Category Archives: Transitions

Somewhere in the Stars

We are in the midst of summer and a period ruled by stars: Sirius, Altair, and Vega. Sirius, the Dog Star, entered onto the scene a few days ago: by July 3rd, Sirius, in the constellation Canis Major, began rising with the sun. The sun occupies the same part of the sky as Sirius through the middle of August. It just so happens to be the hottest time of the year while all this is going on… and so we call these hottest days of the year, ruled by Sirius, the Dog Days of Summer.

That’s our story about Sirius in Canis Major. Meanwhile, here is an old story from Japan that relates to our other summer stars, Altair and Vega: It is the story of Hikoboshi, the Cow Herder, and Orihime, the beautiful daughter of the Sky King, Tentei. Orihime wove beautiful cloth on the banks of the Amanogawa, the Milky Way. Her father loved the cloth she wove, and so she worked very hard to make enough for him so that he would always have plenty of it. But Orihime worked so hard at her weaving that she never had time for anything else. And as much as Tentei loved the cloth Orihime wove, he knew she needed some balance, some time away from her work, and so he arranged for her to meet Hikoboshi, the Cow Herder, who lived on the other side of the Amanogawa.

And so Orihime and Hikoboshi met. They fell in love right then and there. The two soon married, and that was wonderful, but they became so enamored with each other that all else fell by the wayside. Orihime pretty much gave up her work at the loom, and as for Hikoboshi’s cattle, well, they were soon roaming all over Heaven. Tentei grew angrier and angrier over all this, until finally he had enough. He separated the two lovers on either side of the Amanogawa and forbade them to see each other. Orihime despaired over the loss of her husband and pleaded with her father. Moved by his daughter’s tears, Tentei relented. But he allowed the two lovers to meet only once each year, on the seventh day of the seventh month. And so the story goes each year, and here we are today: the seventh day of the seventh month. It is the Japanese star festival, Tanabata.

As stars, the lovers are Vega and Altair: Vega, the Weaver Star, is Orihime, and Altair, the Cowherd Star, is Hikoboshi, separated always by the Milky Way, except, as legend has it, for this one night each year when they are reunited. Beneath the stars, here on Earth, we honor Orihime and Hikoboshi by writing wishes on strips of paper and tying them to the trees. Bamboo is traditional, and that’s what I tied my wishes to last year, but I would think any tree would do. Heaven and the stars, I am sure, grant us a bit of leeway in these matters.

Two or three of my wishes from last year remain still on the bamboo outside our back door. The ink is long faded. I know I wished for protection, and for good health for us all, and especially for my father. His health gradually faded over the seven months that followed, until his death in February. But I am grateful he did not suffer terribly, and so perhaps that was the best manifestation of my wishes for good health and protection. Will I write some wishes on paper and tie them to the bamboo this year? Probably, though it most likely won’t be until after dark. There are no rules about that, either, and if there are, well, again: Heaven and the stars surely can be flexible with us mortals.

Perhaps it is all these thoughts of stars, but there is a song that popped into my head last night, a song I’ve not thought of in years. In 1982, when my grandpa Arturo died, Rosanne Cash released a record called “Somewhere in the Stars.” I know the title track is a sappy love song, but even so, I was able to reinterpret it for my own situation. It meant a lot to me then when I was missing Grandpa, and it suddenly means a lot to me tonight, too, missing him again, and my dad, and everyone else who is somewhere other than where I’d like them to be (like right here in front of me). If it’s a little sappy, so be it. I’m a little sappy sometimes, too, and there are nights when we need stories about dog stars and star-crossed lovers and reminders of all the ones we love.

 

 

Top Image: A very particular Somewhere in the Stars. This is a Hubble Telescope wide field image showing the “Summer Triangle,” a giant triangle in the sky composed of three bright summer stars: Vega (top left), Altair (lower middle), and Deneb (far left). Can you make out the triangle? [Public domain] via NASA, 2009.

 

Memorial Day

One of my favorite things about the Convivio Book of Days is when a reader shares with the rest of us their own traditions or memories in the comments section. To get any comments at all is a wonderful thing, as comments help us writers see that folks are actually reading and engaging. But I learn so much from you when you share what you do in your family or what you remember doing when you were a kid. And last year, in the comments section of the blog chapter for Memorial Day, Convivio pal Marilyn Pancoast wrote her memory of the day:

When I was young it was called Decoration Day and all the family’s and friend’s graves were cleaned and then decorated with flowers. Then in the late afternoon there was a parade and a ceremony after dusk. Someone, many times me, would play taps and small candlelit flower boats were released into the river. There was one for each soldier and sometimes more for others. The ceremonies and activities were quite moving and a way to involve and teach each new generation.

I think Marilyn sums up this day beautifully and I hope that someone on some river is still doing what she did when she was young. This is the day we remember our fallen heroes, those who gave their lives in service to their country. Memorial Day (or some version of it) is celebrated not just here in the United States, but in other countries, as well, and usually at this time of year, a tradition that harkens back to Ancient Rome. Our own Memorial/Decoration Day traditions in this country go back to the Civil War era. The original date, May 30, was chosen for it was believed that flowers for decorating graves would be in bloom in every state of the Union on that date. It’s since been moved to the last Monday of May. This year it falls on the 29th, which happens to be the same date as my mom and dad’s wedding anniversary. Those two good looking kids from Brooklyn tied the knot at St. Blaise Church on May 29, 1949––the Sunday, that year, of Memorial Day weekend. Today would have been their 68th wedding anniversary, but it’s the first time we honor the day without Dad’s physical presence. That will make for a bittersweet day, I know, but Memorial Day is kind of like this. It is our unofficial start of summer here in the US, but a somber one if we honor the day in its proper tradition. And so we decorate, and we remember. Flowers for remembrance, and flowers beckoning summer and the gentle time of year.

Image: Decoration Day. Photographic print from glass negative, 1917. From the George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress) [public domain] via Wikimedia Commons.

 

Wind Telephone (Kaze No Denwa)

In 1997, I printed a broadside especially for my dad. It was his birthday, his 71st. Today, in fact, would have been his 91st. It is our first of Dad’s birthdays without him, but we have this thing in my family, by my prodding, I suppose. We celebrate birthdays, even of those who have passed. I’ve told you about it before; it’s a custom I read about in a book called Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years. I liked this idea of remembering and celebrating, and so sometimes we will do as the Delany Sisters did: celebrate birthdays of those who have come and gone by making their favorite meals, or sometimes it will be simple, like a favorite dessert, or sometimes we will simply raise our glasses in tribute. For Dad’s birthday today, we are going to lunch, as many of us as can gather together, at a restaurant he loved to go to, Cosa Duci, a little Italian place in Boca Raton where Silvia and Giovanna come up with a menu each day and what they make is what they bring you, if you order the special, at least. It always tastes like home and the folks there are always wonderful to us. I don’t know exactly how it will go, but the goal is to remember my father and to celebrate him and to bring a little joy of life to this day.

But back to 1997 and the broadside. It’s called “Dad’s Apple.” In it, I describe a dinner table trick that Dad loved to perform, a trick that his Uncle Jack taught him, probably when my dad was a kid. One portion of the text for the broadside was my first attempt at technical writing: not an easy task, let me tell you. In fact, at the end of my instructions, I provide the following disclaimer: If your apple doesn’t pull into 2 equal crazy halves, try another one. Apples are good for you!

So yes, after dinner sometimes, especially in the fall, Dad would pick up a knife in one hand and an apple in the other and he would make four cuts: one from the top, one from the bottom, then two along the middle of the apple. And then he would ask if you wanted to split an apple. He’d hold out the apple, offer it to you, and you’d grab it and pull it away and there in your hand would be this jigsaw puzzle piece of apple, one end going up, one end going sideways, that was, indeed, one half an apple. It is a pretty wonderful trick, the kind that makes kids go, “Whoa!” And that, my friends, is Dad’s Apple.

Last fall, on one of our haircut nights, Seth began as he always does, by tuning into the podcast of This American Life. No doubt the wooden bowl on the kitchen counter was filled with fresh apples as we listened to Episode No. 597: One Last Thing Before I Go. My haircut is always first, and during Act One of this episode, Seth cut my hair as Miki Meek told the story of man in Japan who installed a telephone booth in his garden. There’s a wooden shelf in the phone booth, and on the shelf, a phone, the old-fashioned kind, with a rotary dial. It’s connected to nothing, this phone, but the gardener placed it there so he could sit in the phone booth and talk to his cousin, who had recently died. It just seemed, to him, the natural thing to do. As the years passed, other people began using the gardener’s phone booth to speak to their dead friends and relatives, especially after the earthquake and tsunami that devastated the gardener’s town in 2011. The episode was full of conversations that folks who used the phone booth had had with those who have passed. They gave their permission to be recorded, and they typically start out quite rational, as if they are aware of the recording, talking about what’s new in their lives. Work, school, that kind of stuff. Almost always, though, they let down their guard. The conversations become more emotionally charged.

The haircut turned out just fine; it always does. But I was a blubbering mess through the whole thing. And this was months before I had experienced my own loss. Miki Meek, who led us through the story, gave a name to the gardener’s telephone: kaze no denwa, wind telephone. If the wind telephone was here, I would use it, because I am like that. I celebrate birthdays, like Dad’s birthday today, out of love and out of a wish to keep the channels open. I think Dad was doing the same a few days back when I found the Mother’s Day card that was the subject of the previous Convivio Book of Days chapter. We are all learning and wending our way through uncharted territory, and part of the process, I suppose––of keeping the circle unbroken in our book of days––is being receptive, being open, and learning to communicate in new ways, be it an old card that bubbles up out of a pile of junk, or an apple, or a meal, or a telephone that transmits its signal into the wind.

 

I printed an edition of 95 copies of Dad’s Apple, and gave Dad copy no. 1 for his 71st birthday. It’s in the family kitchen, framed, right above the cabinet where the napkins are kept. The broadside is printed from handset Van Dijck and Franklin Gothic types. I carved the illustration in linoleum and printed it as a monoprint, applying the inks in a painterly fashion with a brush onto the linoleum, so each one is different from all the others. The print hangs in the kitchens of many people I know. It would probably look great in your kitchen, too!

 

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