Wishes

Author Matt de la Peña led the first day of my district’s Teacher Summer Writing Institute and graciously offered to sign books during our break.

Here’s the conversation I had with him as he autographed Carmela Full of Wishes for me:

“I noticed the recurrence of Carmela jingling her bracelets throughout the story. I wondered if it symbolized something in particular, in connection with her imaginings.”

“There’s no hidden meaning,” replies de la Peña. “Carmela jingles the bracelets to irritate her brother.”

I laugh. “Because that is what siblings do.”

He nods. “She removes the bracelets at the end as an act of kindness to him. Here—let me show you my favorite page in the book.”

He turns the book around for me, displaying Christian Robinson’s intricate artwork: a papel picado (cut tissue paper) rendering of a father kneeling, a little girl in his arms.

“The book is really about the importance of family being together.” De la Peña’s face is solemn. 

I run my fingers over the words. “Home . . . I am reminded of history, how slave marriages weren’t considered legal. Families were split apart and people didn’t care.”  I look back to de la Peña. “But family is the foundation of everything.”

Yes,” he says, his dark eyes sparking. “It is.”

This week in America, we observe Independence Day. We celebrate freedom.

It is a sanguine word. Bloodstained. By wars waged to win it, but also by the lifeblood of the people who call a nation “home.” In this freedom is also a consanguine word – for home is where the family is.

As de la Peña so poignantly conveys with Carmela’s mixed-status family. She’s a U.S. citizen, born in this country, wishing, waiting – dreaming – of the day her father will “finally be home.”

At the book’s close, as I look at the dandelion fluff in the wind, Carmela’s sky full of wishes, my mind sees white stars waving on a field of blue, fireworks showering a night sky. I recall that a hallmark celebration on the Fourth of July is family reunions.

And I don’t know why an old line of Kris Kristofferson’s insists on accompanying this vision: Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose…

With artistic apologies, I can’t say that’s true in the context of nations and families and home … our hope and our humanity are still left to lose.

Knots

Last week was my spring break.

From school, anyway.

I spent almost the whole of it cleaning my house and purging stuff that should have been pitched long ago (which I vow to do every time I watch Hoarding: Buried Alive, chills crawling up my spine, icy fingers squeezing my heart). As I worked through closets, drawers, cabinets, the garage, I actually felt lighter myself, like a ship might feel when its ballast is tossed overboard. Of course I thought a lot, wrote a lot in my head while I worked, metaphorical stuff like we don’t often get to lighten our own burdens and decluttering is not just liberating; it’s healing. Basically all sorts of take-charge-of-your-life analogies, for that, in essence, is what I was doing, reclaiming my life from a surfeit of junk.

Until the knots.

I was on such a roll in the garage, once it was cleared, dusted, and swept (it’s much larger than I remembered), that my eyes fell upon the dog’s leash which hangs on a peg by the door.  It’s a moderately heavy chain, as Banjo, our yellow Lab, is an enthusiastic, massive beast, pushing 100 pounds.

There were knots in said leash.

This irritated me.

To an inexplicable degree.

My husband usually takes Banjo out in the mornings, and our son, Cadillac Man, will do it later in the day. How can they just let the leash get knotted like this? Are they going to let it go until it’s one giant ball of metal and of no use whatsoever? Do they know how lazy and uncaring this looks? 

Those were—alas—my thoughts.

Being on an organizational rampage, as it were, I couldn’t just wait for one of them to undo these maddening knots. In fact, I didn’t even think of waiting for them. If you want something done . . . I wanted the knots out, right then, so I set about it.

It was harder than I expected.

Chain links, especially tightly-knotted ones, don’t “give” very easily. I thought about my many tangled necklaces, how I sometimes poke a needle through the tiny chains until knots loosen enough for me to pull them out. I would need a tool. Say, a flat-head screwdriver.

At first, poking the knotted leash with the screwdriver did nothing.

I poked harder. 

Stabbed, to be precise.

Still nothing.

I discovered—well into an hour of beating at the first knot, my determination mounting by the moment—that if I also twisted at the knot while I struck it, the one link holding up the works would finally shift, and then the knot could be worked out.

The second knot came undone much faster.

The last knot was nearly the death of me.

I went for the WD-40. I WOULD GET THIS KNOT OUT.

Between a liberal coating of oil and my manic chiseling, voilà! A knot-free leash! After two hours of intensive focus. This was the highlight of my day.

Which is actually sad, in retrospect, but we won’t dwell on that now.

I hung the lovely straight leash back on its peg in the garage, admired it proudly for a few minutes—how it glinted in the afternoon sunlight, seriously—and then I went inside the house to plot my next attack on another project.

Consumed by my various missions, I didn’t think to mention the leash to my family that night. The next morning, I got up early and remembered, so  . . .  I will just take Banjo out myself. 

The very thought of using the nicely-untangled leash made me irrationally happy. I got dressed, put on my shoes, bounced out the door, reached for the leash, and . . .

THE KNOTS WERE BACK!

ALL THREE OF THEM!

“ARE YOU KIDDING ME?” I shouted.

Banjo cowered.

I collected myself enough to rub his belly and console him.

After taking care of the dog, trust that I hunted my husband down. There he sat in his chair, watching TV, sipping  his morning coffee.

I marched right up to him.

“DID YOU PUT KNOTS BACK IN THAT DOG LEASH?”

He looked at me like I’d lost my mind (highly probable, at the moment).

“Yeah, I put them back!”

“I spent two hours yesterday getting those knots out! Do you know how hard that was? I even had to use WD-40!  You couldn’t think to ask WHY the knots were suddenly gone? You just go and put them back without bothering to say anything?”

“I need those knots! They help me hold onto the chain better!”

I stood very still, many more unspoken words withering in my brain. My husband has arthritis. It often affects his hands and wrists. He also struggles with depth perception, having lost an eye three years ago. It never occurred to me that the knots had a purpose . . .

As if right on cue, Cadillac Man drifted through the living room in his pajamas and mad-scientist bed-hair (he is letting it grow).

“Hey,” he said. Then, after considering our faces: “What’s going on?”

My diatribe degraded into more of a lament: “I spent two hours yesterday getting the knots out of Banjo’s leash and your dad put them back in.”

“I need those knots!” my husband reiterated. “I was glad you put them there in the first place,” he told our son.

Cadillac Man raised his eyebrows. “I never put those in. I don’t know how the chain got like that.”

His father: “What? I thought you did!”

I sighed.

For it doesn’t matter how the knots got there the first time, even if I was right in my original hypothesis: they happened and kept happening because no one stopped to fix them.

What matters is this: That our worst knots in life occur from a lack of simple communication and our utter failure to see from a perspective other than our own.

The next morning, the knots were magically gone again. I thought my husband had relented, perhaps, or taken pity.

But no.

Cadillac Man undid them.

“I’d already told Dad I would take care of Banjo, so he doesn’t need those knots.”

I cannot say who’s really right or wrong anymore in this whole knotty scenario, only that it’s best to move on . . . and bless that boy.

Remnants

Some time ago, I came upon a giant Ziploc bag filled with disposable cameras and rolls of film I’d gathered and promptly forgot about.

I really need to take these to be developed, I told myself.

And I set them aside.

And life kept happening.

And time went by.

Until I wasn’t even sure anymore how old the film was and who’d taken pictures of what.

Last summer I finally found a shop that still does same-day printing on site (do you know how hard that is to find now?). I took my film—thirteen rolls.

When I returned for the pictures, I learned that some of the film had nothing on it. The rolls hadn’t been used or they’d been exposed and the images were lost.

Many of the pictures that did come out were weirdly double-exposed. Scenes of my children when they were little, superimposed over each other, over other people.

Ghostly. Tricks of light, of time.

In the shadows, my grandmother sits with her arm around my younger son. He was three.

Eighteen years ago.

Suddenly my father’s grinning right at me from the childhood room of my older son, who’s twelve and seated beside him on the foot of the bed, playing Nintendo 64.

Daddy’s been gone for sixteen years. Died the month after my youngest started kindergarten. But this photograph turned out clear and bright; Daddy looks happy.

Fragments of life, preserved here and there, telling our stories a piece at a time.

Kind of like Grandma’s quilt.

I left the photos and went to pull it from where it’s safely stored.

Grandma made a quilt for each of her five grandchildren. In mine many of the squares are leftover scraps of material from clothes that my mother and grandmothers wore. The brown-and-white swirled pattern was once a vest and slacks, the silky coral-and-pink floral fabric, a blouse—all made by my mother. These remnants were painstakingly stitched together by my grandmother. Random parts forming a pattern, making a whole.

This old film, this quilt. Tangible memories. Remainders, reminders, of long ago. Pieces of my life, of who I am.

Kind of like DNA.

One of the things I learned with ancestry testing is that everyone can trace their maternal haploid group, because everyone has an X chromosome from their mother. When I read the narrative of my female forebears’ migration thousands of years ago, surviving the Ice Age (for, clearly, some of them did), and who knows what else . . . it was nearly overwhelming. To think of each one going before, through the ages, on and on, all the way to my being here. That even now we are trace-able patterns of each other, a virtual, long-reaching quilt, connected, continually replicating and unfolding through time.

Not being male, however, means that I have no Y chromosome haploid history to trace. This knowledge left me bereft at first. I have no brothers, my father is gone, and with him his Y-history, which forms half of my own, the migratory story of which I cannot know. Like my old film, it is obscured forever.

Yet I carry remnants of them all within me, those ancestors, male and female. I am their remnant, a whole stitched from their infinite parts, the conveyor of their continuum, the next chapter of their narrative.

And so are my children, superimposed over us all.

Like layers of memory upon memory.

As life keeps happening.

As time goes on, and on, and on.

The lantern

Pa-Pa’s lantern

In the lamplight, the withered leaves collect at my feet 

and the wind begins to moan. 

—”Memory,” Andrew Lloyd Webber & Trevor Nunn

It is all I have of him.

I don’t recall ever seeing it until I returned home after my Grannie’s death, years ago. My father picked the dusty old lantern up from a box of her belongings: “This was Pa-Pa’s,” he said. “You don’t remember him.”

I bristled a little. “Yes I do, Daddy.”

He smiled, shook his head dismissively. He placed the lantern on the bookshelf by the front door.

“He had white hair,” I said. “And glasses.”

Daddy’s brow furrowed just a bit.

“And he wore a gray . . .  jumpsuit or something,” I continued. “And he was tall . . .”

Daddy chuckled. “No, he wasn’t! He was a short man, although he did wear a gray work suit. He was a mechanic.”

“Well, I was little. He looked tall to me.”

He looked at me strangely, then.

And told me I could have the lantern.

Pa-Pa was my step-grandfather. There are very few images of him in my mind. He and Grannie, my maternal grandmother, lived in the big house with the long stairs outside. My mother and father and I lived in the small white house right next door. One day Pa-Pa came over, sat in the floor with me, and taught me how to spin a rubber ball. Round and round it went, white and pink, blurring, round and round; I didn’t want it to stop. I must have amused him because he laughed a lot . . . when I recalled this to my mother, she said Yes, he thought a lot of you. He didn’t get along with his own family. 

When I first saw a model of the Earth rotating, it brought to mind Pa-Pa and that ball on the floor.

My memories of those days are fragmented, strange. In Grannie and Pa-Pa’s living room I saw a pair of bedroom slippers that still had feet in them. I screamed in terror and couldn’t make anyone understand me. Another time I was standing between the kitchen and the living room when something behind me exploded. I saw the flash, the fire, reflected in the picture window behind the sofa where the grown-ups were sitting. They came running —it turned out to be a pan of grease left on the stove, igniting. No one was hurt but, again, I was terrified.

Pa-Pa let me ride in his wheelbarrow, out past the blue snowball bushes (hydrangeas) in his yard.

—That’s about all.

I have no recollection of his vanishing.

I know now that his grown sons told my parents we couldn’t stay in the little house anymore; we had to find another place to live.

Much later I learned that Pa-Pa bought the little house after World War II, when a nearby Army camp was decommissioned and its buildings were sold for a song. He had it moved to its place beside his big house. When I was born and my parents weren’t happy with their apartment, Pa-Pa offered it to them.

That little house, the first home I remember, had been the Army hospital morgue.

Ghosts, ghosts, everywhere . . .

I wonder why he comes to mind this night, why I suddenly think about his lantern.

Perhaps because he died in March.

I didn’t know this, either, until I found his grave a few years ago.

I stood reading his headstone, shivering in the dusk, brown leaves swirling, rattling softly at my feet. The month, the year—I could hardly believe it, myself.

He died in March.

I would turn three in May.

But I remember you, Pa-Pa. I remember.

—Your old lantern still lights.

In the name of St. Patrick

St. Patrick’s Cathedral, New York City, on my most recent visit in 2016

I was sixteen years old the first time I went to New York City—that’s the same age, according to his own writing, that St. Patrick was kidnapped in Britain and carried to slavery in Ireland.

I didn’t know this fact at the time. I arrived in the city that long-ago day with my high school drama club, excited that his cathedral was one of our designated destinations.

Raised in the Baptist church, I had only a rudimentary understanding of the canonization of saints. A shadowy working knowledge in which St. Patrick loomed very large, for a personal reason:

My grandfather, born in rural North Carolina in 1906, was named Columbus St. Patrick.

Why remains a mystery to this day.

Of course there were stories of Irish heritage. Granddaddy maintained that his paternal grandfather came to America from Ireland with his brothers, but the timeline is knotty, the facts obscure, the story too piecemeal to be reconstructed. He dimly remembered his grandfather talking about carving a dugout, a small boat made from a hollow log, in Dublin.

That’s the only tiny jewel of Irish family lore I have, besides my grandfather’s middle name.

Oh, and the surname of my other grandfather, whom I barely knew: Riley.

Just this year, my family took the DNA ancestry plunge. I learned that a good bit of my blood really does run green.

I like to think it was calling to me when I first entered the cathedral, tears inexplicably welling in my eyes. It had to be more than the curiosity of Granddaddy’s name being St. Patrick, although I was mindful of it at the moment.

Maybe my emotion rose in response to the breathtaking splendor, the deep hush, the sense of pure awe . . . and something utterly unnameable. I would later learn that this profound monument to God, named for His missionary saint, was built in part by contributions of poor Irish immigrants, thousands of them. Wealthy citizens donated, too. The cathedral website states:  “St. Patrick’s Cathedral proves the maxim that no generation builds a cathedral. It is, rather, a kind of ongoing conversation linking generations past, present and future.”

—An ongoing conversation linking generations past, present, and future.

A conversation of love. Of extreme sacrifice. Of perseverance. Of devotion. Of faith.

Of blessing. Now and for all time.

The pillars of my life, built on foundations laid by my grandfather.

Until we meet again, Columbus St. Patrick, may God hold you in the palm of His hand.

*******

 

Previous posts about my grandfather:

Red rubber boots

A long time ago, in a Galaxie far, far away

My grandfather, St. Patrick with my favorite photo of him, circa 1924-25

First do no harm – on nature and wisdom

What is literacy – for reading isn’t always about words

Happy place

A slice of long ago – 1937 and plowing with mules

A slice of long ago

My mule neighbors

All my life, I wanted to live in the country.

I was the child of streets, sidewalks, bridges, overpasses, a city that set its watch by military bases and the shipyard. 

I am now the sound of roosters crowing before daybreak, geese honking and flying in their “V” against an egg-colored sky, glassy ponds with their rising morning mist, cotton fields, tobacco barns, donkeys, goats, horses, and the occasional peacock.

To be precise: I live on a tiny neighborhood cul-de-sac, not a farm, although fields and rural life surround me.

Just beyond the woods in front of my home is a pasture, and in that pasture live two mules.

The first time I drove down that road and saw them, I nearly wept.

I halfway expected my grandfather as a young man to walk out of the weathered, tin-roofed barn and hitch them to a plow.

See, I am also the child of stories about the old days and the old ways. In the summers I left the bustling city behind for a few weeks to stay with my grandparents in their rural community, where generations of my ancestors lived and died. Every word that Granddaddy and Grandma spoke, every memory they relived in response to my thousand questions, still lives in my soul. 

Because of the stories I sometimes recognize a thing as familiar when I haven’t it seen before.

So it was that my first sight of these mules took me to a time long before my own. For just a minute, I felt like I was there. 

And, in a way, I was.

In 1937.

*******

He was up with the dawn, at the back of the field plowing with those mules. I stood on the porch and waved my apron at him, but he wasn’t looking.

I was alone in the house—a two-story house painted white, we didn’t own it, we were tenant farmers—because his mama had gotten mad with us and moved out. My sisters and my own mama thought there’d be plenty of time before the baby came. I guess I thought so, too.

I shivered in the chilly morning, the beginning of October, but the days still got pretty warm. Such a beautiful time of year, everything so crisp and bright, the sky so blue. We’d only been married for ten months. I had a lot to learn, being just twenty-one, but I was proud of what we had and I kept everything looking so nice. I didn’t think of what we didn’t have because no one had much of anything . . . .

All I could think about in that moment on that morning is that I suddenly needed help and no one knew.

“Lump!” I yelled, as hard as I could, to get his attention.

He was fighting those mules—I don’t know how he always managed to find the orneriest mules on Earth!—and he couldn’t hear me.

Right about then is when my water broke. The warm fluid ran down my legs, past the hem of my dress, into my shoes. I’ve never been so frightened; I sat down on the porch steps and started to pray:

Help me, God. I don’t know what to do! Please send help, somehow.

That’s when Belle, our little bluetick hound, came out from under the porch and sat beside me. She started licking the fluid off my legs like she knew what was happening and I am sure she did. Animals know things. I put my arms around her and cried and cried.

“Bless you, old Belle, for trying to help me,” I told her.

“Bless you.”

******

Of course my grandfather looked up from the mules to see her there. He went for the doctor, who arrived in plenty of time.

That is how my father came into the world.

Grandma said Granddaddy was so, so proud of his boy: “Never saw his face shine quite like that before, when the doctor called him in from the front room and put his son in his arms. Your newborn Daddy looked exactly like him.”

Made up for those ornery mules, I suppose. I don’t know of any other part they played in this story, but it is enough. For me, mules are forever icons of my young grandfather and his farmer-sharecropper life.

Standing like silent sentinels in the background as one generation passes to another.

Oh yes, I’ve loved the country all my life, and maybe even before. 

Living here means that long ago is never far away.

*******

Note: Everyone “down home” called my grandfather by his nickname, Lump, short for Columbus. When my father saw me for the first time, he said, with more than a little concern: “My land—she looks just like Daddy.”

The star

The first Christmas that we were married, my husband and I bought a star tree topper at a drugstore.

That was over thirty years ago.

The star was silver then.

Eventually I sprayed it gold so it would better match ornaments on the tree.

Every year I have to reinforce it with hot glue and duct tape. And every year I say it’s time for this old star to go.

But it still shines.

And I can’t find another tree topper I like better.

It’s older than our children. It’s presided over Christmas for their entire lives.

It’s outlasted the gingerbread ornament that my youngest made in preschool. The sweet ornament crumbled after a decade or so—ashes to ashes, dust to dust, gingerbread to cinnamon and cloves. Spice of life, formless and void, fragrant fragments in my hand when just the Christmas before, it was whole.

The star shone on when other lights went out, one by one. Lights in my life, not those of man-made strings on the tree. This star glowed above me as I decorated, year after passing year, listening to a particularly poignant version of Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring that pierced my soul. The haunting chords stirred an almost unbearable sense of loss. Of time, of people, of the inevitability of it all. For a moment, though, under that star, somewhere in the music, in the light, in the season, those who loved me were near again. Not visible, not tangible, yet present, perceptible. Very near.

It stands within its own circle, this star. I think of all that might symbolize. The circle of life. May the circle be unbroken. A wedding band, a halo, a covenant. Wholeness, holiness.

It is fragile.

It is old.

But the star hangs on. It still shines.

With Christmas grace.

What is literacy?

Museum of the Navy

Quarterman shipfitter looks at blueprints, 1943. Museum of the U.S. Navy

“Literacy is the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, compute, and communicate using visual, audible, and digital materials across disciplines and in any context.

The ability to read, write, and communicate connects people to one another and empowers them to achieve things they never thought possible. Communication and connection are the basis of who we are and how we live together and interact with the world.” 

International Literacy Association, 2018

On the eve of the New School Year, I contemplate my role in the scheme of things. In the face of changes in staff, in curriculum, in differing perspectives on literacy instruction.

I am defined by literacy. I’ve loved reading and writing all my life. My professional work is literacy: As a coach, I collaborate with teacher colleagues across grade levels on how to best teach English Language Arts in ways that meet the needs of all students.

When it comes to defining literacy, I rely on the International Literacy Association, for no two dictionaries, and hardly any two people, seem to have the same idea of it. Some believe it’s just reading and writing. But it’s so much more . . . .

In the ILA definition several things jump out at me, beginning with

the ability to interpret

in any context

I think of my grandfather.

Over a hundred years ago, my grandfather left school to work on his family’s little North Carolina farm. He married during the Great Depression. When tenant farming, sharecropping, and other odd jobs like painting houses weren’t enough for him to “make a go of it,” Granddaddy rode with men from his hometown to Newport News, Virginia, in hopes of landing steady work at the shipyard.

Granddaddy became a shipwright, responsible for helping build the keels of ships, less than a year before Pearl Harbor. When America entered World War II, production continued around the clock with the invention of a new thing: aircraft carriers.

He made his living; he took care of his own. He retired from the shipyard when I was five. He and Grandma moved back home and there I spent my childhood summers.

In the evenings he sat in his recliner while Grandma and I sat on the living room floor. She spread the newspaper out on the carpet, handed me the “funnies” section, and then she read the rest of the paper in a loud, clear voice to Granddaddy—his years around industrial equipment in the Yard had made him hard of hearing.

I eventually asked:

Why do you read the paper to Granddaddy? Why doesn’t he just read it?

He can’t, Dear. 

Why? Is something wrong with his eyes?

No, no. He just never learned to read, not much, really. He quit school in the fourth grade to help on his family’s farm, you see . . . .

I was stunned. This was the first time I’d known of anyone who couldn’t read.

It hurt my heart for him.

But I later learned that he could read intricate blueprints and build to those precise measurements. That’s what he did at the shipyard all those years.

It’s something I can’t do.

 the ability to identify, understand, interpret

using visual

materials across disciplines

and in any context

My grandfather was always a farmer first; he read the days, the seasons, the weather.

He read nature. When he and I came across strange worms gliding over his front sidewalk, he couldn’t identify them but instinctively knew to leave them alone. Decades later I researched them (land planarians) and learned that if he’d tried to crush or chop them up, every piece would have replicated and they would have destroyed the good earthworms that kept his garden so abundant and healthy.

Signs, symbols, meanings, he understood. Not in or from books, but from life. He possessed visual-spatial acuity. Keen intuition. He read the times in which he lived, comprehended that the way of life he and the generations before him had known was passing forever. He reached for better things. He worked hard. He collaborated with a lot of different people. The shipyard management eventually asked him to be a supervisor, and that’s where his courage ran out. It required regular paperwork. He declined the position.

My heart ached again, deeply, on learning that.

The ability to read, write, and communicate connects people to one another

and empowers them to achieve things

they never thought possible.

That belief is behind everything I do with teachers and students.

The greatest man I’ve ever known indirectly taught me, years ago, that reading and writing are the keys to opening doors of possibility and opportunity. He also taught me that literacy is so much more, long before this digital age.

We have to be able to read words and ascertain their meaning, but our survival depends on more. We must be able to read the times, read people, read what we see, what we are creating. And make sense of it. We must interpret. That’s the entire, inherent value of reading and writing in the first place.

We must communicate well with one another, recognizing that each of us possesses different strengths, all of which are valuable to helping each other. Communication is the keel on which all good relationships are built. We must speak, but we must listen more, absorb more, understand more.

Communication and connection are the basis of who we are

and how we live together

and interact with the world.

My grandfather survived—his family survived—because of his clarity of vision and sense of purpose.  He knew he lived through unique times. In his last years he preserved his life experiences for future generations not by penning a memoir but by recording his stories on a set of audiotapes. I don’t think he ever knew just how unique, how extraordinary, he was. In my mind I see him now—thick white hair, plaid shirt, gray pants with a black belt, black shoes, his big, wrinkled, work-worn hands folded in his lap, leaning back in his recliner listening to my grandmother reading. In addition to the nightly newspaper, she read the Bible through to him each year.

And so, on the eve of the New School Year, I contemplate my role in the scheme of things. I think of the constant adaptation of teachers to the times and the changing tides of literacy instruction; of students, each of whom has strengths and gifts that may not be obvious at first. I think of their futures and know that clarity of vision and a sense of purpose are vital to their learning and well-being. To all of our well-being. I think of my grandfather reading complex blueprints and going forth to build something previously unknown in a vastly changing world. I think about life literacy as well as literacy for life. How we live together and interact with the world.

For, in truth, we are building the world.

*******

Here’s the story of Granddaddy and me encountering those unknown worms long ago: First do no harm.

The garden

“It’s finished,” said Cadillac Man, as we laid the headstone commemorating his little companion of sixteen years.

He’d chosen this spot months ago as he watched his beloved dog wasting away, day by day. And so we laid Nik to rest here in the shade of the crape myrtle our family planted when we first moved to our home. Nik was a year old then. Cadillac Man was five, soon to finish kindergarten; he’s entering his last year of college now.

The tree in its fullness marks the passing of time. It was young when my boy with black curls and his little red dachshund were young. I think of myrtle being an ancient funeral flower, how it represents love and faithfulness . . . never mind that a crape myrtle isn’t a true myrtle. The name association is enough; the symbolism perfect. As the pink blossoms collect here by Nik’s likeness, I recollect the bright spot of happiness he was throughout my son’s childhood, throughout the life of my family.

The statue is my doing. Cadillac Man drove me on a four-hour round trip to get it. “It’s just like him!” he exclaimed when he saw it.

Yes. For the garden is not here for remembering that Nik’s no longer with us after so many years, whenever we see it through the kitchen windows or as we pass by on our daily comings and goings. It is not for mourning, or to assuage our pain.

It’s here to celebrate the gift of his life—a garden of gratitude.

It is complete.

*******

And so, it would seem, the Nik stories are complete.

The Nik collection:

Good-bye, mighty Nik

Cadillac Man shares his writing!

Dogged determination

Artifact

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Sometimes I think about the writing process more than I do about what to write. Like the origin of ideas, how the barest glimmering can turn into something substantial and take unforeseen shapes altogether during the writing. A breath of a thing becomes a breathing thing—for inspiration means to breathe in, to breathe life into. When I start writing my glimmer or breath of an idea, as it grows, shifts, and takes on a life of its own, it draws other things to it. When people say, “I don’t know how you manage to see these connections and string them together this way,” all I can say in response is, in the end, all things are connected. If you follow the glimmering threads far enough . . . .

Such was the case in my summer writing workshop for teachers. My co-facilitator asked fellow teacher-writers to bring a personal history artifact, something that holds a story about who we are or about a significant time in our lives.

My “default” artifact is a locket that belonged to my grandmother; her uncle gave it to her in 1930 when she was fifteen. She gave it to me when I was fifteen.

But I’ve already written about that: The locket.

I had trouble choosing another artifact. Why should it be so hard? We’re surrounded by pieces of our personal histories in every room in our homes, in our workplaces, even in our cars, sometimes . . . .

A thought hovered: There’s the cross necklace Daddy gave me at Grannie’s funeral. 

Nearly twenty years old, it still glitters like new, and there’s plenty of symbolism and story wrapped around it, for my father didn’t often give gifts, nor was he expressively religious except for a keen interest in eschatology. That he should give the necklace to me on that occasion (Grannie wasn’t his mother but his mother-in-law) is especially poignant.

I ought to write about that . . . yet, I hesitated.

I know! All those pictures I just had developed—if anything’s personal history, that is! Some years ago I’d gathered all my used rolls of camera film, placed them in a giant Ziploc bag, and promptly forgot about them. I’d finally remembered and had the photos developed (do you know how hard it is now to find a local place that will do this with same or next day service?). In these images, many loved ones who are gone smile at me afresh from decades past. Layer upon layer of stories to tell . . . .

Yes, this is an unusual sort of artifact . . . I definitely need to write about this.

The thing—the idea—certainly had a breath, a glimmer.

But it didn’t seem to be quite ready. I got the feeling that it didn’t want to be written about just yet.

I decided to take both, Daddy’s cross necklace and the old newly-printed photos, and as I prepared to leave the house that morning, another image glimmered in my mind. Rather brightly.

A sand dollar.

I have a few that I found years ago, and while I find them beautiful and compelling, I didn’t really think a sand dollar would be an artifact especially representative of my personal history. But . . . as the glimmering was suddenly there and I’ve learned not to question but to trust . . . I fetched the largest sand dollar, packed it carefully in a box with tissue paper, and took it with me to the workshop.

Guess which artifact I ended up writing about.

Of course.

I found this sand dollar on the beach when walking in the last weeks before my first son was born. There’d been a storm. The sand was still damp, the beach littered with seaweed and shell debris. The sand dollar, however, was whole, which is rare—they’re fragile and I’d never found any here before.

I don’t know why it drew me, just this morning, as a special artifact. It wasn’t something given to me, like Grandma’s locket or Daddy’s cross.

But maybe it was given, from beyond . . . .

I’ve just now recalled that, when I was born, my grandfather gave me twenty silver dollars. He did the same for all of the successive grandchildren. Sand dollar, silver dollar. Wealth of the sea, wealth of the earth. Gifts. Celebration. The coming of children, the next generation, the endowment of hopes and good wishes of those who’ve walked before. Like my younger self on the beach, I am walking the path of generations, I am the bridge between the past and the future. The sand dollar I have in my hand is really a skeleton. It was once a living creature. It’s symbolic of faith and strength despite its fragility and it comes from the ocean, which symbolizes life, continuity . . . .

It occurs to me now that the sand dollar is connected to the other artifacts I considered writing about, Daddy’s cross necklace, given to me unexpectedly at Grannie’s funeral, and the pictures from the old film I just found and had printed. All together they say: These are your life-pieces that endure; you will endure. Oh and I almost forgot that I just had my DNA tested. When I got the results, I marveled at the migratory history of my ancient ancestors, the story of their survival. I hadn’t expected the rush of profound gratitude to all of them for living, that I might be here now. I am here, whole, because they were here. I carry pieces of them within me. 

I found this sand dollar, the skeleton of a living thing, on the beach while walking after a storm, while carrying my firstborn. I walk the path of generations.

We go on.

My co-facilitator’s voice gently broke the hush in the room, we teacher-writers having been immersed in our thoughts, our words, recording on paper:

“Now, how can your artifact drive your teaching of writing?”

I wrote:

My sand dollar can drive my teaching of writing in so many ways. It’s a metaphor for writing:

-Just start walking. Like I did on the beach. Just start writing,

-Until you’re walking, you don’t know what you’ll find.

You’ll have surprises. Rare things will come, if you keep at it.

These gifts are waiting, meant just for you.

I looked at the sand dollar and I know, if it could look back at me, it would have winked.