Strega Nona and the Golden Ball


Strega Nona is an alter-ego of mine. She was a “strega”, an herbalist and a witch. A crone, nestled in  rich old Italian locale and culture, using her wisdom to help others through magic (which is my biggest aspiration right now). Being that Tomie dePaolo’s original story was published in 1975, it is possible that I read it or heard it as a child. This I do not remember. I do remember that Susanna was no longer here when my son and I began to read all the Strega Nona story books we could acquire, every night, over and over. There was the story of Strega Nona taking a vacation, which plays in my mind during the summer. Strega Nona, alone, enjoying her beach house, collecting and steaming fresh mussels. Another describes an inexhaustible harvest which Strega Nona and Big Anthony, another amazing character, shared with their community. Our favorite by far was Strega Nona’s Gift, her holiday extravaganza of magical foods and gatherings. I believe we read it every night for months, a book which can almost be eaten.

Some things I have collected from the Strega Nona stories which I particularly love:

  1. Gardens should be planted by moonlight, and carefully organized in rows (if I ever own a property with soil I should know this).
  2. Strega Nona accepts as her assistant Strega a girl named Bambolina, thus rescuing Bambolina from a life of running a bakery single-handedly for an ungrateful, selfish father who tried to hang out in cafes all day. No dice for him.
  3. Strega Nona takes a vacation after being told to do so by her grandmother and mentor, who has died and come to her in dreams. And it was a good idea.
  4. Salt water taffy. Pretty much tastes like candy, but delicious because it comes as a gift from someone visiting the sea.
  5. Not only can Strega Nona feed her whole town on holidays, she can provide everyone with delicious dreams of colossal food which keep them sated for hours after waking up.
  6. Carrots for her rabbit, corn cakes for her dove, turnips stuffed with greens and beans for her goat. This is to make them speak well of her on the Eve of the Epiphany, the one night  they can speak, but anyway, yum!

On my still intact shelves of children’s books (I have attempted to give them away, but am not ready to complete that task) is Tomie dePaolo’s retelling of an old Italian folk tale called The Clown of God, which revolves around, of all things, a golden ball. It tells of a poor boy who becomes a master juggler. In his act, he gradually adds colored balls and culminates with a golden ball representing “the Sun in the Heavens”. The juggler’s life brings him back to poverty and depletion, ultimately making his last act a miracle involving a statue of the Christ child. This book still waits on the shelf for me. I do not completely grasp the connection of this story to the story of Susanna and me, and our Golden Ball, but I know there is one, just as I know there is a sun in the heavens.

This post brought me through Strega Nona and the Golden Ball because of another of Tomie dePaolo’s books called The Art Lesson. This one is autobiographical, the story of young Tommy’s compulsion to draw and reach the age of the mythical art class in his school. Adult Tomie draws the art teacher, Mrs. Bower, with upswept hair, dangling earrings and a smock-like dress, carting supplies to art class and presenting her subject matter, obviously having been to art school herself. She is pretty much me, perhaps a bit younger, even with the same shoes.

The Art Lesson brings me to what I wanted to reference and what I wanted to say. Before young Tommy has finally become old enough to be in Mrs. Bower’s class, he has suffered some feeble attempts by his teachers to pull off a proper art lesson. They have some issues with the materials, such as flaky powder paints. One teacher, with blue-washed hair, has instructed the children to not wear down the points on the designated “school crayons”. How do you function this way, with no signs of use? What is this strange vestige of perfection, the school crayons which retain their points forever? We all had teachers who said such things.

Preservation of anything is futile. We all wear out and break. I know this every day and I live and breathe and function, while my heart remains broken. Perhaps there was an innocence destroyed when I lost my daughter, but if we live long enough we all get there. There is still the same range of emotions, things to love in this world abound, but it is not forever. You must find a way to make peace with that. Avoiding the reality of death by focusing on achievements and perfection. Futile. Trying to feel only the emotions you want to feel, futile.

A picture of Susanna sits on that bookshelf, with the children’s books I cannot yet part with, beside my bed. This picture was a Christmas gift from two friends. One put it into a beautiful frame studded with gems. The other snapped the background photo, Susanna’s name drawn in the sand, by me, to be gently washed away. We were both on the beach when I wrote it, and she saved the moment, then pasted in a photo of my baby’s beautiful face. Two nights ago, that picture fell to the floor as my significant other was coming to bed. It was undamaged, and it was not explainable in any natural way. I wonder if Susanna, or someone, has encouraged me to shape this blog. I do not pretend to understand any happenings on the other side, I can speculate but I will know more when my time comes. I just know there is another side. More to life than life. And there is magic for those who see it.

Tear Dryer

This summer has been somehow indescribable, I have been at a loss for words. I think I have been waiting for sunnier times to relate, being that I have worked hard lately to change my life. The sun had poked into places where it was missing for a while this year. I thought I may have reached some type of painless place, but, no.

Tears avoided do not dissolve. They cannot be positived away, or refused entry into one’s life. This is something I know but occasionally disregard, because pain hurts. I know this story well but it is part of the dance. I stay busy, but at some point, I am debilitated until I can cry.

One of the times I had a reading with a medium (there have been many, please process this information in the way that is best for you) there was this message from Susanna: “I have the best Mom. She always made sure I looked pretty and she always made me smile.” Thank you, my beautiful Susanna, for appreciating my efforts and knowing that they encompassed the deepest parts of my love.

I would have done anything to make you smile. I would do anything to make your brother smile too, and your father, but things get different here on earth when you get older. Life inevitably becomes supremely disappointing. You learn that you must do many things which feel contrary to what your soul wants in order to survive. You lose people you love and see them suffer unfairly. You observe behavior in others that baffles you and makes you feel like you belong on a different planet. You trudge along, longing for escape sometimes, and all you can do is sob and commiserate with your friends. That last part is the part that saves you. I cannot make anyone smile always, but I can be there.

Maybe some people are born into this world to help others avoid tears or mask them. Some people might not even acknowledge sadness much. I think I see now that I am here to witness tears. I am here to accept and validate. If you feel ready, maybe I can help clean some tears from your new dress. But always, losing Susanna will have cemented my capability to defend your sadness. I will never shame or disregard anyone’s grief, or my own.

All of that said, I am spending this summer not in my usual idle and languorous fashion (I miss that), but I am working on the next phase of my career by student teaching. Every morning, I drag my tearful self onto the Q train, facing the shore and the Cyclone and the Wonder Wheel and greeting another day of life without Susanna. I still wholeheartedly refuse to give up on the future. I will weather, I will survive.

coney q

Deben Morir

Walking again tonight, like most nights. To accrue weight watchers fitness points, partly, but I will save that for another blog. I went the other direction than the park and salt marsh this time, so I also accrued some city street juju. After my errands, I crossed a street corner which made me think of Susanna, and pushing her in a stroller to shop on a girls’ outing. This was the day we bought her navy blue dress with a sash and white swiss dots. This outing happened only once, but I sincerely remember every day that she was here (as I promised her I would in the hospital, on the day she had to leave). I do not, however, remember anything else we bought that day, other than a Beyblade for my son, who was elsewhere.

Summer is starting. The temperatures are lagging this year, but the heat is slowly setting in. This is the fourth summer without Susanna here. I realize, crossing this street, that three years is more than half of Susanna’s lifetime. In two more years, I will almost have  lived as much time after her as with her. And, I will have lived 47 of 53 years on earth without her here (I included en utero as her being here).

Thinking of this made me feel the continuum again. Our lifetime spans are not the whole story. When you love someone, you know they never leave you, and you know that you were born to be with them. Our birth and death events are like the markers for 4 and 5 on a ruler, not the edges before 1 or after 12. Our lives are Wednesday on the week’s calendar. No beginning and no end.

I walked by a corner bodega. Its awning was made of tin, and two pigeons were scuffling and chasing each other back and forth on it, making such delightful tittering sound that my heart leapt in joy. The loud clawed feet tapping the tin, the pigeon banter, together. I do not feel that way often. Sometimes, I think my girl jumps into my body so that she can enjoy something and make me laugh. I glanced in the window and saw a man with a pocked face, who looked somehow intelligent, putting his wallet back into his pocket. I saw a few frosted cakes and cupcakes sitting on a shelf near the window. This seemed a strange place for them, I doubted that they would be sold before they spoiled. I love my city.

When I arrived home, just past dark, S.O. was watching an old Mexican movie. He pressed the info button to show me the title, which had amused him because it contained his surname. I do not share his name but our children do. It was “Los Sanchez Deben Morir”. Those named Sanchez Must Die. We all must die someday, but so what.

Losing My Religion

My year of graduate school is almost over, the end in sight and the glorious weeks of steamy weather and solitude coming into view. I have rediscovered television again, already. Except for I Love Lucy or Roseanne when I am drinking my coffee in the morning, I have not had the time or patience to watch anything. I have settled into The Handmaid’s Tale on this long weekend and sucked the last drops out of the six episodes available so far, getting lost inside and looking up details about the cast, production and soundtrack on my phone during the commercials. No wonder I do not watch TV like I used to, this is how involved I get.

I read Margaret Atwood’s novel during a television- free time in my life, when I read books and went places and spent more time with people in cafes (pre-internet). I checked it out of the Brooklyn Public Library in Grand Army Plaza, where I used to hang around when I had no money but time to spare. This was before I met my S.O. and had a family, and before I knew firsthand about life ending in death. I did know about the dark side of human nature but I had a narrower perspective on it.

So much to become irate and disgusted about in the story. But this is a story of the world. Fiction, but with real correlations. I do not watch this and feel grateful to be free as much as I feel revolted about how humans full of greed and evil damage each other. Freedom from this is not a privilege, abusing and exploiting others is crime. The world is a hotbed of corruption and unspeakable abuse, and this seems to have always been true. Sometimes I feel done.

When the scenes turn, in the first few episodes, to times “before” and “after”, I follow the emotional shift. I too have had my little girl taken from me, and console myself in reverie of carnivals and making pancakes. I want to hate the government, or someone, for this, but my enemy is none other than death and destiny. They are here and now and not dystopian. Death and loss are everyone’s fate. But eventually I do feel grateful that I have experienced this loss in the world I live in, where I have a job and home and a good deal of personal power.

I live with my beautiful, healthy surviving child and a partner who loves me from across cultures. He has seen things which I cannot understand, and never will, about human nature and injustice. These are his stories to tell, and sometimes he tells them to me. None, though, are as heartbreaking as what we have survived together. The cruelest part of the universe is the part which gives you a child to love and then that child is taken away. We found each other and had a son and a daughter. Susanna’s life was very short, and we remain.

Is life worth fighting for? I know it is. Whatever falls in my path I do believe I have a purpose, and I am equipped to follow it through until the last day. During these last years of my life, during which I have been bruised and broken, I have lived the most real days. Life is temporary and difficult and painful, and no one here gets out alive. Still, there are things to be done and justices to be served. And, in the bigger picture, there is a plan which cannot be seen from this plane.

Last night I was involved in my Hulu marathon, and S.O. uncharacteristically came upstairs and offered me one earbud attached to his phone. “Listen to this. This is beautiful. Maybe you know it”. It was REM’s Losing my Religion, and that is beautiful. My man has discovered the same band I discovered I high school, on this night so many years later, in a language and country which are not his first. I can only say to him that they are from Georgia and do not play together anymore. I want to explain how Michael Stipe’s voice makes me feel when I hear it, but words escape me.  He does not need words, he hears it himself. Because of these moments I am hopeful. Sometimes I know we will survive.

Hating April

April and Easter have appeared again, without me feeling ready. I have not yet hung the pastel egg wreath on the door. I have not yet opened my heart to the warm air and indiscernible buds and blooms. I have been dragging my feet. Hoping my initial protest will be fruitful, healing is sometimes wrought with resistance.

I have been known to be optimistic at times, but I am not a poster child for innocence or pep. I speak for the contemplative set dressed in black, who just could not bring themselves to the pep rally. (Like Ally Sheedy in “The Breakfast Club”). I think we all are made up of a range of personae. What is most important is how we love and tolerate others exactly where they stand, which starts with loving and tolerating our own selves. Easier said than done.

This has been a busy year. Part of my resistance has to do with moving forward in my life. When you have lost someone very close, the future is a big problem. It is hard to see past the gaping hole in the pictures. The future I can foresee has a looming hole shaped like Susanna. Immeasurable, unfillable. It is hard to open myself to the bright and rich things life has to offer, because I am afraid I will forget her, that she will disappear. I have been assured that this is normal. Fear does not have to stop anyone’s plans, but it needs to be acknowledged.

In my more peaceful dreams lately, I see open spaces, flat grassy meadows, empty rooms with the inviting expanse of wood floors and a walk-in closet. There is really no way to greet the future without leaving extra room for what is unknown. These dreams are not devoid of my daughter. She is present in all of them. Sometimes she has left a drawing, a single pair of sparkly shoes or a birthday card. I know she is present because I feel her, I hear her singing, and I know that she is the one inviting me. In the times when I can relax and allow peace, the line between here and there dissolves. This is the point where the separation is an illusion. This is the place where it gets real.

I will never forget Susanna. She is my daughter, and for me the sun rises and sets for my two children. She existed, and to me she still exists. She lived a wonderful life for five years and three months, and then she died. We all die someday, but Susanna died younger than most, calling attention to our mortality. None of us is perfect. Except for a tiny weak spot in an artery, which no one could have known about, she was closer to perfect than anyone I have known. Perhaps she only needed five years to get life right.

Others may avoid thinking about what happened to Susanna and my family, dismiss it as an unfortunate tragedy fading into the past, and this I understand. But that is not the truth for me. Even though the pain is sometimes so big that I feel too small to contain it, I go forward with open eyes and open heart to the very best of my ability. My hope is always to let the pain transform into something else, more to be revealed. And whatever the price for knowing her, I would choose my daughter again, a million times over, in the blink of an eye or a fraction of a heartbeat. Peace.

Nausea, and Honeysuckle

It is a rough day from where I write today, not feeling well. Some combination of probable strep throat (the quick test showed an exceedingly faint extra line), nausea from the penicillin tablets which resemble dinosaur eggs, and general malaise which has arrived in time for April. This month it will be three years since we lost my beautiful Susanna. I believe there is remaining grief as well as “re-living it all” grief, both settled and regurgitating in my body. Chances are I can ride this out and get past it soon. The nausea and headache soon, the regurgitated grief will take longer.

Three years ago, not April but early May. That is where my mind sometimes takes me lately. Long days of trying to occupy myself before I was ready to return to work. After the service in the pretty stone chapel where a priest talked about Jerusalem for some reason, and I threw in a pink rose hastily so everyone else could throw theirs and we could escape. (Forgive me for having experienced my daughter’s funeral in this way, but I was nowhere near ready for such an event). My son’s kind first-grade teachers, who had visited and brought toys, assured me that I could bring him to school and let them take care of him, while I cared for myself. That May I established a pattern of walking outdoors as a meditation and a mode of survival. I walked to the shopping mall. I pretended Susanna was holding my hand up and down on the escalators, as she had done the month before. I bought the nightlight which flashes colors, and now lives in Susanna’s room and lights the way for her as we sleep. I walked to Manhattan Beach, dipped my fingers in the salt water and tried to see my way into surviving for a future. There I saw a man holding a little girl on his shoulders, and noticed that his T-shirt read “I Am Here”.

And, on some days, my son did not go to school. He found it unfair that we had not returned to life yet he had, and I agreed with him. We went instead one day to Central Park, where he made friends with a little girl. When her mother, who was a Canadian traveling on business, started a friendly conversation, I readily spilled the new truth of my life, that my little girl died last month. She spent the whole day with us, as if she felt responsible for helping because we are all human beings. She was strong enough to not recoil, which gave me some strength on that day.

It seems strange that I can find something to miss about that first month or two, but I do. I miss not having to think about going to work or being “normal” again. I now have a life which has expanded some. I have one child who is three years older and has grown five or six shoe sizes. I have been through menopause and gone back to graduate school. Should I need to stay home and sit out a responsibility because I am sad, this may be accepted but is less often understood.

One day, that May, I went for a walk in another direction and noticed a beautiful fragrance coming from some trees. I stopped underneath and inhaled. “Honeysuckle”. Even the name implies that nature loves me, that there is still beauty in this harsh world. Sweet honey, maternal suckling. To this day, there are two things which help when nothing does, and my soul just hurts: nature and children. These are the reasons to stay here, without Susanna living in her body, and try to contribute as best as I can. Susanna and her brother made me this way, this much. A person who can last and love through hell. I stay afloat because I want to bear witness to what is right in the world, what needs to be protected for children in spite of the evil happenings in the news each day. There is a rampant disregard for honoring the earth, and people in need, and compassionate living. I am not the same as I used to be but I understand better why I have to be here.

Another reason I perhaps think of May is that it is not April. If I relive May, it is full of sadness but less full of hospitals and funeral homes, of discussing coffins and plots and autopsies. If these words shock you, that is okay, they still shock me too. I recently came across a poem by e.e.cummings. “Trust your heart if the seas catch fire, live by love though the stars walk backward”. We can get through this, with love and together.



Brave Face

Busy lately, and suffering from too much Brave Face. The face that masks pain in order to get work done, in order to make an appearance when I must. I wear it only sometimes for others, more often for myself. I want to be more whole than I really am.

There is a small piece of construction paper taped to the kitchen window in front of me, about the size of a playing card. At one point it may have been a mauve color, now faded to a dusky yellow about to blend into the stickless masking tape framing and attaching it. On this paper is a flower, a daisy or perhaps a sunflower, sketched in ballpoint pen by Susanna. There was a sister piece beside it before. This disappeared at some point, but there is a smudgy residue near where it once was. The sister piece had a poem written on it, some variation on “rain, rain, go away…..” My two children had constructed this arrangement on a rainy summer day on which they wanted to go out and play. At the time, I had no idea how long it would remain, or how I would feel looking at it tonight. We can perhaps only envision what we can handle.

There will come a time when this house will not contain the remnants of my daughter living here. There will be a time when nothing belonging to her, or to me, or anyone in my family, will be here, at least in this physical plane. Maybe another dwelling will rest upon this plot. Maybe, many things, I don’t know…….

Last night, I dreamt that my son and I were on a summery back porch, visiting a new blonde family with many children. I have no idea why they were blonde. Maybe because the scene was a bit Barbie-ish. This was a happy dream. And, a little girl climbed into my lap and fell asleep face down across my chest. I felt her warmth, the feeling I have been needing. Susanna. I am deeply sorry that I had to go to sleep to feel that, but she was there.

If there is not a rainy day, there is not a song about one. Without this absence of her, which stretches out into unthinkable depth and length, there would not have been a her to love. I put on the Brave Face, because I do not always know how to explain this to people. Pain and love intermingled, this is what I really want to be talking about. It can be challenging to focus on what seems mundane, which almost looks like everything.

I no longer believe I have to resolve anything before I motion forward. I make as strong of a presence as I am able. I speak with all I can muster of what is real, and right, and kind. This world is not for the faint of heart. In spite of how difficult it is to live sometimes, somewhere inside of me are endless fields of wildflowers. Meadows and mountains, and eons of hope. Life is fleeting but love is real. This much I owe to my Susanna, to speak of her and us while our presence is still remembered. Life is short for everyone, but was extra short for Susanna. I will hang on and go about things with four eyes, four feet, two hearts, two souls. See you in the flowers, my baby.