Well, isn't life a mystery -- like anyone needs to be reminded of that. Here I sit, slurping down my second giant cup of coffee, and squabbling with myself about what I should write today -- something new? Or should I post one of the things I've cached away? Decisions, decisions...
But, oddly enough, the fact that it's Wednesday has an unexpected resonance. Let's just see where this takes us. I might not be so surprised, but some of you might be. (Oh, just knowing that someone's out there -- priceless...)
Wednesday -- Wodin/Odin's day. King of the Norse Gods. Wounded and still in charge. Interesting, now that I think of it, that the Vikings would worship a one-eyed god, a god who sacrificed his vision, for the sake of wisdom. I guess I shouldn't complain about needing reading glasses.
I was born on a Wednesday. This is supposed to make Wednesday a day of special significance for me. I'm not sure how that has played out, in general, over my lifetime. (I've always prefered Fridays, to be perfectly honest)
I was born on Wednesday, October 16th, as a matter of fact. (Not trolling for birthday greetings, just meandering along) At 3:40 in the afternoon, in St. Margaret's Hospital, in Montgomery Alabama. St. Margaret, by the way, is the patron saint of childbirth, and in early Renaissance paintings, she often shows up as a dragon. Having only heard, once, on the radio, a live broadcast from a maternity ward, with the announcer blandly going on about something, and one woman in the background screaming incoherently, in a fashion I had never thought possible from a human being, I think a dragon is pretty appropriate.
On October 16th, from about the age of five or six, I was allowed to pick what I wanted for my special birthday dinner that night. In spite of her fairly universal plan of parental neglect, my mother did seem interested or amused enough to follow through with my preferences: breaded, french-fried shrimps, french fried potatoes, and lima beans. All of which, to my eternal shame, I would douse with ketchup. (It was Illinois in the 50's -- I don't think Grey Poupon had crossed the Atlantic just yet)
The highlight of the meal, however, once the ketchup had been wiped from the face, was The Cake -- a white angel food cake, with pink, almond-flavored frosting. I have no idea how I discovered angel food cake, but with its spring airiness, it has always struck me as almost abstract -- an imaginary food, like manna in the dessert. Only sweet. The pink frosting was, in some way I think, an inducement for my mother to follow through with her promises for once -- pink being her favorite color, as she freely admitted all the time. "I'm going to have a big pink Cadillac," she would say, in her cultivated, slightly skewed Southern accent, "and live in an apartment in New York City, right there on Park Avenue." (Tennessee Williams might not have loved my mother, had he known her, but he certainly would have found room for her in at least one scene or another)
The almond flavoring? It smelled the same as my mother's Jergen's Lotion. I suppose, in some sense, I was creating my own primitive version of communion, once a year -- consumed with love for a woman whose chief attribute was indifference, I had at least one annual chance to act out that passion, to build up, inside myself, a reserve of this adored woman, who seemed determined to distance herself as much as possible. The Park Avenue apartment (wherever that was), wouldn't have room for children.
(I did have one birthday party, on Oct. 16th -- probably not a Wednesday, but still -- and there were maybe five other little kids there, from my second-grade class, plus Wanda, the girl next door, whose nasty blond cocker spaniel, though always chained outside to the garage, was the terror of the neighborhood. At some point during this party, maybe while the plates were being cleared away and the pink, candle-lit cake was floating down, one of those kids passed a bit of chicken pox along to everyone else. Including me. And my three brothers and my sister. Meaning that, within days, my brothers and I were locked in a dark bedroom, until the itching stopped and the blotches went away)
(No birthday parties after that. Ever)
Wednesday, October 16th.
Years later, long after the chicken pox, I was living in western Pennsylvania, in the smallish three-bedroom house (one bath, for... 6 people? How did we do it?) my father and step-mother had bought with the proceeds of the sale of my step-mother's prized maroon Mercury convertible. Which exchange was made, so that my three brothers could be brought from the United Presbyterian Children's Orphanage, and we would all surely have a nice, Disney-style suburban life. Reading circles were envisioned.
But things didn't go so well, after the car-house swap. My father lost his new job, filling vending machines with candy bars, and stocking coffee makers in office buildings in Pittsburgh -- he brought the used coffee grounds home, and we had a pile of them outside the outside basement door, which grounds were to become compost, which was never put to any use that I can recall. And at about the same time my father was bringing home the last of the free compost material, my step-mother became pregnant with her first child.
Stress fought with oxygen for dominance in the atmosphere of that house, and oxygen didn't always win. In an on-going effort to control four young boys -- I was the only one over ten -- my desperate parents devised and revised and implemented and revisited a wide range of rules and regulations and specific behaviors and prohibitions, none of which seemed to last for more than a few days at most, many of which contradicted those of the week before, and none of which my little brothers could obey. Punishments came and went. Beatings were showered upon little shoulders and butts and legs. There was an egg timer on the dining room table, and we ate to its ticking -- woe, should there be an unswallowed mouthful when the timer went off.
(I'm getting to the Wednesday part again, you know) (Even Wednesday, October 16th)
My chief refuge at the time was school -- a one-story brick elementary school, a short bus-ride from the top of our hill. I flourished at school -- there, the rules were dependable, the rewards consistent, the results of effort reliable, and the relief from the relentless tension in my home beyond telling. The school had a little library, and I could take home a book or two, every week, to use as shelter (as long as I appeared to have homework, I was somehow exempt from the madness that was otherwise steady and rampant). For some reason, for a while I picked my reading from a series of short biographies, aimed at children, about famous women in world history. I learned about Marie Curie and radium. I studied about Cleopatra, wondered at death by asp, and even gave a paper about her to my class. The next one in the series, bound in a pale green cloth cover, was the life of Marie Antoinette.
Glamorous. Silly. Dazzling, with all those diamonds. Unnervingly tragic, with that near-escape at Varennes, caused in part by dithering, and in part because she couldn't understand not traveling in regal style. (I still accuse myself of belonging to the 'Marie Antoinette school of packing', which means that, when I travel, I take along everything within reach) Harrowing, with her family's imprisonment in Paris. And ultimately, unbearable, with the image of her sitting, her cropped hair white now with grief instead of powder, sitting in a plain wooden cart with her arms secured behind her back, lurching along the cobblestone streets, to her execution. At about 10 am, on a Wednesday, the 16th of October, 1793.
I must have read that book at least eight or ten times, hoping, somehow, that it would end differently. The coincidence of day and date -- her gruesome dying, my dragon-guarded birth, even if they were centuries and cultures apart -- made me feel somehow guilty, and complicit. I suppose that, on some romantic level, and despite the difference in gender, I identified with this unfortunate woman, who, without effort or care, through mere accident of birth, had had so much, and then had it all taken away from her, to the very breaking of her body.
But back now to the hills of western Pennsylvania, 1959, as the steel mills churned, and and our home life careened madly along...
As I mentioned, the rules under which my brothers and I lived were so whimsical and ever-changing that, even with my best efforts, I couldn't avoid breaking some of them myself. And as I suppose is natural, I developed a preference for some punishments arising from the breaking of these rules and regulations. My favorite -- if you can call it that -- was to be sent to the room I shared with two of my brothers, and my step-mother's cousin Gerard (the only real orphan in the family, and who never saw an institution, that I know of), where for an allotted time, or until someone decided that I'd learned my lesson, I had to sit, alone.
Alone. All alone. All, all alone.
Or so they thought. What 'lesson' was to be learned, I could never understand. But I as soon as I sat down, on the grey kitchen chair with the torn vinyl covering, I began to relax. I would look up into the corner, where the white ceiling met the pale blue walls, and begin saying, over and over to myself, 'Marionette, Marie Antoinette, marionette, Marie Antoinette, marionette...' Over and over. Over and over.
I don't know how long it took, or how it happened, but that litany of words reliably transported me, every single time, to someplace far, far away. I can't tell you, now, what I saw, or what I did, or where I might have been. Someplace, perhaps, where helpless dolls escaped from their strings, or where pretty, doomed women gave their merciless pursuers the slip. Maybe a lush royal garden, with a fountain in the background, and a game of badminton on the lawn, and off to one side, sitting on a little table, cherry-scented pink cakes. Wherever it was that I went, though, that torn grey vinyl chair was as effective for me as the most luxurious magic carpet. Whatever day it was, whatever the weather, that little mantra was a rope ladder, going up into the light. And the allotted time, the onerous duration of this dread punishment for some trivial, imaginary offense? It was never long enough.
© 2011 Walter Zimmerman