Marta's Journal

talk to me
A Christmas Story
24 december 2003

When Uncle Corky finally married, the adults in the family agreed, apparently without exception, that Ruth would calm down his wild ways and that this was a very good thing. We kids weren’t so sure.

Corky was the one who showed up, one dead-broke Christmas, with a 12 foot Christmas tree balanced across his motorcycle like the lance of some modern knight errant. Corky was the one who got too happy while he helped us decorate the tree, waited until the last minute to put the angel on the top, then lost his balance and fell into the tree, which fell onto the floor, making a glorious mess. Corky was the one who brought gallons of ice-cream the night he babysat us, and we all sat up late eating ice-cream and begging for rides on his bike. Corky wouldn’t do it, because our mother had put the fear of God into him, but it didn’t really matter. We adored him anyway.

He met Ruth at the hospital while he was recovering from what turned out to be his last bike accident, the one that left him with half his face paralyzed. Ruth was older than Corky, a stern-faced woman from Southern California whose past was a mystery to us. Ruth’s pale indoor skin was set off by dyed black hair which she generally kept tied up in a bun at the back of her head. She wore dresses with high necklines and long sleeves and long hems. She had scrubbed-looking hands. The first time we met her, she came into the house just in front of Uncle Corky. We rushed around her and crawled up her husband, shouting for Uncle Corky’s attention.

“His name,” Aunt Ruth said, dripping ice,  “is Floyd.”

He was never Uncle Corky again. The motorcycle disappeared. So did the ice-cream and the funky Christmas trees. So did Uncle Corky, to be replaced by a sad, sober, quiet little man called Floyd who didn’t have anything to do with Corky at all.

The adults welcomed her into the family and my parents laid down the law: we were to be polite to Aunt Ruth. We were to be polite to Uncle Floyd and not pester him anymore. We were to be polite to everybody. Nobody seemed to care that Corky had been disappeared.

Ruth and Floyd bought a house in the California Central Valley town where my grandparents still lived. Dad had moved away years before, first to Mexico where he met and married my mother, then to Berkeley, where he went to school and we imbued radical politics and a multi-culturalism that appalled my grandmother. It was bad enough, the old lady thought, that her two oldest sons had escaped the Depression by finding work south of the border; worse that both had married Mexican women; catastrophic that my mother had produced three half-Mexican kids.  Aunt Virginia, married to Uncle John, was a pretty, attenuated thing with long, nervous hands and a narrow face, and said that she wasn’t really Mexican, she was, through some ancestor associated with Maximilian’s army, French. My mother’s family was Lebanese, but Grandma wasn’t impressed.  The Lebanese probably poisoned people, the way the Italians did.

Grandma  had a full and splendid array of racial preconceptions: the Portuguese drank; blacks shot people; Mexicans cut each other with knives; Asians ate dogs; Germans were power-mad even in the PTA; all Irish were drunkards; the English would steal you blind .... But she carved out exceptions for people she knew and liked. A young Portuguese couple moved into the house next door, and within a month the wife was my grandmother’s “little Portagee and the cutest thing you ever saw.” The man who ran the local Chinese restaurant (where she ate regardless of dogs lurking behind the names on the menu) was “my little Chink.”  We cringed, and were grateful that it wasn’t worse. At least my mother was never Grandma’s "little A-rab" and my kid sister's best friend Carla was not, thank god, a cute little pickaninnie, but only because Dad took his mother aside and Spoke to her. Ruth, however, made exceptions for no one, including half-breeds like me.

During long, boring Christmas visits, Grandma carved insulting exceptions, Ruth nodded, my mother pressed her lips together, and we kids snuck outside to pelt each other with fallen olives from my grandfather’s tree and try to figure out where Corky had gone. On Christmas Eve, our parents always reissued their warnings about being polite  and took us across town to Ruth’s house.

We walked along the path of plastic carpet runner Ruth had laid over the wall-to-wall, making sure that we stayed in the middle. We sat on the edges of Ruth’s plastic-covered furniture. We avoided the collection of china elephants that covered every flat surface in the living room. When we used her bathroom, we were so intimidated by the pristine guest soaps and immaculate guest towels, that we wiped our hands on our clothes. I think Ruth liked that.

Once I became a teenager the holiday visits seemed to grow deadlier. On Christmas Eve in 1964, I came out of the bathroom to hear Ruth conclude a story about going to the store to buy milk. Another driver had misbehaved. “He drove,” Ruth said, “like a nigger.”

It was not possible to be around Aunt Ruth without hearing that ugly word: it was Ruth’s term of condemnation for anything she disliked or distrusted and she used it about clothing, hairstyles, music, food, and more. She knew how much my family hated it and how hard my parents bit back a reply for fear of causing dissension; she liked that, too. On Christmas Eve in 1964,  Ruth was especially angry: I think she saw the Civil Rights movement as a personal attack and the Civil Rights Act as a personal betrayal.

That Christmas Eve, my grandmother nodded and smiled,  my mother sat fuming, my dad’s temples throbbed, and nobody said a word until Grandpa, the peace maker, said that perhaps it was time for Ruth’s fine marble cake, and then maybe a few carols, and then home. “Santa Claus,” he said, and winked at me. My sister, five that year, bounced and shouted.

So we had some of Ruth’s fine marble cake , and afterwards we sat again in the living room and sang carols. Each one of us in turn picked a song and everyone joined in: Away in a Manger (Grandma); The Little Soldier Boy (Floyd); Jingle Bells (Mom); Adeste Fidelis (Dad), and then Ruth chose “White Christmas” and sang it louder than everyone else, almost shouting the word “white.”  Dad’s temples started to throb again. I was next.

I knew what song I wanted to sing, and I started it with the second verse:

We’ll walk hand in hand,
We’ll walk hand in hand,
We’ll walk hand in hand, some day.
Deep in my heart, I do believe,
That we’ll walk hand in hand, some day.

Ruth, who didn’t know the song, liked it: she knew that my dad didn’t care for modern carols and this one was so modern she didn’t even know the words. But she picked up on the simple melody, and joined in when I skipped the chorus and started a new verse:

We are not alone,
We are not alone
We are not alone today,
Deep in my heart, I do believe,
That we are not alone today.

I had the whole room singing with me as I took the song into the first verse, the one with the words that even Aunt Ruth could recognize, the anthem of the Civil Rights movement:

We shall overcome
We shall overcome
We shall overcome some day

Her voice by now had faded and my close family, alone, sang the chorus into that plastic-covered, elephant-bedecked, icy livingroom:

O, deep in my heart, I do believe,
That we shall overcome some day.

Ruth’s white skin was crimson at the cheekbones. The song faded into silence, and into that silence Ruth said, “You sing like niggers.”

And my dad, smiling, said “Thank you. Yes.”

07 december 2003

We went to UCSF last Tuesday for regular meetings, both with the HepC treatment people (follow-ups, all is well) and the transplant people -- all is well there, too, but we learned that C's MELD score (you remember the MELD score, its what defines one's place on the transplant list) jumped from 24 to 28. It turns out that this is par for the course and does not signify any unexpected worsening of his condition, but it does signify that everything is likely to happen three months sooner than we thought it would.

A MELD score of 30 or 32 usually brings someone of C's blood type to the top of the transplant list; for each three months that an incipient recipient is on the list, another two points are added to the score. This means that C will be within the transplant eligibility window in January -- that's (gulp) three weeks away.

It took a few days to rearrange our thoughts about this, but we've done so. It's like going to see the elephant, getting closer and closer to the door in the tent. One of these days, probably without much warning, that tent door is going to open and we'll meet the elephant face to face. Or proboscis to proboscis. Or something.

In the meantime, we pray for the continued good health of my employer, my job, and my health insurance. Without it, C's post-op medications will cost around $4000 per month, and our only option will be to lose almost all of our assets in order to qualify C for MediCal (MediCare will never cover any of the costs because the surgery will take place before C is eligible for MediCare). So if somebody knocks on your door and asks you to back health care reform, be nice to that person, would you?

ferns in the rain
ferns in the rain

stump and saplings
stump and saplings
30 november 2003

I spent the extended Thanksgiving weekend in the redwoods, visiting my son. Herewith, my notes:



Drove to Garberville to shop for pea soup ingredients, because I have a craving not so much for the soup itself (although there is that) as for the scent of the cooking soup, the kitchen warmth, and the work. Then, on R’s recommendation, drove back north and up toward Honeydew through the Rockefeller Forest. This is old growth, dense and, on this drizzly day, very self-contained.

The term “old growth” is a bit misleading. It doesn’t connote a forest composed only of old trees, just a very old forest, containing trees in all stages of life, and rotting stumps or logs, and the vegetation of the understory. Here, the dense canopy, hundreds of feet high, keeps most light from reaching the forest floor, so the understory is sparse between columns of straight trunks, rising up and up and up. The forest speaks, too, in voices of wood rubbing and cracking and groaning against wood. It is muted and beautiful, and spooky.

I drove at a crawl along the narrow road, windows down, and pulled over often to stand beside the car and listen. I wanted to walk through the woods, but my bladder objected. It is one of the only things I envy about men: their ability to piss anywhere, while for overweight middle-aged women, places to piss are not so easily come by. So I turned around and drove to Founders Grove, and pissed, and walked the Loop Trail. Beautiful, few other people, and in the photos you won’t be able to hear the roar of Highway 101.

I have come here in part, I think, to get some handle on The Greater Scheme of Things. The redwood forest seems to have this sense in abundance. Driving through the old growth, I thought about the immense age of the forest, and the evidence all around me of the forest’s cycles, the young trees and older trees, the fallen ancients supporting new life in their turn, the understory ferns and deciduous trees, the rocks and watershed, and how all of this can’t be pulled apart, this commonality made up of the singular.

This was a commodious and comprehensive thought, and I was initially pleased with it: this was The Greater Scheme of Things with a vengeance: it’s all just part of the process, each individual, in the macrocosmic view, just a nanosecond in the Scheme. So relax, don’t lose your perspective, cool down, take things as they come.

When I poked it, though, this conclusion seemed both facile and fatuous. It may be true, but it’s not the entire truth.

Walking in Founders Grove, I saw the yellow leaves of Big Leaf Maples poised on tree limbs like horizontal fans, catching light and, each one, bending it in a different direction. Water drops glittered on ferns; wood sorrel grew with amazing tenderness along the trail, the bark of trees hosted colonies of mosses; the roots of fallen trees, still clutching dirt, supported gardens of vegetation, mushrooms colonized the duff – and each single one of these things, root and leaf and dirt and spore and duff, was absolutely necessary in its distinctiveness. Without each individual thing, the forest itself disappears; without each individual distinction, the forest loses its character and might as well be a tree farm or an orchard, where the individual is prized only for its similarity to the others.

So, maybe, in The Greater Scheme of Things, what matters, the only thing that matters, is the details. Without them, nothing else means anything at all.


If The Greater Scheme of Things resides in both the microcosm and the macrocosm, as it probably does, it leaves me still unsure of my own place in it all; one is far too vast, the other is far too tiny, and both make me feel rather like Alice trying to find her right size.

I don’t know the answer, but there is this: the individuals, the small distinctions that together make up the vast picture, are complete in and of themselves. I see, outside R’s kitchen window, the moss-covered and hollowed stump of what had been a large redwood. Around it stand the slender trunks of younger trees, rising beyond my line of sight; more closely grouped are saplings, the tallest perhaps ten to fifteen feet tall, trunks pencil-slender and red, with green growing tips. Not all of them – perhaps none of them – will grow to maturity; all of them, even the least one, depends on the environment created by the others and by the taller, older trees, and by the hollowed stump. Their branches intermesh and, below ground, so do their roots.

But each one is still solitary, each one pushes up its growing tip and spreads branch and root in aid of its own survival, not that of its neighbor or of the million entities that are affected by its life and growth, that it may kill in its living, that will be affected by its own death. It cannot exist apart from the precise environment in which it stands and which it creates, yet it cannot be anything other than its own, individual, solitary, contained self.


I need to drive home today. I don’t know that I’ve come to any conclusions, but suspect that the work to be done was to take in the solitude and peacefulness, and that I have certainly accomplished.

I lift my head to look out the window and see the straight trunks and laced boughs of redwood and oak and maple and madrone, quiet reminders of The Greater Scheme of Things. They will remain after I return to The Lesser Scheme of Things, and perhaps the best lesson I can take home with me is that it’s important to remember, amid all the noise and fumes and trivia and miseries, that this Greater Thing still exists, quiet and self-contained and available to me at the cost of a little time, and some memory.

18 november 2003

My beautiful daughter:

lizard child

10 november 2003

Nothing, of course, is ever as easy as it seems.

After the RFA, C experienced a fair amount of pain, which grew so severe that on Saturday I took him to the Emergency Room at the local hospital. His blood oxygen level was very low (around 90); X-ray and CAT scans revealed that a portion of his lung had collapsed (this is called "atelectasis" for all you word freaks out there). We consulted with Dr. Terrault, his hepatologist, by phone. She reviewed his file and noted that one of the ablated tumors was on the liver near what she called the "dome of the diaphragm." The ablation irritated the diaphragm which irritated the lung which made it hurt so he didn't breathe deeply which, together with the trauma from the ablation, led to the collapse of that portion of the lung.

Luckily, treatment is simple: a revision of his pain meds so that it doesn't hurt to breathe, and a nifty little breathing-practice device that the pulmonary specialist gave him: C now officially sucks, ten times an hour every hour. We got home near midnight, but he slept well that night and was feeling better on Sunday, and even better today, and his face is pink again.


6 november 2003

The Radio Frequency Ablation of C's liver was conducted with all due pomp and ceremony last Tuesday afternoon, at UCSF Medical Center. Given the usual hitches and delays (including a lengthy one in the middle of surgery, when the doctor discovered that his instruments weren't long enough to cope with C's breadth and depth) everything went well, no tumors were found outside of the liver, and the three that were detected, were successfully zapped. C's liver is in "moderate" shape, which is good news, considering. I asked Dr. Sang-Mo Kang (who performed the surgery) what sort of music he used to zap the tumors, but he just laughed at me. But he didn't definitely say it wasn't Wagner, so there's that.

They kept C an extra day in the hospital, to make sure he's okay, and I brought him home this afternoon. He's in a fair amount of pain, but we're expecting rapid improvements.

In other news, I have deduced that CalTrans (the California Dept of Transportation) must go to a lot of trouble and expense setting up entertainments for commuters, and I for one believe that their efforts should not remain unlauded.

For example, this season they must have entered into a contract with local gravel-hauling firms. A couple of weeks ago, the second trailer of a gravel truck flipped over one morning on 101 North in San Rafael. As I passed headed in the opposite direction, I saw the first act: the piece opened with a sudden puff of dust as the trailer flipped, and the players assumed positions in a tableau: the tractor and one trailer stopped in the fast lane, dust still billowing from the trailer; behind them a woman standing beside her monster SUV with her hands to her face, and behind all of this, a guy in a big pick-up, talking on his cell-phone. This sort of tableau is great because it's not only entertaining at the moment of sight  but provides subsequent mental activity. For example, I have constructed a scenario in which the woman in the SUV abruptly switched lanes (Marin SUV drivers are always doing this), causing the gravel truck driver to swerve, causing his second trailer to flip in front of her, causing her to brake suddenly and suffer heart palpitations, or at least the willies. Then the guy in the pick-up shows up to call in the rest of the cast: at least one Highway Patrol officer to officiate, and at least one huge tow-truck to set the flipped trailer on its figurative feet and remove it. The audience shows its appreciation by slowing to a dead crawl, not only behind the performers but on the other side of the freeway to boot. Now, that's great theatre!

This morning, I witnessed another entertainment on 580 just before Golden Gate Fields: a gravel truck had lost its trailer entirely (that happened in Act One, which I missed). The trailer sat in the slow lane, butt in the air and nose to the ground like some contrite peasant before an Eastern Potentate. The tractor itself had pulled to the side of the road a little bit ahead; from it trailed a long telescoping tube-like affair, maybe 20 feet long, very mysterious. As part of Act Two, we saw a Highway Patrol officer freeze traffic with the merest of gestures; a second patrol officer inspect the set; the obligatory monster tow truck; a bewildered gravel truck driver; and what appeared to be an official of the trucking firm yelling at the gravel truck driver.

The third act opened with the first CHP officer impatiently waving on the traffic he had, just a moment before, held frozen. CHP officers are always impatient at this point, as though they have just awakened, discovered all these stopped cars, and are outraged by the sight: it is part of the characterization and rarely varies.

You must understand that just a few yards on, 580 merges onto 80; normally the folk coming down 80 are used to sticky traffic at this point. But this morning, thanks to the blockage on 580, the drivers on 80 were zooming along, hearts light and lanes clear, when they were assaulted by the maddened 580 drivers who had spent the past 10 minutes fretfully observing Act Two of Morning Becomes Dilatory. Now, in the final act, these no-longer-stuck drivers attacked 80 like fighter jets storming a bomber, diving in and out of lanes, pedals flat to the metal, eyes red, middle fingers extended, cell-phones jammed into their ears.

It's rare to find an entire three-act entertainment on the morning freeways. CalTrans is obviously going all-out in an effort, I suspect, to convince incoming Governor Groper that their budget shouldn't be cut. C suggests that the CHP officers in particular are either already members of the Screen Actors Guild, or working on their membership credentials.

None of this is going to work, of course:  Schwarzengrabber has a personal fleet of Hummers and doubtless doesn't mind our disintegrating roadways. He may, in fact, not use roads at all. Damn the wetlands and full speed ahead!

copyright 2003 by Marta Randall