susan d abello

Painting pictures with words, sharing vignettes of a colorful life.

Marcy

Marcy says she nags and pokes. I’ll bet the people who work for her don’t say that. They probably wouldn’t dare. Marcy is in publishing and she has deadlines. Deadlines that she never misses. Marcy says that her business is serious; there are contracts and legal obligations. “This is not school,” she tells me.

And here I am thinking school is serious; serious enough for me. How serious do I want to get I wonder? The more I learn about the publishing business, the more I realize that I don’t fit in. I am a good nagger and poker, but more in a motherly way and less like a smart and savvy businesswoman. When Marcy talks people listen, people move. When I talk, they might roll their eyes or sigh, it happens, I’ve seen it.

Marcy has the ivy-league drawl; I say that because she sounds like the members of my family who attended Ivy League schools. My stepbrother and his wife went to Harvard and they talk like Marcy does. My daughter does too. She went to Brown. She grew up under my roof, spoke just like I do for most of her life and then when she came home from college, I noticed her accent, just like I noticed Marcy’s. It’s the pace of their words, the throaty way they speak, their vowels tumble around lazily in their mouths, it’s a Northern drawl, I suppose, the accent of the well educated. And maybe it doesn’t matter where they go to college; maybe that relaxed sort of tone comes from just knowing your stuff, from being confident.

I can’t seem to find that voice in myself these days. I would need to practice because it has been so long since I have spoken out loud about anything at length. I suppose that’s why I take note of how Marcy speaks, of how my daughter speaks. I envy them. I have been sitting alone with my thoughts for over a year now. I take on-line classes in Creative Non-Fiction. I write all day. I am at a computer, typing my words, struggling for meaning, searching for just the right phrase, typing, deleting, typing again. I have time to work things out. When I have to speak, I long for that luxury, the one that allows me time to compose.

I doubt that Marcy needs time to think about what she will say.

She talks all day long and people listen; I listened when she told me about her job and what it entails. I like knowing what happens in her world and what a publisher looks for in a book, in a writer of books. Marcy says she’s not a writer. She doesn’t want to be one. I think though, that she would be a good at it. Sharp and witty and aware and then to top it all off, organized. Oh, what a writer she would be! But Marcy is a nagger and a poker and that’s good for people like me who need her. She can tell me in her relaxed tone of intellectual confidence, how to fix my words. I would trust her.

I would never roll my eyes at Marcy.

The Dingle Bookshop

Being in the Dingle Bookshop was like visiting my best friend’s house. It was a warm embrace from the cold damp evening that is so typical on the Irish peninsula, even for the month of July. From the outside, the large windows are framed in a bright royal blue and the name above the door is painted in white and set under a charming dentil molding. There is nothing about the little shop that says, big chain store. The warm glow from the interior, the books displayed in the mullioned window panes, Peig and The Blasket Writers by Una Ní Shea, tales right out of the local history, seemed to beckon me in to browse, to buy.

On the inside of the small shop, I felt the comfort of books everywhere. Dark wood shelves were lined with every category of book I could have imagined. As I looked around I was brought back to another time, to my daughter’s childhood, when I remember her pulling down every book from the shelves in her room. What she did then is burned into my brain forever. She rolled in those books, like a miser rolling in his piles of money, like a dog rolling in something delicious and dead, my baby girl rolled around in her pile of books. It’s how I knew she would be a book lover like her mother. I remembered that day because when I walked into the Dingle Bookstore, I wanted to do the same. I could just feel all of those books, I could smell the ink and the paper, I understood the compulsion in a way that I hadn’t until that moment.

There were children’s books up in the back, on a stage where on some evenings; writers came to read their works. I read there one night. For the first time ever, I read a short piece out loud to an audience of friends and strangers, of book lovers like me. When I stood up there, in front of the colorful jackets of the children’s books and behind the microphone I could see the owners at the front of the store, kind faces, smiling at their guests, welcoming us, supporting us as we supported them.

The shop sold paintings of sheep and other things Irish and Dingle. There were photographs of the town and of the Blasket Islands. There were toys and art made from felt, journals and calendars and posters and cards. I wanted one or two of everything, please. It all felt like home away from home. It all felt like some place I didn’t want to forget, someplace to keep with me in my heart and mind.

On the way back down Green Street, out in the cool Irish air, after my reading, arms full of new books, I passed other stores. All with enchanting architectural features that added to the villagey air of Dingle, yet none were so sweet as the Bookstore for me. No other place was so much me; not the clothing store where they sell sweaters woven from the wool of Dingle sheep, or the cheese shop where the young owner makes her cheese by hand. All were wonderful but only the Dingle Bookstore had filled me with a sense of the familiar, the beloved, as though an old, dear friend had invited me in for a visit.

Recto y Verso

Recto Folio and Verso Folio, these words sound like poetry. Something about them causes me to read them with the same accent I would use to read my Spanish words, the accent my Colombian husband has when he whispers in my ear.

Jpeg, Recto y Verso

Even just the sound of a word can have power! I felt inspired.

Week One: Can A Child With Anxiety Go To College Far, Far Away?

Today, all I can think of is Gabriela. I think of her, a freshman at the University of Dallas, walking across the college campus, the brick pavers under her flip flopped feet, the warmth of the Texas sun unable to penetrate her dark mood. Today is the first day of classes and it should be a good day but Gabriela suffers from anxiety. I knew that and yet I let her go to that far away school. I let her because it suits her. I let her because I thought she would feel at home there but now she calls me crying. She uses words like “hopeless” and “gloom” and I feel my own panic start to creep in. I am no psychologist. I don’t know if I should say, “suck it up,” or if I should tell her to come home.

When do you give up? Not the first day of course, but is there a time to call it quits? Is there a time to say that maybe anxiety can’t be ignored or worked through? There are pills but they make her feel bad, slow, detached. The idea of taking them makes her panic even more. I don’t pretend to understand and I am afraid to assume it’s nothing. I only offer words because words are what I know. I say, “strong” and “brave” and “positive” and I talk about prayer.

Gabriela knows prayer, like I know words. Prayer is what has brought her to this point. It is what sustained her through her boarding school years, through the many times when her soul was so heavy with fear that she could not even lift herself from her bed. She wonders now if God might be calling her to be a nun and I wonder if she is hiding under His promise of protection. She feels more comfortable in her church then she does in her room here at home. She has taken her faith way beyond my own and left me to stand behind and watch her as she walks away.

I was dreaming of that scene, the one where she walks away, but it was onto the college campus, laughing, surrounded by friends, flip flops slapping happily across those warm Texas pavers. It is only the first week of school. I have so much hope for her to adjust to her new surroundings, to find friends, to face the challenge of her classes with joy instead of fear. I have hope that she will have good days and call me with happy news. I look forward to a time when I hear her voice on the phone and in it there is no pain, only joy. I pray for that. Pray and talk her through it. It’s all I can do.

Outward Bound

On a cold and moon bathed night while attempting to hike through a snowy pass in the Colorado Rockies, sometime between midnight and sunrise, I experienced both the depths of despair and the heights of elation. Hip deep in snow with a seventy-pound pack on my back, I found myself doubting my ability to move ahead. The gravity of my situation seemed almost pathetic to me. Only one month earlier, hadn’t I been sitting safely in my Connecticut home feeling as though my life was speeding by and I hadn’t lived it yet? Hadn’t I complained to anyone who would listen that I had no direction? Who could have guessed that within a few weeks, that direction would be so obvious; to get out of the hole I was in, or die trying. It was that simple.

Back at home; before I signed up for this life and death moment, I had been coping with the fact that the guy I lived with for three years had left me for a woman who he said was, “more interesting.” That was over a year ago and still, each and every morning as I awoke, I felt the hollow ache of loneliness in my gut. I decided that it was time to take drastic measures. It was time to become interesting, so I signed up to do something I never would have done before. I would risk my life in the Colorado Rockies in the Outward Bound month long survival training program. Without thinking twice I sent my check, bought my gear, even though I didn’t know what half of it was used for, and flew out to the mountains. How hard could it be to be interesting?

Holding my ice axe with hands that burned with the beginnings of frostbite, I pierced the ice in front of me so that I could pull my numb and exhausted body out of the hole, only to find that the weight of me would collapse into the snow once again just three feet ahead. This was my progress that morning. Sweating in the frozen air, struggling to keep myself in a positive frame of mind, I had only hours to make it through the mountain pass before the temperatures rose and the chance of avalanche increased dramatically.

I remembered that my Outward Bound Instructor had said, “It’s a matter of will power; your body will do what your mind tells it to do.” Of course I knew that, but the saying took on a whole new dimension up there above the tree line, under the vastness of that ultra marine sky, where there was only my fellow climbers, each of us dealing with our own holes in the snow, struggling to move forward. Coming to this mountain range, putting myself in danger, was my own choice and now that I saw the full impact of my decision, I knew that although I was not alone, it would be up to me to make sure that I made it home again.

Every move we made on that midnight hike through the pass would affect the whole group. We had to be efficient and smart. We had to move quietly, so as not to disturb the snow with any sound waves that might trigger a deadly avalanche. We had to help each other by not becoming a burden, by not giving up.

One step at a time I pulled myself forward until we reached firmer snow, a sheet of ice where we used the ice axe again to move ourselves along, being sure not to scream out if we suddenly slipped and began to tumble downhill. We had been trained just days earlier, in the lower areas of the mountain, at basecamp, where the late June snow was barely a foot deep, to use our ice axe in case we were falling out of control. Since my whole life had been about falling out of control up until then, the idea of using the ice axe didn’t scare me but rather, it seemed like a wonderful way to get my footing once again.

Down at the basecamp, playing around, laughing with my fellow survival-training classmates, life was not so serious and the ice axe lessons had seemed too grim, but tonight I understood. I hadn’t really been living at all, just passing the time. There in the bitter air, as I stood at the top of the pass, trembling, elated to have made it, I embraced my companions.

Together we looked up at the sky full of stars and realized we had arrived at our beginning. We were invincible.

The Spurtle

My neighbor, Gordon, buys and sells other people’s treasures. Weather permitting, on the first Saturday of each month of the summer season, he will hold an estate sale of sorts in the lily lined driveway of his ornately trimmed, Victorian home. The event is advertised in papers as far north of us as the Springfield Republican and as far south of us as the Hartford Courant, but after all of the years he’s been having the sales, anyone within reading distance, who enjoys antiquing and collectables, knows when to come without being told. Friends, neighbors and strangers arrive by car or bike, with a basket of course and sometimes pulling a wagon. Everyone marvels at the history they encounter there, where past and present mingle and an affection for vintage goods is a shared passion.

One afternoon, I was surprised to see my father there, bent over a long table, a sturdy black cane supporting his 99 years as he poked through the items on display. There were ancient hammers whose grips and faces were worn and chipped and pointed awls with bulbous handles, there was a six inch mortise gauge made of fine grain wood with brass fittings, browned with age, there were planers and saws, hatchets and clamps and even a wooden box to keep one’s favorite tools. He picked up a bevel edged chisel, obviously admiring the quality of the tool, the heft of the steel and wood in his hand. The traces of paint that remained on the handle, the fact that it had seen better days, didn’t seem to take away from his appreciation of its utility. His eyes sparkled under the weight of his sagging brow and the corner of his mouth turned up just a bit.

“What are you looking for dad?” I asked.

“Files, I’m looking for files. I need a half-round.”

“Oh really, what are you making,” I asked.

I found myself talking to him in a sweet tone, as if I were talking to a child, which was silly, because at 99 he was still as sharp as ever. It wasn’t his partial hearing loss or his slow and uncertain steps that made him seem vulnerable to me, it was really his refusal to recognize his own frailties. He hadn’t asked me for a ride to the sale that day; instead he drove his John Deere Gator through the woods, over muddy trails and across a small stream.

“A spurtle. I’m making a spurtle,” he said, as though I would know what one was.

“Haven’t seen one in years so I thought I’d make it myself,” he continued, running his thick old fingers, rough with New England life, darkened from the sun and hardened from handling rope and rigging on sailboats, for most of his younger years, over the piles of trinkets strewn before us on Gordon’s table.

Many people arrived that afternoon and the tables were picked clean except for the old tools. People seemed to gravitate toward the table lamps, the ones with the rooster base or the blue and white dish set with just a few chips and not enough cups. They liked the furniture too. Mahogany desks and bedroom sets, tables and chairs and sofas. I myself, furnished three bedrooms for a very reasonable price, just by showing up first to Gordon’s driveway one Saturday morning. But the tools were always a hard sell, most likely because there were newer and better tools to be had.

We searched through the heaps of items on every table for the files, but there were none to be found and so my father, brushing me aside as I tried to help him return to his gator, motored off into the woods where the trails would lead him home.

Many months later, on Christmas morning over at my parent’s house, I received the most wonderful gift. In my stocking, I found a long wooden spatula of sorts, or maybe a flat spoon would better describe it. It was smooth and sleek, carved from Maple, the wood from my father’s property and tied with a red ribbon. From the ribbon hung a tag that read, “This is a spurtle. Love Dad.”

The spurtle turns out to be a very useful tool. My husband loves it because it slides across the bottom of his nonstick pans and causes no harm. I love it because it mixes my blueberry pancake batter so nicely and scrapes the curving sides of a bowl unlike any of our less gracefully shaped spoons or spatulas.

I never asked my father where he got the files he needed to make my spurtle, I suppose I’ll never know. Surely he searched far and wide, risking life and limb, which is what living requires when one is 99.

Cereal

My four children sat together along one side of the long farmhouse table. It was late in the afternoon, dinnertime, and they were hungry from all of the activity of their day in the hot Florida sun. The fact that they had chosen to sit facing me as I poured the Cheerios into their bowls was not lost on me. It was almost comical to see their faces, desperate for whatever I prepared, staring at me as I worked behind the kitchen counter directly in front of them. As usual, my middle children, Andrew who was six and Juliana who was five, began to fight. I was surprised when their older sister, Christina who was eight, turned to them and said with authority and perhaps a bit of distress, “Shhhh, mommy’s cooking!”

I froze in mid pour, one Cheerio rolling off of the counter and onto the floor. We heard it land, a crisp little smack and then nothing. Quiet. What was I doing to my precious children? How is it that I could be raising children to believe that pouring cereal was the equivalent of cooking and that it was so stressful that I needed quiet in order to concentrate?

For a fleeting moment I thought of the benefits, both in the saving of energy and cash and how much easier my life would be if I let this hoax continue. And then I looked into Christina’s face, in her huge turquoise eyes, almost tearing up as she stared back at me, and I found my conscience. She was a sponge, intelligent and eager and always alert. I sighed and realized that I had to step up and admit to her, to all of them including the baby, Gabriela, who was only one at the time, that pouring cereal into bowls and adding milk, albeit fortified with calcium and extra vitamin D, was not really “cooking” at all. When, I asked myself, did I stop enjoying cooking in the first place? Was it after the first child, or the second or maybe the fourth?

When I was growing up, my grandfather kept a garden where he grew the rhubarb and the strawberries for our pies and the grapes for his own brand of sticky sweet wine. Every meal at his house, which he prepared together with my grandmother, featured his tomatoes, red and plump, his crisp lettuce and green beans that snapped like a pencil when you picked them. There was the famous family recipe for spaghetti sauce, whose secret ingredient turned out to be more than a pinch of sugar. There were also years of hand made birthday cakes and Christmas pies, fudge and plum pudding with hard sauce and each and every summer there were whoopee pies by the tray full. So what happened to me? Why was I not sharing this wonderful family legacy with my children?

I imagined that one day they would be asked, “What was your favorite family recipe?” Cheerios, Frosted Flakes, Cinnamon Toast Crunch; certainly one of these would be their answer. I knew that for me that question would be difficult only because there were so many wonderful memories having to do with the preparation and the consumption of food in my family, that I would be hard pressed to choose one recipe over another. Perhaps my grandfather’s strawberry rhubarb pie would win-out, at least today anyway, tomorrow I may remember something else. At any rate, I never asked for their recipes and I never helped them cook. I was a spectator and I let the family tradition die with my grandparents.

Ever since that day in my kitchen when I learned just how little my children knew about the wonders and diversity of food and the joy that “cooking” can bring to a home, I have tried to step up, to be a better example for them. It will never be a passion, I can’t fake that, but my cooking has improved over the years. I am sure now that one day, if they are ever asked, “What was your favorite family recipe?” they will actually have a few choices to consider other than the list of cereals they once enjoyed.