I intended to write last night about the stories my Dad had told me about being in the war, either war. It ended up with him talking about oysters and how much he loved them.

They as well as clams always made me sick, going all the way back to my younger years when we would be on a road trip — possibly the road trip we made up to Notre Dame for a weekend football game. We stayed overnight at a Howard Johnson’s and, of course, ate there. They had clam strips on the kids’ menu and I ordered those, only to be vomiting into the toilet a few hours later that night. And so, I was a little more drowsy and uninterested in the football game the next day than I had planned on being. Everybody loved the game, and I did enjoy it more than I thought I would. Being in a huge crowd that is that excited about something passes on a good deal of the excitement to you. It’s almost impossible to resist.

I remembered how Dad loved the little smoked oysters in a can as well. Every long once in a while, he would get a can of those and open them on Sunday for a treat after skeet shooting — these definitely were not a summertime treat. They’d be eaten on crackers, or possibly right out of the can in my father’s case. I preferred the sardines that came out of similar cans. Both of these cans were flat little things not much bigger than index cards. Their tops were rolled off with the help of keys that were attached to the bottoms of the cans.

How to grieve.

My mother thought that inner strength, moral strength, moral superiority, were best dealt with through silence. It was the best thing to do to appear unaffected by the traumatic event one was just passing through or had recently endured.

After Aunt Sudie’s death, a few days before which my mother could be heard from behind the closed door of her bedroom shouting “But why me?”, my mother moved through the house slow and dazed in manner, sustained by receiving and answering condolence letters and phone calls and planning the funeral with my uncle and cousins. A few more weeks were spent by her in the same daze, more silent than usual, no shouting behind the bedroom door about how horribly unfair it was to have taken a much loved, vibrant woman from her sisters and husband and children and through such a horrible disease as cancer. She contained her grief, at least when I was home after school and before I left in the mornings.

I felt sorry for her, and sad that my aunt was dead. But Mom displayed no grief, and I was too young at only 14 to understand the processes of grief. I resumed my usual activities, the homework, the slumber parties and overnights, the television and the reading. I wanted to go to the mall with Missy. I wanted not to have to remember to take my gym uniform home occasionally to be washed.

My noise and activity must have grated on her nerves, but she went through the daily schedule of drinks with Dad after he came home, dinner, sleep, waking, showing nothing of her pain. I got the idea that it didn’t exist. I got a bit peeved at her, disappointed that she was not affected by the death of her twin. She must be shallow. True, it’s awful to be around someone who collapses in tears every day for months and years after a death, but shouldn’t one look a little sad, from time to time? Look like something happened, and that you know it but are trying to get along as best as you can anyhow?

Nothing. Needlepoint and bourbon with my father every afternoon, dinner — meat and two veg — homework, sleep, wake. What was wrong with her, that she couldn’t feel even the most basic of emotions?

She was noble, I see now, but only in a way that was visible to her. Maybe that was the point. It doesn’t do to be human. We must be better.


Zeiss Ikon – Camerapedia

Just looking up an old camera my father gave me when I was in high school. It was ancient even then.

Zeiss Ikon is a German company that was formed in 1926 by the merger of four camera makers (Contessa-Nettel, Ernemann, Goerz and Ica), and an infusion of capital by Zeiss[1] The company formed one part of the Carl Zeiss Foundation, another part being the optical company Carl Zeiss. Logically, most of the Zeiss Ikon cameras were equipped with Carl Zeiss lenses and the formerly independent companies, in particular Goerz, had to shut down their own lens manufacture. The merged company was also obliged to use Compur shutters for 80% of its cameras. Thus only the simplest cameras could get cheaper shutters like the Klio. Soon AG Hahn für Optik und Mechanik, Kassel, and Goerz Photochemisches Werk GmbH, Berlin, joined the Zeiss Ikon syndicate. The group became one of the big companies in the phototechnical capital Dresden, with plants in Stuttgart and Berlin. Until WWII Zeiss Ikon was the world’s market leading maker of 8mm movie cameras.

via Zeiss Ikon – Camerapedia.

Update: an even better Zeiss Ikon link… Thanks Microcord!


The firewood was always freshly stacked in its brass bin by the fireplace in the den each winter afternoon. When I was little, I would try to carve this wood with the blade of the letter opener that sat with its matching pair of scissors and note pad by the telephone in the bar. This was the only blade that I could get my hands on. The logs were soft and prone to splintering and fraying. I succeeded only in making a small pile of splinters at best.

The fireplace stayed cold and dark all day no matter how cold it was. The reason for the fire’s existence was Dad. During the day, Mom stayed upstairs where the heat rose. I had my nice warm classroom.

Mom never mentioned the cold of the four decades of winters she spent in that house, but after I married and moved out, she unfailingly invited us to go to her condo downtown whenever we wanted so that we could warm up. I was always confused by her invitations which continued to be issued even though our furnace worked perfectly, until my husband remarked about how cold it had always been at my parents’ house.

My father’s job was to build a fire in the fireplace when he got home, after he mixed himself a fresh bourbon and water with a twist of lemon peel from a lemon whose rind had been slowly peeled away just like that over the past couple of days. He would fix a drink for himself:

  • first is the ice in the glass: one handful
  • one, or one and a half or two jiggers of bourbon which got delivered directly into the garage by people I never saw, on some sort of understanding and without the Ohio state tax stamps
  • water
  • a spoon of sugar
  • the twist of lemon peel sliced from lemons whose fruit was never used for anything else

He made a drink for Mom, as well, fresh from her afternoon’s bath. (“Always be fresh and ready when your husband comes home from work.”) Then, time for the news and homework.

My father’s sayings

I don’t know how dad got from the Aquinas of his youth to the philosophy summed up in one of his favorite sayings — “Everybody’s got to be somewhere” — but get there he did. Throughout my childhood, he said this frequently. To my mother looking up a phone number. To his friends, wondering where yet another someone was and what they were up to now.

“Like a greased pig:” this he said of everyone who moved out of his grasp, who got away, who refused to be held down or held back. Of children playing tag. Of Mom’s little Lhasa Apso, running away from her to do another crazy fur-flattening circle around the lawn, running for her life and the joy of it.

“New potatoes with their jackets on:” said about the eponymous side dish every time he saw Mom fishing them out of the pot of boiling water with her slotted spoon. She was not born to wield that spoon but did her best, the potatoes shiny and steaming in their dish, the cold butter on the plate.

“I made all my mistakes before I was forty:” said several times during my growing up, usually in or close to the bar room where I did my homework on a flat wooden card table every night. I was always very impressed. Decades later, when I was forty and taking many classes in calculus and finding out the value of learning from a mistake, I thought of his saying this, and started to feel a twinge of pity for him, long since gone by then.

“The bishop’s price:” My father believed he was owed a discount on whatever object he believed he wanted at a given time, and he grew up in a time when the Church actually commanded a great deal of respect in all of society. Therefore, a bishop should get a discount, and my father felt that he was as good as a bishop any day. The bishop usually owed him a few dollars anyway from the yearly poker outing with the local priests that my father and my uncle hosted. This was self-evident: QED, as my father might have written on my homework had I ever found myself in a logic class.

Once, shortly after I was married, my father took me to an appliance store, wanting to get me a new television set for my new house. Our salesman was new and young and hoping to make a good impression. He explained to my father and me the various virtues of the set in front of us. Time for the price and the delivery options: my father took his cold cigar from his mouth, turned his head to spit out an imaginary bit of tobacco, and said, “Now what’s the bishop’s price on that?”

The salesman looked confused. My father was clearly not a bishop, standing there in his ordinary business clothes and his tweed cap, cigar in hand. There also was obviously no private deal between the Archdiocese of Cincinnati and, well, anybody in the appliance business. But the salesman was young enough to ask my father with a straight face what he meant. He was genuinely puzzled.

My father explained in a short, emphatic sentence “What sort of discount can you give me?” Rhetorical in form if not in substance.

A bit timidly and regretfully, for this was not his absolutely first day on the job, the salesman explained to my father that the price was the price, that it could not be changed.

My father erupted with invective, surprising both the salesman and me into silence, though the salesman did try to get out an exculpatory sentence or two in there somewhere. The gist of what my father said: if there was no “bishop’s price,” there would be no sale. He used many more words than that to get the idea across, though. He stuffed his cigar back into his teeth and turned and walked out of the store. I gave the salesman a “sorry” glance and hurried after. Everybody’s got to be somewhere.

Sleeplessness, or lack thereof.

When I was young and still Catholic and still fully believing in the Jesus and the God that the Church had fully encased in its teachings, I used, at night, when I was too full of anxiety and dread to get to sleep by imagining that I was held in the cupped hands of an angel. I was old enough to know that such was not the case, but the imagining still helped and I would gradually relax enough to drift off to sleep.

Later, when I was older and in my teens and had discovered cynicism, I couldn’t quite do it — I could not believe in the hands of angels, not even enough to go to sleep. At this point, I found out that sleeplessness lies on the other side of cynicism, but had not been offered an acceptably sophisticated substitute for angels. The over-the-counter Sominex that I snuck into the house was not very strong, and left me both sleepless and stupid. I had also decided that suffering made me noble, like Lord Byron with his club foot. Nobility did not relieve insomnia, but at least I was suffering like the poets of ages past had done, and I was unique in that suffering because nobody I knew was as good a poet as me. QED and all of that sort of thing. It would be another twenty years before I would get proper training in the basics of set theory and the mechanics of a formal proof. By that time, I had long since left home and the insomnia that that place tended to induce in me, and was sleeping well and soundly in another house surrounded by my real family.

But I never forgot that one lesson: that when you really need them, angels don’t help.


Though I grew up in the countryside and wandered in the woods as I grew up, I knew little about the names of things. I knew oaks from maples and robins from that which was not a robin. I knew pine trees and boxwood bushes. I knew what I thought were hawks but which were really turkey vultures.

On spring days after I was old enough to drive myself to school and back home again, driving along the interminably winding road that led to nowhere other than our house, I kept my eye out for hawks in the sky. We lived on top of a great ridge of hills overlooking the Ohio River. Most clear afternoons, I could see the hawks circling the air overhead, riding the thermals all afternoon. Park the car in front of the house and get out of the car and leave the door open to stand there on the warm asphalt and stare at the circling bird in a pose that I can only hope fits the definition of “transfixed.” Most of the time you are actually are transfixed. All of the time, I wish I also could fly away from heere, just like every bird I have ever known does.

I read what little I am able to find of Robinson Jeffers in that back end part of nowhere with only one small chain bookstore in it for thousands of people, not that any of them are complaining about the lack. I am satisfied anyway by “Hurt Hawk.” The bird in the poem is tragic and beautiful and strong and doomed, and therefore I feel tragic and beautiful and strong and doomed. Byronic, I think of myself, though I had read extremely little Byron by that point, or by now even. It was the idea of the thing: a caped and silhouetted figure standing against a clear night sky with the stars shining bright and no moon to be seen. Misunderstood by the whole world. For now, at least. After the silhouetted figure has passed on into the fields of memory, then and only then would the world recognize that a genius had lived among them.

This had replaced my earlier plans to go to live in Paris and be an artist and paint many pictures of sunsets. I liked the idea of being an artist, but as soon as I found poetry, I quit drawing without the proverbial second thought.

But my knowledge of birds was small, though I lived in the country. Neither parent was knowledgeable about nature, or even saw it as something that was more than an entity whose messiness had to be dealth with on an unfortunately regular basis. However, I had read somewhere that the undersides of the wings of a red-tailed hawk were white, and the whiteness clearly visible to a viewer. Turkey vultures, the book went on to say, had dark brown feathers on their wings’ undersides, just like the birds that I had been watching so closely.

This could not be, my mind rationalized. How can you be a misunderstood poet if you idolize turkey vultures? No, they had to be hawks. I just was not seeing them properly, a trick of the light. I persisted in this belief for years until I did actually learn something about birds and finally acknowledged the truth: I had been fascinated by the soaring flight of vultures, not hawks.

They are beautiful anyway. So I told myself then, and so I believe now. I can spot a turkey vulture from miles away when all I can see is the shape that the bird’s wings take against the sky, and the slight wobble in its flight path.

The totem pole

Somewhere during those hazy days of summer when I was ten or eleven or twelve, my parents, feeling the pull of yet another empty space in their lives, took on the project of building a totem pole in a corner of our yard.

This would have made more sense if we had had any Native American heritages among us. It would have made more sense if we had lived in a place where any Native American culture and history at all were large parts of the local culture or if my parents had had any interest in any of the above. As it was, this new hobby came as quite a surprise not only to me but to all of my parents’ friends.

The totem pole project began with a large party, complete with a lovely summer evening and several chisels of various widths adorned with ribbons, the varnish of their handles shining in the sun. Mallets accompanied the chisels, and everyone was instructed to chisel out at least one small strip of wood on one of the sections. People wandered around the section of lawn on which the log that would become the totem pole lay on its trestles to the sound of their own talk and the sound of ice cubes rattling in their tumblers of whiskey. No one’s hands slipped and gouged themselves: we lived a charmed life back then.

What it was to look like: eagles. Each section of the totem pole was of some variety of eagle. Some variety of bird, at least, with various forms of hooked beaks and shrugged-back wings. My father showed off the plans for the totem pole and sketches of what it was to look like once it was finished and set upright on the slight rise of hill nearby. My father had paid an architect friend of his to draw up the plans and presumably find the appropriate five or ten yard long log and haul it to the house. I had no idea that architects drew up plans for anything other than buildings, but I was a child and figured that this was yet some other aspect of the grown-up world that I hadn’t been exposed to yet and would understand much better in a few years. I also believed that in a short while I would see the finished totem pole towering above everything else in the yard.

The eagles of which it was made: why them? My mother had decided around then that her official favorite symbolic (totem?) animal would be an eagle. To that effect, two brick pillars had been built at either side of our driveway, each topped by an eagle, wings extended, beak open, facing each other across the asphalt. Some of her friends had totem animals of their own, turtles or whatever, that they were known by in their group. Mom had quite a look of satisfaction on her face when she mentioned that her friend B. had started calling her in a sort of affected way by the title of “Mrs. Eagle.” Pleased her to no end. Eagles were the best, she reasoned, and what she of course deserved. That cut above the rest, so to speak. Nobody else had anything so grand as an eagle.

And so we had a totem pole of eagles. Unformed eagles, that is, waiting to be chipped out of their log. After the unveiling party, my parents and I would often go out to the totem pole after dinner and chip away at it. Dad and I did, at any rate. I suppose Mom did as well. Then eventually Mom found it more important to stay back in the kitchen and do some cleaning up after dinner, and my father was drawn back to the den and his whiskey in its cold glass with the clicking of the ice cubes. In a couple of months, I was the only one who would ever try to pry off a sliver or two from the marked-off sections.

I don’t remember how long that would-be pole stayed out there in its corner of the yard. Eventually the wood cracked as it was seasoned by the years. I was a few days ago out to the land where our house had been and there are no traces either of it or the pole.

A few pictures…

… of where my childhood home used to be.

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Music that stays with you: Beethoven and Serkin

The main theme of the first movement.
Image via Wikipedia

My old high school English teacher took it upon herself, for reasons unknown to me, to give me extra reading assignments. I was a book geek, and so was always glad to get suggestions of writers to read, and she did thus start me on a lifelong love of Yeats and some of Henry James‘ stories that I would never have come across otherwise.

She also, for reasons also unknown to me but compatible with the previous unknown reasons, tried to change my taste in music from Rock to Classical. Rock, she seemed to reason, was incompatible with a cultured mind, which I was otherwise gaining. Classical music is something I can take or leave. However, one recording she lent me (you had to actually lend someone a piece of vinyl encased in cardboard, back then, and hope they had an adequate machine with a needle to play it on) has stuck with me throughout the years. It is Rudolf Serkin‘s rendition of Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto:

“Beethoven: The Five Piano Concertos” (Telarc)

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