Tuesday, June 28, 2022

A Letter from Francine/Soothe Francine


When I was a youngster, I conjured an invisible friend that I called Francine. My parents cultivated this distraction, likely because our family was slightly lopsided: my two siblings were over 3 and 4 years younger than me and therefore I was typically in a different state of development and our house was hectic. Francine was a ready caretaker for some of my needs. I cannot completely produce authentic memories of us together, since much of what lasts about her comes from my parents talking about my imaginary friend rather than my own pretending.  

My girlhood was peppered with all kinds of social and civic activities. I attended summer camps, played sports, retained membership in Camp Fire Girls through high school and participated in Methodist Youth Fellowship. These were great ways for me to immerse in friendships that were based on activities. Even today I sometimes have trouble just hanging-out with even the coolest people and I am eager to do something. I'm working on being more present, both as a yogi and a person.

The two Francine poems were written in Marrakech, when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer, 1986-88. They go together because one is written to Francine, and the other from her. It's interesting that Francine voices an Eastern philosophy that I lifted from TS Eliot's The Waste Land. "Datta, Dayadhvam, Damyata" comes from the Upanishads, and I find that it translates to "Give, Sympathize, Control," which horrifies, given Eliot's Nazi connections. Oh, to know then what I do now.

My earlier iteration was trying to sort out my feelings about social groups and my own need for solitude. Francine was telling me to be more giving but I sense she was also stuck in ancient dogma and male-domination. I am finding myself compassionate toward the naivete of my early 20's in these two texts and I reflect upon some of the prophecies in her words and those of Francine.

Soothe Francine

You played with me at the well, me telling
you things and you listening, endlessly.
It was you who fell, and me, promising
hickory nuts, shelled on the sidewalk with
a hammer or rock, who soothed. You were m
friend, quietly, and my confidant, scapegoat, 
and means for me to hear my early voice.
Are you as old as I am now? Or do
imaginary friends shrink into time
necvr growing once they're dispelled: I think
you've never left me although the well looks
smaller and hickory nuts fall unshelled
on the new grass. Please, let me tell you things
again, and listen, Francine, endlessly,
because I want to soothe you back to life.
I need a means to hear my later voice.


A Letter from Francine
(Datta, Dayadhvam, Damyata)

Dear friend, your demands of others, tangled in words,
should be given freely in the meaning of your
deeds. Give them consistency, clear light, kindness and
repose. You observe. you record. You react. Give.

New people disappoint you, sister, why? You know
guilt, pain, frustration and anguish. You feel. You feel!
But sympathize. Elude duty; perform and lurk.
Feel suchness elsewhere, a redirected scope: there.

But you do not think on these things, preferring to
scan those disappointing others, ('help me,') thwarting
your urge to stimy yourself in you own freely-
chosen, appropriae control. Who will help them?

Concentrate, search and hurt. Meditate, learn and know. 
Being and become. We are both such. Love, Francine.



 

Friday, June 10, 2022

Miss Judge

I've been thinking a bit about the Cult of Domesticity. The ideals of womanhood have always included dominion over home and hearth, not so much by authority, but more by obligation to feminine roles within society that dictate the allocation of women's energy and resources. Based on this implicit framework, women of the 19th century had a moral responsibility to focus on families, household matters, upholding virtue and exhibiting a well-mannered performance. Historians refer to this as the Cult of Domesticity, or the Culture of True Womanhood. 

Some modern thinkers link the Cult of Domesticity to homecraft, such as culinary arts, crafts, gardening, home decor and childrearing, all of which are certainly worthy pursuits for any gender. TicTok today is chock-full of picklers, urban homesteaders and clothing upcyclers, all of whom harken the frugal and functional nature of COD behaviors. Through the COVID years, countless social media influencers shored-up their digs across the land, constructing outdoor pizza ovens and hyper-decorating laundry rooms. There is a resurgence of homecraft and even a push for bringing DIY game.

I am proud of the younger generations who aren't afraid of starting their own home-based businesses or engaging in lost arts. Etsy, Ravelry and Instagram show many crafters and collectors e-tailing hand-tatted handkerchiefs, homemade herbal remedies from foraged materials and explicit procedures for canning milk. Anyone complaining that the younger generation doesn't want to work is missing the point: they don't want to work for us, Boomer, clocking 40 hours or more a week for the man, shackled to a sub-standard health insurance plan and enemic 401K with a vague promise of future reward if they can survive into their retirement years. The now-vampires demand obedience to a flimsy system that counts on us dying before we can collect our social security payments, a lifetime of eating shit sandwiches our ultimate reward for our efforts. Moghuls rocket to outer space. Both of my parents died before they collected much of their social security. That lesson wasn't lost on me.

My poem "Miss Judge" is part of a Series of Misses, (with catchy titles,) that I submitted for my senior project in 1985. It strikes me that the piece has a kind of cycle to it, much like the COD coming in and out of style. There is external motivation for change, but at what cost? What if I actually enjoy knitting and baking and mothering? Can't I still be a feminist? Does the patriarchy minimize the importance of domestic tasks to shunt women's power? Is anyone sorry about this? My own opinion is that working for the military-industrial-complex (most jobs, right?) robbed me of my health and well-being, buying into a hierarchy that never made sense. Working on my own paid or unpaid projects is so very satisfying and healing that I never want to go back.

Miss Judge
We had it registered for its own good.
We changed all that it had been before.
We had it both neutered and spayed.
We had it plucked and shaved and its skin
painted another color.
We had its claws and whiskers removed and
its wings clipped and its fangs filed.
It had been so long, we'd forgotten what it
was.
But then someone remembered.
And it wasn't so bad.
People liked it.
It came into style.
They became jealous that we had it,
and we became proud of it.
We decided that we loved it, and let it go
back to the way it was.
But then it left us.
And we miss it.
And we're so sorry.
 
In the mid-90's, I met a work colleague who had come to Vermont in the 70's to live in a commune with her husband. She said that the men used to sit around and smoke cigarettes, bragging about how many jars of tomatoes their wives canned. She'd explained it was just part of the men gaining status through the efforts of their partners, and it didn't feel communal or supportive at all. She'd been divorced for 15 years or so, and was restoring a home with her second husband. I'm not certain she was any more pleased with her most recent lifestyle. It seemed like she was under the burden of a time schedule to get the renovations done, all while working full-time and limiting her other interests in support of a man-initiated project. She loved to cross-country ski. I wonder how many days she got out on the trails.

This past year on the boat, I learned to make terrible wine that gets you shit-faced. I finished an afghan that I started 12 years ago for my son. I knit my daughter a pair of mittens from an intricate pattern, and I made my partner and myself light hats for cold ocean evenings. I even crocheted a bag from nylon fishing line we found on the beach as we made passage from the Bahamas. I cooked tagines and cakes, flatbreads and pizzas. I love these projects, without disdain. While I still remain a pitiful housekeeper and boat cleaner, I do appreciate good food and items I make myself. 

My hot take is that I do what I want. Sometimes I want to do what has been historically expected of my gender, and I want beaucoup kudos for it. I am so glad I have that in my life: my supportive partner, my attentive kiddos and my great friends. Life is good, people. 

Monday, May 30, 2022

Thingification

Jam session with ukulele at Chat-n-Chill
beach in Exuma, Bahamas.
PC: Alison Buchanan

I used to spend a lot of time being what I thought others wanted. This strained my interaction with my body, soul and relationships. I hated my body and hid it, or minimized its importance, becoming unhealthy. In dissolving my connection to physical well-being, my energy was patchy and I could not give to some of my efforts. I had little sense of myself, reacting to stimuli and not taking charge of my own feelings and actions. In my career I often bent to the will of my employer over my own inclinations and as a result, I knew frustration and strife. Although I was often proud of my workplace achievements and even earned some notoriety, there was an emptiness because I perceived myself directed by outsiders. I didn't have a language to communicate my values, or a heart for speaking truth to power effectively. I continue to dislike conflict and find many situations cringe-worthy, causing me to perseverate and lax at letting go of the opinions of others. This takes work.

I harnessed as much of my energy as I could to mothering, even through considerable adversity. With the divorce of their father, I found more ways to have better conversations with my kids who were nearly grown by that time. My son and daughter are my great gifts to the universe and I am so happy about their worlds and wilds. Being their mom was a role that came naturally to me and I have no regrets about giving mothering my best shot, sometimes even declining others' ideas and opinions because I knew what was right. I am sad being so far from them, which I think about all the time.

Reflecting upon the poem I wrote when I was 20, "Thingification" seems like advice that I wish I could have taken earlier. As I have established a practice of non-attachment through my yoga training and considerable personal opportunities to "let go and let be," I enjoy reminiscing about my 20-something voice. I often cue yoga participants to contemplate a timeline in Warrior 2 pose, reaching with compassion into the past during gentle warrior, and then with curiosity into the future in side angle. Returning to Virabhadrasa II, I encourage being in this moment, now that we have addressed past and future. This layer has made me more mindful of my time on my yoga mat, and less attached to what is not now. It is very liberating.


The poem, written when I was 20, word-processed
Thingification

Moonlight spares the building's 
corner from being lost in
the darkness.
the mitered squareness of
the edge more distinct
at night.
Inside a young woman clad
in underwear
curls her hair
and plans
to act more demurely 
than she did
the night before.
She had been outspoken,
hand-on-hip in
disagreement,
head stronger than
the mouth that
quickly lent
secrets and the tip
of a champagne glass.
And then she had been
hurried home,
Ladybug, Ladybug,
a plane hanging in
the dark air above
her like a blinking flashbulb.
Tonight she would try again,
smooth, neat and curled,
feigning the reserve
of one of Henry the VIII's 
wives for a man who
liked her better 
the night before.

I giggle inwardly at the stilted voice in the poem, describing the "mitered squareness" and name-dropping King Henry VIII. The plane that hangs in the sky "like a blinking flashbulb" seems so accusatory. One of the things I enjoy most about my life now is that I feel completely supported in being myself at all times, which is as much my growth as it is finding a beautiful partner who nourishes this. He would have liked me better the night before, too.

Photo credit: Dreamy Dale 
I hadn't expected that I would find love and acceptance at my age, (58 at the time of this writing, if you're curious.) I sometimes lead ecstatic dance groups and I find myself consistently announcing that "magic happens right outside your comfort zone," a vaguely Vygotsky axiom that might be more for my edification than anyone else's. I always claimed I wanted to be loved for who I am, not so much for what I do. I am new to living for myself, following my own curiosities and discovering love and beauty with a gorgeous man on a vintage sailboat far away from my beloved Vermont. Magic indeed happens out here.









Monday, May 16, 2022

Private Acrobatics, 9/15/1983

Too long ago, my priorities and creative energies shifted from written expression to other forms. Some of my pursuits manifested in mothering, teaching, studying to advance myself, identifying as career-achieving, and making domestic crafts. I also infused my social network presence with my ideas, rooted in feminism. I spent a lot of energy writing for work and creating for teaching. While I regard what I've shared with the world positively, others have over-lorded my expression to some extent for a long time. At this point of my lifespan, I want to generate my own art into the world, which mostly appeals to me through writing, knitting, moving, dancing, making music and exploring. I reserve the right to try new things, too.

To kick-off this introspective initiative, I am reviving my blog. I have plans to interact with photos of my creations, new and old, and address my memories and impulses in order to establish the parameters of my growth in this world. Reflecting on my artifacts might help me to make sense of myself as I am now and reveal the common threads and the raveled edges of this Hoffman experience.

In this piece I explore the poem Private Acrobatics, which I wrote in 1983. As an undergraduate Creative Writing major at Hamilton College, I had to produce a seminar of written poetry. My diligent professor worked me through a semester of reading and writing poems, providing me titles from mostly dead white males, the grist of artzygrrrl death of the 1980s. I took it as my own failing that I didn't usually connect with the presented patriarchal body of work and didn't often glean the central themes.

My parents gave me the middle name Frost for my dad's favorite poet, the big Robert. I look at RF now as a wonderful poet, as I have developed an adult perspective in rural New England and appreciate that fences make good neighbors. Another professor had advised us to write what we know, and so my poem developed from a child's voice:


Private Acrobatics



Typed copy of the poem, as submitted to my professor.


Who has left me alone again
for other things although I was
the first? Sure she is smaller and
more helpless perhaps but sometimes
I want to show you what I've learned.
Like I can crawl up on this rack,
look at myself in the watchful
mirror, the only probably
thing that always watches me and
never changes. The mirror is
as my own fun is. The mirror
will watch my sun acrobatics
even as I can watch myself
fall, swinging lower with the too
unbalanced audience as it
crashes to the floor. Each broken
piece of the mirror is a new
member of my made-up private
audience that is the only
probably thing that will always
watch and never change for other
things even though I was the first.


I was pretty chuffed in 1983 when I first produced this piece. Most of my suite-mates brought electronic typewriters with them to college, but my mom had insisted on purchasing a manual Royal unit, the 1980s version of her ancient machine of her youth. She'd advised that I should be able to type anywhere, like on a train, on a ship or on the road. Mom possessed not so much a romanticized perception of writing, but more a pragmatic one. Maybe she thought I'd go all Jack Karouac, and she wanted me to be prepared. One of my dad's classes at Syracuse University had met with JK at a local pub and Mom assumed I'd need to type anywhere. Current laughs as I type on my Chromebook at a bar in the Dominican Republic frankly a little day-drunk on a 22-oz local beer. How could she have known?

I wrote Private Acrobatics about breaking a mirror when I was a little girl. My sister was born in the car on the way to the hospital when I was almost 4 years old, and therefore her dramatic debut was my first cancel culture. My parents worked very hard to bring us up with opportunities that transcended theirs, so when my brother came while my sister was still soiling diapers, I required too much supervision for my hard-working mom, who worked nights as a nurse and took care of us by day with only naps to get her through the toil of mothering.

I climbed up the beloved hat rack with a marble drawer shelf topped with a semi-length mirror. My parents were proud of their antiques, and this hat rack was a rare example of something in good condition. When I climbed up on it to see myself in the mirror and toppled it, their dismay resulted in a lifetime of reminders about my behavior and their replacement of the ancient glass. I layered my feelings of independence and lonesomeness in my role as big kid in the house in this poem so to process having to share attention. I think my ongoing need for relevance comes from being the eldest child, and I certainly still do take challenges to see myself reflected. I am defined by doing, not by being. More about my becoming a yogi later.








Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Out with the old and in with the new!

Some have asked for details about Hoffman's Gap Year. Most have expressed support, and few have offered cautions. What a luxury to sculpt time and space so there's room to sort myself out and I am grateful. I want to really live instead of merely existing. I no longer desire conformity to the expectations that have restrained me in the past. No, Hoffman's Gap Year isn't a time-out; it's more a listening tour. Yes, I will try to learn as much as possible but I am also going to listen to myself and be true to my nature. I feel powerful.

I started this plan about a year ago with clarity that I was happier and healthier and SANER on a cozy sailboat in the Caribbean with the man I adore. I like to exaggerate that I fell in love with a man who sailed away from me, a story dripping with drama, but the reality is that part of me left forever on that first passage, stowed-away on the boat in hopes that my remainder returns. That spellbinding man and I have made a few other trips together since he retired to cruise the tropical waters, and the adventure means that I visit the missing part of myself along with the man who really gets me. This is about love for a man and a boat---but mostly myself---in ways that are new and profound. 

I've chased adventure my entire life with considerable ennui when I've neglected to take the path less traveled. The zest for fame and fortune leaves me confused and I love collecting experiences over consumer items. I am not entirely immune to the trappings of comfort and entertainment, so I have to out myself as financially fickle. I will learn more about the relevance of material things in the coming months.

I miss my grown kiddos. It's painful, sometimes, to know that they have their own lives and dreams away from mine. I never wanted to be a helicopter parent and I won't burden them. I can't rely on them to fill my time, just my heart. It's natural for us all to grow up. I want to keep growing by following adventure, even if it means that my arms are empty of the children I bore and raised. Our love is eternal. My son and daughter are my gifts to the universe and I know it is better with them in it.

But holy hell! Speaking of drama and adventure, how about embarking on a journey into the unknown in the midst of a global pandemic! What a time to take risks! The complications surrounding this era shape-shift and priorities dissolve and re-rank. I can't tell if this is the perfect time to leave my career, benefits and stability, or the worst? 

The first hour after leaving work for the last time, presumably right after my employer health insurance ended, I moved a cupboard into my back hall and dropped it on my head, splitting my brow and giving me a black eye. Adventure #1 for Hoffman's Gap Year! This is how it unfolds.

https://www.tiktok.com/@krishoffman/video/6820438804004982021




Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Horror

My husband and kids have always been drawn to horror.  As grade schoolers, my children moved from Goosebumps to Amityville Horror before they even hit double-digits.  While my daughter wore out our VHS copy of The Ring over her afternoon snack after middle school every day, I sometimes think that my son’s intense interest in film critique somehow erupted from watching Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, which is one of my own favorite movies. Theoretically, I know a conscientious parent would never have permitted PG-13 movies until children were a chronological match for the labeled rating and content, but I could not produce enough fright to meet my family’s demand unless I unleashed the demons of hell.  Today I can count on my nuclear family to scoff at Paranormal Activity, but to adore The Omen.  As both children seem to have developed relatively normally, I guess we have not facilitated their entire developmental unraveling by permitting so much scariness at such a young age.  If anything, horror movies have prepared them for many of the unsettling conditions of this century.

For my part, I find war movies frightening and disturbing, and I tend to not want to view anything that is based in reality.  I guess my preference is fantasy horror, in which there is some kind of alternate reality: demons, ghosts, rituals.  I dislike gore, (I call films like Saw “Ghorror”,) and draw the line at torture.  I like fright and suspense. 

I am not really sure how to describe my bottom line on ghosts.  Like many, I have experiences that I cannot fully explain.  I still swear that I saw some kind of figure running from a stone memorial and hiding behind a tree at my college, but there are some likely explanations for my seeing something unusual in that my college brain sometimes had a little extra serotonin on board.  I also pledge that my mother’s house is haunted, but even the guys on Mythbusters would think the same---that’s a later blog entry.  Considering critically my actual ideas about ghosts, spirits, apparitions, I am pushed to admit that I believe on some level, but their existence doesn’t really intrigue or scare me.

In the late 80’s, my sister and I undertook a contract working in the Aleutians, the sweeping hook of an island chain off of Alaska in the Bering Sea.  We processed seafood, mostly crab and cod.  While the work was sloppy, back-breaking and relentless, we each had East Coast college educations that prepared us for the assignment.  We were poised to accept all duties when seafood wasn’t being offloaded and processed, and once my sister took a full 12-hr shift watching cement dry. 

The shifts were 12 hours on, 12 off.  I worked nights and my sister Lee worked days, which gave us some privacy in the cramped accommodations of the floating processing plant.  We shared a small cabin on a permanently docked barge that started out as a liberty ship, consigned to bring fallen soldiers back from the Pacific during WWII.  Ship gossip held that the barge’s abundant refrigeration system was originally constructed for a floating morgue. Our more creative colleagues described sightings of individuals in uniform roaming the decks, and many a beer was opened in libation to those souls originally transported on our barge.

Because we worked alternate shifts, and we bore a strong family resemblance, for a few weeks early in our contracts our colleagues couldn’t tell Lee and me apart and thought we were one woman working around the clock.  While we each felt like we were working endlessly, Lee and I were caught together over a meal in the dining hall to thundering remarks of, “Oh look everyone!  There’s two of ‘em!  That’s how they do it!!  Are you guys twins?  While I am 4 years older than Lee, I am sure we administered twin glares in response to the unwanted attention.  We have a family and gender propensity toward disapproving stares that still gets me in trouble.

The meals Lee and I could easily take together were breakfast/dinner, due to our day/night shift work.  The food at our company, UniSea, was excellent, and it was common to have a choice among duck stir-fry, prime rib, salmon, tortillas, coconut shrimp for the 6pm meal, and full breakfast, compete with sausage, eggs, French toast, fruit for the 6am meal.  There were many generations and ethnicities represented and the dining hall seated 50-60 workers coming and going to the round-the-clock work. 

One of these busy meals found Lee and myself in an exchange something like: “You know, when you’re working and I’m sleeping, I sometimes wake up hearing sneezing and snoring and sniffing.  It always sounds like it’s coming from your bunk.”

“That’s funny, when you’re working and I’m sleeping, I hear the same thing, except it’s coming from YOUR bunk!”

We laughed it off, possibly because it seemed extremely real, or maybe we were too disinterested to delve too deeply.  Listeners to our conversation explained that there was a long-told tale of a seafood worker leaping or falling to his death from the deck outside the porthole of our cabin, and the sneezing sounds we heard were probably him, lost to an eternity of sinus trouble.  Still others imagined the Sneezer was one of the officers originally occupying our cabin, because we were in the commanding officer’s accommodations.  It was certain that the bunks, safely space-efficiently build into the walls with drawer compartments beneath, hadn’t changed location, and therefore it would be easy for a ghost to always find its berth, head cold or not.  Somehow none of this was scary, and if there were a spirit haunting the room, Lee and I had nothing but compassion for the poor thing.  It was really sickly.

Today, I look more for signs than I do for spirits.  I like to notice hawks, because I really admire them and try to imagine what it’s like from their vantage point, and they remind me of my dad.  I put bees and wasps that I find in the house outside, safely, asking that they tell their friends that I am a kind ally and therefore they don’t need to sting me.  My husband, daughter and I compare sightings of our deceased cat, Eartha, whom we lost last summer.  Catching her just out of my field of vision is a great comfort because I feel she is still with us.  If there are ghosts about, I wish them well, and request that if they are bored and they have a little time, could they throw in a load of laundry or two, or run the vacuum?

Monday, March 7, 2011

Jobs I had as a teenager

My friend at work told me once that she worried that her teenaged kids would have negative first job experiences, and this would impede their desire to work hard and get ahead.  I considered my early job history and wondered if my current ethic has somehow been compromised by my initial encounter with the working world.

Like many other girl-children of the 70's, my first jobs were babysitting.  Before the advent of modern parenting paranoia, any local tween or teen, known or unknown to a family, was a candidate for watching bratty children while parents cavorted about town.  During the 70’s people drank, and that included parents.  Expected parental activities included: donning excruciatingly visible attire; driving to pick up an strange local teenaged gal; kissing the kids goodbye after explaining what kind of goodie could be expected for dinner and dessert; driving to an exciting local eating establishment; quaffing significantly with other willing adults at the restaurant bar while waiting for a table; driving home to pay a strange local teenager $1/hour for keeping the household children alive; and then driving the strange local teenaged gal home. 

Generally, the trip from my house to the family’s house alone in the car with the strange dad was disturbing.  The hallmark, “So what grade are you in school?” never really broke the tension and I am sure I presented as uptight and dull.  However, the frightening drunken dad drive home nearly smashed any innate desire I had for seriously working.  I felt small, insignificant and ashamed as I was ushered home by a gin-and-tonic-breathing local baron of industry, only to be further dismissed by a handful of folding money and a dangerous, “Sheeya later kiddo….I left ya ya a little tip in there.”

The summer after my Junior year in high school, I obtained a job at a local cultural resort where my family sometimes vacationed.  I lived in a cramped, stifling bunkhouse over the kitchen of a rotting Victorian hotel with “fast” kids who sometimes couldn’t get up in the morning to go to work.  Because I could type and miraculously traveled downstairs to work each day, I was awarded extra tasks of banging together the daily menu and mimeographing it on an ancient tumbling machine in addition to my waitress duties.

Possibly due to my taking on extra work without complaint, (read: malleability,) I was recommended somehow to do some personal tasks for an elderly woman whose caregiver had to leave for a week.  She was a round woman of old-fashioned slumping enormity.  Her body sagged like suet melting in a woodpecker feeding bag. Her hair was shaped rather than styled, and somehow the combs that held it together seemed wedged into her skull.  You could detect the exact smell of her head from any corner of the room.  Smiling, she somehow reminded me of those drunken dads driving my home from babysitting, expecting that I would seem subservient and grateful to earn a small wad of bills.  She found me at the restaurant and explained, “I need a girl to do some things for me while Miranda is away.”

Between meal shifts, I arrived at her boarding house on the day and time upon which we agreed.  She greeted me with smug enthusiasm, lightly asking how my summer was going.  She requested that I take all of the contents out of her handkerchief and scarf drawer, and iron them, which I did straight away.  She asked me brightly from across the room to turn down her bed, and to move a suitcase from under her bed to under the bureau.  After a light dusting of the interior of her modest cultural retreat abode, I was dismissed, and told to return the following day at the same time and place.  She paid me a couple of bucks for my time.

The next day, I returned to a duplication of tasks: empty the handkerchief and scarf drawer; iron everything; turn down the bed and lightly dust.  I did these items quite cheerfully and silently, and again received payment and instructions to return again tomorrow. 

On the third day, Madam requested me to start on the handkerchiefs while she went into the bathroom.  I considered not actually ironing them, as they were still quite crisp from two days of hot flattening.  I could hear her start a bath, and I dutifully did what I was told.  After ironing several handkerchiefs, Madam called for me to come into the bathroom.  There, in the stagnant bathroom that smelled of poorly ventilated antediluvian woodwork entombing a half-century of mouse nests and old lady fannies, stood Madam, wearing only a full-body corset that laced in the back like a pair of ice skates. 

At that moment all the questions I had about why she needed her damn handkerchiefs ironed everyday were answered: Madam was trapped in her ancient brassier.  She was held together by sepia-colored undergarments engineered like suspension bridges and without the nimble fingers of Miranda or some girl to unlock her cage, Madam was not going to have her weekly bath.  My stomach fell into my knees.

First I had to unlace her, which was way too intimate for a 16-yr-old girl who presents as uptight and dull, away from her home for her first real summer job.  I could smell Madam’s ancient flesh and knew suddenly that my doggedly ironing and folding the handkerchiefs was a test to see if I could take direction and be trusted to be quiet in her presence.  After peeling the cruddy garment from her body, I had to help her with her granny pants, and then assist Madam into the tub.  Looking away from her and around the crumbling bathroom to maintain both of our dignities, I saw with horror a similar stained old back-lacing brassier hanging from the shower rod.  Only Miranda could have put it there, and I anticipated the awfulness of my next obvious task.

She told me that while she was bathing, I would have to soak and then scrub her brassier.  Then I would scrub her back, help her from the tub, dry her off and contain her body in the dry torture garment in the bathroom that Miranda had left her.  I was mortified as I completed these ghastly instructions.

When I look back upon this day, I am ashamed that I was disgusted with an elderly matron who loved culture and summer, but could only retain her caregiver for the first week of her annual stay.  She was so very alone and possibly trying to maintain a lifetime tradition of three weeks on Lake Chautauqua, attending the symphony and strolling on the mall, noting every building and tree of her youth, joining an author discussion or historical lecture.  I was 16 years old, and it was 1979.  My unpreparedness for being Madam’s bra and girdle scrubber and bath valet spooked me and I was so embarrassed I could never return, nor could I tell anyone about it.

Madam came looking for me at the restaurant later in the week.  I saw her hairdo bobbing up and down out the window and hid from sight.  She asked the other waitresses in a loud, entitled, impatient tone why I didn’t come back to work for her; sadly, after that bath she’d wanted me to return in a couple of days and I could tell that she wasn’t going to have me iron the dusty handkerchiefs anymore.  It would be all baths and bras from now on.  I hastily told her I would do it but then I never showed up.  As I hid from her at the restaurant, I could tell she was desperate for a bath and a change of undergarments, but I couldn’t bring myself to assist her.

I hope that I grew from these early work experiences.  Today I consider myself to be a hard worker, but clear about what the duties are up-front.  I don’t like to be surprised by anything and always ask a lot of questions.  I can speak truth to power.  I show up when I am supposed to.  After the initial embarrassments that I experienced of not being able to discern intimacy from service in the cars of my babysitting bosses and in Madam’s bathroom, I better understand that sometimes I have to be able to talk to people I don’t know, and sometimes I have to roll up my sleeves and get the unpleasant tasks underway.  These are soft skills, learned the hard way.