Ghosts in photographs

Mom with Tappey
Mom with Tappey

This photo of my mom from five years ago appeared on my Facebook feed today.

Yesterday I happened to realize that I’m terribly afraid of losing my memory. I hadn’t known it before I wrote it, but it occurs to me: my mother’s cognitive injuries spawned a state of traumatized memory that persists in me.

What did I come in here for?

Where did I put my list?

I’m haunted by echoes of her voice.

I would lose my head if it weren’t attached.

I’m so tired.

She said that one a lot.

As time passed, she spoke less and less. It seemed to take a great deal of effort to summon her faculties for a conversation.

Mom, with curlers
Mom, with curlers

Before, she’d dominate the room. She’d talk and talk—mostly about herself and the things that concerned her, telling the story of her past, her adoption, her hunt for her biological mother. She told that story over and over to people she’d just met. It was her repertoire. She was fey and funny, and she charmed people.

It’s odd to me now that my siblings and I don’t really talk about the things that made our mom herself. We talk a lot (mostly one to another behind closed doors) about how our mom was lost to us at a young age. We talk about growing up (and going away to boarding school) in the aftermath of the loss. Seldom do we recall together the specific ways she was before. I expect the loss overshadows actual memories.

When she went in for the first surgery, I was five years old, so I have only wispy bits of her from the time before.

Stripey pants!
Stripey pants!

By general consensus she was pretty great. Not that she couldn’t also be pretty awful–at times small-minded and straight-up mean. But only if riled. She was dynamic. Vibrant and vivid.

Even after the surgeries she was still some of those things. Drastically changed, yes, but feisty, joking Betsy on occasion still. This is the thing my siblings, who tell me again and again how they knew her before, how I never had the chance (it is a familial refrain), don’t understand—my mom was all those things she’d been before, just in fits and starts.

And in truth those blips petered out as the cognitive damage she’d suffered from multiple brain surgeries compounded with years of medications and made unrecoverable inroads into a once powerful presence. In time the dementia was diagnosed and made concrete. And that began the long process of brushing her away altogether, fading gradually like an old photograph, until she was little more than a ghost of who she’d been.


It is snowing and cold-rainy-sloppy out. Also it’s not normal for your stomach to hurt for two days straight.

The doctor on tv advises against anxiety’s negative influences upon fertility, and I feel the tightness in my body, my neck and shoulders. My gut and ovaries screech with cramp. No baby will lodge in poisoned ground.

I flop across the bed on my sour belly.

Floyd follows me up Lulu’s Straircase and stands staring into my face, inches away. I tell him to lie down, so he lies down across my forearm and begins to lick my hand. The feeling of warm dog across my arm, breathing dog breath into my ear, the warm scent of sleepy dog feet folded underneath my nose.

My stomach hurts a little less.

Lifestyle as art

In a giddy post-Euchre conversation I recently heard the words resonate in a cognitive echo from my own mouth: lifetyle art.

Even as my friend asked me to elaborate, I was already considering what in fact I did intend by such a hifalutin phrase.

Chris and I had spent the first half of the day driving through the November rain-grey boots of Michigan, swooping a pass across the shoulder of Ohio, traversing the rural clavicle of Indiana to our heartland destination.

In all the flurry of holiday feasting and travel to see family we’d neglected to bring a bottle of wine. Remembering belatedly my horror of arriving emptyhanded, we stopped in the last neighboring town to our friends’ farm to try to pick up something— unlikely as the venue may have looked.

Unfortunately we’d forgotten about Indiana’s Sunday Blue law ban on alcohol sales, and Chris garnered the actual comment from smoky bar patrons, “You’re not from around here, are you?”

Meanwhile I sat in the car deciphering road warrior bumper stickers on the motorcycle parked out front.

Happily for us, our hosts were of the most congenial and forgiving sort, toasting our collective wellbeing in generous style with bright and delicate cider and beer home brews, all the while sharing absorbing and poetic how-to insights about the brewing process, even contributing a fortuitously-named bottle of wine to accompany the lovely meal of fresh-picked garden greens, ruby beets and fragrant garlic.

I’ll admit to being a bit in awe of these two, visual artists both, who’ve seemed to manage gracefully and seemingly effortlessly the sorts of homesteading compensations that fill gaps of ready availability that come with rural living.

Present in each element of their existence is a foundational intentionality toward creative living which extends from the handmade art on the walls to the ingeniously engineered fixtures casting light to the homemade laundry soap Janet instructed me how to whip up for mere pennies*.

Eliot refers only partly in jest to his wife as The Laundry Soap Evangelist. In point of fact she nurtures a bright vision of sharing homearts secrets with a wider audience and is in fact positioned well to spread the word, characteristically interwoven as she is, nexus and tax-preparer to a wide circle of creative folks.

The art of lifestyle here seems to me both indelible and resonant where every gesture of existence becomes infused with a spirit of ingenuity and downhome resourcefulness shaped by an intuitive eye for gracious elegance.

Seated at their table, immersed to the ears and eyes in this ethos, I found it a little difficult to point out one factor distinct from another to articulate my point to those who exuded it– but for all that knew myself to be partaking with each inhalation in the gift of my friends’ lifestyle art.

* Homemade Laundry Soap recipe:

Grate 1/2 bar Fels Naptha soap into 6 cups water. Heat until dissolved, then add 1/2 cup Washing Soda and 1/2 cup Borax. Stir until dissolved. Pour into 5 gallon bucket and add 6 cups hot water, then 1 gallon cold water. Add 20 drops of essential oil of choice for scent. Stir and let stand for 24 hours. Soap will gel. Ladle into leftover plastic pint dairy bottles. Use 1/2 to 1 cup per load of laundry (about 4 loads per bottle).

(Not for front loading washers)

Sylvie Potato Léon

… was in the process of becoming a troll—at least in part literally. She spent a solid chunk of most evenings voraciously scrubbing away at her foot-soles with sharp implements of abrasion. This followed the course of family propensity in rending of flesh—her mother had preceded her, picking at chapped and peeling lip skin until it bled and the Aryan dermatologist threatened unseemly grafts. Thereafter her mother maintained a ready supply of oral lubricants stashed liberally in strategic locations throughout the house—telephone table, kitchen odds and ends drawer, and, in the one place that to Sylvie signified the woman’s ultimate departure from acceptability and perhaps even awareness of any such boundaries, the front guest lavatory.

Letterpress: Starshaped Press

thursdays mean letterpress, in my world.

each week’s fourth day I make my winding way by foot or brown line L train or–too often running late–car to the bull dog lock building set beside metra traintracks in shabby-glamorous ravenswood industrial corridor.

there inside one of several 1000-ft artist’s studios with great big warehouse windows printer, graphic designer, and proprietress of starshaped press jen farrell makes freshly old-timey magic with a pair of chandler & price standing floor platen presses, a moderately persnickety vandercook universal proof press for large format and linoleum cut work, a metric ton of lead, and an ever-expanding collection of vintage wooden type rescued from shuttered shops and collectors across the states.

within this creative mecca I soak up inspiration in the company of women who very capably make things, run businesses of sane and clearcut vision, and direct their daily work outside the mainstream of chicago’s suited loop.

alongside jen works #1 intern sarah vogel, wizard with lino knives and recipient of an illinois arts grant, who teaches workshops at evanston print and paper shop.

not long ago she brought in a bunch of prints she’d finished for boxing up and shipping off to a gallery show in denver, and I had the opportunity to grab some quick snaps. when I asked sarah about her work, she related to me a kind of mythic narrative about decaying domesticity. the collection is titled “Creep” and is slated for local display in evanston later this fall.

for my own part I’m one of a handful of one-day-a-week learning interns, trading time and manpower for hands-on practice with the gear.

a lot of days there’s only scut work to be had– distributing lead type, tediously tiny some of it, sorting and labeling drawers of recent acquisitions– but, to be honest, there’s a meditative zen to be had in these repetitive manual processes, as, fingers black with lead, I zone out to a background of bollywood musical numbers and ’90’s alternative rock piped from jen’s ipod, muttering names to myself like typographer’s mantras: bernhard gothic, phenix, keynote, agency, elegante

because it’s a concretely physical craft, wherein dings add character and evidence of handwork, letterpress printing necessarily entails this work I slightingly call “scut”–it’s an integral part of the process, perennial and grounding in refrain. occasionally, however, I get the chance to set up and print broadside sample specimens of jen’s wood typefaces and bring bits home with me, hang them up for inspiration until the next thursday comes around.

(this is josephine, a character)

other links:

Starshaped Etsy Shop

Felt & Wire: Inside the studio: Starshaped Press

Chicagoist: Making posters at Starshaped Press

and a video by Chicago Revealed:

favorite pseudofoods

a list compiled by monsieur flogsbottom, canine gourmand:

  • dandelion heads
  • rabbit turds
  • shoes removed beneath the desk while working
  • toiletpaper rolls
  • discarded articles of clothing, esp. underwear
  • one’s own turds
  • cigarette butts
  • shoes removed at apartment front door upon entering
  • paper toweling (entire rolls, unrolled, ideal)

scratching the itchy spot

so I have this place right above my belly button that seems to itch for no particular reason on a frequent basis– there’s nothing there, just a set of nerves, I suspect, that get to feeling lonely.

lately george and I have discovered the supreme pleasure of my scratching him under the jaw– he’ll just stand there with this dreamy, droolly, utterly ecstatic look on his face while I scratch his chin. it’s very adorable.

I really love my pets. when people come over to my apartment, the critters get all excited– they’re like, ooh, look! fresh people to love us! and they can tend to mob the visitor– charlie walking all over the person’s lap, determined to sit right in the middle of things, digging in his claws for sheer cat pleasure, george doing away with personal space, getting right up close and panting his fetid george breath in absolute dog happiness right into the visitor’s face.

and there’s a difficult balance, a bit– I want to, you know, be responsible for managing my pets so that my guests don’t feel too terribly hounded (oh lord, so to speak)– at the same time people who are going to be in my life need to be given space to find their own ways of dealing with my animals.

sometimes it’s hard to resist scratching.


my mom’s been through a lot– and for the most part if you were to ask people about her, they’d pretty much say, that betsy, what a hoot. she has definitely kept her sense of humor, which is, frankly, sort of amazing. her story is a mouthful, and not really mine to tell– but for various reasons tonight I feel the need to share a bit of it here– in part to honor her, my mother, who has come before me in all things, to celebrate her, and to process what she’s currently going through, for myself.

as an infant my mother was adopted into a family, of sorts– adopted by a couple who could have no biological children of their own but who had previously adopted a set of blond twins, boy and girl. and along came baby betsy, from day one a fiery redhead, both in appearance and personality– not one, or even able, to maintain a low profile, she would fall under the scrutiny of strangers for her bright locks and solicit time and again the har-har rhetorical question, where’d’ya get that red hair?— and hate it with every fiber of her being because she didn’t know.

my mom wanted desperately to belong to someone, to be loved and cherished and seen and known– and instead she lived in a household of propriety where there were no caresses, no hugs, no overt, distasteful displays of emotion. my grandparents meant well– the truth, I suspect, is that my grandmother hadn’t the first clue how to mother children, having lost her own mother in a tragic accident while still a toddler herself– and my grandfather, well, he was a guy– a staunch upstanding citizen by all accounts if not a particularly cozy fella.

so betsy was a fish out of water– highly emotional, vivacious, bright, sensitive– and the children had a nurse, as well-to-do families did in those days, and the nurse would discipline the unruly child betsy– by beating her with a hairbrush.

the twins had their own difficult paths, one mentally ill though undiagnosed with schitzophrenia until adulthood, and the other angry and bitter and mean. there’s a lot there, but I only know it by hearsay and what I witnessed in later years– and this is not the place or time to process this part of the story.

my mom survived her growing-up years and went away to boarding school, as nice young ladies did, and went on to a smart ivy league college– and met my dad, a student at a neighboring ivy league men’s school, and fell in love. and said to hell with waiting, despite her parents’ desire that she finish her college education– my mom couldn’t wait any longer to be loved, to have a family, to have a place she belonged– so as soon as my dad graduated, the two were married. he was even a redhead, too.

and off they went on their married adventure to my dad’s service years, paying off the education debt in fort sill, oklahoma– they weathered burnt newlywed chicken and giant cockroaches and orange winds together– and they had their first baby, my eldest brother. after a couple of years they moved back to their mutual home state, michigan, my dad started law school in order to keep my grandfather’s daughter in the style to which she was accustomed, and they had another baby, my second brother. a little while later my mom had another baby, another boy– but this one was born with an incomplete skull and only lived a few moments. she named the baby and mourned him deeply, who had come to define herself above all as wife and mother, and took the doctor’s advice and got pregnant right away again with my sister.

someplace after that things begin to get a little foggy in the mom narrative– the order of events gets a little uncertain, a little scrambledy, as things would continue. she began to have headaches. really really bad headaches. she had three young children, and she was sick, though it was for a long time unclear with what. she got pregnant again and gave birth to me. she went to doctor after doctor. she went to psychiatrists. no one could explain to her why she was having the terrible headaches– which were becoming blind spells and blackouts. finally a doctor ran an imaging test of her brain and found a cyst– it was blocking fluid drainage and building up the pressure behind her eyes– her life was in danger. she went into surgery convinced she wouldn’t survive.

she survived. but the person who emerged from that surgery was brain injured. the doctors had been unable to reach the cyst and had only been able to install a shunt down her neck to drain the fluid. the process of doing this, who knows, doubtless they did the best they could– they saved her life– inarguably. but the woman, according to those who knew her before and after, was substantively changed. her longterm memory remained intact, but her shortterm memory had been fouled up. there were a few years of seizures and no-driving-the-car and a lot of medication, but the most substantive effect was her lack of tracking– like a cd prone to skip and stutter. there would be glimpses of the shining woman and then perseveration, repetition, getting lost, misplacing things, and sheer, wretched frustration– because she was wholly aware that her goddamned brain wasn’t functioning the way it had before.

my mom’s a fighter, she’s a survivor. this narrative thus far barely scratches the surface– her life was far from over– hell, it was 1972. she has lived a long time and survived a whole lot more. after she emerged from that first big surgery, shocked and grateful to be alive, she resolved to find her biological mother. this was a long time ago– adoption records were sealed, and there were laws protecting the information– but she persevered. she traveled to new york, the state shown on her birth certificate, and pestered the bureaucrats until someone blatantly left a file on his desk while he went out of the room for a cup of coffee. and she found her mother.

my mom has survived cancer. she has survived diabetes. she had a second brain surgery in 1987 during which the doctors removed both the cyst and the drainage shunt using still-experimental microsurgery. all the anti-seizure medication she’s taken for years turned her bones porous, which she learned several winters back when she slipped on the ice and her ankle crumbled. my mother is ornery and outspoken and fey and stubborn– and lately she has been getting lost and scrambled more frequently. today the diagnosis came in and my dad sent an email out to us kids: early stage dementia, alzheimer’s.

this is, I fear and know, not something my mom’s going to survive. she is going to struggle against it and get angry at it– and it’s going to take her, what is left of her, all the pieces, this disease will bit-by-bit steal them away. and there is nothing she can, we can, do. my mom is not well. this is what I’m sitting with tonight– miles away, powerless, thinking of her. my mom, whom I love.

random pet stuff

I was just lying here in bed, browsing around the neighborhood, with charlie tuna purring away on my shoulder as is customary, when in barged iggy for some pets and love. this is his m.o.– he’s queenly and standoffish until he’s ready and then by golly you’d better be ready. for several years this only happened while I was sitting on the couch, and preferably late in the evening– only recently, since the new mattress on the floor which george now braves, does iggy follow his lead and come to demand his pets from me here. he’s a funny cat– he was the lone survivor of some farm kittens whose mother died, and in those early days he was tiny and ferocious– nearly feral, I suppose, so in part I feel that living with him is a kind of slow process of taming. he’s got this long luxurious fur that’s crazy soft and clings like the dickens to anything– your nose, clothes, furniture, hand while petting, itself– and he requires grooming, as the shorthair charlie tuna does not (but likes it)– iggy looooooves to be brushed, which is a good thing, as he gets wicked mats– I’m unable to keep on top of them, but I try a bit and then throw up my hands to lion cut in the summer– it’s like starting from scratch, like a cat crew cut after a chewing gum episode. I tend to gently, lovingly manhandle my pets– I pick up the cats whenever I feel like it, cradle them like babies, carry them around for a bit, then put them down again, so they’re used to handling– I also give them their space to meander, but I feel that some amount of cuddling is required for any being’s optimal health– and I forget and am sometimes rudely reminded that others have different sorts of relationships with their pets– not too long ago while staying at a friend’s house I unthinkingly bent down and picked up her young cat and got a freakout and faceful of claws into the bargain, only belatedly realizing that of course she would maintain a more respectful personal space policy with her cat, she’s like that. I have a hard time not rescuing or adopting every stray I see or hear about– that is simply the cloth I am cut from– but having gone the rounds with way more big dogs than I can actually afford to feed and care for, I’ve now set a limit of three creatures at a time for myself. which is not to say that I wouldn’t love to also have a parrot and some goats and some chickens and several more dogs and some more of those awesome swoopy goldfish and a koi pond and a cow and a horse to ride and heck may an elephant or two. if I ever win the lottery maybe I’ll become one of those weird old eccentrics with a live menagerie. but for now I’ve got my boys, and they make my home and life much brighter, more companionable, amusing, hairy, and warm.