Wednesday, January 4, 2012

"Writing prompts are lame, m'kay?"

Above, behold my current favorite office shelf. I have no design skills whatsoever; my decor is best described as "shabby, absent-minded professor (piling variety) with noticeable lack of chic." But a couple of days ago, I looked up from my writing table and thought, "I really like that shelf."

You need to understand that no intentionality was employed in the arrangement of these objects. In fact, I mostly just stuck stuff up there when I unpacked items I retrieved from my mother's house and sister's apartment. Really. I sat on the floor with a box, raised my arm, and plunked. But the more I look, the more I see and the word that emerges is "matrilineal."

The Man's family has lived in Our Town for several generations, and connects with its and our state's history and Well Known Individuals at various points. My family is about as boring as they come. I was raised in a bland suburb far from my Mother's Iowa birthplace and my father's Oklahoma start. None of this really impacts how we live, but it does mean that Young Girl hears an awful lot about her father's family and next to nothing about mine. Without even realizing it, I've apparently made a little shrine for my girl-roots.

Of course, the shelf heavily features Young Girl: at far left on our steps in Oregon wearing an Austin College sweatshirt sent at her birth from former professors and current friends. Propped in the pale pink frame on the right, she smiles in the same location a few years later during one of our summer visits. The pale pink frame? Class picture from Belden Street Montessori, the world's best preschool. At the bottom right is a picture of The Man and me, mid-eighties, at my friend Beth's (matrilineal), then off-the-grid, Colorado cabin.

The San Simon candle? It's left over from a period of fascination with such candles and prayer cards, available in just about any store in our multi-cultural area. My favorite line from the English translation on the back? "Oh: Powerful St. Simon, I offer you your cigar, your tortilla, your drink and your candles if you help me with any danger I might find." One thing I do know about my mother is that she was raised as a Catholic, at least through her First Holy Communion (courtesy of my French grandfather). until she moved to an area of Texas where no Catholic church was available. He and my Scot Presbyterian grandmother settled in with the Methodists as a compromise position. After my mother's death, I discovered a wealth of prayer cards and medals she'd kept for decades, even some from her aunt the nun, Sister Emily; though Mother never spoke of her Catholicism, it obviously mattered much.

The flat iron was my great-grandmother's. Judging from pictures at her Quincy, Illinois home, she never used it herself, but I know my grandmother did because "having help" was not an option in the Texas oil-field world where she eventually landed. The gravy boat is all that remains from a mysteriously-disappeared set of china my great-grandmother brought with her from Scotland. The one-handled rolling pin was a staple of my childhood, used for everything from my grandmother's homemade noodles and dumplings, to my mother's sporadic attempts at baking, to my own early concoctions. The bell is a mystery. It looks too young to have come from Scotland, though there is a touch of Mackintosh in the handle's design. To my unknowing eye, it says pre-WW I, but barely. Maybe one of you will know more. And in the silvery-frame, anytime from Deco to the 40s, is my beautiful young mother, soon after the birth of her first of three daughters in 1943.

The mirror is just something I stuck in the back, and this shelf was the only one tall enough for the Collected Far Side box set.

Which brings us to the platter.

When I took my job in Oregon, The Man was unable to join me permanently for almost three years. The clock was ticking and we'd begun baby-planning discussions, but weren't very far into the journey. One morning, as I walked across campus, I found a potter selling pieces to benefit the art department. I had no idea why I found the platter so appealing, but I could not stop thinking about it. That afternoon I walked over and spent more than I could afford on the platter and a square trivet. For several months, it sat unremarked on a table in my office. "Nice platter," someone might say, but that was about the extent of its impact. Until the fateful day a Perceptive Colleague did a classic double take and cried, "My God! That piece is all about SEX!"

Why, my goodness, Dr. Freud, it was indeed. All that time, I'd been working with students in an office that was a pornography showcase! Semen! Uterus! Fallopian tube! A lone egg, protected by a diaphragm from an abnormally long-tailed sperm! And, depending on your perspective, either a quite detailed rendering of female genitalia or a basic penis - take your pick!

I, of course, had noticed none of this. None. But once these items were called to my attention they were all I could see.

I continued to display the piece, now christened "The Platter of Reproduction" by Perceptive Colleague, throughout my tenure. I became a kind of sneaky shrink, ever vigilant for the person who stared at it just a little too long. It offered black comic relief during the painful gamut of infertility testing and the miraculous result thereof, and continues to provide amusement to those in the know.

And so we come full circle: pregnancy, a daughter, me, my mother, my grandmother, my great-grandmother. Join me in this circle, be you male or female. May we all continue to pass on not only the items of the women who came before us and the women who go before us, but their stories and their spirits.

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