Excelsior!

Posted by on Dec 31, 2010 in Death and renewal, Holidays, Mother in Laws | 1 comment

I sit with a blank page on my laptop watching my reflection in the large black monitor on my son in law’s desk. The picture I see looks like a ghost of either Christmas past or Christmas future, perhaps both. It seems a line has been drawn across my life this year with bittersweet endings on one side and uncertain beginnings on the other…

The long and arduous relationship with my mother in law appears to be coming to an end as she lies in a hospital in Roanoke gravely ill. I have never been able to feign any words of endearment toward her, although I recognize that she has accidently taught me many lessons. It still makes my stomach churn to think of her lying there alone, even though it is doubtful that she is aware of much around her. I cannot count the times I have wished her out of my life, but now I find there is no triumph for me in her passing. I believe that in this I have followed my children’s example of forgiveness and acceptance. My husband’s mother passed before he and I married and my mother lived far away and died when they were young. So with all her faults she has been the only grandmother that has had a relationship with them.

My mother would have been proud of my daughter for taking on the duties of Christmas this year. Although my children do not remember much about my my mother, the ceaseless work and attention to detail Eva showed preparing a wonderful meal for friends and family reminded me so much of her. In contrast, I did not so much as put up a tree this year. I admit that the passing of the reins is not without some trepidation. After so many decades of sitting in the driver’s seat it was strange hearing the words I used to tell everyone else directed at me. “Just sit back and relax”. I have no practice at this indolence and I find it bewildering, like being a child told to stay out from underfoot.

I empathize with my newly mobile grandson who clammers at the baby gate, wishing to be in the thick of things. Looking at him I know I should not waste a second bemoaning times past. Both of us just need to acquire the necessary tools and understanding to function in this new order. It’s nice to have so much in common with him actually, although I doubt he would see it that way. I am bursting with optimism about the future and it is obvious he feels the same. He is unaware of how much I am learning from him about persistence and ignoring barriers.

My favorite inspirational phrase this year is on a card at my work desk, “Life rewards those who let their actions rise above their excuses”. This quote is reportedly by Lee Colan, an organizational guru, and it was passed to me in an email from my director. The same email also quoted Jedi Master Yoda “Do or do not, there is no try”. I am ashamed to admit that although I have read an reread them, I have not taken the words to heart like I should. Instead of doing I have been trying. As I have watched my grandson Logan progress from being stuck where ever he was placed by an adult to a fearless independent locomotion I recognize his total grasp and application of the attitude I am striving to learn. The fact that he would walk straight off the edge of a cliff with his newfound skills is not lost on me and neither is the inordinately strong and ultimately ineffectual will to live exhibited by my step mother in law. I however have no excuses not to succeed at anything I want. I have the common sense not to walk to the edge of the Grand Canyon and jump, but the health and fortitude to strap on a parachute and leap out of an airplane. I’m not saying skydiving is in my immediate future but perhaps something equivalent, only slightly less terrifying. I’ve never quite overcome my fear of heights you see, but like the young Jedi I am not trying. Let me just say welcome to the fresh new year and give you one more homily, this one from tinybuddah.com.

“Death is more universal than life. Everyone dies but not everyone lives.” ~Alan Sachs

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Welcome Christmas

Posted by on Dec 12, 2010 in Holidays | 3 comments

I waited in line at the Beaver Dam Deposit Bank for what seemed like hours to get my few minutes sitting on the lap of a suspicious looking man in a red suit and fake whiskers. He gave me a candy cane and asked me if I had been a good little girl all year. I had been full of conversation at the beginning of the line, but I became more and more anxious and hushed as my turn approached. I mentally scanned back through the past year, like the dead approaching the seat of judgment. It would do no good to lie, since he “knew when I was sleeping, and he knew when I was awake”. Faltering for an eternity in his flannel lap, I could not utter one word in my defense. I tentatively nodded my head in the affirmative at his question, hoping he had been looking at some other child when I stole the spoonful of icing from the bowl in the refrigerator, or stuffed toys under my bed instead of putting them away where they belonged. Clutching my peppermint tightly, I headed back to our Pontiac with a guilty conscious, wondering if some other family member, perhaps my older sister, who was behind me in line, had spilled the beans. She acted nonchalant, but I wasn’t sure, so I resolved to be as good as gold for the 10 remaining days before December 25, just in case she had said something, and he was checking for himself. Little did I know she had her own guilty secrets, one of which included finding the hiding place for Santa’s private stash, high up in the living room closet.

That Saturday afternoon we decorated the house with golden electric lights in the windows, and a pungent sweet cedar tree that arrived like magic from somewhere, perhaps my Grandfather’s farm in Echols. My Dad and brother were in charge of making it stand straight and sturdy in the window, right beside our front door. I don’t remember which year Kurt had tried to even up the branches, cutting first from the front, then the back, till they had to wire limbs back on the tree to make it presentable. Mom told the story so often it has passed into the lore of Christmas. My brother was responsible for the electrical aspects of the tree in those pre female liberation days, when work was divided by gender. He went carefully through the bubble lights to make sure each bulb in the series was working, removing them one at a time and working down the string till it came to life. Mother was the decorator, positioning the lights evenly around the tree, and nestling the glass ornaments carefully on the strongest branches. My sister an I were allowed to add the icicles, one at a time, till the plain green shrub was transformed into a fairyland tree. It was my job to hang the efficiently abbreviated “Merry Xmas” wreath from the front door, till several years later when Mother read an article stating that the shortened greeting “took the Christ out of Christmas”. Since none of us were schooled in ancient Greek, it languished in the attic ever after, less anyone mistake us for a nest of unbelievers.

My mother had a simple and unfailing faith that sustained her, and all of her family during her lifetime. A child of the depression who lived through the Great War, she totally embraced both the spiritual and material side of the Christmas season, with a combination of faith and patriotism. In my mind Santa and Jesus often converged into one concept, an all seeing, all knowing, and loving father figure, who rewarded good and punished evil. On one Christmas morning, long before dawn, my brother, sister, and I tiptoed through the house, knowing it was too soon to disturb Mom and Dad. Standing in the still dark kitchen, my brother noticed the beautiful night sky outside the window and pointed out a brilliant star that was high in the sky. Awestruck, we all agreed that it had to be the same Star of Bethlehem that foretold the birth of Jesus. I found no inconsistency in believing it was now shining to guide Santa on his way. My faith in Santa transitioned seamlessly into a belief in God, just as my parents planned. I remember the Christmas when I asked my Mom if there really was a Santa. I was about 6 and she was hanging ornaments on the tree. She had her answer ready, but was unprepared to give up the Santa fantasy for her last child. “There is a spirit of Christmas”, she replied, unable to meet my eyes. I took it quite manner of fact, pleased that I had been let into the adult’s inner circle. I still pretended belief for a while, just like my youngest child did years later, sitting out the milk and cookies, with a carrot for the reindeer, hedging our bets on the chance that he was real.

Even though I was youngest, and the last to let go of the fabric of fantasy, we were still always awake at dawn, probably only hours after our parents had finished putting the last tab A into opening C1, C2 and C3. We were allowed to tiptoe through the dark living room and see dimly what Santa had left, but only to pick up our stockings from the mantle and scurry back to our beds. Stockings were candy, nuts and citrus fruit, and an occasional tiny toy, just enough to entice us for the frenzy of unwrapping, and the amazing Christmas breakfast that followed. My parents always strained their budgets in those early years to make sure we had an abundance of everything. We were oblivious to their struggle, because money was not an open topic of discussion in our home. Our gifts were not expensive, but they were chosen with love and care. In that pre-electronic age, it was easy to believe that they came straight from Santa’s workshop. My little set of metal dishes looked like they could have been made by elves, and my doll house with the printed wallpaper and doors, and hard melamine furniture, obviously came straight from the north pole. My gifts were stylized, tiny ironing boards, stoves, dust mops and nurse’s kits, while my brother got chemistry sets, wood burning tools, and cars. One memorable year my parents caved in to my constant begging and gave me a train set with an engine that puffed real smoke. My Dad and I played with it for hours, but oddly enough I have no memory of what my brother or sister did during that time.

Back years and miles away from those childhood memories, I plan for my adult children’s holiday homecoming. Many of the same traditions I have established with them came from the treasured early days of my life. None of them have had the experience of becoming Santa, but someday I hope for them that they take that most humbling, exhausting, and rewarding journey. I know they will take the best of their childhood, like I did, and make their own traditions. My newest daughter told me that she got a little tree for their Seattle apartment and waited for my son to find time to trim it with her. After days passed with no help forthcoming, he finally told her he was waiting for the cookies and eggnog that you have to have to put the ornaments on the tree. She succumbed and searched the internet for recipes for elf drops and peppermint sandwiches, thus sealing her fate as a future keeper of the Christmas torch. I hope he will be just as accommodating when she honors her own family’s traditions. We all have our nostalgia about childhood memories and some are certainly worth keeping like the Christmas tree trimming party, but I am happy with the modern holiday that is less guilt ridden than the 1950’s. I would not wish for any child to lie awake wondering if their stocking will be filled with lumps of coal, because of some normal childish mischief. If you go seeking the true meaning of Christmas, I wish you luck. I for one will content myself with the spirit of Christmas I have come to believe. A jolly elf all clothed in red is a delightful part of childhood fantasy, and if Christians wish to intersperse the birth of Christ with the winter solstice, I will hold my tongue and ignore the guilt trip they try to impose. As anyone who has read Dr Susse knows, the true joy of the season is in family, sharing, and spending time together. All the Whos in Whoville were right; no Grinch can steal the Christmas you keep in your heart.

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Spellbound

Posted by on Dec 6, 2010 in Poetry | 2 comments

I ran again in dreams last night,

My bare feet skimming the ground

Across the clover field that lay

Between the house where my grandmother lived and my own.

I was the light princess,

The one in my storybook,

Equally free from care and gravity,

A time traveler headed for the marvels of tomorrow.

Waking alone to a nightmare

In a world most dreadful dark

I scream

But the howling wind smothers the sound

As I cling to a string, so thin and worn

That any minute it may break

Severing all ties with earth

And I will be sport for the tempest.

Again today I take precautions

So the wind will not take me

I’ve gathered many sweet and madding weights

and glued them fast onto my frame

Even while my voice protests confinement

I’ve sealed all possible escapes.

Trapped by my own hand’s protection

I cannot float away

Or even move.

Fall 1990

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Magic is Afoot

Posted by on Nov 27, 2010 in Spirit | 1 comment

My grandson talks to me in his native tongue, telling me stories from foreign lands. He snuggles close beside my ear to speak sometimes, others he paces back and forth across the room waving his tiny arms in the air, clapping with delight at his own jokes. I laugh, although I do not understand a word he says, but somehow the gist of what he means comes through. I think perhaps I have some ghostly memory of that place from a visit long ago. The words all sound familiar, but sit just beyond my grasp. He speaks of rainbows in colors unknown to human eyes after storms made of cotton candy.  Other things he tries to explain are much more complicated, things so big I have lost the ability to comprehend them because I have been too long in this solid, almost unwavering world.  It is enough that he still knows.  Someday soon he will learn how humans speak. Of course a lot of the magic will be gone by then, but not all. I whisper to him as I rock him to sleep, beg him not to forget entirely. Hold it in your heart sweet baby I say, don’t ever let it go. Just before his eyes close he sighs a baby sigh that sounds very like,”I’ll try”. I kiss his tiny forehead and sing him softly off to his baby dreams.

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Rain

Posted by on Nov 25, 2010 in All things natural, Dad | 1 comment

I sat on the front step watching the lighting storm, feeling the cool damp air pressing down on my body as I hugged my knees to my chest, thinking of my father. He loved storms as much as my mother hated them, and perversely, seemingly to annoy her, he would carry me out with him to the porch to watch the wild play of light and noise. In the safety of his arms I never felt a second of fear.

I think about how many times over the years I listened to my father tell the stories of the early days of his marriage and the struggles they survived. Somehow he managed to make the worst of times seem funny and wonderfully entertaining. My father’s most amazing gift was his way with a story and even retold a hundred times we all sat spellbound, listening to every work, like a familiar and beloved book dog eared with the reading.

One of my favorite stories was about the time spent visiting with his in laws down at Echols, the rural village in Western Ky where my mother was born. It is a tiny community whose heart was my grandparent’s general store. Other than that were  a few houses, a Baptist Church,  and acres of farmland. Dad’s story was set in 1937, the first year of their marriage. Until that night my mother had always accepted her family’s actions as perfectly normal. I could always see the signs of discomfort on my mother face when my dad commenced telling about the time they were all awoken in the middle of the night, ordered to dress in their Sunday clothes, and then quick marched through the backyard and into the root cellar.

“The men,” my father intoned with an ironic seriousness, “all stood in the front, by the door.” That would consists of my placid, long suffering grandfather and his two oldest sons, Cleo and Billy, plus the kin by marriage, Uncle Bill the war hero, Uncle Hillard, Uncle Dick and my father. “The women and children were pushed to the back.” As he speaks I can see them huddled among the canned peaches and bins of potatoes listening to my grandmother predict their imminent doom with dramatic sobs and prayers.
“I think it’s gonna blow off over toward the river,” my grandfather states with quiet authority.

No Dad, the wind is blowing directly this way.” says one of the sons, but then a sharp look from his father and a loud whale from the dark recesses behind him reminds him how this game is played. The voice quickly recalculates,

“Well, if it veers a little to the south it just might miss us.” The men agrees with that assessment in a voice that is an echo of his Papa’s firm and steady grasp of the situation. My father remains silent, too sleepy and confused to understand this strange family ritual, feeling he has missed something in the news, in the air, that would justify their behavior.

The rain begins to pour down in buckets. The men shut the cellar doors and everyone sits cramped under the earth like buried victims of some mass murder, suffering but not quite dead. The minutes turn into hours before the rain subsides to a slow steady drip, and then, when my father thinks he can stand it no longer, the man we all called Papa declares it safe to head back to the house.

My Dad embellishes the story with each telling over the years until I can smell the air, feel the breath going in and out of the huddled bodies, see the tense frightened faces when the lightening flashes. Never is the story totally revealed without questioning from the rapt audience.

“Daddy,” I ask, knowing the answer from other times, “Why did you have to put on your good clothes?”

“You know punkin,” he answers with a mocking quizzical voice, “I wondered the same thing, so the next morning I asked your grandmother. Millie Burden just drew herself up proudly and told me,
“Well, if we died and they found our bodies I didn’t want them to think we were trash.” We all have a nice long laugh at the absurdity of the poor woman’s reasoning.

“Daddy,” I ask, “Why would anyone be afraid of the rain?” My father smiles and my mother gets up and declares that she needs to do some laundry.

When I married and had children of my own, my Dad told me another story, this one serious. He confessed that as a child his mother had locked him in a small closet under the steps as punishment for his misdeeds. He said he still had nightmares about the dark and enclosed spaces. My father, who stood a head above most anyone around him, whose square shoulders and barrel chest were still straight and strong at ninety years old, the man who had taught me to be as fearless as a badger had an Achilles heel. The fact that he admitted it to me melted my heart.

He’s been gone from me these four years now, but sometimes when the air smells like rain, I take a minute to slip outside and think about how often I stood beside him watching the clouds churn and the wind turn the leaves inside out. Sometimes he would just slip his arm silently over my shoulders and pull me next to him and we would stand there in wordless communion until the rain came.

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Sunrise in Seattle A Memory from 2005

Posted by on Nov 20, 2010 in My Children | 0 comments

Always the mountain sits and waits, at times only the faintest memory of mountain, sketched in mist and clouds, floating like a magic city above the landscape, but always there, like faith or love, even when unseen…

I wake to the SOS sound of the vertical blinds in the apartment, blown by the fan’s breeze through the open patio door. Since I am cool, and it is July, I realize I have left Virginia far behind. A half moon shines redundantly in the half moon window above me. I rise and turn off the fan and step onto the balcony and into the early dawn of Seattle. I can’t quite see Rainier yet, but a ghostly outline tells me it is still where we left it at sundown last night. A long line of black mountains extends across the horizon, with a hint of gold promising the return of the sun is imminent. I close the door against the chill and dark and crawl back into my bed. It seems a time for sleeping, but I am unsuccessful in my attempt to doze again. My mind is filled with the impressions of last evening, a beautiful restaurant patio, the cool breeze, fabulous flowers, and the crisp, grapefruit scented wine we enjoyed on my arrival. Even the bus ride had seemed exotic, a quiet, clean, electric trip through a neighborhood of wedding cake houses, interspersed with terra cotta adobe and grey cement apartments, ornamented with plants, sculpture, and flowing wrought iron. I give up on sleep and attempt to make coffee, a Seattle religious ritual, but find myself puzzled by the electric bean grinder. I dress and step back out to the balcony where I enjoy the promise of the new day, watching as the mountain reappears, splashed with spots of gold and pink across it snowy face. Some lights blink on in the hillside windows of other early risers, and dawn slides down to Lake Washington, bringing its scattered sailboats to life. The seagulls have turned out for breakfast and sing their discordant squawks, complaining about their empty bellies. Jets soar high above, carrying sleepy people to distant, unknown destinies, reminding me that my time here is limited.

When I last visited the west coast, real life had seemed so far away, but now, with family sleeping cozy downstairs, I understand how this comfortable place can be home for them. I am content as I anticipate their awakening, knowing that love abides, solid as the mountain, seen or unseen

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Days of Amber

Posted by on Nov 16, 2010 in All things natural, Angst, anger, anarchy, Spirit | 3 comments

The light is perfect today, brilliant and golden, like the world put on its polarized sunglasses, laughed, and then woke me early to share the joke. Even before I venture outside, the color tells me there will be a crispness to the air and a faint whisper of burning leaves. The scurry of fall is upon us; the memory of languid summer days almost erased by the press of winter anticipation. Even city dwellers who cannot tell soybean from wheat fields feel an urgency to count their metaphorical sacks of grain. The days grow shorter, the grasshopper’s summer song begins to take on a remorseful refrain, and the ant tidies up his honeypots with a dour air of smugness.

The suede jacket that has hung in my closet these long months wraps me in it’s soft embrace, like an old friend returned from sabbatical. My blood quickens as I step out into a world ablaze with color. For all appearances the earth goddess Gaia rejoices in her her lying down to sleep, but perhaps she stuck a bad bargain and is making the most of it, like us all.

I am thankful it is Sunday and I have time to reflect. I need physical and emotional recovery from two nights out this weekend and the excitement of my first real birthday party since I was a teenager. Two weeks before the party I began to wish I had ignored my natal day as I have so often in the past. The week before I am unexpectedly teary. On Thursday, the day before my birthday, events unfold both at work and in my personal life that make my sojourn in my own private purgatory a bit more bearable. Friday afternoon I send out all my work evaluations at ten minutes of three and make my escape before anyone can email me. Friday night I find myself surrounded by supportive loving friends and family, and I sat there drinking it in like the woman who has everything.

I am acutely aware of how lucky I am when I see envy on the faces of strangers and casual acquaintances. It makes me ashamed about all the times they might have seen the same look on my face, just for a second, just before I turned my head. We are greedy creatures we humans, and I more than most. The words from  Leonard Cohen “Bird on a Wire” play on the soundtrack of my life:

“I saw a beggar leaning on his wooden crutch,
he said to me, “You must not ask for so much.”
And a pretty woman leaning in her darkened door,
she cried to me, “Hey, why not ask for more?”

I give myself over to a moment of selfishness on Saturday night and tried to explain my restlessness to the man I married. The words don’t come out right. They never do, they never will. I live in a place of abundance, surrounded by love. No one could ask for more, and yet, I do.

After the band played its last song Saturday we stepped out  into the cool dark of evening, flushed from the dancing. I lifted my hair and let the air evaporate the dampness from the nape of my neck. In the car I fingered the amber talisman on my bodice, an ancient palliative against aging and evil spirits…

The morning sun found me on the sofa, my charm still encircling me, guarding me. Its honey yellow color echos the light of the day and an unimaginable morning forty million autumns ago when resin dripped like butterscotch from a wounded Mesozoic tree, now long extinct. In an eye blink of years from now the memory of my current struggle will be reduced to lines on paper, less important to the universe than the flotsam this amber trapped before it hardened. Unanswered questions that shot like sparks from the fire inside my soul will be long cold, and my restless spirit will lie still and silent. Today I am taking inventory. With a burst of grasshopper regret I realize that the dreams I stored in the summer of my life may be insufficient to take me through to the end. Perhaps I need to run faster than I ever have before to find a place I am not even certain exists. It may be that my run must be in solitude and sacrifice, but not to try is to deny my birthright. The rustle of  leaves beneath my boots seems to whisper, “Hurry, hurry.”

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