Sunday, August 29, 2004

I'm writing on the eve of turning 30. Some of you might think, so what, another year, big whoop, we all have birthdays. To you I say: how sad. I admit, I am a lover of rituals since, in the kettle of my childhood, there was no religion to flavor things (or spoil them, depending on how you look at it). I admit I often settle for the pre-packaged templates, the hallmark-inspired models, though I am beginning to look at branching out. This year I get a big party. At first I was too ashamed to ask for it, even though my mother dearly wanted to plan such an event (We are, in fact, of a lineage of women who like rituals). Then I decided, well, let me plan my own party. Then I get what I want and don't have to burden anyone with my silly little needs. And then, thanks to...yes...therapy with mom, we made the shift and she took it out of my hands.

Thirty is big for me. At some point in my twenties I had this experience that I would be twenty-something for-ev-er. It seemed like a kind of prison-in-disguise-as-paradise from which I would never be free. You know, at twenty-something you still have a kind of indubitable cuteness and effervesence that charms people; your idealism is precious; your tendency to spend more than you make is excusable, your lack of a distinct path in life is just a passing phase. I was terrified as this decade stretched on and on that I would eternally be doomed to be treated as if I had no life experience, as if I would "one day" understand myself, and as if I shouldn't bother my sweet little head with anything more taxing than creating a suitable wardrobe and spitting out progeny.

Not like I ever listened to these culturally imposed attitudes, though occasionally they got in deep enough to rankle.

At thirty, with freedom from all that ingratiating condescension also comes a lot of disappointment from outside sources--this is the decade of "why don't you have a steady, corporate job? When are the babies coming? You don't own a house!?, but that I can handle. I'm well-equipped to defend my life because I'm no longer attached to the model that if what you do does not have an end in a paycheck, you should take your slacker ass to Mexico until your artistic notions are good and drowned in Tequila and sunburn. I like my artistic notions. I'm keeping them. I find them reinforced in people and literature that I continue to stumble across.
30 is the decade where, when you ask me what I do, I will tell you: "I'm a writer" and I will not qualify it with "but you know, not like a published writer" or "but it's only a hobby." Because let's face it, it 'aint just a hobby anymore. Not only does it pay in the absolute reward of the act, it's starting to pay in cold, hard cash.

So I must tip my cap to the first three decades of my life. Really, we can credit the writer in me to the first decade of my life, the last two have just been carrying out the directive.

To thirty I bow, step back into line, raise my pen and say: "Bring it on."

And now...a snippet of a short story I'm writing called "Books for the Shut-ins."

Millie sweet Millie has just finished reading Chekov's plays. I haven't read anything more meaningful than the back of cereal boxes since I arrived in Betty's Cove.

"Do you know where I was when this play was written?" Millie can blow my mind on any given day, so guessing is hard.Her hands, gripping the white book, remind me of tissue paper my grandma wrapped Christmas presents in, pink and just the tiniest bit wrinkled.

"I was entering the world, honey. It was my birthday."

The date on that Chekov volume is 1904. Today is June 6, 2004.

It's hard to get used to the centenarians. Their faces are no more lined than someone in a really bad
mood. They can rise from chairs as fast as 65 year olds. They don't like it when I let myself in or suggest in any respect that there is something they cannot do for themselves.

"Wow Millie, the world has changed a lot since then, eh?"

"Out there it has," she says, pointing through her window at the sparkling harbor where a cluster of seagulls has just touched down. Millie's husband died nearly thirty years ago. Four of her five brothers drowned in separate fishing accidents. Her only daughter died last year at the age of 80 from a heart attack. The thought boggles my mind.

"Oona," she says after I have declined tea and made sure she got the nicer copy of Madame Bovary.

"Yes Millie?" The water outside her window is hypnotic under the reflection of the sun. I have come to imagine that the inside of Robert's head is like this placid flush of water, an eternal cove off the ocean where he rows in circles, waiting to awake.

"Do you know that unmarried women are statistically proven to live longer?"

I regret having told her about Robert, about the Robert who existed before the accident.

"I didn't know that, Millie." I find myself saying her name often. I like the feeling of it in my mouth. For someone who is used to having people cock their heads curiously at me when I offer mine, these wonderful hundred year-old names are a pleasure to me. I have Effie, Cora and Percy on my list today too.

"Well, my daughter was married five times. Five! Can you imagine so many weddings? I only went to three of them myself," says Millie, her delicate salon-given white curls jiggling as she shrugs in broad gesture. "And I never knew an unhappier woman. Lived her whole live serving those men. I only ever had one, and though I wouldn't trade the child I got from it, I would have been just fine without a single one."

I am at the door, which is when Millie gets talkative, to keep me hostage just a little bit longer. I glance back at her regal posture in the large floral chair she is always sitting in. She wears little pink ballet slippers that, on her diminutive legs, look as though they have the power to pull her up into a pirouette, a graceful jete across her living room. Around her house are little clay figurines of ballerinas. I have only been on the bookmobile for a month and haven't had the courage yet to ask if Millie was a dancer. I am reluctant to call attention to things they might not be able to do any longer.

"Maybe you could stay here in Nova Scotia," she says then, braiding her fingers together. "I think it would be good for your health."

"Good idea Millie," I say. "See you next Saturday!"

Millie smiles at me and I close her door behind me, comforted by the bite of fishy-salt air. If she only knew how much I wanted to leave Robert behind me. My sister who has no love for him, not even now that he is as harmless as a corpse, refers to him as "dope-on-a-rope" and I am just too tired to tell her how mean that is. Sometimes, I even laugh. He's hooked to an IV that feeds him those life-giving vitamins and nutrients. Some tired night nurse gets the task of coming in and moving his limbs around to stave off permanent atrophy. Some tired doctor calls me every week to report that his stats are all the same, brain activity seems to indicate that he could snap out of his coma any second. Or not.

My sister Lulu convinced me to come up here. She got a federal grant to study the unusually high numbers of centenarians in Betty's Cove, Halifax. And I have the fine job of delivering books to the shut-ins rather than sitting around all day, hypnotized by the water's suggestion that I dive in, never to resurface. LuLu hates it when I call them the shut-ins, but this is what they call themselves.


It only took three days of him lying there, immobile and pale, for me to realize that I had rarely gotten to take such a good look at my husband's face and body. He was always in motion, bustling around the house or out in the wood shop with such determined action that I didn't dare try to get close to him. And of course, there were all those other times when I was trying to get away from his fists or just the sheer bulk of his body which, when thrust against me, had the force of three men. He was good at knocking me down, and only because my fear kept me on the plump side did I keep from breaking ribs or wrists or any of the other delicate bones that are Lulu and my heritage. Looking at him in his simulacrum of sleep there in the hospital I quickly began to notice things about his features I'd never noticed before. He has a star shaped mole at the top of his right temple for instance, just under the hairline so you can barely see it. I think about that mole a lot because it's kind of beautiful. When you spend time with old people you see a lot of moles. The body itself starts to shrink, but all the extended bits and excess seem to expand. One of the delusions that keeps taking me over is that inside those skin tags and dark, bumpy spots on their century-old bodies, a tiny formula of life remains, and that if I were to carve them off and preserve them they could become the base for youth serums and elixirs that visionaries and alchemists have been seeking forever.



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