Dec. 24, 2010

Christmas Eve: My Mother Dressing

by Toi Derricotte

My mother was not impressed with her beauty;
once a year she put it on like a costume,
plaited her black hair, slick as cornsilk, down past her hips,
in one rope-thick braid, turned it, carefully, hand over hand,
and fixed it at the nape of her neck, stiff and elegant as a crown,
with tortoise pins, like huge insects,
some belonging to her dead mother,
some to my living grandmother.
Sitting on the stool at the mirror,
she applied a peachy foundation that seemed to hold her down, to trap her,
as if we never would have noticed what flew among us unless it was weighted
   and bound in its mask.
Vaseline shined her eyebrows,
mascara blackened her lashes until they swept down like feathers;
her eyes deepened until they shone from far away.

Now I remember her hands, her poor hands, which, even then were old from
whiter on the inside than they should have been,
and hard, the first joints of her fingers, little fattened pads,
the nails filed to sharp points like old-fashioned ink pens,
painted a jolly color.
Her hands stood next to her face and wanted to be put away, prayed
for the scrub bucket and brush to make them useful.
And, as I write, I forget the years I watched her
pull hairs like a witch from her chin, magnify
every blotch—as if acid were thrown from the inside.

But once a year my mother
rose in her white silk slip,
not the slave of the house, the woman,
took the ironed dress from the hanger—
allowing me to stand on the bed, so that
my face looked directly into her face,
and hold the garment away from her
as she pulled it down.

"Christmas Eve: My Mother Dressing" by Toi Derricotte, from Captivity. © University of Pittsburgh Press, 1989. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of mystery writer Mary Higgins Clark, (books by this author) born in New York City (1927). Her books have sold more than 80 million copies in the U.S., and millions more around the world.

She grew up in the Bronx during the Depression, the daughter of Irish immigrants who ran a pub. While she was young, her dad and two brothers died and she and her mom lost their house. She worked as a babysitter and then in her teens worked as switchboard operator at a local hotel, where she listened in on the phone calls of Tennessee Williams and was disappointed to find that he never seemed to say anything interesting.

She worked a secretary, then as a flight attendant for Pan Am, married at age 22, and had a child nine months later. She would have four more children in the next eight years. Then her husband died. To make ends meet, she wrote four-minute-long radio scripts for a show called Portrait of a Patriot. But in the early mornings, before her kids woke up, she sat at the typewriter and wrote short stories — her true passion. She sent them off to magazines, and she got back dozens of rejection slips. One read: "Mrs. Clark, your stories are light, slight, and trite." Another slip said: "We found the heroine as boring as her husband had."

While she was still writing radio scripts she decided to try writing a novel, a historical one about George Washington. It was published, she said, and then "remaindered as it came off the press." A group of her radio co-workers went out to lunch and she pointed out her book in a Manhattan bookstore window. When they came back from lunch, the book was not there any more. She insisted that it must have been snapped up. But when they passed by the store again at the end of the workday, the book was there in the window again. She went inside to ask about it, and the bookstore employee told her: "Whoever bought it returned it."

But she was highly encouraged by the fact that she had been published at all, and she decided to try writing a suspense novel inspired by the time that her three-year-old child had gone missing briefly near a deep lake. In 1974, she sold it to a publisher for a modest $3000. Three months later, she found out the paperback rights to the book had sold for $100,000. Her second suspense novel sold for $1.5 million, and soon she was being paid $12 million per story. Each one of her suspense novels has been a best-seller.

She once said that her all time favorite letter from a reader came from a 13-year-old boy who wrote to her: "Dear Mrs. Clark: I have read the first half of [your suspense novel] Where Are the Children. You are a wonderful writer. Someday I hope to read the second half. Your friend, Jack."

Besides dozens of best-selling mystery books, she's written a memoir, Kitchen Privileges (2001). In 2009, she published four novels, two of which were co-written with her daughter, Carol Higgins Clark. Her most recent novels are Just Take My Heart (2010) and The Shadow of Your Smile (2010), which both came out this year.

From the archives:

Today is Christmas Eve, the subject of the beloved holiday poem that begins:
"'Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there."

Christmas Eve is also the setting for the beginning of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, published in 1843, a story credited with reviving Christmas in England. It begins:
"Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge's name was good upon 'Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail."

It was on this day in 1914 that the last known Christmas truce occurred, during World War I. German troops fighting in Belgium began decorating their trenches and singing Christmas carols. Their enemy, the British, soon joined in the caroling. The war was put on hold, and these soldiers greeted each other in "No Man's Land," exchanging gifts of whiskey and cigars. In many areas, the truce held until Christmas night, while in other places the truce did not end until New Year's Day.

It's the birthday of poet and essayist Dana Gioia, (books by this author) born in Hawthorne, California, in 1950. He studied literature at Harvard, under Elizabeth Bishop. But instead of becoming a professor, he went off to business school at Stanford and worked for General Foods for many years.

Dana Gioia said, "I believe that poetry, like no other art, articulates an essential part of the human consciousness."

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