my memories of my mother and my aunts and cousins, they are not those people.
Charlotte Cade is not my Aunt Jessie Dean. Charlotte is her own person right from the moment she first makes her appearance. Aunt Virginia isn’t Aunt Margaret, nor is Kendall Ida my mother, Garner Inez. Emily Cade Ainsworth is not Patricia Dean Robertson. Some of them are better, more charming, more principled than their real life counterparts. Some are not. Kendall hears Bill’s voice, and for just that moment believes he is home, but I will never know if my mother heard my father’s voice in the same way.
I periodically lose track of the difference between what happened in my life and what is happening on the page. I ask myself if it matters.
“Right after he bought the land, when I was around ten, Daddy had taken me out in the woods ‘to go squirrel hunting,’ which was his way of teaching me how to sit, perfectly still and quiet, for long stretches of time. Hunting squirrels, for those who don’t know, involves very little hunting and a lot of sitting. We would go out around mid-day, settle ourselves up against a comfortable tree, and wait. If we made noise, of course, the squirrels wouldn’t come near us. Daddy was mindful of the limitations of a ten-year-old and so, in order to make it possible for me to stay the course, he taught me the secret thrill of whispered conversations, and I have never forgotten the intimacy of our hushed voices in the silent woods. “How are you doing, Emily?” he’d whisper.
‘I’m fine, Daddy. My butt itches a little.’
‘Well, baby, you’ll just have to see if you can scratch it without making any noise.’
And I would think it over and usually decide there was no way to accomplish that. In the meantime, it had almost always stopped itching.
‘Do you think the squirrels are scared of us?’
‘No, Emily, I don’t. That’s one thing squirrels know that we don’t. They know how to not be afraid.’
‘How do they know that?’
‘I expect it’s because they live out here in the woods where everything works just right and there’s a fine spirit over all the animals that keeps them from thinking bad thoughts.’
‘May I have the squirrel tails for my collection?’
‘Yes, ma’am. And how’s that collection coming along?’
‘Twelve squirrel tails and eight rabbit tails.’
‘Not too bad, Emily. Not too bad, at all. And that’s probably another reason the squirrels aren’t scared of us. They know we don’t forget them.'”
“I am sixteen years old, and I am standing in front of a coffin looking at the first dead body I have ever seen. The body in the coffin is my father who looks good, I suppose. I don’t have any other dead bodies to compare him to. I hear the adults in the family, and some friends, saying that.‘Bill looks good, don’t you think?’
‘Heck, he looks darned good.’
‘Handsome as ever.’
‘Why you’d hardly even know he’d passed.’
If I had not been apparently struck completely mute during the week since my father died, I might have had a thing or two to say by way of rebuttal. Seriously? ‘You’d hardly even know’?
I can say one thing absolutely for certain. I would know. I do know. I did know the minute I saw him. ‘He needs his glasses!’ I nearly shouted.
What kind of imbecile would say that he couldn’t tell a living person from a stone dead body?”
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