Archive | Past Matters

Some Splinters Can Be Healed

I woke today thinking of Griswold Salve. I have no idea if anyone else knows this remedy, but when I was a kid my father always kept some around for splinters, which I then and now often got because of my unwillingness to wear shoes and generally take heed.

In my family, my father was the nurturer, which might’ve seemed improbable if you met my parents–my mom, with her soft tones and sympathetic expression, my dad with his booming voice and imperviousness to external stimuli (aka poor listening skills). But when I got hurt, I cried for my daddy, not my mother. He was soothing and methodical. Loving in the most patient of ways.

I almost liked slivers because of Griswold Salve and how my father applied it. Fetched at Nonantum’s Fox Drugstore (is that still there?), the salve resembled a tiny Tootsie Roll, almost obdurate in its lack of apparent purpose. Googling it now I see its ingredients were beeswax, mutton tallow, cedar oil, and something called oil shale (ammonium bituminosulfonate) but I regarded it as tantalizingly alchemical, like pliable petrified wood. Nothing you buy in drugstores now, that’s for sure.

While I was still yelping over the shock of a foreign object jammed in my body, (it’s a wonder I later consented to contacts, let alone tampons, let alone phalluses), my father would disinfect tweezers and a needle and ceremoniously strap on a headlamp to extract whatever part of the splinter he immediately could. To remove the rest, he would light a match to the end of what I thought was called Grisley Sal (lots of mafia in our neighborhood). It smelled like nothing else–pencils and trees and honeycomb, what I associate even now with trustworthy men and benevolent mystery. Smearing a melted bit on a Bandaid, he’d bandage my wound while murmuring sjoosjoosjoosjoo, a sound he said could heal anything. I believed him, because within a few days, the rest of the splinter always emerged. Sometimes I’d even save it–a talisman of my father’s powers.

I don’t know why I woke thinking of Griswold Salve, my unlikely madeleine. It’s hard to believe such an old-timey remedy was regularly used in my childhood; long ago it was taken off the market for high lead content. Also hard to believe I ever so wholly trusted anyone with my ailments–with my body, in general. But on some level, isn’t that what we all crave? The practical magic of simple effective care.

My daddy’s care.

Painting at Audre’s: Part II

This is the second and final installment of an essay that I began earlier this spring. It is a window into my book, to which I’ve been slowly returning as the world is too rapidly opening back up.

NYC has opened back up, and the smell of fresh paint suffuses every block, a top note to the concentration of garbage piling up on sidewalks, weed clouding every corner. For every person fleeing their Covid cave for fresher air and wider horizons, another is claiming a new base for big-city dreams, 16 months delayed.

It all involves an awful lot of fresh paint.

Some associate this scent with toxicity—chemicals, ill health, colonization. For me, it’s a gateway to an autumn four decades ago, when Audre resurfaced and the world first opened up.

Really, it was simple. One day Audre called up, and the following Friday, without disclosing any of the long-awaited details of their conversation, my mother whisked Jennie and me into Cambridge, where Audre had rented a long apartment on a tree-lined block between Central and Inman Square. It didn’t occur to any of us to bring my father because he never strayed from his Friday routine: popcorn, tea, computer manuals, sports radio, and bed at 8:30. Of course now substitute poetry for manuals and 70s film for sports radio and my routine is not that far off, but back then his diurnal rhythms seemed the ultimate in passive domination.

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Solstice Visitation: Space Crone Transcends

Last night was summer solstice and I stood in the darkness by the river, weeping without entirely knowing why. It had been a beautiful day but lonely. After sessions I had mourned my solitude even as I’d appreciated its authenticity.

Its charge.

I woke thinking of my grandmother’s funeral and knew she had come through again. She doesn’t return often–only when I really need her. She rarely shows up in a big glorious visitation because that’s not how my intuition works and that’s not how she works. She arrives in an essay, a wrinkle in time, a shining, shared solitude.

She died a few days before my 18th birthday; the funeral happened a few days after it. I was so conscious that no one could ever again legally lay claim upon either of our bodies.

We were free, and it was terrible.

I had loved my grandmother and not felt sure of her. That’s the best way to phrase it. It’s not that she didn’t talk. She spoke when she had something to say. She just wasn’t the type to hold forth. More, she was was the type who listened and to whom others paid court.

By default and by virtue of her quiet self-possession, she was the matriarch of our large, wild family. There was no patriarch. My grandfather had died when he was not much older than I am now, and I’m not sure he ever reigned easily. I never met him –he died months before my parents married–but heard tell of fights, fugues. Futwahs.

My grandmother reigned easily. Everyone confided in her—speedily, anxiously—and she listened with the lids of her large blue eyes lowered at half-mast. You could never tell if she was rapt or bored. That question lived at the center of every exchange she ever had, I think. Continue Reading →

"All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love."
― Leo Tolstoy