Tarantula Clock

            When I was five, I lent my bedroom clock to Lyndon Johnson’s presidential campaign.  My mother was a volunteer in the Cleveland headquarters on Lee Road; she worked in the mornings while I was in kindergarten, then came home in time to greet me as I walked home from school.  She asked me very seriously for the clock, making it clear it was my decision, but that it would be a great help to an important cause.  Occasionally she took me to the campaign offices, and I remember being proud to see my little black clock there, knowing it was helping get Lyndon Johnson reelected.

            My parents worked on both of Adlai Stevenson’s presidential campaigns early in their marriage.  I don’t know if they had time to work for Kennedy in 1960, with four children under the age of seven, but an apocryphal story has me as a toddling one-year-old going up to the TV when Jack Kennedy’s face appeared and kissing the screen.  In 1968 Hubert Humphrey grazed my hand as I held it out for a shake; he shook someone else’s, but I felt a thrill nonetheless.  In 1972 I wore a rainbow McGovern patch on my bell bottom jeans.

            Politics were one of my mother’s passions, and I watched her weep over the assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, Jr.  Yet she retained her optimism, and her conviction that political action was useful and productive, despite its misuse and corruption.  I found a letter she wrote to the editor of the New York Times in 1948 about disarmament.  An appeal to the better instincts of private individuals and those in government.  Naïve, perhaps, but characteristically hopeful.

            It was easy to pick presidential candidates in the general election—the Democrat, of course—but in the primaries and on ballot questions the whole family relied on my mother for guidance.  In 2008, we wondered who she would have chosen.  We thought not Hillary—too much baggage and a bad Iraq War vote, and we were sure Mom’s perspective on having a viable female candidate would not have been clouded by sentiment.  Joe Biden, perhaps, or Bill Richardson.  When the field narrowed to two, we were fairly sure she’d have gone with Obama, as we all did, and when I helped my father fill out his absentee ballot in the nursing home, he accepted our judgment, as he had always accepted hers on these matters over the years.  He enjoyed the fact that he was casting a vote for a black candidate (African American is not in his parlance), and was also impressed that the other viable candidate was a woman.  We were left perplexed over the ballot questions, without our mother’s comprehensive research.

            My Lyndon Johnson clock ended up back in my bedroom.  One day I put a large rubber tarantula on it for decoration.  The clock’s black face and glowing orange numbers matched the spider’s striped markings.  The tarantula was a fearsome toy, very lifelike, with its furry legs hanging over the clock face.  To my surprise, it melted its way onto the top of the clock, and was fixed there permanently for several years, till my mother decided to cut it off.  But it was too late—the top of the clock was permanently misshapen by the spider’s torso, with a fan of eight leg grooves all around.  Hunks of tarantula clung to the clock and it had to be thrown away.  It took a lot for my mother to throw away something functional, but she seemed disgusted by my clock.  I was sad to see it go—I had grown fond of its tarantula top.  I can’t help but think that the demise of my Lyndon Johnson clock corresponded with the election of Richard Nixon in 1968, that year of trauma and turmoil, and that my mother’s hacking away at my tarantula was emblematic of her desire to return something—her daughter’s alarm clock—back to the way things ought to be.  A clean alarm clock, a Democrat in the White House.  She did what she could.

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This year, I seem to have given up.  The ice is gone, the temperatures are rising, but the grass is still flat from pounds of winter snow.  Dead.  The crocuses bloomed and died under another snowfall; they lie in unpretty purple smears.  I don’t trust the daffodils.

My first pregnancy goes on like this, endlessly.  12 days after my due date I am resigned:  I will be pregnant, large and uncomfortable, the subject of pitying stares, for the rest of my life.  I sit at a café and accept this, find some peace.  A loud woman I barely know calls across the room, “Still pregnant, eh?”  I nod, irritated to a high itch.  My companions murmur soothingly.

But my baby was born, of course.  17 winters later, I await another spring, unconvinced.  The drear of winter has been too much.  I feel beaten down, like the dead, colorless grass.  I expect more dark nights and piles of snow.  My eyes do not let in the sunlight that stays past dinnertime.

I walk my dog and kick the stones left untidily by the curb, gathered there by snowdrifts.  There are still no leaves.  Then I feel a warmth on the back of my neck.  Sun.  Something shifts.  This is not a winter feeling.  I stop, let the sun soak in.

Maybe spring will come again this year, three or four weeks late.


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When an author describes a house, I almost always superimpose the description on one of the stock houses of my imagination—the house I grew up in, my grandparents’ house, or a neighbor’s house where I spent a lot of time as a child. When fine points of the narrative intrude that don’t correspond to the house of my memory, I sometimes resist the adjustment. Usually, eventually, I change the memory of the house to accommodate the story I am reading. Thus new hallways and closets and side rooms get added on, and I lose track of what is remembered and what is imagined.

It is a lot of work to build a house from scratch, even in imagination.

My mother taught science at the Laurel School, a private girls’ school, for several years, and I attended a theatre program at the school for two summers. Laurel’s lofty hallways, Gothic style architecture, echoing marble steps, and slant of sunlight from high windows now feature as part of another iconic location in my reading imagination. The school figures prominently in my consciousness when I read British literature, because that is where I first performed Shakespeare—the witches’ scene from Macbeth. I didn’t care for Shakespeare at age 9, and resented the teacher who forced us to learn such incomprehensible words indoors on a sunny summer day. But now when I read Shakespeare, the vision of Laurel’s shadowy Gothic hallways lingers pleasantly.

And, when I read stories set at Oxford or Cambridge University, I employ a particular darkish hallway opening onto a courtyard at Laurel as a backdrop. The mystery novels of Dorothy Sayers, starring British nobleman Lord Peter Wimsey, and many Margaret Drabble novels of the tortured British middle class have scenes that flit over the halls and lawns of Laurel School as I read. I have been to Oxford and Cambridge by now, but it takes effort to use my less vivid memories of these actual places—Laurel’s Gothic arches are ready to hand, so I use them instead.

The stories of Edward Eager—Half Magic, Knight’s Castle, and others—which I reread with my own children a few years ago, also evoke Laurel’s architecture. Perhaps I read these books when I studied acting and dance there. The magic of making art myself, in the rich and absorbing environment of Laurel’s theatre program, and reading about children transported by a magic coin, are intertwined in my memory and imagination.

Now an old friend is the head of Laurel, so when I read British literature and Laurel flits into my mind, I think of her. A whole new association of memories gets overlaid onto my stock landscape, and are incorporated into my experience of reading and rereading. I worked on several theatrical productions with this friend, including Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and Dickens’ Great Expectations, so the overlay is thematically compatible. It gives me a false sense of a shared past with my friend, though we did not know each other until long after I walked the hallways of Laurel.

Returning to the actual locations of my go-to reading spots can be jarring. I stayed at my friend’s home behind the school, and saw Laurel from an entirely different vantage point. I was glad that the school was closed and I was not able to enter the main hallway—I am happy to hang onto my memory of high windows blurred by the sun, filling the front entrance with a cloud of faintly yellow light.

I have re-entered the home of my childhood several times over the years, and it always feels cramped and small. I do love the way the cool air of the front closet still swishes out when you open the heavy door, and the just-right way doorknobs feel in my hand. But the reality of the house, even with familiar wood flooring under someone else’s furniture, seems to crush the gauzy vision of the house in my imagination.

Until I start to read a new book. Or write a new story. Then the vision leaps to life as I comb out details, populate it with characters from the book or from my memory. It seems realer than the recent memory of the present-day house, full of other people’s stuff.

What stories have I mixed together by setting them all in the same house? How often have I fractured stories when an important detail didn’t fit, and mid-reading I had to relocate the whole narrative into a new house, either through the effort of following the author’s description, or by placing it in some other stock house of my imagination and memory?

I feel footnotes when I am hurtling along a book that demands I follow its plot. I don’t take the time to imagine the details, because I want to know what happens. I let the story default into a house of my memory, and make a mental note to fill in the details as the author intended them on a subsequent reading.

But the grooves of memory run deep, and I don’t always make the corrections.


Laurel School

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The Queen Elizabeth

A few weeks after the death of their first child at three months, my parents packed up a truck and drove from Cambridge, Massachusetts to Chapel Hill, North Carolina. My father was about to begin his first job as a chemist at the University of North Carolina. They had lost their baby at sea, on the Queen Elizabeth, on their return from two years in Cambridge, England, where my father had had a Fulbright.

There is a picture of my parents, along with my grandfather, my mother’s sister Sally, and my father’s brother Henry, lounging on the truck in the driveway of my grandparents’ home in Massachusetts. The spirit of the photo is one of adventure, a young couple about to embark on a new life. Presumably my grandmother took the photo, and she was apt to pose her subjects quite deliberately. Henry’s jaunty pose, with his crossed legs mirroring the crossed legs of my grandfather, may have been staged. My parents, Ellen and Kerro, both lean their heads in their hands, and Sally lies across the hood of the truck with a closed mouth smile, leaning on her elbows. I can easily imagine my grandmother arranging all of them in her commanding way before she snapped the shot.

My mother’s smile is reliably broad, and my father looks content enough. They all wear casual clothes and look a little dusty, as if they have just finished packing the truck. My father looks the most put together, as a young professor should, with his Oxford shoes and his shirt tucked in, his pants cleanly belted.

There is no sign of the missing baby, Elizabeth. Maybe in Sally’s restrained smile, Kerro’s shrug into his hand. Maybe. But the photo is about a journey, about moving forward. About a new life.

Still, I search for signs of Lizzie on my mother’s smiling face. Lizzie who died mysteriously in her crib on the Queen Elizabeth.

The beginning of a married life.


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Paul Boy

In my grandparents’ dining room hung a large painting of a young person with long golden curls. It looked like a girl to me, and I was shocked when told it was a portrait of my grandfather. I was the only blonde in the family and felt a sense of ownership of all things blonde—this could have been a picture of me. But no, it was Paul Matteson at 4, in a long white dressing gown, posing among curtains that gave a sense of luxury, along with the thick gold frame. Paul insisted that the artist inscribe the words PAUL BOY in the upper right hand corner. The painting is now at the Rhode Island Art Institute.

Once a visitor to the house asked young Paul who was in the painting. She exclaimed, “What a dear little girl. Who is she?” Paul replied, “That’s my little sister and she’s dead,” ending the conversation.


Paul Matteson, 1888

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O is for the 17th Earl of Oxford, the man who wrote the Shakespeare plays, also known as Edward de Vere. Vere is the Latin root for the word “truth,” a concept that gets much play in the sonnets, along with the word “ever,” themes of concealed identity, fame, lost status (de Vere was ultimately exiled from court life), and regret. The poet triumphs in the knowledge that his words will live on, even if his true (vere) identity is never revealed.

Your monument shall be my gentle verse,
Which eyes not yet created shall o’er-read;
And tongues to be your being shall rehearse,
When all the breathers of this world are dead;
You still shall live, such virtue hath my pen,
Where breath most breathes, even in the mouths of men.
(Sonnet 81)

O is for Oh no, now the traditionalists are going to throw tomatos at me. I’m not out to convince anyone. Other readers can go ahead and believe in the traditional biography, but it never made any sense to me. Reading Oxford’s biography and the clues in the plays, and especially the sonnets, makes reading Shakespeare a much richer experience for me. If you are interested, do some reading—Mark Anderson’s “Shakespeare” By Another Name, Richard Roe’s The Shakespeare Guide to Italy, Diana Price’s Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography. Then decide for yourself.

O is for a Shakespearean O, which I uttered when I read Roe’s discovery of defunct canals in Italy that explain the odd references in the plays to sailing from one landlocked city to another. And when he found a place called Sabbionetta, or Little Athens, which corresponds to multiple details in the setting of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, including a Renaissance theatre, similar to the one where the mechanicals mount their production of Pyramus and Thisbe, one of only four extant Renaissance era theatres in Italy. O!

O is for a sigh that thoughtful, intelligent people cannot discuss this question without scorn. This is a very divisive issue, and friends of mine who believe the traditional story bristle when I suggest other options. Some have even abused me verbally. They are entitled to their beliefs. But I am entitled to mine.

O, let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven!
Keep me in temper; I would not be mad!
(King Lear, Act II, sc. v, lines 918-9)

O! lest the world should task you to recite
What merit lived in me, that you should love
After my death–dear love, forget me quite,
For you in me can nothing worthy prove.
Unless you would devise some virtuous lie,
To do more for me than mine own desert,
And hang more praise upon deceased I
Than niggard truth would willingly impart:
O! lest your true love may seem false in this
That you for love speak well of me untrue,
My name be buried where my body is,
And live no more to shame nor me nor you.
For I am shamed by that which I bring forth,
And so should you, to love things nothing worth.
(Sonnet 72)

“My name be buried where my body is.”  Yes, Edward.  But O! we Oxfordians are digging it up.


Edward, Earl of Oxford

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Not an important part of the house

The back entry is cramped and haphazard, a bent coat rack pushed in under high cupboards, an old bureau with drawers that won’t open full of mittens, scarves and unused kitchen utensils. A worn door mat fills most of the floor space, and cat food bowls full of crusty dried food tucked under the bureau wait for the next serving. My sweet sister chases me through the kitchen and I head for the coat rack. An odd turn of events; an impulsive reach into the slotted knife drawer. I feel a tiny moment of worry, but know it is just a game. I giggle, my face chafing at the itchy brown wool of a coat rarely worn. She sticks the knife in. My fingers bleed from two or three gashes. We stare in horror at our game gone awry.

I cut my fingers on cat food cans, pulling the top out after removing the can from the wall-mounted opener. Raw hands and the back entry go together. Scraping cruddy cat dishes and putting them in the dishwasher. Yanking the sticky handle of the old screen door with mottled gray lattice, bumpy from exposure. It screeches and never shuts easily. Cats come in and out, we at their beck and call.

Cans of tomato soup and tuna fish are staples in those cupboards. We make our own lunches, home from the neighborhood school, and sit at the dining room table reading the comics.

In high school the back entry is my exit to freedom, to the car that takes me away from feeding cats and loading dishwashers and making lunches and cutting fingers. The draft from the door brings me closer to getting out. Two steps down, a quick strut out to the car, and off.

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