I remember driving on blustery, gray November days with my mother, Emma, the hour and a half across New Jersey from Delaware to see Aunt Mary. Aunt Mary was Emma’s mother’s sister, my great aunt. She had a little farm in Absecon Heights, just across Absecon Bay from Atlantic City. Walking a half mile down the dirt roads through the reedy marshes, to stand on the little wooden dock at water’s edge, a mixed aroma of clams, salt and sulfur permeating our senses, and looking due east across the water, we could see the skyline and lights of Brigantine, on the barrier island above Absecon Inlet, north of Atlantic City. As a child, Emma spent all her summers with Aunt Mary, coming down from West Philadelphia.
Aunt Mary kept cats. She needed good mousers. Emma used to dress them up in doll clothes. I pictured those sweet cats in their colorful dresses, and wondered at their docility. I’m allergic to cats, although we did raise some when my daughter, Kellie, was growing up. Unlike cats, I seem not a good mouser. True, I lay in wait, ready to pounce on nouns, verbs, images, phrases to combine and devour in whole stories, but rarely can I devote the time these days. Instead, I must fill my hours at my day job where I pursue merchandise in a retail store. Ah, but today I have off. Happily, I’ve carved a slice from time to tell you some stories I remember.
Driving across New Jersey those gray November days, we were on our way to Thanksgiving dinner. Aunt Mary made the best stuffing, moist and sagey. Even though Emma, my brother and I have the recipe, we have never been able to duplicate Aunt Mary’s; and, no matter where we go or whose we eat, never have we tasted any as good. Aunt Mary always got a live turkey for Thanksgiving. We’d visit her earlier in the season, see the turkey in the pen, and then eat it on Thanksgiving. Aunt Mary raised chickens, too. In the spring, she’d have a new little pen of fuzzy, yellow baby chicks. When they grew up, they laid brown eggs. The rooster’s crowing woke us at dawn. My brother stuck his finger through the chicken wire surrounding the chicken yard. When the chicken pecked his finger, it hurt, and everybody said, “We told you.” He never did that again. Occasionally, Aunt Mary would go out into the yard, grab a chicken, break off its neck and we’d eat the chicken for dinner. I remember her standing at the sink in the back kitchen of her bungalow boiling the chicken and plucking the feathers. Once, Emma got chased by a chicken with its head cut off. She ran up the steps to the back door and the chicken came right up after her.
Aunt Mary had a framed poem hanging on her bedroom wall opposite her brass bed–Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar”:
Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea
I would lie in her bed and read it, wheezing, nearly unable to breathe from asthma from the cats, when I stayed with Aunt Mary for an occasional week during the summers.
In November 1974, Kellie, my dog, Kolia, a friend and I drove from Wilmington, Delaware, to a suburb of Towson, Maryland, near Baltimore, in search of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald is my favorite author and kindred spirit. We set out on a typical November day–chilly; gray; misting rain; a counterpane of wet, golden leaves spread over the damp ground. I was on my way to find the house at La Paix, the estate of architect Bayard Turnbull, where Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and their daughter Scottie had stayed briefly, a quiet place where Scott could write and Zelda receive treatment at nearby prominent psychiatric institutions. I had embarked on a journey to touch Scott’s spirit. We did find a big, empty pillared pale-yellow, stucco house there, but it wasn’t the La Paix house where Scott had stayed. That house had been torn down, I learned later. Maybe I did encounter Scott’s spirit; the place certainly evoked the sense of something. The serenity there, the aroma of the fallen leaves underfoot, the mist in our faces, everything listening as the wind whispered stories through the trees: soft, tranquil, compelling me to write.
There’s a song, it’s called “Give,” by a group called Dishwalla. “I want to remain a child with you forever,” the words go, “and hear, as you lay before me, you tease me and tell me to stay. What would you give? What would you give?”
Memories, as they lay their long shadows before me, tease me and tell me to stay.
As a writer, I must capture thoughts and feelings, fleeting as twigs fallen into layers of wet golden leaves on old brick sidewalks before the wind stirs them into unsettled interludes.
Fitzgerald rendered much guidance on writing and I gobbled up every bit, filling reams with lines copied from his notebooks and memorizing them. He fed me well.
He found it difficult, as I do, to discipline himself to sit in a room and focus on writing; we believe the world is going by without us.
My favorite living writer, Orhan Pamuk, says he becomes irritable when he is deprived of his daily writing time in his room. I do, too. As I age I find it easier to focus on my writing; indeed I crave my time to write. Like an actor who stays in character while making a movie, when I’m away from my writing room, thoughts of what I would write eddy in the corners of my mind, leaves of many colors. It becomes difficult for me to focus fully on anything else until I can sweep those leaves onto the page before they blow away.
On a windy Sunday, I stood outside with Jetta, our 11-year-old teacup poodle, when she and Emma were still alive. Jetta could no longer stand much of the time nor walk straight. Her equilibrium was off and she was weak. She’d fall over and lie on her side. If she could get up again without my lifting her, I’d praise her: “Oh! See? You rolled over!” This I do because when she was healthy and I would command her to roll over, she’d stand there and look at me as if to say, “Why? That’s a silly trick; pointless, don’t you think? I mean, really, think about it. It’s like when you tell me I have to wait for the turkey until you cook it and then when it’s cooked you say I have to wait until it cools. Why bother to cook it? Just eat it. That’s far more efficient.” But, now, when she fell over and just had to lie there, she accepted it. She’d just lie there and I’d reach down and pick her up and try to stand her on her rubbery legs.
Life involves allowing oneself to release control, to accept and to enter the void. “What would you give? I want to remain a child with you forever.” There is not nothing; there is something: see what happens when you come out the other side. “Tell me to stay.”
When Jetta and I stood outside that windy Sunday, our wind chimes and the neighbors’ all up and down the block, all different sizes, from the tiniest to the longest tubes, were ringing wildly, an unharmonious tone poem. The sound was mystical, evoking the quality of a hundred Russian church bells.
It is impossible not to be uplifted into the vibrational frequency of those Russian bells. Bells, you know, have a huge void in the center. The tone of the ringing of the wind chimes lifted me into a kind of acceptance: What ancient mystical stories and truths is the wind telling us through those bells? Recalled for me the sounds of Russian church bells, I have to say that they are the sounds of my soul. I therefore feel compelled to quote from Jane Fonda’s book, Prime Time, “Sooner or later we will come to the edge of all that we cannot control and find life, waiting there for us,” at the door. Fonda continues, “The psychologist Marion Woodman says that with ‘vulnerability lives the humility that allows flesh to soften into the sounds of the soul.’”
–“The Wind Whispered Stories Through the Trees,”
Samantha Mozart, November 22, 2011
Revisited and Revised November 4, 2018