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To celebrate my Baptism, my grandmother tried to pierce my ears. I was her first granddaughter, and she wanted my flesh imbedded with the gold earrings she had worn as a baby, the ones she must have been saving for precisely this moment. She put a cork behind one of my earlobes to arrest any shock conveyed by the point of the threaded needle. Inches from stitching me to her heart's wish, she felt my mother grab her arm. My Vó had not bothered to ask for permission, perhaps because she knew it would not be given.
Of course I remember none of this. Baptism highlights a basic mystery: Our own first chapters will remain beyond our memories, locked into silence. We search for stories and immersions for the rest of our lives. I have to imagine myself on display in my crib, which was set out on the confetti-style gold-flecked linoleum that everyone bought in the fifties to hide the dirt. Kicking and spewing with the colic I was told afflicted me until I was weaned onto goat's milk, I no doubt fussed my way through being the featured event at Our Lady of Grace Church in Castro Valley, east of San Francisco. Father Pruitt, handsome enough for my mother and her friends to refer to him as a "what-a-waste priest" used words and water—fundamentals of ordinary human life—to impart a seal that would make me forever receptive to supernatural grace.
I was wearing the Irish lace baptismal gown, silk-lined, that my mother's parents bought on their honeymoon in Paris in1920. My mother wore it, and her six children would take their turns, followed by my seven nieces and nephews. The silk lining has long since sloughed its particles into the air, which prompts me to think less about continuity and more about Baptism being called an invitation to write our own epics: Links to the past are frightfully tenuous. I admire this sacrament's tendency to be beyond our consciousness, since we are charged from birth with the task of translating the unknown into the known, of making silence speak, of sending our imaginations in search of the truth. I was born in earthquake country, and therefore I paint into the scene some roses bright from the minerals churning in the land.
Making silence speak.
How do I go beyond memory to find my father's mother after she attempted to give me her heirloom earrings, to pierce me with love? Possibly she went into the kitchen and scrubbed dishes. Silence and loudly running water. In my bodily tissue, fragile as wet paper, without knowing it, I was already writing down that somehow I had managed to disappoint her from the start.
Her name was Maria de Amparo Serpa Vaz, but she preferred to be called Mary. She was born in Angra do Heroísmo, the capital of Terceira in the Azores. The ocean air around the islands is said to swarm with the voices of drowned fishermen and pirates; the water and words are joined into a death-filled, living reverberation, pounding beyond the audible. She came from a fiery place and a fierce family. (Her aunt once knocked down a bayonet-waving soldier in order to bring bread into a village under quarantine.) How had fate tied her to such a goggle-eyed, mute changeling like me?
I grew up into a quiet child, though my head swam with words, a white-water rush. Sometimes the spume of them left a froth that I could see in my mind after the words had passed. For the life of me, I could not figure how to grasp a sentence out of that fast-running current to answer a simple question put to me. When I was older and read Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior, about a Chinese girl in Stockton whose classmates gang up to scream, "Speak! Say something!" while the tears run down her face and still, still she cannot utter a reply, I at last realized that I was far from being alone.
I had a pronounced fear of doing or saying anything that might lead to a confrontation—that is, to an acute awareness of myself as a physical being. Vó spoke Portuguese but had to learn English, and the studious avoidance of mistakes must have struck her as a distasteful luxury. Sometimes, though, at family parties, she tied up my hair with a ribbon from a gift box, and I sat like a surprise package on her lap, as if she were waiting for permission to open me. This silence I read as love so fragile that words would have marred it.
When I was twelve, I noticed that certain truths, plain or melodic, could only be expressed in the written word. Writers tapped into the wellspring that everyone carried around but never got to use in everyday speech. I would not write to say what I thought, but to invite everything I did not know. I was happy to dive inside myself but longed to plunge into the world in some fluid but literal way, which translated itself into the launching of my lifelong affection for swimming. Every day in summer, my sister Maria and I jumped into the pool at Castro Valley High. I moved in larky configurations with other people, arms and legs weightless, silence enriched with a flow of shapes and shades, as if we were darting inside a painting. When I leapt from the high dive, the finger of a stretching, invisible glove caught me in blueness, lucid and tactile, yet pleasingly blurred, like the double vision when I took off my glasses on land. We were fearless. Maria and I kicked anyone who tried to drown us. I inhaled the hormonal top notes perfuming everyone's skin. One can assemble a down-to-earth Baptism anywhere: under the spray of water, with the throb of the physical below mystery's drape.
But eventually I had to return to the surface, where Vó's passion for tidiness was increasing. When leaves scuttled like little monkeys' paws over the walkway near her apartment, she slammed them into the trash. She hung towels over the plastic bags covering her clothing, and once a week she laundered the towels. She scoured enough to wear down metal and dusted until I realized that hers was the only place I had seen where no motes danced in the light. Ramparts of pure air entered where she was.
I was another project and needed fattening up. Imprisoned at her kitchen table, I faced platters of fried chicken while portraits of Jesus and the Pope stared down. A river of soprano notes flooded in from the two dozen canaries she kept in the huge cage outside. These birds were lime, orange, and the color that children use to depict the sun, and their music poured through her immaculate rooms and onto busy East 14th Street, past Pring's Restaurant with its neon chicken dressed in chaps. I sat caught in this river between the garish bird and the beautiful ones, but this rapturous tension did not save me. Vó said, "You eat like a bird, Katherine," and rinsed the plates of whatever I rejected.
One day the firmness of her touch led to a disaster between us. At a cousin's Baptism, Vó decided that I would be lost in the sea of people outside the church if she did not clasp my hand and lead me along. I was beyond holding hands with a grownup, and I stopped in my tracks, prying at her heavy fingers and pulling my arm to loosen her grip. Where were my parents? My memory is contracted into nothing but this tug-of-war with my grandmother. I was sick with fury that she was stronger.
She jerked me to her and leaned down to say, "I don't want to lose you." Her hat, a black veil attached to black feathers, looked like a bird's wing dipping down a net for a sea catch out of her eyes.
I offered no reply.
She would not let me go even when we were seated in the pew. My hand sweated, trapped, inside the hand of my perpetual laundress of a grandmother while the Baptism provided its laundering service for the soul. Our Carmelite Sisters of Charity, an order airlifted out of Spain during its Civil War to settle in an unlikely California suburb, would draw hearts on the blackboard at school, fill them in with chalk, and then erase the blotted interiors to demonstrate what the sacrament sets out to do. Without this washing away of original sin, our inheritance from Adam's fall, we would be denied admission to heaven.
My baptized cousin, startled by the violent shock of cold water, screeched on the altar right as an awful notion seized me. Vó was assuming that I did not want to hold her hand because I was ashamed of her or did not love her.
I twitched in dismay and breathed out a small echo of the cry of the baptized child, and Vó read my discomfort in a reasonable way. She concluded that I was continuing to fret, and she dropped my hand.
We did not speak for the rest of the day, now terrible with the weight of her declaring, Good-bye, then; I'll let you go.
Again—again!—I was speechless with Vó the afternoon I found her weeping over a dead canary. It was the treasured one that she kept in a cage inside. They shared a formalized goodnight routine, trilling to each other before the ceremonial draping of the cage with a clean, ironed cloth. She chatted to her prized canary throughout the day, and it sang back wildly. For her it dressed up the void better than I could.
I might have run to her or embraced a sadness we could bear together, but I froze. She was embarrassed by my stance, as well as by her tears, out of proportion to the death of this minute creature. The faraway gaze she let sweep over me announced that she was crying over more than her widowhood, more than this bird, more than I knew, and more than she could express even if she could name it.
I had not yet learned her truest history. That would come much later. For now, my discovery was more general. The most precious, semi-sealed dimension of everyone else was silent, too, and overflowed to create intensifications in the silence surrounding us all. We must deal with real people in real rooms, or else "mystery" is only so much embroidered air. When I went away to college, I lacked the words to tell her that this lesson was one of her parting gifts to me.
My college roommate, Lee Haines, took everything I possessed about silence, water, and words and forced it into action. She often drove us very fast in her green Volvo sports car from our Santa Barbara apartment to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to view the heated ridges on the impressionist paintings. She did batiks using Australian aboriginal designs; she filled notebooks with line drawings; she once undertook Japanese raku ceramic firing at the University of California kiln and spent a panicked hour extinguishing a fire she set in some nearby straw. We read books, cooked dinner for friends, went to parties. We swam in the ocean. Am I making her sound as if she rushed from one feat to the next? What my best friend taught me was slowness. A person should carefully but definitely remove the wrapping of a day and express pleasure, and then lift the day into view.
Did I want pierced ears? (Vó associated earrings with birth, but I linked them to being an adult.) Very well; Lee would take me to the nurse in the jewelry department at Nordstrom's.
I pierced my ears.
Did I want to write? Fine; I must begin.
My silence took a dedicated turn because of Lee. Every morning from six to nine, no matter how late I had stayed up the evening before or how assiduously I was falling in or out of love with one boy after another, I sat in one of the peach-colored study carrels in the library and copied out stories to seep inside them and see how a writer constructed the underwater bridges. I followed the tributaries in Proust, mapped the conflicts in Flaubert, studied transitions in Fitzgerald.
The baptized are often referred to as the receivers of stories, with the sacrament framing a poetry of belief. Out of this comes grace, which is often described in aquatic terms, as the thirteenth-century mystic, Mechthild of Magdeburg, put it, "a heavenly flood out of the spring of the flowing Trinity." I was pursuing a secular version of this, what Philip Larkin in his poem "Water" calls the religion he would like to invent, with "images of sousing" and a litany that employs a "furious, devout drench." For me that meant finding some marriage of water and words that referred not only to language on a page but to the living ways in which people in their bodies could happen upon wonder as they moved through the unpredictable, sensuous world. Virginia Woolf captures this in her story "Kew Gardens." Characters stroll toward the shade, and the sun melts them into patches of light and drops of color and water. These people assume a stillness unto death as they sink down, but their words have also splashed to the ground and will remain vital in the landscape.
I wrote beginner's stories and was so saturated with words, and a love of them, that useful, practical sentences ebbed out of me, letting me speak on and on with friends, with professors, with strangers.
With my grandmother. The clothing of the seventies appalled her, and she sniffed that only wealthy kids would mock the poor by wearing tatters. Bur when I came home and visited her, she threw her arms around me until I inhaled the bath powder off her neck. Lilacs. Soaped flesh. I hugged her back. Her black, wavy hair was now iron. I think she considered college as the future into which smart children vanished, abandoning their immigrant grandparents. When she saw my pierced ears, she released a shout of happiness and offered me some earrings.
While I put them on—gold filigree hoops—she got out a bottle of Galliano to mark the ceremony.
"Don't tell your father I'm giving you a drink," she said. She giggled, and the lilting of the outdoor canaries projected the tints of their bodies like streamers into the air around us.
"Promise me. This is our secret, you and me."
"I promise, VóVó," I said. My hand rested near hers on the spotless tablecloth. She often wore neatly pressed slacks now, no more solid black but the grays worn by Portuguese widows to show they have risen beyond mourning but not quite into the levity of color.
She washed the bottle's lip, resealed it, and rinsed the sponge before setting it on a paper towel to dry. (Some things were not going to change.) Did I need her to ask Saint Anthony for some favors this week? I received good grades in college, but did I need his help with love? I admitted that I did. Every day she lit candles and knelt with her rosary and petitions for her grandchildren, and she liked giving the saint highly specific requests.
Vó and I found a torrent of words and—not exactly water. Galliano was sweeter, something much better.
Did I hear that my shy Tia Conceisção had survived breaking her neck? Quiet people could be the toughest. Did I know that Mrs. Correia thought in a language of color? This skill ran in her family. Mrs. Correia could not use a telephone because numbers looked to her like fishhooks strewn on a white beach. My father dabbed different shades over the numerals on her phone dial and made a placard with pictures of the hospital, police station, and his house matched up with necklaces of seven dabs of color to replicate each phone number. Now she could dial chromatically. Mrs. Correia made shopping lists in tinted codes; I wish she had transcribed her dreams.
My godmother, Clementina, informed me that back home in the Azores, Vó had been a lively party girl, a bawdy gossip. Amazing! She never spun any illicit tales for me, and I consoled myself with the reminder that she still pictured me as the bird at her table, weak of stomach. At least now the storyteller in her wanted to coax out the storyteller in me. I volleyed back funny, censored reports of my adventures in college.
Vó would die before the deepest part of me connected to the deepest part of her. But it was my friend who first spoke to me out of death's wide silence. In 1980, when Lee and I were both twenty-five and I was already several years married in Los Angeles, she was diagnosed with the brain tumor that would kill her over the length of a year.
Lee underwent radiation treatments at George Washington University Hospital in Washington, D.C., and suffered an affliction called "auras." Impulses in the pit of her stomach triggered sensations in a jumble of memories that, as she wrote in her journal, "arc really half-memories, because they happen too fast to register as anything remembered." Tastes—burnt corn, metal—entered her mouth, and dustbins of non sequiturs got overturned in her brain. Her right side was paralyzed; she wrote slowly with her left hand.
Her parents, Helen and Jerry, moved her back to southern California, and now and then I picked her up in my car and took her on outings. My husband was insisting that I help him in his failing catering business, and I was eager to flee whenever I could. One visit that will never leave me was when she asked if we could walk to the library for a book on Asian art; her knowledge of it was lacking. She needed a cane and leaned on my arm, but my strongest impression was that this was Lee being herself, not Lee concocting a brave final year.
When I visited her in Whittier before her surgery, we swam in her parents' pool and talked until the night chill made them call us in, a grand dissolving of words with water. When I said goodbye, she walked me to the door, though I told her not to trouble herself. "Of course I should," she said. "I need to do everything as long as I'm able."
Speech failed her after the surgery was unsuccessful. Her tongue stopped forming words. By the time I brought Lee a scarf, she was beyond caring about covering her head. When I brought chocolate at my next visit, she could not swallow. What was left for us was to sit together, no speaking possible, with me in awe at being allowed into this most intimate realm, that of a person's own dying. Her gift to me was to enclose her fears inside herself. When my death came, maybe I would resurrect this wedded physical and spiritual power of not being afraid.
She reserved a stunning tribute for her parents. Over dinner in the hospital's cafeteria, they suddenly stared at each other and raced back to her room. She was calling to them across a vast space and held on long enough for them to be at her side and say good-bye. Such a surge of grace—what a furious, devout drench of love from Lee, and from them back to her, to make silence profoundly speak.
I have a photograph of the sun pinning flowers of mild fire onto Lee's brown hair. The autumn leaves are scarlet. She is in Washington, D.C., bundled in a red-snowflake sweater. That her face tilts upward with joy is not surprising, since she is an artist in an outpouring of shades. What startles me is that when this photo was taken, she already knew about her tumor. Agony awaits; the time is even now upon her. But what a celebration, this flooding of carmine and auburn, this untamed, bloody painting of leaves, and with her so beautiful that she and her landscape do not fear anything, including suffusions of death.
Above my desk, I keep an ink drawing she made for me—"Two Guards," figures with their arms crossed and their hair rigid in fright. Although in the photograph Lee is calm, in her artwork she depicts dread, and I admire her range just as I distrust bravado incapable of sorrow. Two pictures—one of who she is temporally and the other an example of the artistic permanence we can create, if only we imagine that our life begins at once and not at some indefinable point when we decide we are prepared.
Memory deserted me when I composed a eulogy; shock erased parts of my mind. I ended up talking about us using her green car to escape. My husband did not attend the service. Death frightened him (which scared me about him), and he added that a funeral would hardly bring her back. In going by myself to join the congregation saying good-bye to Lee, I knew that I was about to plummet quite alone into much more.
While working in my husband's catering business, I spent an hour after a party picking frillpicks off a lawn. The hostess stood bossing me around, and I pretended that I was hunting Easter eggs as I found the yellow, red, and blue cellophane on the toothpicks. Night was falling. This was a relief, not to camouflage my humiliation but because I had stopped eating—food nauseated me—and the boils now covering me caused people in daylight to stare. It looked as if my insides had exploded and were working through my skin. In the dark, I merely looked like a creature spray-painted over chicken bones.
I did not write; I quit swimming.
My marriage ended.
Dying underscores the duality of nature and spirit: Is the flesh our garrison? Or is the soul solidly who we are, rather than the body as it fulfills its obligation to fail us? Why this divide? Why did my wasting away seem inextricable from a waning of my spirit? As C. S. Lewis remarked, "We fear ghosts and dislike corpses ... in reality we hate the division which makes possible the conception of either corpse or ghost."
Mrs. Correia, who thought in color, passed away in her sleep. My mother's mother died; I had adored her quick wit and grand-dame past as a flapper in New York. A man I met and liked stopped calling me, and then I read in the newspaper that he had died.
Vó was dying of stomach cancer when I was a floater, a divorced woman crashing on a borrowed futon and piecing together unremarkable money as a copy editor. I returned to the sense that she disapproved of me. I fumbled around asking if I could do anything for her, but all she wanted was to stay alive long enough for my brother's wedding. When I adjusted the bandana on her thinning hair, she flinched.
We did, however, manage a fond exchange. My godmother, Clementina, offered to buy me a ticket so that I would accompany her to Portugal—ocean, a language full of "shh, shh" sounds—but we were reluctant to go with Vó so ill. But Vó insisted; she wanted us to take an envelope with her photograph and a few dollars and leave it at the shrine in Fátima, where the Virgin Mary appeared to three shepherd children in 1917. We would team up in a last-ditch appeal for a miracle.
On a blazing hot anniversary of the apparition, Clementina and I pushed through the crowds to leave my grandmother's face at this nexus where the Church agreed that one world met the other.
I was back in California to see Vó on my brother's wedding day, but she was not well enough to attend. As I was leaning forward to hug her good-bye, she hurried me out of her apartment along with my parents, brothers, and sisters. What looked like cinders were lifting off her scalp, and it was this hint of ash that undid me, but she had no interest in an unkempt scene. She kissed us hastily, telling us to leave or we would be late, and shut the door. Her final comment to one of my brothers was that she disliked the suit he had chosen.
Only her sister, my Tia Conceição, stayed with her while the rest of us went to the wedding. Vó had already died when bidding us farewell, but willpower—her refusal to mar the start of a happy day with the messiness of dying—had propelled her to bustle and urge us along. After we departed, she donned her sea-dark burial dress and collapsed.
Her ability to array herself minutes away from death was haunting, because the simplest acts of willpower began to elude me. Every time I looked in my closet, a panicked inner voice said: Just pick out a dress, take it off the hanger, and put it on. I could not move. I didn't know that this was heartbreak. It didn't register for years that I was learning to have compassion for everyone's story, especially for the ways in which we observe ourselves and miss the obvious. The few photos of me back then in Los Angeles show a skeleton. I was learning forgiveness for people's tossed-off habit of saying, Sure, I'd love to have a nervous breakdown if I could find the time. My faithful sister Maria, living in Pasadena, came by to dress me and take me swimming with orders that I build back up, starting with one lap, and that I compose a few sentences and wait for the reservoir to refill.
At our Baptism, we were made permanently receptive to grace. But it need not arrive in one tremendous flood, cleansing away all pain. It is better to learn, slowly, how to retain a knowledge of sorrow. Grace can flow to us in increments, hardly noticed, if we cling to ways of baptizing each day. My rebirth had been cast before I was born: My father, August, offered me a lifelong example of staying routinely open to grace.
He has painted every day since he was a boy, through decades of teaching and into his retirement. When he was nineteen, he decorated his father's car tarp with a Last Judgment scene. He completed a roaring ocean during one of my screaming jags as an infant. Sometimes he stacks finished canvases so rapidly that they dry together and make kissing noises when pried apart. As an historian, he believes that any occurrence or person who ever lived coexists with us and is a worthy subject. In his variation of "Where's Waldo," for a diversion, he will wander in history and paint himself as a Brueghel-like dancing peasant or a gentleman disembarking from a train on the Barbary Coast.
One brushstroke follows another. This inventiveness, this expansiveness about time—this daily, baptismal impulse to welcome creation—must have inspired me to write one page and then another. Bad and good days dissolved into a sense of the continuous present. I published a novel about a mute girl who uses a language of color, and then I finished the research for my next book.
Joy—especially its return after a long time receded—finds other joy. I married a man I met in water. He told me about the "language of light," the realm of the animals so far into the ocean's darkness that they speak by pulsating their phosphorescent bodies.
I became a godmother to Maria's son, Daniel Duarte, my parents' first grandchild (and later to my sister Teresa's son, Joseph). He wore the Irish lace gown. A white garment symbolizes newness; despite centuries of quarrels over Baptism's meaning, its symbols and actual ceremony are little changed since the earliest known monographs, Tertullian's De Baptismo, written in the year 200 in North Africa, and fifteen years later, the Treatise on the Apostolic Tradition by Saint Hippolytus. There has always been some form of an exorcism (disavowal of sin), a pouring of water, words, and an anointing with oil (chrism). Salt might be administered on the tongue to signify the ocean, immortality.
Thousands of candles have, over the years, burned an implacable scent of wax into the air of St. Leander's Church, the parish of my sister, her husband, Derek, and their son. Father Mangini asked me to speak for Daniel: Had he renounced evil? I replied that he had, although he was misbehaving and fussing, and I was afraid I might drop him. Maria was sighing at Daniel's loud stage manner. During the Profession of Faith, he was shrieking.
"Hey," whispered my brother Mark, "that's some farewell to old Satan."
Daniel also did not much care for the pouring of water on his head. His face went crimson. His godfather, Chris Duarte, comforted him. Daniel's memory will not retrieve this day, any more than I can recall my own Baptism, but as a godmother I could perceive how graphically this sacrament threatens to be our first consigning of ceremony to empty gesture, the spiritual equivalent of getting an inoculation. Or a ticket punched, just in case there's a gatekeeper in heaven. If Baptism causes violent upheaval by invoking divine grace, why do so many of us regard it as merely the washing away of that chalk-white heart of original sin? This conjures the specter of the Reformation, when Protestants objected that Baptism had indeed dwindled into a quasi-magical rite.
One of my father's decorated candles blazed on the altar. Daniel quieted down after Father Mangini anointed him with oil. Holding my nephew in my arms, I was dismayed at any assertion that we are born as stained creatures.
Saint Augustine played a substantial role in this emphasis upon original sin, and my father would gladly paint this historical figure, his patron saint, onto the scene as we line up for photos. Derek is one of ten children; everyone begins jostling around.
"This isn't photography," says my mother, Elizabeth, to the man with the camera. "This is crowd control."
I picture Saint Augustine's skin dried out from his years as the Bishop of Hippo on Africa's seacoast—and from his earlier career of dissipation. "Remember my famous anguished cry, `O Lord make me pure, but not just yet?'" he murmurs to me. "I wanted the Church to be for sinners as well as saints. We're heir to flesh that's weak."
"The condition of concupiscence," my mother says. "You drove your poor mother crazy. Now pipe down and line up."
I wonder out loud about the point of being baptized as a child. Though I'm aware that it makes us receptive to grace for the rest of our lives, why not wait until we can bring that awareness to the ceremony? Adults once consciously chose faith: Lent used to be preferred for the catechumenate (phase of preparation), with Easter as the ideal day for Baptism, to be followed swiftly by Confirmation and the Eucharist. These still constitute the "sacraments of initiation."
Saint Augustine is in a fever of being misunderstood. "We're inclined to sin from birth, and we need God's grace from the beginning to combat it," he says. Besides, once the apostles started carrying out Christ's directive that Baptism was necessary for salvation, the urgency about baptizing infants was inevitable.
Into St. Leander's wanders Pelagius, the theologian who challenged Augustine by denying the existence of original sin and declaring that man was in charge of his moral fortunes and could choose not to go astray. He casts a judging eye on me; shouldn't Daniel wait until he can consent to making an act of faith? "It's up to the individual to establish himself as holy in the divine sight," he says.
"Justification," says my mother. She knows all the terms. "You keep quiet, too."
"A person must be justified, made open to grace, from the beginning, or it won't happen," Augustine insists, eyes crazed. Didn't he persuade the bishops in A.D. 416 to condemn the teachings of Pelagius? Why can't a person ever be over and done with his rivals?
|7.||Anointing of the Sick||193|
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