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St. Sebastian

As a child, long before I turned my attention to tragic heroines and their male counterparts, I was drawn to mortal injury and related suffering. There is no explanation for the deep and satisfying emotions I got from the pictures I hunted in my father’s Professorial Library; I suspect it is the same dark, human impulse that draws people to jars of embalmed fetuses and preserved tattoos skinned from intriguingly inked corpses.

I had, at my disposal, hundreds of beautiful images in the art books that lived in our house. Sixteenth century Flemish Madonnas offering apple-like breasts to blonde baby Jesuses (Jesi?), pages and pages of Botticelli seraphim, Watteau confections,  DaVinci drawings, Magritte and Dali oddities and Picasso in all his various incarnations. Because my father taught about art, and because we often saw art “in situ,” I was unfazed by the parade of breasts, fleshy pink thighs and penises of varying sizes. I was only vaguely interested in the evolution of vanishing point perspective, abstract vs. representational, or the finer points of bas relief, fresco or chiaroscuro. What I liked was the intense, the dramatic, and the emotional. Anyone could whip out a random body part, but getting shot full of arrows was an altogether superior thrill.


Which brings me to my childhood favorite, St. Sebastian.  In a lovely Hyperion volume of 14th and 15th Century Italian paintings,  I found Mantegna’s painting of Sebastian smack in the middle of his martyrdom. Ordered by Diocletian to be shot to death, Sebastian managed to survive, was killed again more efficiently, and eventually canonized. I loved everything about the painting. I loved it that he looked so sad, that his skin was so very pale, and that (even at seven or eight) I knew that there would really be a lot more blood if someone had been shot with eight arrows. It spoke to me of something dark and supernatural, magical even. I had no religious training, no concept of saints or martyrs, and my responses to iconography were both honest and macabre.

“Daddy,” I said one night before bed, “why did they do this? Was he bad?”

“No,” my father answered, doing that sucking thing he did with a pipe to make it light. “He was a martyr.” I kind of knew the word; it was what my mother called my father when he was driving to her parents’ house in Ohio even though it was snowing. “Catholics believe that certain people who die because of their religious beliefs can become saints.” I knew some things about saints; his mother was Catholic, and had given me a book about St. Francis. She also carried a St. Christopher medal, although I believe St. Christopher was subsequently de-mobbed. I knew about St. Patrick’s Day, and that Santa was really “Saint Nick,” and lots of places were called Saint Something-or-other.

“But why did they want to kill him in the first place? What did he do?”

“He was a Christian at a time when lots of people didn’t like Christians, and he made a powerful person very angry, so he was given a choice of saying he wasn’t really Christian, or being killed. He chose to be killed.”

“But that’s stupid!” He drew, meditatively on his pipe.

“I’m inclined to agree with you about that, but there are millions of people who think otherwise. They think that dying for your religious beliefs means you really believe them and trust that you will be taken care of in heaven.”

“Do you think that?”

“No, but your Grammie does. Some people do, and some people don’t. I think there are causes worth standing up for, and maybe dying for, but for me that isn’t one of them.”

“Is it for Momma?” I asked, tracing a small finger over Sebastian’s right leg, pierced with an arrow in the same way I had been taught to draw an arrow piercing a Valentine heart. That was another one – Saint Valentine. “Is it for me?”

“It isn’t for your mother, because Jewish people don’t have any saints. They tend to be hurt and killed because of what they believe, but a lot of times it isn’t because they choose to take a stand, it’s because people are prejudiced against them. You know about Hitler, right?” I nodded, somber. We had discussed Hitler at great length because of an episode of “Star Trek.” I also understood, in some impressionistic way that a lot of my mother’s ancestors had come to America from Russia and Hungary because Very Bad Things were happening to them just because they were Jewish.

“As for you, I don’t know. Momma and I won’t tell you to do anything like that because it isn’t what we believe, but some day when you’re grown up you might find that you believe in something you find for yourself.” This seemed reasonable, safe, and sufficiently distant that I didn’t need to worry about it. “Isn’t it time you went to bed?” It was. Carefully, I flipped the tissue-thin protective page back over St. Sebastian’s lovely, tragic face and replaced the book on the shelf. I was not always so careful, but my father, he of the “handle the slide by the edges,” “handle the record by the edges,” was sitting right there watching me. I knew he loved me even when I threw the records on top of each other so that they got scratched, but why take unnecessary chances?

Soon I would discover other soul-piercing images to savor; the American Heritage volume with the picture of Lincoln dying in his bed, Titian’s “Entombment,” El Greco’s “Lamentation” and Michelangelo’s “Pieta.” I knew little about Lincoln’s assassination, and less about the crucifixion of Christ, but the frozen moments of pain, longing, loss and unimaginable grief spoke volumes.





When my father retired, he gave away a lot of books. Although the Hyperion volume was not really from his office, and was therefore not properly part of the bounty, he placed it on top of the pile of books I had chosen. “I seem to remember,” he said, pausing as if drawing on the pipe he had given up forty years ago “that this was a particular favorite of yours.”

Sometimes, when I feel as lost and misunderstood as poor, pale, Sebastian tied to a column, I open the book and visit him. I try not to cry on him. It’s an expensive book.

Every now and then, turning carefully the pages that long ago parted ways with the binding, I swear that I smell pipe tobacco.


Photo Credits:

St. Sebastian: h



El Greco:



White Coral Bells

The first day of kindergarten, I had to ride the bus. This was not that unusual at the time; fewer parents regarded the inaugural public school launch as an occasion to take the morning off, drive the maiden voyager to school, take 50 photographs and go into the classroom full of tiny chairs and naptime rugs for a tearful adieu. My parents worked, they went to work that day (as far as I know) and I got on the noisy yellow bus in front of our house on Hamilton Road, clutching my braided rug and wearing a corduroy jumper appliqued with a satin apple.

The bus was intimidating for a small person, but the driver knew a greenhorn when she saw one. “Good morning,” she said as I climbed up the high, black steps towards her seat. “Why don’t you sit right behind me, with Mary Sue. She’s new, too.” I regarded Mary Sue with no small amount of suspicion; she was also quite small, and had striped tights and red shoes. I wanted them immediately, and I was sure I had seen them at the Buster Brown store where I had been convinced that brown Mary Janes were my best option.

“Okay,” I said, sliding onto the dark green vinyl bench seat.

“Hi,” said Mary Sue.

“Hi” I said back. We lapsed into a philosophical silence, and the bus began to move again with an enormous cough.

“My name is Miss Eva,” said the driver. “Are you ladies starting kindergarten today?” We both nodded. “Would you like to sing a song while we pick up the other children?” This seemed reasonable to me; people were always singing songs in nursery school, and this bus trip seemed, logically, to be a part of School as a general principle.

“Okay” said Mary Sue.

“Good,” said Miss Eva, “we’ll start right after this next stop. We have a long time after that one.” As she braked to a stop in front of a small group of children standing in front of a farm house, Mary Sue slid towards me.

“My dad has a glass eye,” she said. Unsure of the proper response, I waited to see if there was more. There was. “Sometimes he takes it out and puts it in his mouth to clean it off.” She had my full attention. I pictured a dad, somebody big with glasses and a beard like my dad, reaching up to pull his eye out of the socket and popping it into his mouth like a gumball. “Do you want to come over to my house and play?” I did, but a terrible thought occurred to me.

“Will your dad be there?” I inquired as the group of older kids bumped and joggled each other past us and towards the back of the bus.

“Prolly not. He goes to work. Does your dad go to work?” As far as I knew, all dads went to work.

“Yes. He’s a professor.”

“A what?”

“A professor. It’s a kind of teacher. At his office he has a wood thing with tobacco for his pipe, and the ladies give me gum.” It was no glass eye, but I had to work with the material I’d been given.

“Alright, girls, let’s sing – do you know ‘White Coral Bells?’” I wasn’t going to be the first to say I didn’t.

“Uh uh” said Mary Sue.

“No” I allowed.

“Okay. I’ll sing it for you, then we’ll sing it together, then we can sing it as a round. Do you know what that is?” My heart sped up; I knew this one.

“It’s when you sing it at different times” I said proudly. Mary Sue looked skeptical.

“That’s right!” said Miss Eva. “You must be a musician, Miss Apple Dress. What’s your name?”

“Annie” I said, warm with pleasure at having been right. Mary Sue remained impassive. Miss Eva began to sing, then, in a thin, sweet soprano voice. It was an easy song, and after we heard it once we were able to sing most of it. By the time we picked up a lone boy in front of an apartment building, we were taking turns starting, and growing the simple melody into something richer and more complex.

We pulled up in front of the school, and my heart sped up again, but it was going to be okay. I knew Mary Sue now, although I wasn’t really sure I liked her yet, and I could go to her house but not have to see her one-eyed father. I knew what a round was, and I was only five. I was pretty sure Miss Eva liked me. “Have a good day!” she called as we slid off the seat and began our ascent down to the curb. I could see Mrs. McKinley, the kindergarten teacher, waiting for us with a group of kids. I had met her at something called Kindergarten Roundup, and that was how I knew who she was, and that I was going to learn, among other things, my left from my right and how to skip.

“That’s Mrs. McKinley,” Mary Sue told me as we walked towards her.

“I know,” I said. “But it’s okay that you told me.” She stuck out her hand, surprising me. I took it in my own, and we sailed, on small, Buster Brown shoes, into the unknown seas of elementary school.





It is August. I am lying on my Marimekko bedspread in my room at home and the house is filled with the smell of ratatouille. My mother makes a huge batch every year at this time, and my parents eat it with everything and serve it at dinner parties until the well runs dry and the last scrap of eggplant has been devoured with a forkful of rice. She makes it on a Saturday, listening to the Texaco Metropolitan Opera broadcast while my father sits in his office finishing the syllabus for Humanities 105 amid a pile of books about Renaissance art. I passionately hate the opera, which is why my door is closed and I have headphones clamped over my ears. She will store the stuff in a huge pottery bowl, a bumpy, nubbly thing in ombre creams and browns. I find it a little déclassé, that bowl, just as I am occasionally troubled by the fact that we do not live in a house with both a living room and a family room. It is, I understand in some vague way, part and parcel of having parents who spend money on trips to Europe and Maine and drive used Ford station wagons, who listen to Pete Seeger and Joan Baez and take me to McGovern rallies.

I will not eat the ratatouille, having taken my requisite “no thank you bite” some time in kindergarten. I think it is gross, slimy, dark and clumpy. I do not eat eggplant except when my mother makes her famous Eggplant Soufflé which converts many eggplant haters over the years. She is good at that, cooking things people usually hate and making them into something disarming and sublime.  I will gladly eat the eggplant soufflé, and the garlicky grilled lamb in pita bread, but I can’t bring myself to eat her ratatouille.

The smell, though, the slowly cooking zucchini, tomato, eggplant, onion and garlic, is a fragrant index finger pointing me towards fall, school, cooler air, bags of apples, and new clothes in hunter green and deep burgundy.  Lying on my bed I am surrounded by the Back-to-School issues of “Seventeen,” “Glamour” and “Mademoiselle.” They came out in July, while we were still in Maine, living in a cottage on Boyden Lake. I bought them at the Rexall when we went into Eastport to do laundry, buy groceries and get books out of The Peavey Memorial Library where I checked out and read all of the Nancy Drew mysteries every single summer until I started college. I had sat at the dilapidated table in the cottage paging earnestly through the extra-thick, glossy grails of fashion over and over again, asking my mother to look at the bell bottoms I liked, or the sweater with the little belt at the waist.

We could not shop until we went home again, but I could plan, bend back corners, change my mind, and imagine myself strolling magnificently into orchestra or algebra in my Levi’s cords, Famolare shoes and cute sweater. I am not particularly cute, but I feel my annual surge of hope as I look at ads for Love’s Fresh Lemon, Twice As Nice shampoo, and Clearasil. I have been swimming in the lake all summer, and walking the mile to get fresh water from the Artesian well at the main house, my hair is lighter from the sun and my skin looks better with a light tan. Lying on my back, pushing aside the spine of a magazine, I check my stomach – it feels flat. It’s a good start, and with the right stuff I will make my curly hair into golden Farrah feathers, my spotted skin into the rosy, glowing face I see in the Bonne Bell ads and my hearty peasant body into something long, lithe and covetable in a leather jacket and a little dab of musk.

We will have shopping trips, my mother and I; we will go to the Jacobson’s Miss J Shop for sweaters, upstairs to buy shoes, and then to the Levi store for bell-bottomed cords in colors reminiscent of the hated ratatouille. I will get my hair cut at Staci’s Swinging Coiffures, where Sally will purse her glossy pink lips and remind me that “curly haired gals” need to be sure to blow dry all the moisture out if we want our hair to stop frizzing by lunchtime. Despite her earthy, lefty habits, my mother is the daughter of a Hungarian Princess, and she understands the transformative power of having shiny hair, beautiful clothes and a dresser covered with perfume bottles.

I will call my cello teacher and set up my lesson time for the school year, and I will start practicing again in earnest, after months of sitting on the deck at the cottage and playing Bach suites because I like the way the notes seem to float out across the woods and over the lake, reaching the loons, and unseen people rowing out to see if they can catch some fish for dinner. I will begin calling my friends, riding my bike to their houses to make sure that the delicate filaments of adolescent fellowship are still strong enough to bear the weight of a new school year of crushes, algebra tests and the lunchroom jungle. I will buy new notebooks and write my schedule on the back of one with dashes for each unexplained absence I am permitted. I need to be able to mark them off as I go, and to use my entire allotment of absences in math, science and social studies; I will never miss a day of orchestra or English.

I do not know then, cannot imagine this life where I am the mother, the cook, and the arbiter of school shopping. I have become a lover of opera, of eggplants, of Bohemian living far from the showy, unused “living rooms” of the suburbia I once envied. I am planning to make ratatouille this weekend, using my mother’s recipe. I feel that change in the air, the pulse of summer lassitude quickening to autumn’s insistent rhythm. My own child will not eat ratatouille, and he will flee to his room when I plug in my iPhone and blast “Tosca” through the kitchen speakers. He will not be looking at magazines, though – he is not a reader, not a musician, not tormented by dark doubts about his looks or his place in the world. He will be playing Xbox Live and texting, and scheming to buy new bearings for his longboard. It is different, and it is the same, the years of my life bound together by the smell of roasting vegetables, the silky ascent of a soprano voice, and the change in seasons.

I wonder if she still has that bowl.