Category Archives: uncategorized

My Fifteen Minutes of Fame

The back cover of A Cry of Bees

The back cover of A Cry of Bees

When I was sixteen, I wrote a novel entitled A Cry of Bees, which was published, a year later, by no less a house than Viking Press.  I didn’t seek publication nor did I even consider it within the realm of possibility; my sole idea starting out had been to see how long a story I could manage to eke out. It was my father who, unbeknownst to me, sent the manuscript to his literary agent and Malcolm, in turn, who shopped it to Viking.

I’ve often wondered why Viking bit.  It was a good enough little bildungsroman, quirky and dark and possessed of a certain gawkish charm, but it broke no new ground and the talent it hinted at was, at best, nascent.   Perhaps they believed that the novelty of my youth would suffice to send it flying off the bookshelves; perhaps they thought that they were making an investment, as publishing houses did in those days, in a writer with a promising future. In both respects, it seems, they were mistaken.

Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox

The Atlanta Airport was decorated with illustrations from Uncle Remus’s Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox

When the novel came out, I was dispatched all over the Southeast to do readings and book signings — a heady experience for a seventeen year old. I remember landing in the Atlanta airport. At the time, it consisted of one large room decorated with illustrations from Uncle Remus’s Brer Rabbit Stories — not the Walt Disney ones, the original ones. It was 1970, after all, and Georgia.

All of the media regarding me . . . and there was a scrapbook full . . . focused on my youth and my looks. “She writes books and she’s pretty!” exclaimed one rapt journalist. Another remarked, “She has talent and a tiny waist.”   I can’t help but cringe when I re-read those articles – so unabashedly sexist – but I can’t pretend that I don’t feel the teensiest frisson of gratification as well. Forty six years have passed since then and much has changed. Today the Atlanta International Airport is the size of a small city. As for my waist, it disappeared from view several years ago, never, I fear, to be seen again.

The trouble with publishing a novel that young was that it set the bar very high – too high, as it turned out, for little me. It would be twenty one years until my next publication – a short story entitled Magical Thinking that appeared in the New Quarterly in 1991. And not for lack of trying. Oh, I wrote. And I wrote. I just could never attain what had once been given to me on a silver platter, what had seemed, at the time, so easy – publication.   I spent twenty plus years all washed up, a has-been, someone who had not lived up to her potential, a disappointment.

Thankfully, after a two decade long hiatus, I have been met, not with the overwhelming success I anticipated would be mine, but with a more modest success.   I’ve published three additional novels and two collections of short stories. My work has appeared in noted journals and magazines, it’s been anthologized, and, along the way, I have won a couple of significant awards.  Not bad.  Also far from stellar. There’s a reason I retain my day job.

The rabbit in the foreground had astraphobia.

The rabbit in the foreground had astraphobia.

The year A Cry of Bees was published, my father’s university department threw a little party for me and presented me with a sterling silver cup on which was engraved: Melissa Hardy. Congratulations on A Cry of Bees, 1970. I have it still, though the silver has become so tarnished  it’s hard to make out the words.  During the party, the Department Head, a sweet man named Wesley Wallace, seized my hand in both of his, squeezed it, and promised me, “The world is your oyster!”

He didn’t tell me that it would be my oyster for … oh, about fifteen minutes.  And that, after that, it would be somebody else’s.


TuesdayI have been advised that the best time to publish a blog post is Tuesday through Thursday and not Friday morning as I have been doing lo these many years. As Tuesday is, inexplicably, my favorite day of the week, I have decided that, from here on out, I will publish on a Tuesday rather than a Friday. For this last Friday, here’s an excerpt from my as yet unpublished novel, The Oracle of the Mountain, set in the early 1800’s in the Sibylline Mountains of Italywherein Padre Eusebio, an elderly priest, attempts to dissuade Prior Bacigalupo from exorcising a witch on a Tuesday:

“But, Prior, it’s Tuesday! Tuesday!” the old man pleaded.

And what in Heaven’s name is wrong with Tuesday?” Bacigalupo demanded.

“Every terrible thing that has ever happened to me personally happened on a Tuesday. It is my unlucky day.”

“It’s not just you, Padre,” Mama said. “Tuesday is everyone’s unlucky day. As my old Nonna used to say,’ De Venere e di Marte né si sposa né si parte’. Very unlucky to marry or embark upon a journey on a Tuesday . . . or a Friday, for that matter. That’s because Tuesday is named after Mars, the Roman god of war, and Friday is named after Venus, the goddess of love. Mars and Venus. Those two cause a lot of trouble!”

“See!” Padre Eusebio crowed. “Tuesdays are very bad luck. I’m not just making it up!”

“That’s ridiculous!” the Prior blustered. “We live in an age of reason . . . of science! There’s nothing wrong with Tuesdays! Tuesdays are a perfectly good sort of day.”

“They are a terrible, fearful sort of day,” the priest insisted. “Awful things always happen on a Tuesday!”

See you Tuesday!

My life’s work apparently

Me when I first began work on Sabra the Astonishing.

Me when I first began work on Sabra the Astonishing.

Well, I’ve finally finished Sabra the Astonishing, thirty seven years after I first put pen to legal pad in the carrels of the austere library of the Dumbarton Oaks Institute for Byzantine Studies, where I was, as it turns out, masquerading as a serious scholar. I was supposed to be writing my dissertation on the life of Athanasius, the fourth-century bishop of Alexandria. Put off by the need to stick to known facts, however, increasingly obsessed with Marian visions, in particular,  the case of Bernadette Soubirous, and, not to put too fine a point on it,  unraveling, I began instead to write a novel, which I described decades later in an application to the Ontario Arts Council thusly:

Sabra the Astonishing is the story of a teenage girl who sees an apparition which she takes to be the Virgin Mary . . . which it most definitely is not. Indeed, it is something far more sinister. Set in the sixties in the tobacco country of North Carolina, the novel explores the phenomenon of Marian visions and the steamier underside of Catholic excess.”

The novel went through a number of iterations, the most recent of which was completed twenty five years ago. My agent circulated it; no takers. My ex once described it less than kindly as, “bloated,” and, in retrospect, he was right. Sabra the Astonishing  erred on the side of excess; rather like the obese fellow traveler who sits next to you in coach, it had a propensity to ooze.  Nevertheless, I’ve always felt that the manuscript contained some of my best writing and the fact that it has languished in the bottom drawer of my file cabinet for so many years has been a source of  melancholy for me. Unpublished novels render one wistful. They are like dead babies; you can’t help but mourn them, to wonder what might have been had they been allowed to live.

This past year, I decided to have one more go at it, so I pulled out the manuscript and had a critical read.  This is what looking at a novel written by a young woman through an old woman’s eyes revealed:

  • Characters that don’t belong. I quickly realized that I had to kill off one of the lead characters; though darling, he was absolutely extraneous to the plot. (Those of you who follow this blog will have been privy to Lorenzo Da Silvio’s murder over several posts, each purporting to be the last.   I couldn’t help it; he was everywhere.)
  • Time and Place: Despite the fact that the novel takes place on Easter Monday, 1963, I had done nothing to set it in the period. I’ve now spent the last six months researching what training bra Sabra would have been wearing, what episode of Wagon Train might have played that night, and what brand of tranquilizers were vegetizing her mother. Thank God for the Internet. A related disconnect was the fact that, although Sabra’s family owns a big tobacco company and it’s the sixties, no one smokes! I addressed this problem by making everybody smoke all the time. One even dies of lung cancer.
  • Acknowledging the Zeitgeist: For a book set not forty miles from Greensboro, North Carolina where the lunch counter sit-ins had taken place just three years earlier . . . moreover, for a novel with several black characters, the fact that there was no acknowledgement of the Civil Rights Movement was, well, weird.
me at 60

Me when I finished The Virgin of Ararat.

The young woman was caught up in the story, in  action; the old woman, in context.

All these oversights have now been rectified and I will be sending the novel out again, but under a new title this time – The Virgin of Ararat. I’m doing this in the hopes that any editors who might have rejected it a quarter of a century ago will think it’s a different book altogether. Shhh! Let’s let that be our little secret.

The Devil in San Marco

An excised scene from Sabra the Astonishing, in which her father, Ananias Buck, encounters the Devil in the Basilica of San Marco in Venice.

San Marco

San Marco

There arose from above and behind him a sound like asthmatic breathing, much amplified, followed by a sound like rotten gauze being rent. This, in turn, was followed by a low rumble punctuated by squeaks. Then tall organ chords began to crash all around him.

Ananias spotted a set of worn stone steps leading upwards – it was from here that the music emanated. As the unseen organist pumped out the sort of tune appropriate to horror films — now lugubrious, now thunderous – he mounted the stairs and found himself in one of the Basilica’s several choir lofts, dominated by an enormous Tamburini organ. A small man with a closely shaven head sat in front of the forest of bristling pipes. He was wearing a rumpled black suit, as shapeless as a priest’s and cut of the same slick, rusty cloth.

Ananias crept closer; he squinted.

A white-tipped cane lay propped against the balustrade; the organist wore dark glasses; he must be blind. He leaned into the keyboard, shoulders hunched, his fingers chasing one another down the keyboard like spiders seeking to top off a mating with a meal. His body bobbed back and forth as he pumped the heart of the great church with his dexterous feet.

The tune modulated into something recognizable. Berlioz’s Requiem? Ananias paused for a moment, waiting until he could positively identify the piece. Yes, it was the Requiem. Whenever he heard it, he had a vision of some nineteenth-century gentleman paddling a canoe through the sewers of Paris. That was how he envisioned Berlioz’s dark night of the soul. And his own? Well, that would this night, here.

He turned. The loft invaded the nave’s airspace in a network of narrow bridges. Over time the foundations of the Basilica had shifted and its floor had buckled; the bridges were far from level and so narrow that only a very meager person such as Ananias or a child could have hoped to negotiate them; nor did their banisters inspire confidence.

Interior, San Marco

Interior, San Marco

Ananias set tentatively forth along one of the bridges, both hands gripping the crumbling railing. Above him vaults arched, lamps swung, gigantic figures swelled and billowed: Elijah; an hirsute Baptist; a ranting Amos, prophets all. Hunger stirred in his gut, becoming, through some subtle malevolent transformation, nausea. Colors dimmed and sharpened, sounds muted, then burgeoned. It was as though someone — not himself — was attempting to adjust the intensity of his perceptions with knobs or dials. He reached the end of the bridge and turned back to look back at the loft. That was the moment he remembered that he was scared of heights, had always been. No sooner had he realized this, than his knees liquefied and he sank into a deep squat. His eyes slid shut and he folded forward into a half-faint. It was all too much: the wallop of incense, the sweat of unwashed pilgrims, the crazed organ’s musical antics, this insubstantial bridge on which he now crouched — corridor of a nightmare, a bridge that went so far, then stopped mid-air. He dragged a limp, damp hand over his forehead, aware for the moment only of his heart, that inexorable pump, pounding away in his breast. Once, only once, had he been so conscious of a heart. A pet parakeet had died in his hand.   It had been horrible, that tiny death.

He blinked his eyes, adjusted his spectacles, and struggled to his feet. While he had been indisposed, another visitor had climbed the stairs to the loft. There he sat, in a metallic folding chair pulled up close to the organ, a gaunt, melancholy-looking gentleman of distinguished appearance, with thick white hair and refined features. His gaze was directed towards the organist, whose white-tipped cane he held in front of him; the fingers of his right hand curled around its handle; those of his left encircled the cane’s metal shaft. He wore evening clothes under an opera cape. Snow melted on the pointed tips of his well-polished black shoes.

Ananias recognized him instantly. He was the Devil. Who else could he be? What other stranger is so familiar?   And in that moment of recognition, he had also recognized something else, something momentous. The Devil was perfectly at home in this great church because this was his house. It might have been God’s house a long time ago, but it was no longer and it hadn’t been for a very long time. Ananias was reminded of Leon Foote, his brother-in-law the doctor. On fine days, Leon would instruct his receptionist to say that he was with a patient, then close the door to his office and sneak out the back, golf clubs in tow. Like Leon on a fine Spring day, God had skedaddled and the Devil had just moved on in.

The organ at San Marco

The organ at San Marco

By this time he had managed to grab hold of the balustrade and haul himself back onto his feet. He stood there, swaying, clutching the railing with both hands.

As the organist rummaged brutally through an ominous arpeggio, the Devil glanced in Ananias’s direction. The glance was languid. Their eyes met. Even at a distance of some twenty five feet, Ananais could see that the pupils of his eye were so large that he could detect nothing in the way of iris. A spatter of bright red burned in the sclera of his left eye, giving him an indisputably sinister appearance. But his gaze . . . it was compassionate, even tender. Never in his life had anyone looked at him with such compassion.  The Devil then touched his own left cheekbone lightly amd nodded, as if to beg his pardon for the bright dot of blood in his eye.

The Portrait Gallery

Herms frequently sported genitalia.

Herms frequently sported genitalia.

A description of the family portrait gallery at Ararat, the fictitious mansion at the heart of Sabra the Astonishing, on which I am, yes, still laboring.

In the far corner of the gallery, Samson Carley’s herm rose up monumental from the shadows. Star-spangled porphyry, its feldspar crystals glittered in the moonlight that poured through the glass bubble of the greenhouse’s roof and washed the long corridor with glacial flows of light. Samson Carley, the Colonel’s only son, slower than he, more honorable, bore around with him the disgrace: his sister and later his daughter, married to a big-headed, stoop-shouldered, carpet-bagging Buck. He secretly blamed Ignatius for his own inability to produce an heir, try as he might, daughter after daughter after daughter, and Flavia, taffy-haired Flavia last of all. This similitude of Samson Carley, the likeness drawn from an old daguerreotype, scowled out at the hall, and, through the fronds of an artfully positioned palm, thrust out and upwards those cobra-like genitalia with which the sculptor Bosquet had endowed him, casting a monstrous shadow that stretched menacingly towards the living room door across the dappled Aubusson runner.

bobUp and down the length of the hall, tall shadows pressed against the cylinder of quivering moonlight. Out of this attendant darkness peered anxious faces, framed in gilt and ebony and illuminated by pin lights: Halliday Carley Buck, as plush and beribboned as a chocolate box; Ignatius, jaunty, meager, and suited in rusty black, hands folded over the top of a Malaccan cane; Colonel Bob, in full Confederate regalia — dove-grey uniform, yellow silk sash into which a pistol with a mother-of-pearl handle was thrust — fingering the hilt of a tasseled sword. And in the right-hand corner of the frame of each portrait a brass plate into which was engraved the subject’s name and that of the artist, their first tentative embalmer, who, like an embalmer, improved upon their looks with his small skills.

Down this gallery, which Da Silvio often likened to a pier to which ships hung lightly moored, bobbling in the current, equipped each with its figurehead: the Ignatius, the Halliday, the Colonel B (for the portraits inclined slightly from the wall over the faded rug and so encouraged this conceit), down this gallery trembled the shaft of white iced light, penetrating as far as the front hall which, running east to west, stretched along the southern facade of the house. There it ended in a blunted curve a little to the left of the hat rack and the intestine heap of Queen-Esther’s crocheting.

My Life Aquatic


My brother Peter clearly did not share my enthusiasm for the water. Note his wary expression.  And that’s a sprinkler!

I have a love-hate relationship with pools.  I love the idea of pools, just not the reality . . . or, rather, the reality of having to deal with my hair après swim, which is either to scrunch it, in which case I look like the sort of woman who kidnaps children from shopping malls, or blow-drying it, in which case I am forced to stare at myself in a mirror far longer than is advisable given my advanced years. Also blow drying makes my hair look like a ball of tumbleweed has landed on my head.

As a child I loved pools.  When we lived in El Paso, Texas my father allegedly heaved me into the deep end at the age of four in the hopes that my survival instinct would kick start my learning to swim.   Or maybe he just wanted me dead.   I can only assume that my little brother Peter witnessed this terrifying spectacle; for many years not only would he not venture into the water without an inter-tube, but he also insisted on hanging onto the side of the pool — measures I would describe as an abundance of caution.

Stylite saints demonstrated their piety by living on top of columns.  Well, somebody's got to do it.

Stylite saints demonstrated their piety by living on top of columns. Well, somebody’s got to do it.

When I went to graduate school in Toronto, I began swimming 24 lengths in an Olympic size pool every Saturday to compliment my weekday aerobics classes. I did this in units of 4: the first length was a crawl, the second a backstroke, the third a side stroke and the fourth a breast stroke.  I was certifiably crazy at this time — way too much time spent with Stylite Saints and various other early Christian weirdos — so naturally I became rather OCD about the whole enterprise, forcing myself to start all over again if I forgot at what lap I was at.  One morning I arrived at the Benson Building on the U. of T. campus to find that the pool’s heater had accidentally been left on overnight. The Powers that Were would not allow me to actually swim in the pool despite my entreaties, but they did let me get in for a moment.  It was strangely disconcerting, like being in a vast warm bath poured exclusively for me.  Grandiose delusions naturally ensued. It was during that same period that I developed a compulsion about being the first person in the pool, which meant that I absolutely to be there when they opened the door or unravel. There was something magical about being the first person to break the surface of the water, to slide into an hitherto inviolate realm aquatic. It was, in retrospect, a strange conceit, one of many.

Later, when we were in Cambridge, MA, I swam my 24 lengths 5 days a week in the old Harvard pool.  In those days, there were no pregnant swimming suits, at least in my price range, so, when I was expecting my daughter Sabrina, I asked my mother, a consummate seamstress, to make me one.  She did, out of bright red polyester.  When I jumped into the pool, it inflated.  I resembled nothing so much as a giant tomato roiling down the lanes.

A pool similar to that in my recurring dream

A pool similar to that in my recurring dream

After Harvard, I did not get in a pool for a long time. Four years of relentless swimming had taken the bloom off chlorine. But this did not stop me from having a dream which recurs to this day, in which I obtain, by means highly dubious, the key to a fabulous private indoor swimming pool — very luxurious and very Arte Deco and one I have absolutely no business being in; indeed, should I be discovered, things will likely not go well for me.  Regardless of the danger, I sneak in when no one is looking, dive into its crystalline waters with the most delicious sense of possibly getting away with something huge – that is, unless I am caught — and start swimming laps — first a crawl, second a backstroke, third a sidestroke, and fourth a breast stroke.

And, please, Gentle Readers, do not write to tell me what that means.   I don’t want to know.

The last little bit of Da Silvio

A house resembling Ararat, the mansion in my novel, Sabra the Astonishing


As I draw near the end of this revision of Sabra the Astonishing, Lorenzo Da Silvio makes a last appearance.  (I’m almost finished!)

Da Silvio drew one of the cane-bottomed rockers conversing in small groups about the veranda away from its creaking fellows and placed it before the veranda railing. Laying The Lives of the Saints on the floor beside it he sat, drink in hand, surveying the manicured lawn as if he sat in a box at the theater before an empty stage.

The moon pulsed over that fringe of tall, shaped trees which rose above the lawn and on the distant horizon the lights of Raleigh glittered like a beached constellation washed up on an inhospitable shore. Behind him the restless house stirred and shifted its burden of kudzu ivy almost angrily then settled, then woke with a start. The floorboards all around him creaked. His rocker squeaked. The other rockers squeaked. A loose shutter somewhere on the second floor of the southern facade tapped against the brick wall as if to drive home a point, and around the yellow glove of the veranda light a ghost moth swung and swung, brushing the thick opaque glass with her white fine wing. It began to singe it. He could smell it.

Da Silvio dug into his jacket pocket and after a moment extracted from the debris at its bottom a battered cigarette. He lit it and, holding it before him, examined the bright ember.

Then he heard a sound very like a human groan. The house? he wondered, glancing sharply up at the veranda ceiling.

He heard the sound a second time — louder this time.

He rose to his feet, placing his drink on the cover of the book beside his chair. He dropped the cigarette to the floor and stepped on it.

The stable door creaked open and after a minute a figure, tall and stooped, staggered through the door, holding his head in his hands. The stained white satin jockey’s pants gleamed like a fish’s body in the moonlight. It was Dick, the groom. He raised his face to Da Silvio, whose figure he could discern by the veranda light and removed from his battered head hands sticky with dark blood.

“Dick!” Da Silvio exclaimed. “What’s happened?” He started down the steps towards him. Then he heard the sound of a car grinding up the hill. Both he and Dick turned to look down the driveway in the direction of the sound. In a moment they saw a car’s lights blink on and off like the staccato message of a signal light as it moved towards them down the long avenue lined with tall tapered cedar trees, before the car rounded the final curve of the driveway and bore down on them, its headlamps two smoking corridors of white light. The car stopped just short of the pink granite sundial. The headlights sunk to low beam, then snapped off. A door opened, and Sheriff Dale rolled out of the car, at the same time as he rolled his flat-brimmed sheriff’s hat off of his head and into his plump, grimy hands. Da Silvio had seen him once or twice before. Recently he had come to ask Ananais to put a lock on the gate which led from St. Mary’s cemetery to the woods of Ararat so that snake-hunting on the hill might be inhibited. Da Silvio had always thought that Dale fitted his skin and clothing in the same way sausage meat fills its casing, without a rumple, to the point of bursting. Although the night was growing chillier, the sheriff’s red face exuded drops of sweat as large as tears. His brown eyes, small and wise as a pig’s, fell upon Dick. He wrinkled up his nose and dragged a meaty hand over his moist, sticky forehead.

“Good God, boy,” he exclaimed. “What happened to you?”

But Dick knew well the hand that fed him. He was solicitous of it, and when he did bite it, he took care to do it in private, when he might reap some material advantage from it. As he fully intended to do on this occasion.

“Fell down,” he said gruffly, turning away from Dale .

Impending doom

foreboding 3I am having a week in which I am feeling way too mortal. Hence the re-issuing of this 2014 blog post originally entitled, “A Sense of Foreboding.”

The day I helped move my then 78 year old mother and 82 year old father into The Cedars of Chapel Hill (or, as my father calls it, ‘The Last Resort’), Mother advanced grimly into the elevator brandishing a large kitchen knife  capable of wreaking considerable mayhem on vegetables and meat alike.  It was, as she was careful to point out, extremely sharp. I’m not sure why she felt she had to personally convey it to her new home.  Maybe she didn’t trust the moving company to pack it correctly.  Maybe she wanted an assurance she’d be able to make a break for it.

The facility was new and all around us milled future neighbours, also moving in, although not, it would appear, so heavily armed as my mother.  These were not the young old you see in ads for golf resorts or Grey Power. These were the old old, the target market for walk-in tubs, stair lifts and catheters – people wasting away, all right, but definitely not in Margaritaville. Not anymore.   We were joined on the elevator by an elderly man with a black eye.  We eyed the eye.  He eyed the knife. No one spoke.  “What happened to him?” my mother asked, when we were safely off the elevator.   Then she shook her head. “They’re all so old!”

I did not personally feel old until we moved into this house three years ago.  In part that was because my husband and I stayed in our “starter home” for almost twenty years.   In that house’s mirrors I looked more or less the age I had been when we moved in; this house’s mirrors told a different tale.   “Hello!” they said.  “You’re sixty years old!  What’d you mean, you hadn’t noticed?”

This realization was corroborated by the fact that people I knew started to die. People my age.   It began with a passing acquaintance from junior high. He started to leak Tea Party sentiments onto Facebook. Deciding he was off The Team, I swooped in to defriend him, only to encounter the following posting:

“Hello, Dad’s Facebook Friends, this is Jennifer, Danny’s daughter.  Dad died suddenly last night and I don’t know how I’m going to make it through the next few days.  He was my best friend and I already miss him SOOOOOO MUCH!!!”

If I were a religious person, I might have felt guilty, as though I were in some obscure way responsible for Danny’s demise.  Or perhaps  I would have felt all powerful, as if all I needed to do was think about defriending somebody, and poof!   Or maybe I would have felt vindicated, as in, “God clearly agrees with me that Danny was a horse’s ass and so He offed him!”

But I am not religious, so the whole incident just creeped me out.    I did end up defriending Danny.  It’s the only way to exorcise ghosts on Facebook.   However, his death turned out not to be an isolated case. He was followed in short order by another, dearer friend and then another.  Then a friend our junior by more than a decade had the temerity to die!  Thanks a lot, guy! (You know who you are.)

forebodingBoth my husband and I began to feel what we describe as “a sense of foreboding.”  We wake in the morning and lie there for a few minutes, deep in dogs and feeling the foreboding settle on us life a suffocating blanket, a miasmal fog.  Am I going to die today?  I wonder.  Is he going to die? Will it be a heart attack?  Maybe an aneurism?  Will my upcoming physical result in a fatal diagnosis?  What about a car crash that leaves one of us paralyzed?  When will we be forced to leave this house that we love? How many years do we have left?  Is it years or is it months?

After my parents moved into the Cedars, the man on the elevator became my parents’ good friend.  Sam owned Kentucky racehorses and was married to a lively Holocaust survivor.  One day I was sitting on my parents’ balcony, looking out over the gardens when I saw Sam collapse in the roadway.  I jumped up in alarm and called out to my mother, “Sam’s fallen!”  White uniformed staff materialized as if by magic from behind the bushes and collected Sam, helping him to his feet and brushing him off.  Unfazed, my mother glanced down at the unfolding scene.   “He falls a lot,” she said.

Which explains the black eye.

Dad and his dog Poppet

Dad and his dog Poppet

Sam is gone now and so is Mom.  Then there’s my Dad,  ninety two this March, waiting out his days in Death’s antechamber like an old dog in the sun, biding the time that remains to him with remarkable equanimity and grace.  I sometimes try and imagine what his sense of foreboding must be, how it must feel to be him, to wake up every morning to find oneself, against all odds, alive.  I bet it trumps ours.

My mean uncle, aka The Horse

My mother (left), her sister (right). My cousins Lonnie, Jim and Sue left to right

My mother (left), her sister (right). My cousins Lonnie, Jim and Sue (left to right)

I have been off for a week, seeing the ultrasound of our first grand child and celebrating my father’s 93rd birthday with him.  He and I spoke in passing of the uncle my family called ‘The Horse,’ and I remembered that I had written the following post about him back in 2013. 

My Uncle Leon was a mean man.  My mother and grandparents referred to him as, “The Horse.”  Later, after my aunt divorced him, she referred to him that way too. Uncle Leon didn’t believe in talking at the table and, if anyone dared break the silence, he’d snarl, “Dinner’s for eatin’, not talkin’.”  He used to beat my cousin Lonnie savagely with a belt.  My mother once interposed herself between him and Lonnie, declaring that no way she would let a man beat her children like that.  To which he replied, “Well, no way I would have married you, so get out of the way!”

Uncle Leon had polio as a child and walked with a lurch all his life.  This, according to my mother’s family, was what had made him mean – the struggle, the pain, the ensuing bitterness.  I disagree.  To be as mean as Uncle Leon, you had to be born that way. Maybe the fact that he’d grown up on an Oklahoma farm during the Dust Bowl had something to do with it.  Maybe what was good about him got stirred up by the wind and blown away with the topsoil.

Uncle Leon kept a revolver in the glove compartment of his car at all times.  He also made a practise of picking up hitchhikers.  I’ve often wondered what he thought would happen if the hitchhiker made a sudden move towards him.  Reach across and retrieve the gun from the glove compartment?   How would that work exactly? Did he fantasize about picking up a hitchhiker on a lonesome country road and then shooting him or her, just for the Hell of it?

I said he was mean.

After my aunt divorced him, he remarried and became an Evangelical Christian – in other words, double trouble – not only mean, but righteous.  My cousin Lonnie succumbed to lung cancer way too young, leaving instructions that he be cremated and his ashes divided in two – half to be scattered over the family farm and half over the Nascar Raceway – Lonnie was a mechanic who loved cars; people at the raceway had pitched in to help pay for his medical care and he was grateful.  Shortly after his widow received the ‘cremains,’ Uncle Leon paid her an unannounced visit and demanded that the ashes be divided into thirds.  He wanted to scatter a third over his new church’s graveyard so that Lonnie would end up in Heaven, where, presumably, he could beat him some more.  He came prepared.  By which I mean horsehe brought a Pyrex measuring cup. He wanted just so much of what remained of his son.

Uncle Leon died on a treadmill during a stress test and the only thing good I have to say about “The Horse” was that he terrorized my brother and I into good dental hygiene.  Did I mention that he was a dentist?  And trust me, you didn’t dare have a cavity.

“Riddle Me This!” No, thanks.

I am a bear of very little brain.

I am a bear of very little brain.

I do not like brain games, perhaps because I’m a bear of very little brain and prefer to use the limited powers in my possession to find the necessities of life – by which, I mean food and yarn.   For that reason I was relieved to read in a recent issue of Time Magazine[1] that there’s no solid evidence that playing brain games improves your cognitive abilities. They might be fun — if you like that sort of thing — but, sad to say, your premium membership in Luminosity may not keep the wolves of Alzheimer’s at bay.

You have my sympathy.

Remember those math questions they used to give you in school: “If a train is going fifty miles an hour and the town is twenty miles away and Johnny started the card game with two dollars, but has been losing money at a rate of fifty cents every two minutes, how much money will Johnny have when he arrives in town?” Yeah, well, I hated those questions. When presented with one, my brain would derail one hypothetical clause in; they had me at “train.”  A similar thing happened in the course in Pre-Socratic philosophy I took whenever a version of the verb “to be” appeared more than five times in one sentence: on those occasions my brain actually exploded.

My grandfather, James H. Zant, of whom I am inordinately proud, was a renowned professor of mathematics; he authored many of the first New Math textbooks.   Clearly, all the math smarts set aside for his line were gobbled up by him, leaving me without the ability to do so much as calculate a percentage.  The only time I ever did my own taxes, I free-styled percentages (that’s the only way I can think to describe it), with the result that Revenue Canada, upon auditing me, discovered I had grossly overpaid and sent me a couple of really nice refunds to remedy the error.  Just think of all the times that didn’t happen.

I think that the appeal of brain games must be that they are time-passers. Indeed, the only time I don’t resent a brain game being thrust upon me is when I am recumbent in a dental chair getting my gums planed and there’s a jumble taped to the ceiling.  On all other occasions, I prefer to listen to audio books and podcasts while knitting scarves and hats for people experiencing homelessness, blankies for people experiencing babies and socks for me experiencing cold feet. I never give away my socks. I hoard them. A girl can never have too many.

It’s not that I’m immune from fearing an age-related decline in my cognitive abilities. At sixty two I have already begun to notice aphasia kicking in. Oh, the words do come . . . eventually . . . but, whereas my word retrieval used to be jack rabbit fast, it is now more like a floppy eared old wobbly bunny that hops here and there, wheezing while she struggles to remember what the Hell she’s looking for.

Ursula Staudinger, director of the Butler Columbia Aging Center at Columbia University (where, incidentally, my math genius of a grandfather did his PhD) says, “It’s like, you walk through fresh snow, you leave a trace. If you walk the same route again, the trace gets deeper and deeper . . . The fact that structural changes occur [in the brain] does not imply that in general this brain has become more capable.”  So what you are doing when you play brain games is, in essence, something akin to running around and around in circles. My Ur dog Ughy did that around our childhood swing set, wearing a deep groove in the lawn — a doggie crop circle, if you will. He did live to the grand old age of 17 — not bad for a pooch– but I’m not sure that he was any the smarter for his efforts.

I have no idea what to do with this . . . and absolutely no interest.

I have no idea what to do with this . . . and absolutely no interest.

So, by all means, enjoy your teasers and your riddles and your puzzles and your jumbles and your sudokus, but don’t expect me to join in. I’m too busy knitting and trying to remember the name of that thing . . . you know. That thing!

(And BTW, having to continuously canvas the room for the answer to the hint in your crossword puzzle . . . I’m pretty sure that’s cheating.)



[1] Time February 23-March 2,2015, Can Brain Games Keep My Mind Young, by Justin Worland, p. 87