The Woodpecker on the Telephone Pole

Most mornings, since spring has begun appearing, I hear the Morse-code-like tapping of a woodpecker on the pole that delivers us phone and Internet services as I go to the mailbox to retrieve my New York Times.

My grandmother, who was born in 1889, wanted to be a telegrapher. She wanted to be the one who tapped out messages to send and interpret the tap-tap-tap of the messages received so she could deliver messages—personal and newsworthy. I think she wanted to be connected to the world outside the small one she inhabited in the town in Oklahoma that had grown from a village of tents and dirt roads into one of houses and sidewalks and streets from the time she moved there as a five-year old until she married my grandfather.

She married at 19. She looked around at her options, decided there were too many children still at home (she was the oldest of nine) for her to get educated as a telegrapher, and so married my grandfather—who was considered quite the catch.

My grandfather was a good provider, taught Sunday School, everyone loved him—and he was a womanizer and molested me and who knows who else. His middle son was also a child molester. He molested me and who knows who else.

I, of course, kept the secret from the family for nearly 30 years, until I told my mother when I was 40. She believed me, felt terrible that I hadn’t been protected—that she hadn’t protected me—but said she could forgive my grandfather because my grandmother had stopped having sex with him.

I suspect that if she could have heard herself, she would have been appalled. But, I think the really deep need to believe that the old stories will keep you safe prevailed with her.

What I came to call the family recipe—that girls and women are the sacrificial lambs on the altar of family stability—is the old story that prevailed with the women in my family. It is a story that has power because it is also one that has prevailed culturally.

Perhaps the most disturbing thing about that story is what it does to marriage and family. It reduces them to a trap for women. More than one woman has chewed off her arm to release herself from that trap.

What I like most about Nora Ephron is that she believed in romance and love and wanting to marry and being married—and advised Wellesley graduates:

Whatever you choose, however many roads you travel, I hope that you choose not to be a lady. I hope you will find some way to break the rules and make a little trouble out there. And I also hope that you will choose to make some of that trouble on behalf of women.

Here’s a link to the full address, you won’t regret reading it:

I am distressed that a woman named Susan Patton, a 1977 Princeton graduate, is distorting the very real desire to be connected, to be married, to have a partner, is reducing it to the old story. If that’s what you want, she says, you need to compromise your self, because love and marriage and family is about competition for the good catch:

“If you spend the first 10 years out of college focused entirely on building your career, when you finally get around to looking for a husband you’ll be in your 30s, competing with women in their 20s. That’s not a competition in which you’re likely to fare well.”

Here’s the link to the editorial in which her quote appears. You might regret reading it:

(I saw her interviewed by Mika Brzezinski on Morning Joe and found myself shouting at the TV, “MIKA. GET THE FUCK OUT OF THAT BOY’S CLUB BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE.” I often find myself shouting at Mika to get out before it’s too late.)

Marriage isn’t about finding the good catch. As the dad says in Juno, to paraphrase, it’s about finding someone that thinks the sun shines out your ass.

It took me three times to find the right match. Finding someone who is as smart as I am and more important, who isn’t afraid that I’m smart. A man whose emotional intelligence matches his intellect. And perhaps most important, a man who doesn’t believe in the sacrificial lamb myth. He almost knocked me off my feet when he said to me, just as we were getting to know each other, “You’re really good at nurturing, but maybe that’s not what you do best.”

I’ve written about this before—how difficult it is for me that my mother died while there was a chasm between us. We had always managed to bridge it before. But I think it is only now that I have been able to understand just how great the chasm is between marriage and family as a trap and marriage and family as a nourishing home.

I so wanted my mother to come with me when I decided that I could not sacrifice myself to family peace. But she died before she could. I’d like to think that had she had more time—time in which the struggle to breathe was not a breath-by-breath struggle—she would have come with me. I’ll never know and I miss so much what we missed.

At first, I wondered when I heard that woodpecker on the telephone pole, whether he’s pecking away to find insects. Wondering if it is for naught—do insects reside in a telephone pole?

And then recently, it flashed across my mind that maybe it’s my grandmother tap-tap-tapping away to send me a message that all is right with the world. That the matriarch of the family finally understands and sends me her blessing through Morse code.

And that my mother sends hers as well.

When Your Butt Can’t Be in the Chair

There is that day when you know the season is changing. It’s something about the light, the feel of the air against your skin, the sounds in the early morning.

This is my first March in my new home in the Northwest—a home sheltered by a rainshadow, but I think I’m right—spring has taken the baton from winter. Either I am hearing birds again in the morning, or there are new birds with new songs. At night, the symphony of the frogs fills the air. Mystery flowers are pushing their way up to the surface. And, the days are longer.

I have been off the grid blog-wise since the end of November. Sometime in November I either tore my meniscus or it tore itself. I’m not sure. I’d like to claim that it was due to an aggressive swoop down a ski slope—but me and skis have never seen fit to be good company.

I believe my meniscus tore because it has been around for 64 plus years and just got tired of being ignored. It worked. I learned I had something called a meniscus.

I am a stranger to pain. I have not had children so can only imagine the pain of childbirth. I’ve never had a severe injury—I sprained my wrist when I was in sixth grade, but I got a Dr. Pepper out of that. The pain eased pretty quickly.

A torn meniscus is really, really, really painful. It interfered with my sleep because I sleep on my side. I had to adjust to sleeping on my back—waiting for the pain to ease.

I relied on marijuana for pain medication. I can attest that it works, and it gives you creative ideas for chip and dip—Moose Track ice cream with vinegar and salt chips, an idea way before its time—and it isn’t habit forming. The marijuana or the ice cream and chips. Fortunately, I live in a state where it is legal.

It’s true that you don’t remember pain. But I do know that during the two months it took to recover, I couldn’t write. For one, I couldn’t sit down for long periods of time—long being more than ten minutes at a time. So much for the butt-in-chair mantra.

For another, pain clouded my brain. I simply could not write. Or to be more precise, I could not think—except for thinking about how debilitating it is to have a knee that doesn’t work right. Who knew how important knees are? Well I do now.

I wonder if this is what a bear feels like when she comes out of the den after a winter’s slumber? Awakening to a world that has changed, lightened up, alive with signs of new growth, and chilled air that touches lightly on your skin.

After a long winter’s slumber, I have a new appreciation for my knees and mobility.

I also have a new appreciation for hibernation. I think sometimes, change is so great that we have to slip into a deep sleep to let it wash over us, trusting that where it takes us is to the place we need to be—a place of changed light, new growth, and chilled air that touches lightly on our skin.

Cast of Love, Loss, and What I Wore. Back row: Nina Mendiburu, Me, Lola Bond; Front row: Sharon DeLaBarre, Susan Dwyer

Cast of Love, Loss, and What I Wore. Back row: Nina Mendiburu, Me, Lola Bond; Front row: Sharon DeLaBarre, Susan Dwyer

I am directing and acting in a production of Love, Loss, and What I Wore (written by Nora and Delia Ephron). What a great experience to say words aloud that have been written by such awesome women—not to mention the awesome women in the cast who are speaking their words.