Occasional Songs

a new piece once in awhile




The Chinese are, by nature, a little secretive. My husband had to tell his mother he’d gotten divorced (three years before) so that he could tell her he was getting married again. She didn’t tell him that she’d lost a son in China; Gong, age 4.  Elmer frequently does not want me to tell things that matter so little that it is a bigger deal to not tell them than to tell them.

So I was understanding but exasperated when I learned that the family of the Chinese graduate student killed at the Boston Marathon on Monday did not want her personal details released.

But the dead belong to the universe, they are no longer under anyone’s control. They are of us, and we are of them. This young woman deserves to be mourned alongside 8-year-old Martin Richard and 29-year-old Krystle Campbell. Her death demands acknowledgement.

Meet Lu Lingzi. “Lu” is her family name, and because the Chinese regard it as such, this makes her a cousin to my son and my husband, who share the same last name. (It matters not the spelling, it is all the same character.) She was a Master’s Degree candidate in Math and Statistics at Boston University, and had just started there this fall, after graduating from Beijing Institute of Technology last year. She’d been a volunteer for UNESCO at a World Heritage Site, and had gone to to the Yucai school for high school, and graduated in 20o8. I think that makes her 23. 48a285adb4fee6b05c632cc0_2

She had a profile on Linked in and another on Facebook. I expect those will disappear soon, when her parents have surfaced from their awful grief, as much as any parent ever does.

She’d gone down to the finish line to watch the race with two friends, Zhou Danling, who was injured and another student who escaped unharmed. They could have watched it from Kenmore Square, that’s much closer to B.U. But the cheering isn’t as loud there, there’s not the banners and flags and joyous conclusion to the grueling race.

Lingzi Lu liked The Economist and Disneyland; Lindt Chocolates, and Seiji Ozawa’s rendition of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. She’d noted a pair of Naturalizer shoes called “Bewitched” and some Betsey Johnson eyeglasses.

She played Candy Crush online and had reached Level 77. On Facebook, she had 148 friends. There she wrote that she loved the Charles River at night. Me too, I loved the Charles River at night, so inky and mysterious, a ribbon rippling through the city; a strangely peaceful place.

Her friends called her Dorothy.

Godspeed, Dorothy.





Fighting Dirty

Why Animal Rights Activists Can’t Resist the Personal Attack.

What’s startling is how ugly they are, and how quickly they get that way. You’d think people who purport to love animals would be  reasonably companionable with each other, but if you thought that, you’d be wrong. If you aren’t in lockstep with the beliefs of the Animal Rights crowd, well clearly you then are one of the “exploiters”, with a puppy mill in your backyard or veal calves stacked to the rafters in your suburban garage. Common sense never enters the picture.

Sometimes it’s almost laughable. In the online comment section to any news story about the abuse and death of a dog or cat, you will read suggestions that the same fate should befall the abuser, which is simply an utter failure in logic. Often those suggesting the mutilation, starvation and imprisonment and/or death of the sorry human responsible for said abuse are the fervent supporters of Ingrid Newkirk, the founder of PeTA, who famously wrote “A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy.”  They see no distinction between animals and humans, and indeed rail against the human “enslavement” of animals as companions or livestock. What we consider responsible stewardship, they shamelessly compare to the Holocaust.

But it isn’t just the PeTA faithful, it’s also the ever-declining legion of supporters of the Humane Society of the United States, which not a “Humane Society” at all, but a fundraising machine; a group of lobbyists that like to posture as some kind of quasi-governmental agency regarding animals. Because they repeatedly present themselves as experts, the media often turn to them in instances of crises involving animals, perpetuating the myth that HSUS knows anything about animals. Really, anything at all. They do know how to influence politicians, though. They seem to be quite good at that.

Through the efforts of many, the public is gradually becoming more aware that HSUS only shares less than one percent of their hundred million dollars in annual donations with any kind of local animal shelter. They do offer consultations for shelters– for $30,000 a pop.  There is a dawning awareness that some of the “raids” HSUS engages in are more for the television cameras than anything else. Worse, those animals are often rescued to death, shuttled off from their mediocre home to a high-kill shelter where they subsequently “disappear.”

News agencies are starting to figure it out, though one account from an Atlanta television station was so thoroughly surpressed by litigators from HSUS, that video is now only viewable through a hosting site in Tehran. Here’s the link.  The public was understandably confused and outraged with HSUS’ president, Wayne Pacelle, suggested that notorious dog-torturer Michael Vick deserved to have more dogs, especially as Pacelle offered his comments immediately following the receipt of a $10,000 contribution made by the Philadelphia Eagles to HSUS.

But beyond Wayne Pacelle in his silk suits, there is an enormous cadre of employees and interns at the group’s posh suburban Washington DC campus. (But to be sure, there’s no animal shelter there.) And HSUS has something else, something in common with PeTA.  They have shills. These are people that aren’t paid by HSUS or PeTA; they volunteer. Everyday they comb the internet looking for material related to “their” organization, eager to sing the praises of the group, or sling mud in defending it.

It doesn’t matter how reasonable an argument is presented to them. You can tell them until you’re blue in the face that “cage free” chickens are crowded into poultry barns and suffer more injury, disease and death than their counterparts in cages. (“Pecking order” means something, obviously.) You can patiently explain the time and effort and expense it takes to produce a nicely-bred puppy. You can question what happens to those dogs and cats seized in raids. When they have exhausted the party line (and that happens pretty quickly) they turn on the offensive, and out come the personal attacks.

God forbid that you raise animals of any sort. They will say that you are “exploiting” animals. It doesn’t matter that animal husbandry is largely a labor of love; certainly no one gets rich from it. To hear the “faithful” tell it, we’re all rolling around in Cadillacs off the blood money from puppy sales. It doesn’t matter that I haven’t sold a puppy in five years, I’ve been called a liar, a puppy  miller, and a “miserable old bitch.” They sling condescension and insults and invective faster than a fry cook flips pancakes on a Saturday morning.

But it’s never limited to just that arena. Oh no, they come after you tooth and nail wherever they can find you. They try to free your “imprisoned” dogs at dogs shows. They vandalize fur stores. They make threats, both veiled and outright against prominent citizens who dare to tell the truth.  David Martosko, the former director of Humanewatch, (an ad hoc group of 440,000 individuals united in revealing the the truth about HSUS ) was subject to the most extraordinary character defamation, including the publication of fabricated arrest records, videos and a website devoted to his downfall . . . and he did, finally, give up.

Or Douglas Anthony Cooper, an affable-enough Canadian novelist who has been smeared repeatedly in a number of blogs by one crazy cat-hating woman (“cats kill the elderly,” “litter boxes make you insane”)  posing as several different people. Not just smeared, libeled, his attorney said. Just this week, Cooper’s Wikipedia entry has been repeatedly hacked, vandalized and finally flagged for not being “notable enough.” Why? Because one of the most troll-like of the shills doesn’t like what Douglas Anthony Cooper has been writing about on Huffington Post.

Well, goodness, you say, what has Douglas Anthony Cooper been writing about? The business model of dog fighting, perhaps? How to breed more kittens for fun and profit? No. Douglas Anthony Cooper has been writing about PeTA; and he has been promoting the idea of the No Kill movement.

And that my friend, is the key.

For the longest time, I couldn’t understand why people who claim to love animals could support PeTA or HSUS. PeTA maintains a “shelter” in Norfolk, Virginia which kills 97 percent of the animals that come through its doors. (This is verified through their own reports to the Commonwealth of Virginia.) HSUS doesn’t maintain any shelters, but they certainly support the killing. But finally, I get it : those people that support PeTA and HSUS are so shrill and so nasty and so vengeful because-

They cannot bear to hear the truth.

This argument in fact, has split the entire “shelter” community. Those advocating for No Kill don’t understand why the killing can’t stop. Those killing either don’t have the strength to shift the bureaucracies that keep them locked in the same old behavior, or they lack the courage to invoke change.

Many people who work in or support “shelters” that kill for convenience will adamantly tell you that they have to kill all those old dogs, young dogs, newborn puppies, fluffy kittens, big fat housecats, pitbulls (or dogs that just look like pitbulls) and “feral” cats. They have to kill them because there are just not enough homes. (Not true, pet overpopulation is a myth.) They have to kill them because they are sneezing. (No, they’re not joking.) They have to kill them because there’s no space. (Even if someone is coming from a rescue for that very dog.) They have to kill them because no one wants black dogs. (So they say.) They have to kill them because suitable adopters haven’t turned up in the dogs’ 3-day tenure– others would rather kill a cat than adopt it out to someone who might let it outside. They have to kill because they can’t be bothered to stop the killing.

And whose fault is it that they have to kill? Why, yours and mine and all the rest of the bad, irresponsible public of course. If you’re involved with purebred dogs, or if you even own sexually-intact dogs, then of course, you’re part of the problem.  Never mind that puppies born to responsible breeders are the dogs least likely to end up in any shelter. But what of the dogs that are “dumped” in shelters?  People take their pets to shelters when they can’t keep them anymore because they’ve been educated to think that’s the purpose of a “shelter” – to help find new homes for pets.

The cruel fact of the matter is that many owner surrendered animals are dead before their owner leaves the parking lot. Dogs and cats and bunnies and hamsters end up in shelters because they get lost, their owners die or go into a nursing home, their owners are deployed in the military, people hit a rough patch in their lives and go to homeless shelters or public housing where pets are not allowed. And yes, some dogs do get “dumped” in “shelters,” by people who weren’t the greatest owners who perhaps foolishly hope that their dog will get a better home the next time around. A dog tied to a parking meter has a better chance of surviving. Unless some good samaritan unwittingly takes it to a high-kill shelter.

In her blog, Yes Biscuit, Shirley Thistlethwaite examines the problems in contemporary animal sheltering, particularly at the deplorable Memphis Animal Shelter, and she never stops asking why it can’t be different. An extraordinarily brave woman, she does not shrink from identifying the worst offenders, and of course, she is also roundly despised by the minions of PeTA and HSUS.

The idea of a shelter that seeks to re-home every adoptable pet isn’t a new one. For a long time, it might have been a magical fairy tale. The shelters would get over-crowded, they said. The shelters would turn away all but the “cute” animals, they said. The shelters would keep alive animals that ought to be mercifully dispatched, they said. It would be bad for the animals. That’s what they said.

Then a man named Nathan Winograd came along and showed that in fact, an open admission No Kill shelter can and does work. He even wrote a manual on how to do it, Redemption. “No Kill” is a workable model, and it saves money and heartache all around. Not to mention lives. It saves lives.

You’d think that Nathan would be much beloved by everyone in the animal sheltering world. He’s the kind of guy that rescues insects in peril. He’s a vegan. He had demonstrated that there is a home for every animal and that the “shelter” killing that goes on in such repulsive numbers in this country isn’t necessary, that there’s another way. But no, he’s the most vilified of all. HSUS and PeTA fans alike are united in their loathing for this modern day St. Francis.

No Kill shelters work because they have less staff turnover and less volunteer burnout. The public is happier to visit a shelter where they know that every animal they don’t choose isn’t facing imminent death. Businesses are eager to partner with No Kill shelters. Yes, it requires extra work and creativity and thinking outside the box. It might require a relaxation of adoption requirements or perhaps less expensive adoption fees. (But hey, you’re saving on all that money not having to buy thousands of vials of Fatal-Plus! And your landfill charges are significantly reduced.)

It can only work if the community gets involved. And in communities across America, there are now 51 successful Open-Admission Municipal No Kill shelters. True shelters. These are shelters that accept every animal that comes through the door and works to find that animal a home. Some of these shelters are in the poorest areas of the country, but they are trying this and they are succeeding.

Shelters everywhere could start by having increased adoption hours. They could have intervention programs that help people keep their pets rather than surrender them. They could work in tandem with specific breed rescues. They can offer reduced cost spay and neuter programs.  They can network pets over the internet. They can stop having arbitrary days when they simply kill to clear the kennel.

But the powers that be have to want to make that choice. Too many of them stubbornly say it can’t work, it won’t work. Even when the evidence says otherwise, they simply will not try. Their supporters instead tell us that we don’t know what it’s like to kill hundreds of animals (and thank God, I have to admit that part is true). They will say that we don’t understand how hard they work, and how awful it is, but that it’s necessary because — line up for the chorus now– the irresponsible public makes it necessary.

But No Kill advocates do understand. They believe that all of that hard work, all that soul searching, would be better served in finding homes for animals, rather than bagging them their bodies. Dry your tears, shelter workers, and come into the light.

Now I suppose there are some sociopaths who truly like to kill animals. But let’s set those people aside for a minute and just think about the average person who works in a shelter, killing puppies and kittens and dogs and cats who simply aren’t adopted. You know the animals: they’re too young, too old, they’re starving and showed food-guarding tendencies, they’re frightened and they growled out of fear. They have some imminently treatable issue like mange or kennel cough or upper respiratory infection. They are deemed not suitable for adoption by the excuse of the day.

Why wouldn’t those people at least want to try?

Why are they so damned determined to justify the killing that they attack Nathan Winograd and Douglas Anthony Cooper, and Shirley Thistlethwaite and the good folks at No Kill Nation and No Kill Advocacy Center and No Kill Coalition,  and No Kill Revolution and No Kill Miami, No Kill Louisville, No Kill New York— indeed they attack anyone and everyone who suggests that we can find homes for every pet that needs one.

Here’s why: because if they accept that these dogs and puppies, cats and kittens don’t ever need to be killed,  then they also have to accept that they’ve been needlessly killing animals.

Who could live with that?  (Okay, yes, I guess a sociopath could live with that.) But for these ordinary people who’ve bought the party line for so long, that would be devastating. Once you accept that the killing really wasn’t necessary, that it isn’t really the “bad public” that forces you to kill, then you have to take responsibility for all that death.

It’s not just those in the kill room who are stained; it’s everyone that makes the excuses, it’s everyone who tries to justify why death is a better choice. PeTA and HSUS maintain that death is a better choice because they each have an agenda to “free” domesticated animals from human bondage. You don’t have to go on believing the party line, you don’t have to defend them. They’re not really for the animals. They’ve never been for the animals.

I understand why these people are shrill. If I’d been doing what they’d been doing, I wouldn’t want to have to come to terms with that much blood on my hands either. I wish they’d just listen for a minute, and see that they have a way out.


Falling Star by Witold Pruszkowski, 1884
A neurological journey 

A quiet ride on a summer afternoon explodes beneath me, the little red horse rearing violently as a lawnmower starts up nearby. I only remember thinking “take your feet out of the stirrups.”  The next thing I am lying in a bed, not my own, looking at my mother and searching for words. All of the other hours in between–crashing to the pavement, the horse returning to the stable without me, the paramedics, the ambulance, the eventing helmet now so much fiberglass mush in a velvet bag, the ER, the exams, this room in intensive care– all of that has been compressed into less than a single instant.

Only much later did my stepfather tell me that they didn’t know what kind of brain damage there might be until I resurfaced more than a day later. They didn’t know if I was really coming back at all. I’d had one hell of a concussion, a blow that would have broken my skull like a melon, he said. Good thing I’d worn the helmet. In the hospital, I  struggled to tell my mother that I was riding through the subdivision on my way to the bridle paths that criss-crossed the woods beyond. I could not say the word “trail,” so I tried to spell it for her.

Once awake, I wasn’t permitted sleep, and sleep was all that I wanted. Every fifteen minutes, all day and all of the night , a nurse came in, shook me awake, measured my blood pressure, pulse, oxygen, reflexes and peered into my foggy green eyes. As soon as she stopped, I was diving, dreaming deeply, submerged in a place where it didn’t hurt. Then my fifteen minutes elapsed, and I was hauled back, thrashing like a marlin,  to the surface of the world again.

When they let me go home, I went on sleeping. Relatives came to visit on the island, I remember them like a silent parade. It is not enough to say that my head hurt. It felt like my brain was caught in a vise, the pressure unrelenting. Every time I tilted my head to one side, it felt like someone punched me from inside my skull. If I moved very gingerly, slowing shifting that orb on its axis, I could do so without sharp rebuke. The only true relief was when I slept.

A friend of mine drove me to the stables one afternoon, but the horse’s stall was empty. I went to the tack room to collect my saddle. The leather was scuffed and scraped along the pommel and the cantle.  I knew he hadn’t landed on me, but he must have kept falling too. I asked after him and one of the girls pointed to a lone horse in a distant paddock. “No one’s to ride him, Don said,” she called after me. My friend put the saddle in her car and I walked over the field to see the horse. He wasn’t mine, just a school horse, misunderstood. They couldn’t even remember his name.”Ch- something.”

I slipped between the rails and into the paddock. “Chesapeake?” I asked and he looked up. I fished a carrot from my pocket and he ate it. I leaned against him, trying hard to remember, tears sliding down my face. He sighed, as horses do, and stepped away to graze. I pulled a burdock from his mane and started back for the car. The next time I went out to the stable, he wasn’t there at all.  “Gone to Dr. Ballard’s,” one of them said. Dr. Ballard’s was a pet food company; the horse had been sent to slaughter. Years later I heard that Don, the owner of the stable, not-a-very-nice man, had gotten in trouble with an underage girl, and shortly thereafter was decapitated when he drove his sports car under a lorry.


I was sixteen and a half years old. I’d been dumped by my boyfriend; home from his first year of college, new girlfriend in tow. Our beautiful old dog died. My summer job teaching riding and mucking stables had come to a crashing end. They’d killed my favorite horse, no more would I run my finger down the long white stripe on his face. I spent most of my waking hours in a pain that ranged from dull ache to exquisite agony.  Still, that summer felt strangely like watching newsreel footage of war crimes. It was uncomfortable, it was ghastly, it was sad but it was removed somehow, I was not connected to it. I stayed in my room playing Harry Nilsson’s “Without You” over and over and over again, trying to feel something, until my mother made me stop.  Only when I slept did it all slip away like the tide.

School started, my senior year, punctuated with awful headaches and an overwhelming desire to sleep. Then something new: a smell. A smell that was not quite a smell. I knew that no one else smelled it, it was inside my head. And even so it wasn’t quite a smell exactly. It was the smell of the taste of kerosene. Not that I had any idea was kerosene tasted  like. It wasn’t the smell of kerosene, but some other essence of something acrid and dangerous. And with that, came syncope.

I was there, then I was gone. I remember walking down the school corridor to the water fountain to try to clear the smell that wasn’t a smell. I don’t remember falling, or even thinking I was going to fall. I just remember opening my eyes to a clutch of my schoolmates gathered anxiously around, and shouts for Mr. Callbeck, the chemistry teacher. My mother was summoned and I went home. When they drew blood for tests, I was gone again, akimbo on the polished tile floor. The tests were negative.  “Idiopathic syncope,” it said on the lab forms. Fainting for no known reason.

It happened again, and again, and again. I began to understand the smell as a signal to seek refuge. If I tried really hard I could sometimes hang on, and not faint. When the diagnosis came, five years later, it all seemed so painfully obvious.

They were seizures.

We moved to Florida, I went to college. I worked at the independent student daily and often didn’t bother much with going to class. Ate when I was hungry, slept as much as I wanted. Newspapers are produced overnight, you don’t have to be a morning person. Sometimes I’d get that faint whiff of kerosene, a sense that the earth was askew for a moment, and I’d be very, very still and wait for it to pass.

But then I moved to Boston to go to art school, and the episodes came back with a vengeance. On a city bus. In the Star Market. Running up the stairs to my apartment. One morning in an improv class, the professor led us in a classic “exercise in trust”, where we were to fall backwards into the arms of a classmate. “Just let yourselves go,” he sang out.

We don’t fall backwards too often. Sometimes our feet slip out from under us and we land on our asses. But mostly humans fall forward onto their hands and knees. When I let myself fall backwards that morning, it all blew up again: kerosene, gasoline, terrified horse, shattering against the pavement, and out. This time, when consciousness ebbed back to me supine on floor of the studio, I was convulsed with fear and hysteria.


The neurologist wore those terrible 1970s glasses with big, plastic rims.  Did I sometimes have a problem with words? Would I describe myself as paranoid?  Did I have rages?  Did I feel like I had a sixth sense about some things?  Had there been an increase in sexual activity? (For real, Holmes?)  Yes and yes and yes and yes and yes.  He had many tests for me. I copied a complicated set of figure drawings.  I counted backwards from 100 by sevens. I recognized a pencil and a watch. He told me a word and fifteen minutes later, I remembered it for him. I still remember the word: candelabra.

There was an electroencephalogram. It showed nothing. The good doctor was impatient. He believed he had the key, but he wanted empirical evidence to back it up. He ordered a sleep-deprived e.e.g. with nasal leads, and yes, that is just as barbaric as it sounds. I stayed up with friends all night, drinking coffee and smoking Balkan-Sobranies. By the time the I took the Green line subway to the hospital I was loopy and nauseated from lack of sleep.

A nasal lead is a very long rigid wire with a sensor on the end of it. The technician carefully threads it up your nostril until the sensor is resting on the base of your brain. Then she does the other one. My nose is not exactly straight and one of the leads bounced every time I drew breath. The technician came in, carefully pulled it out of my nose, changed something and painstakingly threaded it in again. Then she turned out the lights. It didn’t matter that my head was covered in electrodes and I was on a gurney in Beth Israel hospital. Just like I had for the previous five years I found refuge in sleep.

That test showed six abnormal brain waves. He had his diagnosis by golly: temporal lobe epilepsy, as a result of head injury. Over the years, other doctors have referred to this as temporal lobe seizure disorder, or by only naming the seizures: simple-partial, where I stayed in the world of the conscious; and complex-partial, where I left.

The neurologist began to prescribe. Phenobarbital. Depakote. Dilantin. Tegretol. Klonopin.  I’d have to go into the lab to have my blood checked every six weeks to see how badly I was poisoning my liver. I watched each little glass tube fill up with blood. Light green cap on this one, purple cap on that one, the last one in red. No one had to rescue me from the floor. Each time I told the doctor that the cure was worse than the problem. The occasional seizures were embarrassing and frightening, but life in a pharmaceutical haze was worse.  I gained weight. My hair started to fall out. I was agitated and confused. Where I had once been graceful, every gesture was unsteady now, clumsy. I was always sleepy, but when I slept, it was sporadic and dreamless, no refuge there. He’d prescribe a different one, and we’d start all over.

When I’d finally had enough, I changed neurologists and found Dr. Herzog, a self-described asthmatic marathon runner. He taught me how to manage the seizures by understanding the triggers, and how they accumulate. I had learned to cultivate that stillness before, and with his guidance I did it again.  I went home after that first appointment and emptied every bottle of anti-seizure medication into the toilet.  No more fucking little pills! I kept a notebook, and recorded every detail of all the tiny dramas in my life, measuring sleep and food, gin, sex and cigarettes. In time, I learned to anticipate the electrical storms inside my brain, and how to quiet them. In time a sense of grace returned.


Then one day something different happened. I’d been poking around in a church thrift shop north of Boston. When I tried to look closely at something, I couldn’t quite see it. It was a bit like the after-effect of a camera flash, maybe just from the sun in my eyes while I was driving. But it continued. The harder I tried to focus on something the harder it was to see. It was not that there was  “something” in my field of vision, but there was  “nothing.”  I could see around the edges, but whenever I tried to look directly at something, there was only an absence there.

Frightened, I drove back into the city, trying to not look too hard at anything, praying that the rest of my eyesight didn’t fail. At Harvard Community Health Plan, I tearfully told the receptionist what was going on and she had me take a seat while she found an ophthalmologist to look at me. I sat there with my eyes closed, afraid. When they called my name I opened my eyes and stood up and I was . . . fine.

The ophthalmologist did not think I was crazy. “It seems you’ve had a migraine,” he offered, peering into my eyes.

“But there was no pain.”

He sat back and looked at me. “Aren’t you the lucky one then?”

For years, it continued like that: occasional episodes where I could not see what I was looking at. They’d last for twenty to forty minutes and then gradually ease off. It was unnerving, but there was never any pain, just fatigue afterwards. I didn’t know how to count my blessings.


Discontented, I walked away from the art scene, Boston and all her denizens,  and moved lock, stock and barrel 2000 miles across the country to a place I’d never been. I had no job, no health insurance, no safety net. I was enjoying a glass of wine one evening with a new friend, Evelyn, after a soothing hour in the hot tub on her deck. The aura overtook me like a wave. I had only time to set down the glass and say “I think” and I was gone. Evelyn was hovering over me, cordless phone in hand, when I came  back. I did my best to reassure her that the cavalry did not need to be sent for, and that I was okay. A little shocked at the seizure, and a little sad as it had been so long since I’d even had an inkling, but basically okay. As it happened, that was the very last one, though I couldn’t know it at the time. Once in a great while, I’ll catch just the scent of an aura for a moment, like a ghost .

In time I got married, settled down, bought a lovely Thoroughbred mare I was a little bit frightened to ride. She was young and green and misunderstood. Her name was so awful I paid the Jockey Club a hundred dollars (I could ill afford) to change it. She became “Pilgrim Soul” after W.B. Yeats’ poem “When You Are Old,” and I called her Abbey.  I rode her in a simple snaffle. My old saddle fit her, so I polished it up, bought a new pad and girth. She was and is a kind horse, and she would stand quietly for me. I checked the stirrup length against my arm, gathered the reins in my left hand, put my left foot in the stirrup, swung my right leg over and settled lightly into the saddle as she began to walk away.  We’d putter around in the fields near the house, never raising more than a trot. I was only good for about 40 minutes and then my nerve would give out, and we’d walk back to the barn and I would cry. I missed it so much, that glorious sense of fearlessness, the almost-flying sensation of sailing over fences, galloping along with my arms flung open from the sheer joy of it.  That was gone forever.  Abbey never once dumped me, and that’s a funny thing, because a few times other people asked to ride her and she unseated each one of them in turn, generally before ten minutes had passed.

When I was eight months pregnant with my son, I walked out to the pasture to see Abbey, and I fell. I didn’t faint, there was no aura, nothing sinister. I just tripped and landed hard on my pregnant belly.  They reassured us at the hospital that everything was just fine. Weeks later, our son was born by caesarean section because the fall had pushed him up out of the pelvic girdle and he didn’t drop again. My obstetrician was keenly aware of my seizure history and charted my course through childbirth ever careful to maintain the threshold. Morphine, as it turns out, is my friend.

The headaches though, had gotten more furious through the pregnancy and continued at a ramped up pace. Those had developed another peculiar component: the black holes would start in my vision, and after about half an hour of that, I found it very difficult to talk. Everyone knows what it’s like to not be able to come up with the right word. “Not ‘convoluted’,” you might say, “but something like that.” Except that the words I could not think of were words like bowl. Dog. Car. Face. Baby. Run.

Sometimes I could spell them. Or with great effort, write each one, but it was hard, like dredging something up on a long rusty chain. Then the words would come back, one by one, and then the pain would start, and I would creep away to bed.

At a check-up with the obstetrician I asked if it was okay to continue taking oral contraceptives if I was having migraine headaches.

“Oh sure,” Dr. Peters said. “Many women do.”

“Okay,” I said. “Even when they’re focal migraines?”

“What?! No! Absolutely not. Do you see a neurologist? Let me call the neurologist.”  Before I could say “Yes, I have a neurologist” he had reached for the phone on the wall. “Hi, this is Dr. Peters. Is Dr. Prussack in? Yes. Thanks. Herb, hi this is Bill Peters. I have this patient I’d like you to see.”

And so I got dressed, and walked downstairs, right now,  to see Dr. Prussack, who was already my neurologist, and never took another birth control pill again.


Herb Prussack was a man built like a fireplug. He had bushy eyebrows and though I never saw him in a fedora hat, I’m sure he wore one. His office was dowdy in the way that every neurologist’s office is, with the exception of framed “Blondie and Dagwood” sketches and comic strips:  he had counted cartoonist Chic Young among his patients.

He put me through my neurological paces: close your eyes, stretch out your arms, bring one hand in to touch your nose, and now the other. Walk on your toes, walk on your heels. He patted the examination table. Hop up here. Do you feel this pinprick. Yes? Here? And here? Okay, look at that spot on the wall. He peered into my eyes with his tiny flashlight. Okay, hold your arms out. I’m going to lean on them, don’t let me push your arms down. When he tapped just below the kneecap with his little hammer, my lower leg obediently swung out. First one, then the other.

“So, what did you do to make Dr. Peters so worried?” he asked. “You seem to be fine.”

“I asked about taking oral contraceptives and having focal migraines.”

“Ah,” he nodded. “Well the young wife of one of our colleagues had herself a stroke this week. It’s made everyone a little cautious. But probably you shouldn’t take them if you’re having more problems with migraines.”  He wrote me a prescription for Imitrex and scheduled me for the annual MRI.

Turns out, boys and girls, that if your migraines are focal migraines (that is, migraines with aura, migraines with dysphasia, migraines with numbness or other sensory involvement) your chance of stroke is greatly increased. How much the greatly is depends on who you ask, and how much of an alarmist they are. Oral contraceptives make it more so for us.  Though birth control pills are sometimes prescribed for women with certain kinds of migraine, for others of us, they are strictly forbidden.


There’s no way to describe an MRI really. I’ve lost count now of how many– more than five, less than a hundred. A few months ago my mother was to have an MRI on her shoulder and I asked her if they had told her what to expect. They had not. Well, it’s an intense and unrelenting noise. It changes through the course of the  MRI, but it never goes away. It is remarkably claustrophobic as you lay down on the bed of the MRI machine and they slide you in until you are inside a very small cylinder. You cannot sit up, or turn over, or do the  hokey-pokey. I suppose you could lift your head an inch or two, but that would make the technician cross because it will blur the images of the brain. (I understand there is something called an “open” MRI, but that’s not what I’ve been subjected to.) I have squeezed my eyes closed tight for the hour that it takes. I have opened them and willed myself not to panic. Because it seems like you ought to panic, lying there with your head in a metal cylinder. Sometimes they offer Valium, like a canape, before hand. The one in Bozeman has a microphone so that you can tell the technician if you think you’re going to have some kind of psychotic break.

During the last one I had, they wanted to know if I’d like to listen to the radio. Most times I have given myself over completely to the sound of the MRI magnets clacking and banging, their incessant drumming, trying to feel the sound as if it is a color– that’s orange! This sound is acid yellow, this one murky green. Instead of trying to ignore the sound, which frankly is impossible, I have embraced it in all its ugly hues. Radio? But what do you listen to inside the belly of the beast?  Nothing that might make you want to get up and dance. And not country, for fear they’d play something maudlin.

“Did you want the radio?”

“Oh, yeah. Sure. How ’bout NPR?”  I asked thinking I might get lucky– it was the middle of the afternoon, maybe I could ride this out on Mozart or Chopin. Nope. It was Warren Olney’s “To the Point.” Counter to the hammering of the MRI was Warren Olney’s sensible voice talking and taking and talking about banking regulations and  Wall Street.

If the results of my MRIs have changed over the years, no one has told me. There is one glaring abnormality each and every time: a significant stellate scar on my left frontal lobe. If you ask me to show you, I can point to it. I’ve seen it on the films, of course, but somehow I knew anyway. Right here. When the back of my skull hit the pavement when I fell from the back of the terrified horse, that star marks the spot where my brain slammed forward into the back of my forehead. It is a kind of injury called a coup/contrecoup and for some people it is devastating. There are whole legions of personal injury lawyers who’ve built their entire practices on its frightful effects. I got lucky.


Imitrex did well to knock the headaches down, and I tried never to be without it, carrying one tucked away in my little Italian wallet, next to the stash of Chinese fortunes. It worked best if taken at the first hint a migraine. When the headache had set in, it still worked, but it took hours and when it was over, you felt like maybe you’d been through an exorcism.

Once, as I was gathering up stuff in a motel room in Rolla, Missouri the visual disturbance kicked up. I reached for the wallet and . . . there was nothing there. I’d forgotten to replace the last one I took. There were none in my toiletries. I was in Missouri to visit my father, who was dying of cancer. I’d stayed in the motel because he didn’t allow my dog in the house. Now they would be waiting for me to come by their house for breakfast. Thank God I didn’t have to check out, as I’d  be at the Best Western another night or two. But time was limited. I bundled the dog into the car and drove to Dad’s house, and explained as cheerfully as I could that no I couldn’t stay for breakfast because I had to go to the hospital to get an Imitrex, because somehow I’d managed to leave home without them.

“Do you want us to come with you?” Dad asked.

“No, no. It’s okay. I’ll probably be back in an hour or two. No point in you having to sit around the waiting room.”  I drove myself over there, cracked the windows for the dog, told him to be a good boy and presented myself at the ER check-in. By the time I was called (not being in the throes of a heart attack, or gunshot wound or chainsaw accident) at least an hour had elapsed and I was curled in a fetal position in the corner, eyes squeezed shut, hands over my ears. When a nurse finally came for me, she was herself a migraineur, and she quickly led me to a darkened room– an actual separate room, where she could close the door to make it quiet. She brought me a blanket from the warmer. The doctor came and asked questions and left again. The nurse returned with the white triangular pill, 50 milligrams of Imitrex.  After I swallowed it, I felt so heavy and tired. My heart seemed to be jumping around inside my chest, but I didn’t really care, I was just out of it, so tired, so very tired. Curling up on the gurney, I slept. I was aware of the nurse coming in to check on me, but I could not quite pull myself out of the fog.

By the time I’d slept it off, it was dark outside. I found my cardigan, and carefully buttoned it. My shoes were under the chair. I didn’t remember taking them off, but I must have. I pulled the laces tight and tied each set in a double knot. My jacket was hanging on a hook.  When I opened the door to the corridor, it was quiet. My headache was gone, but I felt strange, like I was the last person on earth. When a nurse spoke to me, I jumped. Orders had been left that I was free to go when my headache had abated. I signed the forms that advised me to see my regular doctor and walked back to the car where the dog was very glad to see me. I arrived at my father’s house in time for dinner.


The advice is always the same. If you have the worst headache you’ve ever had in your life, go to the hospital. This was certainly the worst headache I’d ever had in my life, but it didn’t feel catastrophic. Still, I was afraid. It didn’t feel like any headache I’d ever had before. I couldn’t take an Imitrex, I was out of them. Herb Prussack had died the year before and I didn’t have the energy to find a new neurologist and go through it all again.  Our family doctor sent me for a referral to Great Falls, to see a Japanese neurologist who was supposed to be a specialist in temporal lobe issues. He put me through the neurological song and dance, made me count backwards by sevens and told me a joke I was supposed to remember 15 minutes later. I still remember the joke. “Why don’t they have any ice in Polish restaurants? Because the guy who had the recipe has died.”

But this headache was bad. It seemed to be coming from the back of my skull and wrapping around to somewhere near the top of my left ear. I woke my husband, and told him I thought we’d better go to the hospital. The Young Turks there were quite animated by my predicament. They didn’t want to give me Imitrex, since this was not like my previous migraines. They couldn’t ring up Herb and check, because he was beyond the realm of the telephone. They were Deeply Concerned. Vials of blood were drawn. I was sent for a CT scan, though I argued that it rarely shows anything. There was no one in yet to run the MRI, or they would have. Their Concern finally coalesced into a Plan, and I was sent up the hallway for a lumbar puncture. They threaded the needle into my spine by watching it on a kind of x-ray television screen. “Much better than the old days, when we just had to do it by feel,” one said to another. Ha. It was beautifully clear. No blood in my cerebrospinal fluid, thank you. I knew they wouldn’t find any. I knew it wasn’t a bleed.  But I felt like I wanted to cleave the left side of my skull. Finally they gave me a Tylenol #3 and sent me home with an appointment to see the new neurologist in town.

She was very pleasant, and told me that migraines can change their pattern, and that this one was originating in the trigeminal nerve, and would eventually reach around to the front of my face. She wanted to put me through some more tests before she decided how I should manage them. In the meantime, she suggested Motrin to take the edge off the pain.  She scheduled me for an MRI, but I didn’t go. I was just too tired and fed up.

At a check-up a few months later, my dentist mentioned that a filling was loose in the upper right molar, and there was wear on the tooth, like I’d been clenching it. That clenching had set up a spasm on that side of my head and the spasms had triggered a migraine in the trigeminal nerve. He fixed the tooth and those strange and horrible headaches stopped. But I still had the other sort to contend with.


There are no more seizures. My neurologist says it is likely that the brain has healed finally. Just that occasional aura, like a ghost passing by.

The migraine headaches are another thing altogether. Since our move to Ohio, they have taken up residence in my left frontal lobe. If I place the palm of my hand over the left side of my forehead, the headache extends to the end of my fingertips. There is a part of me that wants to pull away at the brain there, discard it.

I go through the leftover meds from other minor calamities. Tylenol #3.  A ten-year-old bottle of Percocet. Tramadol, which only made it go away for a little while and come back more fiercely. Motrin, by the handsful.  Once I made the mistake of taking the store brand Ibuprofen and was knocked over by gastritis. It felt like I was on fire from my belly to my uvula.

Since my husband’s retirement, I have no health insurance. Because I am otherwise healthy, I have no regular family doctor. I pick a Dayton neurologist with good “reviews” and try to make an appointment.  They say I have to be referred by my family doctor. I explain my history to the receptionist. She says she will ask the doctor and call me back, but she never does.

I know the weather is behind some of this: barometric pressure is not such an issue at 5000 feet above sea-level. Humidity is low in the mountains. The fertile river valleys of Ohio grow not just grains and flowers but all kinds of pollen and probably every mold spore known to mankind. I start to recognize other things that set me off. The smell of Harbor Freight, for instance. Aspartame. Or cold-cuts from the deli, chock full of preservatives and nitrates to keep them shelf-stable for the temperature changes of moving them in and out of the cooler.


When I sense one coming, I reach for the Motrin. I drink several cups of coffee, I lie down in a darkened room with an aromatic face mask. Sometimes the headache eases off after a day or two. Generally by the third day I can function again. I read that migraines are clinical “oversensitivity” and while I can see that’s true– the sensitivity to light and sound and smell is nearly unbearable, it also makes me  laugh. People have accused me of being oversensitive my whole life.

On Memorial Day, I am in the fourth day of a migraine and I am weeping from frustration and fear and pain, and finally (though I know it will cost us a ridiculous amount of money) we go to the hospital. I expect that they will give me an Imitrex, let me sleep for a bit and send me home with orders to see my regular doctor.

That is not what they do. This is the chief trauma hospital in our fair city, and while I am apologizing to the nurse for how difficult it always is to insert an IV rig in my hand, she does so without my even noticing. It’s a complicated cocktail they’ve hooked me to:  Toradol, benadryl, compazine.  I know from a story I did years ago that Toradol is an anti-psychotic, which makes me a bit concerned. Did they think I was psychotic? No, no, not at all, the doctor reassures me. It’s also an anti-imflammatory, and in combination with the other two– an anti-histamine and an anti-nausea medication is state of the art treatment for prolonged, severe migraine. Well, then. It’s not my favorite way to divest myself from a migraine. It lacks that moment of ease– where you realize that the damn thing is really ending. The particular combination of drugs creates anxiety. I sat up. I lay down. I sat up again. I felt compelled to leave, but did not. I wanted to pace, but tethered to the IV, I could not. It’s a huge amount of IV liquid and after a while I really had to pee. So the nurse came and arranged the tubes so I could wander across the hall,  dancing with the IV pole, a quiet little mousey wallflower waltz.

But the headache goes. And it stays gone for a while.

There’s not another one until well into September, and that’s the longest period I’ve been without a headache in several years. The bill is $1700.


In the calm of midwinter I think to call another neurologist, this one a specialist in migraines, a practice of two women just outside of Cincinnati. When I call to make the appointment the receptionist asks who the referring doctor is and my heart sinks. I give her an outline of my situation, and she says “Okay.”  Okay? Okay! They don’t need someone who knows a fraction of a percentage of my history to assure them that I need a neurologist! She cautions that they don’t accept  health insurance. I laugh ruefully.

“That’s okay, I don’t have health insurance.”

A few days later a packet arrives in the mail. It is 20-plus pages of forms. Circle the medications you have taken, ever, for headache. List the doctors, dentists, acupuncturists, horticulturists and witch-doctors you have seen for the treatment of your headaches.  How happy is your marriage? How stressful are your hobbies? What percentage of the time do you wake feeling rested? Describe the headaches you’ve had this month and their frequency.  That one stumps me for I have nothing to write there. I leave the page blank but scribble on a post-it note that this is an atypical month.

We drive down through the rain to a very ordinary looking office in a very ordinary office park. They share a vestibule with a driving school. Inside, it’s pleasant., more so than many.  We talk for nearly two hours about migraines. She is astounded that I say I wake up feeling rested 80 percent of the time. Most of her patients, she says, report feeling rested 30 percent of the time, 20 percent of the time, never.

“Why do people do that to themselves?” I ask. She shakes her head, a shrug. I’ve learned Dr. Herzog’s lessons well: you have to sleep.

We talk about the cumulative nature of migraines, this is familiar territory to me from managing my own seizure thresholds. She holds her hands horizontally in front of her to explain the threshold concept. “Say your migraine threshold is here,” she moves her hand in front of her neck, “but you eat something that is a trigger for you, your threshold drops to here, and then if there’s a change in the weather, it drops some more, and if you add something else, then you can trigger a migraine.”

I nod, wondering silently if a camel wouldn’t be a better analogy. People understand about the last straw. Your brain will put up with the insult of  a and b and c, but add in that one last thing, and you’re down for the count.

She talks about the ways to raise the threshold: vitamins, butterbur, the migraine diet, biofeedback, acupuncture, more sleep, keeping a migraine journal, better choices. She agrees that my case is not severe enough to warrant a full course in biofeedback, but suggests that there are contemplative techniques useful for all migraineurs. Yes, I think, the stillness.

I understand this approach. It’s the way that a someone with asthma runs the Boston Marathon in April. It’s the way twenty-three-year-old artists wean themselves from anti-seizure medication. Why hadn’t I thought of this for migraines? Why did I think there would be one quick fix? No, it needs to be addressed from many fronts. There is something oddly reassuring in this, the familiarity of approach is comforting to me.  She writes three long pages of notes as we talk and points out that I didn’t answer the question about what I take for migraines now.

The E.R. physician had sent me home with prescriptions for Fioricet, a very old-fashioned medication for migraine, and Zofran, which is an anti-nausea medicine used for people in chemotherapy. “But I don’t get much nausea with migraine,” I had said. That wasn’t why it was prescribed: something in the receptors in the brain responds to the Zofran and helps knock down the headache. For the amount of money they charge for it, it ought to get up and do a little song and dance too.

There are preventatives, she says but she thinks I am not a good candidate for them. Having been down that road with temporal lobe epilepsy, I agree. She suggests Triptans, and that’s what Imitrex is, but I’m concerned about heart issues. What’s the point of curing your headache if it gives you a heart attack? But apparently I don’t really have those risk factors, so I agree. Of course I agree. I would probably agree to take it if there was a risk of developing a third eye. Those headaches are really bad.

No need for tests at this point, though she’d be interested in seeing the MRI films if I can get them. She hands me samples stuffed in a little shopping bag, it is the glossy pink of nail lacquer and lipstick. Women seem to suffer more from migraines, but men do get them. I wonder if men get their samples in a plain brown lunch bag.  There is Relpax and Maxalt and Cambia. Did I still have some Zofran?  Yes? Good, take that too. But throw away the Fioricet, it causes rebound headaches. See you in three months, call sooner if you need to.

On the way home, I obediently buy a little notebook, a red Moleskine, to map the geography of my headaches.

My friends want to know everything she said. They want to know because they care about me. But they also want to know because many of them suffer too. We trade advice, everyone looking for the One Sure Thing, everyone hoping that the cure lies in something their doctor forgot to mention, or didn’t know. My friend Donna calls from Connecticut and we compare notes. I wish that there had been something weird and wonderful to serve as a great reveal: “Put toothpaste between your third and fourth toe on your left foot each night before you go to sleep,” or “You’ll never have another migraine if you drink two cups of dandelion wine on the last day of March on alternate years.” Alas, the advice is so normal, it almost defies reporting. I guess I could have made something up.

Yes to sleep, yes to eat, note the triggers, take antihistamines in the spring and fall, meditate, keep a journal, take care of yourself. But the larger gift is this: I feel reassured.  The lack of absolutes makes sense to me. I have done this before, I can do it again. And no one is making me give up red wine, chocolate, brie cheese or ciabatta.

And two days later, a tickle. There’s no visual disturbance, no aura, just a whisper. It could be just a regular headache. I am not keen to experiment with the Maxalt or the Relpax yet. I have a look at “Cambia.” It’s powdered non-steroidal anti-imflammatory medication (kind of like Motrin or Aleve) to augment the use of the Triptans, like Maxalt. I’m suppose to dissolve it in a little water and drink it. While I’m looking at the directions, my eye lights on “aspartame.” Aspartame makes me ill. Aspartame has triggered migraines. Dammit.

So I take another handful of Motrin. It depresses me that I am back at this starting point. I get out the little red notebook and start to write. I’d indulged a long nightcap of bourbon, well-watered, the night before. I’d been irritable during the day. My husband was grumpy. I felt a little congested. When I look at the list of things consumed there is no protein to speak of.  The Motrin eases it a little. I’d rate this one a three out of ten. Not too awful.  We go out for Chinese food, it’s a place we haven’t tried before and it’s not very good.  By the time we get home I am in a full-blown ten out of ten migraine. I swallow a Relpax  and go immediately to bed. After three  hours, my husband awakens me, it’s one in the morning. “How are you doing?” he asks. I shake my head. It still hurts. But when I sit up, it hurts a little less. I pad downstairs in my sock feet. and curl up in a quilt in front of the computer. I did a little research on the effectiveness of Relpax.

You know what? Don’t read about the medications. If you read about the medications, you will be torn. For some people, this works, for some it makes it worse. For some it did nothing. I am frowning as I read, but the headache is easing. I wander into the kitchen and make a little tea, bring it back to my desk. Maybe Relpax doesn’t work when you’re sleeping. Whatever. It’s working now. The headache recedes, just like the tide drawing away. And for now, it’s gone.

Letting Her Go

It’s like this every Christmas. Somewhere around the first week in December I wonder if I should send something to Camille.  We haven’t heard from her since my father died, six years ago. There was a very short time that she “friended” her brother and me on Facebook. When I mentioned to her one day that her sister was in a terrible crisis and suggested she send a note,  that portal snapped shut just as abruptly as it had opened.

I don’t know if the guy Camille married really is the son of serpent-handling, speaking-in-tongue preachers who invent a new church every time they have a falling out with the congregation. I don’t suppose it matters. They didn’t look like that in the snapshots that Camille’s husband posted under “My Wedding” on his MySpace page. Maybe all serpent handlers don’t look like they stepped out of a Shelby Lee Adams photograph. I don’t know.

Who knows if it’s true that he’s pressuring her to have kids or trying to keep her from her childhood friends and family. I hope not. It is true that during the brief time we were connected on Facebook that I didn’t recognize another name on her “friends list” except that of my son. Anyway, it’s not like she’s locked in a closet or something, she works at Dillard’s in the biggest town in Montana. She could get in touch on her lunch hour if she wanted to.

So there I am at Christmas every year wondering if I should send something again. Some years I’ve gone to considerable effort– an antique Korean jewelry box,  a block of watercolor paper, a necklace her long-dead Chinese grandmother bought for her twenty years ago “for later.”  Other years, most of them now, it’s just been money. Maybe money and a restaurant gift card.  The year she popped up on Facebook she said that she decided to get in touch because we’d sent her such nice gifts.  I knew what she meant, but still it gave me pause.

I bought into it for the longest time. You know, the guilt trip, what terrible parents we’d been. That, in all my painstaking efforts to treat both girls equally that somehow I had failed and her older sister had ended up with more.

But you know what? When I married her father, I didn’t sign up for this. I’d had a stepfather I appreciated, and my mother had been an excellent stepmother to his daughter. These  little girls were 5 and 7 when I met them, and I adored them. So I tried. There were riding lessons and ballet and trips to Disneyland. There were bedtime stories, and good morning kisses and cute shoes, and plenty of applause. There were pancakes that looked like smiley faces.

I put up with their mother’s berzerk antics all those years.  If anyone gave the older one more, it was their mother. Hell, she proudly wrote that they’d adopted Camille to provide a playmate for the other. It was their mother who told Camille, untruthfully, that she wasn’t “model material.” It was their mother who told them on our wedding day that she would like to cut off our heads with an axe.  It was their mother who told Camille that she should always order the most expensive thing on the menu when we took them out to eat, because it was probably all she was ever going get from us. It was your mother, Camille, who poisoned the well.

So Camille bought that story, I guess, because we never hear from her, but we know she still trails across the state to see her mother for the holidays. That she still remembers birthdays and occasions on that side of the family. And that’s fine, I don’t suppose I’d begrudge anyone a birthday card.

Then a few weeks ago I was out with a friend and we were talking about the ugly, offhand treatment she and her husband endure from his mother.  His parents always lavished his brother with such rank favoritism that it has cut wounds that may never heal.  I asked my friend if she would put up with that kind of toxic behavior from anyone else–  co-workers, friends, her own family members–and she shook her head.

I should have asked that question of myself.

This has haunted me  for a long time. I wrote another piece, a couple of years ago, A Small Planet Out of Orbit, about having a child out there somewhere.  How bewildering it is to break that thread that connects you, that thread you think will connect you always. About losing Camille.

I have been fed up about it. I have been grief-stricken about it. When I first sat down to write this, I cried so hard I had to put it away a little while.  I haven’t sent Camille something every Christmas because I was trying to buy her affection. I have done it because we love her.  I stand there reading every damn card Hallmark makes for daughters trying to find one that says we’ve left the light on for you. We support you no matter what. You’ve been a crappy daughter, but we still love you. You are always in our hearts and you are always welcome here.

But this year I just sent a funny one, a second-grade-style groaner about “a little doe”. I wrote the check and bought the restaurant gift card. I tucked in a picture of her baby brother, a senior in high school this year.  But I just didn’t have it in me anymore to be earnest. Because you know, I’m a little embarrassed. I wouldn’t have gone on for six years chasing after anyone else to make sure she knew she was loved.

I am embarrassed that I had a hand in raising a young woman who is so judgmental and unforgiving. Not that she really had anything much to forgive. Her childhood was as imperfect as most people’s and better than many. As my late father was so fond of saying, life is not fair.  One day I suppose someone will track her down to tell her that either her father or I have died, but it’s hard to imagine that she would even care.

So that’s where we are. I’m not sending anything else at Christmas. If she ever needs us, I hope she knows we are here for her. If she ever wants to see us, we are easy to find. But I have made, we have made, all the effort we’re going to make. I am tired. Is there any point of trying to hold on to someone who doesn’t want you? Does it hurt? Of course it hurts. It hurts like a stone in your shoe. It hurts like an eyelash floating in your eye. It hurts like running the grater across your knuckles. It’s just ordinary pain, at times excruciating.

Let her go. Let her go. Let her go.

Coffeehouse Blues

It’s just a footed bowl, wide-mouthed and deep, filled with very strong coffee and nearly as much scalded milk. It’s not that complicated to make, but the leggy college students at every coffee house counter stare at me blankly when I ask if they serve it.

“I can give it to you in a mug,” one says, twirling her raspberry-colored hair around the end of her finger.  I can’t really explain why the bowl is an essential part of the equation. Some people will tell you that the French serve cafe au lait in these bowls so that they can dunk their baguettes in it, and maybe that’s the case. I don’t find the idea of a soggy baguette all that appealing, and anyway what I most remember from breakfast in Paris is bouncing the rubber-hard centers of the boiled eggs on the dining table.

So I just make the stuff at home, and I’m more or less content with that. I make the coffee in an old Krups espresso machine which isn’t quite adequate for actual espresso and scald the milk in a saucepan on top of the gas range. I have a stack of bowls from which to choose, and with the little espresso pot in my left hand and the milk in my right, I marry them in their bowl.

And anyway, I’m starting to think that coffee houses, like leather motorcycle jackets and Tom Verlaine concerts are something best relegated to the past. (What’s really depressing is that the first four musicians I wrote in that sentence are dead: The Clash (Joe Strummer), the Cramps (Lux Interior) Johnny Thunders, Alex Chilton. Godspeed, boys.) I’ve gotten too damn old.

Not yet realizing this, we stopped in for coffee at a recently opened Dayton coffee house last week. I had been intending to go there for some time, having long followed the accounts of their tribulations getting the doors open on their historic building in South Park. They have a lively, friendly Facebook page and through that have conjured a welcoming vibe. So how is it that I couldn’t wait to get out of there?

It wasn’t that I was the oldest, fattest, lumpiest least cool customer in the room. I wasn’t . And I didn’t get the feeling from the sweet young guys at the counter that they would judge. Much. But the selection process was bewildering, a funny combination of too much choice and not enough choice. Nothing seemed all that appealing, the seconds dragging by like so much dead air as they waited so patiently for me to decide. Of course there was no cafe au lait. When I ordered a macchiato, at long last, the boy behind the counter patiently explained to me that “it isn’t like Starbucks’ macchiato.”

It was in fact, a true macchiato and not like the oversweetened dreck that they serve at the ubiquitous place with the green circle.  I suppose there’s been some flack from customers who expect it to be like SB. So why not a description then, on the board? That way customers are forewarned, instead of the barista just assuming that the person doesn’t really know what they’re asking for.

At the Leaf and Bean, a rather egalitarian coffee house in Bozeman, Montana, the back wall is lined with enormous chalk boards bearing descriptions of every drink they sell– including my son’s childhood favorite, Cafe Francis: steamed milk with vanilla syrup, whipped cream and gummy bears. The boards served a dual purpose of giving customers something to peruse while they’re standing in line. But that was then.

We found a tiny table for two and pulled up another chair, perching there with our knees under our chins. Note to hipsters: if you want your current favorite coffee hole to stay open, stop taking up one of the six tables for hours on end while you write your opus on the laptop or play games on Facebook. The baristas may love you, but they really want you to drink your coffee and leave so that other customers don’t open the door and go “No room, let’s go to the other one.”

The macchiato arrived in its tiny cup, with a shot glass of sparkling water to cleanse the palate. My mother (70 something) and my son (17) were with me and it seemed the entire time like they were about ready to bolt. My son wouldn’t even deign to order anything, I suppose it was bad enough to just be in such a place with one’s Mom. I wanted to say how droll the sparking water was, but I thought the comment might precipitate an avalanche of negativity, so I just drank the macchiato, dull and uninspired on the palate, cleansed the same with sparkling water and said “Let’s go, shall we?”

Down the street about eight blocks– Dayton has another new coffee house, written up in Zagat’s as one of the “coolest” in the country. Some locals have noted that the “baristas”  seem aloof and arrogant. (A little sad for hipsters when working at a coffee shop hardly brings home enough to make the rent.) I wouldn’t even know what to wear to this place. I mean I have all manner of black tights and a little black dress from Sweden, but you know my Keen shoes are from last year.  And oh yeah, my hipness has long passed its expiration date. Sigh. There’s not a whole lot I’m afraid of, but I think I’m afraid of going in there to get a cup of coffee.

Coffee used to be simpler, I think. There was the Twin Peaks experience we yearned for:  “a damn fine cup of coffee” served alongside cherry pie.  In Italy, the coffee in open air trattorias was priced according to whether or not you planned to sit down. God help you if you paid the “carry it away” price and then changed your mind and took a seat. In Boston I had to learn what “regular” is — coffee with cream and sugar, and plenty of it. (If you just want cream that’s “light.” ) This is similar to the Canadian doughnut chain Tim Horton’s “Double-double” which has two creams, two sugars and crack in it. Okay, maybe the crack is just a rumour.

In Berlin by the wall, I staggered heartbroken up to an Imbiss kiosk everyday and asked for “Kaffee” and the man always gave me exactly the right thing. Coffee heals us– it shouldn’t have to be a trial just to get what you want, without a side of attitude. Years later in Boston I had to take my very elderly dog to be put to sleep. I was stoic until he was gone. Then I cried buckets. After that, the boy with me (whom I loved truly, madly) and I put the body of the dog in the trunk of the rental car and drove around the corner from the veterinarian’s to a Dunkin’ Donuts to drown our sorrows.

I blame Starbucks for the whole “barista” thing– and now, apparently, some coffee houses are boasting “competition level baristas.” Please, would someone just bring me a cup of coffee? It used to be that the people making you a coffee were bit players, an incidental walk-on in your search for succor in a cup. Less advisor-confessor than the bartender, but more high-profile than the woman who sold you your subway token. Now, you stand before them naked in your ignorance, trying to decide between a Kopi Luwak cappucino and  Antarctic French Roast Guillermo, and hoping to God you don’t look like a fool.

And all the while, I still can’t even get what I really want: comfort in a bowl-full of cafe au lait. Might as well stay home and make it myself. Sigh.

Mid-Century Nocturne


Crow's feet and all

Something drew me from my bed very early this morning, compelling me downstairs to write. My husband said, sleepily, “It’s 5 a.m. That’s not usually when you get up.” Such a card, my husband. Indeed, though, he is right. I am not a morning person.

But this is my birthday. And not just any birthday, either. This is 50, the mid-century mark, my golden anniversary.  It seems like I should write something momentous. The problem is that I’ve been writing about turning fifty all week: long lists of favorite books and things I still want to do, fifty favorite photographs. I think I’ve bored my poor friends to death.

I know that more than of them one is thinking “Jesus, I can’t wait ‘til Tuesday, when she’s fifty and a day, maybe she’ll shut up about it.”  It’s just that I started out embracing the ticking of the clock, the turning of the page. I planned my own party, much to my husband’s great relief and I bought a new dress. If I’m going to turn fifty, by damn, I’m taking the rest of you with me.

Fifty is a lot. You need five sets of hands to count to fifty, and fifty bucks will still buy you something, but not dinner for five at the Dublin Pub, as it turns out. It still takes more than a moment to run the fifty-yard dash. For years I feared it, mostly for its lexicographic similarity to hefty. And nifty. Shifty. It was just a bit hard to find much to like about it.

Except what my friend Sally said. “It’s better than the alternative.” When I think about the writers that didn’t make it to fifty – Jane Austen, Jack Kerouac, Dylan Thomas, Stephen Crane – mostly I think I need to get on with it. They didn’t get this half-century gift, yet look what they’ve left us by way of literary legacy.

And there’s the rub. You get to a certain point in your life and you do take stock. What have I accomplished? (Not as much as I hoped.) Maybe there’s still time to get my act together. When I shared the list of fifty things that I still want to do, my friend Tracy commented “Better hurry.” It seems like, by fifty, you ought to be a bona fide grown up. After all, there really is no way you can claim to be young anymore. Even if you’re going to live to a 100, 50 is square in the middle.

With apologies to Popeye, at 50 I yam what I yam. Certainly I’m too old to be hip, or even to aspire to it. (I was hip once, arriving finally at rail-thin red-haired punk rocker in a vintage summer dress and Doc Martens. But no more.)  The die is cast, the Rubicon is crossed.  I cannot re-work myself as an ingénue, or child prodigy or the youngest-ever anything. But there’s something liberating in that too. I am no longer concerned with whether or not I’m beautiful. I don’t care if I’m invisible, because I can add that to my list of superpowers. I look forward to saying “I’m 50 years old, I don’t have to put up with that.”

Now the sky is lightening to the east, a fringe of pink across the horizon. The house is still asleep, except for me, the dogs chuffing and singing in their dreams. Already today, I’ve received wonderful gifts: an e-card from a friend that really did make me laugh out loud. A sweet note from my chosen daughter, a wonderful photograph of myself, age 6 with my friend-of-longest duration, Trisch Rambo Kushner and her dog Shadow. A man on the front steps with a bag full of bread just from the oven.

The Roman numeral for fifty is L. I am L and L is me. I am fine with this. I am ever happy to be on the right side of grass. I am grateful to have hit this mark and still have the ability to keep on going.

50 Things I’d Like to Do Before the Gig is Up

Almost a quarter century ago, in Zurich, at the grave of James Joyce.

Okay, not a song- more like a set list. Still, getting to half a century tends to make me want to order my priorities. Here are fifty, in no particular order. When I finish the list, then I can sleep. Comments are welcome, of course. 

  1. Have a little absinthe with friends
  2. Learn to fly
  3. Visit my friend DG at his bookstore in Bangkok
  4. Buy a little wooden boat to sail
  5. Go riding again.
  6. Publish the damn book.
  7. Publish the damn book
  8. Publish the damn book
  9. Exact some justice for the dead women of Livingston, Montana—and Nelson, too of course
  10. Make the US20 trip from sea to shining sea.
  11. Rent a cottage on the Island for a month. Eat lobster rolls every day.
  12. Spend more time on Folly Beach
  13. Visit my mother-in-law’s village in Toisan.
  14. Morocco, at last.
  15. Trap, neuter and release the alley cat colony behind the house
  16. Get the Nikon cleaned, get rid of the dust spots.
  17. Find more grace.
  18. Go back to that part of Mexico where there are no tourists.
  19. Work to implement a no-kill philosophy in every animal shelter in America
  20. Make peace with those that haunt me.
  21. Put radiant heat and slate floor in the kitchen.
  22. One more litter of puppies.
  23. Sit on Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings front porch.
  24. Learn to count to a hundred before I lose my temper.
  25. Reykjavik
  26. Get all the filing finished.
  27. Paint the bedroom the color of the sea. What color is the sea?
  28. Help the boy launch himself
  29. Learn to use my grandfather’s Speed Graphic
  30. Westminster one more time
  31. Yo-Yo Ma, live.
  32. Drive La Carrera Panamericana, an antique car road race across Mexico.
  33. Forgive myself for all the things I screwed up
  34. Make flan, well.
  35. Finish the kennel.
  36. Be more charitable.
  37. Have a little old car—a Deux Chevaux or Morris 1000 or Volvo PV544
  38. Doze at the Metropolitan Opera
  39. Help lift the Jane Reece neighborbood back on its feet.
  40. Find an Hermes shawl in a thrift shop. I can dream, can’t I?
  41. Paddle: in a boat, on a lake, on a river—or just myself in some body of water
  42. Make Baked Alaska. Or hell, just eat one.
  43. Have a conversation with Steve Martin. Or Stephen Colbert. Or Stephen King.
  44. Buy a new toilet for the downstairs bathroom. I really hate that toilet.
  45. Afternoon tea. Often.
  46. Paris, again.
  47. Meet a dancing bear.
  48. Learn to observe without judgment.
  49. One more beer with Harry Crews.
  50. Cuba, before.

A Chinese Funeral in L.A.

She sent jellybeans at Christmas. We finish the last of them crossing Nevada two weeks later. We are driving to L.A. for her funeral.

“These are good,” my husband says, “where did they come from?”

“Your mother sent them at Christmas.”

He doesn’t reply and when I look over he is gazing out the window.  It is very quiet in the car, just the hum of the road and the small murmurs of our 15-month old son asleep in his car seat. No more jellybeans at Christmas, no boxes of bean thread and dried mushrooms, no red envelopes.  I will never again hear my husband on the telephone with his mother, laughing in the charivari of their country dialect Cantonese.

It was not that her death was unexpected, but still we were startled by it, our vibrant Saturday morning suddenly cracked and strange. In all truth, it was a good death. To be ninety-three, to eat a breakfast of rice porridge with your eldest daughter in your own house, to retire to your Naugahyde recliner for a nap, to never wake up. This was an event we had long expected and yet, it was surreal, a pretense. We had promised to take Julian to meet his grandmother, his Yen-Yen, at Chinese New Year. How could that mean nothing now?

No one had told us that Chinese New Year would be too late. My husband is the youngest, and the only child  living out of California. Our life in Montana is nearly as removed from L.A. as her life had been, long ago, in Kwong-Jow. He called each week and his mother put on her bravest, strongest voice. She did not tell Elmer that she had not left the house for a long time. She did not say that she would not live to meet her youngest grandson.

We arrive at her house, bedraggled and road-worn. It has taken us five hours to travel the last fifty miles from San Bernardino to Hollywood. Elmer’s brother Norman is standing on the sidewalk, wearing a black suit, smoking a cigarette. The others are inside, waiting. I lift Julian, sleeping, out of the car and carry him up the steps. His shirt is stained with apple juice. The living room is very bright and crowded with many Chinese relatives, all in black. There is a pervasive odor. I remember it from my Aunt Lillie’s, the smell of urine and death.

They have all just returned from the wake. We are startled by this, and embarrassed not to have arrived in time, but we have been on the road for two days and not privy to all the details.

The eldest brother, Tony, comes in the front door.  He has been estranged from the family, “married” to a succession of Latin women; the most recent wife trails behind him with their four-year-old daughter in arms. She and the girl are terribly shy. It is awkward, this situation. Tony, so long gone and by his own choice set apart, is by tradition, in charge.  He has even given up the family name and chosen another. There are resentments, some voiced, most swallowed.  I don’t think Tony wants the honor, but to refuse it would be unforgivably disrespectful.

“Has anyone heard from Elmer. Where is he?” he asks.

“Why don’t you ask him yourself? He’s right behind you.” The oldest son and the youngest embrace.  Tony yanks on Elmer’s ponytail and waves him away.

“Oh, I don’t talk to people with long hair.” He is only half-kidding, this family renegade, this Mexican brother.

Our son stares at his Chinese relatives. He has never met them before and they are delighted with him. He is bashful. I feel bashful too, in my jeans and Doc Martens,  disheveled.  We had planned to stay here, in this, her house, tonight and all the nights we need to be in L.A. Elmer had even asked if it would be all right.  Now that we are here, it appears that it is not all right, that all of the sheets and towels and blankets have been given away, thrown away, disposed of in accordance with custom. The possibility of finding a reasonable  hotel in L.A. at eight o’clock on a Friday night is bleak. It is so bright and so loud in this room. I worry that my navy blue suit will not be appropriate after all. I worry that we won’t find a place to lay our heads.

May, the eldest, a tiny sparrow of a woman is explaining to us the contents of a K-Mart bag.  The black ribbons are arm bands for Elmer and for Julian. The yarn bows on bobby pins are for me. The white one is for the funeral, the blue one for three days after, the red one for the official thirty days of mourning.  There are extra yarn bows, green and red for Elmer’s two older and absent children. After the funeral, she explains, I am to take the white one out of my hair and throw it into the grave. I am to replace it with the blue bow. I am to throw in the green bows for Tai and Camille.  The arm bands go into the grave too. I am struck by the image  of Chinese graves strewn with bits of yarn and  bobby pins.

A crate has been brought into the center of the room. Julian is banging on the top of it. The lid lifted reveals a canvas skin covering a lacquered trunk.  This trunk came from China, in 1937. On one of the fast boats, an eighteen day crossing for a pregnant 34-year-old woman with her 12-year-old daughter, eight-year-old son, two toddlers and the ghosts of the two she lost.

Her marriage had been arranged when she was 14, and she was married to Pon Lieu at 20. It was a good match. He was not old or  ugly. He had prospects in America.  Under U.S. foreign policy, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 forbade the immigration of Chinese women until 1930, when “Chinese wives of certain American citizens” were permitted entry.  In 1937, with China under threat of Japanese invasion, Pon Lieu was allowed to bring his family to California.

Los Angeles must have seemed like another planet. There was of course Chinatown, a colony of the familiar, but they settled instead on Clanton Street and then later on 28th Street, deep in the heart of South Central L.A. She worked at home embroidering silk ties, while he was employed as a succession of Chinese restaurants and then, during the war, as a boiler maker in the shipyards. Her name was Moy Kee, its literal translation “Rose,” her American name, never spoken.  Her real name, the one in our hearts, was “Ma.” She gave birth to three more children, all boys.  Each time they were delivered at  home by a woman physician, a pioneer in obstetrics, who bestowed on the sons not only easier passage into this world, but their uniquely American names: Norris, Norman, Elmer.

May lifts a tiny white dress from the trunk. This was Wayne’s. Here is a wooden stamp with the Chinese character of the family name.  Here are traditional dresses, the cheung-sahm, and pajamas and blouses and western dresses. They are all very dainty as if they might have belonged to a delicate child. They were Ma’s.

“Oh look, I remember carrying Elmer around in this when he was a baby.” The younger sister, also named Rose, lifts out an ornately embroidered square of fabric with ties at each corner. “He was so heavy. Of course, I was only ten years old.”

There is a plainer square and the older sister points to it and says to Rose, “Well, I carried you in this one, and Wayne, and Norris too.”

There are 26 people in this room, spilling out onto the steps, to the driveway. I keep looking for Ma to appear in the hallway or from the kitchen. She is everywhere here: in the anniversary embroidery hanging over the lumpy sofa, in the faces of the children whose photographs grace the mantel. She is in the ornate glass window over the buffet, and in the abundance of imported candy spilling over the flats of soda. She is in the 20 dozen rice bowls that fill the cupboards, and in the Birds of Paradise blooming riotously outside her door.  She should be sitting at the end of the long dining table, presiding over all, and laughing.

At an end table, Julian is plucking petals from flowers in an elaborate bouquet. Clearly, they are not from a Chinese florist. The flowers are a Western arrangement of roses and lilies, and in the Western tradition of giving flowers to the family.  Elmer’s employers had sent them. The siblings are touched by this gesture, this display of sympathy for the living. The Chinese give their flowers to the dead.

After promising solemnly to be back by eleven in the morning, we are  permitted to slip away from the  bright and stifling house into the January night, Bible black, scented with jasmine.  We are back in the car, driving, driving, out through Glendale and Pasadena and San Dimas. One of the relatives, a nephew, has offered us refuge in his pool house.

It seems we have just fallen into fitful sleep when morning is upon us. Still road-weary and stiff, we struggle into funeral attire. Hosiery and heels are foreign and uncomfortable; my husband has to knot his tie three times.  The baby is fussy in his little corduroy suit. These are not clothes we wear in Montana.

We get elaborate directions from the relatives to the nearest car wash. Our aged Mercedes is covered in road grime and to arrive in a dirty car would not show proper respect.

This car wash is an enormous enterprise: gas station, detail shop, wash bays, Mexican fast food, ice cream and gifts. There are thirty men in white jumpsuits attending to the line of Jeeps, Volvos and Acuras.  We pay ten dollars to an attendant and carry the baby inside to wait. It smells of taco meat inside the building. I can’t tell if it lingers from the night before or if this is something Southern Californians have for breakfast.  Elmer has found the coffee stand and brings me a little Styrofoam cup of cappuccino. Julian is fascinated with a display of air fresheners, hundreds of little trees that smell like lemon and strawberry and coconut. There is a viewing area, with plastic palm trees and gumball machines where we go to watch our car. It travels briskly through the wash process and out front to where a Latin man dries it with a multitude of towels. Every last surface is diligently polished and polished and polished.  My feet hurt. Elmer looks at his watch, frowning. It is after ten-thirty, and if the freeways are clear, the drive takes twenty minutes.  Finally we convince the car’s attendant that he has done a fine job, very satisfactory, muches gracias, we have to leave, really, it’s fine, gracias, and we go.

They are all waiting for us. May has hung a black wreath on the front door. It is a straw wreath, covered in black ribbon, nearly invisible against the black wrought iron of the security gate. On the sidewalk, Elmer’s thrice-tied patterned necktie is examined. There is a little bit of red, a russet red, in the pattern. Red cannot be worn. Red is the color of celebration. Norman has an extra tie.

“I thought this might happen, so I brought two.” Did he think that Elmer might wear the wrong tie, or just that someone would? He doesn’t elaborate. The tie has to be changed before we can enter the house.

The food has just been delivered from Ma’s favorite restaurant, Point Dume. The woman who brought it to the house is weeping, hysterical. She knew she was bringing the traditional funeral breakfast, but she did not know she was bringing it to the house of the dead. She demands “lucky money” so that she will be protected from the wrath of the spirits, and it is given to her. Norris pats her shoulder as she hurries down the steps, clutching the red envelope.

We have all been given a last packet of “lucky money.” Every year on her birthday, Ma gave each of us a red envelope with two crisp dollar bills. They  had to be pristine. She always asked the bank for new bills. Today the packets have only a single dollar in them, and some are wrinkled.

Foil containers sit  open on the table. There is a fried sea bass and boiled chicken, some steamed pork, an enormous amount of rice. I notice a chicken’s foot, the fish’s head.

“This is the traditional food to be eaten by the family prior to the funeral,” explains May. “Eating the head and tail of the animal is to show the beginning and the end.”  The alpha and the omega. The pig’s head is not evident. Perhaps the tail is there, I don’t examine the meat too closely.

Norris’ wife, Irene, eats the head of the bass. “Remember when Dad always used to want the head of the chicken. That was his favorite.”

There is a commotion at the door, women coming in amidst clamorous greetings. They are not Chinese. We don’t know them, but Norris explains that these women will be staying at the house during the funeral. They will be here to open the doors.

The limousines have arrived. Elmer and I argue quietly about Julian’s car seat. He assures me that the limousines will go sedately, and not on the freeways. He is wrong. We careen down the Ventura Highway, the baby held fast against me, my mouth in a tight smile. “Uncle” Stephen, who is really our brother-in-law, notes that he and I are both wearing dark blue suits.

“I didn’t have a black suit.” He grins.

“Me either.” The limo swerves between an IKEA delivery van and a Cadillac. There are five of us crowded into the back of this limousine, it feels as small and vulnerable as a compact car.  Fewer limousines mean less cost. I wish I had driven myself and Julian in our dignified old sedan, never mind being supportive. The driver looks to be about 12 years old. When we arrive at the Wah Wing Sang Funeral Corporation, Gutierrez and Weber Funeral Home, on Sunset Boulevard, I resist the urge to kiss the earth. Not that there is any earth to kiss, just another L.A. parking lot.

We are lined up outside the doors in order of importance.  In  a small break with tradition, husbands and wives are allowed to remain together.  The sons line up, oldest first, the youngest last. Then the daughters. Grandsons and granddaughters fill out the ranks. Tony’s oldest daughter, Erica, is not here in time for the procession. The sun beats down mercilessly on us in our funeral weeds.

At last the doors open with a blast of chilled air and the sick-sweet smell of overripe blossoms and disinfectant. We proceed through the foyer into a large room filled with metal banquet chairs. At one end is the casket. It is open.

Silently, we wait in line. Each wall of the room is lined with enormous floral offerings. Each arrangement is six feet square, a polystyrene form covered with blossoms and a long streamer offering beatification in Chinese and English. One of them was ordered on our behalf by the brothers and sisters. It is heart-shaped and covered with red carnations. Two fist-sized purple orchids adorn the left lobe, a dozen yellow roses cascade down the right side. Norris will tell us later that as I had no Chinese name, they chose a Cantonese homonym that meant “beautiful ability” and that’s what is scrolled on the snowy ribbons flowing from the heart.

Our turn comes to face the dead. The figure in the casket might be made of wax. Her skin is brown and smooth as a pecan, the laugh lines and crows’ feet fallen away with the forces of gravity and the embalmer’s art.  Her hair, once black and shiny as a raven’s wing, is brushed off her forehead like dry gray grass. She is not wearing her glasses. A worn leather Bible has been propped in her hands. She would be all the wintry hues, but for her cheung-sahm. She is clothed in the vibrant blue of the peacock’s tail, of the Caribbean sea, of summer sky from her tiny chin to her delicate ankles.

The Buddhist Chinese have a tradition in which each grandchild brings a square of silk to lay upon the body of his Yen-Yen, to keep her warm on the journey to heaven. It seems such a tender and gracious ritual, I feel desperately sad that Ma’s conversion to Christianity has deprived her of this gift.

We are being watched, by those behind us in the line who are anxious for something to look at, by the brothers before us, seated and waiting. I bow my head and murmur, wondering should I cross myself? Should I bob before the casket, that funny half-kneel, half-curtsy?  No one in line before me had done so, but this browsing seems inadequate, like passing a museum case that holds little interest.

The seating order is precise and rigid. The immediate family sits in an alcove, shadowed by more flowers, an abundance of orchids, a profusion of roses. The grownup grandchildren are  lined up in banquet chairs in front of the casket, like pews before the altar. At the back of the room, the funeral home seats the others: aunts, cousins, brothers-in-law, friends, fellow emigres from her village.

Tony sits in the front row, orchestrating the seating of his grandchildren. He is signaling to the blond wife of his oldest son that she should sit further back so that there will be place of honor left for his as-yet-absent daughter, Erica. There is much fervent gesticulating and it is met only with the gentle shake of heads, from children long accustomed to the whims of their capricious father.  This silent argument ends with the flurry of Erica’s arrival. She is the last to enter this airless room, clearly not giving a damn for old and tattered customs, coming only to say goodbye to a grandmother she loved. She sits down with the cousins.

An assistant from the Funeral Corporation comes over and speaks to Tony and to Wayne. Wayne is the middle son, the youngest to come on the boat from China. He is a lifelong bachelor. This last decade he has looked after his mother and her real estate interests, driving over a few times a week from  his apartment on Long Beach.  Often the decisions in her life have fallen to him, and he is used to being in charge. Deferring to Tony, so long absent, is very difficult.

“Would it be all right for this lady to sit with the family?” the assistant asks, gesturing toward a frail, white-haired lady sitting in the back row. The woman is Ma’s oldest friend, Hahn-gahn mo, and is related in some complicated way by marriage.

“Yes,” says Tony, “it would be fine.”

Wayne objects.

“This area is for Family only.” Hissed remarks pass between the brothers. The auntie stays where she is seated. I wish Wayne had put compassion before pride. Had Tony refused the lady, Wayne would have argued otherwise.

The minister has come from True Light Chinese Presbyterian Church. He describes Ma’s faith, but his description falls short. Each Sunday, she spent four hours navigating the public transit system, two to attend services and two hours getting home. She looked all her life to God to give her strength, and she was strong. The minister reads the 90th psalm, Mose’s dark vision of God’s wrath. It is long and grim and sad and when he reaches the end, he begins it again, this time in Cantonese.

The banquet chairs are cold and hard. Behind the lectern on an easel is a poster-sized photograph of Rose Louie Lieu, taken more than a dozen years ago on her 80th birthday.  You can’t see her smiling eyes for the glare of her cat’s eye glasses. The picture is lavishly framed with carnations, in pale blue and white. I count the flamboyant floral arrangements that line the walls on easels, shifting slightly in my chair to see the ones behind us. There are 22, a blanket of carnations over the casket and a lonely basket of mums and roses (from a Western florist) at the foot of the podium. Julian is fidgeting in his father’s lap, kicking the back of an uncle’s chair.

The minister speaks in English now telling us all again the familiar tales of Ma’s life. The good fortune of seven healthy children, the years of labor, her struggle in the new world, the family’s corner grocery, citizenship.  There are also stories that are new to us. We didn’t know that she had been an accomplished athlete in the 1920s, and that she loved volleyball. We hadn’t heard how she accosted a shoplifter in their little grocery by greeting her enthusiastically and in her embrace,  heartily hitting the coat pocket where the woman had hidden some eggs. The minister tells of her fondness of trips and names the places she visited with her senior group. Her favorite, Las Vegas, is conspicuously not mentioned.

When the Reverend recounts Ma’s frequent use of the phrase “Heckla,” a wave of laughter ripples across the room. Each one of us remembers. “Heckla” means have you eaten enough, let me care for you, take these gifts from me. Eat more. It means I love you. It should have been Ma’s epitaph.

He numbers her children and the grandchildren, each a blessing and an accomplishment. He is, unknowingly, two short in counting the children. There was a baby still-born in the spring of 1935, never named, never known.  And a four-year-old boy, Gong, who died that same cold, wet spring. Named, known, loved and never, ever mentioned.  Ma’s sorrows were her own, never shared. But in this, the accounting of her life, surely she should be honored for having borne the shattering, white-hot grief of a mother who has buried her children.

Julian is squirming and fussing, so I scoop him out of his father’s arms and hurriedly step out in to the lobby. When the doors open, the attendants jump to their feet, expecting the procession to the hearse. I shake my head. They look at their watches.

“Is this funeral running longer?” I ask them.

“Oh yes, mostly they are only twenty minutes.” This has been an hour.

“Well, she had a long and full life,” I offer by way of explanation and sit down with them on the little vinyl sofa. The woman assistant hands Julian a piece of candy. She is wearing a gold and white blouse with a little red flourish running throughout. She is not Chinese.

Up on the wall, a black program board spells out the day’s business in white plastic letters. Ma is the second Mrs. Lieu eulogized here this morning.  Mrs. Chung Lung Liu’s services were at 8:30. I wonder if she got more than twenty minutes.

The doors fly open and the casket comes rolling out on its bier under the white-gloved hands of the pall-bearers. The grandsons expected this duty, but the funeral director said it was not a task for family members, engendering a panicked search for able-bodied friends. There is the husband of one of the brother’s former girlfriends, and an old high school beau of one of the sisters. Another is a man from Ma’s village, perilously near her in age. The laconic staff has sprung into action, opening doors, starting the limos, ushering, herding, handing out small packets to each mourner.

Each packet contains a Brach’s butterscotch disc to sweeten our sorrow, and two coins wrapped separately in paper. There is a quarter wrapped in red paper and a dime wrapped in white.  We are to spend them on something sweet. We are not to take them into Ma’s house. Elmer and Julian and I will pool ours to make a bet on “Alpride” in the San Gorgonio Handicap at Santa Anita the next day. He will lose.

In the parking lot, we gather in small groups. Introductions and handshakes exchanged, the baby admired.

“Nehouma?” we are asked and answer “Fine, we are fine, thank you for coming .” Aunties and cousins embrace us, lightly touching our faces. Ma’s nurse, a young and beautiful woman from Central America tells me how treasured were the snapshots of Julian, how delighted Ma was by them. Later, Elmer and I stand with his nephews watching Tony flirt with the nurse. If only he had realized, Tony grins, he would have visited more. She smiles politely and turns away.

The funeral procession is led by a white Chevrolet El Camino, its bed loaded with the floral arrangements, easels and all. The carnation-ringed photograph is propped up so that passers-by can see who is being so honored. It seems she is looking back at us.

The limos sweep out onto Sunset Boulevard and head west towards Hollywood. This end of Sunset Boulevard, renamed to honor Caesar Chavez, is lined with Bodegas,  little shops full of ruffled dresses and car parts.  There is a well-stocked hubcab salesman up the block, his wares sparkling in the early afternoon sun. People are outdoors, walking their dogs, shopping, washing their cars, eating at the Mexican cafe. A man plays a clarinet on the next corner. The limousine pauses and a girl on roller blades sweeps by, an old man with a shopping cart full of oranges stops to salute us.

This is The Tour. The hearse drives past places that were notable in the life of the deceased. It seems a curious custom to drive the body around when the soul has gone, a detail rather pointedly overlooked.  We will not be going down into South Central L.A. despite Ma’s years there. We have stopped outside Pioneer Chicken. My husband remembers going there with his mother, but apparently we have paused only for a bus.  We can just make out the little strip mall that is home to Point Dume as we speed through the intersection, our passage eased by off-duty L.A.P.D. motorcycle cops.

The cortege turns down Russell, inching along the narrow street.  People have stopped on the street to stare. A little boy is waving to us from his mother’s arms.  The Sikhs who live across the street have come out to stand in their driveway. I would like to think that they do this to honor their fiercely independent neighbor, but probably they are just curious.  Ma is grinning out at them from her picture in the back of the El Camino.

The Wah Wing Sang Funeral Director has gotten out of the hearse and is opening the rear door. The neighbors find this riveting. The women in Ma’s house have opened the front and back doors. The porch light still burns as it has since her death and will for three more days. The funeral director lifts the black wreath from the front door and takes it down the steps to the hearse.  He closes the hearse door, the women close the door of the house, and we move on, back down to Sunset Boulevard, past the Brown Derby,  out to Forest Lawn. Ma has said her last goodbyes.

Forest Lawn is a burial ground peculiar to Hollywood. Checkerboards of green grass and bronze tablets roll acre after acre, relieved occasionally by neoclassical statuary. The cathedral on the summit features reproductions of famous paintings, and a rose window borrowed from some actual cathedral/ Marilyn Monroe married Joe DiMaggio here.  Scale models of famous churches spring from the landscape like movie sets, not quite real. The very wealthy are permitted a copy of some 19th century marble sculpture to accent the final resting place. Otherwise the grave is marked by a square bronze plaque, one of many thousands, and the family is given a map to find it.

Ma’s spot is just to the right of the Court of David, an enclave usually inhabited by a reproduction of Michelangelo’s most famous boy, but the statue is missing. A placard says it’s in for repairs after the 1993 earthquake.

The Wah Wing Sang staff are pulling flowers from the exaggerated arrangements and handing a single blossom to each mourner. Julian begins to eat the petals from a rose. Green canvas chairs ring the grave site. Amidst the multitude of flowers, the scene looks strangely like a garden party. The chairs are spread out over the bronze tablets of somebody else’s loved ones.

We are lined up, again in precise order, to be seated. Behind us the others are left to stand. I unpin the black band from the art of Julian’s jacket. The floral arrangements, now somewhat bedraggled, have been propped up against a stone wall. One of the orchids is missing from ours and most of the roses.

The Minister arrives in his Cadillac, and hurries over to the grave. We obediently bow our heads for prayer and I whisper little poems to Julian to keep him still. The funeral director steps forward to guide us through these rituals. A plump Chinese man in a pale grey silk suit, he reminds me of the pigeons that roost in our barn.

The older brothers and their wives trail past the grave, dropping in arm bands and yarn bows. There seems to be some confusion as to whether these are to be tossed into the grave underneath or placed in the carpet of flowers that covers the casket. Irene trips. Our turn comes to let the black ribbons flutter to the earth, followed by our single blossoms and my white-bowed bobby pin. We let fall the green bows of Elmer’s absent daughters and return to our places in the line.

The family is directed to turn our backs to the coffin as it is lowered into the ground. This will be a topic of discussion at the Ocean Seafood Restaurant afterward; no one remembers this as tradition. Perhaps it is a tradition of the funeral home. I watch the eyes of the other mourners looking back at us, at the casket beyond.  The wintry sun filters through tree leaves, casting dappled light over friends and family.  We hear pulleys squeaking and a muffled thud. The director invites us to turn back. Each child of Rose Louie Lieu and each child’s beloved and each child’s child takes a handful of earth and casts it into the grave.

So she is laid in the earth. Forever to her left is the husband with whom she shared a cantankerous marriage marked by year-long silences and punctuated with slamming doors. To her right, a Japanese child who lived for just a week.

Back at the house on Russell Avenue we drink purified water and eat brown sugar candy. May stayed up late boiling the water being ladled out of a stainless bowl. It tastes terrible, dead and flat.  We drink the water to replace the tears we have shed, we eat the candy to mask the bitterness of our loss.

The funeral banquet is in Chinatown, in a Hong Kong emporium called The Ocean Seafood. Hong Kong style restaurants are notable for their plush ambience, an abundance of chandeliers and rosewood. The food is only a secondary consideration. Many of the mourners have arrived before us. They have seated themselves at the big round tables and are drinking Coca-Cola and 7-Up. Every table has a two-liter bottle of each. All Chinese banquets begin with Coca-Cola and 7-Up. Never Pepsi.

I am sitting at a table near the back, holding Julian on my lap, waiting for my husband to bring a high chair. Tony arrives with his entourage, which now includes eight more of the Guatemalan in-laws who crowd their three-room house in Eagle Rock.

“We are sitting here,” he says. “Find somewhere else.”

I get up from the table, saying nothing, thinking black thoughts about his piggish behavior. By the time Elmer shakes himself free from aunties and cousins and appears without the high chair, I am teary-eyed and angry, ready to leave. We find seats at a table with Norris and Irene. Hahn-gahn mo is sitting there also with another old and honorable lady.  They are beaming at the baby. She has forgotten or forgiven the snub at the funeral parlor. The old ladies don’t speak English, but they converse beautifully with Julian in laughter and gesture and exclamation.

I learned later Hahn-gahn mo is the second wife of Hahn-gahn, who grew up with Pon Lieu and was treated as a brother. Hahn-gahn had two sons from his first marriage. The elder son died prematurely, his widow is Hahn-gahn mo’s friend and loyal companion. The younger son, Selt-Moy, refused to acknowledge his father’s second wife, treating her cruelly, as if she were no more than a concubine. The argument is buried now with the men,  and Hahn-gahn mo has her own children for comfort.

There are two men at the table, each a son of the ladies.

“These are my cousins, Wing and Tommy,” Elmer introduces us. All Lieus are cousins. The Western spelling of the name has no bearing on the relationship. Lu, Liu, Lieu, Loo, they are all of one Chinese character, a complicated arrangement of pitched brush strokes.

After dinner, over tea and oranges, we talk about funeral traditions. Wing, who has been back to China, says that many of the customs are no longer observed there. Imported some sixty years ago by immigrants, the old ways have been preserved like treasures.

We will stay in her house tonight, with Ma at rest, it will be permitted. We eat leftover rice and talk into the night with May and Wayne. There is discussion about more arrangements– which Chinese newspapers should carry the announcement, whether Tony will be there on Monday to bring more flowers to the grave. May talks about the old ways, the years in China. As she talks, she suddenly seems very far away, remembering a time and place unknown to all of us. She speaks of living alone with her mother, of her father’s many arrivals and departures, of going away to school, and the much awaited trip to America.

She tells us about the missing brother, how word had come to her late on a spring night, a message that he had died.

“He was a nice  boy,” she said, lingering on nice, drawing it out. “He was always laughing.  His name was Gong. It means light.” She sips her tea. Mother had a photograph of him that she kept in the bottom of her drawer. I used to sneak in to look at it. She must have known because one day it wasn’t there anymore. I don’t know what became of it.”

The next morning, sifting through the papers of Pon Lieu, the union cards and old insurance policies, we find the photograph. It is sepia tone of a family: a solemn young man, his fiercely beautiful wife, a little girl, perhaps seven, in wrinkled stockings, a little boy about five dressed all in white. In the center of the picture, propped on a pedestal by his father, is the child Gong. In the photograph he wears a pale silk suit and little leather shoes. Theres tiny ivory bracelet on his wrist, his attention is caught by something to the right, something unseen by everyone else.

The photograph was taken in 1932. Gong lived three more years, and his death left wounds that would never heal. His mother was expecting another baby as they struggled to keep Gong alive.  The baby was born dead a few weeks after Gong died, and Ma was broken in a way that never could be mended.

On Monday, the third day of mourning, we meet at Forest Lawn. The sisters have two pots of pink azaleas. One is for Ma’s grave, the other for the grave of Pon Lieu, so he will not be annoyed.  The elaborate floral arrangements have been piled on the grave, easels akimbo. The ribbons flutter in the wind.  It’s forty degrees in Los Angeles this morning and we are chilled in the pale sunshine. Rose and May nestle the azaleas into place and Rose’s husband, Steve, a retired clergyman, says a prayer over the graves.

After all the eulogies, no one has acknowledged the formidable strength and simple, lovely grace of a woman who breathed life into the souls of nine children, who flourished in two worlds, who lit up a room with laughter. Slipping the blue bow out of my hair, I toss it down among the scattered flowers.

“Now is the time for red ribbons,” May says. The Chinese red of good luck and celebration. The ribbon is tucked in a lock of hair above my left ear. The red of poppies. The red of blood. I take my son’s hand and we walk to the car.