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A Memory of Geraniums

The smell of geraniums reminds me of my grandfather. He instilled a love of gardening in me and though I can’t match his work ethic when it comes to fertilizing and weeding, I have a reasonably successful vegetable garden and plenty of flower pots around the yard, including several geraniums.

They are available in many more colors now than they were in the 1970s. I remember the geraniums in my grandparents’ yard as solid red, and occasionally white, growing in a basket hung from the lamppost opposite a sign with the house’s number and a name, “Squaw Rock.” The name came from the large rock formation between the back yard and the beach and there is also another formation with the same name off the coast of a different part of town. Although Native/Indian names are common in the town and surrounding area, “Squaw” is now considered a slur and the name has vanished from the property as it stands today.

Squaw Rock in a Storm

Geraniums and salvia were part of my summers. The salvia was a treat because you could pull the red center part from the rest of the flower and suck a tiny drop of nectar from the end. These days the salvia I see at garden centers is mostly purple, and the geraniums can be peach or even a lavender.

My mother and I are not in frequent contact, but when we do talk, I have made a point about asking clarifying questions about some of the family lore. For instance, my parents both grew up in New Jersey, but stories made it sound as if my mother’s parents had grown up in Connecticut. Which is it?

My grandparents grew up in Connecticut. I believe my grandmother’s father founded the Congregational Church in their town (that’s another thing I’ll have to clarify). My grandfather worked on a farm there and the owner of the land had connections that led to a job for my grandfather on Wall Street. After the Crash, he was laid off and came back to a job at a manufacturing plant in his home town. He was bored and he hated it. He set about trying to find work back on Wall Street – during the Depression. He did find a job with a firm that sold odd lots (small orders) of stocks, moved back to New York, and eventually did quite well.

Meanwhile, my grandmother was a teacher. One summer she was taking some sort of certification classes at Yale. On the last day of the session she offered a classmate, Martha, a ride home in her Model T. Martha’s brother, my grandfather, was home for the weekend, and when he met Anne, my grandmother, he asked her on a date right then and there.

The house at 405 Stuyvesant in New Jersey

They eventually married and moved to an apartment in New York. They quickly had two sons, but when Anne was pregnant with their third child, my mother, the two of them decided that they needed more room. The story goes that my grandfather got on a train to New Jersey after work one day and rode until the train came to a stop where there were a lot of trees. He got off the train, walked around the town and picked out a house. He bought it without my grandmother ever seeing it first. They raised five children in that house through the war and beyond. They would often rent a house in the summer back in Connecticut.

As it happened, a couple of decades later, my father opened his business several blocks away on the same street in New Jersey. My mother would eventually meet him when she applied for a secretarial position there after a few years away at college.

I only have the barest details of our family history, but I have been increasingly drawn back to the towns in Connecticut where I grew up and where my grandparents had a house on the beach that is the biggest part of my summer memories. It started last winter with my uncle’s funeral, and intensified when his daughter died this past winter. I wrote about this pull earlier this year. I really can’t explain it, but a sense of place has always been important to me. Where you grow up has a huge impact on your identity, and your perspective.

I think about the books I’ve read that are based in the South, and how the climate and the culture are almost characters unto themselves. Surely, New England has some of that, in stories like Olive Kitteridge , set in Maine. But, Connecticut? What stories are there? I’m sure there are plenty, and I need to start somewhere.

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Family Structures and Strictures

The birds are busy at the feeder this morning, perhaps in anticipation of tomorrow’s snow. Among them is a large Red-bellied Woodpecker, nearly twice the size of the other birds out there. He’s been around quite a bit this winter, but it is always a treat to see him contrasted so brightly with the myriad brown birds that we normally get in the colder months. It is for visitors like this that I insist on maintaining the feeders in the winter, even though seed isn’t cheap.

It’s midmorning and I’m having the last of the real bagels with my tea. Even stale they are better than supermarket bagels. I feel lucky to be able to get them every once in a while. I consider what I might be able to get done today after I have decided that my morning reading is complete. I’ve just started Joyce Carol Oates’ We Were the Mulvaneys. She is one of the most prolific writers I can think of, and yet this may be the first book of hers that I’ve read. I vaguely remember being assigned something of hers in college, but I don’t remember what it was (a poem, maybe? a short story?), and like most of what we read as English majors, it was dark and depressing. I’ve not tried anything of hers since.

I picked up Mulvaneys from the hospital exchange cart, and I will probably bring it back there when I’m done with it. Hospital book carts have saved my sanity more than once last year and I try to contribute to them when I can. You don’t really sleep much in hospitals, you might as well have something good to read. I’ve now taken to packing books whenever I think I’m going to be admitted, but I almost always get through the ones I bring.

My grandparents with their five children.

So far, I like the Mulvaneys and the simple, almost religious optimism that holds their lives together. Yet, you know their happiness is tenuous, that something awful is going to happen that rips apart their carefully constructed lives; like a squirrel dashing through the dazzling but delicate web that took a spider so long to build. When Oates describes a non-central character’s effort to set his own children against each other, I stop and seriously wonder if this is common in Irish families, as it was certainly recognizable in mine.

This gives me something to think about in my own family and my own writing. Growing up I had this dollhouse that I played with well into my teens. My sister was four years younger and constantly begging me to play with her, which is part of the reason. The other reason, I didn’t realize until many years later, was that the dollhouses (there were three of them) served as a setting for the stories in my head. Those stories were almost always about the kind of family I wanted, rather than the one I had. The family in my head was always large, active and social. They enjoyed each others’ company had each others’ backs.

For decades I’ve wanted to set a story in a multigenerational family with a summer house. I have such wonderful descriptions of the place, I could make you want to go there. the place itself is a character. And yet, I can’t do it because moving the story forward would mean that one of my characters would have to do something horrible to another. I can’t bear to imagine what that thing might be although I have plenty of examples in my own family.

For a writer, there’s a lot to explore within the disintegration of a family. Society would like us to think that these are unbreakable bonds, but they fall apart all the time over money, abuse, resentment, and the smallest things can become the last straw. After those bonds have been broken, what makes them worth trying to repair? Or is it just easier not to?

This has been on my mind a lot since my cousin’s death around the holidays. I suppose there was an “event” that precipitated our all falling away when we were kids, but in truth, fault lines among the adults already existed. That my mother’s generation never thought those sibling bonds important enough to repair saddens me when I think of it. Yet, my own generation is similar. We all live in different states, we have very different lives and we would never reach out to each other for help. It’s just the way it is.

Perhaps I imagined this might change after many of my cousins started to reach out to each other, mostly on Facebook. Maybe my surprising anger at her passing is not just about her age, but about the fact that she won’t have a chance to be a part of that.