December 06, 2009


I am about to travel to Paris. And before I embark, I contemplate the journey at stake.

In Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, published in 1899, Chopin’s main character says, “I would give up the unessential; I would give my money. I would give my life for my children; but I wouldn’t give myself, I can’t make it any clearer; it’s only something which I am beginning to comprehend, which is revealing itself to me.” Like the character in Chopin’s novel, I am on the journey of discovering the totality of self—if that is ever possible.

Though writers (beware of the critic) and people who hope and fantasize are cautioned to be careful of dreams, I look to my dreams for answers about who I am. Here’s one: Keys on a thin metal ring. Collecting the keys of others, of boys so that they may not leave class, go back to their apartments. Beethoven playing. We in class are studying him section by section. The students are both kids and young men. My father’s face at the transom.

I must want D.’s keys. I must want him playing Beethoven.

Or do I?

The old Victorian in Adams Morgan where D. and I lived had old doors with transoms and mullioned windows that one doesn’t see in condos in downtown DC. I miss the house on Kalorama Road, my library, my writing room.

Or do I?

The houses have all gone under the sea.

At the gym some time ago, a beautiful married woman who wears diamonds to work out, asked me how I was. I said, “Lots of dates but no one.” “Would a man really make you happy?” she asked. I answered, “I think so.” But I wonder. Isn’t this a good question for me. Perhaps I have found my place in the world.

After all Thoreau went off to the woods and we are still reading him. What was his loneliness about? Or what was his solitude about, a better question.

And here I sit, ready to fly, with the longing for emotional memory, for the holding of life.

Last night I was watching Julian Schnabel’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. If that man with locked-in syndrome could do what he did, can I not do this? I can, I can.

I want to be the little engine that could. I want to recall those moments with Sarah, my philosopher daughter with her first book coming out in May, and with Ben, my son who is so hard on me now—he has no use for D. I long for our moments on the couch in the family room, watching Mr. Rogers. I like you just the way you are. What a comfort I found Mr. Rogers to be. I recall the yellow Dansk pot that I made Sarah’s “chocky” (her hot chocolate) in. The pouring of the hot liquid into her cup, her little hands pounding on the table waiting for it. I recall Ben when he was ten or eleven, standing in a doorway watching me cook. My children are grown now. One is in Paris where I will go; the other, in Australia on his vineyard.

I feel as if I am at the transom, high above the door frame looking through frosted glass at the life that lies before me, or better, at the one I am living, watching the way my father watched from the transom of my classroom in my dream. I feel him with me in the way I used to feel my mother after she died. He has been dead nine years and I feel him in the way I felt her then, as if he is coming to me.

I sense that my sexuality is involved here for my father was key to its emergence, to my sense of what it is like to be loved by a man. Did his fears infiltrate that knowing? Earlier here (see “Hypersensitive”), I have described my father’s quiet, his calm like the sense of the sea receding with the tide; his angles like a Giacometti sculpture in shadow at the edge of sand in fading light. But the flip side of his quiet was an abiding fear that he would lose one of us. I noted the angles of his body by the sea when he was old, some months after my mother had died. He stood on a beach in Hilton Head. D. and I had taken him with us on a business/vacation trip where we could swim, play tennis (my father used a Western grip and had a slice that could place the ball at the corner of the court). That day at the beach, D. went out far in the ocean to swim. My father walked the edge of the shore until D. came in, some forty minutes later. He must have watched me and my sister, both good swimmers, in that same way.

He came to his fears through loss: His mother and father came through a sewer with my father’s oldest sibling, an infant at my grandmother’s breast, during a pogrom in Russia when they left their parents and the life they knew to emerge on the other end in freedom. Much was gained, but the loss does not fade. I carry that loss and more because all my grandparents died before I was born and because I have lived through the devastating illnesses and deaths of my mother, my sister and my father. I wonder if my fear of loss is a legacy that I carry with me like the memory of my father and the way he paced the shore.

As I free myself or rather try to free myself from those fears, I sense my father’s face at the transom of my life. I hear his wish: It is time for you to do what I could not.

A transom is a strengthening cross bar set above a window or a door. And thus I am looking for a crossbar that gives me strength. A mullion is the vertical bar between the panes of glass. Do mullions and transoms form the pattern of a window, a window on what is next?

I see a woman at a house by the sea, a loose white dress, and the breeze across her face. I see a grassy plot where tea and wine and wind will begin the story.


  1. More oceans, more waving, more waves. Mary is about to cross an ocean.

  2. Bon voyage, Mary! I look forward to light coming over the transom, a prism for the smile on your face. Good luck with the new book.


  3. I am struck by the way loss has had such an impact on your life- how the losses of those so important to you affected you. I wish I could come up with something insightful, some "aha moment", but I can't. I am only left pondering.

  4. last night I lay awake in my bed by the window, and I wondered if the plane passing overhead held my friend, returning from Africa.

    Pretty soon I'll have to start looking for you! Have a wonderful time.

  5. This piece is so elegiac and yet feels like a letting go as well. On the brink: a threshold as well as a transom. A journey not only to but from.
    I love the distinction between loneliness and solitude. Perhaps it's easier to see loneliness as "solitude," something desirable and peaceful, once you are not alone and thus not so much in the grip of fear about never not being lonely again.

  6. "It is time for you to do what I could not."

    good mary, as maybe a different sort of reader of you, i was earlier on getting irritated by your brand-naming view of life and love...but now i am rooting for you all the way.

    to me it feels like this is just half the story, while others might be struggling because they sensed a climax and finality with D. (sorry for the pun) but maybe you two have just begun to understand good foreplay.

    your daughter seems a wise woman already. your son-in-law may be worried about being like D. on some level (as all men are), thus the anger.

    i'm in.


  7. I have finally caught-up with all your stories. I look forward to reading more upon your return from Paris.

    By the way, I share Sarah's joy for hot chocolate. Please tell her that Starbucks makes a "White Hot Chocolate" which is heavenly.


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