Enriched

Coyote pups

Four Coyote Pups by Den. Colorado. nature 80020CC BY

As sixth grade ended, my teacher recommended me for a summer enrichment camp.

“You’ll love it,” she said. “Every day for two weeks, you’ll get to study drama, writing, and photography.”

I desperately wanted to go.

When I brought the paperwork home to my dad, he frowned.

“I don’t think so,” he told me.

“But, Daddy, it’s a special thing. You have to be invited by your teacher and I get to study drama and writing. It’s going to be so much fun. I can even ride the summer school bus to get there every day—please, Daddy?”

“It costs, you know.” He sounded tired.

The attendance fee, I think, was twenty-five dollars. Maybe thirty. It didn’t seem like a lot to me, but I knew Daddy worried about bills. My mother had ongoing medical expenses; my sister and I took weekly allergy shots. I knew not to bother Daddy when he sat at the table with the checkbook—I wouldn’t go near the kitchen at all, for he wore a worse frown then than the one he was wearing now.

No point in pressing him. I went to my bedroom, shut the door, and cried.

Later that day, or maybe the next, Grandma called. After chatting awhile with my father about news, how our all of our relatives were in their little North Carolina hometown and how everybody was there in Virginia, she asked to talk to me.

Daddy handed me the phone. It had a long cord—really long. From its wall mount, the phone cord reached the floor. It would stretch from the kitchen down the hall to my room, where I could sit on my bed and talk in private.

“Hi, Grandma.”

“Hello, Dear,” she said, the warmth of it like June sunlight bursting through a break in the clouds.  “I just wanted to hear your voice.”

My tears welled again. “I miss you.”

“Is something the matter?” she wanted to know.

I told her all about the camp, about Daddy saying no because of the cost.

“How much is it?”

I told her.

“I’ll pay for it,” she said, uncharacteristically crisp. I could almost see the lift of her chin, the flash in her blue eyes. “I believe children should have the chance to do some things they really want to do.”

“Thank you,” I sniffled into the phone.

“Let me talk to your Daddy.”

And so it was that I went to the summer camp on the benevolence of my greatest advocate, Grandma.

Riding the bus with high school kids having to attend summer school in order to pass their grades was an adventure unto itself, but beyond that, camp was a laboratory of creativity.

I encountered pantomime for the first time, communicating story with the body, without words. I wasn’t especially good at it but some of my fellow campers—aged eleven, twelve, thirteen—were astonishing. One boy mimed being closed in by a shrinking box so well that the box was virtually visible. I watched, holding my breath, enthralled.

The drama teachers grouped us into fours, gave the groups four words, and challenged us with writing cohesive skits with these four words embedded in dialogue. My group’s words were—to the best of my memory—lion, clock, heart, flies. We were timed on the writing of the skit and the rehearsal of it, including the creation of minimalist props out of construction paper. My group, with me as scribe, wrote a farcical story of a doctor having to treat a patient who was attacked by a lion and who got away by throwing a clock at it, to which the Groucho Marx-esque doctor remarks: “My, how time flies!”

We entitled it “Dr. Heartbeat, Dr. Heartbeat” after a TV series that none of us really knew much about except that it seemed weird and therefore perfect: Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. 

We performed last for our fellow campers, to a standing ovation and teachers wiping their tears at our over-the-top slapstick antics. Yours Truly played the hapless doctor.

We studied fairy tales; we wrote and illustrated our own, to be “published” in laminated books we could keep. I wrote “The Littlest Mermaid,” having long been captivated by Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid.” Ages before Disney brought us red-headed Ariel, my pink-haired mermaid battled jealous bullies. When I wrote The other mermaids hated her, the writing teacher said, “Hate is a strong, terrible word. Do you think it belongs in a story for children?”

I revised: The other mermaids didn’t like her. 

Ever since, I’ve thought about the power of one word, and when is right or not right to use it. And audience. And whether children should be shielded from the word hate, and when are fairy tales just for children?

In photography class, we campers built cameras from shoe boxes, learning about light leaks and timed exposures. I was able to produce a picture of a basset hound (they don’t move a lot) and my classmate sitting in a tree. The teacher explained that we were “photojournalists”—we’d write about the process of building and using our cameras, what worked, what didn’t. and why. He then encouraged us to write stories about the images we took and developed.

For a final writing adventure, the writing teachers invited us to look through a stack of glossy, full-page photographs. I chose two: One of a single coyote standing in a canyon, the other of four little coyote pups. I was taken by the animals’ beauty and the warm, reddish colors of the rocks.

Trouble was, I knew nothing of coyotes beyond the Road Runner cartoons. The animals in these photos were unexpectedly magnificent.

Thus began my first real foray into research. It began with place: Where do coyotes live? I needed to know. At home that night, I cracked open a dusty encyclopedia from the bottom shelf of the living room bookcase. After poring over the coyote entry, I chose Pueblo, Colorado, for my coyotes’ home. And having learned, somberly, that man is the coyotes’ worst enemy, I had an idea for a plot: Survival. After the mother or the father coyote is shot, the mate takes the pups on a journey to a new home. I also encountered the word ravenous for the first time . . . and when my teachers asked me to read my story for the gathering of families at the program on the last day of camp, I mispronounced it, saying that the coyotes ate ra-VEEN-yus-ly. “I wish I’d heard you read it aloud first,” a teacher apologized. “It’s RA-ven-ous-ly.”

Alas. Reader’s vocabulary.

It was decades and decades ago, but the richness of the camp is with me still: Every day an adventure, with something to discover, to explore, to synthesize into something new, as an extension of myself, what I love, and even who I am. A wealth of learning compounded with interest, over time.

That Grandma made possible, because she believed it was important, even necessary. I later learned how much she wanted to take piano lessons as a child and her family couldn’t afford it. A charitable young preacher’s wife eventually taught her how to play.

And, ever the angel wielding the sword on my behalf, Grandma was willing to take a piercing in return; she sent me to the camp even though she knew it would shorten the time I’d spent at her house that summer.

Because, for some investments, the payoff is incalculable. Grandma understood this.

And even then I understood that I was, in so many ways, enriched beyond measure.

Kilroy

He flew back to me from long, long ago.

My memory of him is dim, fleeting. I can only see partial scenes, the way a migraine sufferer is unable to look directly at objects because of a big gray spot but can see things around the periphery.

In a summer writing session last week, my co-facilitator challenged participants with quick-writing a bird story—for “everyone has a bird story.”

I have quite a few, some of which I’ve already written.

I looked at the page, waiting, my thoughts circling like birds themselves, tiny dark things against a whiteness, when suddenly there he was, crisp and clear, his black feet gripping the black perch, his crested blue head tilted, white face gleaming, a bright, black-rimmed eye regarding me with curiosity.

Oh, I breathed in my mind, I’ve been wanting to write about you! I’d almost forgotten.

He blinked, ruffling his beautiful blue, black-striped feathers. He watched me expectantly.

Kilroy.

*******

Aunt Jack’s house is different from anyone else’s. It’s full of stuff but not messy. I feel a strangeness here. Maybe it’s the animals. A big, speckled brown bird with a white ring around its neck and long tail feathers stands on a hunk of wood. “A pheasant,” Grandma explains. Aunt Jack is her youngest sister. The deer heads mounted high on the wall watch me with their big, soft eyes. I am scared of the bear head and its disconnected feet with sharp claws up there. On a shelf stands some small cat creature, the color of sand with brown spots. I think its mouth is open and its teeth are showing but I look away and hurry past.

I’m in a zoo of dead animals. Stuffed. Someone killed them all.

I do not know who or why.

Aunt Jack is small with a white, heart-shaped face, always smiling. She has brown hair almost to her shoulders and brown eyes as big and soft as the deer. She’s always moving, even when she’s sitting. I like to listen to her talk; her voice is like music, her words quick notes skimming through the air like stones tossed over water, or sunlight flickering through tree leaves on a summer afternoon. As much movement in her light voice as in her slight body.   

She’s always happy to see me, hugs me, says my name in her pretty, musical voice, and I remember how I have the same name as her father. Because it’s also Grandma’s middle name. It’s a special thing. 

I follow Grandma and Aunt Jack from room to room. When we go back through the living room, I see him.

On a tall, black perch, in front of the backside of the sofa.

A blue bird with a white chest and black stripes on his body.

I think he’s stuffed, too.

But his crested blue head tilts; a bright, black-rimmed eye regards me with curiosity.

“Oh!” I say, coming to a dead stop.

Aunt Jack laughs. I think of wind chimes.

That’s Kilroy. He won’t bother you, honey.”

“He’s your pet?”

Yes. I found him on the sand by the river when he was just a baby, so I brought him home.” 

Kilroy blinks, ruffling his beautiful blue and black-striped feathers. He watches me expectantly.

I take a step closer. I have never seen a bird that wasn’t in a cage inside a house before.

A living one, that is.

“Hi, Kilroy,” I call in my friendliest voice.

—Squawk! 

I jump. He sounds like Grandma’s screen door opening.

Grandma and Aunt Jack just laugh.

Kilroy smiles.

I swear.

*******

I don’t know how long Aunt Jack had him, or how many times I saw him. He was free to fly around the house, and I don’t remember any droppings. If I remember correctly, he stole shiny things like pens, rings, and coins, and hid them, sometimes behind the refrigerator, and he liked to crack nuts open and eat them.

I try to imagine my great-aunt walking on the sandy riverbank by her home, discovering the fledgling, carrying him to the house, feeding him by hand. Kilroy was devoted to Aunt Jack. The most enchanting part of their story is how he’d wake her in the mornings by walking on her chest.

Aunt Jack couldn’t have children. I can only guess how much she loved Kilroy, the living spot of color and joy amongst all those dead, unblinking creatures.

The grayness overcomes my memory here; only a little bit’s left around the edges. I can’t recall if Kilroy was allowed to fly in and out of the kitchen window. Maybe. But I’m not sure. It’s too far away, too dim. The memory, like gossamer, disintegrates when I try to touch it.

What I do know is that one day he flew out of the window and never returned, although Aunt Jack went out, calling and calling for him.

And that she still felt his little bird feet walking on her chest every morning, long after he was gone.

Blue jay feather

Blue jay feather. Robert NunallyCC BY

My last remaining aunt tells me that Aunt Jack did leave a window open enough for Kilroy to come and go as he pleased. He’d peck on the window when he wanted her to open it. When Aunt Jack was outside, he’d fly to sit on her shoulder. Remembering Kilroy piqued my interest in blue jays; I had to look them up. They can live twenty-six years in captivity and usually around seven in the wild. And they aren’t really blue. The color is produced by their feather structure scattering light— if a feather is crushed, the structure is ruined and the blue disappears. The feather is dark brown or black. Blue jay feathers, then, are illusions of light. 

No illusions, however, about blue jays symbolizing energy and vitality—Kilroy embodied it, in all his blue glory. As did Aunt Jack herself.  

 As for the dead creatures: The stuffed bear and wildcat are apparently from another early memory that’s merged with this one over time, but my last aunt says there were definitely stuffed birds on Aunt Jack’s mantel. I opt to leave the bear and the cat in the story with apologies to Aunt Jack, who’d be delighted, I think, that she and Kilroy are still remembered.

The horse

Secretariat

Secretariat. Charles LeBlancCC BY-SA

They’re gathered at the kitchen table—Daddy, Mama, Grannie, Earnie— as Mama shuffles the cards. With a riffling “flflflflflflflflflflt,” she makes the cards fall in a fancy bridge finish. I don’t know how she does it. They’re playing Canasta. Cigarette smoke hangs thicker than fog in the close kitchen; Grannie is the only one who doesn’t smoke. I sometimes think that the white cloud pouring like an upside-down waterfall from Earnie’s lips straight up to her nostrils looks kind of dragonish. I wonder again why she’s not married, being my mother’s older sister. My sister and I almost never call her Aunt. She’s just Earnie. 

I can’t stay in the kitchen for long. The smoke stings my eyes and makes me cough. I watch cartoons with my sister for a while on TV, then drift back to my room to look at my at rock and mineral sticker books, until I am thirsty and come back to the kitchen for Kool-Aid. The grown-ups pay me no mind; they’re into their game. I pay them no mind as I get my drink from a pitcher in the refrigerator.  

Until I hear them saying a strange name. One I’ve heard on TV.

A lot. 

It sounds like “secretary.”

Earnie is a secretary. For something called Sybil Service. For the Army, I think, but she doesn’t wear a uniform. She can write in shorthand. I have seen her notepads and her little squiggles look made up. How can those little curly marks mean anything at all?

But they’re not talking about a person. I can tell by the way they say the name that there’s something very important about it. 

“Who is Secretary It?” I ask. I gulp my Kool-Aid. 

Secretariat,” Daddy says, enunciating clearly, frowning at his cards. “He’s a racehorse that just made history. He won the Triple Crown—ran so fast that he left all the other horses behind like they were just standing still.” 

Secretariat. Secretariat.

The name is as strange as Earnie’s shorthand. It uncurls in my head like a wisp of smoke. The way Daddy says it is the way people speak in church before the preacher preaches. When the music is just beginning. 

Part of me suddenly envies this horse who can run so fast, who’s so strong. I can’t run. When I do, I can’t breathe; my asthma is as heavy as a horse sitting on my chest and all I can do is wheeze until it passes.

But another part of me tastes something sweeter than Kool-Aid when I whisper his name.

Which I do, over and over.

Secretariat.

*******

I don’t remember seeing him run or win the Triple Crown in 1973. I didn’t know he was the first such winner since 1948, that he broke records with his times, that he won the Belmont by 31 lengths—so much that when I look at the old footage now, the other horses aren’t even in the frame with him. I didn’t know anything about horse racing at all, nothing about the big money, or betting, or odds.

But I remember the awe, the utter reverence, with which his name was spoken. His image, a magnificent, glossy red horse with three white-stockinged legs, soon became familiar to me.

What I understood instantly, the day I learned of him, is that he was the stuff of legend. His name tasted of rare glory, of something almost otherworldly. It’s possible that Secretariat was the beginning of my love of things fantastic.

I celebrate Justify’s recent Triple Crown win. I pulled for him all the way, holding my breath, tears flooding my eyes when he crossed the finish line, another beautiful chestnut horse excelling at exactly what he was born to do.

And I marvel at my weepiness, at my need to go back and watch the clips of Secretariat, to read about him one more time. It’s a longing born of wonder, of the crystallized moment that this big red horse with the strange name seeped into my heart like the red Kool-Aid stain above my lip, sparking something magical in the little girl that I was.

img_4952-4

 

Of calluses and rings

My older son showed me his hands this morning: “Look, Mom.”

He has tiny calluses across both palms from working out.

It causes me to reflect on why we labor hard enough at something for the friction to wear such places on our skin. To my son, the weight training is worth the effort for his physical well-being; he is dedicated to his regimen. His hands pay this small price for the health of the rest of his body.

In the photo above, a man’s ring has worn a callus on his palm when he forgot to remove it before a mountain bike race. It draws me because I have a similar, very faint callus on my own left palm from my wedding band. As I hardly race mountain bikes or use my hands in intensive manual labor on a daily basis—and I don’t even wear my rings while at home due to contact with soaps, cleansers, and detergents—it’s a bit mysterious as to why this hard little spot exists on my hand. I’ve decided that it’s occurred over time, over many, many years of marriage.

Therein lies the rub, so to speak. The ring, over time, has worn the callus. Might it be symbolic of marriage friction? For, let’s face it, no two people can live under the same roof for long without some earnest element of friction. But in a strong marriage—in any strong relationship—the labor of love is worth it; you keep at it. As long as your hearts don’t become callused (and your attitude callous) toward one another, the relationship protects itself against the friction. That’s what a callus is, a protection-against-the-friction place.

Last Saturday, my younger son, Cadillac Man, showed me the huge callus on his own palm. It’s from the shovel he used to dig the grave for Nik, our sixteen-year-old dachshund. This little dog was his daily companion since he was four and saw him almost through college.

If you’ve ever raised a dachshund, you know about friction . . . .

But the callus on Cadillac Man’s hand is a labor of love.

And worth it, for while his heart (and mine) are presently more sore than his hand, we expect more calluses yet, for we’re going to make a memorial garden where Nik is buried. A beautiful callus on the earth, if you will. A protection-against-the-friction of having to let him go, a working toward healing by building up a place of strength. The pains of creating our little memorial will be insignificant compared to the expected result.

It happens to be Memorial Day weekend. I think of men and women wearing wedding rings given by spouses who’ve died in service of the United States. Of families and friends marking the losses of those they loved. They’ll bear the scars of it on their hearts always. I think of those who fell, in this generation and all those before, believing that, if they must pay the price of their lives for the well-being of others, the outcome would be worth it.

Labors of love, protection-against-the-friction.

The story of sacrifice, sometimes complete, often beautiful, lies in the hard places left behind.

 

Good-bye, mighty Nik

Nikolaus, 2004. Age 2. 

Dear Nikolaus,

I write to celebrate you and your long, long life.

To thank you for the joy you brought and the love you gave for so many years.

To ask your forgiveness.

When you first came to our family, we were elated.

April 2002. Age 3 months.

You see, we’d been looking for a little dog because we had a little boy who wanted one so badly. Big dogs frightened him.

But you were perfect.

April 2002. Nikolaus age 3 months. Cadillac Man age 4.

And so you grew up together.

You weren’t always easy, but you were always, always loved. Despite the countless accidents in the house and that time you snuck a chicken strip off of little Cadillac Man’s plate and ran for all you were worth with your booty. Not to mention how you figured out a way to climb on top of the furniture to get the boys’ Valentine and Easter chocolate. And ate it all, leaving only the wrappers behind. More than once. How did you do it and not get sick?

We began to think, all things considered, that you might be immortal. After all, you outlasted legions of other pets. The boys began to joke about you plotting the demise of every other dog, for they came and went throughout the years, but you remained. No one questioned your alpha status. Not even the dogs seven times your size, when you took their rawhides and their pillows for your own. They just sat, blinking in respectful disbelief, at your Napoleonic powers.

There’s so much to say, for we shared so much together. I am thankful for my special place in your little heart. How, when you were young and strong, you’d jump up on the couch to curl up beside me or to crawl in my lap. For the hours I spent working on the computer and you were snuggled behind me, between my back and the chair. I loved you and your deep, abiding warmth, always near, just being. Just together.

How the boys loved you. How they laughed as we tried to teach you to roll over, to sit and beg, the two tricks you’d pull off multiple times in succession just to get one treat.

How much comfort you gave them when they were hurting, from boyhood to manhood. They held you in their arms, but you, well—you were holding their hearts all along.

January 2017. Cadillac Man, age 19, celebrating Nik’s 15th birthday with a car ride.

Time is no friend, is it, old sweet Nik. Not when it takes your youth so that you can’t jump anymore but have to be picked up and carried. Not when it turns your face and paws so white. Not when it takes your sight, your hearing, even your ability to understand exactly where you are and what’s going on.

Here’s what I marvel over: That you tried to run through the grass like always, even when you couldn’t see. That you could still find me in bathroom getting ready for work each morning. That you never forgot where your treats were, or that you should get one after coming in from outside, even when it had to be broken into small pieces for you to chew. I knew you could only find them by smell; that’s why I put your broken-up treats on the kitchen rug, so you wouldn’t push them all across the floor trying to get them into your mouth.

I marvel over your ever-voracious appetite, how you ran for your bowl every morning, even if we had to guide you just a bit.

And I worried when you started losing weight.

May 2018. Age 16. 

The vet said your blood work was amazing for a dog of your age; never saw the like. Said your heart was strong. Said things like cancer can make a dog lose weight despite plenty of food, and it wouldn’t show in the blood. Gave you the pain medicine which made you sleep but also tore your bowels up so that we couldn’t give it to you anymore.

And still you rallied, although every day you got thinner and thinner.

Cadillac Man watched you staggering and falling in the yard.

Mom, he looks like a skeleton. He’s just going in circles. 

Mom, it may be time.

Mom, I just got on the scales with him. He’s under seven pounds.

Three weeks before, you were about nine pounds.

When you were a young dog, you were nearly twenty pounds.

On Saturday, when I gave you your last bath, I could see every vertebra on your back, could feel every knob on your tiny tail. For the first time in your life, you sat in the bathwater, too weak to stand.

When we wrapped you in your “Happiness is a Dachshund” blanket to take you to another vet, I didn’t know it was going to be good-bye.

I didn’t.

I thought maybe another medication would help. Or another suggestion. You’d made it so far, so well, until then. The regular vet said your heart was strong, so . . .

The new vet said:

I can’t fix the blindness.

I can’t fix the deafness.

I can’t fix the severe cognitive impairment.

You can run tests to see why he’s losing the weight, but it would only be for academic purposes. Just to know. He’s a very old, weak dog.

Cadillac Man looked at me, holding you in his arms:

Mom, there’s hardly anything left of him.

How to let you go like this, when you’d been so utterly trusting and loving your entire life?

You looked at me with your tired, cloudy eyes, and I wasn’t sure what you were seeing. Maybe me. Maybe not.

I couldn’t know how much pain you felt; you never complained. You just kept going, for it’s all you knew to do.

I loved you. I struggled then, I struggle now with the decision, but I believe the boy—the man—who loved you best knew what was best.

And so we stroked your sweet head when you breathed your last—one tiny sigh, of contentment, of resignation, of release—utterly, utterly peaceful.

And I take comfort where I can find it. When I read about euthanizing suffering pets, when I talk to others who’ve been there, I don’t question the logic. Of course no one wants to watch their beloved endure prolonged suffering. When I think of your ravaged little body, I know you couldn’t bear much more. Your determination, your will, was astounding. That’s where I struggle. That’s why I write. It’s a matter of the spirit, see.

I write to celebrate our long run together. Sixteen years.

I write to thank you for your unconditional love, and to tell you that mine is just as unconditional. I love you still, even now that you’re gone.

I write to thank you for the joy you brought to two young boys for so long. You’re indelibly written on their hearts, as long as they live.

I write to say I’m sorry. For all the times I lost my patience, for the times I could have made more time, for being part of that last, anguishing decision. But if you were going to go, I was going to be there with you, all the way.

And I ask your forgiveness, because the weight is so hard to carry. But old age and sickness are hard to carry, too, aren’t they.

For something so little, you are so mighty, Nik.

I imagine you always will be.

Roses in the smoke

Red rosebud

Rosebud. Jan SoloCC BY-SA

By the chain link fence of our backyard, a rosebush grows. 

It’s really growing in our neighbors’ backyard, but, according to my mother, there’s an agreement that the roses hanging over into our yard are ours, and the roses on the neighbors’ side are theirs. 

So, early one Sunday morning, my mother ushers my sister and me out to the fence. In one hand my mother holds pair of shears. In her other hand is a cigarette. Salem. Menthol Fresh.

“Pick out the rose you want to wear,” she says. “From the ones on our side.”

The roses are vivid red with a hot pink tint. Some are wilting. Some are big and full. Velvety. Their fragrance is heavy in the air. 

“This one!” says my sister, pointing to a large bloom.

That one might fall apart while you’re wearing it. Find one that’s not all the way open yet.”

Why did she tell us to choose?

We finally select tight rosebuds that my mother thinks are acceptable. She puts her cigarette in her mouth and clips the two buds. Then she clips a third one that’s partially open.

“Why are you cutting three roses?” I want to know.

My mother blows a cloud of smoke into the air. Menthol and tobacco mingle with the scent of roses. “One’s for me. Grannie is living, so I’ll wear a red rose to church for Mother’s Day, too.” 

She has three straight pins in her sleeve. She removes one to pin my sister’s rose to the front of her dress. 

I am thinking about Grannie. Her mother is not living. “What color rose will Grannie wear, then?”

White,” says my mother, pinning my red rosebud to my dress.

I am sorry for Grannie, her mother being dead, having to wear a white rose. One day my mother will wear a white rose on Mother’s Day. The thought floods me with sadness. The colors make me wonder—why?  Why red for living mothers and why white for dead mothers?

Is red for the blood?” I ask.

My mother, in the midst of pinning her own rose, leans in. She can’t hear well. Sometimes she doesn’t catch everything other people are saying. “What?”

Do people wear red for living mothers because they still have blood in them and white for dead mothers because when they die there’s no more blood?”

My mother frowns. An upside-down V appears between her eyebrows as she looks at me. I can tell she heard me and that she doesn’t understand the question. Before I can try again, she says, “All right, we’re ready. The bus should be here any minute. Let’s go wait out front.”

We ride the bus to church because my mother doesn’t drive. She never learned how. And Daddy is asleep because he’ll be getting up to go to work while we’re at church.

We stand out front, my mother, my sister, and me, wearing matching dresses that my mother made, with our three red roses pinned on, waiting for the church bus. It’s really an old school bus, now painted navy blue and white. My mother lights another cigarette. My sister plays with her necklace—a tan-and-white rabbit’s foot on a piece of yellow yarn around her neck—and I think about colors. Red and white. Living and dead. Blood and no blood.

Good thing we have our own red rosebush for Mother’s Day, or what would we do?

It would be many years before I wondered what color rose a person might wear for a mother in an altered state. As in the case of, say, addiction. As in, if the relationship had disintegrated because of it, because the mother is consumed. Because it happens, somewhere, to somebody, every day. What is the color of dysfunction? Of existing, but not really living? Surely not a blend of red and white, for pink is too cheery. Gray? Does a gray rose even exist in nature? If it did, why would anyone wear it as homage to a mother?

One would just not wear any rose at all, rather than wearing one the color of ghosts, of shadows, of clouded memories, of the mists of time, even if the sun occasionally breaks through to shine on what was good, as on a rosebush blooming along a chain link fence and a bud like a drop of blood on a little girl’s dress, even as swirling smoke envelops it, before the ashes fall.

Blowin’ in the wind

Yesterday, while outside with my old dachshund, Nikolaus, I saw this old dandelion.

It stood trembling in the soft spring breeze, holding its seeds tight under its parachute sphere, and I thought Any second now they’ll be blowing in the wind.

Which reminded me of the song.

When I was a child my parents had a stack of record albums, and in it was Peter, Paul and Mary’s In the Wind. Only now do I wonder which of them purchased it, for my young father and mother seemed more representative of the fifties than the sixties. No beads and long hair or tie-dye. Daddy wore a crew-cut all of his adult life. My parents were . . . just parents. Pretty mainstream. I don’t know how old I was when I first heard the album, but as a child I played it over and over on the old stereo, a huge, bench-like piece of furniture on four legs that took up half the length of the living room wall.

Bob Dylan’s “Blowing’ in the Wind” was one of my favorites, mostly because Peter, Paul, and Mary’s harmony was as haunting as his lyrics. But it wasn’t the song I loved most on the album.

That was “Stewball.”

It’s about a racehorse, the underdog, and how a man laments betting all of his money on “the gray mare” and “the bay,” how he wishes that he’d bet on Stewball, who somehow managed to win the race.

The ballad’s content is mournful—Oh, the hoot owl she hollered, and the turtledove moaned, I’m a poor boy in trouble, I’m a long way from home—but the instrumentals jingle along, almost incongruous with the words. Perhaps not as incongruous as me, less than ten years old, swinging as hard as I can, round and round on a tire swing that Granddaddy hung from a pecan tree in the yard of my father’s childhood home, singing at the top of my lungs: Oh, Stewball was a racehorse, and I wish he were mine, he never drank water, he always drank wine . . . .

So long ago.

Funny how songs can weave their way through chapters of our lives, as they do through movies. There are stories to be told about the poor choices of adults, and the consequences, with “Stewball” playing in the background.

Nik the dachshund makes his way back to me, staggering in the grass. At sixteen he’s unsteady on his feet and blind; he plows into the old dandelion. Instantaneously the perfect white sphere dissolves, the seeds go airborne.

The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind

The answer is blowin’ in the wind.

Maybe it’s answers I seek.

Maybe they’re seeking me.

I do not know.

But I do know that ideas are everywhere, blowing in the wind; I sense them and I know they’ll land, somewhere, sometime, that they’ll take root and grow. If I write them, they’ll spawn more and more ideas.

I gather Nik in my arms, careful of his old, fragile bones, and go back inside the house, humming.

 

 

The tree I’d be

Cypress trees.jpg

Sunlit Cypress. Teresa PhillipsCC BY-SA

A few days ago,  I happened upon this captivating tweet:

I am well on the way to becoming a tree myself. I put down roots. I sigh when the wind blows. My sap rises in the spring and I turn towards the sun. Which tree would I be? Definitely a walnut tree.

-Roger Deakin, journal entry for April, quoted by writer Robert Macfarlane, Twitter, 04/04/2018

Macfarlane then asks: “Which tree would you be and why?”

—A cypress.

That was my immediate thought.

But why?

After all, one of my favorite scents is Fraser fir (the predominant Christmas tree in North Carolina). I vacuum the stubby needles at holiday’s end and try not to empty the canister for as long as possible, because the fir fragrance fills the air with every subsequent use. The trees of my childhood are dogwood, pine, live oak, magnolia, sweet gum. I have early memories of sun-dappled sidewalks covered with “helicopters”—one-winged seeds, or samaras—that spiral down from maple branches. I tossed the helicopters again and again, as high as I could, to watch them swirl like propellers. Crape myrtles lined my grandparent’s yard; I climbed their smooth trunks, sat in the crooks of their branches, countless times.

Why does cypress come to mind first, then?

Poets and writers, you know when an image appears so vividly that it holds some significance begging to be explored . . . .

For starters, my image is of Taxodium distichum, more commonly known as a bald cypress, or, my preferred name, a southern-cypress tree.

It’s rooted in the swamps of the southern United States, where my roots are. A tree at home in water, in rivers. I grew up in a place called Tidewater, entered the world in a hospital named for its proximity to water: Riverside.

My first recollection of the word cypress was my grandparents’ reference to a place on beyond where they lived, where the little dirt road curved past canals and thick woods that had grown to obscure stately houses: up Cypress Swamp, they’d say. Grandma’s best friend from first grade, who grew up to marry Grandma’s brother, was from Cypress Swamp. As a child, standing on the dirt road, looking through the treetops, if the sun was right, I could glimpse a bit of one old, abandoned house—a roof of cypress shingles.

The word sounded poetic to me even then: cypress. Like a whisper. Like something inviting. Maybe magical.

Although, through the ages, a cypress was usually associated with funerals and mourning. My affinity for the tree is clearly fused to my eastern North Carolina heritage, a reminder of the generations that have gone before me. My family tree, so to speak. It is ancient. Maybe nothing encapsulates that so well as this passage from Our State magazine, in which the author chronicles his boat journey on a river through a cypress forest:

 Many of the trees here must have witnessed those long-vanished species. They would have nodded over Native Americans in dugout canoes. They would already have been tall when the Lost Colony was lost, when the Mayflower sailed, when Attila the Hun was on the move. A few might have stood when Christ was born.

-T. Edward Nickens, “In Search of Methuselah,” Our State, June 8, 2016.

They live for so long, cypress trees, due to their ability to withstand storms; they thrive despite adverse growing conditions. Cypress wood is hard, strong, water-resistant—hence those shingles on the old country houses still standing as a forest  grows up around them. Those hand-hewn shingles sheltered the life therein. Like Noah’s ark, made of gopher wood from an unknown tree that some researchers speculate to be . . . cypress.

I cannot say the adversity, the storms, in my own life are any greater or worse than those weathered by other people I’ve known. I can only say that I’m still here. I view the cypress not as a funeral tree but one that preserves, celebrates, and affirms life; that, ultimately, is the whole reason why I write, why this blog exists at all.

On a fanciful note: Earlier I mentioned the word cypress sounding magical. When I was a child I loved the Chronicles of Narnia. I still do. In these books, C.S. Lewis borrowed from Greek mythology to depict dryads and hamadryads, the spirits of trees that took the form of young girls with their particular tree’s physical characteristics: a birch-girl dressed in silver, another with hair like long, willowy branches. Does a cypress call to me, then, because I am tall (5’8″ in bare feet)? That’s taller than the average American woman (5’4″) but not dramatically so. There must be something more, then, as to why the cypress chooses me, something unique to the tree and to me, other than our having southern roots in watery regions.

The knees.

In cypress forests, knobby projections stick up from the water. Theory has it that those “knees” help the tree breathe, enabling it to take in more oxygen. I don’t know how much truth lies in that theory, but I can tell you this: For my entire childhood I suffered from asthma and the only way I could sleep at night, the only way to breathe, was by curling up in a ball with my knees drawn up under me.

So, yes, my knees helped me breathe.

*******

In the old places

where the water stands still

they live on

holding all their stories

not evergreen

but ever-enduring

reassuring

reaffirming.

With every breath

drawn on their knees

they whisper,

“Remember.”

Real

and ethereal

—if I were a tree

a cypress

I’d be.

Cypress trees - pink

“When we are present in each moment, the past gently rolls up behind us and future slowly unravels before us.” echorooCC-BY

Relics

Mom's empty room

Mom’s empty room. The_DoodlerCC BY_SA

So many stories 

in every room

in every thing.

A lifetime packed

tight in every closet

in every drawer

for even in the time

of abundance 

the memory of deprivation

remained.

A lifetime of love

recorded in cards and letters

all saved 

even poems 

I don’t remember writing.

The photos of my children

so carefully preserved

growing up all over again

here in my hands.

Their father captured 

as a  little boy

in black and white

long ago.

His own father in uniform

smiling, alive

his olive-green dress hats

sealed in a bag 

on a shelf 

deep in her closet.

The ghost of holidays past

pulled from the attic 

with childhood toys

long forgotten.

Tarnished silver in the kitchen

and a fine layer of dust

on the crystal. 

Cookies in a jar

grown stale 

maybe in hopes of

grandchildren coming.

Things with no explanation

only wonder 

as to what they are

and what they’re for. 

So many stories

in rooms once beautiful

in every thing crammed

holding on, holding on

in the hidden places.

A lifetime packed

with living

and loving.

Decades of

acquiring

prospering

overcoming

remembering

all dismantled 

and disposed of

in the space of

a single afternoon.

New life

Baby robins

Baby robins. DanCC BY

Easter morning.

I have a new spring wreath for the front of the house. I should have put it out before now. What’s taken me so long?  

I step out onto the wide front porch, wreath in hand. It’s chilly out here. A light fog hovers;  I shiver in the pre-dawn grayness. The smell and taste of salt from the Bay hangs heavy in the air. I will hurry, as there’s lots to do to be ready for the sunrise service down on the beach. Waking, feeding, and dressing a toddler takes time. Maybe I will wait until after the service to show him his Easter basket . . . 

The old wreath on the front of the house is in terrible shape. I’m ashamed of how it looks, that I’ve left it up for too long. It’s a grapevine with flowers and greenery at the bottom center, behind two white stuffed geese wearing blue bows around their necks. Except that the geese are gray now, speckled, mottled by the elements, and the blue ribbon is faded almost to colorlessness. 

I reach for the old wreath and something dark flies out, startling me so that I drop the new wreath onto the porch floorboards.

A bird. 

I notice, then, the rim of a nest tucked into the wreath’s artificial greenery, behind the stuffed geese. The dry grass of the nest blends in with the bits of fake Spanish moss.

And I hear squeaks.

Standing on my tiptoes to peer into the nest, I see four baby birds. They’re still mostly pink skin, with just the beginnings of dark, downy fuzz. Their wide yellow beaks open.

Mama, feed us. 

I stand, hardly daring to breathe, watching, awed by this new life. How fragile it is. What a precarious place for it to be, for this wreath is attached to the house by just one nail. If it doesn’t hold . . . I cannot bear to think of it.

I retrieve the dropped wreath and step slowly, carefully away. Mama Bird is somewhere nearby, fussing and fretting over the safety of her babies. I will leave them in peace.   

As place my hand on the handle of the old door, I think about this big old house, how long it’s been standing, the storms it’s weathered in a place where storms tend to be more violent due to the proximity to the sea. That it’s a strong shelter, a parsonage provided free to my husband, our little boy, and me. I am going to worry about those baby birds on the front of this house, but I have to believe that the sheltering grace will extend to them, cover them, as it has done for me. 

The sun is just beginning to pierce the fog as I take one last look, as Mama flies back to her own, and Papa Bird shows himself for the first time, landing on the white porch rail by the column, his head cocked, watching me. In the pink light of a new day, I think of the old words: “Behold, I make all things new.”

Doesn’t matter how old, faded, ruined, broken . . . new life begins in the most unexpected ways, in the shabbiest of circumstances. 

Easter morning.

I wipe my tears. I go back inside, new wreath in hand, to my own new life.