October 21: Women of eclectic tastes, my book club last night discussed not only Hamnet but also our television favorites. One woman described a new series based on Lucrezia de’ Medici, who she said was the subject of Robert Browning’s poem “My Last Duchess.”
I put down my wine glass; I know only a handful of poems intimately, and this is one. In describing it to my friends — the poem is a monologue by a duke as he displays his art collection to a visitor — I appeared considerably more erudite than I am.
I did not explain: When we were little, my sister and I would tuck ourselves behind a comfy red chair angled in the corner of our living room. The chair hid the lower shelves of a bookcase where my Dad had placed his very old school books. One of these books was a child-size collection of poems by Robert Browning. I memorized a few tiny ones (“…God’s in his heaven/All’s right with the world.”) But I kept coming back to a very sinister one: “My Last Duchess.”
In part, the poem reads:
. . .
A heart — how shall I say? — too soon made glad,
Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
Sir, ‘t was all one! My favour at her breast,
The dropping of the daylight in the West,
The bough of cherries some officious fool
Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
She rode with round the terrace — all and each
Would draw from her alike the approving speech,
Or blush, at least.
. . .
I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
As if alive.
. . .
I was ten or eleven. Subtlety was not my specialty. (The Nancy Drew books were quite direct.) Therefore, I still recall my shock when I understood what was happening. I felt like a door to the adult reading world had been kicked wide open.
My heart — how shall I say? — continues to be made glad.
October 22: I waited to buy wildflower honey at our farmers market while the beekeeper served another customer. “You’re in luck,” she told him. “Those are the last three.” With enthusiasm he bagged three cup-sized containers of what looked like toasted golden couscous. The label read “100% Bee Pollen.”
I asked him how he used bee pollen. For allergies, he replied. “One spoonful a day. It’s made from all the tree and flower pollen that I’m allergic to. It absolutely stopped my symptoms,” he said. But you need to buy local, he insisted. “Buy where you breathe.”
I kind of hoped he would offer to sell me one of his containers. The beekeeper read my mind. Don’t worry, she assured me. Your wildflower honey does the same thing.
The honey also soothes my teachers voice after a long day with the fourth graders.
Bonus: Leaving the farmers market, I saw a piece of litter on the sidewalk. Then I saw orange-vested Girls Scouts with their litter grabbers and bags. I’d already tidied the sidewalk behind them. So I left this prize for them.
October 23: Our town has a small art gallery that invites submissions for juried shows. I volunteer as a docent at least once for each exhibition, which allows me to immerse myself in local artists’ work without having to do my usual last-minute scamper to see a show before it closes. Today an artist stopped by. We chatted about her recent work, in which she arrays primary-color puzzle pieces in chunky stripes. She showed me a photo. Oh! I said, this reminds me of Alma Thomas.
She enthusiastically agreed, and we spent the next few moments showing each other photos of all the Thomas paintings that we carry on our phones. The artist’s puzzle piece idea is pretty cool, because it creates patterns of white space around splashes of color, as Thomas does. “But, oh my,” the artist confessed, “capturing Thomas’ ideas was impossible.” We agreed: Alma Thomas makes complexity so simple and beautiful.
Bonus: Surrendering to the inevitable, I’ve created an “Alma Thomas” tag for this blog. I encourage you to click on the tag below if you are unfamiliar with her work or want to read my posts celebrating her (and her effect on me).
Double Bonus: Today would have been my Mom’s 96th birthday. She was smart, creative, generous and very hard working. She was a New York fashion designer, Brooklyn Dodgers fan, our county’s first Director of Consumer Affairs, and, after retirement, mayor of my hometown (which, Mr. P., we pronounce Shrew-sbury). She and my Dad were married 49 years. I was so lucky she moved near me for her last years. You can read a story of my Mom in Depression-era Brooklyn. I still love her so much.
October 24: I saw one of my “hugging” fourth graders in the grocery store yesterday. She was riding in her father’s shopping cart, so I didn’t get to test my new no-hugging resolve, but I gave her my most cheerful “Hi, Ginny!” salute. I also saw a third grader in another store. Cocking his head, he looked at me in slight confusion. I played it cool, smiled and kept going. But in the lunchroom today, I approached him: “Did I see you in the store yesterday?” Yes! He practically shouted. Then he turned excitedly to his lunch buddy as I walked away. I could hear his loud whisper: “I saw her in the STORE!”
Ah, yes, I remember my surprise when I learned that teachers — even substitute teachers — don’t live at school.
Bonus: The daily witticism in our neighborhood spoke thus: “My teacher always said not to worry about spelling because we have autocorrect. For that I’m infernally grapefruit.”
October 25: A third-grade girl climbed on top of a playground table. Holding a mint-green journal bristling with post-it notes, she invited her friends to join her. The girl opened her journal, and I saw lines of pencilled notes. To their audience (me), she declaimed her line, pointed in turn to the girls around her, and finally swept her arm to signify saying the line in unison.
“We’re practicing,” she explained. She ran her troupe through their lines again: “Here comes the General!” And, later, “Thomas Jefferson is coming home.” And still later, “I’m not throwing away my shot!” It’s Hamilton, she said, but nobody dies.
October 26: While enjoying my daily 7:15 am date with Spelling Bee, my phone rang. The high school needed an emergency substitute teacher. Could I come? Sure. The best part was telling the high schoolers about seeing the third grade boy at Staples and his reaction the following day.
I promised the teenagers: if I see you at Staples, I’ll totally play it cool. However, I make no promises if I see you in school the following day.
October 27: I hadn’t used our outdoor shower in a while, but with the sun so bright and the temperature nibbling 60 degrees I decided to treat myself. I donned my robe, slipped into my sandals and dashed for the shower where I’d find soap, shampoo and lots of sunshine above the shower walls.
In the shower, fallen oak leaves crunched under foot, a sunflower showerhead seeded me with hot water, and the sky — so blue! — wound like a river around trees in autumn color. Perfect. Everything was perfect. I turned off the water and reached for my —
Whoops. No towel. Everything was still perfect.
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