Archive | Sunday Brunch

Sunday Brunch: The Coming of the Cardinals

Like the swallows that return to Capistrano every year, the heart of fall brings the cardinals back to my yard, and I return to my morning routine of coffee and writing at the kitchen table so I can watch as they flit from tree to tree, sometimes visiting the bird feeder outside my window, and sometimes avoiding it (likely because the smell of squirrel is too strong).

I’ve always loved watching birds. I don’t mean that I sling a pair of binoculars around my neck and go tromping through fields and forests on a avian hunt, though I understand the appeal of capturing a rare moment on film.

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Rather, I’m a backyard bird-watcher. I enjoy following the antics of the bully Blue Jay who drives the starlings and finches out of the trees, only for them to settle right back in. Winter comes with doves, one of whom insists that the birdfeeder is really her nest. She never stays in it for long, though. In spring and summer, we have robins and hummingbirds who buzz our windows and skim low over the puppy pool, stealing sips of water, or using it as a bath. (We don’t chlorinate the puppy pool.)

But November, always a dark for me because it’s the anniversary month of so many family deaths, is brightened by the arrival of the cardinals.

We have a whole family of those bright red birds, and they return every year. The females are feathered grey and rust and red, and arrive with the first signs of being egg-heavy. The males are brilliant crimson and scarlet, and when they cock their heads and stare at me from their bright eyes, I’m convinced they’re appraising me in the same way I’m assessing them.

At the beginning of the season, I watch them building nests, but as the fall deepens into what passes for winter in this part of Texas, they aren’t quite so visible. Instead of witnessing constant activity, a morning visit feels like a kind of gift from Mother Nature herself.

It’s not only live cardinals that come into my life each year, however. As I slowly turn the decorations in my house from fall and harvest, Halloween and Thanksgiving, to winter, Christmas, and even Valentine’s Day, these ruby-plumed birds have a presence inside my house.

First, there is the candle wreath. It’s not an Advent wreath, since it only has holders for four candles (though I sometimes place a pillar candle in the center and use it as such) but its theme is very much winter and not a specific holiday, with tiny pine trees and even tinier cardinals tucked in a wreath of greens. Since it isn’t specifically Christmas, it comes out in late November and stays until mid-February.

Then the napkin rings and guest towels come out. My grandmother taught her daughters and granddaughters to decorate all through the house for holidays, so I have cardinal-themed towels in the guest bath, and I try to find cardinal-themed paper napkins for parties and casual use, as well as a couple of candles – the kind that you never actually burn – to add punches of color to the guest room, the dining room, and even my office.

The last cardinals come at Christmas, in the form of stuffed birds that have wire clips so they can perch on the branches of our (plastic, pre-lit) tree. A couple of them are recent additions, but two of them are quite old, and much bedraggled. One of them bears tooth-marks – the scars from a barely-won battle against the curiosity of a puppy. Even though they’re faded and worn, however, I keep putting them on my tree, half-convinced that, in the words of the skin horse, they will Become Real.

My grandmother, I am told, loved cardinals. I never knew this until I found the napkin rings I mentioned earlier. It was on a trip to Tuesday Morning with my mother, and something about them spoke to me. We don’t actually use napkin rings (or cloth napkins, though we should) with any real frequency, but I had to buy them, even if it was just to have them.

More recently, I learned that my mother-in-law also loved the bright red birds. I imagine her looking out of the farmhouse window as a young bride, and seeing a streak of scarlet adding colorful cheer to a snow-blanketed prairie, and this image, whether it’s erroneous or not, makes me smile to myself.

They say that when you’re visited by cardinals you’re really being touched by the spirit of a loved one who has died. My grandmother died over a decade ago, but since there are times I swear I can smell her bath powder, or feel her cool hand soothing my brow in the middle of the night, I wouldn’t be surprised if she sent a bird or two to check up on me. My mother-in-law, on the other hand, died on the last day of August, just a couple of months ago, so maybe she’s the reason the avian family in my yard seems to have more members this year.

Of course, I’m a bit premature with some of this. Thanksgiving is weeks away, and Christmas doesn’t come until fall is truly over and winter has arrived. My wreath will remain in storage for a while longer, wrapped in a festive tablecloth, nestled in a box with dessert plates shaped like leaves and a ceramic turkey gravy boat.

In the meantime, I’m pouring another cup of coffee and returning to the library desk that serves as our kitchen table to write stories and watch the birds.

About the author: Melissa A. Bartell

Melissa is a writer, voice actor, podcaster, itinerant musician, voracious reader, and collector of hats and rescue dogs. She is the author of The Bathtub Mermaid: Tales from the Holiday Tub. You can learn more about her on her blog, listen to her podcast, or connect with her on on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

Sunday Brunch: Kitchen Table Writing

I have a confession to make: I like to write at the kitchen table.

Kitchen Table Writing

This may not seem like something worthy of embarrassment, or even the least a bit of sheepishness, but the harsh reality is that when I write at the kitchen table, it means that I’m cheating on the Word Lounge, the blue-walled, soft-carpeted room filled with books and mermaid art, and beachy things and far too many Lt. Commander Data action figures (among others) that is my own special space on the top floor of the house. Action figures on office desk

That room, with the weight machine I’ve nicknamed Marcy’s Playground because that’s the brand of the apparatus, has a television with a Roku stick attached, because I like to listen to familiar dialogue while I’m working. It also has a giant picture window that looks onto the cozy street where we live, and a glass coffee table that used to live downstairs, but moved upstairs when we changed the living room furniture.

I love being up there when I’m editing audio, or recording an episode of the podcast I swear is not going to only exist in August this year. I love curling up on the ancient faded-denim couch that used to be my mother’s, with a book and a mug of tea or coffee. I love lighting the candle that sits within a wreath of seashells collected from the beaches around La Paz, Baja California Sur, Mexico, where my parents have lived for nearly two decades.

I love it when one of my dogs comes into that space with me and sprawls on that one sun-soaked rectangle of carpet, content to just be near me while I’m puttering or (com)putering.

But for some reason, I end up doing my best writing at the kitchen table. Well, I do a lot of really good writing in bed, a la Mark Twain, as well, but it’s the kitchen table where I feel most like a writer.

At this time of year, especially, the kitchen is my favorite room in my house. It has sliding glass doors that open to the back yard, and in the cool of the morning and evening, I can leave the door open and let the dogs wander in and out. I can look outside and see birds coming to visit the feeder I only fill when I remember. (This is intentional. I read somewhere that keeping a feeder full all the time makes the local birds dependent.)

Microphone - waitingMost often, the birds I see are grackles, but I actually like those birds, which aren’t jet black, after all, but deep indigo, purple, charcoal grey, and even, sometimes, subtle maroon. Sometimes there are woodpeckers. Often the big obnoxious blue jay with the Batman mask over his eyes comes to visit. I’m no Disney princess. The birds don’t ever clean up my house or create dresses from flowers and twigs, but I like seeing them.

As what passes for fall in Texas deepens into October and November, kitchen table writing increases its appeal. I can’t count the number of words I’ve written while also baking cookies, creating stews, checking on a simmering soup or baking pot pie, or even just nibbling on carrots and hummus, or apples and cheese, or wedges of oranges and endless pots of tea.

Outside, I can see the light change, not just from hour to hour as dawn becomes full daylight, and then fades into nighttime, but season by season – the light starts to thin in August, and by October, there’s a sense of crispness to the afternoon sunlight, even when the thermometer insists it’s really eighty-two degrees outside.

While my kitchen table writing is often the work I’m most connected to, the specific table doesn’t seem to matter. For years I wrote at my mother’s hand-me-down teak dining table from the Copenhagen store in Fresno… or was it San Jose?

Currently, my kitchen table is actually a big old library-type ‘partner’s desk’ with a center drawer in either side. It’s perfect for the breakfast nook, and more than ample for two or four people. Or one person, her laptop, several notebooks, coffee, and a plate of food. I told my husband the other day that when we move (we’re planning to sell our huge house and move to something smaller and all on one floor after the first of the year) I want to replace the corner desk in my office and use this table as the desk in my office.

I can’t explain where it comes from, but I have a feeling that kitchen table writing can happen even if the table is no longer in the kitchen.

Sunflowers on Kitchen Table

The thing about writing for a living is that it’s an incredibly internal vocation. I know I’m not the only writer who spends a significant amount of time living in her own head. I suspect that part of the attraction of writing at the kitchen table is that the kitchen is the heart of any house.

Or at least, it’s been the heart of every house where I’ve ever spent any length of time.

I grew up spending the summers with my grandparents in New Jersey, and the dining table was party central all the time. Whether it was just the family having a simple meal of grilled hamburgers, tomatoes from my grandfather’s garden, and corn on the cob from the farm stand down the road, or a late-night thing where all the adults were playing canasta and drinking syrupy black coffee, that table was the place to be.

When I visit my mother in Mexico, I bring my laptop to her kitchen table and write while everyone else is watching television (I’m really bad at ‘just’ watching television; I have to be doing something.) Last year, when I found that my travel charger would no longer provide my laptop with any power, I usurped my stepfather’s barely-touched laptop and used that, saving everything I did to OneDrive and Dropbox, because I had to write. Living room writing

There are times, of course, when I don’t want to write at the kitchen table. I often (usually) bring my laptop into the living room, set it up on a snack tray, and write while Fuzzy (my husband) and I watch television. Over last month, recuperating from pneumonia, I’ve returned to writing in bed a lot more, typically with a dog or two sharing the space with me.

But for the most part, the kitchen is my happy place, and one of my favorite memories is from one of my parents’ early visits to my home, where not one, but all four of us had our laptops or tablets on the kitchen table, all of us tapping away between bits of conversation, nibbling on cookies and sipping coffee.

Apparently, kitchen table writing runs in the family.

About the author: Melissa A. Bartell

Melissa is a writer, voice actor, podcaster, itinerant musician, voracious reader, and collector of hats and rescue dogs. She is the author of The Bathtub Mermaid: Tales from the Holiday Tub. You can learn more about her on her blog, or connect with her on on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

Sunday Brunch: Melancholy

The days may not be so bright and balmy—yet the quiet and melancholy that linger around them is fraught with glory. Over everything connected with autumn there lingers some golden spell—some unseen influence that penetrates the soul with its mysterious power. ~Northern Advocate

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As much as I often protest that September is still summer, at least until the equinox occurs, the reality is that fall begins to displace summer sometime in August. Where I live, in north-central Texas, that displacement is a gradual one, and for me, it’s tied to the way the sunlight begins to seem thinner, and that a 90-degree day in late August has an underlying crispness to it that you never find in a similarly warm day in early June.

But it’s not just the light that heralds the change of seasons. For me, there’s also a combination of wistfulness and melancholy.

Most years, it’s the wistfulness that dominates my being. As my friends’ children return to school (many before Labor Day – that seems so wrong to me) and the rhythm of my neighborhood changes to accommodate earlier nights and earlier mornings, I find myself longing to be back in that dance of school days and work days. I imagine myself braiding the hair of the daughter I never had, or making sure my non-existent son has his shoes tied correctly.

Most years, the sense of melancholy is a subtle note among the harvest gold and darkening reds of changing leaves, and the soft blue-black of cool night air. That annual melancholy manifests itself in me as a sort of restlessness. My feet get itchy, and I feel a bit suffocated in my life, despite the fact that I’m living the live I chose, with a man who both adores and understands me.

This year, the melancholy is dominating, and it tastes like grief and loss and absence.

While the annual die-off of plants, the sloughing off of leaves, the shriveling and drying of grasses, represents change more than death, it is death that is prevalent in everything I see, this season.

Why? Because this year, death is close to me.

My mother-in-law died about a week ago. My husband has lost his mother, and I lost one of the many women who surround me with love and wisdom and stories.

We buried her on Tuesday. We spent the week in Sioux Falls, SD, surrounded by Fuzzy’s family.

This isn’t the first family death I’ve experienced. My grandfather died when I was twenty-one, and my grandmother died about a decade later, but somehow this death, this loss, struck me differently. Perhaps it’s because the funeral was two days before my husband’s birthday, or perhaps it’s because seasonal melancholy is making it worse, or perhaps it’s because I had my forty-seventh birthday a few weeks ago and am feeling my own mortality in a way I haven’t before.

Death is never convenient. Loss is never easy. No matter how prepared you are for an event like this, it stabs you in the gut, and rips a hole when the blade is pulled out.

For me, grief comes in random waves of tears. Sometimes they’re a quiet trickle, but sometimes they’re sobs that come as a roaring waterfall, like the falls on the Big Sioux river that runs through the town that may not be the family’s true hometown, but is certainly its adopted one.

For my husband, the same grief comes in a deepening sense of broodiness and his need to play hermit for a few hours, or days. Both of us balance the grief with humor and laughter and fond memories, and we seek physical contact with each other more than is typical.

Tuesday night, after all the relatives had dispersed, we left our hotel room, went for a quiet dinner, and then drove to look at the Falls that Sioux Falls, SD is named for. There was a full moon in the sky, and an autumnal bite to the air, and as I watched and listened to the rushing water, I had a moment of peace, and the sadness was temporarily eased.

Melancholy will remain with me for a few more weeks – it usually dissipates by the beginning of October, when fall is fully present – but grief doesn’t last forever, it fades like a soft, slow, late summer sunset.

And, at least for another couple of weeks, September is still summer.

About the author: Melissa A. Bartell

Melissa is a writer, voice actor, podcaster, itinerant musician, voracious reader, and collector of hats and rescue dogs. She is the author of The Bathtub Mermaid: Tales from the Holiday Tub. You can learn more about her on her blog, or connect with her on on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

Sunday Brunch: Negative Space

In art, the term ‘negative space’ typically refers to the place where an image isn’t, and to the way the space around that image can produce an image of its own, an image that either enhances or serves as counterpoint to the original. Sometimes this is intentional. Sometimes it is not.

Copyright: <a href='https://www.123rf.com/profile_eugenesergeev'>eugenesergeev / 123RF Stock Photo</a>But there is another kind of negative space, the kind that has nothing to do with art, but a lot to do with stifling the creativity of the artist, the writer, the musician…

In my house, this latter kind of negative space is represented by a door.

As doors go, this one is outwardly innocuous. It’s a white, four paneled, interior door of the kind found hinged into the thresholds of many a suburban bedroom. This particular door, however, leads to my office, my studio, the room I refer to as the Word Lounge and my husband calls my Abode of Writeyness.

I love my writing haven. I’ve filled it with mermaid art and pop-culture figurines. There are decorative twinkle lights strung along the top of the picture window that looks out onto the street. I have my mother’s faded denim couch in there, and my weight machine, which because its brand logo reads “Marcy,” I refer to as Marcy Playground, after the band.

But in the past four years, I’ve crossed its threshold fewer than ten times.

I’ve told myself, and my friends, that I like to write at the kitchen table, with the door open and the dogs running in and out.

I’ve told myself I’m still recovering from a knee injury.

But if neither of those statements is entirely false, neither are entirely true.

You see, for four years, my studio, my writing lounge, has been enshrouded in a fog of negative space.

It began with an act of generosity. A good friend of ours had gone through a nasty divorce, gotten sick, lost his job, and was essentially squatting in his condo in a midwestern city with the power turned off and winter approaching.

We offered him a room, a fresh start and a plan: take a couple weeks to get healthy, get a job, get a new life.

It was never meant to be four years of him skulking in our house when he wasn’t working his overnight shift for a major delivery service.

And his depression (not officially diagnosed though it runs in his family, admitted as a likelihood, and untreated) was never meant to affect me.

It began as soon as he arrived. Thinking one tiny guest room was too small for one person, I’d moved my studio to our current guest room. It’s smaller, and my weight machine couldn’t be moved with the rest of my stuff. Nor could my couch.

For six months, our friend hung out in that room, tainting it, watching Netflix and claiming he was applying for jobs.

We talked to him. We made him demonstrate his attempts. We coached him.

And I began to resent that he was sitting on the floor in my space. I felt like I couldn’t use my weight machine. “Just send me out,” he said. But his energy had already pervaded the space.

When my parents announced an impending visit, I took the opportunity to reclaim that space for my office, and I also removed the guest furniture from the room he was using. He’d brought a futon on a frame. We moved that into his room.

But his energy continued to be a damper on my creativity. I felt like I couldn’t exist in my own space, because it might keep him, hiding in his room directly across the hall) from sleeping (his mood got blacker when he lacked sleep). I even stopped swimming – something we mermaids should never do – because his room overlooked my back yard.

I don’t think I was – or am – clinically depressed. Instead, I feel like I’ve spent four years in a sort of psycho-spiritual muzzle.

Last weekend, after weeks of will it/won’t it happen, our friend moved out of our house, and into a tiny apartment with a mutual friend, and from the first night he stopped sleeping here, even though he still has belongings to retrieve and a room to clean, I immediately felt lighter.

I’ve written before (elsewhere) about how I often face a creative slump in the first weeks of August, leading up to my birthday on the seventeenth, but this year, despite greeting the month with a nasty sinus infection, my brain is pinging with ideas in ways I haven’t experienced in years.

In art and design, negative space is meant to enhance and expand the central image. A flyer without a lot of whitespace (which, incidentally, does not have to actually be white) is too busy, and people have difficulty parsing the message.

For me, the negative space around my office door, and seeping into the rest of my house, has been more contrast and counterpoint than complement. I’ve reveled in every moment our friend was out, whether it was for work, or to socialize. I suspect some of my sleep issues were a reaction to knowing my house was mine during the overnight hours when he was at work.

I don’t wish anyone to believe it was all bad. There were moments when having a third person in the house was helpful, and even pleasant. Our friend shares my love of kitchen improv and ethnic foods, while I often joke that my husband has the palate of an eight-year-old. There were also many winter weekends that we all spent playing board games that Fuzzy and I couldn’t play with only the two of us.

But those moments were less and less restorative as the time ticked on. As I recently quipped to a friend, it took less time to successfully rehome a difficult-to-place foster pit bull than it has to rehome our friend.

I know I’m not the only one who has had to deal with such situations. Perhaps for others they are less extreme, but we all have ‘energy succubi’ in our lives – people who don’t just live under a personal black cloud, but unwittingly allow their clouds to metastasize into full-blown fog banks, or worse, thunderstorms.

Ultimately, this experience has taught me a lot about boundaries and margins. I’ve learned that while I’m not a true introvert, I do require the freedom to fill my own space as I need and want.

That I can – and do – quite happily share space with my husband says a lot about our relationship. I suspect that in his life, I’m the source of negative space, my creative personality leaving me prone to moodiness from time to time, but it’s not the same. His energy complements mine. My energy connects with his.

Two friends from completely separate circles in my life have suggested that once our friend clears all of his belongings from our house, we have the space smudged with sage, and I’m pretty sure we will be doing so.

In the meantime, the negative space in my house is slowly being filled with positive things. The sense of darkness creeping down the hallway, and preventing me from entering my studio has been pushed back and continues to retreat, to dissipate, to disappear.

Perhaps, in time, I will no longer think of negative space as the cloud of darkness that shrouded our friend’s sojourn in our home.

Perhaps, in time, I will be able to appreciate the counterpoint and the contrast once more.

For now, I’m taking a leaf from Eat, Pray, Love, wishing our friend love and light, and trying to let my resentment go.

About the author: Melissa A. Bartell

Melissa is a writer, voice actor, podcaster, itinerant musician, voracious reader, and collector of hats and rescue dogs. She is the author of The Bathtub Mermaid: Tales from the Holiday Tub. You can learn more about her on her blog, or connect with her on on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

Sunday Brunch: Getting Sleepy

“Sleep is still most perfect, in spite of hygienists, when it is shared with a beloved. The warmth, the security and peace of soul, the utter comfort from the touch of the other, knits the sleep, so that it takes the body and soul completely in its healing.” – D.H. Lawrence

Happy Couple Sleeping by Antonio Guillem

I wrote a short story a few months ago about a father and daughter at bedtime. It’s funny how much ritual and care we put into that winding-down part of the evening. It’s routine, right? Going to bed? But how do our bedtime rituals inform us, and how do they change over the course of our lives?

I should begin with a confession: I’ve never been a good sleeper.

In fact, to put it crudely, I kind of suck at sleep.

As a child bedtime initially involved my mother reading to me, but that ended when I was six or seven, and grew impatient to find out what happened with Jo and Laurie in Little Women. Even without being read to, however, my mother was still an important part of my bedtime routine.

She would ensure that I had a glass of water on my nightstand, and help me arrange all my stuffed animals and rag dolls (Winnie-the-Pooh, my favorite, was usually closest to my head, but the others had their own hierarchy depending on which was in favor. The two-foot-tall koala sat on the floor at night.)

But, as soon as my light had been turned off, as soon as my door had clicked shut, I was hiding under the covers with a flashlight, determined to get to the next part of whatever story had me hooked.

As I got older, and no longer needed to be ‘tucked into’ bed, my nocturnal life expanded. I set aside the flashlight for the boldness of the lamp on my nightstand, and even kept the radio turned on for company while I read. More than once, I fell asleep with my glasses crooked on my face, and a book folded open over my chest, only to wake up, disoriented and time-lagged, in the wee hours.

By the time I was a teenager, bedtime was no longer a fixed hour, though there was a time at which I was expected to be in my room on school nights. A life-long possessor of a vivid imagination and a tendency toward nightmares, late-night radio became my new bedtime ritual.

I’d set the sleep-timer on my ancient, white, clock radio – the one that was so old-school the numbers flipped like calendar pages instead of being liquid crystal or LED – to the maximum allowable period (fifty-nine minutes), keep the volume so low I had to strain to hear it, and let myself be pulled toward sleep.

At some point, I gave up listening to music at night, partly because I heard the Paul McCartney & Wings song “Let ‘Em In” one too many times, and it’s creeped me out every single time, and partly because any song that I liked would make me want to leave bed, and sing and dance in the middle of my (admittedly hazardously messy) room. I became addicted to Larry King’s radio show – the one from before he was on cable tv, and even before his heart attack – and even though I was rarely familiar with the guests, it worked, sending me into sweet oblivion until my alarm went off the next morning.

Some nights, when my imagination just would not let go, I had to hit that sleep timer multiple times, but most nights, the initial fifty-nine minutes were enough.

Adulthood brought new ingredients to my rituals for falling asleep, among them, white noise generators (which have since morphed into apps on my iPad) and a bedmate, in the form of my husband.

The former is the thing I now cannot sleep without, as it gives me a place for my imagination to reside, at least at the beginning of sleep, and distracts me from all those ‘house’ noises that would normally spark irrational fear.

As to my husband, while I can sleep without him, and sometimes prefer the luxury of having the entire bed to myself for an afternoon nap, I’ve determined that D.H. Lawrence was right on the nose. On my worst nights, I can nestle into his arms, and let his solid warmth form a sort of cocoon around me.

Science would insist that I’m either surfing on my husband’s delta waves or responding to increased levels of oxytocin created by physical contact, and I’m sure both are playing their parts. Nevertheless, I think there’s also something about simply not being alone to face the shadowy denizens of the darkness that soothes my wild mind more than any sleeping pill, herbal or otherwise, could ever do.

And of course, we have our own rituals… we usually find ourselves laughing right before we turn out the light, and sometimes for several minutes after. Even though we both work from home we use those starlit moments to reconnect, to talk about the little things that don’t get mentioned over dinner, and just to be.

If I wake him in the middle of the night with an affectionate (but still adamant) request to, “Roll onto your side; you’re snoring,” well, that’s just part of our routine, just as, half way through any given sleep period, I’ll wake up freezing and accuse him of stealing the covers.

“No, I didn’t,” he’ll say, waking up just enough to help rearrange the blankets and sheets. “You gave them to me.”

And maybe, subconsciously, I did.

Just has he’s given me endless, steadfast protection from my nightmares.

“And if tonight my soul may find her peace in sleep, and sink in good oblivion, and in the morning wake like a new-opened flower then I have been dipped again in God, and new-created.” – D.H. Lawrence

 

About the author: Melissa A. Bartell

Melissa is a writer, voice actor, podcaster, itinerant musician, voracious reader, and collector of hats and rescue dogs. She is the author of The Bathtub Mermaid: Tales from the Holiday Tub. You can learn more about her on her blog, or connect with her on on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

Sunday Brunch: Scents of Summer

Sunday Brunch With Melissa Bartell

Soaking in the bath last Saturday, I opened a dwindling jar of Noxzema, and inhaled the sharp medicinal odor of eucalyptus. If it’s possible for a substance to smell clean, that white cream in the classic blue jar managed it perfectly well.

It also transported me back in time, to childhood summers at the Jersey shore.

Summer Scenes

I use Noxzema year-round, replacing the jar when necessary. They’re selling it in plastic now, and while I’ll concede that it’s probably safer for something I typically keep on the side of the tub, I miss the heavy glass.

I often wonder if all beach glass comes from Noxzema bottles.

Despite the fact that many of our childhood remedies have been proven not to work as promised, Noxzema really is one of the best things you can use to soothe a summer sunburn.

In the kitchen, I opened a jar of coconut oil – I’ve been experimenting with using it instead of butter in some baked goods – and immediately I was six, eight, ten, twelve, walking across hot sand with a rolled towel, a beach bag, and an insulated lunch bag – the square kind that looks like a small, zippered cooler and holds one sandwich, one napkin, one bag of chips or carrot sticks, and one cold Coca Cola, along with an ice pack to keep it cold – slung across my chest.

I wore heart-shaped sunglasses and a polka-dotted bikini with ruffles, and my hair was twisted into two tight braids.

As a girlfriend and I recently discussed, they don’t really make suntan lotion or suntan oil, anymore, but my childhood summers were filled with the salty-sweet aroma of Coppertone and Sea & Ski – the former more pungent than the latter – and my mother’s snarky comments about “sizzling meat” in reference to all the older teenagers and young adults basking under the summer sun, trying to get as dark as possible.

Modern sunscreen that goes up to level sixty SPF tends to have a floral scent, not a warm aquatic, and definitely not coconut.

Yesterday in the shower, I used the last of my favorite shampoo. It smells like orange creamsicle, and every time I catch a whiff I’m seven years old, standing with my grandfather at the edge of his driveway, waiting for the ice cream truck to stop.

Nutty Buddies were my early favorite, but there’s something so magical, so summery, about cold, creamy orange that it’s the “frozen novelty treat” that’s ingrained in my senses. I was this|close to sending my husband to the grocery store to track down a box of those tubes of citrus-flavored joy, but, ultimately decided against it.

Still, I know there will come a time in the next month or so, when the rain stops again and I’m spending afternoons in my backyard pool, when I’ll long for those smells: coconut, orange, and eucalyptus, the same way I long to swim in salt water and laugh at the fact that I now pay money for hair texturizer made of the same – after half a lifetime of doing everything possible to get salt crust out of my hair.

I will wake up with the remembered scent of line-dried clothes and the cheery sight of colorful bathing suits waving in the breeze, and I will lean back against the pillows and close my eyes, and return to the beach in memory and imagination.

And then after a bit, I’ll pad into the bathroom, enjoying the feeling of cool tile under my bare feet, and reach for my jar of Noxzema. Just because.

About the author: Melissa A. Bartell

Melissa is a writer, voice actor, podcaster, itinerant musician, voracious reader, and collector of hats and rescue dogs. She is the author of The Bathtub Mermaid: Tales from the Holiday Tub. You can learn more about her on her blog, or connect with her on on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

Sunday Brunch: Holding Hands

Sunday Brunch With Melissa Bartell

When I imagine my mother, she’s always holding cup of coffee. Her hands are square-ish, sturdy, with the calloused fingers and tiny cuts to the palms that are inherent to women who often work with fabric. (She calls herself a ‘sewist’ these days, because a ‘sewer’ is something where dirty water goes, and a ‘seamstress’ implies that she works in a hot, noisy factory.)

Coffee is one of my mother’s touchpoints. I was practically weaned on the stuff, and I have more than one memory of choosing a mug for her as a gift, making sure to pick one with a handle large enough to comfortably fit three fingers.

Woman holding coffee cup

If you asked me, I would tell you that she prefers her hair short, that she likes tailored cuts the same way she likes tailored clothes, that her eyes are brown and that her brows are shaped in soft arcs, unlike mine, which are angled like flattened carats.

I can hear her voice in my head, but when I think of her, it’s her hands that I think of first. I remember (vaguely) the way her hands kept me upright when I was learning to walk, and the way her grip kept me close when we went out together.

I am familiar with the length of her fingers and the Dutch Tulip color of her nail polish and the blue tinge of the subcutaneous lump on one wrist, the remains of some childhood accident.

What I don’t remember, though, is when I became ‘too old’ to hold her hand in public, and when I finally became ‘old enough’ to reclaim the practice.

I remember holding hands with my grandmother no matter what my age was. Her hands were nothing like my mother’s. She had slender fingers, the tips slightly angled from age and arthritis, the nails incredibly strong, and ridged from base to tip.

“Your hands are so warm!” She would say, folding hers into mine, as if she could absorb all the warmth I had to offer.

“Cold hands – warm heart,” I would tease her.

(We never talked about the opposite. Did my warm hands make me somehow evil, or just mischievous?)

When we walked up and down her block, or on the beach, or wherever, my grandmother would never wrap her hands around my palm. Instead, she’d grip my fingers, mashing them together until they were crossed over each other, and circulation became impaired.

Last month, my husband I spent a few days visiting my aunt – my mother’s younger sister – and her husband in rural Connecticut, and reaching for her hand as we walked around her town, seemed like the most natural thing in the world. After years of not seeing each other, we still fit.

My aunt’s hands are a blend of my mother’s and my grandmother’s. She has long, elegant, fingers, but she also has the tell-tale signs of a person who (like me) does a lot more work with computer keys than fabric and notions (although, my mother also writes).

My hands, like my eyebrows, don’t look like any of theirs. They’re small and plump and no matter what fresh foods I eat or supplements I take, my nails are always breaking just when they’re at the ‘perfect’ length.

My grandmother died the year my parents moved to Mexico, but sometimes I’m certain that I feel her hands, so cool, so gentle, smoothing the hair away from my forehead when I’m sleeping.

My aunt lives half a continent away, but visiting her didn’t feel weird or awkward, and I would have liked more time.

And my mother. My mother is one of the two constants in my life (the other is my husband, who has musician’s hands, but this isn’t about him). Sometimes, when I visit her, and we’re walking along the malecón in La Paz, we’ll hold hands, and in those moments, I’m five years old with bouncing braids and sun-browned skin, and everything is innocent and safe.

Most of the time, when I think about my mother’s hands, they’re wrapped around a coffee cup.

Then again, most of the time, when I’m thinking about my mother’s hands… so are mine.

Woman with coffee and laptop

Image Copyright: amaviael / 123RF Stock Photo
Image Copyright: morganka / 123RF Stock Photo

 

About the author: Melissa A. Bartell

Melissa A. BartellMelissa is a writer, voice actor, podcaster, itinerant musician, voracious reader, and collector of hats and rescue dogs. She is the author of The Bathtub Mermaid: Tales from the Holiday Tub. You can learn more about her on her blog, or connect with her on on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

Sunday Brunch: Carousel of Memories

Sunday Brunch With Melissa Bartell

Calliope music, tinny and over-loud coming from the speakers, doesn’t quite drown out the sounds of human voices: small children squealing in delight, parents warning them to hold on and be careful. The lights blur as I ride by, my painted pony leaping upwards and gently descending as it chases other ponies (and sleds) around and around in an endless circle.

Asbury Park Carousel

The music slows.

The lights resolve into individual incandescent bulbs.

The ponies stop.

With watery legs, I slide off my stalwart steed, jump from the platform and launch myself at the adult who has been watching me. My grandfather, most likely, or maybe my great-aunt Violet.

“Did you see? I caught the ring!” I ask, and their answer is a blend of weariness and positive reinforcement.

I am five, six, seven years old, and I’ve just ended a day at the Asbury Park boardwalk with a ride on the carousel.

* * *

Outside the carousel house, the twilight of evening is melting into full darkness. The scent of hot dogs and cotton candy mixes with the salty brine of sea and sand. The lights on the rollercoaster are reflected upon the glassy ocean.

The night feels made of magic.

I am twelve years old, and I have no idea that it will be the last time I see the boardwalk with its rides active, with children running back and forth, with indulgent parents and grandparents handing over money in exchange for pretzels with mustard, paper cones full of popcorn, or wax-coated bags of salt-water taffy.

On that night, surrounded by the teeming throngs of little kids racing for the teacups, kids my age who are at once too cool to be seen with their parents but not quite ready to be away from them, and older kids – teens, really – making out in the gondolas of the Ferris wheel, I cannot even fathom that such a thriving place – an icon of the Jersey Shore – will be a dead husk just a few years later.

* * *

It’s 2009 and my husband, my parents, and I are on the east coast because my aunt – my mother’s younger sister – got married a few days before, and we’ve extended our trip to visit family none of us have seen in years.

The October wind blows cold through the two layers of sweaters I’m wearing, but I turn my face into it, and let it push my hair back behind me. The ocean is deep blue and steel gray, primal and fierce, crashing its fists of white foam on the cold sand.

The boardwalk is empty, save for a few hard-core athletes, sheathed in thermal exercise gear and clutching their dogs’ leashes as they pound down the slanted, weathered boards.

We leave Asbury Park, and head to the next town over, Ocean Grove, where the cute shops are open for business, hoping a few errant tourists will wander in.

My mother and I lived there for part of a year when I was nine, and walking those so-familiar streets fills me with bittersweet nostalgia. I liked my life when I was there, when it was just Mom and me in our apartment on the second floor, where you could see the ocean from the bathtub.

Even so, thirty years later, I must acknowledge, that her life and mine are both happier with all the changes that have taken place since then.

* * *

It is last Wednesday of March, 2017, and I’m in Asbury Park again, with just my husband this time.

We woke early that morning to the total darkness of the power being out, and the insistent keening of tornado sirens, drove to the airport feeling a bit shell-shocked, then landed, several hours later, under sunny skies.

Our hotel room has a view of the beach and vintage photos of the Jersey Shore on the walls, and after we have dinner – truly sinful burgers made of ground beef mixed with ground bacon – at a local pub, we go to the boardwalk.

The sun is low in the early-spring sky, and the air is chilly, but I find a bench and enjoy the peace of the waves, and smile at all the people walking their dogs, or just enjoying the pre-tourist season calm.

The city has changed since I was last here.

What was once a dead town is alive again.

Many of the Beaux-Arts buildings have been lovingly restored. The old Arcade is now home to small boutiques and a coffee roasting company (with a brewery right next door). Restaurants line the waterfront, and the town hosts many trendy eateries and bars – ethnic, Vegan, brunch – including (as their sidewalk sign proudly proclaims) “The Best Gay Bar in New Jersey.” (I take their word for it.)

My husband walks off to explore the Arcade, to take pictures at my behest, and I stay on my bench.

It’s probably just my imagination, but I can hear – very faintly – the sound of calliope music.

Asbury Park Carousel House

 

About the author: Melissa A. Bartell

Melissa A. BartellMelissa is a writer, voice actor, podcaster, itinerant musician, voracious reader, and collector of hats and rescue dogs. She is the author of The Bathtub Mermaid: Tales from the Holiday Tub. You can learn more about her on her blog, or connect with her on on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

Sunday Brunch: Sleeping with Giraffes

Sunday Brunch With Melissa Bartell

Her name is April. She’s fifteen years old, and nearing the end of her fourth pregnancy. Oh, and she’s a giraffe.

Giraffes have the lowest sleep requirement of any land mammal, averaging around two hours out of every twenty-four, usually in increments of just a few minutes.

Copyright: <a href='https://www.123rf.com/profile_bondsza'>bondsza / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

Like thousands of people around the world, I have become enamored with April’s story, to the point where checking in on her in the mornings and evenings have become part of my routine. Why? Because there’s something magical in watching this elegant animal as she readies herself for the birth of her calf.

Something Zen.

Giraffes are prey-animals. As such, they typically take their rest standing up, but if they are in a place they perceive to be safe, they will sometimes lie down, and even catch a nap with their heads resting on their hind-quarters. Such naps rarely last longer than five minutes, but research conducted at zoos says that REM sleep is achieved.

April and her calf’s sire, Oliver, live at Animal Adventure Park in upstate New York. It’s a family-owned petting zoo, and many of the animals are exotic pets that have been rescued by the facility.

In watching April, we are also able to see the relationship between the keepers and the animals. Clearly there is love and respect on both sides.

In the morning, as sunlight filters into the giraffe barn, their pacing increases in tempo, and the giraffes pay close attention to the inner gates of their pens. While it’s not safe for the keepers to be in Oliver’s pen with him (bull giraffes are both strong and playful, and a misplaced kick can be lethal for a human), April is docile and likes to play kissy-face with her caretakers.

Alyssa, the main giraffe keeper, returns April’s affection, and, in truly precious moments, has even been seen on camera, placing gentle kisses over the places where baby-kicks have been witnessed.

The gestational period of a giraffe is fifteen months. The mother giraffe gives birth standing up, and her calf will drop about seven feet to the ground. A newborn giraffe weighs about a hundred and fifty pounds and stands about six feet tall.

My favorite part of watching April comes around eight in my evening. That’s when the keepers come with dinner, and bed down the giraffes for the night. As much as I enjoy watching April’s eighteen-inch-long, bluish-purple tongue snake out to accept offerings of carrots and romaine lettuce (apparently these two things are like crack to giraffes), the moment when the lights are switched off, and the giraffes are left in quiet twilight is the one that truly touches me.

No two giraffes share the same pattern of spots. These patterns are as unique as human fingerprints.

Over the two weeks since the GiraffeCam went live, I’ve found myself watching it a lot at night. This past week, while my husband was away for work, I even left the YouTube app running on the Roku TV in our bedroom. I’ve never been great at sleeping, but there was something so reassuring about seeing those serene creatures, April clearly defined by the soft light in her pen, just as restless as I am (but with a much better reason) and Oliver, who ghosted past the pen’s divider every so often, sharing the night with me.

Giraffes are born with their “horns” (actually called ossicones), but they are flat against the skull, and only fuse with the skull as the animal matures.

Intellectually, I know, I’m only one of many who have made April a part of their – of our – routines, but at times it felt that I’d been granted the special privilege of sleeping with giraffes.

While captive breeding programs are reasonably successful, giraffes are extinct in at least seven countries in Africa, and all species of giraffe are rated as “Vulnerable” to extinction.

The image above is NOT April.
You, too, can watch the GiraffeCam if you visit ApriltheGiraffe.com

About the author: Melissa A. Bartell

Melissa A. BartellMelissa is a writer, voice actor, podcaster, itinerant musician, voracious reader, and collector of hats and rescue dogs. She is the author of The Bathtub Mermaid: Tales from the Holiday Tub. You can learn more about her on her blog, or connect with her on on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

Sunday Brunch: Wax, Wick, and Whispering Flame

Sunday Brunch With Melissa Bartell

There’s an iconic scene that occurs in almost every novel from a certain period: a (usually young) woman will light a candle (or remove an existing one from a table or candelabra). Then, carrying it with great caution so that the flame doesn’t sputter out and her hair doesn’t catch fire, she will tiptoe up a well-worn staircase to continue with quiet pursuits until the wax has pooled and the wick is spent.

I have never been this woman, but I share her love of candles.

There’s some magic in the combination of wax, wick, and whispering flame that doesn’t merely add a flicker of light. For me, at least, a lit candle is an infusion of warmth, joy, and creativity.

Copyright: <a href='http://www.123rf.com/profile_anaumenko'>anaumenko / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

I don’t remember when I first became enamored with candlelight.

I don’t remember a time when candles weren’t part of my life.

When I was a very young child, my mother and I made sand candles – where you pour melted wax into damp sand that’s been patterned – sort of like a reverse sand castle, or an inverse stencil. The merging of the salt-scented beach sand and the warm wax may have been more craft than art, and maybe I remember it so fondly because it involved time with my mother.

Since then, candles have made their expected appearances at birthdays and on the dinner table during special meals, but I’ve incorporated them into other aspects of my life, as well.

– I keep a row of candles on the shelf at the end of my bathtub. Most are votives but I always have one large jar-candle among them. I like combining scents to evoke a mood. Since I’m a beach baby and bathtub mermaid, I use scents that remind me of trips to the shore. Currently, I have “Seaside Memories” in a jar and several “Clean Cotton” votives. This “recipe” reminds me of being sprawled across a line-dried beach towCopyright: <a href='http://www.123rf.com/profile_ambrozinio'>ambrozinio / 123RF Stock Photo</a>el with my toes covered by warm sand.

– I have candles in my Word Lounge (the room in my house that is dedicated to writing, voice acting, and podcasting). I have a big blue denim couch in there, so when I’m not actively writing, I’ll sometimes light a candle, make a mug of tea or coffee,  and curl up with one (or more) of my dogs to read, or plan, or plot.

One of the candles in that room is nestled into a fish-shaped bowl full of shells and pine cones retrieved from beaches in Mexico, Connecticut, California, and New Jersey. Its scent is strong tea with a hint of citrus.  Another pair, in matching hot pink holders, are on the “altar to creativity” that lives on my desk. I light them when I’m working in there, but I also use them when I’m channeling my inner Scarlet Pimpernel – their flames light my sticks of sealing wax. A final set of mini-votives are set into a wooden sign that says BEACH and is adorned with tiny shells and grains of sand. Those are “Beach Walk,” obviously.

– I have a shell-wreath that sits on the coffee table in the living room. Sometimes I put a vase of flowers in the center, but most often, the vase that sits there holds a candle. The default color is a sort of deep coral/not quite orange, but I change to a red one during the winter holidays, and sometimes I put a white one (lightly scented with pear) inside during the summer.

– I fill all the votives and light special seasonal candles at almost every holiday. For Valentine’s Day, I have matching glass, square, flower holders (they’re not really vase-shaped) that each hold two votives. One’s red, the other is clear, and I love having them out. At Halloween I have holders shaped like haunted trees and a trio of ceramic ghosts, among other spooky shapes.

But, candles are more than just decorations.

– I celebrate every rainstorm by lighting a few candles here and there. I’m not sure they possess actual magic, but I’ve noticed Copyright: <a href='http://www.123rf.com/profile_mihalec'>mihalec / 123RF Stock Photo</a>that whenever I pre-emptively light candles, we don’t lose power, even during tornadoes. As well, even the gentlest storm is made into a special experience when you add a little candle-flame.

– I use candles as memorials. My grandparents had a set of monogrammed highball glasses, and when my grandmother died I sent one to each of my aunts and immediate cousins with some of their ashes, and a votive in the glass. It makes the ache of loss so much softer, knowing that we all have the essences of these beloved people mixed into the soil of our gardens, but I feel like they exist in the flickering light that dances atop each wax cylinder, as well.

Candles have been used in spiritual and creative magic – as well as the ordinary magic of every-day living since the first chandler figured out that tallow or beeswax could be fitted with a wick and turned into a source of light, and they will continue to be used in a similar fashion.

Still, no musing upon candles would be complete without my confession: Although I’ve lived my entire life in an age where technology has been advancing almost daily (don’t you love living in the future?), there exists an imaginary version of me who is, just like the girls in those nineteenth-century novels I love so much, wrapping her hand around the handle of a metal candle-holder, shielding the  flame with her other hand, and creeping up the creaky stairs of an old house, either to a sacred corner where I’ll write stories into the wee hours, or to a bed where my dreams will be sweet and free of care.

“If there is moonlight outside, don’t stay inside! If there is candle inside, don’t stay outside! Moments of romanticism are too valuable to be missed!” ~ Mehmet Murat Ildan

About the author: Melissa A. Bartell

Melissa A. BartellMelissa is a writer, voice actor, podcaster, itinerant musician, voracious reader, and collector of hats and rescue dogs. She is the author of The Bathtub Mermaid: Tales from the Holiday Tub. You can learn more about her on her blog, or connect with her on on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

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