I have often spoken of my mother’s love of perfume, but I suppose I never considered where that might have stemmed from. A peek at her mother’s–my grandmother’s–perfume tray reveals a shimmering collection full of both beautiful bottles and a small number of beloved scents, and I think this is an interesting glimpse of the woman herself. A lover of birds and cut glass and loyal in her lifetime to a scant handful of fragrances, her influence has clearly inspired several generations.
My great-grandmother wasn’t the type (that we know of) to go in for the vanities of this world. She was, to quote my youngest sister, into “rhubarb pie and good bread and Baptist churches.” I imagine her only daughter though, one girl among seven brothers and after spending so much time among so many males, probably developed a fondness for whatever frivolities were available to her. A love which would grow, slowly, and steadily and sensibly over time.
It must be said that, that although this love of fine things was passed down through my grandmother to both my mother and I…well, the good sense–not so much.
Towards the back of that mirrored tray is a bottle of Youth Dew by Estée Lauder. I have no idea how old it is, or when my grandmother last wore it, but my guess is that it’s been around for a great, long while, sadly unused.
Youth Dew is a scent from childhood visits to my grandparent’s home in Ohio, when I was very young. I would spend the whole weekend there, watching Dallas and Hee Haw with my grandfather, or helping my grandmother make a pot of chicken and dumplings…there must have been a lot of reading and walks in the woods and no small amount of undignified begging of the grandparents to take me to the toy store for something new.
Usually, at least once per visit, I would convince my grandmother to allow me to rifle through her jewelry box. This was a small but crucial ritual for me at that young age– I’d usually threaten that I wouldn’t be able to fall asleep without it! Permission granted, I would then begin the process of removing the sparkling brooches and dangling earrings and line them up one by one, pretending that I was a fancy grown up lady, and I had my choice among baubles for a ball. The truth was, I probably would have worn all of them at once, to bed, if I could have gotten away with it.
The scent of that box of jewels, a sort of musty, metallic tang, is entangled in my memories of Youth Dew. The fragrance was, as I recall, a strange witches brew of heady, formidable glamour and unexpected comfort. It’s been over 30 years since I’ve smelled it (I couldn’t even bring myself to uncap it and sniff the sprayer this past weekend, when I took the photograph featured above) and so my memory may be playing tricks on me. The comfort might have been from the bosomy grandma-hugs, and not the perfume at all, but I couldn’t tell the difference then, and I suspect I can’t today, either.
Youth Dew is described as a heavily spiced oriental, and apparently everyone’s grandmother wore it–to the extent that I think it’s often described as a “grandma/old lady scent”. I personally hate that phrase, for what it’s worth, but I also do not think there’s really anything “youthful” about the scent. With notes including bergamot, peach, aldehydes, clove, rose, ylang-ylang, frankincense, amber, tolu, benzoin, oakmoss, and vetiver (and many more, I left a lot out), its aura has always seemed to me one of aggressive grandeur and luxury, the kind that takes a certain maturity to pull off.
Recently, in conversations with a fellow fragrance enthusiast, I was bemoaning my lack of knowledge regarding the technical language in describing perfumes. Most of the time I couldn’t tell you if something smells indolic or lactonic or if it is a soliflore or if it’s the original or reformulated. But you know, my brain doesn’t really break things down like that. Sure, I guess it would behoove me to educate myself more fully on notes and their nuances and learn how to recognize those facets of a scent, but I’m pretty sure I’d continue to process them and talk about them as I always have.
So while I can tell you that it’s a sticky, darkly balsamic scent, a warm resinous amber, and a bit of powdery vanilin at the dry down, what I really mean to say is that it smells like a velvet backed, diamond choker. Or, basically, like this:
I can’t say for certain that’s what my grandmother was going for, but 30 years later my own love for baubles and jewels has not lessened one bit, so maybe I do need to spritz myself liberally next time I visit. I sincerely doubt I will ever have any such riches or glittering trinkets in my own jewel box and the imagery summoned by a luxe waft of Youth Dew is as close as I am likely to get.
I’ve been beating myself up about something for several years now and I honestly don’t know what to do about it. Every atom in my body that loves its comfort zone and drama-free existence is screaming at me “LET IT BE, YOU MORON!” but I am feeling like a crappy human being for this decision.
I have some unresolved issues with a parental figure in my life. I don’t want to get into all of the details because I am not always sure who is reading this, but I will say that he was there for my sister and I when we really needed him. He stepped up, as they say, in a really big way–and he did not have to do that. But he did. We had a roof over our heads and food to eat and the best bit of stability that he could provide while our lives were in a great deal of upheaval.
Later, he provided me with what would come to be the best job that I would ever have. Of course at this time in my life if I were still working for him I would be an utter pauper, but at that time it was enough to pay for my small apartment and my few bills and it worked out quite nicely. It was just the two of us working there, and most days it was really just me, and a storage facility of rare books. I will never forget how happy I was amongst those musty old companions and how grateful I was to have that job.
I moved away and the business closed. After that, I am not exactly sure what happened. He made a series of (what I would perceive to be) bad choices in lifestyle and relationships and I don’t think things worked out very well for him. Well, to be honest, I think he had made some not-so-great decisions long before that–who knows, maybe he considers being involved with my mother one of them.
When I moved back to FL, he was 50+ years old and saddled with two twin babies; their mother, with whom he had been involved for a few years and who was my age (which honestly sort of freaked me out), had overdosed. At least I think that’s what happened, I am not entirely clear on that point. He was living in a crappy apartment in a shitty part of town and due to some health issues which I suspect were entirely lifestyle related, was in chronic pain.
My sister, her husband, and I visited him upon my return. It was a strange, upsetting visit. He seemed strung out, not entirely all there. He pressed us, almost frantically, to go next door to the liquor store and pick him up some cheap booze. It was a very uncomfortable, disconcerting visit, especially considering the small babies that he was taking care of on his own. Babies, which I thought at the time, looked small for their age and, in my memory of the event seemed underfed, but I think that’s probably just because I was upset. I have seen photos of them since, and they looked just fine.
In any event, I walked out of that apartment that day and haven’t spoken with him again. Typing it out just now, that looks awfully cruel and unforgiving of me, I guess. No one’s perfect. Everyone has their demons. Am I punishing a loved one because I happened to witness him losing to his demon on a particular day?
This man was a huge part of my life growing up–in a good way–and I was so quick to shut him out. Why have I been so hard-hearted about this? I know that both of my sisters still talk with him, so if they can get over it, why can’t I? He has expressed some hurt feelings over my reluctance to talk with him or see him, and I wish I could articulate to him exactly why I have felt this way.
I am starting to suspect it is as much to do with me as him. I think, at that time, I was very vulnerable. I had just gotten out of a situation that was very bad for me; I had left New Jersey and arrived back in FL not two weeks before, and I immediately encountered him acting in a way that made me extremely uncomfortable. (And now I think about it, he was acting a lot like my mother when she was drunk and acting nuts – so that has something to do with it too, I am sure).
Over time, and in my memory ,this brief afternoon visit has become weirder and more distressing and I suppose I have chalked this up as a valid reason to end a relationship.
I think he’s gotten his act together since that day five years ago. I see his photos on facebook; he’s a proud papa and always sharing pictures of his twins and what they are up to. I hope things are looking up for all of them. I really want the best for him. I have never hated him. I think I was only terribly afraid. And not even afraid of him, but rather for him.
And I am left with this: that was an awful time to abandon someone.
I think I have waited so long because I am just so goddamned ashamed of myself, and at this point I just don’t even know what to do.
This was originally written for After Dark In The Playing Fields, back in 2010. I thought I would share it here today, as I recently saw this book again at my sister’s house and it has of late been in my thoughts.
I am really at a loss as to how to properly introduce the following item from my past. There are some memories of beloved childhood belongings that just Make Sense – a cherished stuffed animal, for example: a once sweet-faced and shiny marble-eyed bunny rabbit, worn down to rags and nubs from time spent dragging it to and fro through sandboxes, bathtubs and brambles.
Not only did I love this Bunny -I know she loved me too. She loved me so much, I am absolutely certain that she did not mind when, 30 years later – just this past May – I buried her under an old oak tree with my wonderful little cat who had just died. They had both provided comfort and companionship and happiness for me for so many years, it only made Perfect Sense to me to keep them together.
It is fitting then, one should look back at these treasured keepsakes, these fond remembrances and feel a pleasant rush of happiness and harmony. Of feeling safe and at peace. Of the world Making Sense.
Crash Helmet is definitely not one of these items. Even as children, when presented with this book, I recall my sister and I wearing identical looks of abject horror while thumbing through it. I am not sure who gifted it to us, but to this day I wonder what on earth they must have been thinking. I realize that most children’s books are full of crazy, nonsensical plots and unusual characters – that is what makes them so much fun for young people to read, and so memorable many years later. This one however seems particularly demented, and two more wildly unattractive protagonists I have never seen.
A story by Harry Allard and illustrated by Jean-Claude Suares, Crash Helmet follows Elmer, a suave and lonely vulture who runs a gas station in New Mexico who meets Violet, a 5000 year old mummy on a motorcycle. Violet “is charmed by Elmer’s smooth dancing and Elmer is awed by Violet’s fearlessness.” As the two of them try to eke out a living in the desert, they discover “that what they lack in common sense they more than make up in imagination and daring”.
I am not sure it is often that one can trace back to the exact moment the world wobbled, tilted, and subsequently righted itself, but this is as close as it gets for me…. I believe that from that time on my perception of things were a bit skewed for it. This is not all a bad thing, of course! Obviously we had not encountered much weirdness in our lives up until this point, but after repeated, repulsed readings, we grew more and more appreciative of it and the absurdity contained within. I think it probably contributed to our general eccentricities as we grew older!
Of course, we had since lost the copy that we grew up with. I was recently lucky enough to track down another, and surprised myself by how excited I was to tear open the small package and hold the book in my hands again. Having scanned the pages in (the rest you can find below), it is at this moment wrapped in brown paper and in the post on its way to my sister. She is not expecting it, and I cannot imagine what she will think when she opens the package.
I hope though, she will smile and exclaim “This old thing! This strange old thing! How I loved it – how happy I am to see it again.” I hope that after the unusual twists and unexpected turns our lives have taken since that time, she finds comfort in it, as perhaps A Thing That Now Makes Sense.
Vögguvísa, a commissioned work of art by Becky Munich
Many years ago, when my sister and I were very young, my mother would sing us bedtime songs as she tucked us in for the evening. Well, my sister really. The little lullabye wasn’t for meant me, but I listened from the twin bed on my side of the room and was comforted by it anyway.
As my younger sibling lay sleepily, clutching a faded pink crocheted afghan in one small hand and a red wooden rooster named “Wolf” in the other, my mother crooned to her in soft, low tones:
“Well, a-hee hee hee and a-ha ha ha, and a couple of ho ho hos…”
Not much of a lullaby really. Who knows what it meant? Harmless nonsense that she made up to send a fussy child off to dreams, most likely.
Older now, and having a lifetime of observing my mother (and yet still not really knowing the woman at all), I found myself growing vaguely uneasy the other evening, wondering what exactly she might have been thinking about as a young single mother – and a very troubled woman -singing her children to sleep on a moonless night in the suburbs.
Bíum, bíum, bambaló, Bambaló og dillidillidó. Vini mínum vagga ég í ró, en úti bídur andlit á glugga.
“Beeum, beeum, bambalow, Bambalow and dillidillidow. I rock my friend to sleep, but outside there’s a face in the window.”
From faces looming at windows, to desperate outlaw women throwing their babies into the waterfulls, to black black-eyed pigs in the pits hell*, it would seem that, paradoxically, Icelandic lullabies are the stuff of nightmares, tragic and terrible. Why is that? Why sing of such things to your precious wee ones? And are Icelanders alone in their penchant for soothing their children to sleep with melancholy melodies of murder, mayhem, and madness?
In researching lullabies in different parts of the world, I unearthed an intensely interesting article from 2013, Why Are So Many Lullabies Murder Ballads? in which ethnomusicologist and UCLA lecturer Andrew Pettit, whose research has focused on lullabies from India, asserts that “you can take any song, slow it down and sing it to your kid to help them sleep.”
A study published in the journal Pediatrics in April 2013 found that live lullabies slowed infant heart rate, improved sucking behaviors that are critical for feeding, increased periods of “quiet alertness” and helped the babies sleep. Researchers followed 272 premature infants in 11 hospitals and found that the music, provided by a certified music therapist, offered stress relief for the parents too. The study concluded that “lullabies, sung live, can enhance bonding, thus decreasing the stress parents associate with premature infant care.”
As an explanation for the dark lullaby, it is said that “…it is that voice and the rhythm and melody of the music that the youngest babies respond to, not the content of the song. Is it the case then, that the words are as much for the parent as for the child? That the mother is singing as much to herself as to the baby? Lyrics to lullabies, Pettit said, can indeed be interpreted as a reflection of the caregiver’s emotions.”
“People have said that lullabies are the space to sing the unsung,” Pettit said. “A place to say the unsayable. You’re alone. Nobody is listening, and you can express the feelings that are not okay to express in society.”
“There is a special physical bond between mother and child in the first year of life, in which mothers feel they can sing to their child about their own fears and anxieties, but in the safety and comfort of physical togetherness,” Blythe said.
In particular, lullabies embody a mother’s fear of loss, said Joanne Loewy, lead author of the April 2013 study in Pediatrics and director of the Louis Armstrong Center for Music and Medicine at Mount Sinai Beth Israel hospital in New York.
The article goes on and on, citing many examples from cultures all over the world in which lullabies and cradle songs are grim, macabre affairs: “…an Italian lullaby about a wolf devouring a lamb until “the skin and horns and nothing else remain.” An Andalusian lullaby about a rider who “led his horse to water but would not let him drink.” And a Turkish lullaby about a mother mourning her baby after an eagle has torn it to pieces, karmic punishment when the father fails to fulfill his vow of sacrificing three camels.” (And it would seem in the time I started writing this blog post, mentalfloss has put together a list of creepy lullabies from all over the world, as well.)
And of course here in America “…there’s “Hush Little Baby” with its broken mirrors, fallen horses and mockingbirds that won’t sing. “Rock-a-Bye Baby” ends with an uncertain prognosis — death? injury? — after a cradle containing a baby plummets from a treetop.”
Themes of separation, isolation, of fear and loss are common to all cultures and repeatedly show up in these cradle songs, and even the comments on this article offer some interesting insights:
“It seems to me people are thinking of this outside of the context. The child is warm, safe, in bed, attended by parents. The song, the lullaby, is clearly about a different child, a child that is outside of hearth and home, a child that is untended, alone – “in the tree tops”. The child is comforted in contrast to the child in the song, at the same time social values are reinforced.”
“…Or it could be that being sole (or almost sole) caretaker of an infant is a very demanding job, however rewarding. For those first couple of years, you’re exhausted beyond belief, you lose nearly all privacy, your life disappears as you become the watchful eyes, ears, and lifeline of your small charge. You cannot express any sorrow or fear you have about losing yourself openly, and you surely cannot take it out on that little one whom you truly do love more than you love yourself. And so you sing words you would never say and don’t really mean, but it’s a safety valve of sorts.”
SO interesting! I could read about this sort of thing all day…and I don’t even have children.
In Monsters of Our Own Making: The Peculiar Pleasures of Fear By Marina Warner, the author mentions studies regarding benefits of cradling a baby on the left side versus the right, with left-side cradling attributed to the placement of the heart, beating and pulsing rhythmically, lullaby-like, to pacify the infant. However, observations have shown that the preferred sound of both the fetus and the infant is the mother’s voice, not the heartbeat at all.The hypothesis takes as it’s premise the bilateral division of function in the brain where language, expression and communication are concerned: a baby’s brain, as it grows, learns to read facial expressions and to understand pitch and tonality with the right side of the brain, which is connected to the left ear and eye; by contrast, verbalization is linked to the left hemisphere and the right ear and eye. Consequently, this line of inquiry proposes that a baby cradled on the left, with the left ear and eye free will be “…absorbing facial and vocal expressiveness, independent of verbal meaning.
Warner cites a “strikingly harsh” example from an old Icelandic song “Móðir mín, í kví, kví”, which may clinch the argument about the phonetic importance of lullabies and nonsense songs and nursery rhymes:
The story goes thusly…
A young woman who lived on a farm became pregnant. After giving birth to the child she set it out to die of exposure, not an uncommon act in this country before it became punishable by severe penalties. Now one day it happened that the young woman was invited to a dancing party. However, she had no good clothes, so she stayed at home in a sour mood. That evening, while milking the ewes in the fold, she complained aloud that for the want of a proper dress she could not go to the party. She had scarcely spoken when she heard the following song:
Móðir mín í kví, kví,
kvíddu ekki því, því; ég skal ljá þér duluna mína duluna mína að dansa í, ég skal ljá þér duluna mína duluna mína að dansa í.
(English) Mother mine, in the fold, fold
You need not be so sad, sad. You can wear my castoff rags, So you can dance, And dance.
The young woman who had let her child die of exposure thought that she recognized its voice. She took such a fright that she lost her mind and remained insane the rest of her life.
According to Warner, it may be that passing on of distinctive sounds, singing on behalf of another, ascribing speech and babble to the infant and for the infant, transmitting cadence and language, telling the child of imaginary fates it has avoided, or sometimes of fortunes lying ahead…are some of the earliest formulators of omniscient thought near a child forming that child’s fears and longings on it’s behalf.
As for myself, who knows what fears or longings my own mother had when we were too young to know or recognize such concerns. She is no longer with us, and the opportunity to ask her these things has passed me by. If nothing else, listening to her sing to us – whether to sleep in the evenings, or while washing our hair over an old sink in our dark basement – taught me a deep love of singing, and song, and music itself.
I wish…I wish we could have learned some of these strange, foreign lullabies together. I think she would have appreciated the sad melodies, the grim stories, and haunting imagery they conjure. Maybe I’ll learn them anyway. I don’t have any children, but perhaps one day I shall sing them to my mother, a ghost who never really grew up, though she did eventually grow old. I think she would love this one as much as I do.
Sofðu unga ástin mín. Úti regnið grætur. Mamma geymir gullin þín, gamla leggi og völuskrín. Við skulum ekki vaka um dimmar nætur. Það er margt sem myrkrið veit, minn er hugur þungur. Oft ég svarta sandinn leit svíða grænan engireit. Í jöklinum hljóða dauðadjúpar sprungur. Sofðu lengi, sofðu rótt, seint mun best að vakna. Mæðan kenna mun þér fljótt, meðan hallar degi skjótt, að mennirnir elska, missa, gráta og sakna.
Sleep, my young love. Outside the rain is weeping. Mummy is watching over your treasure, an old bone and a round case. We should not stay awake through dim nights. There is much that darkness knows, my mind is heavy. Often I saw black sand burning the green meadow. In the glacier cracks are rumbling deep as death. Sleep for a long time, sleep quietly, it is best to wake up late. Sorrow will teach you soon, while the day is quickly decaying, that men love, lose, cry and mourn.
Here is Damien Rice singing a not very traditional version of it, I reckon.
And lastly, I’d like to share some music from a group of young Icelandic musicians whom I stumbled across several years ago, Samaris. The first song I ever heard by them, Vögguljóð, translates as lullaby, and that is their general sounds as well: ethereal, clarinet-led electronica, conjuring images of cold nights, snow dusted firs, blinking stars and aurora, enchanted liminal spaces. The first video is the original version of the song, and the second, I believe is the re-worked version for their album.
* RE: black eyed pigs and such: when originally reading the article that sparked my interest in this, I was particularly intrigued by the mention of this portion of a lullaby:
Sofðu nú svínið þitt, svartur í augum. Farðu í fúlan pytt, fullan af draugum
Which translates to
Sleep, you black-eyed pig. Fall into a deep pit of ghosts.
The more I read, the less I am convinced that this is an actual traditional lullaby. In some places it is noted as a 19th century lullaby translated by W.H. Auden, and in others I gather it is somehow attributed to Halldór Laxness, a beloved Icelandic author and poet. A mystery!
I’d forgotten that a million years ago, I’d made a little Amazon referral store. Well, now it’s been updated! If you’re ever interested in picking up any of the cinema, literature or music that I mention, you might find it here.
To be perfectly honest, I have no idea how it works. But if you find something I’ve list that you have an interest in, and purchase it, and then somehow I get credit for it toward some other purchase? Well that’s pretty good. I’m much obliged to ye.
As I am currently traveling, one of my wonderful sisters has been kind enough to write a thoughtful guest post for Unquiet Things. Read more about this brave, sweet, sensitive soul over at Under The Shadow Of The Mountain.
“You’ve haunted me all my life
You’re always out of reach when I’m in pursuit
Long winded then suddenly mute
And there’s a flaw in my heart’s design
For I keep trying to make you mine…”
-Death Cab for Cutie
“Where do you come from?”
It’s a common enough question, and simple enough, too. So why don’t I have a simple answer? “I live in California,” I tell people. “But I was born in Ohio, and I grew up in Florida. But I’m FROM Indiana.” Why do I tell people that, when I only lived in Indiana for two years; when really, it’s my mother and her father and his father and so on, back to 1820, who are from there? How can I be from there?
I’m from there because, quite simply, Indiana has haunted me since I was a child. It haunted me each time I asked my grandparents to tell me about the “olden days” growing up on the farm in the Depression. It haunted me when I looked out at the humidity-choked Florida summers and wondered what it was like to experience seasons. It haunted me when I gazed up at at the popcorn ceiling in our 3 bedroom-2-bath Florida ranch-house, and imagined what it would be like to live in an old farmhouse or bungalow. It haunted me as I told people we came from “Good Midwestern farmer stock.” It haunted me and it never quit, until, when I was 24, I made the decision to move to Indiana for grad school and to stop wondering, dammit, and start living. And of course, I fell in love.
What wasn’t to love? I was besotted with a Hoosier boy, who was agreeably besotted back. I was enchanted by the silent, eerie glow of fireflies on summer nights. I got excited by cornfields, for god’s sake. I dragged Hoosier Boy around to just gawk at old houses. The often-dilapidated barns–hundreds, maybe even thousands of them–across the state never failed to impress me, the way they endured neglect for decades and still stood, quietly dignified. The unreal, vivid green of springtime dazzled me, even as the thunderclouds from potentially deadly spring storms roiled overhead and the tornado sirens wailed their weird warble across the countryside. The absurd county fairs, notorious for deep-fried anything, bemused and beguiled me in equal portions. Our family history began to intrigue me, especially when I found out that my great-great grandparents were buried one county over. I eventually made the cheesy remark to Hoosier Boy that I was “exploring the land of my past with the man of my future.”
But of course, love is complicated. And there has always been enough of the academe-trained liberal in me to know that there were parts of Indiana that would never, will never, sit well with me. The work ethic and the courtesy of Middle Americans are no myth, but neither is their stoic reserve–and for an in-your-face, say-everything kinda gal like me, I never felt like I fit in. There are strong conservative elements (I’ll avoid other, more judge-y terms) in Indiana that have definitely presented themselves on an embarrassingly national stage recently, that made and make me feel uncomfortable at best and ashamed at worst.
But I never stopped loving Indiana.
Not even when I had to leave to nurture my career and nurse a broken heart. That was almost ten years ago now, and believe it or not, my heart is still broken. Or perhaps it just yearns for what it can’t have–a settled, anonymous kind of life, in Middle America, in an Indianapolis suburb.
The late and great David Foster Wallace once said, Every love story is a ghost story. And in its most basic, broken-down form, this is truth. When you love someone, you give them the power to haunt you, should you ever lose them. And if the people we love can haunt us, can linger and haunt places, I think it stands to reason that places can haunt people, too. Indiana certainly haunts me.
Recently one of my sisters and I, along with our significant others, embarked on a road trip that involved a lot of car time. This was of course much different than the journeys of our youth where we relied on coloring books and sticker albums for entertainment; no, in present day we instead spent most of the time staring at our phones and ignoring each other. My sister, however, rediscovered a website she had found ages ago, Cliquey Pizza – a blog focused on 80’s YA books series & pop culture – and we took turns scrolling through the blog, getting more and more excited as we unearthed beloved gems from when we were younger.
My reading was never censored as a child; I was encouraged to read whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. By 5th and 6th grade I was reading Stephen King and Clive Barker and HP Lovecraft, Robert Heinlein and Richard Matheson. In retrospect…did I understand the nuances of the stories I was reading? Was I able to digest the philosophies or relate to the characters? Probably not fully, but I certainly related to these stories more closely than I did to blonde-haired, blue-eyed Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield from the Sweet Valley High books that most other girls my age were reading, that’s for sure.
Despite the fact that I could roam where ever I wished within the library, I often found my way back to the young adult section when I was that age – and I am glad that I did. I was born in 1976 and the mid-80’s was rife with really phenomenal young adult writers – Ellen Conford, Lois Duncan, Judy Blume – these ladies knew how to tell a story … and they didn’t need a werewolf or a vampire to do it. Don’t get me wrong, I love my blood-thirsty supernatural creatures, but if I had discovered them in the “Paranormal Romance” section of Barnes and Noble, I might have an entirely different relationship with the creatures of the night than I do now.
Ellen Conford wrote YA in just a twisted enough way that you felt like more of an adult while reading it. The writing is sharp and sophisticated, and you really wanted to be friends with her heroines -they always had such a clever wit and a sly sense of humor. The Alfred G. Graebner Memorial Highschool Handbook Of Rules And Regulations is a prime example of Ellen Conford at the height of her hilarity. I remember reading some passages and not being able to breathe because I laughing so hard. If you’ve ever used Zoroaster’s birthday as an excuse to get out of gym class or penned shitty poetry just so you can get published in the school paper, then I really think you will appreciate the main character, Julie, who is just trying to muddle through her freshman year of high school. I suppose it’s a little dated – I don’t think teenagers had crushes on Robert Redford even when I was reading it – but I don’t think those details really detract from the story. To be honest, I am fairly certain teens are facing entirely different problems today than Julie did at AGGMH – but the story is so much fun that this is easily overlooked. I am pretty sure that I don’t even want to know what teenagers have to deal with today. I doubt hilarity often ensues.
I don’t quite recall the other books I’ve read by Conford other than And This Is Laura, which was also pretty great, but I don’t think anything can ever top The Alfred G. Graebner Memorial Highschool Handbook Of Rules And Regulations. I was very sorry to read just today that Ellen Conford passed away last month.
The title of this post is taken from a poem written by one of the characters, and I can’t find it now because I no longer have my copy of the book, otherwise I would post it in its entirety. It’s awful and pretty batshit left-wing teen angsty, and the last line is “…that’s progress sugar.”
For all the Stephen King on my young person’s shelf, no author gave me such intense shivers as Lois Duncan. Twenty five years later, I still try to pinpoint precisely why that is. Perhaps while King’s characters were often older teenagers or adults dealing with jobs and children (along with rabid dogs and killer cars) Duncan’s heroines were young women closer to my age and who shared my concerns.
In Down A Dark Hall, Kit is a young woman who is shipped off to a sinister boarding school while her mother and stepfather are away on their honeymoon. That’s already a significant change for a young adult to process, in addition to the internal changes she is experiencing as well. Adding to the mix a strange, new environment and eerie goings-on that literally made my hair stand on end as I read it – this became a book I would read again and again because I could picture myself so well as Kit with her myriad, mundane problems in the midst of a growing supernatural mystery.
It’s strange to admit, that other than Stranger With My Face, I’ve not read anything else by Lois Duncan, which is crazy when you consider that she is the lady who wrote I Know What You Did Last Summer! I think I am going to make this upcoming June/July The Summer of Lois Duncan, wherein I read everything she’s ever written.
There are so many more of these books that I treasure for their humor and insight and wonderfully creepy suspense sans gore, and some of them which really gutted me on an emotional level as well… but Ellen Conford’s Alfred G. Graebner Memorial Highschool Handbook Of Rules And Regulations and Lois Duncan’s Down A Dark Hall are without a doubt, my forever favorites.
Tell me of the books and stories that you loved as a young adult. Are they stories that still resonate with you? Would you still feel that frisson of excitement flipping through those pages? Are those books still on your shelves?
I wonder if I have read them, too, and remember them just as fondly.
They make me feel less anxious about a situation. It doesn’t have to be my plan, I don’t have to be the one to execute it, and it certainly doesn’t have to be perfect – but having some kind of plan in place does much to stabilize my comfort levels.
Of course, even the best of plans become fouled up and vexed at times. Which has happened more times in my life than I care to count.
Last weekend, however, I found myself exactly where I wanted to be, at just the right time in my life and in the company of the very people with whom I would want to share the experience. This was a plan that had taken 12+ years to come together, but I would not have wanted it any other way.
The Decemberists at The Tabernacle in Atlanta, April 10, 2015
When I first found out about The Decemberists, I was 27 years old and at a strange place in my life. I’ve written about it before and there’s no need to go into it again, but it was a state of crisis that would last for nearly ten years. I think I had always loved music before that point, but it was during this time that I actively began to seek refuge in it. One of my favorite things to do – and remains to this day – became finding new musicians to love and to share with others. In 2003ish, through my very favorite webcomic artist John Allison, I stumbled upon The Decemberists.
I believe they make his “best of” lists every year, and lordy, if he doesn’t describe them perfectly:
It’s hard for me to articulate just why I became so enamored with their music; I’m not certain if it actually touches me on an emotional level, but I think that what is does do is speak to the dreamer in me. This is the dusty, dreamy band of musicians I would have created in my head: they conjure such an absurd, rag-tag world full of somber fables, melancholy allegories, and bizarre historical dreamscapes. Such snazzy wordplay, too; intricate hyperliterate lyrics, theatrical and clever.
I can’t imagine someone not familiar with The Decemberists, but then again – what do I know of what other people listen to? I still don’t know who Ed Sheeran is, to tell you the truth, and I can barely name one song on the radio right now. I suppose we all have our obsessions and the tunnel-visioned blinders that block out most everything else as part of that. However, if you’ve not listened to them before, peep in at this Tiny Desk Concert over at NPR that they did a few years ago. It’s a nice, clear sound, and though it’s not exactly the freaky balladry that they are known for, I do think it provides a lovely introduction for the uninitiated.
But listening to someone go on about their favorite band is not always very interesting (unless they happen to be your favorite band, of course) so I’ll not draw this out unnecessarily. Suffice it to say that the opportunity to see them live last weekend was not a chance that I could lightly pass on…even though the performance was to take place seven hours north of where I lived.
10 years ago I don’t think I could have imagined myself able to make such a trip, and I certainly didn’t imagine it with these people – but what fun we had! Even when we were being mean and awful:
My boyfriend and my sister’s husband are talking and laughing with the couple behind us, as if they are all old friends. She and I look back and then glance at each other in abject horror.
Her: I wish strangers who talk to me would just stop talking to me
Me: I wish they’d just drop dead.
We grasp each other’s hands and cackle like the mad harpies that we are.
At that moment, I had an out of body experience. It sounds strange, but that’s exactly what happened. I was myself one moment holding my sister’s hand, and the next I was outside myself. I stood next to myself and felt a great sense of peace and happiness – a sort of state of being that I imagine you only feel a few times in your life, if at all.
And I realize that for all my plans, all of the plans in the world…well, good luck with that. Even if you think you know where you are going, sometimes you just end up somewhere else. Sometimes it’s on a different path in a different place and it’s full of hundreds of screaming hipster dads and you’re trancing out like a weirdo, and things could not possibly be more okay.
People say that long ago the dead held a service on the night before Christmas. Once a woman arrived too early for Christmas service. When she entered the church she found it lit up and full of dead people, singing:
Here we sing, our bones all bleached,
Here we sing with beautiful voice,
When shall the day of judgment come,
What yet have you to say?
The story continues on as the woman recognizes her dead sister among the congregation. Warned by her sister that she must flee, for the dead will take her life, the woman escapes, dropping her shawl behind her to confuse her cadaverous pursuers. When the church warden comes in the next morning and puts the lights on, he spies the shawl in the empty chapel, torn almost beyond recognition.
This tale is widely spread in Europe and is extremely old, having been set in Autun, Burgandy, by Gregory of Tours in his De Gloria Confessorum. See below for an illustrated version of the best-known Scandinavian variant of this migratory legend, “The Midnight Mass of the Dead” from Asbørnsen’s “En gammelgags juleaften” (“An Old Fashioned Christmas Eve”). These wonderfully evocative images, full of dim shades, grim shadows and midwinter’s eerie light, were created by artist Chris Van Allsburg (Jumangi, The Polar Express) and can be found in “Ghosts” volume from theTime Life Enchanted World series. These scans are from my personal collection; higher-resolution, more detailed versions can be found here.
Wishing you peace and light in this dark, dying time of the year, and may you not be without your shawl or other talisman this winter holiday when the dead are afoot and hungry for your company.
Not long after my mother was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer in December of 2012, she converted to Catholicism. I can’t speak to how devout she was and it doesn’t matter to me – I believe the idea of faith and the trappings of belief and ritual gave her great comfort during her last year – so who cares if she never made it to church or attended a single mass.
And so what if she collected blingy rosaries alongside gorgeously rendered gilt-edged tarot decks in her final days- can’t a soul have room for more than one set of beliefs, more than one way for communicating with the divine? Or maybe she was hedging her bets, who knows. Her relationship with her creator and her spirituality were no business of mine.
For as long as I can remember my mother cultivated a strange system of beliefs. I recall, at the age of six or seven, sitting silently in a kitchen chair across a ouija board from my mother, my small hands on one edge of the planchette, her slim fingers on the other, and a phone cradled between her ear and shoulder as she chatted with a friend at the same time we were attempting to make contact with spirits. At a very tender age I learned that my mother just didn’t do things the way other people did, I guess. I imagine I grew up thinking if you weren’t carrying on conversations with both the dead and the living at the same time, you were probably doing it wrong.
Books on astrology and mediumship were always stacked precariously on our kitchen table; I can picture my mother’s face through a haze of smoke over breakfast as I picked at my Wheat Chex, while she thoughtfully read the paper and drank her coffee, a dangerously long ash from her cigarette dangling over the cover of a Linda Goodman title on Love Signs or perhaps something by Louise Huebner.
I grew up thinking that in every house there were hidden chest of tarot cards, that every stray slip of paper was a piece of an astrological chart, that candles and incense and yoga circles were every family’s Wednesday night. This was a huge part of the curiously fascinating, terrifyingly intense woman that my mother was in life, this yearning for hidden knowledge and a connection to a plane beyond our own. So it only made sense to my sisters and I to honor that facet of her personality in death: with a visit to a medium, almost a year after her passing.
Welcome Center at Cassadaga
Despite the fact we had been bandying the idea back and forth for almost a year now, we were ill-prepared for this. We realized we didn’t even have a code word. As in, I suppose, some absurd word or phrase or inside joke that only we would understand, and we would recognize immediately if the medium in question was the real deal if he or she were to utter it. (Since then we have all come up with individual code words and phrases. If you intend to communicate with your loved ones from beyond the veil, I suggest that you take a moment or two to mull it over and do the same!)
Furthermore, we really didn’t even know how to go about finding a recommended spiritualist. We were terrified we were going to get a dud. You know the kind: “I see a color…a number…a man! …or maybe a woman!” OKAY THAT’S $250 NOW SCRAM”.
Fortunately for us on the day of our intended sojourn, one of my sisters recalled a medium she visited a few years ago in Cassadaga. “She wasn’t …too bad…?”, she offered doubtfully. And with that, we decided that not too bad was just good enough for us, and proceeded to make an appointment for later that afternoon.
I am really not sure how to talk about the afternoon that followed. Much of it – two thirds of it, really – is not my story to tell, and that ventures into sharing -details-that-are-none-of-my-business-to-share territory. I can, however share some of my impressions of the reading.
Our medium/psychic, Birdie, lived in a small, unassuming house at the edge of the spiritualist camp -you’ll recognize it by the “Spiritual Garden” sign outside, beside the small dirt driveway which guests can park in. The rickety screen door, wood-paneled walls and crocheted throws seemed to belong to any other older Florida home, and as we took our seats around a small desk at the rear of the house, I could hear Birdies’ husband mowing the lawn or doing related noisy things in the backyard. It was perfectly ordinary and absolutely surreal all at once. As if on cue, the three of us giggled nervously.
Birdie seated herself, turned to us, and without missing a beat, asked “why do I see bananas?” This threw us for a bit of a loop. Why WOULD she see bananas? It then dawned on me that my mother despised bananas (as do I! wretched fruits.) and I offered that piece of information. Birdie seemed to take this as a sign that we were indeed talking with our mother. I wish I had thought to ask how this all works. I mean, was our mother’s spirit there, like an ectoplasmic parrot on Birdie’s shoulder, whispering things in her ear? Or was it more like a crackly, static-y connection to the next world and maybe our mother made some sort of collect call? Even if I had the wherewithal to ask…how do you even ask that? Is that too personal, or some sort of spiritualist faux-pas? I am still pondering this. Feel free to weigh in.
I am not too certain that I should have been concerned about any hurt feelings though, as Birdie herself was not terribly diplomatic with the messages she delivered. Maybe it’s a “don’t shoot the messenger sort of thing”, or how you can’t be terribly upset with a translator for passing on the unintentionally rude mumblings of diplomats. An example of this: at some point during the reading she looked at my two sisters, and then me. “You”, she said, pointing at me “you don’t seem to think as much as these other two girls do”. Well!
But the funny thing is…she isn’t wrong.
But I am jumping ahead. One of the next things that happened is that she glanced at my youngest sister, who was wearing a tee shirt that said something about Indiana and asked “why do I look at you and see California? Does that make sense?” I don’t mean to be stereotypical, but I don’t think anyone could really look at my sister and see California; she is pale and small with shocking red hair and a penchant for historical fiction and a love for rainy afternoons. However, she has lived out in the deserts of California for the past 7 years, working as a librarian. Birdie was spot-on. How did she know? Weird. We had not told her anything about ourselves ahead of time, and other than showing her a picture of our mother (it was actually a 50+ year old photo of a graduation), she had nothing at all to go on.
The next 45 minutes was peppered with those sorts of instances. Birdie asked if we knew a “Sandy or a Sandra”. Our mother, she said, was apparently spending a lot of time visiting this person. Sandy was my mother’s best friend, and they’d had a bit of a falling out in the months before she passed. Aha! Another question: “does the name Rose or Rosemary make any sense to you? She’s with your mother right now.” A chill ran down my spine when I heard this, for Rosemary Denise Kelly (or Kelly Denise, I can never remember which) was my mother’s much beloved, very pampered cat, who died many years ago. It sounds silly, but whatever other nonsense or baloney we heard during the session (and there was a fair amount of it), *this* was the small thing I had been waiting to hear. Picturing my mother with that dumb fluffy cat in the afterlife was more comforting than I could possible explain.
Another thing that she said, that gave us all a laugh, and a profound sense of relief I imagine, was when Birdie asked “did your mother ….curse a lot? I get the feeling she swore like a sailor ” Ha! Did she ever! That was such a huge part of who she was, and if Birdie hadn’t picked up on that, I think we would have been concerned.
Our time was up before long and we silently shuffled out and drove up the road for lunch.
Over a bottle of wine at the Cassadaga hotel we discussed our thoughts. It was nothing like any of us had expected and yet I think, each in different ways, we found a bit of peace from something we had heard.
I suspect that we were all hoping for an experience that was maybe a little more…atmospheric? Swaying curtains and lit candles and maybe a cold spot or two, knocks on the walls, something to indicate the…presence of…something? We’ve probably seen too many movies. I know I’ve for certain read Richard Peck’s Ghosts I Have Been too often; I was really hoping for a crazy Blossom Culp-like encounter.
Although not much changes from year to year – and I do visit Cassadaga once a year now, usually every October – we did take some time to walk around the town, to sort of decompress (it was rather nerve-wracking, at least for me) and to absorb everything we had been told and our thoughts on it. This was our first time visiting the town, all three of us together, and so we bought some tee shirts to commemorate the occasion, and I picked up a pendant that sort of looked like a cross between some far-off nebula and a really girly eye of Sauron.
Though I don’t know for certain how our mother might have felt in her final days about us consulting a medium, and if she would be able to reconcile that with her newfound love of The Lord, I do know beyond the shadow of a doubt that as a lifelong shopping addict, she would have approved of a few purchases and shiny baubles to end the day with.