Look On My Works, Ye Mighty

Teachers, parents, siblings, mentors of every kind leave their mark upon us.  I was in the fifth grade at Isaac Newton Elementary school in Detroit when my teacher, Mrs. Chapman, had us memorize Ozymandias, a poem composed in 1818 by Percy Bysshe Shelley.  Then we had to recite it to our classmates.

I walked to the front of the room and paused, a dramatic device storytellers employ to command the attention of their audience.  Actually, I was just trying not to throw up: it was my first public solo performance.  I was terrified, but it was also electrifying to be able to convey such a compelling story, such unforgettable imagery.   Not only did I not throw up, but I got an A.  And I never forgot that poem.

My mother used to recite poetry to us, like “Daffodils” by Wordsworth and “The Highwayman” by Alfred Noyes.  Over the years I’ve shared Ozymandias and other gems (okay, sometimes I sing jingles from the TV commercials I watched as a kid), to a certain captive audience–my children.  Occasionally I recognize my own words reflected back to me from the mouths of my babes.  Sometimes to my chagrin, but most often to my surprise and delight.

My son Eli is home between teaching assignments…

 

…and tonight Bea returns from Stanford on spring break.  It will be so good for us all to be back together again.  My ritual, when the kids depart for school, is to tidy their rooms, change the sheets, and drop a tear or two as I make their rooms ready for them to come home to…and they are always grateful.

The last time Eli left I was tempted to hire a bulldozer…

…but it’s like spending a little quiet time with that absent child.

Last night, in a burst of inspired procrastination (he was tired of reorganizing his own room), Eli decided to surprise Bea by cleaning her room, and not just the sort of tidying I do, but a thorough reorganization, including the mountain of books stacked haphazardly in the corner, that pile of her things parked just inside the door, not to mention the surprise found in a teacup discovered under a pile of stuff on her desk.  It’s either a science experiment or a strange new life form.  It took Eli over five hours.  He found so many new ways and places to shelve books that they almost fit on her shelves now!

But nothing comes without a price tag.  In fact, after Eli was finished, everything had a tag on it.  Oh, yes.  He had made his mark.

I love this one…

But my absolute favorite touch was the greeting on the door.

I howled with laughter. “Oh, good,” said Eli. “I didn’t know if you’d get the reference.”  “Do I get the reference?” I asked, launching into a recitation of Ozymandias.  “How did you think of it?”  He said he remembered it from all the times I’d recited it.  Of course I  ran to find my book of Shelley…

When I opened it up in search of the poem, I saw that someone else had made her mark.  Upon the book…


…and maybe even upon me.

I believe those little things that we pass on from generation to generation, the poetry and the stories, whether silly or sad or sweet and heartfelt, will outlast the Mighty, their monuments to themselves, and, I hope, their wars.

Thanks, Mom.  Thanks, Mrs. Chapman.  Thank you, son.  And welcome home, Bea!

All images and words (except for Mr. Shelley’s, of course)

c2013 Naomi Baltuck

Breaking Up is Hard to Do

Sixty, maybe seventy years ago my father gave a turquoise blown-glass dinnerware set to his mother, my Grandma Rose.  She called it her “mowt-blown china.”   At antique stores I’ve seen similar glassware, said to be from Mexico.

Grandma gave it to my brother Lew, who gave it to me.  Every time I used those dishes, I felt a connection to Daddy and Grandma too.

More fragile than china, they came out mostly for birthdays, Valentine’s Day, or sci-fi dinner parties.


Thom and I were newlyweds when I gave him a mug bearing an excerpt from Rilke that we’d borrowed for our marriage vows.
“For one human being to love another is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks, the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation.


Thom had already learned that lesson the hard way.  Before we met I’d had a fear of commitment.  I was so afraid of getting stuck or worse, abandoned, that I rarely went on more than a couple dates with anyone.  I carried my own walking papers in my back pocket and I wasn’t afraid to use them.

Then came Thom. Poor Thom. Dear Thom. Courageous Thom.

He could take it on the chin, and grin.

He was wise enough to perceive the pattern and understand what I was doing even before I did.  He was gentle and patient.  He taught me how to fight fairly and work things out instead of just dumping guys in general, and him in particular.  He taught me that it was okay to ask for what I want, how to negotiate, and not to expect others to be able to read my mind.  He taught me that I could be myself and still be loved.  He taught me that there were men out there who can be counted on, and that I could count on him.  Thom deserves combat pay for sticking it out long enough for me to realize I didn’t want to make him go away after all.   And so I stopped trying.  Best decision I ever made.

So what do these vessels have to do with Thom and me, or anything at all?

 

Almost thirty years ago a dear friend, who may or may not have been related, was visiting and washed the dishes.

Putting them away, she stacked the elegant glass cup inside the Love Mug.  Try as we might, we could not pry them apart.  We tugged and twisted, but were so afraid of breaking either piece that we gave up.  I couldn’t bear to throw them out, so they lived here for the next twenty-five plus years.

It is both appropriate and a little poetic that the same person, without whom there would be no story, was also present for its unexpected conclusion.

A year or two ago, I rediscovered the inextricable pair in the back of the cupboard.  I decided, once and for all, to mend it or end it.  It was like asking a husband to choose between the life of the mother or the child, which is why I’d put it off for so long.  I finally opted to save the heirloom glass, if possible, which was stuck inside the mug.  I told that dear person, who shall remain unnamed, that I’d take a hammer to the mug, if necessary; if the glass were to break as well, so be it.

But I’ve learned a little grease applied judiciously can go a long way.  We drizzled oil in between and pulled, hoping the glass would slide out.  It did not.

We went back to simple lessons learned in high school science.  Heat expands and cold contracts.  While soaking the outside of the mug in boiling water, we filled the glass with ice water.  Still the glass stuck tight.  So it came down to the last resort.  Holding the mug by the handle, I whacked it on the countertop, hoping it would shatter.  Pop! Out came the glass, in perfect shape, and I had my morning coffee in the Love Mug.

There are several morals to this story.

First of all, no one can tease me any more for hanging on to the glass and the mug all those years.  Pay attention to your instincts!

Secondly, you might actually learn something in science class that you can apply to real life (and don’t forget that bit about the grease.)

Thirdly, breaking up is hard to do, but sometimes you just reach a breaking point, where you need to mend it or end it.

Fourthly, once you try everything you can think of, try everything you can’t think of.  Sometimes you have to try everything all at once.  But if it’s something worth saving, it’s worth the effort.

Love is like that.  Thank goodness.

All images and words c2014 Naomi Baltuck

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