Safe Shell

I do not identify with a place.  I identify myself with the structure, my home, in which I live.  Much like a turtle who carries his shelter on his back, my home is my place of safety.  My books are here; my computer is here; my dishes, food, my cookware are all here. I can survive in the safety of my home.  Retreating into my home can also be isolating.  Like the turtle, I can stay inside longer than I need to.  And when I finally flip over and begin my journey again, I don’t necessarily plant seeds that grow, especially for the journey that I’m now on. I am just interested in setting up my home someplace sturdy.

Moving from one home to the other is traumatic and confusing at best.  Closing down a 3500 square foot house with the history of a 32 year marriage to pay forward is a trying experience.  And when you have to clean out the remains by yourself, you have no choice except to examine closely which pieces you will use again and which you will sell or give away.  It is as if the very land, the location, my home–the place of my marriage–had been swept away in a Katrinian flood.

My possessions are not unique in this world, but the sentiments which are attached to them, are.  I made the picture of Melancholy Woman in a drawing class; she was a 30 second drawing.  The armoire in the corner was a classy find and stuck in shadows and dust in a large, poorly lit warehouse.  The blue glass bowl lived in my parent’s house for years, and as my family moved around and my sister and I married, I came to be its owner.

Possessions tell me where I’ve been even if they are no longer physically with me.  When I drew the woman, I recognized a feeling of loss that said, “Pay attention.” Drawn from a class model, the woman draped herself against the corner of the wooden support.  Her arms were wrapped her bowed head, her face hidden.  She sat, her body sagging, her legs bent at the knee to support her weight. I knew what was bothering the drawn woman.  And even though my husband and I talked about the issue, and we were in counseling, the problem was knotty.

He was unwilling or unable to discuss the issue; I knew what would happen at the end of this tale.  I had heard this story from parishioners who came to see me specifically for another reason or from an informal conversation while working on a church project.  The woman in my drawing was already grieving the end of the story.

The armoire was not a picture of grief.  Done up in deep burgundy reds, subdued gold, and a variation of blacks, I caught sight of this chest because it stood above others in front of it.  I picked my way carefully to the armoire which was the only one of its kind and stuck against the wall.  Curving, graceful figures, flowers, birds, and trees lived out their lives frozen in time.  I knew immediately that my husband would love it so I picked it up, polished and shiny, the next day, whose sky was blue and clear.  I wanted this gorgeous piece of furniture to fill the bill, to be an attractive solution to a problem with how that corner looked, to solve the problem of having no linen closet, to make my husband happy; to make him love me?

His first response, “How much money did that cost?” came out as a scream.  I had saved money from my teacher’s paycheck to buy this present, although not knowing what present I would purchase.  We had plenty of money. My husband’s reaction came from a reason that had nothing to do with money.

If I were milk, I would have curdled.

If I were a mango, I would have been non-edible.

If I were an orange, I would be sour.

My marriage was not going well in spite of my efforts.

This armoire is in my current home now, and it has taken on another aura. Glowing and dust free, the armoire has re-gained its original and magical beauty.  No matter what happens in a day, the day does end; the sun does come up again. Hope becomes real again and sheds light on both the past and the present making the future possible. Mother’s blue bowl reaches from its past to touch my memories.

Our Mother’s bowl is not an expensive piece.  My Aunt Rae, the eldest of my mother’s 6 other sisters, had given it to her as a wedding gift in 1943. Mother treasured it, and the blue bowl was always placed in the center of our childhood kitchen table.  The bowl had to be placed exactly.  As teenagers, Laurie, my sister, and I used to take the role of Mother and imitate the way she used to arrange the bowl.

Our Mother studied the center of the table very carefully, and being short, she had to bend a bit to reach the center.  She would then study the bowl as if it were a football that she was readying to kick over the goal post.  Then Mother would reach with both hands to place the bowl exactly.  Laurie added the tail wagging.  My sister and I often cracked up when putting all to order, especially the bowl, after dinner.  One time our mom caught our act and all three of us howled with laughter.  To start hilarious laughter, all that one of us had to do was to use a gesture that we had imitated.  Mother, now 95 in July, doesn’t remember the blue bowl, but she remembers my sister and I, both as we were then as well as now.  My internal geography keeps my memories safer than any piece of turf that I can stand on.

I am caught between the old world, which meant that you stayed put, near your family after you married, and the new world, the world of the second generation immigrant family.  You did not go gallivanting around the world or the USA as a way to gain promotions and raises.  Improvement of your station in life did not matter; in fact, getting ahead was not more important than your family.

So it was that when my parents married and left their families and homes, they did not leave land; they left the safety of their homes, families, and their small Italian-American community.  They decided, like the turtle, to cross the road.

My sister and I were caught between the turtle’s shell and tender skin like seeds. We have paid a high price to belong; our attachment and identity is not to the land; it is our internal geography–our home, the vessel of marriage and family–that helps us to maintain our traditions.  Our internal geography–our home, our cradle–is much like everyone else’s who is not born to a piece of land.



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