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Monday, October 28, 2013


by Debra M. Fox

falling snow…
we sit in lawn chairs
without talking

When the Rover “Curiosity” made an elegant landing on the Martian surface, he did not know. He did not know that the twentieth century’s last two decades were the hottest in four hundred years or that there has been an upsurge in extreme weather events. Closer to home, he did not know that his older brother, Alex, graduated from college, has a job as a reporter at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and likely will not live at home again. He is fifteen years old, non-verbal, and severely autistic.

His mother experiences time differently, with him in the world. He continues to grow older, but unlike most people, his awareness of certain events does not grow keener. He hears the phone ring, but doesn’t make the connection that he can talk to people who are not in the same location as him. He is aware it is pouring rain outside but not that the cause is a devastating hurricane. He eats waffles and bacon on Sunday mornings, but doesn’t understand that bacon comes from a pig and that you have to kill the pig before you eat it. Cole, one of his cousins, was born when he was eleven, and even though Cole is a baby, and he can do things Cole can’t, such as walk, and eat solid foods, and ride a bike, it is only a matter of time before Cole will catch up and then exceed him. Put simply, he is not following a conventional time-line.

What do the following people have in common? Irv Zimmerman, Beatrice Bailis, and Gershon Fox. Like Cole and like Alex, they are all related to him. Irv Zimmeran was his grandfather. He was a neurophysiologist who looked like Jerry Garcia and taught medical students. Beatrice Bailis was his great-grandmother who cooked the best sweet and sour meatballs anywhere, and Gershon Fox was his great-grandfather who could sew a man a three-piece suit in an afternoon. What else did they have in common? They all died before he was born. They didn’t know they would have a grandson or great grandson who would never talk. They lived their entire lives in a sort of innocence (those are his mother’s words). And just as they would never know him, he can never understand their existence or their relationship to him, no more than he can know about Martian Rovers or cousins who will grow up and change and live lives he cannot know.

There are moments, though, and this is where it gets confusing for his mother on an emotional level, when he appears perfectly normal to her.  After dinner for the past three months, he has taken to listening to Mozart sonatas. He turns off the light in the living room and stretches out on the sofa, with his hands folded in his lap, and listens to an entire CD in one sitting. He doesn’t like when his parents try to move him along for bedtime. Listening to this music gives him extreme pleasure.

His mother tells his father that the sight of him stretched out in the dark, listening to music makes her think of Pinocchio and how much he wanted to be a “real” boy. She says she is fooled for moments into thinking that he is ordinary, just like any other boy his age. But scenes like this can as easily be flipped around. She has dreams where everybody else in the world is like him, and she is the only one like her. She still struggles to understand who he is.

There’s a poem, “Another Summer Begins,” by Mary Oliver:

…The white blossoms of the shad
have opened
because it is their time

to open,
the mockingbird
is raving
in the thornbrush.

How did it come to be
that I am no longer young
and the world
that keeps time

in its own way
has just been born?
I don’t have the answers
and anyway I have become suspicious

of such questions…

His mother is suspicious of these questions too. For her there is a weird co-existence of his childhood leaving but all the trappings of innocence remaining. His breath no longer smells like cookies when he wakes up; he has hair under his arms; his cheeks are no longer smooth; his legs are growing hair all the way up and down, and they’re beginning to take the shape of his father’s. His fingernails aren’t soft, and they’re becoming square shaped like a man’s. When he utters sounds, his voice is deeper, and that’s unexpected, because he is not saying anything intelligible.

Like a baby who has not yet learned to speak, he makes rhythmical sounds like “na na na.” He is not self-conscious. He simply enjoys the sensory experience of vibrations in his throat, and the sound as it enters his ears, and the repetition satisfies him intensely. His mother thinks of birds that repeat song cycles, over and over, their throats warbling, their bodies relaxed. She sometimes wonders what it would be like if a flock of beings like him gathered into a space, like birds to a tree, and made their repetitive sounds, not all together, but more staggered, to form a multi-faceted whole. People who listened would feel like they were there, but not there, occupied, but not occupied. It’s a state that frees the mind.

There is a bed in his room, but he doesn’t like to sleep on it.  It’s too straight, and he likes to burrow and curl when he sleeps.  So, he migrates, once the light is off, to a blue loveseat across the room from his bed. He likes to put his head under the pillow where people press their backs, and drape a leg over one of the arms. He likes closed, squeezed places. He wants to be surrounded, and his bed is too straight for that. Besides, his loveseat smells like him in a way that his bed doesn’t. It smells of saliva and shampoo and suntan lotion and dog. When he is surrounded by those smells, he can sleep.

If you walked into his bedroom, you wouldn’t know how old he is, and that wouldn’t bother him. He has toys on his bookshelf with which he still likes to play, but not for the purpose for which they were intended. Take the wooden ball toy, for instance. He places his head very close to the balls as they roll down the track, and there’s an imperceptible interruption of air on his cheek that thrills him. He likes to observe the balls, first red, then blue, out of the corner of his eye—not straight on.

He has a keyboard in his bedroom that plays four tunes, one right after the other, in a continuous loop. He likes to press the keyboard right up to his ear, not just for the sound, but for the feeling of the music running through his body, right into his bloodstream. He can live in that world for a very long time. Only, it disturbs his father if he turns the music on in the middle of the night. He’ll tell him to stop, but it’s not easy to stop outright. He has to do it in stages, in gradations, the way an airplane doesn’t just drop out of the sky, but lowers slowly, losing altitude in steps. A keyboard is a toy even a teenager could have, which is what he is. But the ball toy is for a toddler. His mother knows that, but lets him keep it anyway.

Like the sound of the ball, there is something mesmerizing to him about snow, especially the first snowfall of the season. While some children might run outside and throw snowballs, or build a snowman, he is content to be amongst the snowflakes, watching as they fall from the sky. If it is nighttime, he likes to turn the outside porch light on and stand at the door, watching the snow come down. Just last year, when he was fourteen, his mother and he put their coats on and sat outside on the back porch, watching the snow pile up, without speaking a word. This is not something his mother could have done when he was younger, that is, enter his world fully and not have any other expectations for them than to sit quietly together in the snow.

While change comes very slowly for him, it would be a mistake to say he hasn’t matured in some ways. For instance, he knows more things than his now four year old cousin, Cole. He knows how to dive into a swimming pool and retrieve a toy torpedo from the bottom. He knows how to put together a one hundred piece puzzle in less than fifteen minutes. He knows how to direct you to the mall if you don’t know how to get there.

Also, it would be inaccurate to say he doesn’t talk. He does, but some of the words are made up, even though they have the same meaning for him as words have for anybody else. Recently he’s figured out how to make more meaningful utterances. His mother doesn’t know why he is able to do this at age fifteen when he couldn’t when he was younger. He’s chosen a sound he likes better than the word “moon.”  It has elements of the word “Mama” in it, which is comforting, like looking at the moon is comforting. The word is “mamaloo,” with the accent on “loo” because after all, that is the part of the sound that tells you he’s talking about the moon.

Here is a poem by Michael Ketchek that his mother imagines he would like if he could understand it. It reminds her of the two of them enjoying the moon together, just like the word “mamaloo” implies.

summer evening
light that touched the moon
touching me

This poem makes his mother feel connected to the world, and the things and people she loves. It is reassuring to her to know there are constants in the universe, and even if her son is wildly different from most people, the light that touches the moon will still touch him, just like it touches everybody else.

Life isn’t without its frustrations for him. He can’t completely communicate what he is feeling to those he cares about. His mother asks him every day how his day went. She puts up both hands, signaling left means good and right means bad. She asks him to tap the hand that answers the question.  He taps, but if she then asks “why?” it becomes very complicated, and his talker and sign language are usually not sufficient. So their “conversations” are often not very long.

Nevertheless, they have other ways of relating to one another. Every day for as long as they can remember, they take walks over the same route. First they walk to the high school, along a busy road, then they meander through the suburban streets of their neighborhood. It is a way of communing, breathing the same air, with no pressure to speak. And it’s not as if there’s no communication. He likes to point out whether the moon is out, if the bees have abandoned the dried out lavender, or if the snow is gone. He remembers the gingko berries that fell in the fall, and reminds his mother that she made him walk around them. He remembers where a dog pooped on the sidewalk and tells her jokingly through sign language he wants “more,” poop, knowing it will make her laugh.

There is a house that they pass along their walk every day that is of particular interest to him. It is a place where he first learned that bees will sting if you try to catch one with your bare hand. It’s a place where stargazer lilies bloom in July for a brief two-week period. It’s a place where, when the dried out leaves from the oak tree make an eerie rustling sound, you could swear you are listening to the reed section of the orchestra playing “Peter and the Wolf.” It is an infinitely intriguing house, one that is in constant flux from one day to the next, a perfect point of conversation for the two of them, if they’re in the mood to talk.

Now that summer is almost over, and he is approaching his sixteenth year, they seek out this house more than ever. He loves this time of year most, when the August sky takes on the color of ripe plums, and the last of the rudbeckia is in bloom. The bees seem fatter and slower as they hover around the clematis, and he has acquired a new respect for them.

They sit on the sidewalk right in front of the house, making it impossible for anybody to pass, not that it matters, as very few people ever do. They watch as gypsy moths quietly flutter to the patio light, recently turned on as a last splash of orange sunset streaks across their faces. He allows his mother to place her fingers on his cheek, and she leaves them there, just a little longer than usual. At times like this, he wishes he could tell her that even if he doesn’t understand many things, and even if he is developing differently, that he feels a closeness to her unlike any other person he has ever known. A poem by Stephen A. Peter describes how his mother senses he feels when they are together at this house:

starry night
the space in me
she fills

He is looking forward to tomorrow morning, because it will be Sunday, the day his mother makes waffles. The word he utters for waffles, would sound like gibberish to most people who don’t know him, but his mother and father understand it perfectly well. He cannot say the “w” sound, so he begins with “ah.” He then draws out the “ff” sound for as long as he can, because it pleases him to do so. When he gets to the “l” at the end, it sounds like a French song, where at the end of a phrase, the “le” sound is made. He thinks it delights his parents too, to hear him say this word, because they always smile and say, “good talking, Matthew.”

When the warm waffles are first placed before him, he savors the moment when the syrup is poured on, when it pools into the holes, and overflows onto the plate. He knows what it is like to be a waffle at that moment, to be crunchy on the outside, but receptive to sticky substances, to welcome the feeling of being filled up. While it is true not every hole is ever filled completely and perfectly, enough are, enough to feel that the world is a good enough place for him.

Debra Fox’s poems have been accepted for publication in various haiku journals. In addition, her short stories and essays have been accepted for publication in Hyperlexia Journal, Blue Lyra Review, Squalorly, Embodied Effigies, Chamber 4 Literary Magazine, Burrows Press, and The Meadow. She is a lawyer and the director of an adoption agency. In her spare time she loves to dance. She lives
just outside Philadelphia with her family.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Not a Shore Thing

by Lisa Romeo

        I have been to the Jersey Shore about 25 times, and since I am 53 years old, was born in New Jersey, and have lived here for all but five years, that's not a lot.
        I'm not, strictly speaking, a shore girl.   
        So why, on October 29, 2012, when coastal New Jersey buckled beneath the brutal winds and steep sea surge of Hurricane Sandy, did I weep and turn away from the television screen?
        I was not bereft over a shore house I feared was destroyed, nor mourning the desecration of a particular beloved beach town where I'd spent summers. I had not lost my virginity, fallen in love, or watched babies nap under an umbrella on a Jersey beach. The Shore was not where my family gathered to laugh and bicker, where I hung out with high school friends, or where I escaped when life closed in on me in swarming, hectic, Essex County 90 miles to the north.
        My reaction to losing the Jersey Shore that existed before Sandy was more like losing something that for too long in my life had remained out of reach, was too-late appreciated, a place of promise, more meaningful to me as idea than destination.
        When I was about eight, I sashayed about my living room, empty Coke bottle in hand, singing along to the Drifters' sixties classic Under the Boardwalk. I hoped and wondered if I'd be kissed on a warm blanket in the slatted shade, people walking above. Eventually, I was that girl, or at least a version of her, though the kissing all took place right on the Boardwalk: some stringy blond boy whose name I'd forget, a high school boyfriend, my fiancé.  
        But before any of that, and even during some of that, I was a shore snob.
        My parents were to blame -- if showing your child the world beyond one's home state has anything to do with blame. When my father, an early polyester manufacturer, wanted to get away, he meant an airplane ride and five-star resort, where the beach was just one of 18 amenities. Boardwalk games, un-air conditioned rentals, motel pools, and waffles and ice cream were something other kids told me about.
        For me a beach vacation meant Miami Beach, Bermuda, the French Riviera, San Juan, St. Thomas, Mexico, California. It was all perfectly wonderful. But I wanted to toss towels and magazines and chip bags in a car trunk on a Friday afternoon and shoot down the Parkway, walk barefoot on splintery boardwalks, ride a roller coaster above the surf. When I asked my mother why we never went down the shore like everyone else, she asked why I'd want to do what everyone else did.  Once a poverty child during the Depression, she could not understand why a rich kid in a solid middle class suburb would long to do only what her less fortunate peers could manage. But I longed for normal, and normal meant going down the shore.
        There were trips to the shore for me, blips. My best friend's family took me along crabbing in Barnegat Bay and to an Elks' convention in Wildwood. Two high school boyfriends showed off boardwalk game skills in Asbury Park and Seaside. Once my mother and I spent an entire day at my aunt's rented shore house somewhere but only because Mom said Aunt Ida shouldn't be alone that day.
        By adulthood, the shore for me was something other people did; I was spoiled by then by what I assumed were better beaches, lovelier locales. I absorbed my share of ribbing about not being a Shore lover, but decided a gal could still be genuine Jersey, loving Bruce Springsteen and knowing the answer to "what exit?" without shore cred.
         My husband, however, had a thing for the shore, and his sister always had a shore rental, so we went; I was simultaneously eager and wary to see if I could discover the famous magic, late as I was. The charms of the shore, I found, were still on offer. It was not too late. I hadn't, after all, been shut out of a secret only accessible in youth. I did not immediately become a shore lover, but a shore liker, slowly discerning its spell. If slathering on soap under the dimming sun in an outdoor shower for the first time at age 26 could bring out a secret wildness in me, what else might happen between me and the shore?
        When our boys were preschoolers, we purposely began spending time at the shore—once for 10 days in a clean workmanlike motel blocks from the beach. There were scattered long weekends at friends' rented houses, but most often, we'd take over the extra bedrooms at our cousin Sharon's year-round home a half-mile from a gorgeous beach, where, if I closed my eyes and listened, and let the sand touch my skin, I could almost rewrite history, me as that girl, that Jersey girl at home at the shore.
        I should not have been surprised to come to enjoy if not quite love the Jersey Shore, but I was. Even before I understood the appeal, if anyone had asked me about New Jersey's good and beautiful things, right after mentioning the horse farms of Hunterdon County, I would have said the Jersey Shore. Because of course, it was. It is.
        In Avalon and Ortley, and at Sea Isle and Long Beach Island, Brigantine and Point Pleasant, in Stone Harbor and Lavalette, our small young family built sand castles, biked beachfront paths, played mini-golf, raced go-karts, rode coasters, ordered the same dinner three nights in a row because once we found a restaurant we all loved, it was ours. What I loved was seeing my husband see his boys loving the Jersey Shore he had always loved, and on each return visit, I noticed again that here was a place of solace and surge, grit and a kind of glitz, a composed wildness.
        When they outgrew sandcastles, the older son took root beside me under an umbrella with a book, while Frank and the younger boy plunged far out in the tumbling surf. I read and worried and after about two hours, I walked. Up and down the beach at water's edge. For miles along paved paths or boarded walkways where I could hear and smell and see the ocean or the quietly lapping baywaters on one side, houses or lunch places and surf shops on the other. I'd pretend a multi-million dollar beachfront vacation house was mine, imagine a diminutive rowed cottage had been in my family for generations, fantasize I lived there year-round, protected by dunes, the deep beach, the stalwart boats in the bay, even the towering coasters a kind of protective bulwark.
        On a blowsy day in Manasquan six years ago, I was especially buoyant, and lingered longer than usual on the beach, before leaving to walk the town, to stop in random shops for no reason. In the bookstore, what leapt to my hands was a memoir of an uneven suburban girlhood told in poetry and I stood there in my sarong pinned by the arresting narrative, especially the parts about longing for a father's love. I bought it, crossed the street to a café.
        I ordered something and settled myself to read in the speckled shade when my cell phone jangled; my father had just had a stroke. I was needed, in Las Vegas. We packed haphazardly, the boys silent and sandy. On the airplane the next morning, every time I closed my eyes, what I saw was Sharon's guestroom, a decade's worth of old beach badges displayed in a milk glass dish, white chenille bedspread, broom-swept floors, and the words on the pages of that memoir about another Jersey girl who missed her dad. What I heard were my husband's and sons' voices against the music of waves, and the sound of my feet walking the hard-packed sand at water’s edge. I was homesick, in so many ways.

        Late in August of 2012, Frank and I and our sons—one leaving the next week for college, the other ready for high school—could only manage two nights at Sharon's. We ate in the restaurant we'd discovered 10 years before. In 48 hours, there was biking and the beach, and as for me, I walked, eventually, inevitably, to the bookstore. By then, I'd met the author of the poetry memoir, and my father had been dead for six years. I sat at the same café, my phone silent. The year before, we'd spent a week in California, and while I loved Laguna Beach and Malibu, I couldn't fight a feeling I had there, the Santa Monica Mountains and their stilt-built houses so near my back—that I might somehow fall off the face of the earth. Back in Manasquan, I recall feeling somehow sheltered, cosseted—a kind of home.
        Eight weeks later, wind and storm surge leveled the dunes I'd walked beside. The calming baywaters screamed over roads, merging with the tumbling ocean. Some of the houses I imagined living in—well, a friend checking on her Lavalette bungalow told me she saw a beachfront house in the middle of a road a quarter mile inland, lying upside down.
        In the first 24 hours after the storm, TV images changed from taciturn Staten Islanders whose only homes were swept from their foundations, to Jerseyans crying over shore houses. I momentarily thought, "It's only a vacation house, get over it." But soon I realized they were not mourning ruined floors and furniture, things that can be tossed and replaced, but grieving things impossible to replicate, things that are not things: ways of being, the seasonal swell of community, a feeling and a place, smells and sounds that surge and merge into one inexplicable something known as The Shore.
        In a Springsteen song, "everything's all right at the shore," and he'll be right about that again, one day. But now, the Jersey Shore is more wrecked than the characters on that awful television show of the same name. The Jersey Shore I once longed for and didn't understand, the one I held at arm's length but came to tentatively embrace and feel at once protective of and protected by, that shore exists now only in collective memory, and I feel about it as I might a favorite aging aunt who I did not visit often enough, just to glow in her presence.

Lisa Romeo teaches in the Rutgers University Writing Program and at The Writers Circle. Her nonfiction has appeared in the New York Times and O-The Oprah Magazine; in literary journals, including Sweet, Quay, Barnstorm, Sport Literate, and Lunch Ticket; and in essay collections and anthologies. She has work forthcoming in Under the Sun and Pithead Chapel. Lisa holds an MFA from Stonecoast and is working on a memoir of linked narrative lyric essays about grief and midlife. She lives in northern New Jersey with her husband and sons.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Why I Love Coffee

by Jesse Millner

I didn’t start drinking coffee until I was in my early thirties. I’d get up in the morning and brew in an old steel pot, then pour it into a “Virginia Is For Lovers” cup with a bright, red heart on it. The final touch was a shot of Jim Beam, which helped ease the caffeine jitters. After a couple cups of java, I’d be a wide-awake drunk.

There was something really beautiful about those drunken mornings. I lived in Chicago and on those cold winter dawns when everything smoked, when the sky was dark blue and frigid, during those hours the weather outside matched the desolation I felt inside in those frozen fields of my body.  I’d sit by a living room window and sip my coffee as my wife slept and an occasional car slipped down Addison Street. I loved the taste of the Maxwell House and bourbon, the bitter burning brew.

By the winter of 1986, the drunken mornings had stretched out for years and the shot of Jim Beam flavoring my coffee had become two shots, but the extra bourbon could not stop my hands from shaking, could not stop my first wife from leaving, could not keep me from losing my job.

In March of 1986, I was admitted to Chicago’s Alcoholic Treatment Center, a free program located in an old hospital building next to the Cook County Jail. I shared a cubicle with five other men. I had the cot closest to the north window that overlooked a wall with barbed wire at the top and intermittent guard towers.

The worst thing about treatment was the coffee: it was bourbon-less, for one thing. And worse, they only served decaf in the treatment center cafeteria. I’d sit around with the other lost souls, drinking the bad coffee, talking about the mess we’d made of our lives. One man had shot someone in a drug deal gone bad and had just been released from prison. Another was a Guatemalan man whose union-organizer brother had been killed and who’d believed he would be next. He’d fled to Chicago to escape the murderers but hadn’t been able to leave his craving for booze behind. We sat up all night around green, Formica tables drinking decaf. We told our tales of disappointment and despair. And drank more coffee.

After two weeks in treatment, we were allowed our first visit to the outside world. We were taken in vans to a Saturday morning AA meeting on Milwaukee Avenue. It was held in a big room over a dance studio where aspiring Polka dancers from the surrounding Polish neighborhood perfected their art. It was a breakfast meeting and there was a big buffet offering eggs and bacon, pancakes and the like. But best of all, there was real coffee. I ate a huge breakfast and drank three cups of coffee. I listened to people talk about their struggles with booze and their happiness about being sober. There was also a raffle at the end where several lucky winners won free passes to an upcoming AA dance.

After not having real coffee for two weeks, the effect of the caffeine was miraculous. I felt clear and happy. But my hands shook the whole ride home.

The early days of my sobriety were defined by coffee. Every AA meeting I went to had coffee. It usually tasted pretty awful because it was made by volunteers who were new to sobriety. To this day when I smell a cup of coffee brewing, I think of AA.

Twenty years later, I drink coffee every morning. Good, expensive coffee. Usually organic. My second wife, who’s only known me sober, sits at her computer in the next room, sipping a black coffee.

We met because of coffee. When we were both in graduate school in Florida, we attended a writer’s conference on the Panhandle, and my future wife was a graduate assistant who received free tuition in exchange for making coffee for the various workshops. The first morning of the conference, I encountered her in the kitchen of the house where my poetry class was to be held; she was looking quizzically at a bag of Starbucks and a coffee filter.

I asked her if she needed help.  She said, “Yes, I really do. I’ve never made coffee before.”

I looked at this beautiful woman whom I’d seen around school but never talked to and got really nervous, so I simply poured the coffee into the filter and added the water without measuring it. The coffee turned out really strong. The people in the poetry workshop complained. My future wife and I went out for coffee the next morning at a nearby restaurant that overlooked the Gulf of Mexico. It was one of those bright Florida mornings when anything seems possible. We drank coffee and laughed at the “Sunshine State” placemats which showed Disney and mermaids and oranges. A year later at the same writer’s conference we got married. 

Now I’m remembering the name of the restaurant: The Wheelhouse. And I’m even remembering our waitress’ name, Frankie Day. She was having husband trouble—her man was an alcoholic who’d disappear for days at a time, then check in from some small town in Alabama, or Georgia, or somewhere else within the Bible Belt. He’d be broke and hung-over, asking for money to get home with. Wiring money, like ending a sentence on a preposition, is a risky business, and Frankie was fed up with the dude, and I told her I didn’t blame her.

My wife had pancakes. She always had pancakes for breakfast. I had pigs in a blanket with a side of hash browns. The coffee was lousy but I enjoyed it anyway. I’d been sober for about a decade and I wanted to tell Frankie that there’s always hope. I didn’t. Instead I flirted with Lyn, and we laughed about the bad smell in the joint. We came to call it “The Cat Piss Restaurant,” instead of The Wheelhouse.

All these years later, I still love coffee. It wakes me up, helps clear away those very tangible cobwebs that linger from sleep. I see a horse running across a Kentucky pasture; I see my first wife crying when they turned off our electricity; I see drunken winters in Chicago, so cold the earth and sky turned blue; I see again the treatment center and taste the decaf; I remember those first sober days when I ran along the lake; I see Florida; I see my second wife, Lyn; and I see the stain and drip of years of coffee on my desk this morning, a sort of tattoo that reminds me of where I’ve been, where I’ve dreamed, and the meanings I’ve made of both.

Jesse Millner’s poems and prose have appeared or are forthcoming in the Florida Review, upstreet, Conte, River Styx, Pearl, The Prose Poem Project, Tinge, The New Poet, Cider Press Review, Real South, The Best American Poetry 2013 and numerous other literary magazines. He has published six poetry chapbooks and two full-length collections, most recently Dispatches from the Department of Supernatural Explanation (Kitsune Books, 2012). Jesse teaches writing courses at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Desire in Miniature: The Mystery of Sarah Goodridge

by Lori Lamothe

This is one story that really does begin on a dark and stormy night. I discovered Sarah Goodridge by candlelight in a century-old colonial, listening to the heartbeat of a summer storm. Considering the nature of Ms. Goodridge, the setting seems uncannily appropriate. Earlier that day I had been walking my dog when I noticed the stone marker on the front lawn of the house next door. I must have passed that stone dozens of times since I had moved to Templeton, Massachusetts a year and a half earlier. But I had never actually bothered to stop and read the plaque bolted to the stone. This time I did:

Goodridge Homestead
Erected in 1775 by Ebenezer Goodridge
Birthplace of Talented Templeton Family
Sarah Goodridge (1788-1853), renowned miniature
portrait painter of Boston, pupil of Gilbert Stuart
William Goodridge (1777-1835), built virtually every
church organ in Boston between 1805 and 1832.

Not exactly riveting stuff, but it was sort of cool to be living next door to the former home of the talented Templeton family. One of the not-so-nice features of my house was that it happened to be next to a chair factory; by that point I was definitely getting tired of the phrase,“I hardly know they’re there.” A painter and a workaholic organ-maker seemed like a definite improvement.

For the rest of the day I forgot about the plaque and went about my usual routine: changing diapers, making the pretense of cleaning, attempting to get more food into my daughter’s mouth than on the dining room floor. So it wasn’t until later, after my daughter was asleep and I found myself sitting at my dining room table, that my quest began in earnest. The storm had knocked the power out about an hour earlier and the table was covered with a cacophony of leftover scented candles. I sat a moment, watching the sheet lightning flash to the east, then booted up my laptop.

“Do you think you should be doing that?” my husband asked.
“Why not?”

Of course, he was probably right. Didn’t they say if you could hear the thunder, even from a distance, you still could be struck by lightning? On the other hand, the anonymous they always seemed to err on the side of outlandish caution. Before my husband could protest any further, my desktop screen appeared and I clicked onto Google.

I’m not really sure what I expected to find. Not much, I can assure you. Maybe a line or two on Wikipedia (a guilty pleasure) or the free version of Encyclopedia Britannica. If I were lucky, an image of one of Goodridge’s miniatures, which are the eighteenth-century equivalent of the family photos we carry around in our wallets. Without really giving it much thought, I had conjured up a rather dreary portrait of a matronly woman, hair pulled tightly back and lips grimly closed. Or perhaps her stout husband, all jowls and scowls, wearing a comb-over and a pocket watch. So when I clicked on the first Google result I was more than a little shocked.

I found myself staring at a pair of bare breasts.

I’m not talking cleavage—not your standard demure line rising out of a darkish gown. No, what I was ogling was a perfectly matched set of rosy nipples. I checked the top of the page to make sure I had gotten the right Sarah Goodridge. I had. I checked the date she had painted it—1828—and found that just as startling as the fact that she had designated the miniature as a self-portrait. She had titled her piece, Beauty Revealed and it was painted on a sliver of ivory that measured just 2 5/8 by 3 1/8 inches. Somehow the diminutive size didn’t make the self-portrait any less surprising.

What was a modest 40-year-old painter living in the Jacksonian era doing painting her own breasts? Exactly who was this Sarah Goodridge of the talented Templeton family? I had a fleeting impulse to Google the brother and find out just what his so-called organs looked like. It would be one thing if Goodridge had lived in the twentieth century; one might expect that sort of daring from a female artist. Georgia O’Keeffe comes to mind, or, at a stretch, Mary Cassatt. But at the time Goodridge painted Beauty Revealed women couldn’t vote and most didn’t even contemplate “making a living” at anything, never mind as artists. Frances Trollope wasn’t the only European to remark upon the diminished role of many American women when she said: “It is in vain that ‘collegiate institutes’ are formed for young ladies, or that ‘academic degrees’ are conferred upon them. It is after marriage, when these young attempts upon all the sciences are forgotten, that the lamentable insignificance of the American woman appears.”

Clearly, Goodridge wasn’t like that. Further investigation revealed that not only had she been quite talent at painting miniatures but that she had made a pretty good living doing it. Born the sixth of nine children, Goodridge had taught herself to draw at a young age with few materials. Her family wasn’t wealthy, so when she ran out of paper she would use a stick to draw portraits of friends and even farm animals in the sand. Eventually, she set off for Boston and managed to secure lessons with the famous artist Gilbert Stuart. Not long afterward, Goodridge set up her own studio and was so successful that she was able to support herself, as well as her mother and an orphaned niece. She had five exhibitions of her work at the Boston Athenaeum, and for nearly thirty years she painted two to three miniatures a week.

Now perhaps I should clarify that Beauty Revealed doesn’t represent Goodridge’s usual mode of composition. She didn’t go around painting married ladies’ bare bosoms. Beauty Revealed is by far her boldest, most stunning effort. So it was with much curiosity that I scanned the Google file to learn who, if anyone, was the recipient of the miniature.

The answer was just as interesting—and as puzzling—as the miniature itself. Not only had Goodridge painted Beauty Revealed for a man, but she had done so for one of the most famous men of her time: Senator Daniel Webster, the handsome lawyer-politician who would run three times for president but never win. Known as “Black Dan” because of his dark hair and fiery personality, Webster had commissioned Goodridge to paint his portrait before and would do so at least a dozen more times. At the time Goodridge presented him with her gift, she was 40 years old and Webster was a widower with three children. He had invited her Washington, D.C. in 1828 to paint his portrait and she had accepted. Less than a year later Webster married a second time—to a wealthy, subdued woman he barely knew—and Goodridge returned to her Boston studio. She never married, nor did she travel out of state again. The two continued to
correspond until her death, and when she died she left her paint box—surely her most valued possession—to Webster. Webster destroyed her letters it seems, but he kept Beauty Revealed with him for the rest of his life. After he died relatives discovered the miniature among his belongings and auctioned it off.

Just what was the nature of their relationship? I craved an answer but no answer was to be found. During the next month I visited the Boston Antiquarian Society and read through Webster’s letters to Goodridge in an effort to learn more. The 44 letters, written between 1827 and 1851, are brief and to the point. Webster would visit her studio at such and such a time to have his portrait painted. Webster was grateful for her miniature. And so on. Whether other letters exist is a matter for speculation, as is the question of whether the two were lovers. Barring a discovery in a neglected corner of some distant relative’s attic, no one may ever know.

Years have passed since that dark and stormy night. I’ve since moved, divorced and gotten a full-time job. Instead of spending my days changing diapers I’m usually trying to transport her to the right place at approximately the right time. There isn’t much time these days to chase down a love story more than two centuries old. But I do find myself thinking of Goodridge and her miniature rather often. In one sense Beauty Revealed hides as much as it divulges; at its heart is a mystery. The tiny self-portrait is painted on ivory so thin light shines through it if you hold it up to a window. Yet within this fragility is the key to the puzzle of Goodridge and Webster.

But what is most important to me is my conception of what Beauty Revealed represents. Though art critics and others interested parties have tended to agree that the miniature is remarkable, they have interpreted its message in very different ways. According to John Updike, the breasts are saying "We are yours for the taking, in all our ivory loveliness, with our tenderly stippled nipples." Another critic writes that the miniature seduces viewers while celebrating female erotic power. While I tend to agree with the second assessment more than the first (in my opinion Updike makes the miniature sound like the prototype of the personal ad), the miniature’s impact on me has more to do with Goodridge’s power as an artist and as an individual. At a time when men dominated the field, Goodridge practiced her craft and achieved success. She refused to become anything but the artist she wanted to be and she wasn’t afraid to reveal the extent of her artistic power to Webster. And she wasn’t willing to separate her art from her identity—or to accept society’s ideas about what a woman should be, what an artist should paint. In his essay on Goodridge’s miniature, Updike remarks that it was probably the first nude portrait done from life in American history. Had news of Goodridge’s gift to Webster gotten out she would have been vilified by the local gossips. Yet she took the risk, making it clear to Webster that she was a highly talented artist and a woman who refused to hide her desires. Thus a kind of symbiotic relationship between desire and art emerges: Goodridge’s desire imbued her art with power, and her power as an artist gave her the courage to reveal herself as a sensual woman. The act of creating art and the act of creating—or perhaps revealing—identity are inextricably linked. Goodridge devoted her life to art and art returned the favor, bestowing upon her the sort of emotional,
intellectual and financial freedom that was extremely rare for a woman in the early 1800’s.

The idea of art as an act of creating identity has a particular appeal for me. I write poems and continue to struggle with the question of who I am as a person and an artist. A poem is not so unlike one of Goodridge’s miniatures: it attempts to capture, in a relatively confined space, an image using a two-dimensional medium. I came late to poetry and when I did I wasn’t sure what I was doing. I’m not sure I know even now, but I do believe the act of writing has helped me discover who I am and to create an identity that derives, in part, from my relationship with words.

I can only hope to follow the example set by Goodridge: to use art to reveal the world’s hidden beauty, to continue to create an idea of who I am, who I might be. At 40, Goodridge’s breasts surely weren’t as perky, nor was her skin as creamy, as her present to Webster suggests. Yet she chose not to simply reflect reality, preferring instead to paint a portrait that captured a deeper depiction of her self. It is from that deeper self—and Goodridge’s willingness to use her craft to reveal it—that the miniature derives its power. In her journals Mary Shelley once lamented, “What folly is it in me to write trash nobody will read . . . All my many pages—future waste paper—surely I am a fool.” Yet like her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, Shelley sought a way to be more than what society told her she should be. The art of words offered her the means to do that. For me, all art always holds within it that same promise: the possibility that I can peel away layers of convention and false security to discover the beauty beneath.

Beauty Revealed, 1828
Sarah Goodridge
(currently on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Lori Lamothe has published poems, reviews, interviews and stories in various magazines, including 42opus, Blackbird, The Nervous Breakdown, Notre Dame Review, Seattle Review and others. She has poems forthcoming in Brevity, 5 Quarterly and Joy, Interrupted: An Anthology on Motherhood and Loss.