Sunday, May 9, 2010

Mother's Day

I've never been big on Mother's Day, a holiday I consider to have been popularized, if not created, by Hallmark Cards. But when you miss a call and then call back, and your three-year-old granddaughter answers the phone and says "Happy Mother's Day" in her sweet precise little voice, and then your one-year-old granddaughter comes on the line and says "Hi....Hi....Hi," and then keeps wanting to talk more after her mom takes over--well, that's jist kinda nice. Nice, too, to know that the lines are open between me and both of my lovely adult daughters. And that there is Skype.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Cotton Balls, etc.

I was wiping my face with a lotion-dampened cotton ball yesterday morning, thinking about cotton balls. In my childhood my father was a foreman in a mill where these and other cotton products were made, and sometimes I would go with him to the mill when he changed the clocks in the spring or fall, or at other times when he was about to quit work for the day. I saw the giant cards in action; can still remember the hissing sound that something on that floor made, and feel the dampness of the air. On another floor of the mill, I saw the women tending large machines that fed in multiple strips of cotton sliver to roll a line of cotton balls like puffy beads on a metal core rod; and then, when the balls were big enough, halting the machines, which then cut the sliver and slicked the ends onto the ball; and then stripping the balls off the rods into a ready paper bag.

All that was in my mind as I wiped my face. I had recently found a box of cotton balls brought from my parents’ house—sterile ones in an inner paper bag. I suppose they cost more than the ordinary plastic bag of cotton balls. But I have for a long time been disgusted by the cotton balls sold in those plastic bags. They seem to be made of dryer lint, and on top of that they are made in China. When I realized I had finally used up my stash of them, I went hunting for more cotton balls in my bathroom drawers and came up with this box, containing silky balls made from real cotton sliver, not dryer lint. Use them for cosmetic instead of first-aid purposes? Why not! First aid emergencies involving cotton balls come up awfully seldom when you live alone, and a little luxury, at least on that scale, seems okay, especially when the money was spent years ago by my parents. Today, using one of the luxurious little balls, I mused that it had probably been made in the U.S., remembered the machines, and remembered two little stories.

When I was in grade school, there were at least two times during the year when the school’s art classes were challenged to make construction paper posters for a competition. One kind was the Safety Poster; the other was the Poppy Poster. (It was the late fifties, after all. Maybe such competitions go on to this day, but somehow I doubt it.) These were not particularly fun events for me. I have always been artistically challenged. I have never really known what it was to have an artistic idea, become imbued with the purpose of realizing it, and find the means to accomplish that purpose. But all of us made posters, and after all it was an art class assignment. So I made them, dutifully and without inspiration.

One time—sixth grade, maybe?—I made a poster that won first prize. It was a rendering in crayon—pretty goofy, I imagine—of a cotton ball machine with a woman tending it. I suppose I put little tufts of cotton where the cotton balls were forming at the front of the machine. The motto, delivered in block letters cut out and pasted on with the guidance of penciled lines, I still remember: A SAFE WORKER IS A HAPPY WORKER. How did I know what the cotton ball machine looked like? Well, as related above, I had been fortunate enough to see it in action. That is my whole claim to any excellence on that poster: information. Oh, and maybe just the tiniest bit of understanding of perspective—which, I hope, persists and may even be the subject of this essay.

I am a little proud that I won. But what is memorable still, much more than the honest pride, is that when the art teacher announced first, second, and third place, and I heard my name for first place, I feigned amazement. Well, in a way I really was a little startled; as I have said, I have never had any illusions about my artistic ability. But I stood up with my mouth open, looking around to make sure several people registered my shock. I knew I was not a good artist. But truth to tell, even by then I was ever prepared to be praised; and even by then I was nearly incapable of surprise. This event, in recalling to me these two rather dubious and long-lasting character traits, stands for something bigger than itself. I suppose it is my ambivalent reconcilement to my own nature, to the shabbiness that coexists with all that may be good in me and sometimes, to me at least, seems to vitiate it.

Pride goeth before a fall. Much later, I was at an event, probably an art show, at our town’s Bridge of Flowers. (It’s a charming trolley-bridge garden that has always been associated with hometown pride and has put Shelburne Falls, Mass., on the map for many a traveler—go see it if you can). A hastily-lettered sign thumb-tacked to a door caught my eye. There was something familiar about it. Oddly enough, my name, in my handwriting, was on a square of white paper at one corner. I looked at the back. It was my most recent poppy poster.

Now, as I think about it, as then, this recycling seems both laudable and offensive. Of course it makes sense to reuse expensive construction paper that cost the school system money and has no other current use. But in public! where the person who made the poster might see it! Yes, in my career I threw away student essays, when they were orphaned long past the ends of semesters. And yes, I recycled most of them without shredding them. Still, I wouldn’t have used the back side of an abandoned essay to write memos to my colleagues or to post “Back at 10:30” on my door. My indignation then seems valid now.

But how comical it is now to pair those two incidents, both of which illuminate the tawdry but realistic little ego with which I am both blessed and cursed.