Day 13 of the Health Activist Writer’s Monthly Challenge, and an opportunity to write about the ten things I simply couldn’t live without. The things I have chosen may not be essential to my survival were I marooned on a desert island, but together these things are the very stuff of my life as I know it. Some are indeed the things I would rush to save were my house on fire, bringing to mind an old column by the late Erma Bombeck about what’s important to us beyond people, pets, and pictures.
- The telephone: not necessarily my very ”smart” iPhone … an old rotary dial will do. I was telling my best friend this morning that some of the most significant relationships of my life have been conducted, almost entirely, on the phone including, of late, the one I have with her. There’s too much busy freeway between our houses, too much traffic with which to contend. Far easier, sometimes, to carry on our conversations from the comfort of our own homes. Then, there are the long-distance phone calls with my mother that have officially marked the beginning of my weekends since I emigrated to America over 20 years ago; too, there are the more sporadic phone calls from childhood friends, the rhythm of home so familiar that we’ll easily fall into conversation, picking up where we left off years ago. It is by telephone, not the written word, that I have delivered and received the most important news in my life, sometimes the kind that can’t be shared quickly enough: “I got the job!” “I love you too.” “I’m going to have a baby!” “It’s a girl!” and the other kind that stops us cold, startling the silence too early in the morning or too late at night to be good news. From a friend whose husband has been killed in a car accident, “My darling is gone! Gone!” To a friend who, waiting for good news, answers on the first ring, only to hear, “I have cancer.” Connected by silence. Connected by phone. Connected.
- Books: I cannot imagine a life without reading, a home without books, a wallet without a library card. I love to make a book my own, so on our shelves, my books are those with “signs of wear,” dog-eared with great chunks of text underlined in red. One weekend last year, in a frenzy of “organizing,” I decided it was time to give away some of my books.
A bit like cleaning out a closet where I have to create criteria for those clothes that will stay and those that need to go, I decided that the only books to stay would be those with hardback covers and those with inscriptions. Which means we really didn’t give away too many. My favorites, to this day, include my Choice of Poets textbook and a collection of Modern Irish Short Stories both required reading in Fifth Form English. Edna O’Brien’s novels, Seamus Heaney’s poetry, Anna Quindlen’s essays, and books signed by authors and “important people” who have visited Phoenix – Sherman Alexie’s War Dances, a copy of The Good Friday Agreement which former Taoiseach John Bruton signed for me when he visited the World Council in Phoenix several years ago.
- My mother’s wisdom :
When I was a girl, facing some dilemma or other, I’d ask my mother for advice. More often than not, she’d preface her answer to my question with this question, “What would the wise woman do?”
Hence, my daughter’s beautiful name, Sophie, derived from the Greek for wisdom, and Elizabeth for my mother. Indeed, she is a very wise girl, strong without being harsh, gentle and kind without being a pushover.
- Music: After school, my friends and I used to go to Madden’s Cafe in Antrim to buy a cup of coffee, a Cadbury’s Bar Six, and a couple of tunes on the jukebox. A favorite was John Miles, “Music,” and “This Boy” by The Beatles. The former appealed to me only because of its lyrics: “Music was my first love, it will be my last. Music of the future. Music of the past.” Trite but true. As a child, I remember my father singing “Yellow Submarine” along with the car radio, then “Cecilia,” my middle name. Then there was my aunt who brought her portable record-player along when she came to babysit. I remember her carefully placing her copy of “The Twist” on the turntable, and subsequently spinning me around the room. As childhood gave way to adolescence, my pocket money was no longer handed over to Golden’s shop for sweets, but to Ronnie Miller’s Pop-In record shop for LPs. By the time I went off to college, I had the beginnings of a fine album collection at my disposal. I started slowly with Joni Mitchell’s “Blue,” The Eagles “Hotel California,” Dire Straits, “Tunnel of Love,” Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumors,” Springsteen’s “Born to Run,” Jackson Browne’s “Running on Empty,” Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold,” to name only a few. When I got my student grant, I blew a sizable sum on a “hi-fi” system. Accordingly, my record collection grew exponentially to include Van Morrison, Joan Armatrading, Bob Dylan, J.J. Cale, Tom Waits, The Band, Dr. John, Steely Dan, The Rolling Stones, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Prince, Tom Petty, Frank Sinatra, Patsy Cline, U2. I remember buying Elton John’s “Yellow Brick Road” only because the record itself was a bright lurid yellow. Then there were the mix tapes. Hundreds of them. Those of you who know, know that the mix tape was truly a labor of love – the effort required to make a playlist in iTunes pales in comparison. But nothing, nothing can compare to the live concert experience. My first “real” open-air concert was in 1982, The Rolling Stones’ “farewell” concert. What an act. It would be the first of several trips to Slane Castle in Ireland. In fair weather, opening for The Stones that summer day was J. Geils Band, The Chieftains, and George Thorogood and the Destroyers. I wish I had the ticket stub, as opposed to some faraway photos of Mick Jagger strutting his stuff across the stage. While I haven’t saved all my ticket stubs since 1982, those that remain trigger great memories of friends and family and great music all the way from a sunny afternoon with the Rolling Stones at Slane in 1982 to Christmas Eve 2011 with Bob Seger in Phoenix, Arizona.
- A bunch of flowers: Growing up in Ireland with green-thumbed parents, I took for granted the fresh and fragrant flowers that were readily available to me … stock and snapdragons, foxgloves and freesias, fuschia like tiny ballerinas hanging from well-tended pots in the greenhouse built by my father. Every year, there were delicate primroses, pansies, and some more exotic flowers started by “a wee slip” taken from something that had caught my mother’s eye during a holiday in Tenerife or some such place. Beyond our garden, the field was dotted with daisies made into chains and buttercups that tickled chins. And in the woods, bluebells that were better left alone because they would droop sadly over my knuckles shortly after being plucked from the ground. I hear my beloved bluebells are now threatened because of over-picking, and I’m sad that I might not ever see one again. On a Sunday morning, dashing to catch the bus home from Belfast, I’d always leave enough time to buy a mixed bunch for my mother from the flower-stall outside Belfast City Hall. My favorite flower-seller wore a tweed cap, smelled of Woodbine cigarettes, one of which was stuck behind his ear, the other hung out of the corner of his mouth. He always called me sweetheart. One day he gave me a bunch just because. There was never any danger of my Sunday bouquet wilting before I presented it to my mother whereupon it was immediately arranged in a vase on our hall table. Thousands of miles and a lifetime away in the months we Phoenicians dare to call winter, the flower bed by my front door is fragrant with my father’s favorite – freesias. Petunias flourish in all shades of purple along with lobelia and sweet alyssum. Even hyacinths, tulips, narcissi, and gladioli will have their fifteen minutes of fame. Once, by some miracle, even the delicate toadflax found its way into our flowerbed. The Phoenix summer, however, arrives with a vengeance, intolerant of delicate annuals. The grass is yellowed and parched, the flowerbeds empty, the trees tired. So our attention turns to our backyard, where hummingbirds and bees flit among Arizona desert plants yellow lantana, blue plumbago, and golden Arizona bells, vivid orange honeysuckle, and purple sage. None of these, however, belong in a vase, which means I have to add “flowers” to my grocery list. Sure enough, I’ll find what I’m looking for, flowers that have made their way to Phoenix in a refrigerated truck reminding me that cooler weather is really not that far away. Perhaps because he has grown up in the desert, my husband doesn’t fully appreciate the pursuit of fresh cut flowers. Nonetheless, for over two decades, he has made sure that tulips, lilies, daisies, or yellow roses make an appearance on Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, my birthday, our anniversary. Following surgery this January, the flowers also arrived. The cancer had not spread to the lymph nodes. Cause for celebration. For flowers. For lilies. The most beautiful and lasting of all, a bouquet of Stargazers penciled and chalked in pastel by my darling girl.
- Anticipation of the ocean: I’d been in the United States for a couple of years, and I was homesick. I just wanted to stare out at the ocean which seemed another world away from the desert southwest. I remember it was a Friday afternoon. We had nothing else to do, still years before Sophie was born, so we got in the car and started driving. No map. No GPS. No specific destination, other than “ocean.” That night, we were in Los Angeles, and I was inhaling the sea air. The next evening, we were in Pismo Beach, strolling along the pier. As if to put America’s vastness to the test, we just kept driving. We stopped by a lighthouse where we balanced the camera on the car, set the self-timer, and took a picture of ourselves, windswept and clinging to each other, completely unaware that a decade later, we would stand once again on that very same spot, smiling for a picture that would be taken by our little girl. Pacific Coast Highway was not quite as far away from the Antrim Coast road after all.
- Where I’m from: I loved the Antrim of my childhood, a town bustling with young families. There were always plenty of children to play with, and plenty of green spaces, including the remains of Antrim Castle a reminder that something grand once stood there.
8. My MacBook Pro and the internet: Its lightness and portability belies its power to keep me connected to all those things I love. At lightning speed, I can visit a bijou bookstore in New York city, or search for a new job, or teach myself how to do almost anything. In this virtual life, I am a part of milestone moments with friends and family that are captured and shared via YouTube or Facebook. News comes quickly of birthdays, graduations, first steps, career changes, illness, death. While I love the connection, I am also increasingly aware of how quickly time is passing. I’ll sit down to send a quick e-mail, and an hour or two later, I’m still online, distracted by someone else’s news. But then, offline, life isn’t a whole lot different.
9. Words and pictures: For my birthday several years ago, my husband bought a beautiful fountain pen. I’d made myself a promise that I would resume the practice of writing in a diary each evening, and with a nod to the teachers who only accepted work in ink, I would use a fountain pen. Sadly, the pen remains unused, but the words have flown once again. Since cancer came calling, I have been compelled to write. My husband loves that I love writing, but I’m sure it’s taking some getting used to. As befits her age, my daughter just doesn’t want me to write anything about her. Well, perhaps she won’t read this for a while. Just as I am the family photographer, I am also the historian, the collector of all the documentation of our lives: scrapbooks, handmade birthday cards, photographs, letters from the tooth fairy, letters to Santa, postcards, my mother’s recipes, handwritten letters from home. Why does anyone write? In “Personal Helicon” Seamus Heaney writes:
I rhyme, to see myself, to set the darkness echoing.
To see myself. To turn inward and then outward again, to know who I am within and beyond the world of myself.
10. Our daughter’s laughter: If Sophie’s laugh were a color, it would be yellow, like the sunshine that spills into our front room every morning, reminding me often of my mother and her mother before her, urging their daughters to “follow the sun.”
She is the perfect combination of the very best of her father and me – sensitive yet strong, spirited and independent in a way I’m not quite ready for, and she doesn’t suffer fools gladly. When she was just three, I used to read “Oh My Baby Little One” to her every night. A beautifully illustrated book, it helped ease the goodbyes every morning when I dropped her off at pre-school. It is helping again. Sometimes, in an unguarded moment during the course of my workday, I’ll wonder what she’s doing at school, and I’ll find myself smiling as I recall her as a three year old, fighting sleep and poring the illustrations of that book, searching for the love – a tiny red heart – cleverly hidden on each page.