Saturday, July 16, 2016

Grandma on a Camel

I would venture to say that not many people—not many American people, anyway—have a picture of their grandmother on a camel, but I do, and it’s a beauty. Everything about it says mid-1980s grandma, from the permed hair, to the thick glasses, to the sensible tan walking shoes. Except, of course, for the fact that she’s perched precariously atop a camel, a look of sheer delight, and maybe a little astonishment, radiating off her face.

PS: Lionel Richie, I've found your twin, and he's a Moroccan camel handler

Polly’s life wasn’t always easy, for more reasons than could possibly fit into a blog post. But when she retired from decades working at the phone company, she hit the road, and I don’t mean she spent a week sunning herself at the Old Ladies’ Village in Florida. She grabbed her passport and packed her bags for a whirlwind trip to Spain, Portugal, and Morocco.

I was 5 or 6 when she went, and boy did it make an impression on me, her jetting off to these exotic places across the ocean. And I’ll never forget her pulling from her bag the souvenirs she brought home for me: A bright red fan from Spain, and from Portugal, a beautiful blouse of deep indigo, intricately embroidered with poppy-red colored flowers around a scooped neckline.

But maybe the best gift of all was the one she brought home for herself: That photo of her atop the camel. It was taken on the day that her tour group ventured across the Strait of Gibraltar for a quick jaunt to Morocco from Spain.

“Who wants to ride a camel?” the guide asked her and her fellow American retiree travelers.

Crickets. No takers.

This was silly, Polly thought. No one?

“I’ll do it!” she boldly called out. Maybe it was because she actually wanted to ride a camel, or maybe because her Yankee practicality was scolding her for traveling all the way to North Africa and not riding a camel when given the chance.

So she climbed up, and a friend captured the moment on my grandmother’s camera. Polly kept that picture in a frame on her living room shelf until she died a quarter century later.

When she died, my family and I performed the quiet and cathartic task of cleaning out her apartment. She kept strange things, like wrinkled squares of used wrapping paper, that signaled her waste-not, Depression-era upbringing, and most of what we found was given away or thrown away. But we all wanted a copy of that picture of her on the camel.

I was also delighted to find another little souvenir of hers from that trip: A wine bottle stopper that's topped with a brightly painted rooster, the word “Portugal” written in delicate script around the edge. The cork is unused and unblemished—Polly wasn’t a drinker—but something about it must’ve struck her enough to bring it home and never use it for what it was made for.

I loved that little rooster (as a kid, and now), and these days, it sits in my kitchen on a little side table in a pie plate. I don’t stop wine bottles with it, and it’s too small to really hang anywhere. I keep it for myself, because it’s pretty and it makes me smile.

That trip of hers ignited my own desire to hit the road, and when I do, I like to bring back kitchen trinkets of my own, like the sage-colored glass bottle of Puglian olive oil from Southern Italy, and the small, rustic wooden bowl from Santa Fe, painted with an image of San Pasqual, the patron saint of cooks and kitchens.

And whenever I feel anxious about traveling (which is every time; I might be a frequent traveler, but I am always a nervous one), it helps me to imagine her voice, calling out into the hot, desert air, “I’ll do it!”

Polly, Haverhill High School senior portrait 

“Do one thing every day that scares you.” -Eleanor Roosevelt

Monday, July 4, 2016

Spitting out pearls

I have eaten enough mussels and clams over my 35 New England summers to recognize the distinctive and unpleasant crunch of a bivalve with a belly full of sand. But last night was different: When I bit down on an orangey mussel, I felt not the crunch of sand between my teeth, but something hard and solid, like a rock, and spit out,

“A pearl!” I exclaimed to Brian and our friends who were joining us for dinner. “I found a pearl in my mussel!”

Actually, I found two pearls

I marveled at it, snapped its picture and passed it around—no one seemed to mind that it had just been in my mouth. It was a dainty thing, but pretty, and large enough to maybe be called a seed pearl. I immediately started to wonder whether I could somehow wear it as a necklace. A few minutes later, I bit down on a second, smaller one.

Pearls are formed, as most of us know, by an irritant that sneaks its way into a mollusk's soft body. As a defense mechanism, the animal adds layers of the same substances it uses to make its shell until eventually, a lustrous pearl forms. That something beautiful could grow from the unexpected and unwelcome is a lovely idea. May we all be so resourceful as to make pearls from pain, to make lemonade from lemons.

Lately, our personal pearls have come in the form of our family and friends, who rallied around us this winter after Chloe’s latest surgery. I’ve written about it before, and she’s had surgery before, but this one was particularly rough, and I can’t stop thinking about it. We have had a humbling amount of help from family and friends over the past few months; so much that I get overwhelmed with emotion knowing that I could never, ever repay them all or thank them adequately.

Instead we’re left to simply enjoy their company, and that’s what we did this weekend, when we had our friends and their little girl over for a July 4th clambake in our backyard. We had a sprinkler and sparklers; clams and mussels and grilled corn laid out over newspaper; and s’mores by the fire. And in the midst of it all, I bit down on something hard and spit out a pearl. Happy Fourth of July!