Albert Pinkham Ryder’s Chemical Sins, and Me

Albert Pinkham Ryder and Me, Rural Cemetery, New Bedford

            Because I am a poet, I respond to words before images, sentences before styles, paragraphs before pigments. I love to look at paintings, but for me words come first. It is not surprising, then, that my obsession with Albert Pinkham Ryder, a painter who was born, as I was, in New Bedford, Massachusetts, began not with a museum exhibit but with a review of one. When I read John Updike’s “Better Than Nature” in the November 8, 1990, issue of The New York Review, I was particularly impressed with Updike’s descriptions of Ryder’s technique and of the resulting fragility of his art. The exhibition being reviewed was at the Brooklyn Museum and ran from September 21, 1990, to January 7, 1991. It was an event. Updike wrote, “This show will not come round again, if only because Ryder’s paintings are so fragile and festering that they are disintegrating before, as it were, our collective eyes.”

            I wanted to see that exhibit but never made it to the Brooklyn Museum. Upstate New York, where I live, is not close to Brooklyn, and life and my job got in the way. Since 1991 I’ve seen Ryder paintings in various museums, but only one or two at a time, never a whole room full of them. This year, despite Updike’s warning, I will get a second chance. I am determined to see “A Wild Note of Longing” at the New Bedford Whaling Museum before the exhibition closes in October.

            Even before experiencing any of his art, I wanted to know more about Albert Pinkham Ryder’s life and work. I went to a library, looked through some books, and was very surprised to learn that Ryder is buried in Rural Cemetery, where my parents are buried. We have a family plot, which means that Ryder is a future neighbor. On my next visit to New Bedford and maybe the one after that, I tried and failed to find his grave. Finally I went to the cemetery office and asked where it was, expecting to be given a lot number or other form of cemetery address. Rural Cemetery is very old, and the oldest sections are full of turns, easy to get lost in. The people in the office didn’t give any indication that they recognized Ryder’s name. They may have thought I was looking for my great-grandfather. But they went beyond the call of duty and sent a man in a pickup truck to escort me and my husband to the grave, which is in a very peaceful section of a very peaceful place. We will be neighbors, but not close neighbors. I sent a photo of the gravestone to Find a Grave, where I am known as “Zenobia.”

            One sentence in John Updike’s review jumped out at me as soon as I read it. “Ryder,” Updike wrote, “in his reckless, betranced quest for poetically lustrous surfaces committed every chemical sin in the book, mixing his oils with alcohol, bitumen, and candlewax, painting ‘wet-on-wet,’ applying rapid-drying paints (flake white, umbers, and Prussian blue) on top of ‘slow driers’ like lamp black and Van Dyke brown, pouring on varnish straight from the bottle and painting on top of the still-tacky surface.” Because I am a poet and not a painter, I wrote a poem using part of the above sentence as an epigraph. The poem isn’t about Ryder, but then it sort of is because he inspired it. The poem was first published in Black Warrior Review and is included in my chapbook, Carlisle & The Common Accident. Here it is:

CHEMICAL SINS

. . .Ryder in his reckless, betranced quest for poetically lustrous surfaces committed every chemical sin in the book. . .
                    —John Updike on Albert Pinkham Ryder



So, Carlisle reflects, art shadows life
in both tenacity and dissolution,
and mixes another drink and thinks about

art and luminosity and Faustian
negotiations.  Life, she reflects,
sucking a pimiento from an olive,

is luminous enough, all those tiny
pricks of light scattered along a space-
time continuum.  Rattling the cubes,

she thinks about life, how it accrues
dimension as it jerks along, caught
in ratchets, and she measures out another

shot of gin and tears into a bag
of Ruffles and nibbles and reflects
on chemistry, what little she remembers

from high school, a clutch of rotten-egg
experiments, some graduated beakers
of hydrochloric or sulfuric acid,

lots of dirty Pyrex to wash
afterwards.  She thinks about the stack
of dishes in her sink when all those lights

crackle, then suddenly start to wink at
random, eccentrically spaced
markers in some postimpressionist

universe, all absurdly almost
within reach.  A couple more drinks,
she’ll touch them, fingertips a trail

of auras that ionize and glow
in the dark.  But the chips are down
to a few greasy crumbs and she knows

a French roast and a Tylenol will work
their chemistry on the tenacious headache
she’ll wake with in the morning. 

The Bizarro Yankee Doodle Dandy

The Vieira Family: My grandfather Joseph Vieira surrounded by my grandmother Margarida Frias Vieira, Mamie Vieira (older girl), Angelina Vieira (younger girl), and Walter Vieira.

Yesterday was the Fourth of July. Independence Day is not my favorite holiday. In fact, it’s my least favorite holiday, not because I lack patriotic fervor and not because I hate fireworks (although I do hate fireworks if they’re directly over my head)—no, not for either of those reasons. I certainly don’t hate the music, most of which was written by John Philip Sousa, and I even like the Bizarro version of “Stars and Stripes Forever” with its lyrics about ducks and mothers. In fact I love the music, and I used to love the annual telecast of the Boston Pops concert from the Hatch Shell. The evening always ended with Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture and televised fireworks over the Charles River. This year’s concert was performed at Tanglewood, although the fireworks still happened in Boston. Unfortunately our PBS station didn’t carry any of it, opting instead for A Capitol Fourth, which I didn’t watch and don’t have anything bad to say about except that it’s not the same thing. I like things to be the same. I like tradition. My problem with this particular holiday is that traditionally (for my family, at least) it has been a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. 

            First there was my maternal grandfather, Joseph Cabral Vieira, who arrived in New Bedford on June 2, 1903, on the S.S. Peninsular.  He was 20 years old and traveling with his sister Virginia to join his mother, Amalia, and his brother and other sisters. He loved his new home. He soon met my grandmother at a dance, married her, and made a life for himself and his family in bustling New Bedford. His dream was to become an American citizen. First he had to learn to write his name, and he practiced, over and over, writing “Joseph Vieira” on pieces of paper. Years later, after I was born and learned to read, I found those scraps of paper inside a desk he had salvaged for my cousin Violet. His handwriting was shaky, and sometimes he put the “e” before the “s” so that it came out “Joesph Vieira.” But with time he improved, and he looked forward to the day when he would take the oath of citizenship. 

            Unfortunately, my grandfather was not destined to become a Yankee Doodle Dandy. On the day of the Oath of Allegiance ceremony, he arrived early, excited and nervous, feeling almost like a real, live, adopted nephew of his Uncle Sam. And then the unthinkable happened. Before he could take the oath he suffered a stroke, a small stroke but serious enough to prevent him from becoming what he wanted to be—a citizen of the United States of America. 

            Much later, on the morning of July 4, 1941, after a few months of walking with a cane, after his lifelong dream had been squeezed out of him, my grandfather went into the bathroom to shave and get ready for the day’s celebrations. As he stood at the sink in the bathroom of his first-floor tenement on Matthew Street, the unthinkable reoccurred, this time with force and cruelty. The second stroke killed him instantly. 

            Because he died before I was born, I knew my grandfather only through stories that were told and artifacts that provided tangible proof of his existence. There was the radio in my grandmother’s dining room, a piece of furniture taller than I was with mysterious dials that I wasn’t allowed to touch. At Christmas there was a celluloid Santa Claus in a sleigh pulled by celluloid reindeer; if my grandmother or one of my aunts wound it up, it would move across the floor on tiny, hidden wheels. I wasn’t allowed to wind it up. There were stories about THAT DAY like, for example, how my grandmother sent my cousin Violet to Ti’ Frank’s house to fetch him; how Violet, not wanting to waste time getting dressed, raced down the sidewalks of New Bedford in her slip. 

            Years later, after my parents bought their first TV set, a Capehart that was way smaller than my grandfather’s radio, my mother and I watched the movie Yankee Doodle Dandy. It probably was shown as a Fourth of July special. After watching it I started mentally connecting my grandfather to George M. Cohan, who looked like James Cagney and said he was born on the Fourth of July. Because he died on the Fourth of July, my grandfather could have been the Bizarro version of the song-and-dance man on a stage where everything was red, white, and blue. Actually, as I recently learned, the only proof of George M. Cohan’s birth date is a baptismal certificate saying he was born on July 3, 1878, but the July 4 date certainly makes the better story. 

            One U.S. president was born on Independence Day: Calvin Coolidge came into the world on July 4, 1872, in Plymouth Notch, Vermont. Would that make my grandfather the Bizarro version of President Coolidge? Or should he remain in the company of the three presidents who died on the Fourth of July? John Adams and Thomas Jefferson both died on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. And James Monroe followed on July 4, 1831. Let’s wave the grand old flag for all of them.

Vovô and Vovó

There were other incidents, not so terrible but not so nice, either. One Fourth of July my grandmother was sitting on her front porch minding her own business when a passing stranger tossed a firecracker into the air and it veered in her direction. She wasn’t seriously hurt, but the firecracker’s collision left her with a small black spot in the middle of the back of her hand. And in another fireworks-related accident, although this time not on the Fourth, my friend Evelyn, who was a majorette with the Dartmouth High School marching band, happened to be in the wrong place when a doofus in the stands threw a cherry bomb into the football field. Evelyn was OK, but the incident was serious enough to be reported in The Standard-Times.

The Dartmouth High School Majorettes. Evelyn is on the right, standing.

Not all Fourths of July were bad, though, and the very best of them involved Evelyn and happened a long time ago. A few years ago I wrote about the Pickle Pin Club and the grand parades we organized every year. Those were the best Fourths of July ever, and you can read about them here: https://nancyvieiracouto.com/2016/07/03/encore-another-marvelous-fourth-of-july-parade-with-the-pickle-pin-club/

And, if you have survived the holiday, congratulations! Now let’s get ready for Bastille Day.

Green Hair & Jam

A couple of weeks ago, as I was scrolling through the news items on Poetry Daily’s website, I came upon Ruth Weiss’s obituary. Although I didn’t know who Ruth Weiss was, the thumbnail in the news feed immediately caught my attention. Ruth Weiss, who was, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, a “trailblazing poet in the ‘boys’ club’ Beat scene,” had died on July 31 at the age of 92. She was less well known than her male counterparts and even less well known than Diane di Prima, who came later to the North Beach poetry circuit. Ruth Weiss is credited as being the first poet to read to the accompaniment of a jazz combo. And she had green hair.

The jazz poetry thing happened by accident. She was sitting in her basement apartment working on a poem when a friend rushed in, saw the poem, pulled it out of the typewriter, and ran out of the room. Ruth ran after her poem, as anyone would, and ended up in an apartment where a party was going on. There was music. Ruth was urged to read her work. She started to read, and the bassist and piano player soon joined in. She had started something.

Ruth Weiss was born to a Jewish family in Germany during a time when Nazism was gaining strength. The Weiss family got out of Berlin, seeking safety in Vienna and later in the Netherlands. They came to the United States in 1939, and Ruth’s parents became American citizens.

In the 1960s, Ruth began spelling her name in lowercase letters: ruth weiss. She was protesting against Germany, against the Nazis, against the German practice of capitalizing nouns. And, in another act of protest, this time inspired by the film The Boy With Green Hair, she dyed her hair green.

The Boy With Green Hair (1948) was directed by Joseph Losey and starred Dean Stockwell as the boy, Peter Frye. The film has been variously described as a fantasy/drama, a drama/comedy, and a parable. Because a certain amount of suspension of disbelief is required, I’ll go along with parable and fantasy. But this is not a funny movie. It’s serious stuff. Back when it was shown regularly on a classic movie network, I watched it several times. Those of us who love The Boy With Green Hair will never forget it.

Here’s the plot: The boy, Peter, has been sent to live with Gramps, a retired or failed actor now working as a singing waiter. Gramps is not his real grandfather, but the two of them hit it off. Peter believes his parents are in England working for a war relief agency but later learns that they have both been killed. Shortly after receiving this news, he looks in the mirror after his morning bath and sees that his hair has turned green. The color won’t wash out. Gramps tells him that it’s “a grand color,” but Peter wants to be like everybody else.

In what has been described as a dream scene—but I believe it really happened—Peter is wandering through the woods and meets a group of children he recognizes from the posters of war orphans that are taped to a wall in his school. “Your green hair is very beautiful,” the children tell him. “Green is the color of spring. It means hope.” They tell Peter that his hair is a symbol to remind others that “war is very bad for children.” That’s one of the messages—yes, this is a message movie—but the stronger message is about tolerance. “How many of you have black hair?” the teacher asks. She goes on to ask about brown hair, blonde hair, green hair, and red hair. “Are there any questions?” she asks.

In 2019 the director and cinematographer Melody C. Miller released a documentary film about ruth weiss. Titled ruth weiss; the beat goddess, the film has been shown at festivals worldwide and is winning awards. I don’t know when or if it will be coming to a theatre near me—or to a TV set near me—but I know I want to see it. Here’s the trailer:

ruth weiss’s hair color is sometimes described as teal, and in fact Peter Frye’s green hair was leaning toward the teal side of green. Perhaps that had something to do with the hair dyes that were available in 1948. Now, of course, it is possible to buy green hair in a drugstore. Googling, I found a range of vibrant green hues, some of which glow under black light.

The green-haired star of the moment, of course, is Billie Eilish. I first became aware of her when she sang the Beatles’ song “Yesterday” during the “In Memoriam” segment of the 2020 Academy Awards. Only 18 years old, she suddenly is everywhere. She even made an appearance at the Democratic National Convention, urging everyone to  “vote like our lives, and the world, depend on it.” After her brief talk she introduced a new single, “My Future,” which she co-wrote with her brother, Finneas O’Connell. Billie Eilish’s green hair is much lighter and brighter than ruth weiss’s. It is green at the crown only, and her two-tone hairstyle is similar except in color to that of the late Agnes Varda.

OK, time for the jam session. Peter Frye is an old man now, but his hair is still green. Let’s imagine that he has learned to play the double bass. He starts a bass riff as Finneas sits at the piano. (Finneas does not have green hair, but you can’t have everything.) Billie and ruth take turns at the microphone, Billie singing with her sweet, whispery voice, and ruth reciting playful, incisive poems. This jam is my fantasy, and, if I want them to, they will keep the beat going all night long.

Marathon Girl

Was it 1975, the year my brother and I caught the bus to Boston to see a Red Sox game and the finish of the Boston Marathon? I know it was Patriot’s Day, because we both had the day off and also because that’s when the Boston Marathon happens. Although we didn’t stay for the final inning, we knew how the game would end. Strangely, in my memory the Red Sox were the winners by a big margin. But a Google search tells me that my memory was flawed, that no, the Red Sox lost by a big margin. At any rate, there was no question about which team would win when Edward and I and a lot of other people got up and left. Marathon day meant a mass exit from Fenway and a short walk toward the finish line on Boylston Street. I remember walking past some sort of public garden area. Bostonians in gardening clothes and straw hats were raking, hoeing, planting, or weeding in their individual plots, and my memory of that part of the walk is almost dreamlike; I mean, there were the Red Sox on one side, and there was the Boston Marathon on the other, and there was that bucolic utopia in the middle of all the zaniness that was Boston then and I hope still is Boston now.

We weren’t at the finish line, but we were close enough. The winner of the men’s race that year was Bill Rodgers, an American, and we cheered as he passed us. He was finishing a 26.2-mile race, and, as everyone knows, the last 26 miles are the hardest. The last 26 miles demand dedication and training, days of protein-pushing and carbo-loading, electrolytes, water, and willpower. We continued to cheer as each runner pounded by until it was time to catch our bus back to New Bedford. I knew that day that the marathon was my sport! I’m a walker, not a runner, so I’m talking spectator sport here. But what I admire in any endeavor is the ability to “keep calm and carry on,” as the English Ministry of Information famously declared during the dark days of World War II. Stamina is way more important than energy, as I less famously suggested in my poem “Magalhães’ Last Testament,” which begins:

Having always been a person of more stamina

than energy, I’m not surprised to find myself

in the Philippines, although these wide-eyed natives

are surprised.

Those are Magellan’s words, or, to be more accurate, the words I put in his mouth, and when things go bad, when he realizes that “I guess stamina won’t pull me through this time,” he still isn’t sorry. He has kept calm and carried on. He has done his job.

Several years later I witnessed a history-making marathon, although I wasn’t lucky enough to be there in person. I remember watching on television as a young woman in a white cap emerged from the tunnel into the coliseum and, with the crowd cheering wildly, continued to the finish line. She was Joan Benoit, and she won the gold medal in the first-ever Olympic women’s marathon at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. The crowd was definitely not calm, but Joan carried on and did her job.

The medium of television is great for showing the whole marathon from start to finish, but of course the cameras can’t capture all of the runners all of the time. Only the most important races are televised, and whether or not you can see the one you want to see depends on your TV provider and the package of channels you have chosen. And of course nothing beats seeing the race in person, that slice of the race visible from your hard-won piece of sidewalk. But you have to be in the right place at the right time. When my husband and I were in Paris in April of 2015, we just happened upon the Paris Marathon, which begins at the Arc de Triomphe, loops around various Parisian attractions, and for part of the route follows the Seine. That’s the part we saw. I can’t imagine a more beautiful place to run, or to watch other people run.

That’s one kind of marathon, one person going the distance, making it to the finish line, navigating the mind-blowing beauty of the fjords lining the Strait of Magellan despite the fierceness of the williwaws. One person keeping on trucking, keeping on keeping on. But there’s another sort of marathon, the crowd-sourced kind, the passing-the-baton kind, the carrying-the-Olympic-torch kind, the Vestal-Virgins-keeping-the-fires-going kind, the lights-going-on-all-over-the-world kind. When I was in elementary school I read about the Vestal Virgins in my history textbook and was fascinated, not by the virginity aspect, which I was too young to understand, but by the eternal flames, because keeping the home fires burning was another way of keeping on keeping on.

The New Bedford Whaling Museum’s Moby-Dick Marathon falls into the second category, the crowd-sourced category. Moby-Dick contains 135 chapters and an epilogue; reading it takes about twenty-four hours, no breaks, no naps. With volunteer readers passing the baton, it is a true marathon event, and last fall Joe and I decided to apply to be among this year’s 215. We arrived in New Bedford the day after a nor’easter brought wind, snow, and temperatures hovering around zero degrees to the whaling city. Despite the cold and the icy streets and sidewalks, the museum was packed, and everyone appeared to be having a good time. The initial readers read the opening chapters in the Bourne Building right in front of the Lagoda, a half-scale model of a whaleship; it’s large enough to climb aboard and explore. Father Mapple’s sermon was delivered in the Seamen’s Bethel, right across the street. And then, for the First and Second Dog Watches, readers and listeners settled into the museum’s Harbor View Gallery, where two podiums in front of a backdrop of a harbor scene meant that there would be no breaks between each reader’s allotted pages. Joe and I were scheduled for the Evening Watch, also in the Harbor View Gallery. Reading from, and listening to Moby-Dick made me realize all over again what an incredible novel Herman Melville has given us. It just keeps on keeping on. Do I feel as if I’ve run a 26.2-mile race, or at least a small bit of it? You bet I do!

Encore: Another Marvelous Fourth of July Parade with the Pickle Pin Club

In honor of Fourth of July Weekend, I am reposting what I wrote last year at this time. It’s still appropriate, although my brother’s cat, Trixie, died a few months ago. This is the post that made me cry. 

Evelyn and I started the club because we wanted a club.  We were the oldest on the street, or at least the oldest of the young kids, and we felt it was our duty to organize activities for the others.  Evelyn was nine at the time, and I had just turned ten.  We would ask our mothers for money for refreshments and prizes, and they would give us whatever change they had handy.  We would walk to Vee’s Variety and buy Tootsie Rolls, the ones that cost only a penny, and packets of Kool-Aid.  Then we would ask our mothers for sugar to put in the Kool-Aid.  We held our meetings in our clubhouse.  Actually it wasn’t ours.  It was a tar-paper shack that Evelyn’s brother had built in their back yard, but he didn’t seem to be using it anymore. Because it had four walls and a roof, we thought it was grand.  We had a bag of pickle pins that one of my father’s customers had given him, green plastic pins shaped like pickles with the number 57 in the middle.  Everyone who joined got a pin, and we had a lot of pins left over.  That was how our club got its name.

I don’t remember which of us first thought of a parade, but we were running out of ideas for field-day-type races and games, and we were giving away a lot of Tootsie Rolls.  A parade was easy.  Everybody came dressed as something or brought something to bang on.  We had no music, but we had noise.  Evelyn and her sister Joan had a supply of dancing costumes that could be customized, made to look patriotic.  I had had only one year of dancing lessons, and my choices were limited to a tutu that I had grown out of or a ghost outfit that glowed in the dark.  Neither was especially appropriate, so I settled for shorts and a t-shirt and an Uncle Sam hat that my mother paid 25 cents for at the 5&10.  It was made of cardboard and had stars and stripes all over it, and it matched the flag I carried.  Evelyn wore one of her dancing outfits and twirled her baton.  I didn’t have a clue how to twirl a baton, but I had an Uncle Sam hat.  Joan showed up in a costume that she said represented Miss Liberty, whoever that was.  Kirsten and Donna and Betsy and Marcia wore red, white, and blue and brought flags and noisemakers.  My brother refused to march with us, but he let us borrow his toy drum.  We gathered at the end of our dead-end street early in the morning of the Fourth of July, and we started to march.  The parade route took us up our street and back down again.  People came out of their houses to watch us go by.  Some had cameras.  It was exciting!

We did this every year for what seemed like a long time but couldn’t have been.  By the second year people were lining the streets with movie cameras.  (Well maybe there was only one movie camera.)  But by the third year Tootsie Rolls and Kool-Aid had lost their magic, my brother’s drum had a hole in it, and somehow my beloved Uncle Sam hat had gotten dinged.  Besides, Evelyn and I were growing up.

So that’s how it ended.  We grew up, we grew apart, we moved away.  The bag of pickle pins seems to have disappeared, although it may be in my brother’s attic.  Evelyn and Joan are gone.  Kirsten lives in California.  I don’t know where in the world Donna, Betsy, and Marcia ended up, but I hope they are happy.  My brother is the only one who still lives on our old street, but his cat, Trixie, spends more time there than he does.

Those were the best parades of my life, and no abundance of flags, floats, marching bands, or Clydesdales could have made them more spectacular.  I’m not big on fireworks or picnics or flag-waving, at least not without my Uncle Sam hat, but oh what I wouldn’t give for one more Fourth of July parade with the Pickle Pin Club!

Mr. Micawber, Mr. Marner, and the Slow Quickening of my Monthly Budget

 It’s not what you earn, I said to myself. It’s what you don’t spend. That was in the late 60s, early 70s, when I lived in San Francisco and made a point of spending less than my paycheck allowed. I lived on what I liked to call the slum side of Nob Hill, in a neighborhood populated mostly by young singles. My furnished studio apartment cost about $95 a month. It had a bay window on one side and a wall bed on the other, with a kitchen and bathroom small enough to be hardly noticed. I didn’t make much money, but I lived cheap.

My budget tool at the time was a packet of manila coin envelopes. I would stash money in the envelopes, seal them, write the date on which each was to be opened, and hide them in various pockets of off-season garments. I never forgot where the money was hidden, and I never opened an envelope before the appointed date. I was good at budgeting. I had read David Copperfield at a young age and taken to heart Mr. Micawber’s advice to David “that if a man had twenty pounds a-year for his income, and spent nineteen pounds nineteen shillings and sixpence, he would be happy, but that if he spent twenty pounds one he would be miserable.” Made sense to me.

After some pay raises, some rent increases, a job change, and a move back to the East Coast, I decided I needed to do some long-range planning. Also, I guessed that paying for a never-ending supply of manila coin envelopes was not cost effective, although I liked the simplicity of the system and the feel of the envelopes in my hand. (I still have nine of them in my desk drawer, left over from my last packet.) But the world was no longer simple. Suddenly I had credit cards and used them more frequently than cash; I wasn’t about to hide my MasterCard in the pocket of an old raincoat. And the check register might be a good enough place to record the checks I had written, but in essence it was a spending tool. Even if I hadn’t hated the sight of my own handwriting, I was at a point in my life when I needed to think seriously about saving.

I don’t think I would have become acquisitive if I hadn’t read Silas Marner in high school. I loved best those passages in the book that described Silas’s relationship with his gold and silver coins. What George Eliot had written was money porn, and it stayed in my head:

He loved the guineas best, but he would not change the silver—the crowns and half-crowns that were his own earnings, begotten by his labour; he loved them all. He spread them out in heaps and bathed his hands in them; then he counted them and set them up in regular piles, and felt their rounded outline between his thumb and fingers, and thought fondly of the guineas that were only half-earned by the work in his loom, as if they had been unborn children—thought of the guineas that were coming slowly through the coming years, through all his life, which spread far away before him, the end quite hidden by countless days of weaving.

Luckily, technology came to my rescue. First there were spreadsheets and integrated programs; for the Macintosh, Lotus Jazz and Wingz come to mind. At work, where we had a Kaypro in the basement, I used Perfect Writer to churn out contracts. We also had Perfect Calc for spreadsheets, but my job didn’t involve spreadsheets. Whatever there was, there was always something better the next year, but nothing was ever good enough. At some point I bought myself an IBM PC, which was compatible with the computer I was using at work. (The university press I worked for had ditched the Kaypro by then, and nobody was weeping over it.) I was using spreadsheets and databases all the time now. I enjoyed them, but not as much as Silas Marner enjoyed his piles of guineas.

What I knew I needed, although I didn’t know it existed, was money-management software. Luckily, my first laptop computer, an IBM that ran on DOS like its predecessor, came preloaded with Andrew Tobias’s Managing Your Money, a program that did everything I wanted it to do, including computing my debt-to-equity ratio whenever I asked it to, which was daily. I loved Managing Your Money. According to his website, Andrew Tobias, who is currently Treasurer of the Democratic National Committee, still uses the last DOS version, even though the rest of the world has closed that door and opened its Windows.

When I switched to a series of Windows computers, none of which I especially liked, I said good-bye to MYM and hello to Quicken. I liked Quicken. If I told it when I wanted to retire, it would tell me whether I could afford to do so. And although it refused to calculate my debt-to-equity ratio, it gave me enough information so that I could do the arithmetic myself. With each new version, Quicken for Windows became more sophisticated. What I liked best were the budgeting features. I could have as many income and expense categories as I wanted, and I could budget a different amount in each category for each month of the year. I could be as obsessively precise as I wanted to be, and Quicken would cheer me on.

The story could have ended happily right there, except that I really wasn’t happy with my string of Windows computers–not in the way I had loved my DOS computers and my manila envelopes. I finally made the decision to switch platforms, and for me it was the right decision. In most cases, transitioning to software designed for the Mac was easy. The Mac version of my genealogy program, the one I worried most about, worked just fine. The same is true for my word-processing and spreadsheet programs. I was almost happy.

However, I soon learned that Quicken software for the Macintosh was greatly inferior to the Windows product. Quicken Essentials, the version that was available when I made the switch, was so bad that I have blocked it out of my mind completely. I bought Quicken 2015 for Mac as soon as it became available, and it was an improvement, but nowhere near what I had gotten used to. What was missing–well, many things were missing, but what I missed the most–was 12-month budgeting. Quicken 2015 for Mac worked on the assumption that one’s income and expenses were exactly the same from one month to the next. It would have been a good program for a young single living in a $95-a-month studio with a wall bed in San Francisco, someone who spent exactly $120 a month each month at Cala Foods, someone whose monthly PG&E bill came in consistently at under $4. It was not a good program for a retired homeowner with property taxes, school taxes, and estimated taxes to worry about. My Quicken budget was a caricature of my financial life, and I was almost ready to go back to those envelopes.

 Now for the happy ending: Earlier this month Quicken 2016, which I hadn’t bothered to buy since it seemed to offer nothing new that I wanted, finally got around to adding 12-month budgeting to its other features. No, I told myself, they’re just trying to suck me in. It won’t work. Don’t believe them. I held my breath and downloaded the new version. I held by breath and transferred all of my data. I held my breath and looked at my budget. Yes, it was true. I could fine-tune my budget as much as I liked. I could assign guineas to a leather bag under the floorboards if I wanted to. (I do, in fact, have a Quicken account called “Stash,” but I don’t keep it under the floorboards.) I spent several hours editing my budget, and during those several hours I was ecstatically, hilariously happy.

There’s an element of uncertainty to all this happiness, however. Intuit has sold the Quicken line to a private equity firm, and, while the new owners have promised to double the number of engineers working on the Mac version, probably nothing will happen during the transition period. So I’m happy for now and can recommend the product, but I will keep my eyes and ears open. And I’ll hold on to those nine manila coin envelopes just in case. Hey, you never know.


Lily, Mr. Bluebird, and the Beginning and End of My Singing Career

“Nancy, I want to ask you something,” my cousin Lily said. By the look on her face, I could tell it was important. “How would you like to be a flower girl at my wedding?” she continued. I didn’t know what a flower girl was. I had heard people talking about sweater girls, and I sort of knew what they looked like, but I didn’t think I could look like that. I was only four years old. “You would wear a pretty gown,” Lily said, as if she were reading my mind,” and you would carry a bouquet of flowers.” I was still worried about the sweater, but I liked Lily. So I said OK. 

I still remember that day and how confused I was by this very grown-up request, how I wanted to please Lily but didn’t really know what I was getting into. Most of my cousins were older than I was, and a few of them were already grown up. Lily was grown up, and she and her boyfriend, Charlie, were getting married in June, a few days before my fifth birthday. Charlie was different from the people in my family. He had lighter hair, blue eyes, and a mother from Cuttyhunk. Even though I was very young, I could tell that he and Lily were in love.

Later I learned more about the responsibilities of a flower girl. I learned I would have to walk into the church next to the ring bearer, who was a boy I didn’t know. I think he may have been related to Charlie, but his name kept changing. One day it was Norman, and the next day it was Ronald. I think Norman was the first choice, because he was my age and we would have looked cute walking down the aisle together. But, because Norman refused to be in the wedding party, his older brother, Ronald, agreed to perform the ring-carrying duties. (I may have gotten their names mixed up.) 

At the rehearsal I did almost everything right. The Communion part confused me, though. I was too young for Communion, but I didn’t know when to stay in the pew and when to follow the others.  The bridesmaid, whose name may have been Rita, came up with a solution; she would scratch my gown with her fingernail when it was time for Communion, and I would know to stay seated. “Like this,” she said, and she scratched my skirt. I noticed her red nail polish and hoped her long fingernail wouldn’t snag my gown. I loved my gown. It was yellow and, as Lily had promised, pretty.

One afternoon before all of this, before the rehearsal and before the wedding, my mother took me to see a movie called Song of the South. I don’t remember too much about the plot, only that it involved cartoon animals as well as real people. I caught on right away that of the three main cartoon characters one was dumb, one was smart, and one was smarter. In the cartoon segments, which were mostly scary, the bear and the fox (dumb and smart) were always doing terrible things to the rabbit (smarter). Unlike Norman and Ronald, the three characters all had the same first name, Brer. Because Brer Rabbit used his head and not his feet, he was able to escape from his enemies over and over again. I didn’t understand everything that was happening, but I liked the briar patch segment after my mother explained it to me. The part I liked best, though, was when Uncle Remus walked along singing “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” while cartoon birds and bees and butterflies flew around him and landed on his shoulders. I especially liked Mister Bluebird. Although I had never seen a bluebird in person, I always had bluebirds on my birthday cakes along with pink roses. (My father worked for a bakery, so I always had bakery cakes with my name written on the white frosting. I don’t think I had ever seen a homemade cake.) Later my mother bought me a record with all the songs from the movie on it, and I learned the lyrics to “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” by heart.

On the day of the wedding I walked down the aisle with Ronald-or-Norman, and maybe-Rita scratched my gown very gently, without doing any damage. After the ceremony we all went to a photographer’s studio and had lots of pictures taken. And then, because there was still time before the reception, we went to Buttonwood Park for more pictures. My mother had bought Kodacolor film specially for the occasion. She wanted to take outdoor photos in the gardens across the road from the pond. Lily, the maid-of-honor, and maybe-Rita walked along the garden paths in gowns as long and willowy as the columns in front of the savings bank. The men looked on as if they were expecting something to happen, but nothing happened except that my mother snapped some photos with her box camera. I remember that the flowers–I think they were hydrangeas–quietly nodded their heads when they saw us.

Many years later, when I read Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” I thought of those pictures, not the photographer’s formal wedding portraits but the Kodacolor photos that my mother had taken. Except for the blurry hydrangeas, everything was new and intensely still on that sunny June day under the “happy, happy boughs.” Between the wedding and the reception, all of that love was “still to be enjoy’d.” 

The reception was held in a rented hall. a large room with a stage at one end and folding chairs set up along the walls. Some of the women were arranging paper plates and napkins on the food table and setting out platters of chicken-salad sandwiches, bowls of chips, and bottles of soda. Although many of the guests hadn’t arrived yet, the band was playing, the singer was singing, and people were dancing. My mother wasn’t there. She had gone home to get a dress for me to change into; obviously she was also worried about the possibility that I might snag my gown or spill something on it. Left in the care of my aunts and cousins, who were still too excited to pay much attention to me, I joined a small group of children, including Norman-or-Ronald or possibly both of them, and, not knowing one another, we talked and played warily.

Here’s where it gets interesting. The music stopped and the band left the stage. The singer left, too. The set was over, and they were taking a break, but I didn’t know about sets and breaks. Naturally we children climbed onto the stage, and the boys began to examine the drums, and I’m not sure what the other girls examined because I was fascinated by the microphone. I had been watching the singer, the way she held it as if she loved it, and the way she swayed from side to side while she sang. I wanted to try, so I grabbed the microphone, which was way too tall for me, and I started to sing the only song I knew by heart, “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.” I swayed from side to side, and I sang, but not too loud because for me it was a private pretend moment. The hall was suddenly very quiet. I was sure nobody could hear me because I wasn’t a real singer and the microphone was only something to hold on to. I sang all the verses, all both of them, and when I got to “Wonderful feeling, wonderful day!” I stopped singing. And then something surprising happened. Everyone in the hall–including my aunt Mamie, my cousin Lily, and maybe-Rita–started clapping. I should have been happy, I suppose, but I remember feeling that my privacy had been violated, although I wouldn’t have used those words. So that was what a microphone was for! I felt betrayed. 

My mother was surprised when she arrived a few minutes later and asked if she had missed anything. But I wasn’t about to perform an encore, and the musicians and the real singer were already reclaiming their space. That was the end of my singing career but not the end of “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.” It won the Oscar for Best Original Song in 1948, and James Baskett, the actor who played Uncle Remus and spoke the voices of Brer Fox and, I think, one of the butterflies, won an Academy Honorary Award. Song of the Southwas a success at the box office, both at the time of its original release and when it was re-released in 1972. Since that time, though, the film has been widely criticized for its portrayal of African-American former slaves in the Reconstruction-era South, and for that reason it has never been released on DVD in the United States. I’m sure the criticisms are valid, but at the age of four I was not ready for a realistic depiction of life in one of the ugliest periods of American history. On the other hand, if Keats was right when he wrote that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” Song of the South can be faulted for not being true and thus, despite the charm of the animated singing creatures, not being beautiful. I’ll go along with that. Everything was not satisfactual, not really. But when I think of Uncle Remus singing “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah,” and when I think of Mister Bluebird perched on his shoulder, it’s not truth or beauty that I’m seeing but a celebration of the human spirit. And to that I say “zip-a-dee-ay.”


Painted Ponies Redux

Here I am riding one of the painted ponies that seem to be haunting me these days. This photo may have been taken at Lincoln Park, although the carousel looks much too small. Was there a smaller carousel in Kiddie-Land? Or was the photo taken at a different park? It doesn’t matter, because the parks are gone, or at least the ones I remember are gone. Lincoln Park, in Dartmouth, Massachusetts, had the longest  run, lasting from 1894 to 1987. In its heyday it was an oasis of delight, a place where families could spend all Sunday afternoon without running out of things to do, eat, watch, or ride. Lincoln Park was where I tasted my first pizza, although I didn’t much like it. I liked the rides, though. I started out on the  Kiddie-Land train and worked my way to the grown-up Merry-Go-Round, Ferris Wheel, Bubble Bounce, Tilt-a-Whirl, Dark House, and Fun House. (I secretly thought the Dark House, with boats sloshing through a watery channel, was more fun than the Fun House.) The Penny Arcade had a “Grandma” fortune-telling machine, and right outside of Kiddie-Land it was possible to ride an unpainted, real pony that walked around in a circle inside a small corral. The real ponies didn’t go up and down, and there was no music. I liked the carousel horses better.

My Uncle Walter worked at Lincoln Park briefly. He operated the Tilt-a-Whirl and then moved up to the Dodgems. He let me ride for free, but I wasn’t supposed to tell anyone. The Tilt-a-Whirl was fun, but I didn’t understand the philosophy behind the Dodgems. I would drive my car very carefully, trying not to bump into anyone, but others would bump into me and start laughing. I thought they were very uncivilized and hoped my uncle would be promoted to a nicer ride, like the carousel. But that didn’t happen because Uncle Walter decided instead to go to California and seek his fortune.

When I grew older, I rollerskated in the skating rink and bowled in the bowling alley. I didn’t get good at either skating or bowling, although I liked the distinctive thunder and clatter of the duckpin alley. There was a ballroom, too, but I never went there. By that time I was too busy doing my French homework and sending out college applications. I should have noticed that the park was losing its magic, but I didn’t. 

Here’s what happened, although not right away and not all at the same time: Duckpin bowling disappeared, as did the equally if not more challenging sport of candlepin bowling. As tenpin lanes took over the bowling landscape, TV shows like Duckpins for Dollars and Candlepins for Cash were replaced by the unalliterative Bowling for Dollars.  And that was only part of it. Theme parks and water parks multiplied like rabbits, and I guess they had a lot more to offer in terms of fantasy and adventure and gigantic water slides, but you couldn’t get there on the Union Street Railway (which was not a railway) or by driving a short distance up the highway. Lincoln Park had this going for it: It was there. 

And how could I almost forget to mention the scholarships? At my high school graduation, after all the diplomas were given out, the local scholarships were announced. These were mostly from organizations like the College Club of New Bedford and the Portuguese-American Civic League, but the biggest local scholarships, one to a boy and one to a girl, were presented by Lincoln Park, and I was lucky enough to receive one. It was more than enough to cover my first year of college tuition, and my other local scholarships paid for most of my second and third years. I didn’t get to meet Cinderella or shake hands with a mouse, but I did get to go to college. Lincoln Park, the College Club of New Bedford, and the Portuguese-American Civic League were my fairy godparents. Some people walk on air, but that night I was walking on glass slippers.

As for the painted ponies, they had their own fairy godparents. Carousel #54, made by the Philadelphia Toboggan Company, had been at Lincoln Park since 1920, and it needed a new home. Thanks to the Fall River community it was purchased, refurbished, and moved to Battleship Cove, a “fleet museum” right by the Braga Bridge. I’ve never visited it in its new home, but I like knowing that for two dollars I can have one more ride.

Another Marvelous Fourth of July Parade with the Pickle Pin Club

Evelyn and I started the club because we wanted a club.  We were the oldest on the street, or at least the oldest of the young kids, and we felt it was our duty to organize activities for the others.  Evelyn was nine at the time, and I had just turned ten.  We would ask our mothers for money for refreshments and prizes, and they would give us whatever change they had handy.  We would walk to Vee’s Variety and buy Tootsie Rolls, the ones that cost only a penny, and packets of Kool-Aid.  Then we would ask our mothers for sugar to put in the Kool-Aid.  We held our meetings in our clubhouse.  Actually it wasn’t ours.  It was a tar-paper shack that Evelyn’s brother had built in their back yard, but he didn’t seem to be using it anymore. Because it had four walls and a roof, we thought it was grand.  We had a bag of pickle pins that one of my father’s customers had given him, green plastic pins shaped like pickles with the number 57 in the middle.  Everyone who joined got a pin, and we had a lot of pins left over.  That was how our club got its name.

I don’t remember which of us first thought of a parade, but we were running out of ideas for field-day-type races and games, and we were giving away a lot of Tootsie Rolls.  A parade was easy.  Everybody came dressed as something or brought something to bang on.  We had no music, but we had noise.  Evelyn and her sister Joan had a supply of dancing costumes that could be customized, made to look patriotic.  I had had only one year of dancing lessons, and my choices were limited to a tutu that I had grown out of or a ghost outfit that glowed in the dark.  Neither was especially appropriate, so I settled for shorts and a t-shirt and an Uncle Sam hat that my mother paid 25 cents for at the 5&10.  It was made of cardboard and had stars and stripes all over it, and it matched the flag I carried.  Evelyn wore one of her dancing outfits and twirled her baton.  I didn’t have a clue how to twirl a baton, but I had an Uncle Sam hat.  Joan showed up in a costume that she said represented Miss Liberty, whoever that was.  Kirsten and Donna and Betsy and Marcia wore red, white, and blue and brought flags and noisemakers.  My brother refused to march with us, but he let us borrow his toy drum.  We gathered at the end of our dead-end street early in the morning of the Fourth of July, and we started to march.  The parade route took us up our street and back down again.  People came out of their houses to watch us go by.  Some had cameras.  It was exciting!

We did this every year for what seemed like a long time but couldn’t have been.  By the second year people were lining the streets with movie cameras.  (Well maybe there was only one movie camera.)  But by the third year Tootsie Rolls and Kool-Aid had lost their magic, my brother’s drum had a hole in it, and somehow my beloved Uncle Sam hat had gotten dinged.  Besides, Evelyn and I were growing up.  

So that’s how it ended.  We grew up, we grew apart, we moved away.  The bag of pickle pins seems to have disappeared, although it may be in my brother’s attic.  Evelyn and Joan are gone.  Kirsten lives in California.  I don’t know where in the world Donna, Betsy, and Marcia ended up, but I hope they are happy.  My brother is the only one who still lives on our old street, but his cat, Trixie, spends more time there than he does.  

Those were the best parades of my life, and no abundance of flags, floats, marching bands, or Clydesdales could have made them more spectacular.  I’m not big on fireworks or picnics or flag-waving, at least not without my Uncle Sam hat, but oh what I wouldn’t give for one more Fourth of July parade with the Pickle Pin Club!