The New Dress

Recently published in Ponder Review, Vol II, Issue 1.

 

My grandmother’s hands tore helplessly at the tissue paper surrounding the new dress in its box.  I leaned in and folded back one leaf of the paper, so she could better see what she was doing.

I had bought her the dress, a dark green knit, because in the nursing home all her dresses that hadn’t been stolen were covered with food stains, pilled and frayed. I had taken her to lunch at Peddler’s village, to the Cock ‘n Bull, where she sipped her frozen daiquiri through a straw and ate a ball of butter whole, perhaps thinking it was cheese. I didn’t mention that it wasn’t cheese.

Trying on the dresses after lunch – none of them like she used to wear; the styles had changed, and this was a long way from the dress shop she had patronized in Albany for 27 years – I noticed that her slip was gray and wanted mending. There was an unclean smell about my grandmother, an old, sour smell. I knew they bathed her regularly in the nursing home, or at least I hoped they did. The smell must have been coming from the dirty slip, but I remember hearing that death has a smell, and for many hours, even after many cigarettes, I couldn’t get that smell out of my memory’s nose.

And now, a week later, I was collecting her to take her back to Philadelphia for her 90th birthday party, packing up her meager things so that she could overnight in my grownup house, trying to find her toothbrush, the bed jacket, clean underwear – all jumbled together in the several drawers of the antique dresser we had moved into her room.

I knew that she didn’t know where she was going, or why, but I hoped her mind, long past complete utterances, was also beyond worry. She followed my instructions meekly, like a guilty child.

When she pulled off the sweater and trousers, neither of which belonged to her, I was surprised to find her naked below, the small pale V sandwiched between loose thighs and the hanging flesh of her abdomen – gray, wrinkled, vulnerable. In our great old age, almost 90, we step backwards, I thought, stripped of our minds, our memories, even our dignifying pubic hair.  Why wasn’t she wearing panties? Her bra was in place – someone must have to help her into that; her arthritic hands, once pianist’s hands, could never fasten the hooks of that bra.

There was the faint smell of urine hanging in the air of her room like an acrid fog. And, as I turned away to hide my sadness, fumbling through the few possessions I had gathered for our trip, it occurred to me that she must finally be incontinent. I found some panties – not her style; she had always worn open-leg panties, and these had elastic around the thighs – and held them out for her to step into.

First the mind, and then the body goes, the bare little wedge of pubis now hiding a urethra that betrays her. I helped her into the panties, her swollen hand supporting her weight on my shoulder, and then I made her sit down on the edge of the bed to stretch on the pantyhose. She never used to wear those either, always a girdle with garters. Even if she were staying at home all day with no one coming to visit, Grandma would pull her girdle over her plump hips, slip into her all-in-one, fasten up the nylon stockings, put on a nice dress and the single-strand pearl necklace that was her signature.

She never put a worn garment back into the closet, so that everything there smelled fresh and new.

While she was struggling to get the pantyhose straightened around her hips, I looked in the cabinet under the sink in the bathroom she shared with the occupant of the room next door and found a box of disposable diapers. I packed it to into the bag for home, not certain if I could ever insist she put one on.

Next, I helped her into the slip I had washed and mended, and finally I gathered up the dress and held it over her head. She lifted her arms up straight like an expectant child, and a small uncertain smile touched the corners of her mouth. A new dress. This much she understood. I guided her arms into the sleeves and pulled the dark green knit around her, straightening the shoulders over the narrow bones. I led her to the mirror above the dresser, fished my own comb out of my purse and arranged her fine, pale hair. The eyes reflected back at me were expressionless. Did she know whom she was looking at? Did she remember the music?

I put my arm around her shoulders and squeezed gently, putting my cheek next to hers in the mirror, trying to smile through the constriction of my heart. “You look beautiful,” I said. And, for just the flicker of an instant, the distant memory of a smile in her eyes, I thought she recognized me.

© Sandra Shaw Homer, 2018

Photo by Roberta Ward Smiley

Savannah Interlude

Leaving one ship and waiting for another to take me across the Atlantic, I spent a few unexpected days in Savannah, Georgia.  Excerpted from Journey to the Joie de Vivre: Lessons to be Learned on the Road if We Look for Them.

 

I left my hat behind on board. Is this another of the depredations of age, to litter the planet with our detritus as we wander half-witted along?

I didn’t get ashore until 9 o’clock last night, but I was lucky to grab the taxi that had just delivered my replacement passengers from the airport. The cab driver, a large man with a slow drawl, sympathized and then began to intone facts about the city. I had little patience for all that and have to admit that I interrupted him to say I was tired, annoyed at myself and hurting, and that I probably wouldn’t have time to enjoy much of Savannah. In the same slow drawl, he said, “Well, people around you can’t feel your pain, so we can’t know, can we?” Humbled, I apologized. Lesson for today.

My hotel room looks like a post-Civil War bordello with high, velvet-tufted headboards, flocked carpeting, dark satin curtains, a plastic snakeskin-covered chair, a mirror the size of a ’57 Pontiac, two oyster shell bathroom sconces made doubly hideous by the mirror behind them, furniture designed to look like old sea chests and an absolutely bewildering array of electronics on the large granite-topped desk (I called the hotel engineer to come disconnect everything). Evian water is available for five dollars a bottle. The “pillow-top” bed was so soft that I ended up sleeping on the floor. I piled up the plastic bed cover and two fake fur throws and stretched out with a pretty comfortable pillow and slept quite well, actually, but this morning I reported to the desk that there was no way I could continue to stay in a room that didn’t have a decent mattress and that I had requested an orthopedic mattress when I made my reservation.

The very nice young woman at the desk went to work. She searched nearby hotels to see if there was a room with an orthopedic mattress. Then she searched nearby hotels to see if they had extra beds in housekeeping and finally she came up with a roll-away bed that I can use here in the same room that’s somewhat firmer than the wallowy mattresses on the two double beds, although hardly orthopedic. I was supposed to have a river view, but because I arrived a day early (unbelievable – I had no idea what the date was), I’m stuck now on the ground floor, looking out at a parked SUV and, beyond that, some live oaks and shrubbery along the boulevard. It’s a pretty day.

After ten years since my last visit, I find myself feeling a little intimidated by the United States. I went out this morning to walk around in search of a bank where I could change dollars back into euros. Nothing doing. Not unless you have an account. But at the bank I asked for a little café where I could find something light and perhaps a glass of wine. The town is crawling with restaurants, most of them pubs or hamburger joints smelling of fries. But as I was following directions to another hotel restaurant I found a little Japanese place where I had a very nice sushi and sashimi lunch and part of a Kirin beer (served in a 16-ounce bottle and there was no way I was going to get through all that).

Back in my room, waiting to lie down and rest for a while. I have to keep ice packs cold in an ice bucket, , since there’s no minibar in this room. I thought I had arranged for every single room on this itinerary to have a minibar, as well as an orthopedic mattress, but I seem to have failed on both counts in this place, and it’s hard to imagine they would charge me full price for sleeping on the floor last night, but they might. I wish I didn’t have two more nights to stay here, but maybe tomorrow I can get out and do a little horse-drawn carriage tour of the city and get down to the riverfront. There is certainly no view from here.

Savannah is a walking city, with broad boulevards divided by wide, lushly planted parks, no commercial clutter to offend the eye and only bevies of tourists in their shorts and walking ténis. Clean. Talking pedestrian crossing controls. Brick-lined walks. Only one beggar in all the blocks I walked! The legions of unemployed are hidden away. In a pharmacy where I sat down to wait for some information, I asked a broad black woman if there was a restroom, and she curled her lower lip contemptuously and shook her head. “Not in here. Try the Starbucks across the street.” Which I did, and desperately wished I could still drink coffee – the aroma was so overwhelming! I learned that there was a 5-digit punch code – changed regularly – to get into the ladies’ room. For “express check-out” at the pharmacy I needed personal help – I’d never used one before. Everyone is super-friendly, though. It’s easy to interact with people with openness and humor. Deciding to try my luck at a jewelry store, I was served by an attendant who had lived in China for six years and taken away as her “souvenir” an adopted little girl. How lovely! She despaired at the provincialism of many of her acquaintances who have never been out of Georgia. My Costa Rican passport had opened the door to that conversation, and it was delightful to connect with her – she found the perfect little earrings and a shy bangle that will make me feel a little dressier in the evenings, as I’m wandering around Europe.

This morning I learned that the port agent had been unable to locate my hat, so I had to go off in search of another one. I’ve also managed to misplace my comb, so yet another errand to do. The desk suggested I hire a pedicab, which turned out to be a great idea, mine pedaled by a young college graduate named Stefan, who led me to the perfect store for the hat, then to the same pharmacy I’d been to yesterday, and finally on a wonderful tour of the old city – elegant period homes and historic public buildings all lining a bewildering array of parks filled with live oaks dripping with Spanish moss. It was charming. The pedaler was charming. At the end she said she’d enjoyed “hanging out” with me. I returned the compliment! She dropped me by an elevator down to River Street, where I asked the first person I saw to recommend a place where I could get a salad and a glass of wine, which turned out to be a Greek café right behind him. Fisherman’s salad, house Chardonnay and a nice chat with two chubby older ladies (older than me?) who were on a bus tour from Indiana (!).

Tomorrow morning, I board my next ship and all this hopping about from place to place will stop for 17 days. The Atlantic!

Preparing to leave the United States again after such a long absence, I reflect that Savannah has certainly been a soft landing (it sure beats the Miami airport). The only exception was Homeland Security, what civilized people elsewhere call Immigration and Customs. Because I had to leave my cabin early so that the steward could clean it for the next passengers, I waited in the E Deck lounge where I knew the officials would be gathering. They crowded the room in their black uniforms with their side-arms and shaved heads and stiff military bearing, and they were courteous, but officious as hell. The kid in charge – I say “kid’” because he couldn’t have been over 30 – was wearing shiny black gloves that looked like something out of a sadomasochism catalog. He was just a little young for his job, and so a little extra authoritarian. With a touch of irony, I answered all his questions with the final word, “Sir.” The Coast Guard guys, who really are military, were much more relaxed and friendly. One found the phone number of my hotel on his cell phone, and the other, so as not to disturb me on the sofa, did his paperwork at the coffee table on his knees. As I was released to go, I leaned over and whispered in his ear, “You’ve been such a gentleman, you can get off your knees now.”

Copyright © Sandra Shaw Homer, 2016

Photo by SSH

 

 

Another Five Stars for Dr. Wao

March 6, 2018

Format: Kindle Edition

My Poem “Holding” Published in Junto Magazine

Holding

You place the heel of my hand
against your brow
so that my fingers spread out
over the curve of your head
settling down into your hair.
I laugh. Why are you doing that,
I ask. To hold the top down,
you answer. It feels good
To hold your head like this –
large and round like a melon,
you say, solid and field warm.
I want to be your head
under my hand, feeling held,
contained, all there. I am
both me, holding, and you, held –
all one, all the same.
Our bodies shift in the dark
and my hand slips away.
You put it back. We cannot
have enough of this oneness –
and, feeling it, we do not sleep.

© Junto Magazine, 2017

Junto Magazine, December 2017

 

Podcast: Writing Letters from the Pacific

It’s rare to run into a writer and coach living just down the road who gets excited about my travel memoir, Letters from the Pacific.  (I mean, we’re in remote Costa Rica here!)  Happily,  Amy Brooks was delighted to interview me for her podcast , Voice Pen Purpose online, instead of at  her kitchen table (she has three lively boys).  Thus, it is easily available to the anyone in the world who cares to listen, without distractions.  Which I invite you to do.  It’s a fun interview.  Enjoy!

Photo by SSH

Ah, Panama

Excerpted from Journey to the Joie de Vivre.

A journey without suspense would be boring.  Here in Panama the suspense is when my ship comes in (ha!) and when she departs, both of which facts are still unknown.  All I know now, having talked to the Port Agent this afternoon, is that the Matisse arrives sometime tomorrow night and departs in the wee hours of the following morning.  At the Manzanillo International Terminal, it only takes 8 to 12 hours to unload and load 2500 containers.  Having been through this before, I have learned to be patient.  And even though checkout time is 1:00 PM, I’m sure the hotel will have no difficulty charging me for an additional night, no matter what time I leave.  This little suspense is completely expected.  (Memories of sitting uncomfortably surrounded by my luggage in the Washington Hotel lobby for three hours waiting for the time allotted to take me to the port.  The charm of the old Washington disappeared completely when I learned in Tahiti – too late for me to do anything about it – that they had charged an additional night anyway.)

The unexpected suspense this time is due to my leaving behind all my cash and jewelry in the almost invisible safe in the dark closet of my hotel room in San José, Costa Rica.  As soon as I opened the closet here in Panama and saw the open security box – much more accessible here than there – I thought, “Oh my God, my stupidity has reached alarming new heights.”  Fortunately, I was able to call the hotel in San José and finally, after several hours of calls back and forth with a very kind guy named Daniel, it turns out he can send the money by Western Union and that the jewelry will be sent by DHL or FedEx before I depart.

This is one more cost, along with my emergency dental work and the new watch that I had to buy at the airport to replace the one I lost, that has unexpectedly reduced my travel fund.  I am realizing that the unexpected is more compelling when you’re over 65.  That’s the lesson for today.

It is worth recording the heroic efforts on the part of Daniel Cubero of the Hampton Inn in San José to return my things to me.  First, on company time, he deposited my US$400 with Western Union, which was when he discovered that they would not accept euros (I had stocked myself with those too).  So this morning, on his own time, he went to the Central Bank and changed the euros into US dollars and returned to Western Union, where he made a second deposit, then called to tell me that that I could now retrieve them both in a Western Union office that he discovered very close to my hotel here in Panama.  In addition, he had Federal Express pick up my jewelry this morning at seven o’clock, and urged them to make a priority delivery, since I am uncertain about my departure time, and he informed me that they will be delivering my things between three and five this afternoon.  This is all from one country to another, and jaw-droppingly amazing, and I asked him what would be the cost of the Federal Express shipment, expecting to have to pay a great deal for it.  He said, “No, no, no, it’s on the hotel.”

Several times I have expressed to him my groveling gratitude at everything he has been doing for me, and he has said “No, no, you are family.  I have put myself in your shoes.  I understand your position, and we always want to do absolutely everything we can to help.”  I think this is not just Hampton Inn training on the part of Daniel.  I think it is also the fact that he’s Costa Rican and a gentleman, and Costa Rican gentlemen treat older women with great kindness, understanding and affection.

The hotel in Panama had sent a taxi across the country to the airport to pick me up.  He wasn’t there, as the attendant wheeled me out of Customs, but a quick cell phone call straightened things out.  I had said, “But I can take any old cab,” and the attendant said, “Not here, you don’t.”  Just then Alexander strode up, apologizing for his lateness.  He was a dark lanky, man with a frizz of graying hair and the deadest eyes I had ever seen.  I’m accustomed to the openness of Costa Ricans – they meet your gaze, they say hello to strangers on the street – so to meet those dead eyes was like a punch in the stomach.  He was polite, certainly, helping me into the back seat of his taxi, but I sat there puzzling over what was so clearly distrust on his part, and the possible reasons for it.

It’s also the custom in Costa Rica to talk to taxi drivers – every encounter is an opportunity to relate to another human being – so I leaned forward and started to ask Alexander questions.  He was from Colón, so I was able to ask him if conditions there had improved since my last stay there.  This was all it took to get him going, and we passed the hour’s drive very pleasantly.  When we got to the hotel, his eyes were still remote, but not as dead as they had been.

Over the next 30 hours or so, I needed a taxi twice to take me to Western Union and back (the first time I had lacked a comprobante number), and I always asked for Alexander, telling him about the fix I’d gotten myself into and listening to details about his family as we dragged our way through the insufferable traffic.  And I asked for him again when it was time to take me to the port.  His eyes had warmed up by then, and as he left me and my suitcase at the port gate, we shook hands.  As it happened, the hotel didn’t charge me the extra day, and I wondered if Alexander had been chatting with the people at the desk about my difficulties so much that they had taken pity on me.

But, ah Panama!  First impressions survive – the overwhelming humidity, oppressive clouds bearing down overhead, construction everywhere, a pristine concrete highway slicing through what was once some of the most forbidding jungle in the world, decaying tile in the bathroom, maddeningly slow service, creeping traffic and always, always the question of when I am going to leave.

©2016, Sandra Shaw Homer

 

 

 

 

Letters from the Pacific Earns Another Great Review

By Amy R Brookson, October 10, 2017

I was stuck in my house during a recent hurricane and the only truly transportive distraction I indulged in was Homer’s “Letters from the Pacific.” I read by candlelight (no power) and forgot about the pounding rain and angry winds outside my hillside home. Her imagery is crisp and clear. The details both poetic and informative. I’m now fascinated by the idea of international travel via cargo ship. When can I go, too? This is an easy book to recommend; to either those interested in an exterior or interior exploration. Keep exploring, Shaw, and then tell us all about it!

Photo by SSH

 

All Writers Are Vain . . .

“All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention. And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s own personality.”  – George Orwell, “Why I Write”

Photo by SSH

 

From a Child’s Point of View

I was intrigued, during Allyson Latta’s last Costa Rican workshop, that a number of writers chose to respond to her writing prompts from a child’s point of view.  I had never done that before, so for one of her next “challenges” I decided to write the story “Grandma’s Cabin on the Lake,” which was just published in Junto Magazine.  See below for the link.

“As we drive away this morning, Grandma asks me if I understand that my baby brother is dead.  I say, “I don’t know,” and turn to look out the window at all the big buildings holding each other up.  I have been waiting for a baby brother for a long time, but now he’s not coming.  Instead, Daddy took me to Missus Wiley’s to stay because Mommy was sick.  That’s where Grandma came to pick me up.  I’m sad that my baby brother isn’t coming, so I decide to sing some songs as we ride along.  I sing every song I know, some of them twice. ”  Read more . . .

© Sandra Shaw Homer, 2017

 

New Nonfiction Piece in Cleaver Magazine

In the hall, all is pandemonium. Even the ambulatory patients are incapable of making it to the fire exit on their own. The staff is operating on adrenaline and rote training. At the exit, I hold the door open for the wheelchairs and aides guiding the patients on foot. One grand dame holds up traffic by asking me what I’m laughing about. There is a twinkle in her beautiful gray eyes. Perhaps she sees a joke and wants to share it. Perhaps there really is a smile on my face. Someone from behind gently pushes her forward. Feeling a little useless where I am, I ask one of the aides what I can do to help.

“Check the bathrooms!” she gasps.

Read more . . .

© Sandra Shaw Homer 2017

Photo by SSH