Tag Archives: women

Dirge of the Efemulated

It seems she had a sudden fit of insanity while shopping at the market. 
–Rosa Rosà,  A Woman With Three Souls (part 7.)

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F.T. Marinetti, the de facto head of the Futurism movement of the early 20th century, was a pretty prolific articulator of the ideas and aims the ‘anti-artistic’ movement sought. Whatever one thinks of the art that resulted, his manifesto, printed in Le Figaro (although Italian, Marinetti often wrote in French for French audiences whom he particularly sought approbation) is set at a high pitch. The movement proclaimed allegiance to  speed! and youthful vigor! But things, for me,  go off the rails in his 11 point diatribe. Here, for instance,  is number 9: “We will glorify war–the world’s only hygiene–militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for and scorn for woman,” at the risk of pointing out the obvious, it is pretty odious and ridiculous. Given no. 9, it may surprise one that there were women involved in the movement (interestingly, many of them not native to Italy).

She was fading away and disappearing like a ghost, yet retained, until the last second, her self-awareness, amazed and frightened by the aggression of the new personality (part 1.)

Rosa Rosà, née Edith von Haynau, born in 1884 Vienna, was one such woman. She married an Italian journalist and changed her name, rejecting her bourgeois upbringing for the progressive, exciting promise of Futurism! (I feel that the exclamation point should be henceforth included to indicate the intensity as well as, subversively, the silliness). Rosa Rosà was the mother of four children and her views of what it could mean, in the future, to be a woman are quite interesting and truly progressive. I am not sure how she stomached the vitriol that permeated Futurism! at large, but her ideas were refreshing: embracing the potent sensuality of femininity alongside the power of the maternal feminine.

Giorgina Rossi was young, but her youth was starting to collect dust (part 1.).

Never mind the scorn, it was the indifference and decomposing dust that interested Rosa Rosà. Her short novel, The Woman With Three Souls is a fascinating consideration of the female side of Futurism.

Briefly stated, Madame Rossi is altered by a lightning strike which hits the chemical lab of Professor X (maybe Y or Z, I can’t remember–they consult one another–the point is, X, Y or Z is alarmed at the strange going-ons within the lab and hires a detective agency to investigate whether the effects of the event have permeated outside of the laboratory walls. They have).

A variety of different sensations had converged in one central point. She felt a great surge of vitality, in her very being, altering her personality and her thought process. Her feminine sensibilities seemed to multiply exponentially in a passionate burst of sensuality that had been completely unfamiliar to her until that moment (part 3.).

This nondescript, (not ugly but unattractive) woman is suddenly infused with her own sensuality, she experiences an “intense vitality “ and is “endowed with predatory instinct” (part 8.).

Giorgina, within days, passes through three metamorphoses. The first is the sensual woman. Pejoratively stated: the femme fatale, but her’s is a realization and communication of the sensuality of her sex.

The second is her intellectualization. Posited as a masculine trait I went off on a tangent to find a word that denotes the female equivalent of ’emasculate.’ Sadly, I was unsuccessful. I resorted to coining my own: hence, ‘efemulate.’ How else to describe the notion that one’s essence can be stripped by emulating the opposite sex– or, more pointedly, the expectations of the behavioral norms of the opposite sex? When Giorgina stands on the market square intellectually raving, the reaction to her sudden efemulated metamorphosis starkly exposes the historically  limited view of femininity.

[Giorgina was driven to] eloquently deliver an illogical speech, replete with vague scientific terms, describing with ease marvelous discoveries that do not exist” (part 8.).

News of her ravings makes the front page of the papers alerting professors X, Y and Z to the anomaly’s effect. The name of the paper is The Awakening and I couldn’t help wondering if the reference to Kate Chopin’s brilliant novel was intentional.  After all, only some thirty years separates the stories’ publications and compellingly overlapping theme of a woman’s autonomy being seen as a form of insanity.

But it is the third soul and metamorphosis of Giorgina that is especially moving. Writing a punctilious letter to her traveling husband about the mundane trivialities of her days and the going rate of beets, she suddenly includes an epic sensibility for the infinitude of love:

You are not here, and I love you. I love you without knowing who you are or where you are. I do not know if you are a body, if you are a soul, or if you are simple the projection into the Infinite of all my desires, of my thirst for Unreality” (part 8.).

She poignantly articulates the profundity of love, and maternal love, which is really, simply universal love. It is not the individuality of love, but rather the universality of love (a love for all babies) that is one of the keenest effects of motherhood.

I love you more than ever, because I know this love will never try to invade this remote corner of freedom, which must be my own” (part 8.)

Nevertheless, the status of ‘the wife’ or ‘the mother’ has, historically, reduced a woman. Not surprisingly, upon receiving the letter, Giorgina’s husband quickly returns home fearful of her sanity. A woman of sensuality, intellect and eternal love has long been considered mad.

Rosa Rosà’s optimistic take on Futurism! was that her woman of three souls would be the inevitable future: women would escape the dastardly quagmire of the madonna/whore complex; they would have intellectual freedom without the stigma of efemulation. In the future they would, at long last, be free to be women.

Lives (Noble, or Not)

This narrative […] is suspected by some, because of its dramatic and fictitious appearance; but it would not wholly be disbelieved, if men would remember what a poet fortune sometimes shows herself
-Plutarch, Everybody’s Plutarch (21) Romulus

IMG_0816I am beginning  a potentially long term relationship with Plutarch, even the abridged versions demand commitment. The other day this thought traipsed through my head- “I have to go buy a bra and then I’ll read more Plutarch.” I had to pause a moment to take in the unique ridiculousness of that sentence. In the end I didn’t get a bra- it would only bring me pleasure and there was a small rug for about the same money that would bring my children untold pleasure to sit upon as they served almost two years in a house full of animals that made proximity to the floor an extremely negative experience. But, I digress.

Herodotus says, that, requiring money of those of the island of Andros, [Themistocles] told them that he had brought with him two goddesses, Persuasion and Force; and they answered him that they had also two great goddesses, which prohibited them from giving him any money, Poverty and Impossibility. – (121) Themistocles

Those goddesses sure do get around. Boy, I miss Herodotus, but, Plutarch knows a hilarious retort when he sees one. His reports on the lives of noble Greeks and Romans are fascinating because he spends much more time, then seems to be the norm for the time, discussing the personalities, ideas, and feelings that may have contributed to the “nobleness” of these men. Of course there are no noble women, if you’re a woman and you can get yourself upgraded from harlot to mistress- consider that a boon. Actually, scratch that, if you find yourself a mistress instead of a harlot, thank Salon. Plutarch tells us that Salon is the founding father of what psychologists now refer to as “re-framing.”

[Salon] was afterwards asked if he had left the Athenians the best laws that could be given, he relied, “The best they could receive.” The way which, the moderns say, the Athenians have of softening the badness of a thing, by ingeniously giving it some pretty and innocent appellation. (74) Salon

“Softening the badness.” I quite like that. Salon seemed to be thoroughly  smart and articulate. He was a humanitarian that sought to codify good sense and a quality of life that is, sadly, enviable to this day. And he believed in love. He forbade dowries, and “would not have marriage contracted for gain or an estate, but for pure love, kind affection, and birth of children.” (78)

“Strike if you will, but hear.” (113) Themistocles

An interesting point considering many an argument has been made, (and countered on this blog) claiming “romantic love” is a more recent invention. But I never gloat.

It is shocking (I even feel embarrassed on behalf of these ancient writers and “nobles”) to have such prolific histories told with nary a mention of half the population, but this may be why there is even a quasi legitimate claim on the idea that romantic love is for the weaker sex, domestic life of no interest, daily dealings devoid of true insight. In absentia, the onus for proof, rather than being on common experience and common sense, is boiled down to written proofs- a bar that leaves women and illiterate cultures fighting to prove their worth.

But an internal battle between a bra and rug which is rife with all the dimensions of real life- finances, sexuality, maternal urges, hierarchy of needs, materialism, and utilitarianism are eternal battles wage by all. Okay, fine, maybe just me. Then again, when I told a friend of mine that I was simultaneously contemplating Plutarch and bras, he sent me this quote:

“The brassiere is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled.”- Plutarch

And this is why Plutarch remains so readable, he does actually touch upon the personal, even if it is with the barest whisper, he takes history out of the strictly martial arena and speaks to what really makes a man noble- his passion and his humanity.

AEsop, who wrote the fables[…] gave [Salon] this advice: “Salon, let your converse with kings be either short or seasonable.” “Nay, rather,” replied Salon, “either short or reasonable.” (86) Salon

*Everybody’s Plutarch Arranged and Edited for the Modern Reader by Raymond T. Bond, Dryden’s translation, revised by Arthur Hugh Clough

Plutarch Part Two: Argue As You Please
Plutarch Part Three: An Accord Sown

One Becomes One

The only link between two people who loved one another should be love.
– Simone De Beauvoir, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter (345)

IMG_0707In our current age of memoir mills, I was interested to read this early example of the popular literary form as it is a genre I don’t read often. Simone De Beauvoir’s title, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter,  is pointed: the entire book of some 385 pages goes into minute detail regarding her childhood as the eldest daughter of a French Catholic bourgeoisie family. Initially, I have to say, I couldn’t understand why I kept reading it. It was interesting, if nothing else because her (presumably) sedulous and copious diaries afforded an accurate look into the thoughts and states of mind that a child to adolescent to young adult progresses through. But her faith in her own uniqueness and brilliance was of some disconcerting fascination to me- I am not a French catholic bourgeoisie, and yet we shared many similar experiences, revelations and ideas- so, how unique could she possibly be? But I am always transfixed by the confident…

I sensed for the first time that one can be touched to the very heart of one’s being by a radiance from the outside. (59)

Of course there were many moments when she might allude to her age at the moment of some momentous understanding of life- when she might have been at the ripe old age of, say,  eleven – that caused me vexatious chagrin, but still, her youthful arrogance was somewhat off putting and I wondered at her so freely acknowledging it and including so many instances of it throughout. Mostly her attitude towards her own brilliance was presented very matter of factually, but thankfully there were glimmers of self-deprecating knowing that is probably what allowed me to continue.

I could not possible be hurt by stupid children who demonstrated their inferiority by not liking croquet as passionately as I did. (63)

I found myself getting impatient, and yet, and yet, there is a rather beautiful and profound point to her long honest examination of growing up in a tightly controlled “moralistic” environment with all the attendant pressures to do what’s “right,” and to act “proper” while feeling…so different as to make that conformity impossible.

“Simone would rather bite her tongue out than say what she’s thinking,” [my mother] would remark in a tone of sharp vexation. That was quite true: I was prodigiously silent. (203)

The expected sexual mores of girls is a theme that runs through the entire book. And while De Beauvoir early on openly rejects the idea of (her mother’s) god, she only alludes, mentions, and keeps at a low heat what it means to be a girl in a society (or world as the case really is) where the expectations and rules are so divergent between the sexes. It’s the undercurrent to her life, and becomes her life’s work: an ignored gnawing injustice that she will (famously) fully expose later in life, after the story of her memoir ends.

That year, Zaza did not accompany me to Mont-de-Marsan; I walked around the town thinking about her as I waited for my train. I had decided to fight with all my strength to prevent her life becoming a living death. (297)

By the end of this part of her story however, it becomes apparent that the book is really about De Beauvoir’s long friendship with Zaza, a woman that never fully breaks away from her own mother’s hold, yet who yearns for independence, equanimity and freedom in love. Near the end when Zaza becomes “reacquainted” with Stendhal’s books I had a bad feeling that things were going to go south for her. If Stendhal knew anything- it was hopeless love.

But all the same, after so many years of arrogant loneliness, it was something to discover that I wasn’t the One and Only, but one among many, by no means the first, and suddenly uncertain of my true capacity. (365)

Speaking of love, as I always do, Sartre does not enter the story until very near the end, but the above quote, and change in attitude, she openly attributes to her relationship with him. Their love. But her source of purpose and clarity of meaning in her early story she attributes and dedicates to her lovely friend Zaza, whom she could not save from a sad frustrated fate. But, like any good Stendhal tale, the strengthening of our own determination to live and love fully is what we take away and try, some tragically, very hard to be true to. De Beauvoir is an inspiring woman whose unique path reveals, absolutely, her unwavering intelligence, courage, and beautiful humanity.

*translated from the French by James Kirkup
**title from De Beauvoir’s famed quote of her book The Second Sex: “One is not born a women, one becomes one.”

The Sedulous Farrago of a Woman’s Mind

However, the majority of women are neither harlots nor courtesans; nor do they sit clasping pug dogs to dusty velvet all through the summer afternoon. But what do they do then?  –Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (88)

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The well-known first few lines of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, sum up her thesis neatly; she declares that a woman must have money and a room of her own in order to write. Having come into a bit of money, Woolf was in a position of some authority to make these statements.  At nearly one hundred years distance, it offers a still (depressingly) prescient message.

There was another ten-shilling note in my purse; I noticed it, because it is a fact that still takes my breath away – the power of my purse to breed ten-shilling notes automatically. (38)

Cash rules everything: that is as true for men as it is for women, however, we women simply have always been, and still are, the poorer half of society. I am, regrettably, neither an expert on having money, nor on having a room of one’s own. However, I wondered, as I read this rather brilliant little book, about that last point. Woolf spends a lot of time talking about the dearth of female literature, she adds odious quotes that would make most humans cringe, showing up the dumbest things a man is capable of saying on the subject of women and their intellectual capacities. She also clearly understands that the difference between men and women is potentially the all-important and wonderful thing.

It would be a thousand pities if women wrote like men, or lived like men, or looked like men, for if two sexes are quite inadequate, considering the vastness and variety of the world, how should we manage with one only? – (87)

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As women were slowly “allowed’ to write more than letters, and then to show their work publicly, one of the problems, according to Woolf  that presented, was the difficulty in writing about a world in which a person knows so little. Confined as these early female proto-writers were, their writing was limited. Much in the same way, she adds, that men knew, and therefore wrote, next to nothing (and nothing at all interesting) about the all-important female to female relationship- they simply had, historically, no idea what that entailed and so female characters were by and large relegated to the role of lover or femme fatale with some female relations thrown in. Imagine, she asks, if everything written by a man was stripped of its male to male friendships? I can’t even get past re-imagining  The Epic of Gilgamesh, so let’s not try…I do seem to recall a vitally important prostitute in that tale, yeah Virginia, point taken.

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But here I run into a slight problem. I get, theoretically, the whole room of one’s own thing, it sounds very nice. And yet, and yet…I believe this is one more of a piece. This is a man’s problem, not a woman’s. If a woman has money- which gives time; and confidence – which gives energy, a room is superfluous. Are we not the multi-tasking half of the sexes? It’s built in. Tend to children, roll the dough out, plan the dinner, read a book, jot down a brilliant thought, hang the clothes to dry, drive in circles taking kids to and from and back again to practices, friends, and libraries, and then sit down to write while answering homework questions and making plans for the week (you’ll notice it’s the having money part that would eliminate what many of us have to add in – doing all of the above for a minimum wage – a serious blow to both time and confidence). All this is done while the same writing-male sits in his room of his own. I’m not saying either is easy, or one easier, simply that a hermetic room of peace is not the key thing in a woman’s life. We don’t have time to be precious. Sorry, that came out wrong, what I meant to say is…it is possible…we have an innate capacity to hold a spoon in one hand and a pencil in another. We only needed to be respected for doing it- our way.

There are people whose charity embraces even the prune. (19)

All I’m saying is, don’t wait. The money problem is a definite problem, but if you are a woman, and you are waiting for a room of your own- it may be a long wait. You’re probably much more likely to get an hour snatched here and there with lots of workable minutes strung in between. As a client of mine, who gave me her delightfully underlined copy of A Room of One’s Own and was born years before it was even written,  always says- we must take what we can get. Although come to think of it, she had money and room, so…on second thought, I’m open to the experiment- someday!

My motives, let me admit, are partly selfish. Like most uneducated Englishwomen, I like reading – I like reading books in the bulk. (107)

Rhubarb Strawberry Pie

Rhubarb Strawberry Pie

Mind At The Mercy of Multiplicity

Life does not accommodate you, it shatters you. It’s meant to, and it couldn’t do it better. Every seed destroys its container or else there would be no fruition.
– Florida Scott-Maxwell, The Measure of My Days (65)

DSCI0018I was given this most interesting book by a very old woman that I work for. The meditations and musings of Florida Scott-Maxwell: born in 1883, she barely attended school and yet was a prominent figure in the women’s suffrage movement, wrote books and plays and even became, in her forties, an analytical psychologist studying under Carl Jung.  The Measure of My Days, was written when she was in her eighties; the subjects in her mind were aging, death, life, God, love, hate and meaning. Old people, as she put it, “are people to whom something important is about to happen.” (138)

I used to  find it difficult to talk to people newly met. Speech felt precipitate. A silent knowing should come first, sitting, smiling, holding hands, dancing perhaps without words, but talking is too committal for a beginning. (30)

The above quote arrested me, firstly for its succinct charm, summing up how many people, like myself, feel and second for her use of the words “used to.” I hate the difficulty in myself, but gradually I sometimes have a feeling that it is slowly falling away.  I love the confirmation that that could be true. Scott-Maxwell, writing at her ripe age, mostly worried about shocking people with what she considered her most passionate years.

To me the pigeons say, “Too true, dear love, too true” I listened, looked out on the trees beyond both windows and I was free and happy. (123)

I may never hear a pigeon any other way. A deeply religious woman, but also honest and human. She was not above feeling hate, shame, or love.  Above all, the most fascinating quality about this book is that she was a woman, and wrote as a woman, both overtly and instinctively. Which is not to say there are elements of maternal earth-mother or, I-am-woman-hear-me-roar stereotypes, rather it is an unusual absence of the male perspective that we are all trained to think under—a palatable freedom from the male paradigm. She was who she was. She wrote as she thought and didn’t ask, or expect, you to agree. But it is as if the syntax of the male dominated domain of the intellect is slightly off, and it is lovely.

My answers must be my own, years of reading now lost in the abyss I call my mind. (7I)

For good and bad, she acknowledges a kind of radical understanding that the things that delineate us, not just male/female but: income, race, religion, intelligence, and luck- these things  include inequalities, yet describe individuals. We are none of us alike. That is life.  But in every life, by every means of measurement, there is a profound gestalt.  Florida Scott-Maxwell achieves that and more in her beautifully powerful final book.

*title from page 19 – I am awareness at the mercy of multiplicity.

Fairy of Fate

As my only answer, I let my head drop on his heart, as I had so often done in my dreams.
-María Luisa Bombal, House of Mist (53)

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What took place after that was unquestionably the most tragic experience any woman in love could have had to endure in all her life. (63)

Every morning among my emails a question of the day for SAT practice appears. I only have a couple of weeks left, I really need to practice the math but about three to one are grammar and vocabulary questions. My 17 year-old son and I will take the test together, which delights me and somewhat dulls the anticipated pain.

The other fun part of taking the test is the seemingly random literary references that appear in the grammar sections. Either a Roberto Bolaño reference is wildly inappropriate for teenagers, or perfect. I can’t quite decide.

One of the questions involved the Chilean author María Luisa Bombal. I was intrigued enough to hunt her down. It wasn’t effortless. The librarians I work for relieved me of some of my bottomless ignorance- where I had thought I was doing sweeping state-wide searches for books, I had in fact been trapped in a small consortium of libraries. I was so happy to discover this, that when I went back into the stacks, to finish the shelves I was meant to dust and “read” for accuracy of order, I put my headphones on and danced.

So, victory! I finally found Bombal in the U.S. Coast Guard library of all places. That’s the odd path that led me to this writer. I love an odd path.

“So Serena is engaged?” I inquired, just for the pleasure of repeating their sister’s lovely name.

What a wonderful detail – just for the pleasure of repeating.…. Initially I was unsure what to make of the child-like voice of the heroine, but it’s a beautifully fresh if odd voice. There is a sad mysteriousness at the heart of the tale, the first being how she could possible love the beastly Daniel. But even there I am sympathetic, the arrow of  love is a powerful force and does leave one a defenseless child of Eros. It’s cruel. The book is like a fairy tale – brutal, nostalgic, magical, with a child’s profound capacity for fear and passion.

The word “fairy” can be etymologically traced to the Latin  Fata, the Goddess of fate. Fate is a strange concept: whether or not we are resisting or yielding to something that is real is a plaguing question. Are we fated to be loved or unloved? It’s convenient to think so –it’s not me, it’s fate– is a salve on the heart of the miserable. Never the less, everyone knows fairy tales end happily. Everyone also knows that fairy tales don’t exist -except between the covers of the pages.

And it happened that in spite of myself, I was beginning to hear the precise working of this destructive rhythm hidden at the center of life.
Tic-tac! I could hear, out there in the abandoned tower, the books in the enormous library shriveling up, turning yellow, being blotted out, collapsing in rows…(74)

Life as a library is a favorite theme of mine. Here it is almost a metaphor for being an unloved woman. Bombal was known for writing stories about women who escaped their lives into a dream world ( according to the SATs). Her life took an extraordinarily odd path as well:  there was her suicide attempt, her near murder of one husband (probably had it coming as he didn’t share her love of literature), friendships with Neruda and Borges- is it any wonder that she keeps the story on half-footing in and about reality?

And that night I knew love…that love of which I had had only a glimpse through Daniel’s taciturn passion, the love that gives and receives…the love that is knowledge, exaltation, tenderness… (115)

I confess, I became absorbed in the story.  The orphaned heroine is quite lovely and grows on the reader. Like me, she roots for the love story, even when it is not her own. The Beauty and Beast heart of the tale is complicated by the loose boundaries of the mind. The heroine remains throughout the entire story pure in her love. It seems a fragile, childish thing, but the force of it is unrelenting.

Called La última niebla in Spanish, (which, correct me if I’m wrong, translates as The last mist) still, as a title, The House of Mist works, all fairy tales need a house –  the starting point of the collusion by collision of our inner and outer worlds that clouds our view and tangles the path.

For now, now I knew all was but a dream, life to me seemed no more than a long, dull, purposeless road along which in time I would become old and die without having known love (162)

The Goddesses We Meet

St_Augustines_Ramsgate_Mildred“My God, this is fabulous.” I held up the heavy beaded gown. Rows of shimmering glass, the elegant tiny rectangular pink beads tightly lining the tan fabric undulated as the weight pulled my arm down. Staring in awe we simultaneously imagined her in the dress, once regally adorned.

Draping the long disused garment over my arm, I carried it and the other blouses and slacks, all carefully pressed and hung, back up the stairs. Squeezing past the motorized chair that carried her decaying body up and down, I bounded up the steps: steps that before the chair was installed, she had had to crawl up as her bones cruelly disintegrated. Scanning her bedroom I’d look for anything I could quickly do to help her now that we had organized her clothes. The bed was undone, easy for me to fix. The piles of towels on the matching twin bed were  a simple thing to organize into neat stacks of ascending order. I felt the quiet thrill of purpose as I folded.

I carefully pulled her stockings onto her feet and helped her get her shoes on. She dragged her body with excruciating effort towards the door. In the time she took to get there I would briskly straighten up the kitchen, wash the cups in the sink, and wipe down the coffee machine. Until every movement had to be carefully weighed and considered she had kept a house of perfect cleanliness and order. Now she sat in her chair as the dust bunnies mocked her. We laughed at her mental war with them together, and when she was not looking I gathered them up and threw them away. I could do that for her.

She took me to lunch and we laughed some more. She had stories to tell: sharp, compassionate and dead funny. That which had the memory of magnificence had become a source of unimaginable pain- but she laughed at the rearrangement of hairs from her body to her face, the leftover glory of her breasts that no longer appeared anywhere near her chest. We were like two school girls with the giggles. She ate meatloaf and laughed at me because I always ordered the BLT.

Aware of the cost of every step she took I’d take two or three, trying my best to correct the math: zipping in front of her, moving things out of her way, holding doors,  her walker, her purse. All the stupid little things I could do for her, and she embarrassed me with her gratitude.

By her admission, her heaping  measure of the pain life so generously offers came mostly at the end. We talked about suffering, love, death and God. She was not afraid of any subject. We allowed each other to feel the force of our personal miseries without pity. It could always be worse we told each other, sometimes with a laugh. Because it can.

I know what she looked like, sitting uncomfortably in her chair, woozy from her battle to find relief. I never knew her any other way. But when I picture her, the photograph on the sideboard that I passed each day as I left  is what I see in my mind.

There she stands, next to her adored husband: perfect eyebrows, tall proud figure and bright eyes. I see what she truly was. She was a goddess.
Rest, sweet woman, in peace.