The Sad Iron in My Trunk, and Other Mysteries

I had not intended, mind you, to purchase a sad iron.

And yet there it is, in my trunk, waiting to find its new home.

Let me go back.

When I read Maria von Trapp’s autobiography, I was intrigued by her description of all the really nice furniture that she bought at a discount at the local auction house near where the family lived in Pennsylvania. The auctioneer understood that Maria wanted to rescue items that were underappreciated, and hoped to put them to better use, so he often steered her to such things and manipulated the auction so her bid could win.  She stored the pieces in her barn while her husband grew increasingly concerned as the tables, chairs, and beds accumulated But when the family wanted to retire from touring and bought the property for their music camp that later became the Trapp Family Lodge, she was able to use her stash to furnish each of the rooms for the guests who came to sing, swim, and find friendship. I longed for a place like that auction house. Every American wants to be the catcher in the rye. I wanted to save underappreciated things, with no real sense of what or how or why,

Since we moved to Ohio, a friend whose taste I admire told me about the website she uses to find rare and special things, often at a good price. The first time I logged onto it,  “Everything But the House,” I was captivated. Books, maps, furniture, clothes, toys, antiques, overstock – so much available, and often for so little money. I have a large family and many godchildren, besides, and so I started searching for and acquiring unique gifts.

My favorite part is the lots, and they have become a metaphor for my life. I bid for a lot because it contains one thing I want, and I find myself with other, unexpected items. I bid on a lot for the clear plastic storage items, but it came with non-stick pots and pans from Germany and a set of three stacking orange, plastic mixing bowls. The pots became my go-to for bringing things to church. The mixing bowls serve as serving bowls for autumn themed parties. And the containers, the thing I wanted, have replaced some of the sour cream containers as homes for our leftovers. It was a very good upgrade.

The site has its Proustian moments. They had a glider just like the one that graced my grandparents front porch in West Medford back in the day. I did not buy it, but I shared the link with my cousins on Facebook and we all had a chance to remember sitting with Grandpa in the cool of the evening.

And I have found gifts for those for whom it is hard to shop. One brother-in-law is a Revolutionary War re-enactor, and he sometimes camps out at re-enacting sites. I never know what to buy him, but when I found a wooden box meant for carrying yak butter, I knew it was for him. And nobody bid against me. My goddaughter’s sister wants to be an “archeologist nun” when she grows up. In a lot of Dynasty Dolls, I spotted a nun in a white summer habit and black veil. She sported wire rim glasses and certainly could pass for an archeologist. The entire lot cost less than a Barbie doll, and the future monastic was thrilled with her gift.

I put things to use or give them away as fast as I can, so they don’t accumulate, but sometimes I have a residual stash. And so I have three hand crocheted afghans that came in handy at the River Blessing but that we won’t need till next year. I have extra copies of some Longfellow poems that I bought from a classroom set. The song books from 1973 that I just purchased came, inexplicably, with a roll for q player piano. And then there is the sad iron in my trunk.

Sad irons are not unhappy, they are just heavy, “sad” being an old form of the word “solid.” This formerly useful item came in an eclectic lot that included a cobalt blue oil lamp that I am saving for the next power outage, a beautiful glass bottle in the same shade that now holds our Holy Water, and an assortment of “bridge scoring sheets” that turned out to be useful small notebooks.

 I have a plan for the sad iron, which is why it is in my trunk. My first plan is to offer it to our local museum, an old house that has been furnished with period pieces. If they don’t want it, I will have a good excuse to visit local antique stores trying to sell it. My seemingly random purchases give me the means of helping and meeting others. They tickle my fancy. They give me something to share. And they give me something new to write about!

Writing prompt: Look among your things, choose something unusual, and write about it.

How did you acquire it?

What were you thinking?

How is it of use?

What is its significance in the larger sense? Write about it touching on memory and desire, times and places it brings to mind, things you don’t want to forget.

Sickness, Health, Soup

Ten weeks post-surgery, I am still healing, or being healed. Little by little I feel more like myself. I can wear turtlenecks if the collar is loose, I can read because I can now wear my glasses, as the stitches near the bridge of my nose have healed, I can go without my bandages for hours at a time (although my nose is always coated in bacitracin ointment, as is everything around me over time), and finally I want to write again. And so it’s time for both a writing prompt and a plug for a friend’s new book.

Illness

The writing prompt is about illness. Writing about illness calls for attention to detail, on the one hand, and the ability to share the fog of being part of an altered reality, on the other. Also, nothing tugs more at the memory than being sick with something old in a new place. Literature is full of good examples of writing about illness, and our lives are a fertile place to mine for specifics.

Life

I am old enough to have had a doctor who made house calls. How often my father paced, while holding me, before dawn, while we waited for our pediatrician, Dr. Zaudy, to arrive. Dr. Zaudy had been an instructor at Harvard Medical School and saved my life when I was an infant sick with pyloric stenosis. I grew up thinking that people can survive cancer, because my grandmother survived her breast cancer before I was born, and that both men and women can be doctors, because the smartest doctor my father could find was a woman. I remember being hot with fever, as Dad held me on his shoulder and paced, saying reassuring things and checking the window to see if the doctor had come. Our floors were wooden, with rugs, and the view from his shoulder changed from carpet to wood, wood to carpet, in the penumbral darkness, until all the lights went on because the doctor had arrived, and everything was, by definition, going to be better.

My brothers and I shared all the illnesses for which there were no shots at the time. I got mumps, and was taken away from Dad and  my brother for the duration. The three of us got chicken pox, one after another after another. We had a specific puke basin for when we were vomiting, and we sometimes dosed with cola syrup, pink medicine or even paregoric. When we made it to the toilet in time to throw up there, our mother put her hand on our foreheads to keep our heads from jerking forward. After Mamma died, my brother told me that as ac child he had thought, “What would happen if Mamma died, and there was no one to hold my forehead?” It was a sad and grateful thought.

High School

After Mamma died and Dad remarried, we called our stepmother Mom. She used to read to us when we were sick, in between taking care of our growing family and everything else in the house Dad earnestly placed a soggy, folded face cloth on our foreheads and after he left the room Mom would wring it out a little and dry our necks so they didn’t tickle. We could have ginger ale, a forbidden treat, but only served warm and flat.

The worst illness I had as a teenager was a strange stomach bug that I got shortly after we moved back into the house we had lived in before my mother died. We had lived for a while in another part of Roslindale, one of Boston’s neighborhoods, but we had a series of tenants who couldn’t or wouldn’t pay the rent, including some who also didn’t want to pay for heating oil, so they burned the rosewood mantlepiece in the non-functioning fireplace. So to save money, we moved back into the house we had grown up in, but it was traumatic. My parents were in the middle of a long and bitter divorce when my mother died, and so Dad inherited everything as spouse, but some people were bitter, as was he. He thought my mother’s relatives might try to obtain custody of us, so we weren’t allowed to talk to the neighbors, who were their friends.

Moving is trauma, but life was also stressful at school. My sophomore year I had teachers whom I truly loved – the late, great John Hughes, who took things I wrote for class and typed them up and submitted them to the literary magazine without telling me, Carl Perkins who, at a time when I thought I was stupid, fat, and ugly, took the time to tell me in words and in writing that I wasn’t dumb. “This grade reflects your level of preparation rather than your intelligence,” he wrote on an exam I flunked, and gave me a 56-page assignment to do over Christmas break for extra credit. The assignment started with the earlier problems which I had somehow mastered and took me through what I hadn’t understood, leading into the things we would learn next, so when classes resumed, all of a sudden, I was good in math and ahead of the class. I had just started my job in the kitchen with Ila Moore, and I had finally figured out how to separate Latin and Spanish in my brain.

But Junior year was just much harder. I was keenly aware that my brother and my friends from his class would only be with us for nine more months, now for eight, soon for seven, and I had begun mourning them. I loved U. S. History with the headmaster and hated it with his co-teacher, who was equally thrilled with me. In those days I divided adults into those who liked my brother better and those who liked me better, and my English teacher fell into the second camp. She looked like Mary Steenburgen and had no interest in me writing poems or stories, only essays about how the change in the narrative language reflected the characters; worse, while sometimes she called the language used “elevated,” sometimes she called it “high falluten,” which I could only hear so many times before rolling my eyes. My glasses were not thick enough to hide this. The teacher was not bad, she had a task to do and did it well, but this year I was being taught; the previous year I was nurtured.

And so, I was wounded, And I walked like it. One day after lunch, I had a free period before English, and She was neither evil nor a bad teacher, she just wasn’t for me. planned to go to the library on the second floor. But I looked at the stairs and knew I could not climb them. A sudden urgency came upon me, and I dashed to the nearby ladies’ room and threw up, mercifully in the toilet. My English teacher had been about to say something when I bolted and instead as I emerged, she was reassuring and kind. Someone got my coat and my books, the office called Mom, and I sat on the couch in the lobby watching life take place without me, teachers and students walking by and looking at me with empathetic curiosity. The headmaster and several teachers stopped by to say kind things and tuck my coat around me. Mom took me home and I slept and shivered, vomited and slept, burned and then shivered, for the better part of two days.

My brothers and baby sister were kept away so I wouldn’t infect them. Mom read, Dad came with facecloths, there was flat ginger ale and the promise of boiled rice if I could hold that down, but nothing made me feel better. Worse, I was throwing up yellow bile, something I had never done before. I was too tired to be scared, but my parents were not. Dad tried to appear nonchalant. “Everyone feels better after a good puke,” he said. But I did not.

Sunday, though, was better. I stayed home, but people prayed for me at church and sent home greetings. My siblings lit candles, and soon it was time for, and piano lessons with my godfather. He came to our house each Sunday for this. Obviously, I wouldn’t have a lesson that day, but Sergei Yulievich came to my room and made the sign of the Cross over me many times. His wife, Madeleine, was French, and we often talked during my brothers’ piano lessons. I told her all my secrets, and whenever I was suffering, she said, “Poorrr Aanne! Poorrr Aanne!” in her beautiful accent. My brothers would say this to tease me when I complained about something at home. But this day, Madeleine came to the rescue.

The Cure

While Serge was upstairs, down in the kitchen Madeleine asked Mom about my illness. Mom explained all the highlights, and Madeleine said, “But I know how to cure this!”

Madeleine often spoke about what they used “during the war,” by which she meant World War II, and would tell us about using beer instead of eggs and how they stretched out rations. “During the war, we did not have doctors, but we did not need them for this, we knew what to do,” she said, and set Mom to gathering things for her.

Madeleine, who was usually so precise in the way she peeled, sliced, and seasoned vegetables, took only carrots, celery, and an onion. She merely washed the vegetables, and peeled only the onion. She cut the vegetables into large chunks and boiled them in a great deal of water without herbs or oil or even salt.

She told Mom, “The first day, she is to drink just the broth, with no salt. The second day, she may have the broth with some of the vegetables chopped up, but not too much. The third day, she can eat the vegetables, with a little salt, and by then, she should be hungry again.

Mom told me the story as she brought me the broth. At first, she had to feed it to me, but then I could feed myself. When it stayed down, I felt like a miracle had taken place. I was able to sit up, and have a sponge bath, and change into a cleaner nightgown.

The next day, the broth with a few mashed veggies stayed down, and by the time I could eat the bland vegetables, I was able to think about the classes I was missing and the wonderful foods cooking downstairs that suddenly smelled good. I wanted to join the living. I wanted to go back to my life.

And, my life was better. There had been kindness and mercy, carrots and celery, prayers and stories. I had been put back together by the love of others.

My friend’s book

When my friend Matushka Elizabeth, also known as the author Melissa Naasko, was writing a book on healing foods, I meant to share the story and the recipe, but then life became too busy. But when “Hospitality for Healing” came out, I was sure to buy a copy. It’s a wonderful book, full of recipes not just for people with the stomach bug but for long term conditions that require thoughtful preparation of food. She has ways of thickening foods so they are easy to swallow, recipes for syrups and soups, things that you can put in Jell-O and thing that you cannot, and more. Her soup recipes have emboldened me to now put three or more garlic in my soups, three or more instead of my very Celtic one clove.

The book isn’t just recipes, it’s also about how to show up, how to heal, how to help. I highly recommend it.

The prompt

Take the reader through an illness and the way that it is or isn’t healed, using details — colors, textures, remedies and the people who offer them. If you need help getting started, read what others have done and take from it what helps you.

Examples

In children’s literature, Sharon Creech’s book “Granny Torelli Makes Soup,” a grandmother heals a rift between two children through her stories as they come together to make soup.

In “Little Women” there are numerous examples of the girls nursing each other or neighbors through the things that they cook and prepare.

In poetry, Randall Jarell’s “The Sick Child” captures what it is like to be sick and yearn for something without knowing quite what.

In nonfiction, Da Chen writes of the way friends banded together to heal him when he was bleeding internally at college in “Sounds of the River.”

In fiction, Dickens captures the confusion of Pip’s illness in “Great Expectations.”

Zooey’s lecture to Franny about “consecrated chicken soup” in Salinger’s “Franny and Zoey” is a must read.

Dostoevsky is the master of capturing illness and its fallout; Ivan’s fever in “The Brothers Karamazov” leads to the Grand Inquisitor dream.

Resources

The online magazine, “Survivor’s Review,” while itself about cancer, is an excellent starting place for writing more about illness, whether your own or someone else’s.

They have both prompts and a list of resources.

Wednesday Writing Prompt: Guests of Imaginary Worlds

“I have to go home, dear,” the woman in the bathrobe told me, as I tried to leave for home myself. “My children are alone there, and I left the iron on.”

I was a nurse’s aide that summer, and the women in question was in the new Alzheimer’s wing where I worked. The children that she thought were home with the iron on were, in fact, grown and living elsewhere. They had put her in the unit, at great expense. But every morning she came to me in tears, and in anguish. “They don’t know how to switch it off! They will be burned in their beds! So little, all in one bed!”

The thinking at the time was that Alzheimer’s patients needed to be grounded in reality. Every room and every hallway had a large calendar that had to be set to the right day. I worked 11-7, and that meant a lot of tearing off of sheets. Patients were told what year it is, where they were, who they are, where their family was. Several times each day some of them learned, afresh, again, that their husband or wife had died, their home was gone, there is no piano or breakfast nook or job to go to any more. It was an attempt to be therapeutic and compassionate, but from where I stood in my white shoes and polyester uniform, it seemed cruel,

“I’ll tell you what,” I said, “I’m getting off work now. I live near you. I can stop by and turn off the iron for you.”

Her face lit up and I’m pretty sure that she was about to hug me. I was sweaty and had some other people’s body fluids on my uniform, but what stopped her was the 7-3 nurse coming in, freshly coiffed and ready to take on the day. “You didn’t leave the iron on. You live here. Your children are grown up!” she said, perhaps more loudly than needed. The woman’s face collapsed, and she withdrew into herself, her bathrobe, and her room.

“I won’t write you up this time, you’re new, but you can’t do that again. We deal with reality here!” the nurse said, reproachfully.

“Some of us do, some of us don’t,” I thought, but I needed the job, so I thanked her and scrambled home.

The new thinking, I’ve been told, is far more compassionate. It allows for “fiblets” and playing along, and psychologist David McPhee, in “Quora,” has gone beyond even that. Someone wrote,” How do I answer my dad with dementia when he talks about his mom and dad being alive? Do I go along with it or tell him they have passed away?” I love Dr. McPhee’s answer:

“Enter into his reality and enjoy it. He doesn’t need to be ‘oriented.’ Thank God the days are gone when people with advanced dementia were tortured by huge calendars and reminder signs and loved ones were urged to ‘orient’ them to some boring current ‘reality.’

If dad spends most of his time in 1959, sit with him. Ask questions he didn’t have time for before. Ask about people long dead, but alive to him, learn, celebrate your heritage. His parents are alive to him. Learn more about your grandparents. If he tells the same story over and over, appreciate it as if it’s music, and you keep coming back to the beautiful refrain.

This isn’t ‘playing along to pacify the old guy,’ this is an opportunity to communicate and treasure memories real but out of time.”

But, that got me thinking of other imaginary worlds into which people have invited me. My sibling had a blanket that everyone in the family referred to as “he.” A student used to give me updates about the wolf in her basement. It was only after a year that I dared to ask, “It is a toy wolf, isn’t it?”

“Of course,” she said, scornfully. “We have a DOG. Our dog would bite a real wolf!”

In literature we sometimes come across the intersection of imaginary and less imaginary worlds. In fiction, Shirley Jackson’s story “Charles” is something every young mother should read. In nonfiction, psychiatrist Robert Mitchell Linder in his book “The Fifty Minute Hour” describes his own growing interest in a patient’s imaginary world, and the fall out. In film, we have “Harvey,” in which a kind eccentric is considered crazy for talking about his friend, a six foot tall rabbit (well, really a pooka), whom others cannot see.

In real life we have less pleasant imaginary world — scammers tell the elderly that their loved ones are in danger, a very concerned individual calls me frequently about my car and computer warranties and is so worried that I haven’t the heart to tell her that I don’t have one. There are men who weave deceptive tales for women and women who spin lives for men when the reality is that the relationship is transactional rather than a lifetime commitment. There used to be prank callers who pretended to be someone else and there are spoof internet accounts. My female friends often get friend requests from men whose pages have photos of themselves shirtless and in uniform and next to expensive cars, but with no friends or contact information.

The prompt: Think of a time when you have encountered someone else’s alternate reality. Write about what you thought was the case, how you discovered the truth, and what the effect of the truth was. In non-fiction, you can write about what really happened. In fiction, you can play the reader, as was done in the movie “Secret Window.” Or you can fictionalize something that happened in your own life when you realized that what someone else — or you –recounted as true was not so. Poets, of course, have it easy (yes, you may laugh at this), as so much of poetry is “Wishes, Lies, and Dreams.” But even in poetry there are clearly scenes where a speaker tells one person something that no one else has experienced. “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” comes to mind — the telling of the tale affects the old man, and hearing it affects the wedding guest. How do you want the narrator to affect your reader? How will the narrator change for having spoken?

Character: Jot some notes about your world builder, and about his or her audience. Does the person know that this world is false? Does the listener know? Are the motives pure or mingled, nefarious or chaste? What is the effect of believing? How does each person involved change?

Setting: Where do people encounter other worlds? This could also make a good craft essay. Would the Pevensie children have encountered Narnia had they not been sent into the country in “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe?”

When you are finished: Take a chance and have it published. Submit it to a periodical or website that you read. Or look on Submittable.com under “Discover” for markets and contests you might otherwise not have considered.

Putting It Together — Wednesday Writing Prompt

When my goddaughter was old enough to ride without a car seat, her family let her celebrate by riding home from church in my car. My car doubles, sometimes, as a purse, so in preparation, I had crammed everything that had been in the back seat into the netting behind the driver’s seat, and she was intrigued and pulled something out. “You have a lot of interesting things here! What’s this? Is it lotion?”

I could see that she was holding a tube, but I couldn’t see what it was. “I don’t remember! What does it say?” I asked.

“I don’t know. I can’t read yet.”

“I forgot! Okay, can you tell me the letters and I can spell it out?”

“Okay. I see an A, and a G, and an E, and a D-E-F….”

“This isn’t working. Why don’t you hand it to me at the red light.”

When we stopped for the red light, she handed me the tube. “Age-defying sun screen.”

“Oh!” I said, “This is what I wear in the sun, so I don’t get wrinkles.”

“Oh! I can use that!” she said. “Sometimes the tips of my fingers wrinkle.”

Putting things together from clues is an imprecise art. What one person infers from what another describes can be the catalyst for wonderful stories. The late writer Vasili Aksyonov used this technique brilliantly in his story “Papa, Slozhi,” “Daddy, Put it Together,” where a young girl spending Saturday with her father spells out words for her father to read, and in the process drops clues about another situation he needs to spell out for himself.

In Aksyonov’s work, the revelation is poignant. Modern cartoonist Nathan Pyle uses the technique humorously, referring to familiar body parts as “flavormuscle” and “mouthstones,” while making universal observations about human troubles.

Mystery writers love problems with letters. On “Columbo” the detective solves a mystery by re-arranging the stencils that a slain millionaire was going to use to paint a word on his boat. In other mysteries, a message is typed with the hands three letters off, and ripped pages with words that are incomplete are a trope.

There are also abecedarian essays and poems.  I don’t really care for these, but sometimes having to use a form makes you realize what you really do want to write. 

Writing Prompt: Letters

Write about someone figuring out what a word really is, and thereby figuring out something bigger.

Examples: A person misreads a word in a friend’s post or note in a way that reveals an underlying fear.

The rest of a word or sign is obscured, and the reader reaches a conclusion that is unfounded and debunked.

Parents spell something in front of their children, and the children conclude the wrong thing from it.

In a letter someone spells a word wrong in a way that changes the meaning, and another person reads the letter and reaches a wrong conclusion. (Example: when I was substitute teaching some young readers kept using the word “pride” out of context. It took me a while to realize they were aiming for “pretty.”)

Play around with the idea, see what you come up with and consider having it published if it’s any good.