Wednesday, June 24, 2015

catalpa flashbacks

Long ago and far away, I owned a house on a huge, double lot. And on this lot, there were some trees. Pine trees and silver maples. Green shrubs hugged the base of the house.  Alongside our house was an entire lot, big enough for another house but it had only grass and a couple mature maple trees, plus a row a tall shrubs acting to block the noise from the street alongside that lot.    The maples were mature and majestic, with spectacular fall color shows. Silver maples, however, have a shallow root system, making it difficult to grow the kind of suburban lawn that most people aspire to. Plus, the shallow root systems make it hard to mow your crappy lawn. The roots jam your mower.  Our trees provided deep shade, which added another challenge to my then-husband's fantasy of thick, lush, green sod. I loved the silver maples but, also, I hated them because I had to listen to the he-who-shall-not-be-named whined about the grass. I will never write his name but I'd like my readers to know that if I had to give him a name, it would be mathafucka.

The root system of our silver maple trees came above the ground, making it impossible to grow the kind of fantasy all-American lawn most Americans want. Or used to want. My ex husband wanted one.The motherfucker. The word rolls happily off my tongue when used to refer to him but I won't use it again, having now provided a sketch of his values and personality.

There were no catalpa trees on our land.

My neighbor across the street, however, also had a huge, double lot. Her double lot was covered with catalpa trees.

Did I mention that although he-who-shall-not-be-named complained constantly about the lawn that he never did any yard work? He worked  sixty hours a week in his big-shot job. When I was lucky, he worked more than that.   He watched sports when he was home, expected his meals on the table, his laundry done. And, the jerk, he'd patrol the house, inspecting it to see if I had cleaned properly. He mostly came home to eat, sleep and dominate abusively. The yard work, in our little family, was woman's work. My work.

The lawn mower terrified my baby, then my toddler. First, I had tried to mow the lawn while she was napping, fretting that she might wake up and need me but I would not hear her over the mower. This meant that I mowed the lawn in little bitty snatches of time. So I was eternally mowing the goddamn lawn. This meant the lawn was never all mowed at the same time. This gave my then-husband something else to berate me for. He said I should just let the baby cry as long as it took me to mow the lawn in a manner he considered proper. It was proper to mow the whole lawn all at once. The extra lot was all lawn and the main lawn had hard to mow grass, mired amidst the tree roots that came up to the surface for water. I could not work outside for two hours, unable to hear my baby crying inside the house while I was out with the roaring lawn mower.

The lawnmower was much more powerful than we needed. I had wanted a push mower. He acted like the lawnmower reflected his manhood and had bought one, over my objections, that was particularly loud. Very manly. As I have said, I did all the mowing.

Mowing the lawn was a pain in the neck with a baby but raking leaves with a baby was fun. Before she could walk, I would just prop my Rosie near me and chatter to her nonstop. I really liked to talk to her about the wind.

"Let's be quiet, honey," I often said to her, "Let's just be as still as we can and think about what we feel."

Then I would pause to listen expressively, the expression being for her benefit. "Did you feel that?" I would exclaim, "Did you feel that movement on your cheek? Did you feel your hair move? I saw your hair move. I felt my hair move."

I paused a lot, to give her a chance to think about what I was saying, to think about the air. "You feel the air moving, honey," I would say. "Isn't that amazing? You can feel it but you can't see it. Oh, Rosie," I would conclude, "Life is full of things you can feel but you cannot see."

"When you feel your hair moving, that is the wind, honey. Can you say wind?"

It never mattered to me that my daughter could not talk back. I talked on and on. I felt compelled to talk to her about everything. I believed I was imparting meaningful things to her with my nonstop chatter. Even when she did not understand what I said, she felt what I felt. She felt my love for her, my attention. And she did communicate back, just not in language, not at first.

"Look at the tree, see how the branches and leaves move? That's the wind, honey, moving our trees."

"See the leaves blowing away? What is making them move?"

We had great conversations while I raked leaves. We had great conversations while we did everything. I was scintilating. She was mesmerized.

Left to my own choices, I would not have raked any leaves, and especially not the catalpa leaves. The lawn was a wipe out anyway, because of our shallow tree roots. I wanted to let the leaves stay on the lawn. I did not care about the grass, although I was very invested in my vegetables and flowers.  My husband, he who I shall not name but I will use an accurate adjective to refer to him:  my motherfucker of a husband insisted I rake all the leaves, even the catalpas that blew from across the street. They were not even our leaves.  The catalpa leaves were so thick that they might have wiped out what little grass we had between our shallow, on-the-surface, tree roots.Easy for motherfucker to insist I rake them; he did no yard work at all.

My life raking catalpa leaves was short-lived. As soon as my ex and I separated, I never raked leaves again in that house.

While I still raked, just for two falls, I put Rosie in a lavendar sweater outfit, pants and matching top with a hood. The hood had a white ball on a string, attached near the crown of her head. That fluffy white fabric ball would bounce around her head and I loved the intensely gorgeous perfection of the contrsaat of the white bobbing ball, her rosy cheeks and her dark brown eyes, with the lavendar hood. An exquisitely beautiful visage.  Her pink to red cheeks beamed out of the hood, mittened hands waving. She seemed intently focused on me, still the center of her existence at that time.  Remembering her on those chilled fall days, her rosy cheeks, her big brown eyes following me, evokes one of my sweetnest memories of being with her.

We loved to rake the maple leaves, which are easy to gather into large piles. We loved to tumble in them. My job was to gather all the leaves into piles on our driveway and then my husband would help me bag them. It is much easier to bag leaves with two people. It was a challenge to get those piles because Rosie loved to mess them up. We loved fall. We loved all the time we spent together. Or so I thought.

Just about the time Rosie and I finished raking our maple leaves, the catalpa leaves would begin to fall.

Catalpa leaves are gigantic, often twelve inches or more at their widest tips. And catalpa leaves are thick. Catalpa leaves are a misery to rake. They stick to the rake. I would make just one small swath with my rake, the rake would be full and if I wanted to continue raking, I would have to stop, after just one swipe with the rake, two swipes tops, and then have to pull the leaves off the rake before I could rake more. I had to tear off the leaves, put them in a pile or in a bag, and swipe again. Again and again. It was tedious, hard work. And exhausting. Imagine trying to gather dozens of cubic yards of anything but only able to gather a few cubic inches at a time.

Nowadays, a person might use a leaf blower. Not back then.

When I raked the catalpa leaves, I vented my frustration to my daughter, who was the best listener I ever knew before she learned to speak. After she learned to speak, she still liked to listen to me. Until she became a teenager.

"I remember reading about Nancy Drew's yard having catalpa leaves," I told Rosie, "When Nancy Drew had catalpa leaves, they sounded beautiful. I read about them and longed to see catalpa trees. When I was a little girl, I used to wish our house in Chicago had catalpa leaves just like Nancy Drew. But oh, no, my dear little girl, I was wrong. Nancy Drew was wrong to love her catalpa trees. Catalpa trees are one of god's curses, my honey bunny. Don't ever saddle yourself with catalpa leaves. You've been warned."  Even now, it gives me great amusement to remember the one-sided, brilliant arguments I presented to my one and two-year-old.  I was always giving valuable life lessons like the catalpa leaves lessons.

Of course I didn't really think I was giving her meaningful lessons in my words. I did believe, fervently, that I was giving her lessons with my constant attempts to expand her world, open her up to consider things like the invisible wind and, most importantly, the lesson that I loved her and liked her enough to focus on her.

One nice thing about talking incessantly to an infant is that it is not necessary to stop and explain things like who is Nancy Drew unless you feel like it. Rosie was always willing to listen to whatever I had to say. She trusted me, at this stage in life, on all things. She didn't need to know that Nancy Drew was a teenage sleuth in a series of mysteries targeted to young, female readers. What could she do but trust me, as she sat in her walker under one of our old maple trees and I raked leaves, talking almost nonstop.

"Catalpa leaves are horrible," I often complained. "And do you know what is the worst?" Rosie always wanted to know the worst. She signaled this longing to me telepathically. "The worst is that all these goddamn leaves are not even ours, honey. These leaves belong to the neighbors. Every year these leaves blow across the street, into our yard. By every right, the neighbors should come over here and rake them. But no, oh no, they do not. They shirk their duty, my little one. Don't ever shirk your duty, my little Rosie. Well, don't ever own catalpa trees but if you should ever be so foolish, well, then be a good neighbor and gather your own goddamn leaves, wherever they may blow. Just ask your neighbors where you need to rake. I am sure they will happily accept your raking help."

Sometimes, when making indignant speeches about those cursed catalpa leaves and the negligent neighbors who did not help me, I spoke as loudly as I could, as if the neighbor would hear me and come over and help. It was fall. Windows not open. Plus that neighbor had a full time job and I usually raked her catalpa leaves while she was at work, while the whole neighborhood seemed empty except for me and my kitty kat, my cocoa bear, my cake cup. My Rose.

It was not necessary to explain things like 'shirk your duty' to Rosie. I knew that if I spoke to her intelligently, she would catch up. And she did. She had near-perfect scores in English on her SATs.

I made a decision as soon as Rosie was born that I was going to talk to her exactly like I talked to everyone else. So I said 'goddamn' to her. I also said things like bullshit, fuck, and damn, except never in front of her dad because he would have been furious. We left him when Rosie was a baby but we stayed in the house a few years. Once he moved out, I stopped raking leaves. Rosie still helped me grow flowers and vegetables, of course.

Pat Clark was the name of our neighbor who owned the cursed catalpas. Sometimes,  Pat would sometimes stroll across the street while I was raking her catalpa leaves to say hello. Pat was a very tall woman and she had a way of looking regal, whatever she did. She would cross her arms, settle back on her feet and say from on high "It just isn't fair that you have to rake all these leaves. They come from my yard, after all."

"Well, Pat," I would say, "You are welcome, feel perfectly free, to rake these leaves. Here, you can use my rake. Rosie and I will sit and watch. I could use a break. Rake as much as you want!"

Pat would laugh, shift on her feet again and stroll back home.

"Did you hear that?" I would exclaim to my Rosie, "Even she knows it isn't fair that your poor mother has to rake these cursed leaves! Don't ever own catalpas, my little pretty."  I so appreciated Rosie's unspoken but passionate support for the injustice of those catalpa leaves.

Catalpa leaves will choke a lawn. If you care about lawns, which I do not and did not. You have to get them up if you want any grass.

I hated catalpa leaves.

Now I can find  lots of catalpa trees in Northern California. They are beautiful trees with lovely flowers in the spring. Great shade trees.  Nancy Drew was right. Nancy had spoken of their great shade. As I walk around, I crunch on the leathery, thick, cursed things. Since I don't have to rake them, they are beautiful to me once more. As I crunch along, I have mental conversations with my baby Rosie, telling her that it is okay to enjoy catalpa leaves now that her mother does not have to rake them. I remember the many, perfect shades of rosy her cheeks usually looked when we did yard work. I remember that her cheeks grew red when she helped me shovel snow. I remember the spring I planted dozens of zinnias. When I weeded my zinnias, two-year-old Rosie would help me but two-year-old Rosie could not distinguish the weeds from the zinnias. She followed me as I moved along my zinnia border, and she pulled up all my zinnias. She was so proud to help. When she was asleep, I went out and planted new plants.  I never told anyone before this that I replanted flowers after my dumpling dolly helped me by pulling out all my starter flower plants.

Sitting on the ground with her, talking about the beauty of flowers, nattering on about the miracle of growing things, how we could put seeds in the ground, water them and the sun and other forces would cause the seeds to grow. More things she could not see but which were real, for she could not see whatever force made a flower grow, she could only see the growing.  I spoke of these things hoping to get her to sense into this majestic world, to get her thinking about a seed breaking open, growing, stretching towards sunlight. Like babies do. Like plants do. Like all of creation does.

I have come back to the present. I remember that I am walking on catalpa leaves without Rosie. I find myself wondering if I imagined her. Maybe only the catalpa leaves were real and she a figment of my imagination? Am I a figment of my imagination too? Being her mom is, or was,  so central to my sense of self and my sense of self got shattered when I lost her. Now I have to invent myself again and I don't want to invent a new me. I want to be Rosie's mom. The hardest aspect of losing her, I think, is the way it plays with my memories. I have what I am calling memories of what it felt like to love her while I raked those damn leaves and talked to her about everything. Inside these memories, I was a warm, loving, good mommy. Did I make that up? Maybe loving Rosie was a story I made up. Maybe I was a horrible mother and I made up memories of being a good one. These kinds of thoughts don't make me as sick as they used to but they are often with me. The  catalpa leaves brought them on this time.

My daughter told me, the day I dropped her off at Cornell, which I helped make possible in a million ways, she said "Now that I am in the Ivy League, I don't want to have anything more to do with you."  That was the last time we saw one another until, on a trip to my hometown of Chicago recently, where she lives these days, I went to her office building just so I would know where my kid spends some of her life. Just to have an image of her in a place, safe, happy. Things went awry, she became aware I was there and she threatened to have me arrested for trespassing.