Tag Archives: childhood

Pride And Joy

Boasting can be a risky endeavor.  Showing off any item from a collection of conceits – the handsomeness of your children, the superiority of your parents, the dominance of you job, your paycheck, your birthplace, your sports team – can either invite a good-natured discussion or a healthy bloodletting.  And if you’re the type of person with the habit of showing all of these things off, then why are you reading my blog?  Remove yourself from the Café immediately.

However, even with this being said, I still must boast.  About my Christmas tree.  It has been in my home for over a week, and it is as fat and fragrant and fir-licious as ever.  I must say how proud of it I am, especially since when Boyfriend picked it up it still had some Oregon snow clinging to its branches.  I found that rather sweet, bringing its wintry crystals to Southern California; so part of my pride is an apology as well.  Sorry to take you from the forest to my apartment.  Sorry I killed your cricket friend that you hid in your needles.

So out of repentance, I decorated you.  I want you to feel lovely, and I think you’ll agree that I have some splendid ornaments.  A fish made of pearls and green glitter.  A tiny silver whale spouting a plume of breath shaped like a palm tree.  A Sputnik shaped ornament from the early ‘60’s.  Two fish I bought in London – one made of twisted gold filigree, the other with a body of crimson velvet.  I have decorated you with constellations!  A stream of silver stars.  A red crescent moon with a star dangling before it – as if it were to be devoured…or greeted.

You will also notice that there are two miniature Christmas trees hanging from your branches.  They were once pink; now they are faded into water-color memories.  They are dotted with tiny bulbs.  They are made of tulle and are as delicate as Yuletide petticoats.  They have been crushed and then re-shaped.  When I was little – well, Aubrey was never little; perhaps when I was young-small – they were my favorite ornaments:

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This is one of my favorite pictures.  (you can see the pink decoration dangling from the lower berth of the family Christmas tree)

Aubrey In Pleats Inspects The Tree

I will never know why I was staring at the tree with such fascination.  Perhaps I was feeling the same guilt I feel for you now, my gallant misplaced tree.  Perhaps I was staring at the ornaments, amazed with wonder, that I could reach out and hold Christmas in my hand.

And the fact that I still have these ornaments encourages me to boast.  It might not be the best of manners, but I think that I will take the risk.

Wishing you all holidays full of pride and joy.

The King’s Noble Stomacke

Youth is an envied commodity, it seems.  Look how jealously it is held on to; how desperately it is pursued…how the grasping fingerprints still show on its soft skin.

This wasn’t always the case.  Photographs and portraits provide galleries of children and teenagers dressed as adults – diminutive and unprepared. Frog-like, they have blithely leapt over their childhood; landing instead in a marketplace built out of society’s expectations.

History has long portrayed these defeated children.  Crinolines, hoops and farthingales trying in vain to balance on undeveloped hips.  Greatcoats that are too great, after all.  Tiny silk slippers and tight polished boots.  Corsets that punish soft bones:  their crossed laces creating a pattern of misery on thin backs.  We see the faces of distant youth, impervious and set:   profiles of extinguished rebellion.

What hope was there for the mutinous child?  What prospect was there for the young adult brave enough to be witty – that volatile combination of audacity and intelligence?

In 1538 Christina of Denmark was 17 years old and already a widow – she had been wearing her smothering ‘weeds’ for two years.  The Duke of Milan had proposed marriage to her when she was only eleven – her guardian, Charles V, not only agreed to the match but also to its immediate consummation.  His sister, Mary of Hungary – a strong and moral woman – was able to delay the wedding until Christina was thirteen.

In 1533, a portrait was done of the bride-to-be, no doubt to be rushed to the groom before the paint had completely dried.  Christina is seen in a three-quarter profile, taking advantage of her curving brow, the soft landscape of her neck and mouth.  She is dressed in a gown of quiet midnight; her hair scraped from view beneath her cap – no madcap tresses, no scintillating curls to tickle the skin unbidden.  She is shown reading a book – an obvious symbol of her careful education – yet it seems that at any moment the charming, red mouth will flutter into a smile and the lids rise to reveal eyes full of childish confidences.  She has been carefully posed, yet she has the attitude of a mischievous Madonna.

A Wise Child

Five years later, another portrait of Christina was painted.  Henry VIII had been on a marriage hiatus for almost a year and needed a new wife.  His third wife, Jane Seymour had done the unexpected – given birth to a male heir – but had also done the expected, dying as a result of her three days of labor.

Hans Holbein’s portrait of Christina reveals a face of barely subdued dimples, of restrained amusement.  She is wearing black, standing in a shadowy room:  her white hands bloom against the dark like soft flowers.

The Merry Widow

In her eyes there is a demure twinkle; a cleverness that kept her informed of events happening beyond her realm. And it is with that same spark that she commented to the English ambassador:  “If I had two heads, one should be at the King of England’s disposal.”  The ambassador, Thomas Wriothesley, no doubt thinking the outspoken girl deserved a good beating, commented to the King’s minister that their master should; “fyxe his most noble stomacke in some such other place.”

Christina is an example of the extraordinary child – the spirit that would battle her way into adulthood on her own terms.  In any century, there was hope for the honest child, the strong woman.  But that hope was rare, a prickly star few could hold on to.  But for the majority, there were only vanquished dreams, and a life to be spent staring into the starry sky.

A Life In The Balance

She is destined to be a problem child.  The poised wrists, the dainty profile with tiny pierced ears that coil like shells, the crossed ankles – serene and lady-like inside leather buttoned boots – create a spoiled pose that needed no encouragement from parent or photographer.

Playground Poise

A dress with scalloped petticoats, the triad of birds nesting within the brooch at her collar, the knitted socks, patterned with waves as frothy as her skirts…all are the results of a child’s pleadings, and the parents’ desire to please their girl.

She is balanced on a swing, childhood’s favorite vehicle – a means of transport into the clear, empty air.  Before adulthood insists on a goals and guilt…a child insists on a journey into the unknown, and will look towards the sky for their anonymous voyage.  But Faber Photographers were not ones to consider a metaphor.  

This photograph was taken in the early 1900’s, when subjects no longer stared into a camera’s lens in stilted terror.  In less than 10 years she will be standing inside the doorway of her home with her mother, nodding to guests who have come to pay tribute to her newly acquired womanhood.  Her hair will be twisted high, exposing her neck and the silky skin of her shoulders:  it will never curl down her back in childish abundance again.  Once she becomes a young woman delegated to lace dresses, waltzes and corsets to set her spine and ribs into an acceptable anguish, she will have forgotten her swing, her oceanic socks and shiny boots. 

 And should she hear that the studio where she once held onto childhood’s intimacy so tightly was destroyed in the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, will she care?  Or will it be too late:  and all memories vanished and beyond the pain of regret?  

Then, in ten years more, she will be married.  How will the world have changed?  All of Europe will be pale and weak, her blood soaking into the fields and rivers of Belgium, France and Italy. After the Somme,Verdun, the nine battles on the Isonzo river, Delville Wood – names that carry a weight of despair – she can do nothing but kneel in the mud and wait for the blessings of silence and defeat.

America will enter the war in 1917.  In every city across the nation, young men will bid their families farewell…will this child become one of the weeping ladies standing on the train platform, brave in her delicate misery?  Will she see her husband again – or will he fall in one of the terrible American battles:  Argonne-Meuse, Belleau Wood, Cantigny?

This little girl has much to look forward to, and much to fear.  Her joys hang in the balance, between a sheltered, golden world and a world rooting in war’s debris like a dog searching for food.  She looks down from her swing in childish judgement, her life in the balance – but perhaps she doesn’t believe in metaphor, either.

Child Prodigy or Oddity?

When I was small and formative, my mother kept a diary which kept track of what I said, when I walked, when I was sick and all concerns of the diaper variety.

I love reading them.  I love her handwriting, slanted and swift; I love the parental zeal that drove that script on…I love my mother.

Oh, and I love that they were about me. 

Anyway, this particular entry I found rather outstanding.  It's dated August 15.  I was 6:

"M. has been thinking about when she leaves home (I had thought she would wait until she was a bride,
however -).

'When I leave, I've been thinking I should look for a new mother who needs me, but she can't be Japanese or Spanish.'

Waiting with bated breath for this first indication of racial prejudice, I asked her why not a Spanish or Japanese mother??

'Because I don't understand the language'.

"Now why didn't I figure that out for myself?"

So. Prodigy or Oddity.  What does the audience think?

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QotD: Favorite Poem, “Though I Sang In My Chains Like The Sea”

What is one of your favorite poems?
Submitted by marvel is my pen name.

My introduction to the works of Dylan Thomas was a peculiar and ironic one.  It really has no place here; suffice it to say that I first read his poetry in junior high school, when I was 13.    I was to write a report on him, so I set out to reading his poems.  I almost wept.  Not because of their depth and beauty, but because my tiny teenaged mind had NO IDEA what they meant.  'white giant's thigh'?  'Long-legged bait'?  What the hell?  I obviously needed more than 13 years on this earth to make sense out of those things.

But there was one poem that made sense.  Clearly and wonderfully.  It seemed to me then, as it does now (along with 'Ballad of the Long-legged Bait' and 'In the white giant's thigh' and all the others) quite marvelous and perfect. 

It's a poem that celebrates childhood, its loss and eternal memory, along with things that are even more deep and vast.  It's final two lines are inscribed under Dylan Thomas' name in Westminster Abbey's Poets' Corner.

I have a recording of Thomas reading this poem; with his voice the lines become even more rolling, royal and rich.  I didn't cut and paste it into my blog, I typed it – and it was as if I was reading and hearing and feeling it all at once.

FERN HILL

"Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
The night above the dingle starry,
Time let me hail and climb
Golden in the heydays of his eyes,
And honored among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
Trail with daisies and barley
Down the rivers of the windfall light.

And as I was green and carefree, famous among the barns
About the happy yard and singing as the farm was home
In the sun that is young once only,
Time let me play and be
Golden in the mercy of his means,
And green and golden I was huntsman and herdsman, the calves
Sang to my horn, the foxes on the hills barked clear and cold,
And the sabbath rang slowly
In the pebbles of the holy streams.

All the sun long it was running, it was lovely, the hay
Fields high as the house, the tunes from the chimneys, it was air
And playing, lovely and watery
And fire green as grass.
And nightly under the simple stars
As I rode to sleep the owls were bearing the farm away,
All the moon long I heard, blessed among stables, the night-jars
Flying with the ricks, and the horses
Flashing in the dark.

And then to awake, and the farm, like a wanderer white
With the dew, come back, the cock on his sholder: it was all
Shining, it was Adam and maiden,
The sky gathered again
And the sun grew round that very day.
So it must have been after the birth of the simple light
In the first, spinning place, the spellbound horses walking warm
Out of the whinnying green stable
On to the fields of praise.

And honoured among foxes and pheasants by the gay house
Under the new made clouds and happy as the heart was long,
In the sun born over and over,
I ran my heedless ways,
My wishes raced through the house high hay
And nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows
In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs
Before the children green and golden
Follow him out of grace,

Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
In the moon that is always rising,
Nor that riding to sleep
I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea."

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The One That Got Away

This is a sketch of myself, taken by my Mother, via ballpoint pen.  I was ten years old when this picture was taken.  Do I look my age?  You can be honest.

It was very unusual for my Mother to go along with us on our fishing trips, so I figured – correctly, as it turned out - that we were on the Malibu pier.  She would have no patience with the boat ride - despite its brevity -  to the Redondo barge.  This day had been a special treat.

I used to love fishing.  When my Dad, brother and myself planned for a trip – Saturdays only – I would look forward to it the entire school week leading up to the fated day. And I didn't ignore my studies either; its just that everything beginning and ending before The Wonderful Trip suddenly became glorious.  I would study the fish report in the newspaper, to note what was hitting, in what quantity and where.  Not that it made any difference.  We either went to Malibu or Redondo.  At Redondo you would get bonito who when hooked would, in clever desparation, pull the line againt the barnacles collected on the barge's bulk in order to snap it.  But at Malibu I once hooked a thresher shark.  And on one memorable, unremembered day, I caught the biggest fish of the day…a 5 lb. perch.

How I looked forward to these outings!  It's not often that a person in this current life looks forward to an event with such intensity that  it achieves an almost mythological status.  The magic of the ocean became plain to me then.

I loved listening to the transistor radios arrayed on the chairs and railings.  I loved the sandwiches Dad made for us:  salami and mustard on Roman Meal bread. I loved the mystery…knowing that your hook and bait (shrimp was a favorite) was hidden below water, possibly being inspected by who knew what kind of creature.  I loved the thrill…as I felt the sudden panicked tug on the other end of the line…I loved the awe…at the first sight of twisted scales and the flash of white underbelly.

Now, when I was younger, I felt no compunction about pulling the fish into the foreign air and stuffing it into a burlap sack where it can suffocate slowly, but at least be good enought to do it out of sight.  Then, when I grew a little older I felt that death should come quickly.  I looked to my brother then, to rap the fish's head sharply against the railings.  But sometimes, as with Mary Queen of Scots, it would take more than one hit.

And I never could disengage the hook.  I would usually end up tearing it out, dislocating the jaw.  I felt bad, but, you know, I had to use it again. 

But this was long ago.  Then, about 20 years later, I tried to go fishing again. And that same initial excitement was there:  but as soon as the fish was brought to the surface,  all I saw was how gruesome it was. I could try catching and then throwing them back – but what was the point?   I simply no longer wanted any part in this.

I at times chided myself for considering so closely the feelings of a fish.  Really, how much pain could it feel?  Then why, I'd answer rather sharply, would an anchovy lie placid enough in my hand, and then start to flap about in gaping terror as soon as I slipped a hook through its nose (I always hated live bait)? 

The point is – I haven't gone fishing since.

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