Monday, February 16, 2015

. . . if I could sing with Jean . . .

As time passes, my mother Jean sings more & more.

Now, in the best of times, when Jean was fully in control of her voice & her body, she sang with sentiment & enthusiasm but would never be chosen for a solo in any choir.
It amazes me that while both of my parents enjoyed & appreciated music, neither Jean nor my father Jack could sing in the center of the note.

Their second daughter, my sister Janet, sings like an angel conceived in a dream.  I have mentioned this more than once.  But it just amazes me, that Jean & Jack, both with voices of a different note, produced a voice that gives glory & honor to praising the Lord.  In song.  Always in the center of the note.

When Jean sings now, if you don’t know her, you think she is moaning or perhaps, in pain.  Sometimes I  think she is moaning or in pain.  And when I ask, she assures me that she is singing.

It would be disingenuous if I did not admit that Jean’s singing drives me a little crazy.

And then I remind myself how I will miss my mother’s voice when she leaves us.

A Facebook friend of mine, Juan Rangel, forwarded at my request a list of life lessons he & his wife read to his son Juan every morning & every night & then discuss on Sunday mornings.

I felt I needed to read & reread those lessons, to remind myself about what is important in this life.  Lesson # 22 is:

Get to know the people you love.  Love them as humans-in-progress.

And I was reminded that we are all works in progress.  When we stop growing, when we stop changing, when we stop aging, we leave this world to return home.

Works in progress do not cease to contribute when a body fails its host.  Works in progress to not cease to contribute when the skin needs more lotion to remain smooth, not when the hair needs oil to make it soft, not when the legs no longer function.

Works in progress do not cease to contribute when the sound of a voice singing is mistaken for something else.

When Jean’s Occupational Therapist Ronald visits, her singing does not drive him crazy or irritate him.  He sings with her.  During the time Ronald spends with Jean, our room & the house resonate with laughter & song.

If I could sing, I would sing with my mother.
But that is not my gift. 

Instead, I put on music for us when we turn off the TV & the lights.  The last offering was Bill Medley.  Jean loves Tony Bennett & Lady Gaga.  And Josh Groban & Johnny Cash.  Tonight I think we will listen to Rachmaninoff & Tchaikovsky. 

Because music is not just about lyrics or sounds or what is mistaken for moaning.

Music is about the soul.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Jaki Jean on the Little Red Ball & the Snare of Memory

Memory is a snare, pure & simple:  it alters, it subtly rearranges the past to fit the present.  (p.95)  Mario Vargas Llosa, The Story Teller .

In the wake of the fallout from journalist Brian Williams misremembering that he had been shot down in a helicopter in a war zone, when in fact, he was in another helicopter, I want to write about the snares of memory.

In my soon to be sixty plus old mind, I remember an incident from my childhood that convinced me my mother Jean betrayed & failed me.

We were still living in Dallas & my parents had a couple & their children over for dinner.  We had visited the couple & their children at their home, so it was a return invitation.

All of the children were deaf, all  read lips & some were able to verbalize.  Or at least that is how I remember it. 

After dinner, or perhaps before – the snare of memory is like that & for this story it does not matter – I played with the girl closest to my age.    I showed her my dollhouse.

Now, my dollhouse was not one of those gorgeous architectural reproductions – it was of metal, not wood.  I had no reproductions of fine furniture or art or carpets.  But I did have a little red ball in the corner of one of the rooms.

I no longer remember why I loved that little red ball – or why I thought that it was the finest, reddest, most perfect little red ball I had, in my then few short years of experience, encountered.

When the family left, the girl I played with went up to Jean, my perfect little red ball in her hand, & asked if she could have it.

Jean gave it to her.

Because so much time has passed, I cannot remember my reaction. 

Except for anger & disappointment & an inexplicable sense of loss of the perfect little red ball.

That was embellished & rewritten & remembered through the filter of a story teller.  A snare of memory.

Over our years together as adult daughter & ever so slightly older mother, I have talked to Jean many times about the little red ball & how she gave away my treasure.

One year a long day ago,  at Christmas or my birthday, Jean gave me a present & in the box, outside the tissue paper covering what was inside, was a little red ball.

That discovery was not a snare of memory, but a wonder & affirmation of a mother’s love.

This afternoon, I left my workspace & writing to ask Jean if she remembered the incident & story of the little red ball.

She did not. 

And that is just another one of the snares of memory.

Over the years, I have misremembered many incidents.  I have confused time & space & players.  Not to mention conversations.

I don’t think I have misremembered the incident of the little red ball or confused time & space & players.  I don’t think the snare of memory has taken that incident from me.

I think Jean gave our guest, a little girl who could not hear, the brilliantly red ball I cherished, because she needed it  far more than I ever would.

We all misremember – especially if we are storytellers or writers.  We embellish, we recreate, we make the story something our friends or public want to hear or read.

Memory is filtered by many things – time & space & experience.  Perception & state of mind & maturity.   By the audience, by who is listening or reading or wondering.   By events.  But always, it is a snare, altering, rearranging, rewriting, sculpted to fit in the moment.

PS:  I am certain the perfect, most brilliant little red ball came from one of these.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Maiming Jean, Memory & Forgiveness

This afternoon, I pulled out nail trimming & grooming supplies & perched on a stool next to the bed to take care of my mother Jean’s nails. 

Sitting on the stool, I went after her left hand first.  It is the hand most affected by her Parkinson’s, several fingers are extremely uncooperative, but slowly, I trimmed her nails & cleaned the remains underneath & tried in my inept way (there is a reason I used to be a regular at a nail salon) to shape them with an Emory board.

The doorbell rang & our manicure session was interrupted by the home health care nurse, the effervescent & charming Sheila. 

As Sheila interacted with Jean, I sat nearby & started to re-read The Velveteen Rabbit because of a post by my friend Jo-Ann McCoy.

Before Sheila left, she was laughing at something Jean said & I was adamant about what bandage I wanted her to use (I had the bandage, but I have learned over the years that it is best not to confess to home health care that my sister keeps me the best equipped home health care giver in history). 

Besides, it is the bandage Jean’s wound care doctor & nurse wrote in their orders.

After Sheila left, I moved the stool to Jean’s right side & began to trim the nails on her right hand.  All went well until I reached her pinky.

And I cut her finger with the clippers. 

Suddenly I was thirty or thirty six & cutting a baby’s nails & nipped a piece of flesh & it seemed to bleed forever.  I cleaned it – I bandaged it,  I cried & apologized & it still kept bleeding.

It seemed to me that the nick was bleeding forever.

I went extreme & called Sheila of our Home Health Care Service & she calmed me down, gave me instructions.  Instructions I already knew & was following.  I wanted someone to tell me that I had not maimed my mother, that Jean was not going to bleed to death.

Of course, the bleeding stopped & I put on a bandage & gave Jean a choice of leftovers from lunch or yogurt & fruit.  She chose yogurt & fruit (raspberries) & after I tossed it with honey, I grated dark Ghirardelli chocolate into the mix.

Still feeling guilty.

As Jean ate, I finished reading The Velveteen Rabbit.  Pondering about the nicks & wounds we inflict on those we love, on those we encounter, on those with whom we share time & space & memories.

I did not remember buying The Velveteen Rabbit for either of my sons.  So I went back to the pages where people (like me) write an inscription.

The inscription reads simply:  87  Merry Christmas Nick.

No signature.  At first I was at a loss who gave this book to my son Nicholas in 1987. 

I spent a ridiculous amount of time & energy trying to remember, trying to determine who gave my son such a lovely book without leaving a signature.  I have my suspicions, based on the handwriting & timeline & the 87, written with a line across the middle of the seven, in European fashion.

Of course, in the end, I realize that it does not matter who gifted the book back in 1987 without a signature.  The gift, the book, is still lovely.

But there is a part of me, not a nick on a pinky, but something deeper, a bit buried, that longs to remember & grieves for not knowing.  

Jean forgave the pinky nick I inflicted this evening.  I am sure she has forgiven much deeper, longer lasting wounds I have inflicted on her in the last six decades.   But Jean is a much finer person than I.

Because I cannot seem to find it in me to forgive the person who gave my son a book & wrote a date but did not offer a signature.   Anymore than I can forgive myself for not remembering.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Jaki Jean, Jean & Mini Muffins

Several years ago, I mentioned to my sister Janet that I wanted a mini muffin pan, because I could cook muffins for our mother Jean that she could handle with a fork & her Parkinson’s.  I would no longer have to slice a muffin beyond recognition.

I am convinced that a major part of the joy of eating really lovely things is visual.  Presentation in food preparation, as in anything, is essential.

Not long after that, Janet & her husband David’s brother in law Dave died.  Dave was preceded in death by David’s sister Linda & their only child, Katie.  Janet found a mini muffin pan at the estate sale & bought it for me.

Since then, I have struggled with this kitchen implement.  I wanted to be able to take my favorite muffin recipes & make mini muffins.  I googled, I researched, I looked in vain for a formula to convert 12 muffins to 24 mini muffins. 

I even bought mini muffin liners.  Adorable liners.  Every recipe I tried was a disaster.

The results were always the same.  Never 24 yummy, moist, mini muffins, just 24 inedible rocks.

Then last week, as I was getting Jean positioned for lunch, Daphne Oz of ABC’s The Chew was preparing a recipe for Sweet Potato Brownie Bites without all the calories.

Right up my alley.  So I pulled out the mini muffin tin that belonged to Linda & tried Daphne's recipe.

And my friends, although I made two small changes to the recipe, using dark chocolate chips instead of mini milk chocolate chips & substituting dark cocoa powder for cocoa powder, the results were amazing.

Moist dark brownie bites that melt in your mouth.

I did not douse my Brownie Bites with confectioner’s sugar but I may do that for Jean’s dessert bites today.

So, look out culinary world.  Now that I have conquered using a mini muffin tin, I have no limits.  No boundaries.  Be prepared.

To all brownie fans, mini muffin tin fans & brownie bite fans, here is the link to this yummy recipe without all the calories:

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

On Gifts & my Sister

I thought a lot about what I wanted to write for the dawn of this New Year – which I have every expectation of being glorious & celebratory.  Somehow it seemed natural that I would write this.

Sometimes you receive gifts you long for, sometimes you receive gifts you need, & sometimes, miracle of miracles, you receive a gift that you did not know you wanted or needed but fits perfectly in the center of the note.

Years ago, before I had children but still visited my parents’ house, my sister Janet gave me one of those gifts that fit perfectly in the center of the note.  Sitting at our parents’ table, she listened to my tales of my life in the inner city & my obsession with one graffiti laden wall in downtown Houston.

That Christmas, Janet gave me three black & white photos of my favorite graffiti laden wall.

I still cherish them, spending too much time trying to create the right frames for displaying them again.

We no longer sit at our parents’ table, my sister & I.  Sometimes we sit at one of my barley twist tables to share a holiday meal.  These are fine moments.

But my sister listens to me on Facebook just as she once listened to me at our parents’ table.   And this year, although we have never discussed the PBS show I crave, she gave me the first four seasons of Downton Abbey on DVD for Christmas.


A few days later, I asked her to have her daughter Emily Kate Douglas deliver Janet’s copy of Frozen, which I had not seen but so needed to hear about letting go.  (And, in all honesty, this was a manipulative move on my part so I could meet Emily’s boyfriend Zach.  How great is that name?)

I could have downloaded the song, but I really, really wanted to see the movie Rosie O’Donnell claims is the best animated film ever.  And I really wanted to see Emily Kate & meet Zach in person.

So Janet brought over Emily & Zach (never was there ever a more adorable couple) & my own copy of the sing along version of Frozen.

Right in the center of the note.  Again.

That is my sister.  Whose voice is so different from mine.   We have different takes on so many things, we are so very different, but we both have a voice.   I write.  She sings.

She sings like an angel who has yet to be created.  She lifts up her voice & everyone listens.  It is a beautiful, awesome voice, a lovely soul behind it.

That is my sister, who gives me gifts right in the center of the note.

The most glorious & totally undeserved gift is her love.

Chasing Tamales in Sugar Land

Sleepless, once again, in Meadows Place.  Past midnight & I am on my second cup of Sleepytime Tea with Valerian root & listening to Bill Medley. 

Today was amazing & adventurous.  I set out in search of tamales, got lost in Sugar Land searching for the First Colony library (my local library is closed for the installation of new carpet), managed to find my way to Barnes & Noble to purchase The Giving Tree for an anticipated visit from my grandnephew John.

Because I have no sense of direction, I found a creative way to  get lost within Barnes & Noble & had to ask Customer Service where the frack the check out registers were located.

Of course, in my defense, I don’t get out much & I hate malls so a trip to Barnes & Noble is a major event.  It is the closest bookstore & located in First Colony Mall in Sugar Land, which is worse than shopping in Houston’s Galleria district during Christmas & its aftermath.

But the Children’s Section in Barnes & Noble has a lovely reading area & it was filled with children & parents in rocking chairs.  All reading.  Even the parents sitting on the edge of the area waiting for their offspring were reading.

So it was worth getting lost in Barnes & Noble (not to mention wandering the parking lot for my car) to see so many young people reading.

Upon my exit, I drove the masses looking for parking spots crazy in the search for my car.  Parking is, at best, problematic at Barnes & Noble.  I did make a note of where I parked – two trees away from the entrance to Dillard’s.  Barnes & Noble straight in front of me.

But somehow, I did not process the fact that my car was parked two spaces from the road between the parking lot & the entrance to Dillard’s.  So I wandered, people in cars following me, wanting my parking space.  Frustrated people – who was this ridiculous woman in a purple wool coat with a really fabulous pashmina?

My son Nicholas says I have become a cliché.  In my defense, I have always been a directionally challenged cliché.  In the second grade, I got lost walking from 3511 Morningstar Lane to Cabell Elementary, a distance of approximately .03 miles.

And although I have lived in Meadows Place, a literal square mile city nestled between Sugar Land & Houston for the past forty-odd years, I am quite capable of getting lost here.

A directional cliché, indeed.

Part of the awesomeness of the day was talking to both my sons.  Nick, in the midst of packing to move to the new property his wife the Lady Jane will be managing, assured me that he would make time tomorrow to come & visit.  I tell them that it is no big deal, I understand but what I really want to do is guilt him into coming.

Greedily, I call my son Sam, thinking that he won’t pick up & I will have to wait for him to call me back.  But he picks up & we talk.  We talk about the gifts he has waiting to be picked up & about the car he is buying from my sister Janet.  And he tells me that he is seeing a woman named Veronica.  

Which is huge, because Sam is very private & does not readily share intimate details of his life with his mother & has only once introduced me a young woman he was seriously seeing.  (I was very fond of that young woman & grieved when they broke up).

When I tell Jean about my day & adventures & talking to the boys who are grown men, she smiled.  As I was fluffing pillows & rearranging positioning wedges, she smiled again & said, “Veronica.”

And then I remember.

One of Jean’s favorite games to play with me is Things I Could Have Named You Besides Jaki Jean.

Veronica was one of the choices she offered me.  A beautiful name, she said.

It is now no longer the day I began writing about in my sleepless state.  In spite of all the wanderings throughout Sugar Land & Barnes & Noble, the 30th day of December, 2014,  was a good day for Jaki Jean.

And I found tamales.  Without getting lost.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Jaki Jean & Jean on Alternative Names: Veronica? Minnie Jo?

Wednesday, December 10th, 2014

So this morning, waiting in a room for Jean's neurologist, Jean says:

I have thought of something else I could have named you.

The last time Jean suggested that she could have named me something other than after herself & my father, she told me could have named me Veronica.

At the time, I asked Jean where she got Veronica & she said she did not know.

But it is a very pretty name.

The thought of being named after a character in an Archie comic book series did not please me.  

I was wary of finding out what other name I might have been called these last six decades.  But we were wedged in the room, the stretcher faced toward the doctor’s entrance & I could not sit behind Jean & work a crossword without interacting.

Because I have already gone through the November 3rd issue of People  magazine with her, I asked her what else she could have named me except for Veronica or after my father & herself.

I could have named you Minnie Jo.

I think of Minnie Driver & Minnie Mouse & then I tell her that no one in their right mind names anything but a puppy or a doll or a cartoon character Minnie Jo.

Jean replied:

Actually I was quite fond of Minnie Jo.

And I wonder who  was this Minnie Jo who might have been the inspiration for my name & why Jean was quite fond of her.  So I ask & Jean tells me a story. 

Minnie Jo was the product of a marriage between my Aunt Flora’s husband’s brother, Tule (Jean spells out T – U – L – E) & a woman I think was named Bessie.

I verify Jean’s Aunt Flora as her mother Luna’s sister.

Minnie Jo was very tall, with light brown hair & nice, dark skin.  I seem to remember she had blue eyes.  She started dating Billy John Burns.  I liked him first.  I wasn’t happy about that.

The last I heard, they were still happily married.

Minnie Jo used to send me cards from time to time & and she would congratulate me on whatever was happening.

I once wrote back to her:  I hope you only have enough clouds in your life to create a beautiful sunset.

I am sure I read that somewhere.

Every time I have one of these conversations with Jean, I marvel at what I don’t know about her.  And I marvel at how much of who I am is embedded in what she has given me.

And, not for the first time I realize, from whom I first learned to be a story teller.

There is a reason I am not named Minnie Jo or Veronica.  I am very much Jack & Jean’s daughter & my name, as my cousin Vicki Willimon Barkley once pointed out, suits me.

I think of a poem by Vassar Miller, a Houston poet I was privileged to meet.   I cannot find the small book containing the poem – but it had to do with naming.  That we name what we love, we love what we name.

Naming is an enormous power – given to Adam by God, it granted Adam dominion over all that was created after him.  The names we give our children define them, dictate the course of their growing into their own identities.

Veronica is  a very pretty name.  It still invokes only two memories – the Archie comic book figure & a flash of the actress Veronica Hammel wearing Furillo’s shirt during a bedroom scene in the TV drama Hill Street Blues.  Minnie Jo still invokes images of Minnie Mouse. 

Jean did tell me that at some point Minnie Jo dropped the Minnie & signed her cards & letters Jo.

I told Jean that I was quite content being named after my parents.  Even it is does sound like a character in a Faulkner novel, if Faulkner had written about a fictional town in East Texas instead of a fictional town in Mississippi.

There are worse things than sounding a bit like a Faulkner character.

After all, Jack & Jean named what they loved & continued to love what they named.

I really need to find that Vassar Miller poem.