Helena Writes #29: On the meaning of things

Helena Writes, Helena Clare Pittman's monthly Center column on her writing life
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Helena Clare Pittman, one of the Center’s most dedicated teachers, has written, painted, and taught her entire life. In her monthly Helena Writes series, she shares a lifetime of wisdom, one pearl at a time.

In her 29th post, she visits by phone with a favorite cousin and is treated to a relic of a memory about her father. Enjoy!


"After we are out of this crock-pot of the virus, we will be very different people."  

—translation of a quote in an email from my friend Bill

During this time of quarantine, my 93-year-old cousin, Marilyn, is in an assisted care facility in Florida, a thousand miles from New York, where we, the rest of our family, are. She hasn't seen her grandchildren or her daughter, my cousin Sandy, since March, when Sandy kissed her goodbye, said she'd see her the following weekend, and left for New York. By that week, it was dawning on a good part of this country that we were in bigger trouble than we already knew, without adding illness. We didn't learn it by way of our government, but by events themselves. We had a pandemic on our hands, and people were dying by the thousands.

Marilyn's care facility closed its doors to visitors, including close family. Sandy couldn't have flown down there—the wild-fire spread of the virus made it too dangerous. Mother and child were stuck.

Marilyn had left her parents' house in her early twenties to get married. Seventy-two years, two children, a good marriage, her husband died suddenly—98, sharp as the proverbial tack. A year hadn't yet passed since his death. Then just before the virus hit, Sandy's sister died, Marilyn's youngest and only other child. Marilyn was alone for the first time in her long life, except for the health workers and her facility neighbors, soon to be separated from each other for meals. Community activities shut down in the crisis. This illness, it got quickly clear, spread where the aged were confined together. It spread any place where people lived in close quarters.  

Marilyn is my first cousin; our mothers were sisters. I try to call whenever I can muster it. She's lost her short-term memory, and to say that she's in grief just doesn't touch the reality. Still, I am full of admiration at the way she survives. Somehow, she goes through her days. The last time I called she was knitting. She wasn't clear just what she was making, but the thing on her knitting needles hardly mattered to either of us. I was grateful she was occupied. And she was, as she put it, "a knitter." Later, when I spoke to Sandy, I learned that a number of people are knitting there, making blankets and clothing to send to an organization in Africa. This consoles me, assures me that the place she lives, in a kind of suspended animation, is benevolent. My cousin Sandy's instincts are good. After Stanley died, her mother couldn't be alone; she is too fragile.  

During one recent conversation, Marilyn told me this: "Your father listened."  She remembers the deep past. If I don't steer the conversation, we go in circles. "So what are you doing?" she'll ask. "Are you keeping busy?" I tell her that yes, I'm keeping busy.

"Good," she says. "So what are you doing?"

I tell her I do the things I've always done—I paint, I teach, I write. “That's wonderful,” she answers. "So you're keeping busy." Yes, I say, and thank heavens I am. “So tell me, what are you doing?” She asks a few times. I begin to elaborate. "All the things of life," I say. "Keeping the house in order, best I can." The work of life. It is a shock, really, to hear Marilyn now, to realize she's lost her memory, to confront that she's 93 and alone, my older cousin, someone I looked up to and care deeply about.

After my sister died, Marilyn and I got closer, long after the years of feeling the sting of her judgment. I looked up to her because of the distance of the years between us, almost two generations—she was an adult when I was still a child—and because she was close to my parents. Closer than I was, by friendship. And, not least, she was a beauty. I mean, a Beauty. That alone was hypnotic. And she grew more beautiful with age. I am grateful now that she is so beautiful, because I know that she is still mesmerizing, and that strangers treat her well.

“Do you speak to Sandy?” Yes, often, I say. Sandy, Marilyn, and I are all that's left of that tight love circle that was my family, living within four blocks of each other in Brooklyn. Sandy and I have always been natural friends. Real friends. Family and friendship, nothing matches that connection. Something about eternity—I can never find the word. Something mystical. A connection that I can't understand with my mind. I only know it's something of another order than friendship, and friendship is already of another order than daily life.

Now Marilyn falls silent. I know what she has arrived at. I know she is going to weep. "Where's Robin?" she asks then—Robin, the daughter she's lost. And now, I can help her grieve. That is something I can do, off the circle, get down to what's real, and being with Marilyn in grief saves me. We step onto firm ground when Marilyn gets to the thing that is waiting, underneath everything she says, the thing she can't forget. Right there, in the middle of the air, we're standing on something solid.

But until we get to that point I ride that merry go-round with her. What am I doing? Painting, teaching, writing, cleaning, shopping, raking, shoveling snow, setting my wood fire, dragging out compost and kitty litter, watching Colbert, movies, alone too, quarantining. Time passing by the length of the light, the length of the darkness. Clocks? They don't seem reliable anymore. One thing sometimes take a whole day.

A whole day

A whole day! I remember my mother declaring in Yiddish. A gonsa tug! Then, later, asking: How do you do more than one thing in a day? My mother had me and my sister late in life. I worked in the morning, the afternoon, in the evening, went to bed, raised two children, did all the work I've done, painting, teaching, writing—books!

Marilyn is my mother now, the mother I lost 50 years ago. She and my mother were the kind of friends Sandy and I are. Talking to Marilyn, feeling my own grief about both our many losses, and about the seeming absurdity and madness of the world, I begin to wonder just what I am doing, and what it all means? Because that is where my real work lies—finding meaning. I suspect that's everyone's work, manifesting in one way or another. So, if I don't take extraordinary measures, I will go around that circle with Marilyn, when I call, and then my work is to recover.

Extraordinary Measures:  Make an intention, stay alert, be the leader, take good care of Marilyn and good care of myself.

So now I prepare before I dial Marilyn's number. After our exchanges about what I'm doing, I say, "I loved your mother." And I did. She was my closest aunt. "I think of her every day," Marilyn says. "I think of my mother and father—every day." 

"I think of my parents every day, too," I answer. "They’re still here." I add that.

"You're very philosophical," she answers, her word for what I think she makes of my spirituality. Marilyn was never inclined that way.

"Don't you feel them around us?" I ask. And, surprisingly, she has no trouble assenting.

"I loved your mother," Marilyn says next. "And your father! Your faa-thh-er!" She caresses the word. And now we are engaged.

"What was it, Marilyn?" I ask her. "What was it about him?"  Anything she can tell me is a relic, a saint's relic. My parents died so long ago and I've made such a long journey with them since that time of adolescent disorder. I've discovered people do live on. Relationships live on and they evolve. That's been central to the work of my life—my relationship with them, with my parents. My father was wonderful. I loved him, too. And I believe it was the ground of his love that held me to life, a love that was, finally, eternal, and grounds me, not only in life, but where I float between worlds. One world I see; it's a hard one. The other I sense. That one is different. The madness stops at its door. There, and it is only an experience, a sensation, is where I am connected to my father.

"He listened. Your father listened," says Marilyn now. "Whatever it was I had to say, he listened."

I am stopped. I pull that close to me.

My father listened to me, too. And he saw my drawing. I could feel the hush that fell in him. It was awe; I can see that now. But I didn't have such words then,as  I was only a little girl who loved to draw and never stopped drawing, right into adolescence. And alongside my parents' worry about how I'd make a living as an artist, the awe that radiated from my father when he sat across from me at the kitchen table watching me draw and paint was one with its importance in me. It was a destiny I moved with, and within it, found myself. 

And now I had one more piece of him, another relic, in Marilyn's memory.

A blank page

What child knows the sainthood of a parent? Time has to pass for that. The shadow and light have to merge. Over the years, I have gathered my pieces of my mother and father, from looking at photos, until I see, the story waiting there to decipher. And I remember, and decode, unpack, the way one studies a dream, my parents. Of course I couldn't see them then. I sat here writing two or so years ago, and suddenly, flash! an image: There was my father's right hand, positioned over a piece of blank, white paper. He was preparing to draw something, wanted to show me something. His hand was making circular motions. The pencil he's holding is sharpened, it's yellow painted wood. He's building momentum before the point touches down onto the paper. He was a draftsman, electrical engineering, not a painter as I would become. But he had it in his hands, he had the gift. I don't prepare that way, I jump right in, knowing I can pull out the drawing with an eraser. I've got to see the image, almost as if in a cloud, before I can follow it to clarity. But not him, not my father. He was a perfectionist. His hand is preparing to draw something I can't yet see. That's the image that came to me.

When I was 14, my father got sick. My sister was eighteen and got her own apartment in the city. There was no place for me. My mother was trying to keep my father alive. At 15, I left, too. The extended family, including Marilyn, disapproved. I got pregnant with my daughter, then I got married. My mother learned from my sister.

When I came home to get some clothes my mother was crying. She had packed me a bag with two of her beautiful nightgowns. "Tell your father," she said. He was in the kitchen, his face a mask of anger. I hadn't been around. My father loved life. He seemed made for life. And he knew how sick he was. I was too young, and it wasn't in my character to understand that he wasn't kidding. Parents just don't die. He was drinking a glass of water at the sink when I told him. I was standing at the kitchen door. He put down the glass, brushed by me and went to his room. He didn't come out for three weeks. My mother told me that.

After my daughter was born, he adored her. She likely extended his life nine years.

Federico Fellini's film Eight and a Half ends with a circle of people dancing—his wife, his lovers, his parents, his childhood demons and muses, his terrors, and his loves. The terrible and the wonderful, all of it, holding hands, dancing in one great joyous, reconciling circle.

I like to hold onto the image of my cousin Marilyn, knitting. The colors, the textures of yarn. The move and the click of the knitting needles, the rhythm. The Knitter, absorbed in solitude, in a world apart from loss. I hope that Robin is with her. I saw her in a twilight state after she died. She stood looking ahead, on the sandy shore of an ocean. She turned to me, waved, and smiled. Philosophical? Sometimes I see such things.

I am trying to listen, now, during this strange, painful, extraordinary time of confinement, the pandemic we are passing through. If I can listen, I will hear something, I think, of significance. And see something materialize on that blank page my father's hand is poised above, preparing, to perfectly draw an image yet to be revealed. 

Have you ever felt “between two worlds,” the world of now and the world of remembering? What did you think of Helena’s latest post? Share with us in the comments.

Related reading: Helena Writes

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