Friday, November 16, 2012

Perfect day...

My perfect day is a good night's sleep!

- James Seamarsh
, Zzzzz

What do you hunger for?

I hunger for the smell of turkey fat, burning in the oven, the kitchen so thick with smoke that the neighbors call the fire department. I hunger for a table overflowing with food so rich that it is declared a health hazard. I hunger for a house crowded with friends and relatives beyond the maximum capacity of the building. I hunger for song and drink and merriment that awakens the neighbors in violation of all city, county, and state noise ordinances. I hunger for joy and peace and goodwill, acceptance of all religions, tolerance of all cultures, and compassion for every living thing. I hunger for the clarity to see beyond the boundaries of my narrow-mindedness. I hunger for the sleep that comes when I am not worried or anxious about the world that I am leaving for our children's children's children.

- James Seamarsh, a hungry writer who fills his heart with the discovery of hope inside everyone he meets.

If I didn't care what anyone thought...

If I didn't care what anyone thought, I would publish without editors, and tell my readers what I'm really thinking.

- James Seamarsh lives, works, and plays in a prison of perceived judgment.

Something I keep for which I have no use...

It's not the serving tray with the warped dowels and off-center handles that I made in wood shop for my mother in eighth grade.

It's not the fire alarm that used to stand outside the window of my room, the alarm that was the subject of my high school photography class, that my parents made the subject of my 25th birthday party when they bought it since the whole alarm system went from wired to wireless.

It's not the old mechanical pachinko machine that sits on the floor, the one I used to play every time I came home from college, every time I visited my parents.

It's not the short piece of orange cable that sits on my bookshelf that I got at a dinner party at the home of the first person I ever hired. His father was there, and after I had listened with fascination about his days as an electrician on the Golden Gate Bridge, he took me out to the garage and gave me a piece of the Bridge.

It's not the Foosball table that sits idle since my boys went off to college. We used to have a tournament on New Year's Eve, to help us stay awake until midnight, my boys and their friends, four of us to a team, double elimination.

It's not the bowling pins from my neighbor, whose father used to own a bowling alley, our gift before we moved away.

It's not the piano I got for my daughters from a dear friend. The piano was free, as long as I came to get it, two hours of turns along the coast in a rental truck with my oldest son, now big enough to help move a piano. The bench has the hand-embroidered seat cover made by my friend's daughter, still in pristine condition since my daughters never played.

It's not the karaoke machine that plays songs, but doesn't show the words, not since the screen died at the Christmas party a few years ago, in the garage with nieces and nephews, none of our kids, my wife and me singing “I got you, babe!”

It's not grandma's rocking chair from Kentucky that squeaks so loudly that I can't hear the TV, especially since I've been losing my hearing.

Maybe it's the pump organ that doesn't work, not the one upstairs that sits in the parlor, but our second pump organ, that we got from a stranger's brother, who had asked for a tour of our home, who thought the old organ his brother was storing in the garage would look perfect in our Victorian.

Yes, maybe it's the old worn out pump organ.

- James Seamarsh, who is still looking for the pedal on the pump organ.


If on a scale of 1 to 10, 5 is normal, and 1 is sub-normal, then what does that make 10? Normally, I wouldn't care, but seeing as how I'm not normal, and I didn't want to consider myself sub-normal, I just was, you know, wondering? Is that normal?

- James Seamarsh is a child of the '50's, adolescent of the '60's, activist of the '70's, software entrepreneur into the new millenium, who now follows his heart by writing, normally.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Do you have something special that belonged to someone who is no longer alive?

I have an oil painting in my living room, the portrait of a woman, done in 1917 in the impressionist style. Until 2005, it had quietly watched over the entry hallway of a house at Rue du Centenaire, 10, in Chênée, Belgium. I had first seen the painting in 1970, when at age 16, I stayed with the Henry family for a school year.

The Henry's were acquaintances of my parents, and I soon adopted them as my Belgian family. I was the second American child to live in that three-story house. My sister had been there four years earlier as an exchange student, when the house bustled with 11 of the 13 Henry children. By the time I arrived, there were only eight children still at home, though on Wednesdays, when school finished at noon, and working members of the family came home for their two-hour lunch break, and we had steak tartar made of raw horse meat served with bowls overflowing with twice-fried frites (which I soon learned were never called French fries), the table was often set for sixteen.

I lived in a bedroom up two flights of stairs. The room had a small window, with a large handle and hinge hardware that required the left side to be swung closed first, overlapped by the right side of the window, and pulled to a watertight seal with a twist of the handle. My room also had access to the grenier through a half-height door. That long, narrow attic, with its sloping roof-line and unfinished walls had been made into a photography darkroom by a previous tenant. I never found out which of the children had occupied my bedroom before me, but many of my Belgian brothers and sisters knew of the darkroom, and either avoided it out of some fearful memory, or relished its capacity for magic and its gift of isolation.

Back then, Chênée had its own Hôtel de Ville, and was a little town at the outskirts of Liège. I would walk to school by heading out the front gate, passing the pharmacist across the street, turning right at the corner Jupiler bar, passing the flower shop, the baker, the friterie, the stationary store, turning left after the auto repair shop. The street headed downhill, towards the Meuse river. On either side were sooty brick row houses. Dropping steeply, the lane came to an end and narrowed into a walkway lined with the wooded gardens of more affluent homes. I remember counting the steps, groups of nine separated by short stretches of flat, but I don't remember the total count, maybe 121 steps? The bottom spilled onto a busy street that led in one direction to my school, or continued down to the city hall and the river.

It was a school year I will never forget. I was the only
américain, or less complimentary, amerloche at l'Athénée Royal de Chênée. I had been immersed in a French-speaking public school where English was the third or fourth language students learned. But they knew more swear words in the ancient wallon language than words in English. Sometimes, my friends would try to talk to me, but I could not understand them. Perhaps it was because one of the two English teachers spoke so poorly that I could not tell when he was speaking English. None of my Belgian family spoke English, except for two of my Belgian sisters who had been to America as exchange students. They both worked and lived away from home, so I would see them a couple of times a week at most. To cope with the onslaught of new words, I kept a dictionary and a pad of paper close at hand. For the first few months, I wrote down 25-50 new words every day. And every night I would review the list until exhaustion put me to bed.

It was a time when I was carefully protected by my Belgian mother, a soft-spoken well-worn woman who had survived World War II with three young children, and had gone on to bear ten more in the eleven years after the war. Her gentle eyes and easy smile were a welcome haven after a grueling day of French, Flemish, and German.
She insisted that I call her maman like all the rest of her childrenI would often end up helping her in the kitchen, even though the more proper place for men was in the living room, smoking cigars.

She taught me how to cook for a hungry, noisy, gastronomically critical table of family. I started by learning how to peel the two buckets of potatoes that we ate at dinner every noon. Then it was the thick country soups, les potages à n'importe quoi, including onion soup with its grated cheese and deep-fried croutons, soupe verte drizzled with cream, and soupe aux courgettes, French for zucchini soup. Soon I was learning how to cook all kinds of meats, poultry, and vegetables. Most notable was a dish called chicon. It had an overpowering bitter taste, even though the overcooked Belgian endive was drowned in a rich, sweet Gruyère cheese sauce. After only two months of training, as a tribute to my speedy apprenticeship, I was given the honor of making a quart of fresh mayonnaise every Wednesday for the frites, a job that required a quick hand, patience, and a sensitive palette.

I worked in the kitchen with two other women, one who also did the laundry, and another who did the house cleaning. Maman was quick to chastise these elderly widows, but in truth, both ladies had worked for the family for over 20 years and were indispensable pillars in the family's foundation. One of the ladies, Maria, had been an Italian refugee after the war, making her way to Belgium as a cleaning woman. Her work was usually confined to the back part of the house, perhaps because she was Italian, or perhaps because the large mole on her cheek sprouted course black hair that matched the mustache on her upper lip. Even though hair on a woman's faces, underarms, and legs were the norm in Belgium, along with a strong, natural body odor, Maria kept herself out of sight, in the kitchen. She would clean the common areas of the house only after they were vacated. I remember she would do the front entry last, just before she left for the day, because visitors were least likely to arrive in the late afternoon. She scrubbed that marble floor under the watchful eye of that portrait of a woman.

Maman died at the age of 91. I had gotten news of her near death several times in those last 15 years, and had made it
to her bedside all the way from California twice before. This time was more urgent, and my wife and I had to book a flight to Amsterdam, the nearest airport available on such short notice. We rented a car to drive across Holland to get to Chênée. When we crossed the border into Belgium, I stopped at the first roadside frites stand. The fries I bought were delicious, crowned with a large dollop of mayonnaise, but no longer served in a cone of rolled butcher paper.

When we pulled into Maman's driveway I was met by a Belgian brother, who told me she had passed away less than an hour ago. Inside, she had already been dressed and laid out in her open coffin, to be on display in the living room
for three days, as required by a law passed down from the Middle Ages. She looked so small and frail, not the robust woman I had known when I was 16. I held her hand and said my goodbyes, hoping she would forgive my foolish addiction to frites and mayonnaise. I sat at her side as more and more of her children arrived, adding flowers, candles, and mementos to the altar at the foot of her casket.

We stayed for the funeral, where I got questioning looks as I sat with the other Henry children. And I caused more of a stir when I stood and circled the coffin, a responsibility and honor given only to the children. Most of the family supported my choice, but some did not.

We had to leave before the reading of the will. I was told that Maman had put aside two cut-glass Val Saint-Lambert vases, one for me, one for my sister. These were to be considered gifts from Maman before her death, and not part of the estate, so I could take them home with me.

A couple weeks later I got a call from my closest Henry sister. She and her older sister, an artist, had known of my special attachment to the 1917 portrait. They had spent some of their own inheritance to acquire the painting and were making it a gift to me, in appreciation for my steadfast love and loyalty to Maman and the Henry family...

I have an oil painting in my living room, the portrait of a woman, done in 1917 in the impressionist style. Every time I see it, I am reminded of Chênée, a special year, and Maman.

- James Seamarsh, Frites Fancier Extraordinaire

Monday, November 5, 2012

Inspired by the poem Tattoo by Carl Dennis

What does a tattoo mean? I mean, what does a tattoo mean to somebody other than the person who has the tattoo? I presume the tattoo means something to the person who carries it. Why else would she have gone to such pain and expense? No, the far more interesting question, one fraught with misinterpretation and misunderstanding, the true grist of a good story, is the question of what the tattoo means to others. 

A tattoo is a poem, an expression of some sentiment, frozen in the flesh of the moment, branded for all time in indelible ink on the pages of my body.

The greasy-spoon lunch weighed heavily on the old man, making him drowsy, and subject to the drifting of reality that accompanies an afternoon nap. He daydreamed of waking up beside his waitress...

She slept deeply, satisfied from his amorous attentions. Her tattoo reminded him with untoward pride that he had successfully made a cuckold of Dave, the love of her life. But it hadn't really been her fault. Her choices faded from view in the company of his confidence.

He imagined how she would wake up later, alone in bed, and appreciate the expertise he had demonstrated with gentle, patient mentoring. She would be clever at sharing what she had learned, careful not to raise Dave's suspicion...

“Mr. Smith? Are you all right?”

The old man blinked, confused, uncertain what was dream and what was real. The waitress scribbled the total at the bottom of the check, distracted him with a sweet smile, and with one smooth, practiced motion, tore the paper from her pad, flipped it with a quiet flutter, and gently guided it to settle, face down, on his table, as delicately as a leaf onto a pond.

“Thank you, Gretchen,” he mumbled.

He noticed her attention to the corner of his mouth and quickly wiped with the back of his hand. He felt it before he saw it, the grease, the wet, slippery drool. When he looked back up, she was walking away.

Gretchen shuddered, unable to erase the memory of the old man's creepy leer. She stood at the counter waiting, looked outside, followed the cars driving past, on their ways to so many anywheres she would rather be.

By James Seamarsh JS annotation code