A History of Ponds
Five generations of matriarchs perform a nightly ritual of facial cleansing with Ponds—we share this generational muscle memory. There’s a photograph of us on Nan’s settee in the early 90s. I’m five and sitting on Mum’s lap with my fingers in my mouth. Her short black bob hugs the line of her jaw, points to her copper lips. She looks bored, restless, her young face turned toward the window. I study this photograph of crimson and coral colored lips and large-rimmed eyes. Nan looks off to the left, lost in thoughts of her husband’s mistress? Long raven hair curls into the nooks of her elbows. ‘Little’ Nanny, Jone, sits next to her, with an Eton crop the color of roasted nutmeg against her pale skin, hands folded neat in her lap. And Big Nanny—yes, my great, great grandmother, Elsie May, in a blue floral blouse and a purple cardigan looking into the camera with a vacancy about her that comes with old age. I recall this lost photograph as I stand before the bathroom mirror, massaging Ponds over my eyes, drenching cheeks, forehead, smudging the rings of smeared mascara around my sockets before wiping away my day face until there’s only me, stripped of exaggerated color. I see Little Nanny, Big Nanny, Nan and Mum. All of them in this reflection, under my skin, in the scent of witch hazel left to linger on pillows, nightgowns and bed sheets. I wonder if my great, great grandfather inhaled this same scent as he leaned in to kiss his wife’s clean cheek goodnight.
This pond will always be between us.
The Time We Didn’t Miss Our Flight
The first time Mum and I fly across the pond to see my father I’m four months old, and we’re late. My grandfather, Pappie, folds his poker hand and leaves the casino, his ‘office’ at eight in the morning. Our flight departs at ten-am. and London Heathrow waits a hundred miles west. Charging up the hard shoulder of the M4 bypassing rows of cars, his cigarette ash topples down his shirt and smoke curls up the windows to meet sheets of rain. I wonder how that drive felt for my young mother, the skeletal trees boding farewell. If she counted Pappie’s crimes against her, each raised fist or the number of times the corners of Nan’s face crumpled or if she let it all go to the passing fields. If she knew she would always long for his love. Or if the wad of fifty-pound notes he pushes into her palm inspires it. His way of saying I love you. Swaddled against her petite body, my head bobs against her breast as she tugs the oversized suitcase, trudges along the travelators at superhuman speed and through the empty departure lounge.
We’re the last to board. The wheels of the plane jolt us into the air against the weight of the world. She watches England diminish into royal blue hues as ice crystals frame the portal, and the clouds become giant molars drifting under us. I cry most of the journey, wailing and gasping, my newborn ears popping in the pressurized cabin. At Miami International Airport we press through the crowds as American and Spanish accents clamor over the tannoy. My large, hairy father waits patiently in the arrivals lounge, his oceanic eyes shiny and expectant. He spots us and opens his wingspan to greet us, enfold us.
Memories appear as ponds unto themselves. Images reflective as glass, as fishponds polka-dotting the years.
The Dolphin takes to the waves the summer of 81’ slicing Caribbean seas to Nassau, Freeport and Haiti, then back to Miami. Mum works in the casino dealing blackjack. She palms and cuts the cards with red-varnished nails, suited with red lips and a satin bowtie. Her eyes, damp tobacco leaves. Dad heads the jazz quartet. One night he puts down his trumpet and sings “My Funny Valentine,” addressing her with sea-blue irises matching his blue velvet suit. In this scene stitched from stories, he holds each long note, beads glimmering like jewels down his face. Docked in Nassau, she sees him drinking at a bamboo bar with swings for barstools. Walking back to port, a multitude of crabs migrate to the beach pinelands, sidestepping from the tide with one large claw erect as though to rinse it in moonlight. Mum jumps on his back—sea-spiders! I hear her scream, and he carries her all the way to the ship.
So long with the ocean running through us. I had not thought how it once bought us together.
The Well-Traveled Toddler
As a child visiting England one winter, I jump and toss foiled stars to the charcoal sky. “Murky Dismal, go away!” I command in the voice of Rainbow Bright. Nanny, bemused by my American accent, asks What is rain? Wader, I declare and she laughs: a high ballerina shrill. I jump again, more foiled stars of silver and gold, emerald, ruby and sapphire colors thrown to the charcoal sky. They fall and freeze on the surface of the pond.
Dad takes me on gigs with him and I sit behind the draped curtains on his trumpet case, studying his silhouette. Howard, (the only friend to both my parents in that space and time), skips the drums, throws me a wink, and the room is full of heads, tapping, smoking.
Mum’s ship docks once a week on Sundays.
Dad puts down his trumpet and becomes a car-phone salesman. I’m teacher’s pet when he starts dating my kindergarten teacher, Miss Robin.
I’m alone at the end of the dark hallway one wet afternoon. Groans that I’m too young to interpret escape through the inch gap under the doorframe. I sit outside, hungry, hiccuping tears. My little hands latch the doorknob, twist and push into it. I hear noise but no words, my soon-to-be stepmother yelps from under the covers. I’m eye level with my father’s cupped groin clamoring forward. In school the next day, I spot my toy leopard; the one Mum bought me when her ship last docked. A boy plays with it, yanks and jerks its head, trying to pull it off. Miss Robin tells me I need to learn to share. At lunchtime, I climb to the top of the monkey bars and pee on the boy. I do it to spite them both. Children run, crying from my yellow rain. Sitting with Mum at Bayside on Sunday, we sit before the giant hourglass and she tells me she’s coming off the ship—I can live with her.
The Murder-Suicide House
Helen opens her doors to us after a meeting at the church. Mum and I live on Bayshore Drive, on Old Millionaires’ Row with a lonely housewife and her daughter. Helen’s husband, George Jr., a DEA officer stationed in Key Largo spends months away while Helen waits in the large empty house, smoking pot, tending her garden and home schooling their toddler, Christianne. I don’t actually know it’s a murder-suicide house until many years later. When I feel phantom fingers lightly tug my hair at three-am, Mum tells me it’s my guardian angel. When we hear footsteps through the empty house we lock her bedroom door and call Henry, a neighbor who arrives with an air gun. He knocks the bolted doors, taps the clasped windows. Together, we walk the through the still, cold house. When the rain comes in through a hole in my bedroom ceiling, Helen paints a white cloud around it. One morning, Christianne and I sit in the bathtub chanting, remember, just because it feels good. Helen stops in the bathroom doorway then moves with an uncharacteristic quickness, pulling us from the tub. Years later, I learn of George Senior, Helen’s father-in-law, murdered by his mistress while reading the paper on that toilet, with the gun he bought her. She put a bullet in his brain first. Her husband finds them three days later, bodies draped over the bathtub.
The Cleaving Redux
When hurricane Andrew hits the summer of ‘92 Mum and I have only one small suitcase. This act of God turns our two-week holiday with family in England into seventeen years. At nine, I feel I abandoned my father. I pledge to return to his heartland. My mother shoulders this vast gap, this immense pond, between us. She could no longer live illegally, in Miami, without child support or my father's loyalty.
Will this pond always be between us?
Air-born: The Jet-Setting Pre-Teen
Does home dwell half way above the pond? A hovering concept? Here, at the centerfold of an ocean, at midhaven, suspended between two lives. The weight of this feeling leads me to the solitude of an airport toilet cubicle, sobbing and hurling, splashing the porcelain bowl. A stranger taps the door. “Are you okay honey?” I tell her I’m fine and heave again slopping up a travel sickness pill. I’ve cried myself to vomit, again. I hold my breath and will my body and spirit to calm, to come to an agreement. Then vomit in a paper bag as we take off.
I track a triangular carbon footprint from London Heathrow to Harrisburg (to visit Grandma and Grandpa Toomey, my father’s parents, in York Pennsylvania) to Miami International Airport (to spend six weeks with Dad, Miss Robin, and their children, Kelsey and Rob) then back to London Heathrow (to begin the new school year.) I am not in my life, but traveling between.
When the time comes, I want this: ashes to ashes on either side of the pond, to transcend beyond this body of water.
I’m thirteen when we move to the outer-urban area of Fishponds. The Bristol City Council finally grants us a flat under the Housing Benefit Act so we don’t have to worry about another eviction notice. Our sacred space, this tiny flat nested in a high-crime area. There’s a huge park opposite. On short winter days the trees are the only splash of color among the sky’s grey hues. Mum tells me a story about this park we pass everyday. When my grandfather and his two brothers first come to England from Sicily in 1952, they have enough money to share a single room. They buy Heinz Tomato Ketchup thinking it spaghetti sauce. Some nights with thunderous bellies, they scout the parameters of the ponds hunting ducks, geese, or swans. Soon enough, they spindle a small fortune counting cards in casinos and hosting illegal poker games in the back of lorries. I can see him hiding among the duck leaves and daffodils, waiting by the pond to catch a bird, snap its neck, and take it home victoriously to roast, or add to spaghetti sauce. Throwing stale bread to the ducks, I remember him.
I’m visiting my grandparents’ house in Mount Wolf, Pennsylvania. Grandma and I stretch out on sun loungers by the pond, in the breeze of the fan. I’m unnerved to this day by the silence that fills this house. My father’s mother, Mary Agnes, infamously known as Mary Agony, entered the world in this house eighty-three years ago. I learn later of the generations of birth and death soaked into these walls. How it was customary to keep the dead bodies in my father’s room and hold the wake in the piano room, bury the dead in the backyard. The silent Steinways sit with old sepia sheet music on the reading ledges. I picture the faces of my ancestors sitting behind those two grand pianos. In the garden, the limestone cherub spills water from its cracked mouth, and mineral spots disfigure its worn features. An eroded nose and worn flat eye makes this statue the creepiest to ever couple an innocent pond. I listen as Grandma talks to me about virginity, “I hope you haven’t had sex yet, you do know what happens when you have sex, don’t you?” Abortion, “that’s what happens when you have sex before you’re married—has your mother not told you?” and depression, “You can thank your Grandfather for that” least we forget, alcohol abuse, “Your father is an alcoholic and so was mine, you know it’s in your DNA. So is depression.” The homemade lemonade sweats in the jug, collecting flies. “I’m so happy we can have these conversations honey, more lemonade?” I really want to love her and part of me does, even as I think my grandfather deserves some kind of lifetime achievement award for surviving sixty years of marriage to this woman who fears reptiles yet reminds me of a komodo dragon. Her Vaseline drenched skin shines like wet leather in the afternoon heat as she points out the abundance of black-eyed susans surrounding grandpa’s herb garden, the dragonflies and leopard plants. I’m fourteen and on the wrong side of the pond, not under-age drinking with my friends. Not normal, whatever normal is.
At twenty, I live in south London and I’m in love. I think of Mick that cold Valentine’s Day at Kew Gardens in front of the Victorian greenhouse. The bite in the air somehow made the sunshine brighter. The tall white iron bars curl shadows over the pond, violet and white water lilies open to the frost, to winter’s lace. Mick shucks oysters on a bench, wrenches them open with a short knife and thick fingers. I pop the champagne and unwrap the prepared red wine and shallot vinegar, slice lemons on a chopping board while sitting on a bench. Our fingers go numb, but we feast and slurp, leaving empty pearl husks by the pond in the wet grass. Walking a maze, we cross the stepping-stones, and stop to smoke a spliff beneath the naked elms. The patchwork of ponds mirrors the sky’s evening tantrums. I had never been in love before, had this sense of home. Roasting lamb shanks at two-am with a cardboard box for a curtain, five-am backgammon games with the candles burning, peeing with the door open. I have fond memories of our mouse infested flat in Old Clapham Town, the cobbled moonlit road and us inside, listening to Nick Drake or Zero Seven, always music playing us to sleep. Ice-skating, our hands clasped under the skeletal trees adorned with lights. For years, my memory anchors here.
We meet once a year for a few years, an hour or so, for pizza, beer, and reconciliation. We walk by the ice rink where tableaus of us, still fall, grasping one another. At the mouth of the tube station, we say goodbye.
Eight years ago I left you and London for Miami. Eight years gone that my father bought me that half a million-dollar condo as a surprise graduation gift without whispering a word of warning to my mother and me. Walking into the height of that glass condo I thought it a glass casket above the vast gleaming city. I couldn’t leave my father, his abundance of gifts and the love from him I had longed for so many years. So I drop you off at the airport, wave goodbye until you’re gone, up the escalators. I drive back gasping against the weight of the world. Eight years on and waves of nostalgia hit like sheets of rain. How my father stole my home and replaced it with an empty space. Lay it to rest, Mum says. And I do.
One morning I wake from a dream. I pick up a collection of Jean Valentine poems and the book opens here,
my words to you
are stitches in a scarf I never want to finish
maybe one day they will become a blanket
to hold you here
love not gone anywhere
I will always love you like this, from this distance.
The Day Before Departure
My mother sits on the brown leather settee watching EastEnders and rubbing Ponds all over her face and neck in large circular motions until the cold cream becomes transparent, gleaming. Mouth open, jaw dropped and one eye closed, she wipes away mascara, Arizona pink from her cheekbones, chimney smoke eye shadows and the black kohl perimeters of lower lids. Her polished skin shines in the haloed lamplight, pores soaking in cleanser then wiped away with Kleenex, leaving nothing but the smooth landscape of skin. A pile of tissues, artist pallets, smudged colors of the day, debris of ritual, sacraments surrounding her slippers.
I’m sitting in Alan’s apartment. As I write this, poached in his surroundings, books of war and literature on the shelf, his grandfather’s landscape paintings, and a Big Red One from his Army Unit mounted on the walls. I’m cooking a beef stew for when he returns. I anchor here, in his space. We first met at The Hole in the Wall pub. I served him a beer over the bar and studied him as he walked away. I had just returned from England through obligation to my father and my dog, a puggle who had pulled me through two abusive relationships. Therapy twice a week couldn’t stop my tears but Alan did. He takes me to the Chili Cook-Off, a country music festival and we gnaw turkey legs, corn-on-the-cob, slow dance and jive to ukuleles and The Zac Brown Band, new music to my ears, soul food. We go fishing and drink beer on the canal in Key Largo, grill yellow-tailed snapper and he reminds me of the world I turned away. A world of pelicans landing on the curling seas, and BBQs, boating glassy depths until the sun slips under us.
An Iraq war veteran, his words form mountains that startle my small grief.
Sitting with his family at dinner, we say a prayer of gratitude and I swallow star throated flowers. He holds me as the day breaks, breathes in my hair.
Like summer in a golden church—
in the soundless hours of night
You saved me.
I’m home for the summer and Nan has made spaghetti with chicken-in-the-sauce. The aroma wafts through the open window. We eat under the umbrella dismantling garlic bread and talking about her newly potted hydrangeas, the passing of a neighbor’s husband. She tells me she’s happy I have Alan, a good man to walk with me through the days. Sunlight punctures the pond at the bottom of her garden, swords through an aquatic stone and her rose bush blooms, sugar pink.
Ponds In Every Home
I leave a tub at Mum’s, in her mahogany bathroom box. It waits for me to return to England. Alan keeps a tub for me in his art deco apartment on Miami Beach. I think that we leave parts of ourselves to places, and to people. I see my ghosts in London, Bristol, Miami, essence of pearl and bone and heart. Standing in Alan’s bathroom mirror, I think of this, as I massage the cool cream into my face, the faces of my mother and grandmothers’ all of them before me. I grapple with this word, home, a concept like windswept roots. All those places I grew up in, between two countries.
Chloe Firetto-Toomey is an English American poet pursuing an MFA at Florida International University. She is an editor for Gulf Steam and PANK literary magazines. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Crab Fat, Arsenic Lobster, Crack The Spine, Cosmonauts Avenue, FishFood and Every Writer’s Resource, and in print “Beyond Gravity” a collection of poems published in 2001 by Loebertas Publishing, Bristol, England.