Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Simple Things

Though she played the part admirably when it suited her, my grandmother was no sweet little old lady. She was far more Dorothy Parker than Betty Crocker. She had a penetrating intelligence and a quick wit. A sharp eye and a sharp tongue. Had she ever acquired the habit, she would have made a rare drunk. She played favorites ruthlessly and made no secret that I was her favorite.

This did not always endear me to the rest of the family. In the end, I was largely forgiven. The matter was out of my control in any case. I think it was clear that our love for each other was genuine. I could tolerate her when few others could. She would accept my company even in her black moods. It was the sort of relationship you might find between two porcupines: prickly on the outside, tender underneath.

Almost every Boston-Irish family tree has an Italian branch. Mine is no exception. In 1912 my grandmother's father sailed from Naples. Possibly he was from Casa Macchia di Pietro in Calabria. Perhaps not. He was 28. I know little else about him beyond this.

My grandmother's childhood was brief and unhappy. On this point she and her brother firmly agreed. For most of the family, to ask about these early years was to enter very dangerous territory. She and I seemed to have a tacit agreement. I was free to ask what I liked as long as I did not expect a truthful answer.

I think she wanted me to remember her life the way she wished it had been. It was her way of making peace with the past. She shared with me what she chose and took the rest with her. I loved her too much to ask for more.


Though she likely had roots among rough-hewn Calabrian farmers, there was more than a touch of ancient Rome about her. She had a strong presence despite her physical frailty. I could easily imagine her in the company of Julia Augusta, perhaps even as the transmigrated soul of the Lady herself, if I believed such things.

She took her role as matriarch very seriously. You did not visit my grandmother. You paid court to her. You needed to be sensitive to her moods and observant of the rituals. Though it could be exhausting, I mostly enjoyed the game. There was something timeless about it. As I grew older, there was a subtle shift. She began to treat me a bit more like a grown man. Still, there was never any question of equality. She was my grandmother and I was there to serve. That was our economy.

Servant, butler, valet and chauffeur. Cook, sous-chef, handyman and gardener. Assistant, undersecretary, jester and minstrel. In a pinch, manicurist and barber. I had to be prepared to play any of these roles at any time. Sometimes several at once. I was not her only help, of course, but from the length of my to-do lists, it seemed many tasks were mine alone.

As the MS slowly took more of her mobility, my to-do lists grew. In the end, she had to move from the antique houses she preferred to a modern assisted-living apartment. Strangely, this was the one year that we did not get along. At first, we both thought it would be all for the good. She would have access to round-the-clock help and I would have less work to do. Her apartment was nice enough and she made use of all the services offered. Yet we grew ever more peevish with each other. Our visits were tense, crabby, and further apart.

We had thoughtlessly sacrificed the way we showed each other love: she put aside her fierce independence to ask for help, I provided it. Our love was not an abstract thing. It was an organic part of living our lives together. We could not live separate lives, then come together to compare notes. We had to share the details: making beds, cleaning bathrooms, preparing dinner. Sometimes the simplest things are the most important. Somehow we found our way back. Love never fails.

Many of Nana's neighbors found an excuse to visit when I was there. At times, there was a steady stream of callers. She always received them politely, her impatience visible to me alone. Yet I wondered about this. What drew them there? In all seriousness, I think it was the onions.

It was an assisted-living complex, not a nursing home. The residents were free to live as they liked. All the apartments had kitchens. Few people used them, though. Most chose to take their meals in the first-floor dining room. The halls seemed sterile. But Nana and I were busy cooking. Baking bread, simmering sauces, frying garlic and onions, preparing her meals for the week. In her apartment, life was still being lived. I think her visitors were drawn in on the aroma of the onions. Perhaps they were wondering if they had lost something.


Nana's door is never locked. To lock the door would mean a painful trek across the room to unlock it. Besides, she is expecting me. I knock anyway, then enter.
Hi, Nana.
She sits writing at a corner table. Looking up, she fixes me with an appraising eye.
My God, you're getting fat, Christopher. What you need is a good diet.
The whole tone of our day will be set by my reply. I pause briefly.
I love you too, Nana.
She softens and smiles. I have said the right thing.
The coffee here is terrible. Tastes like it was made with tobacco. I saved it for you.
There is no irony in her voice. I smile. So begins a new day as life goes on.


It is not better to give than to receive. It is essential to do both. They are two sides of one coin. In giving, we receive. In receiving, we give. In this we create the ties that bind us together. This is how life was meant to be.

Sometimes the simplest things are the most important.

Respectfully Yours,


Friday, November 20, 2009

The Accidental Letter

292 Centre Street,
Brockton, Mass.
June 22, 1926

Dear Maragret:
This is the last day of school and the teacher let us write a letter to anyone we pleasee. We have hust come from opening exercises where Mr. Getchell presided for the last time. The school athletic committee presented him with a white sweater with a football letter and also basketball and baseball letters for his good work in helping along the athletics of the school.
In just five minutes I wil be free for two months and then I will come back to the compaign for a diploma. Mr. Lewis was selectex to succeed Mr. Getchell and the class of 1927 will be the first calss to graduate under his head.
The old puff buggy is working overtime now-adays as we take it to school and run it every nitht. We have already been to Boston in the Harvard Stadium to see the state track meet. The top on the buggy is broken so that when it is pleasant we do not have any top at all but when it is raining we put it on although it does not do much good.
I suppose you know that I am working down to the American Railway sticking waybills. Although the work is hard and the hours long the pay is nice. I expect to get throuch in a week because the work is getting slck.
The gand is going to the race at Rocking ham on the fourth of July but as yet I have not decided whether to go or not because it is a pretty long trip for the buggy. They say that they are going to Niagara Falls after a few weeks have gone by in July. But I will not try that one as I should nto like to be stranded in Niagara Falls.
You will have to excuse the errors becase I had to write this in a hurry. There goes the bell.
Yours truly,
Charles the first.


It is easy for me to magnify my grandfather. The temptation is always there to make out of him an archetype. I suppose this is natural. He was the only grandfather I knew, and that in the autumn of his life. In my childish eyes, he seemed to know everything.

He was given to making little private jokes. Even when it was just the two of us, he would make them for his own amusement. I could tell by a certain sparkle in his eyes, a quick hint of a smile. I was not expected to understand. They usually had something to do with Latin, or a point from Homer or Scripture. He almost never explained them. He seemed satisfied by my realization that I had missed a deeper meaning.

Of course, that was the lesson. He wanted me to know that uneasy feeling that we have missed the point; that restlessness that compels us to search for meaning. My grandfather was a master of economy, the quality Spalding Gray called "New England Zen".

It is easy for me to magnify my grandfather. I could carve him in marble and put him on a shelf. It would be easy and it would be a mistake. To make an ideal of him would diminish his humanity. Such a man could never be anything but a fraud. Possibly a glorious fraud, but a fraud all the same.

The letter above is one of my prized possessions. Perhaps it was not meant for me. Perhaps, in a larger sense, it was. It is easy to forget that my grandfather was not always the grave paterfamilias that I knew. He was once a sixteen year-old boy, typing a quick note to his big sister on the last day of school. Anticipating a summer vacation of road-trips and good times. Worrying about the condition of the "puff buggy". Working a boring high-school job. Out the door at the sound of the final bell of the year.

I wonder that he signed his name Charles the first. I'm sure it was one of his little jokes. Yet he had three sons of his own and named none of them Charles. His great-grandson, Charles the second, would not be born for eighty years. Perhaps the letter was meant for me after all.

I have his photograph from 1928. I keep it with the letter. They say a picture is worth a thousand words but I'm not so sure. If I could keep only one of the two, I would keep the letter.

The Greeks carved marble statues of their heroes. Too often we forget that they painted these statues as well.

Respectfully Yours,


Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Endless Summer

My grandmother lives in endless summer. She is the sea in its many moods. Sunlight-scattered sparkling. July blue. Calm and green. Gray and forbidding. The hissing sibilance of the water's edge.

She is a salt-marsh in morning fog. A half-hidden heron in the reeds. The solitary cry of a gull. She is a fiery sunset over Cape Cod Bay. Wind-blown whitecaps. Crashing green breakers along the Great Beach.

She is the old Cape. A poverty of living and a richness of life. A weathered shingle cottage along a twin-rutted road. Scrub-pine and bayberry. Ever-shifting dunes tenuously bound by seagrass. The evening glow of a driftwood fire. The deep Atlantic darkness of the night-watch.

Yet there was nothing simple about her. She was also trolley bells and tangled traffic. The old downtown all dressed up for Christmas. Smartly-tailored skirts and prim fashion. Nickel matinees and Clark Gable at the Rialto. The life of the party and Benny Goodman at the Roseland. Movietone News and black market sugar.

All of this and more besides.

Whatever I say will be inadequate. I cannot tell the truth about my grandmother because I do not know it. She always kept part of herself to herself. She was a city girl who longed for the solitude of the Cape, back when solitude could still be found there. That was where she was most at home. That was where she was most herself. She will not submit to words, but if I stand alone at the edge of the earth and listen to the churning surf, sometimes I can feel her spirit. That will forever have to be enough. I loved her and she loved me. That is my truth.


My earliest memories of her are not really memories at all, but images. A collage of family photographs, home movies, stories told and retold. Silently, they shift and flicker, in distorted color and flashes of light, until I am unsure whether I remember the event or only the Super-8.

A shaky zoom shows my fresh-minted face. I am baby-blond and red Dr. Denton's. My mother is Ivory soap and baby's first Christmas. My grandparents so nimble the film seems sped-up. Nana claps her hands in delight, laughing. The camera pans to me too late. We are all smiles, then suddenly black. Were we all ever really this young?

She stands before her rambling Cape. I toddle across the sand-speckled lawn. With surprising speed she scoops me up. We sit in a cane-backed rocker. The MS has not yet taken her left side. She is vitality and a lime-green sundress. We squint in the too-bright August sun. She bends her head close to mine, sharing a secret. I clap my hands in delight, laughing. We are all smiles, then suddenly black. What did she say to me?


We sit at the counter stools in her kitchen. My feet do not quite touch the floor. The ancient Hotpoint hisses reassuringly. A teakettle gurgles a whispering hint of a whistle.

Always put water on to boil when you start cooking, Christopher. Remember that. You'll probably need it. And if you don't, you can always make yourself a nice cup of tea later. All right? Good boy. Dice these vegetables for me, will you? Do you remember what we call this?

Um... mirepoix?

Good boy. Mirepoix. Let's see if you've been paying attention, hm? Ready? Here's an easy one. Amandine?






Lyonnaise? No? Onions, Christopher. Onions. Remember that. All right? Good boy. Who loves you, baby? Your Nana, that's who.


I cannot tell the truth about my grandmother because I do not know it. Though I was as close to her as she ever allowed anyone to get, she shared with me only what she chose. That was who she was. Yet I like to think that she gave me herself as best she could. That will forever have to be enough. She loved me from the beginning. I loved her until the end. We loved each other as we were and that is enough. That is my truth.

Respectfully Yours,


Thursday, November 12, 2009


In dreamlight my grandmother walks the tide-line. Auburn hair loosely tied back. A bathing suit that would once have been considered revealing. Perhaps she is nearing thirty. A gentle wave laps at her ankles. One foot slowly sinks in the sand. With a violent kick she scatters a rainbow-shower of droplets. She faces the sea. She speaks without turning. You see, child? This is how I really am.

She stands in sepia-tone. Two enormous bloodhounds sprawl at her bare feet. She is Shirley Temple curls and overalls. She is defiance and serious brown eyes. She cradles an Iver Johnson 12-gauge almost too large for her four year-old arms. The gun is real. The barrel locked. The photograph does not seem posed.

A hot white flash. The acrid tang of magnesium and sulfur. Eddie Cantor crackles from a burl-wood Philco. Her neck and shoulders sweep gracefully beneath a low-backed dress. Her hair sweeps up in premature elegance. Her teeth just visible behind a Gibson girl smile. Her skin is smooth and white. Her serious brown eyes sparkle. Depression be damned. I will be beautiful.

I pause. Something is not right. An almost imperceptible pencil mark reveals itself. She has given her nose a more fashionable slant. I hesitate, then extract an art-gum from my desk and gently remove it. Better. I love her more the way she is.

Valedictorian. Class of 1932. She stares me down from the yellowing high school yearbook. Her smile is tight. Her eyes are fixed. She is defiance and intelligent purpose. I am not like these others. I will be somebody. I am somebody. Depression be damned.


St. Edward's Parish, 1938. The pancake supper is underway. The church hall is bustle and clatter. The air heavy with butter and maple. The Aunt Jemima man is cornered. She is hands-on-hips. He will not escape.
Why don't my pancakes come out like this?

Excuse me, ma'am?

These pancakes are better than mine. I want to know why. And don't call me ma'am.

Oh. Yes, miss. Well, when we put on these here suppers we don't use the milk and eggs, see? We just use water and oil. That's the thing. Water and oil. Comes out just as good.

No, it comes out better. Cheaper, too. I knew they were different.
She turns away satisfied, murmuring thanks, setting her quarry free.


No, no, not like that, Christopher. Fold the egg whites in gently, like this.
She makes a quick stroke with the whisk. To my grandmother I am always Christopher, even if I am not in trouble.

That's it. Gently, or you'll let the air out. And always room-temperature eggs. Remember that. Room-temperature eggs with a pinch of salt. Always just a pinch of salt. All right? Good boy. That's enough now. Pour the batter in this pan for me, will you? Then go check the oven. 350. No more, no less. Don't ever trust the oven, now. Always use a thermometer. Remember that. Always a thermometer and a level measure when you're baking. All right? Good boy. Who loves you, baby? Your Nana, that's who.


Somewhere around here the story begins for me. My grandmother loved me and I loved her. In a different life, we could have been friends. Never lovers; we were both far too volatile for that, but the kind of friends who hold hands and give the world a good Bronx cheer. My grandmother was difficult. Often prickly. Frankly, she was moody as hell. Just like me. We were kindred souls.

My grandfather had an infinite patience with which I was not blessed. He balanced my grandmother in ways I never could. He loved her in ways I cannot imagine. He was Augustus to her Livia. I was merely Archy to her Mehitabel.

My grandfather taught me many things, but one stands above the others. He taught me how to love my grandmother. To appreciate her spirit and to forgive her faults. When to give a soft answer and when to stand firm. He taught me how to accept her for who she was. When he died, he left me no money or property, but he left me what mattered most to him.

He left me her.

Respectfully Yours,


Monday, November 9, 2009

Eternal Autumn

My grandfather lives in eternal autumn. He is leaves crunching underfoot. Windfall apples and pears among the grasses. Orange and yellow and red and brown. The golden light of the October sun.

I sit on his lap reading Longfellow from a marble-bound volume. This is the forest primeval. The whispering pines and the hemlocks. He is sandpaper cheeks. Old Spice and Lectric Shave. Horn-rimmed glasses. A favored pink shirt. A four-colored pen. His eyes are blue. His hair still blond. His hand is strong. His touch is gentle. His teeth are all his own.

We kneel together in flickering shadows. He is frankincense and candle wax. Wood worn smooth and lemon oil. Fish on Friday and Saturday Night Suppers. Paternosters and Ave Marias. A well-thumbed missal in Bible-black leather. Sanctus, Sanctus, Dominus Deus. He is a firm handshake. A sturdy hymn. A tweed overcoat and matching hat. Ite, missa est. Deo Gratias.

I watch him tend his garden. He is tomato vines and butter-beans. Summer squash and sugar snaps. Petunias, hydrangeas and geraniums. Tiger Lily and Butterfly Bush. From out of the earth he has called them. He calls each one by name.

By a soft light on the porch he sits. I hear the whispered rustle of his paper. The kitchen is bright with activity. Nana gossips and chides, directs and instructs. We are running water and clattering silverware. The percolator coughs and sputters. I stack the dishes one by one. We chatter and tidy. We laugh out loud. What does he make of us?

I half-carry him to his favorite chair. He is scars and bones. His skin is translucent. His eyes are clear. His face is set. His smile is thin. I set out soup and sandwiches. We pretend he is not dying.

He lived the life he chose. This was the epitaph my great-uncle gave my grandfather. He lived the life he chose. I had never met him before. I never saw him again. But clearly the two men were brothers. Their eyes were clear and blue. They did not waste a word. They lived the lives they chose.

I loved my grandfather and he loved me. I knew him as well as any boy of 15 knows a man of 72, which is to say, not very. But we made the most of the time we had, and that is enough. He was bear-hugs and still waters. He was a warm spot by the kitchen pot-belly. He was Poor Richard's Almanack. He laughed with his eyes. He lived the life he chose.

No one ever really dies, of course. The people we have loved do not pass away, they pass within, for truly love never fails. My grandfather is beyond time now. He is everywhere he ever was. He is places he had never been, and all at once. He lives in my father. He lives in my heart. He lives in my son who bears his name. And he lives in eternal autumn. That is enough.

Respectfully Yours,


Saturday, November 7, 2009

A New England Mind

My college girlfriend used to accuse me of having a New England Mind. It was not meant as a compliment. She saw in me a certain provincialism that irritated her. Of course, she was absolutely right. At the time, I had spent almost my entire life within 50 miles of Boston. I had never been on a plane. I had no concept of Chinese food beyond pork fried rice and egg rolls. I had no license and had never driven a car. I rode subways and buses, or walked, or just stayed home.

There were some advantages to being a “townie” on campus. Since no one was allowed a car anyway, it was good to know where the subways and buses went, and what you might do when you got there. Some of my classmates also found it useful to have a connection for when they needed beer, or perhaps something stronger. Still, there was something odd about being a local.

I had unwittingly cast my lot with the overprivileged or, at least, with their children. In my 18 year-old wisdom, I had applied only to schools in Boston. I figured, why should I leave home when people come from all over to go to school here? I visited none of the colleges where I had applied. I chose the school that gave me the best package, financially. It made sense to me at the time.

It was quite the shock to be thrown in among these folks. Kids my age who had calling cards with Park Avenue addresses. Kids who willingly wore argyle and were into crewing. Kids who were already die-hard country club Republicans. I even met a prince, off to sow his wild oats in America before buckling down to some serious princing.

I had no idea such creatures really existed.

My life hadn’t exactly been sheltered, more circumscribed. My closest friends were artists and musicians. I knew a lot of ordinary folk: teachers, firemen, mechanics, a doctor, a few lawyers. On the fringe: junkies, lunatics, petty criminals. These people I could relate to. I could talk to the wine soaked semi-homeless guy in the bus terminal. He was familiar. He made some sense. By comparison, these new people might have been little green men from Mars.

To be fair, I’m sure the feeling was mutual. I’ve since flown in a plane, though I was 32 years old. I eventually learned to drive, though I never learned to enjoy it. I’ve become intimately acquainted with almost anything edible. On the other hand, I’ve still spent almost my entire life within 50 miles of Boston. It doesn’t bother me in the least. I have a New England Mind. This is home and I like it.

I like the clean white spires of the Congregationalists. Burning leaves on an October afternoon. Leaf-peeping out my window. Persian carpet lawns. Raking piles for my children to jump in. Warm apple fritters. The yellow harvest moon rising over my tiny square of city.

I like the first snowfall of the winter, most of the others too. Shoveled-out driveways and sidewalks like so many sandcastles. Clean white city streets with all the grime buried for a day. A cold nose and whiskey by the fire. A brittle December moon through ice covered branches.

I like our violent two-week spring, when everything blossoms all at once. The morning song of a chick-a-dee. Green, green, green and the sweet hay scent of fresh-cut grass. Early asparagus. The first really warm day when everyone smiles. Throwing open all the windows for a salt breeze off the harbor.

I like hot sandy beaches and freezing Atlantic water. Sea-spray and clam shacks and a faint whiff of ketchup. The first watermelon of the summer. Music box nursery rhymes and lemonade trucks. Smoky grills and butter-sugar corn. Children laughing under a sprinkler somewhere.

I like town greens and city squares. Pullman car diners and everything fried. Coffee soda, birch beer, Moxie with milk. Peanut butter and marshmallow fluff. Coffee ice cream and frozen pudding. Autocrat syrup. Sky Bars and Neccos. Hot buttered doughnuts.

From my little corner I can walk anywhere. To the market, the pharmacy, the package store. The library, the post-office, my children’s schools. To the park, the zoo, the playground. The lake, the river, the ocean. A bakery, a coffee shop, a good Irish pub. Why would I leave? What more could I need?

I know where my great-great-grandparent’s graves are. Where else would I go?

Call me provincial. That’s ok. It doesn’t bother me in the least. This is home and I like it. I have a New England Mind.

Respectfully Yours,


A Desultory Introduction

Welcome to Cricket and Porcupine, a place for thoughts, random musings, maybe even an occasional something-of-quality. I am Cricket, your host.

Porcupine may come along later. We'll have to see how that goes.

I may post regularly or rarely. We'll see how that goes.

My posts may be truffles or tripe. Maybe a little of both. We'll see how that goes too.

I suppose I'll post whenever I, or Porcupine, have something to say. Hopefully you will find some things here that are, if nothing else, worth the time spent reading.

We'll see how that goes. No guarantees. Until then I remain

Respectfully Yours,