Archive for the ‘Essays’ Category



I’ve waited too long. It’s nine in the morning, but the heat is already climbing. It’s too late now for my usual walk in Eaton Canyon. On a day like this, the snakes will be out, weaving their sinuous paths on top of the silty trails. My daily exercise will need to take another form. I decide to ride my bike the one mile to Jean’s house to pick up her Silver Anvil.

The Silver Anvil is an award given annually for outstanding performance by the Public Relations Society of America. Jean was awarded hers in the 1960′s. The award itself is about ten inches tall, shaped like an anvil and weighs upwards of eight pounds. Why I feel this must be shipped to Syracuse University where Jean’s life and papers are archived, is beyond me. An over-scrupulous sense of duty has always weighed on me. And now it is in my backpack.

The last time I rode my bike to Jean’s was the day she died, four months ago. Peggy had called to say the hospice doctor had told her Jean was going fast, though at ninety-three and bedridden for a decade, it had hardly been a rush. But I rushed to see her one more time. I listened to her rasping, rattling breath. I told her I loved her. My car had been acting up so I left after a while and took my ailing Volkswagen in for a new battery. The dealership had brought me home.

My phone was ringing when I walked through the door. Jean had died. I hopped on my only available transportation and rode my bike to her house. Peggy, Jean’s caregivers and I waited quietly for the mortuary people and then the hospice worker, who flushed all of Jean’s drugs down the toilet. I mourned the morphine. As the attendants

wheeled Jean’s body out on a gurney, Peggy noted that Jean always said she’d have to be taken from her charming cottage, her home of forty-four years, “feet first.” She left with one possession: a small plush skunk she’d named Percy, that never left her side. He had even been x-rayed with her once in the hospital. When it came time for us all to leave, my bike had a flat and I walked it home.

I’ve now spent four months pouring through Jean’s “stuff”. As Peggy and I break down the house, I find myself accumulating things I’d never thought about before. What was I doing? Did I need eight more water glasses? Five red candles? A brass bottle opener shaped like a squirrel?

Things we keep out of remembrance we often forget. They molder in our attics and garages. The crocheted linen table runners, the jade cats, the twisted strands of costume pearls, the dove gray three-quarter length gloves, the scarab rings, the silk shawls, the coasters from the Dordogne.

And the paper. An ego-driven imperative pushes some of us to write it all down to save. “Because the flesh can’t stay, we pass the words along,” Eric Jong said her Poem to Keats. As Jean’s literary executor, I’d spent four months marinating in paper.

I began with her office drawers and file cabinets. As a poet, essayist, columnist, editor, teacher and lecturer, Jean had a prodigious amount of paper. She maintained a voluminous correspondence and kept carbon copies of her letters. Pages scotch-taped together half a century ago fell apart in my hands. The yellowed tape was crystallized like mica and crumbled in shards through my fingers.

For weeks I worked alone in the quiet of her house. “This house feeds me,” she’d said many times. Her peaceful haven, surrounded by trees and a shaded garden, nourished me as well. The redwood house with its wide front porch was filled with things that pleased the eye and touch. Stones collected from the river in Big Sur, art, calligraphy, jade figurines of cats, brass bells and candlesticks, silver and turquoise combs that pinned up her waist-length hair. There was jewelry of all kinds, handkerchiefs, gloves, silk slips, classic shoes, a mink stole. Paintings, many of them very old, were lorded over by a large oil portrait of her father at four. There were mirrors and mahogany bureaus. A mezuzah graced her front door. Jean sipped from all religions “as needed” and drank in any parts that quenched her spiritual fires. Cartoons, many of Snoopy, adorned her walls along with photos clipped from magazines and newspapers of animals, especially cats. A large poster of Koko with her kitten hung on the bedroom door. The ashes of Jean’s last cat, Mrs. Pennington, rested in a small “cremains” box at the top of a bookcase. Photos of poets, writers, statesmen, lovers, philosophers, ministers and mystics were thumb tacked in her study next to family photos. A picture of Jean at three playing with blocks showed her apparently spelling out the word “Zen.” There were cupboards of LP’s of symphonic music along with poets such as Dylan Thomas and Auden reading their work. There were walls, and walls, and walls of books. You could look through her house for weeks and keep unraveling the story of her life, as if following an eternal skein.

Our interest in buried treasure, stockpiling the past, keeping mementos, and establishing value for art, all seems rooted in our longing for safety. Hoarding stuff, as a

homeless person pushing a shopping cart loaded with things that could be useful someday, seems more like the basis of success for storage companies and eBay. Even things that help us understand who we are bore us eventually, and we look to someone else’s objets, something new to fill that hungry place inside that is forever emptying itself. We appropriate patina and wear it as our own.

After Jean’s death, Peggy made a trip up the coast to Cambria with a friend. She marveled at the antique shops they perused. Most were full of the same stuff we had been crating up at Jean’s.

Stuff acquires and looses meaning. After we look at the same painting, statue, nut dish or vase for thirty years, we often no longer see it. We’re lucky when we see it differently, or better. If the way light falls on a painting of a four-year-old boy from long ago continues to refresh us, we’re glad. His golden curls devour and surpass time. We become sojourners, and not merely trespassers to the past.

Jean’s last name was Burden. I strapped the weighted backpack across my shoulders and headed home.




            We are so penitent.   With our chins resting on the rail of the kneeler, we wait our turns in the darkened church for candles to be crossed at our throats.  We wait for ashes to be formed into smudged crosses on our foreheads by the thumb of the priest.  We are so sorry about everything, about how it all turned out.  We are eight years old.

            Incense hangs heavy near the altar.  The priest is flanked by altar boys our age.  They move back and forth in their flowing robes, blessing every uniformed child, our eyes cast down, our hands pressed together, thumbs locked, fingers pointing toward heaven.  Our favorite statues lord over us, shrouded in purple.  We have to wait now for forty days, the length of time that Christ wandered in the desert, until Easter, when the stone gets rolled away and Jesus comes out all cleaned up wearing white clothes and floats into heaven with little flames coming out of his hands. 

For forty days, we have to give up candy and lying.  We have to be nice to our brothers.  We have to help our mothers.  We have to pray for the poor souls in purgatory.  (It doesn’t occur to us until much later that maybe our mothers are already in purgatory.)  And then there are the babies stuck in limbo, the ones that died before baptism, stained with original sin.

There is a lot for us to worry about.   Mainly, we worry about what it would be like to have thorns pressed into our heads and then get beaten and nailed to a cross. We are told this happened because of us, that this was our fault, even though we weren’t even born yet.  We hadn’t had time to commit a sin, much less an original one. 

We wear our ashes all day.  They are marks of pride and distinction.  They separate us from the Episcopalians our mothers permit us to be friends with since they live next door.  We don’t know any Baptists or Jews because they live in a faithless part of the world that is not redeemed.  Near the Congo.  Or the Bronx.  In fact, we don’t know very much at all except the four gospels, the Ten Commandments, the seven deadly sins, the eight Beatitudes and the twelve fruits of the Holy Ghost.  Things we can count on.



Michael From Mountains


“Up over the stars,
Sweet well water and pickling jars –
We’ll lend you the car, we always do
Yes, we always do”

Joni Mitchell

I’ve spent the last hour trying to remember the title of this song.  It was on Joni Mitchell’s first album, “Clouds”, which, like many of her LPs, had a self-painted self-portrait on the jacket cover. We were all Joni Mitchell fans then, with our long hair parted down the middle.  But we were more than fans.  We were Joni Mitchell. We were also Judy Collins and Joan Baez and Buffy St. Marie.  Darcy and I would sit in our USC dorm room, pretty and privileged, playing guitar, wearing black brimmed hats and smoking Tareytons and talking about the war and Ezra Pound and abortion.  We were art and film majors.  We wore wide, ripped bellbottoms and nothing but dirt from the 32nd Street Market on our bare feet. We were smart and lucky and only a few of us had ever faced any real heartache.  We slept with black men, Indians, Dutch, Germans and Jews, but not each other.  That wasn’t as cool then as it is now. We dated Japanese painters and law students who were rabbi’s sons.  “Woke up, it was a Chelsea morning…”

Joni Mitchell came to Bovard Auditorium and stood on the stage alone with her guitar.  Her honey-colored fringed leather shirt was tucked into a matching long leather skirt.  I was there with Wim (as in ‘vim and vigor’) who hailed from the Netherlands and looked a little like Art Garfunkel.  He was an engineering grad student. I liked him because he was European with that great accent and because he lived in a rambling old Victorian nicknamed “Ellis Island”.  The house was full of students from around the world, most of whom did not wear shirt protectors for their pens. Wim was a kindly snore. But he took me to see Joni Mitchell and didn’t openly expect me to have sex with him afterward.  The sign of either a true gentleman or a gentle bore.










                                                    an essay by


                                                Barbara Sweeney



            We enter through the pink marble portico and join the long line of people waiting for the seven o’clock dinner seating.  Our party consists of my husband, our two daughters, my husband’s sister, their mother and me.  We are at the Palace Court in San Francisco.  It is Christmas Day, 2000.

            In the foyer, a twelve-foot high, tiered Christmas “cake” constructed from paper sits in a brightly lit glass cabinet.  Each tier is decorated with winter icons: a skater, a child on a sled, wrapped presents and reindeer.  “Herman the German”, the name my husband uses to describe his mother behind her back because of her Teutonic lineage and demeanor, is treating us to this feast and leads us through the foyer to our place in line, her hot pink fringed cape trailing imperiously behind her.  All sorts of people are already in line, some formally dressed, others in jeans.  Following behind her like dutiful ducks, we fall somewhere in between. 

            It’s pretense as usual playing its starring role in another family Holiday Performance.  Recently separated, my still-husband and I are making a show of togetherness for our teenage children and for his family, which presently consists of his sister and mother.  Missing from the picture is his father, who is “no longer with us,” and his sister’s second husband who is serving time as a guest of the State of California for some questionable white-collar misjudgement.  I am busy trying to make mental peace with this tiny, viral in-law brigade when the seating for our meal begins.

We are led by one of many tuxedoed servers to our table at the end of the huge dining room domed by a vaulted glass atrium that soars above us.  A two-story live Christmas tree decorated with oversize fruit hoards the center of the room. A pianist in cut-away tails performs a glissando of “White Christmas”.

I want to sit down and toss back a glass of champagne, but Herman has other plans.  Clutching her pocketbook to her torso, she herds us into a room half the size of a football field where a buffet spectacle awaits.  I abandon the family and walk the expanse alone checking out the myriad possibilities.

The centerpiece of the celebration a table swooning under immense platters and vases filled with a continent’s supply of produce: oranges, apples, crab apples, pears and grapes.  I walk past stations for Japanese, Thai and Chinese food, including a sushi chef assembling dabs of wasabi.  There are banquet tables crowded with pates, cheeses and smoked fish.  There is a raw bar with fresh oysters, clams, curried mussels and a bountiful saffron crab salad.  There are carving stations for barons of beef, hams, legs of lamb, turkeys and assorted stuffings, squashes, potatoes, yams tossed with coconut and currants — and salads.  A dessert station features several Croque en Buche, Buche de Noel, chocolate raspberry tarts, gingerbreads, flans, chocolate and plain crème brulees, pear tarts, apple kuchen, pumpkin pies, decorated cookies and frosted cupcakes.  A treasure chest spills over with red licorice, M&M’s and gumdrops.  There is a crepe station (blueberry and chocolate), a sundae station (vanilla and coffee), omelettes, Eggs Benedict and all kinds of bread.

Best of all is the children’s buffet.  Set down within comfortable reach of people who are only three feet tall are silver chafing dishes laden with the unctuous foods of childhood: macaroni and cheese, French fries, chicken fingers (“Hey, we don’t even have fingers!”), lasagna and more treasure chests brimming with candy.

Cavernous emptiness is the phrase that comes to mind.  Abandoning both good taste and good judgment, I pile plates with smoked white fish, trout and salmon, curried squid, raw oysters, pate, cheese, crackers, roast beef with horseradish sauce, mashed potatoes, coconut yams, brussel sprouts, Chinese spareribs, spring rolls, shrimp, ice cream, maraschino cherries and cream puffs. This requires many trips back to the stadium for re-supply.  I eat it all.  Many plates stack up around me.  I drink many glasses of champagne in between trips.  All of this is frowned upon by Herman.  But I don’t care, because her son and I will soon be divorced and I’m his guest, which separates me from her scorn. 

My husband steers his mother through the maze of offerings back to our table where she promptly pronounces everything “lousy”, “tasteless” and “perfectly awful.”  Her sour expression makes me worry that disaster looms within striking distance, that this place, which she chose, doesn’t measure up to her memory of what it once was.   Her tongue-clicking criticism is directed at everything that is not as it should be, as it was when ladies wore gloves, gentlemen opened doors and children were stifled Rockwellian creations folding their hands for grace.  Adolescent girls were especially not seen with blood red lipstick, which is the color our thirteen-year-old daughter has chosen for the evening.  “Can’t you do something about that lipstick?” Herman implores me, managing as usual to verbally hit my daughter and me with one stroke.  “Why don’t you talk to her about it if it bothers you,” the new me replies with a forkful of yam.  My husband tells his mother that the Zoloft she takes is the reason why she can’t taste her food.  She can’t hear him.

On one side of us, a table is occupied by what appears to be a family of gypsies.  Herman can tell they are gypsies because the women are gaudy and bosomy in cheap strapless gowns and they are thoroughly enjoying their meal.  The men all wear tuxes, and one of them, an older man, is palsied.  They seem to like each other. On the other side of us sits a pinched Waspish family with well-behaved young children that include little girls in red velvet dresses eating plates of strawberries and whipped cream.  

How many agitated holidays did we endure with me trying to keep my girls tidy in their red velvet dresses and their table manners under control?  How many dinners were spent trying to telepathically signal that running their young fingers through the candles or building nests in their stuffing was just going to make all of us miserable?  How long did we do this?  A quarter of a century is the phrase that comes to mind.

We take pictures.  Or, rather, our server, Elena, snaps photos of us with our many cameras.  I am included in the pictures, even though I am the “estrangled” wife and Herman may cut me out with scissors later as she does with family members who fall out of favor.  

I want to excuse myself before we get to the check-signing part of the meal.  Once, years ago, after seeing the Kirov ballet perform a darkly uninspired Swan Lake, Herman accused me of stealing one hundred dollars in cash from her purse which I was holding for her so she could manage her cape.  I can’t budge because the gypsies have boxed me in.

Herman pays the tab.  As we leave the building to hail a cab back to our hotel, my future ex-husband slides a piece of red licorice into the pocket of my cashmere coat.  He knows how much I love it.  Later, after all kinds of mix-ups with rooms and who will sleep with whom, I find another stick under my pillow.