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

img_5055

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.

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.

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.