…and the red death held sway over all

“What does seeing clearly mean? It doesn’t mean that you look at something and analyze it, noting all its composite parts; no. When you see clearly, when you look at a flower and really see it, the flower sees you. It’s not that the flower has eyes, of course. It’s that the flower is no longer just a flower, and you are no longer just you”. – Maurine Stuart, “Our One and Only Commandment”

The office where I spend my days is located next to an Episcopal Church, whose reverend graciously allows us to use their small back parking lot during work hours. Nestled against the stone walls of the church is a small herb garden, full of thick rosemary bushes and graceful Spanish lavender. This morning, as I pulled into a space, the noise of my van disturbed a young male cardinal who was roosting in one of the lavender bushes. He flew three feet above the soft green and purple blooms, his wings a blur of bright red. I had clearly spooked him, for he seemed unsure of where to land: first he darted deep under an archway that leads into the church’s back door, and then he tried to land on a black charcoal grill. He couldn’t seem to find a place solid enough and safe enough, so he kept his wings beating against the light wind. Eventually he settled on the concrete sidewalk, and walked back to his original hiding spot in the lavender.

I was a minute or two late coming into the office (Oh, where is that hard-living girl who offered so many libations not that long ago? She’s looking after red birds and inhaling lavender). I just couldn’t bear to spook him again, to disrupt his morning with my heavy footsteps and strict scheduled intentions.

When I was two I had a high fever that wouldn’t lessen with children’s Motrin or any other home remedies, so my mother and father took me to the emergency room. The nurses dunked me in an ice water bath, pressed cold washcloths against my tiny neck, and had me drink an orange liquid that was supposed to replace the electrolytes that my small, fighting body had lost through sweat. But after an hour my skin cheeks still flushed red, and the heat coming off of my skin melted the ice cubes that floated around me in the bath.  My mother tells me that I kept repeating the same question over and over, “Done now, Mommy? Done now, Mommy? Done now, Mommy?”

Do you remember what it felt like to be that small? To have the sun rise and set, and your whole existence hinge on the presence and comfort of your mother? I do. My mother is a bit eccentric (hello, love you, mom), but this is one of the things I appreciate and love about her so much. When I was six or so she let me watch The Shining. It wasn’t a mandatory viewing, nor did I request it specifically. I believe (if I remember correctly) that my parents had rented it from the video store and felt like watching it. My sister, six years my senior, was old enough to digest it, too. Or maybe aunts and uncles were visiting, and the atmosphere was too festive to notice that the little cousins were watching the same movie as the almost-teenagers. Who knows? I just remember watching the whole thing, and not being scared. I liked the hedge labyrinth that Danny hides in and that Jack dies in. I liked the big hotel, with its big hallways, where Danny can ride his big wheel in on the smooth, fancy carpet. I liked the spooky twins with their singsong voices and hollow eyes.  I’m still enamored with every frame of  the film (I can go on for ages about the genius of Kubrick) and the book (I could go on forever about the genius of King), and appreciate the spare music, stark use of lighting (my God Jack at the bar, ordering a drink from the ghost-bartender, their faces lit from below). When I read the book the first time, I missed the labyrinth but loved King’s use of topiaries covered in snow.

It might seem terrifying to others, that my mother allowed me to be exposed to such a dark fantasy world. But listen: I never had bad dreams about The Shining, or other more adult movies that I watched as a young girl. My nightmares were often about the strange mystery that was (is?) Slim Goodbody, and the creepy way his organs were exposed on the outside of his skin. I also remember a disturbing recurring dream about Rita Moreno’s Witch in the Kitchen character on The Electric Company. In the dream she lived beneath our back deck, eating moss and casting evil spells, cackling and howling below. Both of these characters were of course intended for digestion by small children, and they scared the pants off of me. Danny, Jack, Wendy, Mr. Hallorann, and Tony (the little boy that lives in Danny’s stomach that proclaims redrum redrum redrum), the freaky twins and their murderous father…they didn’t scare me at all.


4 thoughts on “…and the red death held sway over all

  1. So interesting — and I appreciate your dissection of The Shining, particularly as it pertained to a childhood viewing! Have you ever seen the video that Kubrick’s young daughter made of the making of the movie? It’s fantastic viewing, too — particularly the shots of Nicholson getting ready for his tour de force.

  2. What a sweet memory of you with your mom and the fever. And, I love the quote you share at the beginning. However, I have to confess–I’ve never seen The Shining. Oh, well, maybe if I had started watching scary movies when I was a kid, I wouldn’t still be so scared of them as an adult.

  3. Kathy, The Shining would probably not be a good place to start if you decided to watch scary movies as a grown up. It is psychologically disturbing for sure! xoxo

"... all my lovers were there with me, all my past and futures."

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