Follow my sister, Nina, and me as we make a book together: my writing and her gorgeous inks on paper.

14. Frisky

Posted on June 22, 2020

I’m on my way back up to Queens and Malcolm will join me in a few days. This is the first leg of our trip on our way to be with Andrew in London and Paris over Mardi Gras.

I hit TSA pre-check, where the guards admonish people about what not to take off or out or your bag. So many rules to remember to forget. The last time I flew, I confessed to having a Loop monitor, along with the other people admitting to pacemakers, metal hips and prosthetic legs. I got patted down by a woman in rubbery gloves, around my bra, the suspicious underwire, between my legs; the hibernating long-ago violations, reawakened by touch. I wanted to tell her to fuck off, get the fuck off of me. Words I didn’t think were mine to use in the 70s and 80s when I needed them. Using them now would get me arrested.

This time I take my chances in the scanner, strike my X pose, arms up, legs spread, a frisk with no touching. It’s always a small thrill to make it through, to see my bags roll out of the yaw, to ace the sharp objects-food-liquids test. In my purse, I keep a vial of primrose oil for hot flashes.

Airports remind me how good it is to be a grownup woman, married and moving through space, about to buy a black coffee, a muffin and the NYT before I board. With a tail wine, New Orleans to New York takes two hours and change. In the waiting area, toddlers bolt for their freedom; batches of athletes travel in school colors; a masked Chinese woman contains her cough; fearful fliers read bible verses. So often, the person I stand behind in security ends up on my airplane. What blind improbable luck to have contact twice, a near friendship, but on this trip, I’ll be flying with just strangers. I text Malcolm: “Cross check, cabin door shut, on time arrival.”

“Resolved”

Ink on cold pressed watercolor paper

“22 x “30

13. Let Me In.

Posted on June 22, 2020

The second sister lives across the lake in a grand old cottage raised high on pilings. Malcolm counts steps and there are sixteen to get to her front door. Her deck overlooks wetlands filled with creatures large and small.  We meet monthly at the mall to buy a new shirt or a lipstick – always another red for me, always something frosty for her. “You got the good lips,” she tells me. She’s the smallest of us with a body that packs too much suffering: ruptured disks, ovarian cysts that exploded like dynamite, and then a diagnosis last year of an auto-immune disease, Hashimoto’s, which sounds like a kamikaze pilot and almost took her down. Her thyroid stopped working. It’s taken a year to figure herself out, while she’s kept herself in a bubble of self-care.

I’m wearing a vermillion shade called Bozo; she’s got on C-Thru, a shimmery peach. In the food court, we scout for what she hasn’t excluded because gluten, sugar, dairy and soy flash pain into her joints. She shows me her fingers, the knobs. Arthritis runs on the Polish side of our family, our mom’s side. I examine her tender hand and don’t want to let it go. She’s fifteen years younger, with two sons in college.

She tells me she’s in remission, a cancer word I don’t want to be her word. We order what doesn’t hurt: grilled chicken, salad with olive oil and salt, steamed vegetables. When she was tiny, I’d have to carry her over the sand at the beach. She fretted over the crunch of gravel, the squeak of packed snow. How could I know then that this sister would become fearless and expert crossing any terrain? At home, she’s taught herself to shoot snakes that get close, aiming for the head.

13. “Mangia! Mangia!”

Ink on cold pressed watercolor paper

23″ x 23″

12. It’s Their Town

Posted on May 23, 2020

We don’t have groundhogs, beavers or badgers, but we do have feral hogs. They tear up our levee system, rooting around. Piglets pour out of them in 114 days. They eat meat. They eat their young. Word is that the mob uses them to make bodies disappear. Why can’t they be close to extinction, their lifeline snapped? Instead of cockaded woodpeckers; gopher tortoises; the shore birds, running out of coastline; or Louisiana black bears who give birth in their sleep, awakened from hibernating after 220 days by hungry babies.

When the batture floods, driving coyotes into the city, into our neighborhoods. Ring cameras catch them at night wandering like grainy zombies. Our dog, Ella, sleeps on her red cushion, but I hear her stir, her supernatural hearing picking up intruders. We regret having her spayed. She’d be a gentle and doting mom with good-natured pups.

 Some nights, raccoons emerge from City Park, marshaling their young across the wide street in front of our house. While Malcolm sleeps, Ella whisper-woofs. I cross my fingers they won’t be hit by a late-night driver. They’re headed to a garbage can, hoping for a loose lid, a midnight snack.

 In the morning, the lagoons fill with socializing ducks and an occasional swan. Their jibber-jabber sounds like rusty gates. The bottom-heavy geese stay on grass picking at bugs and nuts. I dodge them so they know I mean no harm. Some walkers carry sticks, but what can a hissing charging goose do to a human? Shame us? It’s their town.

I stopped after one child. Was it the abject fear of loving another child as fiercely? I have two stepsons and they have eight kids between them. Did I spay myself? Being a parent is terrifying. If I counted up all the close calls – the late periods, the pray-aways – I’d be mom to a baker’s dozen. We can’t lose what we don’t have.

“Urban Scape” http://ninatempleart.com/

“16 x “20

11. The Citrus Parade

Posted on May 15, 2020

Winter in New Orleans is wet, dry, chilly then mild, which jukes gardens into blooming. Pink and rose camellias, tulip trees, sweet olive, anxious to released from winter prison. They’re so pretty. Only one of our four citrus trees has blossomed. The heavenly smell of orange flower!  They’re never in synch. Pinkish red Cara Cara Navel Oranges. Loose skinned Satsumas. Meyer Lemons. My neighbor had made us a chiffon pie, dense with condensed milk. She froze the lemon juice she didn’t use. That pie was tart and luscious. We vanquished it!

Across the street, Malcolm’s letter hedges explode with green growth and cheerful weeds. They spell C I T Y P A R K. For sixteen years, he’s tended to them, waving off paid groundskeepers. I watch him from the front porch, back in action with his boots and his trimmer, sidestepping bees and combating fire ant mounds with powder. When he’s finished, I jet spray tiny boxwood leaves off his legs, and zap mud lodged in the bottom of his shoes so he won’t leave tracks. We watch young parents place their toddler in the A. He jumps around, delighted, then freaks out and breaks through the bar. “Jesus!” Malcolm says. “It’ll grow back,” I say. “In eighty years,” he says.            

When Malcolm and I walk, we lift our feet, like marching, over buckling sidewalks, cracked pavement. The roots of live oaks are shallow and run as wide as the crown.

A few months ago, winds blew a maple tree onto our sidewalk. It used to guard the corner, throw shade. The emptied space is a fresh chance. All we’re missing in the citrus parade is a lime tree.

“Floaters” http://ninatempleart.com/collections/124222

Ink on cold pressed water color paper

“20 x “30

10. Chicken (Part Two)

Posted on May 12, 2020

I’m putting off the shingles vaccine because it hurts your arm and requires a series of two. I’m cutting out dairy, except for cottage cheese and yogurt and melted Brie, because I need the calcium and the smooth mouth feel. I check for lumps in the shower. Most days I walk in the park.  I adjust the sum of weekly glasses of wine to a single digit so that my answer to my internist doesn’t have to be a fudge which is the tasty word for a lie. Calm down, I tell myself. Don’t be afraid of better health, staying upright, of making dinner without my balm, my loyal company, in a long-stemmed glass. You can never drink too little. Live on!

I fix my mother’s Polish food for dinner, fry garlicky kielbasa in a pan to slide between brown German pumpernickel bread that only asks for butter and toasted warmth. I sauté cabbage with caraway seeds. Scrub and roast beets. Our mother spoke some Polish, which sounds like Russian with the soft drag of zees but how to pronounce clusters of consonants? German cognates are reassuringly familiar: kindergarten. Doppelganger. Pumper means gas, and nickel, the ruler, Nicholas. A baker’s joke. When the two youngest sisters were in grammar school, my father would put them on the bus from Hattiesburg so they could spend the weekend with me. I’d make kielbasa sandwiches, and pan fry pierogis stuffed with potato and onion, with tumblers of cold Welch’s grape juice to wash it all down. My first husband would make himself scarce and we were okay with the girl time he would’ve crashed. The root for sister comes from the Dutch zuster and the German schwester, the Latin soror, silbiliant, silky siblings, the letter S hookable at the bottom and the top.

“The Bohemian” http://ninatempleart.com/

Ink on cold pressed watercolor paper

20″ x 30″

9. The Color of Hunger

Posted on May 11, 2020

It’s New Year’s Day and the streets look hungover. In the backseat, Malcolm and I have loaded in our French artist friends, Bullet and Stephen. They hold hands and mutter romantic bits we’d like to understand and mutter. Love talk in English sounds infantile. I hold Malcolm’s hand when I don’t need two on the wheel. It’s rare for us to travel through New York above ground.

We park under the subway trestle and zero in on Tashkent, an Uzbekestani grocery store with a block-long buffet: mountains of cold salads, pink borscht, tender cheese blinchiki, coriander-scented Borodinsky bread, dense chicken cutlets, dumplings bulging with lamb and onion. Our hunger explodes.

The boardwalk is empty but for a few burly Russian men in thick leather jackets, talking on their phones. Puffy clouds put on a show. Near the water, wind pushes us around. We let the surf wash our hands, before we hurry back to our mittens. Bullet is petite, with a pixie haircut. Her work deals with disappearance, what remains, seen or hidden. She looks like a French pop star and moves with the fresh-cut joy of a child. In the sand, she finds a lone red rose on a stem and waves it like a magic wand. A gust rips off petals and I capture them on my camera, blowing away. Stephen triple-wraps his neck in a long scarf, dashingly, and photographs Bullet, dancing.

At Coney Island, the Polar Bears will take a frigid, sobering dip into the new year. The roller coaster is braked, the Ferris wheel, a frozen circle. On the beach, all body-types shiver. Many wear flannel bathrobes and slippers. Wrist-banded swimmers will be called in by color. “Blues! Walk, don’t run!” the emcee barks from his lifeguard chair. “Hit the water and exit right!” Stephen’s art deals with the immediacy of color. Last year, he’d filmed the Polar bears with temperature sensitive film, seen them enter green and emerge purple. But today we have only our naked eyes. We can tell the ones who’ve dunked by their laughter and high fives, their legs bright red as warm blood rushes to the surface

Violet Bundle – http://ninatempleart.com/

Ink on cold pressed water color paper

22″ x 30″

8. I Played the Queen

Posted on May 5, 2020

I don’t tell Mom what I’m thinking as I look around her dark, musty room. Throw things away, please. What she’s keeping is torn, faded, crumpled, dirty. Another metropolis of Styrofoam cups has risen beside her kitchen sink. Again, she’s stuffing empty cups into the love seat. Does she think they’re hidden? The second sister bought her a pack of Styrofoam cups from Walmart, thinking kindness might outsmart our mother, but the fresh ones are in the cupboard, out of sight, and maybe this is the problem?

Our Polish grandmother hoarded. Her basement was a treasure hunt for kids who don’t separate what’s finished from what’s valuable. Nina and I would dress in moth eaten hats and scarves, tarnished costume jewelry, set a table with chipped dishes, a tureen with a petunia pattern, a mismatched gravy bowl missing its handle. We’d dine on imaginary buttered toast points and drink fresh squeezed orange from cracked teacups like the Queen and Princess of England. Our mother always had a careful and specific eye. Colorful pillows on the sofa, tchotchkes clustered on the coffee table, stacks of books, her bow placed on her music standing, waiting. On our dinner plates would be an edible garnish, usually parsley. She dressed for dinner. A silky blouse, her hair pulled back, slim black pants. She didn’t wear jeans until her fifties. Out in the yard, Nina and I would practice gymnastics: back bridges, cartwheels, handstands, tricking gravity until Mom called us in to wash up. Now we worry that in her wheelchair, our mother never gets clean or washes her hair. To ask for help risks what she’s saved being mistaken for trash.

(Originally published on http://matterpress.com/journal/2020/03/ )

“Masquerade” – http://ninatempleart.com/collections/124222

Ink on cold pressed 300 lb. watercolor paper

“30” x “20” x “2”

7. A World of Shoes

Posted on May 3, 2020

When I sold shoes in college, shoppers would sit in my department to rest their feet. The store owner prowled the floor in his double-breasted blazer, a cashmere Hickey Freeman because he could afford everything he sold. He walked with his arms crossed over his chest, keeping an eye on us. My friends would stop in. They knew my hours. And I’d put them into shoes they didn’t need so the boss would see me work.

I needed my own money when my parents stopped paying. I still lived at home. Before classes, while my mother practiced her violin, I babysat my sisters. I read them the unsinkable Pippi Longstocking, whose mother died at birth, whose father was lost at sea. And we watched Sesame Street, singing the jingly songs that taught us to be kind. I don’t know that my mother had much use for me by then. My father needed my company at the dinner table. I felt stuck in the mud of their marriage. In the back of the shoe store, I’d try on the world: platforms the color of robin’s eggs, Ferragamo flats with a bow, burgundy Aigner pumps, silver strappy sandals as light as butterflies. I got a 40% discount and acquired a closet-full that would one day walk me out of there into a rough first marriage, into my eventually happy second marriage.

From the nursing home, my mother leaves long messages, telling me she still needs the new wheelchair because her body hurts. She reads me the model and make of the right chair, which is the chair she is sitting in. I don’t know how to convince her. She is angry about my last visit when I tossed Styrofoam cups and got her room cleaned, her sheets washed. In the message, she tells me I treated the staff poorly, bossed them around, but she is confusing me with herself. I wish she’d confuse herself with me and be kind to others, whether they’re froggy green or human. Why can’t she enjoy me like I enjoyed my baby sisters, like I enjoy my son? When I was young, I wanted to be her, to dress in slim skirts and silk blouses, to swirl my hair and wear a kitten heel. And now at the end of her life, I can’t make comfortable the one who taught me to land on my feet. She phones back to say how much she enjoyed seeing Malcolm. Will I bring him back?

“Stuffed” – http://ninatempleart.com/collections/124222

Ink on cold pressed watercolor paper

“22 x “30

6. We Shall Set More Plates

Posted on April 25, 2020

In the grocery, I pick fruit out of bins. Raspberries all ship from the same place in California. I grab a fountain drink, let ice cubes plop, plop, bouncing into my squeaky Styrofoam cup. Cabbage the color of amethyst is such a bargain it could be free. A pint of Bluebell ice cream won’t hurt, or the fudge topping I’ll heat and drip, drip, drip. On the meat aisle, Malcolm finds the perfect chuck roast. I can’t think about the animal, her worried mind, her nerves that carry pain. Red means fresh, but red is blood. On the drive home, I spritz our hands with bacteria killer that smells of lavender and freshens.

If I were to lose Malcolm, I would curtail eating meat. He’s the fixer of slow cooked delicious foods in heavy pots. He keeps it simple: sautés onions, celery and bell pepper, braises the sides of flesh, sticks the Dutch roaster in the oven for three hours. Before the roast comes out, I’ll make the cheat of instant mashed potatoes from real spuds.

On TCM, it’s Harry Belafonte week, in honor of MLK day, when businesses close and New Orleanians parade, go to church, do good works, but Malcolm and I will stay in our bubble, eating enough for two when we might have set a bigger table.

“Joy of Plenty” – Nina Z. Temple – http://ninatempleart.com/

Ink on 300 lb. cold pressed watercolor paper

“22 x “30

5. Busted

Posted on April 22, 2020

I miss a bikini, my oiled and tanned tummy, staking my claim during maximum sun hours, my towel a piece of property, fenced by sand, the contrast underneath my watch band and silver rings, and where my straps pulled down. I had less patience tanning my back, forgetting to turn my face evenly, right, left, right left. But what a yield, pink shifting into brown, a thinning color, the contrast dialed up by white shorts, a bright yellow tank top.

I’m not fat fat, but fatter than my fighting weight, my driver’s license weight. I renewed it soon after I lost my appendix, after I’d lost seventeen pounds and almost my life. Everything fit or bagged. Surviving felt good! If I ate an egg roll or a glazed donut or macaroni and cheese, no harm, no foul.

Next week, I will offer a vein and the blood panel will sell me out, because I’ve been operating undercover, eating and drinking, posing as a thirty-year old, when I need to break the mold, stand in the mirror in my one piece, see a pale sixty, find cool clear water for a night swim in a dark one piece.

“Spotted Glory” – Nina Z. Temple – http://ninatempleart.com/

Ink on 300 lb. cold pressed watercolor paper

“22 x “30