by Dinah Lenney
followed by Q&A
Object Parade: Acorn
Where could it have come from? Fred picked it up in the driveway the other day and brought it inside. A deep brown—as if roasted—with a tweedy little hat. But how did it get there? Not a California Oak in sight, just our overgrown ficus in the front yard, her white trunk jutting away from the house, and her roots bringing up the path and threatening the foundation, so we're told. "She'll have to come down one of these days," says Francisco every autumn. Francisco—gardener turned landscape designer—who's been taking care of my trees for nearly twenty years this coming fall. And how do I know that, how do I recall? I first met him when I was pregnant with Eliza—I remember my own belly, that's what; that it was an effort to rise when the bell rang; that somehow I hoisted myself up and opened the door to a boy with oiled black hair, black eyes, smooth brown skin, and a mole to rival my own—twice the size of mine, in fact, but its twin in terms of placement, above the mouth to the right of his nose as I faced him. It seems to me it was drizzling that day, overcast I’m certain, just a couple of months before my daughter, my first baby, was born. It seems to me I was wearing black (I was always wearing black) and my hair was long, twisted on top of my head, mussed in the back undoubtedly, since he had to have roused me from the couch, where I resided for a good ten months (don't let anyone tell you it's nine) from the bed with me, to the couch with me, and back to the bed. I’d never been so sick as I was that first time, lived on quesadillas and peanut butter by the wooden spoon, which tasted metallic even so, like everything else, but less offensive than things crunchy, or savory, or colorful (as in fruits and vegetables, for instance). Anyway, Francisco and I walked around the side of the house that morning. I grabbed for the rails of the bottommost deck for balance when we came around the ledge over the garden, and he took my elbow. "When are you expecting?" he asked awkwardly (his English not entirely fluent), and then he made me understand that his own wife was due any minute. November then—it must have been November since his boy is a Scorpio as am I. Francisco and I with twin preoccupations that day; therefore, how could we not have bonded? Our babies and my backyard, dense and overgrown with succulents, oleander, lantana, and, to my delight, six trees: two Eucalyptus, a couple of dancers in the Santa Ana winds (fast-growing, they need to be topped every other year, otherwise they get spindly); a Eugenia—such a sloppy specimen year round, she bombards us, according to the season, with yellow dust, or fuzzy white stuff, or big fat berries that come into the house on the bottoms of our shoes; the Chinese Elm—also messy—but imagine the kaleidoscopic shadow play of her tear-shaped leaves on the bedroom curtains first thing in the morning; the Liquid Amber, which looks like a maple and turns from green to yellow to red but on Southern California time, so that just as she loses the last of her leaves, she's budding all over again; and the Giant Palm, smack in the center of the yard (lest I forget where I live, on which coast, she’s there to remind me), home to an dynasty of squirrels, who make a racket in the fronds, bouncing up and down the length of them, jumping from tree to tree to the rails of our decks, from where they torture the dogs, and leave peanuts in our potted plants, half eaten, still in the shell—and where do they get them, that's what I want to know?
And what about this acorn: a gift from a squirrel? Remarkably unscathed if that's the case. I'd ask Francisco, except I won't see him any time soon. We email now, he and I, when something comes up. Francisco, I wrote, a few months back. Where are you? The cactus is top heavy, and the front lawn looks like crap.
Sounds dire, he countered. I'll send the paramedics. Ha-ha, but when he arrived, he looked up in all directions, shaking his head, very somber: "Each of them needs to be trimmed and shaped," he said. About the aforementioned ficus up front: "It's out of control, no wonder the lawn is suffering—an abundance of shade, it takes a toll, of course." And then, from the kitchen deck, with his hand to his brow, he squinted into the horizon: "Where is your view?" he scolded. "Why haven’t you called? We'll have to bring in a team, best to do it all at once, a better deal for you…"
A team. Francisco has four kids now; the eldest— my fellow Scorpio—a freshman at a college nearby. And I have two: Eliza, also at school but 3,000 miles away, where the leaves are changing on a schedule I can understand; and Jake, who towers over me. Mighty oaks from little acorns grow. Corny, I know, but how did this happen, and when?
Francisco, meanwhile, looks almost as he did twenty years ago—lithe and brown—his hair flecked with gray at the temples, but otherwise little sign in his face or bearing of the twenty years since the day we first met. Who knows what he sees when he looks at me? Who knows what he remembers?
Object Parade: Stick Kite
Say, little girl—I dream about you. You then, you now. You, as you are, coming into my room to ask can you go through my closet, rummage in my drawers and jewelry boxes; might you borrow that sweater, can you have this ring, and the copy of Anna Karenina over there on the shelf, you want that, too—and, by the way, you ask on your way out with the sweater and the ring (not the book, you can’t have the book), is that me or you in the photo there? I look up from whatever I’m doing: Which photo do you mean? That one, you say. It’s ten by fourteen, framed on the wall, sepia-toned: an exquisite child in a wide-brimmed hat, her perfect face lit from underneath: Is it you or is it me, you ask again. Why, it’s you, darling! Of course it is. You thought so, you say. You were confused—having to do with the snapshot upstairs—the old three by five in the bookshelves; and yes, you’re right—that is I, no question—I’m the gap-toothed kid in the cowboy hat: though how do I know? It’s not as if I remember wearing it.
But this likeness? This little girl? I animate this moment—and her: you, that is—you in your life, taking on the camera, looking straight into the lens. You don’t remember? How you dressed as a witch, though you’d planned to be a cat (abandoned whiskers at the last minute for a sheet; the sheet then abandoned for conical head-gear); maybe now, now that I’ve told you, you recall something of the night; the shrieks and whoops, the jack-o-lantern whose nose you designed with a sharpie for me to carve; maybe you remember peering into a strange living-room from somebody’s stoop, while I waited on the sidewalk. I bet you do. But I remember the flash of the bulb—and the street we were on—the laughter out of nowhere, the rustle of wind in the trees, and kids running, swirling this way and that as if blown with the leaves. The last night of October it was (Which year? Were you seven? Were you eight?), and the air in Los Angeles suddenly nippy; I can hear you refusing to put on a sweater; face flushed, warm fingers wrapped around mine: I’m not cold, you said, so how to insist? And afterwards: how you sat on the floor with an old pillowcase full of candy, and how we bartered, you and I; how you couldn’t be bribed or dissuaded from keeping the Kit Kats and the plain M&M’s—but you would remember which varieties you liked best, whereas I remember you. I know the feel of your hands on my neck—sticky—the smell of sweet tarts on your breath. I’m the one who can tell you how it was, how you were. Just ask. Ask about the first time you laughed; how you looked when you didn’t want to cry; how long it took you to fall asleep; it’s I who remember the sound of you singing to yourself when you didn’t know I was listening, and I (not you I’m guessing) can summon your tiny person running far out on the flats at low tide on Thumpertown Beach with a wand in your hand, a stick kite, the streamers, all colors, rippling out behind you. Do you remember that day? That toy? Maybe you do. But that moment—that moment in your life?—I claim that one, too; as if it belonged to me.
Dinah Lenney is the author of Bigger than Life, published in the American Lives Series at the University of Nebraska Press, and co-authored Acting for Young Actors. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, AGNI, Creative Nonfiction, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere, and she received special mention in the 2010 Pushcart Anthology for an essay in the Water~Stone Review. Dinah serves as core faculty for the Bennington Writing Seminars, the Rainier Writing Workshop, and the Master of Professional Writing Program at the University of Southern California.
Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve received?
A: Alice Mattison, who’s one of my heroes, once told me that writing comes from the ceiling. “Figure out the spot under which it falls, and be there,” she said. I guess that translates to keeping your ass in the chair, right? I’m not as good about it as I should be—because I’m lazy, and cowardly, and easily distracted. But the other best advice? I forget who said it: David Huddle? Edna O’Brien? Write first thing in the morning. Which, sure enough, turns out to be the time when I’m least likely to lose focus or faith. It doesn’t always happen. I don’t always get there and stay there—but when I do, I’m glad.