Please Forgive Me

Please forgive me.
Don’t take my reticence for sullenness,
or my half-smile as an attempt to be polite.
I only lack the energy to be more engaged.
Will I be rejuvenated?

Please forgive me.
My heart is wounded.
It’s not broken.
If it were, I would feel despair.
I don’t.
I’m still moving forward,
although I’m unsure of the path.
Will I stumble or persevere?

Please forgive me.
I know I’ve been absent-minded.
My brain is like a sieve.
I try to remember, but I can’t.
I do care.
There are too many things swimming in my head;
my thoughts are a runaway train.
When will it slow down?
When will I be at peace?

Please forgive me.
I’m not jealous, just proud.
I truly do rejoice in others’ good fortune,
though my own bad luck becomes sharpened.
I look to their success as hope for my own.
When will I overcome?

I don’t know.
Please forgive me.

Pardon

I love bookstores. I wander around checking out new releases and bargains, not just the books, but also the movies. If there’s a café, even better. I can have a hot chocolate and a snack while perusing a magazine. Libraries, on the other hand, suck the energy right out of me. I go in, do what I need to do, then leave.

I first realized this when I was a college student. I would simply take out whatever I needed for research papers. If that wasn’t an option, then I would photocopy what I could. In extreme cases, I would take notes from a resource. After every visit, I felt so tired and lacked a desire to do anything, let alone more studying.

This condition was never more evident then in Paris. I lived there for a year as a graduate student. My Master’s thesis was entitled La Condition Féminine dans Le Père Goriot d’Honoré de Balzac. Consequently, I had to spend time in a library or two.

As I was planning out my paper, I investigated a local public library—une bibliothèque municipale. I can’t remember much; it was a short visit. I do remember feeling out of my element. It wasn’t set up to function as public libraries do in the States. I know one of my friends felt the same way after her own investigation.

Once I determined the obvious—that my research would be limited to collegiate and specialty libraries—I sought out those that would be the most helpful to me. My first visit to the Maison de Balzac was productive, and a bit amusing. Productive since I discovered a treasure trove of information for my thesis. Amusing since I was a young American woman dressed in her college sweatshirt, blue jeans, and sneakers entering this small space with older professorial French (I assume) men. The librarian, a young man, seemed a little surprised and delighted, or perhaps bemused, when I arrived with a “Bonjour” and “Pouvez-vous m’aider?” I made many visits to this library. I also spent a lot of francs on photocopying.

I’m sure I may have gone to other libraries, but the only other one that stands out in my memory is Sainte-Geneviève. First, there was a line to check into the library. I presented my student ID and was directed to the next line where I received a seat number. Only so many were allowed in at a time. I don’t recall if there was a time limit or not. Either way,  it wouldn’t have been a problem.

I climbed the spiraling stairs into the library proper and took in the vaulted ceilings, the upper level with wrought iron rails, the long tables with students studying at their assigned seats. I felt overwhelmed; practically every seat was filled with someone writing, writing, writing, note-taking, note-taking, note-taking. I located my seat, three quarters of the way down the table with only one access point. The tables were rather close to each other. I’m not a small person, nearly 5 feet 11, and I carried a cumbersome book bag.  I hugged it close as I inched my way in, repeatedly murmuring “Pardon.”

I took off my coat carefully; room was tight. I sat down, organized my things, and made ready to do research. I took a deep breath and prepared for the annoyed glances. Inching my way back out, I reiterated all the previous pardons. I was pleased to have quickly completed my resource quest with the card catalogue. Yes, that’s right. A card catalogue. The internet was in its infancy twenty years ago.

With the help of the librarian, I retrieved all but one resource. That particular book was on the upper level. I had no idea how to get up there. I spotted one spiral staircase, but couldn’t figure out how to get to it. In addition to wrought iron rails, there was also caging. I admit I didn’t look too hard, nor did I ask for help. I felt very intimidated by the whole building and its environment. I wouldn’t care now, but at that time, I thought, “So what’s one book?”

I pardoned my way back to my seat, giving my fellow students a “Please don’t hate me” look. I took a few notes from the shorter texts and determined I would need copies of the others. This did not take very long. I thought, “They’re going to kill me.” Another deep breath before pardoning my way back out, where I then sought out the librarian to whom I explained that I knew very well how much photocopies cost. After a few minutes, she handed me a thick packet. In a brave, brief second, I opened my mouth to ask about the other book. I knew I was trying the patience of the students at my table, which was quite the understatement. If I got this book, I’d have to look at it right away. I closed my mouth and let the question die in my throat. I wimped out.

Of course, I still had to collect my things. The thought of the exasperated looks from the students as I pardoned my way back to my seat was painful. I arrived at the conclusion I would not be returning to this library except perhaps as an admirer of its architecture. It’s a beautiful library after all. I muttered my pardons and added a few mercis. I packed everything up, took a deep breath, and began my litany. “Pardon. Pardon. Pardon.”

I checked my watch as I left. A half hour. Maybe forty minutes at most. I was completely wiped out. No other library had sapped my energy like this one. Please don’t misunderstand me. I bear no ill will toward libraries. I simply can’t spend much time in them. Even with so many adding small cafés, I still prefer getting lost in bookstores.

Grandma’s Ring

Recently, I moved into my parents’ house. I can no longer afford my own place. Fortunately, their house has five bedrooms; two of which are upstairs with a full bath. The larger of the two was my grandmother’s room. It is now my bedroom.

Despite having more furniture and arranging it differently, I couldn’t help but see flashes of my grandmother’s effects. For example, I hanged a picture where she had a coronation plate of Queen Elizabeth II.

My grandma was born in England in 1913. Her biological mother, Christine, was unwed. So, a friend of the family, a widow with four children named Elizabeth, adopted her. Flo thought it odd how Aunt Christine would bring her birthday gifts, but not her siblings. She found out the truth in 1927 when she and Elizabeth were being interviewed for visas to the States. Her older siblings were already here. Elizabeth answered honestly the question as to whether Flo was her natural or adopted child. Flo always felt her mother’s heart was broken by having to admit she wasn’t really her own. Elizabeth passed away soon after.

By this time, Christine was married and living in Edinburgh, Scotland. Until her departure for the States, Flo stayed with them. She liked her stepfather, but wasn’t too crazy about Christine. Her words. When asked to stay, Flo simply replied she wanted to be with her family. My mother once remarked to her, “Ma, you know, you probably broke Christine’s heart when you said that.” Flo never thought of it that way; she just wanted to be honest.

She turned fourteen on the ship. She couldn’t see what the big deal was about the Statue of Liberty. She didn’t care for Ellis Island either. Margaret, her sister, was waiting for her. Until Flo could get to her, she had to put up with the loud and brash Americans directing the newly arrived immigrants. Again, her words.

She had a difficult time adjusting to life here. Besides dealing with her adoption, the students at the Brooklyn high school she attended teased her about her English accent. Can you imagine Brooklynites teasing someone about how she spoke English?

Flo remained in the States for the rest of her life. Albeit illegally. Her visa expired. She worked for the Edison Company. When FDR created Social Security, Flo received a card. She had four children with an American.

In 1963, my grandfather Harry went shopping for a wedding ring with my then 16-year-old mother. I’m not sure what the story was: she never had one or something had happened to the one she had.

My mom helped her father pick out a ring. Harry was too excited to wait for Christmas so he gave it to her early. Flo was absolutely delighted. Three days before the holiday, Harry passed away. Did he know or sense it? Who knows?

Flo never remarried and lived until 91. As my mother and her siblings went through Flo’s things, her only request was the wedding ring.

I unpacked my belongings into my new bedroom. Everything was everywhere. I couldn’t remember where things were, despite having carefully marked the boxes. Most of my possessions were placed into storage. I looked around me, trying to imagine my stuff over the shadows of my grandmother’s. I decided to open the small box with my jewelry. I found an envelope labelled “Grandma’s Ring” written in my mom’s script. I opened it to see the wedding ring. I had forgotten I even had it. At that moment, I felt welcomed.

Sense and Remembrance

It’s strange how memories get triggered. A turn in conversation, a photograph, a scent, a sound, sometimes even a touch or a slight breeze. Childhood memories remain vivid if attached to any one of these things. Other memories return when confronted with a trigger. The past becomes clarified, for better or for worse. Perhaps a new context is revealed to us. Perhaps not; maybe an old one reasserts itself to comfort us, warn us, remind us, or any number of motives about something we forgot or simply wish to remember.

Today, I went to the Unveiling of my best friend’s tombstone. The rabbi spoke about the reason for this ceremony: to remember and forever carry with us the memory of her life. A glimpse of her on a swing in elementary school, another of dancing at a junior high dance, chatting at get-togethers with our mutual circle of friends, becoming closer until we were best friends. At the luncheon following the ceremony, her sister, dad, and I discussed her love of expletives; a memory popped up. In college, she sent me a letter (my age is made evident here since email was in its infancy) which began traditionally, “Dear Leslie,” but was then followed line after line with a certain “f” word. There may have been a few other words before the “Love Deb,” but I can’t remember. I do remember laughing my ass off.

The rabbi spoke of her strength in dealing with the disease that killed her, but I always think about her sense of humor. I would love to speak with her again about all that has happened and is happening in my life: the fibroid tumor, the part-time job with crazy hours, the loss of my home, the move back with the parental units, the starting of a new career, and more. I think of what she would say; it’s nothing exact, just knowing there would be quite a bit of her sailor-like vocabulary in there. I smile. The stress falls away, if only for the moment. I’m sure there are other, and better, stories. Memories are fleeting; the triggers recall them to the present, but they don’t always remain.

I refer to the fox in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s “Le Petit Prince” when discussing memories and senses. After the Little Prince has tamed (befriended) the fox, he finds it’s time for him to return home. He asks the fox about the purpose of this time spent together. He considers it a waste of time; why befriend one another if, in the end, the Little Prince will never see the fox again. The fox explains the meaning of friendship and, in fact, what’s essential in life. He looks at a wheat field and states how the wheat had no meaning for him. As a fox, it is not part of his diet. Now, it will always remind him of the color of the Little Prince’s hair. It will not be a sad memory due to their friendship. His life has been enriched.

The fox also explains how each becomes responsible for the other. The Little Prince had left his beloved rose to travel and gain knowledge. When he first arrived on Earth, he became dismayed and wept at the discovery of a garden of roses; his rose was not unique. However, the fox enlightens him. Because the Little Prince loves her and takes care of her by watering her and shielding her from the cold breeze, she is unique to him. She is like no other rose. She brightens and perfumes his planet. They are responsible for and unique to each other. The Little Prince’s footsteps are like no others for the fox. He doesn’t have to be afraid he is being hunted. He is most certainly not like any other fox for the Little Prince. What’s essential is invisible to the eyes; one can only truly see with the heart. This is the fox’s lesson.

I have read this book with my students for almost eighteen years. Once we arrive at this point in the story, my students are asked to think how their own memories are triggered. Easier said than done. A student understood very clearly when she described how a certain perfume reminded her of her grandmother. The memory only made her feel sad and miss her grandmother even more.

I have one powerful memory of coming home from elementary school. How many times I walked home from school, you can do the math. I don’t remember my grade or exact age. The autumn wind, brisk and crisp, whipped around my legs as my feet crunched on leaves. The books weighed down my arms. I didn’t have a backpack or book bag until college. I turned the final corner, arrived at the driveway, and began the long walk up to the door. Even as I clasped the screen door latch, I could hear the music. As I opened the front door, a wave of warmth washed over me accompanied by the sound of Pavarotti’s voice and the smell of tomato sauce. As he made meatballs, my dad’s singing aligned with the Italian tenor. The memory ends there. I know I must’ve gone into the kitchen, greeted my dad, and then continued into the den to do my homework. I don’t really remember. I also don’t know why this one particular time when my dad was singing and cooking, which he still does, remains more vivid than other occasions. I only know this memory is evoked with the sound of Pavarotti or with the smell of tomato sauce.

Childhood memories tend to be hazy, especially with age. Many have faded to vague impressions or a split-second image with little to no context. Some stand out, though, very clearly. I believe these memories are the ones that make us unique. How we remember friends, family, and all those for whom we have been and are responsible, keeps them close.